It’s dangerous to go alone

October 12, 2000

Tomalak's Realm points me at an article about external links in news articles and how much responsibility a news source has for the content of these sites. This is something of a fuzzy issue, but my feeling has always been that a person or organization is only responsible for the pages it creates. Linking to a page is not an endorsement, merely a notice that the page exists (and, theoretically, that it is related in some fashion to the context of the link).

Essentially, all a link does is say where to find something. That's why I'm not comfortable with the decision that linking to illegal software is illegal. That's an extreme case, of course, but when is it illegal to describe how to commit a crime? It's perfectly all right to publish a book describing how to make bombs from household materials, but its a crime to tell someone where they can download software that might be used to violate copyright? That doesn't seem right to me, and I'm not suggesting that bomb-making books should be illegal.

Behind the question over whether a given link should be allowed is the question over whether it needs to be included. Lots of news organizations don't link outside their own articles, but it's been said that linking to external sources, especially first-hand ones, increases a site's credibility. (I read that on the web somewhere, and I'd link to it if I could remember where I read it. Oh well.) At the same time, it's easy to go overboard. The Mac the Knife columns at MacWEEK were full of odd metaphors that included links to sites that were somehow related to the metaphor but usually had nothing to do with the article. Somewhat counterproductive.

I appreciate a news site that links to organizations they discuss, especially if they're reporting about the web. The more specific a link, the better. For instance, in a discussion of an organization's new policy, it's usually better to link directly to the policy rather than just the organization's home page. (That may sound obvious. At least, I hope it does.)

So, to recap, links from news articles (and non-news articles) can be a fine thing (especially if the linked pages are relevant and/or amusing). But their presence shouldn't be construed as an endorsement or support for the linked sites, any more than telling a stranger where they can buy cigarettes means you approve of smoking.