(Hyper)links are the fundamental building blocks of the web, but the practice of linking has come under attack over the last few years. If copyright holders are able to censor or control links to legitimate content, it could disrupt the free flow of information online and hurt access to crucial news and resources on the web.
In the U.S. and Canada we may take for granted that no one requires permission or is forced to pay a fee to link to another place online. But this isn’t the case everywhere. Copyrighted content holders (including news organizations, media, and entertainment sites) around the world are working to remove the right to free and open linking, and the threat is more present than you may think.
Today a coalition of over 50 organizations (including Creative Commons) from 21 countries are launching Savethelink.org. The campaign aims to raise awareness about the issue and prompt action to urge decision makers to protect the practice of free and open linking online.
Ryan Merkley, CEO of Creative Commons, said, “At its core, the Internet is a network of links — connectivity is at the heart of the Web we love. Breaking that structure by giving some the ability to decide what links should work and what links should not undermines free expression, access to information, and the public commons.”
An example of how restricting access to links is already in place in Spain, where the Spanish government passed a law that “requires services which post links and excerpts of news articles to pay a fee to the organisation representing Spanish newspapers.” This type of pseudo-copyright law was intended to protect the revenue flows of Spanish media publishers. However, you have to question whether such a practice might have backfired for publishers who wanted to use the new rule as a means to monetize access to their content. It’s quite tell that Google News–which funnels significant traffic to media websites–shut down in Spain shortly after the law was passed, citing concerns that allowing rights holders to charge for access to links would have been an unworkable practice for them.
Last year’s public consultation on the review of European copyright rules also contained a question on the right to link:
Should the provision of a hyperlink leading to a work or other subject matter protected under copyright, either in general or under specific circumstances, be subject to the authorisation of the rightholder?
Many groups, including Creative Commons, responded that allowing rights holders to control access to links would be a terrible idea.
Under no circumstance should hyperlinks be subject to protection under copyright. Sharing links without needing permission from the rightsholder is core to the operation of the internet. Changing this fundamental structural aspect of how the internet works would be detrimental to the free flow of information and commerce online.
If links can be censored by rights holders, it would be detrimental to access to information, free expression, and economic activity. It could fracture the longstanding mechanism underlying the sharing of information on the web. Let’s not let that happen.