PERM:// A Proposal for a New, Solid Corner of the Internet
The Internet's malleability is its great strength, but it's also a substantial weakness. Content changes on the Internet, constantly, which provides the Web its wonderful timeliness and organic feel. But sometimes, you just want things to stay the same. This is especially true of content that I'll label here as reference material...it's an unsatisfactory term, with a hint of the 19th century about it, but I haven't found a better one yet.
Reference material is the stuff that you don't want changing; it's content that will be exactly the same ten years from now as it is the day it's posted. By "stay the same", I mean two things: (1) the link still works ten or twenty years later, and (2) the material at the link is identical to the original posting. If an academic scholar, say, posts a paper on the Internet that includes links to reference material- other papers, databases, videos, sound files- it would be nice if, years from now, those links were still live. Nicer still, would be the assurance that the live links contain exactly the same content as when the author first linked to them, no matter how much time has passed. Even better (why not go for the gold!) would be links that include the Internet equivalent of a card catalog entry, the kind we used to rifle through in the library, each card detailing the title, author, date of creation and other pertinent information laying out the material's provenance.
Creating a permanent home for material on today's Internet is pretty much impossible because there is no entity dedicated to permanence. Even the most staid gov, mil, org or edu websites are usually replete with broken links and with material of uncertain history. This 1999 NASA press release, for example: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/galileo/news/display.cfm?News_ID=224 Closest-Ever Picture of Volcanic Moon Io Released includes this link to the picture: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/pictures/io which, at the time I'm writing this, leads nowhere. At USA.gov, the pre-eminent source of all things federal, the page devoted to Family History: http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/History-Family.shtml has a listing for "Historical Records of Deceased Immigrants" with this hideously convoluted link: http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.eb1d4c2a3e5b9ac89243c6a7543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=d21f3711ca5ca110VgnVCM1000004718190aRCRD&vgnextchannel=d21f3711ca5ca110VgnVCM1000004718190aRCRD that, again, leads nowhere. The reasons for the dead links and confounding content are not hard to fathom. Hosting services come and go, domain names expire, sites get redesigned, system administrators rename all the links, redirects send you somewhere else, companies go bankrupt, agencies get reorganized, and so on.
I propose creating a new protocol for a place on the Internet where users can store content (pretty much) permanently and (pretty much) unchangeably. The links would be instantly recognizable by their address, beginning with perm:// The perm:// protocol would have the following features:
-Fixed content. Perm:// is meant for content that, by it's nature, is unchanging, such as a document, music, video, image or presentation file. A dynamic webpage that changes all the time is not the sort of content for which perm:// is intended.
-Free to see. Materials in perm:// are available to all and at no charge. There are no firewalls limiting access, and no subscriptions making the information available only to those who can afford access.
-Easy in, sticky out. Posting material to a new perm:// URL is simple, but once it's up, it's there to stay. Materials cannot be edited after that point, and can only be removed under limited circumstances, such as in cases of copyright infringement.
-Clarity. The material being posted will be clearly characterized with the type of information one finds in a bibliographic reference: title, author, date of creation, institutional affiliations, and other useful tidbits. Unlike the noneditable content it describes, this "card catalog" entry can be edited and updated as circumstances dictate. For example, although the posted document can't be altered, the "card catalog" content can be edited to include a link to an updated version of the material.
-Transparent ownership. The person and/or institution creating the perm:// link will be identified.
-Automatic URLs. A system-generated URL would have an appearance something along the lines of: perm://SL4E.ZFR7 This simple alphanumeric presentation offers several trillion combinations that can be easily typed (for example, in an offline newspaper article printed on old-fashioned paper) when someone wishes to link to existing PERM content.
-Searchable. The perm:// content can be spidered by search engines and appear in standard Internet search results.
The perm:// protocol can also be set up as a Pay to play system. Users who want to post permanent content would pay a modest fee, say one dollar for each link. The fee would help fund the overall perm:// system, and discourage frivolous posting. Some folks may object to a new protocol for permanency when we already have the Digital Object Identifiers (DOI) system for creating permanent links. But really now, how many Internet users have actually made use of DOI, or are even aware of its existence? The perm:// protocol is actually quite a different concept, because it is: (a) useable by anyone, rather than only to a small number of registered organizations that have paid a substantial fee, and (b) freely leads to the actual content, rather than to an abstract page that offers to sell the full article content (as is often the case with DOI links).
The only real conceptual problem with perm:// idea has to do with content ownership: what happens when Person A posts material belonging to Person B, and Person B doesn't want it up there? This sort of thing happens all the time, on YouTube, for example, and mechanisms are well established for objecting to posted material, having it temporarily removed pending review, and then coming to a decision on whether the material stays or goes. Some system along these lines will be necessary for perm:// as well (hence the suggestion for a "pay to play" approach to provide the necessary funding). It may make sense to limit perm:// postings, at first, to posts of .gov and .mil since content prepared by the U.S. federal government is in the public domain (I'm not aware of other governments with a similar practice, but if such does exist, then they too could be included). This will avoid any copyright or ownership issues. As the perm:// system matures, it can be open more broadly to posts of content from additional sources.
For perm:// to work, it obviously needs a permanent source of file storage with multiple redundancies, and a stable, long-term management structure. There are numerous ways this could happen, but some variation on the management structure (if one can call it that) of the Internet itself is probably in order. That is, a coalition of government agencies, private businesses, academia and non-profit organizations can pow-wow, in the way ICANN currently does, to bring perm:// into existence and manage the process.
That's it! I hope this strikes you as a good idea.