English version: the following article was first published, translated into French, in the Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France --
by Jack Kessler, firstname.lastname@example.org
by Jack Kessler, email@example.com
"no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..."
-- United States Constitution, First Amendment
"Oh God! Oh God! Kids, just stay down. Do we know where he's at? I'm in the library... He's right outside of here. He's outside... Kids, just stay down!... My God it's... (Gunshot sounds: Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.)..."
-- tape recording of an emergency service "911" telephone call made by a high school teacher trying to protect her students at the height of the April 20 "Colorado Massacre" -- a crime which many in the US attribute to the influence of "The Internet" and "The Media" -- the tapes were played over US radio stations and Webcasts, only a few days after the incident and well before any arrests or prosecutions in resulting criminal trials...
Preface: The Threats
Restrictions are being imposed on Internet access in the US now, for many reasons. Child safety and youth violence, and violence in general, are among these, and so are pornography and general morality and commercial fraud and organized crime and political extremism. The US also fears censorship, at least as much as any other society fears it, and there are strong legal and political protections in the US against censorship.
A tension has arisen, in the US, between "censorship" ideas on the one hand and "free speech" ideas on the other, in dealing with these newest Internet restriction issues. This tension is traditional -- very old, in fact, in US terms. It involves over - simplifications and preconceived notions and set ideas which date back to the 18th century founding of the Republic and further.
And there is no sign that these traditional debates will be resolved, in this their latest Internet restriction manifestation. Libraries in the US are engaged actively in this Internet restriction debate. "Internet Use Policies" have been drawn up by most. Some libraries actually have intervened to restrict users' Internet access, using policies and software and hardware, for the reasons stated above plus a multitude of others.
Library activity in these areas has been very intense -- librarians discuss most of the issues, try most of the suggested solutions, and face most of the problems, which can be found in the general arena -- US libraries are a microcosm of the whole US Internet restriction scene.
But there is a problem. Libraries are not necessarily at the center of the information storm any longer. Increasingly, in fact, libraries are seen by many -- inside as well as outside of the library community itself -- as being out on the information periphery. Internet development, and developments in the restriction of the Internet, more and more are not going through traditional information providers such as libraries, but around them.
The financial miracle of the Internet phenomenon largely is the result of "going direct" -- producers now can go directly to users, with violence and pornography but also with news and entertainment, and ecommerce services and clothing and now even automobile sales, and with books and music and video and epublishing "texts" -- all "cutting out the middleman". So what, then, will be the overall effect of library Internet restriction, if libraries in fact are one of the traditional information "middlemen" now being "cut out"?
Imposing restrictions in such a situation, particularly on the item which is the most valuable in the inventory -- Internet terminals enjoy far more user demand than books in many US libraries now, as they do in France -- would be bad policy for a disappearing "middleman", in the commercial world. A retailer who tried it would get into greater trouble with the disappearing customers very quickly. Are libraries a "middleman", like a traditional retail vendor? Does it make good overall social sense -- in terms of the overall risk to libraries -- to cut back on the newest and most popular library information service?
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1) US Policy Discussion -- a question of balance
The general problem with any Internet restriction in the US is the contradiction always imposed in the US mind by "censorship". This term, like any other moral absolute, makes Americans think immediately of some other term in opposition to it: against "censorship" the opposing term usually dragged into a debate is "free speech", and vice versa, so that partisans of one or the other side always can be found in US policy discussions of either concept. The US loves to "balance interests", to "compromise opposites" this way. Nearly always, furthermore, there are only two sides -- "bi-cameral legislatures", "two-party systems", debates which are "pro / con". US Manichean political talk speaks of "right and left", or "north and south", or "east and west" or "black or white" -- one commentator (1) used to call this the "tyranny of complementary couplets" in US political speech.
At the same time, and ironically, any speech or conduct which goes beyond some social norm in the US -- simply wanders outside behavior perceived as the social average, in fact -- causes someone immediately to think of restricting it, in this homogeneous and very uniform society. The degree of social variation tolerated or winked at or simply ignored, on a Marseilles street much less one in Madras, would be a cause for outrage and immediate cries for restriction and censorship on a street in any US suburb, and even in many US cities. France and other cultures contain some intolerance, but few have been as adept as has the US in melding sameness out of variety using sheer social pressure.
The general US situation thus is extreme and nearly unique -- a contradictory combination of social uniformity and bipolar combative political discussion. In US terms the social extremes which have hit the Internet cause a predictable result: the political, sexual, and other excesses which Americans find on the Internet they slot into one or the other of their two pre - conceived categories -- "censorship", or "free speech" -- for this particular bipolar political debate.
Into one box or the other, then, go "dirty websites" and "bomb - making recipes" and "guns" and "youth crime" and "child safety", and all the other complex and often overlapping issues of the controversy, and the debate proceeds accordingly.
This American extremism -- this whole approach and procedure -- can be a complete mystery to foreigners. Countries with multi - party politics, or with traditions which are as influential as their laws, or even where "laws" are considered more important than "judicial decisions" -- or countries with, rather than the studied homogeneity of the American landscape, "246 varieties of cheese" (2) (the US has, arguably, only 2 or 3) -- or countries with written - constitution traditions which do not extend back 200 years, or countries with "unwritten" constitutions -- often find the US approach very hard to comprehend.
Parliamentary democracies accustomed to coalition politics and with vocal but also powerful minorities are ill - suited for the bipolar approach to political argument. Legal systems in which parliaments are "sovereign" and statutory laws sacred, and court trials inquisitorial rather than adversarial and judicial activism much less judicial legislating completely unknown, find US approaches to free speech difficult to fathom.
Societies with active and often brutally effective religious and local community and extended family customary law and tradition look at the US approach with amazement spilling over into impatience and often complete frustration. The idea of an O.J. Simpson celebrity trial, or of judges invalidating legislation, or of un - enforced "blue" laws against lawn - mowing on Sundays, would be strange ones in China or India or Iran, among other places.
