How do we support the development of privacy literacy?

privacy literacy

What role can/should librarians and libraries play in ensuring privacy literacy? (Image c/o Karol Franks on Flickr.)

In “The digital divide in the post-Snowden era” I explored the extent to which internet privacy should be considered an element of the digital divide, as an extension of the skills divide. The focus of the piece was very much in terms of state and corporate surveillance, but this is not the be all and end all (and is arguably a more provocative angle than was necessary). My particular area of interest has always been in terms of the gap between the information the state accesses about us, as compared to the amount of information we access about the state. But good privacy practices shouldn’t solely be seen in terms of theoretical concerns about individual freedom (although I’d argue this is a very important aspect).

For the past couple of days, I’ve been following the Surveillance and Society Conference in Barcelona (#ssn2016), which has obviously been of great interest in terms of the aforementioned article. Reading through the tweets yesterday, one in particular stood out for me:

I’d not really considered the term “privacy literacy” before, but it seems to me this is exactly the sort of things we (librarians) should be considering in our roles. Rather than necessarily seeing online privacy technologies as a key component of protecting citizens from state and corporate surveillance, we should it in terms of privacy literacy and, by extension, information literacy information literacy. Privacy literacy should at least be considered as vital as information literacy because arguably you are not free to exploit information unless you also have privacy [citation needed].

It’s also important, in my view, to consider awareness and ability to use online security tools as “good practice”. When teaching people how to use the internet, we guide them on basic security practices, eg look for the padlock when conducting any financial transactions. But perhaps we should be going beyond this in ensuring individuals protect themselves as much as possible online. Web activity isn’t, after all, only subject to observance by the state, it’s also at risk of being accessed and used by criminals. Insecure email, web usage and communications puts individuals at risk of criminal activity, including data theft. One of the concerns in the “debate” (such as it is) over encryption is that weakened encryption, backdoors etc not only make it easier for the state to access data, it also makes it easier for hackers with malicious intent to access and steal data. Encryption technologies offer a protection against that, as well as offering some protection for intellectual privacy.

But, as I argue in my article, such technologies are not necessarily easy to use. For example, I recently went through the process of setting up PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encrypted email following the publication of the article. Even as someone with a whole host of privileges, it was not an easy process by any stretch of the imagination. Of course there were folks I could call on to help me out, but I wanted to experience the process of doing it independently, with as little guidance as possible. It wasn’t easy. It took some degree of effort, even after discovering an online guide to help me through it. I managed it in the end, but one wonders how many people would be bothered to make the effort when it takes very little effort to create an account via some large commercial providers (although even then there are those that will experience difficulties following that process). Indeed, it has a reputation for being a bit of a nightmare in terms of being user-friendly. It’s important to note, of course, that PGP is not perfect as a secure method of communications (neither are even the most secure of mobile messenger apps). However, it does offer greater security than many of the alternatives.

All of this begs the question, how do we get people to develop better online privacy behaviours? Some of it is down to the support people are given when they go online. Public libraries are very good at providing that first level “here’s how you search online, here’s how you set up an email account”, but also in providing some basic security guidance (“look for https/padlock icon”). What happens far less is providing some extensive online security support. And given the difficulties around some of the software available to ensure greater online security, there is clearly a need for more. But it’s not just about teaching/showing people how to adopt a more secure approach to their activity online.

Clearly some technologies are difficult to use. Some might also argue that many are not overly bothered about ensuring their security. But the growing use of ad blocking software suggests that usability of technology can make a difference. According to a report earlier this week, it is predicted that around 30% of British internet users will use ad blocking software by the end of next year. Ultimately, if the software to protect privacy is usable, people will use it. As Sara Sinclair Brody argues:

Open-source developers, in turn, need to prioritize user-experience research and design, as well as to optimize their tools for large organizations. The focus of too many projects has long been on users who resemble the developers themselves. It is time to professionalize the practice of open-source development, recruit designers and usability researchers to the cause, and take a human-centered approach to software design.

Given our role in offering guidance and support to those learning how to use the internet effectively, perhaps there is a role here for librarians in working with open source developers more extensively to ensure that the user experience is greatly improved making it easier for people to use the technology and, as with ad blocking software, maybe then we will see it’s rapid expansion (maybe something for UX folk to engage with).

