[Hot]link policy

I’m out of the loop. Until very recently (upon reading former Creative Commons intern Will Frank’s writeup of a brief hotlink war) I thought ‘‘ was an anachronistic way to say ‘link’ used back when the mere fact that links led to a new document, perhaps on another server, was exciting. It turns out ‘hotlink’ is now vernacular for inline linking — displaying or playing an image, audio file, video, or other media from another website.

Lucas Gonze, who has lots of experience dealing with hotlink complaints due to running Webjay, has a new post on problems with complaint forms as a solution to hotlinks. One thing missing from the post is a distinction between two completely different sets of complainers who will have different sets of solutions beyond complaining.

One sort of complainer wants a link to a third party site to go away. I suspect the complainer usually really wants the content on the third party site to go away (typically claiming the third party site has no right to distribute the content in question). Removing a link to that content from a link site works as a partial solution by making the third party hosted content more obscure. A solution in this case is to tell the complainer that the link will go away when it no longer works — in effect, the linking site ignore complaints and it is the responsibility of the complainer to directly pursue the third party site via and other threats. This allows the linking site to completely automate the removal of links — those removed as a result of threatened or actual legal action look exactly the same as any other link gone bad and can be tested for and culled using the same methods. Presumably such a hands-off policy only pisses off complainers to the extent that they become more than a minor nuisance, at least on a Webjay-like site, though it must be an option for some.

Creative Commons has guidelines very similar to this policy concerning how to consider license information in files distributed off the web — don’t believe it unless a web page (which can be taken down) has matching license information concerning the file in question.

Another sort of complainer wants a link to content on their own site to go away, generally for one or two reasons. The first reason is that hotlinking uses bandwidth and other resources on the hotlinked site which the site owner may not be able to afford. The second reason, often coupled with the first, is that the site owner does not want their content to be available outside of the context of their own site (i.e., they want viewers to have to come to the source site to view the content).

With a bit of technical savvy the complainer who wants a link to their own site removed has several options for self help. Those merely concerned with cost could redirect requests without the relevant referrer (from their own site) or maybe cookie (e.g., for a logged in user) to the free or similar, which should drastically reduce originating site bandwidth, if hotlinks are actually generating many requests (if they are not there is no problem).

A complainer who does not want their content appearing in third party sites can return a small “visit my site if you want to view this content” image, audio file, or video as appropriate in the abscense of the desired referrer or cookie. Hotlinking sites become not an annoyance, but free advertising. Many sites take this strategy already.
Presumably many publishers do not have any technical savvy, so some Webjay-like sites find it easier to honor their complaints than to ignore them.

There is a potential for technical means of saying “don’t link to me” that could be easily implemented by publishers and link sites with any technical savvy. One is to interpret exclusions to mean “don’t link to me” as well as “don’t crawl and index me.” This has the nice effect that those stupid enough to not want to be linked to also become invisible to search engines.

Another solution is to imitate — perhaps rel=nolink, though the attribute would need to be availalable on img, object, and other elements in addtion to a, or simply apply rel=nofollow to those additional elements a la the broader interpretation of robots.txt above.

I don’t care for rel=nolink as it might seem to give some legitimacy to brutally bogus link policies (without the benefit of search invisibility), but it is an obvious option.

The upshot of all this is that if a link site operator is not as polite as Lucas Gonze there are plenty of ways to ignore complainers. I suppose it largely comes down to customer service, where purely technical solutions may not work as well as social solutions. Community sites with forums have similar problems. Apparently Craig Newmark spends much of his time tending to customer service, which I suspect has contributed greatly to making such a success. However, a key difference, I suspect, is that hotlink complainers are not “customers” of the linking site, while most people who complain about behavior on Craigslist are “customers” — participants in the Craigslist community.

2 Responses

  1. Hi Mike L.,

    My experience.

    Somebody wrote a story on the 2004 US presidential prediction markets somewhere on the Web. He/she hotlinked a graph that I was webhosting.

    I won’t pay for somebody else’s use of *my* resources.

    I went to my server, in the “hot link protection” area, and enabled the hot link protection service.

    So their readers don’t see the stolen graph anymore.


    Best regards, Your Royal Highness,

    Chris. F. Masse

  2. Lucas says:

    Very happy to see you helping make some sense out of this issue, Mike. A larger point your post made me realize is that this is a problem for the web dev community as a whole.

    Chris, the key is that you were capable of doing this for yourself rather than asking linkers to do it for you. This shows that web architecture is working just like it’s supposed to.

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