5.7 million households do not have an internet connection

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Libraries can help address digital inequality (image c/o splorp on Flickr)

Yesterday the Office of National Statistics released its latest Internet access – households and individuals report.  Once again it demonstrated something that is often overlooked, there is a sizeable proportion of the population that do not have an internet connection.  According to the statistics, although the percentage of households with an internet connection has grown to 77% (up 4% on last year), there are still an amazing 5.7 million households in the UK without internet access.  Other top line statistics from the report:

  • 45 per cent of Internet users used a mobile phone to connect to the Internet
  • 6 million people accessed the Internet over their mobile phone for the first time in the previous 12 months
  • The use of wireless hotspots almost doubled in the last 12 months to 4.9 million users
  • 21 per cent of Internet users did not believe their skills were sufficient to protect their personal data
  • 77 per cent of households had Internet access
  • 50% of those without internet say they do not need it
  • 40% say that the equipment is too expensive or they do not believe they have the skills required

…many children are being left behind

The last three points are particularly crucial.  Households without internet would mean, in many cases, families without internet connections.  This is particularly concerning as it has been demonstrated that children’s performance at school can be affected by their inability to make use of an internet connection.  Whilst the report doesn’t provide statistics on family households without internet access, it is not beyond reason to conclude that there are a great many families included within that 5.7 million households figure.  And, consequently, a great many children who are potentially being left behind by their ‘connected’ peers.  The consequences of this disparity are fairly clear.

The final two points are also concerning and provide a stark reminder of what damage would be done by large-scale library closures.  Libraries can play a massive role in addressing these issues.  Trained, professional library staff can help to support inexperienced users to find their way around the internet and gain the confidence to take full advantage of what it offers.  It has been demonstrated in repeated studies that people using the internet are economically better off (££) and, at a time of such economic difficulty, this is more important now than ever.

…public libraries are crucial to reducing digital inequality

Furthermore, the provision of free internet access in public libraries is absolutely crucial to reducing digital inequality and ensuring that a sizeable proportion of the population are not left behind.  Close public libraries and remove the only point of free internet access and you create a society of digitally excluded, those left to flounder as they do not have the finances or skills to keep up with the digitally advanced.  It is not enough to simply provide these people with computers and hope that will resolve the inequality.  Who will provide the support and the training?  Public libraries are still the best way to ensure that the digital revolution does not further isolate the disadvantaged from society and ensure that no-one is left behind.

One further point on this issue that perhaps ought to be made, in terms of libraries/librarians themselves rather than the people who use them.  It is worth noting that neither the Guardian or the BBC made any reference to public libraries offering free internet access, nor did they mention the impact library closures could have on those that are digitally excluded.  You may argue that the point isn’t directly relevant to those particular articles.  Maybe not.  However, it is worth remembering that although there have been plenty of positive shifts in the coverage of libraries in the past year, commentators still do not see libraries as a solution to modern-day problems.  For library advocacy to have any real success, this has to change.  Because if people of influence cannot see the role libraries can and should play in addressing contemporary concerns, there is little hope for the future of the library service and the profession.

Libraries must be the future – for the good of democracy

Is two tier information access inevitable? Image c/o Julian Sebastian on Flickr

If there is one thing you can rely on when reading an online article about libraries, it is that someone will suggest that the internet has made libraries and, by extension, librarians, irrelevant.  It is not just amateur commentators though even representatives from established think tanks perpetuate this belief.  The fact that 9 million people have never even accessed the internet is a minor inconvenience.  But still this belief persists.  Ironically (given that librarians are considered ‘past it’) it is those that utilise these arguments who are behind the curve and refuse to recognise the very nature of the internet.

The argument used by the ‘internet trumps libraries’ brigade relies on something that we know full well is not representative of the internet we have all grown to love (and hate?).  Since the mid-90s, the internet has frequently changed.  The internet of today is quite different from that preceding the dotcom crash.   It is not a static medium.  Who would have thought just 5 years ago that a large proportion of the population would be happy to share their personal details freely and openly?

