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.

Digital privacy and digital citizens

digital privacy and digital citizenship

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

Ethics

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

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

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

IFLA argue that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is surveillance?

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

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

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

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History of surveillance

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

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

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

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

Democracy

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

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

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

Corporate Surveillance

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

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

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

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

21st Century Surveillance

Some terms to be familiar with:

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

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

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

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Investigatory Powers Bill

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

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

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

Encryption Technologies

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

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

The “danger” of encryption

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

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

 

Nothing to hide?

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

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

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

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

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

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The tools to help

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

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

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

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

Digital divide

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

The role of library workers

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

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

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How library workers can help

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

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

Conclusion

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

The digital skills crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penney went on to conclude that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why librarians need to act on mass surveillance

We need to speak out as a profession against mass surveillance. Image c/o floeschie on Flickr.

Today the Investigatory Powers Bill has its second reading in parliament. The introduction of the Bill is not only a threat to society in general, it poses a serious threat to our profession and, in particular, our commitment to defend the intellectual privacy of our users. We must speak up as a profession to defend the rights of our users and, wherever possible, seek to defend their intellectual privacy.

Ever since the disclosures by Edward Snowden in 2013, I’ve been concerned about the impact of mass surveillance both on our society, and on us as professionals. Disappointingly, there seemed to be little in the way of action by the profession (particularly in the UK – hampered by a professional body that cannot be overtly political), until the Library Freedom Project came along and started making waves in the United States. Inspired by Alison Macrina’s work, I started to consider more deeply the impact of mass surveillance on our communities and the various issues it raised. For me, alongside concerns about intellectual privacy, it highlighted a further aspect of the digital divide: autonomy of internet use. Given the limited amount of literature on the relationship between the digital divide and surveillance, I decided this was an important area to explore more extensively. So, I started reading around and pulling together an extended piece for the Journal of Radical Librarianship on the topic.

The main inspiration for the piece was the article Intellectual Privacy by Neil Richards (which is available OA here and is highly recommended). For me this really crystallised some of the key issues around surveillance and the protection of intellectual privacy (the ability to read, communicate and seek out information without being observed doing so). Aside from the very crucial focus on intellectual privacy and its importance, Richards also highlighted the role of librarians in supposedly developing some of the “norms” of the concept itself. This role seems particularly strong in the United States (where Richards drew most of his examples), with even the ALA taking a role in advocating for the intellectual privacy of individuals through a variety of initiatives.

As well as Richards’ works, David Lyon also played a key role in forming my views. Lyon is a leading figure in surveillance studies and has written a number of invaluable pieces on the topic that, as with Richards, helped to clarify my thinking (see, for example, his paper on understanding surveillance today). For example, Lyon’s definition of surveillance was particularly useful in understanding how surveillance operates upon individuals. For Lyon, surveillance is about the “focused, systematic and routine attention to personal details for purposes of influence, management, protection or direction”. It’s interesting (yet unsurprising in some respects) the extent to which surveillance within the UK is seen as primarily about protection, with little consideration with regards to how mass surveillance controls or “manages” individuals (or maybe we just don’t care that it controls us). What I also found particularly useful here is that Lyon’s definition doesn’t solely apply to the mass data collection by the state, it also relates to that growing phenomenon: corporate surveillance.

Surveillance and ethics

Clearly, there is a conflict between intellectual privacy and mass surveillance. If you exist in the conditions of the latter then you clearly cannot have the former. For society it presents a serious issue – for librarians it presents a critical issue that gets to the core of our professional ethics. If we cannot (or do not) protect the intellectual privacy of our users, then we are failing as professionals. Indeed, given we exist in a state of mass de-professionalisation, where volunteers are seen as adequate replacements for “expensive professionals”, we are rather making the case for our own extinction. If we do not have a set of ethics and professional values that we not only espouse but actively promote, what makes us any better than a volunteer?

In terms of the profession in general, there are clear guidelines from organisations representing our profession regarding the conflict between mass surveillance and our ethics. In 2005, for example, the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) produced a “Statement on intellectual freedom, access to information and censorship” and endorsed the Council of Europe’s ‘Public access to and freedom of expression in networked information: Guidelines for a European cultural policy’. The Council of Europe’s guidelines clearly stated that individuals are to “decide for themselves what they should, or should not, access” and that those providing the service should “respect the privacy of users and treat knowledge of what they have accessed or wish to access as confidential”. Furthermore, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) advised in their ‘Statement on Privacy in the Library Environment’ that information professionals have a responsibility to “reject electronic surveillance”, provide training on “tools to use to protect their privacy” and “respect and advance privacy at the level of practices and as a principle”. The message is clear, we have an obligation to ensure the privacy of our users and to provide them with the tools necessary to enable them to ensure the can defend their intellectual privacy.

