Archiving the Internet: A Free Speech Issue?

The prevailing notion that "the Internet is forever" has shaped the way we share our lives online. The advent of cheap distributed cloud storage has allowed social media and streaming services to preserve enormous amounts of content online, seemingly in perpetuity. Similarly, the challenges of tracing and controlling the distribution of online content-who might have downloaded, reproduced, or saved your post-helps digital content proliferate in ways that appear indelible.

This is one reason why attempts to control content on the Internet usually involve governments or private individuals trying to remove offensive, embarrassing, or illegal content from the public eye. Cases like Google Spainwhich brought the "right to be forgotten" into common parlance—or Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker Media are colorful examples of  the extent to which privacy can be breached on the Internet, as well as the lengths to which some will go to recover it. Meanwhile, governments in the US and elsewhere continue to experiment with regulating the content of websites, occasionally proposing draconian or simply unworkable solutions in their effort to clean up the web.

A recent initiative by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, however, focuses on the need to preserve rather than purge digital content. At the end of January, the Foundation launched Threatened Outlets, an online archives collection that stores copies of news outlets threatened by what the Foundation calls the "billionaire problem," or the ability of wealthy buyers to purchase news outlets in order to destroy or alter content they find objectionable. Using Archive-It, a service developed by the Internet Archive to preserve online content, Threatened Outlets provides an alternative record in the event that a publication's web archive is destroyed or manipulated.

The Foundation has already created a copy of the entirety of Gawker's website, in response to signs that Peter Thiel or another hostile buyer might gain control of the site. That someone like Thiel, who bankrolled the lawsuit against Gawker, could then use the market to delete records lends credence to Threatened Outlets as a creative way to fight online censorship.

Archiving the Internet isn't new, but the story of Threatened Outlets is about more than historical preservation. Using web archiving to protect freedom of expression, particularly in a situation where the parties have already gone through the legal system, offers a new defensive tactic in the fight for online content.