Tag Archives: corporations

The private sector and the digital divide: an unhelpful invasion of public library spaces?

Image c/o Taichiro Ueki on Flickr used under a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Ever since the emergence of the internet, there have been concerns about those excluded as services increasingly move online. Commonly referred to as the “digital divide”, this exclusion has manifested itself in two distinct ways: lack of access (first level) and that of skills (second level). Progress has been made with the former in recent years as the numbers of those without internet have steadily declined, but the latter has proven far more difficult to address.

Over the course of the past two years, the number of people that have never accessed the internet has fallen by approximately 15% (from just over 7m in the first quarter of 2013 to just under 6m in the equivalent quarter in 2015). However, a lack of internet skills is still stubbornly high. In a BBC online skills survey last year, the corporation found that 20% of UK adults lacked basic online skills. Indeed, the overall lack of skills (particularly across the poorest households) remained unchanged between 2013 and 2014. These findings have been reinforced by a recent report by Go.On UK that found that more than 12m people “do not have the skills to prosper in the digital era”.

Traditionally, public libraries have been a key mechanism to close this so-called divide. Indeed, the People’s Network was borne out of this effort to close the gap and help more people get online. Libraries were seen as the ideal place to provide the support required. They offer a neutral space free from corporate influence, and are staffed by individuals trained to seek out and evaluate information. However, recent years have seen widespread library closures and cuts to staffing levels that have seriously impeded the services they provide. As a result, the libraries crucial role in bridging the digital divide has been severely undermined.

Whilst the role of libraries in tackling the digital divide has diminished, private sector organisations have stepped in to fill the gap. In March 2015, for example, BT and Barclays announced that they were going to work together to connect more people to the internet and to provide support to help people develop the skills they need. In order to provide this access and support, BT and Barclays would be working with local authorities to deliver the initiative in public libraries and community centres in England.

The delivery of this initiative is particularly interesting given the role of public libraries in this area and begs the question why such an initiative needs the direction of either Barclays or BT given the support public libraries have provided. However on the surface, in terms of closing the digital skills gap, there appears to be some benefit in their involvement. For example, Barclay’s Code Playground initiative is potentially a useful way to teach children how to code – a skill that is increasingly regarded as an important one for children to develop (although there are differing views on the extent to which coding itself should be prioritised). However, this option is only available if they can visit a Barclays branch during a weekday with an adult and can provide a laptop. An option, therefore, not available to those without a computer at home or those whose circumstances prevent a visit to the bank on a weekday.

Initiatives such as the Code Playground could, of course, be delivered effectively by public libraries should they have the funding and staffing to make it happen. Indeed, with public libraries being far more accessible to the general public (and a lot more child-friendly) there is a real opportunity here for libraries to develop the digital skills of the next generation and help the UK lead the world in bringing through the next generation of coders.  Delivering such an initiative that requires individuals to visit a branch and bring expensive equipment with them is perhaps not the most effective way of addressing the deeply entrenched digital skills divide.

The move to enlist Barclays and BT into the drive to tackle the digital skills gap emerged as an outcome of the Digital Inclusion Charter, where 38 signatories committed in December 2014 to reduce the number of people who are offline by 25% by 2016. The public library scheme will be run by Barclays Digital Eagles and BT’s Digital Friends. BT volunteers will be “working with trained Barclays staff – called Barclays Digital Eagles”, although it is difficult to determine who BT will employ as “Digital Friends” to deliver this initiative.

Furthermore, there is a lack of clarity regarding Barclays “Digital Eagles”: are they Barclays staff that have volunteered for these roles and been given extra training? Are these people experts who were recruited specifically to provide this service in libraries? Or are they simply bank staff doing this as an additional duty? It is unclear from the information currently in the public domain etc how Barclay’s will deliver this service. What we do know is that of the 377 UK-wide vacancies available at Barclays in August 2015, none have the title “Digital Eagle”.

Problems presented by the BT/Barclays partnership

There are a multitude of problems presented by this tie-up between BT/Barclays, and public libraries in England.

  • The encroachment of a commercial enterprise into a neutral public space such as public libraries is fundamentally at odds with the ethos of freely providing access to services for all.

