British Library wants to archive the UK web, creating an invaluable national treasure trove of porn, celebrity trivia gossip and Daily Mail comments. But it admits it can't put a figure on the project - which looks like becoming a huge, open-ended commitment for the taxpayer.
Today the Library stepped up the pressure for the law to be changed, allowing copyright libraries to create copies of web material for research purposes of other copyright holders material. Five statutory libraries already have permission to make printed material available. Now the British Library says it wants the Web too.
"It's not a request for additional funding," a BL spokesperson said, but they couldn't say how much the creeping mission would end up costing us. At first, the BL won't archive every Tweet, but do an annual crawl, with some sites such as No 10 Downing Street archived more often. That would cost 220TB of data, it reckons about £4,000 in storage.
But that would barely make a dimple in a replica of UK web output, now that so many non-web chat areas have migrated to a home between angle brackets. The BL acknowledges there are eight million sites.
What, we wondered, was the point of archiving every single "Ashlee Cole iz a slag" typed into a browser?
"It may be that somebody wants to look back and research celebrity and this could be important to their research," we were told.
No doubt. But every Tweet and comment?
It was cheaper, the spokesman assured us, than employing a curator to choose between the best Ashley/Cheryl comments (for example).
Ah, right. So the mechanics dictate the curation policy.
But it was also fairer, he added, because the neutral, objective web bot couldn't be accused of bias. Even in momentous national conversations as the Cole divorce.
There are plenty of comments flying around this morning wondering why public money should be required to archive more than a handful of websites. Especially with Brewster Kahle's Archive.Org, which is privately funded.
At first the library told us the public was unaware that websites disappear without some part of the British state keeping a copy - an interesting claim. I've never met anyone who thinks all websites are preserved by some silent, omniscient backup programme.
Then the Library told us that the private sector couldn't be trusted to do the job, because future funding couldn't be assured. But with the British state in the red to the tune of £180bn this year, a defecit larger than Greece's in GDP terms (12.8 per cent), and frontline services such as nurses facing the chop, it's questionable whether anyone wants prefers to keep a copy of those Mail comments instead. ®