The Imbalance In Transparency

Transparency

Image c/o Jonathan McIntosh on Flickr (CC BY-SA).

Yesterday was a big day in terms of transparency, democracy and information rights. After months of criticism for the way in which it has been loaded to discriminate in favour of curbing Freedom of Information legislation, the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information published their findings, followed by publication of the government’s response. On top of all this, the government published its revised Investigatory Powers Bill (or “Snooper’s Charter”). In terms of the information flow between state and the individual, these two developments couldn’t be more important. The question is, to what extent is the information flow weighted in favour of citizens rather than the state? A question to which the answer is, I think, obvious to anyone with even the vaguest grasp of the history of the British state.

Given the sheer size of the debate and discussion in these two areas, I thought I’d bang all this together in one post, but split it up into two many themes: Information From Them and Information FOR Them. Seems to me that both these areas say a lot about where we are as a country, and I think such a distinction further emphasises the current state of play.

Information From Them

The FoI commission may have found that there is no case for new legislation with respect to the Act (meaning no substantial changes to how it operates), but this does not mean that it won’t continue to have serious limitations. The Act itself is imperfect as it stands now (and the increased outsourcing of public services to the private sector further limits its scope), and it’s not clear to what extent the government will use the findings of the Commission to come up with new and innovative ways to further restrict its impact. As Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for FoI, notes, rather than changes to the legislation it “could be that they are now possibly talking about various forms of guidance”.

For the government, the FoI Act has a very narrow appeal. It’s less about creating a culture of full transparency across government, both nationally and regionally, and more about beating the drum for value and efficiency. The Freedom of Information Act is more than just providing citizens with access to information on how taxpayers’ money is spent, it’s about holding politicians to account, ensuring that that all of their decisions are subject to scrutiny, not merely about how money is spent. This narrow perspective is still very much central to the government’s thinking, as evidenced by Matt Hancock’s statement in response to the findings:

“We will not make any legal changes to FoI. We will spread transparency throughout public services, making sure all public bodies routinely publish details of senior pay and perks. After all, taxpayers should know if their money is funding a company car or a big pay off.”

For the Conservatives, it makes sense that this is the extent of their endorsement of transparency. Spending taxpayers’ money plays directly into their narrative of difficult economic conditions that warrant the rolling back of public spending. Ensuring a focus on FoI as purely a mechanism to monitor local government spending shifts the emphasis and, ultimately, sends a message about how they view FoI. It’s not about transparency, or holding politicians to account. It is purely and simply about being a stick with which members of the public can beat local government profligacy.

One recommendation that is worth noting is the position regarding the “Cabinet veto”. The Commission recommended that:

“…the government legislates to clarify beyond doubt that it does have this power. We recommend that the veto should be exercisable where the executive takes a different view of the public interest in release, and that the power is exercisable to overturn a decision of the IC. We recommend that in cases where the IC upholds a decision of the public authority, the executive has the power to issue a ‘confirmatory’ veto with the effect that appeal routes would fall away, and any challenge would instead be by way of judicial review of that veto in the High Court.”

Although the government have decided that the veto will only be deployed “after an Information Commissioner decision”, the Minister’s statement adds that so long as this approach proves “effective”, legislation will not be brought forward “at this stage”. This is, to say the least, disappointing. As has been noted before, the veto simply acts as a way for ministers to avoid embarrassment (see the Prince Charles letters for example). Of course concerns about this particular aspect need to be considered in the context of the fact that the worst case scenario regarding Freedom of Information has not come to pass, but the phrase “at this stage” should put us all on alert regarding the government’s intentions.

That said, contrast the government’s position on freedom of information (where openness comes with caveats) with their position on surveillance (where caveats barely seem to exist)…

Information For Them

Following a number of critical reports about its Investigatory Powers Bill, the Home Office yesterday put forward revised draft legislation seeking to, in their words, “reflect the majority of the recommendations” from these reports. The reality is quite different, and very troubling on a number of levels, not least because of the intention to rush this bill through parliament at a time where other stories with substantial ramifications are dominating the news cycle (the intention seems to be to rush it through before DRIPA expires at the end of the year).

What of the proposals themselves? Well, they don’t make for comforting reading if you care about individual liberty and intellectual privacy. Despite criticism that the initial draft lacked any sense that privacy was to form the backbone of the legislation, the only change in this respect has been to add the word “privacy” to the heading for Part 1 (“General Protections” becomes “General Privacy Protections”). This tells you all you need to know about how the government views privacy. It’s a minor concern when compared to the apparent desire to engage in mass surveillance.

The Bill proposes that police forces will be able to access all web browsing records and hack into phones, servers and computers. Although the Home Office later claimed that hacking powers date from the 1997 Police Act and would only be used in “exceptional circumstances”, when giving evidence to the scrutiny committee, Det Supt Paul Hudson noted that these powers were used “in the majority of serious crime cases”. Needless to say, he refused to provide any further detail on the record. But there does appear to be a shift here from the police being able to view any illegal sites you have visited, to enabling them to view any website you visit.

In terms of encryption technologies (the bête noire of Western democracies hostile to privacy), there has been some clarity and yet there also seems to be somewhat of a loophole that could prove advantageous to those who know what tools to use to ensure their intellectual privacy. In the government’s response to pre-legislative scrutiny it advises:

“The revised Bill makes clear that obligations to remove encryption from communications only relate to electronic protections that have been applied by, or on behalf of, the company on whom the obligation has been placed and / or where the company is removing encryption for their own business purposes.”

The implication here seems pretty clear: to ensure you provide sufficiently strong encryption technologies, move towards encryption that you do not control, rather than those you do. If you don’t control it, you cannot remove it. I suspect the net consequence of this will be a muddying of the waters for those who wish to protect their intellectual privacy. It is already difficult to differentiate between which encryption tools truly protect you from mass surveillance, and which arguably do not (consequence being a new manifestation of the digital divide). Being able to differentiate between which tools do control the encryption placed on communications and which tools do not will undeniably require a degree of social capital that not everyone has the privilege to possess.

There are many significant concerns regarding this draft bill, many of which would take a huge blog post to cover…and I’ve not even read the full bill and accompanying documents yet. Rather than hit the 2,000 word mark, I’ve put together a list of key resources below. As librarians and information professionals we need to be on top of this. Defending the intellectual privacy of our users (whether that be in schools, public libraries, further or higher education) is a fundamental ethical concern. We need to take whatever steps we can to ensure we advance privacy, ensure the protection of digital rights and reject the monitoring and/or collection of users’ personal data that would compromise such privacy.

One thing I will add is that the combination of these two developments speaks volumes about the nature and transparency of government and in the United Kingdom. It is far less about ensuring a democratic system by which elected officials can be held to account, and far more about treating citizens with suspicion and thus undermining the democratic process. Given these circumstances, it is difficult to conclude that we live in a fully functioning democracy. When the state is entitled to more information about us than we are about them, there is no democracy.

