How government is exacerbating the digital divide

(Image c/o Mike Behnken on Flickr.)

There is a common mis-conception that to bridge the digital divide, we merely have to provide everyone with access to an internet connection. Of course, as many of us know, the reality is much more complicated than that. Not only do they require a working and accessible computer with an internet connection, they also require the skills with which to exploit this access to its fullest potential (not to mention the associated issues around varying speeds etc etc). But it’s not just about skills and access, there is also a reliance on those putting information online to do so in a way that is as accessible and user-friendly as possible. This is particularly important when it comes to governmental websites.

I’ve written many times before about the government’s attitude to going digital. It is both poorly conceived and highly damaging. The efforts to move benefits solely online (as well as making job-seekers find jobs online via a governmental portal), is particularly troubling as those most reliant on benefits are also least likely to have an internet connection. The shift to services online would cause serious issues for many who are on the wrong side of the digital divide. However, it’s not just the fact that these services are shifting online when there is still a sizeable chunk of the population who have never used the internet, the lack of care and consideration in the development of such websites is also very troubling. It’s for this reason that I was interested to read FOIMan’s recent blog post on finding information via gov.uk and ico.org.uk (the information commissioner’s website).

The government’s main web presence, gov.uk, is particularly poorly conceived and raises huge issues for those without the skills to navigate the site properly and find the information they need. Even for those with a good standard of computer literacy, the website is problematic at best. As FOIMan explains:

If I want to find information on “freedom of information policies”, a search brings up a few random policies from government agencies, some answers to FOI requests, and FOI stats. It doesn’t take me to any government-wide policies that would previously have been on the Ministry of Justice’s website. There’s enough anecdotal comment on Twitter and elsewhere to suggest that I’m not alone in my frustrations.

The consolidation of multiple governmental websites into one solitary portal whilst seeming a good idea at the time (why have loads of websites widely distributed?), without separate departmental websites you are left with a vast website that makes finding particular pieces of information a particularly arduous task. And why should finding governmental information be anything other than easy and convenient? As FOIMan puts it:

The problem is that gov.uk appears to be solely concerned with the delivery of services in this way. For those of us who want to get at policies, procedures, statistics, reports – we’re stuffed.

This is government information. Information we are all entitled to access not only because we have a right to know, but also because this information can be used by us to hold the government to account. If we cannot easily access reports, statistics, policies etc etc, how can we effectively hold the government to account? A cynic might argue that that’s the way they would want it…

This does raise serious issues about the nature of our democracy as well as the interpretation of the internet by governments. The internet provides a fantastic opportunity in liberal democracies to bring the people and their elected representatives closer together. It provides opportunities to make it easier for citizens to hold their elected officials to account. Opportunities they may be for us, in terms of those in power they are undoubtedly threats. The construction of gov.uk hints at the broader governmental attitude to the internet. Yes, it can open up government and make it easier for the people to access information on the workings of the state. But it is also a threat to their power and authority. So piecemeal efforts are made to open up government via the internet, whilst simultaneously making that information difficult to obtain. Indeed, we know from various other proposals that government see the internet as a threat, when it should be seen as a democratising tool.

There is an opportunity to utilise the internet in order to build bridges between the electorate and the elected. To make our democracies more responsive and to make it easier to hold governments to account. Unfortunately, the attitude of the government towards the internet continues to be one where rather than bridging divides (both within society in general, and between the state and the individual) they are exacerbating existing ones.

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?

What if we considered library users as citizens?

(Image c/o Leo Hidalgo on Flickr.)

Over the week-end I came across this interesting piece in The Observer on citizenship and how it is being undermined by the rampant consumerism that is characteristic of the times. One particular paragraph stood out amongst all others:

What if we ask ourselves what we might want, need or use in the town centres near us? And then how does the answer differ if we ask as citizens, rather than consumers?

What would be the result if we applied this thinking to public libraries (or even academic libraries)? If we were to consider library services, how would our answer differ if we asked as citizens rather than consumers? Would there be a difference? I think there would. I think the things we would demand from library services would be completely different if we asked as citizens rather than consumers because our needs as citizens are not the same as our desires as consumers.

Perhaps the most pertinent bit (from a library perspective) was the following:

The growth in coffee shops is interesting: spaces where people can meet and talk and read.

If retail continues to demand our shopping attention, our councils face a planning challenge for our physical high streets. There is already more retail space than there are retailers, so what do councils do with these spaces? We are struggling even to keep hold of our libraries, that rare enough mainstay of our town centres, yet by this community-centric theory of consumer revolution, they should be more relevant than ever.

Have we missed a trick here? In the rush to embrace the consumerist culture that dominates, in our rush to portray users as ‘customers’ have we missed out on what would truly ensure libraries prosper? Perhaps we have. Perhaps our rush to embrace consumerism has made us blind to what was staring us in the face all along. It is not a consumer culture we should be embracing. We should, instead, be facilitating access to the tools citizens require.

The future for libraries across Europe against a backdrop of ‘austerity’

The following article was originally commissioned by the Russian International Affairs Council (original version here, English version here), who have very kindly given me permission to reproduce it here.

Image c/o Tristam Sparks on Flickr.