Of course, I see privacy as about protecting individuals from state and corporate surveillance – this ultimately stems from my political outlook. But the kind of practices that ensure protection from such surveillance are also just good practice in ensuring individuals’ data isn’t susceptible to any malign activity. The question is, as we encourage private sector bodies to provide internet training, who benefit from internet users making data accessible, how do we re-assert the primacy of privacy and security?

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.

The permanence of corporate surveillance

Image c/o Barbara Friedman on Flickr.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of surveillance now as compared to how it operated in the pre-internet era (if we can even imagine such an era even existed). Surveillance is, of course, an age-old technique employed by the state to protect, to control and to manage. In many respects, the Snowden revelations shouldn’t have surprised us in the least. Did anyone really believe that a mass communication tool could be introduced without the state wishing to have a poke around in what was being communicated? Perhaps the only real surprise was the scale. Nonetheless, history provided us with the clues.

However, we can draw a very clear line between the kind of surveillance that was popularly recognised before 2013 and that which has come to light post-2013. The first, and most obvious, point to make is that surveillance has historically been targeted, not indiscriminate. Targets were identified and surveillance approved and conducted. It may be against particular groups, or specific individuals, but it was always targeted. Now, however, everyone’s communications are subject to collection and scrutiny. We are all, to a certain extent, suspects.

The other clear difference is the fluidity of the nature of our surveillance regimes. It is not merely the state that collects vast amounts of data about our activities, the corporate sector also gathers huge amounts of information about what w do, where we go, who we talk to etc etc. This data does not reside securely in the hands of corporations however. We know, following Snowden, that much of the data private corporations collect about our activities is also accessed by the state, either with or without the consent of said corporations. Thus we find ourselves in an environment of what has been described as “liquid surveillance” – a fluid state of surveillance where data flows, particularly between the state and corporations.

But there is a further difference between that which occurred pre-Snowden and that which we know post-2013: the permanence of it. Before the emergence of the internet, the course of surveillance wasn’t always unimpeded.  There were concerns and efforts to limit its scope or even to roll it back. The use of wiretaps in the United States is a good example of surveillance strategies being strongly criticised and, ultimately, rolled back.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, there was outrage about the federal use of wiretapping. This outrage wasn’t restricted merely to the strands of libertarianism on the left and the right (such as the right can be described as “libertarian” when it argues for the replacement of state authority with corporate authority), it cut across the entire mainstream of political opinion. Conservative newspapers were as outraged as the liberal press. The outrage was such that, in 1934, the Communications Act federally outlawed the use of wiretaps (reinforced by a Supreme Court ruling in 1939).

Although these safeguards were whittled away by successive administrations (Democrat and Republican), there was still a sense at the heart of the establishment that surveillance must be limited, at least this was the case publicly if not privately. In 1967, for example, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice stated that “privacy of communications is essential if citizens are to think and act creatively and constructively” (the mere fact that our current government thinks privacy of communication is unnecessary suggests they rather don’t want citizens to think and act constructively…). Privacy of communications is crucial in a democratic society, the fact that this was endorsed by the President’s Commission underlines the extent to which this was hardly a view taken by a few radicals outside the mainstream. It was, to all intents and purposes, a conservative viewpoint on the impact of such intrusions. The big difference now, I think, is I couldn’t envisage such an acknowledgement or a restriction upon contemporary forms surveillance.

The emergence of the notion that information is a commodity has changed all this. In a capitalist society, where information/data has value, where the harvesting of such data can produce profit, corporations are obliged to seek out that commodity, secure it and draw profit from it. Any effort to inhibit this will surely be resisted, both by the corporations themselves, and their allies in the political elite (particularly on the right of course). It is simply not possible to imagine a situation where the current environment is over-turned. Pandora’s box has been opened, there is no way we are going to be able to put everything back inside. Corporate surveillance is, therefore, a permanent state of affairs. It will never face the legislative restrictions that wiretapping faced in the last century. No, it is a permanent fixture because a commodity that drives profit will not ever be restricted so long as capitalist orthodoxy is dominant. Therefore, in a state in which data flows between the state and corporate bodies, it is hard to imagine that surveillance in a capitalist society can ever truly be curtailed.

