Brewster Kahle on Deep Web Geology & the Importance of the Internet Hall of Fame

February 16, 2017

In chronicling billions of websites and digital files, Brewster Kahle may now have earned himself the title of official historian of the Internet.

As founder and director of the Internet Archive, a not-for-profit, free digital library that archives Internet documents and makes them universally accessible, Kahle has assembled a digital collection of more than 4,000,000 e-books, millions of concerts and films, and 279 billion archived web pages. Everything is free to the public.

But Kahle has done more than archive – he’s helped establish a definitive history of the creation of the Internet, and in the process, has become a leading advocate in the effort to keep it free and accessible.

Kahle has been involved in Internet technology since the late 80s. In 1989, he invented the Internet's first publishing and distributed search system, WAIS (Wide Area Information Server). In 1996, he started his analytics firm, Alexa Internet, which he sold to Amazon in 1999. That same year, he founded the Internet Archive, and in 2012, he was inducted into the inaugural Internet Hall of Fame for his contributions.

As the Internet Hall of Fame opens nominations for the 2017 awards, we caught up with Kahle to talk not only about his continued mission with the Internet Archive, but to find out why he thinks the Internet Hall of Fame also plays an important role in documenting Internet history.

What is the Internet Archive and its mission?

The Internet Archive started 20 years ago. The reason I went into the Internet field was to build the Internet into a Library of Alexandria 2.0.

Could we make universal access to all knowledge? Could we make all of the books, music, videos, web pages, software EVER available to everybody, and the answer is YES, you can, technically.

The question was “how?” I did a whole series of steps, working on building supercomputers, then a publishing system, and once publishing was going online, then I could help build the library. The whole trajectory of my career has been this direction.

The Internet Archive is just the latest phase. It’s trying to fill in the pieces that other people aren’t doing. We are best known for archiving the World Wide Web. It’s a big job. We collect about a half a billion pages a week. It’s huge.

There are 150 of us doing this. And it’s not just the WayBack Web, but we archive a thousand books a day. We’ve collected 3 million hours of television.

There are a few visions of what the Internet is. There is the sense that it’s a communication system, or maybe it’s the library, or a virtual world, and probably a couple of others. I wanted to make the Internet a library of everything. We are getting there, but it’s not there yet.

Well, it’s a never-ending job, isn’t it? Every day, there is new information.

But we also have to bring the old stuff online, too. We have a lot of published materials in our libraries that are locked up. They haven’t been digitized or they are behind pay walls or they aren’t easily accessible through search engines. And people are just using the information they have close at hand to understand their world.

We are failing them because we have not made the best of what we have to offer to people who are turning to the net. We feel invigorated to try to make a system that will allow citizens to be as smart as they can be and not limited by the tools.

They are empowered by the Internet to help inform their world view.

You were among the first inductees in the Internet Hall of Fame. Why is the Internet Hall of Fame important, in your opinion?

I think the Internet Hall of Fame has been a step towards the Internet becoming ‘real.’ In the same sense that there are Grammys and Emmys and Oscars, the Internet Hall of Fame shows that the Internet isn’t just some backend technology somewhere. It’s a major part of our lives.

That’s why I thought it was interesting and useful. [The Internet Hall of Fame’s founding organization] The Internet Society was stepping up to take a broader leadership role in promoting the Internet and defending it from monopolization. I think the Internet Society is rising to the opportunity and need in defending the Internet as it becomes more important in our lives.

What are some of the dangers you see facing the Internet and access to the Internet?

They are coming hot and heavy right now. Some of the dangers are balkanization and the separation of different countries, firewalls being set up rather than a free interchange of information.

There is widespread spying that is now happening on the Internet, which we now know a lot of because of Edward Snowden. We can assume that is happening in other areas of the world as well.

The Internet is not finished; it’s not done. It’s evolving. It’s continuing to get better, and that is something we need to surface. The Internet Society and the people inducted into the Hall of Fame are instruments of change and adaptation and improvement.

How did becoming an inductee impact you personally?

It’s been really helpful. I noticed it popped up on my Wikipedia page. It’s an interesting reflection of what the Internet community thinks of me. The Internet Hall of Fame popped up on the first part of my little Wikipedia entry. People seem to understand and recognize it and refer to it in introductions. You know, “Why should you listen to this guy? Well, he’s been inducted in the Internet Hall of Fame!”

It’s been encouraging as well. Personally, it’s supportive that there are other people who think what I have been doing is important. Like the Internet Archive – it’s a non-profit, so you’re not getting rich. In a non-profit environment, your reward is kudos, people expressing thanks. That’s our currency.

The Internet Hall of Fame nomination and induction into it is encouragement to keep going, to do it and go forward faster. 

The Internet Hall of Fame is taking nominations through March 15 for its 2017 induction class. If you'd like to make a nomination submission, please visit our Nominations page



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