Our Digital History Is at Risk

This piece was first published by TIME Magazine, in their Ideas section, as Amid Musk’s Chaotic Reign at Twitter, Our Digital History Is at Risk. My thanks to the wonderful team at Time for their editorial and other assistance.

As Twitter has entered the Musk era, many people are leaving the platform or rethinking its role in their lives. Whether they join another platform like Mastodon (as I have) or continue on at Twitter, the instability occasioned by Twitter’s change in ownership has revealed an underlying instability in our digital information ecosystem. 

Many have now seen how, when someone deletes their Twitter account, their profile, their tweets, even their direct messages, disappear. According to the MIT Technology Review, around a million people have left so far, and all of this information has left the platform along with them. The mass exodus from Twitter and the accompanying loss of information, while concerning in its own right, shows something fundamental about the construction of our digital information ecosystem:  Information that was once readily available to you—that even seemed to belong to you—can disappear in a moment. 

Losing access to information of private importance is surely concerning, but the situation is more worrying when we consider the role that digital networks play in our world today. Governments make official pronouncements online. Politicians campaign online. Writers and artists find audiences for their work and a place for their voice. Protest movements find traction and fellow travelers.  And, of course, Twitter was a primary publishing platform of a certain U.S. president

If Twitter were to fail entirely, all of this information could disappear from their site in an instant. This is an important part of our history. Shouldn’t we be trying to preserve it?

I’ve been working on these kinds of questions, and building solutions to some of them, for a long time. That’s part of why, over 25 years ago, I founded the Internet Archive. You may have heard of our “Wayback Machine,” a free service anyone can use to view archived web pages from the mid-1990’s to the present. This archive of the web has been built in collaboration with over a thousand libraries around the world, and it holds hundreds of billions of archived webpages today–including those presidential tweets (and many others). In addition, we’ve been preserving all kinds of important cultural artifacts in digital form: books, television news, government records, early sound and film collections, and much more. 

The scale and scope of the Internet Archive can give it the appearance of something unique, but we are simply doing the work that libraries and archives have always done: Preserving and providing access to knowledge and cultural heritage. For thousands of years, libraries and archives have provided this important public service. I started the Internet Archive because I strongly believed that this work needed to continue in digital form and into the digital age. 

While we have had many successes, it has not been easy. Like the record labels, many book publishers  didn’t know what to make of the internet at first, but now they see new opportunities for financial gain. Platforms, too, tend to put their commercial interests first. Don’t get me wrong: Publishers and platforms continue to play an important role in bringing the work of creators to market, and sometimes assist in the preservation task. But companies close, and change hands, and their commercial interests can cut against preservation and other important public benefits. 

Traditionally, libraries and archives filled this gap. But in the digital world, law and technology make their job increasingly difficult. For example, while a library could always simply buy a physical book on the open market in order to preserve it on their shelves, many publishers and platforms try to stop libraries from preserving information digitally. They may even use technical and legal measures to prevent libraries from doing so. While we strongly believe that fair use law enables libraries to perform traditional functions like preservation and lending in the digital environment, many publishers disagree, going so far as to sue libraries to stop them from doing so. 

We should not accept this state of affairs. Free societies need access to history, unaltered by changing corporate or political interests. This is the role that libraries have played and need to keep playing. This brings us back to Twitter.

In 2010, Twitter had the tremendous foresight of engaging in a partnership with the Library of Congress to preserve old tweets. At the time, the Library of Congress had been tasked by Congress “to establish a national digital information infrastructure and preservation program.” It appeared that government and private industry were working together in search of a solution to the digital preservation problem, and that Twitter was leading the way.  

It was not long before the situation broke down. In 2011, the Library of Congress issued a report noting the need for “legal and regulatory changes that would recognize the broad public interest in long-term access to digital content,” as well as the fact that “most libraries and archives cannot support under current funding” the necessary digital preservation infrastructure.”  But no legal and regulatory changes have been forthcoming, and even before the 2011 report,  Congress pulled tens of millions of dollars out of the preservation program. In these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that, by 2017, the Library of Congress had ceased preserving most old tweets, and the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) is no longer an active program at the Library of Congress. Furthermore, it is not clear whether Twitter’s new ownership will take further steps of its own to address the situation. 

Whatever Musk does, the preservation of our digital cultural heritage should not have to rely on the beneficence of one man. We need to empower libraries by ensuring that they have the same rights with respect to digital materials that they have in the physical world. Whether that means archiving old tweets, lending books digitally, or even something as exciting (to me!) as 21st century interlibrary loan, what’s important is that we have a nationwide strategy for solving the technical and legal hurdles to getting this done. 

