Bad week for the internet: UK and North Korea take big steps to purge the past

It’s not quite book-burning, but it’s not much better. Two countries this week undertook a digital auto-da-fé of sorts, making outrageous decisions to prevent the public from reading vast numbers of webpages.

The first country is North Korea, where the state news agency reportedly purged more than 95 percent of its digital archives, with the result that there remain hardly any news articles published before October of this year. In other words, the country just zapped most of its digital history in one swoop.

While this is outrageous, it’s hardly a surprise. North Korea, after all, is run by a cruel young dictator who just denounced his uncle for “half-heartedly clapping” and put him to death by a machine-gun firing squad.

The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is not the sort of place where you would expect leaders to undertake a mass suppression of digital information. Unfortunately, that appears to be what has occurred.

As TechDirt reports, the British Library has decided its internet archive — an historical record of the UK’s online history — shall not be available on the internet.

The decision to keep the country’s digital history off the open internet is apparently driven by publishers who believe they can wring money out of old webpages. The result is that access to Britain’s web history will be limited to one person at a time in six academic libraries scattered across the country — an absurd result that is already leading to ridicule from librarians and others.

The UK’s decision does not, of course, put it in the same league as North Korea. But its act of digital suppression reflects especially poorly at a time when “Norway Decided to Digitize all the Norwegian Books,” and non-profit American outfits like the Internet Archive and the Hathi Trust are providing rich online resources to millions.

The stifling of the library archive also coincides with a British political party’s use of copyright to force others to purge historic versions of its website, and with powerful figures in other parts of Europe using laws to remove parts of the internet they don’t like.

All of this amounts, in short, to wiping out access to the past in order to control the present. The United Kingdom, an historic champion of freedom, should resist this urge to blot out the internet.