To kick off #BannedBooksWeek, an IT librarian from New Hampshire explains why anonymous web browsing is critical to free inquiry and intellectual freedom and why libraries should get behind Tor.
It isn’t often that libraries make national news, but mine did recently when it became the first public library in the country to host a Tor relay. We first got some attention when we started the relay, but the story exploded after our local police department expressed concern about the project following an email to them from the Department of Homeland Security. The police department said that they wanted to make us aware of potential criminal activity on the Tor network, such as child pornography or even the possibility of communicating with ISIS.
When considering this project, our board of trustees had to decide whether or not hosting a relay like this was appropriate for a public library, especially in the face of the concerns of law enforcement. In the end, the decision was a resounding yes. Here was a chance to put into practice the values that we have always espoused. This project allowed us to take a concrete step to further the cause of intellectual freedom not just for our patrons, but for people all over the globe.
The belief that people cannot be trusted and must be supervised to ensure they don’t step over the line is dangerous and wrong. It is this attitude that leads to mass surveillance, censorship, and the chilling of intellectual freedom.
Tor is a powerful technology that protects the privacy of its users by helping to anonymize their web browsing. It does this by wrapping their traffic in layers of encryption and sending it to multiple relays within the Tor network before it exits to the intended website. The Tor network depends on volunteers to donate bandwidth in order to work. By hosting a Tor relay, our library would be strengthening the network that Tor depends on. However, the real impact would come not from our library, but from all the others we hoped would follow after we showed that this was practical for libraries to do. There are about 1000 exit relays on the network right now. If 100 libraries across the country decide to host exit relays, then we have made a significant impact on the speed and reliability of the network.
But what about terrorists and child pornographers? There is no question that a miniscule subset of the population will misuse this technology, which is true of any technology. However, to do away with protections on intellectual freedom and privacy for the general population because of a few bad actors is the very mindset we’re currently challenging by celebrating Banned Books Week. The belief that people cannot be trusted and must be supervised to ensure they don’t step over the line is dangerous and wrong. It is this attitude that leads to mass surveillance, censorship, and the chilling of intellectual freedom. We, as a society, need to be aware of the trade offs that we are being ask to accept when we are told to accept these practices. I do not believe that this is a trade off that our society willing to accept. I know it isn’t one that librarians are.
If anyone suggested that librarians should freely hand over what patrons have read, they would quickly find out how mistaken they were. Librarians are generally very nice people, but that doesn’t mean we’re pushovers. We have risked jail time and successfully sued the federal government to protect patron privacy. In New Hampshire, where my library is located, privacy of patron records is protected by law. It is wonderful that we have all of these protections for patron records, but it isn’t enough in today’s world.
Nowadays, most people access information online, even in libraries. This is why we protect our patrons through encryption and teach them good privacy practices. By using encrypted web connections (https), we ensure that people aren’t listening in to what we are saying to websites. By using encrypted emails, we can put an envelope around our email so that only our intended recipient can read it. By using Tor, we ensure that we are free to access information and explore ideas without having our intellectual freedom stifled by government watchdogs, corporations, or any other busybodies.
The chilling effect that surveillance has on free inquiry is well documented. By advocating for the right to privacy online, librarians are, in fact, continuing the fight for intellectual freedom that they previously displayed when pressured to ban books. If you aren’t free to examine and explore ideas, even unpopular or counter-cultural ones, without fear of repercussions, then you can’t truly have well-informed opinions. As librarians we believe in the right of every person to educate themselves and to draw their own conclusions without fear of government meddling. Tor helps them do that.
Freedom, after all, depends on a well-informed citizenry who isn’t afraid to express itself, whether online or off.
For an interactive infographic featuring classic books once banned inside the United States, click here.