Public libraries and the UK Digital Strategy

digital inclusion

Are libraries becoming nothing more than data cash cows for the private sector?

Last week the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published its UK Digital Strategy, to much fanfare and eager anticipation amongst those of us with an internet in digital inclusion and how we advance it. The report made mention of libraries as crucial elements in the efforts to advance digital inclusion (yay!), but not quite in the way many of us advocating for public library services would want (boo!). And as for how this strategy squares with the Investigatory Powers Act, well…we’ll come to that. But let’s start with the role of public libraries…

In section two of the report, under the heading “How libraries deliver improved digital access and literacy”, great play is made of the role of libraries. They “have an important role”, they “tackle the barrier of access” and they make “significant inroads towards tackling the combined barriers of skills, confidence and motivation by offering skills training”. All of these things are true, however this role is not the preserve of libraries and library staff alone. As the report makes clear:

“Public libraries work in partnership with charities and private partners such as Halifax, BT, and Barclays to improve the lives of some of the most socially and digitally excluded people.”

They do work in partnership with these private partners and, from the private partners’ points of view, there is a big win for them in doing so. As I’ve pointed out before, the way such skills sessions are delivered is a particular bonus for companies such as Barclays. By guiding the members of the public towards using tools that are, shall we say, less then privacy friendly, it just so happens that they gain a certain advantage in terms of marketing their products. Something, of course, that would not be encouraged had library workers been providing such support (were they to receive the proper funding in which to do so).

Indeed, it seems to me that rather than being places where people can get online and gain the basic digital skills our society increasingly demands, they are becoming a gateway to massive data collection for corporations eager for more and more data to drive their marketing campaigns and, ultimately, to drive growing profits. Let’s make no mistake here, if libraries were properly funded, proper training was provided and the service was delivered according to the ethical principles by which the professional body for librarians guides its members, digital skills would be delivered in an entirely different way.

For example, there is no known reason as to why search engines such as Google or Bing are advocated for over and above alternatives such as DuckDuckGo. They work in a similar way, one is not somehow easier to learn than the other. There is one fundamental difference however. Google is an extremely successful data harvester. Create a Google account, login to your Google Chrome browser, use your Google Mail account and voila, huge amounts of data is being gathered about your online activities. And if you are Barclays, providing members of the public with guidance on using the internet and you just so happen to have additional guidance on the Barclays website, well…there’s certainly an opportunity there for free direct marketing to Gmail accounts. With DuckDuckGo, there is no data. No trail of your search history. You simply search, find what you want and no data is left behind.

As someone who is concerned about digital inclusion, I can only conclude that the current strategy amounts to not getting people online for the benefits it brings to the individuals, but getting more people online to create benefits for corporations and the government. The more people that are online, the more data is created and, ultimately, the more profit is created. Getting people online is good for business. It enables a marketing strategy that is not possible if people remain offline. For little outlay, large corporations like Barclays can get people online, teach them how to expose their data, then take advantage of this for profit and business growth. Let’s not kid ourselves into believing that any corporation is seeking to tackle digital inclusion because, for example, it increases democratic engagement or accrues any other benefit. Likewise, given the Investigatory Powers Act and the mass surveillance it permits, the more online the better the government are able to monitor the people. If you are not online, you are a black hole of data. Get connected, and you become a useful source of information. And what of the Investigatory Powers Act…

On scanning through the report it’s interesting to note that there is not a single mention of encryption technologies. Not one. There is even a section in the report called “A safe and secure cyberspace – making the UK the safest place in the world to live and work online”, it doesn’t mention encryption once. Why? It is the single most important tool available to ensure individual safety and security online. So why isn’t it even mentioned? Because the Investigatory Powers Act is explicitly hostile to it. It wants to discourage encryption technologies wherever possible. Because encryption technologies obscure data from the state. And it doesn’t want your data obscured, because it might be useful for intelligence purposes (it won’t…). Not only is it not welcome for the government, it is also not welcome for corporations. Use encryption technologies and you are obscuring data from them too. Data that they could use to sell you products, to generate sales, to drive profit. Encryption is bad for business when it is used in a way that limits the harvesting of data used for profit. (But good for business when it enables secure transactions they benefit from of course.) As Paul Bernal notes about the strategy document in terms of encryption and safety online:

Which takes us back to where we are in terms of digital inclusion. It seems to me that the overall digital inclusion strategy is not one driven by the needs of the public (if so, why isn’t individual privacy at the forefront of the strategy when privacy is a growing concern?), but driven by the needs of government to get people online for the cost benefits and surveillance benefits it brings, and the needs of corporations that need data to be freely exchanged so that it can be utilised and monetised to drive profit. The needs of the general public are secondary, the prime motivator (for policy makers) is the creation of data. If our libraries were properly funded, if the people working in them were properly trained, that data would not be created on the scale it is when the banks (the banks!!) are providing that kind of support. Which of course, should not surprise us. The weakening of public services is exactly designed to lead to a full consumerist society.

