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The Mess: Social Media, Privacy and Information Freedom

Submitted by Daniel A. Freeman on March 26, 2009 - 11:38am

Last night, I was enjoying the new episode of South Park, which lampooned the chaotic, who's-in-charge-here feeling of the current economic crisis. The episode made light of the idea that this crisis grew out of a system that become so complex and so poorly managed that no one really understands it, and those who claim to have solutions are really just running around like decapitated chickens (if you have trouble understanding that metaphor, the episode can spell it out for you in graphic detail). Believe it or not, this actually got me thinking about concerns over the Internet and how it affects our privacy and our freedom of information.

The past decade has seen the rise of amazing technology that allows people to exchange and access information at speeds never before imagined. We can work faster, we can exchange money faster and we can get news faster. This technology continues to grow, evolve and expand rapidly, and I think I can say with complete certainty that it isn't going away. Obviously, I think this is a good thing...I wouldn't be the editor of the blog if I didn't. But with great power comes great responsibility, and as amazing as the Internet is, it certainly has the potential to do plenty of harm to go along with the good.

Like the economic crisis, the Internet is in many respects, a giant mess that no one really understands. Is anyone in charge of the Internet? In the United States, can we point to any government or private agency that is truly in charge of regulating the Internet? Is anyone truly charged with the task of preventing online piracy, identity theft or child endangerment that can come from Internet use? Sure, the FCC and various other agencies have roles, but they are far from clearly defined at this point.

As librarians, we know how necessary it is to have gatekeepers to information. We have seen that there are definitely legitimate threats involving the Internet that need to be contained. Children should not be interacting with adults they don't know online. People shouldn't be giving their social security number out to anyone who asks for it. If you have 700 Facebook friends, you shouldn't update your status to say that the lock on your front door is broken and you can't find a locksmith. These are legitimate problems, some might even say public safety problems, and just as we are taught to wear seat belts in cars or to look both ways before crossing the street, we need to make sure that people who use the Internet understand the risks and how they can be prevented.

I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that the current resources available for these purposes is adequate. Online social networking is being used for plenty of nefarious purposes already (Dateline NBC, anyone?), and as it continues to grow and people make more and more information about themselves available, the risks will grow.

This is where things really get tricky, especially for librarians. What is the appropriate way to regulate the use of the Internet in our libraries? If we are talking about taxpayer-funded public libraries, do we even have the right or responsibility to do so? How can we even begin to do that when the technology changes so fast that the efforts we make one day might be obsolete the next? The FCC controls what can be said, done or shown on network television, but they its not clear that they intend to take that role when it comes to the Internet (or if it is even technically possible for them to do so).

The online world plays a pretty significant role in my life, so the lack of any kind of structured regulation scares me a bit. To clarify, I'm not necessarily referring to government regulation, and by regulation, I don't mean restriction. It just seems like maybe we need some sort of seat belt for Internet users.

In the age of online social networking, attempting to balance privacy and protection, freedom and safety is a mess. It will likely fall to the gatekeepers--librarians, technology experts, writers and pioneers--to clean it up.

For more information on this topic, visit ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

Comments (3)

I appreciate your thoughts

I appreciate your thoughts here, and I understand that the term "regulation" can be a touchy one. You wrote:

"The solution is not to come up with regulations, the solution is to properly educate people to learn to think critically and then trust those people to make their own decisions."

My post advocated for this very thing, though I would not presume that this is "the" solution. This is what I meant with my "look both ways before you cross the street" analogy--while it might be impossible and unconstitutional to make a law requiring people to do this, we teach it to children as a necessary and protective measure of common sense so that it becomes ingrained.

To be clear--I am not advocating any draconian restrictions on freedom of information. But if you've worked in a library, you know that there have to be rules in order for things to function effectively. Do you advocate complete, unadulterated freedom for anyone to view any Internet content they want in your library? Should children be allowed to view pornography? Should patrons be able to play videos with foul language at loud volumes?

My post is not advocating restrictions on what people "can find on the Internet" as you said. It is not advocating using the FCC as Internet thought control police, and if you felt that the post implied that, you misinterpreted my words.

I am making the point that there are legitimate risks that come with all of this new technology, and that the technology has expanded so quickly that it is very unclear how we can mitigate these risks while respecting intellectual and information freedom.

Perhaps my use of the "regulation" touched a nerve. I don't wish for regulation on Internet content, and I don't wish for regulation of what adults can view on the Internet in their own homes. Maybe encouraging smart, safe Internet use through education isn't a form of regulation per se, but the end result would be an alteration of the way people surf.

"To clarify, I'm not

"To clarify, I'm not necessarily referring to government regulation, and by regulation, I don't mean restriction. It just seems like maybe we need some sort of seat belt for Internet users."

If not restriction, then what in the world do you mean? You shouldn't just say that something needs to change but give no possible solution...

Perhaps the Internet is a scary place to some, but so is much of the world. The solution is not to come up with regulations, the solution is to properly educate people to learn to think critically and theh trust those people to make their own decisions.

You compare the Internet to television and mention that the FCC regulates television, and seem to allude to the fact that you think the FCC should somehow regulate the Internet? It's as if you've forgotten that television is run on advertising dollars. The media shows what is generally thought of as acceptable because that is how they make money. You must understand that. And although much of the web is increasingly run on advertising dollars as well, it certainly isn't entirely, and you should be thankful that such a thing exists where people can have the freedom to express unpopular opinions or view unpopular content.

As a librarian, I have never thought of myself as a "gatekeeper of information" in the sense that I have some option to regulate information. Though I have probably never used the term "gatekeeper" to describe myself, if I had, it would have been in the sense that I know how to help people find the information they seek. What they do with the information is their choice.

Yuck. It is so disheartening to read something from another librarian that even entertains the idea of finding ways to regulate what people can find on the Internet. You must understand that people need to be free to find information, and that they are responsible for what they do with that information.

I'm not convinced. What is

I'm not convinced. What is the mess which needs to be cleaned? I don't believe studies support the idea of the Internet as a social networking red zone, where minors need to be shielded.

And educating people not to give their social security numbers out willy-nilly? That's bigger than the Internet.

No mess. Hence no regulatory clean up needed.