TCS Daily


Deep Links? No Way!

By James D. Miller - May 13, 2002 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: For a different perspective on deep linking, click here.

Some store just posted a no-trespassing sign on its back lot. Many believe that the store exceeded its legal rights, for the trespassers hadn't been doing much harm, and some of them were even going into the store through the back lot.

DallasNews.com has recently tried to limit deep links. Deep links bypass an Internet site's home page and take a reader directly to the interior content. The normally libertarian web community is outraged over the paper's assertion of its property rights. Property rights, however, confer the ability to exclude, for without exclusion it's difficult to profit.

There are many economic reasons why a site might wish to prohibit deep links. For example, it might want all viewers to see its home page as a form of advertising. It's also possible that the viewers a paper would receive from deep links are not demographically desirable. Perhaps an online paper benefits only from having local viewers and most of those who arrive via deep links are non-local and consequently not worth the extra bandwidth costs their presence would require. A paper might also wish to sell the right to deep link. For example, the OpinionJournal's best of the web today feature relies upon deep links, so the Journal would probably be willing to pay for this linking privilege. True, restricting deep links almost certainly reduces traffic. Remember, however, that profit, not popularity is the goal of business.

Deep linking has the potential to do vast damage to content providers. Imagine that I create my own table of contents for the New York Times and provide links to interior articles. Let's say that my site becomes popular and attracts many viewers who used to use the site's own, advertising-filled, table of contents. My parasite has now deprived the Times of advertising revenue. Other potential online news providers might now be reluctant to start sites because of the fear that similar parasites would eat their profits.

Even if you believe that it's silly for a site to restrict deep linking, remember that almost everything that online news content providers do is economically silly. Internet content sites have had difficulty formulating a successful business model that doesn't rely upon pornography, gambling or video games. Surely we should allow them maximum flexibility to experiment.

Most web sites allow and probably even desire deep links. Consequently, it's reasonable to have a default rule of permitting deep links unless a site objects. If a site announces that it doesn't want deep links, however, then it's theft of content to deep link anyway.

If I copied a whole page from DallasNews.com and put it on my site, then surely I have committed content theft. Now, imagine that instead of copying I provide a direct link to the story contrary to its owner's wishes. The only difference between copying and deep linking is that with linking DallasNews.com pays the bandwidth costs.

What if a content provider has the capacity to design a site that automatically stops deep links? If a site doesn't employ this technological fix, should it forfeit the legal right to stop deep links? Just because an owner doesn't take all possible steps to protect his property doesn't mean he loses his property rights. We don't require land owners to build fences if they wish to prohibit trespassers. Similarly, stores that don't use anti-theft technology can still prosecute shoplifters.

Deep linking rights are not that important in themselves. The web community's derision of the right to stop deep linking, however, is symptomatic of its lack of respect for informational property rights.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Communists never achieved this Marxist goal, but the capitalist world soon might. Napster and it's harder-to-sue successors are making it easy to steal music. As broadband access proliferates, movie profits might be dissipated by piracy. Some future combination of easy-to-read electronic paper and a book Napster might doom the publishing industry. Technology is rapidly allowing a well-wired person to take according to his needs. Without the profit motive we will still have blogging, open source software, and academic books. For those who believe in capitalism and the profit motive, however, the technological erosion of property rights should be disturbing. Supporting the right to restrict deep linking won't save capitalism. But it will, however, help strengthen our respect for informational property rights.


James D. Miller is an assistant professor of economics at Smith College. He keeps a blog at www.ConservativeEconomist.com.

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