ISP: Insane Surveillance Posse, or, “User-Centered” Madness and Waiting on a Response from ALA about Recent ISP Privacy Rules

By ktidwell

In the midst of executive orders and legislation clamoring for public attention, a recent vote in Congress to permit extensive collection and use of browsing data by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) has drawn a lot of public outcry and media analysis. The ISP legislation faces the wrath of people whose digital privacy has been repeatedly revealed to be already compromised, often illegally- by NSA surveillance, CIA surveillance, and even unauthorized commercial product surveillance. The added insult is that this time the decision to erode privacy happened, well, publicly. It also occurred without any pretense of security or content payoff. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are suddenly casual conversation fodder. Yet as tech savvy as the public is becoming, even a VPN, it turns out, is not the cloak of digital invisibility people want it to be. All Internet data is potentially and legally marketable information. With design becoming increasingly tailored to user profiles, the value of information about users has risen dramatically while the cultural capital of autonomous privacy-decisions is expressed in dialogue but not law. This user-focused approach originated in research initially done by in part libraries and information science researchers, but has grown beyond its initial scope of ethnographic user observation. The discrepancy between public consciousness and government and corporate policy illuminates previously hidden forms of information work, namely playing and existing alongside internet-enabled observant technology. It also highlights that even though public libraries can continue to serve as both information providers and information anonymizers, their reliance on third-party technology jeopardizes their core values.


User-centered design has become (or again become) the standard when researching and designing resources for people, and this has morphed into a market for user data. This turn towards user centered design, at least in information seeking behavior, “has been the province not of information systems as a discipline, but of information science and, before that, librarianship” according to Tom Wilson, a human information behavior researcher. The goal of such research was to better serve library users, and the success of the approach has spread it to advertisers, tech companies, and other for-profit corporations. This field of study has been in many ways ethnographic, based on direct observation of consenting users (Wilson 2000; Talja & Hartel, 2007). Wilson writes that the increased study of user habits “has been accompanied by a switch from quantitative methods to qualitative method.” In non-digital contexts, this will continue to be the case (barring implementation of widespread video observation devices on non-consenting people, like those used in London, and in the case of London, barring the use of that data for market research). In digital contexts, much of human information seeking behavior is easily tracked in browsing data, and the study of user behavior becomes again highly quantitative. New methods of collection and their intended purposes also exit the ethical realm of libraries, a problem that would not matter if libraries were opaque information silos with full control over the pathways of their user generated data. As will be discussed later: libraries are not so self-possessed.


Collecting that data is easy, and using and selling it under terms of service agreements has been a common practice by technology companies, to the point that many people are not actively aware that their interactions with the Internet are a form of labor. Free or cheap technology products have been subsidized by the sale of information. Using browsing data collected concurrently with daily information life is for now, the apex of user-centered design, though it may also represent the apex of public/private identity erosion. Gregory Downey wrote in 2014 of his students that “their own amateur media activity—whether uploading photos to their social network profile or downloading the latest cultural content outside of intellectual property paywalls—reinforces the fiction that information circulation is driven simply by ‘play’ and that information content is simply available for ‘free’”. Downey struggled to demonstrate the labor that creates and moves information and content. The transparency of and media attention towards the ISP bill, and the probability that data vending is not likely to be accompanied by a reduction in Internet cost, has revealed to a broad audience the labor of Internet-connected existence. The revelation, however, did not come soon enough. Now, individuals are charged with protecting their privacy with the limited means available to them. While this extends the existing opportunity for libraries to help protect their users’ privacy, it also constrains them in similar inescapable ways.


Libraries’ values present a tension between information access and privacy. As of March 30, 2017, the American Library Association’s web presence is preoccupied with fighting the specter of full funding cuts to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) proposed in a recent Trump Administration budget. This is understandable. The cuts represent an existential threat to libraries and their ability to make information accessible to their users. Simultaneously, the ALA celebrates collaborations with ISPs to bring Internet access, and therefore information access, to poor families. The well of funds and the national reach of corporations permit a broad expansion of information access in line with some of the fundamental principles of Democratic Theory in libraries (Buschman 2007), particularly when other streams of funding are threatened. Yet it also stands to consider how use of and partnerships with ISPs erode other facets of Democratic practice in libraries, particularly in light of the new legislation. While some larger libraries are their own ISPs, and therefore able to maintain near-absolute control over access to user data, most mid sized and smaller libraries use private ISPs that, under this ruling, could begin to selling all library users’ web browsing. While a library IP address obscures the user, any self-identifying information entered into a browsing session would undo this protection. Libraries should and do invest in VPNs to protect their users, but as mentioned above, this solution is not as effective as widely believed. Libraries who use private ISPs are subject to seeing at least some user data sold for profit when that data surfaces on other networks. Additionally, when libraries partner with ISPs who then offer Internet for reduced prices to poor families, they have no control whatsoever over the subsequent use of patrons’ home data that they helped facilitate.


The ALA does actively talk about privacy regarding data exchange, offering suggestions on how to protect patrons, and making privacy a major issue on their website and in their advocacy. Still, the ALA has yet to meaningfully acknowledge the new bill. The news is absent from their twitter feed and the news section of their main website. The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has thus far only acknowledged Congress’ vote in a news link roundup. Previously, the ALA has been vocal about other issues relating to ISPs, especially net neutrality. If libraries are to practice information access congruently with user privacy, they could follow Buschman’s suggestion to put Jürgen Habermas’ ideas in to practice, specifically “his concepts of colonization and de-integration of public and private life.” The ISP ruling co-opts a mostly non-market world, and places it in an inescapable arena of profit and observation.





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Downey, G. J. (2014). “Making media work: time, space, identity, and labor in the analysis of information and communication infrastructures” in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, eds. T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, and K. Foot. Cambridge: MIT Press, 141–165.

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Talja, S. & Hartel, J. (2007). “Revisiting the user-centered turn in information science research: an intellectual history perspective,” Information Research 12(4).

Wilson, T. D. (2000). Human information behavior. Informing Science, 3(2), 49-55.



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