Waterloo professor restores deleted political platforms, promises

A history professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario uses an online database of old websites to show how the internet never forgets a political promise.

Searchable archive includes millions of old and deleted political websites

Visualization of all the websites scanned for the Canadian Political Parties and Political Interest Groups Portal. (webarchives.ca)

A history professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario uses an online database of old websites to show how the internet never forgets a political promise. 

Ian Milligan teamed up with researchers from the University of Maryland, York University in Toronto and Western University in London, Ont., to pull together a searchable archive of over 14 million online documents from 50 different political parties and interest groups. 

"It's hard to access these records," Milligan says, because some of the documents in the archive were published a decade ago and no longer exist on the live web.

"Websites have very limited life spans.... We see that with political parties especially. They don't keep old content laying around."

Archive includes deleted material

But that doesn't mean old or even deleted information can't be found. 

By arranging a decade's worth of political websites in an archive and making that archive easy to use, Milligan hopes people will start thinking about the internet's excellent memory.

"You can't put something on your website and delete it, and then pretend it never happened," he said. 

"This lets us go back and see how often, for example, was the word 'aboriginal' used on the Conservative Party of Canada's website in 2005 versus the Liberal Party website in 2005. You can actually go in and find those exact pages to see what press releases they may have put out and what things they may not want people to see anymore."

The same applies for the Liberals, the NDP, fringe parties and interest groups. 

Milligan hopes the web archive will help voters hold parties to account in the run-up to the October federal election.

Past party positions

"One example that I like to use is if you look at recession and depression, you can see who tended to describe the [2008] financial crisis as a depression and who drew allegories to the Great Depression more than other groups," says Milligan.

He says more partisan groups on either end of the political spectrum used the word depression, while more mainstream groups used the word recession.

Another example is a press release from the Conservatives in 2005 that accused the Liberals of ignoring violence against aboriginal women.

"Given contemporary campaigns it's a neat reversal of who's in power and who's not," he said.

As for the NDP, Milligan says they really embraced public transit in 2014 and 2015.

"I was surprised, I knew they were interested in urban issues, but to see that they really became the standard bearer for that was fascinating," said Milligan.

In 2008, climate change was a big part of the Liberal platform, says Milligan. About five per cent of the websites that used a Liberal domain name contained the words climate change together, but by 2011, the Liberals didn't have much about climate change at all. 

"The Liberals have almost erased it from many parts of their website," says Milligan, while other parties have increased their mention of the word climate change. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.