Librarians & Human Rights

From the Atlantic Wire:

The United Nations counts internet access as a basic human right in a report that bears implications both to on-going events in the Arab Spring and to the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers. Acting as special rapporteur, a human rights watchdog role appointed by the UN Secretary General, Frank La Rue takes a hard line on the importance of the internet as "an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress."

Great. Now when public librarians kick people off the computer, they’ll be calling it a violation of their human rights. Soon public librarians will be occupied by a blue helmeted multi-national force in order to ensure people’s human rights aren’t being violated. Ok, maybe not. But it also hits on the digital divide.

La Rue acknowledges the logistical barriers that some nations face when it comes to delivering internet service. Without the proper infrastructure, some nations simply can’t engage the internet as the "revolutionary" and "interactive medium" it’s proven itself to be. However, all nations should make plans to offer universal access and also maintain policy that won’t limit access for political purposes.

And there we have it: a written declaration of the right to digital information access. I fully acknowledge that there is a vast gulp between the words and their realization; it’s not even a matter of governmental interference (that’s a concern in and of itself) but lack of national infrastructure in some of the poorest countries in the world.

It’s a step in the right direction, for certain. Is it something libraries could capitalize on? I think so in nations that still lack for them; it is a pairing of print and computing that mimics what currently passes for a modern library. In more modern countries, my hunch is to think it might turn into computer centers rather than libraries.

Internet access as a human right: what do you think?

Libraries & The Cloud

Earlier last week this article appeared in PC Magazine discussing the end of content ownership with the offering of cloud computing:

For the majority of consumers, however, they will come to fully trust the cloud and believe in subscription pricing for everything. Ownership will become an anathema as consumers realize they don’t want to risk losing content as they switch services, and they tire of finding requisite space on their own local storage for all those digital files. The benchmark for a good service will be based on the richness of each library. Consumers will pay companies like Amazon, a fixed amount for full-boat, yearly access.

In reading this article, I feel a bit divided. There are things about cloud computing and access that really speak to me; it’s the availability of content from wherever you are. Untethered from a location, it exists where you are. It is a promise of ubiquitous content access, a powerful notion that is quite compelling in its potential.

Where I feel a deviation is at the notion of subscription pricing for everything. My specific concern is if subscription pricing takes the place of content ownership. While I can imagine people signing up for subscriptions for eBooks in the same way that Rhapsody works, the idea that it would be the only model on the market bothers me to no end. I believe in the power of the end user to control their content; this doesn’t happen under a subscription model. It’s the concentration of power over content into relatively few hands that is a concern (although, to be fair, with the cloud and the internet, it creates other pathways to content).

Also, what would it means for book challenges? Could the groups that targeted books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian picket corporations into getting it removed? As opposed to a single school district, it means that it could be removed for entire swaths of the population. While I would hope that it would not come to that, it is a potential scenario.

Overarching this is the digital divide, for cloud computing and content doesn’t really matter if people cannot get internet access. Could it lower the bar to access though if they did not have to concern themselves with how to store content locally? Perhaps, since the costs of devices continue to drop (whether it is a Kindle or cell phone or other device). But in the end, if people can’t access it, then it doesn’t really matter.

Now, here’s the question: should libraries start looking to the cloud as the next step of information access? While we should retain physical locations (since providing internet access and printing services still requires computers at a location as well as programming and information literacy classes), how much could we push out into the cloud for the benefit of the communities that we serve?

(h/t: Library Link of the Day)

Toeing the Internet Censorship Line

Slate has an article about $30 million marked to combat internet censorship, yet not a single dollar has been spent. Quote:

Yet in the subsequent year and half, none of that money has been spent—not in Libya, not in China, not anywhere. Unfortunately, I am not able to explain why. When asked, an official told me that the department had lacked technical expertise and had been forced to reorganize itself in order to "unify the policy" before issuing a call for proposals (one finally went out this past January; results should be available within a month).

Others see darker motives: Weakness, cowardice, anxiety not to displease the governments that create firewalls, especially the Chinese government, which routinely denounces "Internet freedom" as an anti-Chinese plot. As it happens, the two companies that have written some of the most successful anti-censorship programs, Freegate and UltraReach, were founded by by Chinese exiles associated with Falun Gong, the dissident religious movement.

Although in getting to that quote, I think there is a far more interesting quote to lead off the article.

"We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas."

It’s a pretty nuanced position forming. The United States wants people to have access to information but having access doesn’t mean free reign over bandwidth (a la current net neutrality movements as of late). Although, as it can be noted, access and bandwidth are two different animals; the latter doesn’t matter without the former. But if latter doesn’t support the kind of information exchanges they want to encourage (including, I would guess, the videos shot by regular citizens showing government violence against them; it’s not like video files are exactly small), then what does access matter if there is nothing to support it?

Not that any of this matters since we aren’t spending the money to begin with. But, the way I see this, this feels like listening to someone who is saying “every child deserves to be born” followed by “I don’t want my taxes paying for your kid’s education/welfare/healthcare/other social assistance”. The two notions just don’t seem to mesh very well and neither does advocating for internet access abroad while moving towards restricting bandwidth at home. It’s an imperfect comparison, but it’s the best way I can sum up how it looks to me.

Internet No Longer Just For Porn

From Pew:

This is a study regarding where people get their news as broken down into four categories. The line that gets the most action and the most interest is the red Internet line in each one of the demographics. I mean, look at it in the upper left graphic (the under 30 set); it just shoots through the roof. For me, that just goes to show the continued importance of internet access as a community resource. The cost of internet access has not continued to significantly decline in the last few years. As such, I do not think it is a stretch to imagine that this will be a continued justification for the existence of libraries, both as an internet access point as well as a place of computer information instruction.

Furthermore, it’s a trend that is worthy of additional investigation. Can current libraries plan their programs and classes around this trend? Can they shift marketing focus onto internet access? What does this mean in terms of information literacy? All are worthy questions for further examination.

Otherwise, the charts tell us nothing that hasn’t been widely reported about the decline of other media: television, newspapers, and radio. I would surmise it would be due to the ‘on demand’ nature of the internet. It will be interesting to see how these medias will morph over time.

(h/t: Andrew Sullivan)