What is wrong with this?

Microsoft Corp. is in the news again for living up to the image that too many people have of the company.

It seems Microsoft included a new feature, known as “Internet Explorer Smart Tags,” in the Web browser in some beta versions of Windows XP. The feature causes the browser to display something other than the Web page that the Web page designer thought would be 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 it’s about to put up and replaces some of the words with a link to a Web page of Microsoft’s choosing. This is basically the same as the idea of electronically overlaying an advertisement or electronically adding a can of Coke on a TV program.

Microsoft claims this is good for the user since the links can point to places where 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 it’s easy to see how the company 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 its browser to stick in a link when it sees a target word, what would keep the browser from inserting words and links where there were none before, or from removing words or phrases that Microsoft did not like?

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.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@sobco.com.