Public libraries and the UK Digital Strategy

digital inclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving the Freedom of Information Act

Houses of Parliament (CC-BY)

Back in 2011, David Cameron announced that he was going to change the way government did business. No more hiding information away, making it difficult for people to retrieve. Instead, in an article published in the Telegraph, Cameron highlighted the importance of transparency at the heart of government. Information, said Cameron, “lets people hold the powerful to account” and, as a result, there needed to be more transparency about the workings of government. As Francis Maude, then Minister for the Cabinet Office, underlined, the “ambition [was] to make the UK the most transparent and accountable Government in the world“.

With such high words about the importance of transparency at the heart of government, it seems somewhat surprising (well, not that surprising) that Cameron’s government has launched a review into the Freedom of Information Act, a review that seems pretty loaded to produce a particular outcome: a curtailing of the power of the Act (which is saying something given its current limitations). So much for people holding the powerful to account.

The problem is that Cameron always had a particular narrow definition of government transparency. In his 2011 Telegraph article, he makes it pretty clear what he means by transparency: publicly accessible datasets. Releasing datasets is fine, indeed it’s a much welcome move. Their release certainly offers a degree of transparency. But it is a limited degree of transparency. Datasets alone can only tell you so much, they offer a very superficial form of transparency: transparency without context. Datasets do no negate FoI, they make FoI even more important.

At the recent Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) gathering in Huddersfield we talked about conducting research and the importance of FoI in helping to extract information from public bodies. The Act is a valuable tool for activists, enabling them to obtain information that can help to reinforce their case. It’s something that I have found an effective tool as part of my involvement in Voices for the Library – obtaining valuable information about the delivery of public library services throughout the UK.

Whilst the Act is limited at present, it does offer an opportunity to obtain information that can, just maybe, instigate change. Further restrictions to the Act will significantly limit its effectiveness and, further, make the kind of research discussed at the RLC gathering virtually impossible, not to mention creating difficulties for activists more generally. As Cameron himself said, “information is power”. Without access to the kind of information held by public bodies, we do not have power and without power we cannot instigate change.

But what of the review? Well, the figures involved in the review process should cause alarm for those concerned with transparent governance. Jack Straw, for example, is a known critic of the Act previously arguing that there needed to be substantial changes to the Act due to the impact it was having on government. Another figure on the panel, Michael Howard, was the subject of a number of freedom of information requests in 2005 that led to 500 pages of internal files being released relating to “controversial issues” he dealt with as home secretary in the 1990s. It seems hard to believe that he will be a great fan of the Act. And yet another member of the panel, Lord Carlile of Berriew, is not a particular fan of government transparency. The peer argued in 2013 that The Guardian’s publication of “stolen state secrets” was a “criminal” act.

With such figures involved in the review, it seems clear that at the very least the Act will be significantly watered down. This is not a surprise, it took years to make such an Act a reality and it’s not for nothing that the United Kingdom is known as one of the most secretive states in the Western world (we do, after all, retain an Official Secrets Act). Indeed, it transpired a couple of weeks ago that the Ministry of Justice is consulting on the introduction of Tribunal fees – which will very likely have the same effect as the introduction of tribunal fees elsewhere (ie people won’t take decisions to tribunals, which of course means that the government and public bodies are likely to get away with withholding information).

Given the attack on a vital piece of legislation that plays a vital role in giving people the information they require to hold the government to account, what can be done to put pressure on the government and ensure that at the very least the Act survives in its current form (it certainly needs extending, but that seems highly unlikely at present – if not impossible under a Tory government)? I’d highly recommend checking out this blog post by Paul Gibbons,  a consultant and trainer in information rights and information management. I’d also urge you to support the Campaign for Freedom of Information as much as you possibly can. I was very privileged to be invited to their recent 30th anniversary celebrations and hearing about the work they have done and continue to do was incredibly inspiring. But they need support to carry that work forward, so if you can support the Campaign (either through donations or amplifying their work on social media) please do so. Do also see their “Stop FoI Restrictions” page. They deserve all the support they can get for their tireless efforts to ensure that we all have access to information from the state.

Transparency at the heart of government should be a concern of every citizen, but I believe that information professionals have a particular obligation to ensure that not only is the Act not watered down, but that we also work to strengthen it. Information is power. With a weakened Freedom of Information Act, our power is severely curtailed.

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.

If you’ve done nothing wrong…

I caught an interesting blog by Jon Baines over at Information Rights and Wrongs yesterday on data protection and the extent of the “database state”.  Jon writes that a data protection officer he knows is being pushed to “encourage greater sharing of information between their public sector organisation and other public sector bodies.”  As he goes on to point out, this push is not only coming from management, it is coming from central government.

