/ Jason Griffey / 12 pm Mon, Mar 28 2016
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  • How libraries can save the Internet of Things from the Web's centralized fate

    How libraries can save the Internet of Things from the Web's centralized fate

    Everyone thinks libraries have a positive role to play in the world, but that role differs greatly based on whether you’re talking to a librarian or a patron. Ask a patron what libraries have in common and they’d probably answer: they share books with people. Librarians give a different answer: they share a set of values. It’s time for libraries to step up to those values by supporting access to the Internet and taking the lead in fighting to keep the Internet open, free, and unowned.

    The American Library Association Code of Ethics says: ”We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.”

    That free flow of information on the Internet is at risk because of the past twenty years’ worth of centralization. What was once a field where all comers could express their ideas and create tools and content is increasingly reliant on proprietary services provided by commercial entities like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google. This is not the future envisioned in 1996 when John Perry Barlow wrote his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”

    “I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”

    At the time, Barlow and many others assumed that the greatest threat to this nascent new world was governmental interference. Instead, commerce and capitalism have led us to extreme corporate consolidation of the major services of the Internet. Cyberpunk had it right all along.

    On the other side of the coin, decentralization has become a high priority where anonymity and security are concerned. For example, Bittorrent allows the distribution of content from one user to another without that information residing on any one server. Tor (“the onion router”) is a decentralized network of servers that anonymize the pathways of communication. Bitcoin is a currency that relies on no banks or governments, instead using a distributed network of “ledgers” to record transactions. The movement toward re-decentralization often depends on the kindness of strangers who donate a portion of their own infrastructure to the network in question: bandwidth; computing cycles; and technical expertise -- sometimes at significant personal and professional risk.

    Decentralized systems will provide the information and services of the next big shift in computing: the Internet of Things. These “things” will be decentralized by nature, and that decentralization can be guarded against capture if we lay the groundwork now by creating nodes through which these micro-networks can communicate

    Decentralized Internet is part of traditional library values. Decentralized systems are robust bulwarks against censorship, control, and the whims of shareholder-driven corporations. Distributed services have no centralized point of failure -- no single plug that can be pulled, no single server that can be subpoenaed -- so those services can’t be yanked out from under users. Their interests are directly aligned with those of their users, and thus won’t languish under uncaring masters.

    The strength of decentralized systems is also their weakness. Decentralization means no company can be bullied or bribed into changing the system to make it easier to control or spy on, but that means there’s also no entity who can go to court or Congress and defend the system when it is under assault.

    Libraries can support a decentralized system with both computing power and lobbying muscle. The fights libraries have pursued for a free, fair and open Internet infrastructure show that we’re players in the political arena, which is every bit as important as servers and bandwidth.

    What would services built with library ethics and values look like? They’d look like libraries: Universal access to knowledge. Anonymity of information inquiry. A focus on literacy and on quality of information. A strong service commitment to ensure that they are available at every level of power and privilege.

    For example, the Kilton Library in Lebanon, NH, installed a Tor relay. This was the result of a long effort to get libraries to recognize the value of their infrastructure in service of a larger idea: helping protect the communication of the entire world. Alison Macrina, the director of the Library Freedom Project, and Nima Fatemi, the technical lead, did amazing work shepherding the project and showing that a library can both serve its immediate community and also serve the world at large.

    It wasn’t easy, because most people don’t understand what Tor is or why it’s important around the world. That’s exactly why we need libraries to take the lead. Libraries should embrace this distributed future and volunteer their spare cycles and bandwidth to enable the next stages of the evolution of the decentralized Internet. Libraries are an ideal location for these services to flourish, as the services speak to both to libraries’ ethical stance as well as playing to the strength of their role as trusted members of their community.

    Tor is just one example. Larger libraries can contribute resources to hosting distributed content and apps. Library associations can sponsor the packaging of decentralized services in ways that will make it easy for smaller libraries to install and maintain them. All libraries can begin to explore the possibilities, enlisting their communities as users of these services and also as contributors to their technical skills and knowledge.

    Libraries--by virtue of their position in the community, their values, and their deep experience in making information openly available while still protecting the interests of their users--are uniquely situated to take the lead in re-decentralizing the Internet. Libraries and librarians can’t afford to let this opportunity to drive the next stage of the ‘net pass them by. This opportunity must be seized.