We may well be able to limit the extent to which the state directly collects data on individuals, but will we ever really halt access to data that we have voluntarily surrendered to profit-making entities on the internet? Is it possible to prevent this in a capitalist society? It seems to me that it probably isn’t. Whilst a large state society results in intrusive state surveillance, surely a free market, “libertarian” society would result in wide scale corporate surveillance (under the guise of being voluntary…”voluntary” being a notion to which right-libertarians have a liberal interpretation)? And as we edge towards an extreme free-market state, won’t such surveillance become permanent and inescapable? Perhaps, under capitalism, corporate surveillance is here to stay?

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.

Vandr – what is it and why should we take notice of it?


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

The following article was written for Information Today Europe, my thanks for permission to re-share the article here.

Digital natives. It’s a phrase that’s been commonly used in the media for some time now. Whether it’s in scare stories about the “decline in reading” to a supposed shift in work environments to how people engage in the democratic process, it’s a term and an idea that is pervasive when it comes to how we talk about the ways in which people use the internet. Pervasive, and yet entirely misguided. There is, of course, no such thing as a digital native, it’s a lazy reductive media term to describe a much more complex set of behaviours.

The theory of digital natives emerged as a result of a paper by Marc Prensky called Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants [PDF] in which he noted a radical change in students thanks to their immersion in new digital technologies. Prensky labelled these students as “digital natives” – ‘“native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the internet’. Alternatively, Prensky identified those that were not born into the digital world but have latterly adopted the technologies as “digital immigrants” – ultimately dividing individuals between the two groups when it comes to digital technologies.

Of course, this theory now sounds not only misguided, but dangerous given the assumptions it makes about individuals and how they engage in digital spaces. Indeed, since espousing this theory, Prensky has moved on from this notion of natives and immigrants inhabiting digital spaces. However, this theory still maintains a hold on media narratives due to the simplistic interpretation of a complex idea that divides people neatly into two camps. So if even Prensky has moved on from this model, how can we effectively describe and identify the use of digital technologies?

In 2011, David White and Alison Le Cornu posited a new way of looking at how people engage with digital technologies. Acknowledging the flaws in Prensky’s theory, they argue that the actual picture is far more complex. For White and Le Cornu, engagement with digital technologies isn’t so much a fixed thing (ie you are either a “native” or an “immigrant”), rather they propose that engagement with digital spaces is actually on a continuum. In their paper, Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement, they introduce the concept of two particular types of behavior – visitor behaviour and resident behavior (vandr). These behaviours are defined as follows:

Visitor – visitors get what they want and go, they don’t see the internet as a social space and have no interest in prolonged engagement.

Residents – residents see the internet as a social space and are happy to engage with others.

White and Le Cornu argue that the majority of people flit between the two behaviour types. One may exhibit visitor behaviours when, for example, they are booking flights or when visiting websites for a very specific purpose without wishing to leave behind a digital footprint. Alternatively, people exhibiting resident behaviours will have a tendency to engage, to use the internet as a social space to engage with others. Generally speaking, the vast majority of individuals move between the two, sometimes behaving as residents, sometimes as visitors depending on their needs or motivations.

This approach to understanding internet behaviours can be a particularly valuable way to consider the ways in which we deliver and facilitate access to information. Once we understand the ways in which people use the internet, the behaviours they exhibit and the needs they have, we can better orientate services to ensure that these needs are met effectively. For example, how we use social media in the context of visitor and resident behaviours can be a useful way to consider how these tools are utilised, ensuring that they are orientated in a way that takes into account these behaviours.

However, it’s also important to note that these modes aren’t necessarily an indicator of skill in utilising social media. As Donna Lanclos, anthropologist and noted critic of the “digital native” theory, puts it:

“People operate in Visitor mode because they find it useful, because the thing they are trying to do is operational, not because they are ‘not good at Twitter.’  And people are on Twitter, or FB, sometimes because they are connecting with people (and therefore operating in Resident mode) but sometimes because they want information (and are operating in Visitor mode).  Not because they are ‘good at social media’.”

Social media and visitor behaviours are not, therefore, mutually exclusive. You can still act in visitor mode and use social media as a tool, just a tool with a specific focus rather than as a tool to facilitate communication.