Libraries across Europe are currently facing very serious challenges in the face of the wave of austerity sweeping across the continent. As governments sell to their people the notion that public spending needs to be curtailed to overcome the effects of the 2008 economic crisis, public libraries are increasingly seen as an easy target, one that is unlikely to rally the people in quite the same way as cuts to other services where the outcomes of such cuts appear more immediately tangible.

But libraries continue to play an important role in our communities across Europe. They facilitate access to knowledge free at the point of use in a way that is increasingly threatened as we move towards a word where access to information comes at a price. They are the great leveller in democracies, ensuring everyone has access to the same quality of information. Where, for example, those without internet access (around 30% of the European population do not have a broadband internet connection) still have somewhere to go to ensure they have access to the same information as those that do. This provision is not only important to support children in their education but also the unemployed and those who rely on social security, particularly in the UK where those least likely to have a home internet connection are increasingly being forced to use such technology for their own financial security.

But libraries aren’t simply important in terms of providing access to new technologies, they are also vital for helping to raise literacy standards, and encourage children to develop their reading skills. The importance of libraries to children is perhaps best exemplified by the statistics that demonstrate that children are increasingly using public libraries, despite the internet and the proliferation of a range of competing activities. Over the past eight years in the UK, children’s fiction borrowing as risen year upon year, underlining how important public libraries are for supporting the educational development of the next generation.

In terms of the future for the library service, we are already seeing hints of how it might develop and, perhaps, how it should develop. In the UK, there has been a growth in so-called ‘community libraries’. The terminology appears harmless, but the reality is quite different. In order to support the drive to austerity, libraries are increasingly being forced upon communities who are then compelled to run them against their will. Whilst the majority of library users would prefer their public library to be run by the local authority, policy makers are more interested in reducing costs and passing these costs directly onto the community, effectively increasing their tax burden.

This ‘plague’ is sweeping across the UK and has been noticed elsewhere across Europe. In Spain, for example, volunteer run libraries are increasingly being seen as an option, at least in part due to their ‘commonality’ in the UK. Ideas that spring up in one European nation are sure to be experimented with elsewhere, particularly when it appears that the idea helps to support the austerity agenda that is so prevalent across the continent. It seems not far-fetched to say that volunteer libraries could, over the coming years, spread right across Europe and be seen as a standard way of delivering library services, complemented by large city ‘super-libraries’ such as that that opened in Birmingham in 2013.

If this is to be the future for public libraries across Europe, it is fair to say that the future looks bleak and there is likely to be only a small number of libraries fit for purpose across Europe as smaller libraries disappear and community libraries close due to their unsustainable nature. It would appear that one future is to have a well-funded, flagship library in each major city, but a steady decline in the number of small libraries serving local communities. In the UK alone we could see the number of public libraries shift from the thousands to the hundreds between now and the next century.

Whilst this is how things might develop, it is not necessarily how things should develop. Recent elections have shown just how important the internet has been in influencing the results. President Obama’s election campaign in 2008 showed how the internet could be harnessed to drive a successful presidential election. Not only is it the case that elections have become increasingly fought over the internet, but the battle between political parties has increasingly sought to channel the power of the internet as politicians increasingly see the internet as a vital weapon in the information wars. But this ‘war’ is not only being fought between politicians, there are other actors that influence the political information flow. Websites such as Full Fact, What Do They Know? and They Work For You have provided the tools to make it easier for those with an internet connection to hold their elected representatives to account, as well as to get to the truth about their activities. It is far easier to engage in the political process now than it has ever been. Provided you are connected to the internet.

We know that many people do not have an internet connection. We also know that, as with literacy standards, there is always likely to be a minority of the populace who cannot either access or make use of the information and tools that are at our disposal. We know that despite many years of effort to address literacy standards, there are still many who struggle with literacy (one in six according to the UK’s National Literacy Trust). For those that do struggle, the internet will present additional problems. Issues around literacy do not disappear once you sit in front of a computer. They persist, ensuring that a divide remains between those with good levels of literacy and those without.

So perhaps this points the way to an alternative role for libraries, how things should develop in the next one hundred years. Perhaps libraries should increasingly become gateways to our democracy, helping people to hold their elected officials to account, ensuring that the electorate are well informed and able to influence the political sphere. As well as supporting them through the provision of access to government portals as governments increasingly adopt a ‘digital by default’ strategy, maybe they can also help to ensure the people can watch over the state and ensure it can be held to account. It may require a different model across Europe, one that is more independent of state and therefore at enough of a distance to ensure it can hold governments to account.

Perhaps the volunteer model that is rapidly being adopted is a hint to a better alternative that is being ignored on the basis of political ideology. Rather than ‘community libraries’ run by people with a gun held to their head, maybe a closer, stronger partnership between the community and the professionally delivered service is the answer. Maybe the example of the University of Mondragon suggests an interesting, more desirable alternative.

Mondragon operates on a co-operative model that is highly de-centralised and engages all partners in the delivery of education. It also has a highly democratic governance structure:

Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team.

Perhaps this is a model that libraries across Europe should be exploring. A professionally delivered service run in partnership with its users and other co-operative libraries. The potential for such a service is great, but the idea itself could be easily corrupted. Efforts to expand on mutuals in the UK have already raised alarm amongst interested parties such as Co-operatives UK and the Trades Union Congress. As such, this alternative future should perhaps be handled with care and one that advocates should be careful to ensure the idea is not corrupted and abused.

