We have said it more than once. The page or online service you enjoy today may disappear tomorrow. Photos, music, videos and documents backed up in the cloud … erased. And to that add the links: The occasional 404 in a session may not mean too much to you, but it hides a much deeper and more complex problem. The concept of link rot attacks the natural ability of the network to save information, and sadly we don’t have robust solutions. Internet is rotting.
Hyperlinks are everywhere. They are a fundamental resource for the development of our digital life, making it faster, easier, more dynamic. In some cases they also convey identity, security, and even reputation. But hyperlinks are not eternal, nor were they designed to be.. The link which works wonders today can throw a 404 inside an hour or a decade ... and no portal or service is immune. Our own site is the victim of broken links or videos that disappear after a short time, and even your own favorites section in the browser you must have a similar problem.
Sometimes, the loss of these links is just an accident, but if we study most of the cases, it is a deliberate action. For example, I recently tried to locate old drivers and BIOS for Intel motherboards … and I remembered that Intel completely removed those files in November 2019. Only community efforts have succeeded in preventing a complete loss, however, it’s never enough. In fact, some experts dare to suggest the worst: The internet is rotting to pure link rot.
Link rot: The Internet is rotting, at all levels
One of the most cited cases of link rot It dates back to 2010. Judge Samuel Alito shared his legal opinion in the Supreme Court of the United States, and within that opinion he placed a link as a source to justify his position. The problem was that the link stopped working shortly after, and the original text was left with that 404 forever. No one could access the information.
The people of perma.cc, a service dedicated to combating link rot, offers some chilling numbers: More than 50 percent of the links present in the Supreme Court opinions do not lead to the correct source. This goes up to almost 70 percent when we talk about academic journals, and the 20 percent of all science, technology and medicine articles have already been affected by the link rot.
Rewriting the past, losing the present?
Universities, government agencies, newspapers … no one has managed to escape the link rot, and everything seems to indicate that its effects will be even deeper. Digitization campaigns are vital to improve access to information and reduce the use of paper (which often includes the destruction of the original copies)But if there is not careful preparation, the value of such effort could be neutralized, one link broken at a time.
As if that were not enough, the information is not only erased: It also changes. Think of every politician desperate to delete what he said in a tweet ten years ago, or companies looking to bury unpleasant events. Lies turned into truths, vandalism and denial, news and made up words, modified books. The famous case of the digital English version of “The war and the peace” distributed by Barnes & Noble still reverberates in our minds: Every instance and variant of “kindle” in the text had been replaced by “Nook.”
Now, our hands are not empty to say the least. The aforementioned perma.cc and the Internet Archive itself serve as the main lines of defense. Even Wikipedia recommends its contributors to use the Wayback Machine and Archive Today to “shield” in a way to the links that are inserted in the articles … but we must be realistic: the Internet is rotting, and the link rot will continue to advance.
Sources: The Atlantic, The Verge