Websites and social media are valuable sources for historic research and must therefore be carefully preserved. In order to make this possible, Dutch law must be changed. Martijn Kleppe, member of the KB management team, and Susan Aasman, professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Groningen, explain why this is important.

“Hooray! UNESCO recently announced the inclusion of De Digitale Stad in the Memory of the World Register, which already included Anne Frank's diary and the Dutch East India Company Archives. De Digitale Stad (The Digital City) was one of the first online communities, founded in 1994. In those early years of the internet, it was the perfect way to make the internet simple and accessible for everyone. The Digital City had shops, a post office and a metro system, and participants were able to chat with each other and participate in online events.

These are all things that we now consider to be normal on the internet, and UNESCO has rightly remarked that it was an important milestone in the history of the internet and digital culture in the Netherlands and the world. With much effort, the remains of the Digital City have now been preserved.

The challenges of preserving digital heritage

UNESCO reminds us how important it is to take good care of this kind of digital heritage. But curiously, the Netherlands is neglecting its internet past. Unlike in neighbouring countries, Dutch law makes it very difficult to store websites and social media. Heritage institutions such as the KB and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision do engage in web archiving, but for each website that they store, they have to obtain the owner's permission, and even then they can only provide limited accessibility of the stored websites to researchers.

The process is far too labour-intensive, as a result of which a great many online sources have been lost. And we do mean lost, because the internet very easily forgets its own past: the average web page is only online for 90 days, after which it is modified or deleted. Hyves, one of the first Dutch social media platforms, has almost completely vanished, and there is no way to get it back. 

And we are not just talking about unique internet phenomena from the recent past: think of all the websites that talk about the climate crisis, populism, the housing shortage, the gas crisis in Groningen or the childcare benefits scandal. It can be difficult to imagine, but today's websites, forums, posts, tweets and videos will be the sources that tomorrow's researcher's need.

The importance of good web archiving

All that knowledge and all those opinions will be lost if we do not take action now. Some of these websites are stored by companies so that they can sell them to parties interested in monitoring the image of businesses and organisations, for example. And the Internet Archive in America makes it possible to see what certain websites looked like in the past. 

However, the preservation of this kind of information is not something that should be left to commercial businesses and foreign institutions. Consider Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter: the platform now belongs to him, and if he were to decide to take it offline, he would have every right to do so. But it would mean that all tweets ever tweeted would be lost, and with them, a part of our history. The pandemic years, for example, when Twitter served as the forum where scientists, journalists, concerned parents and ideological opponents engaged in the heated social debate around the government's measures. It is therefore high time for us to start regarding digital heritage such as websites and social media as our national heritage, and this means that we urgently need new legislation that allows heritage institutions to consistently store and preserve digital publications such as websites. Scientists from the University of Amsterdam have already argued for this before, for reasons including the safeguarding of the freedom of speech, freedom of information and the right to science. 

By declaring The Digital City to be cultural heritage, UNESCO is forcing us to recognise that the need for improved legislation is greater than ever. It is now up to the government and the House of Representatives to take practical action and ensure that future generations will be able to study and understand today's world, including the online one.”

An adaptation of this opinion piece appeared in De Volkskrant on 25 May 2023.

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Martijn Kleppe
Board member Research & Discovery