Neutrality, Equality and the Net

Two things you can do for the Internet on September 10th.

September 9, 2014

Librarians often say proudly that we are neutral. This often is taken to mean “we aren’t allowed to express opinions” with a side of “we must never, ever suggest that information a patron seeks is factually wrong.”

We keep using that word. I do not think it means what we think it means.

Libraries are social institutions. One might even say that they are radical institutions in an era when so many of our most powerful people studied the catechism of Ayn Rand at a tender age and propose solutions to social problems that seem to be cribbed from The Secret. When we say "this place belongs equally to every member of this community," we're taking a stand. That said, American libraries reflect a particular perspective on history and society that is situated, not universal. What we probably mean when we say “neutral” is that we value providing access to multiple interpretations and believe that people should be allowed to make up their own minds. We also have a soft spot for enlightenment ideas about rationality and evidence being useful tools for doing that.

Given those values, we shouldn’t shy away from expressing opinions publicly. We should oppose censorship, support privacy, and defend intellectual freedom and the right of all individuals to have equal access to information. We should fight attempts to undermine those things.

Here are a couple of things librarians (and people who share librarians’ values) can do on September 10th.

  • Support net neutrality by joining the Battle for the Net. If you run a website, you can plug in a bit of code that will demonstrate what the future might look like if we let corporations construct and collect tolls for fast lanes on the Internet (and, incidentally, assume more control over what we see online). You’ll hear a lot of guff about letting the engineers, not evil governments with their nasty regulations, take care of the Internet. Baloney. Net neutrality simply means ensuring that legally we all have an equal chance to reach others online, that your blog and your library’s website and the local farmers market and your community college aren’t disadvantaged because they can’t afford to pay ISPs even more money than they already do just so that other people can access their sites like the sites of big players who can pay more. The Internet is not a luxury good. It’s not an entertainment medium. It doesn’t belong to telecoms and cable companies which increasingly are the service providers who we use to get online. The internet is one of the most amazing decentralized things we’ve ever collectively created. It’s ours and we need to keep it that way.

If the battle is won and we have net neutrality, does that mean the Internet is neutral? You know it isn’t! But that’s why we have to roll up our sleeves and keep working on making the Internet a diverse place where everyone has a crack at sharing ideas, which brings me to the other thing you can do on September 10th.

  • Support the Ada Initiative, an international organization that promotes women in open tech culture. Tech culture is notoriously unwelcoming to women. Fewer women are majoring in computer science than in the 1980s. Trying to compete for venture capital exposes some of the wiggly things that live under the tech industry’s rocks. Men even dominate online comments, according to a recent study. The Ada Initiative, one attempt to make things better, conducts AdaCamps around the world, promotes making conferences safer places for women, helps women get past imposter syndrome, and more. Librarianship, a highly technical field that is also highly feminized and disproportionately white, have good reason to support organizations like Black Girls Code and the Ada Initiative. Starting on September 10th, the donations you make will be matched.

Let's make the world of technology a more equal place. Ada Lovelace would be pleased.


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