Technology and Society

Responsible Freedoms

July 31, 2018

Supporting intellectual freedom is a bedrock principle for libraries, yet it carries with it a host of issues. Public libraries deal with challenges to books, displays, and programs constantly. They have policies and procedures in place to smooth the path, yet it’s not always a simple matter. For two years in a row, library staff in Utah were forced to remove a LGBTQ display because the library system director (who does not have library training, though he has an MBA) thought it was too controversial. This year, when required to replace their LGBTQ display, they created a “libraries are for everyone” theme, which managed to skirt the ban while including LGBTQ folks.

Similar challenges were launched last year at libraries in Texas and North Dakota, where the library directors pushed back. I wonder, though, if those libraries have had a similar display since. Nothing like having a state legislator say the library had promoted “an ideology of sexual fluidity, promiscuity, experimentation and deviation” to put a chill on things. (The North Dakota lawmaker also complained they didn’t include anti-LGBTQ books in the display to show “both sides.”) Meanwhile, in Iowa a group protested the presence of LGBTQ books in the Orange City library. The group includes in their arguments that the library should avoid encouraging people to learn about sexuality because gay people are in danger of committing suicide. Gee, I wonder why? The same group attacks local churches and church-affiliated colleges in Iowa for theological error and “false teaching,” but the library seems a particular focus for their activism.

Public libraries are locally funded (so they have to be sensitive to local interests and concerns) and are part of the government (so they must develop policies that are consistent with the first amendment). They also have gentle gatekeepers. There’s only so much money and so much room on the shelves, so things are chosen by librarians, taking into account the community’s recommendations, interests, and tastes. These library challenges are small, local skirmishes negotiated among neighbors. Though they are fraught disagreements driven by national polarities, you’re likely to run into each other at the county fair or the grocery store. The people involved share some cultural context.

On the internet, things get more complicated. Context is fragmented. News is ripped from its source and repackaged in granular bits, often with no clues about whether it’s news, opinion, or satire. Cultures collide and fragment and some people feel empowered to say things they probably wouldn’t if face-to-face. (A writer recently decided to ask trolls who attack women online why they do it. Men comfortable calling women they didn’t know c*** and b**** responded to her questions with more vitriol and, when she didn’t take the bait, many of them blocked her. Some irony in being blocked for not being intimidated.) The near-global reach of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube depends on working with laws of the countries where they operate. Much more difficult to adjudicate are the multitudes of cultural norms. These platforms have their own rules of engagement, a body of laws for their “communities” (in the case of Facebook, it’s larger than any country on earth) spelled out in the fine print of a terms of service agreement, but they are enforced haphazardly, and you can’t train artificial intelligence without humans first making decisions. What’s a difficult negotiation in a town of 6,000 is mindboggling at global scale and at high volume.

Ron Wyden, a senator from Oregon, was one of the authors of a section of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to protect freedom of speech online by allowing platforms to self-regulate and avoid being liable for users’ speech. There would be no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube, no Reddit, you name it, if companies were required to take responsibility for every utterance posted. Americans may want more control over their privacy, something Wyden is working on, but they really would prefer not to have the government decide what can be posted online. So would Wyden, but he sees this moment as a time of reckoning. The hands-off provision Congress crafted in 1996 was intended to improve society through innovative means of sharing ideas. If the social benefit piece of that contract is not taken seriously, if the profit motive drives decisions without responsibility, there may be changes ahead.

Social responsibility is a core value of librarianship, along with intellectual freedom. Trying to figure out how to do both isn’t always simple, and on the vast global scale of these American companies, that conflict seems to be coming to a head. Preparing students to judge information and be able to think for themselves is an interesting challenge in such a volatile information environment.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.