Even before the massive storm named Sandy battered the northeast U.S. last night, I was already planning a posting about the "link war" now brewing around the world.
A few days ago, newspapers in Brazil pulled out of Google News, claiming they wanted compensation for the indexing of their freely available public Web sites.
And in France, the government is directly threatening Google with laws that would require news indexing payments to public, freely available media sites in that country.
I had planned to write in detail of the value these newspaper and other sites receive from people being able to find relevant articles via services like Google News, of the terrible slippery slope engendered by the entire concept of "pay to link" regimes, and of how the major damage from such concepts would ultimately be to vast numbers of small sites as a twisted "you can't link to my public pages unless you pay me" sort of mindset took hold.
But as we look at the aftermath of devastation from Sandy, and our hearts go out to its victims, we're faced with another truth regarding the freedom to link.
Information saves lives.
As the storm spread inland with punishing winds, rain, and flooding, people around the world were using news oriented search services to stay abreast of rapidly developing events, including evacuation plans and other emergency information -- not only for the protection of their loved ones in the immediate area, but for people elsewhere to try learn what was happening to their friends and families in the disaster zone.
The immense importance of these kinds of search services come into play during all manner of events that can suddenly and dramatically impact large numbers of people. So it is impossible to honestly justify making it more difficult to find these news stories and related information on publicly available websites.
Yet, this is exactly the likely outcome of the "pay to link" concept being promulgated by Brazil, France, and others around the world. It is an abomination that would inevitably spread from news search to other forms of search, and throughout the Web to other linking, including by informational and educational websites at all levels.
This is a fundamental threat to the most basic concept of the Web -- the ability and right to index and/or freely link with context to the pages of other sites that are publicly available.
If sites -- newspaper sites or otherwise -- choose not to be indexed, the "robots.txt" control protocol has long been available for their use.
If these sites choose to put their contents behind paywalls and charge the public for access to their materials, that is certainly a choice they are free to make.
But if sites are offering pages for free public viewing, it is unconscionable for them to act in ways that will inevitably constrict and eventually block the ability of the public to find that content through search engines -- the very mechanisms whose creators devote enormous resources toward organizing the seeming chaos of the Web in ways that best serve the needs of the global community at large.
This is much bigger than the issue of French newspaper sites wanting to charge Google for indexing content that everyone else can read for free. It's about keeping the very concept of free linking to public materials alive and well. It's about making sure that people can find and access important information in times of need, whether a personal crisis or a regional disaster.
Nor should it take a disaster of Sandy's scope to remind us that access to information, and crucially, being able to find the public information we're looking for -- especially on the Internet in the 21st century -- are not luxuries to be held hostage, but rather key to the survival of individuals and even entire communities.
When we save the freedom to link on the Web, we are literally acting to save our families, our friends, our communities, and ourselves.
All the best to everyone affected by Sandy. Take care.