The Information Policy Blog

The (unofficial) blog of the BCLA Information Policy Committee

BCLA Press Release on LAC “Code of Conduct”

For Immediate Release, 20/3/2013

The British Columbia Library Association (BCLA) is alarmed by some of the oppressive language in the Values and Ethics Code recently issued to govern the behaviour of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) employees. The implications of the Code and its attempts to regulate behavior, critical thinking and freedom of expression both in and out of the work environment threaten the principles of a democratic society.

As information professionals, librarians and archivists are governed by well-established professional codes of ethics and principles, developed over centuries of service to the public. For example, from the Canadian Library Association:

“It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable.”

BCLA’s perception is that some parts of the Values and Ethics Code is punitive and results from the concerns expressed by professional librarians and archivists across Canada about budget cuts to LAC and drastic changes in policies by current LAC management.

The LAC Values and Ethics Code is disturbing for several other reasons. It inhibits employees from participating in library- or archives-related professional conferences, teaching engagements, or other unspecified “personal activities”. The Code describes these activities as “high risk” to LAC. This implies that any discussion on any topic not approved by LAC senior management threatens the institution and is in a conflict of interest. BCLA acknowledges that public servants have a “duty of loyalty” but argues that this must be balanced with a person’s right to freedom of expression. As well, professional employees such as librarians and archivists must be permitted to engage with their peers in forums where they may be discussing differing or controversial perspectives.

Preventing LAC employees from engaging in professional discourse does a profound disservice to scholarship in fields relating to technology, history, libraries, and archives. It discourages many of the nation’s foremost heritage experts from discussing their work with the wider world and restricts their access to innovations being developed and shared by their colleagues outside LAC. Historically LAC employees have played an active and important role in Canada and internationally, sharing expertise and supporting smaller libraries and archives

The implications of the Code extend far beyond employees’ professional lives. Sections pertaining to “personal activities” display a suspicious attitude bordering on contempt for employees’ civil liberties. In one passage, employees are warned that their private lives and conversation “could become a work-related matter” if they criticize the organization or its management. The language of the Code implies that the most basic liberties – participating in politics, joining professional organizations, or even discussing one’s work with family – are subject to scrutiny and censorship. Again, BCLA recognizes the need for public bodies to balance employees’ duties and functions as government representatives with their right to freedom of expression, but in this case the balance is drastically skewed.

BCLA is deeply concerned by sections of LAC’s Values and Ethics Code because it devalues and dismisses employees’ professional integrity and their underlying freedom of thought and expression. The accomplishments – and professional opinions – of LAC employees should be a source of pride rather than suspicion and should be a focus for discussion rather than censorship.

BCLA urges LAC to withdraw the Values and Ethics Code and re-formulate it more in keeping with the Government’s “Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector”, which holds that “treating all people with respect, dignity and fairness is fundamental.”

British Columbia Library Association
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BCLA Press Release on Dale Askey / McMaster / Edwin Mellen Lawsuit

Press Release                                              For Immediate Release                                             13.02.2013

The British Columbia Library Association (BCLA) is extremely concerned about the unwarranted and frivolous lawsuits that Edwin Mellen Press has filed against Associate University Librarian Dale Askey and against McMaster University.

Edwin Mellen Press alleges that that comments made by Mr. Askey on his personal blog regarding the quality of their publications were defamatory, and are seeking a total of $4.5 million dollars in damages to compensate for injury to their reputation.

As a professional librarian engaged in collection development Mr. Askey is both qualified and obliged to make decisions about published materials.  Central to this issue is Mr. Askey’s academic freedom which should ensure that he, as well as fellow academic librarians, has the ability to freely speak, write, review and evaluate as professionals without fear of reprisal, litigation, or control by vendors, employers or other external bodies.

As a citizen in a democratic society Mr. Askey is free to have and share his opinions with his community, society and country. Sharing and debating perspectives without fear of recrimination is the hallmark of a healthy democratic society peopled by engaged citizens.

