Tag Archives: fake news

Five information disorders that could sink the SDGs, and how to prevent this

In IFLA’s work around the SDGs, our core theme is the importance of meaningful access to information as a key driver for development.

This access, to our understanding, consists of a combination of the practical possibility of access (accessibility), a favourable socioeconomic situation (affordability), the presence of relevant information and the possibility to use it (availability) and the skills to make the most of it (capacity).

This can, however, risk being a difficult sell when working with policy makers who either take information for granted (policy-makers themselves will tend to come from more favoured, educated backgrounds), or are not in the habit of thinking about information in a holistic way (as of course we do in the library field!).

So what other options are available to us when trying to make the case for information as a key area of focus for work on the Sustainable Development Goals?

One option – admittedly a potentially alarmist one – is to look rather at what the costs of inaction in the face of information disorders can be.

The term information disorders, taken from the work of Divina Frau-Meigs (but then very loosely applied), refers to situations where the way in which information is created, shared, internalised and applied somehow goes wrong, leading to negative consequences.

This can be powerful. Given that we tend to be more concerned about what we might lose than what we might gain, it can be a good way of focusing minds.

And by bringing together arguments about what there is to lose by a failure to address information disorders, we can, perhaps get closer to building the case for a comprehensive approach to information (and libraries as essential information institutions) in SDG implementation.

This blog lists five such disorders that we face today, and what they mean for the chances of success in the 2030 Agenda.

1) Illiteracy: the inability of millions around the world still to engage with the written word has to represent one of the ongoing challenges of our time. Next week, the International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA) will meet, with the ongoing need to ensure universal adult literacy likely to be high on the agenda.

Literacy of course is already highlighted in the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as in many other key reference texts, as a pressing goal. It should be. For as long as people cannot read, they will struggle to seize so many other opportunities linked to aspects of the wider development agenda – finding work or launching a business, learning more generally, engaging in democratic life. Continued investment in universal literacy needs to be a priority.

Libraries of course have an established and recognised role, both as a venue for basic literacy training, and a key resource to help those with fundamental skills consolidate and build on them. As highlighted in our review of LitBase last year, libraries can be providers, promoters and partners in this mission.

2) Mis and Disinformation: a serious and growing concern, in the light both of the polarisation of the political debate in many countries, and the fight against the COVID-19 Pandemic, has been the rise of mis- and dis-information as a phenomenon.

Clearly, lying is not a new thing, and people and governments have been doing this forever. However, it does feel that recent years have seen a greater brazenness in dismissing scientific advice, and the internet has created possibilities for mis- and disinformation to spread more quickly than before. This may well be accelerated too by business models that promote the controversial or shocking. As such, and as set out in the UN Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda, there is a need to take stronger action to call out lies, and to combat the means by which they are spread.

Without this, there are risks to policy effectiveness in key areas of the SDGs – not least health – as well as more broadly to the ability of democratic systems to work in a way that best serves people. This is also an area where libraires have an obvious and existing role to play, both in building up the skills to recognise mis- and disinformation, and in parallel, to promote a sense of openness and curiosity about the world that doesn’t just focus on simple and lazy responses.

3) Information Poverty: information and knowledge have an immense role to play in achieving the SDGs. While often taken for granted, they are essential if we want people to be able to take optimal decisions about themselves and those around them, to innovate, to learn, to participate in democracy, and in broader social and cultural life.

Yet for too many people, this isn’t a reality. For some, it will be an economic question – more on this below. But for others, it is simply because the information isn’t there, or at least not in a form that they can access. A lack of materials in relevant languages or accessible formats – both as concerns persons with disabilities, and simply written or presented in a way that can be used – can also mean that people end up suffering from information poverty.

There is of course action on this point already, for example the Marrakesh Treaty (which addresses the book famine), and many initiatives to promote multilingualism. Technology of course offers possibilities here, but in turn needs to be affordable and accessible.

Libraries have always acted as an antidote to information poverty, a way of working around the fact that it is only by pooling resources that it can become feasible to acquire and give access to information and the tools for this. They continue to do this, in ways that suit the needs of the communities they serve.

