Librarianship and Freedom of Expression in the Era of the Global Internet

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by David Winger.

When I looked at the New York Times website a few weeks ago and saw that Twitter had agreed to a formal request from the German government to block access by users in Germany to the Twitter account of a neo-Nazi group, I was pretty happy.  I have no love for skinheads and their ilk, groups that specialize in spreading anti-Semitic and anti-everyone-who-isn’t-white propaganda.  It was enlightening, however, to read the article and the concerns expressed within it by free speech advocacy groups who were concerned about the precedent set by this decision.

There is a lot of concern in the modern world about how the internet has impacted freedom of expression.   This is especially true in the U.S., where speech is protected from government interference by the First Amendment of the Constitution. From the purely professional perspective of a librarian who is trying to organize information into easily-accessible catalogs and databases, there is certainly a strong reason to be in favor of the free exchange of information over the internet, without governmental restrictions, as it makes getting a holistic collection of our society’s views much easier.  Most would agree that a librarian, by profession, believes in giving the type of assistance that will allow others to empower themselves with knowledge, and the question of how good librarians can be at this task hangs in the balance as governments and private corporations decide what sort of speech is protected in this new era of a truly globalized internet.  Our profession, then, has an obligation to weigh in on this debate.

It would be reasonable for one to interject at this point that librarians, particularly in the U.S., are already advocating on behalf of freedom of expression.  After all, in June 2010 ALA reaffirmed the organization’s core organizational values in its 2011-2015 Strategic Plan, including that of  intellectual freedom, stating: “The American Library Association actively defends the right of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment.”  Once a year ALA holds Banned Books Week, when authors and books banned throughout the world are celebrated, and it keeps active track of the censorship of books in America.  A component group of the ALA, the American Association of School Librarians, has started a Banned Websites Awareness Day to highlight how American schools often overly restrict access to websites on school computers through automatic filters, and to push for a more open discussion of what websites are appropriate for young students to have access to.

Yet, although there is evidence that American librarians are doing a good job of examining domestic issues of censorship, the issue invariably becomes more complicated when one looks at the international librarian community, and there, I think, is where much more work needs to be done.  The dramatic rise in the popularity and reach of online social media in the last few years has created remarkable new flows of information between nations.  While this is creating new opportunities for international discourse, new social media comes with their own series of censorship issues, as was illustrated by the anti-Muslim YouTube video released in September and more recently by the censorship conducted by Twitter in Germany.  What are the guidelines for defining protected speech for a private corporation run by American citizens which has servers in Germany and allows German citizens to communicate with each other, as well as with the rest of the world?  This is new territory companies like Twitter, Google, and Facebook are wading into, instant mass global communication of a type that librarians who lived before the internet era may have had trouble even conceiving of.

As global information flows between societies grow stronger, so does the importance of developing a coherent global community of librarians that addresses how to deal with the impact of these changes on our profession.  But what can you or I do as individuals to work towards this goal?  A great first step any librarian or library student can take is to join the FAIFE email list.  FAIFE is a committee on freedom of expression run by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), of which ALA is a member.

I myself am just entering the library profession as an American MLS student, yet I do not think it takes much background in our field to see that the challenge of protecting valuable sources of information in the global community from censorship has been made much more daunting, yet also more important, by the dramatic increase in global information traffic spurred on by these new social media platforms.  There are tremendous opportunities for librarians to further our professional goals if we can use these new technologies effectively and without serious governmental interference.  But this, I think, will require librarians to grow more cohesive as a global community.

What do you think are good steps for individual librarians or library students to take to help foster a stronger international community of librarians?

David Winger is a student at the Pratt Institute’s School of Information and Library Science in New York City, pursuing a MLS degree.  David graduated from Yale University in 2008 with a B.A. in History.  Like many humanities majors, he tried out different jobs before deciding on his desired career path.  After college, he worked for two years as a paralegal at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, interviewing witnesses and helping senior prosecutors decide whether or not to prosecute specific police arrests.  He then decided to pursue his interest in the information facilitation and categorizing aspects of this type of work.  After graduating in January 2014, David would like to work as a librarian focusing both on social justice issues and digital projects, where ever he can find such an opportunity.  He tweets regularly, and randomly, at (@Wingdcw).

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