There is certainly the potential to build an alternative future for public (and, indeed, academic) libraries in the future. At present the future appears to be developing in a way that will result in the slow destruction of a public library network across Europe. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Libraries should develop as institutions that can help the people of Europe engage in democratic processes, they should be at the centre of a drive towards transparency across the continent. A well-funded and well-resourced library service should enhance democracies throughout Europe. The future might look bleak, but it should look transparent.

An Age of Information for them, but what about us?

“An amendment to the constitutions of all nations and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Proposed by Adbusters. (Image used with permission from Adbusters.)

A little while back I wrote a post pondering whether the internet has, in terms of the way we are governed, been an opportunity missed. For me, the arrival of the internet had the potential to revolutionise our political life. In democracies it offered the opportunity to more closely connect the governed with the governing and in totalitarian regimes it offered the opportunity to breakdown barriers and help to shape a society that is more open and democratic. Whilst the internet has helped facilitate communication between citizens, and led to a degree of change in the way we are governed, the changes have, as has been the case throughout history, benefited the powerful rather than the powerless.

The internet has, undoubtedly, led to a change in the way in which we communicate with each other. We share far more with complete strangers than we would ever have been comfortable with in the past. In many respects, this is relatively harmless. We choose to volunteer certain information about what we are reading, what we are eating, where we are going…harmless information of little interest to anyone.

But, as the NSA revelations have demonstrated, information has also been collected by the state, information that was not publicly published by citizens and instead obtained by tapping into cloud networks. As the Washington Post reported:

…the NSA’s acquisitions directorate sends millions of records every day from internal Yahoo and Google networks to data warehouses at the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md. In the preceding 30 days, the report said, field collectors had processed and sent back 181,280,466 new records — including “metadata,” which would indicate who sent or received e-mails and when, as well as content such as text, audio and video.

In short, communication between ourselves has changed, as has the amount of information on us available to the state, but the relationship between the governed and the governing has remained fundamentally unchanged.

Indeed, in some respects the NSA revelations might just be a high watermark in terms of informing the governed about the activities of the governing, or at least in terms of the balance between the information available to the governed and that available to the governing. Could it be that, despite the opportunity afforded us by new technology, we have already passed a point where there is a balance in the flow of information between the governing and the governed? Was there even really any balance at all? Will the future see the balance tip ever further in favour of the governing?

It would seem hard to believe that the revelations by Edward Snowden are going to repeated any time soon. Fine words will be said in public, but it seems unlikely that the reaction will be anything other than the tightening of internal procedures to ensure that another Snowden is not on the cards in the future. History suggests that the response will not be to increase transparency, but to tighten the grip on state information, ensuring nothing leaks out that might alarm the governed. Indeed, the fact that both Snowden and The Guardian are faced with calls to be prosecuted suggests that the governing are unlikely to suddenly open up and embrace transparent governance.

On a smaller scale, it is also the case in the UK that the right of the governed to know what the governing are doing is threatened with restriction. The UK has often been seen as one of the most secretive of the Western democracies, certainly more guarded of its internal operations than the United States (whose Freedom of Information Act preceded the UK’s by 35 years).  Whilst the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act in 2001 offered hope that perhaps we were entering a new era of transparent governance, Tony Blair’s regret at introducing it underlines the extent to which it has been introduced with great reluctance and, consequently, there have been frequent and sustained attempts to undermine the legislation.

We see this partly in the way that the current government believes that publication of masses of data negates the need for freedom of information legislation, never mind that it is not solely pure data that the governed wish to obtain. It’s also the kind of information that the state wishes to conceal by using methods which, they believe, circumnavigate existing legislation. And now we understand that the recently replaced Justice Minister, Lord McNally, has indicated that the government is to consult on FoI restrictions. From the Campaign for Freedom of Information blog:

…the Justice Minister Lord McNally says the government is not committed to implementing all the proposals it has put forward but adds “It is however right that we should seek to ensure that the costs the FOIA imposes on public authorities are not excessive, especially in the current economic climate, and are proportionate to the many benefits that the FOIA brings.”

The minister says that the government’s aim “is not a widespread reduction in transparency but to focus on the small minority of requests which are disproportionately burdensome”. However,  the proposals are not targeted at particularly burdensome requests but would restrict access by allusers, including those making occasional requests of modest scope.

The government is still considering the options, Lord McNally says, and will consult the public “in the near future” on those it decides take forward. It seems likely that further moves to restrict the Act are on the way.

So have we reached a point where the information we have access to on the governing is going to rapidly decline, whilst the information the state has on the governed will continue to steadily increase? I may be cynical, but I find it hard to believe that there will be any balance any time soon, and certainly not a shift in favour of the governed. Once the Snowden furore dies down it will be business as normal for the state and our ability to access information on the governing will be severely diminished whilst ours is expanded in ever more complex and secretive ways. The history of the actions of the governing provides no evidence that it will slow down or reverse the collection of data on the governed.

