More on "deep links," journalists and IPOs

Why you don't need lawyers to block links -- and hot reactions to the Chris Nolan story.


Scott Rosenberg
August 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

In this week's column, we play cleanup and catchup on two issues I've written about recently: the "deep linking" controversy and newsroom ethics in the Chris Nolan affair.

Deeper into deep links

In last week's "Don't Link or I'll Sue!" I expressed mystification and consternation at the efforts of some companies online, notably Ticketmaster and Universal, to stop other Web sites from "deep linking" to them -- that is, pointing to pages deep within their Web directories rather than to their home pages. While most Web sites crave links and depend on them to get the word out and garner new traffic, these companies have instead sicced their lawyers on the linkers.

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My column implied that there were only limited technical methods a site could use to restrict access to visitors following unwanted "deep links." Silly me: My in box immediately overflowed with messages enumerating a vast array of methods that rely on programming logic rather than lawsuits.

Sites can have their Web servers check the "referrer" headers on incoming visitors and screen out certain domains entirely. They can use "cookies" to make sure that visitors to "deep pages" have first checked in, as it were, at the site's home page. They can build a "page wrapper" into their site design that reroutes traffic in various ways.

Dave Winer has suggested extending the convention of the "robots.txt" file -- a set of instructions some sites post telling visiting spiders (automated programs cataloging pages for search engines) where they can and can't crawl -- to deep linking: Sites would post files that declare what kinds of links they allow or disallow, and other sites would respect those wishes by checking this file.

Ticketmaster is a big company that has built a complex e-commerce site; its engineers doubtless know all about the technical possibilities here. Indeed, during the height of its 1997 spat with Microsoft Sidewalk, the Ticketmaster site redirected all Sidewalk visitors to a crudely written message that basically said, "Go through our home page or go home!" I'm guessing (and worrying) that its repeated resort to the law in these conflicts means that Ticketmaster wants to push this issue until it establishes a clear legal precedent.

That could be bad news for everyone. The more that linking becomes entangled with the law, the more we'll find the Web choked and stunted. Still, the closer you look at this issue the more nuances and exceptions emerge.

There are powerful arguments by analogy to other media, like this one Ron Ralston sent me, likening links to providing citations of printed material: "If I find an interesting article in the New York Times and I want to tell you about it, am I allowed to tell you that it's in the upper right hand corner of Page 3 of the Opinion section? Or am I allowed to tell you only that it's in the Times? Does giving you the location of the interesting article subvert some implied requirement that you 'eyeball' all of the ads between the front page and it? Does giving you the location somehow damage the advertiser and/or the Times? Does the Times have the right to forbid me telling you where the article is? Such ideas are preposterous when applied to printed media, but lawyers would have us think they make perfect sense when applied to the Web."

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One reader pointed me to Net news pioneer Brad Templeton's essay on "Linking Rights," which notes a variety of situations in which one's "right to link" may be circumscribed by the rules of copyright. If you simply assume that linking is a Web-given right, Templeton's piece is food for thought; for instance, he suggests that a link is "not just like telling people the factual statement about what the access URL for a page is -- a link is actually the online implementation of a 'device.'" In other words, if you know that the owner of copyrighted material online doesn't want you to link and you go ahead and link anyway, you could be guilty of "contributory copyright infringement" even though you haven't "copied" anything yourself.

With the Universal dispute -- in which the movie studio demanded that a Web site operator stop linking to its movie trailers -- the case is complicated by the nature of the files involved. Serving video files is an expensive proposition. What apparently irked Universal was the way the site linked directly to the trailers' multimedia files; the studio wanted the links to point instead to the Web pages on which it housed those trailers -- along with accompanying credits and supporting ads. That's the way this conflict was resolved.

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What I wonder is whether Universal might have achieved exactly the same result by making a few phone calls rather than resorting to legal threats. After all, good will is part of what makes the Web go 'round. Which is why several readers suggested boycotts or other public pillorying of companies that go after "deep linkers." As Malcolm Slaney wrote, "One way to fight the people who don't want deep linking is to not link to them at all."

Journalists and IPOs, redux

My column on the ruckus stirred up by San Jose Mercury News columnist Chris Nolan's dabbling in IPO investing evoked an avalanche of reader response that fell neatly into two camps.

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One group of correspondents -- mostly journalists who work for financial news sites like TheStreet.com or other news outlets -- chastised me for what they perceived as an attempt to exonerate Nolan, who, they feel, got what she deserved. Another group -- also journalists, some from Nolan's own paper -- applauded me for what they saw as my justified criticism of institutionalized hypocrisy in the newsroom, where rank-and-file reporters must toe the ethical line or walk the plank, even as executives build fat investment portfolios while moralizing about "conflict of interest."

I thought my original column was pretty clear, but I will happily reiterate: From where I sit, it looks like both Nolan and the Mercury News mishandled the situation. Of course it is a bad idea for journalists to write about companies they invest in, or to invest in companies that they cover. But it's silly to maintain that this isn't a complex situation with no gray areas.

In Nolan's case, the gray areas include the reporter's notification of her editors about her stock trade and her assignment to write a freelance article about it for Fortune magazine. (Should Fortune never have assigned such a piece? Is first-person journalism about financial topics off-limits except for people who are not professional writers?) These issues don't make what Nolan did right, but they ought to give anyone pause before passing a definitive judgment on these events.

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If I've learned one thing in 20 years in journalism it's that anyone who claims that a story is black-and-white or open-and-shut usually has an agenda. In this case, business journalists, particularly those working for online operations, know that both industries they belong to -- the media and the Internet -- are viewed with suspicion by the general public. The journalists are understandably eager to bolster their profession's reputation. But in their zeal, they are reacting to Nolan's lapse with an almost comical self-righteousness.

For those journalists whose e-mails declared that my piece was "drivel" and that there is only one side to this story, I have a few more questions: If reporters, editors and columnists need to restrict or disclose their investments in areas they cover (as I think they should), what should be the rules for top media executives whose decisions have far more impact on what news readers receive every day? Why all this pent-up ire for the lapse of one person? And what would be the ethical way for a journalist to write a first-person story about IPO investing, anyway? Wasn't the time to stop Nolan from making her mistake when she informed her editors of her plans? Why did the Mercury News only discipline her after the Wall Street Journal published an item about her stock deal? Could it be that the paper was more concerned about avoiding bad PR than enforcing spotless ethics?

I don't have answers here -- but these are the questions that interest me. Conflicts of interest are most dangerous when they're least obvious. We can all get off on telling the world how spotless we are in comparison to Nolan -- or we can begin to grapple with the much thornier dilemmas confronting every journalist every day.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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