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.