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Book bans & Tor nodes: Libraries are our not-so-quiet free expression defenders

You may be surprised to learn that libraries are some of our best allies in the defence of access to information, privacy, and intellectual freedom. But this is nothing new, because these rights have always been fundamental to what libraries stand for.

Semi-hip Librarians blog

As blogger, journalist and science fiction author Cory Doctorow wrote in an article about libraries as privacy champions, “There's an intellectually lazy view of libraries that holds that they've been made irrelevant by the Internet.” Anyone who has recently visited a library recently will know that this could not be further from the truth. Libraries are not only providers of Internet access, they are defenders of a secure and unfiltered net.

During the week of 21-28 February 2016, celebrated in Canada as Freedom to Read Week, we took the opportunity to discover all the ways that libraries are the outspoken – and underrated –defenders of your rights. Access to information, privacy, and intellectual freedom are all being defended in ways both big and small, by libraries and their staff.

1. Access

For many people, the library is the only place they can access the Internet for free. That access is as essential for a student in a remote rural community doing her homework as it is for a laid-off worker in a city looking for a job online. As e-readers become more common, libraries are the first port of call for free e Book downloads. Library staff also design and run free programmes to help users develop their digital and social-media literacy.

But access isn't necessarily unrestricted, and libraries face challenges when it comes to content filtering. In the United States, under the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) enacted by congress in 2000, libraries that receive funding assistance from the government in the form of discounts for Internet access must adhere to specific rules set out by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The library must have an Internet safety policy that includes technology protection measures, and the policy must block or filter access to pictures considered harmful to minors, such as pornography.

The intentions are good, but in some cases libraries are implementing overzealous filtering policies, concerned that if they don't filter out all potentially inappropriate sites to the fullest extent, they risk losing their funding.

There are other concerns with content filtering. The programmes are automated, and it is not always clear what is being blocked. As Alvin Schrader, a member of the Canadian Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Advisory Committee noted in the 2016 Freedom to Read Review, this has often led to constitutionally protected speech being blocked as well.

But libraries and library associations are fighting back. Organisations like the American Library Association (ALA) have worked to clarify CIPA requirements. As Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom wrote, “The challenge is to comply with CIPA and the Supreme Court's decision while at the same time fulfilling the library's mission to provide content, not suppress it, and to increase access, not restrict it.”

In 2014 The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) organized 404 Day: A day of Action Against Censorship in Libraries, to raise awareness of the problems with CIPA and to give librarians guidance on how to correctly implement the policy.

We can't talk about Internet access without talking about digital security, an area libraries are struggling to keep up with. That's where librarian Alison Macrina of the Library Freedom Project stepped in. Her project, the recipient of a Knight Foundation News Challenge grant in 2015, aims to teach librarians and their communities about “surveillance threats, privacy rights and law, and privacy-protecting technology tools to help safeguard digital freedoms.” The project runs in-person workshops for librarians and provides them with teaching materials so they can run sessions for their patrons.

The challenge is to comply with CIPA and the Supreme Court’s decision while at the same time fulfilling the library’s mission to provide content, not suppress it, and to increase access, not restrict it.
-Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Deputy director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom

2. Privacy

While access to information is something you might expect libraries to care about, their concern with your right to privacy may be more surprising. In the U.S., the Campaign for Reader Privacy was launched in 2004 to “restore the safeguards for reader privacy that were eliminated by the USA Patriot Act”. In 2013 the group, which includes PEN American Center and the ALA, issued a statement calling on congress to pass legislation that would reinstate privacy protections for library lending records.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act is worrying for libraries because it allows the government to ask for library records via secret court orders, without giving any evidence that the person whose records are being requested has any links to terrorism. It can also stop the librarian from telling anyone about the request.

The Patriot Act covers not only materials borrowed from libraries, but also the browsing histories of people who access the Internet at the library. Eighty-five examples of libraries being asked for patron information related to the September 11th attacks were reported to the University of Illinois within the first month of the Patriot Act's passage.

