We are losing vast swathes of our digital past, and copyright stops us saving it

It is hard to imagine the world without the Web. Collectively, we routinely access billions of Web pages without thinking about it. But we often take it for granted that the material we want to access will be there, both now and in the future. We all hit the dreaded “404 not found” error from time to time, but merely pass on to other pages. What we tend to ignore is how these online error messages are a flashing warning signal that something bad is happening to the World Wide Web. Just how bad is revealed in a new report from the Pew Research Center, based on an examination of half a million Web pages, which found:

A quarter of all webpages that existed at one point between 2013 and 2023 are no longer accessible, as of October 2023. In most cases, this is because an individual page was deleted or removed on an otherwise functional website.

For older content, this trend is even starker. Some 38% of webpages that existed in 2013 are not available today, compared with 8% of pages that existed in 2023.

This digital decay occurs at slightly different rates for different online material:

23% of news webpages contain at least one broken link, as do 21% of webpages from government sites. News sites with a high level of site traffic and those with less are about equally likely to contain broken links. Local-level government webpages (those belonging to city governments) are especially likely to have broken links.

54% of Wikipedia pages contain at least one link in their “References” section that points to a page that no longer exists.

These figures show that the problem we discussed a few weeks ago – that access to academic knowledge is at risk – is in fact far wider, and applies to just about everything that is online. Although the reasons for material disappearing vary greatly, the key obstacle to addressing that loss is the same across all fields. The copyright industry’s obsessive control of material, and the punitive laws that can be deployed against even the most trivial copyright infringement, mean that routine and multiple backup copies of key or historic online material are rarely made.

The main exception to that rule is the sterling work carried out by the Internet Archive, which was founded by Brewster Kahle, whose Kahle/Austin Foundation supports this blog. At the time of writing the Internet Archive holds copies of an astonishing 866 billion Web pages, many in multiple versions that chart their changes over time. It is a unique and invaluable resource.

It is also being sued by publishers for daring to share in a controlled way some of its holdings. That is, the one bulwark against losing vast swathes of our digital culture is being attacked by an industry that is largely to blame for the problem the Internet Archive is trying to solve. It’s another important reason why we must move away from the copyright system, and nullify the power it has to destroy, rather than create, our culture.

Featured image by Stable Diffusion.

Follow me @glynmoody on Mastodon and on Bluesky.

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