Free the Internet in Yukon’s libraries

Christian Coldea Limiting Internet access in Yukon Public Libraries restricts access to information for Yukon citizens who could otherwise benefit from Internet freedom. Libraries are public bastions for information, knowledge and reason, that also prov

COMMENTARY

by Christian Coldea

Limiting Internet access in Yukon Public Libraries restricts access to information for Yukon citizens who could otherwise benefit from Internet freedom.

Libraries are public bastions for information, knowledge and reason, that also provide a great place to hang out and work through that annoying standardized test or listen to that online lecture in-between coffees. However, the current one-hour Internet restriction in Yukon Public Libraries make them an unattractive option for Yukoners seeking a place of mind.

Due in large part to its unprecedented scope and reach, the Internet is one of the most beneficial pieces of existing human technology. The unparalleled resource provides access to an almost unlimited repository of human information to millions of people every day. Some nations, including France, have gone as far as to declare access to the Internet a basic human right, and others such as the government of Estonia argue that the Internet is essential for life in the 21st century.

According to the United Nations, the Internet is a global public good, that should be accessible by all, especially in developed countries which cannot cite poverty and debt as an excuse to providing access for citizens. In 2010, BBC World News Service conducted a poll of 27,973 adults across 26 countries that concluded that almost four out of five adults from around the world shared the view that access to the Internet was a fundamental right. One year later the United Nations published a report recognizing the “transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.”

The way societies access information is decidedly shifting towards the Internet, and for the most part, this should be embraced as a positive and democratizing force. During the era of the industrial revolution, the modern public library was born out of the British Public Library Act (BPLA) of 1850, to guarantee free access to information and literature. Fast forward 166 years, to what the founder of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, calls the fourth industrial revolution, and information is more accessible and important than ever.

In the Information Age, where the new leading sector technologies include big data, machine learning and cyber-physical systems, our lives and economies are increasingly information-based. Topics that used to be the domain of serious sci-fi fanatics 40 years ago are now rattled off at ease by summer interns.

Today, unlike the era of the BPLA, universal access to information transcends the paper-ink of public libraries to the 1’s and 0’s of the digital realm. So why should something as beneficial as the Internet have a strict time limit in a place where “Yukon Time” is an endearing phrase for doing things by one’s own schedule?

Most likely to prevent misuse of expensive data by some. Yet, should some potential (but not guaranteed) misuse stand in the way of beneficial access for all Yukon residents? This writer doesn’t think so. Furthermore, the fact that many areas in the territory have limited or incredibly slow Internet should speak to the obvious necessity of public access points.

This assuredly will not mitigate effects of a crippling northern telecommunications monopoly. However, funding unlimited and quick access in the public library is the least that the Yukon government could do to make up for its inability to create a competitive market with options for consumers.

Instead of limiting access, libraries, as public institutions of knowledge and information, should encourage citizens to reap the benefits of participating in the information society, or at least offer them a quiet place to mind their business. Yukoners seeking a place of mind stand to benefit from rolled-back limits on the Internet, because it provides a public space where they can access the web. Many people work well at home, but others need a place free of distractions, and a bustling coffee shop or restaurant is often a poor alternative for anyone with goals to accomplish. Yukon libraries could and should be the answer to this problem.

Libraries should be places where bright, motivated people – specifically groups such as professionals, returning university students and senior high school students – can congregate to engage in intellectual endeavours.

This piece should not be viewed as an indictment of the Yukon Public Library system as a whole, which is without doubt an outstanding public good. Instead, it should stand to point out a beneficial alternative to the current one-hour Internet model. If advancing the knowledge capital of society is to be a priority, the infrastructure needs to be in place for citizens to start striding.

Unlimited access to the Internet at Yukon’s libraries could help create a welcoming space where individuals could settle in for long periods of time and shift between projects. People could participate together in open online courses, high school students could practice the self-directed learning habits necessary for university education, professionals could work on projects, and returning students could have a place to study for standardized tests.

Whatever the cause, unlimited Internet access encourages citizens to use the library, and that in itself should be reason enough to free the Internet.

Christian Coldea lives and teaches in Whitehorse.

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