So it is against this strange and very singular US blend of tolerance and intolerance, and the wonderfully - fuzzy and indeterminate US legal and political tradition of balancing opposites, that any current ideas of Internet restriction in the US ought to be seen -- certainly by foreigners, and even by US observers who might feel that their situation is universal and generalizeable and available for imposition, in France or elsewhere.
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2) US Library Practice -- the view from the trenches
Now comes a tragedy such as the recent "massacre" of high school students by two of their own at Littleton, Colorado. Two highly - armed boys kill a teacher and other students and themselves, wounding others and nearly blowing up their school and still many others in the process, arguably inspired by youthful tensions and suburban boredom and the gratuitous violence found so easily nowadays in films and on the Internet. Littleton is only one of the worst and most recent such tragedies -- there have been other similar high school shootings in the US, both before Littleton and now since.
US observers are not so simple - minded that they think an event such as a high school shooting may be attributed to a single cause, or even a few causes, or resolved by a single simple solution or set of solutions. But the US is a busy place, with much on its mind. There are many issues and much to consider -- in being a citizen in a complex society, in being a parent, in being a wage - earner, as increasingly both parents are in US families, in participating in political debate, and in voting.
In US society the information media are charged with the responsibility of keeping issues alive and in the forefront of the popular imagination. To do this they simplify, and dramatize. The Littleton drama was on "page 1" for 10 days. By day 14 it had been replaced -- shunted to page 3 or even further inside -- by Kosovo and news from Russia and the upcoming US presidential election and so much else at least equally deserving of attention as Littleton.
While the story was on "page 1", nearly everyone in the US knew every detail of the Littleton incident -- the names and faces of the two boys, the names and faces of their victims, the caliber of the bullets used, the places where the guns were obtained, the Website addresses involved. Now, just a short time later, all this has faded. A journalist or policymaker, wanting to remind us, from now on must simplify and dramatize.
So in the US we sensationalize -- find an "accomplice", crucify this or some other victim in a court or in the press to expunge our collective guilt, identify a "debate" between two supposedly - opposing groups arguing some aspect of the disaster and highlighting their conflict rather than the actual closeness of their positions -- just to keep an issue alive, or to resurrect it. A human situation as complex as a high school shooting gets boiled down, inevitably, to a bipolar policy argument, in this case one simplistically pitting "censorship" against "free speech".
Against this unruly and unbalanced process, institutions such as government, corporations, universities, and libraries try -- sometimes desperately -- to act meaningfully, to work against the very real evils of a high school shooting, while they nevertheless maintain a long view about the context of the event. US librarians have been as outraged as US media people and politicians about events at Littleton and other recent situations -- a bombing in Oklahoma, the rise and increase of homelessness in US cities, drug abuse among US youth.
Library "Internet Use Policies" have been one response. Librarian committees, as concerned about events like Littleton as any other group of US citizens is, have drawn up lists of "dos" and "don'ts" and "caveats" and "disclaimers" involving the use of the Internet, which they and others perceive to have been involved in the tragedy.
But that perception sometimes is dim: the Internet gets mentioned in news broadcasts and the committee, already concerned about pornography and political extremism issues associated with the new terminals in the reading room, decides that "this is the last straw", and buys a software filter or bans the use of the terminals by children or at least draws up a long policy governing their use. More rarely, outside professionals are consulted directly -- lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, scientists, people who devote their lives to investigating links and supposed links between one social phenomenon and another.
But for now there is disagreement among professionals: "Psychiatrists Examine What Causes Troubled Kids to Snap", my morning newspaper (3) reads , "there often are no clear answers... 'We are very poor at predicting violence'... 'We really didn't know just how bad these kids are suffering...'" -- there is not much to rely on here, the professional world like most of us only recently having discovered the use of the Internet by the general public.
This all is very new -- for all of us, including the professionals charged with knowing about it -- so the definitive studies have not yet been done. Until they are, the Internet restriction debate can be held hostage to ignorance: there always will be plenty of people, individuals and groups, who will use emotional incidents like high school shootings to further personal hidden agendas -- some crackpot or religious cause, the making of personal financial and political hay, the sheer euphoria of grandstanding and personal publicity. Internet restriction which will last a long time must not be crafted merely in response to threats coming from these types, who generally move on to the next alarmist cause within a short time anyway.
But, so, what to do? It is not a perfect world, and in the meantime children are shooting and killing each other in high schools. Library Internet Use Policies are, for better or for worse, the result. A large and growing selection of them may be viewed online at http://www.fyifrance.com/fy1275a.htm . They are for the most part a response -- too often ad hoc and ill - considered and knee - jerk reactions merely -- to fears of violence and of the unfamiliar, on the part of well - meaning people who truly think that there is a direct causal link between reading or watching something violent on a computer terminal, and real violent behavior itself.
There may be such a link. Or viewing such broadcast virtual violence may in fact provide a "release" to those who otherwise would commit such acts in the real world. We just do not know. The Internet is just too new and too untested -- researchers still have no idea whatsoever whether and to what extent the violence found there might be different, in any "worse" or "better" sense, from the violence found in, say, printed books. The books of Mary Shelley and the Marquis de Sade are violent, as are Goya's prints -- the Holy Bible is highly violent, as is any accurate book of history. We have "Internet Use Policies", now, but few libraries have comparable "Book Use Policies" -- if the latter are not needed perhaps the former are not either, and for the same reasons.
The formulation -- and spotty enforcement -- of Internet Use Policies is not the only measure being taken by US librarians hoping to help control social violence, whether it helps or not in fact. There also are libraries in the US which simply have chosen not to offer Internet access at all. Most libraries which do offer the access, though, also offer some form of user and professional librarian education in its use: the Internet is one of the most education - intensive communications media to have arrived in the US -- more than books, certainly more than television or radio or the telephone or the movies or video, online information has spawned broad programs of user training and professional orientation, and countless "mining the Internet" seminars and conferences and classes, in the wake of its introduction.
