Human Rights underpin the values and ethics of information and library professionals, and these should drive our services supporting the citizen’s understanding of online data privacy

August 11, 2017

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by Martyn Wade, Chair, Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression, International Federation of Library Associations and Trustee, CILIP The Library and Information Association

This is part of a blog series examining the theme of online data privacy and public libraries. More information about the wider project can be found here.


As our lives become more and more digitally driven there is an increasing awareness that our personal data is being collected, stored, analysed and used by both companies and governments, and not always with our knowledge and or consent.  As we use our smartphones, sign in to widespread and readily accessible online services, and even walk many of our streets, often the most personal of our data is being collected.

And this personal data is extremely valuable – it is estimated that the data analysis industry will be worth more than $203 billion by 2020. (1) And whilst much of the data is provided by individuals on a voluntary basis, it is not always clear to them who gains the most from this.  It is likely that many citizens are sharing online data on a daily basis without necessarily understanding the value of what they are giving away, or that of the benefits they are gaining in return.

In this world of mass data collection, the issue of online privacy is now being widely debated.  The voices and views range from organisations such as the Open Rights Group and Article 19, who campaign vociferously for privacy, to tech companies who argue that the collection of personal data supports the delivery of “free” personalised services, to some in positions of power who argue that if you have not done anything wrong you do not have anything to worry about.

Much of the responsibility for managing personal data is left to the individual – although worryingly almost 30% of internet users say they are not confident in knowing how to manage who has access to their personal data. (2) And there are few places for this 30% to go to get help to understand the complex issues that lie behind data privacy, or gain advice and support to better manage their personal data in ways that they are comfortable with.

In the United States, the Library Freedom Project (3), Brooklyn Library and others have delivered programmes which demonstrate  that public libraries are ideally placed to help fill this gap, and play a vital role helping people develop the knowledge and skills they need to manage their personal online data.  I think that this can also be  the case in the UK – but if we are to define this new role it is worth returning to basics and identifying what is it that drives what we, as library professionals, do.  For me that is human rights.

In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (4).

Article 12 states “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

In addition, Article 19 states “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Similar rights are also defined in the European Convention on Human Rights which was drafted by the newly formed Council of Europe in 1950.  The United Kingdom was one of the first countries to ratify the ECHR when it came into force in 1953.

We have to remember that, whilst these rights are not absolute, they are vital in an informed, democratic society, are inter-connected, and are mutually supportive.  Freedom of access to information and freedom of expression cannot be achieved without privacy, and vice versa.

And these human rights strongly under pin the professional ethics of information and library professionals and are at the heart of libraries’ unique role – enabling citizens to access the information and knowledge they want and need whilst maintaining their privacy.

In delivering this role, public libraries not only provide access to collections of resources, they have always played an important role in helping citizens develop the skills to find the information and knowledge they need for themselves.  Today this is reflected in the widespread provision of services helping users develop computer and information handling skills.

However, the mass collection of online data is such that managing personal data must now be a core part of digital and information literacy.  And we cannot ignore the needs of the 30% who are not confident in managing their personal online data.

It is timely now for public libraries in the UK to ensure that privacy and managing personal online data is an integral element in the range of digital courses that they offer.  In that way, they can continue to provide services that support freedom of access to information, freedom of expression and privacy, and help ensure that every citizen can maintain their human rights.


1. Press, Gil  6 Predictions for the $203bn big data analytics market.  Forbes, 2017 (last consulted 7 August 2017)
2. Internet use and attitude, 2017 metrics bulleting. OFCOM, 2017 (last consulted 7 August 2017)
3. See (last consulted 7 August 2017)
4. United Nation Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  United Nations (last consulted 7 August 2017)