Digital privacy and digital citizens

digital privacy and digital citizenship

Earlier this week, I delivered a talk at the MmIT 2016 Annual Conference in Sheffield about digital privacy and digital citizenship. The talk covers a range of themes (to the extent I think I possibly try to cover too much ground in one short talk), with everything from ethics to democracy to surveillance to encryption touched upon to varying degrees. As is my way, the slides I posted online make little sense to the casual observer, because they are mainly text light and image heavy. So I thought I’d break it down here into various chunks by way of providing context for the talk (out of sheer laziness, all references are all on the slides at the end of this post in the relevant places…where they aren’t, I’ve added them in the text below).

Ethics

I think our ethics as library workers (as outlined by CILIP and IFLA) are crucial to how we see privacy, surveillance and the relationship with democracy. Two ethical principles in particular stand out for me:

“Commitment to the defence, and the advancement of, access to information, ideas and works of the imagination.”

“Respect for confidentiality and privacy in dealing with information users.”

IFLA argue that:

“Library and information services should respect and advance privacy both at the level of practices and as a principle.”

(The key element for me in that quote is the notion that we should “advance” privacy, we should not be passive, we should actively promote and encourage it amongst library users.)

Compare and contrast with what is potentially coming down the track:

“Small-scale networks such as those in cafes, libraries and universities could find themselves targeted under the legislation and forced to hand over customers’ confidential personal data tracking their web use.”

There’s a clear and present threat here to library and information services, in all their forms. If we are required to retain data on the information seeking habits of our users and pass to the security services on demand, then our users have no privacy and we are complicit in its violation. How we tackle this threat to our ethics is crucial, both in terms of our relevance (if we violate ethical principles as a matter of course, what is the point in their existence?) and, more importantly, in terms of the communities that rely on us.

When it comes to ethics and government surveillance policy there are big questions we need to confront and we need to find the answers that defend our communities. Ultimately the communities we serve must take priority over government policy. Governments come and go, the social inequality afflicting our communities never goes away.

What is surveillance?

Surveillance is presented as a tool of protection. It’s a way to protect you, your communities, your country. But surveillance is not solely about protection, it has a number of other effects. David Lyon, a leading figure when it comes to surveillance studies (I’d urge those engaged in labour and information labour to seek out his works on this topic), defines surveillance as follows:

“…the focused, systematic and routine attention to personal details for purposes of influence, management, protection or direction.”

It’s not solely a tool for protection. When we consider it in the other direction, it’s also about influencing, managing and directing. When a CCTV camera is placed on the streets, it’s not merely there to protect citizens, it’s effect is to manage the behaviour of those under its gaze, to make them behave in a particular way. This is the crucial element of surveillance that we need to consider, particularly when it comes to mass surveillance. Its existence, as Foucault argues, is enough on its own. It does not need to be active, its “permanent visibility…assures the automatic functioning of power”.

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History of surveillance

Of course, the use of new technology in conducting surveillance is nothing new. In 1913, for example, suffragette prisoners had their photos taken without their knowledge, photos that were then used to conduct surveillance upon them after their release. The reasoning? They were a threat to the British Empire.

Similarly, in 1963, Robert Kennedy authorised the FBI to wiretap the telephones of Martin Luther King Jr. Following King’s assassination in 1967, Johnson ordered the army to monitor domestic dissident groups. The adaption of new technologies to be utilised for “national security” purposes has a long history. It should have come as no surprise to anyone that the internet would also be used in this way.

But it’s not as though surveillance was pursued uncritically by the state. In a report published in the same year as King’s assassination, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice argued:

“In a democratic society privacy of communication is essential if citizens are to think and act creatively and constructively. Fear or suspicion that one’s speech is being monitored by a stranger, even without the reality of such activity, can have a seriously inhibiting effect upon the willingness to voice critical and constructive ideas.”

Democracy

The ability to communicate and seek out information freely is vital in a functioning democracy. As Bauman notes:

“Democracy expresses itself in a continuous and relentless critique of institutions; democracy is an anarchic, disruptive element inside the political system: essentially, a force for dissent and change. One can best recognize a democratic society by its constant complaints that it is not democratic enough.”

The ability to investigate and critique is crucial, without that ability our system simply cannot be defined as democratic. Post-Snowden we can already see the impact mass surveillance has had on people’s willingness to seek out information on controversial topics. As Penney notes, Wikipedia pages on Al Qaeda et al have seen a marked decrease in views. The consequences of being discouraged from seeking out information on such topics is the impoverishment of political debate, something the National Telecommunications and Information Administration have warned of.

Corporate Surveillance

The growth of the internet has been coupled with the growing importance of data as a commodity. As with all commodities that can be harvested, companies seek to find ways to gather a larger and larger amount of data. As Sadowski warns:

“It has created an arms race for data, fueling the impulse to create surveillance technologies that infiltrate all aspects of life and society. And the reason for creating these massive reserves of data is the value it can or might generate.”

We see this approach taken by companies such as Google and Facebook who seek out new and innovative ways to collect more data that they can use to generate a profit.

Corporations also work with the state, sharing these new innovative data harvesting techniques. For example, Operation Mickey Mouse is a partnership between the Department of Defense and Disney whereby the former studies Disney’s use of technology and works in conjunction to “collect information on Beta testing operations that the popular theme park uses on their customers”.

21st Century Surveillance

Some terms to be familiar with:

The Five Eyes – an intelligence sharing partnership that comprises the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Karma Police – Initiative launched in 2008 by GCHQ intending to record the browsing habits of “every visible user on the internet”. The system was designed to provide GCHQ with a web browsing profile for every visible user or a user profile for every visible website on the internet.

Tempora – GCHQ programme that led to interceptors being placed on 200 fibre optic cables catting internet data into and out of the UK. Potentially gives GCHQ access to 10 gigabits of data a second, or 21 petabytes a day. Around 300 GCHQ and 250 NSA operatives are tasked with sifting through the data.

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Investigatory Powers Bill

The key thing to look out for here are ICRs (internet connection records). From the Bill:

190 Subsection (9)(f) provides for the retention of internet connection records. Internet connection records are a record of the internet services that a specific device connects to – such as a website or instant messaging application – captured by the company providing access to the internet.

Those that hold the data requested for under the provisions of the bill are also prevented from communicating this request with the individual who created the data requested. So, for example, if a request was made to a public library authority for information regarding an individual’s search history, the library authority would not be able to inform the individual in question. An invasion of their privacy compounded by the inability to flag this violation with them. Ultimately, the Bill undermines the ethical principles by which we should adhere and prevents us from warning our users of any violation of their privacy.

Encryption Technologies

The UK government have been publicly hostile to the use of encryption technologies for some time, despite the fact that such technologies protect every single one of us from rogue states or individuals with malign intent. For David Cameron, the notion that individuals can communicate in private was an affront and a threat. Whereas in reality, in terms of democracy, the reverse is true: invasions of the privacy of communications are a threat and one that citizens should take seriously.

As for Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, she rejects the notion that we experience mass surveillance and yet proposed the investigatory powers bill which legislates for…well, mass surveillance. A bill that has also been rubber-stamped following an “independent” review by David Anderson QC who argued that there was a “clear operational purpose” in gathering large volumes of data about individuals.

The “danger” of encryption

Repeatedly and persistently, encryption has been portrayed as a tool that assists terrorists perpetrate violent acts. This was true in Paris and in Brussels. In both cases, politicians and law enforcement pointed to encryption technology and the awareness of such technologies by the perpetrators as a key component in their ability to plan such attacks. In neither case has it been demonstrated that encryption played a crucial role. In terms of the latter attack, a laptop was found in a rubbish bin, which included an unencrypted folder called “Target”.

There has also not been any evidence in the growth in the use of encryption technologies. A 2015 wiretap report, for example, found a decline in the instances where law enforcement encountered encryption when authorised to conduct wiretaps.

 

Nothing to hide?

Of course, any discussion around security results in the old “nothing to fear” trope being thrown around by those seeking to degrade privacy. This is, of course, a nonsense. Did Doreen Lawrence have anything to hide when she and her family were placed under surveillance as a result of their efforts to apply pressure upon Scotland Yard to investigate the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence?

