June 20, 2001 - By Philippe Quéau

How big is the Web? Is the world digital heritage archivable using current technologies? Can we seriously envisage universal and cheap access to our digitized documentary heritage?

In spite of its immense societal and economic impact, the World Wide Web is dwarfed by the mass of e-mails and other instant messages. According to a recent survey , in 2000, the World Wide Web consisted of about 21 terabytes of static HTML pages, and was growing at a rate of 100% per year. The "deep web" is even considerably larger.

Despite the apparently large size of the Web, the current volume of e-mails generated is about 500 times more than Web pages. Approximately 610 billion e-mails (equivalent to 11,285 terabytes of data) are sent annually and instant messaging grows at an annual rate of 140%. In 2004, more than 180 million people will use this evanescent form of instant communication, which leaves no apparent trace.

Maybe not for long.

For one thing, governments are trying to better control the flow of messages in order to fight cyber-crime. The project of a European Convention on Cyber-Crime, prepared in cooperation with the United States, Japan and other non-European countries, shows this growing concern.

Another aspect is the technical feasibility of mass storage. A new storage technique, AntiFerromagnetic Coupling (AFC), has recently been announced. It uses a "sandwich" made of a three ruthenium atoms-thick layer and two magnetic layers. Scheduled for commercialization in 2003, this technique allows an information density of 15 billion bits per cm².

If someone were to write 100,000 bytes of text (the equivalent of one chapter of a book) every day for 100 years, this could easily be stored on 1cm².

Moreover, the cost of storage is falling rapidly. In the autumn of 2000, a gigabyte of storage cost less than $10 and it is predicted that this will fall to $1 by 2005.

What can we infer from these facts? First that the personal and professional data produced by every human being is now potentially recordable and storable at a very low cost, on a head of a pin. Second, the issue of a systematic global recording of all kinds of "born digital" archives for all sorts of use is no longer just a technical or economic question: it has also become a deeply political and ethical issue. Protection of personal data and privacy, regulation of data-mining practices, regulatory framework of Internet service providers are burning issues.

Within the framework of its new Information For All Programme, and with a view to contributing the World Summit on the Information Society to be held in Geneva in December 2003, UNESCO intends to sensitize decision-makers, information professionals and the world civil society to the importance of ethical management of fast growing e-archives.

E-Heritage is no longer a luxury, reserved for the happy few. It has become an essential part of the global heritage and will be a key aspect of a world policy on universal access to information.

Philippe Quéau, Director of the Information Society Division, UNESCO

Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.

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