9 thoughts on “Our Digital History Is at Risk

  1. David Smith

    Long before the current fuss about Twitter, corporations like Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Apple, and scores of others who are long gone have provided services on the WWW, free or otherwise, which have grown important to some or many of us, and when they decided that it was no longer in their interest to do so, have changed or shuttered them. Remember that “the Cloud” is just another name for “someone else’s computer” and take responsibility to make offline backups of everything important to you – multiple copies in multiple physical locations. Yes, electronic/digital data are ephemeral. We are not only vulnerable to the whims of corporations, but also constantly at risk of solar events that could terminate the Electronic Age in moments. Life’s like that. Love your paper books!

  2. Hasford Albrecht

    Information that was once readily available to you—that even seemed to belong to you—can disappear in a moment.

    I may be overlooking some of the finer points of the matter, but I do not see much difference between someone posting on a third-party website like Twitter and the same person parking herself on a couch in someone else’s living room. In both cases, someone is making the decision to use property belonging to a third party.

    Sure, I understand that people may *feel* that what they have posted belongs to them. However, the EULA for just about any website you would care to name makes it pretty clear that the user is allowed to post purely at the sufferance of the site owner and that the site owner can edit, censor, or expunge a user’s information entirely at will.

    Put another way: how is someone opening an account on Twitter any different than crashing on someone else’s couch for a time, then becoming angry when the owner of the couch decides you have overstayed your welcome and chucks you off (i.e. closes your account)? It appears that, in 2023, people not only expect to have use of the couch for as long as they wish, they also want to take the couch with them if they decide to leave.

    Is this not a simple case of “their property, their rules”? I fail to see what all the fuss is about.

    1. JamesTDG

      The analogy does fall apart a bit when you take a closer look, it’s more equivalent to that one shared textbook a school may have, there’s history in these books via the scribbles of many long ago, the school could replace that book or erase any scribbles, but in doing so, a piece of history dies with those actions.

      Also, companies do a shit job maintaining their content a lot of the time. I have a pretty recent example, a few years back, I used to be a prolific answerer on Brainly, I stopped, but still get regular emails from them to keep an eye on my account since I left some well crafted answers. Recently, I’ve been getting several emails a week about how I violated community standards, which I haven’t been informed of existing, I wasn’t properly informed on which answers were being deleted since they were ANCIENT, I wasn’t informed which rules I broke, I didn’t get a warning to update these answers first, and even then, I couldn’t update em in the first place. Fast forward to today and I’m pretty sure my LEGACY account might be deleted.

      That right there is the equivalent of sculpting something, and then it being demolished just because it was on the property and the new owners don’t like it.

      1. Hasford Albrecht

        That right there is the equivalent of sculpting something, and then it being demolished just because it was on the property and the new owners don’t like it.

        Consider: if you erect something on someone else’s property, do they not have the right to remove it at will? If, say, I were to wake up tomorrow and find my front lawn is filled with pink flamingos because someone who happens to like pink flamingos put them there, would I not have the right to remove them if my taste does not run to pink flamingos?

        I understand the frustration with posting content on a site that helps to make the site more attractive to users and pulls more people into the site, only to have the content removed for vague, unspecified reasons (I have faced that situation, too). However, I think it is important that anyone who posts to a given website acknowledges that, yes, under present laws, what they are doing *is* equivalent to erecting a sculpture on someone else’s property and, therefore, is going to be subject to the whims of the property owner(s).

        To solve the problem, perhaps social media users could lobby for some sort of “sweat equity” bill that would give site users rights to the content they create? Of course, the people who own those sites are very wealthy people with deep pockets, so I do not know if such legislation would ever stand a chance of being passed.

  3. Jon Alexandr

    The subject may also be introduced as “How do we move knowledge into the future?”
    One of the reasons for, or functions of, The Long Now Foundation is how to address that question.
    (I am simply an amateur member of the organization, not one of its organizers, founders, or content creators.)
    The link below goes to an essay about that question, published online January 20, 02022. (The additional digit contextualizes our time as being both at the end of the last 10,000 years and the beginning of the next 10,000 years.)

  4. Elijah Barry Hechtman

    Musk has said he’ll step down as soon as he finds a replacement CEO. Some YouTuber can’t even say no to a job like that, but we’ll soon see.

  5. Icannnotsayit

    The author is on point as to the need to “access to history, unaltered by changing corporate or political interests”

    However the target (twitter and musk) is missguided. The single biggest, most pervasive force attempting to change history is the left and their activists, specially those in Syllicon Valley where the author also squarely seems to fall ideologically.