 

  • The attempt by commercial enterprises to take over the roles of public servants: on what basis are volunteers working on behalf of a commercial body able to better provide the service than trained staff/volunteers working in public libraries?

 

  • How long is this funding going to last? It’s stated to be a two year project, but what happens when it ends? How will Barclays, BT and the government ensure that the development of digital skills continues after the project comes to a close?

 

  • Hardware – with Barclays Code Playground scheme (designed to help teach children to code), children have to bring their own laptop to the sessions. As this pairing of BT and Barclays seems to cover the internet connection (BT) and skilled support (Barclays), has there been any consideration regarding the provision of hardware? All three are required to effectively tackle a lack of digital skills, how will they ensure all three are available? Or is it only accessible to those who can provide the equipment?

 

  • Staffing – are commercial enterprise staff going to be allowed to use a public, neutral space? What will be the checks and controls on suitability of Barclays staff to work with often vulnerable users, such as Disclosure verification? Can we be sure that the staff provided by Barclays/BT will adhere to the highest levels of trust and privacy, meeting the standards expected of professional librarians?

 

  • Will BT or Barclays be allowed to use this neutral public space to promote their own commercial enterprises? Will there be any requirement for them to be entirely neutral when dealing with issues in terms of communications and banking?

 

  • When will this service be available? Is it only during dedicated sessions, as with those Barclays currently hold in their branches? Or will it be available during library opening hours, whatever they may be? Will BT/Barclays staff be available on evenings and weekends when the library is open?

 

  • Confusion over availability – digital TV means viewers across the UK will be seeing adverts for this service, which is actually only going to be available in England and Wales. This creates unrealistic expectations in potential service users of the resources available to them in their location, which their local public library staff will have to deal with.

 

Before the commencement of such an initiative, some clarity on these issues would be helpful and made clear to the general public.

Comment from CILIP – the professional body for librarians

To date, CILIP have not made any official comment on the implications of this collaboration between BT and Barclays, restricting their references to the announcement to a single tweet linking to a story published on The Bookseller website on 19th March. They also tweeted a link to another Bookseller story about the official launch of the pilot scheme on the 22nd July, but have not voiced any official concerns about this intrusion of commercial enterprises into a public space. Whilst there has been no comment to date, a representative from CILIP has attended all the meetings of the overseeing body, the Leadership for Libraries taskforce and have therefore been aware of the developments. It’s possible, of course, that all of the concerns raised above have been put forward by CILIP and these have been factored in to the development of the project.

The implementation of the scheme

The launch of the trial scheme took place on 22nd July 2015. As most of the publicity was on Government websites and the sites of the companies involved, the launch seems to have gone somewhat under the radar, aided by the lack of commentary by the professional body.

The press release mentions 100 libraries and community centres being involved in the scheme. The initial reports stated the scheme would cover “57 libraries and 13 community centres across the country. A further 10 sites, including a care home, a charity home and a homeless centre will also be provided with free wi-fi” – a total of 80 sites. Details of the remaining twenty sites are not currently clear which begs the question, what’s happened to involvement of the care home, charity home and homeless centre in the scheme? BT state that “more than 100 libraries and community centres” will deliver the project. The first Leadership for Libraries meeting indicates that the funding is for “80 libraries and 20 community centres in areas of social deprivation”, but in a later meeting the scheme is proposed to cover “100 sites including over 50 libraries”. Thirty libraries appear to have been dropped from the scheme, but there is no indication as to why.

Trying to locate specific detail about this scheme appears to be particularly difficult. How many libraries and other locations are actually involved in this scheme? Where can we find out which ones they are, and where they are? Why is there no consistency in the messages being published about this scheme? One of the risks of commercial enterprises being involved in public spaces and services is that the entire culture of a corporate body is focussed on protecting its own sensitive commercial secrets – a culture at odds with public body accountable to the public. The result seems to be what we have here with the BT/Barclays tie-up: a project that is both difficult to verify and one riddled with conflicting information.

Alternative approaches

In contrast to the above approach of inviting commercial enterprises to take possession of elements of a public space and services, an alternative project has also recently been launched in England by Arts Council England (ACE). As part of the drive to increase skills, ACE have announced the availability of  £7.1 million in funding for public libraries in England to access, which will run for six months and help enable free wifi access across all public libraries in England. Confusingly though, that initiative is also a “key development” of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce in parallel to the BT/Barclays project.