Activist libraries -- interestingly, small and remote as well as large and well - endowed institutions among them, thanks largely to the cost - effectiveness of Internet technology -- do even more now. Libraries are among the leaders in the US in developing innovative programs for the use of digital media, programs which may help counteract violence trends in US society more than any Internet restriction might, by educating and employing and generally satisfying people who otherwise might become part of such problems. US university libraries are pioneering in distance education and collaborative research and other techniques using the latest broadband "Internet II" tools and techniques (4).
Librarian professional associations also are among the leaders at the national level in the US in formulating policy. Some of this effort is designed specifically to prevent violence, and safeguard free speech, and deal with the other issues supposedly posed by the Internet. But it also is aimed at developing education, and low cost public access, and non - commercial uses, all of which hopefully will help create a society which generally is less violence - prone.
Within all of this frantic whirl of US library Internet activity, however, the Internet Use Policy, too often now arising from the fear of violence -- among the many other fears which bring such policies about -- continues to loom as a severe and at least questionable item in the library information arsenal. National legislative work, and the development of distance education and collaborative research techniqes, are laudable activities -- but they are very general, and they cover all kinds of content.
An Internet Use Policy, on the other hand, speaks directly to the user, and tells her or him what she or he may or may not do with the new information tool -- and has precisely the "chilling effect" feared so much in US free speech law (5).
There is nothing general and certainly nothing "value - free" here. If a library, as an information provider, through its Internet Use Policy elects not to provide information -- whether violent or pornographic or sacreligious or extremist or otherwise questionable or merely unpopular information -- this goes directly to the fundamental mission of most libraries of providing equal information access to all.
To the extent that the effectiveness of Internet restriction is an unsettled matter, and to the extent that libraries themselves are imperiled institutions in the digital age, librarians might want to leave Internet restriction to others. It is, after all, a messy and dangerous issue. Activism in questionable areas sometimes is a matter of bravery. But it can become more a matter merely of ego, or of fear. Weighing the risks and the uncertainties, Internet restriction by libraries at this early stage in Internet development may be premature or worse -- it is at least questionable.
One specific area of Internet restriction does not seem to be questioned by too many, however -- the bad effect of online violence on children -- and here US libraries have taken, and continue to take, an increasingly - controversial stand. The dangers of censorship for adults growing out of Internet restriction seem to be clear to most in the US. The American Library Association steadfastly clings, however, to its "Free Access to Libraries for Minors" policy, and says for example,
"Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents -- and only parents -- have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children -- and only their children -- to library resources." (6)
This policy is coming under ferocious attack in the US now, from critics who say that, whatever might be the uncertainties surrounding the effects of online violence on adults, with children no chances should be taken -- or, at least, the most conservative path should be taken -- and the benefit of any doubt given to removing the exposure, while the school shootings continue. National media commentators, ranging from the irresponsible to the respected, and politicians including one leading presidential contender (8).
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3) US Policy Redux -- law, politics, policy
a) Law. There is much US law which applies to the Internet restriction problem -- too much. Legal concepts, statutes, and cases all become involved in censorship and free speech issues, from traditional legal fields as varied as "intellectual property", "privacy", "defamation", "unfair business advantage", all in addition to the highly complex "constitutional" law so unique to the US situation.
Any and sometimes all of these ideas get mixed into an Internet restriction controversy or court case, in the US. And each may come in from a multitude of different and often conflicting local, state, and national jurisdictions, in the often - bewildering and again somewhat unique US "federal" governmental system: a law valid in Massachusetts may contradict an equally - valid law in Georgia, and important parts of both may be invalid under national US laws.
The US legal system is one of the world's most complex, and most unique. "The law is what the judges decide," (9) observed one commentator of the US approach -- not at all cynically or ironically, as these words must seem to non - US observers. The US does have "written laws" -- statutes -- just as most other systems do, and many of these specifically address the issues such as censorship and child safety involved in Internet restriction. In the US, however, written statutes are not really law until they are interpreted by a judge. So the guidance which foreigners often seek regarding US "law" by examining US "statutes" is illusory. The "plain meaning" of a US statute never is "plain": it has to be interpreted by a judge, and even reasonable judges will differ in their interpretations.
Worse, for any new social issue, such as Internet restriction, judges will not yet have considered cases upon which to render their decisions and offer their interpretations. If a judge has not yet decided it, there really is very little guidance. One merely obtains "the client's answer", from US attornies: "Well, a court is likely to hold... but, on the other hand... " And "the client's answer" is the usual reply, nowadays, to any questions about the Internet, and certainly to complex questions regarding its censorship and free speech.
Court cases, moreover, are very expensive and take a very long time, in the US: the national government has been after Microsoft Corporation for a long time now, and similar cases against IBM and AT&T were in court for many years before they were decided, or not decided. The Internet itself has not been in practical existence for as long as some giant corporate trials have lasted in US courts: it is too early -- there is little "decided" US Internet restriction law, thus far.
So the legalistic approach being taken by many US libraries, in this actual legal vacuum, is largely a flailing and legally - ineffective one. Legal - sounding language is being thrown at the problem, as though language alone somehow can solve it. Most library OPACs and W3 sites now boast, or are burdened by, wordy and enormous Internet Access Policies which mean very little ultimately in US law. There even is a legal term for them: "adhesion contract", meaning to US lawyers an involuntary and usually poorly - worded and badly - explained language trick -- literally something to which the victim supposedly "must adhere", hence the term -- designed to force someone into an agreement which in fact is legally unenforceable.
