This is my comment speech to the paper “Lawful Access Legislation, Its Risks and Why Libraries Must Care” by Brent Roe and Jeannie Bail, presented on the FAIFE Session “Master of content or How to win the battle over freedom in cyberspace?” at the IFLA 78th Conference in Helsinki:
(Please note that this is a preliminary and summarized version. I might make some adjustments before/during the session and insert it here later on)
The description of the lawful access legislation in the paper has many similarities with the Telecommunications Data Retention legislation in the European Union.
Telecommunications data retention compels ISPs to save all users’ connection-data and locations for a period of (at least) 6 months and grant law enforcement agencies access to this data. In the age of constantly connected cell-phones, a simple cross linking with services like Google Maps and telephone directories is enough to create a complete surveillance apparatus, also if the content of a connection (e.g. of a phone-call) isn’t revealed.
Although the European Commission admitted the regulations to be problematic and couldn’t provide proof for their effectiveness in detection rate or fighting terror, the regulations remain compulsory for all EU members.
In Germany, the Supreme Court declared these regulations unconstitutional due to privacy issues and lifted the legislation. Since then there is a constant debate between the conservatives, who present telecommunications data retention as a magic cure for all social problems, and liberals who oppose it.
However, I don’t perceive such legislations “only” a threat to privacy.
When a person is being watched, or is aware of the possibility that he/she is being watched, there is a chilling effect on free speech and information freedom.
Doesn’t matter if it’s Foucault’s Panopticon, East Germany’s Stasi, or more subtle (but far more effective) online surveillance.
Which brings me to the main question of the paper:
Should libraries care? Should they comment broadly or stick to “their own” concerns?
As the paper explains, libraries could be defined as ISPs and thus obligated to violate their patrons’ privacy, as the situation in the U.S. is.
But I want to approach this question more broadly. Several months ago I argued in an article in the German library journal “Bibliotheksdienst” that yes – libraries should (and even must) care, comment, and act on issues related to information ethics, freedom of expression etc., also if these issues do not (yet) directly affected libraries.
That is, libraries should start looking beyond the library-counter.
I used several examples to discuss this notion: failure to act in the copyrights-problematic (library associations being satisfied with exceptions for libraries), the Trojan-Horse applied by the German government (Staatstrojaner), Telecommunications Data Retention, and WikiLeaks.
Failing to act on such matters until the library practice is affected from them is a failure in fulfilling our code of ethics and social obligation. Furthermore, libraries’ inactivity in regard to such developments is a silent contribution for their success. A contribution for which my generation, today’s “new professionals”, will have to pay the price.
And if libraries think they could continue operate autonomously within a control society or a society in which information, knowledge, and culture are mere commodities that are preserved for the social-privileged – they’re making a bitter mistake.
In addition, the impact on the perception of libraries by the public as institutions that act for civil freedoms and know their way in cyberspace (and not just between bookshelves) is a positive side effect (and should stay only a side effect of our actions).
Beside actions on a political level (such as comments and lobby) libraries also have the task of educating users about (online) privacy, (online) freedoms, and online hazards.
In short – information literacy.
As the examples mentioned in the paper demonstrate, this includes informing users about the impact that certain legislations can have on their personal (and constitutional) freedoms and rights.
In conclusion, there are many hindrances when it comes to privacy, exercise of free speech, and participation in social and political discourses.
From “clicking” over information to private corporations, through artificial exclusion-mechanisms (such as copyrights), and up to invasive state legislations (such as Lawful Access and Telecommunications Data Retention).
If libraries perceive access to information, knowledge, and culture as their true calling, not merely a task that needs to be done, then they should begin to act.
 For visualization: the Green-Party politician Malte Spitz gave the press access to his telecommunications data (after taking Telekom to court), which is available as an interactive map: http://www.zeit.de/datenschutz/malte-spitz-vorratsdaten/
The session will soon be made available to watch online. I will add the link subsequently.