Ethics of Innovation symposium [updated]

Most of you probably already know about this, but next Wednesday, November 17th is an OCLC/ Library Journal sponsored online symposium. It’s free to register:

The Ethics of Innovation: Navigating Privacy, Policy, and Service Issues
November 17, 2010 1-3pm (ET)

Liza Barry-Kessler and Gary Price are the main speakers. I’ll be giving a brief introduction and moderating and participating in the non-Twitter discussions regarding the talks. I think it’ll be interesting. Some of the possible topics I’ve wanted to blog about, but decided to wait until after the symposium was over so I don’t spoil anything.

Update: I thought the Ethics of Innovation Symposium went well yesterday. I was also surprised at how many people have to work together to make something like that go smoothly. I gave an introduction, but between that and listening to the speakers and fielding questions and paying attention to the back chat channel, it was like real work for two hours. I think the slides will be released at some point, but if anyone’s curious I pasted my introduction below. The conversation between Gary and Liza was great and ranged widely over all sorts of ethical issues, some of which get very little discussion. Anyway, it was fun.

The title of today’s symposium–The ethics of innovation: navigating privacy, policy, and service issues–covers a potentially huge number of topics that show what complicated institutions libraries have become in the past couple of decades. What once was a self-contained building with only physical items has become a crossroads where librarians, library users, vendors, technology, ethics, and the law constantly interact. The “library” has spread beyond the walls of any building and technological innovation has created a more complicated world of online content and online interactions with the library at one crossroads. In the process, the ethical and legal issues we must consider have multiplied considerably. Where once we had buildings and physical stuff, we now have in addition distributed online networks originating outside the library and intersecting in various ways in an environment now almost metaphorically or even anachronistically called a “library.”

As an example of how traditional relationships have changed, consider the issues around licensing an online journal instead of owning a print copy. With print copies, libraries could do more or less what they wanted once they had the copy. They could copy an article and give it to another library or put it on reserve and no one would be the wiser. Now that we license journals, vendors have more power over content and more knowledge of its use. Can we “lend” a copy of an online article? Maybe. If we subscribe to journals, can’t students use the articles for course readings? It makes technological and pedagogical sense to do so, but Georgia State University was recently sued by several publishers who claimed that doing so was a violation of copyright. Access is easier and the legal and ethical landscape more complicated than ever.

Or think about the situation with ebooks. We have the technology to allow multiple library users to read the same book at the same time, but the technology is legally hampered. Libraries have built up over the past few decades an elaborate national network for sharing books and making them as widely available as possible, and this network of resource sharing has been one of our valuable services to the public, but that network and the access it allows may disappear if ebooks take over printed books but the current digital rights remain. Here technology, copyright, and library ethics could come together somewhat violently and libraries are the crossroads where they’ll meet.

Librarians like information to be free, and it’s easier than ever for us to distribute much of our library content, which makes it harder sometimes to comply with the legal restrictions. How often are we tempted to send articles to friends from subscription databases they aren’t allowed to access? Or how often DO we send them?  Recently there was an online discussion about how independent scholars or scholars with poorly funded libraries get articles they need from friends with better library access. This is done routinely, with no ethical qualms whatsoever. It’s the ethic of scholars and librarians to share information. But is this practice ethically any different from distributing digital copies of movies or music? Legally it’s NO different, but we can imagine scholars who would balk at DVD piracy thinking nothing of emailing someone an article from ProQuest. Here we have an area where the illegal seems ethical to many people.

Librarians feel an ethical obligation to make information as freely available as possible, but this obligation goes along with other ethical and legal obligations. As we create new services, we approach gray areas. Witness the recent brouhaha over a librarian writing publicly that her library lends Netflix videos to library users even though it technically violates Netflix’s user agreement. She more or less said it was okay because Netflix wasn’t asking her to stop yet. To some librarians, the ethical obligation to provide what people want–in this case DVDs–overrides the legal obligation to abide by user agreement, or even with the traditional library ethic to loan only what we’ve purchased or specifically licensed. What’s the proper response in situations like these? Do we ignore the law? Rationalize it away? Adhere to its strictest letter? Advocate for different agreements? Regardless, we have to know about the issues involved before we can make decisions.

Libraries could also preserve the content they purchased, which is a service to future generations, but even preservation becomes more difficult and raises ethical and legal questions that didn’t matter before. Before we just kept the physical stuff, maybe in cold storage. Now things are more complicated. Vendors and publishers license content, but they also sign agreements for long-term preservation and storage with organizations like LOCKSS, Portico, and the Hathi Trust. Thus, information is preserved, but not necessarily accessible until the occurrence of some rather unlikely trigger events. This is undoubtedly good for preservation purposes, but it has created another complex legal and ethical situation around libraries and digital information.

Librarians like information to be free, but not about library users. Librarians traditionally want to protect user privacy, and they also want to provide goods and services over the Internet. But the Internet is the place privacy goes to die. While libraries are routinely deleting patron borrowing records to prevent the FBI from snooping in them, librarians and library users are also using online services where they willingly give up some privacy to get better service. Amazon makes useful recommendations for purchases because Amazon knows what we buy. Facebook and Twitter are useful or fun because we put so much information about ourselves before the public. Foursquare or various geolocation applications work because people are willing to say not only what they think, but show where they’re located.

As libraries adapt social media for their purposes, what happens to patron privacy in the traditional sense? OPACs could function as reader’s advisory, but only if we start collecting and storing user data. Encouraging online interaction with the library encourages a reduction in privacy. And library users can’t become the “mayor” of our library without disclosing a lot about themselves. How do we adapt our traditional ethical principles to a new world where, contrary to the old Peter Steiner cartoon, on the Internet everybody DOES know you’re a dog, and what doghouse you happen to be sleeping in at that moment? And in the midst of social media that can erode privacy, do we ourselves know how to navigate popular programs and applications to protect our own privacy, and to educate library users to protect their privacy if they desire? Are we aware of how much data is being gathered about us every time we search the Internet or interact with a website? Can we explain that to library users? Do we have policies on what information we collect and why?

The amount of information we have to keep track of regarding all these issues can be overwhelming. Do we know all the user agreements and vendor licenses and copyright laws that apply to the resources and services libraries provide? Are we aware of our own ethical principles and how they apply to various technological and legal situations we find ourselves faced with? Do we know what Facebook or Google does with our data, and can we explain that to library users if necessary? Do we know enough to navigate the world of social media and recommend or explain services and what they do with our information? How can we educate ourselves and our users about all the technological, legal, and ethical issues involved in using libraries these days?