How public does public access have to be?

During my visit to the Confederation Centre Public Library on Tuesday, I noticed again how “out in public” their public access Internet terminals are: they’re all arranged in a big “L” shape, in plain view of the checkout desk and in plain view of anyone arriving at or leaving the library. The arrangement means that it’s essentially impossible to have any meaningful sense of privacy when using the terminals, and means that “public access” really does mean “access, in public.”

When I was a kid, the public library afforded a rare opportunity for me to find information in an unfettered environment. Indeed libraries were staffed by people, I had the impression, who would be willing to go to the wall for my right to be unfettered. And so if I, as a 14 year old, wanted, say, to see a picture of a vagina, or to otherwise follow my curiosity towards any of the myriad other things that a 14 year old mind is curious about, I could do so simply by wandering the stacks or using the card catalogue. I could then settle down in a comfortable chair and explore the inner workings of the female reproductive system in relative privacy.

As the Internet replaces, or at least enhances, the printed holdings of libraries, I think it’s important that we not lose that right to access information without oversight. This is especially true as governments look to libraries, and other public access Internet sites, to fill the role of making up the “digital divide,” getting people online who can’t otherwise afford to do so.

The Internet is an amazing and powerful tool, a tool that’s even more amazing and more powerful out here on the edge of civilization where our libraries and bookstores have small collections compared to big cities.

I can think of many things that the Internet can be useful for — finding information about where to get an abortion, looking up divorce laws, finding out about that strange growth under your knee, even looking up information about universities or colleges in far away places if you’re in a family that wants to keep you close to home — that it would be inconvenient or impossible to use the Internet for in a situation where your friends and neighbours can easily look over your shoulder.

If we’re going to decide that public access Internet use is going to have to do for a certain portion of society, I think it’s important that we have respect for the privacy rights of those people, and at the very least reconsider the physical setup of public terminals so that they afford at least as much privacy as curling up with a book in a comfortable chair would.


oliver's picture
oliver on January 20, 2006 - 03:25 Permalink

I’ve seen ads for a transparent film you stick to monitors to limit the angles from which it’s possible to see the screen. Something like that might be helpful, at least as a temporary fix. That said, I’m not sure I view the kind of privacy you’re talking about as something to encourage. Maybe we could have both kinds of free access—mostly public in public and a few private in public.