Adhesion contracts have a long legal history (10). They are the "boilerplate" on the back of the "automobile lease" agreement, the "fine print" at the bottom of the "sales contract", the "attachments" which often somehow never get attached to the signature page, the "shrinkwrap agreements" which one tears off with the outer covering of new software boxes, or on which one clicks an "I Agree" button when installing new software on computers -- on all of which US judges frown severely and find any opportunity they can to invalidate.
If an adhesion contract is not legal it is not legal, in US law, no matter what it says or tries to force upon its signer. If some librarians are writing Internet Use Policies out of timidity, or out of genuine fear of liability -- the usual motivations for writing any legal disclaimer -- they should know that they "still are liable if they are liable", no matter what their "Policy" says. The subtleties and complexities of US law cannot be assumed away by writing down a complicated - sounding document and passing it beneath the nose of an Internet user who never even reads it much less understands it. The most famous adhesion contract example, taught to virtually all US law students, is that of the restaurant owner who protests to the judge, "But the sign in my hat - check area says that I am not responsible!", to which the judge replies, "So?..."
b) Politics. US political arenas currently are as confused as is US law over the implications and even the effectiveness of Internet restriction. Keeping up with the Internet is a frustrating process for politicians, trying to develop policies which will last for a two - year re - election campaign by aiming at a technology target which changes significantly every six months.
Librarians participate actively in the US political arena. The American Library Association, located in Chicago, maintains a lobbying office in Washington D.C., and ALA long has been active in free speech and other information - related issues. The long - standing "Banned Books" campaign of the ALA, and its legislative work on intellectual property and equal information access, have maintained its effective activist reputation among US politicians.
Recent ALA positions opposing censorship in fact have earned it notoriety. Partisan commentators now identify the librarians with one side in the traditional US bipolar approach to this complex issue, with exhortations such as "Pornography in the Library and the ALA: Get Involved!" and "Wesleyan [library] Brings Porn Into The Classroom" and "Libraries pushing their agenda into law" (11)(11).
Overt electoral politics is only one and by no means the most effective method of generating change in US society today, and the ALA and other librarians' groups are involved in all political arenas. But Internet restriction even has entered electoral politics as an issue now. The current Vice President is running to become President in next year's election, and has taken great pains to identify himself with "The Internet", although now he also is taking some pains to distance himself from the Internet's abuses (12) -- one of his chief opponents is taking strong positions favoring the censorship of the Internet for children (13) -- Internet restrictions are sure to be a primary presidential campaign issue this year and next, particularly if the recent school shootings trend continues.
c) Policy. Policy, however, is not just the result of politics, in the US or in most complex societies, any more than politics itself might be concerned only with law. US librarians are active now in formulating Internet restriction attitudes and policies in a vast number of extra - legal and extra - political decision - making arenas. Any municipal library within its city administration, any academic library on its particular college campus or within its local consortium, even corporate and professional libraries as they make daily decisions about acquisitions and presentations and Website design, in this sense is active in the formulation of Internet restriction policy.
Some such library - originated policies may get reversed at some point -- for instance when they become a "test - case" running up against some political power bloc, as the national ALA organization does against its detractors occasionally, or when they end up in some court somewhere fighting some local judge's interpretation of some lawyer's argument or politician's statute -- but this rarely happens. The more usual case is that the local policy stands, and gets implemented, and in fact affects and even governs user behavior until time passes, and conditions and technology change, and a new local policy takes its place.
So library Internet Use Policies, whatever their intentions and imperfections -- and whatever theoretical contradiction they may be found to have with US political ideals and legal requirements -- in fact may govern much user behavior, in libraries at least, even more than the occasional US political trend and the even more rare US censorship or free speech law. As with any gradual bureaucratic or administrative matter, this effect may become insidious, irresistible, difficult to identify and impossible to root out once entrenched, and tremendously effective.
While the lawyers wait interminably for their few judicial decisions, and the politicians endlessly debate and balance interests, and the political process does whatever it is going to do for the large and great issues involved, libraries and librarians are at the front, busily putting on Internet restrictions or not as the case may be, to some extent altering user behavior and comprehension and access to information, and certainly affecting libraries themselves. It would be best if this were a conscious and explicit and well - researched and documented process, and a democratic one, but -- regardless -- it is happening.
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4) US Library Context -- do library policies matter, any more?
But the problem for US libraries in fact may be not so much whether to have an Internet Use Policy, or what to put in it, but whether and to what extent that or any other library policy can be effective, now, anywhere outside of the library.
Library schools in the US have closed, recently -- not all of them, but some of the oldest and largest and most well - known -- and all which remain have had to go through recent tortuous name games, aimed at working the label "information" into the school title and, very often, the label "library" out. Librarians, moreover, have run up against threats to their profession, recently, which outweigh any which have loomed in the century of the profession's US existence. Staff has been reduced greatly at many institutions, and that which remains has been "restructured".
The result has been fewer highly - paid professional librarians and more poorly - paid and less - trained general personnel -- in academic libraries usually student - employees -- in almost a parody of the "downsizing" phenomenon which tore through industry during the 1980s. Where much of industry has become more efficient, however, the far more labor - intensive and service - oriented libraries, like hospitals and medical care generally, have suffered: services have declined or disappeared, and the strains on the librarians who remain have been great, and are increasing.
Library budget reductions which cut into staff also have cut into collections. Numerous institutions have coped awkwardly with computerization mandates, cutting older budget items to spend heavily in the new technology areas, only to find the technology changing too rapidly for them to keep up: the continuous spending necessary for fast - changing cabling and wiring and hardware and software and ergonomic requirements in the "computer age" has been too much for many traditional library "capital expense" budgets. These used to include only one - time expenditures designed to last for five or ten years or more, and many organizations still put much of their "computer" spending there -- now they find "computer" expenses to be turning over every 6 months, exhausting capital expense budget reserves and eventually the overall revenue streams of the entire organization as well.
