Are libraries safe spaces?

Image c/o Parham Mortazavian on Flickr.

Image c/o Parham Mortazavian on Flickr.

Ordinarily, I don’t feel the need to lay out my credentials at the beginning of a blog post, but I want to be absolutely sure there is no misinterpretation or misunderstanding of what I am about to argue. Yes, that bodes well for what’s coming doesn’t it? But I do feel it’s important to put things into their proper context.

I’m a big advocate of public libraries. I co-founded a national advocacy organisation with a number of others to highlight their importance and value to local communities (Voices for the Library in case you were wondering). I’ve spoken to journalists, collaborated on papers submitted to select committee hearings and inquiries, written articles, other stuff I forget. So I don’t think my credentials are in any doubt. I value and defend public libraries and put myself out there in order to do so. But…

I’m uncomfortable with chatter about libraries as “safe spaces”. I wish they were. I really do. I want them to be safe spaces and, in some respects, I guess they still are. But in so many other ways, they absolutely are not. And this is something we as library workers, library supporters and library defenders need to confront and, ultimately, challenge the reasons why this is the case. Because they, like all public spaces, should be safe spaces.

We know that for many, public spaces are increasingly becoming unsafe, and libraries are certainly not exempt from this. The Prevent strategy, for example, certainly undermines any argument that libraries provide such a safe space. Library staff are being turned into snitches, with responsibility placed upon them to observe and report activity that may be deemed to be of interest to law enforcement. When students are reported to the police for reading a textbook on terrorism in their college library, the library is clearly not a safe space. When minorities are in fear because of the very policy that encouraged an individual to report someone for reading a book they deemed suspicious, then clearly the library is no longer a safe space for them.

Further, impending government legislation will very likely make this worse. With the Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill) hovering over the horizon (and likely to make its way rapidly in our direction pretty soon), the threat to intellectual freedom and, therefore, the library as a safe space, is stark. In conjunction with the Prevent strategy, the IP Bill will undoubtedly exacerbate the problem for those seeking out “dangerous ideas”. Should the IP Bill make it onto the statute book, then the library becomes even less of a safe space, not least because libraries will be expected to keep records of internet activity that will be available on demand. A safe space that is subject to state surveillance is, of course, not a safe space by any definition. It’s certainly not a place where “radical and sometimes dangerous ideas are born” (although the library certainly should be exactly that).

Of course, this isn’t a problem solely for libraries, it’s a problem with all our public spaces. They are increasingly not safe as state surveillance becomes more widespread, turning all of us into proxies for the intelligence services. Our public spaces ultimately face two substantive threats: surveillance and privatisation. The amount of public space we have is rapidly diminishing, the spaces that are truly ours are becoming rarer. Public libraries (and libraries in other forms) are not the only space that is losing the right to call itself “safe”. If we are to reclaim libraries as safe spaces, then we collectively need to reclaim the commons.

This doesn’t mean that libraries don’t offer some safety for individuals. For those children living in violent households or suffering from bullying or abuse, the library does offer a safe space. It gives them respite from the threats and dangers that otherwise exist around them. It provides a localised safe space that is valuable and that needs to be protected. For the vulnerable, libraries still provide them with a vital space to just let them be. But vital though this undoubtedly is, a truly safe space is so much more. It means being able to read books without fear of the police coming to your door questioning you. It means the freedom to seek out information, to inform oneself on controversial issues without fearing that you will face damaging accusations in a court of law. It means that you are in a safe, secure environment where you can exercise your intellectual freedom without fear of state sanction.

None of this is the fault of libraries or the people who work within them. The problem is the over-arching structures, the context in which libraries exist. It is the state, state policy and state action that undermines the notion of the library as a safe space. It’s for this reason that I argue we should confront head on. If we want a library to be a safe space, we need to confront the Prevent strategy, build opposition to it. If we want people to be able to seek out information freely and without fear, then we need to confront and challenge the Investigatory Powers Bill. Of course we all do within our powers to make our libraries safe, unfortunately for us it’s external forces that undermine and threaten this safety. Much as I respect Mary Beard, libraries are not places where dangerous ideas are born. I wish they were but, as with other public spaces, they have become a controlled environment where dangerous ideas barely reach the light of day. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Public libraries, police and the normalisation of surveillance

Police presence in libraries, no matter how abstract, normalises state surveillance. (Image c/o Thomas Hawk.)

In an era of unjustified, economically incoherent cuts in investment in public services, there has been an increasing drive to make various parts of the public sector work together to cut costs (“cut costs” in a very superficial sense of course). One such collaboration that keeps popping up is a partnership between the police and public libraries. An idea that should never even be entertained, let alone discussed as a serious and reasonable proposition.