People of colour, immigrants, welfare recipients and political activists are all in the front lines when it comes to testing out surveillance techniques that are then utilised on the general public. As Virginia Eubanks argues in terms of America:

“Poor and working-class Americans already live in the surveillance future. The revelations that are so scandalous to the middle-class data profiling, PRISM, tapped cellphones–are old news to millions of low-income Americans, immigrants, and communities of color. To be smart about surveillance in the New Year, we must learn from the experiences of marginalized people in the U.S. and in developing countries the world over.”

As true in the United Kingdom and Australia as it in the United States.

And of course, we must remember that the state is fluid, not fixed. It changes and adapts and criminalises. Furthermore, it is not us that determines whether we as citizens have done nothing wrong, it is the state. We simply do not have the power to determine that our actions will not result in sanction by the state. We may believe that they cannot sanction us, but ultimately it is not a decision that rests on our intuition, it rests on the interpretation and actions of the state.

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The tools to help

There are, however, tools that can help protect our privacy. Tor Browser, for example, can help obscure our web browsing, protecting our intellectual privacy as we seek out information. PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption helps ensure that individuals can communicate with each other securely and privately. But using PGP is not easy, it requires effort and a degree of social and cultural capital that not everyone can call upon.

Indeed, for many tools that provide protections, there are difficulties in terms of economic, social and cultural capital. In terms of smartphones, for example, 95% of Apple devices are encrypted by default, only 10% of Android devices in circulation currently are encrypted (estimates from earlier this year). Not everyone can afford an Apple device, and not everyone is aware of how to encrypt an Android device – resulting in what Chris Soghoian describes as a “digital security divide” (which I’d argue reinforces an intellectual privacy divide).

There are also a range of smartphone apps that offer secure communications (or at least claim to). But these must be treated with care. Smartphones are not a secure device for communication, no matter how secure the app claims to be (or how secure the app actually is). They leak metadata like nothing else. Alongside location data, they have a tendency to leak your mobility pattern (ie commuter routes between home and work which can easily identify individuals), calls received, numbers dialled, keywords, mobile device ID etc etc.

Tools such as Signal provide the best protection, but they protect for confidentiality not anonymity. Consequently, there is a need to know which app is best (Signal is a “better” choice than Whatsapp for example). Again, social and cultural capital are key components in being better able to secure communicates and information seeking activities.

Digital divide

Given the extent of the digital divide, it is questionable to what extent individuals have the knowledge and capability to protect their communications and seek information in private. For example, 65% of C2DE households (defined as skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers and non-working individuals) lack basic online skills (managing, communicating, transacting, creating and problem solving). 42% of internet users use the same password on multiple platforms and only 25% of individuals read a privacy statement before using a service. On the other hand, 39% of internet users claim to be reluctant to hand over personal information before they can use a service.

The role of library workers

Of course, library workers have played a key role in helping to extend digital inclusion. But they have also seen their jobs diminished, libraries closed and services they previously provided outsourced to the private sector, eg Barclays Bank. The consequences of this are obvious. Many private sector companies have no interest in ensuring the privacy and security of individuals on the internet because that limits their opportunities to market towards them or to generate profit from the data they create.

In the case of Barclays, helping individuals create a Google Account then showing them around the internet before closing by directing users to the help guides on the Barclays websites, runs the risk of delivering Barclays ads directly to the individual’s inbox. An individual that, by virtue of the fact that sought our guidance on getting online, will more likely than not lack the knowledge and awareness to understand or limit the delivery of such adverts.

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How library workers can help

A Council of Europe statement (backed by CILIP) on freedom of expression, declared that individuals must “decide for themselves what they should, or should not, access” and those providing the service must “respect the privacy of users and treat knowledge of what they have accessed or wish to access as confidential”. IFLA’s Statement on Privacy in the Library Environment reminded library workers that they have a responsibility to “reject electronic surveillance”, provide training on “tools to use to protect their privacy” and “respect and advance privacy at the level of practices and as a principle”.

The Library Freedom Project in the United States has been leading the way in this area, and slowly but surely it is being recognised in the UK by library workers that this is an area we need to be taking a lead on. The collaboration between Newcastle City Library and the North East branch of the Open Rights Group has shown the way. It is possible to teach privacy skills, to work to protect the intellectual privacy of our users, either within the confines of our work, or outside of it. It is possible. We just need to act collectively to ensure that it happens.

Conclusion

We are in a position to empower our library users, to give them the freedom to seek out information without impediment, to think freely, to exchange ideas freely and, ultimately, provide them with the tools to truly and meaningfully engage with the democratic process. Our ethical principles demand this of us, and we should not falter in resisting government policy that undermines these core ethical principles and that threatens the freedom of our users.

The digital skills crisis

Untitled | Flickr c/o melancholija via a BY-NC 2.0 license.

Today the Science and Technology Committee published their report on the “digital skills crisis” which concluded that “up to 12.6 million of the adult UK population lack basic digital skills” and 5.8m have “never used the internet at all” (you can view the full report here). In setting out the report, the Committee makes the following claim:

Digital exclusion has no place in 21st Century Britain. While the Government is to be commended for the actions taken so far to tackle aspects of the digital skills crisis, stubborn digital exclusion and systemic problems with digital education and training need to be addressed as a matter of urgency in the Government’s forthcoming Digital Strategy. In this report, we address the key areas which we believe the Digital Strategy must deliver to achieve the step change necessary to halt the digital skills crisis and bring an end to digital exclusion once and for all.

Which all sounds very laudable, unfortunately the goal of ending digital exclusion is virtually impossible in a capitalist society – it’s permanent. There will always be a large proportion of the population that are digital excluded, no matter what effort we make to eradicate it. Indeed, the progress of the Investigatory Powers Bill rather underlines the extent to which digital exclusion is being entrenched, not eradicated.

The term “digital skills” is defined as follows within the report:

Digital skills have no single definition, but have been variously described to include a general ability to use existing computers and digital devices to access digital services, “digital authoring skills” such as coding and software engineering, and the ability to critically evaluate media and to make informed choices about content and information—“to navigate knowingly through the negative and positive elements of online activity and make informed choices about the content and services they use”.

The European Commission uses indicators from “browsing, searching and filtering information, to protecting personal data and coding” (apologies for the secondary source, it didn’t seem possible to download the original at the time of writing). It’s the “protecting personal data” bit that I am most interested in, and the bit that reveals the extent to which digital exclusion will always exist within a capitalist society. (Let’s take for a given that I think the approach by government is generally terrible in this area, not least with public libraries being closed or farmed out to local communities forced to run them against their will…I’ve repeatedly gone down this road so I don’t feel I need to make these arguments again.)

I’ve argued before that corporate surveillance is permanent in a capitalist society. Corporations rely on the collection of personal data to deliver profits. They make their products “free” to use, then accrue profit through the [mis-]use of personal data. In a capitalist society, individuals will always choose that which is free over that which is not (particularly the less privileged who have no choice whatsoever). Factor into this the impending Investigatory Powers Bill and we have a further undermining of any individual’s efforts to protect personal data, because private companies will store that personal data which may then be made available to the state upon request (and, incidentally, if it is your data, it will be illegal for you to be told such action has taken place).

What the situation creates is one where only a small minority of privileged individuals will be able to protect their personal data effectively (and even then, with limitations). The vast majority will not. The vast majority will not have the social or economic capital with which to make the choice to protect their personal data. They face permanently remaining on the wrong side in terms of digital inclusion, because the infrastructure is in place to prevent them from ever bridging that gap. If we are to be serious about tackling digital exclusion, then we have to take a much wider look at the protection of personal data and what that entails.

In one recent study, John Penney found that, following Edward Snowden’s disclosures about mass surveillance, there had been…

“…a 20 percent decline in page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, including those that mentioned ‘al Qaeda,’ ‘car bomb’ or ‘Taliban.'”

Penney went on to conclude that:

“If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate.”

This is not even a controversial point at odds with established thinking on the effects of surveillance. In 1967, for example, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice concluded that:

“In a democratic society privacy of communication is essential if citizens are to think and act creatively and constructively. Fear or suspicion that one’s speech is being monitored by a stranger, even without the reality of such activity, can have a seriously inhibiting effect upon the willingness to voice critical and constructive ideas.”

