Tag Archives: intermediary liability

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.

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!

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.