title: What's wrong with this picture?


by: Scott Bradner


Microsoft is in the news again for living up to the image that too many people have of them.  Seems they included a new feature in the web browser in some beta versions of Windows XP.  The feature, known as "Internet Explorer Smart Tags," causes the browser to display something other than the web page that the web page designer thought was being displayed.  The page itself is not changed but what is presented to the user is modified.  Thus Microsoft is in a position to control some of what the user sees as the Internet.


Microsoft's idea seems innocuous enough.  The browser reads through the text of the page its about to put up and replaces some of the words in the text with a link to a web page of Microsoft's choosing.  This is basically the same idea as is now being done on TV where an advertisement or product is sliced into the picture.  Microsoft claims this is good for the user since the links can point to places from which the user can get more information about things or companies mentioned in the text.  I've not seen any direct information on what Microsoft's business model might be for the feature but its easy to see how they could sell the rights to mapping specific words, maybe even on specific sites.  I wonder if Ford could buy the rights to the words "car," "minivan," and "pickup" when the browser is looking at pages within the chevrolet.com and 4adodge.com domains. I'm not sure that web site owners would be all that happy.


The potential for this type of technology is very troublesome indeed.  If Microsoft can get their browser to stick in a link when it sees a target word what would keep it from inserting words and links where there were none before or from removing words or phrases that Microsoft does not like?  Note that this type of removal can, and if memory serves, has been done in TV broadcasts.


So far I've not heard of any legal action being attempted over the messing around with reality on TV.  TV does so much messing with reality already that it might be a hard argument to make that this was somehow too much.  But since we have had so many court cases over various web-related things I would expect the half-life before a suit would be measured in hours if this feature ever starts being used. 


I don't know what Microsoft was thinking when it came up with this idea but it seems to be half-baked at best and more likely pernicious.


disclaimer:   Law suits and perniciousness -- that juxtaposition can't have anything to do with Harvard -- but in any case the above is my own opinion.