This post was written in November 2016 by Ruth Coustick-Deal, a digital activist and digital rights campaigner for Open Media, with assistance from @StevieBenton, co-founder of @opencoalition.
It’s only been a couple of weeks since MozFest 2016 and it seems like a long time ago. I’ve since launched a new action and am still reeling from the trauma of the American elections. So when I was asked to write about it, it was a good moment to pause and reflect.
I sat down with participants at my session to talk about “threats to the right to link”. With an ambitious title like that, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that we ended up deep in what I like to call “existential threats to the web” — with some pretty profound observations.
But let’s go back to the start. I run a campaign called Save the Link. It’s a networked campaign led by OpenMedia with over 100 groups signed up to launch a platform that we’ll use to campaign against proposals that restrict or censor hyperlinking across the world.
Is the hyperlink really under threat?
You might ask yourself: Isn’t it just part of the web, a piece of online infrastructure? But the backbone of the Internet is being eroded. There are measures across the world aimed at monetising or restricting links themselves: making them copyrightable, ownable, unworkable, or making those who share links legally liable for what’s at the end of them — and even completely banning them from being used.
Big media companies want to control how their content is shared. They want to monetise it, and reduce sharing so you stay on an ever-smaller selection of websites. We hope this initiative will show MEPs and decision-makers everywhere that censorship plans face fierce opposition, and that we expect them to prioritise free expression online.
The campaign is mostly engaged in the EU at the moment, where two new laws on copyright are the latest embodiment of this threat:
Content filtering: These rules force companies to create mandatory content filtering technologies to watch for content uploaded by users, that rightsholders flag that they want taken down. It would create censorship machines and place huge power into the hands of a few media owners.
The Link Tax: These are proposals to charge fees to sites for the snippets of text that automatically appear with links to news. That’s places like Reddit or Google or your blog being charged for using links. It will lead to many sharing sites being closed down because they can’t afford these new hyperlinking fees. And smaller press sites losing out on traffic when search engines don’t want to pay to link to them.
At our session we talked a little about these specific threats — but they had also been covered by our friends at Communia and EDRi, in the other session I co-hosted, and across the ‘Fuel the Movement’ track. So we discussed the best way to map and illustrate threats like this around the world using our new tool at: https://savethelink.org/threats
And then we really delved into one of my questions — how do we fight the global trend of not using links at all — the so-called “silo-ing” or “walled gardens” of the web?
For example, Instagram only links to itself. Facebook tries to reduce links by having content purely hosted on the site,which leaves you trapped on their website and creating frameworks to restrict free expression. This is a real threat and nobody says this better than Hossein Derakhshan in his article for The Guardian about his experiences and why the web needs saving.
There were many questions: How do we include that in the framework? How to fight it even? Should we create a manifesto for linking, a positive framework that encourages us all to link?
How can we make apps connect with each other? We wanted to find a way to show this problem, to visualise it to the world. Perhaps it is a whole layer over the threats map itself, perhaps it is a whole new project and campaign.
There were many interesting thoughts and though we didn’t come up with a way to heal the internet in 45 minutes, it set us off, gave us all new ideas, and inspired me to keep fighting.
So my call to action is:
1. Fight these regulations when they appear through our Save the Link platform. If you are in Europe, you can write to your MEP now to tell them to challenge the link tax and the content filtering proposals.
3. Fight the silo-ing. Break the rules. Use the web. Link everywhere! Be generous with your linking!
Ruth Coustick-Deal is a digital activist and is digital rights campaigner for Open Media. Ruth facilitated a session at MozFest about a campaign to Save the Link. In Europe, the hyperlink is at risk because of poorly thought through legislation and campaigns by publishers to restrict hyperlinking.