Online privacy cannot be viewed purely on narrow terms when it comes to digital exclusion. The inability to protect one’s privacy online has serious ramifications in terms of democratic engagement. If people are not able to seek out information or to communicate with each other in private, then they will be effectively digitally excluded. And, again, a lack of social or economic capital will ensure that a significant proportion of the population always will be digitally excluded. We may reduce the numbers of people that are digital excluded, but we can never eradicate it. The only way to do so would be to ensure all online tools and methods of communication are fully encrypted, but this is impossible in a corporatised internet where data = profit. Equally, it is not possible when you have laws going through parliament that are hostile to digital privacy.

Digital exclusion may well have “no place in 21st century Britain”. Unfortunately, a combination of government policy and prevailing economic doctrine will ensure that not only is digital exclusion a reality for those without privilege in the 21st century, it will remain so for a long time to come.

For more on this topic, see my paper “The digital divide in the post-Snowden era.

The permanence of corporate surveillance

Image c/o Barbara Friedman on Flickr.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of surveillance now as compared to how it operated in the pre-internet era (if we can even imagine such an era even existed). Surveillance is, of course, an age-old technique employed by the state to protect, to control and to manage. In many respects, the Snowden revelations shouldn’t have surprised us in the least. Did anyone really believe that a mass communication tool could be introduced without the state wishing to have a poke around in what was being communicated? Perhaps the only real surprise was the scale. Nonetheless, history provided us with the clues.

However, we can draw a very clear line between the kind of surveillance that was popularly recognised before 2013 and that which has come to light post-2013. The first, and most obvious, point to make is that surveillance has historically been targeted, not indiscriminate. Targets were identified and surveillance approved and conducted. It may be against particular groups, or specific individuals, but it was always targeted. Now, however, everyone’s communications are subject to collection and scrutiny. We are all, to a certain extent, suspects.

The other clear difference is the fluidity of the nature of our surveillance regimes. It is not merely the state that collects vast amounts of data about our activities, the corporate sector also gathers huge amounts of information about what w do, where we go, who we talk to etc etc. This data does not reside securely in the hands of corporations however. We know, following Snowden, that much of the data private corporations collect about our activities is also accessed by the state, either with or without the consent of said corporations. Thus we find ourselves in an environment of what has been described as “liquid surveillance” – a fluid state of surveillance where data flows, particularly between the state and corporations.

But there is a further difference between that which occurred pre-Snowden and that which we know post-2013: the permanence of it. Before the emergence of the internet, the course of surveillance wasn’t always unimpeded.  There were concerns and efforts to limit its scope or even to roll it back. The use of wiretaps in the United States is a good example of surveillance strategies being strongly criticised and, ultimately, rolled back.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, there was outrage about the federal use of wiretapping. This outrage wasn’t restricted merely to the strands of libertarianism on the left and the right (such as the right can be described as “libertarian” when it argues for the replacement of state authority with corporate authority), it cut across the entire mainstream of political opinion. Conservative newspapers were as outraged as the liberal press. The outrage was such that, in 1934, the Communications Act federally outlawed the use of wiretaps (reinforced by a Supreme Court ruling in 1939).

Although these safeguards were whittled away by successive administrations (Democrat and Republican), there was still a sense at the heart of the establishment that surveillance must be limited, at least this was the case publicly if not privately. In 1967, for example, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice stated that “privacy of communications is essential if citizens are to think and act creatively and constructively” (the mere fact that our current government thinks privacy of communication is unnecessary suggests they rather don’t want citizens to think and act constructively…). Privacy of communications is crucial in a democratic society, the fact that this was endorsed by the President’s Commission underlines the extent to which this was hardly a view taken by a few radicals outside the mainstream. It was, to all intents and purposes, a conservative viewpoint on the impact of such intrusions. The big difference now, I think, is I couldn’t envisage such an acknowledgement or a restriction upon contemporary forms surveillance.

The emergence of the notion that information is a commodity has changed all this. In a capitalist society, where information/data has value, where the harvesting of such data can produce profit, corporations are obliged to seek out that commodity, secure it and draw profit from it. Any effort to inhibit this will surely be resisted, both by the corporations themselves, and their allies in the political elite (particularly on the right of course). It is simply not possible to imagine a situation where the current environment is over-turned. Pandora’s box has been opened, there is no way we are going to be able to put everything back inside. Corporate surveillance is, therefore, a permanent state of affairs. It will never face the legislative restrictions that wiretapping faced in the last century. No, it is a permanent fixture because a commodity that drives profit will not ever be restricted so long as capitalist orthodoxy is dominant. Therefore, in a state in which data flows between the state and corporate bodies, it is hard to imagine that surveillance in a capitalist society can ever truly be curtailed.

We may well be able to limit the extent to which the state directly collects data on individuals, but will we ever really halt access to data that we have voluntarily surrendered to profit-making entities on the internet? Is it possible to prevent this in a capitalist society? It seems to me that it probably isn’t. Whilst a large state society results in intrusive state surveillance, surely a free market, “libertarian” society would result in wide scale corporate surveillance (under the guise of being voluntary…”voluntary” being a notion to which right-libertarians have a liberal interpretation)? And as we edge towards an extreme free-market state, won’t such surveillance become permanent and inescapable? Perhaps, under capitalism, corporate surveillance is here to stay?

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.

How neoliberalism disenfranchises us…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the impact of the neoliberal culture on our organisations and the way we operate within them. The imposition of the current HE environment (and it is imposed, there is nothing democratic about it) is causing a massive shift in the way universities are run. Increasingly, we see universities becoming competitors with each other. There is a renewed focus on “the brand”, of how to stand out from the crowd/competitors of how to drive up student applications and to increase revenue etc. There’s nothing new here. We all see it and read about it every day. This is what it was designed to do. There are, it goes without saying, consequences of this shift for all of those that work in this environment.

As has been demonstrated throughout history, neoliberal environments tend to come hand-in-hand with authoritarianism. We’ve seen this, for example, in Chile during the 1970s where the Chicago Boys had their opportunity to embark upon their economic experiments whilst the Pinochet regime kept the Chilean people at bay. We know that neoliberal reforms are unpopular, undemocratic and, ultimately, disenfranchise the populace – taking away publicly owned institutions and placing them in the hands of private companies. We see this manifest itself today in the student protests. The post-2010 reforms to HE (which, let’s not forget, have their roots in the Blair era) have re-awakened the spirit of student protest that has for so long remained dormant. Neoliberalism is unpopular with all but those who wield the power. And it is through neoliberalism that those with power reinforce it.

As I said before, this has consequences. For the Chilean people, for example, it led to a life of fear and terror as the Pinochet regime set about dismantling all of the public institutions that had developed and prospered. The people had no say in this dismantling, they had to endure it and stand by helplessly as power was concentrated in the hands of a small elite. This concentration of power is part and parcel of the neoliberal process. The two are inextricably linked because neoliberalism encourages a system where power is concentrated.

Contrary to how advocates of neoliberalism portray it, it is not an ideology that frees people, it constrains them. In an organisational context, we find replications of authoritarian structures the more neoliberal the environment around that structure becomes. So, for example, we find in many large corporations there is a very top-down, authoritarian approach to how they do their business. Everything is centralised, controlled from the centre and individuals within the structures (particularly those at the bottom end) often have no influence on the system. They are cogs in a machine. Everything is controlled for fear of potential damage to the brand. And so we find that large corporations often replicate the structures we find in authoritarian regimes. Centralisation of power for fear of failure of the regime if power is too widely dispersed.

But what relevance does this have to HE? Well, we have found ourselves in an environment that is neoliberal by design. It has created a sense of competition, a Darwinesque survival of the fittest, where the weak will perish and the strong will prosper. This creates a fear factor: a fear of the failure of the regime. The only way to respond to this fear, as they see it, is to centralise power. By centralising, so the theory goes, you can gain control and minimise rogue elements potentially unbalancing the regime. This centralisation, therefore, restricts the freedoms of the individuals working within these structures. The ability to influence the organisation is rapidly diminished.

