I want to first complicate everything I write in the below paragraphs by questioning a mantra of current rhetoric with these words: It is not self-evident information inherently wants to be free.
On February 22, 2013, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, under orders from the President, published a memorandum putting forth the notion there must be better access to Big Data and publications written as a result of federally funded R & D research. These projects are built on data as well as metadata. In the news currently, it has been made public (though assumed by many to be already underway) the NSA has been collecting metadata on all communications networks including social media, web traffic, e-mail and mobile-device communication.
The NSA is clearly being hugely funded in order to accomplish these goals. There are many private companies that have made a lot of money off this data collection. The question arises whether the metadata collected under “secret” action would also be included in Obama’s open data initiative even though it is not categorized as “research & development” – though this could be a work around. And think about the large private well-funded companies that are in charge of putting together all the necessary technological solutions to the problem of storing for retrievability this collection of big data. Will I, as a scholar or researcher, be able to send a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and receive this data or will it eventually become part of the publication cycle (even after the embargo) subscribed to by universities and research libraries?
I don’t think it’s outlandish to think universities would be “allowed” to subscribe to national security research/ information related to politics and tracking human beings. Despite the President’s push for Open and Transparent Government (a not entirely disingenuous push), I have seen snippets of the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) only accessible by subscription to research universities and libraries at relatively high cost. The difference is that the data in the DNSA has been only recently declassified (some of it as late as 2008 for notes and information related to the 1970s). Yet, now ProQuest is making money on this and its accessibility is in question because of the subscription-only portal. Are we to think the NSA might do the same with our data and metadata currently being collected? I am not talking about data being collected about armies or issues related to troop/operational safety, I am talking about the National Security Agency collecting metadata on US citizens.
One may think we are in a paradox on this issue because of The Office of Homeland Security and ongoing “need” for national security. Michael German, formerly with the FBI and now with the ACLU, suggests the US Government classifies far too liberally to make the information it collects useful or to restrict it to actual cases or individuals under suspicion. This could be true. I cannot tackle that topic here of course. The seeming paradox of national security is the window dressing that obscures another paradox – one not hidden but in fact staring us right in the face – the paradox of information described as wanting to be free but increasingly hiding behind pay walls. The Open Access debate threatens to disrupt this trend in some ways. The problem of course is that open access publication and big data “freely” available online takes massive and continual input over time to maintain in perpetuity. It’s probably easier to continue charging subscription costs to access high level publications and data. Even governmental information is up for sale as evidenced by the Digital National Security Archive mentioned above.
The paradox I am getting to involves the creation of ever greater numbers of web applications built either for use on the internet or via mobile devices that invite the creation of metadata – information that is worth a fortune. The applications are free but the increasing use of them is valuable TO SOMEONE ELSE. Yet I see nothing in the President’s initiative about getting open access to the information WE produce accessing social networks, reading our news on the internet, downloading e-books from our local library, accessing subscribed databases of newspaper archives (or something else fun like that) or playing Tertris or Candy Crush on our tablets while sitting on this bus. The irony of this situation at level one is the history of the internet as it was researched and developed reveals it as a governmentally funded research project. Now it has been effectively “sold” to bidders and the rest of the world (including me with this blog) plays along with the trend.
The mantra of hidden collected information as it relates to national security relates to libraries as well – even given our supposed national love of freedom of speech and freedom to read. When the PATRIOT ACT was put into effect, within it was built a small section giving the government the right to request records from libraries on reading habits. This segment of the ACT is called Section 215. When the issue of freedom to read was brought up by library advocates at press conferences, John Ashcroft, a major proponent for the PATRIOT ACT told the press no letters of request had been sent to libraries. But the Library Research Center run out of the University of Illinois had already collected surveys (done under condition of anonymity) suggesting Ashcroft’s statement was a lie. In truth, every letter of request for information sent to libraries comes with a gag order (I have written on this topic in a white paper available here). In other words, not only is our metadata being collected, but security agencies are asking for information from our reading habits – a task made even easier by web-based access to resources and e-formats.
Different libraries have different policies relating to letters of requests for information. Some capitulate quietly and some have created funny ways to bring the issue to the surface for local patrons. Many libraries dump records as soon as items are returned so the information will not be present for capitulation to an information request letter. But as libraries give themselves over to more and more “free” web based applications that track use of e-resources that track metadata increasingly sold to private companies, with Homeland Security asking for direct and explicit records information and now with all these interactions taking place over web-enabled mobile devices (tablets and phones) tracked by NSA funded private contractors, I have to seriously wonder where one’s Freedom to Read is going. If libraries are spaces where people learn and create and one’s ability to create is tied to the quality and freedom of access to creative expressions of all sorts found at libraries, then the tying down of that freedom by data being collected by private companies for hire and by the government, one has to wonder about the future of creative freedom. In fact, it might be argued that as metadata is increasingly collected by the stakeholders already mentioned, it is questionable whether access is free anymore – even as it goes live with “open-access” publication. I would argue this point is the real capstone within the layer of paradox of Open Data “Access” and the President’s claim on Open Government because information and resources downloaded and linked across the internet are ever easier to track and to collect metadata on use.
Thank you for freely reading.
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