Many thanks to Nik Williams of Scottish PEN for the following article on the Investigatory Powers Bill.
So there we have it. After a year of discussion and debate, the 1000+ pages of documents outlining the role of surveillance in a modern democracy has passed through both Houses of Parliament. After a bloated few weeks, with discussion monopolised by an ill-placed amendment on press regulation, the Investigatory Powers Bill will soon be an act of parliament. Here at Scottish PEN this occasion can only be met with resignation and deeply held reservations.
The nature of the closing weeks’ discussion in both houses should depress even the chambers’ most ardent supporters. With Baroness Hollins’ proposed amendment to extend exemplary damages to victims of phone hacking from newspapers not signed up to an approved regulator, the debate drifted away from the surveillance powers in the bill that will distinguish the UK from every established democracy in the world, towards a rehash of a discussion that has been left unfinished following the Leveson enquiry in 2011/12.
This did the bill and our civil liberties a disservice. When was the last time we heard the MPs and Peers use the words ‘bulk’, ‘communications data’, ‘request filter’, ‘interception’ or ‘civil liberties’? While phone hacking and press regulation commandeered space reserved for surveillance powers, these issues were ignored, scrutiny was frozen and forsaken and consensus across the house was assumed.
So now we are left with powers that enable our web records to be stored by public bodies on every British citizen for 12 months; the capacity of intelligence agencies to hack and potentially destroy devices, systems or networks; powers that collect data on the many to find the few and obligations that can be foisted on technology companies to undermine encryption. This is a crude summary of the powers – the sheer scale and the impact of the bill will only be fully realised when the bill is enacted.
So what do we do now? We mobilise, we secure, we seek to frustrate those who watch over us, we get smart. Interrogating what platforms we use and their privacy agreements are not luxuries afforded to the serial paranoiacs or techies alone, they are the actions we all need to take – they represent the markers on a roadmap we must all use to navigate our way through a narrowing and treacherous landscape.
These are obligations that fall to all of us; whether we write, research, communicate or shop online, whether we offer digital services to others, we all need to position privacy at the heart of our thinking, not as a peripheral second-thought. This is never truer than the situation public, academic and specialist libraries now find themselves in. Crudely defined as a telecommunication provider, as the IP Bill lacks any lower threshold to who can be obliged to store data and other requests from the state, the already precarious existence of libraries in the UK is further placed in jeopardy. But can libraries, seen by many as a refuge or sanctuary, be places that invite surveillance and consolidate our private information?
Following a pilot workshop at Glasgow Women’s Library in July, Scottish PEN is rolling out a series of workshops in Edinburgh, Orkney and Perth to build the capacity of libraries across these regions to protect the digital security and privacy of both their institutions and patrons. With libraries operating for many as the portal to the online word to facilitate communication, research, shopping and applying for jobs or benefits, how libraries can continue to offer these services in good faith in light of these new obligations is something we need to address now.
We do not believe in the principle that the collection of private data of innocent citizens will guarantee our safety or security (a belief mirrored by the intelligence agencies who fear, according to a confidential M15 report, that collecting too much data “creates a real risk of ‘intelligence failure’ i.e. from the Service being unable to access potentially life-saving intelligence from data that it has already collected”). But it appears that we all, including the intelligence agencies, need to strap in and assume nothing is sacred, nothing is beyond the reach of the voraciously hungry state.
But we need not be resigned to this fate. We need to know these powers inside and out, what they cover, what they don’t, and what they may enable through vague wording and overly broad interpretations. We need to listen to those who have things to say about encryption, threat modelling and zero-knowledge systems, and perhaps most importantly, we need to feel confident to reach out to others to ask questions and share knowledge, and this is where libraries can truly shine. The idea of a library being a repository of collective knowledge and endeavour is not new, but why can’t this approach be used to see libraries as spaces within which we can explore privacy enabling technologies, discuss the role of surveillance in our modern and digital democracy and learn more.
Perhaps then we can renew privacy’s position as a fundamental right, perhaps then we can reclaim the Internet as a space for exploration as opposed to a space of observation, perhaps then we will know how much of us is up for grabs.
These are a great deal of perhaps, but it gives us a place to start and that is better than nothing.
