The Wayback Machine is a digital archive of the World Wide Web and other information on the Internet. It was launched in 2001 by the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, California, United States.
Internet Archive founders Brewster Kahle and Bruce Gilliat launched the Wayback Machine in 2001 to address the problem of website content vanishing whenever it gets changed or shut down. The service enables users to see archived versions of web pages across time, which the archive calls a “three dimensional index”. Kahle and Gilliat created the machine hoping to archive the entire Internet and provide “universal access to all knowledge.”
The name Wayback Machine was chosen as a reference to the “WABAC machine” (pronounced way-back), a time-traveling device used by the characters Mr. Peabody and Sherman in The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, an animated cartoon. In one of the animated cartoon’s component segments, Peabody’s Improbable History, the characters routinely used the machine to witness, participate in, and, more often than not, alter famous events in history.
The Wayback Machine began archiving cached web pages in 1996, with the goal of making the service public five years later. From 1996 to 2001 the information was kept on digital tape, with Kahle occasionally allowing researchers and scientists to tap into the clunky database. When the archive reached its fifth anniversary in 2001, it was unveiled and opened to the public in a ceremony at the University of California, Berkeley. By the time the Wayback Machine launched, it already contained over 10 billion archived pages.
Today the data is stored on the Internet Archive’s large cluster of Linux nodes. It revisits and archives new versions of websites on occasion (see technical details below). Sites can also be captured manually by entering a website’s URL into the search box, provided the website allows the Wayback Machine to “crawl” it and save the data.
Software has been developed to “crawl” the web and download all publicly accessible World Wide Web pages, the Gopher hierarchy, the Netnews (Usenet) bulletin board system, and downloadable software. The information collected by these “crawlers” does not include all the information available on the Internet, since much of the data is restricted by the publisher or stored in databases that are not accessible. To overcome inconsistencies in partially cached websites, Archive-It.org was developed in 2005 by the Internet Archive as a means of allowing institutions and content creators to voluntarily harvest and preserve collections of digital content, and create digital archives.
Crawls are contributed from various sources, some imported from third parties and others generated internally by the Archive. For example, crawls are contributed by the Sloan Foundation and Alexa, crawls run by IA on behalf of NARA and the Internet Memory Foundation, mirrors of Common Crawl. The “Worldwide Web Crawls” have been running since 2010 and capture the global Web.
The frequency of snapshot captures varies per website. Websites in the “Worldwide Web Crawls” are included in a “crawl list”, with the site archived once per crawl. A crawl can take months or even years to complete depending on size. For example, “Wide Crawl Number 13” started on January 9, 2015, and completed on July 11, 2016. However, there may be multiple crawls ongoing at any one time, and a site might be included in more than one crawl list, so how often a site is crawled varies widely.
Storage capacity and growth
As technology has developed over the years, the storage capacity of the Wayback Machine and its parent company Alexa Internet has grown. In 2003, after only two years of public access, the Wayback Machine was growing at a rate of 12 terabytes/month. The data is stored on PetaBox rack systems custom designed by Internet Archive staff. The first 100TB rack became fully operational in June 2004, although it soon became clear that they would need much more storage than that.
In 2009, the Internet Archive migrated its customized storage architecture to Sun Open Storage, and hosts a new data center in a Sun Modular Datacenter on Sun Microsystems‘ California campus. As of 2009, the Wayback Machine contained approximately three petabytes of data and was growing at a rate of 100 terabytes each month.
In 2011 a new, improved version of the Wayback Machine, with an updated interface and fresher index of archived content, was made available for public testing. In March 2011, it was said on the Wayback Machine forum that, “the Beta of the new Wayback Machine has a more complete and up-to-date index of all crawled materials into 2010, and will continue to be updated regularly. The index driving the classic Wayback Machine only has a little bit of material past 2008, and no further index updates are planned, as it will be phased out this year.” Also in 2011, the Internet Archive installed their sixth pair of PetaBox racks which increased the Wayback Machine’s storage capacity by 700 terabytes.
