Our communities are under threat, what are we going to do?

Image c/o Paulo Valdivieso.

Image c/o Paulo Valdivieso.

The murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox in the build up to the EU referendum vote was a shocking and disturbing act conducted by a man who appears to be a far-right extremist with a fascination for the Nazi regime (I’m being deliberately careful with my wording due to the ongoing court case – I am no legal expert so I prefer to err on the side of caution). It is impossible to view this act without placing it in the context of a renewed neo-Nazi far-right menace that has grown in Europe and overseas. In some ways, discussing this case in the context of the ethics of library work seems pretty ridiculous. But there is a convergence of issues here that highlight the extent to which we are currently failing our communities and urgently need to take steps to protect them.

As noted above, newspapers reported that the defendant in the court case had accessed a range of resources related to extremist political viewpoints. How did this detail emerge in court? It is claimed that his fascination was identified by investigating his internet usage at his local public library.

The jury was told that the day before Cox was killed, the defendant had gone to the library in Birstall, where he had used a computer to access a number of items, including the Wikipedia page for an online publication called the Occidental Observer.

This is a troubling development, yet unsurprising given the extent to which libraries are not a safe space for anyone (although they certainly should be). Of course, it’s difficult to be concerned about an invasion of privacy against such an individual. He committed a vile, murderous act. But we have to be careful here, particularly in terms of our current environs, not to make exceptions when it comes to what should be core to our ethical principles. We cannot, and must not, pick and choose whose privacy should be invaded in pursuit of justice.

The case will be made that accessing Thomas Muir’s internet browsing history has provided proof of his far-right extremism and murderous intent. But can this really be so? Can murderous intent be deduced from looking at the browsing history of an individual? This is the premise upon which not only the Prevent strategy is built, but also the Investigatory Powers Bill. That if somehow we could observe internet users, see what they are accessing, we (the state) can intervene and prevent a terrorist atrocity. If we accept that accessing Muir’s internet history is necessary in order to prosecute, then we accept that privacy in accessing information is no longer tenable. Indeed, we play into the very hands of those seeking to justify both Prevent and the Investigatory Powers Bill. We need to ask ourselves serious questions here if we believe this act is justifiable, and we need to return to CILIP’s ethical principles and consider to what extent we are serious about upholding them.

If we decide that we are not serious about upholding them, then we are putting our communities at very real, very serious risk. We are living in a period where the far-right are rising to prominence with alarming speed. Where they are gaining ground not only in Europe, but in the United States following the election of Donald Trump. The consequences of this are stark. Minorities are placed in greater danger. Lives are at risk. We are witnessing, once more, the rise of an authoritarian, anti-libertarian strain of right-wing populism dressed up as libertarianism. That the neo-Nazi right have achieved this under the guise of advancing liberty (posing as libertarians) makes their rise to prominence even more cynical and deadly. It is in this context we must consider both Prevent and the Investigatory Powers Bill and the impact they will have upon our work and, more importantly, our communities.

One of the oft used defences of mass surveillance is the illogical maxim that “if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear”. Such naïve sentiment obscures the obvious: you are not the one that determines whether you have done wrong. The state does. It also obscures another truism – the state is fluid, not fixed. Liberal democracies do not remain in situ for perpetuity. They are always at risk of collapsing. History demonstrates the extent to which this is the case and recent events have demonstrated just how precarious liberal democracies actually are. It is this that should always be kept in mind when we discuss mass surveillance and it’s this we should be alert to when we consider our current environs.

The rise of the far-right in Europe and the United States is a warning sign about the acceptance of mass surveillance. There is no doubt, thanks to the work of the NSA and GCHQ, that we have the infrastructure in place for a truly efficient and ruthless fascist state. In a liberal democracy, you have the luxury of debate over its efficacy and its relationship with ethical concerns. In a fascist state you have no such luxury. It is used to persecute minorities. There is no debate. There will be no dismantling of the surveillance state under the fascist right, rather it will be ramped up and used in ways that make the previous warnings about the dangers of developing a surveillance society seem like stark understatements..

This is why it is vital to consider where we are in relation to the ethical principles clearly stated by the body that represents us. We are tasked with ensuring the intellectual privacy of our patrons. Our failure to do this in a liberal democracy is one thing, our failure with a rising fascist movement is quite another. Our failure to tackle this question firmly and consistently will put lives at risk. If we accept that, in a liberal democracy, it is justifiable to interrogate the internet history of those perpetrating vile crimes, then what precedent is being set for democracy less liberal, less tolerant, more fascistic?

I put much of the blame of our current malaise at the feet of professionals who have abandoned ethical principles in favour of money and prestige. This cuts across all professions. It’s led to the creeping privatisation of our health service, the academisation of our schools, the erosion of civil liberties and the destruction of our public library network. In many respects, it’s long since passed the point of no return. But if we don’t act on our principles now, if we don’t protect our communities, the far-right will take advantage. They are coming for the people we should be protecting. The success of the far-right in the United States was the latest in a series of lethal blows to our communities. It’s time we stood side-by-side with them and asserted that we can no longer tolerate such incursions and that we will not throw them to the wolves.

Free speech, librarianship and the chilling effect of surveillance

chilling effect

Image c/o glassghost on Flickr.