To help their users, libraries have posted warnings to their patrons about possible government surveillance, while others have hosted cryptoparties to teach people how to use privacy software. In her work, Alison Macrina has encouraged libraries to be less complicit with government demands, noting that the government's power to collect personal information also depends on how much we give away.

Macrina told IFEX that, “From purging records to avoid government information requests, to fighting back against overbroad surveillance authorizations like the USA PATRIOT Act, to offering free computer privacy classes to members of the community, libraries are some of the fiercest defenders of our essential civil liberties and are often doing so without receiving much attention for this”.

An example of how one library is doing this is by hosting a Tor node. In the summer of 2015, Kilton Public Library in New Hampshire became the first library in the USA to host a Tor exit node, part of the network of servers that allow users to “improve their privacy and security on the Internet” by disguising where a connection is coming from, and allowing people to browse the Internet anonymously. Although there is nothing illegal about hosting a Tor exit node, authorities looking for the source of certain browsing may trace it to the operator of the node, in this case the library. Since libraries have a long history of supporting freedom of information, the fact that they would want to be part of the Tor project is hardly out of character.

When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pressured the Kilton library to shut down its Tor node, it did so briefly. The library asked for the public to comment on its decision to host the node, and then used the overwhelming support from its community and library users at large to justify its decision to restore it. One commenter wrote that they felt “libraries were uniquely qualified to operate” Tor nodes, while a member of the library board said that shutting it down could call into question “our mission as a provider of free access to information without fear of reprisal”.

In the week after the story about the Kilton library's run-in with the DHS went public, at least a dozen other libraries in the USA expressed interest in hosting nodes. Supporting this has become one of the latest tasks taken on by the Library Freedom Project.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act is worrying for libraries because it allows the government to ask for library records via secret court orders, without giving any evidence that the person whose records are being requested has any links to terrorism.

3. Intellectual freedom

One of the most visible ways that libraries are free expression heroes is in the defense of their materials.

Each year the Intellectual Freedom Advisory Committee of the Canadian Library Association (CLA) publishes the Survey of Challenges to Resources and Policies in Canadian Libraries. Libraries take each challenge seriously. They have to weigh the complainant's views against the right to free expression and the public's right to know. The CLA's summary of the 2014 survey noted that “Every challenge to expressive content in library materials is viewed within the framework of the established library mandate” and library policies on intellectual freedom and access.

Library staff also use challenges as teaching opportunities. As Alvin Schrader told IFEX, “When materials in a library's collection are challenged, staff explain and teach the importance of protecting everyone's right to have those materials available and to be able to think about the thoughts and views they contain”.

The CLA's 2014 survey revealed that only 3% of the materials challenged ended up being removed from the collection, while 43% were retained and 26% were either relocated or reclassified.

In one notable instance, the children's book Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka – who was, incidentally, the first U.S. National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, appointed by the Librarian of Congress for calendar years 2008 and 2009 - was challenged. A public library in the province of Quebec received a request to have it banned on the basis of it being age-inappropriate, violent and not humorous. After a careful review, the library decided to keep Battle Bunny in its collection.

Because libraries are also supporters of transparency, many more examples of challenged library materials can be found in annual reviews by institutions and organisations such as the Toronto Public Library and the American Library Association, which runs an annual Banned Books Week in September.

When asked in what way libraries are underrated as defenders of freedom of expression, Martyn Wade, of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) told IFEX, “Libraries are based on the principle of enabling everyone to benefit from and enjoy freedom of access to knowledge and freedom of expression in a safe and confidential physical and digital environment”.

In short, libraries aren't on the back shelves, gathering dust. They are front and centre in the defense of free expression and the right to access information without fear of reprisal. These rights are fundamental to what libraries have always stood for, and are daily being championed by these worthy institutions.

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