AAs 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 (like me) or continue on Twitter, the instability wrought by Twitter’s change in ownership has exposed an underlying instability in our digital information ecosystem.
Many have now seen how when someone delete their Twitter account, profile, tweets, and even direct messages disappear. According to the MIT Technology Review, about one million people have left so far from Musk’s ownership, and all that information has left the platform with them. The mass exodus from Twitter and the accompanying loss of information, while concerning in itself, shows something fundamental to the building of our digital information ecosystem: information that was once readily available to you – that seemed same belong for you—can disappear in an instant.
Losing access to information of private importance is certainly concerning, but the situation is more worrying when you consider the role that digital networks play in our world today. Governments make official statements online. Politicians campaign online. Writers and artists find an audience for their work and a place for their voice. Protest movements find ground and travel companions. And, of course, Twitter was a certain American president’s primary publishing platform.
Read more: What Elon Musk is wrong about free speech
If Twitter were to completely fail, all of this could disappear from their site in an instant. It is an important part of our history. Shouldn’t we try to preserve it?
I’ve been working on these kinds of questions for a long time and I’m working out solutions to some of them. 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-1990s to the present day. This web archive was created in collaboration with more than 1,000 libraries worldwide and today contains hundreds of billions of archived web pages, including those presidential tweets (and many more). Plus, we preserve all kinds of important cultural artifacts in digital form: books, TV news, government archives, early sound and film collections, and more.
The scale and scope of the Internet Archive may make it look unique, but we are simply doing the job libraries and archives have always done: preserving and providing access to knowledge and heritage. cultural. 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 should continue digitally and in the digital age.
Although we have had many successes, it has not been easy. Like record labels, many book publishers were unsure of what to make of the Internet at first, but now see new opportunities for financial gain. Platforms also tend to put their business interests first. Make no mistake: publishers and platforms continue to play an important role in bringing creators to the labor market and sometimes help in the task of preservation. But businesses close and change hands, and their business interests can harm conservation 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 keep it on its shelves, many publishers and platforms try to prevent libraries from preserving information in digital form. They can even use technical and legal measures to prevent libraries from doing so. While we strongly believe that fair use law allows libraries to perform traditional functions such as preservation and lending in the digital environment, many publishers disagree, going so far as to sue libraries to prevent them from doing so.
We must not accept this state of affairs. Free societies need access to history, unimpaired by changing commercial or political interests. This is the role that libraries have played and must continue to play. This brings us back to Twitter.
In 2010, Twitter had the tremendous foresight to enter into a partnership with the Library of Congress to preserve old tweets. At the time, the Library of Congress was tasked by Congress “to establish a national digital information infrastructure and preservation program.” It appeared that government and private industry were working together to find a solution to the problem of digital preservation, and that Twitter was leading the way.
It wasn’t long before the situation fell apart. In 2011, the Library of Congress released 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 the necessary digital preservation infrastructure under current funding. But no legal and regulatory changes have been made, and even before the 2011 report, Congress pulled tens of millions of dollars Under these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that in 2017 the Library of Congress stopped preserving most old tweets and the National Infrastructure and Preservation Program Digital Information (NDIIPP) is no longer an active program at the Library of Congress, and it’s unclear whether Twitter’s new owner will take any further steps himself. r remedy the situation.
Whatever Musk does, preserving our digital cultural heritage shouldn’t depend on the benevolence of one man. We need to hold libraries accountable by ensuring they have the same rights when it comes to digital materials that they have in the physical world. Whether it’s 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 national strategy to resolve the technical and legal barriers to achieving this.
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