A major information policy change we will have to adapt to as professionals is “net neutrality.” While the internet may remain neutral, in the sense that corporations may still be restricted from controlling what a user can access, the discussion over it has created a precedent in which it might be reasonable to do so in the same way “intelligent design” is considered to be a rational surrogate to sound science simply because it has had such a degree of media attention. Accordingly, firms such as Google have collaborated with the People’s Republic of China to restrict Chinese internet users from seeing information censored by Big Brother. In the future we may be faced with having to answer the fundamental question: should knowledge be free, or should it be restricted? Furthermore, if it should be free, and if the powers that be deem otherwise, what is our duty as professionals in response to that?
Oddly, information was once restricted and restricted – monasteries and the early colleges once were the exclusive repositories of knowledge, and to access the volumes within was a costly and privileged affair. Even up until the 20th century knowledge was a safely guarded treasure, restricted to elites, and rarely made available to the masses. Whether this was by virtue of lack of technology and resources, or by inclination of the elites maintaining those collections is irrelevant, as with the formation of public schools and libraries, information was then recognized by the public as open. Now, bizarrely, we are in some ways degenerating to a bygone era in which the princes and kings of the land controlled access to information, and our strongest firms are all too eager to collaborate with repressive regimes. Capitalism knows no good beyond profit, and accordingly, blinding a few billion people seems perfectly acceptable if a buck is made. While it may not be probable it may be possible that in the future information and it’s most common mode of proliferation (the internet), may not be neutral. If legislation is passed which corporatizes the internet, and profit becomes the lowest common denominator in the determination of access, those with the most wealth (as in the past) will have the greatest access, and those with the least, will be barred.
If this were to occur we would be faced with the question or whether we would accept this new law or reject it. Would we become activists and revolutionaries or maintain the status quo, changing how we shade our professional expression overnight? While I do believe that it is in the interest of a good teacher and guardian to stagger access to information in the Platonic sense – there should be no wall which bars an individual from accessing information. To this end I believe librarians should throw caution to the wind and reject such an abhorrent policy, for it only would contribute to a closed, fearful, superstitious and ignorant society. These are the very failings we as professionals are tasked with dispelling: we are not merely dispensers mindlessly referencing and maintaining collections, but we are also teachers. And with teaching, come a judgment of the good, and a judgment of how a healthy state should function. Should we not only condone but take part in a system which propagates ignorance and fear by restricting access to the truth?
Ultimately that is what an age without information neutrality would bring: a void of understanding in which the truth cannot be derived because it is obfuscated by policy walls. Republican government and its populist, democratic conventions rely upon a healthy, informed and wise citizenry to appoint virtuous representatives and so maintain the harmonious functioning of the state. Without the ability to think and to find information freely, the citizenry is disarmed in this regard, and is powerless to know what is the case and what is not the case. We librarians, along with our academic colleagues, might be the only defense to restore sanity if a policy such as this were to be enacted.