How we prevent this is a more difficult question to tackle. The causes are deeply-rooted in an ideology hostile to public services and strongly in favour of shifting people from being citizens to being consumers. The digital strategy simply makes more explicit the extent to which the government (and corporate Britain) seeks to turn us into consumers driving profits, rather than citizens engaging in the democratic process and using access to information purely for our own benefit. With the sidelining of privacy and individual freedoms in the drive towards a mass surveillance state and in the push towards “digital inclusion”, it’s clear how close that goal is to being realised.

Barclays and the library marketing opportunity

Image c/o MattJP on Flickr (cc-by)

Just before Christmas I wrote a post questioning why Barclays are in our libraries. Somewhat alarmed by the invasion of a public space by a corporate entity, I was particularly concerned about the kinds of tools that they recommend as part of their digital skills drive. Unsurprisingly, they were things like Google, Yahoo! and Outlook (see the aforementioned post for reasons why I find this problematic). The Google thing particularly troubled me, and it rather suggested that (surprise, surprise) there may well be an ulterior motive as to why Barclays are offering up their help in public libraries.

In Nick Stopforth’s post on the Libraries Taskforce blog, he argues that:

“…there is no hard sell (or even soft sell) from the Digital Inclusion Stakeholder partners in libraries…”

Barclays are not promoting their banking services in doing this, they are solely concerned with helping people develop their digital skills and get online. I don’t buy this. In fact, I have never bought this. As my grandfather (an Arkwright style shopkeeper who would be appalled his grandson has turned out to be a socialist) used to say “nothing is free”. Barclays aren’t offering this for free with no immediate return. They are doing it because there is a business advantage in them doing so. I think Nick’s statement may well be wrong and that there is a soft sell element to this. I’m a suspicious sort, so I thought I’d dig around a bit and see what I can find out.

As part of something else I am working on at the moment (which seems to be never quite achieving closure), I had been digging around finding out more about how Google Ads works. Here’s what it says on their Gmail help page:

We are always looking for more ways to deliver to you the most useful and relevant ads – for example, we may use your Google search queries and clicks, Google Profile, and other Google Account information to show you more relevant ads in Gmail.

In light of the fact that Barclays recommends Google as a search engine and email provider, this seemed to me to be quite intriguing. If Barclays are setting people up with Google accounts in libraries then at any point during the session taking them to the Barclays site (say, maybe to point them to their Internet Help pages as reference points after the session), there is a very high chance that Barclays adverts will be delivered to that user’s inbox. So I thought I’d ask them directly if this is what they do. And lo:

digital eagles

Now, of course, this is fairly circumstantial. Maybe the Digital Eagles don’t always sign people up for Google Accounts and maybe they don’t always direct people to their website. I’ve never been to one of their sessions, I’m not aware of anyone who has and there seems to be very little information on exactly what they do in these sessions available to the general public. BUT signing them up for a Google account, and visiting the Barclays Internet Help pages in the same session will significantly increase the chances of the individual in question receiving targeted ads in their inbox promoting various services Barclays delivers. In short then, Digital Eagles in libraries is a great opportunity for the bank to deliver direct advertising to individuals who are not currently online, who lack digital skills and, potentially, are not existing customers of Barclays (their Internet Help page also promotes their online banking services). I’m sure this is not their sole reason for providing digital skills support, and it might be that this is entirely coincidental. But it is worrying (indeed, I was telling a more politically centrist IT friend of mine about the project and his instant reaction was “that’s completely inappropriate”).

The best alternative (aside from not letting Barclays in the building at all) would be for the tools that they recommend to people were privacy related rather than the kind of tools that gather data to serve adverts. So, for example, rather than Google’s search engine, they have to show individuals how to use DuckDuckGo. This would ensure that the user’s search history is not then used to deliver adverts and would ensure that there was no potential whatsoever for Barclays to either hard sell or soft sell their products. At present this relationship provides far too much opportunity for the latter, even if the former is prohibited.

I think we’ve generally done ourselves (the profession as a whole) a huge disservice when it comes to digital skills support. We KNOW this stuff. We know this stuff BETTER than Barclays do. Right across the profession we’ve got people who help people with digital skills, who teach people essential skills with regards to digital literacy, and yet we’ve outsourced these services to banks. Which when we read that back, doesn’t that sound odd? The skills and knowledge we have around using the internet effectively we are not passing onto the general public, we are asking providers of financial services to do it for us. How did we get into this mess? Is it a question of leadership? Is it the hollowing out of public services by central government? Is it the decline in professional ethics? For me it’s all these things and more. One thing is for certain, the future is bleak if we continue to believe that others can do it better than us.

Why are Barclays in our libraries?

In many respects, having a pop at the banks is a bit of a case of “low hanging fruit”…but in the case of Barclays and their supposed altruistic effort to boost the digital skills of the nation, sometimes that low hanging fruit is too tempting to ignore. And when that fruit is also a fruit that compromises the library service and the profession to which I belong, then that fruit needs picking and crushing. I think I may have hit a metaphorical dead end, so let’s move on – what exactly is my beef?

