The Supreme Court Really Can't Figure Out This Internet Thing

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In dealing with cases on Internet censorship, music piracy, and digital GPS tracking, the Supreme Court needs a good understanding of how the Internet functions. So it's with a fair amount of worry to read yet another example of their total inability to work with the World Wide Web. On Monday, The New York Times cites a study that found the court is quite fond of linking to Internet articles in making its arguments — but almost half of those links are now broken. 

That study looked at the 555 digital links in Court cases since 1996 and found that 49 percent of those led to nowhere. The reasons come down to "link rot," or the basic decay of articles online over time. But link rot didn't just affect old pieces, as a case from February already has a dead link in it. This link death was the same across the type of link, too, be it PDF, HTML, or other, according to another study in the Yale Journal of Law and Society. "The modern Supreme Court opinion is increasingly built on sand," the Times writes.

To be fair to the court, link rot is just a regular consequence of using the Internet over time. But it's hard not to notice the justices' average age of 67 years when the court makes major decisions on the future of the Internet. For example, the Times reports, "For proof that many dog owners use six-foot leashes, for instance, Justice [Samuel] Alito included a link to" For regular Internet users, is obviously not the most trusted source; Alito might as well have linked to Yahoo Answers. But for a group that "hasn't really 'gotten to' email," according to Justice Elana Kagan, it's evident of a broader issue.

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And understanding the Internet isn't just relevant to those few Internet court decisions. In last year's huge DOMA arguments, Alito used the newness of the Internet to make a point against legalizing gay marriage.

“Same-sex marriage is very new. I think it was first adopted in the Netherlands in 2000,” Alito said. “It may turn out to be a good thing; it may turn out not to be a good thing … But you want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution, which is newer than cellphones or the Internet?”

For Alito, the Internet, formed for the public in the early 90s, is too new to be understood. Therefore, gay marriage, legally formed in 2000, is too new to be understood. How can Alito be expected to understand gay marriage when he hasn't figured out his Internet machine?

That's the main issue that this link rot evidence shows; the court will avoid the Internet except when it's convenient to its argument. And even then, you probably won't be able to double-check their sources, because those links will all be dead.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.