To what extent can libraries ensure free, equal and unhampered access to Internet-accessible information resources from a global perspective?

Between November 2001 and November 2004, IFLA/FAIFE, along with The Royal School of Library and Information Science in Denmark co-sponsored Dr. Stuart Hamilton’s PhD project examining freedom of access to information on the Internet. Entitled “To what extent can libraries ensure free, equal and unhampered access to Internet-accessible information resources from a global perspective?”, the PhD project is an example of IFLA’s close cooperation with the higher education sector. The results are of great value to the international library community and all those concerned with freedom of access to information and freedom of expression issues.

The Internet has evolved over the past ten years to become an information provider of incredible importance. While the utopian future envisioned by early Internet pioneers has not yet come to pass, great advances have been made in terms of extending Internet access around the world and creating mechanisms through which information can be quickly and cheaply retrieved. The Internet has been unable to ignore the passage of time, however, and today’s online environment is very much shaped by the current uncertain global security situation and the forces of a globalised economy that increasingly takes advantage of Internet technologies to facilitate its operation.

The PhD thesis is specifically concerned with restrictions on access to Internet-accessible information via the Internet in libraries. Empirical investigations (including a global survey of IFLA member countries and interviews with senior library professionals from around the world) found that several barriers to online information flow exist with the potential to affect information access in libraries all over the world.

In summary:

  • The basic access problems of the digital divide leave library users in many countries suffering from a lack of hardware, adequate Internet connections and skills necessary to get the most out of the Internet
  • The use of filtering software, either on library networks or at a national infrastructure level, is causing a degree of censorship in some parts of the world that leaves Internet users at a disadvantage regarding information access
  • Increases in Internet surveillance and data retention as a result of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks are impacting upon library user privacy and having adverse consequences for the freedom of expression of Internet users
  • The increasingly commodified nature of the Internet is leading to more charging for access to information resources. Library budgets are pressured to absorb these costs but they are being passed on to users in many countries
  • Changes in the online copyright environment are placing more control in the hands of large intellectual property owners. Advances in digital rights management are beginning to limit the uses of online information resources and impact negatively on the common store of knowledge available to library users worldwide

The thesis concludes that as Internet infrastructure and use within a country develops, more obstacles to accessing information become apparent, and the extent to which libraries are able to overcome them is dependent on their ability to influence decision-making processes at a number of levels, from the local community up to levels of international governance.