Last month, The Guardian revealed that the government is planning to make it easier for public agencies to share information.  According to the report:

Ministers are planning a shakeup of the law on the use of confidential personal data to make it far easier for government and public-sector organisations to share confidential information supplied by the public.

Proposals to be published next month by the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, are expected to include fast-track procedures for ministers to license the sharing of data in areas where it is currently prohibited, subject to privacy safeguards.

Before the election, the Tories gave a clear commitment to “roll back the advance of Big Brother”.  Indeed, their manifesto stated:

The database state is a poor substitute for the human judgement essential to the delivery of public services. Worse than that, it gives people false comfort that an infallible central state is looking after their best interests. But the many scandals of lost data, leaked documents and database failures have put millions at risk. It is time for a new approach to protecting our liberty.

It is clear that they have now u-turned on this policy and are actually expanding the extent of the “database state”.  As the aforementioned Guardian article goes on to state:

Despite the coalition government’s pre-election promises to roll back the database state, the growth of internal Whitehall databases has quietly continued apace in the last two years. A newly created “drug data warehouse” has been set up containing anonymised details of more than 1 million individuals who use illicit drugs.

I find these developments deeply concerning in the current economic and political climate.  Such policies may seem harmless and benign in a stable environment, but these are not stable times.

In times of severe depression, there is always a very real risk that people will flock to extremes to seek answers.  If people do not feel that the government is on their side when they are losing their jobs or feeling the effects of the depression, they will look towards those who are on their side (or at least appear to be).  This simple principle has been demonstrated with the recent election in Greece and the rather disturbing results that emerged from a country in the grip of crisis.

Whilst all eyes were on France and the victory of Hollande, in Greece it emerged that a far-right, anti-immigration party had won a large enough percentage of the vote to gain a seat in the Greek parliament.  For 5-7% of voters, Golden Dawn appeared to be on their side.  For this section of Greek society, a far-right party did have the solutions to resolve the economic difficulties the country is experiencing.  Many Greeks felt that the government was not on their side, not listening to their concerns and subsequently they turned to extremists who (apparently) were.

We are, at present, a long way off this situation and certainly there is no immediate sense that a far-right party will gain a seat in parliament (although I often feel we are teetering on the brink).  However, whilst the implications of the economic crisis are not clear, it is difficult to maintain absolute confidence that fascist parties won’t gain a foothold.  Certainly, if people feel that the governments are not on their side through the crisis there is a danger they could be persuaded by extremist parties that are otherwise consigned to the margins.  But what is really concerning is the extent to which recent governments have put the mechanisms in place for a truly efficient fascist state.

For many years now, we have had security cameras on every street corner ostensibly to ‘protect’ us as citizens.  Indeed, there are presently around 2 million CCTV cameras on UK streets, more than any other country in Europe, despite the lack of clear evidence they have had asignificant impact on solving crime.  It is easier than ever before to monitor citizens and track their movements.  Whilst there are movements against the widespread use of CCTV, for many such technology has been broadly accepted (if not welcomed in some cases) as part of the mechanisms required to tackle crime.  The extent of public surveillance and the growth of the “database state” should concern us all in such unstable times.

Going back to the issue of data collection, Jon writes in his excellent blog post:

In a non-liberal state, however, similar information that has possibly been innocently, or naively, collated, can be misused in horrendous ways: so, in 1940s Holland, municipal registers were used by the Nazis to identify and persecute Jews, trade union membership listsused to persecute organised labour and public health and crime records used to persecute the disabled and criminals.

He concludes:

Data-sharing can have enormous and beneficial implications, but we need to exercise caution. We mustn’t amass personal data just because we can. We mustn’t use that data for purposes which were not envisaged when we gathered it. And we mustn’t retain that data just because we can’t be bothered to think what to do with it after its usefulness has passed.

Indeed, data-sharing does provide many benefits, but we must not abandon basic principles designed to protect the individual.  Furthermore, despite the fact that the above principles are enshrined in the statutory Principles in the Data Protection Act 1998 (as Jon states), this does not mean we shouldn’t have concerns about the extent of information held by the state on individuals and the extent to which the database state is expanding.  Many of the mechanisms that are currently in place would make for a highly efficient fascist state.

I have often heard those who defend CCTV and the expansion of the “database state” employ the “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear” argument.  That’s all well and good but you are not the one that defines what is right or wrong.  They are.