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.

Barclays and the library marketing opportunity

Image c/o MattJP on Flickr (cc-by)

Just before Christmas I wrote a post questioning why Barclays are in our libraries. Somewhat alarmed by the invasion of a public space by a corporate entity, I was particularly concerned about the kinds of tools that they recommend as part of their digital skills drive. Unsurprisingly, they were things like Google, Yahoo! and Outlook (see the aforementioned post for reasons why I find this problematic). The Google thing particularly troubled me, and it rather suggested that (surprise, surprise) there may well be an ulterior motive as to why Barclays are offering up their help in public libraries.

In Nick Stopforth’s post on the Libraries Taskforce blog, he argues that:

“…there is no hard sell (or even soft sell) from the Digital Inclusion Stakeholder partners in libraries…”

Barclays are not promoting their banking services in doing this, they are solely concerned with helping people develop their digital skills and get online. I don’t buy this. In fact, I have never bought this. As my grandfather (an Arkwright style shopkeeper who would be appalled his grandson has turned out to be a socialist) used to say “nothing is free”. Barclays aren’t offering this for free with no immediate return. They are doing it because there is a business advantage in them doing so. I think Nick’s statement may well be wrong and that there is a soft sell element to this. I’m a suspicious sort, so I thought I’d dig around a bit and see what I can find out.

As part of something else I am working on at the moment (which seems to be never quite achieving closure), I had been digging around finding out more about how Google Ads works. Here’s what it says on their Gmail help page:

We are always looking for more ways to deliver to you the most useful and relevant ads – for example, we may use your Google search queries and clicks, Google Profile, and other Google Account information to show you more relevant ads in Gmail.

In light of the fact that Barclays recommends Google as a search engine and email provider, this seemed to me to be quite intriguing. If Barclays are setting people up with Google accounts in libraries then at any point during the session taking them to the Barclays site (say, maybe to point them to their Internet Help pages as reference points after the session), there is a very high chance that Barclays adverts will be delivered to that user’s inbox. So I thought I’d ask them directly if this is what they do. And lo:

digital eagles

Now, of course, this is fairly circumstantial. Maybe the Digital Eagles don’t always sign people up for Google Accounts and maybe they don’t always direct people to their website. I’ve never been to one of their sessions, I’m not aware of anyone who has and there seems to be very little information on exactly what they do in these sessions available to the general public. BUT signing them up for a Google account, and visiting the Barclays Internet Help pages in the same session will significantly increase the chances of the individual in question receiving targeted ads in their inbox promoting various services Barclays delivers. In short then, Digital Eagles in libraries is a great opportunity for the bank to deliver direct advertising to individuals who are not currently online, who lack digital skills and, potentially, are not existing customers of Barclays (their Internet Help page also promotes their online banking services). I’m sure this is not their sole reason for providing digital skills support, and it might be that this is entirely coincidental. But it is worrying (indeed, I was telling a more politically centrist IT friend of mine about the project and his instant reaction was “that’s completely inappropriate”).

The best alternative (aside from not letting Barclays in the building at all) would be for the tools that they recommend to people were privacy related rather than the kind of tools that gather data to serve adverts. So, for example, rather than Google’s search engine, they have to show individuals how to use DuckDuckGo. This would ensure that the user’s search history is not then used to deliver adverts and would ensure that there was no potential whatsoever for Barclays to either hard sell or soft sell their products. At present this relationship provides far too much opportunity for the latter, even if the former is prohibited.

I think we’ve generally done ourselves (the profession as a whole) a huge disservice when it comes to digital skills support. We KNOW this stuff. We know this stuff BETTER than Barclays do. Right across the profession we’ve got people who help people with digital skills, who teach people essential skills with regards to digital literacy, and yet we’ve outsourced these services to banks. Which when we read that back, doesn’t that sound odd? The skills and knowledge we have around using the internet effectively we are not passing onto the general public, we are asking providers of financial services to do it for us. How did we get into this mess? Is it a question of leadership? Is it the hollowing out of public services by central government? Is it the decline in professional ethics? For me it’s all these things and more. One thing is for certain, the future is bleak if we continue to believe that others can do it better than us.

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.