4) The Privatisation of Information: highlighted above was the risk that economics could get in the way of the access to information needed to enable development. While of course there need to be means of paying correctly for the production of information, these become problematic when they leave the less wealthy empty handed.

However, with the shift to digital, we have seen a deregulation by stealth of the market for information and knowledge. Going from selling books and other materials to licensing access gives rightholders huge powers over who can access works, how, and what they can do with them. Unless there is action to ensure that licenses cannot take away core knowledge rights, protections for core public interest uses risk being undermined.

Linked to this is the way that data and information itself has become a market, with companies realising how powerful control over, and exploitation of, data about users and their behaviour can be. Possibilities to track what people are doing not only raise questions about privacy, but also the potential distortion of behaviours as platforms and others seek to maximise attention.

The risk here is that people are unable to access the information that they need to improve their situation, because of their situation – i.e. they are not of interest to profit-orientated players. Furthermore, they risk being manipulated, or having to trade in their rights to be able to access information, or are pushed in sub-optimal directions, all of which can hold them back from doing what they need to do.

There are clear and welcome calls for a digital commons at the UN level in Our Common Agenda, and for a knowledge commons in UNESCO’s Futures of Education report – these both imply putting the interest of the community above those of individual private actors.

Again, this is an area of library strength traditionally. By pooling resources, libraries help overcome the economic barriers to copyright, although certainly require the protections from the hollowing out of protections for public interest uses mentioned above. They can also bring insights and values to discussions about how information and data should be regulated, in the interests of all.

5) Lack of connectivity: finally, there is the ongoing challenge faced by those who cannot yet access the internet reliably, and quickly. This is of course a point closely related to that about information poverty above, given the increasingly important role of the internet as a means of accessing information. As print-runs of books, journals and newspapers disappear, those without digital access are cut off, and of course cannot take advantage of all the new possibilities created.

An obvious example here is open access – this has been a transformative movement, bypassing cost-barriers to access to knowledge, and so allowing researchers around the world to draw on materials that would previously have been out of reach… If they have an internet connection.

The costs of leaving people unconnected are similar to those of other disorders set out above – the lack of possibility to access information to take decisions, and to participate in social, economic, political and cultural life. It can leave people isolated, unable to realise the potential to build connections with others. It can also of course reduce the effectiveness of government efforts, especially those that rely on eGovernment tools.

Again, libraries are key players here, providing public internet access both as a last recourse for those who cannot access in other ways, and as a complement to home connectivity, or via a mobile device. They can even be hubs for local connectivity as anchor institutions.

 

Across these areas, there is a risk that inaction, or inadequate action, will leave the world less able to deliver on the SDGs. They underline that there is a need for information to be taken seriously as a policy issue, in order to avoid this. More positively, they also represent a call for a more proactive approach to ensuring that everyone benefits from access to knowledge. Any such effort will need to have libraries at its heart.

Attitudes and Actions: What Might COVID-19 Change in the Way We Think?

For all that anyone would like to be purely objective or rational, we are all influenced by our attitudes. Consciously or sub-consciously, we tend to have preferences for certain ideas, values, or types of behaviour, which help shape our decisions.

This is why such a key focus of library advocacy is how we change people’s attitudes, in order to ensure that, when a key decision-moment comes, this is as favourable as possible for our services.

Yet of course, attitudes do not just shape the decisions of politicians or funders, but also affect choices within the library field, as well as those taken by users.

Moreover, while advocacy can take time, sometimes attitudes can be changed or shaped by relatively sudden events. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be no exception here.

So what attitude changes could we expect as a result of the pandemic, and how might these in turn affect the way that libraries work? This blog shares some initial ideas, and welcomes further reflections.

 

Interpersonal Relations: for many, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way they think about contacts with others. From efforts to avoid other people when going to the shops, limitations on the size of gatherings, or simply socialising online without a shared activity as a reference point, the way many people relate with others has changed. Especially for those living alone, this has been hard.

The long-term change in attitudes from this may vary from person to person. Some will want to return to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible, even at the risk of causing new peaks in cases. Others will remember the warnings, even after official restrictions are lifted.

