URL manipulation, libel, and Kate Middleton jelly beans

Regular readers here (all 6 of you) will probably already know about Jellybeangate. Yesterday, a URL from the Independent was rewritten to say something rather uncomplimentary about a PR-churned story on their site, revealing that Kate Middleton’s face had been discovered in a jelly bean. The link went viral on Twitter after several fairly well-respected sources assumed it was the work of a disgruntled sub and not a prank. Then the corrections went viral, along with several other versions of the link. This sort of URL behaviour is remarkably common.

According to the Nieman Lab, there are vast numbers of other news organisations whose URLs can be manipulated in this way (Citywire, my employer, is one of them) – and third parties with agendas could easily make it seem at a casual glance as though their URLs are libellous or offensive. But most URLs – if not all – can be manipulated very simply, using parameters. I can add &this=utter-rubbish after almost any link and the link will still resolve, leaving my additions intact. Thus:

There shouldn’t be any fear of being liable for this sort of manipulation, any more than there is in someone copying a newspaper masthead and pasting their own words underneath. For a statement to be libellous it must have been published, and in this case the individual who wrote, manipulated and then distributed the URL is the publisher. This seems clear for manipulated parameters marked by “?” and I have a hard time believing anyone would find otherwise for parameters within the URL itself.

If I were the Indie’s SEO team right now, I’d be more worried that the doctored URL is able to rank above their original. Might just be a good idea to get some rel=canonical tags on their article pages.