In January 2013, the company announced a ground-breaking milestone of 240 billion URLs. In October 2013, the company announced the “Save a Page” feature which allows any Internet user to archive the contents of a URL. This became a threat of abuse by the service for hosting malicious binaries.
|Year||Pages Archived (billion)|
Website exclusion policy
Historically, Wayback Machine has respected the robots exclusion standard (robots.txt) in determining if a website would be crawled or not; or if already crawled, if its archives would be publicly viewable. Website owners had the option to opt-out of Wayback Machine through the use of robots.txt. It applied robots.txt rules retroactively; if a site blocked the Internet Archive, any previously archived pages from the domain were immediately rendered unavailable as well. In addition the Internet Archive stated, “Sometimes a website owner will contact us directly and ask us to stop crawling or archiving a site. We comply with these requests.” In addition, the website says: “The Internet Archive is not interested in preserving or offering access to Web sites or other Internet documents of persons who do not want their materials in the collection.”
Oakland Archive Policy
Wayback’s retroactive exclusion policy is based in part upon Recommendations for Managing Removal Requests and Preserving Archival Integrity published by the School of Information Management and Systems at University of California, Berkeley in 2002, which gives a website owner the right to block access to the site’s archives. Wayback has complied with this policy to help avoid expensive litigation.
The Wayback retroactive exclusion policy began to relax in 2017, when it stopped honoring robots.txt on U.S. government and military web sites for both crawling and displaying web pages. As of April 2017, Wayback is ignoring robots.txt more broadly, not just for U.S. government websites.
From its public launch in 2001, the Wayback Machine has been studied by scholars both for the ways it stores and collects data as well as for the actual pages contained in its archive. As of 2013, scholars had written about 350 articles on the Wayback Machine, mostly from the information technology, library science, and social science fields. Social science scholars have used the Wayback Machine to analyze how the development of websites from the mid-1990s to the present has effected the company’s growth.
The Wayback Machine benefits bloggers, authors, scholars who publish large amounts of their writing online, because the archive protects work published online against plagiarism and broken hyperlinks. Searching the archive by website and date can quickly determine the original author and date of published content.
When the Wayback Machine archives a page, it usually includes most of the hyperlinks, keeping those links active when they just as easily could have been broken by the Internet’s instability. Researchers in India studied the effectiveness of the Wayback Machine’s ability to save hyperlinks in online scholarly publications and found that it saved slightly more than half of them.
Journalists use the Wayback Machine to view dead websites, dated news reports, and changes to website contents. Its content has been used to hold politicians accountable and expose battlefield lies. In 2014 an archived social media page of separatist rebel leader in Ukraine Igor Girkin showed him boasting about his troops having shot down a suspected Ukrainian military airplane before it became known that the plane actually was a civilian Malaysian Airlines jet after which he deleted the post and blamed Ukraine’s military. In 2017 the March for Science originated from a discussion on reddit that indicated someone had visited Archive.org and discovered that all references to climate change had been deleted from the White House website. In response, a user commented, “There needs to be a Scientists’ March on Washington”.
Despite its powerful capabilities, the Wayback Machine also has some limitations that users should keep in mind. There is a 3 to 10 hour lag time between when a website is crawled and when it is available for viewing in the Wayback Machine, which is a significant improvement from their 6-month lag time in 2014. The Wayback Machine is not “historical Google”; users must know the URL of the websites they want to see. It does have a “Site Search” feature that allows users to find a site based on words describing the site, rather than words found on the web pages themselves.
Some owners place a robot.txt file on their website which prevents the Wayback Machine from discovering and archiving it. Furthermore, website owners can also contact the Internet Archive directly and request that their pages be excluded from the archive.
In legal evidence
Netbula LLC v. Chordiant Software Inc.
In a 2009 case, Netbula, LLC v. Chordiant Software Inc., defendant Chordiant filed a motion to compel Netbula to disable the robots.txt file on its website that was causing the Wayback Machine to retroactively remove access to previous versions of pages it had archived from Netbula’s site, pages that Chordiant believed would support its case.