Final questions

It would be helpful if BT, Barclays, and the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce address the issues raised above, and communicated with greater clarity about the nature of the scheme and how it will be delivered. Answers to the following questions would be particularly beneficial in terms of the roll-out of this scheme:

  1. How many public libraries are involved in this initiative? Which specific ones are they?
  2. What restrictions are there on the employees of commercial enterprises while in a neutral public space? Are they allowed to promote their products, or try and gain a commercial advantage by attempting to gain clients while positioned within public libraries?
  3. Was any analysis done on the viability of asking commercial enterprises to donate funds to public libraries to allow public library staff to provide the services which those commercial enterprises now wish to provide in libraries, prior to BT and Barclays being given permission to place their own staff within those spaces?
  4. What protections are in place for the vulnerable users of public libraries who make use of the resources provided by the BT/Barclay partnership? Both in terms of the checking of the commercial participants in this scheme, and ensuring that no inappropriate promotion of products is being undertaken.
  5. Who is responsible for the security of the machines which participants will use for the initiative, e.g. ensuring that no malware is installed on the machines involved.
  6. What is the long-term plan for supporting this approach to developing digital skills in the general public, once this project is completed?

Net neutrality – what is it and why should we be concerned about it?

(Image c/o Maik on Flickr.)

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that all packets of data over the internet should be transmitted equally, without discrimination. So, for example, net neutrality ensures that your blog can be accessed just as quickly as, say the BBC website. Essentially, it prevents ISPs from discriminating between sites, organisations etc whereby those with the deepest pockets can pay to get in the fast lane, whilst the rest have to contend with the slow lane. Instead, every website is treated equally, preventing the big names from delivering their data faster than a small independent online service. This ensures that no one organisation can deliver their data any quicker than anyone else, enabling a fair and open playing field that encourages innovation and diversity in the range of information material online. The principles of net neutrality are effectively the reason why we have a (reasonably) diverse online space that enables anyone to create a website and reach a large volume of people.

Isn’t this mainly a US issue?

The issue has been a major topic for debate in the United States for sometime now. In theory, this was recently resolved when the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recently voted to protect the principle of net neutrality. However, this has not closed the debate as some US broadband providers have launched a legal challenge against this ruling and Republicans in Congress have launched an attempt to fast-track a repeal of the FCC’s new rules.

Why should we in Europe be concerned if this is a US issue?

Whilst there has been little public debate in the UK or Europe around the issue of net neutrality, it is becoming an increasingly important issue. Earlier this year, the Latvian government (currently holding the European presidency) proposed that there should be exceptions to net neutrality rules, particularly when their networks face “exceptional…congestion”.

In March, a majority of EU Member States voted in favour of changing the rules to bar discrimination in internet access but, crucially, the rule changes would allow the prioritisation of some “specialised” services that required high quality internet access to function. This was reinforced by the Chief Executive of Nokia who argued that some technologies (such as self-driving cars) will be hindered so long as providers have to abide by net neutrality principles.

The current situation in the EU makes an interesting comparison to the FCC ruling, as it has been argued that the EU is heading in exactly the opposite direction to the FCCs strong position on net neutrality. It’s unclear at this stage what impact the FCC ruling will have on the EU’s position. The difficulty in the EU is that the legislative process is more complex in the US, due partly to the number of countries and bodies involved. Furthermore, because there are many countries and many telecoms CEOs, there is much stronger lobbying against the legislation.

A recent report by Web Index found a mixed bag when it comes to net neutrality regulations across the EU. The report noted that whilst the Netherlands scored eight out of a possible ten for net neutrality, countries such as Italy and Poland scored only 2. In a blog post for the European Commission, Tim Berners Lee argued that binding net neutrality rules would “raise the bar for the performance of lower ranking countries, ultimately enabling Europe to harvest the full potential of the open Internet as a driver for economic growth and social progress”.

Will regulation solve the problem?