Even real estate has become a new library problem. Old central - campus and central - city locations have become more and more valuable. Intramural wars for space allocation now too often find the old enormous, central, and space - hogging library building reduced or supplanted: first by the pruning and removal of large portions of the book collection to suburban, less - expensive "surplus" locations, eventually by staff and services downsizing. Gradually, remaining staff and services drift out to the suburban location along with the books, as "telework" and "telecommuting" dreams and myths about library service propagate. Library schools lost the fight for central campus and central city real estate some time back -- now libraries themselves are losing this fight as well, in numerous locations.
Digital information, too, has been developed thus far in a mindset very uncongenial to library development. The supposition of the original Internet -- of the visionaries who foretold it decades ago, and of the developers of its applications during the 1980s and 1990s -- has been that it would "cut out the middleman" from the process of searching for and retrieving and using information. The original Internet visionaries all envisaged the user communicating directly with the information: this was precisely the virtue of Vannevar Bush's "Memex" (14) and Ted Nelson's "Hypertext" (15) and William Gibson's "Matrix" (16) -- their users would be provided with a tool of great power under their direct control, no longer under the control of the professional or political elites, librarians among these, which previously had monopolized information and its power.
This still is the view, in much discussion about the Internet's development. Commercial developers, particularly, now design applications and Websites and other tools for the lowest common denominator of user: for the average member of the general public, who must be able to use technology easily, without training and without instruction manuals -- part of the "invisibility" which researchers point out is so important to the techniques' success (17). Enormous databases and information services are assembled and offered which pretend to be accessible to average users. Complex search procedures and organizing principles are presented as simply as possible, in an effort not to repel users, an effort which often in fact masks the procedures and principles being used.
The idea -- the advantage -- is to do without the traditional media, the intermediaries who in the past assisted but also controlled access and often were slow and occasionally were difficult and always were expensive: the print publishing industry, news organizations, telephone monopolies, the library and the librarian.
"Information overload" and "general public users" reality checks should have punctured these myths. The first has been with us forever, and should have given warning: no matter how smooth the procedures, people eventually get bogged down with the most efficient of information search and retrieval techniques and need help -- librarians and documentalists and archivists have performed this service for a number of different easy - to - use media, including printed books and manuscripts and film and video.
The "general public user" reality check is something new to the Internet: only since the early 1990s -- still under a decade -- has the Internet even been available to the general public, and commercial applications and the vast numbers now involved in general public use are even more recent. This general public user, unlike the researchers and engineers and other scientists for whom the techniques first were developed, is not interested in the technique itself, only wants to find the resulting information, grows impatient quickly, has many other conflicting priorities which interfere, and so more than any other is a user in need of the information help traditionally provided by librarians.
But until librarians fully realize and respond to this last need they are not in a strong position, in the US or elsewhere, to discipline or even organize much less restrict the information process which many, including many librarians themselves, still see as having arrived to replace them. To this extent, then, what does it matter -- to Internet users or to discouraged librarians or to opportunistic commercial application developers and politicians -- what librarians and libraries think or do? If the library Internet terminal does not offer a site -- pornographic or violent or other -- the user simply will go home to look at it there, or to a friend's house if the computer at home is "unbreakable - filter - equipped" or otherwise restricted, or to a school computer lab, or to an Internet cafi, or to Post Office public terminals, or eventually to a friend's screen - equipped and Internet - enabled flip - phone -- these nearly are here -- or...
Worse, rather than be agents or even promoters of change, too many librarians resist it. Too many librarians drive teenage users away from the Internet terminals now: with "time limits" and "no email" and "no games" signs, and even with personal scolding and verbal threats. No commercial firm ever would do this -- anyone in industry who did would get fired or go bankrupt. These teenagers are the new customers -- this is the library's future. A commercial firm's response to excess demand is not to decrease capacity through restrictions but to increase capacity -- to plow more resources, not less, into the product which sells best, increasingly in the library case the overused public Internet terminals. The commercial approach to "abuse" would not be to "restrict" but to take that overflowing user demand and channel it, somehow, toward the firm's services and products.
Even teachers -- good ones -- would not restrict or scold but would use students' Internet enthusiasms to mold and to shape: some way always can be found, by a really good teacher, to transform a student's interest in "makeup" or "football" or even (shudder) "computer games", into "drama" or "politics" or "physics" -- "Homo Ludens", wrote Johan Huizinga, humankind sometimes learns best through playing games (18).
The answer for libraries in fact may be the same as that which libraries have used traditionally for the printed book. Libraries never monopolized distribution of the printed book. Users seeking salacious material which some librarian had consigned to the restricted "Enfer" always could find it outside the library, at home or at the home of a friend or in a bookstall or shady backroom somewhere. Censorship has promoted printed material in the past as often as it has suppressed it.
Good libraries have been able, however, to exploit the particular advantages which they offer to users: to leverage the librarian's superior knowledge of printed information sources and search and retrieval tools and user behavior to provide the most useful environment for using the printed book medium -- not the only information environment, but the best one. This could happen, still, with the Internet: libraries should not and cannot monopolize the entire world of digital information, and they may in fact hold sway now over only a tiny and rapidly diminishing portion of that world in fact.
Still, quality counts -- or it will eventually, hopefully soon -- just as it did with printed information. If and to the extent that libraries and librarians can offer users the best environments -- the most useful -- for using digital information, other goals of librarianship such as quality control and equal information access and organizational improvement and search and retrieval advances can be furthered as well.
So librarian goals regarding censorship and free speech -- whatever these goals are to be -- can be furthered by leveraging them with the appeal of a superior digital information service to be offered by libraries. But first a customer is needed: first libraries have to develop and offer the superior service, and Internet users have to be convinced that there is a great deal of Internet value - added to be obtained at the library, or online at library Websites, before talk of restricting or controlling youth access to information found on those sites can be pursued. Doing this in reverse order gets things backwards -- the kids simply will go elsewhere to look for things, as they are doing in droves with the Internet now.
