For those seeking to censor information online, the weakest link is often precisely that—the humble hyperlink. Censoring or imposing costs or conditions on linking to information can be just as effective, and often easier, than controlling the information at its source. But without the freedom to link, the World Wide Web falls apart into a mass of disconnected threads.
That's why EFF is joining the Save the Link network, a new, broad, cross-sector coalition of groups, convened by Canada's OpenMedia.ca (press release here). Together we are concerned about mounting threats, from various sources, to our freedom to build the strong, interlinked Web that has become the greatest knowledge repository in history.
One of the most pressing threats, and the reason for the launch of the network now, are proposals for limitations on freedom to link in Europe, in the context of debate over Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Julia Reda's report on the revision of the European copyright directive. Julia's original report (which we supported) contained this strong affirmation of freedom to link:
Stresses that the ability to freely link from one resource to another is one of the fundamental building blocks of the internet; calls on the EU legislator to make it clear that reference to works by means of a hyperlink is not subject to exclusive rights, as it does not consist in a communication to a new public.
But amongst more than 500 proposed amendments to the report that other MEPs have put forward and which are currently under debate, are some pernicious proposals to limit this freedom. One example is an amendment proposed by French MEP Virginie Rozière and Luxembourgish Mady Delvaux, which would add a proviso that:
this option must be strictly limited to links which lead to freely available content; [and] observes that the online intermediaries liability regime applicable to links to illicit content should be tightened up, particularly by revising the e-commerce directive;
Another proposal by British MEP Mary Honeyball would curtail the right as follows:
but stresses that under certain circumstances, embedding and linking may be prejudicial to the rights of the creator;
And a third by Bulgarian and UK MEPs Angel Dzhambazki and Sajjad Karim:
highlights the importance of enhanced user information regarding obligations for anyone who knowingly provides hyperlinks to unauthorised content or links that circumvent paywalls …
Such proposals, even if they make it into the European Parliament's final report, will not in themselves make any change to European law. But nevertheless, they send the wrong message to the European Commission which will be preparing the next revision of the EU Copyright Directive. That false message is that Internet intermediaries such as search engines and Web hosts are enemies, rather than partners of content creators.
A symptom of this misunderstanding has been a rash of ill-considered European measures to shift costs and burdens onto intermediaries. Most notable is Spain's recent copyright amendment that charges intermediaries such as Google a compulsory fee for the use of text snippets that link to news reports, which resulted in Google News shutting down in that country. A parallel amendment imposes criminal liability on Web hosts who link to infringing content, arising once they have been notified of the claimed infringement and failed to remove the link.
These measures already go way too far and should be rolled back, but the discussions over the Reda copyright report point in the opposite direction—towards their possible extension across Europe. Undue influence from the copyright lobby, combined with European discomfort over the market dominance of U.S.-based Internet platforms, has created a toxic combination that threatens to rend the fabric of the World Wide Web as we know it.
Although these European developments provided the stimulus for the launch of the Save the Link network this week, the site also highlights threats to our freedom to link from three other continents, and will enable participants to publicize and mobilize against new censorship threats as they arise. Social media outreach resources like the one shown above are available on the Save the Link website for you to spread the word and tell policymakers that you stand in solidarity with other users in upholding our freedom to link.