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"This is the biggest free speech battle of our lifetimes," says Marcia Hoffman, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "This is the moment when we will see whether publishers can continue to freely distribute truthful political information online."
While some might find the statement of this EFF attorney to be a bit of hyperbole, there is an undeniable underlying idea being tested here: the scope of information distribution in the digital age. It is important because what happens now has implications for the dissemination of controversial information in the future. While we in the United States enjoy excellent free speech rights, the rules of expression can changes dramatically outside of the country. This is certainly not a new notion or concept; however, within the international framework of the internet, it creates its own new unique dynamic.
It matters to libraryland for several important reasons. First, in expanding our holdings to include digital collections, we are becoming more reliant on content that is delivered via the internet. While we may not be collecting the kind of sensitive information that Wikileaks has been publishing, the important notion is that there are individuals, corporations, and governments who could potentially exercise control over any point in the connection from the server to the end user. Not only could local officials pull the plug on a server or block traffic, but internet service providers (ISPs) could be pressured into not allowing traffic to move their networks. Or ISPs could regulate the amount and type of traffic that goes through their servers. (Think Comcast vs. Netflix, only with streaming video databases.) While there are ways around such things (mirrors for servers, rerouting of traffic for connections), it is up to the profession to be vigilant for such actions taken against digital information providers. It’s crucial to combat disruptions wherever they might be.
Second, the Wikileaks case represents the adage that once something is online it can be very hard (if not impossible) to fully remove. This is an important lesson as we seek to teach our patrons (especially the up and coming generations) about the implications of the online world in regards to privacy and personal content online. While this is not meant as a stern warning against putting anything online, it is a lesson about being vigilant about what gets put online. The most obvious lessons revolve around embarrassing Facebook updates, pictures of drunkenness and illegal activity, and unauthorized sharing of nude cell phone or digital photographs, but it extends to other potentially reputation damaging online postings. This is about teaching people about the positives and the perils of online life and how to take care of themselves in the new information age. If we are going to show our patrons the wonders of social media, we should do our best to put them on the path to good net citizenship.
Third, and what I consider to be most important point, if we as a profession are interested in the availability of literacy and information to the greatest number of people, we are going to have to fight for it. There are plenty of worthy causes for you to pick from: net neutrality, proprietary ebook platforms and/or formats, rural broadband access, book challenges/removals, unequal vendor pricing schemes and practices, and the granddaddy of them all, funding. While not all in the profession may agree with the practices or publishing of Wikileaks, we do share a common cause in trying to share information that is meant to educate and enlighten. In going forth under this ideal, librarians must be willing to take up the banner and fight for these causes. Not simply for the sake of the library as an institution, but for the best of what is yet to come in a digital information future. What this represents goes well beyond the doors of the library and encompasses the world at large.
For that, we must struggle, toil, and fight the good fight.