Tackling the digital divide

This task is made even more urgent given the nature of the digital divide. We know well enough that access isn’t merely enough, but that individuals also require the skills with which to exploit the internet to their own advantage. In a report published in 2014, the BBC found that 1 in 5 adults lacked the four basic skills (send and receive emails, use a search engine, browse the internet, and fill out an online application form). Given that the most disadvantaged are most likely to be affected by mass surveillance it’s clear there is a need to provide the necessary support to ensure that everyone is able to ensure their intellectual privacy, not merely those with the means by which to do so. What is clear, post-Snowden is that the digital divide is as much about the gap between those who can protect their intellectual privacy and those who cannot, as it is about having the skills to be able to use the internet to benefit individuals economically, educationally and in terms of healthcare.

We, as a profession, have a clear commitment to tackle the digital divide. We play a crucial role in levelling the playing field, ensuring both access to the internet and support as individuals seek to exploit it to their own advantage. This crucial role is, of course, being undermined by the delivery of such support by the private sector, in particular banks (see Barclays Digital Eagles). Of course, corporations have no interest in ensuring privacy of the individual online, because greater privacy results in the exposure of less personal data which large corporations can exploit to drive profit. We, as a profession, are not beholden to share-holders. We have no reason to expose our users’ personal data for exploitation. We have ethical obligations not to expose the reading habits of our users. It is this that distinguishes us from banks and from volunteer run libraries.

It is, therefore, incumbent on us as library and information professionals to develop our skills with regards to online intellectual privacy, to seek to defend the intellectual privacy of our users and, more broadly, to speak out against government legislation that attacks our professional values as well as posing a threat to society in general. We have an obligation as professionals to defend intellectual privacy and to ensure that it is not only a value afforded to those endowed with social, cultural and economic capital, but also to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our communities. If we are serious about tackling the digital divide in all its manifestations, then we need to be serious about ensuring autonomy of use for all. So long as our communities are vulnerable to mass surveillance we will not achieve true equality of access to the internet and the wealth of information it provides. That is why we must act.

 

Clark, I. (2016). The digital divide in the post-Snowden era. Journal of Radical Librarianship, 2, 1-32. Retrieved from https://journal.radicallibrarianship.org/index.php/journal/article/view/12/24

Surveillance, libraries and digital inclusion

surveillance

Librarians have a key role to playing in terms of digital inclusion and protecting intellectual privacy. [Image c/o Duca di Spinaci on Flickr – CC-BY-NC license]

Towards the end of last year, I was privileged to be invited to talk at CILIP’s Multimedia Information and Technology (MmIT) Group AGM about digital inclusion as a representative of the Radical Librarians Collective (see the presentation below – which includes a list of recommended reading!). The invitation was well timed in terms of coming up with a focus for my talk as I have spent the best part of 5 months working on a journal article for the Journal of Radical Librarianship on the digital divide (which, pending peer review, will hopefully be published in the early part of this year). Specifically, I’ve been interested in looking at digital inclusion from a slightly different angle, that of the divide in terms of state and corporate surveillance.

As followers of this blog will know, I’ve been talking about surveillance and the Snowden revelations for some time now. Concerned about the gathering of information about us, whilst the state seeks to limit the amount of information we obtain about them, I’ve mainly been focused on the impact this has in terms of our democratic processes. However, since the emergence of the Library Freedom Project (founded by the awesome Alison Macrina), I’ve been increasingly interested in the role that libraries and librarianship has to play in this area. It seems to me, that the disclosures have to expand the terms by which we define what the digital divide is. Whilst there has always been a focus on access, and on skills, there must be greater attention on what people actually do online and, furthermore, the extent to which individuals are able to act freely in terms of seeking information.

Being able to seek out information that offers alternatives to the status quo (indeed, not just “offers” but challenges) is vital in a democratic society. Without the ability to seek out and understand alternatives, it is hard to accept that our society can possibly be described as “democratic”. What is clear from Snowden’s disclosures is that the ability to seek out information and communicate with others whilst ensuring your intellectual privacy is increasingly difficult. Difficult unless you have the skills and knowledge with which to defend your intellectual privacy.

