Broken Knowledge: Why the Splinternet Should Worry Libraries

Broken Knowledge: The Rise of the Splinternet, and Why it Matters for Libraries

Concern is rising about the potential breaking up of the internet. Through both events – Russia’s steps to test the possibility to isolate its own internet from the world – and articles – such as on the BBC website and in Fortune Magazine – there is growing awareness that the internet may be drifting away from a borderless, stateless ideal, towards a ‘splinternet’.

The internet to date has been designed to operate without regard to frontiers. Information can take any route to get from one place to another, with the only concern being its destination, rather than its content.

This is what has allowed it to become not only so resilient, but also so powerful as a means of empowering new voices and viewpoints, often from groups who have been marginalised or persecuted.

Yet as the events and articles mentioned above – as well as fascinating work being carried out by the Internet and Jurisdiction Network – underline, there are threats to this. This blog looks at two examples.

 

The first is a desire to create national internets, shutting out content – and the rules and preferences that underlie them – from the outside world.

This can arguably make sense from a security point of view. Cutting off the rest of the world can prevent viruses, cybercrime and obviously illegal content from entering the country (although of course it does not stop home-grown variants). However, it also means cutting off trade, exchange, and knowledge.

This last point is particularly important for libraries. As institutions with a commitment to providing the widest possible access to knowledge, an internet limited only to information produced – or located – nationally would be a major step backwards.

Global challenges, such as epidemics and climate change, require full exchange of knowledge across borders. Other researchers cannot do their jobs if there are artificial limitations on content available. People of course have friends, families, and communities of interest that spread across borders.

Either filtering out all but a small share of foreign content, or even obliging international websites to keep information on local servers (an option likely only open to the biggest sites), will mean less access to information.

 

The second, conversely, is an effort to apply national rules globally. This drive to regulate has been facilitated by concentration of so much internet traffic through a number of platforms. Whereas trying to regulate internet users or infrastructure is almost impossible, it is very easy to find the addresses of the major players, and focus on them.

While it may be easy to target these platforms, it is also easy to see that for 193 countries each to try and apply their rules around internet content to all of the others is likely disastrous.

Yet we are seeing the beginning of this, with the European Union’s new rules on taking down (or blocking) terrorist or copyright-infringing content applying to any platform available in the European Union. France has been trying to get Right to Be Forgotten rulings applied globally, not just on its own territory, or that of the European Union as a whole.

These decisions risk trying to apply the values and preferences of one country or region to others, with a risk that companies will either have to apply different rules in different countries, or effectively just apply the toughest rules of any major economy.

While this may lead to positive results in some cases, it can also mean that hastily drafted laws end up having far-reaching implications.

In immediate terms, one set of likely losers are smaller countries, which will face rules on content set either by other countries or major platforms. The only alternative will simply be to opt out of these services.

Smaller information providers will also suffer, given that they simply will not have the resources to apply the necessary fixes (filters, AI, moderation), or vary their service from one country to the next.

This also of course hurts libraries, which are increasingly also hosting and making available content across borders.

It was only at the last minute in the recent European Union copyright reform that open access and open education repositories, often run from libraries, were protected from new rules on platform liability.

These rules would have affected any library globally running a repository available to people in the European Union. It is not guaranteed that they will be spared from provisions elsewhere.

And of course these rules hurt users. There is extensive evidence of the incorrect removal of content – even by the biggest platforms, under pressure from lawmakers and other actors – while recent efforts to fight terrorist content forget that it can be important to preserve this material in order to allow for the future prosecution of the guilty.

Once again, the risk is that researchers and the broader public, now and in the future, lose out in terms of access to information.

To prevent this, both in passing laws domestically and thinking about their impact internationally, libraries need to keep working to ensure that the value of access to information for all is at the centre of the debate.

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