Edward Snowden probably didn’t know his revelations would cause a sea change in professional library circles. If library issues were drunk celebrities, privacy—particularly privacy online—would be all over TMZ. There is a discernible shift from concerns over book banning to concerns over who’s reading what you’re reading—think 1984, not Genreflecting. With all our mental energy on privacy, are we losing sight of more fundamental issues of censorship? While the Banned Books Week program has risen to national prominence, a recent poll indicated an uptick in the tolerance of book banning (Peet, 2015). By being increasingly concerned with privacy, are we reacting to a straw man, fighting a hopeless cause, or, as a profession, finally catching up with one of the defining civil rights issue of our time? Now seems the perfect time for assessment.
Two library organizations received large grants from the Knight Foundation for privacy education. 1) San Jose Public Library is developing an online tool to help their community make informed decisions about their privacy (Sherry, 2015). 2) Library Freedom Project is doing privacy workshops all over the globe, teaching librarians and patrons how to protect their privacy online. The indefatigable Alison Macrina, the public face of Library Freedom Project, brought the issue of privacy and libraries to the national stage (Gladstone, 2015). Library Freedom Project also organized the Digital Rights in Libraries (semi)unconference to coincide with the 2015 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference. This event forged valuable partnerships with Silicon Valley stalwarts like Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Creative Commons (Macrina, 2015). Their latest efforts include “Library Digital Privacy Pledge” (Hellman, 2015), getting libraries to use HTTPS by default, and putting TOR exit nodes in libraries (Farivar, 2015). In June, ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom approved guidelines for digital content vendors regarding the appropriate security practices and data management of patrons’ personal information and reading habits (American, 2015). Coinciding with the publications of the ALA’s standards were the meetings of stakeholders in the National Information Standards Organization’s (NISO) attempt to create a “framework to support patron privacy in digital libraries and library information systems” (National, 2015). These efforts were made possible by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant. The virtual meetings are archived and can be accessed on NISO’s website. The ultimate goal is to create a document to be formally approved as a NISO Recommended Practice. In the big world outside library land, the notorious Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the section which permitted the bulk collection of phone records, was left to expire (Jaycox, 2015). Soon after, President Obama signed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring, or USA FREEDOM, Act into law. Most advocacy groups viewed its passing as a small dent in the surveillance state apparatus as modeled post-9/11 (Froomkin, 2015). ALA supported the passage of the law.
The ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom's guidelines are just that—guidelines. As much as I welcome the results of NISO’s work on best practices, it is important to note that their final “Recommended Practice” is similarly non-binding: “Use of any or all elements of a Recommended Practice is discretionary; it may be used as stated or modified by the user to meet specific needs” (National, 2015). A number of prominent library vendors were part of NISO efforts (e.g., ProQuest, Oxford University Press), but there some notable absences. Adobe was not present, though their products and practices were mentioned a number of times. Nor was anyone from the “Big Content” entertainment establishment, aka the Recording Industry Association of America or the Motion Picture Association of America. Nor were any of the third party vendors of Big Content's content: Freegal, Midwest Tape, Ingram, and Amazon. Perhaps the insularity of NISO talks helped the process along. Outside of library land, privacy advocates abandoned National Telecommunications Information Administration talks that were designed to create privacy respecting standards for facial recognition software (Lynch, 2015). Reviving a debate thought closed nearly 20 years ago, law enforcement has again begun to speak out against encryption of communication devices. Echoing the past, cryptography experts challenged the safety and practicality of criminalizing encryption or adding state sponsored “backdoors” to cryptographic algorithms (Perlroth, 2015). Back to the reason we likely are having this conversation at all—Snowden—the Obama administration refuses to pardon him though his revelations are the catalyst for the USA FREEDOM Act (White House, 2015); unless the USA FREEDOM Act was just an empty gesture, a piece of political theater to appease critics.