Whilst tighter regulation can help to oblige telecoms companies to adhere to the principles of net neutrality, it doesn’t mean to say that the problem will be eliminated. As with all laws, their existence does not eradicate an issue, it merely minimises it. For example, the Authority for Consumers and Markets in the Netherlands recently fined the country’s two largest operators, KPN and Vodafone, for blocking services and zero-rating data for subscribers to HBO. It’s clear that violations will continue to occur, but arguably there will be fewer once regulation is in place.

Who opposes net neutrality?

A range of large companies oppose net neutrality, including: Nokia (see above), Panasonic, Ericsson, IBM and CISCO amongst others.

Who supports net neutrality?

Article 19, Greenpeace, Twitter,  Microsoft (although Microsoft argue that “traffic should not be subject to unreasonable discrimination by their broadband provider” – it’s unclear what they mean by “unreasonable”), Etsy, Amazon, Facebook and, of course, the founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee.

What about Google?

Google have been largely quiet publicly when it comes to the net neutrality debate in recent years, although they had previously been very vocal on the issue and have lobbied the FCC in the past.

Why should I care about net neutrality?

Net neutrality ensures that we have an internet that enables the broadest possible range of views. By ensuring a level playing field, it ensures that no one perspective dominates the internet. If companies are able to ensure their data travels on the fast lane, then we can be sure that those companies will dominate the landscape because their sites transfer data quickly and efficiently. This will ultimately lead to a narrowing down of sites as people avoid using services where data travels in the slow lane, in favour of those that travel in the fast lane. Big companies will get bigger, small companies will disappear and new companies will not get off the ground without significant sums of money to enable them to compete. The internet thrives on innovation and an abandonment of these principles would seriously impede innovation.

We have also seen in other forms of media what occurs when regulation is too lax. We see in print and broadcast media a decline in media plurality. Certain media outlets have come to dominate the landscape with ownership of popular print and broadcast media. An abandonment of net neutrality rules could lead to the very same decline online. The internet will be dominated by a very few large corporations who provide the vast majority of the content. This is, of course, bad news for those that use the internet and bad news for democracy as a vibrant democracy relies on media plurality to ensure a well-informed electorate.

Where can I find out more about net neutrality?

The digital rights campaigning organisation Open Rights Group keeps a close eye on developments and often posts updates regarding developments on net neutrality in the UK. Article 19 is also a good source of information regarding the issue. As is Index on Censorship. A number of organisations (including Article 19 and Index on Censorship) are also members of the Global Net Neutrality Coalition – you can find details of all involved on their website. Web Index, produced by the World Wide Web Foundation, measures the World Wide Web’s “contribution to social, economic and political progress in countries across the world” and produces an annual report that has recently added net neutrality to the list of measures it assesses. American readers can also defend the principles of net neutrality through the Battle for the Net campaign

If you would like to write for Informed, about net neutrality, the internet or any issue related to the information sector, please get in touch with your ideas via our contact page here.

The politics of open access

Could opening up publicly funded research result in free R&D for private companies?
(Image c/o Julian Fraser on Flickr.)

Open access to research literature has grown rapidly over the last few years. We are now at a stage where a significant proportion of published research – 50% of journal articles published in 2011 according to one study (Archambault et al. 2013) – is available free to view online. This week is Open Access Week and hundreds of events are taking place around the world. Those of us who have been championing the cause of open access feel like great progress is being made. Perhaps not as fast as we’d like, but we do seem to be moving towards a world where open access is the default. The potential benefits of a culture in which the entire world’s knowledge is available to anyone on the planet with the means to access the internet1 are many, varied, and hard to calculate. But the ideal is one which I, for one, certainly think is worth striving for.

However, there is something that’s been concerning me. Many research funders are beginning to mandate open access for research that they fund (e.g. RCUK (Research Councils UK) [pdf], HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England), and the Wellcome Trust). In other words, if you want to get money from of these bodies in order to fund your research, then the results of the research must be published open access. This is great from an open access advocate’s perspective because it will lead to a much higher percentage of research output being freely available. The current UK government, notably Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, has been a driving force behind these open access mandates in the UK. The working group whose report (Finch Group 2012) contained recommendations which informed the RCUK and HEFCE policies was convened by the government.

