@Info.Policy: Webmasters must grapple with linkage policy

Robert Gellman

Should a federal Web page have links to other Internet resources? Links are easy enough to create, so why not? Unfortunately, life is not that simple.

The online world has already seen litigation over private-sector linking activities. Typically, the owner of Web Site A wants the owner of Site B not to link to A at all or to direct users to a page deep inside rather than to the advertising-laden home page.

The disputants fight their battles using the available weaponry, namely copyright and trademark laws. The courts have yet to come to grips with the realities of Internet linking.

Politics, rather than the law, will be most relevant for external linking at federal Web sites. Let's use the example of the Federal Widget Regulatory Administration. Assume that widgets are a political hot potato, with Democratic and Republican administrations taking different positions.

You are the webmaster of www.widgetreg.gov. Do you include links to private widget companies? Do you link to nonprofit and advocacy groups that support widgets, that oppose widgets, or both?
What about Web sites that claim to be neutral on widgets and that supposedly just offer facts? Which ones are reliable enough to link to?

Remember that you may be required to explain your policies. If you don't have a rigorous method for evaluating links, it will look arbitrary to a judge. An angry congressman will have a field day chewing out your boss.

If you decide to play up to your widget-supporting management by including links to prowidget sites, you could be in trouble when a new president appoints a widget hater. It isn't hard to envision interest groups issuing press releases that scream about the presence of links to prowidget sites and demand that they be replaced with antiwidget sites.

I expect federal Web sites to receive political attention as the Internet becomes even more integrated into government in the next few years.

We've had political squabbles and litmus tests over sillier things in the past. It is possible to envision an Internet changing-of-the-guard as one administration succeeds another.

Antiwidget links disappear and are replaced with prowidget links. Outside groups prepare lists of good and bad sites for use when their friends take office.

So what to do? I would argue for the simple policy of no links outside the federal government at all. If you like to respond to obnoxious congressional or constituent letters demanding the addition or removal of links, then link away. Don't say I didn't warn you.

On the Internet, even more than elsewhere, the government is not the only source of wisdom.

Anyone who can surf to your page can also reach one of the many search engines that will direct them to other widget resources.

Of course, you could link to a search engine, but then you would have to confront the politics of search engines, and that's an entirely different mess.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@netacc.net.

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