Technological Change and the Evolution of Information Policy

By Weingarten, Fred W. | American Libraries, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Technological Change and the Evolution of Information Policy


Weingarten, Fred W., American Libraries


AS THE DEBATE OVER THE FUTURE OF INFORMATION LAW HEATS UP, LIBRARIES FIND THEMSELVES AT THE FOREFRONT OF THE BATTLE

Information is the basic coin of librarianship; so information policy - roughly defined as the wide array of rules and policies that govern the handling of information - is central to librarians' work. Laws regarding copyright, access to government information, personal privacy, freedom of speech, and the like set the information "rules of the road" for our society and thus influence the operating policies, services, and even the fundamental missions of libraries. Librarians must obey, and in some cases even enforce, information policies.

Libraries are also instruments of information policy in that they serve various public purposes regarding information: They provide public access to information, archiving, organization, education and literacy, and so on. Although information and communication policies are important to libraries, they have seldom been overly burdensome distractions to the community in the past. Information policy has been a sleepy, slow-moving, and, frankly, somewhat boring backwater of public policy - not the stuff of presidential campaign rhetoric or fiery congressional debate.

Times change. Recent years have seen an unprecedented growth in public attention and policymaking on an ever-widening range of issues involving information. The National Information Infrastructure was the subject of wide debate in the presidential election four years ago. This past year saw the first major rewrite of the nation's telecommunication laws in 60 years, including a basic new structure of universal service (AL, Mar., p. 8-9). Congress has been considering modifications of the copyright law, and some in government are suggesting a complete overhaul of the way the government publishes and disseminates information. And, to the dismay of many, Congress and the courts have been considering what, if anything, [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] should or could be done to control speech on the Internet.

These debates are no longer just tinkering in obscure corners of policy; they promise (or threaten) to make major changes. And the library community has taken note. Why is this happening now? As we all know, this new attention was triggered in large part by public enthusiasm over the Internet and the resulting debate over the nation's information infrastructure. More generally, fundamental technological change, coupled with a social and economic shift to what ALA Goal 2000 labels an "information society," is the reason for this surge in policy concern.

What is information policy?

In its broadest sense, information policy is the set of rules, formal and informal, that directly restrict, encourage, or otherwise shape flows of information. Information policy exists in many institutional forms. Table 1 shows a hierarchy of policy, ranging from formal law and constitutional requirements to informal social agreements and norms. "Formal" information policy is that which is set and enforced by government; "informal" policy is set and enforced through private arrangements. This is an important distinction: Although the main focus of this article (and the work of the ALA Washington Office) is on the formal legislative and regulatory, levels, all such policymaking is done in a broader social policy framework that affects the political debate.

It can be argued that, to the greatest extent possible, a free society should depend on informal norms and free choice rather than law and regulation. Given the importance of unrestricted information flow to a democracy, such a preference is even stronger in the area of information policy. But, of course, we also find that without formal law to codify certain rules [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 2 OMITTED] and restrictions, individual behavior is often destructive or infringes the rights of others. Therein lies one of the basic tensions that underlie information-policy debates. …

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