Libraries are likely to have both types of people among their users, which of course does not necessarily make life easier. There does risk being a need to find ways to enforce rules in the case of users who are putting others at risk, which is clearly not an easy thing to do.

But there may also be a case for finding ways to meet the needs of users who remain concerned, for example through smaller group or individual support, or use of digital, in order not to lose contact in the long-term. This can require extra resources, depending on the degree to which some users risk staying away. Assessing how lasting this attitude change will be is best done at the local level.

 

Greater openness to digital: perhaps uniquely, compared to any previous crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the potential of digital to provide alternatives to physical activities or services. Clearly, for those without internet connections, the potential has remained unrealised – a major priority for action in the future.

Among libraries in particular, we have seen great examples of uses of digital technologies, including innovative applications such as the use of Google Forms to create virtual escape rooms. Yet a lot of the time, the changes have been less about ‘new’ innovation, but rather the application of pre-existing digital tools in the library context.

Effectively, the pandemic appears to have accelerated the adoption of digital, bringing activities such as consultations via WhatsApp, online chats with librarians, or virtual storytimes forward. This may be testimony to a change in attitudes – a greater openness to apply technologies on the ground on the part of libraries, and a greater readiness to use them on the part of users.

The rises noted in numbers of registrations for library cards, and then use of digital resources would back this up. These resources were available before, but people preferred to use physical options. The pandemic has forced them to reconsider. A key question will be whether libraries and users stick with these digital options into the future – in other words, is the attitude change lasting?

 

Connectivity as a human right?: linked to changing attitudes to digital tools – both on the side of libraries themselves and that of their users – is awareness of the importance of being able to get online in the first place. In particular in the most connected societies, the pandemic has underlined the risks of being on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Students in particular who have not been able to get online have been very clearly left behind, while those already lucky enough to have connections have been able to continue with their learning. People needing to apply for unemployment benefits have found it harder to do so when requests can only be made online.

There is also growing awareness of the importance of decent internet connectivity, with excessively low thresholds meaning that people who cannot make meaningful use of the internet are still counters as connected, and so do not receive support.

While the continued failure to give everyone options for meaningful connectivity has been around for some time, the pandemic has brought this into focus. There is perhaps hope that, in the wake of the crisis, there will be a greater readiness to see connectivity in the same way that we see access to running water, and support efforts to provide it effectively.

Libraries, both as centres for getting online, and nodes in networks, can be part of this.

 

Greater respect for science: another potential change relates to the readiness of policy-makers not just to draw on evidence, but also to be seen to be drawing on evidence, in order to justify the decisions they take.

This follows a number of years of concern about ‘fake news’, and the seeming rise of a class of politician almost taking pride in ignoring what ‘the experts’ say. Depressingly, for a field built on the idea of the importance of gathering, organising, preserving and applying information, these politicians have seemed to do well in elections.

While this group of politicians have clearly not left the scene, at least in some cases, there is a sense that it is both safer and wiser to draw on expertise in order to define policy. Whether this is sincere is open for discussion, but it is certainly welcome for libraries, at least for as long as it lasts.

 

The internet needs regulating?: a final potential change in attitudes returns to the digital sphere. We have seen, over a number of years, a growing sense that the internet has both its upsides and downsides for society.

Connected to this, we have seen increasing efforts to try and regulate the internet, and in particular its biggest platforms, as a means of trying to minimise the negatives, albeit in a piecemeal way. Legislation has looked at copyright, terrorist content, fake news, marketplaces and other issues, often taking different approaches to each.

However, when COVID-19 struck, the World Health Organization moved quickly to express concern about an ‘infodemic’ – the spread of misinformation about the virus, undermining public health messaging from governments.

Platforms have worked hard to respond, blocking, blurring, or tagging misleading messages as misleading.  It is perhaps not by accident that Twitter has felt readier to intervene in messages from the President of the United States now, even if these did not deal specifically with COVID-19.

With pressure in the United States to review rules around the liability of platforms, and legislation already under discussion on the same point, there is a chance that a greater readiness to regulate the internet could lead to sweeping new rules.