This blog post was contributed by Ian Clark from the Informed team and Lauren Smith, a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde.
The news that libraries may be forced to hand over personal data to the security services raises serious ethical questions regarding the confidentiality of what people choose to read. A fundamental ethical principle of the library and information profession is the freedom of individuals to access information and read whatever they choose in confidence. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) is very clear on the obligations to library users. Its ethical principles state the need to demonstrate:
Commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination.
Such a principle is undermined if the government is known to be able to access data on the “information, ideas and works of the imagination” that individuals access. The chilling effect of such a move would inhibit individuals from accessing whatever they want without fear of reprisals from the state.
1.2 It is the responsibility of individuals using Public Access Points to decide for themselves what they should, or should not, access.
1.3 Those providing Public Access Points should respect the privacy of users and treat knowledge of what they have accessed or wish to access as confidential.
The proposals laid out by Theresa May seriously threaten these basic ethical principles. If the state is able to access data on what individuals have been reading in public libraries their freedom to read and access what they choose is seriously compromised.
Ironically, these proposals come at a time when libraries and librarians in other parts of the world are emphasising the importance of ensuring that individuals can access what they wish in confidence. In December last year, librarians were in uproar when Haruki Murakami’s borrowing record was published in a Japanese newspaper. In response, the Japan Librarian Association re-affirmed that:
“Disclosing the records of what books were read by a user, without the individual’s consent, violates the person’s privacy.”
In the face of similarly intrusive legislation (the PATRIOT Act) in the United States, some libraries have begun purging records of inter-library loan requests to protect users’ privacy. As yet we have not seen comparable moves by the profession in the UK, but the increasingly aggressive rhetoric from the government regarding what and how individuals seek out information is clearly in conflict with the values we espouse as a profession.
Libraries should not distinguish between books and web activity. What individuals read and access online should be as private and as confidential as their book borrowing habits. Although we do not have the constitutional protections to intellectual liberty that American library users are afforded under the First Amendment, both professional organisations (such as CILIP) and political bodies (Council of Europe) are very clear that what a user accesses in a library should remain confidential. The proposals put forward by Theresa May threaten these basic principles of intellectual freedom and liberty and will put intolerable pressure on public libraries. Our government’s desire to undermine these principles is not only dangerous, but will also seriously undermine the bond of trust between public libraries and their users.
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 differingviews 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 initialreports 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.
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.
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:
How many public libraries are involved in this initiative? Which specific ones are they?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
This awkward cliché, repeated at the end of every BBC news report, signals a crude shift in gear. It seems that ‘The News’ has two parts: ‘the news where we are’ (London-centred politics, war, economics, English premiership football); and ‘the news where you are’ (local and parochial oddities that may entertain the yeomanry but which won’t deflect the ship of state from its mighty progress). Ruthlessly and deservedly lampooned during last year’s independence debate, the phrase came to mind last week as Vint Cerf shared his fears on the evanescence of digital memory and the need to take collective action to counter the pernicious and ubiquitous impact of obsolescence. Reported by the BBC, the Independent, the Guardian and others (mostly from San Jose CA) it would seem that a digital black hole is set to initiate a digital dark age sometime soon. There’s a choice of metaphors but none of them good.
First thing’s first: I don’t have a copy of Vint Cerf’s original remarks so my observations are really only about the reportage. In fact almost anything he might choose to say would have been welcome. It’s undoubtedly true that preserving digital content through technological change is a real and sometimes daunting challenge. Our generation has invested as never before in digital content and it is frankly horrifying when you consider what rapid changes in technology could do to that investment. Vint, as one of the architects of the modern world, is exceptionally well placed to help us raise the issue among the engineers and technologists that need to understand the problem.
We do desperately need to raise awareness about the challenge of digital preservation so that solutions can be found and implemented. Politicians and decision makers are consistently under-informed or unaware of the problem. In fact awareness raising was one of the reasons that the DPC was founded. Since 2002 DPC has been at the forefront of joint activity on the topic in the UK and Ireland, supporting specialist training, helping to develop practical solutions, promoting good practice and building relationships. A parliamentarian recently asked me which department of government will be best supported by all this work (presumably in an attempt to decide which budget should pay for it). I answered ‘all of them’. I am not sure if the question or the answer was more naïve: it’s hard to imagine an area of public and private life that isn’t improved by having the right data available in the right format to the right people at the right time; or conversely frustrated by its absence. Digital preservation is a concern for everyone.
