In the Crosshairs? Libraries as Intermediaries at a time of Intermediary Regulation

Major internet platforms are attracting more and more attention from policy makers.

With techno-optimism increasingly out-of-fashion, they are increasingly seen as a source of a range of evils in their own right, or at least far too complicit in the negative actions of others. In response, calls are growing for regulation by government.

Indeed, controlling the actions of such companies can often be tempting for individuals or authorities keen to pursue wider agendas or to promote a particular world view.

Yet efforts to regulate the activities of internet platforms, when not targeting any single company (as competition interventions might do), can easily impact on others whose mission is to act as intermediaries – to connect people through information. Libraries can end up in this category, alongside others such as publishers, or simple services such as file-storage sites like Dropbox or website hosting services.

Clearly libraries already operate with a strong public interest mission, and staff trained in acquiring and giving access to information according to high professional and ethical standards. This – rather than external regulation – has been the basis of their activity, generally carried out with a strong degree of independence.

Indeed, in order to continue to fulfil their role of supporting access to diverse content, and responding to the needs of all of their communities, this is worth defending whenever there are discussions about regulation of information intermediaries in general.

To do this, it is useful to think in more depth about how libraries fit into the debate, and in particular the details of the intermediation role that they play compared to others. One way of doing this is by breaking down the different characteristics of various types of intermediary. These could include the following:

Is there profit from acting as an intermediary?: some intermediaries claim money directly from customers for giving access to materials. This is the case for publishers and bookshops (who sell books), as well as platforms like Netflix. Alternatively, an intermediary can make money indirectly, through advertising, with content acting simply to draw people in. There is nothing inherently wrong with making money as an intermediary – costs need to be covered, and the act of providing easier access is, in itself, valuable. However, there is an argument that those who profit should also cover the costs of their actions (both in terms of the potential harm they create, or the price of generating content).

Are there payments to content creators?: linked to the above is the question of whether intermediaries support the creators of the content they give access to. This was very much the criticism of the major internet platforms, accused of not paying artists (enough) while profiting from their work. The major platforms of course do pay, although usually small sums per use, which provide far from enough to live on. Other intermediaries, such as publishers, have a more traditional relationship with larger lump sums paid out as advances.

Is there control over content? Finally, there is the issue of whether intermediaries have any influence over the content to which they give access. This can range from checking (and even correcting) every word, in the case of publishers, to being effectively unaware of all that is posted (for example file storage services).

Between these two extremes, things are more complicated. In the case of internet platforms, there can be ordering or promotion of content (even if this can be done automatically). Increasingly, too, they have been pressured to identify particular types of content and remove it, taking a more editorial role. A key question now is whether this role is completed by automatic filters or humans.

Where do libraries stand in this?

Clearly they do not profit, either directly or indirectly, from their work as intermediaries. Supported either by governments or host institutions, they are spared the need to earn a return in general, although it is true that some libraries do seek sponsorship. Nonetheless, they are still some way away from the situation of internet platforms or publishers. This would represent a case for libraries being subject to less tough regulation than others.

Libraries do pay for the content to which they give access. Clearly, they do not contribute as much financially to authors as publishers do, they help in other ways, through helping discovery and promoting reading in general. In countries where there is public lending right, library lending leads to further payment to authors, although this may not be the most efficient way of supporting writers. Given the legal acquisition of content in the first place, again, libraries could argue that they deserve the benefit of the doubt in any discussion about regulation.

Finally, libraries also sit somewhere in the middle when it comes to influence over content. They do make choices in the acquisition of content, although may also be dependent on donations. They cannot be expected to read every line of every book of course and are expected to provide access to content from a variety of viewpoints and experiences, although through this should exercise judgement. This places libraries somewhere in the middle, with greater scope to influence content (realistically) than internet platforms or storage services (where uploads are made by users), but less than publishers for example.

This does not mean, however, that they should face a level of regulation halfway between the two. Indeed, this is where the uniqueness of libraries comes in. Fundamentally, they are not acting for profit, but for the public interest. While librarians may not agree on a personal basis with all of what is said in the works held in their collections, there is an understanding that access to a variety of views is important if people are to form their own.

As a result, it is vital to ensure that – as actions advance on regulating internet intermediaries – that the specific nature of libraries is recognised, understood and protected.

This uniqueness of libraries is worth underlining, as it is too often forgotten when all intermediaries are bundled together as the subjects of new laws.

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