This theory of internet behaviours has had a substantial impact in terms of the ways in which I view social media and how I can use make more effective use of these tools. It has been, for me, a really useful way to frame social media use, focusing on particular tools, looking at how they are used and then considering the behaviours that they suit, and adapting their use to take advantage of this.

For example, blogs have great potential to be used as a tool to meet visitor behaviours. In my current role, I have orientated my blog to provide content for my School in a nice simple format, enabling them to access information quickly and efficiently. In providing a space that packages up key pieces of information in a way that is clear and accessible, I ensure individuals can get what they want and go. No more hunting around for guides on databases, a clear section on my blog provides a full list of the main ones. We know that when people want to access information, exhibiting visitor behaviours, they just want to be able to access the information quickly and efficiently. Large library websites are often a barrier to this, a more focused blog offers a way to meet visitor behaviour without provoking frustration as time is wasted finding the information they require.

Alternatively, tools such as Instagram are great tools for those operating in resident mode. As I noted in workshops last year at the NAG conference, Instagram users spend approximately 257 mins per month on the site. At just under 10mins per day, it appears to suggest the tool is used by those happily exhibiting resident behaviors (Pinterest users, according to figures published in 2012, spend approximately 98mins per month, suggesting people use it for a specific task). As I found when delivering my workshops, those in the 16-24 age bracket have long since shifted to the service from Facebook etc as a place to share visual content (a recent Ofcom report found that 35% of 16-24 year olds use Instagram as opposed to 16% of all adults – PDF). With that level of engagement, it clearly makes the case for library services to engage in this space and provide content that takes advantage of the resident mode users appear to be in when using the service.

Whilst it is useful to consider social media in reference to visitor and resident behaviours, it’s important not to be restrictive in how it is factored into social media use. As David White himself explains:

“What’s key here is to recognise that the type of platform does not mandate the mode of use. Apparently ‘resident’ style platforms such as blogs and Twitter are used very effectively by individuals in ‘visitor’ mode. Focusing on mode of engagement rather than specific technologies leads to more elegant and effective engagement strategies.”

Whilst it is useful to use these behaviours as a framework, it’s important not to fall into the trap of believing that Twitter is only ever used in resident mode. Tools such as Twitter are equally used effectively by those wishing to obtain information without leaving a footprint (searches and hashtags are particularly helpful in this regard). Social media platforms aren’t visitor or resident specific, rather they often meet the needs of these modes in different ways.

This notion of behaviours on a continuum is, I think, a really helpful way to consider how people use digital spaces. As Ned Potter puts it, there is the potential to “use social media platforms to provide easy entry points for Visitors seeking information AND use it to add our voice to a more Residential space and provide help and information as part of a community”. Prensky’s approach was very much of its time, but it’s important to move beyond that and understand that how people engage with online spaces is far more complex than the media (and others!) may like to present it.

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.

Net neutrality – internet that serves the many or the few?

Democracy is for people not corporations

Original image Backbone Campaign on Flickr. Used under a CC-BY licence edited with filter.

The issue of net neutrality has been rumbling around in the United States for sometime now. For many years there has been a battle waged over the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and government should ensure that all data on the internet should be treated equally. Opponents of net neutrality in the US include a significant number of tech companies, including Cisco, IBM, Intel, AT&T, Verizon and many more.

Why is net neutrality an important issue? Well, there is the obvious point that equitable delivery of data benefits all of us. If certain data is prioritised over others, we are likely to see the internet morph into something very different to that we engage with now. Without net neutrality we could find small independent websites and platforms being marginalised in favour of the giants of the internet. The danger of this on a major information resource is clear: a substantial narrowing in the range of sources individuals will access for information, with all the implications that comes with that.  Bruno Maçães, Secretary of State for European Affairs for the Portuguese government, recently put it:

Allowing internet services to discriminate between different sources or providers of content would slowly start to turn the internet into a particular message rather than a medium for every possible message…

Net neutrality stands for the very simple principle that the internet is equally open to every kind of content. It is about being able to experiment with every possible use of the internet, so that only the best survive and even these are not able to tilt the environment in their favor and stave off the next wave of newcomers. This debate is not about prices or costs. Let the cost of internet access be as low or as high as market forces and public policy will make it, but before everything else make sure that all data is treated equally. The internet is a sort of collective mind. Like every mind, it may become more or less captive; more or less free. Net neutrality is a question of free speech.

