Deleting History

When George W. Bush takes over the White House on Saturday, his administration will also take over the White House Web site. It’s a reasonable bet that Bush’s online staff won’t maintain all the information on the current, Clinton-controlled site.

But the information currently on the site won’t just disappear into the ether, thanks to some foresight by people who take our heritage seriously. The National Archives and Records Administration said Thursday it will preserve the Clinton White House site, along with “”a special one-time snapshot of the public web sites of Federal agencies,” before the current elected officials and political appointees leave office. Here’s the full press release.

This kind of thing should be common practice. Unfortunately it isn’t — not in government and especially not in business.

Business Web sites, in fact, tend to be propaganda pages. They morph with time, telling today’s version of the truth and burying the past.

A reader, Chuck McManis, runs a site he calls Chuck’s House of Vax, where he chronicles his collecting and documenting of the Digital Equipment Corp.’s Vax computers. Those machines were the workhorses of their day.

According to McManis, Compaq Computer Corp., which bought Digital in 1998, has been removing links to Digital history, including a timeline. He’s upset to see the information go away. I checked Compaq’s site and didn’t see the timeline, either, but I did find it on a site that apparently has nothing to do with the company.

A Compaq spokesman, contacted Thursday evening, didn’t know the details of this situation but promised to look into it. The companys’ first priority is helping customers, he said, not terribly on point.

When I’m looking for a page that has disappeared this way, I usually check on the excellent Google search site, because Google archives everything it finds. It doesn’t archive pictures, however, which ruins the value of pages containing, say, timelines.

Nor does it solve the real problem — organizations’ failure to preserve a Web presence in some form. To be fair, companies and bureaucrats have enough to do without being responsible for satisfying historians’ desires. Surely, however, there has to be a better way to handle the Web’s “”link rot” problem, as it’s known. Storage is so cheap these days that almost nothing can’t be saved.

I concede that we’d lose little, and maybe even gain, if half of the Web’s content vanished forever right now. As the great science-fiction writer, Ted Sturgeon, once observed, 90 percent of everything is crap. The problem is that we can disagree on which 10 percent is worth keeping. So our bias should be archiving, not deleting.

The National Archives is doing us all a favor, no matter what our political leanings. Even if you loathe Clinton administration and its actions, you should agree that historians need as complete a record as possible when they tell future generations what happened in this one.

“The process of archiving the Web presence should be an ongoing activity, a joint effort between the White House and the Archives,” says Richard Wiggins, a longtime commentator on Internet issues, in an essay he recently published on the First Monday Web site. “The goal should not be occasionally delivering an 8mm tape with a few hundred megabytes of data, to be stored in a fire safe vault and accessible to no one. The goal should be to preserve all of the content and all of the Web experience to the fullest extent practicable.”

ICANN Oversight?

Recently, the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers endorsed the creation of seven new top-level domains (TLDs), a mini-step toward opening a system that has been utterly captured by the powerful corporate and trademark interests that now dominate the process.

Not so fast, says representatives of several major technology and civil-liberties organizations. They’ve sent a letter to the U.S. Commerce Department urging public hearings before giving final approval.

It’s not that these groups oppose new TLDs. “Rather, our immediate concerns are with the prejudice to the rejected applicants, and to the Internet community as a whole, and as to the conditions that will be imposed on registrants in the new gTLDs,” the letter says. “More generally, we also are concerned that NTIA’s wholesale approval of ICANN’s recommendations as to the gTLDs, their operators, and the contractual conditions they will impose on end-users, would each set very unfortunate precedents given the extraordinarily arbitrary process before ICANN to date. Setting such precedents would threaten to harm the long-term health of the Internet.”

Will the new administration pay any attention? Doubtful. If you thought the Clinton people were beholden to the rich and powerful, as they were, wait until the Bush administration takes over.

Death to Pop-up Windows

Maybe I’m the only one who cares about this, but I hate pop-up windows. Those, for the few of you who’ve never encountered one, are the mini-windows that appear on your computer’s screen when you’re surfing the Web. Sometimes they’re advertising — usually, in fact — and sometimes they’re notices from the site you’re visiting. (Yes, my own company uses these windows on occasion…)

The AOL Time Warner magazine sites are among the worst offenders. Every time you leave one of their sites you get a pop-up, like this one flogging a publication that is emphatically not the “world’s most interesting magazine.”
Actually, the only reason you can even see this illustration (which I’ve shrunk before displaying it here) is that I allowed it to load onto my desktop so I could capture and post it here. Normally I close pop-up windows long before I can see what’s inside. I’ve gotten so fast at killing pop-ups that I can’t remember the last time I actually saw the advertisement or other annoyance that the site designer wanted me to see.

When broadband access gets real, pop-ups will load so quickly that I won’t be able to kill them before seeing what’s inside. That, I suppose, is the real goal for the people who use them.

They’ll have to contend with another factor, however. There are quite a few programs out there that kill popups automatically or semi-automatically. The software arms race continues.

Tech Leaders on Power

Mercury News: Tech industry coalition presses for power solutions. Rolling blackouts, which could continue today, are forcing businesses driving the high-tech economy to acknowledge that the power shortage could do what competitors outside Silicon Valley could not: undermine the smoothly-running engine that has driven the economy here, forcing them to leave for other states.

Where were these guys when the crisis was taking shape? For an industry so allegedly attuned to the future, the technology crowd has been amazingly short-sighted on this one.

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