The consequence of this is that we have less control. We are less able to do the things that perhaps we might like to do, because we are disenfranchised. As structures become centralised, the importance of consistency throughout the organisation becomes key (because this is more efficient according to the capitalist class – “efficiency” being a key mantra of the neoliberal ideology). No longer can we communicate with users in the way we see fit, but instead we have to communicate in the way the organisation sees fit. There is no freedom in the sense of control over our own work and immediate environment. We have to submit to the will and concerns of the over-arching structure within which we reside, this is the danger of the neoliberal environment created around the structures we inhabit. This goes for library services as much as any other aspect of HE.

To ensure we have the freedom to do our jobs in the way that we, as professionals, believe they should be done, we must surely first resist the shift towards a neoliberal culture? For it is this neoliberal culture that will inhibit our freedom and prevent us from fulfilling our roles as professionals, with the knowledge and expertise to perform our roles in the ways we see fit. If we are to be subsumed by the neoliberal culture, we will not have that freedom. We will not be able to perform in our roles as we see fit. We will become consumed by the structures that have developed around us as part of this cultural shift. We can talk as much as we like about the things we should be doing, the approaches we should take, how we can reach out beyond our traditional role. But, ultimately, if we do not fight back against the structures that are growing around us, this shift towards neoliberalism in libraries, then we will not have that freedom. We will not have that power. Perhaps, ultimately, all we will be is a cog in a machine? And if we are to fight against the culture, how do we do it?

How librarians enable neoliberalism and inequality, and what we can do to resist it

Paternoster Square, home to the London Stock Exchange, by David Edwards on Flickr

We live in an era dominated by the corrosive ideology of neoliberalism. Since the abandonment of the postwar settlement just over forty years ago, neoliberalism has become the dominant socio-economic ideology. The notion that an unconstrained private sector (via the profit motive and supposed greater efficiency) is best placed to deliver public service has been broadly accepted by the political establishment. Its successful dominance of political thought was confirmed with the arrival of Tony Blair and his embrace of a liberal economic agenda, casting aside the virtues upon which the Labour Party had been founded in favour of the market. But how has this ideology come to dominate? There is no single solitary component that has enabled its acceptance, rather a series of complex and varied factors that have been complicit in its dominance.

Neoliberalism disenfranchises citizens, converting individuals from citizens to consumers. No longer does the individual have ‘rights’ as citizens, rather they have the gift of “choice”. Choice in so far as the capitalist economic system permits. As Doreen Massey argues in Vocabularies of the economy [PDF]:

“It is one of the ghastly ironies of the present neoliberal age that we are told (as we saw at the outset of this argument) that much of our power and our pleasure, and our very self-identification, lies in our ability to choose (and we are indeed bombarded every day by ‘choices’, many of them meaningless, others we wish we didn’t have to make), while at the level that really matters – what kind of society we’d like to live in, what kind of future we’d like to build – we are told, implacably, that, give or take a few minor variations, there is no alternative – no choice at all.”

Image c/o Alex Proimos on Flickr.

The shift away from citizenry to a consumerist culture is one that particularly benefits those with the financial means with which to engage in such a culture (enabling access to the best healthcare, the best education and so on). It follows, therefore, that such a culture penalises those who lack the financial means with which to make the choices available to those who do. This, obviously and inevitably, breeds inequality. Neoliberalism is, essentially, a system that creates and entrenches inequality (and, arguably, inefficiency as a result) – see Piketty’s much reported (if little read) analysis.

Of course, neoliberalism needs a foundation upon which to grow and thrive. Arguably, no system would be able to do so without certain institutions of power enabling its spread. Without the enabling of such institutions, neoliberalism as an ideology would barely sprout roots. It needs the nourishment that only vital, trusted, public institutions can provide.

In Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser argues that dominant ideologies are enabled primarily through the non-violent operation of “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs). Chief amongst the ISAs referred to is the “educational apparatus”. Althusser argues that:

“…behind the scenes of its political Ideological State Apparatus, which occupies the front of the stage, what the bourgeoisie has installed as its number-one, i.e. as its dominant Ideological State Apparatus, is the educational apparatus, which has in fact replaced in its functions the previously dominant Ideological State Apparatus, the Church.”

Althusser argues the educational apparatus is key to consolidating the influence of the dominant ideology, and drawing on Gramsci’s (Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 1971) concept of cultural hegemony, that it plays a role in ensuring that the establishment worldview is accepted as a cultural norm, as universally valid. Education is not the sole enabler of a neoliberal, consumerised society, but it plays a key and fundamental role in ensuring it remains dominant. When the language becomes embedded within an educational apparatus that is perceived to be apolitical in nature, the dominant ideology is strengthened. As Althusser goes on to argue:

“The mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by a universally reigning ideology of the School, universally reigning because it is one of the essential forms of the ruling bourgeois ideology: an ideology which represents the School as a neutral environment purged of ideology…”

This lends itself to the defence utilised when employing neoliberal language: the terms are harmless as they are used in a neutral context, purged of ideology. We can employ these terms because we are not political and we’ve stripped away all political context.

In their article, The Counterhegemonic Academic Librarian: A Call to Action (Progressive Librarian #40), Stephen E Bales and Lea Susan Engle contend that higher education institutions are well positioned to perform this indoctrination considering their “place of high authority in western society”. They go on to argue that the academic library is a “necessary and inseparable component of the educational ISA, reproducing the political milieu through its collections and library staff or faculties”. The effect of this normalisation is a student class that is “steeped in the norms of the dominant culture that ultimately controls the means of production”. As David Sweeney, director for research, innovations and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, recently argued, the UK has:

“…comprehensively failed to get away from the social elite in higher education…Do we want people like us leaving universities? Do we want our graduates to be engaged with society or part of an elite? Would it not be good to act as models for people who will tackle the big global challenges?”

Our system of higher education does not produce students who challenge the status quo, rather it produces graduates that will protect it, perpetuating and reinforcing the over-arching ideology of the political establishment. The educational ISA is a powerful tool in perpetuating the dominant ideology, ensuring its dominance and primacy. Any attempt to breakdown this dominant ideology, therefore, relies on challenging the status quo in our education system. Only by weeding this ideology out of our education system can we hope to breakdown the structures that create division and inequality.

Image c/o Pierre Metivier on Flickr.

This causes a number of problems in terms of the role of the librarian within the educational ISA. Our position as “neutral” figures of professional standing is a fallacy. Whilst we may strive to be “neutral” our actions are anything but. For example, as Bales and Eagle argue, the ALA “Code of Ethics” can be interpreted to mean that librarians must take a neutral stance on social justice issues, giving equal access to items that preserve the status quo and those that promote the advancement of marginalised groups (this is also reflected in point 7 of CILIP’s Ethical Principles – that we should remain “impartial” and avoid “bias”). The logical conclusion of such equal weighting, appearing to remain impartial, is to create a kind of equilibrium whereby to maintain inequality is as valid as to challenge it. When explored to its logical conclusion, is maintaining neutrality truly fitting with our ethical values? By giving an equal platform to materials that entrench social division, are we not taking a political position? In doing so are we not also undermining the very values we espouse?

Bales and Engle go on to argue that our position should not be of neutrality as imagined by the ALA “Code of Ethics”, but rather it should be:

“…one of social and moral responsibility to challenge the academic library as an ISA, to contribute to the creation of authentic knowledge and history, not simply the reiteration of canonical indoctrination.”

One of the key ways in which we can challenge the academic libraries as an ISA is through awareness of the language we utilise. The growing adoption of neoliberal language, normalises and legitimises it, reinforcing the consumerist culture. Through this use of language we endorse the use of words that are neoliberal by nature and have meaning that is contrary to our ethical values. Endorsement leads to acceptance of the terms as normal modes of language, as orthodox terminology. Using terms such as “customer”, “brand” etc imply an acceptance of the neoliberal driven transformation of citizens into consumers. This is, of course, problematic on a number of levels, not least because this normalisation embeds the discourse of the market in the minds of those who will join the ranks of the social elites, ensuring the consolidation of the dominant ideology. It also causes problems in terms of both our professional ethics and the future of the profession in general. As John Buschman argued in an address at Rider University in 2004, as such “business buzzwords” become ubiquitous:

“Thus does a privatized and economic vision of the library come to dominate discussions and assumptions about its future and define its purposes.”

