“No derogatory links”: Censorship? Or just lazy drafting?

The latest row to hit the London Olympics – though somewhat more minor than the news earlier this week about bringing in the army to plug the gap in security left by G4S – is over the “linking policy” in their website’s terms of use. This states that:

You may create your own link to the Site, provided that your link is in a text-only format. You may not use any link to the Site as a method of creating an unauthorised association between an organisation, business, goods or services and London 2012, and agree that no such link shall portray us or any other official London 2012 organisations (or our or their activities, products or services) in a false, misleading, derogatory or otherwise objectionable manner.

It’s those last words that have caught people’s attention. “Hang on! Are LOCOG seriously saying that you can’t link to their site if you say nasty things about them? That’s censorship!”

I’m pretty sure that there is absolutely no intent on LOCOG’s part to censor people through this policy. That’s because I’m pretty sure there is absolutely no intent on LOCOG’s part concerning this provision, full stop. A Google search quickly shows up literally hundreds of other sites using precisely the same wording:

So what this shows is not the sinister, dissent-stifling instincts of LOCOG, but the dangers of unthinkingly adopting standard legal precedents without thinking through how they might read to others. This can happen, in particular, with the sort of legal terms that absolutely no one ever reads (such as website terms of use) except on that one occasion when you’re a massively high-profile organisation whose motives some people are inclined to mistrust (such as when you’re the London Olympics).

This “linking policy” is clearly someone’s standard boilerplate, and has been used without incident by them for years. One wonders whether any of the companies using this wording have ever sought to tried to enforce it against someone by insisting that they remove a “derogatory” link. In most cases I suspect they wouldn’t get very far – just as I suspect they wouldn’t get very far if they tried to enforce the “if you disagree with these terms you must stop using our site” wording that is often found in such terms.

Maybe one good thing that could come out of this incident is to make companies think more carefully about the information they provide on their websites. Do they need to be so “legalistic” in the first place, and have they given any thought to whether they would ever try to enforce any of the restrictions they claim to impose?

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