The mechanism available to us through the development of the internet provides us with an opportunity to create a truly open, transparent and democratic system of governance. A system that ensures that the individual is free from state deception and that gives the governed the right to full public disclosure on all matters pertaining to peace, security, ecology and finance. At present the balance is too heavily weighted in favour of information flowing upwards. And that is not to any of our benefits.

Evading transparency – the privatisation of public services

Is the sale of Royal Mail a symbol of our damaged democracy? (Image c/o kenjonbro on Flickr.)

Earlier this month, after several years of threats from both the Tories and Labour, the Royal Mail was finally privatised by the Coalition. Despite strong profits and a secure future (primarily due to the rise in internet shopping), the Coalition saw fit, without the permission of the general public who owned the service, to sell it off to wealthy investors. Not only was a publicly owned service sold off without the permission of the public, it has done so at huge cost as a result to the substantial under-valuing of shares in Royal Mail.

With privatisation comes a new set of priorities for the service. No longer is it answerable to the general public, instead it is answerable only to investors whose prime interest is a return on their investment (not on ensuring a quality service). And because it has moved into the private sector and is no longer answerable to the general public, it is not within its interests to act in an open and transparent manner, as it would be forced to do if it were publicly owned. If it doesn’t have to answer to the public, there is no reason for the public to know what it is doing. Which, in my view, highlights a substantial and serious problem with existing Freedom of Information legislation in the current, rapidly changing, environment.

It took many years for the UK government to (reluctantly of course) ‘embrace’ the principles of Freedom of Information. The UK has historically been one of the more secretive of the Western democracies (compare the attitude of our government to transparent governance to that of the United States for example) and, so far as governments across the ages have been concerned, the notion that the governed have a right to know what the governing are doing in their name has long by considered absurd. Even after the legislation was introduced, the governing class were less than enthusiastic about embracing basic principles of an open democracy and transparent governance.

Despite his rhetoric and claims that his would be the most transparent of governments, David Cameron’s government has generally followed the trend of its predecessors. There has been talk of transparency, and some piecemeal attempts to match rhetoric with words, but generally the government has viewed transparency legislation as an obstacle rather than as a conduit for good government. Perhaps this is unsurprising from a leader of a party that is perhaps the most secretive about the source of its funding. This reluctance to fully embrace transparency has been reflected in the actions of a number of ministers (Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley being two obvious examples), but also in his apparent zeal for public sector services being sold off to the private sector where they are free from scrutiny.

Cameron may argue that ‘profit’ is not a dirty word. In many respects, I would argue, it is the dirtiest of words. Dirty because the profit motive obstructs transparency and makes services less accountable to those that rely on them. Put profit into the equation and suddenly the waters are muddied. True transparency simply is not possible to the extent that is possible before the introduction of the profit motive. We see this in the shift of public sector services to the private sector. Whereas public sector services are subject to legislation enforcing a degree of transparency (although admittedly this legislation could be much improved – it is nonetheless, better than nothing at all), the private sector is free from such scrutiny, hiding behind their supposed need to protect profits.

Privatisation is, therefore, not only a sop to your political donors, it is also prevents proper scrutiny of a service. The transfer of Royal Mail, for example, means that the way it is run is, effectively, no business of the people who use the service. It is only the business of investors. If you have no investment in the service, you have no right to know how that service is being delivered. The drive to privatisation is not only a drive to take services out of public ownership, it is a drive away from transparency and towards secrecy. With every privatisation of state owned services, comes a move towards an increasingly secretive (dare I say totalitarian?) society in which you do not have a right to know about the services you use. In effect, we face reaching a point where Freedom of Information legislation is almost an irrelevance as it can no longer be effectively applied and no information of real value can be obtained from its use.

The only way to prevent the governing from eradicating what transparency we currently have (aside from demanding a reversal of previously undertaken privatisations), is to extend and strengthen existing Freedom of Information legislation. If we are to be serious about creating a transparent society, then these powers must be strengthened. If a private sector company is contracted to provide a service on behalf of the public sector, then it must be subject to the same transparency as if it were provided by the public sector. Of course, private companies will complain that opening themselves up will leave them at a competitive disadvantage, but if they wish to provide public services then that is the price they must pay. The concern of the general populace is not the profit margin of a private contractor but that the service provider can be held to account by the citizens who are most affected by the service they are providing.

For all of these reasons, I will be writing to my MP calling on him to support the call to extend Freedom of Information powers in the early day motion (613) tabled on Wednesday. The motion declares that:

…this House praises the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for the transparency and openness it has brought to the public sector and the public right of access of information held by central and local government and its agencies; notes that public services delivered by private companies are currently beyond the scope of the 2000 Act; further notes that, as growing amounts of public services are privatised, ever decreasing amounts of public spend are subject to freedom of information; and supports calls to extend the legislation so that public services contracted out to the private and third sector are covered by freedom of information legislation.

Whilst it is a relatively recent piece of legislation, Freedom of Information is a vital principle if we are to believe that the way we are governed should be transparent and open to scrutiny. An information society should expect nothing less than open information on the way services are provided, whether it be by the public sector or the private sector. A truly democratic state should ensure that all of its citizens have the means to ensure they are fully informed about the ways in which they are governed. Privatisation is not only the enemy of transparency and accountability, it is also the enemy of democracy and freedom.

