The incorrible net and the essential ethics

After the Internet and the break-through of digital technology it has become easier for the libraries to meet the demand for versatility and topicality and to reach every citizen with their services. But for the authorities, too, it has become easier to keep an eye on the citizens’ use of the library, and the important ethical concept of privacy has come under increasing pressure.

All in all the same ethical demands must be levelled at the libraries’ netborne and digital services as at the library’s other activities. The citizens must be treated on an equal footing; there must be free – and gratis – access to core services; the library must support the free flow of knowledge and information; the staff must be incorruptible; personal censorship and surveillance must be out of the question; copyright must be respected; the staff must be in touch with the community as such and not mount their own hobby horses, propagate their own attitudes or give in to pressure; a special effort must be made to support the under-privileged groups and those who are not familiar with the library: the hallmark of the offers and the service must be that of quality and professionalism. Also in relation to the net, these are obvious elements of an ethical codex for a knowledge institution such as the library with its standard- bearing position in terms of culture and advancement of democracy.

While it has become more difficult, not to say an insuperable task, to enforce the demand for quality in terms of the Internet, the demand for equal and free access for all citizens is much more likely to be fulfilled. On the negative side, though, it must be said that surveillance of the individual citizen’s use of the library is all the time becoming easier because of the rapid development of technology. Just think how complete and quick a surveillance manoeuvre can be effected on that day in the near future when the citizen is provided – in the name of service – with a borrower’s card or an identification code common to all the libraries in the country. The practical advantages would be legion. Add to this another important turn of the tide: While the library in its choice and purchase of physical media can reject pornography, racist opinions etc., this is by no means so easy to do when it concerns the net. The libraries can recommend what they find of quality on the net and via portals lead the users towards the best web sites within a certain area. The fact remains – in the words of Finn Vester, chairman of the Danish Library Association and prominent local politician in Frederikssund – “that the Internet is so dynamic and almost limitless that it has quite clearly become difficult for the libraries to hang on to and secure the profile they otherwise subscribe to.”

This had led to a multitude of libraries the world over having – voluntarily or by political dictate – introduced net filters and blockages.

Experiences with filters
First on the scene with a porn-filter on the public PCs in a library in Denmark was Birkerød public library, and when I put the question to chief librarian Mona Madsen as to what this has meant, the answer is brief and to the point: “This has been an unqualified success for 3-4 years. And yes: the filter we use can catch pornography very, very precisely. And no: it does not eliminate serious sex pages or other information. To us, it is not a question of being offended with the person who is looking for porn, but rather more of wanting a sensible exploitation of resources. That other users are not made to feel uncomfortable. And that net time is used for something which is in harmony with the library’s purpose. The library is not obliged to make available that which according to our most objective and unprejudiced estimate neither benefits the level of information, nor cultural education or the contextual power of society.”

While Mona Madsen gladly approves of killers of pop-up advertisements and porn filters on the library’s PCs, she does not believe in filters for sexual discrimination, hate speech, racism and xenophobia. “Shouldn’t one be able to see the kind of lies that deniers of the fact of holocaust put forward? And would it not be interesting to see what kind of arguments bible fundamentalists could produce in order to reject the theories of evolution or moral extremists’ argument for killing doctors who perform abortions? Here the borderlines are so blurred that clear guidelines are very difficult, and I do not believe that we shall ever see a automatic filter which will be able to make those decisions for us.”

Stuart Hamilton, from the international library association IFLA’s office for Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE) at the Royal School of Library and Information Science, does not believe this either. He has just defended publicly an extremely commendable PhD-dissertation on “to what extent libraries can ensure free, equal and unhampered access to Internet-accessible information resources from a global perspective”, and while working on this he has become steadily more sceptical towards this kind of measure. “The technology is quite simply not good enough, and I for one would be very surprised if it ever will be, “ he says when I meet him one evening in January at the Copenhagen pub The tattooed widow. “The libraries are moving down a slippery slope if in relation to the Internet they start to act restrictively instead of the opposite – however noble the intentions might be. But if it really comes to that, then it might be a possibility for the libraries themselves to develop the relevant filters. That would certainly be preferable to using filters from private companies – often North American – who have to make a profit and whom we cannot possibly check. It is, as you know, a trade secret how the filters and designed and programmed.”

