Imagine a Web with No Links

The Web won’t be much of a Web anymoreif governments and corporations are allowed to continueon their destructive path, dictating when andhow people can insert links to other siteswhen creating their own Internet content.

First, there was that case in New York in which afederal court ordered a hacker e-zine to stop linkingto certain other sites. The reason? Those sites had computer code that contributed to copyright infringement,even though the links in themselves did nottread on any legal rights whatsoever.

Then earlier this month, Internet auctioneer eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY)announced that it is going to start strictly enforcingan existing policy that prohibits users from includinglinks heading out of eBay in their reader-generatedcontent.

And now we have Yahoo! supposedly making behind-the-scenesmaneuvers to alter the directories and links that helpWeb surfers navigate its clubs and groups sites.Yahoo! told the New York Times that alteration of the links is being “evaluated,” but already, a group of angry Yahoo! users are busypassing around petitions asking the company to stop messing around.

Bad Content?

Okay, sure, the links in the New York case were toother sites that posted the code used to break into DVDs andinfringe valid copyrights. And yes, good argumentscan be made that eBay users should notuse the auction site purely as the meeting ground formaking off-site deals without paying the piper.

And you’re right, the Yahoo! crackdown on the directories andlinks in its clubs section is directed to adult content, andis being made in response to legitimateconcerns about the accessibility of pornographic content.

The problem is that when censorship starts, it always starts atthe fringe. No one believes that their own speech will be curtailed — untilit is.

Let’s Be Sensible

Now, I’m not one of those idiots who thinks that allspeech should be “free” and uncensored. Free speech does not meanall speech and the First Amendment only restricts government limitson speech. Corporations are not bound by First Amendmentguarantees.

Indeed, there are plenty of good reasons to limit speech,including the prevention of injuries caused bylibel and slander, child pornography, threats to national security,copyright infringement, invasions of privacy, and so on.

But the new laws and corporate rules prohibitingreader-generated links don’t fall into those exceptions.

Wink, Wink

In the New York case, which is now on appeal, Eric Corely (aka EmmanuelGoldstein), the publisher of the hacker e-zine 2600, wasbarred by the court from posting or linking to a computercode called DeCSS, which descrambles DVD content.

That content is intentionally scrambled by the copyright holdersto prevent unauthorized copying. So actually using the code contributes toinfringement — that seems fairly clear.

However, using the code, posting the code and linking to the codeare three different things. Posting code that leads to infringement isprobably contributory infringement in the same way that using the code is,although that’s debatable.

But just linking to the code? That’sinformation of interest, not a copyright infringement.

Enforce This

What about eBay’s link ban? The companysays that starting May 31st, it plans to enforce a company policybanning any links that lead its auction users to otherWeb sites.

Although eBay will ban the links frompages within the auction section, sellers maycontinue to use the “About Me” page toprovide links to their own homepages or storefronts.

According to eBay, “sellers thatattempt to divert buyers off eBay potentially decreasethe value of the marketplace to the entire community.”

Held in eBayance

However, it’s clear that eBay is working to cutdown on the number of non-eBay sales made bybuyers and sellers who find one another on its site. That’s alaudable goal — if you work in the marketing department at eBay.

However, eBay long ago positioned itself as a community site.Most of its content is reader-generated. If that’s the case, eBay needs to go all the way — includingwhatever links people want to insert in their texts so others canunderstand what is being offered and discussed.

Locking people either in — or out — of a community siteis not exactly good community relations. Yahoo!,are you listening?

Missing the Links

Linking from one site to another is thevery nature of the Web. Imagine a Web without anylinks at all? No such thing, right? It’s some kind ofZen Buddhist koan, a paradox to be meditated upon,as in “imagine a forest without any trees.”

Forget about the unthinkable for now and contemplateinstead a Web with only the links thateither Uncle Sam endorses or Daddy Corporate wants you to see.That’s an Internet that will never reach its potential.

The very strength of the Web is its hypertext capability,allowing one site to link to and access another site.When the Internet was primarily a research network, linkingwas encouraged by scholars and Web surfers alike.

Nervous Time

Now we have the Internet giants looking to boost revenues,and many believing that the Internet is more of a trade channelthan it is a research tool. So the fact that Internetbusinesses and the courts are making rulesabout when and how links can be inserted, even inreader-generated content, is not that surprising.

But it should be alarming.

The glorious thing about the Internet is thatpeople can use it to connect people to people andideas to ideas, and people to ideas and so on and so on.And that a single person can travel aroundon it anywhere to find out anythingabout anything at all. Well, at least for now.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinionsexpressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect theviews of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


  • I’m just not sure what this story has to do with e-commerce, and I agree with the comments about how long it takes this reporter to get to the point. I humbly admit I read this site when I’m at work, so I have to get through it kind of fast. Stories like this one don’t really contribute much to people who work for e-commerce companies. The topic seems like kind of a stretch, like there wasn’t much to write about today.

    • I agree. The article would have been stronger if the writer had cut down on the wandering.

      Nothing remains free, especially not something that can drive $$$ to so many people.

      • In the U.S., government has the right to regulate business, even to extinction. Those parts of the web that are commerce oriented are regulatable by government, as are criminal activities. Having said all of that, freedom is the absence of legislation, and my perception is that what we are all concerned about is the loss of freedom. If the links are not there because of removal by government or business entities, we have lost our freedom of choice and have entered the slippery world of censorship. I, for one, want to keep my right to choose what I do on the web, without a nanny government or business restricting my activities. If I break a law, then they can come after me. If I don’t break a law, or otherwise hurt/injure someone, leave me alone to conduct my own unrestricted and private business.

        • Well, considering the column talks about the operating practices of bellwether online businesses like eBay and Yahoo, whose policies may be emulated in the future (if not the present), I’d say it has more than a little to do with e-commerce.

          Seems to me the writer made her point in the first paragraph, backed it up, and then drew her conclusions. No shame in skipping ahead to the finish if your time is at a premium, but I wouldn’t say that the article was a pointless ramble.

  • Looks like a great opportunity for somebody to to exercise the supply and demand thing. Somebody will create a site to do what these others won’t let you do. The consumer has the last word. When people stop using these policed sites, then this will take care of itself.

  • Gosh, this chatty commentator took an awful long time to say something she might have said in about two paragraphs, but even with that said–who ever said the Internet was going to be unmanaged, free and unfettered forever?

    Certainly those of us who keep up with this stuff always realized that some limits, some controls and some government interference was going to happen sometime. Ebay is a private company…if it wants to limit something on its site it has that right. Yahoo is a private company. If it doesn’t want people linking to something it considers offensive, it has that right. These are businesses…they’re not grass roots organizations trying to change the world. They’re trying to make a profit, maximize their exposure to their customers and stay afloat.

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