Librarians and information workers uphold the rights of all community members to express a critical view about the value of a book or other information materials. This includes a librarian’s own right to do the same. Every citizen should be able to express an opinion without fear of litigation should they offend an author or publisher. By filing lawsuits against Mr. Askey and McMaster University Edwin Mellen Press is attempting to create a climate of fear among librarians, information workers, and all libraries that may critique their product.

BCLA condemns the misuse of the court process to intimidate libraries, librarians and information workers from discharging their professional obligations and from demonstrating one of the library’s core responsibilities to uphold the right of freedom of thought and expression.

BCLA urges Edwin Mellen Press to withdraw its lawsuits and instead engage in a debate, a conversation or a discussion with the library community in order to build a healthy society that reflects a myriad of opinions held by diverse community members.

The Last Days of Aaron Swartz

THE LAST DAYS OF AARON SWARTZ

(Note – this piece is both a eulogy of sorts and a set of practical recommendations for information professionals and academics. If you are already familiar with Aaron’s life and work and are interested in what you can do to further his legacy, you may wish to skip ahead to where do we go from here? I am grateful to my colleagues on the IPC, who helped me draft this statement and gave it the Committee’s endorsement.)

Sometime this past Friday, Aaron Swartz departed this life in despair.

At only 26 years of age, he found himself facing up to 50 years in prison and $4m in fines for his radical belief that information – especially information produced by governments and by scholarly effort – should be freely accessible to all regardless of their wealth or social status. This production of such information was subsidised heavily by the public purse, he reasoned, and its ultimate purpose was ostensibly to serve the public good. Why, then, should citizens pay for the privilege of accessing information their taxes had paid to produce in the first place?

It was an idea so dangerous that the US Attorney’s office was prosecuting him on no fewer than 13 felony charges including wire fraud, computer fraud, and recklessly damaging a protected computer.

His crime, if one were to look beyond the calculated hysteria cultivated by the prosecution, was essentially that of downloading JSTOR articles on a university campus. Many of the articles were out of copyright, and JSTOR itself has since provided limited free access to much of its content. The prosecution went to elaborate lengths to portray Aaron as a dangerous anarchist, a glorified car thief, a monster. “Stealing is stealing”, they shrieked, “whether you use a computer command or a crowbar”.

Never mind that JSTOR, the alleged victim of the crime, refused to bring charges against Swartz for what they only characterised as a “misuse of our database”. Indeed, in the days since his death, they have stated that they “regretted being drawn into [the case] from the outset”. Never mind that MIT, on whose network the alleged crimes occurred, was at best ambivalent about legal action against him and has now opened an investigation into its level of complicity with prosecutors. No, it is increasingly clear that Aaron Swartz found himself on trial not for his actions but for his ideas.

To illustrate this, we might contrast the zeal of Swartz’s prosecution with a US Justice Department announcement – on the very day of his death – that a major international bank would avoid any US criminal prosecution whatsoever for financially abetting “known terror groups, Mexican drug cartels, and rogue governments such as Iran” in what even strait-laced ABC News described as “…one of the clearest cases of criminal money laundering in recent history”. It would seem that in some cases, stealing isn’t stealing after all.

As this news was being broadcast to a weary world, Aaron Swartz hung himself from the rafters of his New York apartment. His ideas, and the price society demanded of him for having them, must have seemed too much to bear. In a moving statement his family characterised his death as far more than personal tragedy, calling it “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach” and refusing to exempt the US Attorney’s Office and MIT from culpability in his suicide. Whatever the circumstances, his long personal struggle with depression – and oppression – were at an end.

His ideas were not.

Let us honour him, then, by speaking of those ideas, and of the remarkable mind which defended them so eloquently and so fiercely for so many years.

REMEMBERING AARON

Aaron Swartz was a culture hero in the truest sense of the word. In spite of his tender years, he was a mythical ancestor to not only the Open Access and Creative Commons movements but also to much of the technology which underlies the way we use the web every day. At the age of 14, he co-authored an early specification of the now-universal web feed technology RSS; his other contributions to XML are too numerous and significant to even name. He was instrumental in developing and promoting Reddit, one of the most influential and acclaimed information sharing websites in the history of the internet. He pioneered the development of musicbrainz.org, an early database for sharing metadata about music, and he effectively built the web.py protocol from scratch.