Concerns have been raised about the relationship between public libraries (which don’t have a profit motive because they provide a social good) and Barclays (which does have a profit motive and, well, social good…hmm) for some time now. The main cause for concern? The invasion of a public space by a corporate entity providing a service traditionally delivered by library staff (in one form or another). Of course, once a corporate entity (driven by profit) enters a public space, that public space has been corrupted. It’s no longer a public space, but an “opportunity” for corporate enterprises to exploit (because they are driven by profit and are answerable to shareholders). The decision, therefore, to allow Barclays to use a public space to “help” the community seemed a little bit out of kilter with what we would ordinarily expert in the delivery of public library services.

What do Barclays actually do?

Well, I’ll hold my hands up and say I’ve not experienced it first hand, so all I have to go on is whatever information is in the public domain. A quick glance of their website gives a fair indication of the kind of support they provide. For example, they help people set up email accounts. Great. Email is a great way to connect people at great distance, particularly useful for those who have relatives far afield and are unable to visit. So what email services to they advise? Well, this is hardly going to come as a surprise: Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft. Brilliant. All of which rely on, you guessed it, advertising (and have generally not been too great when it comes to privacy see here, here and here – the last one is really interesting, check it out…then never ever use Outlook for personal email). And the way the advertising works is particularly interesting…

On their website, Google explain how ads are delivered to your inbox:

We are always looking for more ways to deliver you the most useful and relevant ads – for example, we may use your Google search queries on the Web, the sites you visit, Google Profile, +1’s and other Google Account information to show you more relevant ads in Gmail.

Handily, Barclays also have a load of useful resources on their website, including how to create an email account. Which handily seems to favour Google. So, get email guidance from Barclays, create a Google account, login, head to the Barclays website for more hints and tips and VOILA!, Barclays advertising direct to your inbox. Nice one Barclays. You’ve found a way to drive up online advertising direct to customers and potential customers without having to worry about a large advertising spend, all the while appearing as if you are simply trying to help people for no other reason than to provide a social good.

Of course, much of this is speculation given I’ve not actually experienced the delivery of their support. Maybe they never introduce them to the materials they have on their website. But it seems hard to believe that people would receive help from a Barclays Digital Eagle to create an email account then never visit the Barclays website ever again, or indeed manage to have help from a Barclays Digital Eagle without ever being aware that they also offer advice online. Can we seriously believe that they do not mention Barclays at all to library users? Or mention the fact that they are Digital Eagles? Do they really just sit in the library as a member of staff, never revealing anything at all about the company that employs them? Well, it seems that some library leaders believe that this is exactly the case…

Capitalism is neutral

Having a pootle around the Libraries Taskforce website (fascinating stuff, watch how many times they mention “business” in their various materials), I was interested to see an article by Nick Stopforth on the Barclays/public library initiative which was…er…interesting. Here’s his take on the partnership:

“These initiatives will not achieve their aims – to increase digital participation, skills and confidence – to best effect in isolation. We will see more people supported more effectively and with greater reach by working out new connections, new opportunities, and being entrepreneurial and opportunistic. Library services will have to be as customer focussed and facilitative as always, but also more corporate, and with appropriate risk management in place.”

Oh dear…

“To reassure stakeholders and customers who will understandably have a view that all off this sounds to be contrary to the ethos of library services to provide free and neutral public spaces, there is no hard sell (or even soft sell) from the Digital Inclusion Stakeholder partners in libraries.”

So they never once mention the materials on the Barclays website, never direct them there, never inform them of the support materials they provide, never mention that they are Digital Eagles (which may prompt an online search on one of their recommended search engines)? Never? At all? Not once? Ok…

So I think that we have a choice – our corporate partners could provide those free, neutral digital skills support hours in other venues, or they could provide the support in libraries.

“Neutral digital skills”? NEUTRAL. Let’s have a look at the services they recommend:

Email: Gmail, Yahoo!, Outlook.

Search engines: Google, Yahoo!

Setting up a community group: Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, social media.

Well, that all seems neutral. Recommending a series of services that monetise your data and help ensure targetted advertising. Surely if it was truly “neutral” you would also have things like Duck Duck Go for search engine, riseup for email, Tor for browsing, Crystal for ad blocking, Ghostery for tracking etc etc. Surely the recommendation of these services would be “neutral” (if we are to accept the premise that that is even a thing), not the promotion of services that, ultimately, lead to the delivery of advertising direct to the user? Encouraging the surrendering of personal data to a large corporation for profit is not by any stretch of the imagination “neutral”. Nor is it in the best interests of users. Encouraging them to give up their data to drive the profits of large corporations is not what we should be about. We should be about protecting their personal data, ensuring that they aren’t a cash cow but a citizen seeking information and communicating with others securely, ensuring the protection of their intellectual privacy.

The choice should not be “either they deliver those services in competition with us or we incorporate them”. The choice should be whether we seek to deliver a service that ensures people connect online and use the internet freely without surrendering their personal data or whether we just ask as a conduit for the profit motive of private enterprise (or “neutrality” as it now appears to be dubbed). The latter, for me, should never be central to the mission of the public library service. It’s saddening that we have allowed the supposed threats to our future force us to become a service geared to the benefit of large corporations, rather than asserting our confidence as a public service providing a common good.