Tag Archives: censorship

Was 2020 the Year we Fell out of Love with Information (and Why We Should Make Up in 2021)

2020 was a year of casualties.

Most obviously, there were the million plus people who were lost to COVID-19, and others whose lives were – or risk being – shortened by the consequences of the COVID response on other forms of healthcare.

Screening and vaccination programmes, mental health, and prevention have all suffered.

There have been the pupils and students who have lost weeks or months of formal education, with the highest costs often amongst those who rely most on education as a driver of social and economic mobility.

There has been the economic cost, playing out in businesses closed, jobs lost, and futures upended.

Beyond COVID, the death of George Floyd led to protests that met, often, with a violent response from police. Meanwhile, conflicts continued around the world, and progress towards the SDGs remained insufficient if we are to meet the Global Goals by 2030.

This blog argues that alongside the other casualties, there is a risk that our relationship with access to information may end up being damaged by the events of 2020. However, as it concludes, it is not too late to make it up.


Information as Virus

The first blow came, early on in the pandemic, when the word ‘infodemic’ started to circulate, promoted by the World Health Organization. Others, such as UNESCO, used terms such as ‘disinfodemic’.

Of course in some ways, it is positive to see the power of information recognised in a world where this is arguably all too often taken for granted.

However, the focus in the WHO definition on the idea of an ‘over-abundance’ of information is noteworthy. So too is the implication that information itself (rather than deliberate disinformation, in the case of the UNESCO definition) is a virus.

It seems unlikely that the WHO, given its own positive approach to issues such as open access and science, intended this. However, given libraries’ focus on increasing the amount of information available to people in order to be able to respond to their needs, this is potentially a cause for concern.

From here, it is only a short step to the idea that certain actors should have a monopoly on information provision, with everything else declared invalid or even illegal. This would take us back to the days of only allowing officially sanctioned printing presses – not a desirable move.

If the idea of limiting the amount of information available to people spreads – rather than a focus on providing the guidance and skills necessary to navigate the information available – there is a risk of losing momentum in the drive to bring the benefits of access to information to all.


Information as Potentially Dangerous Good

Closely linked to the concept of an ‘infodemic’ has been the growing pressure on internet platforms to intervene in the sharing of information – and their own readiness to act in response.

Twitter for example updated its policies in 2020, and proved readier to block or label tweets from President Trump. Facebook and others upped their efforts to block misleading content about COVID.

For many though, this has been nowhere near enough, and calls have grown for review of the ‘safe harbour’ provisions that have allowed internet platforms a way to escape liability for content posted by users.

The European Union itself has started the process of updating its own rules, while in the United States, calls to repeal or reform Section 230 are growing louder.

These discussions of course have two angles to them, as the European Union’s own approach recognises. One relates to how to address harmful or illegal content online. The other is a result of the desire to address concerns about unfair competition and impacts on other companies.

However, in the popular discourse, the two issues are rolled together, with changing liability rules for internet platforms seen as a way to solve competition issues. Faced with this, the platforms themselves, as suggested above, have been ready to move to show they are listening and hopefully avoid much more costly competition interventions, such as break-ups or divestments.

Why is this a concern for access to information?

Because a simple shift to increase the liability on the platforms and services that have arguably facilitated much of the explosion in access to information risks leading to the privatisation of the policing of free speech.

In effect, through their terms of use – and their application through pre-emptive filters – platforms would decide what speech is acceptable or not. Without an incentive to promote free expression, the risk of over-blocking is high. Similar rules could end up applying to upstream providers such as ISPs, or even hosting services. As private companies, there would also be fewer requirements for transparency, or opportunities to appeal.

This is indeed an issue already warned about by the former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in 2017. But after 2020, there seems to be a serious risk of it accelerating.


Information as Uncertainty

The final threat to our relationship with information has been the lesson that the pandemic has provided in how knowledge is created and furthered.

We have seen claims made and refuted by scientists, advice issued, changed and updated by governments, and have been faced ourselves with uncertainty in carrying out activities which we previously did unthinkingly.

The pandemic has exposed how incomplete and inconclusive information can be. While this is nothing new for those involved in science, for many, it has not been an easy or comfortable experience.

Rather, it has led to frustration, cynicism, and likely a greater tendency to grab onto the easy answers that conspiracy theories provide.

Clearly, such theories are nothing new, but the pandemic has arguably provided a fertile ground for their spread. These of course can do harm to individuals and groups, as well as to the effectiveness of efforts to tackle the pandemic.

