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Comparisons with Microsoft's long-dead and much-maligned 'Smart Tags' technology have cast a shadow over Google's latest toolbar.

Google's browser toolbar for Internet Explorer is raising eyebrows over a feature that inserts new hyperlinks in web pages, giving the internet search provider a powerful tool to funnel traffic to destinations of its choice.

When web surfers install the toolbar in their Microsoft Internet Explorer web browser and click the AutoLink button, web pages with street addresses suddenly sprout links to Google's map service by default. Book publishers' ISBN numbers trigger links to Amazon.com, potentially luring shoppers away from competing book sellers. Vehicle ID licences spawn links to Carfax.com, while package tracking numbers connect automatically to shippers' websites

Google, the world's most widely used search engine, denied that the AutoLink feature is an attempt to control which destinations web surfers visit. A company representative said on Friday that people can already choose between several map services, including Yahoo! and MapQuest, and choices for book retailers may be added in the future.

Nevertheless, some critics charge that AutoLink takes the liberty of modifying web pages to direct people the way Google sees fit. Microsoft took the same approach with its Smart Tags feature years ago and eventually pulled it because of trust and trademark concerns.

"Google is to the web what Microsoft is to PCs - the operating system everyone uses to search. It has nearly the same lock on consumers' share of mind... And millions use the Google Toolbar. They shouldn't get away with what Microsoft was unable to," Steve Rubel wrote on Wednesday on his Micropersuasion blog.

The technology dredges up a long-simmering legal debate over who owns the desktop. Does the consumer have the right to install software that can manipulate the appearance or delivery of web pages? Or does the web publisher have the ultimate say and control over how its content is displayed?

The argument is central to lawsuits in the adware industry. Many web publishers and ecommerce companies have filed suit against application makers like Claria, formerly Gator, and WhenU for using their software to deliver pop-ups advertising rival online stores at the point of purchase. While many such cases have settled out of court, there have also been some mixed jury rulings. Some judges favour the copyright owner, and some favour technology.

Richard Purcell, former chief privacy officer at Microsoft, who's now CEO of Corporate Privacy Group, said: "If I'm on Company A's website, and a third party is allowing me to direct me to Company B, there will be some controversy over who controls whose information."

A BarnesandNoble.com representative said the company is reviewing Google's new toolbar technology and is in discussions with Google about it.

Google's director of web products, Marissa Mayer, said her team had a healthy debate about how the feature would work before it was implemented. She said the group didn't consider comparisons with Microsoft's pulled Smart Tags feature. But she said that AutoLink was designed to ensure people remain in control.

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"This is a user-elected feature. Upon clicking the link, we make these modifications the way you'd like us to modify the page," Mayer said. "Google has great respect for copyright owners. They're the lifeblood of search."

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