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Do libraries have a role at the cutting edge of tech ethics?

12 August 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rob Mackinlay
Do libraries have a role at the cutting edge of tech ethics?

Do librarians have a role at the cutting edge of tech regulation? Catherine Miller from the recently wound-up responsible tech think tank, Doteveryone, thinks they might do.

Set up by tech entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox in 2015, Doteveryone has lobbied government for more regulation of big tech and lobbied big tech companies to act more responsibly towards their users.

Catherine was Doteveryone’s Director of Policy before becoming its Interim CEO in 2019, a post she held until it closed itself down last month. Before it closed down Doteveryone published People, Power and Technology, a report on digital attitudes which follows up on a 2018 survey. Some of its key findings show that while there are improvements in the general public’s understanding of the risks posed by digital technology, there is very little they can do with that understanding.

“People do get it now, in a way that they didn’t two years ago, that their data is being collected and used and that they are being targeted but they’re given no ability to do anything with that understanding. It backfires to just tell people they need to do something about a problem without giving them avenues to act on that.”

Literacy limits

She says media literacy “would require certain conditions to thrive and one of those is that people have the opportunity to act on their literacy. That’s not in place now and I’d suggest that’s probably the most useful bit for information professionals to look at. When people started talking about digital exclusion it was at a point when everyone just thought tech is 100 per cent amazing and it’s terrible that people are being excluded. Now organisations like libraries might feel responsible for helping people cope with what happens when they get online. But if you show someone how to fill in a benefits claim, its outcome may be decided in part through AI and algorithmic decision making and it’s a bit much to put that on the shoulders of the librarian who has helped someone log into the server.”

Government solution?

The lack of levers exists at all levels. “There’s a strong appetite for regulation amongst the public. It’s reasonable to expect the government to set some rules but at the same time the public is aware the government is ill-equipped to deal with large multinational companies with scale and power.” Doteveryone has lobbied both government and industry, but Catherine says: “In the long-term we should not be in a position where we’re supplicants to large corporations. We shouldn’t have to ask them to do us a favour. There needs to be regulation and that will only come through national legislation. In the short-term we can all badger corporates to be better, but longer term you only get systemic and sustained change through regulation.”

Scale solution

So why is Doteveryone bowing out now? The debate it started has been accelerated by recent events such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Catherine says the pace needs to pick up: “Now we need to pass the work to organisations that have the capacity to scale it up in a way that Doteveryone never could.” The organisations that have been chosen are the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Open Data Institute (ODI). The ODI will take on TechTransformed, Doteveryone’s practical resources which Catherine says will be embedded into its international practice of training and workshops, immediately passing on its greater scale to Doteveryone’s work.

The Ada Lovelace Institute will ensure that Doteveryone’s portfolio of research remains in the public realm. “Ada has the infrastructure and financial security that the Nuffield Foundation gives it,” says Catherine, adding that “it is really well embedded in the academic and policy communities and on both of those fronts it is immediately operating on a different scale to Doteveryone.”

So what can a librarian do?

Catherine says: “It’s important to recognise the work that librarians do and not ask them to solve a structural problem. If neither the librarian or the person using the computer has any ability to act on information, it’s no longer their problem. But one of the biggest problems in this whole conversation is that it happens in a vacuum of evidence. There’s not a great deal of understanding and librarians are one of the few groups that see things at the sharp end. If you could tap into that knowledge and capture the information that they are gaining at a community level, you could probably start to under- stand very effectively the impact that technology is having.”

Published:13 August 2020

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