For libraries, this will be an area to follow closely. Clearly – as libraries know themselves – there can be types of content which are illegal or unacceptable. However, deciding where this is the case takes careful judgement, and legislation can be a blunt tool, which can unduly limit the scope libraries have to offer access to information.

 

These are just five areas where we may expect a change in attitudes as a result of COVID-19. All affect the way that libraries provide services, requiring innovation, adaptation and potentially advocacy.

None are certain of course. It remains to be seen how far attitudes change permanently, at a societal level. Do share your own views in the comments!

What has the Web Ever Done for Us? Five Reasons for Libraries to Celebrate the 30th Birthday of the World Wide Web

World Wide Web 30th Birthday 1989-2019

Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the World Wide Web. As opposed to the internet – physical networks of computers stretching to around half of the world’s population, the web is an ‘information space’ – a collection of documents and resources linked together by hyperlinks. It is what means that, in effect, computers speak the same language, or are interoperable.

The web gets plenty of criticism, thanks both to some of the content hosted there (hate speech, deliberate misinformation), as well as the way that it is used (hacking, crime, or manipulation of opinion). Indeed, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the author of the paper which set out the concept of web, has himself warned of the need for action.

Nonetheless, the fact that the web is far from perfect does not mean that it has not brought major benefits, not least for libraries. This blog sets out five reasons why libraries in particular should celebrate its birthday.

1) Open Access: the emergence of the Open Access movement has a lot to do with appearance of the Web. The possibility to disseminate research at low marginal cost globally – almost impossible when working on paper – has not only transformed scholarly communication, but even the way science itself is performed. This is a clear benefit, allowing for an acceleration of progress in key areas for humanity. While much still needs to be done, it is clear that without the Web, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

2) Digital Libraries: the Web has been a game-change in terms of how libraries can give access to their own content. Digitising and uploading books, manuscripts and other documents has allowed libraries to reach far beyond their walls, and serve readers and researchers globally. Making such works available on the Web has provided an incentive for digitisation in the first place, created new possibilities to ‘reunify’ collections, and moved us towards a much stronger understanding of our shared heritage.

3) User-Generated Content: a key principle of the Web is that everyone can be both a consumer and a producer of content. This is a point that Sir Tim Berners-Lee underlines in his own article. These new possibilities have allowed libraries to offer new initiatives and services – creative writing, book reviews or online community archives for example. It has also allowed for a huge volume of new ideas, complementing traditional channels such as established publishers, meaning that library users are more likely to find content relevant to them.

4) Reaffirmation of the Value of Libraries: while pessimists have repeatedly predicted that the Web will make libraries obsolete, in reality there is little evidence for this. While it is true that certain traditional services have been taken over, there is a widely accepted need for support in developing the skills necessary to navigate available information. This is a natural strength of libraries, thanks both to the expertise and experience of their personnel, and the physical space they offer for meeting, socialising and learning.

5) Communication: interoperability between computer networks also means communication between people. The Web has had a huge impact on the work of organisations such as IFLA. From annual meetings as the only major occasion to come together, it is now possible to hold a permanent conversation, and engage members of the library field at any time, and anywhere where there is the possibility to connect. New opportunities to share, learn, and innovate are the result.

 

The birthday of the Web is clearly worth celebrating given all the progress it has allowed towards the goals of the library field. IFLA looks forwards to continued work to ensure that every library and every library user can connect and, in doing so, has the possibility to live a better life.

 

Read more about IFLA’s work on libraries and the information society, and in particular our guide to internet governance.

Living in Interesting Times – Three Key Debates in Information Politics

Libraries and the politics of information in 2019

Information has long been political – who has it, who should have it, and how can it be used to shape decision-making. However, it is only relatively recently that this has been recognised.

On the philosophical side of things, much comes from the work of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, who explained the power that comes from organising information in specific ways (‘knowledge is power’). On the more practical side, the emergence of the internet has given a practical focus to broader reflections on how information is created and shared.

It therefore makes sense to think about the politics of information – the discussions and disagreements that take place around key issues. These questions are particularly key for libraries, as central stakeholders in how information is accessed, shared and governed.

