The Mess: Social Media, Privacy and Information Freedom

By Daniel A. Freeman |

Last night, I was enjoying the new episode of South Park, which lampooned the chaotic, who's-in-charge-here feeling of the current economic crisis. The episode made light of the idea that this crisis grew out of a system that become so complex and so poorly managed that no one really understands it, and those who claim to have solutions are really just running around like decapitated chickens (if you have trouble understanding that metaphor, the episode can spell it out for you in graphic detail). Believe it or not, this actually got me thinking about concerns over the Internet and how it affects our privacy and our freedom of information.

The past decade has seen the rise of amazing technology that allows people to exchange and access information at speeds never before imagined. We can work faster, we can exchange money faster and we can get news faster. This technology continues to grow, evolve and expand rapidly, and I think I can say with complete certainty that it isn't going away. Obviously, I think this is a good thing...I wouldn't be the editor of the blog if I didn't. But with great power comes great responsibility, and as amazing as the Internet is, it certainly has the potential to do plenty of harm to go along with the good.

Like the economic crisis, the Internet is in many respects, a giant mess that no one really understands. Is anyone in charge of the Internet? In the United States, can we point to any government or private agency that is truly in charge of regulating the Internet? Is anyone truly charged with the task of preventing online piracy, identity theft or child endangerment that can come from Internet use? Sure, the FCC and various other agencies have roles, but they are far from clearly defined at this point.

As librarians, we know how necessary it is to have gatekeepers to information. We have seen that there are definitely legitimate threats involving the Internet that need to be contained. Children should not be interacting with adults they don't know online. People shouldn't be giving their social security number out to anyone who asks for it. If you have 700 Facebook friends, you shouldn't update your status to say that the lock on your front door is broken and you can't find a locksmith. These are legitimate problems, some might even say public safety problems, and just as we are taught to wear seat belts in cars or to look both ways before crossing the street, we need to make sure that people who use the Internet understand the risks and how they can be prevented.

I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that the current resources available for these purposes is adequate. Online social networking is being used for plenty of nefarious purposes already (Dateline NBC, anyone?), and as it continues to grow and people make more and more information about themselves available, the risks will grow.

This is where things really get tricky, especially for librarians. What is the appropriate way to regulate the use of the Internet in our libraries? If we are talking about taxpayer-funded public libraries, do we even have the right or responsibility to do so? How can we even begin to do that when the technology changes so fast that the efforts we make one day might be obsolete the next? The FCC controls what can be said, done or shown on network television, but they its not clear that they intend to take that role when it comes to the Internet (or if it is even technically possible for them to do so).

The online world plays a pretty significant role in my life, so the lack of any kind of structured regulation scares me a bit. To clarify, I'm not necessarily referring to government regulation, and by regulation, I don't mean restriction. It just seems like maybe we need some sort of seat belt for Internet users.

In the age of online social networking, attempting to balance privacy and protection, freedom and safety is a mess. It will likely fall to the gatekeepers--librarians, technology experts, writers and pioneers--to clean it up.

For more information on this topic, visit ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.