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The internet may make more information easily available now to humans than at any other time in history, but on the flip side, the internet is a poor tool for accurately archiving data for the long term.
Web pages are ephemeral, frequently taken down after short periods of time, or redirected to totally different content. The result is that links on web pages frequently break or redirect to web pages that sometimes include content significantly different than what was originally intended. Links that go bad are often referred to as ‘link rot’.
The internet suffers from a lot of link rot. A study by Harvard Law School looked at 550 thousand articles with 2.25 million links. Of those pages, one quarter of the them contained broken links. 6 percent of links from 2018 no longer worked, 43 percent from 2008, and 72 percent of the links from 1998. A study of links contained in opinion documents from the Supreme Court found that half of those links had changed or disappeared. (A study in 1998 found that at that time, link rot accounted for about 6 percent of all internet links.)
Jonathan Zittrain, professor at Harvard Law School, wrote for the Atlantic that “people tend to overlook the decay of the modern web, when in fact these numbers are extraordinary—they represent a comprehensive breakdown in the chain of custody for facts. Libraries exist, and they still have books in them, but they aren’t stewarding a huge percentage of the information that people are linking to, including within formal, legal documents. No one is. The flexibility of the web—the very feature that makes it work, that had it eclipse CompuServe and other centrally organized networks—diffuses responsibility for this core societal function.”