2018 has seen a number of key debates come into focus, with further developments expected in 2019. These relate to whether information should be privatised or made publicly available, where privacy should triumph over access, and where free speech should give way to public order concerns.

This blog will offer a short introduction to each question, and relevant examples of legal and policy discussions which will shape information politics in the coming year.

 

Privatisation vs Public Availability of Knowledge

Knowledge – at least in the form of books or other documents – was long subject to constraints both on producers and users. These helped avoid widespread copying, but at the same time allowed users some flexibility in what they did with the written knowledge they held.

The expense of owning a printing press meant that the number of people who could publish was limited (although of course not enough to prevent calls for copyright to be invented in 1709). At the same time, once a book or newspaper had been sold, it was easy enough to share it with others or use it for research or other purposes.

Therefore, while the concept of copyright was intended to give the writings contained in books and other documents the same status as physical objects (in terms of the possibility of owning them), it was only ever an imperfect solution.

Digital technologies have weakened these constraints. It is far easier to publish (or copy) and share works than ever before, but also to place limits (through a mix of legal and technological means) on their uses. In other words, it has never been easier to provide universal access to knowledge, but at the same time, it is also simpler to make the knowledge contained in a book or other document private, with all access and use subject to licences.

These new possibilities have created a gap in legal provisions in many countries, given that there had, previously, been no cause to make rules. With this has come a sense that laws also need to be updated, rather than leaving things up to the market or the courts. This is the underlying reason for the ongoing European Union copyright reform, but also elsewhere.

Specific questions raised in this reform, as elsewhere, include whether people involved in teaching should be able to use materials to which they have access, whether researchers and others should be allowed to carry out text and data mining, and whether libraries should be allowed to take preservation copies.

There are also questions about whether the platforms which allow users to share materials should place the protection of intellectual property above the right of their users to free expression.

2019 is likely to see some sort of conclusion to discussions on these subjects in the European Union, South Africa and Nigeria, as well as key steps forwards in Canada, Singapore, and Australia.

 

Protecting Privacy vs Giving Access

The idea of ‘ownership’ of information is not only associated with intellectual property rights. Increasingly, it also comes up when we talk about personal information – anything that says anything about a person.

Once again, the idea that people have an interest in information about them is not new – there have long been laws on libel which allow individuals to act against writings that are unfair or defamatory. Rulers have also been prolific users of laws against sedition or lèse-majesté. However, such provisions have tended to be limited to the wealthy and powerful.

Here too, digital technologies have changed things by allowing for a much greater potential to collect and use information about people, be it for advertising, security or other purposes. They have also – for example through search engines – made it much easier for ordinary people to access information that might otherwise have been forgotten or too difficult to find.

With this, the idea of a right over information about you has emerged in a number of privacy and data protection laws around the world. The primary focus tends to be on data gathered by companies, with justifications running from a desire to understand advertising choices to enabling customers to shop around between service providers.

In parallel, security concerns have tended to see greater powers given to governments in the types of data they can collect and use, as well as limitations on the transparency obligations they face.

2018 saw the entry into force of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, and similar rules emerge in a number of US States and Latin American countries. There have also been new security rules applied giving governments new powers to gather data on suspected terrorists (as well as many others).

2019 may well see more similar efforts, as well as new efforts to take advantage of new powers over personal information.

 

Protecting Free Speech vs Tackling ‘Dangerous’ Content

A key way in which the political value of information has long been recognised is through the efforts made to control free expression. Ideas and writings deemed to be dangerous to political, economic or social goals, for example through calling for insurrection, infringement of copyright, or simply because it is criminal, have long been the subject of attention by governments.

It is true that the right to free speech is a crucial one, but it is not absolute. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights notes that all rights can potentially be limited when this is necessary to fulfil the rights of others. As regards the right to equality, there is explicit mention of the importance of combatting incitement to discrimination.

More recently, the way the internet has developed has both made it easier for people to share and spread ideas (dangerous or otherwise). It has also involved relatively well defined actors and channels – search engines, social media platforms, internet service providers – with key powers over what is shared. Through their own actions – or actions they are obliged to take – there is a possibility to exert much greater control over what can be said and shared than when someone opens their mouth.

