Broken Hyperlinks, the Common Law, and the Way Back Machine
The SCOTUS has a staff of full-time scholars that pour over the text of our High Court's published decisions, looking for errors; either type errors or, increasingly, broken or dead hyperlinks to content that is no longer present on the Internet.
Obviously, not all court systems can afford to employ a staff of perpetual post-hoc fact-checkers. Thus, over time, an increasing number of links cited in case law become outdated, sending the reader to the wrong site, or to a dead web page; this is known in research parlance as "link rot" and in legal circles as, "reference rot".
A recent study conducted by the Harvard Law School found that over 70% of the hyperlinks contained in law reviews no longer link to the originally cited content; over 50% for links contained in SCOTUS decisions. That is some pretty serious "reference rot".
Another example is right here at this law blog. Since 2009, we frequently link our posts to the original slip opinions of the appellate courts. Here in Michigan, however, the Supreme Court revamped their web site in 2012, rendering all of our previous links dead; the cases were all assigned new hyperlinks in the revamped web site. Occasionally, we receive emails from someone trying to locate one of our cited cases on a dead link.
This is where archive.org and its Way Back Machine come into play. This web site is the archive for pages on the Internet. Since around 1996, the site takes snap shots of all the web pages on the internet.
Plugging our law firm's web site into the search bar reveals that since March 2009, archive.org has crawled our law firm's site over 50 times. Looking back at those early versions of the site makes us sick over here at the Law Blogger; what were we thinking!?
Big Data is coming into its own, and sites like archive.org with its Way Back Machine server will help to keep our published common law sound and intact. Over time, it will take on a sort-of "high-tech" version of our intellectual history.
As for the hyperlinks in published decisions of the common law, those need to be maintained.