This is what causes me concern. This is the same government that has allowed public library funding to be cut drastically, raised tuition fees to absurd levels, and instigated many other policies which shift away from the idea of an inclusive participatory society and towards one in which private capital is the only driving force. So when this government’s agenda aligns perfectly with that of open access advocates, it feels somewhat jarring. I don’t have an answer to assuage this concern but I would like to take this opportunity to begin the search for an answer.

Here is a quote from David Willetts on the recommendations of the Finch Report:

“Removing paywalls that surround taxpayer funded research will have real economic and social benefits. It will allow academics and businesses to develop and commercialise their research more easily and herald a new era of academic discovery.

“This development will provide exciting new opportunities and keep the UK at the forefront of global research to drive innovation and growth.”

(Department for Business, Innovation & Skills 2012)

At first glance this doesn’t appear to be saying anything contrary to standard arguments for open access, but it does have a curious focus on business and profit generation. The academics who are in favour of open access mostly support it because they see access to research as a public good, and also for more self-interested reasons – if everyone can see your work, it can do wonders for your reputation (Swan 2010). If open access has an economic benefit as well then so much the better. To take the government’s stance at face value, it seems to have picked up on this economic aspect and decided to promote open access in order to encourage more rapid innovation and therefore potential more profit made off the back of it, while the social benefits of enhanced access to knowledge remain intact.

It is rarely sensible to take the government’s words only at face value. My knowledge of politics is not sophisticated enough to provide a detailed analysis here, but suffice to say political stances often have an unstated agenda behind them. For example, the rhetoric surrounding changes in the NHS at the moment may talk about benefits for patients, but there is clearly a neoliberal agenda of privatisation which is dominating decision-making. This makes it hard to stop at a shallow reading of comments such as the one from David Willetts quoted above. Could there be a neoliberal agenda behind support for open access which intends to exploit it for purposes antithetical to the ideals of open access supporters?

Could the government be trying to make publicly funded research open, in order for private companies to take this research and commercialise it and generate patents? In other words, state funded research becoming a free R&D department for corporations.

You may think, So what? If the goal of academics is to create an open environment to share the world’s knowledge, what’s the harm in some of this leading to profits for others? By their very nature, the open licenses such as the Creative Commons Attribution License which are recommended for open access publications allow for this possibility. Something to bear in mind here is the way that commercialism and profit generation have been becoming ingrained in higher education in the UK. If universities are required to generate more income from commercialising research results, to make up for reduced funding from central government, then they will be expected to compete with private companies in doing so.

This is where the neoliberal mind might see the advantage of open access. For example, if medical research undertaken at a publicly-funded institution must be published open access, whereas research undertaken by a pharmaceutical company does not, then private corporations are at a distinct advantage when it comes to generating money and patents.

None of this is meant to be interpreted to be a criticism of open access, I just think that it is important to understand the motivations behind the people and institutions that are driving it. I’m not suggesting that I have any answers, but I would like to see other supporters of open access to take a more critical stance when it comes to these issues. We need to keep being positive and highlighting the success stories of open access but not allow ourselves to be blind to political interests that may be at work.

Open access is a global issue and in this article I have been focusing on the situation in the UK. Perhaps an answer to my questions can be found by taking a more international perspective and examining government mandates and policies from countries with differing political environments. I’d be interested to hear from people with knowledge about this.

By Stuart Lawson

Thanks to Martin Eve for a conversation which helped me crystallise some of these ideas.

Notes

1. Of course, there is still a digital divide, and much research literature is only available in one language (often English). Making publications free to access is only a step towards a more equal arena for participation in the generation of knowledge.

References

Archambault et al. 2013. Proportion of Open Access Peer-Reviewed Papers at the European and World Levels—2004-2011. Available at: http://www.science-metrix.com/pdf/SM_EC_OA_Availability_2004-2011.pdf [Accessed: 17 October 2013].

Department for Business, Innovation & Skills. 2012. Government to open up publicly funded research. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-to-open-up-publicly-funded-research [Accessed: 17 October 2013].

Finch Group. 2012. Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications. Report of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings. Available at: http://www.researchinfonet.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Finch-Group-report-FINAL-VERSION.pdf [Accessed: 11 May 2013].

Swan, Alma. 2010. The open access citation advantage: studies and results to date. Available at: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/268516/2/Citation_advantage_paper.pdf [Accessed: 17 October 2013].