Slide 10 of 16

You may not be aware of this, but every time you browse a Web page, every time that you click on a link, a log entry is made on that site detailing that your computer accessed that particular file on that date at that time. Those free registrations on Web pages are ways to link your accesses to a particular identity, mainly for the purposes of gathering demographic information for the site's advertisers. And you've probably heard about cookies. These are small files that a Web site can write to your hard drive and that it can read each time you return, again linking your Web activity to an identity.

For those of us in libraries it's shocking to think that users of information systems are being logged and profiled in this way. But to the commercial world, such gathering of information about customers is a normal part of business.

Last year, a major federal report on privacy of personal information on online systems came out of the Department of Commerce. Many people don't know that the planning and policy activities for the information highway that are taking place at the federal level are under the auspices of the Department of Commerce. Yes, the Department of Commerce. Not the Library of Congress or even the Department of Education - Commerce. This is because the information highway is primarily seen as a commercial venture and as a key part of our plan for economic recovery. And so it's for this reason that the department of Commerce is developing policy on privacy.

This particular report is just astonishing. It acknowledges that people won't be willing to use the information highway if they feel that their privacy is at risk. It also makes clear that this gathering of information about consumers on the network is considered by marketers to be essential for the commercial success of the digital world. The report concludes that we don't need any privacy regulation to protect consumers, but what we do need is a public education campaign "... helping consumers to understand how their personal information can be used in beneficial ways, thereby increasing their willingness to use the NII [National Information Infrastructure, or information highway]." The report also states that "... the free flow of information -- even personal information -- promotes a dynamic economic marketplace, which produces substantial benefits for individual consumers and society as a whole." So essentially this report states that it will be good for us all to give out our personal information. As a matter of fact, it implies that unless we do, the information highway and the whole American economy is at risk.

So I found myself one day last year in San Francisco in a meeting with Barbara Wellbery, Chief Counsel from the DoC, one of the primary authors of the report, and three privacy advocates. She had agreed to hear our comments on the report. When it came to be my turn I talked about libraries and patron record confidentiality. I had only said a few sentences when Ms. Wellbery interrupted me and asked, with a bit of incredulity in her voice "You mean libraries don't sell their customer lists?" I wasn't at all prepared for that question because of course it had never occurred to me that we would do so. I explained that not only do we not sell them, we will only reveal information about our patrons and their reading habits to officials with a valid court order.

Well, I thought everyone in the room was going to fall off their chairs. Even the other privacy advocates had no idea that libraries had such rules about patron privacy. I went on and explained that part of free speech has to be a free and open exploration of ideas -- there is no free speech if people are afraid to listen and to think.

I find it shocking that someone who is formulating privacy policy for our country thinks that libraries are supplementing their incomes by selling reading profiles of our patrons. Most reporters I talk to are unaware that libraries protect patron confidentiality, but they all agree that it is important once I explain the reasons behind it.

I would bet that most library patrons don't know that we are guarding their freedom to read in this way. If we do nothing else we have to let everyone who uses our library know how strongly we feel about their right to read without having their selections logged and sold to the highest bidder. And when we do have Internet access in our libraries we must inform our users of the possible threats to their privacy and how they can best protect themselves.