Further resources

IFLA Statement on Privacy in the Library Environment

Investigatory Powers Bill – all government documents

Privacy International statement on IPBill

Investigatory Powers Bill – How To Make It Fit-For-Purpose

Don’t Spy On Us (authors of the above report on making it fit for purpose)

Access Now statement on IP Bill

 

Independent Commission on Freedom of Information report

Statement by Matt Hancock on Commission’s report

Campaign for Freedom of Information statement

Saving the Freedom of Information Act

Houses of Parliament (CC-BY)

Back in 2011, David Cameron announced that he was going to change the way government did business. No more hiding information away, making it difficult for people to retrieve. Instead, in an article published in the Telegraph, Cameron highlighted the importance of transparency at the heart of government. Information, said Cameron, “lets people hold the powerful to account” and, as a result, there needed to be more transparency about the workings of government. As Francis Maude, then Minister for the Cabinet Office, underlined, the “ambition [was] to make the UK the most transparent and accountable Government in the world“.

With such high words about the importance of transparency at the heart of government, it seems somewhat surprising (well, not that surprising) that Cameron’s government has launched a review into the Freedom of Information Act, a review that seems pretty loaded to produce a particular outcome: a curtailing of the power of the Act (which is saying something given its current limitations). So much for people holding the powerful to account.

The problem is that Cameron always had a particular narrow definition of government transparency. In his 2011 Telegraph article, he makes it pretty clear what he means by transparency: publicly accessible datasets. Releasing datasets is fine, indeed it’s a much welcome move. Their release certainly offers a degree of transparency. But it is a limited degree of transparency. Datasets alone can only tell you so much, they offer a very superficial form of transparency: transparency without context. Datasets do no negate FoI, they make FoI even more important.

At the recent Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) gathering in Huddersfield we talked about conducting research and the importance of FoI in helping to extract information from public bodies. The Act is a valuable tool for activists, enabling them to obtain information that can help to reinforce their case. It’s something that I have found an effective tool as part of my involvement in Voices for the Library – obtaining valuable information about the delivery of public library services throughout the UK.

Whilst the Act is limited at present, it does offer an opportunity to obtain information that can, just maybe, instigate change. Further restrictions to the Act will significantly limit its effectiveness and, further, make the kind of research discussed at the RLC gathering virtually impossible, not to mention creating difficulties for activists more generally. As Cameron himself said, “information is power”. Without access to the kind of information held by public bodies, we do not have power and without power we cannot instigate change.

But what of the review? Well, the figures involved in the review process should cause alarm for those concerned with transparent governance. Jack Straw, for example, is a known critic of the Act previously arguing that there needed to be substantial changes to the Act due to the impact it was having on government. Another figure on the panel, Michael Howard, was the subject of a number of freedom of information requests in 2005 that led to 500 pages of internal files being released relating to “controversial issues” he dealt with as home secretary in the 1990s. It seems hard to believe that he will be a great fan of the Act. And yet another member of the panel, Lord Carlile of Berriew, is not a particular fan of government transparency. The peer argued in 2013 that The Guardian’s publication of “stolen state secrets” was a “criminal” act.

With such figures involved in the review, it seems clear that at the very least the Act will be significantly watered down. This is not a surprise, it took years to make such an Act a reality and it’s not for nothing that the United Kingdom is known as one of the most secretive states in the Western world (we do, after all, retain an Official Secrets Act). Indeed, it transpired a couple of weeks ago that the Ministry of Justice is consulting on the introduction of Tribunal fees – which will very likely have the same effect as the introduction of tribunal fees elsewhere (ie people won’t take decisions to tribunals, which of course means that the government and public bodies are likely to get away with withholding information).

Given the attack on a vital piece of legislation that plays a vital role in giving people the information they require to hold the government to account, what can be done to put pressure on the government and ensure that at the very least the Act survives in its current form (it certainly needs extending, but that seems highly unlikely at present – if not impossible under a Tory government)? I’d highly recommend checking out this blog post by Paul Gibbons,  a consultant and trainer in information rights and information management. I’d also urge you to support the Campaign for Freedom of Information as much as you possibly can. I was very privileged to be invited to their recent 30th anniversary celebrations and hearing about the work they have done and continue to do was incredibly inspiring. But they need support to carry that work forward, so if you can support the Campaign (either through donations or amplifying their work on social media) please do so. Do also see their “Stop FoI Restrictions” page. They deserve all the support they can get for their tireless efforts to ensure that we all have access to information from the state.

Transparency at the heart of government should be a concern of every citizen, but I believe that information professionals have a particular obligation to ensure that not only is the Act not watered down, but that we also work to strengthen it. Information is power. With a weakened Freedom of Information Act, our power is severely curtailed.

Freedom of Information and getting things done

Last night I was very privileged to have been invited to the 30th anniversary celebration of the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CfFoI). I have to concede, that I was more than a little surprised to have received an invite, I am not someone who works within the field and therefore have no first-hand experience of dealing with the Act or any real expertise in the area. That said, as a librarian I am passionate about the importance of an informed citizenry that can both engage fully in the democratic process and hold elected officials to account. For this reason, I am a great believer in the Act and believe that the CfFoI is a vital force for good in a country that has a history of keeping citizens in the dark.

Listening to those who have been working for 30 years to firstly establish a Freedom of Information Act, then to keep the pressure on to ensure that an imperfect Act is improved and defended from efforts to try to water it down and diminish it (and we know full well there will be repeated efforts by agents of the state to diminish the Act and undermine its credibility) was particularly inspiring. As someone involved in various campaigns and groups, a lot of the words really rang true.

Campaigning is hard. It’s all graft and grind with very little reward. Indeed, the fact that it took 20 years for the CfFoI to be successful in getting an FoI Act on the statute book underlines how difficult it is to be successful. It takes years of dedication, a whole host of sacrifices, very little glory and perpetual optimism. As one speaker said last night, campaigning is not about photo ops and marches, it’s about the daily grind, doing the grotty (and often tedious) work that takes your campaign forward and that, ultimately, leads to success. Successful campaigns are built on years of hard work.

From my perspective, I always argue that it is best not to get bogged down in believing that you will get results quickly. That what you aspire to will come to fruition within a short time frame. It won’t. It’ll take years. Some of the change you may aspire to will probably not even happen within your lifetime. The important bit is to do the graft and lay the groundwork. So long as you are realistic, I believe you can maintain that dedication and enthusiasm for whatever cause you are involved in. If you are too unrealistic, you will very quickly find yourself burnt out and disillusioned. Fight for what you believe in, but be aware that it will take time, effort and dedication. Change does not come easy.

The people behind CfFoI have kept that dedication, that determination to be successful in effecting real change in terms of how we are governed. By creating an environment where at least there is a chink of light where before there was only darkness. The challenge now, in my view, is to turn that chink of light into something bigger.

Ian Hislop speaking at last night’s event.

One other thing that was re-emphasised for me last night was the importance of building connections across the information profession. I certainly find within the world of the librarian we often seem to exist in a silo that is detached from other information professionals. I struggle sometimes to understand this. Of course we all have our individual areas of expertise, but I think it is important for librarians (who after all are concerned with facilitating access to information) to be aware of and engaged with such discussions across the profession. As librarians we should be engaged with the fight for freedom of information, we should be helping citizens to utilise the tools available to them to hold their elected officials to account. We should be engaged in data protection, particularly in a world where data is increasingly being bought and sold, often without the awareness of those who the data is extracted from. As librarians we should be engaged in making information and data more accessible with regards to the state, whilst protecting individuals from the commodification of their personal data. When one considers the ethics that underpin our profession, it is clear that we should be engaged in these areas.