…the internet is not static and is subject to change.

The assumption made by many when discussing library closures is that the internet will remain static, forever acting as a source of free and open information.  But, of course, the internet is not static and is subject to change.  And who is the biggest driver of this change?  Corporations.  Unfortunately for the corporate world the level of competition on the internet is inhibiting their ability to make profit.  However, moves are afoot to change this, shifting the balance of power from the individual to corporations.

Take the issue of net neutrality for example.  Ed Vaizey has been less than enthusiastic in his support of net neutrality.  In a speech delivered towards the end of last year, Vaizey stated that:

“Content and service providers should have the ability to innovate and, most importantly, to reach end users … This could include the evolution of a two-sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service.”

The implication being that the government envisages a two-tier internet, with all the inequality that goes with it (he later claimed that this wasn’t the case). The implications for the digital divide could not be more stark.  As Tim Berners-Lee has warned:

“Control of information is hugely powerful. In the US, the threat is that companies control what I can access for commercial reasons. (In China, control is by the government for political reasons.) There is a very strong short-term incentive for a company to grab control of TV distribution over the internet even though it is against the long-term interests of the industry.”

Abandoning net neutrality could lead to a shift in the control of information.  At present the flow of information is neither controlled by the state or by corporate interests – it moves freely enabling equal access for all. The removal of ‘net neutrality’ would change this, leading to corporations controlling access to information.

“…we are on the slippery slope towards a much more controlled, less open, internet.”

However, it is not just net neutrality that should concern us.  The Guardian recently reported that the growth of smartphones also poses a danger to the freely accessible internet that we know today.  In an article subtitled ‘The proliferation of powerful mobile phones could see control of the internet pass into the hands of corporations’, John Naughton comments that:

“…we are on the slippery slope towards a much more controlled, less open, internet. If these trends continue, then it won’t be all that long before a significant proportion of the world’s internet users will access the network, not via freely programmable PCs connected via landline networks, but through tethered, non-programmable information appliances (smartphones) hooked up to tightly controlled and regulated mobile networks.”

The root cause of this problem is the established belief that information is a commodity that can be bought and sold, a vital cog in the economic machine.  The growth of the internet has provided business with a wealth of opportunities, many of which remain untapped.  For the libertarians, commodities are best placed in the hands of corporations who can utilise them to their advantage and grow the economy, turning a blind eye to its potential impact on society.  As Anne Goulding noted ten years ago (£):

“The danger is that governments, supported by business and industry, will place a higher priority on the development of ICTs to support economic productivity than on assisting social cohesion and progress.”

This leaves us in a perilous state if our public libraries are destroyed.  Libraries do not discriminate when providing access to information.  You do not have to be rich to take advantage of the wealth of information that the library provides.  Likewise, you do not have to be wealthy to consult a librarian and ensure you gain access to the very best information available.  This is the danger in believing the internet will remain static and unchanging forever.  The internet is a mechanism for corporations to make money, whereas for libraries it is a tool to enhance the social, political and cultural life of society.

In 1998, Noam Chomsky, in an interview for CorpWatch on Microsoft and corporate control of the internet, argued:

“If you really know exactly what you want to find, and have enough information and energy, you may be able to find what you want. But they want to make that as difficult as possible. And that’s perfectly natural. If you were on the board of directors of Microsoft, sure, that’s what you’d try to do.”

Libraries and librarians are here to make that process as easy as possible.  When we suddenly find ourselves in a world of paywalls and divided access, will we look back in shame at what we cast aside because of a failure to understand the nature of technology?

The decline of Murdoch – a good thing for the flow of information?

