What's a Website?

thelondonpaper today ridicules Judge Peter Openshaw, who "stunned a London court by admitting he did not know what a website was."

Judge Openshaw was hearing a trial of three men accused of "internet terror offences", whatever they are, and told Woolwich Crown Court "The trouble is I don't understand the language. I don't really understand what a website is."

I would like to hear the journalist John Dunne give his definition.

"Website" is a pretty vague term. What website are you reading this on? Is it Blogger? Is it blogspot.com? Is it Anomaly UK? Is it bloglines or some other aggregator?

Let's say it's Anomaly UK -- not on the basis of any technical definition, but because that's what it says at the top of the page.

Whose website is it? I guess it's mine, because I "created" it, although that (fortunately) did not involve supplying any physical material, paying a penny, or interacting with any human being. Most of the content came from me, but some of it from Google, some of it from various unidentifiable commenters, some bits from Sitemeter or technorati or whoever "NZ Bear" actually is. The content actually resides and reaches you from Google, except for the bits that don't, or the bits that are put in or changed by some system I know nothing of between you and it. ("Bits" in the non-jargon sense, that is.)

A judge - or a legislator - who thinks he knows what "a website" is, but in fact only knows what the average web user knows, could make some horribly bad decisions: think about the Danish court that ruled that deep linking is illegal, for example. No politician who had thought to ask the question "what is an email address" (and got an accurate answer) would have planned to require sex offenders to register their email addresses, as John Reid did.

Since the "internet terror" cases in question involves an "extremist web forum" (and perhaps nothing else), making sure lawyers and witnesses are very precise about what was "on the internet" is probably essential to reaching a correct verdict. Judge Openshaw's question was penetrating and important.

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