The United Kingdom has proposed a broad new regulatory framework for dealing with harmful content online in its Online Harms White Paper. The Internet Archive is concerned that the new framework could have problematic unintended consequences for digital libraries.
Below is our full response:
The Internet Archive, a US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit, is building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. Like a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, people with print-disabilities, and the general public. Our mission is to provide Universal Access to All Knowledge.
We appreciate the opportunity to weigh in on the important question of how to manage harmful content online. We believe the web has been an amazing boon to society by democratizing access to knowledge and culture, but we recognize some harms are very real. We therefore urge the government to proceed carefully with regulation.
Our response deals with two aspects of the UK government’s plans for regulating online harms: (1) the online services considered within the scope of the regulatory framework and (2) a suggested approach to accountability and transparency.
Nonprofit Libraries Should Not Be Within the Scope of the Regulatory Framework
Section 4 of the Online Harms White Paper describes the scope of the regulatory framework as applying to “companies that provide services or tools that allow, enable or facilitate users to share or discover user-generated content” including “non-profit organisations.” This scope is overly broad and would sweep in non-profit digital libraries and archives.
Historically, libraries and archives have not been regulated under the same rules as for-profit media organizations. For good reason–libraries have a fundamentally different role in society from commercial media companies. Libraries seek to fulfill a range of vital public interest goals: ensuring widespread access to knowledge, promoting literacy and learning, ensuring equity of access, and stewarding their communities’ cultural and literary heritage. Increasingly, knowledge and cultural heritage is created and shared online. In response, libraries are also moving online. This fact should not subject them to the same rules and burdens as for-profit media and social media companies.
Although libraries are moving online, their fundamental role in society remains the same. Libraries have always supported the individual’s right to be informed, to receive accurate and truthful information, as well as to seek, receive and impart ideas of all kinds–including dangerous or unpopular ones. Libraries also support literacy and help individuals learn to assess the veracity of information in front of them. In our current digital information ecosystem, filled with deception and misinformation, libraries play an important role in empowering an informed citizenry. A vague “duty of care” standard could stifle libraries from achieving their vital public service mission. For these reasons, we believe libraries and archives should be clearly excepted from the regulatory framework set forth in the White Paper.
The UK Government Should Support Transparency and Accountability via the Creation of a Restricted Access Archive of Removed Content
While our mission is Universal Access to All Knowledge, we recognize that some kinds of information can be so dangerous as to warrant being restricted to a limited set of people.
Colloquially, libraries, archives, and museums use the term “giftschrank,” meaning “poison cabinet” to refer to an area where sensitive or potentially harmful materials are stored. This can take the form of a secret reading room that is off-limits to the general public and only those with special, scholarly permission are allowed access.
A “giftschrank” for collecting the materials that have been removed from company websites, either by reason of a legal removal request, or because the material violated the company’s own rules, could be another role for libraries to serve in the digital information ecosystem. While these materials may be harmful or dangerous to the general public, it remains vitally important for us as a society to nevertheless be able to study them. It is also important to have transparency into what kinds of materials are being removed, and what impact such removal may have on different communities. A giftschrank could help, and the Internet Archive is in a strong position to be a host institution for such an archive.
We therefore suggest that the government support the creation of a giftschrank of harmful materials removed from the internet. Some obstacles to building this include fear of potential liability for hosting the material. The government could help by limiting liability for good faith efforts. Another barrier is uncertainty around what materials should be included and who should have access. The government could help by convening a discussion with the appropriate stakeholders. Finally, funding would be necessary. The government could help either by directly providing the funds or by providing other financial incentives.