Panic reaction
The same note is struck by Rikke Frank Jørgensen, specialist consultant at the Danish Institute for Human Rights “Fundamentally, the libraries must in their mediation comply with the fact that what is allowed in a printed text is also permissible on the net. §19 of the Declaration of Human Rights applies online as well as offline. But when members of staff in a library see something on the net which they consider illegal, they must, of course, inform the relevant authorities or report it to a hotline like the one Red Barnet (Save the children) has established for child pornography. The case can then be investigated. That won’t happen if the libraries just block the homepage in question or introduce automatic filters. Rikke Frank Jørgensen considers filter solutions a reflection of the kind of hysteria that easily manifests itself in society when a new medium appears on the scene. “This makes some people argue in favour of stronger measures and entirely new solutions rather than sticking to the principles and solutions that our society has long since adopted. Apparently, we are still in this phase as far as Internet and digital mediation are concerned. Obviously, it is entirely up to the individual himself to put a filter in his own private PC; but it is not a good way of handling new challenges, if one begins to advocate that kind of automatic censorship to other people”. “Freedom of expression and free access to information is a fundamental right in a community governed by law and in our democracy, and the libraries – if any – must stress the importance of people’s right freely to seek information on the net. Even though it might be something offensive. It is exactly in the meeting with the provoking and objectionable that freedom of expression is put to the test. Mainstream attitudes, after all, do not represent any problem.”

Rikke Frank Jørgensen would be very unhappy to see various self-appointed bodies setting themselves up as judges of what is good for us to see on the net and what should be stopped. Or that it is just left to the suppliers of electronic communication services to agree on what kind of limitations should be introduced in relation to e.g. pornography and racism. “The companies in question make a living by supplying tele-services, not by passing judgements on the content of conversations or on the Internet. Opting for selfregulation by the tele-business is therefore not really viable.We are not the Wild West after all. The decision as to whether the content is illegal or not must be made by the police and the courts, not by private individuals,” she maintains.

Equal access FOR ALL!
Asked what she considers the most important ethical principle in connection with the public libraries’ service to the citizens, Birkerød’s Mona Madsen mentions the free of charge and equal access for all citizens. One of the greatest achievements of the new technology and the net is that more than ever this principle can come up trumps. That is demonstrated to me, when between the talk with Rikke Frank Jørgensen and Stuart Hamilton, I dropped in on The Danish National Library for the Blind. On this, the last Thursday in January and to the tunes of rock music and merry clinking of glasses, a digital motorway – E17 – was launched, which will make knowledge, information and cultural experiences accessible to “everyone having difficulty in reading a printed text”, something which has previously been the prerogative of the ordinary reading citizen. With this new national net library the National Library for the Blind and the entire Danish library system have effected a quantum leap which for the blind and reading-impaired may turn out to be just as revolutionary as the one taken in 1825 when Louis Braille introduced his “Braille System”.

Director of the National Library for the Blind, Elsebeth Tank, imagines that as part of a further development of E17, a large digital database will be established over the next five years, which will contain electronic text files of all new publications. “If we succeed in realising this vision, we have also paved the way for complete accessibility. The seed would be planted for an epochmaking democratisation of the information society.” When in connection with the opening ceremony of E17 I ask her what kind of ethical demands the blind and the reading-impaired should make from the public libraries’ net-servicing and electronic mediation, her answer is: “It is unethical if the libraries fail to notice the special needs of some of society’s minority groups. And this includes the blind and the sight-impaired. They must be acknowledged and treated like a legitimate and equal user group. The net services that the libraries offer their users in general must therefore also be made available to this group, and the necessary tools for this must be developed and acquired.”

