In an age where governments are facing heavy criticism for purging online data, the Supreme Court of Canada has publicly archived all hyperlinks cited in its judgements, a proactive move that bucks the trend of institutional information vanishing from the internet.
The highest court in the land recently launched a website listing hundreds of PDF captures of hyperlinks referenced in its rulings, dating back to 1998. These hyperlinks include UN treaties, consumer contracts and legal definitions, and will now live indefinitely, where anyone in the public can reference them to better understand the judges' reasoning.
Rosalie Fox, the court's library director, said the move is meant to tackle "link rot," when cited materials disappear online.
"We want to have a holistic approach to being able to read the judgement, examine the case file and look at the secondary sources that the judges was able to read or access, and cited—so that you've got the whole picture," Fox said in an interview.
For years, court librarians have tried to avoid citing hyperlinks, because print sources are more likely to be preserved in public archives and libraries.
"There's a real need to grapple with the perishable nature of things on the internet"
But when Fox and her colleagues started noticing that they had to increasingly cite online-only sources—and that some URLs were broken—they proposed archiving the court's links. In 2014, they asked judicial libraries in each province and territory if they were tackling link rot. "At the time that we consulted, no one was doing this," she said.
Fox says her team counted 161 hyperlinks in about half as many rulings, and 40 of the links were broken. Others linked to pages that had since been updated—for example, a training manual which had been replaced by a newer version.
Librarians took to the Wayback Machine and the Canadian Government Publications Portal, both of which are hosted by the nonprofit Internet Archive. They collected whichever archived version of the page was captured closest to the date when the judges accessed it.
"We're cautious in our approach. We definitely want to ensure some contextual continuity," said Fox.
She had lawyers check that putting the PDFs online would fall under the Copyright Act's "fair dealing" provisions, which exempts copyright for purposes like study, parody or news reporting. To be safe, Fox's team uploaded segments of privately owned work, like a single page from a 2003 article in the journal Business & Legal Reports.
As of January 31, the archive included 205 English language links, and almost as many in French. They range from the dictionary definition of "state of the art," to UK Crown prosecutor guidelines on hypnotizing witnesses. The latter was used in the court's rationale in ordering a retrial in a murder case, after a judge inappropriately admitted testimony from a witness who changed her testimony after undergoing hypnosis at the request of police.
Toronto lawyer Ren Bucholz described the court's move as a positive step amid a trend of governments wiping out their data, either intentionally or due to site upgrades.
"There's a real need to grapple with the perishable nature of things on the internet," said Bucholz, who monitored these issues for the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The internet is being populated at rate we've never seen before. But that means it's also deteriorating and losing information at an incredible rate as well."
Courts are rising to the challenge. In October 2015, the US Supreme Court opened a similar PDF archive of cited links after a report found half were already broken. Previously, the court's librarians printed out links and included them in physical case files.
In San Francisco, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has archived 648 sites in PDFs.
Michigan's Supreme Court archives all its cited links through Perma.cc, a crowdsourced link preservation site launched by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. While anyone can put links on the Perma.cc server, they have to be renewed every two years in order to not expire. But links posted by universities, courts and journal editors stay permanently in the database.
Canada's federal bureaucracy is now crafting a digitization strategy to make sure that government departments preserve the information they publish. Bucholz hopes it will have enough resources to track thousands of pages, from scores of agencies.
"We all have a role in supporting the social benefit of the internet," said Bucholz. "If we take it for granted that information will always be there, we run the risk of losing it even before we understand what we have."
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