Free speech has become the hot topic de jour amongst the chattering classes. Barely a day goes by without some new threat to free speech emerging. Indeed, it seems to have become somewhat of a middle class obsession, which is perhaps unsurprising given that many of the so-called threats to free speech are actually threats to middle class privilege and effectively seek to strike a balance between those with privilege and those without (hello safe spaces). So threatened have the privileged become, the adolescent middle class journal of choice (hello Spiked!), has even launched a “campaign for free speech in higher education” – a campaign that peculiarly obsesses with one particular aspect of free speech, but spending little time on the broader issue.

To a certain extent (not entirely, I’m not for one moment suggesting most don’t engage in discussions around this topic), librarians and the profession in general have tended to neglect the debate on intellectual freedoms, preferring instead to pontificate on areas that are traditionally private sector obsessions. It’s curious as to why this is the case. After all, our profession is steeped in the principles of intellectual freedom. We believe people should read and access what they want, we believe that censorship is a bad thing, we believe that access to information should be equal to all. Yet despite this, whilst we live in an environment where intellectual freedoms are apparently up for discussion, there is little space occupied by a profession that should be seeking to defend such freedoms. There is certainly plenty for us to get worked up about…

Recent developments have highlighted the extent to which our non-engagement (our “neutrality”?) is having a detrimental effect on public discourse.  According to the principles outlined by CILIP, we are minded to ensure “commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination” and “respect for confidentiality and privacy in dealing with information users”.  Yet are either of these possible when mass surveillance exists? Does mass surveillance not pose a threat to our ethical principles and, by extension, our existence? Without our ethical principles, surely we are no better than the volunteers we claim deliver an inferior library service?

The threat to our ethical principles particularly manifests itself via the “chilling effect” of surveillance strategies – that is, that knowledge of surveillance activity impedes our intellectual freedom, resulting in modifying our communications and information seeking for fear of being watched and, ultimately, punished (regardless of whether the punishment is based on an incorrect interpretation of activity). This effect has long been debated and argued, and to an extent the jury is still out on the extent to which it exists. However, it does pose a particular threat to us as professionals, one that undermines our ethical principles and, therefore, calls into question our existence. (Surely ethical principles are what divide us from volunteers providing library services?)

This notion of a “chilling effect” is not exactly a radical one. In 1967, 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.”

This was, of course, long before the kind of mass surveillance we are familiar with now had emerged. This impeding of the ability to voice critical and constructive ideas is one element of the impact of the “chilling effect”. But to be able to voice critical and constructive ideas you must be able to seek out ideas that challenge the status quo, that provoke critical reflection on the democratic process.

More recently, further research has suggested that there is a very real “chilling effect” following mainstream awareness of surveillance strategies conducted by the NSA and others. A recent study by Oxford’s John Penney [SSRN link, sorry!], for example, found a notable decrease in visits to contentious topics on Wikipedia following the Snowden disclosures. Penney found that 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.’”

This follows a 2015 paper which found that [sorry, SSRN again]:

“…users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the U.S. government”

Furthermore, the US Department of Commerce underlined the extent to which a “lack of trust” in internet privacy and security may deter online activity. Following a survey asked of 41,000 households with more than one internet user, it was clear that many felt that government surveillance had an impact on their expression of ideas online. According to their analysis:

“The apparent fallout from a lack of trust in the privacy and security of the Internet also extends beyond commerce. For example, 29 percent of households concerned about government data collection said they did not express controversial or political opinions online due to privacy or security concerns, compared with 16 percent of other online households.”

They conclude that:

“…it is clear that policymakers need to develop a better understanding of mistrust in the privacy and security of the Internet and the resulting chilling effects. In addition to being a problem of great concern to many Americans, privacy and security issues may reduce economic activity and hamper the free exchange of ideas online.”

These sentiments are echoed by Penney who argues 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.”

But what has this got to do with librarianship? Returning to those CILIP ethical principles, it’s clear that we have an obligation to ensure equal access to “information, ideas and works of the imagination”. Furthermore, it is clear that in an environment of mass surveillance, where the populace are aware that their online activities are observed and processed, individuals cannot exercise this freedom to access information because the “chilling effects” impedes them. The consequence of this is not only a reluctance to seek out critical ideas, but also a reluctance to communicate them. You cannot, ultimately, have free speech when you exist in conditions of mass surveillance. The conditions brought about by this “chilling effect” do not allow for it, unless you have the privilege to possess knowledge and skills about the techniques you can use to protect your information seeking habits and communications of course.

For me, this is where we need to be much stronger…because our ethical principles demand that we are much stronger. We should not, as a profession, accept the Investigatory Powers Bill and the threat it poses to us as professionals, undermining a key ethical principle to which we supposedly adhere. Equally, we should do more to protect our communities. Here the United States is well ahead of us, thanks to organisations such as the Library Freedom Project, as well as some efforts by the ALA and the Electronic Frontier Federation (which is non-librarian, but has played a key role in advancing the cause of intellectual privacy). Whilst moves have been apparent in the UK (see the recently announced Crypto Party in Newcastle), we have been far too slow to defend these core ethical principles. Perhaps this is down to a historic indifference in the UK towards free speech (see our libel laws as an example for how little value we place upon it – another example of the extent to which liberal values are something that only the privileged can enjoy). The extent to which there is a “chilling effect” on intellectual activity is debatable but so long as it is, we need to be at the forefront of that debate – both in terms of discourse and action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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