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Link rot. Even the name sounds repugnant, like something you’d see when you turn over a log. It actually refers to a perennial Internet problem: when you link to something, the thing you have linked to can move or go dead entirely. Imagine someone happily reading along through your blog post, law review article, or manifesto, and then coming to a screeching halt when they try to click through to one of your key sources only to hit a “404 – Page Not Found” error. That’s link rot, and it is a huge problem for lawyers and judges. Court opinions contain tons of links, both to other court opinions and to external resources. (You might not even be aware that those things are linked if you always read things via PDF, but they are there, I assure you.) Law review articles are sometimes glorified piles of links, and those links might be things you really need. If you can’t find the linked-to things because the Internet has shuffled or disappeared them, that resource becomes useless.
The profession began freaking out about this in earnest a few years ago, when a pile of studies showed that basically everything we were linking to was vanishing.
[A study published] in the Yale Journal of Law and Technology found that nearly one-third of the websites cited by the U.S. Supreme Court were nonfunctioning, many of which linked to government or education domains.
In a similar study […] Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain reports the percentage of defunct links to be at 50 percent. Zittrain’s study […] also found that 70 percent of the links in the Harvard Law Review, measured from 1999 to 2012, don’t work.
Given how much of our work is predicated on precedent, our authorities disappearing right out from under us is a far bigger problem then when, say, your recipe blog no longer links to that perfect recipe for shrimp scampi. Some courts, like the 9th Circuit, have tried to get around this problem by doing things like attaching a PDF copy of all links cited to each opinion, but that is clunky at best. A cleaner solution is that offered by perma.cc, which takes a belt-and-suspenders approach to making sure your linked material stays available.
Perma.cc takes screenshots of the linked documents and keeps them stored on its servers so there’s always a permanent record. Using a Perma.cc link, a viewer can link to a current-day version of the webpage if it is still available. If not, a tab links to a screenshot of the page as it was when it was submitted. Another tab links to an archived HTML version of the page.
Anyone can use perma.cc to create links. Those links stay in place for two years,. After two years, you can renew the links for another two years, after which they expire. What perma.cc calls “vesting organizations” — universities, courts, journal editors, and librarians — can enroll with perma.cc and create a collection of truly permanent links. Michigan’s Supreme Court is using the service to ensure all links within court decisions remain forever available, as is Harvard Law Review for journal articles. The latter is probably obliged to do so, morally if not contractually, because the service is housed there.
This method — writing a document and then turning around and submitting all your links to a third party — still has a kludge-y feel to it, but until we figure out a better way for the Internet as a whole to deal with the vanishing links problem, this is probably the best bet for the profession.
Featured image: “Spaceman” from Shutterstock.