NEWS ANALYSIS: Big media fights back, and the Web could lose

By Published on .

When six major media companies filed suit last week against a Web site, more than the issue of frames was at stake.

The decision to single out TotalNews, a site that compiles links to news sites and displays the information inside a frame, crystallizes a simple but nagging question for Web publishers: Who controls links and how they're presented?

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The media companies--Time Inc., Cable News Network, Washington Post Co., Times Mirror Co., Reuters and Dow Jones & Co.--charge that TotalNews benefits financially by using frames to show the publishers' copyrighted material. TotalNews sells advertising on its site that could overshadow--or be competitive with--ads the publishers sold, the suit charges.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF LINK

TotalNews counters that frames help Web users get information quickly. They're just links presented in a different way.

"The big boys want to control access to information on the Net," lamented Roman Godzich, president of TotalNews, in a statement.

If the media companies emerge victorious, the case could set a startling precedent. No one is denying publishers the right to police their links. But if TotalNews is wrong, other sites that are jumping-off points for news could be as well.

Consider Newslinx, a popular resource among Internet newshounds.

Newslinx compiles a daily list of headlines from Internet-related articles on sites such as The New York Times and CNET's News.com. The site doesn't use frames.

But, like TotalNews, Newslinx has a flourishing ad sales operation, placing banners for such advertisers as WebThreads and Gif Wizards on its home page.

Newslinx also engages in one potentially problematic practice: It alters the headlines of articles.

"It's our right to describe someone else's Web page and content," said Richard Ord, Newslinx publisher. Sites don't necessarily agree.

`A REAL GRAY AREA'

"Linking back to us via a headline is a great reader service," said Jai Singh, editor of News.com. "However, I would have a problem if my headline were changed or misconstrued. That's getting into a real gray area."

Newshub, which isn't ad-supported, also offers headlines from Web sites, such as Wired News.

"No one has given us a hard time for linking to their site," said c0-founder Tom McDonald.

Should these companies be in the same boat as TotalNews? Probably not. But the actions of CNN and its brethren leave anyone who compiles lists of links in danger.

"Are [the media companies] anti-linking? Clearly not," insisted Jeremy Feigelson, attorney with Debevoise & Plimpton, the New York law firm representing the plaintiffs. "They understand that that's how the Web works."

With the TotalNews case as precedent, it's only a matter of time before these companies declare that's not how they want the Web to work.

Copyright February 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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