The Internet in 2023: Key Issues for Libraries
27 January 2023
In the latest of our series of looks ahead on different policy areas, we turn to the internet and wider digital world. Given both our own reliance on technology, as well as its impact on the achievement of wider library goals, evolutions in this space are particularly relevant for our own field to consider.
An interesting insight from IFLA’s workshop for librarians from across the Asia-Oceania region last year was that since the beginning of the pandemic, the library field appears to be less worried about its ability to work with the internet and digital tools.
This comes from comparing the way in which librarians in 2018 and 2022 ranked the different highlights and opportunities set out in our Global Vision Report. The two that touch on digital issues were near the top of the priority list five years ago, but were now a long way down. This doesn’t mean that the need to focus on this has gone away, but perhaps the sense of fear has declined, given how well so much of our field was able to adopt and adapt.
Of course, the more the internet becomes part of our practice – and our individual and collective lives in general – the more interest we have in making it work properly.
So what are the issues on the horizon in 2023 for libraries? The below sets out some ideas, drawing strongly in particular on the work of the Diplo Foundation, which we encourage you strongly to read!
Ongoing tensions between privacy and fighting harmful content: human rights do not always point in the same direction. Often, they need to be balanced against each other, a point recognised in the Universal Declaration itself.
A good example of where such a balance needs to be found is in the struggle in a number of jurisdictions to find ways both to protect against harm and discrimination (illegal hate speech and child abuse material being two clear examples), while also upholding rights to free speech and privacy. There isn’t, and arguably never has been an easy solution here, and views on both sides are very strongly held.
In terms of what this means for libraries – which have long worked to find this balance, and indeed are continuing to have to do so often in the face of vicious protest – we have the potential to provide unique insight into discussions, indicating what principles and values can support any solution eventually found.
Intermediary liability under the microscope: closely linked to the above is the question of the future of the major intermediaries – notably Google and Facebook. They have, arguably, had a huge role in creating the internet as we know it today, and in doing so, become extremely rich. This has also made them obvious targets, given that it can appear far simpler to regulate (and more profitable to sue) a couple of large companies than millions of individuals.
There clearly are questions to answer, for example around their impact on competition, as well as greater transparency about how they make their own choices about the content they host and give access to. In response, there are also major efforts to regulate them, which may lead to the sorts of changes seen in the case of Microsoft in the early 2000s, as well as stronger rights for users over their data and better interoperability. These issues are going to be in focus at a major UNESCO conference next month.
For libraries and their users, who also can rely strongly on these platforms both for core work and communication, these discussions are worth following, both in order to ensure that they work in ways consistent with our values and our needs.
The need to protect libraries from GAFA-style regulation: further linked to the above is the risk that where digital legislation is made, there isn’t adequate consideration of libraries and their needs. This is particularly the case where governments look to regulate major platforms, given that the same rules can end up applying to the open access and open education repositories run or used by libraries.
This is of course also a risk when actions are taken in one way or the other in the effort to find a balance between privacy and harmful content above, with regulation risking limiting the room that librarians have to exercise their own professional judgement in building collections and providing access to content.
This requires us to pay close attention to law-making at all levels, and to be ready to intervene where necessary in order to avoid decisions which harm our ability to fulfil our missions.
Evolving global internet governance: 2023 will see extensive work on preparing key moments in 2024 and 2025 on the global internet governance architecture. The UN’s Global Digital Compact (to be agreed next year – see IFLA’s input so far) will establish high-level principles which will guide its own work in the space, as well as providing a reference for governments, on issues including connectivity, maintaining a global internet, data governance, rights, and supporting the digital commons.
Meanwhile, 2025 will mark the end of the current mandate of the Internet Governance Forum, as well as the 20th anniversary of the World Summit on the Information Society Process. There is a clear push at the UN level to ensure these have a stronger focus on action, raising questions about the role of governments in this, as opposed to other stakeholders.
As preparations advance for these events, we will want – at the national and international levels – to make sure both that library values are heard and reflected, and that libraries themselves are seen as key stakeholders and part of the solution.
Crypto, Web 3.0 and the Metaverse: 2022 was full of grand announcements around big new ideas which, their promoters promised, would lead to a whole new round of disruption to major parts of our lives. For the most part, they didn’t materialise, although many less dramatic steps were taken which have at least started to show what the potential is.
The crypto boom – and the underlying philosophy of a decentralised web (web 3.0) – took a heavy knock, with failures and flaws becoming very clear. However, the rise of Mastodon in the face of doubts about Twitter has offered a more positive story. For libraries, there is an interesting question. Decentralisation does fit with the logic of individual empowerment, although at the same time, the extreme libertarianism of many Web 3.0 advocates seems hostile to the idea of any institution being trusted (implicitly including, of course, libraries).
Another issue to watch is around the Metaverse. This clearly has hasn’t seen the uptake expected at first, but the concept is unlikely to go away, and 2023 should see more practical, less dramatic steps taken that bring it close to being a widespread part of our lives.
New connectivity technologies: a specific area where there is the potential for immediate implications for libraries is the extent to which low-earth orbit satellite technology can create opportunities to bring more libraries online. In rural areas and those with poor general access to the internet, this has the potential to allow libraries to become local hubs.
This connectivity could then unlock development in many other areas, from access to education and health to supporting small businesses and even data collection enabling better decision-making.
Of course, this is still a relatively new technology, and heavily reliant on just one major player at the moment (Starlink), although others are emerging. It is also not the case that simply bringing a library online automatically leads to all these other potential benefits – it takes investment in staff and their skills, good quality content, and up to date and resilient hardware.
AI and Fourth Generation Rights: an interesting concept that is beginning to be talked about is that of fourth generation rights – the right of people to be independent individuals in a world where choices are increasingly shaped by artificial intelligence. Given that AI of course is based on past trends, it can risk locking in the present, and limiting the freedom to take different decisions in future.
This applies at the level of individuals, but also arguably to libraires themselves, insofar as they need to use services which take away their ability to decide how to provide services. Obvious examples include eBook platforms which are curated by a centrally run algorithm, or where materials disappear without warning – these are clearly issues where we need to work to maintain our freedom of movement.
On the positive side, the emergence of the notion of fourth generation rights arguably provides an opportunity for libraries to underline their own contribution not just to digital citizenship (in a more civic, political sense), but to digital personhood. Through helping people not just to be internet users, but informed, empowered internet users, there is much we can do to make a reality of these rights.
Don’t forget digital inclusion!: while there is certainly an inclusion thread running through the issues highlighted above, the need to keep a focus on making sure that everyone is able to benefit from the potential of the internet. Keeping people safe, ensuring that platforms work for all, connectivity, stronger pro-equity government involvement, and simply letting libraries operate properly can all play a role.
A particular opportunity may come around the updating of UNESCO’s Internet Universality Indicators, which provide a framework for assessing to what extent countries have provisions in place to promote digital inclusion. We will be working to support library involvement both in such assessments, and in the designing of future editions.
More broadly, we should also look out for opportunities to ensure that those leading in the development of digital inclusion strategies understand the contribution of libraries – with the right support – and make sure that we are part of any such efforts going forwards.
Keep an eye on our website for more news throughout the year on the issues highlighted here and how you can get involved!