The internet: an opportunity missed, or an opportunity lost?

But nothing compares with the revolutionary impact of the internet. The internet has altered drastically the nature of our political campaigns, conventions, constituents, candidates and costs. Some politicians regard it with suspicion, others with pleasure. Some candidates have benefited by using it-others have been advised to avoid it. To the voter and vote-getter alike, the internet offers new opportunities, new challenges and new problems.

The above quote was taken from an article written by a future liberal American president. A highly skilled and cunning operator, he identified early on that this technology would play a crucial role in political life.  Furthermore, it would later be a key factor in electing him to the highest office in the land, leaving his opponents trailing far behind as they failed to grapple with the opportunities this new technology provided.  But this above quote isn’t all that it seems.  For one thing, it was written in 1959.  For another (obviously) the article was not about the internet, but about television.  And, of course, this future liberal American president was, in fact, John F Kennedy.

The emergence of television as a major communications tool had the potential to revolutionise the relationship between politicians and the electorate. Rather than remaining remote and detached from the people who would elect them, politicians could now appear in every constituent’s living room, communicating with them directly in a way they simply were not able to before.  Of course, this development did alter the nature of political campaigns and politics in general, much as Kennedy predicted, but it made no tangible difference to the relationship between the governed and the governors.  If anything, television simply reinforced existing power structures. One only has to see the relationship between commercial television and the political elite, both funded by the same corporate sponsors, both defending the interests of those same sponsors and the economic system which benefits their funding streams.  Television did nothing to challenge existing power structures, it merely reinforced them.

Television’s reinforcement of the status quo is perhaps unsurprising. Whilst it has the potential to reveal truths about our society to a much bigger audience than any other medium has managed (thanks perhaps to the power of the moving image), it has largely been a one-way communication tool. Whilst it has afforded the opportunity for some interaction, and for viewers to engage in populist TV shows, it has done little to engage or empower people in democratic processes. And then came the internet…

The internet certainly has the potential to radically alter the relationship between the governed and the governing. The growth of social media in particular has opened up the potential to enable greater communication between the two. Whereas the flow of communication has primarily been top down, from the governing to the governed, the internet and social media enables a cycle of communication between the two. The internet and social media has, unlike almost every other communications tool that preceded it (like television), the potential to be revolutionary in its impact. Unfortunately, this potential has not, in my view, been realised. Rather than heralding a radically new political environment, the internet has increasingly become just another communications tool for the elite to assert authority over.

Of course, the great “Arab Spring” has often been heralded as a watershed in terms of the ability for social media and the internet to facilitate radical social and political change.  Whilst it undoubtedly had some impact, it was perhaps not the great game changer that many claim it to be. Of course, that hasn’t stopped many of these actions being acclaimed as “Facebook Revolutions”. But there is perhaps a Western-centric view of the influence of these tools, primarily because many of these tools are Western creations. It is perhaps unsurprising that the Western media have latched onto Western technology as a hook to interest their populations in uprisings that happen in parts of the world where they have previously shown little interest.

Wael Ghonim, a key figure in the use of the internet as a tool to support the revolutionary movement in Egypt, documented his experiences of running a social media campaign in support of the uprising in his book, Revolution 2.0. Whilst it is undoubtedly an interesting read (I’d certainly recommend picking it up if you get the chance), as one reviewer points out:

“…it clearly states that the Kullena Khaled Said page even at its best only reached about one million readers, a large number for an Internet campaign no doubt, but only a small minority in a nation of 81 million people. Ghonim makes scant any reference to, for example, the wave of strikes that begun in Mahalla in late 2006 and which played a major role in mobilising people against the Mubarak regime. Thus, this book represents a rather narrow view of the Egyptian revolution, something Ghonim also asserts himself.”

The exaggeration of the impact of social media appears to be borne out in a report prepared for the Defense Intelligence Agency in the United States. In “The Impact of Social Media on Social Unrest in the Arab Spring” [PDF] the authors investigated the impact of social media upon social unrest and presented three main findings:

1)      Exogenous political and economic shocks served as the necessary underlying drivers of social unrest; without grievances, individuals would have no cause for protest.

2)      The authors did not find a consistent correlation between social media use and successful mass protest, suggesting social media is a useful but not sufficient tool for protest.

3)      Social media boosted international attention to local events by facilitating reporting from places traditional media has limited access to and by providing a bottom-up, decentralized process for generating news stories.

The authors ended on a cautionary note. Social media was increasingly being used by authoritarian governments to “repress opposition movements and stymie democratisation”.

In short, social media made a contribution to the development of the Arab Spring, but it was not the key factor. Unsurprisingly, a number of factors came together which led to the successful overthrow of authoritarian regimes. Social media didn’t change the dynamic between the regimes and the people they controlled, but it did facilitate the protest movement once it began to develop and grow. What is important to note, however, is that the technology is increasingly being used by repressive regimes to reinforce existing power structures, rather than to open up and democratise society. But what about in the West? Has the internet had the revolutionary impact its potential suggested?

Western liberal democracies appear not to have seen the internet as an opportunity to create a more participative democracy, but rather as an opportunity to reinforce existing structures. In terms of using the technology there appears to be two dominant strategies:

1)      Push out information about the state under the auspices of Open Data.