Rupert Murdoch

Will the decline of the Murdoch empire have an impact on paywalls? Image c/o DonkeyHotey on Flickr

The past couple of weeks have been pretty momentous in the worlds of media and politics.  The revelations about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone (falsely raising the hopes of both family and friends) have marked a new low in the history of the British press. Whilst the antics of the tabloid press should surprise no-one, a widespread sense of shock and disbelief at the depths that they would sink has engulfed the general public.  At the heart of this developing scandal lies News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch.  Already withdrawing their attempt to takeover BSkyB, could we be witnessing the slow, public death of one of the largest and most powerful news organisations in the world?  If so, could this have ramifications for accessibility to online information?

“The current days of the internet will soon be over.”

It is widely acknowledged that Murdoch doesn’t really ‘get’ the internet. Over the course of the past year, News Corporation has made moves to place their newspaper websites behind paywalls.  As The Guardian reported back in 2009, Murdoch envisaged a great change in the way information was accessed online:

Asked whether he envisaged fees at his British papers such as The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World, he replied: “We’re absolutely looking at that.” Taking questions on a conference call with reporters and analysts, he said that moves could begin “within the next 12 months‚” adding: “The current days of the internet will soon be over.”

Such moves were cause for great concern.  Many libraries provide access to newspapers for free and, with declining budgets, it raised the question: should libraries subscribe to online newspaper content for their users?  But it also raised a greater and more important question.  If information is increasingly to be found behind paywalls in a time when libraries are faced with closure, how will we ensure equal access to information for all?  As we know (and as I repeatedly refer back to on this very blog!), 9 million people in this country have never even used the Internet.  The combination of their library closing and a wealth of information being kept behind paywalls would surely entrench the digital divide yet further – ensuring that a substantial proportion of the population never have access to the amount of information that the rest of us take for granted.

The initial impact of the paywall was stark.  Shortly after The Times paywall went up, The Guardian reported a 90% decline in visits.  People had become used to accessing information freely, without recourse to their debit or credit card.  And where one organisation leads, others follow.  The New York Times has suffered a 15% decline in visits since it also launched a paywall.  Whilst not a substantial decline, it is a decline nonetheless and an indication that people will turn away from paywalled content and access their information from elsewhere (which perhaps explains News Corporation’s repeated attacks on the BBC – the largest provider of free news content in the country).

But, with the foundations of the Murdoch media empire seemingly crumbling before our eyes, could this have implications for paywalled newspaper content?  Should Murdoch give up his stake in his remaining newspapers, would a new owner turn their backs on paywalled content?  Or has News Corporation set the Internet on an irreversible path?  I fear it may be the latter, but I remain hopeful that it is the former.

UN declares: “Internet access is a human right”

Access to the flow of online information is a right say the UN (image c/o Nrbelex)

Just over a week ago the United Nations underlined the right for everyone to have access to a resource that many take for granted: the internet.  As I have often commented on this blog over the years, lack of Internet access is not simply restricted to those that live in developing countries.  Nine million people in this country have never even accessed the internet, either at home or elsewhere.  From the Los Angeles Times:

“Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states,” said the report from Frank La Rue, a special rapporteur to the United Nations, who wrote the document “on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Obviously, putting access to information on the same footing as water is a significant and welcome move.  Access to information is absolutely vital for the wellbeing and prosperity of all individuals.  One wonders, however, what councils across the UK make of this development.

For many across the UK, a public library is the only place they can connect to the internet.  In the North East alone, connectivity stands at only 59% of households.  Closing libraries in areas such as the North East will surely result in access to the internet being cut off for many.  In essence, by closing public libraries, councils across the country will be violating tax payers’ human rights, according to the United Nations at least.  Is this likely to force them to change their minds about the extent of the closures?  Probably not.  Having said that, it may well be worth writing to your councillor and including a link to the text of the report.  You never know, it might just prick their conscience.

Internet vs Public Libraries

The following was written for the Voices for the Library campaign and distributed earlier today in response to comments that were made about the role of libraries in bridging the digital divide and how providing everyone with Internet would be cost effective.

