Links are the Web's essence and its genius. Every public Web page's URL, its address, is available to all; we can point any Web page to any other. That's why the Web keeps growing -- and everyone from Yahoo to you can slice new paths through its vastness and recombine its pieces in new ways.
In 1999 this is almost too obvious to restate in intelligent company, right?
That isn't stopping a still small but growing list of companies from contending that certain kinds of links are actually illegal. Go ahead and link to our sites, they're saying, but only if you link the way we tell you to. Otherwise, you'll hear from our lawyers.
Ticketmaster started all this back in 1997. Miffed after Microsoft's Sidewalk sites started linking directly to its ticket sales pages rather than to its home page or "front door," the ticketing giant -- which had a deal with Sidewalk competitor CitySearch -- sued Microsoft. (The companies settled in February.) Since then, Ticketmaster merged its online operations with CitySearch, and that company swallowed up Microsoft's city guide.
This new, engorged Ticketmaster is now at it again: It has sued Tickets.com, complaining that the rival firm is bypassing its home page and linking directly to "inside" pages. (The suit also alleges that Tickets.com stole Ticketmaster content and provided inaccurate information on the availability of Ticketmaster tickets.)
In a similar case, Universal Studios recently sent its lawyers after the proprietor of a site called Movie-List, which compiles links to online movie trailers, demanding that he stop linking to the movie previews the studio posts on its own sites. The operator of the site put up a page compiling his correspondence with Universal's lawyers and his own Internet service provider -- which, among other things, complained to him that he was not a "registered search engine," whatever that is.
The practice that bugs Ticketmaster and Universal has become known -- in what sounds like some sort of homage to both Watergate and the porn industry -- as "deep linking." That term carries some sinister overtones, but in truth "deep linking" comes naturally on the Web: I've already done it several times in this story, linking "deep" into other sites' content and file structure. That serves you, the reader, a lot better than telling you to go to Wired News or the New York Times' home pages and search for "Ticketmaster AND lawsuits" to find the articles I'm referring to. I did that work for you already; you just have to follow my "deep link."
Ticketmaster argues that since it sells ads on its home page, "deep links" hurt its business by bypassing those ads -- so it maintains that if you want to "deep link" to its site, you have to negotiate a deal with it first. According to Ticketmaster, I guess, this link is illegal: If I want to send you to where you can buy tickets to a Tom Petty concert next weekend, I'd better do it Ticketmaster's way, or not at all.
Of course, there are ads on that Tom Petty ticket page, too. And you'd think that Ticketmaster -- which, after all, is in the business of selling tickets -- would welcome the additional Web traffic and business generated by "deep linkers," whoever they might be. Similarly, Universal posts trailers to its movies on the Web because, presumably, it wants as many people as possible to see them. If Movie-List sends more people its way, why complain?
Web site operators who don't want anyone to link to them -- or who want to limit visitors to some preselected group -- always have the option of building a gate in front of their pages, an authentication routine that checks to make sure that the visitor is a registered user. But outside of sites that charge subscription fees for access, such schemes are rare on the Web, for good reason: From the early days of HotWired -- which originally required visitors to register for access -- to the present, Web sites have learned the hard way that users tend to go away when they hit any kind of barrier. And the Web business remains a numbers game, so why hobble yourself?
The most successful companies online understand that the more people who link to you, the better. Amazon.com's associates program, which lets any Web site that points visitors to Amazon's bookstore collect a small slice of the sale, is the embodiment of this principle -- but you don't need to sign up with anyone or get permission to link "deep" to any page in Amazon's catalog you choose.
Objectors to "deep linking," like Ticketmaster and Universal, want to have their Web businesses both ways: They put their services and content out on the public Web to attract users, but they also expect to be able to control every facet of how those users access their services and content. They want their pages to be openly available to individual visitors but not to other sites -- a division rendered nearly impossible by the very technical structure of the Web.
Of course, what software can't do, maybe the courts can accomplish. Right now there is no legal precedent to establish either the "right to link" or, alternately, a Web site's right to prohibit links. Sooner or later, though, one of these disputes will wind up in court.
I'd like to think that would be a good thing, and that the legal system would understand and honor the Web's essential openness, while leaving room for the law to crack down on truly parasitical behavior (like one site's "framing" another's content with its own ads). But it's just as likely that we'll end up with a decision that extends special privileges to some kinds of commercial Web sites and declares certain kinds of linking to be verboten.
If that happens, the consequences could be grim. As it is, we've only barely scratched the surface of the new kinds of communication that the Web might enable. Linking today remains primitive; we need new elaborations of the Web's interface and underlying protocols that allow, for instance, links to contain more information -- so that they become less like unmarked doorways and more like well-mapped paths.
But if we are headed for a climate in which every Web author needs to check with every link target before putting up a page, then forget such innovation; forget new services and search sites, forget the continued growth of Web use. Instead, consider the morass of confusion we will enter: If "deep linking" becomes regulated or illegal, who do the rules apply to? All Web sites or just "big commercial" Web sites? Who would draw that line? What about individual users -- is "deep bookmarking" to become a problem too? How about passing around a "deep link" on a mailing list?
Let's pray for some deep sanity to prevail here, or we will find ourselves in deep, uh, trouble.