28 May 2012

What can be done about the impermanence of the web?

Up until very recently we stored our pictures, documents and other treasured personal momentoes in photo albums, folders or, in more recent times, on hard drives and external portable hard drives. These days, many people are increasingly storing these items online using pay services such as Dropbox, Google Drive, Ubuntu One and many more. But what happens if you upload some of your personal files or writing onto a website for free and that website no longer exists or the company decides to delete it? Jason Scott and his Archive Team describe themselves as a "loose collective of rogue archivists, programmers, writers and loudmouths" who are "dedicated to saving our digital heritage".

They hear about failing websites and rush in to salvage what they can before user content is deleted and lost forever. They don't not seek permission from the site owners and generally only try to save files that are publicly available. They use the analogy of a library service closing down and burning all the stock to explain what they see as the reckless vandalism of the internet operators:

"It's like going into the library business and deciding, 'This is not working for us anymore,' and burning down the library."
People tend to believe that anything they submit to the web will be kept safe by the various web operators. Vast amounts of data have been lost due to changes in ownership, attacks by hackers and abrupt shutdowns of services. GeoCities was closed down by Yahoo in 2009, resulting in the loss of 38 million homemade pages.

The Archive Team saved what it could salvage from GeoCities as well as Poetry.com, Flip.com and Friendster.Some people may be aware of the Wayback Machine, operated by the Independent Archive. This service allows users to see archived versions of web pages over time. Scott is an employee of the Independent Archive but operates the Archive Team independently.

Scott maintains that apparently silly or throwaway content found on sites like GeoCities can have unanticipated cultural value. Geocities was for many people their first experience in uploading content to the web and much of value may have been deleted when Yahoo pulled the plug on the service. Scott is deeply skeptical of sites like Facebook, Flickr and Google. Google has already withdrawn support for Google labs, a site dedicated to experimental projects. He makes the salient point that free services simply cannot be relied upon to store your data in the Cloud.

It makes sense for us to not be limited to one company for the data we store online. There are signs that companies are opening up from their proprietary policies and making it easy for us to switch to competitors' products. Google Takeaway allows users to export their files easily. Facebook also has a "Download a Copy" function for the photos and other content users have on the site.

Ultimately, it seems that we ourselves need to take responsiblity for backing up our important data in a number of places. We simply cannot rely on free service providers on the web to save it for us. Just as information has died in the past-such as books going out of print-so it will continue to do so if users do not take steps to store it properly. Perhaps the Archive Team may be better served in educating internet users about potential loss of files and what they can do to avoid this. Perhaps those external hard drives and photo albums weren't so old fashioned after all.


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