Tag Archives: surveillance

Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised


Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread.  It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]

This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.  It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war.  Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

http://hiram1555.com/2016/10/21/presidential-debates-indicate-end-of-us-empire-analyst/

Source: Hiram1555.com

I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv]  One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power.  Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power.  Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.

The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states.  Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi]  These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.

Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century.   President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise.   Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own).  China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]

Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality.  China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.

An ever more digital world

https://www.forbes.com/sites/columbiabusinessschool/2020/04/21/how-covid-19-will-accelerate-a-digital-therapeutics-revolution/

Source: Forbes.com

The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19.  Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x]  Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.

There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]

One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19.  While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved.  For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity.  Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]

There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest.  First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling.  This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]

Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.

Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.

https://www.wired.com/story/phones-track-spread-covid19-good-idea/

Source: Wired.com

A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance.  Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii]  However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]

One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them.  In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community.  However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.

Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics.  Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-herd-immunity-meaning-definition-what-vaccine-immune-covid-19-a9397871.html

Source: Independent.co.uk

Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world.  Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm.  Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future.  People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.

The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail.  The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition.  This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways.  Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx]  Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.  Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.

There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently.  Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.

We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.

Increasing global inequalities

https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/indian-migrants-forced-to-walk-home-amid-covid-19-lockdown-1.1585394226024?slide=2

Source: Gulfnews.com

The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.

This is already all too visible.  Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi]  In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii]  In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv]  The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv]  People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi]  The list of immediate crises grows by the day.

More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed.  It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm.  Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present.   Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives.  Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives.  Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]

Looking positively to the future.

People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:

  • China is the global political economic power,
  • Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
  • Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
  • Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
  • There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.

In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer.  Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:

  • First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
  • This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
  • Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
  • Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised.  Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
  • Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
  • Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others.  It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.

I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice.  Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy  an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.


Notes:

[i] For current figures see https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ and https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6, although all data related with this coronavirus must be treated with great caution; see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/data-and-the-scandal-of-the-uks-covid-19-survival-rate/

[ii] Modi’s hasty coronavirus lockdown of India leaves many fearful for what comes next, https://time.com/5812394/india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi/

[iii] Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, might well be an exception with his $1 billion donation to support Covid-19 relief and other charities; see https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21212766/jack-dorsey-coronavirus-covid-19-donate-relief-fund-square-twitter

[iv] See, for example, discussion in Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  I appreciate that such arguments infuriate many people living in the USA,

[v] See, for example, George Parker’s, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, The Atlantic, June 2020 (preview) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/.

[vi] Based on figures from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ on 15th April 2020.  For comparison, Spain had 39.74 reported deaths per 100,000, Italy 35.80, and the UK 18.96.

[vii] There are many commentaries on this, but The Wall Street Journal’s account on 9 February 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-war-reshaped-global-commerce-11581244201 is useful, as is the Pietersen Institute’s timeline https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-investment-policy-watch/trump-trade-war-china-date-guide.

[viii] For a good account of his use of language see Eren Orbey’s comment in The New Yorker, Trump’s “Chinese virus” and what’s at stake in the coronovirus’s name,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[ix] China’s massive long-term strategic investments across the world, not least through its 一带一路 (Belt and Road) initiative, have placed it in an extremely strong position to reap the benefits of its revitalised economy from 2021 onwards (for a good summary of this initiative written in January 2020 see https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative)

[x] Kaplan, J., Frias, L. and McFall-Johnsen, M., A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown…, https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[xi] This is despite conspiracy theorists arguing that those who were going to gain most from Covid-19 especially in the digital tech and pharmaceutical industry had been active in promoting global fear of the coronavirus, or worse still had actually engineered it for their advantage.  See, for example, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/technology/bill-gates-virus-conspiracy-theories.html, or Thomas Ricker, Bill Gates is now the leading target for Coronavirus falsehoods, says report, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/17/21224728/bill-gates-coronavirus-lies-5g-covid-19 .

[xii] See, for example, Shah, H. and Kumar, K., Ten digital technologies helping humans in the fight against Covid-19, Frost and Sullivan, https://ww2.frost.com/frost-perspectives/ten-digital-technologies-helping-humans-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, Gergios Petropolous, Artificial interlligence in the fight against COVID-19, Bruegel, https://www.bruegel.org/2020/03/artificial-intelligence-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, or Beech, P., These new gadgets were designed to fight COVID-19, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/. It is also important to note that the notion of “fighting” the coronavirus is also deeply problematic.

[xiii] For my much more detailed analysis of these issues, see Tim Unwin (26 March 2020), collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response/

[xiv] For more on this see Tim Unwin (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and for a brief comment https://unwin.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/dehumanization-cyborgs-and-the-internet-of-things/.

