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Linking Custom and Etiquette

by Eric Hellman, President of Openly Informatics, Inc.

The law has decided very little about hyperlinking, so custom and practice is a much better guide for implementers and publishers of hyperlinks. In many cases, it is a good thing, even a valuable thing, to be the target of a hyperlink. Links are generally beneficial to both linker and linkee. However, there have been a number of cases in which legal remedies have been sought to remove certain links that the link target found to be objectionable. In other situations, links involve a cost to one of the linking parties, and may become objects of commerce.

Tim Berners-Lee, the "inventer" of the World-Wide Web, thinks that links are intrinsic to the fabric of the web. In a section of the W3C web site devoted to his personal notes about the architectecture and meaning of the web, he writes:

There is no reason to have to ask before making a link to another site
But by the same token,
You are responsible for what you say about other people, and their sites, etc., on the web as anywhere
In other words, linking to a site is saying something about it, and so linking should be an activity protected as free speach. At the same time, freedom carries responsibilities.

Cooperative Linking

Let's first consider the case where the link benefits both parties, and thus would not normally be an object of commerce. There are two important objections to this sort of linking, which can often be addressed through the use of common courtesy. The first type of objection involves the presentation of links in ways that could confuse a user as to the source of the linked resource. The second type of objection involves a link that disrupts a business model which depends on how a user enters and navigates into a site. Although the legal issues relating to these objections are unsettled, it is clear that both sorts of links are indefensible from the standpoint of courtesy. Confusing users is never a good idea in an honest web site, and subverting a site's business model is incompatible with the cooperative nature of linking.

Linkees are not without responsibilities when it comes to hyperlinking. If a site's business model depends on how it gets linked to, then the site's linking "house rules" should be clearly and openly published. If links are desired, then a site should greet incoming links hospitably, and direct them as painlessly as possible to the user's destination. If "traffic" is valuable to you, then do whatever you can to avoid breaking the links that others have made for you.

The most important thing to remember is that hyperlinking is a cooperative activity which can be easily disrupted by either party, and thus must be approached with courtesy first.

Here are some specific examples of how to be courteous when publishing links. HTML examples are given to illustrate points that may be generalized to other formats.:

  1. Make sure that links are accurately labeled. A user should be able to easily understand where a link goes.
    1. When anchoring a hyperlink, make sure the phrase, graphic and its context accurately represents the content and source of the linked resource.
      • BAD: parody of <a href="http://notthenewyorktimes.com">The New York Times</a>
      • OK : <a href="http://notthenewyorktimes.com">Not The New York Times</a>.
      • BETTER : <a href="http://notthenewyorktimes.com">parody of</a> The New York Times..

    2. When anchoring to a site which the anchor text does not describe, add text or visual cues to indicate where a user will be going. Some sites make graphics available specifically for this purpose.
      • BAD: <a href="http://news.com/1,23,236/pr9823y">Sidewalk Suit Settled</a>
      • GOOD: <a href="http://news.com/1,23,236/pr9823y">Sidewalk Suit Settled</a> (From News.com)
      • BETTER: <a href="http://news.com/1,23,236/pr9823y">Sidewalk Suit Settled</a> (From <a href="http://news.com/">News.com</a>)

    3. Make sure that the page you link to tells the user where he is, and is not designed to be accessed from a frame. For example, here are live links to a site (which discusses the legal side of linking):


  2. Putting content from another site in a frameset is often a bad idea. "Framing" leaves your content in part of a browser window while allowing another site's content in the rest of the window. It is not possible to control subsequent subdivision of the windaw, and it can become quite difficult for a user to tell where content is coming from. Note that you can inadvertantly frame a site if you forget to specify a target for links in your framed pages.
    • BAD: <a href="http://www.yahoo.com/">Yahoo</a> (in a framed page)
    • OK: <a target="_blank" href="http://www.yahoo.com/">Yahoo</a> (annoyingly pops a new window)
    • SAFEST: <a target="_top" href="http://www.yahoo.com/">Yahoo</a> (links to the page in an unframed window)

    There are occasionally situations where putting another site's content in a frame is an appropriate solution. Many "browsing tools", such as LinkBaton can only be done effectively using frames. Here are some guidelines:

    1. The most important consideration when putting another site in your frameset is to make it clear to the user that the other site's content comes from the other site. Use graphical elements that clearly set your site off from the other.
    2. Don't hog the window. Keeping a thin strip at the top or bottom of the window is less intrusive than splitting the window.
    3. Make it easy for the user to get rid of your frame. Provide a tear-off button.
    4. Remember that websites can "de-frame" themselves.


  3. Be very careful that a user will be able to tell where linked resource comes from. NEVER link directly to a graphic on another site without permission. NEVER embed a graphic (using an "IMG" tag) from another site without permission. In these cases, a user is easily confused as to the source of the files. NEVER link to a file on an anonymous FTP site without clearly indicating to a user the source and nature of the download that will occur.

  4. When picking a target page for a hyperlink, don't try to circumvent advertising or user tracking on the target site. Test your link on a fresh browser to make sure that the link works and that users will not be confused as to where they are.
These example are not complete, and will need to be supplemented as new technologies are introduced.

Commercial Linking

When a link becomes on object of commerce, new sets of rules apply. You may add a link to someone (an advertiser, for example) who pays you for it, or you may link to someone who provides a service to your web site. When money or valuable considerations change hands, clear agreements or contracts should be in place. Good etiquette and design are still important, and should not be neglected, even when a legal agreement is in place.

Linking Liability

Is a web site liable for the content that it links to? Again, we have no legal precedents to guide us, and many sites have begun to put legal-sounding disclaimers in their web-sites saying that they are not legally responsible for the content of resources they link to.

Although there's no great harm in having a linking disclaimer on your site, it is unlikely that a disclaimer will be very effective if your site design is bad and misleads visitors as to the source of the linked content. On the other hand, good design alone is probably an insufficient defense if you're linking to content that is obscene, libelous or otherwise illegal, or if you have deep pockets. If in doubt, consult an attorney.

In a very widely reported case, a federal judge has ruled that a web site (2600 Magazine) can be legally held responsible for links it placed to sites publishing the source code for DeCSS, a program which allows DVD's to be played on Linux systems. For our purposes, the merits of the DeCSS case are irrelevant, but the surprising holding here is that it can be considered illegal to link to a site that publishes something illegal. Although this ruling is silly and bad law in my view, it makes clear the legal hazards a link can present.

DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE, AND IS NOT WRITTEN BY A LAWYER.

Obnoxious Linking

Linking occasionally is done in a way that hurts the target of a link. The rules governing this sort of linking are as follows.

  1. Don't do it.
  2. If you still want to do it, consult your lawyer.
  3. If you still want to do it, consult a second lawyer.
  4. If you still want to be nasty, don't be surprised if someone is nasty back at you, and you end up paying more money to lawyers #1 and #2.

Links to interesting articles on linking

Comments

An example previously used on this page referred to the importance of labelling links to a "Clinton Sucks" web site. Yes, it really exists, and it's not even x-rated. Sure enough, one Clinton Gallagher e-mailed me to suggest that this page be changed to make clear that the text referred to "President W. J. Clinton" and not anyone else named Clinton!

The author welcomes comments and suggestions for this page at eric@openly.com.

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