The transformation of citizens into consumers results in the corruption and, ultimately, the destruction of publicly funded higher education (which has been privatised “further and faster than anywhere else“) and our public services. This transformation results in the adoption of market strategies, gradually eroding the notion that we are entitled to free education, healthcare etc.; instead convincing us that we are consumers without rights, only choice. For a profession steeped in the values of free and unimpeded access to information without discrimination, such an ideology presents a serious threat. A move towards marketisation means a move away from a service provided free and without discrimination, and towards a service for the few. We cannot tolerate a situation whereby we discriminate against those without the means to access the services we provide. Aping the language of business will not, as Buschman concludes:

“…save libraries, it transforms them into something else. We’re a profession and an institution in crisis because we have a structural contradiction between our purposes and practices as they’ve historically evolved and our adaptation to the current environment.”

Without challenging the use of the language of the dominant elite, we essentially become agents of the ruling bourgeois elites. The neutral academic librarian becomes, effectively, an agent ensuring that the dominant ideology is reinforced. As Massey points out [PDF]:

“The vocabulary we use, to talk about the economy in particular, has been crucial to the establishment of neoliberal hegemony.”

In Education Under Siege, Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux (quoted in Bales and Engle) described academics that work passively in the service of the controlling interests of society as “accommodating intellectuals” (expanding on Gramsci’s distinction between “organic” and “traditional” intellectuals). These “accommodating intellectuals” stand:

“…firm within an ideological posture and set of material practices that support the dominant society and its ruling groups. Such intellectuals are generally not aware of this process that they do not define themselves as self-conscious agents of the status quo, even though their politics further the interests of the dominant classes.”

Image c/o Daniel Horande on Flickr.

Such “accommodating intellectuals” are essentially, unaware that their posture reinforces and strengthens the status quo. They would not recognise, Aronowitz and Giroux argue, that that is what their actions enable, but they are working passively and, perhaps, unwittingly in the service of the elites, employing their language and ideology within the dominant ISA. The same might be said of the neutral academic librarian who through their passivity reinforces the ideology of the dominant classes. Whilst they might consider their passivity “neutral” it is, on the contrary, overtly political. They take a political position through the adoption of “material practices that support the dominant society and its ruling groups”. The normalisation of the language of the dominant class legitimises it, that process of legitimising is a political act because it validates language that is a key part of the political agenda. By utilising their language, the librarian demonstrates acceptance of the ideology of a political movement that wishes to transform citizens into consumers. They have, effectively, become active enablers, reinforcing the dominant ideology and ensuring its normalisation.

So, if the neutral academic librarian, or “accommodating intellectual”, is an agent of the dominant classes, what is the alternative? The alternative must surely be to position ourselves as, what Aronowitz and Giroux describe as “transformative intellectuals”? According to their definition, “transformative intellectuals” are those who:

“…earn a living within institutions that play a fundamental role in producing the dominant culture… [but] define their political terrain by offering to students forms of alternative discourse and critical social practices whose interests are often at odds with the overall hegemonic role of the school and the society it supports.”

In order to be consistent with our professional values and to work to create the conditions for an alternative to the dominant ideology that asserts information as a commodity, we must surely become “transformative librarians”? Rather than adopting the language and strategies of the dominant class, we should be challenging or rejecting it. The language of the market has become the dominant discourse within our profession, our libraries and higher education in general. We are too accommodating of neoliberal ideologies that are at odds with our ethical values. Remaining “neutral” is no longer an option. “Neutrality” makes us both accommodating intellectuals and enablers of the dominant ideology. Why should we enable an ideology that is in conflict with our values?

Neoliberalism is a corrosive, destructive ideology. It leads to an unequal society that transforms, without consent, citizens into consumers. Adopting the language of this dominant ideology legitimises and normalises it, ensuring a steady flow into the establishment of graduates “steeped in the norms of the dominant culture that ultimately controls the means of production” [Bales and Engle, PDF]. Rather than passively and uncritically accepting the use of terminology that is alien to our professional values, we should challenge its use and instead of accepting the language of the dominant ideology, we should offer students forms of alternative discourse that reject and challenge it. The prevalence of what Buschman terms as “business buzzwords” legitimise this dominant discourse and therefore cannot be considered neutral, but purely political. It is up to us to refuse to act as passive agents that reinforce the power of the dominant classes and to reject the legitimisation of language that act as tools of inequality. When neutrality reinforces a dominant ideology that runs counter to our values, we are no longer neutral. There is a choice before us: we either act as enablers or we act as transformative agents.

Language, libraries and ‘The Market’

The central market in Valencia, Spain.

One of the trends in library rhetoric is the increasing use of neoliberal words and terminology. This has been ongoing for some time and, in many ways, is nothing new (indeed, the discussion about it is nothing new). However, it seems to me to be ever more prevalent as growing numbers of people talk about library services (and public services in general) in broadly capitalist terms. We see this through the growth of the use of terms such as ‘customer’, ‘marketing’ and, most recently, in the suggestion that libraries should adopt a ‘market orientation’.

Language is probably not given the importance it deserves. Care needs to be taken with the words we use and how we use them. Words have meaning, but they also come with baggage. It can help engender cultural change within an institution, changing the collective mindset and corrupting the values of an institution.  There are increasing efforts, some might argue, to “roll-out neoliberal logics” within institutions and language is a powerful tool in paving the way for these “logics” to take hold.

But what of neoliberalism? Why should we be concerned about language reflecting neoliberal ideals? Self (Rolling Back the Market: Economic Dogma and Political Choice, 1999) argued that neoliberalism consists of five main dogmas:

  1. The “free market” and market led growth are the principal and most important sources of wealth.
  2. Large incentives are necessary to market efficiency.
  3. The wealth created by free markets will trickle down to benefit all members of society.
  4. The market is intrinsically more efficient than government.
  5. Government should be re-designed according to market methods and incentives to ensure greater efficiency.

Neoliberalism argues that public services are inefficient unless they adopt market strategies to deliver services. Public services should, in effect, adopt a ‘market orientation’. It is by adopting such a strategy that, according to neoliberal dogma, public services will thrive. Not only should we be wary of the strategy, we should also be wary of the terminology that enables it.

Concern about the use and meaning of language is undoubtedly unfashionable. To value language and its meaning is to be too old-fashioned, to hold back progress or to be an infuriating block on progress.  This is a typical characteristic of neoliberal debate – to present the argument as being between two opposing and simple perspectives:

1) The forward-thinking, progressive view.

2) The old fashioned, backwards view.

Such a strategy is well established by neoliberals: neoliberal ideas are painted as progressive, forward-thinking and exciting. Opposition to such ideals (and there will be opposition when espousing neoliberal ideals that are odds with the values of the majority) is somehow a block on progress and somewhat old-fashioned. These old-fashioned perspectives, underpinned by a fear of change, prevent us from making progress. It’s not just about the way they use language, it’s about the way in which they frame the debate.

Language is repeatedly abused by neoliberals to further their goal of turning us from citizens to consumers [pdf]. Our language has become increasingly capitalist, which is perhaps unsurprising when one also considers that we are increasingly living in conditions that could be best described as ‘extreme capitalism’. One does not necessarily cause the other, but it cannot be mere coincidence that our language is increasingly utilised in capitalist terms. Does the shift in language facilitate the growth of the capitalist system, or does the expanding capitalist system influence our language? Is language, in fact, the weapon that enables the rollout of “neoliberal logics”?

In 1961, Raymond Williams pondered the term ‘consumers’ and wondered if we were seen as ‘users’ instead of ‘consumers’:

“…we might look at society very differently, for the concept of use involves general human judgments – we need to know how to use things and what we are using them for… whereas consumption, with its crude hand-to-mouth patterns, tends to cancel these questions, replacing them by the stimulated and controlled absorption of the products of an external and autonomous system”.

Perhaps the changing of our language influences the way we view our society and how it might develop. Maybe using ‘consumers’ (or ‘customers’) instead of ‘users’ sows the seeds of a particular mindset. A mindset that sees society as one filled with consumers rather than citizens, one that enables the establishment of these “neoliberal logics” within institutions.