Netbula objected to the motion on the ground that defendants were asking to alter Netbula’s website and that they should have subpoenaed Internet Archive for the pages directly. An employee of Internet Archive filed a sworn statement supporting Chordiant’s motion, however, stating that it could not produce the web pages by any other means “without considerable burden, expense and disruption to its operations.”
Magistrate Judge Howard Lloyd in the Northern District of California, San Jose Division, rejected Netbula’s arguments and ordered them to disable the robots.txt blockage temporarily in order to allow Chordiant to retrieve the archived pages that they sought.
In an October 2004 case, Telewizja Polska USA, Inc. v. Echostar Satellite, No. 02 C 3293, 65 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 673 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 15, 2004), a litigant attempted to use the Wayback Machine archives as a source of admissible evidence, perhaps for the first time. Telewizja Polska is the provider of TVP Polonia and EchoStar operates the Dish Network. Prior to the trial proceedings, EchoStar indicated that it intended to offer Wayback Machine snapshots as proof of the past content of Telewizja Polska’s website. Telewizja Polska brought a motion in limine to suppress the snapshots on the grounds of hearsay and unauthenticated source, but Magistrate Judge Arlander Keys rejected Telewizja Polska’s assertion of hearsay and denied TVP’s motion in limine to exclude the evidence at trial. At the trial, however, district Court Judge Ronald Guzman, the trial judge, overruled Magistrate Keys’ findings, and held that neither the affidavit of the Internet Archive employee nor the underlying pages (i.e., the Telewizja Polska website) were admissible as evidence. Judge Guzman reasoned that the employee’s affidavit contained both hearsay and inconclusive supporting statements, and the purported web page, printouts were not self-authenticating.
Provided some additional requirements are met (e.g., providing an authoritative statement of the archivist), the United States patent office and the European Patent Office will accept date stamps from the Internet Archive as evidence of when a given Web page was accessible to the public. These dates are used to determine if a Web page is available as prior art for instance in examining a patent application.
Limitations of utility
There are technical limitations to archiving a website, and as a consequence, it is possible for opposing parties in litigation to misuse the results provided by website archives. This problem can be exacerbated by the practice of submitting screen shots of web pages in complaints, answers, or expert witness reports, when the underlying links are not exposed and therefore, can contain errors. For example, archives such as the Wayback Machine do not fill out forms and therefore, do not include the contents of non-RESTful e-commerce databases in their archives.
In Europe, the Wayback Machine could be interpreted as violating copyright laws. Only the content creator can decide where their content is published or duplicated, so the Archive would have to delete pages from its system upon request of the creator. The exclusion policies for the Wayback Machine may be found in the FAQ section of the site.
Archived content legal issues
A number of cases have been brought against the Internet Archive specifically for its Wayback Machine archiving efforts.
In late 2002, the Internet Archive removed various sites that were critical of Scientology from the Wayback Machine. An error message stated that this was in response to a “request by the site owner”. Later, it was clarified that lawyers from the Church of Scientology had demanded the removal and that the site owners did not want their material removed.
Healthcare Advocates, Inc.
In 2003, Harding Earley Follmer & Frailey defended a client from a trademark dispute using the Archive’s Wayback Machine. The attorneys were able to demonstrate that the claims made by the plaintiff were invalid, based on the content of their website from several years prior. The plaintiff, Healthcare Advocates, then amended their complaint to include the Internet Archive, accusing the organization of copyright infringement as well as violations of the DMCA and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Healthcare Advocates claimed that, since they had installed a robots.txt file on their website, even if after the initial lawsuit was filed, the Archive should have removed all previous copies of the plaintiff website from the Wayback Machine, however, some material continued to be publicly visible on Wayback. The lawsuit was settled out of court, after Wayback fixed the problem.
