From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

May 31, 2002*: How Deep is My Linking?

Some things are made to be together. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Love and Marriage necessarily has to be one of those, but considering that it's a popularly accepted belief, it can serve as a good example. For the British it's perhaps fish and chips, for those with a sweet tooth, strawberries and cream. And internet sites? They have links. To continue that earlier quote, you can't have one without the other.

Or so it might seem. Every so often the issue of deep linking raises its head and all of a sudden web surfers are forced to confront a couple of very basic questions: If linking was regulated, would the web still be possible? Should the person or group who posts a web page also have the right to determine who links to that page?

It's certainly not a new issue. I'm not sure when it first surfaced, but it's been around for least five years ago. The most famous early case was one between Ticketmaster and Microsoft. In that well-known case Ticketmaster sued Microsoft for creating links directly to ticket ordering for specific events which Microsoft was "promoting" on its "Sidewalk" site. Not surprisingly, then, as now, the issue revolved around money. As a review of the issue from GigaLaw put things:

At that time, Ticketmaster had recently signed an agreement to provide event information and ticket-ordering links to a competing web guide service, CitySearch. Through this agreement, CitySearch was paying Ticketmaster for what Microsoft was taking for free. Tickemaster filed suit against Microsoft on April 28, 1997, arguing that Microsoft's practices devalued Ticketmaster's site by bypassing its home page.
In other words, in a sort of reverse of the well-known Monopoly injunction, if you go straight to jail without passing go, we don't collect $200.

Perhaps the simplest way of explaining deep linking is to link to an explanation. That link leads to a page on a site, rather than to the main entrance page of the site. Why? Because the way hyperlinks work permits us to get straight to the point. We don't have to go to the library or to a bookstore, find the proper shelf, taken down the precise book and open to a particular page. We can be pinpointed exactly to the information we want (or need). What's more, the ultimate purpose of the site to which we're linking is totally irrelevent - all that matters is that information that can be useful to us is available on a particular page on that site. But "explaining" in this manner almost explains nothing, simply because any reader of these columns wouldn't bat an eye upon encountering a link of this sort. If anything, the opposite would be the case.

Though it seems to be a rather open and shut issue, it can become more than just a bit confusing. Another well-known case, from 1996, gives a good example. It seems that over in Scotland the web site of the Shetland News was busy linking from its main page to internal stories on the web site of its rival the Shetland Times. The Times sued, claiming that the linking policy of the News caused loss of revenues to the Times since it bypassed advertising on its front page. The editor of the Times claimed an infringement of copyright, while the editor of the News ... well, let's read his claim from an article discussing the issue:
"I think the Times will have a difficult job persuading the court of copyright violations," Wilson said. If the court holds in favor of the plaintiff (the Times), it will cause a lot of interest worldwide because it would mean that part of the benefits of the Internet, which is the free flow of information, would be curtailed, he said.
What's confusing, to me at least (and remember, I think that without linking the internet wouldn't be the internet) is that the issue at stake was copyright infringement instead of false pretenses. As much as I support the right of the News to link to the Times, I don't think this includes the right to give the impression (or attempt to give the impression) that the articles are its own. That's not linking, that's lazy journalism. The judge, happily, seemed to understand this. In his decision he accepted the right of the Times to link to articles in the News, but he stipulated that those links clearly acknowledge, both in text and with a logo, that the linked articles were from the web site of the News.

Such a decision suggests that quite a while ago the courts understood that linking wasn't something that could be stopped, only regulated within the confines of fair use. Additional court decisions have essentially reinforced that same opinion. And if that's the case, why write about a five year old issue which today seems anachronistic in the very least? It seems that the answer is that quite a few companies still believe, or hope, that they can regulate links. Though in the long run it would seem to have become a non-issue, it apparently hasn't.

Far from becoming a non-issue, at least three cases has sprung up over the past couple of months (giving me, perhaps an excuse to write about it now). At the very least they suggest that established companies still haven't internalized what the average web surfer seems to take for granted. Then again, they may know what the average surfer doesn't - bringing a case to court is an expensive venture, and even the threat of court can perhaps bring about compliance with their wishes.

As readers of these columns may guess, however, the legal ramifications of deep linking, though fascinating, are of only secondary interest to me. What I find of greater interest is the relative significance that a document can receive through the various links that lead to it. Perhaps this might be considered the opposite side of the coin of digital name dropping: instead of my prestige increasing because I link to, let's say, Walter Benjamin, his drops because somebody like me has linked to him. Creating a link is so easy that, judging from the amount of them on the pages of many HTML novices, it would seem that the prevailing attitude is that it's a shame not to cover pages with them. Many of these are not, of course, deep links, but truly shallow ones in a very basic sense of the word: if I link to Coca-Cola or to Levis Jeans whenever I mention these readers will quickly become suspect. Quite logically they expect a link to contain some extra, added, value, rather than cheap advertising. In a manner similar to justified margins on a word processor, the ease with which links can be created should ultimately cause us to use them only when they're really needed. Only when a link serves a worthwhile purpose, when it expands or explains, or perhaps even contradicts the flow of the original text, is there a reason for it to show up on the page.

My own deep linking, and that of just about anyone who links for information rather than for profit, is (I hope) of this sort. If someone has done something well, I'm happy to let others (my handful of readers) know about it. The whole of my text is (I like to think) enhanced by its outside links, meaning that readers who actually follow the links instead of sticking to the main page get a fuller reading experience. I do, however, create new, or different, context. On the whole, though I attempt to remain faithful to the original intent of the content, I'm rather oblivious to the original intent of the context. Changing, or at least playing with, the context may well be the name of the game.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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