The latest such proposal is one that would see one particular police force close down its inquiry desks and effectively move them to the local public library service, requiring library staff to assist in the reporting of crimes online for those without internet access at home. According to a statement on the Norfolk constabulary’s website:

The six month trial will run from the end of September in Thetford and Gorleston and will involve library staff signposting customers to police services, while also helping them complete online self-reporting forms, a function which will soon be available as part of the Constabulary’s new website.

Such a move changes the library space from a safe one, to one that is subject to a subtle form of surveillance whereby people’s behaviours are modified by the knowledge that the space is one where the police have a presence, even if in abstract. Effectively, it normalises surveillance. The knowledge that it is a space to report crime impedes the library as a space to freely engage in ideas, particularly in the current political climate.

Take Prevent, for example. A racist strategy that demonises non-whites, it has led to a series of actions that have been an affront to the rights of the individual, particularly in terms of intellectual freedom, both directly and via the culture that it has encouraged. The recent detainment of Faizah Shaheen being a good example of the consequences of not only the normalisation of surveillance but the encouragement to “snitch”.

The experiences of Faizah Shaheen and Mohammed Umar Farooq should serve as a warning to library workers and those providing library services. Where there is a police presence, no matter how abstract it may be, there is a risk to people of colour. Facilitating police reports in libraries has a very obvious and malign consequence. It makes the library a space of authority and control. In an environment whereby people are detained due to their reading habits, using a public library as an extension of the police inquiry desk poses threats not only in terms of people reporting individuals (although this online crime reporting will happen in the library whether the library encourages it or not, the key is the normalisation of the space as a place to interact with the police), but also has an inhibiting effect upon those using the space.

Would a person of colour feel comfortable accessing information or borrowing books if they do so in an environment that encourages and enables the reporting of crime, particularly when reading can lead to detainment under anti-terrorism legislation? Individuals will feel that they cannot access information freely in an environment that has become an extension of the police station (which is partly how surveillance works – controlling and directing individuals, preventing activity from taking place).

This relationship with the police continues to be proposed in authorities across the country. Earlier this week it was revealed that police desks in Angus would be moved into the council’s libraries. And there have also been “community police hubs” (how innocuous sounding) relocating to public libraries. And what’s coming around the corner should very much set alarm bells ringing about the suitability of public libraries and the police sharing space, whether it be abstract or physical.

Earlier this year, it emerged that under Theresa May’s proposed investigatory powers bill, public libraries will be required to store internet users’ records for up to 12 months, again, seriously undermining the library as a safe space for intellectual freedom. Not only does such a move normalise surveillance, making it part and parcel of every aspect of every citizen’s life, but it turns public libraries into a space less about intellectual freedom and more about monitoring citizens on behalf of an authoritarian state. It goes without saying, that this poses a threat to the very notion of intellectual freedom, a notion that public libraries should be actively defending and advancing.

As public libraries increasingly become a place where the state seeks to control and observe the intellectual behaviour of others on the basis of supposed threats posed by organised terror, so public libraries lose their purpose. They cease to become places of exploration and interrogation and become nothing more than repositories of state sanctioned ideas and values. This process of normalisation needs to stop, for the benefit of all the communities we serve.

Free speech, librarianship and the chilling effect of surveillance

chilling effect

Image c/o glassghost on Flickr.

Free speech has become the hot topic de jour amongst the chattering classes. Barely a day goes by without some new threat to free speech emerging. Indeed, it seems to have become somewhat of a middle class obsession, which is perhaps unsurprising given that many of the so-called threats to free speech are actually threats to middle class privilege and effectively seek to strike a balance between those with privilege and those without (hello safe spaces). So threatened have the privileged become, the adolescent middle class journal of choice (hello Spiked!), has even launched a “campaign for free speech in higher education” – a campaign that peculiarly obsesses with one particular aspect of free speech, but spending little time on the broader issue.

To a certain extent (not entirely, I’m not for one moment suggesting most don’t engage in discussions around this topic), librarians and the profession in general have tended to neglect the debate on intellectual freedoms, preferring instead to pontificate on areas that are traditionally private sector obsessions. It’s curious as to why this is the case. After all, our profession is steeped in the principles of intellectual freedom. We believe people should read and access what they want, we believe that censorship is a bad thing, we believe that access to information should be equal to all. Yet despite this, whilst we live in an environment where intellectual freedoms are apparently up for discussion, there is little space occupied by a profession that should be seeking to defend such freedoms. There is certainly plenty for us to get worked up about…

Recent developments have highlighted the extent to which our non-engagement (our “neutrality”?) is having a detrimental effect on public discourse.  According to the principles outlined by CILIP, we are minded to ensure “commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination” and “respect for confidentiality and privacy in dealing with information users”.  Yet are either of these possible when mass surveillance exists? Does mass surveillance not pose a threat to our ethical principles and, by extension, our existence? Without our ethical principles, surely we are no better than the volunteers we claim deliver an inferior library service?

