Hyperlinks have been a part of the World Wide Web since it first came into use. Just add a little bit of code, put in the address, and people who read your site can go away from your page to other interesting sites that are in some way relevant to what you’re talking about. While there have been a few instances where the question has popped up if you are responsible for what you link to, most people have decided that you aren’t. Well, this question is getting more press than ever before because it is now before the Supreme Court of Canada, and, depending on their ruling, it could make hyperlinking a very dangerous behavior.
The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) is reporting that a case is currently before the country’s Supreme Court that was brought by Wayne Crookes, a former Green Party campaign manager, that claims hyperlinks to an article that defamed him means that the person doing the linking is also guilty.
Jon Newton, a resident of British Columbia placed hyperlinks in an article about Mr. Crookes published on July 18th, 2006 that led to pages with the defamatory information. Mr. Newton was contacted about the situation, but refused to remove the links causing the legal action. Mr. Crookes lawyers claim that by including links, one becomes a publisher of the information contained on the pages linked to, and are just as culpable in any legal actions as the original publisher.
Mr. Newton lost the case in 2008 in British Columbia, leading to the appeal now before the top court in the country.
As is the want of Supreme Court Justices, they usually ask questions that play both sides of the argument, but Supreme Court Justice Louise Charron certainly makes an argument in favor of Mr. Newton with the following statement:
It seems to me that if we accept the position you’re putting forth, then no one should ever hyperlink. Maybe I’m a chicken, but I would not dare create a hyperlink because there might be some defamatory material, and I’ll be stuck defending myself in court, and I cannot afford it … We’re sentencing the hyperlink to death, it seems to me.
The idea of an Internet in Canada without hyperlinks is a distinct possibility depending on the ruling in this case. The problem is that this tool is one of the cornerstones of the World Wide Web. Without links, how would you ever give credit to a site you got a story from? How would you share interesting information you find? Could search engines by held responsible for linking to defamatory information? And assuming search engines are exempt, the number of links to a site is one of the key factors in deciding search engine ranking, so how would they compensate for this loss of information?
While this is restricted to Canada for now, it could certainly give people in other countries some interesting ideas for going after sites they don’t like. Imagine with the political climate of the United States what it would be like if politicians started going after sites that linked to stories they don’t like. Would there be any court system that could handle that many cases?
My feelings? Yes, you should be careful in who you link to because it is like a silent endorsement, but holding you responsible for what someone else writes? I don’t think so.
What say you? Are you responsible for the content of a site you link to?