[xv] Although, significantly, Chinese companies are also involved; see https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

[xvi] For the work of the Gates Foundation and US pharmaceutical companies in fighting Covid-19 https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2020/03/27/Bill-Gates-big-pharma-collaborate-on-COVID-19-treatments

[xvii] There is a huge literature, both academic and policy related, on this, but see for example OCHCR (2014) Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert, https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15200&LangID=E; Privacy International, Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda, https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/scrutinising-global-counter-terrorism-agenda; Simon Hale-Ross (2018) Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: the UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication, London: Routledge; and Lomas, N. (2020) Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests, TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/15/mass-surveillance-for-national-security-does-conflict-with-eu-privacy-rights-court-advisor-suggests/.

[xviii] Kharpal, A. (26 March 2020) Use of surveillance to fight coronavirus raised c oncenrs about government power after pandemic ends, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html; but see also more critical comments about the efficacy of such systems as by Vaughan, A. (17 April 2020) There are many reasons why Covid-19 contact-tracing apps may not work, NewScientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2241041-there-are-many-reasons-why-covid-19-contact-tracing-apps-may-not-work/

[xix] There are widely differing views as to the ethics of this.  See, for example, Article 19 (2 April 2020) Coronavirus: states use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights, https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-states-use-of-digital-surveillance-technologies-to-fight-pandemic-must-respect-human-rights/ ; McDonald, S. (30 March 2020) The digital response to the outbreak of Covid-19, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19. See also useful piece by Arcila (2020) for ICT4Peace on “A human-centric framework to evaluate the risks raised by contact-tracing applications” https://mcusercontent.com/e58ea7be12fb998fa30bac7ac/files/07a9cd66-0689-44ff-8c4f-6251508e1e48/Beatriz_Botero_A_Human_Rights_Centric_Framework_to_Evaluate_the_Security_Risks_Raised_by_Contact_Tracing_Applications_FINAL_BUA_6.pdf.pdf

[xx] See, for example, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/the-environmental-impact-of-covid-19/ss-BB11JxGv?li=BBoPWjQ, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world, and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/.

[xxi] See The Guardian (23 April 2020) ‘We’re in a prison’: Singapore’s million migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

[xxii] Al Jazeera (6 April 2020) India: Coronavirus lockdown sees exodus from cities, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/india-coronavirus-lockdown-sees-exodus-cities-200406104405477.html.

[xxiii] Financial Times (13th April) China-Africa relations rocked by alleged racism over Covid-19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

[xxiv] Global Citizen (22 April 2020) Covid-19 Lockdowns are sparking a hunger crisis in the UK, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/covid-19-food-poverty-rising-in-uk/

[xxv] Mahler, D.G., Lakner, C., Aguilar, R.A.C. and Wu, H. (20 April 2020) The impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit, World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/impact-covid-19-coronavirus-global-poverty-why-sub-saharan-africa-might-be-region-hardest

[xxvi] Bridging the Gap (2020) The impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, https://bridgingthegap-project.eu/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-people-with-disabilities/

[xxvii] Statista (Januarv 2020) https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

[xxviii] For a wider discussion of the negative environmental impacts of climate change see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/digital-technologies-and-climate-change/.

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Google books – philanthropy or piracy?


In the Observer on 30th Augsut, William Skidelsky has added a contribution to the debate about Google’s plans to create the world’s biggest online library.  As he comments “Google has already scanned 10 million books in its bid to digitise the contents of the world’s major libraries, but a copyright battle now threatens the project, with Amazon and Microsoft joining authors and publishers opposed to the scheme”.

As he points out, Google claims that they are doing this for the good of society.  However, he notes that opponents have been critical on the grounds that:

  • “First, they have questioned whether the primary responsibility for digitally archiving the world’s books should be allowed to fall to a commercial company”, and
  • “The second, related criticism is that Google’s scanning of books is actually illegal”

As he concludes, “No one knows the precise use Google will make of the intellectual property it has gained by scanning the world’s library books, and the truth, as Gleick points out, is that the company probably doesn’t even know itself. But what is certain is that, in some way or another, Google’s entrance into digital bookselling will have a significant impact on the book world in years to come”.

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Filed under Ethics, Higher Education, ICT4D

Freedom on the Net


For those who may not have read it yet, Freedom House’s publication entitled Freedom on the Net: a Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media and published in April 2009, provides a very valuable assessment of the balance of interests in the spread of the Internet and mobile telephony across the world.

As Freedom House’s blurb says, “As internet and mobile phone use explodes worldwide, governments are adopting new and multiple means for controlling these technologies that go far beyond technical filtering. Freedom on the Net provides a comprehensive look at these emerging tactics, raising concern over trends such as the “outsourcing of censorship” to private companies, the use of surveillance and the manipulation of online conversations by undercover agents. The study covers both repressive countries such as China and Iran and democratic ones such as India and the United Kingdom, finding some degree of internet censorship and control in all 15 nations studied.”

