I got in trouble at the library once.
This story is pretty old, since it starts with a card catalogue (and by that, I mean skinny drawers containing actual typewritten cards). I was 10 years old, and looking for Judy Blume novels I hadn’t already read in the “Author” card catalogue. I found a book titled Forever.
When I lugged my stack of books up to the circulation desk, the librarian on duty was the dour one with a tough-on-talking stance. She slapped through the books inserting due-date cards and held up the copy of Forever: “Does your mother know you’re reading this?” she asked.
“No,” I said. And then I thought: Do I need to hide this book under my bed?
It wouldn’t have mattered. The librarian called my mother on the phone later that day. When Mom asked me about the book, I thought I was in trouble, which seemed pretty lame; I had skimmed the novel earlier and found almost no good parts. You know what I mean.
Mom explained that I was not in trouble. “I told the librarian there was no problem,” she said. “If there’s a book available for checkout, and you remembered your library card, then it’s your privilege to read it.”
A lesson imparted to me when I was young (and not just in this instance), was the importance of having unlimited access to everything the library offered. It also gave me the notion that it is impossible, and probably a little dangerous, to judge books or resources or information objects as being inherently “good” or “bad.”
In the digital information age – where 10-year-olds no longer stand on tiptoe to search through card catalogues – we seem to have access to boundless information through simple Google searches. Because of the access we have online, there are situations in which modifying information searches based on people’s needs is reasonable or necessary. For example, Google users can adjust search “safety” settings. In addition, “lifestyle” search engines, such as ImHalal.com, fulfill a specialized user need.
But some information access issues have the potential to affect all users. Last week, a bill called the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) was introduced to the Senate (full text is here). The bill would enable both the courts and the Attorney General to blacklist Internet domain names; the vague wording of the legislation seems to threaten a slippery slope to government censorship. Just as the librarian made a value judgment about what information was good for me, COICA appears to expand the power of government to judge the utility of information for all users in the U.S.
This sort of legislation should inspire us to think about democratization of and access to information, and the role government should take in the information age. While I believe intellectual property should be protected, the scope of this Senate bill makes me uncomfortable. It is not clear to me why a government-mandated domain blacklist is necessary if we have a vibrant digital community capable of policing its own, as well as (mostly) responsible content hosts willing to comply with relevant laws.
I do not intend to make a political statement with this post, but developments like COICA remind me of a recent statement by Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt: “Washington is an incumbent protection machine,” Schmidt said. “Technology is fundamentally disruptive.” As users in the digital age, we should be aware of the gains to information access privileges we have made, and work to preserve the benefits of better access to information.
Photo by Lasse C. Available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.