In December 2005, activist Suzanne Shell filed suit demanding Internet Archive pay her US $100,000 for archiving her website profane-justice.org between 1999 and 2004. Internet Archive filed a declaratory judgment action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California on January 20, 2006, seeking a judicial determination that Internet Archive did not violate Shell’s copyright. Shell responded and brought a countersuit against Internet Archive for archiving her site, which she alleges is in violation of her terms of service. On February 13, 2007, a judge for the United States District Court for the District of Colorado dismissed all counterclaims except breach of contract. The Internet Archive did not move to dismiss copyright infringement claims Shell asserted arising out of its copying activities, which would also go forward.
On April 25, 2007, Internet Archive and Suzanne Shell jointly announced the settlement of their lawsuit. The Internet Archive said it “…has no interest in including materials in the Wayback Machine of persons who do not wish to have their Web content archived. We recognize that Ms. Shell has a valid and enforceable copyright in her Web site and we regret that the inclusion of her Web site in the Wayback Machine resulted in this litigation.” Shell said, “I respect the historical value of Internet Archive’s goal. I never intended to interfere with that goal nor cause it any harm.”
In 2013–2016, a pornographic actor tried to remove archived images of himself from the Wayback Machine’s archive, first by sending multiple DMCA requests to the archive, and then by appealing to the Federal Court of Canada.
Censorship and other threats
Alison Macrina, director of the Library Freedom Project, notes that “while librarians deeply value individual privacy, we also strongly oppose censorship”.
There are known rare cases where online access to content which “for nothing” has put people in danger was disabled by the website.
Other threats include natural disasters, destruction (remote or physical), manipulation of the archive’s contents (see also: cyberattack, backup), problematic copyright laws and surveillance of the site’s users.
Kevin Vaughan suspects that in the long-term of multiple generations “next to nothing” will survive in a useful way besides “if we have continuity in our technological civilization” by which “a lot of the bare data will remain findable and searchable”.
Some[who?] find the Internet Archive, which describes itself to be built for the long-term, to be working furiously to capture data before it disappears without any long-term infrastructure to speak of.
- Collective memory
- Deep web
- Library Genesis
- The Memory Hole
- Web archiving
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1) Internet Archive’s motion to dismiss Shell’s counterclaim for conversion and civil theft (Second Cause of Action) is GRANTED, 2) Internet Archive’s motion to dismiss Shell’s counterclaim for breach of contract (Third Cause of Action) is DENIED; 3) Internet Archive’s motion to dismiss Shell’s counterclaim for Racketeering under RICO and COCCA (Fourth Cause of Action) is GRANTED.
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More importantly, held the court, Internet Archive’s mere copying of Shell’s site, and display thereof in its database, did not constitute the requisite exercise of dominion and control over defendant’s property. Importantly, noted the court, the defendant at all times owned and operated her own site. Said the Court: ‘Shell has failed to allege facts showing that Internet Archive exercised dominion or control over her website, since Shell’s complaint states explicitly that she continued to own and operate the website while it was archived on the Wayback machine. Shell identifies no authority supporting the notion that copying documents is by itself enough of a deprivation of use to support conversion. Conversely, numerous circuits have determined that it is not.’
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Both parties sincerely regret any turmoil that the lawsuit may have caused for the other. Neither Internet Archive nor Ms. Shell condones any conduct which may have caused harm to either party arising out of the public attention to this lawsuit. The parties have not engaged in such conduct and request that the public response to the amicable resolution of this litigation be consistent with their wishes that no further harm or turmoil be caused to either party.
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- Official website
- “Basic users’how-to guide for searching or saving web pages“. WikiHow.com (in English, German, Spanish, French, and Italian).
- Internet history is fragile. This archive is making sure it doesn’t disappear. San Francisco: PBS Newshour. Retrieved 2018-09-19.
- “OpenWayback. FOSS java and perl, with proxy replay mode”. sourceforge.net. (by IIPC)
- “Tool to retrieve a backup from the Wayback Machine”. github.com.
- “Wayback Machine Downloader Online” (in English and Polish).