From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

September 30, 2004*: Guilt by hyperlink?

For many years it's seemed to me that an inherent incompatibility exists between the World Wide web and various bureaucratic institutions - educational systems for instance. Five years ago, in an article I wrote in Hebrew I offered an example of this that I found in an Israeli newspaper. An English translation follows:

The internet site of the Tel Aviv district of the Ministry of Education directs visitors to its site to a site managed by two 15 year old brothers from Jerusalem that contains a number of jokes about the Foreign Minister, David Levi. And the response of Dr. Yossi Levi, the district manager? "I'm shocked. The matter is being checked and will be immediately dealt with." (HaIr, October 1, 1999)
It seemed to me then that this "problem" was the result of a basic misunderstanding about how the web works. Institutions, after all, exercise a large degree of control over their environments, and it thus made sense to assume that an institution could also exercise control over the links that appear on its web site. And of course it can. A link from one web page to another can basically only be established through someone making it, meaning that the pages a site links to are determined by the people who build the site. Logically, people choose to link from their sites to sites with which they identify, whose content they appreciate, that exemplify, in a positive way, positions they wish to take. But have they checked all the links that these other sites contain? Do those sites perhaps link to other sites which, though not being objectionable in themselves, might link to other sites of questionable merit, or contain objectionable material? Can a feeling of responsibility toward an assumed respectability cause one to lose sleep over the fear of where one seemingly innocuous link might lead ... into (let's say) the seventh generation?

Linking is, without a doubt, an essential aspect of the web building experience. It's a fair guess that the people responsible for making the decisions pertaining to which links to include on their web sites long ago began to realize this. It became clear to them that although they can rather easily ferret out first generation objectionable material, by the second and third generation of linking maintaining any semblance of control is basically impossible. I'd venture the guess that at about this time the nature of the problem became clear: bureaucratic control and the open-ended nature of linking simply don't go together.

By definition educational systems seek control over the environments for which they are responsible, while at the same time they also want to make use of a technology that essentially denies the possibility of that control. Though I felt then that within the educational system (and similar bureaucracies) this was a real problem. Five years later it seems legitimate to ask whether this basic incompatibility has remained a problem - whether it has disappeared as the web has become an integral part of our everyday lives, or whether it has perhaps mushroomed into a more pervasive problem in which the society at large views linking as a practice that demands regulation and constant vigilance.

Take the case of Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, for example. Al-Hussayen is a 32 years old Saudi living in Idaho, working on a doctorate in computer science. He is also the web master of a number of Islamic web sites. This past year he was arrested and brought to trial on charges of conspiracy to commit acts of terror. Why? Well, it sort of depends on who you speak with, but it sort of all comes down to the fact that some of the content on the sites he administers can be considered incendiary, including (and perhaps especially) some of the sites that his sites link to. In other words, Al-Hussayen may be guilty of inciting violence because of the links on his web sites.

If Al-Hussayen's links weren't a good enough reason to find him guilty, and if there seem to be (even in an atmosphere of paranoia) so few cases of this sort, can we conclude that the general public has learned to identity what is and what isn't dangerous about the web? (Perhaps, in order to leave me room for future examinations of would-be dangers, it would be more prudent to make things more specific. Maybe I should only ask whether, if hyperlinking was ever perceived as more powerful than it really is, has that misperception become so rare as to be almost non-existent today?) When I started writing this column I honestly didn't expect to reach that conclusion. But I can't really write that I'm sorry that my attempt at examining this phenomenon led me to it. It's a very welcome sign of the ever-developing maturity of the internet using public.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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