Public Citizen Attacks Belo’s Deep-Linking Policy

By: Carl Sullivan

Updated at 12 noon EST, May 10

Washington-based Public Citizen said Thursday that Belo’s stance against “deep links” on the Internet threatens the viability of the Web and attempts to stifle free speech.

Meanwhile, a Belo spokesman said Friday morning that the company isn’t on “a campaign against deep links.”

A letter from the non-profit public advocacy group was sent today to Dallas-based Belo, which recently demanded that BarkingDogs.org, a local news Web site, stop deep linking to stories within The Dallas Morning News site, DallasNews.com. Instead, BarkingDogs should only link to the DallasNews home page, Belo’s lawyers said in a cease-and-desist letter sent last month to self-proclaimed Net activist Avi S. Adelman, who publishes BarkingDogs.

In a letter to Belo attorney J. Kevin Gray, Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy disputed Belo’s contention that deep linking without permission violates the newspaper’s copyrights. Levy pointed to several court decisions which rejected the argument that deep links are copyright infringements.

“[Belo’s] contention that the provision of hyperlinks to locations within Belo’s publicly available Web site violates the copyright laws unless permission is given for such links threatens the viability of the World Wide Web itself,” Levy wrote. “Indeed, review of various Web sites operated by the Belo Corp. reveals that deep linking is a practice in which your own client is engaged.”

As IWantMedia.com reported last week, Belo’s Providence (R.I.) Journal publishes a technology blog that deep links to other Web sites. (http://www.projo.com/technology/netrunner/)

“I am inclined to believe that your claim of copyright violation is entirely without merit, if not preposterous, … [A]bsent a persuasive case that he is doing anything wrong, [BarkingDogs Publisher] Adelman will not cease and desist from providing the hyperlinks as you have demanded,” Levy wrote.

Public Citizen, which was founded by Ralph Nader 30 years ago, also said it would help arrange for local counsel for the BarkingDogs site, should Belo decide to take legal action.

Belo spokesman Scott Baradell said Friday morning that there’s “been a lot of miscommunication and confusion over this. It really involves us and a particular Web site. … This is an isolated case.”

After Wired News ran a story last week about Belo’s letter to BarkingDogs, the company took some heavy blows from the Internet community. Dan Gillmor of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News criticized Belo’s actions as “peculiar,” since deep links send customers to the DallasNews site. In a heated discussion on Poynter.org’s Online News e-mail discussion list, participants mostly slammed Belo’s deep-linking position as “stupid,” “short-sighted,” and “ridiculous.” But a few participants defended Belo’s right to control how its content is used.

Baradell emphasized that the letter was only sent to one individual. “We’re not on a campaign against deep links,” he said. “This isn’t a crusade for us. … We deep link and other people deep link to us. We certainly understand that’s how the Web works.”

Baradell added that Belo’s terms of service for its Web sites (which technically require that all sites link to the home page only) are very similar to those at other large media companies. “If you did a survey of other terms [of service] out there, you’d find pretty similiar language,” he said. But whether or not sites choose to always enforce that language is another matter.

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