2)      Collect more information about citizens.

(And you could probably add a third as being that of a propaganda weapon*.)

In terms of the first (and I am primarily referring to the UK here) the internet is seen as a tool to push out government data. This is, of course, seen as a way to make public officials accountable to “taxpayers” (so the rhetoric goes) and to create, as David Cameron would have it, a new era of transparency. Of course, data without context is fairly meaningless. Opening up data in the way the UK government has been doing so does not truly empower citizens or radically impact upon the nature of our democracy. It is one-way communication between the governing and the governed, just delivered in a slightly different way. Indeed, an interview with Francis Maude conducted by the Wall Street Journal underlined that this information push is not about changing the relationship between the governed and the governing but about reinforcing the status quo (this is a fairly sizeable extract but I think it is worth extracting this part of the exchange):

Wall Street Journal: In what way does it do this? Open government at the moment seems to be about opening government up so people can see what it does, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that it is about empowering citizens. The power balance doesn’t change.

Francis Maude: What you are starting to see now in terms of opening data up in the health service changes the balance of power because there is less ‘you take what you are given whether you like it or not’. It is more you have a chance to look at what you are getting and exercise some choice, some choice which will be enabled by digital. You can see what different hospitals are offering, you can see the outcomes from different GP practices, you can make decisions based on that. That is changing, in a crucial way, what most people say is the most important public service. That is changing the balance, moving the balance towards the citizen.

WSJ: All of those things are about choosing between pre-existing choices. It is not empowering you to change those choices. How can the citizen, having been empowered to do the business of government in a better way, change the business of government?

FM: Through elections.

WSJ: So technology doesn’t have impact on the relationship? We are still in the business of putting crosses on pieces of paper and putting them in ballot boxes.

FM: Those are essentially political decisions, which are subject to democracy.

WSJ: So how do you empower democracy? How does technology change the nature of democracy?

FM: By increasing the level of information and knowledge and the access to it.

WSJ: So what can citizens do once they have been better informed?

FM: Vote in a better way. We are not changing the nature of democracy.

WSJ: Isn’t the logical conclusion of what we have seen elsewhere that digital has the ability to change that relationship? What you seem to be saying is that when it comes to politics, actually no, we are not looking to change. We, the government, will go out to you, the citizens, from whom we derive our legitimacy, we will seek your opinions on these things and then a committee of the great and the good will consider them. But there is no fundamental shift in doing that online or filling in a piece of paper and sending it in.

FM: You could have a continuous participative democracy where decisions are voted on in real time by as many people as are on line and know about it. That is an option. That would be a massive change. You could enable that — you vote for people on Britain’s Got Talent that way.  The technology is not very hard to do. We could do this.

WSJ: This is not something you are suggesting is the policy you are going to have?

FM: No.

The government’s agenda, as the Wall Street Journal point out, will not lead to a fundamental shift in the relationship. Technology is not changing the nature of democracy, it is merely reinforcing old structures.

The second strand is, of course, the collection of information on citizens. The revelations of the activities of the NSA have, thanks to Edward Snowden, shown just what lengths the state is prepared to go to in order to collect information on the governed. In the guise of national security it is prepared to conduct widespread, cross-border electronic surveillance.  Of course, this comes soon after the UK government had attempted to introduce its snoopers’ charter, an attempt that is sure to be repeated regardless of the controversy over surveillance conducted by the NSA. The growth of this new technology appears to be viewed as an opportunity to gather more information on the governed, to reinforce the relationship between them and those that govern them. If there has been a revolution, perhaps it has been in terms of what the governing can learn about us, rather than what we learn about them (despite piecemeal freedom of information legislation – which appears to be a watered down sop to demonstrate that we can conduct our own surveillance on them as much as they can on us…of course we cannot).

Not only is information on citizens being harvested, but it is being done so with the threat of exerting the full force of the state should this be disrupted. See, for example, the case ofDavid Miranda and his nine hour detention. Both here, and in the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement, we can see the lengths the governing will go to in order to protect their own interests and ensure the flow of information remains within their control. As Charlie Beckett, author of Wikileaks – news in the networked eraputs it on the LSE blog:

“…‘outsider journalism’ when combined with the best of mainstream news media and when they exploit the power of new digital networks, create a communications power that is a serious challenge to authority.”

When this one-way, highly controlled flow is disrupted, it presents a challenge to authority, a challenge to governing forces and a shifting in the balance of control of information. Therefore, these same forces will act to protect and ensure that this flow remains within their control. Information, as far as the governing are concerned, should primarily flow in one direction – upwards.

There certainly is a two-way process of communication between the governed and the governing, however the governed do not have an active role in this process. They are to be passive consumers of the data pumped out by the government and a veritable bank of information to be collected by the state. There is no revolution here, the relationship has barely changed, all that has changed is the method by which this relationship is managed. The governing still control the flow of information, in both directions (the recent revelations about Israel underline how social media and the internet is seen as a powerful tool of propaganda – the third main strategy employed by Western, liberal democracies).