In the longer term, there is a risk that more people are pushed into abandoning curiosity and seeking out easier and more comfortable information. In doing so, they risk falling into the trap explained by Elfreda Chapman in her work on information poverty, rejecting information from outside the group.



The events of 2020 have certainly had am impact on our relationship with information. The idea that there can be too much information, that it is something to be vetted before it is shared, that it is too complicated, all risk making people fall out of love with it.

Faced with this, libraries’ focus on enhancing the amount of information available to people, and focusing on building information skills, can of course risk looking naïve.

There is of course unacceptable information out there – harmful hate speech, abuse, deliberate lies and more. It is not possible to declare that all information is good, and of course, there is no such thing as perfect information literacy or skill.

The question is rather about our starting point in addressing these questions. Do we begin with the position that more information is a positive, unless identified as otherwise, or do we assume that information is bad, unless proven to be acceptable?

Do we put faith in people to be able to navigate their way around information, or do we spoon-feed them?

Do we encourage curiosity, even if it comes with complexity, or rather simply look to make things easy?

For libraries, traditionally, we advocate for the first positions.

While limitations on access and expression may be necessary, these need to be the exception, and applied only when necessary and proportionate, and in a transparent manner. While leaving people room to make up their own minds can lead to mistakes, it is ultimately more desirable than channelling them narrowly. While ready reckoners and simplicity may be attractive, they can set limits on curiosity and innovation.

However, the events of 2020 have seen increasing risks of lawmakers and societies adopting approaches less friendly to access to information. This risks dragging us back to a situation of censorship, slowing efforts to bring people online, chilling expression, and self-imposed information poverty.

As we head into 2021, we need to be able to highlight the costs of over-blocking, censorship and conspiracy theories. But just as importantly, if we want people to come to value and appreciate information, we need to be able to tell the positive stories of how the widest possible access changes lives for the better.

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.

Will Your Collections Be Next? Library Amongst Internet Archive Pages Flagged as Holding ‘Terrorist Content’

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.

What’s On Online? Current Issues for Libraries in Internet Governance and Policy

The core mission of libraries is to provide people with access to information. With flows of information increasingly taking place online, our institutions have a major interest in the way the Internet works.

In December of this year, the world will celebrate 50/50 – the point at which the share of the world’s population with Internet accesses passes 50%. This will be a success to celebrate, but also a reminder of how many people remain unconnected.

Moreover, serious concerns remain about the way in which the actions of governments and private actors can affect this access, and whether people themselves are equipped to make best use of the possibilities.

In short, if people do not have access, or if this access is subject to restrictions, then the mission of libraries cannot be achieved. This blog lists a few of the issues currently on the agenda.


Delivering Access – New Tools?

As highlighted in the introduction, the celebrations around giving half of the world’s population access to the Internet will be clouded by the fact that the other half remain offline. While the unconnected are concentrated in developing countries, there are still minorities in richer countries who are cut off.

New technologies and techniques are emerging for getting people online. Major Internet companies have their own projects for giving access, through satellites, balloons and other tools. While Facebook, for example, has apparently given up on its plans to use drones, it is now investing in satellites.

One technology is TV White Space (TVWS), promoted by its supporters as a particularly smart means of bringing Internet to remote areas. It works by using frequencies which currently are not being used for television, and dedicating them to WiFi. A number of projects using this approach are at work in the United States and Colombia.

There are also efforts by cities and wider communities to set up new networks. Sometimes these are run by local governments who recognise the value of faster connectivity (‘municipal broadband’). Sometimes, it’s residents themselves who come together to establish ‘community networks’.

In both cases, they bypass traditional Internet Service Providers (ISPs), often accused of doing too little to invest in higher speeds.

However, such projects need favourable regulation to work. With radio spectrum usually ‘owned’ by government, there are ongoing questions about who can access this for TVWS projects. There are also stories of restrictions on use of telegraph poles being used to prevent municipal fibre projects.

In addition, there have been some signs of renewed interest in Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs). These collect funds from taxes on telecommunications providers in order to support connections to poorly served areas and populations.

However, they are frequently under-used, and can be subject to the same risks of corruption and bureaucracy as other parts of government. A recent report from the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) underlines how, if properly deployed, they could make the difference for women in Africa for example.

Libraries are both beneficiaries of better connectivity, and potentially drivers of new projects. To do this, they will need the right regulations and financial support to be able to give their users – and their communities – effective access to information.


Delivering Content – New Threats?

Yet not all connections are equal. Even when the cables are laid, or the masts turned on, what a user can see online will depend on the rules and practices in place.

The role of government is a key concern. Governments continue to engage in complete or partial shutdowns, as well as in focused censorship.