I tend to think that I am fairly skilled in terms of using the internet. I can seek out information quickly and efficiently, I can provide assistance for others, I am fairly innovative in the ways in which I use certain online services. What I lack, however, is the skills necessary to really ensure my intellectual privacy, to defend myself against state or corporate surveillance. I have some skills, I have some basic knowledge, but I don’t know how to protect myself fully. And yet I consider myself reasonably skilled. What about those that have difficulties in using the internet in a basic way? What about those that struggle to do the things that I take for granted? Aren’t they even more exposed to state and corporate surveillance? Isn’t their intellectual privacy even more under threat? Surveillance tends to affect the most disadvantaged to the greatest extent, is intellectual privacy something only for the privileged?

I don’t want to get into this even further here (wait for the longer version!), but I do think there are issues here about the nature of the digital divide and how we should view digital inclusion post-Snowden. There was a time when it was considered fanciful that librarians could even consider to provide the sort of skills that the state may see as a threat to the status quo. However, the efforts by the Library Freedom Project in the United States underlines that this is no longer the case. If librarians in the United States, the home of the NSA, can help people defend their intellectual privacy, why can’t we do the same in the United Kingdom? I’m not suggesting that we can collectively as a profession start setting up Tor nodes in libraries or teaching people how to use encryption technologies, but we need to have the debate about how we ensure the intellectual privacy of everyone in our society, not just the privileged few.

CILIP’s Ethical principles for library and information professionals states that we must have a:

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

If we are to defend and advance that access to information then we must, in my mind, do whatever we can to defend the intellectual privacy of everyone.

You can also download a PDF version of this presentation here [PDF – 6.29MB].

Recommended Reading

Coustick-Deal, R. (2015). Responding to “Nothing to hide, Nothing to fear”. Open Rights Group.
Gallagher, R. (2015). From Radio to Porn, British Spies Track Web Users’ Online Identities. The Intercept.
Murray, A. (2015). Finding Proportionality in Surveillance Laws. Paul Bernal’s Blog.
Richards, N. M., (2008). Intellectual Privacy. Texas Law Review, Vol. 87.
Shubber, K. (2013). A simple guide to GCHQ’s internet surveillance
programme Tempora. Wired.
@thegrugq. Short guide to better information security.
@thegrugq (2015). Operational Telegram.
Whitten, A. & Tygar, J.D. (1999). Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt: A Usability Evaluation of PGP 5.0.

Library Freedom Project. Privacy toolkit for librarians.
Let’s Encrypt.
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Digital Citizenship and Surveillance Society
Surveillance & Society (OA journal).
The Digital Divide in the post-Snowden era (a micro-blog curating interesting links and resources – by me!)

Why are Barclays in our libraries?

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

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

What do Barclays actually do?

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

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

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

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

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

Capitalism is neutral

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

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

Oh dear…

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

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

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

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

Email: Gmail, Yahoo!, Outlook.

Search engines: Google, Yahoo!

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

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

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

How “austerity” will exacerbate the effects of the digital divide

Image c/o Derek Bruff on Flickr.

During the last parliament, the Coalition government introduced a number of changes to the benefits system, one of the key changes for the unemployed was the introduction of Universal Jobmatch and the requirement to use the service to seek employment. The problems with this service were obvious (to all apart from the government it appeared). Despite the perception that we are all online in this digital world, there remains a significant proportion of the population that have either never been online or do not have internet access at home.

The latest figures by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) underline that despite a decline in numbers of people that have never used the internet (down 1% to 5.9m people in total), lack of connectivity remains a significant hurdle for a sizeable proportion of the working age population. Whilst there has been positive talk in the media about the steady decline of those that have never been online (whilst noting with some surprise that even in this day and age there are people who have never opened a web browser), there has been little exploration of the impact this divide has in terms of government policy (Sky hints at it in their sub-headline – “despite the internet being a key part of everyday life” but doesn’t go beyond that).

According to the estimates provided by the ONS, approximately 1.4m people of working age have never used the internet (ie people aged from 16-64). Although the figures are not available with regard to internet access within the home, we can safely assume that there are more than 1.4m people of working age that do not have an internet connection at home. That said, the ONS does report that around 1.1m people overall last used the internet more than three months ago which would lead us to estimate approximately 6-7m do not have internet access at home. We’re probably getting on for nearly 2m people of working age that do not have the internet at home (although that’s a guess based on the available data, rather than evidence based). How many of those are also currently unemployed is difficult to say as the ONS report doesn’t provide this level of data.