Both the internet and social media have the potential to radically alter the nature of our democracy. The truth is that this potential has not (yet?) been realised. Where social media has been hailed as a powerful tool in over-throwing repressive regimes, it merely played a supportive role in strengthening existing revolutionary movements. It helped to challenge the existing relationship between the governed and the governing, but it was an aid not the driving force. Likewise, in Western democracies social media and the internet has not radically changed the relationship between governing and governed. Indeed, it hasn’t changed it at all. Despite the potential for new technology to radically change the dynamic, creating a more open, democratic and participative environment, it has merely been used as a tool to reinforce pre-existing structures. Of course, the potential is still there for the internet to significantly recalibrate our democratic structures. I hope that, for now, this is just an opportunity missed but I fear, as the extent to which the state is prepared to control the flow of information becomes ever clearer, it might well be an opportunity lost.

* I would have liked to have explored all three strategies in greater detail, but I was conscious of the fact I was already running way over a word count that one would reasonably expect people to endure.

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.

Why address the digital divide?

Recently I wrote a series of posts looking at some of the data in relation to the digital divide and which groups in society are most affected by a lack of access to the internet. However, whilst identifying the nature of the divide and which groups could be identified as ‘information poor’, the reasons for addressing the depth of the divide have not really been addressed. There is a divide, but why does it need addressing and why are attempts to address it under threat?

As the data in my previous posts confirmed, it is generally (but not exclusively) the low paid and the most vulnerable in society who are presently on the wrong side of the digital divide and can be therefore described as ‘information poor’. Differences in income certainly play a crucial in consolidating the depth of the existing divide. Those with gross weekly earnings below £200 per week are significantly less likely to have accessed the internet at all compared to those earning over £500 per week. Likewise, the over 65s and the housebound are significantly less likely to have ever used the internet than other sections of society. Furthermore, it would appear that whilst many within these groups would state that the costs of having an internet connection at home are too high, it seems logical that many would also fall within the 50% of those who claim that they “don’t need the internet”.  Not to mention the proportion who believe they lack the skills. But why specifically should we be concerned about this?

Access to information is a key requirement for a fully functioning democracy. Without such access it is difficult for the electorate to know what our elected representatives are doing in our name at the heart of government. The growth of the internet, particularly sites such as They Work For You and What Do They Know, has made more information about the political process available than ever before.  This means, of course, that there is far more information to be consumed by those wishing to get engaged in the political process or to better understand political issues.  A report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in 2004 found that:

Those with high-speed internet connections at home are more reliant on the internet for news on the average day than dial-up users. Broadband users have a more varied mix of news media than other respondents. Of the news sources we asked about, broadband users seek out about 3 on the average day, while dial-up users turn to 2.7 sources, and non-users try 1.7 sources.

The implication is clear. Those that are connected seek more information on current affairs than those without. With the range of news sources available at a click of the mouse, it is perhaps unsurprising to know that those with a connection investigate more resources. Those without will rely on their (often entirely one-sided) daily newspaper or the broadcast media, neither of which will obviously present a comprehensive range of views, opinions or, indeed, facts. Greater access to the internet means a better informed electorate. Or does it?

Another study by Pew back in 2007 revealed the following (via Walk You Home):

Whilst there has been increased knowledge in certain areas, certainly very many areas demonstrated that the %age of Americans who knew certain key political facts had actually declined. The key difference between 1989 and 2007 being the growth of the internet of course. It would not be unreasonable to assume that with the growth of the internet would come greater awareness of a range of political issues. Keeping in mind, of course, that the earlier Pew report in 2004 (three years before the above survey) revealed that those with a broadband connection consulted almost twice as many news sources as those without a connection. However, there is one key difference between 2004 and 2007: the growth of social networking. Is it possible that the development of Facebook, Twitter et al have impacted upon the range of news resources any individual consults? Are they spending less engaging and more time networking?  Or is engagement in social networking leading to individuals being exposed to far more sources than they would have otherwise?  The internet of 2004 was very different to that in 2007. Of course, this is entirely speculation but one wonders what the impact of social networking has actually been on engagement in political issues and the extent to which it has enhanced or diminished exposure to a variety of news sources.

There are also, of course, economic benefits available to those with an internet connection. As anyone reading this will know, online retailers such as Amazon and Play have allowed people to purchase goods at much lower prices than those offered on the high street (which in turn has led to many high street retailers collapsing, impacting upon those who are not connected and have no option but to rely on the high street). And it is not just retailing, price comparison sites have enabled consumers to make substantial savings on insurance and utilities with one study in the US suggesting as much as 20% savings. Obviously it goes without saying that with such savings available those that earn less than £200 gross weekly income would substantially benefit from access to the internet. They are, without doubt, saddled with higher costs than perhaps could be available to them if they had access to an internet connection.

As well as economic benefits, there are substantial educational advantages available to those with an internet connection. A report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, for example, revealed that there is a significant “positive relationship” between pupils’ use of ICT and educational attainment. Furthermore, The e-Learning Foundation claimed that:

…children without access to a computer in the evening are being increasingly disadvantaged in the classroom. Research suggests that 1.2 million teenagers log on to revision pages every week and those using online resources were on average likely to attain a grade higher in exams.

