The Internet Archive has been making waves lately, and not entirely by choice. The non-profit has been growing, and recently announced an intriguing new feature for its famous Wayback Machine that will make it far more useful, but it’s also been at center of a number of controversies over censorship and data freedom. This week it announced a provocative plan to spend millions mirroring its archives on Canadian soil, apparently to avoid future attacks from the Trump Administration. The two are at least somewhat related; as Archive.org makes its services larger and more user friendly, those services become more problematic in the eyes of the authorities.
The Internet Archive basically has two components: the website archive, called the Wayback Machine, and everything else, including databases of digitized books, music, movies, and more. The Wayback Machine has become a major pillar of the internet, not nearly as highly trafficked as Wikipedia but similar in that quite a few people would be screwed without it. In principle, its goal is really just part of the overall thesis of the internet: The Internet Archive is meant to ensure that knowledge and the public record stay intact over time. Through the Wayback Machine, it archives “snapshots” of as many websites as it can, as often as it can, and makes the full history available, for free. For most of its history, the biggest controversy it saw was whether it was appropriate to ask users for cash.
Storage on the petabyte scale is not cheap, but it’s what Archive.org needs to buy if it’s going to copy itself.
Recently, though, Archive.org has been getting a very different sort of profile. The ability to use its servers to anonymously host files has led ISIS and other extremist organizations to habitually post their videos and literature there. Much of it is aimed at recruiting impressionable teens around the world, and much of the rest depicts real crimes of gratuitous violence — but there it is, free and public, just a (slightly outside-the-box) search away on Archive.org. The Internet Archive’s ideological beliefs about censorship, along with its genuine inability to police the vastness of its own databases, has transformed its once squeaky-clean image. In some circles, Archive.org is a multimedia PasteBin, but with a lot more self-righteousness.
The issue reached a much higher level of profile earlier this week, when the organization revealed that it had received a so-called National Security Letter from the FBI. The group also posted a redacted version of the document online, one of the few such publications that has ever taken place. The letter was even shown to be pushing false information about how to challenge the automatic gag order that comes with an NSL, and the FBI has admitted that the same mistake was sent to some portion of NSL recipients. It’s not known quite how many just yet, but there were over 13,000 sent out last year alone. Archive.org is now one of the most successful challengers to their legal authority.
And it’s those brushes with the spooks and criminals alike that are driving Archive.org’s concern. Trump, who will be the oldest President ever at first swearing-in, has said that he would “certainly be open to closing areas [of the internet] where we are at war with somebody… I’m not talking about closing the internet. I’m talking about closing parts of the internet where ISIS is.” Evidently, the Internet Archive is unsure of whether it would be categorized as “where ISIS is,” since it explicitly referenced the “new administration promising radical change” as the reason for its new, Northern mirror.
A National Security Letter, very rare in the wild.
Canada is of course a terrible choice for the archive’s backup, especially since the stated goal of the move is to keep a Library of Alexandria-style disaster from ending its existence for good. If there were to be a malicious attempt to burn down Archive.org, what protection would Canada’s draconian free speech laws provide, compared with those in the United States? Most attempts to take down the American side would presumably have the force of American law — does the Internet Archive think the Canadian government is going to resist a legal data seizure or server take-down request from the United States? Iceland would have been a much more logical choice — a country that, at the very least, doesn’t openly share virtually all intelligence with the agencies the Internet Archive is trying to escape.
As mentioned, though, the Internet Archive is famously cash-strapped, so the whole initiative is to be paid for with donations. It will cost “millions” according to their own estimates, but that’s actually pretty reasonable considering that the data itself comes in at a whopping 15 petabytes, or 15,000 terabytes. With such volume, the base storage costs should be at least around a few million all on their own. The project’s banner ad states that the entire thing could be funded if everybody reading gave just $50 — far beyond what Wikipedia generally suggests. The organization already has a small number of employees in Toronto, though, so presumably creating a copy there would be cheaper than other countries.
The Internet Archive might seem like an odd sort of organization to go head to head with Big Government, but society and law seem to be slowly veering into a collision course with everything it represents. The archive’s views haven’t changed; if a conflict is coming, it’s because law and society are changing. Any public service with a true commitment to data freedom is going to become home to the people who need such freedom the most, both the journalist/activist types and the criminal/terrorist types. And that means that they will naturally attract the attention of anyone interested in countering one or both of those types of user.
By announcing even the intention to mirror their content in a different legal environment, this little archiving group has signaled that it will not back down, if challenged. Luckily for the archive, its seems to have the support of larger, more experienced groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This may all be rank overreaction on the part of the Internet Archive, but if not, there is now enough attention focused on it to ensure that any legal challenge becomes a major battle. For groups like the ACLU, which basically exist to fight and win battles of legal precedent, that might be the most desirable outcome of all.
Header image: Wikimedia Commons