Despite the powerful opposition to the principles of net neutrality, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recently voted to protect it, ensuring closer regulation of the broadband industry. Unsurprisingly, opponents of the principles of equitable data delivery have launched a legal challenge against the new rules, in what is sure to be the beginning of years of wrangling between government and the corporations seeking to roll back the regulation (or “red tape” as they see any efforts by the state to protect the rights of citizens).

Yet, whilst the debate over net neutrality is nothing new in the United States (see this rather Obama-centric timeline), in the UK (and Europe for that matter) the debate has been rather quiet. Indeed, one would be excused for believing that this isn’t really an issue that affects us over here. That our internet service is already protected from any attempts to chip away at the equitable delivery of data that has been fundamental to the growth of the internet as a vital information source for millions. But the same arguments that have been taking place in the US could soon be making their way over here, with a recent proposal from Latvia (currently holding the European presidency) threatening to pave the way towards an abandonment of the principle.

The Latvian proposals have certainly been warmly welcomed by some within the business community (headline on the Fortune websiteNet neutrality is not for Europe), which perhaps explains why a majority of the 28 EU member states have now voted in favour of changing the rules (who said the EU was a block to the free market?). In a set of proposals that include a postponement of the abolition of roaming charges across member states, revised rules would “bar discrimination in internet access but allow the prioritisation of some ‘specialised’ services that required high quality internet access to function“. The moves come amongst a concerted effort by Europe’s two biggest telecom operators arguing that certain kinds of data traffic should be prioritised on their networks. They have been joined by Nokia, who argue that “certain futuristic technologies” will need to be prioritised. It certainly would appear that efforts to ensure a two tier internet have hardened further in Europe as the US has re-asserted the principles of net neutrality.

So far, the EU’s digital single market commissioner Andrus Ansip has remained resolute. At a recent European Voice event, Creating Europe’s digital highways, Ansip reiterated the importance of net neutrality:

We need strong net neutrality rules and more coordination on spectrum.

On net neutrality, there are three elements we should address:

Firstly, we need to make sure that the internet is not splintered apart by different rules. This is why we need common rules for net neutrality.

Then, we need an open internet for consumers. No blocking or throttling.

And we want an internet that allows European industry to innovate and provide better services for consumers.

It remains to be seen to what extent there will be “strong net neutrality rules” across the EU. Certainly the voices opposed to it are powerful and, as we have seen in the United States, even the supposed victory of the FCC has resulted in legal challenges being launched to prevent new regulations.

The internet is awash with talk of great threats that could destroy the internet and do irreparable damage to this vital resource. However, the threat posed by a retreat from the principles of net neutrality are stark. The consequences will be a narrowing down of information sources, a move away from an internet where all data is treated equally towards one where priority is given to those with the deepest pockets. This presents serious dangers and will hammer in nail in the coffin of the internet as a resource for the many, and instead create an internet that serves the interests of the few.

GCHQ and American attitudes to surveillance…

(Image c/o Christian Payne on Flickr.)

From Wired:

GCHQ’s hacking operations are conducted with little to no oversight and risk “undermining the security of the internet”, leading online privacy experts have warned. Even when oversight is required, GCHQ has revealed that ministers don’t have the technical knowledge to understand what it is doing. Privacy campaigners today described the issue as “a major scandal”.

Details of GCHQ’s hacking operations and attempts to weaken encryption were revealed in a parliamentary committee report into the UK’s surveillance capabilities. The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) review, published last week, revealed GCHQ makes the majority of decisions about hacking, and its operations to weaken encryption, internally and without telling ministers exactly what it is doing.

In a passage quoted by the Open Rights Group, the ISC review found that:

No additional Ministerial Authorisation is required for these activities. There are internal procedures: ***. There is no legal requirement to inform Ministers: however, GCHQ have said that they would ask the Foreign Secretary to approve a specific operation of this kind “where the political or economic risks were sufficiently high” (although, in practice, they manage their operations to avoid this level of risk). GCHQ told the Committee that:

The FCO is aware of the activity and the possible political risk, but individual legal authorisations are not required for each operation. The FCO could assess the political risk of a compromise, it is not well‐placed to assess the complex technical risk. Whilst not formally overseen by a Commissioner, the Intelligence Services Commissioner has been briefed on this type of activity where it relates to individual approved operations.