It is primarily due to concerns about the extent to which language enables the expansion of “neoliberal logics” that I am weary of its growing (mis-)use in libraries. I’m not comfortable with talk about ‘market orientation’ (or ‘marketing’ if I am entirely honest) with respect to public services in general, let alone with specific reference to libraries. Libraries do not exist in a market (although it could be argued that HE libraries operate increasingly within a market environment). Talk of “market orientation” in terms of a public service is, for me, deeply troubling (and I come from the retail sector where such language is obviously deepy ingrained). Not least because one has to question when a market based solution has ever worked for any public institution (clue: never). But also because of what the word actually means.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘market’ as:

Of a manufacturer, advertiser, etc.: to place or establish (a product) on the market; esp. to seek to increase sales of (a product) by means of distribution and promotion strategies. Also (in extended use): to promote the public image of (a person, organization, etc.).

Marketing is:

The action or business of bringing or sending a product or commodity to market; (now chiefly, Business) the action, business, or process of promoting and selling a product, etc., including market research, advertising, and distribution.

Using the terminology of the market simply validates it and encourages its spread, enabling the “neoliberal logic” to take hold. By adopting capitalist language we accept that information is a commodity (a product) that can be promoted and sold (marketed) – in essence “neoliberal logics”. If we accept the logic, do we then accept that our services should be re-designed according to market methods and incentives?

Is it appropriate to frame information as a commodity? And, if it is, how do we square this with our professional ethics? Commodities have prices, it therefore follows that if we treat information as a commodity we accept that it has a price. But if we are concerned with facilitating free access to information, isn’t there a conflict? In a neoliberal, extreme capitalist state the answer is, of course, that there is and that, therefore, the conflict must be resolved in favour of the market (the market trumps all in an extreme capitalist society). We then become marketers and sellers of a product, rather than facilitators of access to a social good. The roll-out of “neoliberal logics” would be complete.

The problem for me is exacerbated by how such terminology is couched. If you oppose such language (as I mentioned above) you are seen as obstructive block to progress, an out of date annoyance. This is how the discussion is often framed: accept market terminology or face marginalisation. The truth is, however, that that particular side of the argument is actually deeply conservative and is, in many respects, the real block on progress. After all, how progressive is it to adopt the terminology and strategies that constitute much of the frameworks of our capitalist society? Surely to reject capitalist norms is to be progressive and forward-thinking? Is a fascination with ‘market orientation’ the actual block on progress? Shouldn’t resistance to “neoliberal logics” be respected in a professional context, rather than rejected out of hand as obstructive? Such resistance is, after all, entirely in tune with our professional ethics.

The adoption of capitalist language and strategies lacks imagination. It’s easy to reach for a solution readily available from there, even when such solutions have had limited success over there.  It seems much harder to come up with a strategy that is substantially different. It takes time and effort to construct something new. We can do much better, we can construct something imaginative and distinct. We do not have to adopt capitalist, neoliberal norms because that’s the path others have followed. We have the skills and the capabilities. It’s no good being fearful and negative, believing that we can do no better than what is done there. We have to believe that we can construct something better.

And this is where the debate often leaves me filled with despair – it prevents us from constructing something new, from using our imagination to construct something better. If you dare to criticise the rollout of “neoliberal logics”, your argument is nullified at source, prevented from being explored in any meaningful sense. There are alternatives, there should not be one dominant voice in the debate, all avenues should be explored and critiques should be a launching pad for further discussion not seen as a threat. However, neoliberals and arch-capitalists frequently frame the debate in such terms so as to close down the opportunity to explore alternatives – leaving us in the state we are in now where we have seen continual ‘progress’ towards an extremist capitalist state.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We do not have to be fearful of the alternatives. We do not have to accept that by rejecting capitalist rhetoric we are, in some way, holding back progress. We do not need to enable “neoliberal logics” to take hold within our services. Fear may prevent us from taking action, from challenging existing norms to create something distinct. But we shouldn’t be fearful of rejecting these norms and creating something new. We have it within ourselves to build an alternative, we just need to be fearless, collaborative and patient.

What’s wrong with GM crops?

Image c/o Parker Knight on Flickr.

You might have caught the Environment minister Owen Paterson on this morning’s Today programme extolling the virtues of GM crops as efforts are once more renewed to convinced the British (and European) public that GM crops are both safe and essential. Paterson’s rhetoric was, typically for an MP, short on evidence and rather heavy on the emotion, particularly playing on the benefits to the environment and for the world’s poor (something the Tories are well known to be concerned about).

Chief amongst his examples of the need for GM crops was the development of ‘Golden Rice’ and the difference it can make in reducing blindness in the Philippines. ‘Golden Rice’ is produced by Syngenta, a chemicals company specialising in pesticides and seeds (“We are helping growers around the world to meet the challenge of the future: to grow more from less“). ‘Golden Rice’ reduces incidence of blindness by, supposedly, acting as a vitamin A supplement. Of course, vitamin A supplements do the job just as well but, unfortunately, vitamin A isn’t owned by anyone so there isn’t the profit to be made from it in the way there is from ‘Golden Rice’.

Seeing as Paterson was thin on the ground regarding facts about ‘Golden Rice’ on the Today programme, I thought I’d have a dig around myself. Here’s what I found:

It’s this final point that is the most crucial. The argument against GM crops is not, or should not be, solely about health and environmental issues (although they are important). Ultimately the introduction of GM crops will pass even more power over the food-chain into the hands of a small number of very powerful corporations. And the consequences of this are disturbing.

Earlier this year the Supreme Court in the United States made clear the power that would be passed into the hands of companies like Monsanto. According to The New York Times:

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that farmers could not use Monsanto’s patented genetically altered soybeans to create new seeds without paying the company a fee.

Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented seeds must generally sign a contract promising not to save seeds from the resulting crop, which means they must buy new seeds every year. The seeds are valuable because they are resistant to the herbicide Roundup, itself a Monsanto product.

But the Indiana farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, who had signed such contracts for his main crop, said he discovered a loophole for a second, riskier crop later in the growing season.

For that second crop, he bought seeds from a grain elevator filled with a mix of seeds in the reasonable hope that many of them contained Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready gene.

Monsanto sued, and a federal judge in Indiana ordered Mr. Bowman to pay the company more than $84,000. The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which specializes in patent cases, upheld that decision, saying that by planting the seeds Mr. Bowman had infringed Monsanto’s patents.

The shift towards the patenting of seeds, what should be a product of nature freely available to all of us, is troubling to say the least.  It is this kind of corporate tyranny that we should all be arguing against when it comes to the introduction of GM crops. Do we really want large corporations having this much control over our food production? It seems like the Conservative government certainly do, particularly as they are lobbying hard to force the EU to ‘remove regulatory and political barriers‘. GM crops are back, good news for large corporations keen to increase profits, bad news for freedom, democracy and, ultimately, us.

Propaganda, ethics and the information profession

Just over a week ago, I headed up to London to visit the Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition at the British Library with a bunch of friends and fellow professionals. I had been eagerly anticipating the exhibition ever since I caught the live stream of an audience with Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Freedland a couple of months prior to its opening.  Needless to say, the exhibition was right up my street and thoroughly enjoyable. Indeed, it could have been twice the size and I still would have been left wanting more.  In short, if you can get there before it closes in September, I would seriously recommend making every effort to do so.  As well as providing much thought provoking material on the nature of propaganda, it also led to much pondering on critical thinking and its importance both in terms of the profession in which I belong, and in a broader context.

Critical thinking has been a crucial part of my educational life. History was perhaps my strongest subject at both GCSE and A-level and went on to form part of my degree (alongside English Literature – although the head of history did make repeated attempts to get me to switch my major from literature to history, to no avail). Critical thinking is a crucial component of the study of history. At a basic level, history requires that you analyse and evaluate source material. This evaluation and analysis then informs any research into particular historical events or historic social conditions.  If you are unable to process information in a critical way, you will not excel in the study of history. This is not to say that other subjects do not place equal importance in the ability to apply critical thinking (that would be absurd), but I do know that through studying history I have developed a good standard of critical analysis skills. Of course, when it comes to evaluating information in a historical context, the role and impact of propaganda must be a key consideration.

The Oxford dictionary defines propaganda as:

…information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.

