December 02, 2007

ACAP: Don't Look Here! Please Don't Look Here! Or Else?

Greetings. If the publishing industry's Automated Content Access Protocol (ACAP) project has been flying under your radar during its gestation period of the last year or so, don't feel too bad. Unless you're a serious follower of the complex dance between publishers and search engines, you probably didn't even know that the publishing industry wants to "extend" the venerable Robots Exclusion Protocol (robots.txt) with a complex new system to control search engines' access to and use of content. Here's an excellent new Associated Press article regarding the ACAP announcement (AP is a member of the ACAP project).

Very briefly, ACAP defines a detailed new system for sites to to tell search engines what they may or may not index, and adds mechanisms to specify that certain materials may only be held in indexes for limited periods of time, or only displayed in thumbnail form, or other restrictions -- conceivably such as "don't index this material unless you've paid us first."

The official ACAP line is that this system will encourage the availability of more materials on the Internet. In fact, it is generally acknowledged that robots.txt is a relatively simplistic mechanism, and various new search enhancement systems (such as Sitemaps (originated by Google in 2005) have indeed been evolving.

While ACAP claims broad participation by the publishing industry (true enough), its assertion that major search engines are on board is somewhat problematic, given that none of the search engine biggies that would spring immediately to mind have signed up to date, or agreed to abide by ACAP specifications when crawling sites (they all basically say that they are evaluating the standard).

I'm certainly in favor of publishers being able to control their content. On the other hand, my general view has long been that you shouldn't put materials online (when not protected by explicit user access controls such as passwords or certificate-based control mechanisms) unless you're willing for the public to access it in a reasonably open manner.

This philosophy doesn't mean that you're giving up your copyrights by placing information on the Web. But I would suggest that attempting to shift a complicated onus of responsibility for exactly how available materials may be handled by search engines, appears questionable and permeated with considerable risks to the Internet at large.

Though ACAP is currently a voluntary standard, it might be assumed that future attempts will be made to give it some force of law and associated legal standing in court cases involving search engine use and display of indexed materials.

The fundamental ACAP structure appears to be weighted in a manner that provides the bulk of potential benefits to the publishing entities and the greater part of risks to the search engines. One possible outcome of this skewing could be that search engines, concerned regarding litigation risks associated with not complying exactly with any given set of ACAP directives, might restrict their indexing of any involved sites in rather broad strokes. This could result in a dramatic decrease in available materials for the public, rather than the ACAP group's suggested increase.

In essence, rather than the current framework where entities putting materials on the Web take responsibility for what they've placed online, the ACAP structure would appear to allow pretty much anything to be placed online with far fewer concerns by their publishers, who would presumably feel secure in the knowledge that it would be up to search engines to obey ACAP or face possible lawsuits and related actions.

Boiled down to the bottom line, I can't help but sense that the intended shift in responsibility that appears to be associated with ACAP could lead to an entire new wave of litigation and possible information restrictions -- enriching lawyers to be sure -- but quite possibly being a significant negative development for Internet users in general.

It's too early in the ACAP life cycle to make any truly definitive calls regarding the benefits, risks, or even basic viabilities of ACAP itself.

But I believe that an "orange alert" is in order. ACAP is a potentially major development with possibly wide-ranging impacts on an exceedingly broad range of activities that are common on the Internet today. At the very least, we should all be watching events in this area with great care and with considerable healthy skepticism.


Posted by Lauren at December 2, 2007 08:22 PM | Permalink
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