He had a passionate belief that the products of the world’s knowledge should be shared with all its citizens. He is described by Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive (where he worked for a time), as the “architect and first coder” of the groundbreaking OpenLibrary.org, which sought “…to open the world of books to the Internet generation”. Even his contributions to (and analysis of) Wikipedia itself are now legendary. That this should be so is a testament to his longstanding involvement with open online encyclopedia efforts – he won the now-defunct ArsDigita prize for his work on an early example, the Info Network, when he was only 13.

In his later years he became a fierce activist for intellectual freedom and information policy in the public good. He had a ferocious genius for politics, co-founding Demand Progress as a framework for exerting pressure on elected officials to oppose internet censorship. He will long be remembered for his central role in promoting and coordinating opposition to the punitive internet-censorship law SOPA, an effort so successful that an insider recently recalled that “…the feedback was absolutely deafening…it was unlike anything I had ever seen, and most congressional staffers I worked with had seen,” adding that members of congress fearfully ask themselves “is this the next SOPA?” whenever the spectre of internet-related legislation rears its head.

His stunts were the stuff of internet myth. In 2009 he made use of free trial subscriptions to PACER, the US Federal Government’s database of court records, to download approximately 20 per cent of its content and share it freely online. Even the New York Times acknowledged that PACER was “…cumbersome, arcane and not free[…]everything that Google is not”; Swartz was so profoundly repulsed by the idea that citizens needed to pay to access the records of their own legal system that he sought to redress the balance himself. The FBI sought a way to prosecute him, but came up empty. Then, in 2011, he entered an unlocked closet on the campus of MIT and used an elegant little Python script to download several million articles from JSTOR, during which effort MIT had him arrested. Brewster Kahle found this astonishing in and of itself:

“When I was at MIT, if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, might be called a hero, get a degree, and start a company – but they called the cops on him. Cops. MIT used to protect us when we transgressed the traditional.”

Not this time – Swartz was not so fortunate with JSTOR as he had been with PACER. Although JSTOR itself publicly exonerated him, MIT were not courageous enough to do so before it was too late. Although MIT did not explicitly press charges, their failure to speak on his behalf essentially gave the U.S. Attorney’s office all the excuse they needed to prosecute Aaron on behalf of the corporate interests who ultimately author much of the United States’ – and the world’s – information policy.

The rest, as they say, is history.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Aaron has left us –academics, librarians, archivists, information architects and citizens all – with a daunting legacy. We might argue that he did more in his 26 years to advocate for the principles we hold dear – such those enshrined in the ALA’s “principles for a networked world” or the CLA’s “Statement on Intellectual Freedom” than we have ever dared to undertake or even imagine possible. His life and works challenge all of us to consider to what degree we are serious about breaking down the walls which separate knowledge from the people who might use it to do great things. These walls are built of ignorance, of greed, of cowardice, of the desire to control who may and who may not know.

It is our firm hope that this tragic event will galvanize the resolve of the people who work in fields which deal with the generation, stewardship, preservation, and transmission of information. Where we have fallen short, let us strive to improve. Where we have succeeded, let us build on that legacy. Above all, let us be less willing to shy from the challenging aspects of our work at the level of policy and advocacy – our voices are desperately needed. We no longer have the luxury of silence, and whispering position statements is simply not enough.

Hesitating to engage with the emerging issues around information policy is not enough.

Standing on the sidelines – whether out of ignorance or out of a misguided desire for self-preservation in the face of a difficult funding climate – is most emphatically not enough.

Aaron Swartz deserved better of us. Our users, students, and patrons deserve better of us. And we deserve better of ourselves. We need advocacy and implementation, both at the level of professional culture and individual action.