Typically propaganda is politically skewed information designed to persuade or educate the populace, normally in an effort to disseminate a particular ideology. Generally when one considers the impact of propaganda throughout modern history, one tends to think of figures such as Lord Kitchener, Norman Rockwell, Josef Goebbels or Leni Riefenstahl (albeit in slightly different ways). Each in their own way helped to communicate a particular set of ideas, whether it be mobilising support for war or by demonising an ‘enemy within’ to consolidate political power, propaganda is a crucial weapon in winning ‘hearts and minds’.

Propaganda itself is, obviously, not solely restricted to the political sphere.  Whilst governments churn out propaganda by default (one need only look at the propaganda being forced upon us every day regarding the need for ‘austerity’), corporations are also responsible for a large volume of propaganda, more commonly known as advertisements.  Propaganda can be used to influence people’s perceptions of a product or brand, subverting existing realities to present a positive brand image that then encourages people to purchase such products. There are many examples one can call upon in examining this type of propaganda. The rebrand exercise conducted by BP is one such example.

Back in 2000, BP embarked on a rebranding exercise.  The aim was to present BP as an “environmentally aware energy and general services company.” As they put it on their website:

Since ‘BP’ petrol first went on sale in Britain in the 1920s, the brand has grown to become recognised worldwide for quality gasoline, transport fuels, chemicals and alternative sources of energy such as wind and biofuels. We are committed to making a real difference in providing better energy that is needed today and in the changing world of tomorrow.

The reason for its need to rebrand? The emergence of the global environmental movement. The rise of this movement resulted in increased scrutiny of energy companies and their actions across the world. Not least because of the damaging effect of resource extraction by the industry in countries across the world. Needless to say, the rebrand had little effect on the global environmental movement but it did appear to have an effect on consumers:

After the rebrand exercise, research revealed that BP was seen as the most “environmental” oil brand with more than half the market now agreeing that BP had become “more green” in the past five years. BP’s brand awareness shot up and in a poll of UK marketers BP was rated one of the top 10 green brands, finishing higher up the ranking than Greenpeace.

Pretty effective propagandising. Of course, the effect of such propaganda can be somewhat undermined by very visible, and environmentally damaging, short-comings.

Of course, the BP example is a relatively crude one in demonstrating the ways in which propaganda is utilised by large multinationals. Know-more, for example, is perhaps a slightly more worrying example of corporate propaganda used to mobilise public support in the face of potential government legislation. Know-more is a website sponsored by Philip Morris and is designed to share ‘information’ about the impact of legislation upon smokers. Philip Morris is, of course, a large tobacco company with a vested interest in halting government legislation that might impact upon its business model. The tobacco industry has a long history of lobbying law makers to prevent legislation that would impact upon its customer base (to adopt their parlance), Know-more is just the latest example of the determined efforts by corporate interests to protect their bottom lines.

But these are relatively obvious examples of propaganda by large corporations, examples that informed, educated people will spot and dismiss readily.  There are many others, of course, who will not (obviously as some appear to believe that BP is an energy company more identifiable as a “green brand” than Greenpeace), and perhaps others who believe the protestations of the tobacco industry – although that is perhaps a diminishing segment of society as we become more aware of the harm tobacco causes.  What about the examples that are harder to spot, that require more…effort?

Toward the end of the exhibition at the British Library I caught a rolling video clip with various talking heads exploring the growth of social media and the state of propaganda in the 21st century. One anecdote by John Pilger stood out above all others, and underlined to me both the nature of propaganda now and the importance of critical thinking. Pilger referred to a meeting he had with a dissident in the old Czechoslovakia, before the fall of the Iron Curtain.  The dissident noted the difference between how people in the West and in the East process propaganda, telling Pilger that in the West:

“You believe everything you see on the TV or read on the papers, but we’ve learnt to read between the lines.”

And that is what is so crucial in the modern era, the ability to read between the lines (or critical thinking) and it is an ability, I believe, that should be a fundamental skill for information professionals generally, and librarians specifically.

The use of propaganda raises an increasing number of ethical questions in our current economic and social environment. We live in a society where neoliberal economicsdominates political life. As such, the private sector is increasingly creeping into areas that had long been either the domain of the state or, broadly speaking, independent of the state.  As a result, we are seeing the corporate sector increase its influence in both public and academic libraries. This encroachment raises a number of serious concerns. For example, recent tweets from the @voiceslibrary (not by the current tweeter of the account by the way) account highlighted a particular ethical dilemma many of us will increasingly face in just such a neoliberal environment. What if a course was provided by a private sector corporation with a dubious ethical background and if the course materials provided were wholly uncritical of that corporation? Is it ethical for us to provide materials that effectively act as propaganda for the course sponsor? How do we deal with the dilemma presented to us of choosing between pleasing our employer and maintaining an adherence to professional values and ethics?  Should we reluctantly accept propagandising for the company providing the course as part of our obligations to our employer, or place our professional ethics above the perception that it may do harm to our careers?

This question of propagandising for large corporations cuts across both our personal lives and our professional lives. By identifying ourselves as librarians (or information professionals) we are proclaiming an adherence to a certain set of ethical values. Regardless of whether we are acting in a professional or a personal capacity, these values must surely still apply. In the medical profession, for example, your professional and ethical values do not end the minute you leave the surgery/hospital/pharmacy, you carry them with you at all times. As there are serious ethical considerations when asked to prepare uncritical course materials for a corporate funded education programme, so we must be careful about the information we disseminate publicly. This means avoiding propagandising for corporate interests where we receive financial (or other) benefits directly in return, or at least ensuring a disclaimer is clearly provided. For if, as an information professional, we lack transparency in our provision of information, how can we possibly be trusted in providing clear, unbiased information? By propagandising for a corporate entity for either our own benefit or our employers, we have become a conduit for that corporation. And once an information professional acts as a conduit for corporate interests, without doing so in a transparent fashion, our professional ethics are compromised. Once compromised we can no longer be seen as impartial providers of information, but as effectively something little more than a ‘sponsored link’ on a Google web search.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I am fortunate in that critical thinking formed the backbone of most of my educational life. But it did not form a crucial component in the completion of the MSc in Information and Library Studies qualification. Admittedly there was a module requiring critical analysis of a research article for the Research in the Profession module, but there was little to encourage critical thinking, in my view, or to teach the fundamental skills required to do so. As a result, I wonder to what extent critical thinking should be ‘taught’ in a Masters (or a bachelors for that matter) in information science?  Is it adequately covered in existing LIS programmes? Or is there a greater need for learning the tools and skills required to, as the aforementioned Czech dissident put it “read between the lines”?  I’m not convinced that it is, although others may well disagree. Regardless of the extent to which it is or is not covered in existing LIS programmes, critical thinking is absolutely fundamental to the profession and never more so than now, at a time when our values are increasingly challenged and undermined. Ultimately, how can you be an information professional without being able to effectively critically analyse information?

In short, in my personal view, it is a professional duty to ensure that we always “read between the lines” and ensure that those we serve do not have to in their engagements with us. For if we do not challenge and breakdown propaganda and misinformation, who will?

 

When it comes to the internet, it’s not just government snooping we should be worried about…

Corporations want your data as much as governments want to snoop.
(Image: El Alma Del Ebro in Zaragoza by Saucepolis on Flickr.)

Remember the early days of the internet?  When start-up companies seemed to be, somehow a different breed from the companies that we had grown accustomed to? “Don’t be evil” appeared not only to be Google’s mantra, but the mantra of a whole host of companies that emerged in tandem with the growth of the internet.  Whereas we had grown accustomed to companies that were focused on shareholder profit over rather than the interests of ‘consumers’ or society in general, these companies seemed to be benign, friendly, sensitive to their social responsibilities.