The overview essay by Karin Deutsch Karlekar and Sarah G. Cook argues that there is a growing diversity of threats to internet freedom and that governments have responded to the spread of new media by introducing new measures to control, regulate and censor content.  As they conclude “In a fast-changing digital world, vigilance is required if we are to ensure continued freedom on the net.”

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Filed under Ethics, ICT4D general

Digital Britain


The UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (I still think this is a crazy mixture, but…)  published its final report on Digital Britain on 16th June 2009.  It claims that “The Digital Britain Report is the Government’s strategic vision for ensuring that the UK is at the leading edge of the global digital economy. It is an example of industrial activism in a crucial growth sector. The report contains actions and recommendations to ensure first rate digital and communications infrastructure to promote and protect talent and innovation in our creative industries, to modernize TV and radio frameworks, and support local news, and it introduces policies to maximize the social and economic benefits from digital technologies”.

The key measures it recommends are:

  • A three-year National Plan to improve Digital Participation
  • Universal Access to today’s broadband services by 2012
  • Next Generation fund for investment in tomorrow’s broadband services
  • Digital radio upgrade by the end of 2015
  • mobile spectrum liberalisation, enhancing 3G coverage and accelerating Next Generation mobile services
  • robust legal and regulatory framework to combat Digital Piracy
  • support for public service content partnerships
  • a revised digital remit for Channel 4
  • consultation on funding options for national, regional and local news

One of the most interesting statements in the executive summary is that “For individuals a quiet revolution has delivered seamless connectivity almost everywhere. That revolution ranges from personal pocket libraries of music, audiovisual content and increasingly electronic literature on a scale inconceivable ten years ago; inexpensive broadband which allows efficient and family-friendly working patterns in the knowledge sector of the economy – and broadband at increasing speeds – the next generation of which, already available to nearly half Britain’s homes, allows us to send or receive 200 mp3 music files in five minutes, an entire Star Wars DVD in 3 minutes and the total digitised works of Charles Dickens in less than 10 minutes. It has given us access to a wide range of social networks, allowing us to share experiences and swap and create content. The digital revolution has also led to a huge expansion in the creation and availability of professional content. Today, the typical British consumer spends nearly half of their waking hours engaged in one form or another with the products and services of the communications sector”.  The report goes on to assert that “The UK is already a digitally enabled and to a significant degree digitally dependent economy and society. The Digital Britain Report aims to be a guide-path for how Britain can sustain its position as a leading digital economy and society”.

To my mind, the report is overly up-beat.  It fails satisfactorily to address the real challenges associated with a digital Britain, and especially:

  • it focuses primarily on the technological and economic dimensions – and not enough on the social, cultural and political issues raised by these
  • there is nothing overtly on the ethical and moral issues raised by this particular vision of a ‘digital Britain’ (‘ethics’ and ‘moral’ are words that are not even mentioned in the report)
  • although trying to grapple with some of the issues surrounding unequal access, its solutions are unlikely to have a significant impact on the lives of Britain’s poorest people and communities – the concept of a ‘digital divide’ is only mentioned three times, and there is no mention of words such as ‘inequalities’ or ‘inequality’; ‘equity’ is only mentioned twice.  The market cannot provide effective solutions for the most marginalised – and it should be the role of government to intervene to ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from the potential that such technologies can offer
  • insufficient attention is paid to the negative effects of the digital economy – in terms of the ways in which it reinforces power relationships, and enables ever greater ‘control’ and manipulation of the majority by the few.  The anarchic potential of the Internet is also insufficiently explored – and is treated negatively in the only place where it is addressed (“Most consumers, except the minority of the anarchic or those who believe in ‘freedom to’ without its counterbalancing ‘freedom from’, who believe in unsupported rights without countervailing duties, would prefer to behave lawfully if they can do so practically and with a sense of equity” p.110).  “Web 2.0” is likewise only mentioned once!
  • as I have argued elsewhere, one of the implications of Britain sustaining “its position as a leading digital economy and society” is that this will necessarily mean that it will relatively disadvantage those in poorer countries of the world.  Given my own interest in trying to ensure that poor people and marginalised communities can also truly benefit from digital communities, I am concerned by the complete lack of attention that this report pays to issues of ‘development’ – Africa is not mentioned at all, and ‘developing countries’ are only mentioned once to exemplify the impact of mobile ‘phones therein!  I wonder what colleagues in the UK’s Department for International Development have to say about this – another excellent example of lack of joined up government!

The UK government needs to understand that ICTs are about much more than simply the technology and the economy – if we are truly to use them to make the world a better place, we must emphasise the social, political and cultural aspects of their use much more than does this report on Digital Britain.

