Privacy in Hyperlinked Environments: A relic worth fighting for?

October 7, 2019

I took a course on intellectual freedom back in Fall of 2017, and that course left me inspired by librarians’ role as an advocate for free speech and access to information. The ALA Library Bill of Rights states that libraries should challenge censorship and protect privacy and confidentiality of all patrons. Though the Library Bill of Rights’ statement of library patrons’ “right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use” was originally put forth in a pre-internet age (back in 1939), the organization has amended and re-affirmed these basic policies in the years since (most recently in January of 2019).

Though privacy in our increasingly hyperlinked world has gotten more complex, librarians’ role in defending this right remains fundamental. Looking specifically at the digital rights of the young—the focus of Monica Anderson’s 2016 Pew study—the ALA has frequently reiterated its defense of minors’ rights to access the internet (and fought against the CIPA requirement that libraries filter internet access), even when it means losing access to federal funding.

An essential part of intellectual freedom is more than just freedom to access information; it also includes freedom from worry that personally identifiable information will be retained or disseminated in ways that will compromise individuals’ privacy. Once again, the American Library Association has proven that it will fight for the right to privacy, stating that “Libraries cooperate with law enforcement when presented with a lawful court order to obtain specific information about specific patrons; however, the library profession is concerned some provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act go beyond the traditional methods of seeking information from libraries.”

In reading the Pew Research Center studies on privacy concerns, I couldn’t help thinking back to discussions I’d had with my peers in that 2017 course, and to feel some sense of hope when reflecting on the way that libraries continue to fight for privacy. The topic I chose to focus on (Privacy and the Hyperlinked Library) included Pew studies that tended to show pessimistic attitudes about our loss of privacy in our digital world. People surveyed tended to lament a loss of control, distrust of surveillance, and a general trend toward a world where privacy is a relic of the past. Madden and Rainie’s 2015 investigation into Americans’ attitudes about privacy notably began by addressing the surveillance associated with the Patriot Act, providing data that reaffirmed the fact that people realize the importance of free speech and free access to information, but are not always proactive about defending their own privacy.

The glimmers of hope I saw in these surveys connected perfectly with what I’d read about in 2017 (and what I continue to see in the readings for this course). When reading experts’ conclusions in “The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online,” I was struck by the way the warning that “we need to make sure [chatbots] don’t encode hate” aligned so perfectly with Dana Boyd’s warning that we need to be wary of how we are using big data. Survey respondents to Anderson’s 2016 survey similarly acknowledged the importance of wielding the tool of big data carefully: “The data isn’t really the problem,” wrote one survey respondent. “It’s who gets to see and use that data that creates problems.” And librarians play a crucial role in protecting sensitive data.

Looking at Liberman’s Privacy Toolkit gave a very library-centered take on how to protect privacy (and educate patrons about it) that reminded me of one of my favorite episodes of my favorite podcast (and reminded me that I never finished the privacy workbook that this particular episode of Reply All had convinced me I needed to look into).

This adventure in privacy and the hyperlinked library also brought to mind an older podcast from the same team behind Reply All: a TLDR/Note to Self collaboration from 2013 that got me thinking about how organizations might be capable of serving communities by providing them access to the internet (and educating them about how to exist safely online).

Though the WiFi on Wheels service was not library affiliated, it is just the sort of service that a modern hyperlinked library might look into providing. Though WiFi on Wheels was a service from 2013, it is far from a relic from the past; mobile library services—and librarians fighting for intellectual freedom, inclusivity, connections, and privacy in a digital world—are timeless.

References:

American Library Association. (1939). Library bill of rights. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill

American Library Association. (2009). Minors and online activity. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/minorsonlineactivity

American Library Association (n.d.). USA PATRIOT Act. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/advleg/federallegislation/theusapatriotact

Anderson, M. (2016). Parents, teens and digital monitoring. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2016/01/07/parents-teens-and-digital-monitoring/

Boyd, D. (2016). What world are we building? Data & Society: Points. Retrieved from https://points.datasociety.net/what-world-are-we-building-9978495dd9ad#.auzbwo27v

IntelTechniques Privacy Workbook. (2019). Retrieved from https://inteltechniques.com/data/workbook.pdf

Liberman, S. (2016). Privacy Toolkit. Retrieved from https://lis.iwaruna.com/copyright-toolkit/information-literacy-learning-about-privacy/

Madden, M., & Rainie, L. (2015). Americans’ attitudes about privacy, security and surveillance. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2015/05/20/americans-attitudes-about-privacy-security-and-surveillance/

Note to Self. (2013). Bringing the Internet to Public Housing, Your Neighbors and a Unicorn. Retrieved from https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/notetoself/episodes/bringing-internet-public-housing-your-neighbors-and-unicorn

Rainie, L., Anderson, J., & Albright, J. (2017). The future of free speech, trolls, anonymity and fake news online. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2017/03/29/the-future-of-free-speech-trolls-anonymity-and-fake-news-online/

Reply All. (2018) The Snapchat Thief. Retrieved from https://gimletmedia.com/shows/reply-all/v4he6k

3 Responses to “Privacy in Hyperlinked Environments: A relic worth fighting for?”

  1. Hi Tory,

    I really liked reading your reflection. There’s a lot to unpack here, but this stood out to me, “An essential part of intellectual freedom is more than just freedom to access information; it also includes freedom from worry that personally identifiable information will be retained or disseminated in ways that will compromise individuals’ privacy.” YES!

    There are so many ways that our privacy is eroded daily that we may not even be aware of, such as the information mined from the apps we use, or the free WiFi we access. Do you think the library might have a role in educating people about this?

    • Tori said

      Thanks for the comment! I definitely think media literacy is an important part of what libraries can/should provide, and librarians–as professionals who need to be vigilant about patron privacy–are often in the position of having the expertise and the access needed to reach the the communities that might most need this sort of education.

  2. Yes! Library on wheels and the opportunity to teach the public about privacy, intellectual freedom, and what it means to be a digital citizen. Wait – should that just be “citizen?”

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