As an ethical minimum in relation to this group, Elsebeth Tank mentions that the libraries’ own homepages and net services financed by public means and developed and run in collaboration with different libraries, must be fully accessible. “The same applies to the digitisation – i.a. of the cultural heritage – that takes place in the major national institutions. As far as I know, this happens without paying any particular attention to the special needs of the reading-impaired.”

On the basis of this, Elsebeth Tank invites the libraries and the authorities to turn their minds to this particular issue, and she also encourages the Ministry of Culture to make accessibility for these groups a condition for financial support in connection with the development of former as well as new services.

Beware of experiences from USA
As opposed to these very sunny perspectives, the situation for a principle like privacy seems rather gloomy. In the Nordic library world as well as in other western library countries, the citizen’s right – without surveillance – to make use of the libraries’ offers and facilities is considered fundamental and the obligation of discretion essential. Nonetheless, it is quite in tune with the advance of technology that not only has it become considerably easier for the authorities to look over your shoulder and check what you are reading or searching for on the net – it is in fact accelerating. Presented with this problem, Stuart Hamilton from IFLA’s FAIFE office says: “It is nothing new that police and intelligence visit public libraries to gain information on certain citizens’ use of the library. But after 9/11 and the election of George Bush as president, the situation has deteriorated dramatically, and with the USA Patriot Act and the clonings resulting from this act or the ones that are emerging in several other countries, the libraries find themselves in a decidedly frontrunner position as far as surveillance and fight against terrorism is concerned.”

The extent, and the consequences of it, are not really fathomable right now, in the opinion of Stuart Hamilton. “At any rate not in USA where libraries and library staff are not allowed to reveal about what and about whom they have had to pass information to the authorities. If they do, they can be prosecuted. So at best, we won’t know the extent of it until the archives are opened up at some faraway date in the future.”

Surveillance move by Brussels
Extremely worrying in relation to surveillance are the well-advanced plans at EU-level for membership countries to introduce a counterpart to the USA Patriot Act. According to these plans, as outlined in a proposal under the auspices of The European Council to introduce a counterpart to Framework Decision (reg. no. 13353/04), all citizens’ tele-traffic to and from the public libraries will i.a. have to be registered and stored for at least 12 months – and even longer if the authorities judge this to be essential for future research. Such data on the individual user’s use of the library must also be handed over, should the police and the secret services demand it, and in such a way that sender as well as recipient can be identified and located. It will also be required that such data can be forwarded to competent authorities in the other EU-countries.

One decisive factor in this connection is that the data mentioned can only be handed over to the authorities if a court order is produced. This is in accordance with the terror package that the Danish Folketing (Parliament) adopted just over two years ago, but in the EU draft to Framework Decision this condition is not mentioned. It is mentioned, indeed, that “the process to be followed in order to get access to retained data and to preserve accessed data shall be defined by each Member State in national law.” But as we are talking in terms of a harmonisation initiative for the combating of barrierbreaking high-technology criminality, it is probably a question of whether at EU-level it will be acceptable that some Member Countries demand a court order in order to get data handed over when in other Member Countries this is regarded as unnecessary. Neither this aspect, nor how the legal game is to be played in connection with the handing over or exchange of personal data between the countries, have been clarified. Neither how one avoids that the people with whom a person under suspicion communicates, are incorporated in the investigation material. Also when they are completely innocent.

Rikke Frank Jørgensen from Danish Institute for Human Rights has great difficulty in imagining that Denmark will sign and implement a Framework Decision if the demand for a court order is not included.

“But just the fact that the citizens’ teleand Internet traffic is logged, whether they are under suspicion of criminal acts or not, is already going very far. It would be the same as Post Denmark registering and keeping copies of the front and back of all the letters sent from one citizen to another,” she feels.

“The clauses in The European Convention of Human Rights that deal with freedom of expression and privacy, allow for deviations from the ideal claims. But the measures must always be based on absolute necessity in a democratic society. I do not believe this to be the case here.”