The last ten years are not an end with regard to the battle to ensure transparent governance, they are a beginning. With further funding cuts in the pipeline, the growth of private sector contracts to deliver public services presents new challenges. As government seeks to outsource public services, so we lose our right to know. It is clear that the Freedom of Information Act will need to be expanded and adapted in the years to come. To have any hope of achieving that, groups such as the CfFoI need to continue keeping the pressure on. But for them to do so requires all of us who believe in their aims to show our support in whatever way we can to ensure that not only does the Act continue to remain relevant but that the light it shines on how we are governed gets brighter rather than dimmer. The efforts of those who have led the campaign over the past 30 years demonstrates that whilst it won’t be easy, we can be optimistic.

You can find out more about the Campaign for Freedom of Information here. I’d urge you to support them in whatever way you can.

The future for libraries across Europe against a backdrop of ‘austerity’

The following article was originally commissioned by the Russian International Affairs Council (original version here, English version here), who have very kindly given me permission to reproduce it here.

Image c/o Tristam Sparks on Flickr.

Libraries across Europe are currently facing very serious challenges in the face of the wave of austerity sweeping across the continent. As governments sell to their people the notion that public spending needs to be curtailed to overcome the effects of the 2008 economic crisis, public libraries are increasingly seen as an easy target, one that is unlikely to rally the people in quite the same way as cuts to other services where the outcomes of such cuts appear more immediately tangible.

But libraries continue to play an important role in our communities across Europe. They facilitate access to knowledge free at the point of use in a way that is increasingly threatened as we move towards a word where access to information comes at a price. They are the great leveller in democracies, ensuring everyone has access to the same quality of information. Where, for example, those without internet access (around 30% of the European population do not have a broadband internet connection) still have somewhere to go to ensure they have access to the same information as those that do. This provision is not only important to support children in their education but also the unemployed and those who rely on social security, particularly in the UK where those least likely to have a home internet connection are increasingly being forced to use such technology for their own financial security.

But libraries aren’t simply important in terms of providing access to new technologies, they are also vital for helping to raise literacy standards, and encourage children to develop their reading skills. The importance of libraries to children is perhaps best exemplified by the statistics that demonstrate that children are increasingly using public libraries, despite the internet and the proliferation of a range of competing activities. Over the past eight years in the UK, children’s fiction borrowing as risen year upon year, underlining how important public libraries are for supporting the educational development of the next generation.

In terms of the future for the library service, we are already seeing hints of how it might develop and, perhaps, how it should develop. In the UK, there has been a growth in so-called ‘community libraries’. The terminology appears harmless, but the reality is quite different. In order to support the drive to austerity, libraries are increasingly being forced upon communities who are then compelled to run them against their will. Whilst the majority of library users would prefer their public library to be run by the local authority, policy makers are more interested in reducing costs and passing these costs directly onto the community, effectively increasing their tax burden.

This ‘plague’ is sweeping across the UK and has been noticed elsewhere across Europe. In Spain, for example, volunteer run libraries are increasingly being seen as an option, at least in part due to their ‘commonality’ in the UK. Ideas that spring up in one European nation are sure to be experimented with elsewhere, particularly when it appears that the idea helps to support the austerity agenda that is so prevalent across the continent. It seems not far-fetched to say that volunteer libraries could, over the coming years, spread right across Europe and be seen as a standard way of delivering library services, complemented by large city ‘super-libraries’ such as that that opened in Birmingham in 2013.

If this is to be the future for public libraries across Europe, it is fair to say that the future looks bleak and there is likely to be only a small number of libraries fit for purpose across Europe as smaller libraries disappear and community libraries close due to their unsustainable nature. It would appear that one future is to have a well-funded, flagship library in each major city, but a steady decline in the number of small libraries serving local communities. In the UK alone we could see the number of public libraries shift from the thousands to the hundreds between now and the next century.

Whilst this is how things might develop, it is not necessarily how things should develop. Recent elections have shown just how important the internet has been in influencing the results. President Obama’s election campaign in 2008 showed how the internet could be harnessed to drive a successful presidential election. Not only is it the case that elections have become increasingly fought over the internet, but the battle between political parties has increasingly sought to channel the power of the internet as politicians increasingly see the internet as a vital weapon in the information wars. But this ‘war’ is not only being fought between politicians, there are other actors that influence the political information flow. Websites such as Full Fact, What Do They Know? and They Work For You have provided the tools to make it easier for those with an internet connection to hold their elected representatives to account, as well as to get to the truth about their activities. It is far easier to engage in the political process now than it has ever been. Provided you are connected to the internet.

We know that many people do not have an internet connection. We also know that, as with literacy standards, there is always likely to be a minority of the populace who cannot either access or make use of the information and tools that are at our disposal. We know that despite many years of effort to address literacy standards, there are still many who struggle with literacy (one in six according to the UK’s National Literacy Trust). For those that do struggle, the internet will present additional problems. Issues around literacy do not disappear once you sit in front of a computer. They persist, ensuring that a divide remains between those with good levels of literacy and those without.

So perhaps this points the way to an alternative role for libraries, how things should develop in the next one hundred years. Perhaps libraries should increasingly become gateways to our democracy, helping people to hold their elected officials to account, ensuring that the electorate are well informed and able to influence the political sphere. As well as supporting them through the provision of access to government portals as governments increasingly adopt a ‘digital by default’ strategy, maybe they can also help to ensure the people can watch over the state and ensure it can be held to account. It may require a different model across Europe, one that is more independent of state and therefore at enough of a distance to ensure it can hold governments to account.

Perhaps the volunteer model that is rapidly being adopted is a hint to a better alternative that is being ignored on the basis of political ideology. Rather than ‘community libraries’ run by people with a gun held to their head, maybe a closer, stronger partnership between the community and the professionally delivered service is the answer. Maybe the example of the University of Mondragon suggests an interesting, more desirable alternative.

Mondragon operates on a co-operative model that is highly de-centralised and engages all partners in the delivery of education. It also has a highly democratic governance structure:

Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team.

Perhaps this is a model that libraries across Europe should be exploring. A professionally delivered service run in partnership with its users and other co-operative libraries. The potential for such a service is great, but the idea itself could be easily corrupted. Efforts to expand on mutuals in the UK have already raised alarm amongst interested parties such as Co-operatives UK and the Trades Union Congress. As such, this alternative future should perhaps be handled with care and one that advocates should be careful to ensure the idea is not corrupted and abused.

There is certainly the potential to build an alternative future for public (and, indeed, academic) libraries in the future. At present the future appears to be developing in a way that will result in the slow destruction of a public library network across Europe. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Libraries should develop as institutions that can help the people of Europe engage in democratic processes, they should be at the centre of a drive towards transparency across the continent. A well-funded and well-resourced library service should enhance democracies throughout Europe. The future might look bleak, but it should look transparent.

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.

Evading transparency – the privatisation of public services

Is the sale of Royal Mail a symbol of our damaged democracy? (Image c/o kenjonbro on Flickr.)

