This post was originally published on October 31, 2016.
HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) changed the internet and catapulted it to the mainstream, but it may be under threat from a new “Hyperlink Tax.” Luckily, some are fighting to protect the web, such as OpenMedia and its Save the Link campaign.
The first version of HTTP, developed by the now famous Tim Berners-Lee, was released in 1997 and its successor, HTTP/2, is now up and running and supported by all the key browsers, despite only being a year old.
Hyper is Greek and means ‘over’–it has a similar function as the English prefix ‘super’
Hypertext is much the same as regular text, aside from the inclusion of links, so-called hyperlinks. The most popular language to write such hypertext is the Hypertext Markup Language or HTML for short.
Links are references to another point in the hypertext structure, usually another page of the site, a file, an image, a program, or an external website (I.E. a page on a different domain to the one you are currently browsing). A reader can click them to open further reading material in a new tab or window or download a file.
Hyperlinks have shaped the internet into what it is today
It is thanks to the hyperlink that the web has developed the way it has. The hyperlink helped build an open and transparent internet, in which URL strings uniquely identify each piece of content.
Search engines, like Google, have made use of the hypertext structure, which has further incentivized websites to make proper use of the hypertext system. Search engines, social media, and blogs drive major traffic–which translates to revenue. No matter if you are selling something or making money through advertisements, you need to respect hyperlinks for people to find you and your site(s).
The 1941 short story The Garden of Forking Paths is often mentioned as the inspiration for hypertexts
The concept of a hyperlink is to be free, uniform, and not owned or controlled by anybody– which has made them incredibly powerful in leveling the playfield of online media. A single post from an unknown author can generate as many clicks as a month of posts from an established newspaper. Thanks to hyperlinks and projects like archive.org internet posts can be recorded and will, therefore, never disappear from the human collective memory.
An internet without hyperlinks is a pool without water
It’s easy to imagine the internet without hyperlinks, but it’s not a nice thought. Think of Youtube, but without each video having a direct link. The only way to search for videos would be through YouTube’s web interface, and the only way to bookmark them would be to log in and add them to your playlists. You wouldn’t be able to share these videos unless an agreement with YouTube on the monetization and restrictions of each link is made.
If you follow the first link in any Wikipedia article, you will arrive at the Philosophy page
While the user experience would be far worse, the web giants and publishing houses favor such a system. If it was necessary to log into a service to find, bookmark, and share something, it would be easy for the experience to be controlled, tracked, and restricted. Your internet could be limited due to things like your age, sex, and geolocation, and more importantly, your wallet.
AOL’s different version of the internet
As the world wide web emerged in the 1990s, there was, in fact, a well-funded and promising company that attempted to build exactly this kind none-hyperlinked internet: America Online (AOL).
AOL started by selling simple dial-up access to the web but soon wanted to control the entire experience by offering an instant messenger, news, stock trading, and general web browsing. Similar to the Bloomberg Terminals still used today in financial firms, content and services were only accessible to subscribers.
Choose Your Own Adventure books are an early form of hypertext fiction
From the late 1990s, it was Netscape that made the open internet and hyperlinks succeed (and was bought by AOL in 1999 for US$ 10 billion). AOL was forced, by the market, to open up its services and eventually its brand disappeared from the public eye.
A new threat to hyperlinks from Europe
Hyperlinks make content easily available. Bloggers and social media can curate content for you, and you can search explicitly for a page with a search engine.
Imagine having to go to a publication’s front page in the hope you will find what you are looking for. And after you have read the article, there is no way to share what you have found with others. Presently, we consume media on the internet by checking a link on a social media feed, briefly reading the content, then heading back to our social media.
FRESS was a hypertext system used at Brown University. Used to teach poetry in 1976, it was arguably the first online course in history
Publishing houses fear that without their landing pages and internal referrals, their brands will diminish, and they will be degraded to mere content producers, like news agencies. There is also concern that their profits will be undercut by bloggers who write about topics just as passionately, but without financial conflicts of interest, or pay.
European legislation threatens the open web
European, and particularly French news outlets have been known to viciously fight independent sites that link to them. At first, this might seem absurd, as links send traffic. But it fits well in the overall picture of fear of losing their market position.
Established publishing platforms see content curation as an inherent part of their role and business model, and the hyperlink allows anyone to take that away.
The European Commission (EC) has repeatedly attempted to create a “hyperlink tax.” Similar to the fee a radio station has to pay when playing a song, each blogger, news site, or search site would have to pay every time they refer a visitor.
Why the EC is wrong about hyperlink tax
Of course, the EC have it all entirely wrong. A hyperlink is simply a referral, not a reproduction of content; the situation is more akin to a restaurant critic having to pay a restaurant to write about it–on top of what they’re already paying for food.
What do you think about the EC’s attempt to tax internet links? Share your thoughts in the comments below.