    (Image: Tubes and Wires, Eddie Welker, CC-BY)

    Jason Griffey is a librarian, technologist, and Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.


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    Notable Replies

    1. ...
      Barlow and many others assumed that the greatest threat to this nascent new world was governmental interference. Instead, commerce and capitalism have led us to extreme corporate consolidation of the major services of the Internet. Cyberpunk had it right all along....

      Yes! And I for one would like to welcome our decentralized new librarian overlords.

    2. The only issue I have with this is the assumption of political lobbying power. That side of the business has its own issues of centralized v. decentralized strengths and weaknesses.

      When librarians get together, whether it's through the American Library Association, or a more ad hoc network, yes, we do have some amount of clout. You'll notice when it happens because every news organization uses it as an opportunity to run "not your grandmother's library" and "even the librarians are pissed off" kinds of stories. Like any lobby, we have power in numbers.

      However, those numbers are spread out across the country, some in more tenuous political situations than others. I grew up in a town and a time where the internet was first coming into our libraries. The Christian Coalition showed up in force to fight against a library levy. There were protesters outside the branches during election season (who dropped their kids off at the library unattended to keep them busy, unaware of irony.) There were rabble-rousers coming in to show off to the local news how they could look up porn websites on library computers (they curiously always had the URLs memorized.) There were big red signs in people's yards that said "VOTE NO LIBRARY PORN." I still have one. I keep it as a reminder of what I'm up against on a bad day.

      The work done at the Kilton Library is librarians fighting the good fight. It's a noble thing, and it's a coup for freedom of access to information. It is something that is in keeping with the highest ideals of the profession. But we're still in a time when some libraries in the country are fighting to keep the lights on. Like our state of congressional politics, there are safe districts and there are vulnerable districts. Those vulnerable districts might not always be willing or able to join the fight.

      Earlier this month, the public library in Plainfield Illinois had an issue on the ballot. They had a good plan, they had community buy-in, they had fantastic ground game. The week before the election, they suddenly had opposition, from Americans For Prosperity. The goddamn Koch brothers brought the robo-call hammer down against a local public library trying to replace an aging building.

      Public libraries have a few folks in their corner politically, there are State and National level professional organizations, there are groups like EveryLibrary, who offer fantastic support and advice to public libraries in the political sphere. And hey, if the Senate decides to do their damn jobs, we'll have an ally in the Library of Congress.

      So a decentralized system is a safe system, for the system. But when individual nodes of our library system come under the kind of brute force attack I've seen happen politically, it isn't some random server taking a hit, it's an entire community. And sadly, the state of funding being what it is, these are often the communities most in need of their library. Securing those is going to take a lot more work.

    3. As you noted, there are groups that are working to protect libraries at the local level...I have worked with EveryLibrary before, and am very familiar with those issues. The lack of an over-arching story nationally for libraries is one of the reasons I think this approach might be interesting to try...

    4. The braincrack that I'm currently working out is how to get a bigger-picture setup going in my neck of the woods. Politically, libraries are getting targeted from an "any tax is a bad tax" crowd, and while they'll occasionally give you a target to fire back at, they're almost always a nameless, faceless bunch. The big annoyance of that is that it's an ideology, not a specific instance.

      What I really want is to get the local public services banded together, not just libraries, but police, fire, developmental disabilities groups, parks, you name it. Get everyone in on the ad buy, show storytimes, show computer help, show job prep, fire and rescue, kids' safety, green spaces, let the people know that "your tax dollars at work" are the reason they get to enjoy living in a civilized society.

    5. Thanks @griffey for writing this. I'm really encouraged by the work of Kilton Library to set up a TOR Router (and their policy of running linux terminals for the public is an awesome move as well!) It's hard to translate these important aims of decentralisation and non gate-kept information to practical steps that are palatable to risk-averse local government entities (i.e. most public libraries). Worth mentioning some of the more "baby step" things that libraries can do to to preserve their users/communities freedoms as espoused by the Library Freedom Project too, eg: The Library Digital Privacy Pledge

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

    5 more replies