A few suggestions:

  • Educate yourself about information policy issues – in the last year the library community at large has been deafeningly silent on a number of absolutely crucial measures under debate which adversely affect the informational rights of our users. SOPA is the easy example. What about FIPA, C-11, C-30, TPP – and beyond? If you’ve never heard of any of these, now is the time to get educated. Following on from this…
  • TAKE A STAND on political issues affecting access to information, literacy, intellectual freedom, and education. Don’t rely on tried-and-true cop-outs like “this doesn’t affect my work” or “I can’t see how I can make a difference”. High level information policy decisions affect all of us – as citizens, scholars, and human beings. Aaron saw this, and he did what he could – whatever he could – to stand up for what he felt was right. Which takes us to:
  • Don’t be afraid to have feelings about what is right and wrong, and don’t be afraid to stand up for them. Attempts to disenfranchise and intimidate people should not be tolerated – silence is acquiescence at best and endorsement at worst. Get involved in conversations and advocacy around these issues on twitter, on facebook, on reddit, on your blog, in the press…everywhere. Advocate to your users, to your colleagues, to your friends, to your Board, to your elected officials. Advocate to everyone who will listen – and sometimes even to the people who won’t!
  • If you work at a public library, stand up enthusiastically for reference services as a crucial component of the library’s mission. Recent trends towards diminishing the role of reference in a digital age are often misguided and, at their worst, result not only in further alienation of our user base but a significant diminution of our efforts to help ensure a level playing field for all users.
  • If you work at an academic institution, lobby enthusiastically on behalf of Open Access journals and in support of robust – and binding – requirements for making the products of faculty and student research freely available through institutional repositories. Don’t be afraid to stand up to bullying from copyright and publishing cabals. If somebody tries to sell your institution garbage while insisting it’s lemonade, tell them so – and tell everybody else who will listen.
  • If you work in the archives, push for an increased focus on generating standards-compliant descriptions of your holdings and uploading those descriptions to provincial, national, and international databases such as MemoryBC and ArchivesCanada. Where such portals do not exist, lobby for their creation – or build them yourself.
  • If you are an academic, commit to publication in Open Access journals wherever possible and make the case – loudly – for Open Access supporting tenure. The more people adopt it, the more powerful it becomes; be part of that progress! Consider sharing your works publicly on your own website and on twitter using the hashtag #pdftribute. If you don’t have a website, think about creating one.
  • If you work in programming, information architecture, or systems, commit wherever possible to authoring and using open source code shared freely under open FSF-approved licences such as the GPL. Lobby enthusiastically for open source software wherever and whenever you can – your ILS, your archival management software, your office software, even your operating system. Linux is a great place to start. If we learned to use it, you can too.
  • Wherever you work, advertise your services widely, prominently, and in plain language – especially on the institution’s website. Make sure users understand how you can help them address their information needs in ways that are relevant to their lives.

 Onward.

© 2013, Myron C. Groover/BCLA-IPC. Licensed under the Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode

ITU summit gathers steam after standardising web surveillance

So IPC’s eyes have been fixed on ITU internet governance summit for the last couple of weeks; we had a pretty interesting discussion on-list about whether or not to promote and participate in the lobbying efforts of a most strange bedfellow – Google, of all things – and in the end I think we came down on the side of “enemy of my enemy”. Regardless of your feelings, you should absolutely be writing to MPs, the ITU, and everybody else who doesn’t want to hear that this summit, and clandestine governance forums like it, are bad news for library patrons and everybody else.

Why, you ask? What kind of thing does the ITU actually get up to? Well, I’d like to draw your attention to a little-publicised incident where ITU’s plans for standardising Deep Packet Inspection were sort-of leaked to the sort-of press. It’s quite funny, since it’s only a leak in the most generous sense of the term – the morons sent a classified document to a net freedom activist and only later realised that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea.

Back to the matter at hand. The leaked document itself is pretty stark and disturbing; the ITU are under no illusions about what this technology is likely to be used for (monitoring and controlling the behaviour of users, China- and Iran-style). DPI is one of those technologies where the potential for abuse so hugely outweighs any conceivable legitimate use that most every other governance body has refused even to discuss it (and even then, our conceptions of “legitimate” are fairly gross; allowing ISPs to seamlessly, undetectably spy on traffic to take the guesswork out of Big Content’s Satanic intentions regarding copyright and enforcement).