Estimates for number of people that have never used the internet by age (%age).

Percentage of people that have never used the internet by age.

Furthermore, the figures are particularly stark when it comes to disabled people. According to ONS estimates, 3m people “who self-assess that they have a disability in line with the Equality Act definition of disability” (to use the ONS terms) have never used the internet – approximately 27% of disabled adults. Furthermore, of the 1.1m who had last used the internet more than three months ago, 0.5m were disabled adults. For the 16-24 age bracket, 95% were recent users of the internet compared to 99% for non-disabled users.

The estimates for both those of working age and disabled people underlines the difficulties many will suffer due to government policy towards benefits and unemployment. Both those that have never used the internet and those who do not have access at home face significant barriers in terms of seeking employment. They are at a disadvantage anyway due to the increasing expectation by employers that applications will be submitted online, the government’s reinforcement of this by requiring the use of Universal Jobmatch simply exacerbates the problem. That the areas where the numbers of people that have never accessed the internet also tend to be areas of the country with high unemployment simply underlines the difficulties many will face.

According to the ONS, the ten regions with the highest proportion of the population that have never accessed the internet are:

Counties %age never been online
Northern Ireland 18.8
Highlands and Islands 16.9
Cornwall and Isles of Scilly 16.8
West Wales and the Valleys 15.7
Lincolnshire 15.2
Merseyside 14.8
South Western Scotland 14.6
South Yorkshire 14.4
Lancashire 14.3
West Midlands 13.3

The regions with the lowest proportion of people who have never used the internet:

Counties %age never been online
Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire 9.8
Dorset and Somerset 9.6
Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire 9.5
Outer London 9
Kent 9
Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Bristol/Bath area 9
North Eastern Scotland 8.5
Inner London 8.2
Surrey, East and West Sussex 7.9
Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire 6.7

It hardly comes as a great surprise to see southern counties with a low proportion of people that have never used the internet, whilst the north has significantly higher proportions in some cases (there’s an 8.5% difference between Berkshire et al and Lincolnshire for example). It’s also not surprising to discover that the areas with high levels of non-internet use also seem to match up with areas of high unemployment.

The most recent statistics for unemployment provided by the ONS aren’t broken down in quite the same way as the figures for internet use, rather than counties they are broken down by region:

Region %age unemployed
North East 7.5
Wales 6.7
Yorkshire and Humber 6.6
West Midlands 6.4
London 6.2
Scotland 6
North West 5.7
East Midlands 4.9
East 4.4
South West 4.3
South East 4.2


Although it’s hard to draw substantive conclusions with data pulled from two distinct datasets, it does seem that areas of high unemployment coincide with areas where higher numbers of people have never been online. More investigation would need to be conducted to see exactly what proportion of those that have never used the internet in areas of high unemployment are unemployed (or in employment with limited job security – eg zero hours contracts). That said, it’s highly likely that those 1.4m people of working age that have never used the internet are in a particularly troublesome position. With an increasing demand to use the internet to seek employment, those 1.4m are clearly disadvantaged as they do not have the skills or access enjoyed by those that are online. Without a level playing field in terms of internet access, many of them will find it difficult to obtain secure long-term employment.

It’s also worth noting that within those areas of high unemployment and relatively high numbers of people that have never been online, public libraries provide an absolutely crucial service. By providing free internet access and trained members of staff that can provide the support required, they can make a huge difference in closing the digital divide for the 1.4m of working age that have never been online. Without a public library in which they can access the internet, it is difficult to see how those who are unemployed can get online and seek work. In the areas of high unemployment listed above, the public library will be a vital service in terms of getting individuals back into work. Any library closures in these areas will hit the unemployed particularly hard.

Unfortunately, with a mandate to further pursue a programme based on voodoo economics (ie “austerity”), it is hard to believe that libraries won’t be hit hard over the coming five years. However, you cannot both cut funding to statutory services (like public libraries) and expect to reach “full employment”, because those statutory services will be the mechanism by which people get into work because they do level the playing field, ensuring “opportunity for all”. As cuts to funding accelerate over the coming years, it seems fair to say that the consequence of the digital divide will be increasingly grim for the unemployed as support services are stripped right back, leading to increasing numbers of sanctions and, quite possibly, an ever growing demand for food banks. The consequences of the digital divide during a period of austerity are clear: precarious employment, poverty (in employment as well as for the unemployed) and a “recovery” that seems even further away than it did in 2010.

