Preserving History as it Happens: The Internet Archive and the Crimean Crisis

By Ian Milligan

“Thirty goons break into your office and confiscate your computers, your hard drives, your files.. and with them, a big chunk of your institutional memory. Who you gonna call?” These were the words Bob Garfield used in a recent episode of On the Media, to address the storming of the Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism. On Saturday, March 1st, 2014, during the Russian occupation of the Crimea, men with guns stormed and occupied the offices of the Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism. The staff fled, managing to take only part of their files and equipment, although not everything. Over the rest of the weekend, the Center reached out to the Internet Archive to preserve their web material. The episode attracted the attention of the global media, web archivists, and historians. Historians deal with source losses all the time – sources destroyed by events (from wars, political malfeasance, and so forth) – but here we see how quickly the process of archiving and preserving has sped up.

The Internet Archive, which I’ve written about before for ActiveHistory, tries to back up much of the publicly-accessible web. It had not however captured comprehensive holdings of this particular site. If something happened, if the servers were wiped, there were fears that all of their past stories, information, and so forth would be lost. These would be critical for the group, but also, of course, for historians. So from their offices in San Francisco, the Internet Archive’s Archive-It service carried out a comprehensive sweep of the Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism’s website, capturing it now 14 times between March 1st and 19th. 5,185 videos have been captured. Indeed, in case they were taken down off YouTube, they are now preserved.

The Internet Archive’s sweep of the Center’s website points towards a swiftly changing context of information storage and retrieval. The speed with which information is being preserved and distributed is increasing. Recently, I’ve been reading Andy Greenberg’s This Machine Destroys Secrets. He opens up his book with a comparison between the leaking of the WikiLeaks material by Chelsea Manning (then known as PFC Bradley Manning) and the Pentagon Papers of Daniel Ellsberg. Manning carried her data espionage relatively quickly, as the young soldier listened to Lady Gaga songs, copied classified material onto CD-RWs from an otherwise secured (air gapped from the Web) machine, and put them onto her personal MacBook while stationed in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of documents copied and distributed in a matter of months. Ellsberg on the other hand had to manually take documents, copy them at a friend’s agency, and painstakingly conceal all the top secret and other markings so that he could mass reproduce them at a copy shop to leak to the media and political officials. The former could take days, the latter well over a year. Both were brave actions, but one helps us understand how technology has profoundly sped up the dissemination of sensitive information.

The Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism website was publicly facing, not classified, but similarly the process of backing up and archiving this material – the institutional repository in many respects of this organization – is now possible in a dramatically new way. Information can be preserved, and in this way, Archive-It and all the other web archivists who made this sort of retrieval possible, helped fight back against the thugs that sought to silence the free media by breaking into their physical offices. This is not a magic bullet against all source destruction, of course, as the recent destruction of records and computers in El Salvador demonstrated. But in the case of material published to the web, it is a fascinating way to save history as events unfold.

Finally, this event also reminded me to donate (and now that I have a job, to finally subscribe): and if you have a few bucks laying around, you could consider doing the same. You’d be helping to preserve history as it happens.

Ian Milligan is a co-editor of and an assistant professor of digital and Canadian history at the University of Waterloo.

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