This year was the 10th anniversary of MozFest, a conference run by the Mozilla Foundation to work towards an internet that best serves the public good. Focussed on a weekend, MozFest is a buzzing hub of talks, workshops, seminars and discussion. Session leaders include coders, artists, philosophers, lawyers, and – of course – librarians.
MozFest is a great place to get involved in the conversations and work surrounding the open internet. This is very important to libraries, especially when the internet is the first place many people go to for information. Making sure that information online is accurate, free and available to everyone is clearly in the interest of libraries; and libraries also provide examples of how easily accessible information can be stored, shared and used to benefit everyone. This year’s focus on algorithms is particularly important, as many organisations use them to help make decisions. Ensuring that algorithms can make fair decisions and not create or make worse existing biases is a vital part of keeping them accurate, useful and socially responsible.
This year I was lucky enough to be granted a funded MozFest place thanks to Libraries Connected. Over the weekend I went to a huge number of sessions about everything from WiFi security to ethical AI. I learnt about copyright laws, collaborative working, encryption and quantum computing, taking pages of notes and leaving with new contacts. While I can’t cover everything in one blog post, I hope to share some of the most useful insights.
Why should I care about my data?
The first of the talks I saw was by Marietje Schaake, talking about data rebels. Schaake served as an MEP for the Netherlands and has been named Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center’s international policy director. However, instead of focussing on technical or legal details, her talk was a call to arms.
She pointed out that the eager attendees of MozFest already knew about privacy and security concerns, the open internet, and the importance of these issues. To stop us being an echo chamber, what we needed to focus on was talking to her mother – or our own mothers, neighbours, and in my case, everyone who comes in to our libraries for IT help. New technology can be overwhelming, and it doesn’t help if the face of these important discussions is made up of a lot of young, tech-savvy people with heavily stickered laptops that those without a tech background can’t understand.
Know your enemy
I was reminded of these comments again at a panel on the future of digital policy. Panellists talked about how cookie notices on websites can seem like a real obstacle – when in fact it’s the invasive and unnecessary gathering of hordes of personal data that’s the issue. Without an understanding of technology and legislation, it’s hard to see how these annoying pop-ups help. The “don’t shoot the messenger” comment highlighted that there is no legal mandate for these pop-ups. A website can stop collecting user data and would no longer need such a notification. It could also choose to notify users in another way. However, these comments also highlighted that if you haven’t had the issues explained to you it can seem impossible to have an internet where you get what you need without giving up your data in return.
Schaake and the panel discussion both made it clear how important it is for us to make sure we connect to everyone who is willing to talk to us about technology, and to explain in plain English what it all means. Many people have neither the time nor inclination to sift through jargon-filled tech blogs or laws to figure out what’s happening to their data – or why they should care. It’s down to those working in and with technology to work with educators, legislators and the public. We need to make sure that everyone can understand the issues and work towards a more open internet.
Is all information good information?
Another talk closely linked to the work we do in libraries was a panel on disinformation. With “fake news” seemingly everywhere and many people relying on the first page of search engine results for their information, disinformation is a topic that everyone needs to know about. It’s particularly important in libraries, as we need to know how to find reliable and accurate information – and teach these skills to others. Information literacy has always been important, but with content made by anyone and accessible anywhere it can be very difficult to figure out what is quality information.
One of the main points made was that it’s not just false content that makes disinformation. Presenting true statements in a misleading way or framing them without context can be just as deceptive. Information literacy is more than finding a reliable source – and knowing which information that source can be used for. Knowing how actors use disinformation makes it easier for us to counter it.
Designing modern public spaces
A final session worth mentioning was titled “Are public spaces needed in an increasingly digital world?” The facilitator didn’t mention libraries while we talked about our ideas of public spaces and then designed our own. However, it was clear that a lot of people were talking about libraries – even if they didn’t realise it. People wanted public spaces where anyone could access them free of prejudice or cost; where people could discuss the issues affecting their local area and country; a space where people could learn or create; where people could be involved in their local community; or where people could simply exist with others.
What I found most interesting was how people reacted to the name of the session. Everyone had a different view on what it meant to have a public space in a digital world. Some people wanted a public space where they could escape the digital and exist in a purely physical space. Some didn’t see digital interaction as real interaction, and wanted public spaces where they could have calm discussions of the kind they didn’t see online. Other people were keen to use digital in their public space; to increase reach, accessibility or expand the possibilities of the physical area.
Digital in libraries
I was struck by how close the range of views was to those expressed by members of Richmond libraries. A lot of people whose job centred around technology had concerns that I’d heard before from members of the public. People worried about privacy, about digital technology overtaking physical space; but also about not having the right technology when it’s needed.
What I took away from the session was that digital use in public spaces needs to be careful and optional. Digital innovation is a great tool for those who prefer it. It can help people to access spaces where they would otherwise struggle. However, asking people to use technology without providing another option – or simply not making them feel welcome in a digital world that they feel forced into – leads some to be effectively locked out of their public spaces, feeling like unwanted interlopers lost in unfamiliar digital terrain. I found it especially striking how strongly some people disliked the idea of being unable to disconnect from the digital. It certainly gave me a lot to think about, not least in terms of making sure everyone feels welcome and comfortable using digital services when the library provides them.
Overall, MozFest was an incredible experience. I learnt so much about what libraries can do to utilise technology and offer the best public services we can. I look forward to using everything I learnt to help make sure Richmond upon Thames continues to provide a modern, valued library service.
[Iona Richardson, Librarian]