The charity cites BBC research in which more than 100 students used the BBC Bitesize revision materials before their GCSE examination. The children were found to have achieved a grade lift compared to those who did not use the online revision guides. The BBC study says: “This is compared to factors such as teacher influence, which was found to produce no significant difference.”

There is, therefore, a clear link between education attainment and home internet access.

What we see, therefore, is a clear divide between those children who have an internet connection at home and those who do not. Given that, as the figures revealed, a significant proportion of those on the lowest incomes either do not have an internet connection at home or have never used the internet, it is difficult to see how the children of those on lower incomes can break the cycle. With the potential impact a lack of access will have on their educational attainment, it is likely this will have a subsequent effect on the development of their skills which will then have a knock-on effect in terms of their ability to make use of the internet, even if they were to obtain a home connection in adult life. For without basic literacy skills how can we possibly expect an individual to be able to utilise the internet to their advantage? Indeed, the current literacy levels in the UK suggest that there are a great many people out there that need skilled support in order to take full advantage of the internet.

These are just a few reasons why there is (still) a pressing need to address the digital divide. It is depressing that after over ten years since the launch of The People’s Networkwe are still reflecting on the gap between the information haves and have-nots. Of course, a significant reason why we still need to consider these factors is that public libraries, for so long a key institution in getting people online and closing the digital divide, are under serious threat of closure. And not just closure, many libraries are being forced on community groups to be staffed by volunteers. There is not only a divide in terms of access, but also a divide in terms of skills. What is required is skilled support to ensure that the unconnected can get connected and reap the benefits the rest of us take for granted. Of course, there is still a degree of persuasion required. When many still do not consider that they need the internet (despite the various advantages outlined here) there is a need to convince them of the benefits access to the internet provides for them. Race Online 2012 also attempted to address this question, but there is still much work to be done, particularly when 5.7 million households do not have an internet connection.

Libraries have always been primarily concerned with providing free access to information. As such, they have a key role in providing access to the internet for the general public, ensuring equality of access to information across the board. If libraries do not provide this service what institution will? Sure, corporate providers may offer internet access to the general public, but that will be at a cost and those on the lowest incomes who are currently excluded are not likely to divert resources to use an internet cafe or equivalent. If substantial support is required (don’t forget 56% of working-age adults have literacy levels below a good GCSE pass) who will provide it? The commercial provider? If so, at what cost? No, if we want to ensure that the digital divide is closed and opportunities are truly available to all, our public libraries must remain in the front line. It is arguable that they have fallen short to a degree, but they still offer the best opportunity for providing the support required to close this divide. This means properly funded libraries with skilledsupport to ensure that those that need it have it. It is only through proper funding and support that we can close this divide and, with it, enrich our democracy, raise educational attainment and strengthen our economy. Bridging the digital divide not only benefits the excluded, it benefits society as a whole.

Surveillance in a democratic society

Despite the initial belief by some that it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke, it has become clear that government proposals to monitor email and social networking are very real:

Ministers are to introduce a new law allowing police and security services to extend their monitoring of the public’s email and social media communications, the Home Office has confirmed.

It is expected that the new system will allow security officials to scrutinise who is talking to whom and exactly when the conversations are taking place, but not the content of messages.

Yet another attempt to strengthen the surveillance state within the UK and weaken hard won civil liberties.  And it is not clear that this legislation is even required to deal with the problem which it claims to resolve. As David Davis MP has pointed out, current legislation is sufficient to deal with any existing need to monitor an individual perceived as a ‘threat’.

And it is not just the fact that the legislation is unnecessary that calls into question government proposals.  As pointed out in the Telegraph today, the plans are ‘practically impossible’. Trefor Davies, Chief Technology Officer at business internet service provider Timico, points out the obvious:

“The problem is that it is too easy to avoid detection on the internet. Proxy services provide anonymity for web users – Google “free proxy server” and you will find 33million results,” said Davies. “A culture of anonymity online means such people could not be targeted for copyright-infringing activities under the Digital Economy Act (eg music downloading) and we would be making it easier for people to go undetected when doing indisputably bad things such as accessing illegal child abuse material. More prosaically, proxy servers are also often the source of malware.”

So illiberal (and where are the Liberal Democrats on this issue?) and ‘practically impossible’.  One wonders why exactly the government are pursuing this policy, particularly when Tory minister in the (very recent) past have been so keen to publicly demonstrate their party’s opposition to state surveillance.

But there is a further issue here.  This government have repeatedly claimed that this is (or will be) the most transparent government in British history.  Transparency is supposedly at the heart of government policy.  Despite this, we have seen increasing attacks on the Freedom of Information Act.  Furthermore, we have witnessed government ministers,such as Michael Gove, challenging a ruling by the ICO that private emails allegedly related to departmental business must be disclosed.

And herein lies the problem.  There are increasing efforts by the state to prevent the electorate from gaining access to information about the workings of government whilst simultaneously attempting to obtain more information from us.  Increasingly it appears that politicians are no longer answerable to us, we are answerable to them.  This claim for more information from us whilst simultaneously wishing to restrict access to information from them is the clearest signal yet of how the power relationship has shifted in recent years.  We should be demanding greater surveillance of the state rather than accepting greater surveillance of us.  Because, in a democratic society, it should be us holding them to account rather than the other way round.