Opinion: Can a Web site stop you from linking to it?
(IDG) -- If someone wants to link to your Web site, do you have the right to try to stop him or her?
Ticketmaster thinks you do. This company sued Microsoft in 1997, seeking to stop MSN Sidewalk from linking directly to pages deep within Ticketmaster's where people could purchase tickets to specific events. Never mind that Sidewalk was passing along droves of eager customers -- Ticketmaster argued that they were unfairly bypassing its home page, thus depriving the company of revenue.
The suit was settled out of court in February of this year.
Now Ticketmaster is back in the courts. This time it's trying to stop Tickets.com from doing the same thing Sidewalk used to.
Because the Ticketmaster-MSN suit and others like it have been settled out of court, there are no clear legal precedents. You can find a useful discussion of the fuzzy legal issues in a paper by Tanya Rose, a University of Kansas law student. Another good source is Brad Templeton's Web page. Templeton is the former publisher of ClariNet and is a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The practice of linking to Web pages deep within another site, known as "deep linking," is not considered controversial by most Web site operators because it increases traffic and brings in qualified potential customers.
There are only a couple of cases in which deep linking presents obvious problems. If I link to something on your site in a way that makes it seem as if your site's content is actually my own, that's essentially plagiarism. For example, I can't just pull your site's content into my own site by putting it in a browser frame and presenting the content as my own.
But aside from such obvious misrepresentations, what harm could possibly come from deep linking?
Some companies apparently feel the need to control their customers' experience to a greater degree than is possible on the Web. Ticketmaster wants you to buy tickets only after passing through its home page or one of its authorized partners.
Too bad that goes against the basics of Web technology. Links are what make the Web what it is, and the more specific those links are, the more useful they are, both to Web surfers and to the linked sites. That's why it's senseless to try to restrict deep linking.
But then, InfoWorld until recently had a restrictive linking policy, although it was essentially toothless. According to this policy, people who wanted to link to stories within InfoWorld's Web site were supposed to request permission first.
The policy was widely ignored, as search engines and a host of other Web sites regularly linked to InfoWorld articles.
Prompted in part by the futility of enforcing it, and in part by the criticism of software developer and industry commentator Dave Winer, InfoWorld abandoned the policy. We now simply request that people let us know if they're linking to us -- but this is optional.
Of course, as Winer pointed out to me, we can easily find out who's linking to our site by examining the "REFERER" logs on our Web servers. Asking people to contact us just lets us establish a relationship with them.
But this still begs the question -- does a Web site even have the right to restrict deep linking?
Dylan Tweney writes the Net Prophet column for InfoWorld.
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