We come across this debate in discussions around concepts like ‘fake news’, terrorist content, hate speech, criminal content, and to some extent copyright infringement. In each situation, there is content that is clearly illegal and clearly legal. But there are also often grey areas, where judgement and nuance may be needed.

The problem is that the solution often proposed for identifying and blocking such content – automatic filtering, brings its own challenges. There are issues that go from the practical (are they good enough?), to the political (without incentives to protect free speech, do they risk ‘accidentally’ blocking legal content?), and human rights-related (should rights be given and taken away by a machine?).

At the same time, human moderation is expensive (in particular if done properly, by people with knowledge of relevant cultures), and can cause serious psychological damage to the people doing it. The costs are likely too high for smaller actors.

Clearly, this is a particularly difficult problem in information politics, not helped by cross-over with other areas of politics. This can make it hard to promote proportionate or nuanced approaches.

There is legislation in a number of jurisdictions which seeks to crack down on terrorist content and copyright infringement through (explicitly or otherwise) automatic filtering. Some have sought to ban ‘fake news’ (a highly dubious step), and others have put pressure on internet platforms to do the same, creating incentives to take an ever tougher line on content. With public pressure growing, major internet companies seem set to implement ever more conservative approaches in order to avoid blame.

 

What Implications for Libraries?

As highlighted at the beginning, libraries are key actors in information politics. They are central – both practically and symbolically – to the idea that everyone should have meaningful access to information.

A first priority is to defend this core idea. Too many are still offline, too many lack formal education or the possibility to learn throughout life, too many cannot find the information they need to live healthily, find work or start businesses, or to engage in public life.

Libraries are also unique, as public, welcoming institutions, with a clear social interest goal, rather than a focus on profit. Nonetheless, this status does not spare them from the effects of decisions taken in relation to the three major debates set out above.

They clearly depend on limitations on the privatisation of knowledge in order to do their jobs, but need a system that allows writers, researchers and others to keep on producing. They need to protect privacy (key to giving users the sense that they can seek and share information freely), but must also resist sweeping restrictions on what materials they can collect, hold and give access to.

And while they understand the need to act against dangerous speech, they know from long experience that managing information is complicated and requires skilled judgements based on expertise and values – something that a machine cannot replicate.

While it may not always be popular – or easy to explain – libraries will need to set out and defend the importance of a balanced approach, one that allows for meaningful access to information for all, not just in 2019 but long into the future.

 

This blog is based on a presentation initially given at the Eurolib conference in Brussels on 12 November 2018.

Dodging Deception: The Crossover between Open Access and Media and Information Literacy Weeks

Open Access and Information Literacy

It isn’t only Open Access that is being celebrated this week. Today also marks the first day of Global Media and Information Literacy (MIL) Week, organised by UNESCO.

The communities involved in the two events tend to differ. MIL Week brings together educators and journalists, with a strong focus on developing new tools and practices.

Open Access week is an opportunity for researchers and others involved in scholarly communications to reflect on the present and future of efforts to maximise access. Of course, libraries have a major role to play in both.

However, the specific issue of ‘deceptive journals’ brings these two fields together.

 

The Reputation of Open Access

Deceptive journals are academic publications which knowingly publish articles in exchange for payment by authors, without offering any meaningful editorial services (peer review, editing, quality control).

In effect, they use, or rather abuse, one particular model of open access – author-pays publication. They undoubtedly also benefit from the pressure on many academics to publish in order to pursue their careers.

Despite a tendency to believe, this is not just a developing country issue either, with recent research showing that academics in richer countries are also guilty of publishing in such journals.

The problem is that that link between deceptive journals and the author-pays model can become, in the heads of some, a feeling that open access journals in general are less credible. This, in turn, risks slowing the progression of Open Access in general, as highlighted in our blog “Effect of Open Access on Copyright Challenges and Library Budgets in Africa“.

Clearly open access faces a number of fundamental questions in its future, which the organisers of Open Access Week are tackling head on. Among these, ensuring future credibility is a key one.

 

Won’t Get Fooled Again?

So what can be done?