A very disturbing admission about the state of digital surveillance in the UK. And the timing of the statement from ORG could not be more apposite. Whilst we are only just starting to come to terms with the consequences of this, a study in the US has been published that explores the fall-out from the Snowden revelations in terms of how it has affected behaviours as well as how it has impacted upon the relationship between the state and the individual.

The Pew Research Center’s report, Americans’ Privacy Strategies Post-Snowden, provides a comprehensive and fascination exploration of how these revelations have affected US citizens. There is a lot to plough through, but a few things stand out on an initial reading (and, by the way, wouldn’t it be nice if someone in the UK produced the kind of reports that Pew produce on a regular basis, particularly with respect to the Snowden revelations). Top line stuff:

Overall, nearly nine-in-ten respondents say they have heard at least a bit about the government surveillance programs to monitor phone use and internet use. Some 31% say they have heard a lot about the government surveillance programs and another 56% say they had heard a little. Just 6% suggested that they have heard “nothing at all” about the programs. The 87% of those who had heard at least something about the programs were asked follow-up questions about their own behaviors and privacy strategies:

34% of those who are aware of the surveillance programs (30% of all adults) have taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government. For instance, 17% changed their privacy settings on social media; 15% use social media less often; 15% have avoided certain apps and 13% have uninstalled apps; 14% say they speak more in person instead of communicating online or on the phone; and 13% have avoided using certain terms in online communications. 

1 in 3 people changing their behaviours is quite significant, and would explain why there are increasing moves to shut down the methods by which people protect themselves. One might also ask how Cameron would deal with 14% of people speaking in person rather than communicating online (given he thinks no form of communication should be free from surveillance).


…the public generally believes it is acceptable for the government to monitor many others, including foreign citizens, foreign leaders, and American leaders:

82% say it is acceptable to monitor communications of suspected terrorists

60% believe it is acceptable to monitor the communications of American leaders.

60% think it is okay to monitor the communications of foreign leaders

54% say it is acceptable to monitor communications from foreign citizens

Yet, 57% say it is unacceptable for the government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens.

In this survey, 17% of Americans said they are “very concerned” about government surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communication; 35% say they are “somewhat concerned”; 33% say they are “not very concerned” and 13% say they are “not at all” concerned about the surveillance. Those who are more likely than others to say they are very concerned include those who say they have heard a lot about the surveillance efforts (34% express strong concern) and men (21% are very concerned).


Some quotes from those who argue that they are unconcerned about surveillance:

“Law-abiding citizens have nothing to hide and should not be concerned.”

“I am not doing anything wrong so they can monitor me all they want.”

“Small price to pay for maintaining our safe environment from terrorist activities.”

All of which, to my mind, underline a certain failure to grasp the nature of the state and its relationship with individuals. Of course, it is not individuals who determine whether what they are doing is wrong. The lie of “if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear” seems to be one of the hardest to shift, despite its fairly obvious naivety about the state. It also underlines that state propaganda is very effective on large chunks of the populace (I’m not restricting that to the US by the way). So long as you keep talking about threats (which are minimal) and highlighting the importance of “protecting citizens” from “dangerous individuals”, some people will continue to believe that the state will protect them and that sacrifices to their rights must be made to ensure that protection. There’s nothing new in this, states have used that particular strategy for centuries: construct an external enemy, convince the populace that the state has the means to protect them, chip away at individual rights under the guise of protection etc etc.


Sophisticated tools and techniques are widely available and can help online Americans increase the privacy and security of their online activities and personal data sharing. However, thus far, fairly few have adopted these tools since learning about the programs. Among those who have heard about the government surveillance programs:

10% say they have used a search engine that doesn’t keep track of their search history.
5% have added privacy-enhancing browser plug-ins like DoNotTrackMe (now known as Blur) or Privacy Badger.
4% have adopted mobile encryption for calls and text messages.
3% have used proxy servers can help them avoid surveillance.
2% have adopted email encryption programs such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP).
2% have used anonymity software such as Tor.
1% have used locally-networked communications such as FireChat.

