The news that the French Internet Referral Unit has flagged over 550 URLs on the Internet Archive as terrorist content is a serious concern for libraries, not least the Smithsonian Libraries, whose page there is among those singled out.
Clearly governments have a duty to protect against terrorism, as well as to ensure that the laws they pass are effectively enforced. The past two decades, however, have seen this move from being a duty to an obsession, with those agencies (and lawmakers) tasked with acting in these areas allowed to proceed with little if any regard for the other things that governments are supposed to protect, such as free speech and access to information.
This has already impacted upon the work of libraries, with requests from security agencies to access the records of library users. Some libraries have worked to minimise the impact of this by deleting user records as soon as legal retention obligations are finished.
However, it seems that the focus now is on content. As institutions that also host and give access to a lot of this – either through their websites or through platforms – libraries have a major stake in any rules that determine their ability to collect, preserve and give access to material.
IFLA’s own Intellectual Freedom statement demands freedom in this, with professional judgement playing the key role, specifically underlining that: ‘Libraries shall ensure that the selection and availability of library materials and services is governed by professional considerations and not by political, moral and religious views’.
As before, there may well be situations where materials are not appropriate for the open internet (at least not without safeguards). However, decisions to block materials need to be taken in a responsible, transparent, and proportionate way.
The direction of travel indicated both by this move by the French Internet Referral Unit, as well as legislation due to be voted on in the European Parliament this week, does not do this. Here are three reasons why:
A claim of terrorist content can affect any library website, anywhere…: clearly the Internet Archive is an American organisation, although one that is famously creating a copy in Canada for fear of interference from the US government. New European legislation on terrorist content would also apply to any website to which EU internet users have access (which, by default, is all of them).
Libraries themselves are increasingly using the internet as a means of facilitating access to their collections, fulfilling their mission to spread information and knowledge. Many have invested heavily in building platforms, or in digitising works to be held elsewhere. There is no fundamental reason why this access should be blocked for users in some parts of the world.
… and any type of content…: one of the striking points in the Internet Archive case is the sheer breadth of the requests, with entire category pages for ‘Television’, ‘the Grateful Dead’ and of course ‘Smithsonian Libraries’. These pages contain thousands of pieces of material, all of which risk being taken offline at least temporarily.
As the Internet Archive itself points out, even if there are guidelines about what content can or should be defined as terrorist, it is not clear that the French Internet Referral Unit has even applied its own principles here.
… without any serious opportunities for appeal: the breadth of application of the French Internet Referral Unit’s own rules, as well as of upcoming EU ones, already massively fails any test of proportionality. The situation is made only worse by the very short deadlines given to websites to respond. In the case of the Internet Archive, this is 24 hours – a very short period of time to go through millions of items and carry out a proper check.
The new rules being discussed in the European Parliament would be worse still, with only an hour for response. And of course Europe’s new copyright rules imply that content suspected of infringement should not even appear at all. Without serious steps to protect the work of libraries – and their users’ right of access to information – it may be inevitable that sites need to comply first, and respect fundamental rights later.
Clearly the loss of any sense of proportion in applying rules around online content is not unique to Europe. Mexico has already passed laws which allow content to be taken online on the mere suspicion of infringement, and there are efforts to do the same in South Korea. The claims by the French Internet Referral Unit do, however, underline the risks that short-sighed national (or regional) decision-making can have on libraries everywhere.