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Breaking down news: Truth in the age of internet

This was a surgical strike, in the Indian meaning of the term — an event that was not unprecedented, but was attended by unprecedented publicity this time.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal |
December 17, 2016 1:59:29 am

On December 15, the Internet Archive began to vacuum up all the online documents of the US federal government, and the IT industry darkly hinted that this was being done to preserve climate data. Because the next inmate of the White House, who has pooh-poohed global warming as a Chinese scam, may vaporise it all into a cloud of stray electrons. This was a surgical strike, in the Indian meaning of the term — an event that was not unprecedented, but was attended by unprecedented publicity this time.

Back in the time of George W Bush, the Internet Archive had noted that no agency has custody of all documents across the federal web, and that huge volumes of data, much of it generated at public expense, are recycle binned in the course of spring cleaning before a new president takes office. It estimates that 83 per cent of PDF documents on government domains vanished in four years, between 2008 and 2012. This is routine, even though it is perfectly obvious that documents which seem to be unimportant today may assume political significance in the future. And with the change of guard in Washington, industry professionals apparently feared that data could suffer political assassination.

Earlier, on November 29 the Internet Archive had begun to crowdsource millions of dollars to host servers in Canada to replicate all the content accumulated by the custodian of the race memory of the Internet since it went online in 1996. Backing up on servers at remote locations was an ongoing project, routine insurance taken out against failures and the unforeseen. Indeed, it is an industry maxim that data does not reliably exist unless it exists at three different locations. However, Internet Archive chairman Brewster Kahle has confirmed that the election of Donald Trump to the White House lent fresh urgency to the endeavour.

While the archive is partly replicated in Amsterdam and Alexandria (such a resonant address for a global library), it is now felt to be essential for a copy of the entire content to be hosted outside US jurisdiction, in anticipation of censorship. TV recordings drawn from the archive itself have been used to illustrate Donald Trump’s attitudes to the internet. In the course of a Republican presidential debate a year ago, Trump had said that he was open to cutting off internet access to areas which America is at war with: “I sure as hell don’t want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our internet.”

In a CSPAN tape from South Carolina, he had added: “Some of you will say, ‘Oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people…” In the light of such statements, hosting offshore seems to be the only thing to do. Countries like Iceland, which have created bulletproof legal protection for content, may regard this as a business opportunity.

The Internet Archive’s heart is the Wayback Machine, which periodically takes snapshots of the web. It is the world’s finest lie detector, archiving 300 million pages every week — it snarfs whole websites, including social media, with timestamps. When someone in public life deletes a post and strikes up a different tune, it doesn’t really work because the original is still available on the Wayback Machine. It is a thorn in the side of politics which depends on doctoring the past.

Now, as fakery runs riot in the political domain, the organisation is focusing on increasing its truth value. Separate TV news and political TV advertising archives have been developed (see politicaladarchive.org). And now, the collection of government documents has a portal of its own, the End of Term Web Archive, with a searchable interface at eotarchive.cdlib.org. It stores a dump of data from 2 lakh internet hosts, over 6,000 US government domains and feeds from over 10,000 government social media accounts.

Doesn’t India, whose government is pushing strongly for digitisation of all processes, need such privately held digital archives? Here, too, fake news has been spread through dedicated social media channels with an alarming degree of success, and manipulation of the truth in public discourse has become commonplace. For instance, this week, as Parliament ends a fruitless session, there are competing accounts about who is to blame, and who precisely did not allow whom to speak in the House. It would be very useful to have a free to access lie detector online, a documentary record using which you could easily deduce who is telling the truth, and who must rely on falsehood.

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com
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