My column in the Guardian argues that we have a right to link and that the link is the basis of freedom of speech online. The issues are important and so I’m posting the entire column here:
Linking is more than merely a function and feature of the internet. Linking is a right. The link enables fair comment. It powers the link economy that will sustain media. It is a tool for accountability. It is the keystone to free speech online.
But News Corporation has made good on its threat to fight the link, preventing the UK aggregator NewsNow from linking to several of its newspaper sites.
It’s true that internet protocols make it easy to block crawlers from search engines or aggregators; one simply adds a line to the robots.txt file on the web server. And News Corp’s rationale regarding NewsNow seems on the face of it to make sense: the argument is that NewsNow charges for its service, separating it from free aggregators such as Google News and Daylife (in which – disclosure – I am a partner).
But NewsNow has fought back, launching a campaign in support of the link at right2link.org. “Linking is not some kind of digital theft,” the NewsNow founder Struan Bartlett says in a video. Linking via headlines, he adds, “is not substantial reproduction of a newspaper’s intellectual property, so it’s perfectly legitimate fair use”.
Right. Linking is not a privilege that the recipient of the link should control – any more than politicians should decide who may or may not quote them. The test is not whether the creator of the link charges (Murdoch’s newspapers will charge and they link). The test is whether the thing we are linking to is public. If it is public for one it should be public for all.
We in the media tend to view the internet in our own image. But the internet is not a medium. Instead, as Cluetrain Manifesto author Doc Searls argues, it is a place. Think of it as a public park. You may not be selectively kept out because of your association with a race, religion … or aggregator. “Linking,” says Bartlett, “is a common public amenity.”
I fear that what is really in danger here is the doctrine of openness* on which journalism and an informed society depend. Pertinent are the arguments around Google’s Streetview, which takes pictures of buildings and the people who happen to be in front of them. Some object that these photos violate their privacy. But they are in public. What they do there is public.
I understand that people caught on Streetview might not want us to see them strolling into a drug den or brothel. But if we give anyone the right to restrict our use of that image or information, then we also give the mayor the right to gag us when we want to publish a picture of him skulking into that opium parlour.
What’s public is public – that is, we, the public, have a right to observe, point to, share, and comment on it. And the internet is public.
Mind you, neither NewsNow nor I are arguing that being in public gives anyone the right to copy and steal content. We both agree that copyright and intellectual property must be respected. But linking is not stealing.
Indeed, in the link economy I’ve written about here, linking is distribution; it is a benefit. That’s why I argue News Corp is a fool not to welcome, encourage and exploit links to its content. Links do not stop people from reading it; links bring readers to it.
As Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed response to Rupert Murdoch on the value of search and aggregation, it’s up to the recipient of the link to take advantage of the relationship it creates – and Google creates 4bn such opportunities for publishers a year.
By trying to cut off links, News Corp is also endangering journalism. As an economic matter, the link is how our work will gain audience.
As a journalistic matter, we reporters depend on the ability to read and analyse public statements and documents – from government, corporations or newsmakers – and it should make no difference whether that reading is done by a person or their agent, an algorithm. We depend on the right to quote from what we find – and online, the link is our means of doing so. In fact, linking to source material – footnoting our work and the provenance of our information – is fast being seen as an ethical necessity in digital journalism.
In the end, this fight is over control. News Corp is desperately trying to maintain its control over access to and packaging and pricing of information that now flows freely from many sources. Thanks to the internet, it is losing it – in more than one sense.
* Note that in my draft, I wrote “publicness.” It’s not a word in the dictionary and so it was edited, changed to “openness.” I should have perhaps phrased it, “the public.”
The ability to refer to a document (or a person or any thing else) is in general a fundamental right of free speech to the same extent that speech is free. Making the reference with a hypertext link is more efficient but changes nothing else. . . . We cannot regard anyone as having the “right not to be referred to” without completely pulling the rug out from under free speech. . . .It is difficult to emphasize how important these issues are for society. The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, for example, addresses the right to speak. The right to make reference to something is inherent in that right. On the web, to make reference without making a link is possible but ineffective – like speaking but with a paper bag over your head.