It’s probably not surprising that we think of these attitudes as profoundly unethical and intrinsically hostile to users, their rights, and really just to the dissemination of human culture and ideas generally. Thanks as always to Cory Doctorow for sharing.

Federal government in court for denying TRC access to records

This is big news, even if it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Essentially the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is in the awkward position of having to ask for an extension of its own mandate. Why? Because the government’s efforts to prevent it from completing its work in time have been so relentless and well-coordinated across various institutions and departments.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ottawa-taken-to-court-over-release-of-residential-schools-documents/article5904543/

This is not a happy day for transparency, accountability, or even plain old-fashioned human decency here in Canada. What response can we expect from the CPC? We will undoubtedly see the TRC maligned as ineffectual time-wasters who have been idly dawdling while squandering precious government resources, which is frankly absurd to anybody with any experience of the TRC and their hard work over the last four years. In any case, isn’t levying that accusation against every single person in government who criticises the CPC’s finances getting a little exhausting?

From the article: “The commission said in an interim report last February that it had hit a wall in its attempts to pry the documents out of Ottawa’s hands. In an application for legal intervention, it says the stonewalling continues and the government has provided only a subset of an existing database of known material. “The commission is taking this step very reluctantly and with a sense that it has been left with no alternative,” Justice Murray Sinclair, the commission’s chairman, said in a statement.”

Trans Pacific Partnership – what you need to know

I suspect you’ll be hearing more from IPC about this shadiest-of-shady trade deals in the coming year. Here’s an excerpt from an EFF interview of Michael Geist which should give you an idea of why:

“(Geist): …[G]iven Canada’s late entry into the TPP process, the US was able to extract two onerous conditions that Prime Minister Stephen Harper downplayed as the “accession process.” First, Canada will not be able to reopen any chapters where agreement has already been reached among the current nine TPP partners. This means Canada has already agreed to be bound by TPP terms without having had any input. Since the TPP remains secret, the government can’t even tell us what has been agreed upon. Second, Canada has second-tier status in the negotiations as the US has stipulated that Canada will not have “veto authority” over any chapter. This means that should the other nine countries agree on terms, Canada would be required to accept them.For now, we’d encourage you to head over to EFF”

For more, head over to EFF and check out the full interview.

BCLA Campaign – Let Your MP Know How Important Libraries Are!

October is Library Month, and this year we’re asking you – yes, YOU! – to help us remind our government just how important libraries are to the civic and intellectual life of this country.

In response to the unprecedented and deeply troubling changes to Federal information policy in recent months, the IPC has organised a letter writing campaign to help you let your MP know how you feel about the issues – LAC, the closure of Federal libraries, the cancellation of the National Archival Development Program; the list goes on. There’s plenty to write about!

We’ve prepared a number of resources to help you get started, because nobody should feel that writing to their elected representatives is beyond their means or that they don’t have the power to make a difference.

To find out more, and to get involved, please check out the campaign website.

Thank you all in advance for supporting Canada’s libraries in this challenging time; it’s difficult to overstate what’s at stake. Please share widely.

A bit of perspective…

…Well, things are a bit rough with copyright in Canada, all the more so since it’s emerged that the TPP is likely to just erase all progress made under C-11 (more on this later), but it’s always good to keep things in perspective.

We could, for example, be staring down the barrel of this charming legislation from Panama, which would create a sort of extra-judicial copyright SWAT team with the discretionary power to levy fines in excess of CAD 100k whenever they feel like it…and keep all the fine money for themselves!

So, y’know, things could always be worse…

Access Copyright: “Post-Secondary Tariff Update”

What was that Žižek phrase? “First as tragedy, then as farce”? Sounds about right for describing the latest bizarre communication from Access Copyright, which bears a more-than-superficial resemblance to an adolescent cry for attention. The sentiment of the LIS community in reaction to this notice was perhaps best captured on twitter, where the hashtag #laughataccesscopyright trended for a few hours yesterday.

Referencing a recent spate of Supreme Court decisions which would seem to substantially do away with Access Copyright’s entire business model, one commentator aptly observed that “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt”.

Now it’s a matter of waiting to see how the Copyright Board – and the Model Licence non-signatories – react.