Technologist - The FindLaw Legal Technology Blog

Using the Internet Wayback Machine to Find Old Web Pages

How many websites are there on the Internet? In September 2014, the number of websites probably hit the 1 billion mark. We say "probably" because no one really knows for sure when that happened, only that there are 1 billion sites, according to Internet Live Stats, which keeps track of this sort of thing.

Those are active sites right now; there are probably even more websites that have gone dark for whatever reason. Thankfully, a nonprofit organization is there to help you recover the past.

Learn About the Internet

The Internet Wayback Machine, named for the time machine invented by genius dog Mr. Peabody in the "Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" sketches, is operated by the Internet Archive, a San Francisco nonprofit organization that aims to provide free access to human knowledge. It's like "Foundation," except there's video games.

With the Internet Wayback Machine, you can not only view websites that don't exist anymore, you can also view Web pages at particular points in history. Want to see what FindLaw.com looked like in December 2000? Yup, you can do that.

Plus, You Can Just Waste Time

There's even more at the Internet Archive than just the Wayback Machine, though. Recently, the Archive announced that users could play 2,400 classic MS-DOS games for free on the site, including old favorites like The Oregon Trail, Prince of Persia, SimCity, and one of my personal favorites, LHX: Attack Chopper.

The Internet Archive is also the home of Project Gutenberg, which provides digitized versions of texts in the public domain. Currently, it has over 36,000 works, including scans of the original manuscript of "Alice in Wonderland" (when it was called "Alice's Adventures Under Ground") as well as audio book versions of old classics.

What's the point of all this? Because the Internet is made of electrical signals and magnetic particles, it's more ephemeral than, say, books. If there were a Great Library at Alexandria for the Internet -- a record of the accumulation of human knowledge -- then the Internet Archive would be it.

The Internet is its own archive, but things can change for various reasons, some of them prosaic and others nefarious. (It's easy to document lies and misstatements when they've been preserved forever.) The Internet is constantly updating and replacing old versions of things with new ones; you don't need to destroy an old book to make a new one, but Web pages on the Internet get overwritten all the time, the new content replacing the old.

With the Internet Archive, at least there's a way to take a snapshot of the billion or so websites out there and freeze them as they existed at one point in time.

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