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.

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!)