The highest profile approach so far has perhaps been Beall’s list, which claimed to identify deceptive (or predatory) journals. The controversy around this underlined the risks around creating ‘black lists’, but has certainly been crucial in awareness raising.

A healthier (and less legally risky) approach seems to be to enable students and researchers to identify high quality places to read or publish articles. Or, in other words, the core ‘information literacy’ traditionally provided by libraries.

This is attractive too – giving people the tools and skills to take their own decisions is, in the long-run, more efficient. It is also less paternalistic.

There are a number of great tools available. Think Check Submit offers a clear and balanced set of criteria, as do various ‘white’ lists (of journals which do respect quality criteria, without necessarily condemning others).

Clearly it’s also important to ensure that the advice given to students and researchers also respects information literacy, and does not fall into the trap of damning journals from developing countries, either explicitly, or by default.

There has been welcome cooperation between publishers, libraries and researchers already in this field. More needs to be done, however, to spread good ideas, around the world.

 

While the coincidence of Open Access and Global Media and Information Literacy Week in terms of dates is accidental, information literacy will play a vital role in tackling one of the barriers to the success of open access.

It is also a useful reminder that, alongside efforts to promote information literacy in situations outside of academia, that core element of work in academic libraries is as important as ever.

Unsafe, Untrue, Unhinged? Libraries, Internet Platforms and Difficult Content

The ongoing discussion over how Internet platforms should deal with Alex Jones has provided a test-case for how Internet platforms should approach the question of ‘fake news’.

Alex Jones – described alternatively as a performance artist and a conspiracy theorist, amongst other things – is known for making unsubstantiated claims.

He (or at least the persona he presents) is firmly right-leaning, in the American context. This of course makes the whole debate more complicated. In polarised times, dismissing Jones as ‘fake news’ only leads to accusations of left-wing bias from his supporters.

Jones also tests the boundaries between extreme speech and dangerous speech.

This is a critical line – extreme speech may be uncomfortable, but is also part of the deal with freedom of expression. Calls for universal suffrage or religious freedom were also considered to be extreme speech for much of history.

This has placed Internet platforms in a difficult position. They are, at their core, profit-making companies – or at least aim to be – and have come across as uncomfortable in having to take these sorts of decisions.

They were never likely to find it easy. In addition to the fundamental difficulty of moderating billions of people, they are bigger – and richer – than Jones, and a familiar target for commentators. Moreover, it seems likely that criticism is not something that matters much to Jones, making him a less interesting objective.

Some moved quickly to ban him once the pressure grew, such as YouTube and Facebook, although of course this was after years of posts. Twitter hesitated, with CEO Jack Dorsey admitting that they really didn’t have a simple response to the fake news issue.

And others, such as Google, have not banned him, but rather down-graded Jones’ ‘news’ to make it far less visible among the other information sources out there.

 

These are all questions that are relevant for libraries. Our institutions are strong defenders of freedom of access to information and freedom of expression, but acknowledge that this is not an absolute freedom, not least when it leads to limitations on the rights of others.

For example, in its statement on the Right to Be Forgotten, IFLA underlines that there is a balance to be found between the right of access to information, and the right of individuals to ensure that information that is untrue or unfairly damaging is not given prominent in Internet searches.

Crucially, these sorts of decisions are a question of professional judgement. What may work in one context does not necessarily in another. Moreover, and as the current discussion underlines, extreme views are a key part of public political debate, and there is an obligation to record them for posterity.

The sorts of decisions Internet platforms are trying to take now are not far removed from the decisions made regularly in libraries. The way they do it is crucial. Restrictions – as the word implies – restrict the scope of debate that can make up the historical record.

While mimicking the work of libraries in helping people to find the information they need, they risk pre-empting thes individual decisions taken by librarians and users individuals. They do this in a way that is not necessarily transparent or sensitive to the situations of different users either, encouraging suspicion. They cannot be asked, or challenged about this. And of course are trying to do so at a scale never attempted before.

Jack Dorsey’s hesitation is perhaps welcome – an admission that easy solutions are mistaken. The need for libraries, and the skills and values of librarians, is as strong as ever.

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.