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Stalker's home page scares Banyan

Is the act of linking to other people's sites a universal right or a breach of privacy? The question was raised in a recent fight between Banyan Systems and a "rogue" site.

A recent dispute between Banyan Systems and a "rogue" site raises questions about whether the act of linking to other people's sites is a universal right or a breach of privacy.

Could a Web publisher intentionally expose someone else to embarrassment or, much worse, liability by linking to their site? And if so, how can they be stopped?

The creator of the site in question, Glen Roberts, says restricting linkage of any kind will result in "the death of the Web." Banyan, on the other hand, says asking permission to link is a simple matter of netiquette.

The site at the center of the debate is called "The Stalker's Homepage" and is designed to explain how information about private individuals obtained from Internet phone directories can be exploited for criminal intent. Far from recommending such behavior, Roberts says he designed the page to protest how easily the Net can be used to invade people's privacy.

That's where Banyan came in. To illustrate his point, Roberts demonstrated how to combine information from the Switchboard residential and business directory maintained by Banyan subsidiary Coordinate.com and an online atlas to determine where a person lives.

Banyan's lawyers took a look and decided that Roberts' page used their product to encourage stalking. Afraid that Banyan would be held liable if any weirdo took Roberts seriously and actually did something bad, they sent a letter to the Internet service provider that hosts Roberts' page.

The letter read, in part: "One or more parties operating on your system are misappropriating Banyan's online 'white pages' directory, Switchboard. Furthermore, these parties expressly encourage and instruct users of you system...to engage in...activities which are subject to federal and state criminal law. We require you to...immediately terminate all access to Switchboard via your system by any programmatic means."

The ISP didn't do it, but Banyan ended up not trying to force them.

Eugene Lee, vice president of marketing for Coodinate.com, now concedes that the lawyers went overboard. "We probably should have contacted him first. The problem was that our outside counsel did not understand how this [the Internet] all works."

But the company still insists that Roberts should have asked their permission to use their site as the smoking gun for his stalking theory. It would only have been polite, Lee argues.

Coordinate.com has now tried to contact Roberts to "have dialogue on the shared issue of privacy," Lee says. As for Roberts' concerns about privacy issues?which kicked off the whole train of events--Lee says that Switchboard offers several ways to modify or delete information from the directory.

Although cooler heads prevailed in this case, Banyan may have eventually been forced down from its original position because the Copyright Act appears to protect the particular form of expression called hypertext linking, according to David Post, directory of the Cyberspace Law Institute at Georgetown University Law Center.

Roberts didn't rip the company off, or even use their logo, he only used a reference to them as part of a critical commentary, a perfectly legal act. Whether or not he went too far by titling his page the "Stalker's Homepage" is a separate question.

But while the brawl subsided before any real blows were landed, eventually someone will undoubtedly misinterpret a site like Roberts', and someone could get hurt. Or a company like Banyan may get riled up enough to go ahead and sue. And unanswered in this sea of contention is the basic question of whether anyone has a right to link to any destination on an Internet becoming increasingly crowded with controversial material.

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