While writing the blog entry below about ISPs blocking VOIP, I happened to take a closer look at Verizon’s Use Terms and Conditions for its Web site.
Inside, under the heading “Requirements for linking to http://www.verizonwireless.com/” I found some fascinating reading. First of all, linking to their site apparently requires written consent. (Which I don’t have.) Then it goes further, stipulating exactly how I should handle the link.
1. You must link only to our homepage, and not to pages within the site itself.
2. Verizon Wireless link must not appear connected to any other logos and graphics.
3. No alterations or sizing of Verizon Wireless artwork, logos or graphics is permitted.
4. The Verizon Wireless name and logo must not be associated with unfair, deceptive or libelous advertising or commentary or used in any way that will tend to injure or compromise our professional reputation and corporate identity and policies.
5. Your text hyperlink must include the following company name: Verizon Wireless. No changes or stylization is permitted.
So, in theory at least, I’ve violated at least two terms of the requirements by not getting written consent and by linking internally to the site. I’m going to try and stay away from the libel segment of section 4, but I wonder, hypothetically, if saying that “Verizon is attempting to put an unfair check on free speech” with the line “used in any way that will tend to injure or compromise our professional reputation” might, in fact, violate line 4 as well.
“Wow,” I thought. “If every site did this, and people were forced to abide by such restrictive usage, the Web would devolve into a series of barely-connected islands, each guarded by platoons of wet-to-the-knees lawyers frantically trying to keep the link-happy freeloaders away from the beaches.” Then I started going a little further afield in my Googling and I discovered that I’ve apparently been living under a rock for the past few years–every web site already does this.
Many of the sites I found use nearly identical language for their site conditions (Is everyone using the same boilerplate? Are some people not above cutting and pasting their rather restrictive usage policies from someone else’s site? Maybe it’s just that all these companies–ranging from a mortgage provider to a clinic to a casino–all use the same lawyers.)
Of course, this being the Web and all, I also quickly discovered that I was far from the first person to ponder all this. There’s even a long-dormant blog called Don’t Link to Us that chronicled the creeping tendency to relatively unenforceable linking polices back in 2002. (I say “relatively unenforceable” only because I haven’t heard about a rash of sites being forced to remove their links because they violated a site use policy.) Apparently it does happen (check out this lawyer’s take on the issue (another PDF–you’ve been warned).
But I also found that most of the Web content on the topic (at least what Google can find during a frantic search before I filed my blog) dates back to 2002 or before. My question is: what happened after that? Surely all these sites “protected” by their linking policies have generated some caselaw by now? If anyone out there can add to the conversation, drop me an email or post a comment below.
IT people in the legal field have told me about the tendency toward technophobia inside the profession. Thank god for that. If they’d discovered the Internet too soon, the Web might have had to stay a good idea in Tim Berners-Lee’s head and nothing more.