Earlier this month, after several years of threats from both the Tories and Labour, the Royal Mail was finally privatised by the Coalition. Despite strong profits and a secure future (primarily due to the rise in internet shopping), the Coalition saw fit, without the permission of the general public who owned the service, to sell it off to wealthy investors. Not only was a publicly owned service sold off without the permission of the public, it has done so at huge cost as a result to the substantial under-valuing of shares in Royal Mail.

With privatisation comes a new set of priorities for the service. No longer is it answerable to the general public, instead it is answerable only to investors whose prime interest is a return on their investment (not on ensuring a quality service). And because it has moved into the private sector and is no longer answerable to the general public, it is not within its interests to act in an open and transparent manner, as it would be forced to do if it were publicly owned. If it doesn’t have to answer to the public, there is no reason for the public to know what it is doing. Which, in my view, highlights a substantial and serious problem with existing Freedom of Information legislation in the current, rapidly changing, environment.

It took many years for the UK government to (reluctantly of course) ‘embrace’ the principles of Freedom of Information. The UK has historically been one of the more secretive of the Western democracies (compare the attitude of our government to transparent governance to that of the United States for example) and, so far as governments across the ages have been concerned, the notion that the governed have a right to know what the governing are doing in their name has long by considered absurd. Even after the legislation was introduced, the governing class were less than enthusiastic about embracing basic principles of an open democracy and transparent governance.

Despite his rhetoric and claims that his would be the most transparent of governments, David Cameron’s government has generally followed the trend of its predecessors. There has been talk of transparency, and some piecemeal attempts to match rhetoric with words, but generally the government has viewed transparency legislation as an obstacle rather than as a conduit for good government. Perhaps this is unsurprising from a leader of a party that is perhaps the most secretive about the source of its funding. This reluctance to fully embrace transparency has been reflected in the actions of a number of ministers (Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley being two obvious examples), but also in his apparent zeal for public sector services being sold off to the private sector where they are free from scrutiny.

Cameron may argue that ‘profit’ is not a dirty word. In many respects, I would argue, it is the dirtiest of words. Dirty because the profit motive obstructs transparency and makes services less accountable to those that rely on them. Put profit into the equation and suddenly the waters are muddied. True transparency simply is not possible to the extent that is possible before the introduction of the profit motive. We see this in the shift of public sector services to the private sector. Whereas public sector services are subject to legislation enforcing a degree of transparency (although admittedly this legislation could be much improved – it is nonetheless, better than nothing at all), the private sector is free from such scrutiny, hiding behind their supposed need to protect profits.

Privatisation is, therefore, not only a sop to your political donors, it is also prevents proper scrutiny of a service. The transfer of Royal Mail, for example, means that the way it is run is, effectively, no business of the people who use the service. It is only the business of investors. If you have no investment in the service, you have no right to know how that service is being delivered. The drive to privatisation is not only a drive to take services out of public ownership, it is a drive away from transparency and towards secrecy. With every privatisation of state owned services, comes a move towards an increasingly secretive (dare I say totalitarian?) society in which you do not have a right to know about the services you use. In effect, we face reaching a point where Freedom of Information legislation is almost an irrelevance as it can no longer be effectively applied and no information of real value can be obtained from its use.

The only way to prevent the governing from eradicating what transparency we currently have (aside from demanding a reversal of previously undertaken privatisations), is to extend and strengthen existing Freedom of Information legislation. If we are to be serious about creating a transparent society, then these powers must be strengthened. If a private sector company is contracted to provide a service on behalf of the public sector, then it must be subject to the same transparency as if it were provided by the public sector. Of course, private companies will complain that opening themselves up will leave them at a competitive disadvantage, but if they wish to provide public services then that is the price they must pay. The concern of the general populace is not the profit margin of a private contractor but that the service provider can be held to account by the citizens who are most affected by the service they are providing.

For all of these reasons, I will be writing to my MP calling on him to support the call to extend Freedom of Information powers in the early day motion (613) tabled on Wednesday. The motion declares that:

…this House praises the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for the transparency and openness it has brought to the public sector and the public right of access of information held by central and local government and its agencies; notes that public services delivered by private companies are currently beyond the scope of the 2000 Act; further notes that, as growing amounts of public services are privatised, ever decreasing amounts of public spend are subject to freedom of information; and supports calls to extend the legislation so that public services contracted out to the private and third sector are covered by freedom of information legislation.

Whilst it is a relatively recent piece of legislation, Freedom of Information is a vital principle if we are to believe that the way we are governed should be transparent and open to scrutiny. An information society should expect nothing less than open information on the way services are provided, whether it be by the public sector or the private sector. A truly democratic state should ensure that all of its citizens have the means to ensure they are fully informed about the ways in which they are governed. Privatisation is not only the enemy of transparency and accountability, it is also the enemy of democracy and freedom.

The internet: an opportunity missed, or an opportunity lost?

But nothing compares with the revolutionary impact of the internet. The internet has altered drastically the nature of our political campaigns, conventions, constituents, candidates and costs. Some politicians regard it with suspicion, others with pleasure. Some candidates have benefited by using it-others have been advised to avoid it. To the voter and vote-getter alike, the internet offers new opportunities, new challenges and new problems.

The above quote was taken from an article written by a future liberal American president. A highly skilled and cunning operator, he identified early on that this technology would play a crucial role in political life.  Furthermore, it would later be a key factor in electing him to the highest office in the land, leaving his opponents trailing far behind as they failed to grapple with the opportunities this new technology provided.  But this above quote isn’t all that it seems.  For one thing, it was written in 1959.  For another (obviously) the article was not about the internet, but about television.  And, of course, this future liberal American president was, in fact, John F Kennedy.

The emergence of television as a major communications tool had the potential to revolutionise the relationship between politicians and the electorate. Rather than remaining remote and detached from the people who would elect them, politicians could now appear in every constituent’s living room, communicating with them directly in a way they simply were not able to before.  Of course, this development did alter the nature of political campaigns and politics in general, much as Kennedy predicted, but it made no tangible difference to the relationship between the governed and the governors.  If anything, television simply reinforced existing power structures. One only has to see the relationship between commercial television and the political elite, both funded by the same corporate sponsors, both defending the interests of those same sponsors and the economic system which benefits their funding streams.  Television did nothing to challenge existing power structures, it merely reinforced them.

Television’s reinforcement of the status quo is perhaps unsurprising. Whilst it has the potential to reveal truths about our society to a much bigger audience than any other medium has managed (thanks perhaps to the power of the moving image), it has largely been a one-way communication tool. Whilst it has afforded the opportunity for some interaction, and for viewers to engage in populist TV shows, it has done little to engage or empower people in democratic processes. And then came the internet…

The internet certainly has the potential to radically alter the relationship between the governed and the governing. The growth of social media in particular has opened up the potential to enable greater communication between the two. Whereas the flow of communication has primarily been top down, from the governing to the governed, the internet and social media enables a cycle of communication between the two. The internet and social media has, unlike almost every other communications tool that preceded it (like television), the potential to be revolutionary in its impact. Unfortunately, this potential has not, in my view, been realised. Rather than heralding a radically new political environment, the internet has increasingly become just another communications tool for the elite to assert authority over.

