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Information dealers

If the web has a central function, it's linking. Publish a page and anyone can link to it, right? Well, not always. [Dan Gillmor, We the Media 205]

Gillmor describes "forbidden links" in Chapter 10, giving several examples of how linking to pages containing potentially unethical or unlawful content can get a web writer into some serious trouble.

He cites the example of Jon Johansen, a Norwegian teenager who cracked a code protecting DVDs from playback on unsupported platforms in order to watch movies on his Linux OS. Johansen's 'counter-code', called DeCSS, enabled other users to do the same. Lawsuits followed, especially after Johansen posted DeCSS to the Net and other websites began to link to the download. Ultimately, he was acquitted; however, journalists who linked to it weren't so fortunate, and suffered some legal losses to entertainment studios.

Gillmor's examination brings to light a peculiar fact: the one who was responsible for the 'unlawful' material got away unscathed, yet journalists who linked to it out of loyalty to their readers -- in the practice of transparency -- did not.

This is not necessarily to say that Johansen should have been punished; rather, I think that it is unfair that journalists were slammed for simply pointing to something that was already there. Especially when, as Gillmor describes, plenty of other Netizens -- even Gillmor himself -- also pointed it out, and received no punishment.

Ultimately, the laws that were put into effect in this case seem to be a lot like the trafficking laws regarding the use and possession of illegal drugs: you can be convicted of a crime simply for passing them along, even if you never use them yourself. But even this metaphor is flawed, because linking to the location of unlawful content on the Net is not really equivalent to possessing that content at any time, nor to suggesting its use.

Or is it?


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