Link rot: What happens when the internet isn’t forever

Link rot: What happens when the internet isn’t forever

Need to access an officer’s bodycam video from a routine traffic stop you are disputing? It could be deleted after 30 days and most definitely will be gone after 90. Depending on a footnote URL in a legal case when arguing in court? Better check that -- it might now link to a completely different website, depending on who owns it.

Link rot, when a link is no longer available (think error 404), reference rot, when a link works but goes to a different site than it did when cited, and deleted digital files are three major issues facing the legal system from cop to court and everywhere in between.  And without industry standards for handling the problems, local law enforcement and federal agencies are left to come up with their own solutions.

The one who owns the URL, decides what does, and does not go there

The question of who controls what is something even the very highest court is struggling with. Recently, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan used a shortened Google link instead of the original link to an NBC story in a citation for a civil liberties case. While some, like blogger Josh Blackman, praised the initiative, citing the shorter and more trackable link as an asset, critics said it gave Google too much power over how accessible or inaccessible a link to an important case may be, according to a report on Fortune.

An earlier, and more humorous, situation at the highest court occurred when Justice Samuel Alito referenced a URL in a footnote for a video game violence case, and the domain owners dropped the original website and left a cheeky message for the justice to make the point that the internet is anything but permanent:

“Aren't you glad you didn't cite to this webpage in the Supreme Court Reporter at Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 131 S.Ct. 2729, 2749 n.14 (2011). If you had, like Justice Alito did, the original content would long since have disappeared and someone else might have come along and purchased the domain in order to make a comment about the transience of linked information in the internet age.”

Not much sums up the problem with link and reference rot in the legal system like that instance, said Charlotte Stichter, managing editor at the Law Library of Congress, who is working on a solution for the issue. “You can’t assume sources on the web will be there even tomorrow, let alone five years from now,” she said.

And while the Justice Alito instance was a very public example of what happens with link and reference rot, Stichter said, it isn’t usually so apparent, which leaves lots of room for citation errors.  “This is an obvious example of what happens with rot in a humorous treatment of the subject. In many cases, it won’t be so obvious,” she said. Links in footnotes, for example, are usually valid when an article is first published, “but three years later, people are looking at that document and finding out half the links no longer work or [the footnote links to] something else entirely.”

The legal system, based on precedents, must have permanent documentation to substantiate arguments or decisions and prove objectivity, Stichter said. “If you were reading a report on, say, the law in Zambia regarding drug legalization and you went to the law library to double-check a citation, you might have second thoughts” about relying on the report’s analysis if you couldn’t find the original law, she said. “You would have to take the author’s word for it. That isn’t going to be a strong resource.”

Stichter says there are solutions to link rot, like the one the Law Library of Congress is using called -- a free service that allows authors to archive legal documents and create permanent links to those documents.

“Let’s say I am citing a law in a foreign document. I could include the original link and the link. That link will work forever, no matter what happens to the original.” When asked why more agencies aren’t using, Stichter responded that it was more a matter of not knowing than not wanting to use services like that as a solution.

Body and dash cam data also a hot button issue

Link degradation is also an issue on the other end of the legal spectrum when an arrest or legal situation might begin. Some police departments, such as the Seattle PD, embrace public access to police bodycam and dashcam footage via sites like YouTube, to “help increase transparency and accountability while balancing the privacy rights of citizens,” according to a city statement

The downside, according to Snowden Becker, program manager for Moving Image Archive Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, is that when a third party has control of the link, it could be taken down or changed by the company at any time -- a situation much like what happened to Justice Alito.

“If a police department provides public access to dashcam or bodycam video recordings via a YouTube channel (as the Seattle Police Department has done since early 2015) or other third-party site, and then at some later point that third party closes down the channel, or removes individual videos, any links to those videos that might have been in blogs, news stories, or legal briefs would no longer work. That's link rot.”

The other issue police departments are facing with body and dashcam data, Becker said, is how long to keep data in the system. While handling video data is not new to departments, the quantity is exponentially greater than in recent years. Most police departments don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the amount of data coming in, so they get rid of the uneventful encounters.

Videos of police encounters when nothing happens will be purged after 30 to 90 days. “But that is determined by each agency and their technical capacity, and standards vary by state and agency for non-evidentiary material,” she said.

Becker, who is organizing a forum in August called On the Record All the Time on the issue, said one of the problems is that years after an encounter, someone might want to use video. “Just ask Rodney King or George Holiday, who shot the video. Nobody at that time anticipated that that recording would become so much a part of our visual history or be used as it has.” She is hoping the forum helps create a long-term vision of how those in the legal and police systems store and use video data.

And while finding a way to achieve permanence seems like the obvious answer, it isn’t necessarily the best one, Becker said. “Police often say they often encounter people on the worst day of their lives,” she said.  Should a record of that live forever?

There is a legal right to privacy, she said, and an argument to be made for the right to be forgotten. “The longer you keep a recording, the greater the threat to privacy.”

About the Author

Suzette Lohmeyer is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.


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