Defending Professionals Which Break the Law in the Public Interest

BBC News ItemOn Friday the BBC News published a story which described how “UK’s top prosecutor defends journalists who break law in public interest“. The story was about the role of journalists in making information publicly available. Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions insisted that it “would be very unhealthy if you had a situation where a journalist felt that they needed to go to their lawyer before they pursued any lead or asked any question“.

As today marks the start of Open Access Week 2013 it is appropriate to ask this question of those working in librarians. Should we encourage radical law-breaking librarians who are willing to break the law or challenges established practices in making information available?

This was an issues address recently at the Radical Library Camp event held in Bradford on 28 September 2013. The following proposal was submitted:

Professional ethics: copyright is broken, so why am I enforcing it?

Copyright law is broken. By criminalising citizens and creators in order to protect the profits of corporations, it harms the people that it should be empowering. Therefore I see it as an ethical imperative to break and/or subvert it; civil disobedience is a necessary part of a functioning democracy.

It is part of my job in a library to uphold and enforce copyright law.

Professional ethics are in conflict here: on the one hand, I have a duty to my employer and society to act in accordance with the law; on the other hand, when that law is wrong, it is unethical to force people to comply with it.

How can this be resolved? I’m not sure that the professional ethics espoused by our current professional organisation, CILIP, are enough to negotiate dilemmas like this. What does this mean? Do we need a new, more agile ethical approach that can deal with contemporary information ethics? And if so, can we find this within existing professional frameworks or do we need a new professional body?

Although I don’t know if the proposal was discussed I felt it would be worth revisiting this topic, in part due to a wish to raise the profile of activities which are taking place during Open Access Week but also as a follow-up to related discussions which took place last week at the ILI 2013 conference.

As I mentioned in a summary of a workshop on Future Technologies and Their Applications Workshop Tony Hirst’s story based on his observation that the rules and regulations for the University of Cambridge Library states that “Overcoats, raincoats, and other kinds of outdoor clothing, umbrellas, bags, cases, cameras, photocopying devices, and similar personal belongings shall normally be deposited in the locker-room adjacent to the entrance hall during each visit to the Library” (my emphasis) generated some debate.  Since most mobile phones these days will have cameras and can be used for scanning/photocopying they would appear to be banned from being brought into the library. This may no longer be the case (Tony’s post was published back in December 2009). But the general issue is still valid: “should libraries ban devices which have the capability of copyright infringement from being brought into the library?” I think libraries would be foolish if they tried to ban mobile phones from being brought into libraries; a more reasonable response to problems which mobile phones could cause in libraries would be to require that they are set to silent mode.

But to pose the question in a different way: “should libraries provide training and support for their users to help them maximise the potential of smartphones?” Such training might include use of library-specific applications (QR codes perhaps). But what of use of mobile applications which make use of a smart phone’s camera and OCR capabilities which could be used for copyright infringement?

Are any libraries running courses or providing advice and support in areas which may have the potential for copyright infringement? And in what other areas may we wish to encourage librarians, as journalists may be encouraged to do in some circumstances, to break the law in the public interest or for the benefit of society in general?