AccessNow’s monitoring of shutdowns shows that these are depressingly frequent, with everything from national security to school exams offering an excuse. The collateral damage caused by these moves – to businesses, to medicine, to citizens’ daily communications, is significant.

Censorship continues to be a problem. At the end of April, the anniversary of Turkey’s ban of Wikipedia was marked. Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Internet report showed record levels of online censorship and blocking. Steps in Tunisia, for example, to oblige bloggers to ‘register’ are also worrying.

Meanwhile, concerns about ‘fake news’ have served as an excuse for some governments to take dramatic action against both writers and websites. Cambodia, Azerbaijan and Vietnam provide some recent examples. In parallel, as Freedom House (mentioned above) underlines, governments are also more than ready to share disinformation themselves using the same tools.

Yet it would be a mistake to focus only on government. As technology advances, and with it the possiblity to use data to make new connections and offer new services, the risk to personal information grows.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, as well as other cases of dubious practice by major Internet firms, have shown what can be done with personal data. Data ethics has become a new area for discussion, closely linked to the explosion in the volumes of information collected online (including by the Internet of things).

The entry into force of the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union offers a response, but much will depend on how effectively people take up the new possibilities it creates. Similar rules appear to be spreading to California and Brazil, and data protection is an increasingly high-profile issue in trade discusisons.

Furthermore, net neutrality remains on the agenda. In the United States, the resistance to moves by the government to allow companies to discriminate continues at federal level. Individual states are passing their own laws to guarantee equal access to all content as far as possible.

Elsewhere, the news is better, with India underlining its support for net neutrality, and steps in some countries at least to do away with zero-rating offerings (i.e. allowing users to access some services without this counting towards their data caps).

An additional issue arises where private companies are pressured to take steps that governments themselves cannot.

As highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, platforms are not independent. They can be pressured, for example, to block certain types of content (‘fake news’, explicit content, extreme content), or apply rulings such as the European Union’s right to be forgotten principle.

In doing so, they take on similar powers to governments or courts, but with less oversight or control. Moreover, when governments pass laws that only create incentives to block content, there is no guarantee that legal content will be defended. Laws such as FOSTA and SESTA in the United States and anti fake-news laws in Germany and France risk doing just this.

For libraries, this is an issue of growing importance. The content to which libraires give access is increasingly online, rather than on-the-shelf. And libraries are committed to broader access to information as a driver of development.

While there is a case for acting against specific content that genuinely poses a threat, indiscriminate restrictions imposed by governments or companies, including the chilling effect that surveillance and data-collection can create, are bad news for libraries.


Delivering Skills – New Focus?  

A final area of focus is on individuals themselves. Even where there is connectivity, and the connection is not subject to unjusitified restricitons, citizens themselves need the skills and confidence to get online.

As Pew Internet Centre research showed recently, a falling share of people see the Internet as only having brought benefits for society. Other surveys suggest growing levels of distrust and concern about about the risks encountered on the Internet.

There is a risk, when faced with such worries, that governments will feel empowered to take more restrictive stances (i.e. banning non-mainstream content). As a result, the need to give citizens themselves the confidence to deal with what they find online themselves is growing.

Digital skills training, however, remains minimal in many cases. This can be down to a lack of equipment, a lack of capacity among teaching staff, or simply a failure to update teaching. Moreover, digital skills cannot only be a task for formal education.

Meaningful digital skills training, as highlighted in IFLA’s statement on digital literacy, needs to be about more than just coding (important, but for now unlikely to be relevant to everyone in their future lives), and focus on a broader range of competences.

This should include, notably, an updated version of media and information literacy, adapted to a digital age. It may well also require a renewed focus on some of the ‘soft skills’ which are also important in the offline world.

A number of countries are adopting more holistic curricula, and the OECD is already incorporating concepts such as ‘problem solving in a digital environment’ into its own work. But we are likely to see more moves among governments to develop more comprehensive packages of skills and training in coming years.

Libraries are natural partners for delivering such skills, at least when they are suffficiently equipped and staffed. As welcoming places open to all of the community, regardless of age, they can complement the work of formal education.

With a focus, also, on providing the information (and information literacy) to meet real life needs, they can play a real role in shaping digital skills training for all.


The Internet’s potential to accelerate development is high, but not inevitable. As this blog indicates, there is a regular stream of questions, of doubts. How to make full use of all possibiities to get more people connected? How to avoid overreacting to ‘fake news’ and concern about certain content? How to give people the confidence they need to use the Internet effectively?

All are questions with a real importance for libraries, and to which libraries can help provide solutions.