It’s interesting that despite the fears and clear concern about the surveillance programme, many people are not using the most effective tools to protect themselves (I would include myself in that category if there were a UK equivalent study). This suggests there is a lot of work to do to inform the general public about how they can protect themselves online. I would guess that Barclays’ Digital Eagles probably won’t offer much help here. It seems to me that, and I probably would say this, librarians are well placed to provide this kind of assistance (see Library Freedom Project). Certainly given our professional ethics, this is an area that should concern us and that we should seek to provide solutions to for the general public. There is clearly a need as, looking at the figures, there is concern and a need to seek protection. One would assume that this would also be the case in the UK but, again, there is no such study at present.

I’d definitely recommend going through the Pew stats if you get the chance. There is a PDF report you can download, but lots of interesting stats are summarised over 5 web pages. Will such a study be conducted in the UK? It seems unlikely at this stage, but with the revelations about the activities of GCHQ and how ministerial oversight appears to be virtually non-existent, a study equivalent to Pew’s would be very welcome.

Radical Librarians and creating a new LIS qualification…

Image taken on Newman Street, London (c/o man_with_beard on Flickr).

Yesterday I went to the monthly radical librarians gathering in London (held at LARC – follow @rlc_se!). This time around we were very fortunate that Alison Macrina of the Library Freedom Project (LFP) was in town and was keen to come along and join us to talk about her work. And I think I speak for everyone when I say we are jolly glad she did!

I’ve followed Alison for a little while now on Twitter and have always been really interested and excited by what she is doing. I have to admit, that I am way less careful in terms of the services I use online and how I use them than perhaps I should be. Certainly hearing Alison talk about the issues has heightened my awareness of the need to be more careful (or at least more aware) of the nature of the ‘free’ tools I take for granted. I don’t think I have the technical skills to take the kind of steps required to minimise my footprint, but I think awareness is important and I am certainly keen to learn more from her in how to take the necessary steps.

By a stroke of luck, Alison’s visit also coincided with the release of a report warning the government that (surprise surprise) the banning of Tor would be “technologically infeasible“. We’ve long known that meddling with internet access to do ‘good’ (in the eyes of the authorities at least) actually does a lot of harm. We see this with filtering, for example, where indiscriminate filtering prevents people from accessing resources that provide support and comfort to those in need. Needless to say, the same goes for Tor. Much of the talk about Tor is that it is used by those wishing to visit the most vile websites without being noticed. Of course, as one study recently pointed out, such “dark web sites” account for only 1.5% of all Tor traffic. The vast majority use Tor to visit entirely legitimate websites. In short, Tor provides no threat to society. Rather it frees individuals to access the internet without the fear of surveillance.

Anyway, Alison can talk about all these issues with far more expertise and knowledge than I can. So head to the Library Freedom Project or follow her on Twitter to find out more…we very much hope she will also come to the Birmingham radical librarian gathering in July…

There were a whole host of other issues discussed, but I won’t go into them all here (partly because we observe the Chatham House rule, partly because this post would become very unwieldy!). Rather I’ll just offer a brief summary of some of the key points of discussion…

There was, as you might expect, some discussion around the next national Radical Librarians gathering in Birmingham on 4th July. This will be the third such gathering that has been organised following the highly successful Bradford and London events. It’s taken quite a while to get it together, but seems like we are well on course to make it happen, which is great. I think one of the things we are all reminded of during these meetings is how important it is that they take place. There are very few places where these kinds of discussions take place, and they are so fundamental to our core ethics that it seems like even having these discussions and changed things somewhat. I certainly always come away from these meetings feeling like the foundations for an alternative are being built. The difficulty is in maintaining the momentum. This is particularly tricky given the cynicism that comes with exploring alternative paths. But I always come away from these gatherings enthused by the energy and positivity of others. Which is why we need more of them!

We also talked about the idea of an online chat akin to the uklibchat/info lit chat club things that are currently taking place. The idea is to pick one OA article each month, post up the details in advance and host a live Twitter chat about the article (with the blog post acting as a place for ongoing discussion or more extensive chat). This has been discussed now for some time without ever really making progress, but hopefully this will happen soon. Ideas of how and when to run it will be circulated to the RLC Jisc list in due course. If you are interested at all, please do voice your interest/comments etc in the comments field below.

