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Dave Wilson

Web Data: Here Today but Gone Tomorrow

February 01, 2001|Dave Wilson

A reader wrote me to complain that he'd ordered some software off a Web site offering a great deal on a $400 program but that after he placed the order, the offer on the Web site was altered.

It's yet another illustration that technological advances often have a pretty nasty downside. The Web is a great way of getting information out quickly, and it lets us conduct transactions safely with people on the other side of the world. But the ethereal nature of the medium poses some hazards: Unlike a printed page, the data on a Web site can change from one moment to the next.

For instance, there is a Web site run by Pacific Bell, the telephone company that serves about 60% of

California residents.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am still involved in a 4-year-old billing dispute with PacBell.

From time to time, the Internet technology offered by PacBell goes in the tank, and not so very long ago, one could refer to the Web site for a prediction about how long it would take before things would be repaired. But when the time frame for those predictions was incorrect, subsequent visits to the Web site didn't reveal that the people in charge were just fabricating expected repair times.

PacBell would alter the information on the Web site to make it appear that the predicted repair was many hours or days later than had first been claimed; there was no "paper trail" with which one could document the fact that the company was yanking its users' collective chain. These days, the company avoids embarrassment by simply not giving out such information on the site.

My favorite example comes from the recently departed Clinton administration. Way back in 1994, when this whole Internet thing was still pretty obscure and the Web wasn't ready for prime time, the Clinton folks were trying to change America's health-care system. A criticism of the plan offered by Elizabeth McCaughey in the New Republic attracted an unusually harsh denunciation from the administration, including the phrase "blatant lie" from White House press goddess Dee Dee Myers, who was reading from the official party line.

Ordinary citizens, who learned about the inflammatory White House comments from their local newspapers, used the Internet to get a copy of the White House document from government computers.

You can imagine how startled those good citizens were to discover that the newsworthy language had been expunged from the electronic document.

Jock Gill, the fellow who helped the new administration figure out how to use this whole Internet thing, insisted that the news stories must have been based on drafts of the final statement. If the statement had been altered, he declared, it would have been marked as edited before being made available for electronic distribution.

Eventually, he learned that somebody on the White House staff--maybe by accident, because this violated policy, or maybe on purpose--had, in fact, altered the document.

Lest you think I am picking on the Clinton administration, let me point out that one of the first official acts committed by the new occupants of the White House was to gut, which had come to serve as a kind of "front end" for much of the information available to the public through the government. I guess the Bush folks are going to try to reinvent the wheel.

Tossing out all the data on the site is a little like throwing away the windows in the White House because your guys didn't pick out the glass. This is all pretty innocuous stuff. If you want to see just how innocuous, go to, where the National Archives has preserved three versions of the Clinton White House Web site so you can see how it evolved over time.

Unfortunately, that's not how most things happen in the real world. When a Web site gets changed, the average person will almost never be able to get a look at the original.

The solution for my reader dealing with the altered Web site was easy: He bought the software somewhere else. It's not hard to imagine situations in which that's not an option, and in which, lacking any documentation, he'd have difficulty getting that contract enforced in court.

The solution for the rest of us is to store copies of valuable pages on our own hard drives in preparation for the day that the Web site disappears.

Most people would be horrified at the concept of burning books. Someday, I hope we'll have the same kind of reaction when somebody wipes out a Web site.

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