The EU Advocate General Breaks the Internet

Europe’s highest legal authority is looking to redefine some of the internet’s most basic infrastructure. At least that is the reality should Advocate General Wathelet’s absurd opinion on hypertext linking in the GS Media v Sanoma Media-case stand. Linking is not the same as making content available, at least according to the EU Advocate General. Except it’s difficult to understand how anything could be made available online without links.

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web, he took the concept of “hyperlinks” from Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) who had described the principle of the web in 1945 as the Memex – a hypothetical interconnected network of adjustable microfilm. With links, it was possible to connect different sources of content to one webpage and for the viewer to “surf” the web by clicking those links. No links, no web. Subsequent online technologies like apps and social media platforms also rely on links as a fundamental structure. Sure, the plan may be for the Advocate General to take a provocative stand so whatever the EU Court of Justice arrives at in the end will be a relief but don’t let that stop me – I’m biting because AG is grandstanding at the extreme. Even with such projected conspiracy theories, surely there must be some degree of sanity to what the AG suggests. According to Advocate General Wathelet, linking to illegal content is not illegal, because linking is not distribution.

So, does the Advocate General not grasp the concept of hyperlinks? The fact that the internet is a system of interconnecting links, that the link is universal? If linking is not distribution, that means there is no data traffic travelling through the wires. If linking to content is not making it available to new users, then what is the point of linking? What is the point of the internet? The link is the conduit. The whole idea is to connect one with another – user to a user, machine to machine, user to content. Links are how users (and bots!) traverse the web. Who can separate a link from traffic? Not you, not I and not the Attorney General.

Messing with the basic function of the internet is usually called “breaking the internet”.  The Advocate General would be better advised looking at the outcome of an action (e.g. linking leads to consumption) rather than attempting to redefine the technology itself. Let’s hope the actual ruling makes better sense in the end and in the meantime can someone kindly explain to the Advocate General how the internet works?

This is the editorial from Netopia’s newsletter on April 21 2016