But that’s not the same as saying that a digital black hole is imminent. It might have been in 2002 but since then there’s been rather a lot to celebrate in the collective actions of the digital preservation community globally (and especially here in the UK and Ireland) where agencies and individuals are beginning to wake up to the problem in large numbers. These days we’re seeing real interest from across the spectrum of industry and commerce. Put simply the market is ripe for large scale solutions. It’s easy to focus on the issue of loss, but we can also talk confidently now about the creative potential of digital content over an extended lifecycle.
In January this year the DPC welcomed its 50th organisational member: the Bank of England. It’s a household name but nor is it particularly a memory institution with a core mission to preserve. Other new members in the last year include HSBC, NATO and the Royal Institution of British Architects. They all depend on data and they all need to ensure the integrity of their processes, but they are not memory institutions with a mission to preserve. Any organisation that depends on data beyond the short life spans of current technology – we’re all data driven decision makers now – needs to put digital preservation on its agenda.
If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that we face a social and cultural challenge as well as a technical one. We certainly need better tools, smarter processes and enhanced capacity which is ultimately what Vince’s suggestion for Digital Vellum is about (though others dispute the detail of his proposal). But this won’t solve the problem alone. We also need competent and responsive workforces ready to address the challenges of digital preservation. Time and again surveys of the digital preservation community show that the skills are lacking and where they exist they are themselves subject to rapid obsolescence. We know that digital skills are crucially short in the UK economy: at the same time as Vint was arguing for Digital Vellum the Chief Constable of Police Scotland had to apologise for having misled parliament because statistics about draconian stop-and-search powers were inadvertently deleted. The nation’s most senior policeman could lose his job because his organisation lacked digital preservation skills. Arguably the lack of skills is a bigger challenge than obsolescence.
Moreover a political and institutional climate responsive to the need for digital preservation would allow us to make sense of the peculiarities of copyright. Those who argue for the right to be forgotten ingenuously assume an infrastructure where you will be remembered: a somewhat populist rush for data protection and cybersecurity is tending to stifle reasonable calls for data retention. This is pretty raw stuff. At the same time as the technology commentators were worrying about technical obsolescence a senior politician was caught deleting content of his own containing comments that now seem ill-judged. The machinations of those who want us to forget might well be a bigger threat to our collected memories than digital obsolescence.
San Jose is lovely in early spring. But there’s a better story about digital preservation where we are.
Do you have something to say on a current issue facing the information world? We’re always looking for new contributions to Informed from the information professional community. If you would like to write something for the site, do drop us a line!
To celebrate 10 years of the Freedom of Information Act, Bilal Ghafoor (FOI Kid) reflects on its impact and ponders what the future holds for this important Act of parliament.
If you go onto the website or read the official publications of any government department, local council, NHS organisation, the one thing that almost all of the information will have in common is that it has been volunteered. And while the communications and press teams in many organisations do a great job, ultimately they are a prism through which an organisation shines out what light it wishes to. Most press releases or official statements do not contain raw data. Most organisations do not publish email trails that they are even slightly uncomfortable about.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into force on 1 January 2005 and it has, in the words of the Justice Select Committee, which undertook a post legislative review of the Act, been “a significant enhancement of our democracy.” However, it went on to note that “we are not surprised that the unrealistic secondary expectation that the Act would increase public confidence in Government and Parliament has not been met.” This was, after all, while the fire of the MPs’ expenses scandal was still smouldering.
I continue to be struck by an observation I heard when I attended a Request Initiative event on FOI that all the complaints about the burden of FOI are irrelevant – public authorities hire FOI officers and spend money not on releasing information but on withholding it. Aside from personal data, which must be guarded, there is more truth to this idea than I would like.
I remember when I worked in FOI in a central government department, a Labour Secretary of State visited us. The first thing he did was apologise to us for bringing in the Act. It was not just Tony Blair who later thought it foolish. We in the FOI team (it seemed to be the natural home of a couple of a Marxists who had somehow joined the civil service), thought it to be utterly bizarre. How was it not a good thing (and not just because it kept us in employment)?
