Thursday, August 14, 2014

SAA 2014: agency, ethics, and information

The joint annual meeting of the Council of State Archivists, the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators, and the Society of American Archivists got underway this morning. Approximately 2,300 archivists, records managers, and allied professionals have swarmed the sprawling behemoth that is Washington, DC's Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, and the weather is unseasonably, gloriously cool.

Unfortunately, I'm a little under the weather at the moment. I spent part of the day in bed and wasn't particularly present at those events that I did attend. As a result, I'm a little hesitant about offering up the following sprawling recap of session 201, A Trickle Becomes a Flood: Agency, Ethics, and Information, which examined issues relating to secrecy, power, ethics, and regulation of communications systems in light of the recent disclosures of classified information by WikiLeaks, Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, and Edward Snowden, and the prosecution and suicide of activist Aaron Swartz. However, it was a thought-provoking session.

Hillel Arnold (Rockefeller Archive Center) opened by noting that we are surrounded by communications systems that are largely invisible and that the regulations surrounding those systems are even harder to discern. Archivists are generally pretty good at understanding the invisible: we know that organizational structures profoundly influence the creation and content of records, we realize that the historical record reflects the privileging of some people and the silencing or dismissal of others, and we're sensitive to the evidential as well as the informational value of records. In the digital era, however, regulation determines what's left for us to work with, and not understanding it means not being able to account for silences or furnish essential contextual information.

Regulation is premised upon the idea that the common good justifies some limits on liberty; however, some powerful actors may be able to use regulation to stifle competition, discipline labor, or otherwise act in ways that do not benefit society. It can take a variety of forms. External regulation may be engendered in legislation, policy, or technology (e.g., bandwidth throttling), and self-regulation may manifest itself in social norms or in user expectations. Arnold explored how characteristics of communication systems serve as markers of power. Archivists examining the role of these systems in shaping the archival record must be attuned to the following:
  • Flow. Analysis of flow involves assessment of direction (one-way, two-way, multi-direction), volume, and speed with which information travels through a system. Broadcast radio is an illustrative example of the role of regulation in shaping flow. Radio was from the outset seen as a powerful medium, and the Radio Act of 1927 controlled flow via licensing, wattage limitations, and establishment of the entity that subsequently became the Federal Communications Commission. 
  •  Structure. Analysis of structure involves examination of distribution mechanisms (hierarchical or geographically and/or technologically distributed) and standards (structure, content, and protocol). The United States Postal Service highlights the role of structure in shaping a communications system. Lower rate schedules for publications have long facilitated the wide distribution of newspapers and longstanding standards of privacy for personal correspondence have governed user expectations. At the same time, Postal Service regulations prohibit mailing firearms, explosives, and certain other materials, and the Comstock laws for decades barred mailing of materials deemed pornographic. 
  • Commodity. Analysis of commodity centers upon identifying the thing(s) of value. Archivists are used to focusing on information, but we need to understand that the network itself or the relationships between users of a communications system (e.g., Facebook friends) may also have value. The landline telephone system exemplifies the role of commodity in shaping a system: “Ma Bell” levied service fees and sought, with remarkable success, to create and maintain a natural monopoly. 
Elena Danielson (formerly with the Hoover Archives) focused on issues surrounding secrecy and transparency and opened with a stunning piece of information: according to the 2013 annual report of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration's Information Security Oversight Office, in fiscal year 2013 it cost the nation $11.6 billion to safeguard its classified information and to declassify information that no longer needed to be kept secret.

Danielson then articulated a point of view that, for what it's worth, I find eminently sensible: information wants to be free, but some secrets really need to be kept and the manner in which information is disclosed can lead to violence or even war. For example, in 1870 Otto von Bismarck successfully goaded the French into going to war by selectively editing and releasing an account of a conversation between King Wilhelm of Prussia and the French ambassador to Prussia. In 1917, the British released the Zimmerman telegram, in which the German government invited Mexico to enter into an alliance in the event that the American government entered the First World War on Britain's side, in an effort to draw the United States into the conflict.

In light of the the recent leaks of classified information by Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden, Danielson articulated a set of questions that may help archivists and others seeking to assess the origins and impact of such disclosures:
  • Was the information scrutinized before release? 
  • Was the information released with the public good in mind, or was it done for some sort of gain – money, ego gratification, fame, political advantage? 
  • Is the person who released the information willing to face the consequences? 

Noting that the digital era has placed us on an earthquake fault regarding secrecy, Danielson also detailed several other questions that we need to address:
  • If governments want to regulate the flow of information, what happens when the government leaks its own information? 
  • If information libertarians are committed to openness, why are they encrypting their own information? Why is secrecy okay for journalists and activists but not corporations or governments? 
  • Does the Nuremberg Principle – the belief that the public good trumps the law – still hold? 
Ed Summers (Library of Congress), whose presentation is available online, explored a recent controversy – the much-maligned 2012 mood manipulation study conducted by Facebook and Cornell University – and the manner in which it illuminates how power shapes the archival record.

Summers highlighted something that I didn't know: one of the Cornell scholars involved in the Facebook study was previously involved in a research project funded by U.S. Department of Defense's Minerva Initiative, which funds social science research “areas of strategic importance to U.S. national security policy.” One of his colleagues is currently receiving Minerva Initiative funding to examine social media posts and conversations around the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2011 Russian Duma elections, the 2012 Nigerian fuel subsidy crisis and the 2013 Gazi park protests in Turkey and to identify individuals who were moved to act in response to these crises and when they took action.

Noting that the outrage that greeted disclosure of the Facebook mood manipulation study was propelled in part by broader concerns about the way that corporations and government entities such as the National Security Agency collect and use personal and behavioral data, Summers asserted that we need more regulations that limit the types of data that are collected and the length of its retention. In addition, corporations need to establish ethics boards that will openly discuss with users and scholars their data use and management practices. The negotiations that archivists have long had with donors are a good model for this sort of discussion. If, for example, a donor downloads a copy of his or her Facebook data and proposes giving it to an archives, the archivist and donor will work together to identify who can access it and when it can be accessed. The donor should be able to have a similar conversation with Facebook itself, and archivists are particularly well-suited to help facilitate these discussions.

Lots to think about here. However, I can't help but wonder whether we're fighting a losing battle. National security agencies and corporations have rarely paid attention to what archivists have to say about anything, and I suspect that things are going to get worse, not better. I could be wrong, and I hope I am; after all, events that took place forty years ago prompted dramatic changes in the laws governing the records of U.S. presidents. Even if I'm not, I don't think we should simply allow ourselves to be pushed aside quietly. It's better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees.

Image: Hibiscus blossom, Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Washington, DC, 14 August 2014.

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