Donald Trump’s administration, which is strongly pro-fossil fuels and questions the reality of climate change, has been quick to change government websites to align with its views.
Mere hours after Trump took office, all mentions of climate change were gone from Whitehouse.gov, replaced with a page about Trump’s “America-first energy plan” that favours oil, gas and coal and does not mention the climate or renewable energy. Within days, the climate change section of the EPA had disappeared, though it was put back up a few hours later. (Doug Ericksen, a spokesman for the team now in charge, claimed they’re “scrubbing it up a bit, putting a little freshener on it, and getting it back up to the public.”) The EPA page that used to have answers to frequently asked questions about climate change, however, is still gone.
For those wondering what the pages used to say, the Internet Archive has debuted a new browser extension that allows you to scroll back in time through different versions of a single page, and save current versions of a page for others to see in the future.
The extension, which is available for Google Chrome users or as an add-on for Firefox users, essentially gives users access to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine with one click. The Machine has been around for 15 years (and the non-profit Archive for 20), and previously let anyone who visited the Internet Archive website view past versions of millions of websites by looking up a key word or URL. With the browser extension, you can automatically scroll through all the previously captured versions of the specific site you happen to be visiting.
Mark Graham, the director of the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, tells Business Insider that the extension debuted a couple of weeks before Trump took office, and the group was planning to release it no matter what. But he admits the tool has gained new attention and importance because of Trump’s changes to government webpages.
“It really just highlights the ephemerality of the web,” Graham says, noting that disappearing content has always been a risk of the cultural shift away from printed material — which is why the Internet Archive started working to save webpages two decades ago. “This is getting a lot of attention right now because we’re seeing it up close and personal,” he says.
The Chrome extension has three simple buttons. The first, “save page,” allows you to save the site you’re on and put it into the Internet Archive’s enormous database, so that future visitors can look back to see what the page looked like at the moment you captured it. (The pages are saved with working links.) The “recent version” button takes you to the last version the Wayback Machine has in its archive, and the “first version” button takes you to the earliest version the archive has saved. Once you click either of the second two options, a bar appears on the top of the browser window, giving you the option to scroll back through all the captured versions of the page that exist.
Take the White House’s climate change page.
When you visit the site now, this is what it looks like:
The Internet Archive’s browser extension can detect that the page’s content is not available, and will automatically ask if you’d like to see a recent version of that site instead.
The most recent archived version of the site looks like this, since it was last saved on January 20, after Trump’s inauguration:
But if you scroll back, you’ll see the website looked like this just before the transition:
By clicking on the number of captures in the top bar, you can even see a calendar of all the times that site was saved, and select the version you’d like to see (many are identical, since many pages aren’t updated daily).
After Trump’s election, many scientists started worrying about what would happen to government webpages and the reports and data sets they contain, which lots of researchers rely on for their work. A group called the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) started downloading data and saving webpages to the Internet Archive, an effort that proved prescient.
“It certainly was alarming but we do feel like we’ve done enough of the grunt work,” says Andrew Bergman, a PhD student at Harvard and member of EDGI’s steering committee. “We feel quite good that within those EPA sites we have all the reports downloaded, and we’re tracking those websites through a few different means.”
But Bergman says the work isn’t over, and it’s likely pages have been missed, especially on sites the group deemed less at risk of immediate changes. With the new Wayback Machine extension, anybody can join the effort to preserve government websites. Mark Graham says thousands of new people have been downloading and using the extension every day.
“The fact that people are using our service is inspiring, and is also reminding us that we have to pay attention and use the tools that are available to us to emphasise that facts matter,” he says. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to help strengthen our democracy and give people tools to hold politicians and other people in positions of authority accountable.”