This argument has been doing the rounds this morning, most notably on BBC Breakfast.  The argument goes as follows:

Libraries are, for over 9 million people in this country, the only place that they can connect to the Internet.  Therefore, why not just connect everyone to the Internet as this would be cheaper and more efficient than providing access through a public library.  With Internet connections at around £100 per year, surely it would be cheaper?

There are many things wrong with this statement, so let’s have a look at how much such a scheme would cost.  Presumably, many of the people who do not have Internet connections do not have a computer either.  The most recent statistics suggest that 7 million households in the UK do not have an Internet connection.  1.4 million said that cost of equipment was the main reason why they did not have an Internet connection – other reasons given include lack of skills or they felt they ‘didn’t need it’.

A good quality computer costs something in the region of £300-500.  The cost of an Internet connection over a year is around £200 (taking £15 per month as an average for broadband).  So, taking the figures above, how much would it cost to connect everyone?

If we take the 7 million households figure first and provided them all with a broadband connection it would cost a grand total of £1.4 billion (of course that figure would be ongoing, every year).  If we took the 1.4 million households who said that computers were too expensive and provided each of those with a computer, the cost would equal £560 million (using £400 as an average cost for a desktop PC). If we were to consider that there are likely to be more households than this without a computer (7 million without an Internet connection remember), the cost could potentially be £2.8 billion.  So to provide everyone with a computer would cost between £560 million and £2.8 billion.  Again, this would not be a one-off payment as computers will need to be updated after a certain period of time to make sure they remain functional (usually every four years or so).

So, the total cost of providing everyone with an Internet connection would be…..

£2-4.2 billion with an annual bill of at least £1.4 billion.

Of course these figures do not take into account things such as software, anti-virus and, most importantly, the training and support that many would need to ensure they can use the equipment and the Internet.  Provision of all these extras could push the bill to over £5 billion (again with an annual bill of at least£1.4 billion plus the cost of upgrades every 3-4 years).  Just to compare that figure, public libraries cost the UK £1.1 billion every year.

So, which option makes sense financially in a time of spending cuts?  It seems fairly obvious.

Winter chaos and the information divide

Merry Christmas everyone!

One of the things that has fascinated me most about the recent winter chaos™ (alongside the 24hr news coverage) has been the way information has been transmitted and distributed across the country. There have often been complaints that too little information is being given, particularly in terms of transportation. The incidents at Heathrow are a prime example of this. There were repeated stories from passengers about a lack of information from the airport and the airlines about their flights.  Interestingly, however, there was possibly more information out there than ever before….it’s just some people weren’t able to obtain it.

Over the past few days, both Heathrow airport and a number of airlines (including the one I am flying with) have used Twitter to proactively communicate with customers about the state of their flights and the airport. Whilst some information has been of negligible value, there has been an attempt to communicate whatever information that is possible to share. However, there are two big drawbacks to this method of communication. Firstly, not everyone is on Twitter. Secondly, not everyone has an Internet connection (whether at home or on their mobile), precluding them not only from Twitter, but also the Heathrow website. Of course, there may have been many at the airport who did have smartphones and were able to access the Internet, but given the length of time that many were stranded, many would have had flat batteries. Furthermore, many people with smartphones may not have Twitter accounts, but this does not mean that they can’t search it. But then, how many people do you know who think that Twitter is all about sharing what you’ve had for lunch and thereby give it a wide berth?

I actually contact the Twitter accounts for both Heathrow airport and my airline (Vueling) in the past few days. Both answered promptly (within about ten minutes) and both dealt with my query in a satisfactory way. The response time was certainly better than I would have expected had I sent an email. But I have both a Twitter account and a smartphone so I am one of the lucky ones. What about those that have neither? They are left to struggle with phoning the airline or the airport and undoubtedly being held in queues waiting for answers. There’s no question who is at an advantage. And this gets to the heart of the information divide and the gap between the information rich and information poor. Those that have the means are able to get information promptly and effectively, those without are left in limbo forced to deal with overloaded call centres (and how much do those phonecalls cost?!) and a lack of information within the airport.