In contrast to the growth of these ‘benign forces’ of the internet, governments and politicians have become increasingly suspicious of the technology, predominantly because it is an area over which they do not feel they exercise sufficient control.  In the UK, this has manifested itself most obviously and most recently in the Data Communications Bill (or Snoopers’ Charter).  A particularly invasive piece of legislation that was seriously considered by the coalition, it proposed to grant powers to the Home Secretary (or another cabinet minister) to order any ‘communications data’ by ‘telecommunication operators’ to be gathered and retained, effectively collecting ostensibly private data on citizens for whatever purpose they deemed worthy.  It appears, on the face of it, that these proposals have now been abandoned, although that is not to say they won’t come back in a slightly modified form.  If one were a cynic, one might suggest the Liberal Democrats applied pressure to drop the legislation in advance of the local elections to ensure they were case in a positive light? Unlikely perhaps, but my cynical mind can’t help but believe there is more to this than simply a matter of principle, after all Nick Clegg wasn’t always so opposed…

This suspicion, however, doesn’t begin and end at the Snoopers’ Charter. There was also, for example, the introduction of the Digital Economy Act, which enables the blocking of website access for anyone who is deemed to have infringed copyright laws but, consequently, also risks penalising those entirely innocent of any such activity.  Then there is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa) used to investigate Osita Mba, a whistleblower who uncovered a “sweetheart” deal with Goldman SachsUsing Ripa:

…HMRC can see websites viewed by taxpayers, where a mobile phone call was made or received, and the date and time of emails, texts and phone calls. According to the revenue website, these powers “can only be used when investigating serious crime”.

And it doesn’t end with proposed or existing legislation; individual politicians have also made calls for illiberal and unhelpful restrictions on the internet. Back in 2011, following the riots, one politician called for Twitter and Facebook to be blacked out during any further disturbances.  Needless to say this was a particularly stupid and disturbing suggestion, not least because the very same social media helped people in the area affected by the riots to communicate with others and ensure their own safety.  There’s no doubt that the freedom provided by the internet frightens those who believe it threatens existing power structures, underlining that, from their point of view, freedom only goes so far…

The desire to highlight some of these illiberal measures isn’t solely restricted to organisation such as the Open Rights Group, many of the giants of the internet are quick to point the finger at the role of government as a threat to the freedom of the individual. Take, for example, the largest of all the companies to emerge in the internet era – Google.

Last week, in an article for The Guardian, Eric Schmidt (executive chairman) and Jared Cohen (Director, Google Ideas) warned that global governments are monitoring and censoring access to the web, which could lead to the internet becoming ever increasingly under state control.  The usual examples are rolled out of authoritarian regimes seeking to restrict what their citizens can access online.  Curiously, however, there is no mention of the United States or Europe (Russia appears eight times, China seven), it appears that we are not affected by the government monitoring or censoring access to the web – oh, apart from the Data Communications Bill, the Digital Economy Act, Ripa etc etc.This omission seems curious considering an admission by Schmidt in a separate interview with Alan Rusbridger, also in The Guardian.

During the interview, Rusbridger notes:

But [Schmidt’s] company collects and stores an extraordinary amount of data about all of us, albeit in an anonymised form. Which is all well and good, until government agencies come knocking on Schmidt’s door – as they did more than 20,000 times in the second half of last year. The company usually obliges with US officials. (It’s more complicated with others.) This will only get worse.

Clearly, as the legislative examples shown above demonstrate, attempts to monitor the web are not only restricted to authoritarian regimes but are also a problem in Western, (supposedly) liberal democracies as well.  When the US is making 20,000 requests in six months (around 100 requests a day on average), it is clear that the problem is not restricted to just China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes.  But there’s another side to this equation. A side that Schmidt and others in the business community seem to be reluctant to talk about, for very obvious reasons.

The extract from Rusbridger’s interview with Schmidt reveals two facts that everyone concerned with the internet and the free flow of information need to be worried about.  First are the actual requests from US officials for data from Google. The second is the data that Google collects and makes available to US officials.  There are, I would argue, two concerns about the future of the internet: government control and corporate control. The former Schmidt is keen to talk about, the latter not so much.

Google’s business is data.  They collect data from users to ‘enhance the user experience’ (a brilliant phrase used to suggest that the collection of your personal data is actually doing you a favour).  The volume of data collected is vast and is collected for a specific purpose: to make money (to “enhance the user experience”). These services do not charge you to make money, they use a commodity you are giving away for free and then selling it on to advertisers. The transaction is different from the traditional service model (consumer purchases goods from service provider), but it is effective and relies on your data to ensure profitability for the service provider. For example, Google was making $14.70 per 1,000 searches in 2010.  Some services do not even require you to visit the service itself to obtain your personal data.  Facebook, for example, has been known to track light users of the service across 87% of the internet.

Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt (image c/o Jolie O’Dellon Flickr).

The sheer volume of data handled by many of the largest internet companies should be a cause for concern. Indeed, not only is the data collection itself a concern, but also the willingness with which they give it up to government agencies (note in the aforementioned interview, Schmidt suggests that Google usually say yes to government requests for data).  Of course, many would argue that there is nothing to fear about the collection of personal data: if you have done nothing wrong etc. But you are not in control of the personal data and the rules that govern its use, corporations and governments are. Imagine for a moment a different type of government, a different set of rules, a different environment altogether, would you be so keen on US officials demanding your data and it being handed over as easily as Google do now? And what if Google engineered this change in government? Sounds far-fetched doesn’t it? Maybe it’s not as far-fetched as it might sound…

A recent study by United States-based psychologists, led by Dr. Robert Epstein of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, revealed the disturbing amount of power at the hands of companies like Google. Epstein’s study found that Google has the capability to influence the outcome of democratic elections by manipulating search rankings.  The study (available here – PDF) presented three groups of eligible American voters with actual web pages and search engine results from the 2010 Australian general election. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups, two groups were provided with search engine rankings favouring one of the candidates, the remaining group were provided with rankings that favoured neither:

Beforehand, individuals reported having little or no familiarity with the candidates at all. Based on short biographies, they were asked to rate each candidate and say how they would vote.

They then spent time gathering information using a mock search engine, after which they again rated the candidates in various ways and again said how they would vote.

Before their Internet search, there were no significant differences in how they rated the candidates. Afterwards, however, two thirds of the people in the first two groups said they would vote for the candidate that was favored in the search rankings – a dramatic shift that could easily “flip” the results of many elections, especially close ones, concludes the report.

Now, there is nothing to suggest that Google have actually weighted search results in the way suggested in the study nor that they ever have the intention of doing so, but they can. Not only can they do it, but they can do it without our awareness of such manipulation.

Governments may attempt to monitor us through the introduction of ever more illiberal regulatory measures applied to the internet, but it’s important to remember that the corporations profiting from the internet also benefit from our manipulation.  It strikes me that there are two crucial considerations that we need to remember when we reflect upon the role of the corporation (as opposed to that of the state) in the development of the internet:

1)      The relationship between the user and the service.  Unlike traditional relationships, we are not simply the consumers purchasing goods from a service provider.  They are taking data from us and selling it to advertisers to make money.  Our data is the product and we are the vendor.  The problem is we are not remunerated for this transaction, only permitted to use a service under the terms stipulated by the service provider.  They are not acting out of kindness in offering such services for free, they want more data from users to increase profits.  Users need to be more aware that they are the vendors in this relationship, not the customers.  Of course, we believe and trust them because we are not ‘buying’ from them, we still see them as providing us with something for free when actually they make their money using our data.

2)      Considering the volume of data given away, there is a need to remind ourselves of the nature of government and corporations.  Like governments, corporations are not fixed.  Corporations change.  They change either because of a need to increase profits, or they change because they have been bought out by a rival.  You may well be happy giving Google all your data, but what happens when it is no longer Google?  What if your personal data fell into the hands of a company you were not comfortable gaining access to it?  What then? And whilst a takeover attempt of Google may seem far-fetched at this point, remember that that the very idea that Time Warner would merge with a company called AOL was a fanciful notion towards the end of the last century. Nothing remains static in either the worlds of business or technology.

Above all else, however, we need to remember that companies like Google and Facebook are just that: companies. Whilst they appear warm, fuzzy and less stuffy than traditional corporations, they are still corporations.  Corporations that are acting the same as every other corporation before them, lobbying government to lighten regulation, maximising profit and, where possible, shift the focus onto government shortcomings in the hope that their own activities won’t be subject to scrutiny. They are, after all, just corporations like any other and we should treat them with the same scepticism as we treat older, more established corporations.  For when it comes to the internet, we need to keep a close eye on both the governments who regulate it and the corporations who profit from it.