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5) Value Collisions
"Je défends ardemment la liberté de la presse... Mais il ne faut pas confondre liberté et licence. Par liberté, j'entends l'indépendance par rapport à des contraintes extérieures; par licence, le refus de toute contrainte interne."
-- Ronald Dworkin, Le Monde, mardi 27 avril 1999 horizons - entretiens, p. 16.
The most important contribution which libraries or anyone else might make to the current Internet restriction debate, would be a clarification of the terms and procedures of the debate itself.
Libraries, like most of the other participants, in fact are in favor of both some censorship -- at least to protect children, although most US librarians feel that this should be a parental and not a librarian responsibility (19) -- and free speech. Likewise, library critics who claim that it is time for some censorship, rarely will say that they are not still in favor of free speech as well.
The interesting problem is not deciding which of the two artificial argument poles to support, but deciding what to do when two such ideals come into conflict. Far more than just the two censorship and free speech ideals are involved, moreover, and all the parties involved in fact may value all of the ideals -- the question becomes how to reconcile multiple, valued, but conflicting ideals.
The political philosopher Robert Dahl had an idea for this (20). Rather than view the complex political structure of the US in terms of "us" versus "them", or through traditional categories such as monarchy or oligarchy, or even democracy or republic -- these seemed to Dahl too simple as descriptions of modern political life -- he suggested the messier but more accurate term "polyarchy", describing a society which really is composed of a great number of competing interest groups, each with its own agenda and set of values, some shared with other groups and some unique.
Isaiah Berlin had the same idea in a different form (21). For a lifetime he tried to convince students that it was possible for a society to accommodate multiple values: that no particular political outlook was historically inevitable or intrinsically superior to another, that political debate need not be unitary -- as the dictators of his lifetime held -- or bipolar, like the censorship versus free speech debates in the US, but that all could make room for a variety of opinions.
Perhaps the most useful US technique for dealing with "value collisions" might be taken, once again, from the example of US law courts, which rarely decide a thing in principle but prefer instead to bring a controversy down to its particular fact situation (22). Unlike judges in other legal systems, US judges are notoriously reluctant to decide a matter unless an actual conflict between at least two parties has occurred, and then the decision is applied very specifically to only the conflict between those two parties.
Even the highest court in the US carefully ties its decisions specific cases, leaving it to lawyers to distinguish subsequent fact situations which might resemble that case from others which might not. It is not generalities like "equality" and "free speech" and "women's rights" which govern in US law, so much as "equality as in 'Brown vs. Board of Education'" or "free speech as in 'Sullivan vs. The New York Times'" or "women's rights as in 'Roe vs. Wade'": the cases -- the particular facts -- are what matter, and lawyers and citizens are left to argue over, and guess at, the rest.
The great disadvantage of this particular US approach to resolving value conflicts is its uncertainty. Predicting a legal outcome is difficult, and expensive: rarely can anyone but lawyers do it, and even once they have combed through the law and made their predictions -- and been paid heavily per hour to do so -- some judge may prove them to have been entirely wrong. The unhappy client who paid that attorney's fee will wish for a more predictable system. The great advantage for the US approach, however, perhaps outweighs this. The advantage is flexibility -- "weasel room", to its detractors -- the malleability of US law, its uncanny ability to "change with the times", as many other more rigid legal system cannot and do not.
A US legal decision rendered in 1896 can be entirely reversed by one made in 1954, yet both can appeal to the same set of general principles set forth in the US constitution of 1789. This perhaps is the genius of the US legal and governmental system and its written constitution -- what an acute foreign observer such as Alistair Cooke calls the resort to "lilting, vague, 18th century phrases" (23).
The juggling and realigning of conflicting dearly - held values becomes easier in such a system, and no particular value need be abandoned completely -- sometimes earlier decisions are reversed, as having been "errors", but more often they more diplomatically are "distinguished" as being simply "different on their facts" -- and life goes on. The US thus stretches, bends, twists and turns, but very rarely breaks -- it actually "broke" only once, in its disastrous Civil War 150 years ago -- and general values which its citizens hold dear are carried along, and continue to be honored, for centuries.
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6) Europe: scaling the US model "up", and "out"
The US approach to deciding value conflicts, however, may be pragmatic but it also may be unique. This is where taking "lessons" from the US experience in Internet restriction runs into its greatest difficulties. Few nations outside the US would disagree now with fundamental values held dear inside the US such as free speech. Free speech is valued in France, and in Russia and in China and in Iran and in Mozambique. The same is true for the many other general principles brought in by participants in the censorship debates -- equality, protection of the family, education -- there even are few tyrants and dictators, in the modern world, who do not give lip service at least to such ideals now. No nations outside the US, however, have precisely the same mix of population, natural resources, economic and political and military strength, and national history, which the US has. The US in fact is more unique than most.
Nevertheless there is an urge to learn US lessons, lessons which at first glance appear to be about the latest US miracles of Internet and digital information but increasingly -- as user applications develop and as the techniques are disseminated out into the general population -- have to do more with the general US social and political and cultural systems, and particular US views on values such as censorship and free speech. For these, no mere analogy can bridge the gulf which separates the very unique US culture from the others. There are great differences here: some favoring the adoption of the US approach, some not, but none amenable simply to being ignored in blindly transferring the technology from the US to a foreign culture.
France offers one of the best venues for examining the possibilities of technology transfer of the Internet. Outside of the English - speaking world, in which a great advantage accrues to people who can read the instruction manuals and other tools of this medium which still appears primarily in English, the French are among the leaders in adopting the new techniques. France shares a long history with the US, and many cultural and social and political similarities. Nevertheless, there are differences, and the differences arise most acutely in the cultural and social and political debates which surround a subject like Internet restriction.