Libraries – it’s a “question of priorities”

(Image c/o Freaktography on Flickr.)

At least according to Martyn Allison who, according to his Twitter bio is a “former national advisor for culture and sport at the IDEA now running my own company Management Improvement Services”. Which probably should tell you all you need to know, particularly how we have managed to find ourselves in the state we are in given these are the kinds of folk advising the Local Government Association. If these are the kind of people influencing policy then, well…

Mr Allison was referring to a tweet last week regarding volunteers running libraries:

When challenged on this, he responded:

Now, there is nothing unusual here. It’s a familiar line of argument by those engaged in the dismantling of our public library service. They don’t want to have to do it, but they have no choice. They are merely weighing up the services that are more vital for the community. Is it roads? Care for the elderly? Helping people find housing? Protecting childcare? It’s an argument that plays on certain emotional responses and ultimately disables any attack (similar to the politician’s trick of making statements you couldn’t possibly disagree with). After all, who could argue against care for the elderly? For protecting our children? WHAT KIND OF SICK INDIVIDUAL ARE YOU IF YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT THE ELDERLY OR OUR CHILDREN!?!? And so on, and so on…

Of course, this argument is flawed (as if we, or they, didn’t already know this). Let’s consider, for example, that there are around 7 million people who have never used the internet (more who do not have an internet connection at home). Then let’s consider that a whole host of services are increasingly being pushed online. Now let’s revisit the groups of people who folk like Allison claim to be helping by protecting services that directly affect them.

The elderly need care – Yes, they do. Council websites (certain my local council at least) provide access to information about a care home, advising you on the processes and where you can go for help. They also provide advice if you are housebound or need support to remain in your own home. Now, you can obtain this information by other means, but it is obviously far more convenient if you can do this online, putting some at a massive advantage. And let’s not forget, if there are not trained staff (and properly remunerated) we are expecting volunteers to understand the information that is available and be able to guide people to it.

Aside from general care, there is also a need to ensure they are isolated from their local community. The provision of housebound library services for those that need it, and a safe space for others is vital.

Take away libraries delivered by trained staff and you make it harder for the elderly to get the information they need and access the care services you claim to be protecting. Cutting libraries over care services does not protect the elderly, it just creates new problems for them to have to deal with, placing barriers that inhibit their ability to get the care they require.

Roads need repairing – This is an easy one. Roads do need repairing. Kent County Council offer a website that enables individuals to report potholes which can then be repaired within 28 days. Again, those who are not online and don’t have access to a public library can forget about submitting a request to repair the roads (other councils offer this service too). So yes, it ensures there is a pot of money to repair roads, but it also makes it harder for many to report the need for repairs.

Children need protecting – Guess what? Internet again. Council websites provide a wealth of information (again, see Kent County Council) for both children who are victims of abuse or adults worried that children are the victims of abuse. Not only that, but libraries provide a safe space for children after school, to do homework, or just to read (and that’s aside from the obvious benefits in terms of literacy). Public libraries provide a space that offers protection for children. They provide a safe space for children to go when they need to do homework and need to escape abusive relationships at home or when they need to escape bullying and abusive peers. They provide a safe space to learn about personal issues that they would not be able to discuss with adults or their peers. In short, libraries are vital spaces to provide the protection that children need. They are not as obvious as some spaces, but take away a library supported by trained and paid staff who understand their obligations with respect to child protection, and you take away a vital place of sanctuary for those who are victims of abuse.

People need housing – Again, how much information is available online for those in need of housing? How many websites are there providing guidance and support? How many provide information on homeless housing? How many provide guidance for those concerned about individuals who are homeless? Again, remove a library, or hollow it out, and you are attacking the people who you claim to be defending by cutting libraries before the services that you believe they are most immediately in need of.

Let’s not pretend that by cutting library services rather than cutting other services you are not having a massive impact on the most vulnerable. You are. It’s just that rather than hitting them directly, you are hitting them in areas that they won’t realise they need until it’s too late. You are not protecting them, you are merely delaying the harm you are doing to them. If it comes down to a “question of priorities” then cutting back and closing library services suggests that your priority is not to protect the most vulnerable, but to protect your own interests.

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.