Of course, the great “Arab Spring” has often been heralded as a watershed in terms of the ability for social media and the internet to facilitate radical social and political change.  Whilst it undoubtedly had some impact, it was perhaps not the great game changer that many claim it to be. Of course, that hasn’t stopped many of these actions being acclaimed as “Facebook Revolutions”. But there is perhaps a Western-centric view of the influence of these tools, primarily because many of these tools are Western creations. It is perhaps unsurprising that the Western media have latched onto Western technology as a hook to interest their populations in uprisings that happen in parts of the world where they have previously shown little interest.

Wael Ghonim, a key figure in the use of the internet as a tool to support the revolutionary movement in Egypt, documented his experiences of running a social media campaign in support of the uprising in his book, Revolution 2.0. Whilst it is undoubtedly an interesting read (I’d certainly recommend picking it up if you get the chance), as one reviewer points out:

“…it clearly states that the Kullena Khaled Said page even at its best only reached about one million readers, a large number for an Internet campaign no doubt, but only a small minority in a nation of 81 million people. Ghonim makes scant any reference to, for example, the wave of strikes that begun in Mahalla in late 2006 and which played a major role in mobilising people against the Mubarak regime. Thus, this book represents a rather narrow view of the Egyptian revolution, something Ghonim also asserts himself.”

The exaggeration of the impact of social media appears to be borne out in a report prepared for the Defense Intelligence Agency in the United States. In “The Impact of Social Media on Social Unrest in the Arab Spring” [PDF] the authors investigated the impact of social media upon social unrest and presented three main findings:

1)      Exogenous political and economic shocks served as the necessary underlying drivers of social unrest; without grievances, individuals would have no cause for protest.

2)      The authors did not find a consistent correlation between social media use and successful mass protest, suggesting social media is a useful but not sufficient tool for protest.

3)      Social media boosted international attention to local events by facilitating reporting from places traditional media has limited access to and by providing a bottom-up, decentralized process for generating news stories.

The authors ended on a cautionary note. Social media was increasingly being used by authoritarian governments to “repress opposition movements and stymie democratisation”.

In short, social media made a contribution to the development of the Arab Spring, but it was not the key factor. Unsurprisingly, a number of factors came together which led to the successful overthrow of authoritarian regimes. Social media didn’t change the dynamic between the regimes and the people they controlled, but it did facilitate the protest movement once it began to develop and grow. What is important to note, however, is that the technology is increasingly being used by repressive regimes to reinforce existing power structures, rather than to open up and democratise society. But what about in the West? Has the internet had the revolutionary impact its potential suggested?

Western liberal democracies appear not to have seen the internet as an opportunity to create a more participative democracy, but rather as an opportunity to reinforce existing structures. In terms of using the technology there appears to be two dominant strategies:

1)      Push out information about the state under the auspices of Open Data.

2)      Collect more information about citizens.

(And you could probably add a third as being that of a propaganda weapon*.)

In terms of the first (and I am primarily referring to the UK here) the internet is seen as a tool to push out government data. This is, of course, seen as a way to make public officials accountable to “taxpayers” (so the rhetoric goes) and to create, as David Cameron would have it, a new era of transparency. Of course, data without context is fairly meaningless. Opening up data in the way the UK government has been doing so does not truly empower citizens or radically impact upon the nature of our democracy. It is one-way communication between the governing and the governed, just delivered in a slightly different way. Indeed, an interview with Francis Maude conducted by the Wall Street Journal underlined that this information push is not about changing the relationship between the governed and the governing but about reinforcing the status quo (this is a fairly sizeable extract but I think it is worth extracting this part of the exchange):

Wall Street Journal: In what way does it do this? Open government at the moment seems to be about opening government up so people can see what it does, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that it is about empowering citizens. The power balance doesn’t change.

Francis Maude: What you are starting to see now in terms of opening data up in the health service changes the balance of power because there is less ‘you take what you are given whether you like it or not’. It is more you have a chance to look at what you are getting and exercise some choice, some choice which will be enabled by digital. You can see what different hospitals are offering, you can see the outcomes from different GP practices, you can make decisions based on that. That is changing, in a crucial way, what most people say is the most important public service. That is changing the balance, moving the balance towards the citizen.

WSJ: All of those things are about choosing between pre-existing choices. It is not empowering you to change those choices. How can the citizen, having been empowered to do the business of government in a better way, change the business of government?

FM: Through elections.

WSJ: So technology doesn’t have impact on the relationship? We are still in the business of putting crosses on pieces of paper and putting them in ballot boxes.

FM: Those are essentially political decisions, which are subject to democracy.

WSJ: So how do you empower democracy? How does technology change the nature of democracy?

FM: By increasing the level of information and knowledge and the access to it.

WSJ: So what can citizens do once they have been better informed?

FM: Vote in a better way. We are not changing the nature of democracy.

WSJ: Isn’t the logical conclusion of what we have seen elsewhere that digital has the ability to change that relationship? What you seem to be saying is that when it comes to politics, actually no, we are not looking to change. We, the government, will go out to you, the citizens, from whom we derive our legitimacy, we will seek your opinions on these things and then a committee of the great and the good will consider them. But there is no fundamental shift in doing that online or filling in a piece of paper and sending it in.

FM: You could have a continuous participative democracy where decisions are voted on in real time by as many people as are on line and know about it. That is an option. That would be a massive change. You could enable that — you vote for people on Britain’s Got Talent that way.  The technology is not very hard to do. We could do this.

WSJ: This is not something you are suggesting is the policy you are going to have?

FM: No.

The government’s agenda, as the Wall Street Journal point out, will not lead to a fundamental shift in the relationship. Technology is not changing the nature of democracy, it is merely reinforcing old structures.

The second strand is, of course, the collection of information on citizens. The revelations of the activities of the NSA have, thanks to Edward Snowden, shown just what lengths the state is prepared to go to in order to collect information on the governed. In the guise of national security it is prepared to conduct widespread, cross-border electronic surveillance.  Of course, this comes soon after the UK government had attempted to introduce its snoopers’ charter, an attempt that is sure to be repeated regardless of the controversy over surveillance conducted by the NSA. The growth of this new technology appears to be viewed as an opportunity to gather more information on the governed, to reinforce the relationship between them and those that govern them. If there has been a revolution, perhaps it has been in terms of what the governing can learn about us, rather than what we learn about them (despite piecemeal freedom of information legislation – which appears to be a watered down sop to demonstrate that we can conduct our own surveillance on them as much as they can on us…of course we cannot).

Not only is information on citizens being harvested, but it is being done so with the threat of exerting the full force of the state should this be disrupted. See, for example, the case ofDavid Miranda and his nine hour detention. Both here, and in the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement, we can see the lengths the governing will go to in order to protect their own interests and ensure the flow of information remains within their control. As Charlie Beckett, author of Wikileaks – news in the networked eraputs it on the LSE blog:

“…‘outsider journalism’ when combined with the best of mainstream news media and when they exploit the power of new digital networks, create a communications power that is a serious challenge to authority.”

When this one-way, highly controlled flow is disrupted, it presents a challenge to authority, a challenge to governing forces and a shifting in the balance of control of information. Therefore, these same forces will act to protect and ensure that this flow remains within their control. Information, as far as the governing are concerned, should primarily flow in one direction – upwards.