The values, perhaps, are the same -- the French greatly esteem free speech and child safety and the rest -- but the mix of these, in any given fact situation, will be different. And when value conflicts arise -- one person favoring free speech considerations, for a given set of facts, more than another person's worry over child safety -- the French do not employ the same system of adversarial, decision - driven justice used so uniquely in the US.
Nor is the French political system which surrounds and supports those lawyers the same as the US one -- judicial review is different, the constitutional framework is different, attitudes toward the powers of the State and the predictive value of legislative statute are very different. The result, then, can be France - US misunderstanding at least as great as the misunderstanding which already occurs among Internet restriction partisans in the US alone. Both sides will protest, in vain and to no conclusion, that they are in favor of child safety and free speech. But the decision must be made "on the facts", and independently in each system: the French may decide very differently and still be consistent with their own free speech position -- it is just that it is their free speech position, and not that of the US.
Beyond France, the cultural values diverge and become even easier to see. In Thailand, to cite a famous example, there is a national reverence for both their Buddhist religion and their Royal Family which far exceeds Thai adherence to usual international norms regarding free speech. It is not that the Thais do not value free speech -- they value this, but just a little less than they do their respect for their religion and Royal Family. When the two come into conflict, then -- free speech on the one side and religion and the Royal Family on the other, as happened recently when a Thai Internet restriction law censoring any derogation of the latter was debated -- the decision of the Thai "fact situation" may render a very different result than might have been decided in Cupertino, California, and yet the Thais will protest that they still are in favor of free speech. And China's outstanding priority is the political control of unruly populations, a traditional fear of that most populous of nations. But misunderstanding of the importance of this in the Chinese context -- and of the important difference between that context and that of the US -- already has led to problems between China and the US, precisely on the issue of the Chinese support of free speech. Yet the Chinese do support it, they continue to protest.
Value conflicts is the area most in need of careful thought, and resolution, in the Internet restriction debate -- in the US, and particularly in any attempt to apply US solutions elsewhere. It ought to be possible -- it must be possible -- for values to conflict. People have to be able to cherish both child safety and free speech and other values which may come into conflict in a given fact situation, and resolve the conflict without an outcome forcing a participant to say she or he is against child safety and free speech and other values in fact held dear.
Utilitarians used to try doing this mathematically, with their "calculus of pleasures and pains". Situation Ethics and Moral Relativism have been tried -- Moral Nihilism and basic cynicism even have been suggested. But the task surely is not so hard. Law courts accomplish it every day. Political systems which successfully avoid or at least delay revolutions get this job done. Toleration for the other person's point of view has a great deal to do with it. However a society achieves the value conflicts task, the result has to allow for different points of view on, for example, censorship and free speech -- rather than winners and losers -- or we will end up with policies on Internet restriction which satisfy no one.
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7) Globalization & Verities, Universal and Eternal -- 1984 & Le Meilleur des Mondes?
"L'homme a des droits fondamentaux, dont la protection n'est pas seulement l'affaire de tel ou tel système juridique, mais celle de la conscience universelle. Nous devons donc faire avancer l'idée d'une moralité 'globale'..."
-- Ronald Dworkin, Le Monde, mardi 27 avril 1999 horizons - entretiens, p. 16.
George Soros calls globalization one of the central problems of the coming world economy (24). Abba Eban makes the same point (25): "The multiplicity of nation - states in a world where sovereignty has lost a great part of its meaning is the central political anomaly of our age... [there is a] tendency to transcend nationhood". Václav Havel agrees (26): "It would seem that the enlightened efforts of generations of democrats, the terrible experience of two world wars... and the evolution of civilization have finally brought humanity to the recognition that human beings are more important than the state. In this new world, people are connected in millions of different ways..."
Information is going global, as well, recently thanks largely to the Internet. The "213 hosts in the US (1981)" has become "43.2 million hosts in over 200 countries (1999)" (27), and the totals are rising rapidly -- teenagers in many countries now can reach pornography and political extremism and bomb - making recipes and gun sales online, not just teenagers in Colorado. With this globalized information reach goes an expansion of the debate pitting censorship against free speech, only to encounter the morass of different values and conflicting value judgments which one always encounters internationally.
A few brave souls already -- some say too soon, others say not soon enough -- are attempting to define international norms and procedures which will fit all cases, or which at least will begin to do so. International law has a long tradition. Many international organizations have functioned long and well, in spite of the failures of several. International business -- above all the realm of the pragmatic -- has succeeded often, even where nation - states have failed, at figuring out global solutions to common problems. The United Nations, the World Court, the World Trade Organization, and the new International Criminal Court, are only the most visible of a great number of international organizations which already rely for their operations on norms and procedures globalized in scope. Nearly everyone, everywhere on the globe, now agrees on the principles enunciated in the charter of the United Nations, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Could the same sort of global consensus ever be achieved for the Internet, and for the particular issues which surround it? Could people everywhere ever agree, not only on the definition of difficult ideals like censorship and free speech -- such generalities would have to be made more specific, and tied to particular cases, to be useful -- but also on procedures to follow when such ideals come into conflict, as they appear to now in the debates over Internet restriction?
A brave start is being made. Technical issues once debated nearly exclusively among US citizens increasingly are including Canadians and Europeans and Asians and even some Latin Americans and Africans in their discussion. Early attempts to develop technical standards internationally -- such as "OSI -- Open Systems Interconnect", rather than the more "national" US - based "tcp/ip -- transmission control protocol / internet protocol" (28), or the Linux operating system rather than DOS / Windows (29) -- foundered for all sorts of technical and business marketing reasons.
