Page last updated at 10:50 GMT, Wednesday, 18 February 2009

I link, therefore I am

Spiders web with ice
Tim Berners-Lee defined the concept of linking back in 1989

The meaning of a link is its use on a website, says Bill Thompson

I had to send a fax to a US university recently, on behalf of my daughter, and I realised that not only do I not own a fax machine, I have never owned a fax machine. During the 1990s I would occasionally approach one of these mysterious devices, a sheet of paper in hand ready to be fed into the slot and transmitted through some mysterious method to other parts of the world, but it was clearly the devil's work.

I never wanted one of the infernal devices in my home, and it has been wonderful to see emailed attachments replace them for most uses, apart from the odd recalcitrant academic institution.

The recent advent of on-demand video streaming of the main terrestrial TV channels has made me realise that I may never get round to acquiring a PVR, a hard-drive based TV recorder, before they too are swept away in the flood of technological innovation. Farewell then Sky+ box, I hardly knew thee.

Obsolete

One of the technologies that makes PVRs redundant is of course BitTorrent, the distributed file-sharing protocol that allows very large files to be split into large numbers of relatively small chunks that can be scattered over thousands or indeed millions of co-operative hosts all over the internet, where they are tracked and reassembled at will by software like the open source Miro player.

Bill Thompson
It needs to be pointed out very clearly that neither The Pirate Bay - or any of the other torrent tracking sites - have infringing content on their servers
Bill Thompson

Thanks to BitTorrent, multi-megabyte presentations, home videos and recordings of one's children singing can easily be made available without the need to invest in large servers, high speed internet connections or generous bandwidth allowances.

BitTorrent is a transformative technology and the peer-to-peer delivery of content it offers has inspired many imitators, one of which powers the BBC's iPlayer downloads. While some internet service providers are unhappy with BitTorrent, because the cumulative impact of its millions of happy users can occasionally degrade their network performance, it is safe, reliable and completely legal.

While the technology may be legal, however, many of the files which it is used to distribute contain unlicensed copies of copyrighted material, with songs, videos, films and software that were never intended for release by their owners.

One consequence of this is that any website which indexes the tracker files that are used to note where the many small parts that make up a single BitTorrent file will inevitably enable its users to locate lots of unlicensed material and, since the tracker file is all that is needed to download that material, it could lead to the breach of copyright that any download implies.

Copyright claim

This is the chain of reasoning that dragged the team who run The Pirate Bay, the Swedish website that has become one of the world's largest BitTorrent indexes, in front of a court earlier this week charged with assisting copyright infringement and assisting making available copyright material.

It needs to be pointed out very clearly that neither PirateBay - or any of the other torrent tracking sites - have infringing content on their servers. You can't download Quantum of Solace from www.thepiratebay.org, but you can find places on the site that tell you how and where you can.

Early in the trial, the first set of charges were dropped, implying that the court has realised that simply pointing to someone else's infringing material does not help them in the act of infringement, but the serious charges still remain. It is possible that Gottfrid Svartholm, Fredrik Neij and Peter Sunde will face fines or prison sentences and the site will be closed down, although it seems unlikely that even the combined weight of the music industry can persuade a Swedish court to restrict freedom of expression to this extent.

The Pirate Bay case hinges on what counts as infringement, and whether simply linking to a site is enough to make someone liable, treating a hypertext link to a third-party URL as an endorsement, as something that makes a connection between two web pages or information sources that has real legal significance and weight.

Yet it is nothing of the sort. Ever since Tim Berners-Lee defined the Hypertext Markup Language and its Uniform Resource Locators one fundamental thing has applied - a link is just a link.

Pirate Bay logo
Prosecutors dropped half the charges levelled against Pirate Bay founders

As time has gone by, we have seen that this simple-minded approach is not enough, and the work currently going on to define and implement the 'semantic web' is to a great extent about providing mechanisms for assigning values to links, so that I can find links that 'approve' of the item linked to, links that 'deprecate' it and perhaps even links that 'deny' what is being said at the other end.

As things stand, a link from one page to another is simply a connection, and does not imply any specific intention. Yet lawyers representing the content industry and politicians scared of the shift in the balance of power the internet represents are trying very hard to ensure that the legal system ignores the technical reality and imposes a commercially and politically useful reading.

As part of his contribution to the philosophy of language the great Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted that 'the meaning of a word is its use in the language'.

Perhaps we need a 'philosophy of linkage' to explore what the use of a link can signify, before the lawyers decide it for us and limit the creative potential of the web through their lack of imagination and understanding.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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