The UK is preparing to launch its official internet archive without internet access, after the publishing industry put restrictions on its release.
The archive was held up by a decade of negotiations between publishers and the British Library, meaning that regulations permitting the library to perform its first archive copy of every UK website were not passed until April this year, more than 20 years since the World Wide Web took off and 10 years since Parliament passed a law making it possible.
In the intervening decade, copyright lawyers at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo) took the lead over international internet archive policy from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), while publishers began turning old content on the World Wide Web into a cashable resource.
The British Library gave the first demonstration of the UK internet archive to publishers last week, to demonstrate how it would meet their restrictions that the only people who could see it were those privileged few people eligible for readers' passes at one of the UK's six major academic libraries – and only then one at a time, in person, at a terminal in the library.
Governments and publishers are meanwhile preparing to draft an international agreement on library archives at Wipo in Geneva next week, where the UK has asked for the question of access to be relegated.
A spokesman for the British Library said access had been one of the key issues in negotiations with publishers. But terms of the decade-long talks were already set by a 2003 Act of Parliament that forbade the UK internet archive from being available on the internet.
Speaking after the revelations in Computer Weekly that the Conservative Party, lead partner in the UK coalition government, had taken steps to retrospectively erase records of its pre-election pledges that the internet would make people in power more accountable to ordinary people, the spokesman said publishers had insisted the web archive should be treated in exactly the same way that printed paper archives had been treated for generations.
"The public interest is served by the fact that there's now going to be a full record of the intellectual and cultural output of the nation, preserved in perpetuity, which it was not before," he said.
Angela Mills Wade, who helped formulate the 2013 regulations as executive director of the European Publishers Council, said it was not necessarily in the public interest that the internet archive should be made generally available.
"It's not a public archive. It's an archive for preservation and for research," she said.
Adrienne Muir, an expert in digital preservation at Loughborough University who spent a term on the Legal Deposit Advisory Panel – a body that played a major part in formulating the regulations – said restricted access was the best compromise that could be reached with publishers.
"Publishers didn't want the libraries to act as competition by providing unrestricted access," she said.