Post-gathering, some of us also talked about the state of current LIS programmes. We particularly discussed the idea of creating our own LIS course…the idea of a MOOC was suggested, but there was no consensus on whether this would be a good thing or not. During the process of the discussion, I jotted down some ideas of what kind of things the ideal LIS programme would cover (this list is not exhaustive! It’s just a few initial ideas.)

Digital librarianship
Data protection/freedom of information/copyright
Communication strategies
Ethics – profession and research
History of profession.

A placement.I’d be really interested in hearing the thoughts of current students and the recently qualified about what they think should be included, as well as their thoughts on the above. I personally believe the history aspect is important as it can help to draw links back to our core purpose, which may be helpful in focusing on our professional ethics. I also think such a focus on history would help to reverse the depoliticisation of what is, at its heart, a political profession.

Anyway, I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on this particular aspect of the discussion on Saturday, as well as comments regarding radical librarians in general and the 4th July conference in Birmingham.

In defence of internet anonymity

Image c/o Thomas Hawk.

It recently emerged that Twitter has added the need to register mobile phone numbers as part of the sign-up procedure when creating an account to use the network. The move is, as is always the case, presented as part of their effort to protect those that use the service, particularly from abusive trolls. However, as with all such protections, it only offers protection to a degree and does actually create more danger for others.

For those of us that live in Western ‘liberal’ countries, the requirement to provide a mobile phone number is perhaps not massively problematic. It is fairly easy to obtain a mobile and use it without having an data connected to that phone (if you’ve watched The Wire you’ll know that those that wish to protect themselves from the law will use so-called “burner phones”). Outside of nations like the UK and the US, particularly in authoritarian regimes, there are far more hoops that need to be jumped through and the possibility of obtaining a so-called burner is fairly slim. As The Guardian noted, Turkey requires all mobile phones to be registered and a passport is required to obtain a sim card and mobile number.

The request to provide a mobile number in order to use the service is therefore troubling for those living in authoritarian regimes. As we know, communication tools that provide anonymity have played a role in overturning a variety of authoritarian regimes (although the extent to which these tools have played a role is perhaps overstated). Anonymity in Western liberal states may be perceived as a tool to harass and intimidate individuals, but in less democratic states they are essential for survival and for hope. Without this cover of anonymity, lives can and will be placed at risk. Anonymity maybe a troubling concept from our point of view (not least given the media coverage) but it is essential. When weighing up the social cost, the removal of anonymity will come at a much greater cost than if it was to be maintained.

Trolls are an unpleasant side effect of creating a space where everyone can engage in public discourse. But whilst there is a need to figure out how we tackle this phenomenon, we also have to accept that the internet will probably only ever be an imperfect space and that imperfection is what makes it so valuable. Because so long as there as there is anonymity, there will be trolls. But there will also be opportunities for dissidents to communicate, organise and challenge the status quo. Whilst I would not wish to minimise the harm that trolls cause to individuals (as I’ve stated before, I don’t buy into this current “right to offend” trend), I prefer to think of the positive impact of anonymity. The potential it provides for people to be free. Either free to engage in discourse without fear of reprisal or harm, or to seek to secure freedom from state oppression.

Of course services such as Twitter have to seek to protect those that use the service. But, when it comes to the internet, every measure of protection can also do great harm. This is true of removing the right to anonymity for those who wish to communicate free from fear of reprisal, but also in creating internet filters that prevent people from accessing information. Those filters may provide some benefit in terms of the things that they block, but they will also prevent those who are most vulnerable from accessing the information they need. Such measures are presented as offering protection to individuals (indeed, isn’t this always how states present measures that repress individual freedoms?), when in fact this is only partially the case. Protection for some, insecurity or danger for others.

Ultimately, we must seek to defend the right to remain anonymous online. It is not always comfortable, but then defending our freedoms to the fullest extent will never be entirely comfortable because we understand that there are those that will abuse the freedoms we are advocating. But we have to accept that the benefits of protecting anonymity far outweigh the consequences of removing this protection. Because the consequences of this will not be felt in the middle-class suburbias of the West, but within the communities seeking to throw off the chains of oppression.