On that note, may I wish all my readers and followers a very merry Christmas and thanks for reading this blog and adding your comments over the past year. Personally speaking, it’s been a pretty exciting year. If 2011 is half as good I’m in for a great year!

Free choice without free information?

Can we make rational choices without information?

I try to avoid writing about political events on this blog as this is not really a forum for my personal political views but a blog about my observations about libraries and information in general (as well as a reflection on my studies).  However, as time goes by I guess this is going to be increasingly difficult.  As the cuts start to bite and local authorities close libraries based on spurious financial grounds, it will be increasingly difficult to avoid the topic without sounding partisan.  I’ll try, but I’m not promising anything!

Anyway, one story in the news got me thinking about information in a more general way.  Yesterday, The Guardian reported that fast food companies are being asked to ‘help write UK health policy’.  The report goes on to say:

The Department of Health is putting the fast food companies McDonald’s and KFC and processed food and drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo at the heart of writing government policy on obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease, the Guardian has learned.

In an overhaul of public health, said by campaign groups to be the equivalent of handing smoking policy over to the tobacco industry, health secretary Andrew Lansley has set up five “responsibility deal” networks with business, co-chaired by ministers, to come up with policies. Some of these are expected to be used in the public health white paper due in the next month.

One of the likely casualties of this (frankly bizarre) decision is traffic light labelling on food packaging.  Whilst some manufacturers have employed the system, many are opposed to such labelling (for obvious reasons, it may rather hurt their sales of processed foods).  It was recently reported that the food industry spent 1 billion euros lobbying the EU against mandatory labelling of this type.  Unsurprisingly (and somewhat depressingly), they won.

The argument is often made that this is about avoiding ‘top-down lectures’ and allowing people to decide for themselves about the food they eat without being subject to state ‘nannying’ (even children).  However, how can people make free choices without free information?  It has often puzzled me that the argument is often made that people are free to make their choices and that the state shouldn’t interfere with their fundamental right to do so.  In many ways, this is laudable.  But without providing the public with the information they need, how can we expect them to make rational choices?  Particularly when the void is filled with misleading advertisements by the food industry.

For me, I think there is a worrying trend emerging recently.  Whilst Murdoch’s paywall hasn’t exactly been a resounding success, with less than 105,000 readers actually subscribing there will be many in the newspaper industry hoping that this does come off.  And what then for those that cannot afford to subscribe to any of the newspaper content protected by paywalls?  Suddenly they will find their information sources radically reduced.  As I have written before, there can be serious consequences for a democracy when its people are unable to access information freely.

Add into this the fact that libraries all over the country are being ear-marked for closure, and there is a real problem over the horizon.  Contrary to popular belief, not everyone has access to a computer, let alone an internet connection.  Statistics released earlier this year revealed that 9.2 million people had never used the internet and 27% of households had no Internet connection at al.  These are not insignificant numbers.  There is a very real digital divide at play here, one that the politicians are not only failing to address, but are also seemingly entrenching (if not actually widening).  Commentators and politicians need to stop pretending that everyone has access to an Internet connection, or indeed have the required level of digital literacy – let’s not forget that around 56% of the population of the UK have literacy levels below a good GCSE pass.

It seems ironic that although we live in the age of the Freedom of Information Act, we seem to be regressing in the amount of information that is in the public domain.  With information increasingly seen as a commodity that has a price, we are gradually seeing information put out of reach of the average citizen.  That this recent drive to put a price on all sources of information, whether they be digital or physical, comes at a time of questioning the relevance of libraries is a worrying and disturbing trend.  Once information about our democracy is hidden away behind paywalls, requiring costly equipment with which to access it, what then for those that cannot afford to access it?  And what then for a society with an increasingly poorly informed electorate?  I’m not sure what the future holds in terms of information as a commodity, but I am sure it is not particularly ‘fair’.