There certainly is a two-way process of communication between the governed and the governing, however the governed do not have an active role in this process. They are to be passive consumers of the data pumped out by the government and a veritable bank of information to be collected by the state. There is no revolution here, the relationship has barely changed, all that has changed is the method by which this relationship is managed. The governing still control the flow of information, in both directions (the recent revelations about Israel underline how social media and the internet is seen as a powerful tool of propaganda – the third main strategy employed by Western, liberal democracies).

Both the internet and social media have the potential to radically alter the nature of our democracy. The truth is that this potential has not (yet?) been realised. Where social media has been hailed as a powerful tool in over-throwing repressive regimes, it merely played a supportive role in strengthening existing revolutionary movements. It helped to challenge the existing relationship between the governed and the governing, but it was an aid not the driving force. Likewise, in Western democracies social media and the internet has not radically changed the relationship between governing and governed. Indeed, it hasn’t changed it at all. Despite the potential for new technology to radically change the dynamic, creating a more open, democratic and participative environment, it has merely been used as a tool to reinforce pre-existing structures. Of course, the potential is still there for the internet to significantly recalibrate our democratic structures. I hope that, for now, this is just an opportunity missed but I fear, as the extent to which the state is prepared to control the flow of information becomes ever clearer, it might well be an opportunity lost.

* I would have liked to have explored all three strategies in greater detail, but I was conscious of the fact I was already running way over a word count that one would reasonably expect people to endure.

The problem with Twitter becoming a little less Piccadilly Circus…

Messages delivered by third parties for payment on social media raises a number of ethical concerns, for information professionals and society in general.
(Image c/o Joe Price on Flickr.)

One of the things I have become increasingly interested in (and wary of) is the use of social media, in particular Twitter, for either personal financial gain (via a corporate sponsor), or to push certain agendas. Of course, this sort of thing has been pretty much part of the Twitter landscape for some time now (this article on the phenomenon dates from 2011), but either this trend has increased, or I am noticing it far more than I used to. A couple of incidents recently have raised my interest in the area to such an extent that I felt I simply must write a blog post on it (one incident alone isn’t enough to pad out a post, I need two different examples at least to prompt me to sit here and start bashing out a series of letters and symbols).

The first was the news that the Israeli government are offering grants to students if they tweet ‘pro-Israeli propaganda’. According to The Independent:

In a campaign to improve its image abroad, the Israeli government plans to provide scholarships to hundreds of students at its seven universities in exchange for their making pro-Israel Facebook posts and tweets to foreign audiences.

The students making the posts will not reveal online that they are funded by the Israeli government, according to correspondence about the plan revealed in th

This troubles me greatly and, I think, it’s part of a growing trend of using Twitter as a means of covertly pushing propaganda (or misinformation) out into the public domain. Without an awareness of the funding aspect, such tweets not only undermines everything that individual tweeters tweet, but also Twitter itself. Suddenly, everything becomes suspect. Who else is pushing out tweets with an agenda, trying to covertly influence public opinion? If we are not aware that an individual has been sponsored by either state or corporate actors, how can we properly evaluate what they are saying?

I was reminded of this story recently when this tweet popped up in my timeline. Whilst a reasonable comment on the iPhone, a bit of digging into the tweet author raises some questions. A quick check of his bio indicates that the aforementioned tweeter works for Telefonica. A further search on Google revealed this story:

Telefonica, one of the world’s largest carriers, has signed a deal with Microsoft to promote far more heavily the software giant’s Windows Phone 8 operating system and devices running it.

The carrier said in a statement on Wednesday that over the next year, it will enhance its marketing efforts for Windows Phone 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices. The company will focus those marketing efforts in several of its major markets, including the U.K., Germany, Spain, and Brazil.

Telefonica said that its move is designed to enhance competition in the marketplace. The company said Wednesday it wants to “encourage the presence of additional mobile operating platforms as an alternative to the current duopoly of Android and iOS, and provide customers with a more personal smartphone experience like Windows Phone offers.”

[Yes, that is a terribly written article, see other sources here and here.]

I’m not suggesting that the author is posting tweets as part of some grand corporate strategy, that would be a little far-fetched, but one wonders to what extent corporations actually deploy such tactics. After all, if nation states are using the technology to engage in more subtle promotion, you can be sure corporations are and have been doing so for some time (when have you known the public sector be one step ahead of the private sector?). Stealth marketing is, of course, a well-established concept and Twitter (and social media in general) makes it much easier to push out promotional materials from seemingly independent accounts. How can we be sure whether @X is tweeting about a product or service because they value it, or because they are being paid to be seen to value it?

Of course, marketing people love social media, particularly tools such as Twitter. Here is a service which enables a corporate entity to interact directly with both customers and potential customers. That’s a powerful weapon for any business or service. But, of course, utilising it effectively requires care and subtlety. It’s no good being the virtual equivalent of Piccadilly Circus, blazing loud messages out into the ether whilst thousands of people walk past or chatter away oblivious to the messages being pumped out around them. Sure, you’ll pick up a few along the way (who may well then broadcast your message to their audience), but to a significant number you will become background noise and a more sophisticated approach is warranted (besides, no marketing strategy should focus purely on one tactic). Most people do not want their feeds cluttered with corporate messages, they want such messages to be as unobtrusive as possible. Which is why, for those wishing to push out a certain agenda, alternative methods to push out such messages are sought. If it means paying a third-party (a willing customer, a celebrity or an employee) to push those messages out for you, then so be it. As long as the message does not come direct from source. The more removed the message, the more effective it becomes.

However, once the message does become removed from source, certain ethical questions are raised. Individuals are no longer providing ‘personal opinions’, they are providing opinions for money. Once opinions are provided in this way, it then devalues the entire output of that individual. How many other ‘opinions’ have been formed as a result of payment? Can anything they say be taken at face value? Once it is clear that your opinions can be bought, your output becomes valueless.  As Bill Hicks once argued, if you do a commercial, “everything you say is suspect” (I’ll let you look up the rest of that quote…).

It’s difficult to know, however, how this can be tackled. In part it’s just a case of being aware that there might be a particular agenda at play, but then you also don’t want to view with suspicion every single thing that is tweeted by someone referencing either a service or product. Some people may be genuinely endorsing a product or service without financial gain, I see little problem with that. However, when there is a financial incentive behind the tweets that are being posted it clearly becomes problematic. Not only does this kind of tweeting raise questions for the online community in general, it particularly raises a number of issues for librarians and information professionals.

First, it makes it difficult to evaluate published materials. With a lack of transparency about the motives and agendas behind a series of tweets, it is hard to determine whether tweets are genuine opinions and beliefs, or merely the opinions and beliefs of a corporate (or state) sponsor. Taking the example of the accounts to be sponsored by the Israeli government, how will it even be possible to determine whether published opinions are actually those of the Tweeter in question, or whether they are opinions given for financial reward? It could possibly be determined, but it would take a lot of work, far more work than the average Twitter user has to investigate the authenticity of a tweet or tweets. And who is really going to take the time to find out whether X’s comments about the state of Israeli society are an accurate reflection of the reality? I’d be surprised if anyone does.

