19 June 2017

Open Access, Public Access, Meaningful Access: Libraries heard at WSIS Forum and Human Rights Council

IFLA discussing how libraries can support access to information in Small Island Developing States

Shernon Osepa (ISOC), Melissa Sassi (Microsoft), Stephen Wyber (IFLA), and Avion Edwards (TATT)

Article 19 of the Universal Convention on Human Rights offers freedom of access to information for all. This freedom has long been at the heart of the work of libraries.

IFLA’s presence at the World Summit on the Information Society Forum 2017 and the 35th Session of the Human Rights Council allowed delegates to hear the library perspective on three aspects of access – open (free for users), public (Internet access in libraries) and meaningful (ensuring that people have the skills necessary to make information useful).

Promoting Open Access

IFLA has advocated for open access to research publications since the early 2000s, arguing that this is key to ensuring that the benefits of science and innovation can spread to the largest possible number of people. When work is produced by public institutions, or using public money, the argument for open access is all the stronger.

This is the point IFLA made in a panel looking at the adoption of open access by intergovernmental organisations, alongside the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), UNESCO, the World Health Organisation, CERN, the European Space Agency, and the Asian Development Bank. UNESCO and WIPO have been particularly active in this field, a point underlined by IFLA in calling for further progress across the board.

Promoting Public Access

The role of libraries and other community spaces in giving free public access to the Internet will be important for as long as there are people who do not have the money or inclination to get Internet access at home. In a session focusing on the situation of Small Island Developing States, IFLA stressed that libraries can play a vital role in places where an Internet connection can cost as much as the average wage. In addition, by providing a trusted public space, they can bring together other services, and contribute to community building.

For public access to work, it is important that there are no unnecessary barriers. IFLA joined a consultation at the Human Rights Council, underlining concerns about the use of filtering technologies and algorithms in controlling Internet access – how can people know whether what they are seeing or posting is being blocked or manipulated?

IFLA also highlighted the risk that contract terms and technological protection measures can undermine the rights given to uses through exceptions and limitations to copyright.

Promoting Meaningful Access

Finally, IFLA highlighted the importance of ensuring that access to information comes with the skills that allow people to use it. With the current concern about fake news, IFLA suggested that the only effective response was to help people of all ages develop the skills necessary to spot lies online. Given the speed at which stories can travel, no regulation could be fast enough.

On the positive side, developing skills and attitudes online could help everyone take advantage of the opportunities created by the Internet. There are countless examples of libraries doing this, drawing on their unique, trusted place in the community, and the skills and motivation of their staff.

As our societies and the ways in which we access information changes, the role of libraries is changing also. Far from diminishing, libraries are as important as ever, not only in terms of their practical work in bridging the digital divide, but also in bringing their values and working methods to the governance of the Internet.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum is an annual event bringing together governments, business and civil society, from around the world. This year’s theme was how Information and Communications Technologies can help deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. The Human Rights Council meets at least three times a year, and discusses both country specific reports and broader themes, for example freedom of expression or cultural rights. 

FAIFE (Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression), Access to information, Access to knowledge, Censorship, Switzerland

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