“It is a surveillance structure which is unfolded here, and as I see the document from the Council this is clearly a question of an over-reaction – quite out of proportion to the reality the proposition is aimed at and has to function within. It is possible that the adoption of measures like this may have a certain psychological effect.

That to the citizens it will demonstrate that the EU and the Membership Countries are doing something to stamp out terrorism, but that data accumulation should play a decisive role in uncovering terrorists, I doubt very much. People with sinister purposes are sure to find ways of communicating that can escape surveillance.”

What then can the libraries do, should the present bill be passed?
“Before it gets that far, the libraries will have to raise their voices and reject the role of police authority. And if the libraries should be subject to such measures, they must as an absolute minimum make the citizens and their users aware – in the shape of notices or posters in every single public library – that they are subject to some rules which mean that citizens’ tele-communication to and from the library – from ordinary phone calls to e-mails – are registered, stored and handed over to the authorities on demand.”

This broadside is not only directed at Danish politicians and public libraries, but at libraries, their allies and members of staff in the entire EU.

Into battle!
In the Danish legislation on terrorism from 2002, libraries, universities and other institutions of higher education are explicitly exempt from the rules about registration and storage of the citizens’ use of the telephone, SMS, email, Internet etc. And that this exemption is not mentioned in the EU move, is of the greatest concern to the chairmen of the two largest library organisations in Denmark.

Pernille Drost, newly elected chairman of the Danish Union of Librarians encourages the library world to fight against this kind of legislation. “It is completely contradictory to everything that the library stands for, and it would be catastrophic for democracy, if such legislation were introduced. It would absolutely undermine the libraries and their position in Danish society as important democracy-initiating institutions.

There is no doubt that all libraries and all librarians are opposed to criminal actions on the net and are very conscious of any possible misuse. And the libraries have a very important job in teaching their users, not least the children, to work with the Internet and make sure that no criminal material is passed on or provided. This must be done by guiding the users and building up their information competencies. Not by introducing net filters and a rabid surveillance legislation. That is not the way to solve the problem.”

Finn Vester from the Danish Library Association does not mince his words either: “The libraries must of course do their best to prevent directly criminal actions. But in practice, there is no hard and fast borderline between documented criminal actions and the suspicion that they can happen, and I totally disagree with the plans of the Council of the European Union. They are utterly contrary to the citizens’ legal rights as well as the libraries’ objective of providing free access to information.

All by itself, the library world can hardly induce the Council to change its views, and civil disobedience is not the way ahead for public institutions. But we ought to protest very loudly indeed and point out that we are about to destroy the democratic values which we so much want to preserve.”

Legalising the privacy principle
In Denmark the Internet and the ethical questions that for the libraries have been associated with this, have been dealt with in a publication, published by the Danish Library Association in 2004, with deliberations and facts on the use of Internet filters in the libraries (Er det bedre uden? / Is it better without?), as well as in a report prepared by Hellen Niegaard for the Danish Union of Librarians in 2002 (Bibliotekaretiske retningslinjer / Library-ethical guidelines (

Library ethics in general and porno filters in particular have naturally also been discussed in the Danish library press. A code of ethics for the public libraries or for the library profession is not, however, available in print so far.

It is significant, too, that the concept of privacy is not mentioned at all in the Danish library act or the executive order. That it should be included, is something that Pernille Drost strongly endorses. “Proper guidelines would be a help. But legislation is static and reflections on the ethical issue should be part of an on-going discussion – it must not become a pretext for doing nothing. And then there is the individual library, management and staff who have a joint responsibility for working according to those principles. At the same time it is important to remember that this should not apply to the public libraries only – the problematics are also of keen interest to the educational libraries.”

Finn Vester, on the other hand, does not believe it is possible to lay down general rules which can be used everywhere. Or that it is possible to combat the problems by legislation. “It would be better to agree on a codex of ethics for all the libraries in the country, preferably supplemented with local regulations in order to keep the distinctive local character intact.”

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Per Nyeng is a journalist and former editor of Bibliotek70/Bibliotekspresssen. From 1965 to 1969 he worked as a librarian in Luleå.