But now that the Internet has hit its stride -- now that it has graduated from "academic testbed" status into explosive commercial growth, only since about 1993, and its issues have become less technical and more policy - oriented -- perhaps the time has come for more global approaches to its problems. As this is being written, the ICANN / Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which governs much of the highest level organization of the networks, is meeting not in the US locations where Internet meetings were held in their early years, but in Berlin -- after a March meeting which was held in Singapore (30). Most Internet meeting agendas concern eminently - international issues now -- "the status of the Paris and Barcelona - Monterrey - Washington applications for DNSO recognition", and so on -- not the more local and purely - technical connectivity questions which dominated in the past.
Will "foreign" values, and value judgments, now -- at last -- begin to creep into these debates which previously were "only technical"? As the organizations which administer the Internet expand in scope -- "up" to the national level and "out" to the international -- will they be open - minded enough to embrace the different value systems, and different procedures for resolving value conflicts, which they encounter in the global arena?
They do not have to be open - minded, to obtain universal conformity. The attractiveness of the technology is great enough, and the economic and other power of the major country currently promoting the digital realm certainly are strong enough, for other nations and value systems simply to be plowed under. "Play the US way or don't play at all" -- the rules of the dominant player would become the "global" rules -- it would not be the first time. "La conscience universelle" simply could be imposed rather than agreed upon: this has, after all, been the historical pattern -- the Pax Romana, the stabilities of the European Empires, and the long Chinese suzerainty of eastern Asia were not matters of agreement and democratic vote.
A modern "withering away of the state", poorly - handled and perhaps imposed by economic and cultural "invasion" or at least "from above", could remove the rules and boundaries and "nation - state" effective decision - makers which have kept us from each other's throats in the past. This has been the nightmare of writers like Aldous Huxley (31), George Orwell (32), Robert Bolt (33), and William Golding (34) -- the last, with great prescience in light of the current wave of US high school shootings, described an island of teenagers brutalizing other teenagers in their confusions over native urges and modern society -- the social conformity implied by "la conscience universelle" threatens deeper issues than just the technical problems of Internet communication and the legal technicalities of "la moralité globale".
The imposition of US values and US procedures for resolving value conflicts would not be the most efficient or most effective means of promoting the Internet overseas, from the US' own point of view. Insofar as "the business of America is business", it would make little sense for US business firms to attempt to browbeat potential customers overseas into buying US products. The entire history of US international economic success since the second World War would argue against it -- those overseas customers became consumers through being enriched, thanks to their own efforts as well as to considerable US economic and military support, not through being browbeaten. Forcing overseas populations to purchase products belongs to an earlier and much less financially successful Mercantilist or Colonialist age.
But there are those who disagree. And the danger of current globalization trends to the international economy may not be so much US intentions as US commercial values: "global capitalism", rather than "globalization" (35). A large and growing number of influential critics have begun to question the use of the US economic model on a global basis, particularly since the recent Asian economic debacle. The US also no longer wields the global economic might which it possessed at the end of the second world war. From that height, things have eroded considerably: relative to others, the US now is less powerful, in spite of its overall absolute economic gains -- barring some cataclysm similar in magnitude to that war, this trend will continue (36). The others who are gaining, relative to the US, do not and should not be expected to share US values: Europe, India, China...
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Conclusion: Restricting the Internet
So, will the imposition of Internet Use Policies by libraries in the US do anything to curb the violence of tragedies such as the recent high school shootings here? Or will such policies and other Internet restrictions, perhaps implemented in over - reaction to these and other topical tragedies, in fact choke off badly - needed outlets for channelling natural tendencies toward violence and non - conformity which all teenagers have?
Worse, will Internet restrictions further harm US libraries, which already are down on their luck and now may have their latest, best, and some say last hope for a piece of the digital information world "administered" from their grasp, and the teenage users of that new world with it?
And, even worse, will Internet restrictions affect more than their intended target: "precision bombing" is an out - of - favor term nowadays -- little that is precise on the drawing board or in the committee room still is so precise once released out into nature -- policies aimed at helping teenagers, even assuming that they help and do not hinder, may be difficult to limit to merely that population. Internet restriction may censor by default: laughingly circumvented by the well - educated library - frequenting teenagers at whom it is aimed, it may do nothing more than deprive other teens, and also poor and elderly and non - English - speaking adults, of much - needed online health and safety and general information.
The answers are not clear. The only things really certain are the risks. The benefit of the doubt might be given in favor of censorship for children, or it might not -- and it might not be given in favor of censorship for adults, or it might -- in either case it is a doubt only, still a question.
However these issues are decided in the US, moreover, there is little in US experience or the US situation to indicate that these issues and their resolution will translate "out" to applications overseas. The US is too unique -- too different -- to provide a model for the many nations and peoples of the world who look to it, perhaps for inspiration and perhaps to condemn it but always to marvel at how different it is and usually somewhat in awe.
Increasingly the issues surrounding the Internet are not technical but cultural and historical and political and legal, so without a similarity in these respects US Internet restrictions, blindly copied, will impose the very unique and in nearly all cases very foreign US values and value conflict resolution procedures which create and surround them.
If globalization is to be the most interesting of our 21st century challenges and headaches, it will be useful to remember -- whenever things begin to look too rosy, and particularly when the Internet and digital information begin to look too exciting, or to look too much the same everywhere on the globe -- that the memorable, "May you live in interesting times", in fact is an ancient Chinese curse.
Jack Kessler, firstname.lastname@example.org
June 1, 1999
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Some suggested rules:
Teach your children to be wise consumers in cyberspace. Not everything they see or hear may be true. Some sites may be trying to sell them something.
The vast majority of Internet sites are perfectly safe. But, like the real world, the virtual world contains some sites with sexual, violent and other content that may not be appropriate for children. Since different families have different standards, it's important to establish clear guidelines for your child's Internet use.
If you have a home computer, a number of software programs are available to block Web sites you may not want your child to visit. Even if filters were 100 percent effective, this software is no substitute for parental guidance. We strongly recommend that you supervise your child's Internet use at home and at the library, and that you teach your child to make informed choices.
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