In my extended family, I have something of a reputation for being a privacy Nazi. This is due to my penchant for not giving out addresses and phone numbers to stores that seem to think my buying something from them is a good enough reason to ask for it, but it turns out I'm only playing in the minor leagues. The American Library Association is raising more than a million dollars to fund a new "Right to Information Privacy Campaign" with a goal of nothing less than getting Americans "to recommit to information privacy."
Librarians might not be the group you'd first imagine out in the streets, manning the barricades, but they can get pretty agitated about both censorship and privacy. (Note: never tell a librarian that you'd like to ban a particular book unless the two of you are separated by an inch of plexiglass.) In this case, the 64,000 librarians of the ALA believe that their work remains vital to a vibrant democracy, since "the right to read and search for information is the foundation of individual liberty."
The ALA's new campaign wants to 1) educate people, and then 2) turn them into activists. The education component of the three-year program will make people aware, for instance, that "checking out a biography of Osama Bin Laden could prompt seizure of their library records" or that "online searches create traceable records that make them vulnerable to questioning by the FBI." The ALA also worries about provisions in the law that "gag" the people who are on the receiving end of government orders to turn over these records."Law enforcement agencies at every level are exploiting fears about terrorism and child safety to encourage lawmakers to strip away statutory privacy protections for library records," says the ALA. "This eliminates anonymity in the library, and encourages the mind set that 'good' people should have nothing to hide."
But, as Cory Doctorow wittily points out in a talk he gave to the group last month, people have all sorts of behaviors for which they want "privacy," even if these behaviors aren't "secret." When someone heads off to the bathroom, for instance, and closes the door, their behavior isn't a "secret," but it is "private." And everyone's parents engaged in at least one nonsecret but private activity to produce a child.
The librarians are well suited to mount such a campaign. By nature, they're guardians of anonymity and free access to information, and they also have access to a huge variety of outlets for their message. US public libraries have more locations than McDonalds, and 62 percent of American adults hold library cards. That gives ALA members a natural place to educate the public about these issues and channel that education into public discourse and, hopefully, a new consensus on privacy and its importance.