The threat to our ethical principles particularly manifests itself via the “chilling effect” of surveillance strategies – that is, that knowledge of surveillance activity impedes our intellectual freedom, resulting in modifying our communications and information seeking for fear of being watched and, ultimately, punished (regardless of whether the punishment is based on an incorrect interpretation of activity). This effect has long been debated and argued, and to an extent the jury is still out on the extent to which it exists. However, it does pose a particular threat to us as professionals, one that undermines our ethical principles and, therefore, calls into question our existence. (Surely ethical principles are what divide us from volunteers providing library services?)

This notion of a “chilling effect” is not exactly a radical one. In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice concluded that:

“In a democratic society privacy of communication is essential if citizens are to think and act creatively and constructively. Fear or suspicion that one’s speech is being monitored by a stranger, even without the reality of such activity, can have a seriously inhibiting effect upon the willingness to voice critical and constructive ideas.”

This was, of course, long before the kind of mass surveillance we are familiar with now had emerged. This impeding of the ability to voice critical and constructive ideas is one element of the impact of the “chilling effect”. But to be able to voice critical and constructive ideas you must be able to seek out ideas that challenge the status quo, that provoke critical reflection on the democratic process.

More recently, further research has suggested that there is a very real “chilling effect” following mainstream awareness of surveillance strategies conducted by the NSA and others. A recent study by Oxford’s John Penney [SSRN link, sorry!], for example, found a notable decrease in visits to contentious topics on Wikipedia following the Snowden disclosures. Penney found that there had been a

“20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al Qaeda,’ ‘car bomb’ or ‘Taliban.’”

This follows a 2015 paper which found that [sorry, SSRN again]:

“…users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the U.S. government”

Furthermore, the US Department of Commerce underlined the extent to which a “lack of trust” in internet privacy and security may deter online activity. Following a survey asked of 41,000 households with more than one internet user, it was clear that many felt that government surveillance had an impact on their expression of ideas online. According to their analysis:

“The apparent fallout from a lack of trust in the privacy and security of the Internet also extends beyond commerce. For example, 29 percent of households concerned about government data collection said they did not express controversial or political opinions online due to privacy or security concerns, compared with 16 percent of other online households.”

They conclude that:

“…it is clear that policymakers need to develop a better understanding of mistrust in the privacy and security of the Internet and the resulting chilling effects. In addition to being a problem of great concern to many Americans, privacy and security issues may reduce economic activity and hamper the free exchange of ideas online.”

These sentiments are echoed by Penney who argues that:

“If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate.”

But what has this got to do with librarianship? Returning to those CILIP ethical principles, it’s clear that we have an obligation to ensure equal access to “information, ideas and works of the imagination”. Furthermore, it is clear that in an environment of mass surveillance, where the populace are aware that their online activities are observed and processed, individuals cannot exercise this freedom to access information because the “chilling effects” impedes them. The consequence of this is not only a reluctance to seek out critical ideas, but also a reluctance to communicate them. You cannot, ultimately, have free speech when you exist in conditions of mass surveillance. The conditions brought about by this “chilling effect” do not allow for it, unless you have the privilege to possess knowledge and skills about the techniques you can use to protect your information seeking habits and communications of course.

For me, this is where we need to be much stronger…because our ethical principles demand that we are much stronger. We should not, as a profession, accept the Investigatory Powers Bill and the threat it poses to us as professionals, undermining a key ethical principle to which we supposedly adhere. Equally, we should do more to protect our communities. Here the United States is well ahead of us, thanks to organisations such as the Library Freedom Project, as well as some efforts by the ALA and the Electronic Frontier Federation (which is non-librarian, but has played a key role in advancing the cause of intellectual privacy). Whilst moves have been apparent in the UK (see the recently announced Crypto Party in Newcastle), we have been far too slow to defend these core ethical principles. Perhaps this is down to a historic indifference in the UK towards free speech (see our libel laws as an example for how little value we place upon it – another example of the extent to which liberal values are something that only the privileged can enjoy). The extent to which there is a “chilling effect” on intellectual activity is debatable but so long as it is, we need to be at the forefront of that debate – both in terms of discourse and action.

