2.21 Public libraries are a key resource for the general public,
allowing access to information they need to fulfil their professional
and personal ambitions and priorities. At a time of increasing
costs, particularly for access to networked information services,
there is debate on what public library services should be offered
free and what should be charged for. This is exacerbated by the
trend towards electronic information. If users have to pay for
electronic access to what they hitherto received freely in print
form, they will question whether they need that information at
all, and their usage may decline dramatically.
2.22 There are concerns about an increasing gap between "information
rich" and "information poor" The idea of Internet
access in public libraries to help narrow this gap in the United
Kingdom has entered public debate following Labour Party statements
referring to this idea, and the bid by the Library Association
to obtain Millennium Funding for such a project. Much of the
work of public libraries and the Citizens' Advice bureaux is assisting
the information poor obtain the information they need on such
matters as welfare rights and health questions. If this information
is only available electronically, and is charged for, the gap
will widen. Access to the information superhighway through public
libraries could provide citizens with equitable and ubiquitous
access; access that is affordable; access to government information;
training and assistance locally; and access to information worldwide.
2.23The role of the British Library and the other National Libraries,
together with the other legal deposit libraries is central to
the entire United Kingdom library and information system. Their
role will become increasingly international, allowing researchers
world-wide access. These libraries, taken together, are the major
depository of the cultural, scientific and technical heritage
of this country, and are a key resource for academic and scholarly
research in all disciplines. These libraries are also key players
in conservation policy. One of the most important facets of their
role is the legal deposit system. Increasingly, however, material
is no longer produced in print form, but is only available in
machine readable form, or else is available in both forms in parallel.
2.24 Some countries, such as Norway, have introduced legislation
to ensure that machine readable data created in that country are
also deposited with the national library. In other countries,
such as the USA, a limited voluntary deposit scheme has existed
for a while. There is already a real danger that some of the
early machine readable materials have been lost. The question
therefore arises of whether a national archive of machine readable
data should be established. Such a policy would have major implications
for the financial and technical resources needed to maintain,
refresh and read such machine readable data. Selection policies
would need to be developed, especially for peripheral material
such as bulletin boards. Questions of who would be allowed access
to such a national archive would also need to be addressed, for
example, could people gain access from a remote terminal, or would
they have to visit the national archive.
CURRENT PROBLEMS INHIBITING INTERNET USE
2.25 The first problem is retrieval and navigation software.
At present, the Internet is an anarchic mix of services and information,
and it can be difficult for new users to find their way to what
is required. There is a variety of software tools to assist.
These search and retrieval tools are often slow and inefficient,
especially in the afternoon United Kingdom time because of competition
for computer resources from North American users and limited bandwidth.
These search tools may also produce results which are unusable,
because the sites have changed their coverage, have moved, the
information is only accessible to internal users at the sites,
the same item appears several times, or the information has been
mis-indexed. One potential solution to this problem is the development
of "intelligent agents". These are programs operating
within the networks that help users with their routine information
tasks and take into account their personal habits and styles.
Typical tasks performed would include filtering electronic mail,
undertaking searches in an intelligent manner, scheduling appointments,
making travel arrangements, etc. Such agents would not just filter
incoming information; they will actively seek out information
they think their owner will need, and deliver it to the individual
wherever he or she is. They will reformat the material they find
to suit their user's computer facilities; they will carry out
their actions pro-actively without waiting for instructions.
They would also assess the urgency of incoming material and alert
their patron accordingly. They would offer convenient user-friendly
access to real time and historical information, sorting the output
in order of relevance, whilst removing duplicates. Some experts
have argued that there is a danger of "traffic jams"
on the information superhighway because of the proliferation of
intelligent agents. The information superhighway could end up
as a gridlock, and international agreements may be needed to curb
the proliferation of the agents.
2.26 The second problem, which is particularly acute for business
users, is security. By its very nature, the Internet has been
designed to be an open system for free exchange of materials.
There is therefore the concern that if an organisation offers
a WWW home page, or if an organisation has routine networked access
to the Internet, third parties may then be able to slip across
into other computer systems maintained in the organisation containing
sensitive data. Security issues include: potential virus infection;
erasure of data or programs; third parties obtaining unauthorised
access to a computer; taking of information, whether that involves
physical removal or not; unauthorised use of computer time and
facilities; malicious or reckless corruption or erasure of data
or programs; use of computers to gain advantage to which a third
party is not entitled, e.g. banking fraud; and unauthorised interception
of communications between computers. The area is not well covered
by traditional legal ideas. Firewalls and other security measures
should help prevent these problems, but there is uncertainty about
how reliable some of the possible technological solutions are.
