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Today's Headlines
6:55 a.m. June 20, 2002 PDT

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 Public Protests NPR Link Policy
By Farhad Manjoo

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2:00 a.m. June 20, 2002 PDT
When huge, nameless, faceless corporations try to impose "linking policies" upon webmasters who want to point to the company's site, people usually react in a predictable way. They get mad, they spitefully put up dozens of policy-violating links, and they bemoan, once more, the fact that some folks still don't understand that if you don't want to be linked you shouldn't be on the Web.

The reaction was much the same on Wednesday, when webloggers discovered that yet another huge organization is trying to lay down rigid linking guidelines -- only this time the huge organization is National Public Radio, the ad-free, member-supported radio network that often paints itself as the antithesis of all things big and corporate.

See also:
•  Another Run to a Deep-Link Suit
•  Site Barks About Deep Link
•  Deep Links Return to Surface
•  Big Stink Over a Simple Link
•  Commentary: Want to Read This? Ask First
•  Give Yourself Some Business News
On a form on its website, NPR says that "linking to or framing of any material on this site without the prior written consent of NPR is prohibited."

People who'd like to link to NPR can do so easily by filling out the online form -- it asks for a linker's name, e-mail address, physical address, phone number, information about the linking site, how long the link will remain on the site, the "proposed wording of the link and accompanying text," the U.S. state in which the linking site is incorporated and if it's a commercial site.

These requirements aren't new. According to the date on the page, the permission form was last updated in March. But the page became the talk of the blogs on Wednesday, a day after Cory Doctorow posted up a link to the permission form on BoingBoing, his blog.

"No matter how deep or shallow your link is, NPR requires you to fill in this form," Doctorow wrote on the site, links included.

Doctorow also called NPR's policy "brutally stupid" and he compared the nonprofit organization's actions to those of KPMG, the multinational tax and audit firm that informed a handful of webmasters last year that they needed a "formal agreement" to link to the company's site.

From there, the link was picked up by several weblogs and discussion sites, with nearly all of the people linking to NPR, presumably without permission. By Wednesday afternoon, the NPR link form was the No. 1 item on Daypop, which ranks the popularity of items in weblogs.

Reached for comment by phone, Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR's ombudsman, said that he'd received between 20 and 30 e-mail messages asking about the policy and that he'd responded to all of them.

Dvorkin said he told the e-mailers "that NPR does not refuse links but it just wants to make sure that the links are appropriate to a noncommercial and journalistic organization.

"We wouldn't want a commercial outfit to use us in any way they pleased."

He acknowledged that some commercial sites link to NPR -- Yahoo, for instance -- but "they have an underwriting relationship with us," he said. (Not all commercial sites have such a relationship with NPR, apparently. A spokesman for Google, which links to NPR from its news page, said that the search engine had no formal relationship with NPR.)

It isn't only commercial activity that concerns NPR. Asked if a link from someone's noncommercial homepage would bother the company, Dvorkin said: "It depends on your homepage -- what if you're an advocate for left-handed socialist diabetics? We wouldn't want to give support to advocacy groups."

"It's part of keeping our integrity that our journalism remain noncommercial, and we're not engaged in advocacy in any way," Dvorkin explained.

Critics said that there were several problems with this answer, the most obvious of which is that -- even if there is a legal basis for instituting a link policy, which critics say there isn't -- NPR doesn't explain that only "noncommercial and advocacy" groups are prohibited from linking. Dvorkin said he's aware of that problem and that he's "spoken to the law department and they're going to come out with a clarified explanation" that will "at least give some logical reasons" for the policy.

Still, NPR will continue to require that every site -- whether it's commercial or not, advocates a position or doesn't -- still ask permission. Why? "Because we want to keep track of who's doing it -- so says our law department."

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