For other commentary in the UK press see:

  • James Ashton in the Times: A blurred vision for Digital Britain
  • Matthew Horsman in the Daily Telegraph: Only a sketchy road map of Digital Britain
  • BBC News: Digital Britain countdown begins

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UK Government announces that it has no plans to create a central database for storing communications data


The UK’s Home Office has recently announced that it no longer has any plans to create a centralised database to store all communciations data.  In its consultation paper presented to Parliament in April 2009, and entitled “Protecting the Public in a Changing Communications Environment“, the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith commented that “this consultation explicitly rules out the option of setting up a single store of information for use in relation to communications data”.  This is excellent news for all those concerned that the government was indeed considering establishing such a centralised database of all digital communication (see my comments in February about this). The consultation paper is a very important document, and lays out clearly the various options facing a government eager to get the balance right between privacy and security.

The consultation paper asserts that “The Government has no plans for a centralised database for storing all communications data.  An approach of this kind would require communications service providers to collect all the data required by the public authorities, and not only the data required for their business needs.  All of this communications data would then be passed to, retained in, and retrieved from, a single data store.  This could be the most effective technical solution to the challenges we face and would go furthest towards maintaining the current capability; but the Government recognises the privacy implications of a single store of communications data and does not, therefore, intend to pursue this approach”.

With reference to third party data, two approaches are identified as possible ways forward:

  • “The responsibility for collecting and retaining this additional third party data would fall on those communications providers such as the fixed line, mobile and WiFi operators, who own the network infrastructure”
  • “A further step would be for the communications service providers to process the third party communications data and match it with their own business data where it has elements in common; this would make easier the interpretation of that data if and when it were to be accessed by the public authorities”.

In the light of this, the government intends to legislate “to ensure that all data that public authorities might need, including third party data, is collected and retained by communication service providers; and that the retained data is further processed by communications service providers enabling specific requests by public authorities to be processed quickly and comprehensively”.

The government is particularly eager to receive responses on four main questions:

  • Q1  On the basis of this evidence and subject to current safeguards and oversight arrangements, do you agree that communications data is vital for law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies and emergency services in tackling serious crime, preventing terrorism and protecting the public? Found on page 22
  • Q2  Is it right for Government to maintain this capability by responding to the new communications environment? Found on page 22
  • Q3  Do you support the Government’s approach to maintaining our capabilities?  Which of the solutions should it adopt? Found on page 30
  • Q4   Do you believe that the safeguards outlined are sufficient for communications data in the future? Found on page 30

As the consultation paper concludes, “The challenge is to find a model which strikes the right balance between maximising public protection and the ability of the law enforcement and other authorities to do their jobs  to prevent and detect crime and protect the public, and minimising the intrusion into our private lives”.

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ContactPoint – the UK State is creating a database of all children


Along with many other parents across the UK, I have recently received a letter from one of my children’s schools informing me that legislation has just been passed “requiring Local Authorities to set up and run a nationwide database, known as ContactPoint, which will contain basic details about every child and young person under the age of 18 who is ordinarily resident in England”.

Why should this legislation have been passed?  Why is it compulsory?  Why should everyone have to be registered? In effect, as young people grow older, this database will eventually record information about everyone “normally resident” in the UK. It will provide yet another means through which the State collects private information about individuals, thereby enabling it to impose greater control over its citizens.

The ContactPoint website claims that ” ContactPoint will be the quick way for a practitioner to find out who else is working with the same child or young person, making it easier to deliver more coordinated support. ContactPoint is an online directory, available to authorised staff who need it to do their jobs, enabling the delivery of coordinated support for children and young people. It is also a vital tool to help safeguard children, helping to ensure that the right agencies are involved at the right time and children do not slip through the net”.

But does this require details on EVERY child in the UK to be recorded on a central database?  The passing of this legislation on 26th January gives rise to very great concern:

  1. Why should every child need to be registered?  Why does the state need to gain information about the name, address, date of birth, and contact details of all parents to be registered centrally?
  2. Given the inability of  the UK government to keep such data secure in the past, there are high risks that this personal information will become accessible to a wide range of people in the future.  Children will therefore be put at risk.
  3. There is no evidence that such a database will make any difference to early interventions when  children really do need the State to intervene to protect them
  4. Who really benefits from this?  Is it not the companies who have persuaded the Government to introduce such very expensive digital systems?
  5. What gives the State any right at all to collect such individual private information.

We must resist this ever great control by the state over its citizens – just because digital technologies enable us to do this, does not mean it is right.

Tim

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UK surveillance update…


The Times yesterday published another article on CCTV cameras and surveillance in the UK, noting that the frequently cited claim that there are 4.2 million CCTV cameras in use in the UK is based on a survey of only two streets in London seven years ago!  Police forces across the country are now being asked to locate and record the location of every camera in the country – so that they can be used to identify suspected ‘criminals’.

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