    Examples are abundant; modifications that introduce bias or remove unwanted content on wikipedia (even the founder sounding the alarm on that). Software engineers/activists introducing bias on ChatGPT. Cancel culture witch-hunting anyone with a disagreeing opinion on the their sacred cows, in turn leading to self-censorship. Google search filtering results depending on topic to push ideological items and memory-hole others. Newspapers (left and right) reediting or destroying older articles online. Leftists groups partially co-opting well-established institutions to use the clout to push their ideological agenda (IETF too).

    In summary, your concern is fully justified but the target is wrong. Musk has shown no interest on censoring history very much the opposite and the Twitter Files are an example. AFAIK Twitter has in fact today more users than before acquisition. Only the very left techy folks when for Mastodon. Meanwhile many, many others groups are pushing constantly their agenda which contains at its core the target of rewriting the public record.

    Unfortunate that in such a lengthy article you only mentioned Twitter and Musk to virtue signal to your ideological colleagues.

    Thanks for the wayback machine, it is great and it is a key part of the Internet today.

  6. Lou Demers

    This is another aspect of digitized heritage:
    While not in our viewscreen when we look to possible futures we should see dangers on the march to the future of our digital heritage. Most readers of this know about the Rosetta stone & have some sense of its significance to the tapestry of historical knowledge. We should all know as well about the likely ego-maniacal impulse which led some long ago ruler to have chiseled high on the side of a towering stone outcropping the same declaration of his accomplishments in 3 differnt languages (& scripts) known to his /literari/.
    His self-pride rsultd may cnetures later to the discovering of much of the history which would have otherwise been lost… one of those scripts was decipherable & that led to deciphering of the other two which led to being able to read many artifacts written in those scripts.
    The constant push to advance web-based security is writing off many of us who cannot afford the new OS’s which are needed to run the new browser which is needed to access materials which (now?) must be protected”…. protected from what??
    The 1940 US census returns are now behind such a “safe haven” & are inaccessible to an untold number of taxpayers whose tribute, forked over to the GOVERNMENT, isn’t enough (apparently). In the private sector I’ve lost the use of 4 e-mail services due to this pursuit of “enhanced” security which my browser cannot meet. The browser cannot be upgraded with my present OS, so at 1st blush one might think I need to just get a new browser… but that’s not possible because there are no browsers capable of meeting the new security features which would also work with this OS.
    The public library has joined the parade here so now I have to make a trip to the library because I don’t have the necessary browser, etc.
    All may one day feel the crunch of having to buy something different from our presently internal-combustion engined vehicle to make such excursions to the library.
    Our world is going insane.
    Will the *internet archive* join the lemmings?

  7. George

    History, regardless of its media, has always been at risk. Al the problems mentioned here also exist for paper, clay and rock. Egyptians re-wrote their murals many times, for instance. The real problem is not digital. All problems, of all kinds, economical, environmental, social, etc. have their roots at the behavior of people. You fix people and automatically all the other problems will require less effort to be solved.
    @JamesTDG Facebook does the same with something even worse: advertisement/commercial accounts. We all make mistakes but FB is unforgiven. FB does business only with old accounts (well, some things work with new ones but FB becomes crippleware in that case in my opinion). Many businesses depend on these accounts to survive. For good or for bad, FB is key to market/advertise lots of products. TV and radio are not what they used to in terms of getting newer or more customers. That has created a “black market” of old accounts. The older the more expensive. How is that fair? It is criminal, in fact. But, no one has said a word.
    @Hasford Albrecht It reminds me the story of a friend who built an additional floor on a property of his in-laws… That will never be his after he, his wife and children moved to another county.
    @Jon Alexandr I like your optimism. If we don’t change, I doubt we will preserve this planet for long enough.
    @Icannnotsayit I think the morality of different political stances, philosophical schools and religions draw some lines at different places. Some push things to prevent things from happenings or to prevent what they consider evil from spreading. They consider “evil” one another and send Ethics through the window. It is not ethical TO PUSH stuff… but no one plays fair!! So, most of them end up playing with dirty de facto rules. So sad. I have never come across an organization or person with an immaculate sheet on this department. There are excellent ones and I strive to associate with them but they are not perfect. There is so much room for improvements. In a fitlhy world, how can we do clean deals? Sometimes people have no option. They try and try and end up accepting that no ones wants to do things the right way.
    @Lou Demers That is both an economical and an environmental problem. Some people cannot afford this accelerated rhythm of planned obsolescence, there is no money enough. And, even if we all could afford it, our carbon footprint would grow exponentially, as population does, as long as our production processes and final products be not environmentally-friendly. Both economic gaps between social groups, and pollution are serious problems.

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