Student addresses flaws of library database, what Point Park can change

Written By Amy Philips-Haller, For The Globe

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Insist on anonymity.  Demand it. Privacy shouldn’t be a novel idea. Our university should lead the charge for academic integrity by protecting the privacy of students.

Currently, any student who attempts to access library resources off-campus must consent to the library database (EBSCO) terms of privacy to have full access.  The problem? A student will not have complete anonymity. Only on-campus patrons enjoy that freedom. This prevents the commuter population from equitable access.

The American Library Association is one of the largest and most active First Amendment advocacy groups. Its Equity of Access statement reads: “Equity of access means that all people have the information they need—regardless of age, education, ethnicity, language, income, physical limitations or geographic barriers. It means they are able to obtain information in a variety of formats—electronic, as well as print. It also means they are free to exercise their right to know without fear of censorship or reprisal.

That said, the EBSCO terms of privacy break down to nearly 4,000 words, and approximately 9 pages.  For example, the small print reads: “[We collect] information that identifies you as an individual or relates to an identifiable individual, including: name, title, date of birth, unique identifier (e.g., account number), company name, job function, expertise, postal address, telephone number, email address, credit card information, geolocation, certain device information, and IP address. If you submit any Personal Information relating to other people to us or to our service providers in connection with our Services, you represent that you have the authority to do so and to permit us to use the information in accordance with this Privacy Policy.”  

This is vastly different then the simple message EBSCO conveys when one provides consent. Scott Klebe, a media contact at EBSCO, wrote in an email, “…You individually authenticate to us with a user ID and password. We will prompt you to do this before offering features that require us to store information about you, such as: save something to a folder, store a search, take notes on a content item.”  

Remember, one can always opt out, but then full-access is denied.

The good news?  EBSCO spokesperson Klebe also wrote that no information is sold, and the company’s servers are in the United States.  

Okay. Great.  Search information, histories, and data are not sold.  But what is to stop a federal prosecutor from going after EBSCO records in the name of national security?  

Enter the unsung heroes.  In 2005, four librarians took the United States government to court after the FBI requested online patron records using a national security letter.

The ACLU website reads:  “With national security letters, the FBI can compile vast dossiers about innocent people and obtain sensitive information such as the web sites a person visits, a list of e-mail addresses with which a person has corresponded, or even unmask the identity of a person who has posted anonymous speech on a political website. The provision also allows the FBI to forbid or “gag” anyone who receives an NSL from telling anyone about the record demand.”  These requests for information do not require any court review or approval.

Violation of the gag order is a criminal act.  The librarians were forced to remain silent, but they fought back in the name of intellectual freedom.  With the aid of the ACLU, a federal court ruled in their favor in Sept. 2006. The court concluded the gag order violated the librarians First Amendment rights.  The government withdrew the gag order and its demand for records.

But what if the government no longer must go to the library to check out information?  Would EBSCO take a stand to preserve our intellectual freedom? Can they? According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation—a non-profit advocacy group defending civil liberties in the digital world—national security letters continue to be a government surveillance tool that has a stronghold on tech companies.  

Student commuters are vulnerable to a technicality.   EBSCO can’t authenticate their at-home IP address as part of the university, so the users must identify themselves, according to Klebe.  This does not align with the ALA’s Equity of Access. The off-campus use of EBSCO is a breeding ground for self-censorship. It threatens academic growth, and democracy.  

Demand that Point Park University find an alternative for off-campus patrons, so that we can choose to remain anonymous, and exercise the same intellectual freedoms as on-campus students. Point Park Administrators, it falls on you to preserve academic prosperity.  Do your job.

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