At the next Library Technology Conference in the Twin Cities in March, there won’t be one session on privacy-protecting measures for library computers—there will be two. One is mine, but Eric Stroshane’s talk has a vastly better title: “Defence Against the Digital Dark Arts.” I need to step up my game!
These aren’t the only sessions of their type I’ve seen advertised lately. I can’t take credit, of course, but after my last discussion of the subject, I’m delighted to see information professionals stepping up to teach each other how best to protect ourselves and our patrons from unwarranted invasion of privacy by digital means. I think the constellation of activity around this question usefully demonstrates how individual professionals, libraries and archives, and library/archives organizations can think about engaging, both formally and grassroots, with digital law and policy.
As it happens, another prime opportunity to register opposition to digital invasion of privacy will arrive on February 11. Several of the best advocacy organizations in the tech industry are joining forces with prominent websites and anyone else going their way for The Day We Fight Back. If the suggested protest actions—website badges, Twitter ribbons, phone calls to Congress—sound familiar, they should: it’s much the same sort of effort that succeeded in bringing the Internet-breaking Stop Online Piracy Act (and its Senate counterpart, the Protect Intellectual Property Act) to a crashing halt. As best I can tell, The Day We Fight Back doesn’t yet have the same momentum as the SOPA/PIPA backlash, but I also remember how surprised everyone was at the scale of the SOPA/PIPA protest, so I’m prepared to be surprised this time, too. For that matter, I doubt a protest needs to be as gigantic as the SOPA/PIPA protest was in order to capture attention from high places.
I’ll be participating (with my modest backwater website) in the February 11 protest, and I hope more librarians and archivists will as well. Ideally, though, I’d see libraries, archives, and our professional organizations stepping up to declare their support also. The issue here isn’t that our organizations are unaware; ALA’s main page on privacy and confidentiality issues leads to laudable education efforts such as the annual Choose Privacy Week, whereas the Association for Research Libraries has endorsed the USA Freedom Act and weighed in on the email piece of the digital-privacy puzzle. Some of this is branding, I suspect: it’s easier and more attractive for an organization to own its own advocacy than support another’s. Another part of what’s happening is that our professional organizations default to training their sights either on the lobbying end or the patron-education end of the civic-action spectrum. This strategy makes sense, considering how difficult it has historically been for anything short of a major national organization to direct national policy, or create broad societal awareness of almost any political issue. It’s just not the only available strategy any longer.
We certainly shouldn’t want this activity to stop, of course; it’s valuable, even necessary. I do think, though, that if we focus only on these segments of the action spectrum, we leave a lot of potential for grassroots action off the table, especially online-mediated action, and that seems a shame. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for our workplaces or professional organizations to pick up the baton. We can self-organize, watch for likely opportunities, and capitalize on them ourselves.
When I teach about librarianship’s response to the Patriot Act, I consciously choose readings that convey just how horribly isolating and scary it felt to be the target of a National Security Letter, straitly forbidden from seeking companionship in adversity. I remember that even for me, safe in library school at the time, it felt a little worrisome to have apprenticed myself to just about the only profession opposing very powerful people and ideas so publicly. Rather than bury that fear, it makes sense to build support to withstand it. When libraries, librarians, and library organizations ally with grassroots efforts and other agencies whose concerns overlap with ours, we expand our support networks beyond our own professional communities, which can only strengthen our voices.
When we pitch in to advocacy we don’t own, we expand awareness of our information activism as well. I enjoy stories in the media expressing surprise at tough-minded library and archive advocacy on various policy issues as much as anyone, but I’d be happier if the media and everyone else simply expected our input, even looked to us to lead as a matter of course. That happy day is well within our grasp, but we have some work to do to get there. Lobbying and educational efforts can only take us part of the way, especially considering the many, many activists and citizens who don’t much need the education but aren’t in the halls of power to notice the lobbying. Our participation, individual and collective, will help, and the more visibly we participate, the better.
I’ll see you, I hope, on February 11.