Surveillance, freedom, Tor and libraries

Surveillance inhibits intellectual freedom.

The internet has brought new threats to intellectual freedoms…what can librarians do? (Image c/o Amélien Bayle.

For some time now I’ve followed (and admired greatly) the work of Alison Macrina and the Library Freedom Project (LFP) in the United States. Teaching citizens how to protect themselves from surveillance (both state and corporate) seems to me to be a fundamental role for librarians in a digital information society. Indeed, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ (IFLA) internet manifesto clearly states:

“Library and information services…have a responsibility to…strive to ensure the privacy of their users, and that the resources and services that they use remain confidential.”

In a post-Snowden world where state and corporate surveillance has merged as the internet has expanded, the principles of protecting privacy and ensuring intellectual freedom are more vital than ever.

Alison’s work has been particularly inspiring from afar due to the inherent difficulties of being able to deliver anything equivalent in UK public libraries. Whilst conducting the kind of work she does in the US is not without its hurdles, I tend to feel that the prospect of even offering the kind of support she provides would be impossible with our library and professional structures. I find it hard to conceive of a local authority permitting any kind of service that teaches citizens how to protect themselves online. Whilst libraries themselves are presented as “neutral” (despite the reality), they are delivered and sustained by political entities. Not only are they sustained by political entities, they are sustained by political entities that are broadly supportive of both the need for surveillance in the traditional sense (ie state) but also, due to the infection of neoliberal dogma, accepting of corporate data collection (corporate surveillance). In fact, considering recent developments, it would appear they are rather keen on using libraries as a mechanism to increase susceptibility to corporate data collection.

The recent announcement of a partnership between BT and Barclays in public libraries demonstrates how far we are from being able to provide the kind of training that Alison can provide in the United States. Presented as a crucial weapon in the bid to close the digital divide, the government announced a pilot project whereby BT provide wifi in public libraries and Barclays, through their Digital Eagles scheme, provides “free technology advice”. Putting aside the very obvious concerns about private influence in a public service, it’s pretty clear that a scheme funded by Barclays will work in the interests of Barclays (and by extension, corporate interests in general). It goes without saying that the kind of training the Digital Eagles provides does nothing to protect the privacy of internet users. A flick through their various guides finds advocacy of Google and Yahoo! as “very reliable and easy to use” and the guide to online safety only provides the most basic of advice. If you want to learn about protecting yourself from corporate surveillance, surprise, surprise, a large bank is probably not going to offer a solution.

That’s how far away we are, in one of the most surveilled countries in the world, from being able to provide citizens with protection from state-corporate surveillance infrastructures. Rather than protecting people from such surveillance, we are partnering up with private companies who seek to benefit from the data collection opportunities the internet provides. We’re not so much protecting citizens from data collection, but encouraging greater data collection.

Of course, efforts by the LFP have not been without their own difficulties. Yesterday it emerged that the Department for Homeland Security contacted the police department in Lebanon, New Hampshire regarding Kilton Public Library becoming the first library in the country to become part of the anonymous Web surfing service Tor. Using the standard of trope that surveillance avoidance puts people in danger, the police applied pressure to ensure that the library pulled the plug on the project.

The ability to source and access information without restriction should be a core function of libraries. In a world of mass surveillance, a “chilling effect” inhibits our right to obtain information without fear. Tools such as Tor provide us with that freedom to seek out information without fear of state or corporate surveillance. This is a fundamental core concern of the librarianship profession, and it’s one that I think we have been slow (generally speaking) to address. Whether it be for fear of reprisals or lack of the requisite knowledge to provide this kind of support. The move by the Department for Homeland Security must be a concern for all of us, whether we reside in the US or not. If attempts to deliver projects that protect citizens from mass surveillance are shut down before they even get off the ground in the US, we can be assured that even attempting an equivalent in the UK would be impossible to get off the ground.

Ultimately, we are being pushed into a position that compromises the ethical underpinning of our profession. We know that seeking and obtaining information freely online is compromised due to a combination of state and corporate surveillance, and yet any attempt to protect our users to enable free and uninhibited access is shut down. So where do we go from here? Private tuition outside the confines of local government influence? Who knows. In the meantime, it’s vital to put pressure on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the local police department and assert that an attack on intellectual freedom in libraries should not be tolerated under any circumstances, not least on spurious grounds of security.

You can add your support here. Regardless of whether you are a US citizen or not, I’d urge you to sign. Intellectual freedom gets to the heart of our profession. When it is attacked, we are attacked.