Businesses are therefore attracted to the idea of using cryptographic
techniques to make their material secure. However, the US government
is anxious that certain third parties cannot communicate with
each other without it being able to eavesdrop. Its stated concern
includes the Mafia, terrorists, drug smugglers and money launderers.
It has therefore banned the export of highly secure cryptographic
softwares. The United Kingdom Government has stated that it recognises
the need to balance the needs of business and individuals to have
techniques to safeguard financial transactions and intellectual
property, with the need to prevent encryption techniques hampering
law enforcement. The inability to employ high quality cryptographic
techniques at present will inevitably reduce the attractiveness
of the Internet for commercial purposes. The British Standards
Institution (BSI) has issued a standard on information security.
The European Commission has recently published a Green Paper
2.27 A related issue to security is verification. There is a
need for both business and citizens to have confidence that the
information or data they receive or transmit has indeed come from,
or gone to, the person or organisation intended, and that it has
not been altered or copied in transit. So-called digital signature
techniques are already being used on the Internet to secure such
transactions, but at present there are no standards, either de
facto or de jure, for such techniques.
2.28 The fourth problem is that the quality of the information
on the Internet is extremely variable. This is a problem which
applies to all users of electronic information. This problem
is compounded by constant addition and deletion of sources and
sites. There is too much information, much of which is redundant
or inaccurate. There is no centralised control on the Internet.
The individual information providers themselves, often amateurs
or academics rather than commercial organisations, decide what
information is made available. Over time people will probably
come to recognise the good sources and ignore the poor ones, and
quality assessments, like a BSI kite mark, or the Automobile Association
rating system for hotels, will mature.
2.29 The fifth problem is illegal and "undesirable"
material. A number of news reports and studies claim to demonstrate
that there is a considerable amount of undesirable material available
on the Internet, and that some of this material is falling into
the wrong hands. Although some of these reports have received
wide publicity, prosecutions for handling such material on the
Internet are relatively infrequent, and it is difficult to be
certain of the exact scale of the problem. What is clear is that
much of the offensive material is created in countries, such as
the USA, whose laws concerning freedom of information and traditions
of free speech are more tolerant than in the United Kingdom.
Screening software has recently been developed in response to
2.30 A related problem is legal uncertainty in the position of
certain consumer online suppliers. Many consumer online services
claim they are simply a "common carrier", and take no
more responsibility for the potentially defamatory or pornographic
content of the material placed upon their services than the Post
Office takes responsibility for materials it delivers, or British
Telecom takes responsibility for what transpires over a telephone
line. The counter argument is that such consumer online services
are in a position more akin to a shop that develops photographs
for clients, and which accepts responsibility for the content
of the photographs it develops, and may, for example, refuse to
develop photographs that it considers may break the law. The
defences consumer online services currently have available may
be crude and extreme, as shown by the CompuServe case in Bavaria.
CompuServe withdrew a large range of its services from its entire
European market for a period because of threatened legal action
in Bavaria. Uncertainty in the legal position of consumer online
services is causing anxiety, both amongst the services themselves
and their clients.
2.31 The final problem is payment. The Internet has in the past
been primarily associated with academics and researchers, but
since the mid 1990s, it has been increasingly used by business.
However, commercial services, i.e. those that involve payment
for goods or services, on the Internet will not become a major
business until the issue of digital cash is resolved. Many adults
do not hesitate to quote credit card numbers over the telephone,
even though they know this information could be abused or the
call intercepted. Many adults are happy to use an automatic telling
machine hole in the wall even though they are entering a password
into a network that might be intercepted. Few adults so far appear
to be willing to type in their credit card number on the Internet.
The question is one of risk perception; peoples' fear of quoting
a credit card number on the Internet may not be justified by the
statistics, but it is real enough. What this means is that business
on the Internet where money changes hands is far less than one
might expect considering the numbers of people using the Internet.
The work undertaken by companies such as Digicash in developing
safe, robust and trusted methods of transferring money over the
Internet is therefore crucial if the Internet is to be used for
buying and selling information or other services or products.
Other developers have been working on systems to protect financial
transactions, and a number of products have already emerged.
It may, however, be some time before this market reaches maturity
and standards are agreed.