It is our tax, it is our society, these institutions are ours, the work they do belongs to us. It almost seems like a naïve assertion, but perhaps that is because it is so true. If we live in a democracy.
But there are dangers. The FOI Act, which was heroically worked on by the Campaign for Freedom of Information (which just celebrated its 30th birthday party – 20 years older than the legislation itself), came into force over a long period of time and the dangers are similarly slow but sure.
The Government’s response to the post legislative review highlighted that it wanted allow organisations to refuse multiple requests from the same person or organisation. At first glance, this might be ok – why should one person be allowed to harass an organisation with lots of requests? But what about a local newspaper wanting to make lots of requests to local organisations? How is a local newspaper supposed to survive on being able to make only a small number of requests in any one year to the local council?
There is a suggestion that ‘thinking time’ be included in cost limits for responding to a FOI. This means that any request of a new kind or for new types of information or invoking a new exemption will start to breach the cost limits and be refused. This encourages organisations to hire non-specialists. Or to copy in 15 members of staff into emails about FOI requests and to count thinking time 15 times over.
The chronic under-funding of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is another terrible problem. While the ICO’s basic stance seems to be to advocate the release of information and accessibility for all, in the latest triennial review of the ICO, its own submission to the Ministry of Justice proposed a charge for requestors wanting to use its services. This would be appalling. But I can see that the ICO is constantly frustrated by its tiny grant in aid (the organisation runs its entire FOI operation for less than many central government department’s communications and spin budgets) and that this proposal is a sign of its desperation.
Application of the Act has become complicated – most ICO decision notices and Tribunal judgments add nuances onto how we should apply exemptions. I love the complication, but I am also very drawn to an idea that was kicked around by others on Twitter that perhaps all of the exemptions should be discarded and everything become subject to a plain public interest test. This would include cost limits – if you ask for a lot of information, if it is in the public interest to provide it, it should be provided. Thanks to relatively recent developments in understanding of ‘vexatious requests’), where a request would be significantly disruptive, the Act allows for a refusal.
The FOI Act is not perfect. But I am still of the generation that compares it to Yes Prime Minister days of secrecy and am thankful to the Campaign for Freedom of Information and other advocates that we can now ask the people who formerly felt like our masters for our own information.
 Post legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 – Justice Committee Para 241, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmjust/96/9602.htm.
The following article was sent in by Erin Ferguson, a qualified librarian and doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde Law School. Erin tweets as @fergusonerin.
The recent privatisation of the Royal Mail and scandals involving companies like G4S and Serco have highlighted the ongoing concern over the transfer of public services to the private sector. Privatisation, in this instance defined to include both the sell-off of public assets and the contracting out of public services, has long been a controversial issue. Critics point out that privatisation often fails to meet its objectives, such as improving the quality or reducing the cost of public services. Additionally, there is concern that the delivery of public services is becoming less transparent as private companies are not responsible for responding to requests for information under the Freedom of Information or Freedom of Information (Scotland) Acts. This post examines these concerns, as well as some of the recent proposals that have been put forward to extend FOI responsibilities.
Both the FOIA and FOISA confer on the public the general right to make requests for information from public bodies, which are listed in Schedule 1 of the Act. The list does not include private companies or charities that are now frequently responsible for the delivery of public serves, and both the Scottish and UK Information Commissioners have expressed concern over the potential for services to become less transparent and accountable. A recent survey by We Own It revealed that the public shares these views, with 88% of respondents indicating that they believe private companies delivering public services should be held to the same transparency requirements as the public sector. This concern is not only about the public’s ability to track the public pound. With 1 in 10 prisons no longer covered by the FOIA, there is concern that reduced transparency will make it difficult to scrutinise the performance of core functions of the state.