But it also raises questions about our own ethical principles. How would we square tweeting for financial reward given our professional ethics? It’s not acceptable for anyone, in my view, to sell their opinions in this way, but is it even more problematic if you are a library and information professional? If you clearly state you are such, is there an expectation by the general public that you will hold the highest ethical principles at all times, no matter how unfeasible that might be? When people see ‘librarian’ or ‘information professional’ do they see ‘disseminator of impartial information’? Is it unreasonable if they do? Can any professional truly be held to the highest ethical standards at all times? Likewise, would it be acceptable for operators of an official library account to offer rewards to those who post positive tweets about the service?

But as well as raising questions about our approach to social media, it also raises questions about how and whether we as a profession can tackle the problem. Is there actually anything that we can or should do? What, if anything, can actually be done about covert sponsored social media statements by anyone? Is it about awareness and validating everything everyone tweets or posts? That would surely be too time-consuming and needlessly paranoid/cynical? We don’t want to get drawn into a habit of being sceptical about the motives behind every single thing that people tweet or post. Perhaps all that we can do is to be aware of the problem and to try, wherever possible, to lead by example. For if our opinions and beliefs can be bought, compromising our professional, ethical principles in the dissemination of information, who is left for anyone to trust?

On Radical Library Camp and my session pitch

Poster commenting on the media coverage of the Occupy movement. (Image c/o freestylee on Flickr.)

You may have seen some reference to a Radical Library Camp on Twitter recently. Well, I hope you have otherwise we’ve not been doing a good job of making you aware of it! Seeing as I have pitched a session on the wiki, I thought it would be good to take an opportunity to explain a bit more about my pitch, as well as give a little background and personal perspective on the idea of a ‘Radical Library Camp’. First, I should probably explain how I see the word ‘radical’ in the context of this Camp.

I think, probably, the word ‘radical’ causes some problems for librarians and information professionals. Is what we do ‘radical’? If not, what exactly would make us so? Can a librarian ever truly be radical? And is the word ‘radical’ just a synonym for ‘far-left’? In some respects, I guess the term ‘radical’ is a synonym for the radical left, but I prefer to think of it in somewhat broader terms (albeit terms that some might term as ‘radical left’ regardless).

I was asked this question fairly recently, “what do you mean by ‘radical’?”, which prompted a lot of reflection on my part and a lot of searching to try to find the answer I felt comfortable with. Lucky for me, a quick scan through my Chomsky Library (everyone should have one!) provided an answer that satisfied me in a way that my own ruminations couldn’t quite manage. In Power Systems, a series of published conversations between Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, they discuss what it is to be radical:

One of the things you say about yourself, which often stuns people, is that you’re an old-fashioned conservative. What do you mean by that?

For example, I think Magna Carta and the whole legal tradition that grew out of it made some sense. I think the expansion of the moral horizon over the centuries, particularly since the Enlightenment, is important. I think there’s nothing wrong with those ideals. A conservative, at least as it used to be understood, is somebody who cares about traditional values. Today those values are regularly being thrown out the window. We should condemn that.

Then why are you seen as a wide-eyed radical?

Because holding on to traditional values is a very radical position. It threatens and undermines power.

And I think that fits with what I view a ‘Radical Library Camp’ to be about (note: this is my personal perspective and does not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow collaborators). In other words, it is about focusing on our core, traditional values, values that have, in these neo-liberal times, become ‘radical’ by nature of our changing environment. So, for example, we as a profession traditionally champion the right of everyone, without discrimination, to access information. In these times of increasing commodification of information, adhering to a view that everyone should have access to information has become a somewhat radical position. The mainstream position now is that information has to be paid for. It has to sit behind paywalls on the internet or be subject to a fee before the equipment can be used to access it (see the move towards charging library users to access the internet – resulting in discriminating against those least able to pay).

(Image c/o Stian Eikeland on Flickr.)

It’s not just in terms of charging for access to information, but also the controls placed on the information itself. Whereas once the internet was a place where information was exchanged openly and freely, it is now increasingly becoming a place where the state has to place controls and restrictions, limiting this flow of information. We see that not only in traditionally repressive regimes such as China etc, but also in supposed free societies such as America and the United Kingdom in a multitude of ways (although the latter has a long-standing reputation for secrecy and restrictions on the right to know of its citizens). This is the conservative, dominant position we find ourselves in. What was once an extreme view (access to information unimpeded should be restricted and subject to the ability to pay) has now become mainstream and pervasive whereas the traditional view (information should be made accessible to all) has become ‘radical’ and subversive. So, it is in opposition to this mainstream view that I see the term ‘radical’ being used in this context. It is, in my view, a traditionalist position embracing our core values, at odds with the present neo-liberal orthodoxy.

Why did I get involved in a radical library camp? Well, I tend to believe that there is a bit of a gap in professional conferences and general professional discussion. There doesn’t seem to be much discussion in the way of certain informational issues, issues that touch on our ethical principles, and I know from speaking to many others that I am not alone in feeling this way. I personally believe that there is a need for something a little different, a space to discuss issues such as the marketisation of libraries, the commodification of information, censorship, transparency and a range of other issues that are closely associated with our profession.  The world is increasingly shifting towards a more restrictive, commercial and exclusive environment for the exchange of information. As a profession concerned with access to information, we should confront these issues and, where possible, come up with solutions to not just preserve, but expand the principles of open, accessible and free information exchange. Again, these are all my perspectives on radical library camp and do not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow organisers (I feel I must emphasise that!).

As for my pitch, well, I’ve written a brief summary of the area I would like to engage with other attendees on. It is basically a natural progression from the session I intended to do at theLondon Library Camp before events got in the way. The idea emerged from the very same book I referred to earlier when quoting Chomsky’s perspective on radicalism. I was intrigued by one particular passage in the book, picking up on a quote by Howard Zinn:

“There is a basic weakness in governments – however massive their armies, however wealthy their treasuries, however they control the information given to the public – because their power depends on the obedience of citizens, of soldiers, of civil servants, of journalists and writers and teachers and artists. When these people begin to suspect they have been deceived, and when they withdraw their support, the government loses its legitimacy, and its power.”

(Image c/o Travelin’ Librarian on Flickr.)

What I am particularly interested in here is where librarians and information professionals fit into this equation. The state controls much of the flow of information (and increasingly the corporate sector) which reinforces their power. As a result of their historic position of control, the internet is a serious threat to state power as it provides a space for ideas and information to be exchanged freely and without impediment. However, the state is increasingly seeking to place limits on this communications medium, proposing various censorship laws ostensibly designed to protect the individual but which also impede upon their freedoms. Furthermore, as well as trying to limit the exchange of information, the state is making increased efforts to monitor communications through bodies such as the NSA and GCHQ. The internet is victim to threats of both increased censorship of information, and the growing surveillance of the information we exchange.

It’s not just an issue in terms of accessing information via the internet. Freedom of information laws were long resisted in the UK, often seen as one of the most secretive governments in the western democratic world. Their introduction was described as a mistake by Blair shortly after the legislation was passed. Ever since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, efforts have been made towater it down and restrict its power. Across all aspects of our life, the state (and corporate interests) are seeking to simultaneously limit access to information whilst also harvesting data from our exchanges of information.

