Internet's Founders Offer Warnings

by Scot Hacker

Perhaps it's just coincidence, but I've noticed the names of both Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web) and Vincent Cerf (co-inventor of TCP/IP) in the news over the past week. What struck me was the fact that references to both of these "spiritual fathers" were in the context of looking out on creation, and not liking what they saw.

The first spotted reference was in the San Jose Mercury News, in a piece in which Cerf warned that the openness that makes the Internet what it is is being threatened both by overly controlling governments and excessive corporate profit motives. Too much control and too much too many proprietary solutions threaten to undermine the very things that make the Internet strong, according to Cerf and others.

Separately, I've been watching the ongoing debate over so-called "deep linking" with interest (I use quotes here because I don't think there is such a thing as a "deep link" -- there are simply links -- whether they point to home pages or not is immaterial).

Most recently, NPR -- that bastion of open and unfettered speech -- has put their foot in it by asking webmasters to fill out a form before linking to any of their pages -- in other words, to ask permission before linking to them.

I was happy to find at BoingBoing a reference to Tim Berners-Lee's Links and Law: Myths which, among other things, makes the following points:

Myth: "A normal link is an incitement to copy the linked document in a way
which infringes copyright".

This is a serious misunderstanding. The ability to refer to a document (or a
person or any thing else) is in general a fundamental right of free speech
to the same extent that speech is free. Making the reference with a
hypertext link is more efficient but changes nothing else.

When the "speech" itself is illegal, whether or not it contains hypertext
links, then its illegality should not be affected by the fact that it is in
electronic form.

Users and information providers and lawyers have to share this convention.
If they do not, people will be frightened to make links for fear of legal
implications. I received a mail message asking for "permission" to link to
our site. I refused as I insisted that permission was not needed.

There is no reason to have to ask before making a link to another site.

It is natural and good that the Internet should grow and evolve. But we must take care not to subvert its most fundamental attributes. Open = strong. Corporations and governments must be continually reminded of these basic tenets, or we risk damaging that which makes the Internet great.