The continuing calls to protect transparency have spurred politicians into action. In 2012 Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan announced Labour’s pledge to extend the FOIA to private contractors if successful in the next election. Labour MP Graeme Morris introduced the Freedom of Information (Private Healthcare Companies) Bill in October 2013. The Public Services (Ownership and User Involvement) Bill, sponsored by Green MP Caroline Lucas, had its first reading in Parliament in January 2014. Among the latter private members’ bill’s aims was to make the contracting process more transparent and to extend FOI responsibilities to private contractors. Earlier this month the House of Commons Committee on Public Accounts published a report, in which it was acknowledged that greater transparency in contracting is needed and recommended that extension of the FOI regime be considered.
Last week, Justice Minister Simon Hughes confirmed plans for upcoming consultations on the FOIA. He announced the intended publication of a revised Code of Practice aimed at introducing FOI requirements into the contracts of private companies performing public functions. However, the coalition government has stopped short of actually extended the FOIA to private companies, a move that has been criticised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. They argue that contractual disclosure provisions defeat the purpose of the FOIA, which was to provide a statutory right of access to information. Indeed, the plans seem reminiscent of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, which was introduced by the Conservative government in 1994 as an alternative to FOI and was subsequently criticised for lacking ‘teeth.’ Whilst the details of the revised Code are still unclear, it is clear that the consultation process will need to consider how to ensure that this is not another missed opportunity to preserve transparency.
In the library sector, public libraries aren’t the only game in town, with university libraries making up one of several different sectors employing information professionals. A necessary step for any budding librarian in the UK is to undertake a CILIP-accredited qualification, at undergraduate or postgraduate level, and/or CILIP Chartership. As a recent graduate of London Metropolitan University’s now-defunct MA Information Management, I was interested to see how many other UK universities have shut down their librarianship courses, and how that has intersected with policy introduced by the current government.
Aside from London Metropolitan University’s librarianship course, the University of Brighton has also frozen its information management courses, subject to a review of postgraduate teaching. These aren’t the only recent casualties though; a quick trawl of archived CILIP webpages in the Internet Archive revealed a drop from 17 to 13 in the number of UK Universities offering CILIP accredited courses (note: CILIP’s current qualifications page hasn’t been updated to include the withdrawal of the University of Brighton’s courses).
The other institutions to have withdrawn their librarianship courses since 2009 are the University of Central England, Edinburgh Napier University and Leeds Metropolitan University. In the meantime, two new UK course providers, Glyndŵr University and the University of Ulster, have been added to CILIP’s offer, along with one overseas provider, the Cologne University of Applied Sciences .
Even with the inclusion of Glyndŵr University and Ulster, the drop in CILIP accredited course providers in the UK still stands at 24% in just a little over three years. The start of the drop coincides almost exactly with the election of the coalition government in 2010.
The number of students undertaking information management courses is also on a downward course, with a 14% drop in numbers between 2007/2008 and 2011/2012 (source: HESA) There are no figures available for 2012/2013, but a drop from a high of 4560 students in the 2007/2008 academic year to 3920 in 2011/2012 represents a significant shrinkage of the student population studying on librarianship degree courses.
It seems that since then, librarianship courses have become less attractive to both students and to the university sector that provides them. From the available figures, applications for librarianship courses have recovered slightly from a 14% drop between 2009/2010 and 2010/2011, but on the whole student numbers for information management courses are decreasing at a greater rate than the current average for postgraduate (-3%) and undergraduate courses (+1%) in the UK.
The fall in student numbers can of course be partly attributed to a drop in the amount of equivalent course places, but it is unlikely that the withdrawal of three course providers would account for the 640 fewer students studying librarianship in 2011/2012 compared to four years previously.
Universities saw a £940 million pound cut to their government funding in 2011, compounding the impact of a £449 million pound cut under the previous Labour government. At the same time, post-Browne review undergraduate students began paying up to £9000 a year in tuition fees and postgraduates experienced an average 24% hike in prices.
In this context, it is easy to see how the pressure to concentrate on financially viable courses on the university’s side, and the pressure on students to apply for courses with a high level of post-degree employability and pay, has led to relatively niche courses like information management being dropped.
We’ve arrived, in the five post-recession years since 2008, at a situation where libraries across all sectors are threatened, where students are seemingly less keen on a career in librarianship, and where universities are less likely to facilitate that career through providing courses. By the next election in 2015, who knows which other aspects of the library sector will be plummeting off the graph?
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 cutdrastically, 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.
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.