Not only am I interested in the control of information and how it is used by those in positions of  power, I am also interested in the other element of Zinn’s quote: obedience. If the state and corporate interests control the flow of information, restricting it and preventing equal access, how do we square that with our professional ethics? Do we accept it? Or do we, in Zinn’s words “withdraw our support”? And if we are to “withdraw our support”, what would this look like? What is our role in opening up information, taking control away from state and corporate interests and making it open, accessible and public? Do we even have a role in challenging the control of information? Or is our role simply to ensure that government and corporate interests maintain control of the information given to the public?

What I am particularly interested in here is the discussion I hope will develop around this. I have no idea of the answers to these questions. I don’t even know if there are answers or whether the questions are even “the right ones”. And whilst this might sound like there’s a structure I wish to adhere to in the discussion, I have no such structure in mind. I am simply interested in taking Zinn’s quote and using that as a starting point for discussion because I believe that who controls information and how it is controlled is one of the great issues facing not only our profession, but society as a whole. Sounds a bit grand, but I hope it will be an interesting discussion.

The need for information: are the free market and freedom of choice incompatible?

Are we truly free in a free market economy?
(Image c/o Daniel Lobo on Flickr.)

The notion that capitalism and free choice go hand in hand seems to be incontrovertible. For decades we have been led to believe that the two are interdependent. Freedom of choice and individual liberty are only possible in a capitalist society built on the foundations of a free market. As Milton Friedman, the arch-capitalist and God to the economic far-right, once claimed:

“Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.

According to the Friedmanite far-right (and let’s not kid ourselves, Friedmanites are on the far-right), true individual freedom is borne out of a free market. Without such an economic model, there is no freedom, no liberty, no freedom to choose – at least, that’s as they would have it.

It speaks volumes for the times we live in that this ideology is accepted as a given. As we know the dogma of the economic far-right has been broadly accepted as the only theory in town. There are slight deviations from the ideas and models outlined by Friedman and his acolytes, but they are slight. Both the centre-left and the centre-right have adopted the language and ideology of the far-right economists, pushing the notion that if we are to be a truly free society, we need to consolidate the free market economy. But is this really the case? Are we a free society under a free market model?

Fundamental to any definition of freedom is the ability for the individual to be able to choose freely. Without freedom of choice, you have a fairly limited freedom. But to be able to choose you need to have the tools at your disposal to make informed choices. You cannot make a choice if you do not understand the nature and implications of the choices that you make. The ability to choose freely is, therefore, central to any notion of liberty.

I recently stumbled across a blog post by Puffles that underlines a key issue regarding choice:

For ‘choice’ to work, you need the means to exercise it. In neo-liberal world, this particularly means having the money. But it also means having the information, knowing how to use/interpret it and also having the time to do so.

In a free-market economy, true liberty is dependent on both income and access to information. Furthermore, it does not necessarily follow that if you have the means at your disposal to access information that you are also in a position to interpret and utilise that information in order to make free, informed choices. Of course, all of this is dependent on whether the information is available to make those choices in the first place. Very often, the information we need to make rational choices is not publicly accessible.

Whilst it is often suggested we live in an ‘Information Age’, in many respects we still face familiar barriers in terms of the control of the flow of information. Whether it is the state or corporate interests, there still exists forces which attempt to disrupt the flow of information, preventing the development of a fully informed citizenry able to make rational choices. Indeed, in a capitalist economy it is in the interests of both the state and corporations that we do not enter a state of total transparency where citizens have access to information and therefore can make informed choices. The consequences for both corporations and the state of a society entirely transparent would be devastating.

The exposure of the pharmaceutical industry in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma is a case in point. In his book, Goldacre reveals the extent to which ‘unflattering’ negative results are buried by the industry. In fact, as Goldacre points out, ‘trials with positive results are about twice [as likely] to be published as trials with negative results’. As Goldacre wrote in the Telegraph last year:

“…drug companies can hide information about their drugs from doctors and patients, perfectly legally, with the help of regulators. While industry and politicians deny the existence of this problem, it is widely recognised within medical academia, and meticulously well-documented. The current best estimate is that half of all drug trials never get published.”

Goldacre adds:

“…while regulators should be helping to inform doctors, and protect patients, in reality they have conspired with companies to withhold information about trials. The European Medicines Agency, which now approves drugs for use in Britain, spent more than three years refusing to hand over information to Cochrane on Orlistat and Rimonabant, two widely used weight loss drugs. The agency’s excuses were so poor that the European Ombudsman made a finding of maladministration.”

The free market, with its insistence on light touch regulation or ineffective regulators, enables an environment where information about trials is withheld from doctors, professionals who rely on information to make crucial decisions affecting the lives of their patients. Where there is regulation, it is so loose as to allow regulators to conspire with those they are supposed to be regulating. By withholding this information, not only are doctors not able to make the appropriate choices, but patients’ lives are put at risk. And for what reason? Because it would damage corporate profit, as Cory Doctorow underlines in an article on Goldacre’s book:

Paroxetine, a drug that was known to be ineffective for treating children, which had a risk of suicide as a side-effect, widely prescribed to children, because GlaxoSmithKline declined to publish its research data after an internal memo stated “It would be commercially unacceptable to include a statement that efficacy had not been demonstrated, as this would undermine the profile of paroxetine.

In a free market system, control over the flow of information is paramount. Transparency may enable true freedom of choice, but it can also damage business interests and profits. In a free market system, if access to information can damage profits, access must be controlled and the flow of information must be restricted. Where access to information is controlled, freedom of choice clearly cannot be possible. For how can one make a truly ‘free’ choice if one does not have the information at one’s disposal to make that choice effectively?

The food industry is another example of the gap between what free market advocates claim and the reality of liberty in a free market economy. For several years there have been calls to better regulate the food industry. Ultimately, all previous attempts have failed because corporations have argued very strongly that any such regulation would actually hurt consumers rather than ensure they are better informed. As a result, instead of ensuring strictly applied regulations, governments have encouraged voluntary systems that they believe are sufficient to protect the consumer and provide the information they require to make those informed choices.

As I wrote back here, intense efforts were made by the food industry to prevent the EU from introducing a mandatory traffic light system, a system that would have enabled the consumer to make a more informed choice about the food they bought. Rather than adopt a system that would provide the consumer with more information, the food industry spent €1bn lobbying to maintain the status quo. Again, the reasoning is clear. Regulation designed to make the industry more transparent will hurt profits and so, as with the pharmaceutical industry, the needs of the business come before the needs of the consumer. With government unwilling to legislate, corporations will ensure that their profits are protected by resisting any call for transparency. Strictly appplied regulation can enable corporate transparency, the free market prevents it. In essence, the free market inhibits the individual’s freedom of choice by placing corporate profit above transparency.

Is the free market compatible with genuine freedom of choice? I would argue that it is not. It is clear that transparency is a threat to corporate interests and, therefore, it is crucial that citizens are not prevented from accessing information with which to make informed choices – a mark of true liberty. You cannot exercise freedom of choice if you do not have access to the information with which to make that choice. In order to do so, you must have both access to information and the means with which to understand it. If corporate interests are unwilling to provide such information to ensure informed choices, it is incumbent on government to ensure that information is made available via the levers available to them. The introduction of strictly applied regulation, enforced transparency across the corporate sector and the death of far-right free market economics will enable true freedom of choice. The free market never can.