Digital inclusion, or why libraries should embrace privacy-friendly video calling services
Video calling with Zoom? The service has to repair so much in order to be considered a privacy-friendly and safe video calling option that there is almost no beginning. New York City has banned Zoom from its schools, the Dutch Ministry of Defense prohibits use and the American government is also hesitant. Security expert Bruce Schneier writes in his article Security and Privacy Implications of Zoom:
“Zoom is a security and privacy disaster, but until now had managed to avoid public accountability because it was relatively obscure. Now that it’s in the spotlight, it’s all coming out. (Their 4/1 response to all of this is here.) On 4/2, the company said it would freeze all feature development and focus on security and privacy. Let’s see if that’s anything more than a PR move.”
If the inventor of surveillance capitalism seizes the opportunity to fill in the gap then you’re out of the game. And even Facebook tries to get a bite. To be honest, Zoom has worked on the shortcomings since. Even Schneier compliments them for that.
But frankly, that cleans up nicely, because it’s a choice less in determining a video calling service that does deserve to get positive attention. And one that fits the image of public libraries, especially since many libraries hardly seem to be concerned with this topic. And that is remarkable, because video calling has quickly become our second nature of communication, with all the additional questions and challenges that this entails. A solid informative function from libraries fits in with this, certainly based on the broadly embraced principle of digital inclusion.
Libraries, together with other social and private partners, have put the topic of digital inclusion high on the agenda. This means that citizens are enabled to participate as much as possible in the digital society. Practically this for example concerns support in accessing digital public services. From the Dutch Letter to Parliament on Digital Inclusion:
In the Netherlands, we are increasingly communicating digitally. This has a major impact on everyone’s life. Technology can prepare our country for the future. It offers opportunities. But for many people, developments are moving very fast. We have to take this into account. We will ensure that everyone can participate in the digital society. Also the people who need extra help.
However, at the time of adopting the concept of digital inclusion, we could not foresee the impact of the corona crisis on digital participation in a much broader sense than just access to digital government. Everyone is suddenly forced to move online to have a bit of sense of participation. The convenience of digital services is extremely important in this. However, that all too easily means that other topics, such as privacy and security, whether you like it or not, simply are deemed less important.
Acknowledging this, libraries can play a positive and distinctive role. Real effective digital inclusivity, with video calling as a current, but also permanent pilar, means that all elements of video calling services should be assessed, propagated and perhaps even facilitated.
But what services are there and what are their pros and cons? Fortunately, an inventory has already been made by countless reliable parties. Libraries can have a close look at the results and make them their own. No overview is complete, but you quickly get a picture of the most important players. For example, take a look at this report from the Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens (Dutch Data Protection Authority).
Mozilla also made an overview, headed *privacy not included.
Because we were all thrown into the deep, everyone had to make a choice for services to use. For some, it was easier than for others, but I think it’s safe to assume that a tool’s functionality was at the top for almost everyone: it just has to work and not being too difficult.
On the one hand that means that you easily choose for something you already know, for example Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger or Facetime. For professional use this becomes a bit more difficult and you see that tools with a lot of marketing power (Zoom), or tools from well-known companies, or services from providers for which you already pay (Google Meet, Microsoft Teams) are the easiest to adopt to. That is also understandable, but maybe not always the best reasons to make a decision.
Functionality vs library values
It is crystal clear that a video calling service first of all should work and preferably shouldn’t be too complicated. Importanty however is that it must also meet a number of requirements that have nothing to do with functionality, but that do fit the image of the public library. Being privacy friendly is high on the list, as is security, preferably a non-commercial character and the possibility to manage the tool itself (which often means that it is also open-source, which is also an advantage). In short, I ask myself the question:
Which tool do I proudly use in the library and also deserves recognition towards colleagues and the public?
An inspiration for tools that I would use myself, because they meet the question above, I find at Waag Society. They have made an inventory of tools that they have brought together according to the following reasoning:
“The Netherlands works at home, so we were looking for good solutions to continue working together. However, with many technologies we use, we notice that something is wrong: we are being tracked and our data is being misused and traded. At Waag we want fair alternatives and we research open, safe and fair tools. We call these technologies the Public Stack: a stack of technologies that values people, society and the world as central values – and not the shareholder.”
So there’s more to a service than functionality. I believe that libraries also have an external responsibility: to what extent do we inform the public about which video calling services are recommended from a library perspective? And don’t we have an extra responsibility when it comes to less digitally skilled citizens? For me it goes without saying that we definitely have an assignment to fulfill, because otherwise some of us aren’t able to participate.
Our daily library practice is not too positive
Asking yourself the above question seems obvious, but unfortunately it is not. Although libraries increasingly seem to make choices for tools for their own use (regardless of whether these are sensible ones), there is actually no message to patrons. Also the National Library also has no policy or advice which services to use. A question I asked them at the beginning of the crisis to take a stance and host a Jitsi Server could initially count on enthusiasm, but in the end turned out not to be a priority. The roll-out of other digital services was deemed more important. Of course I cannot say much about those internal choices, except that I thought and think it was a missed opportunity.
A quick scan of Dutch library websites also shows that there isn’t much to be found about this subject. On some library websites a reference is made to Seniorweb’s (volunteer organization to help people understanding the digital world) offer of Thuis Online (HomeOnline). However, that does not go much further than advising well-known consumer services such as Whatsapp, Facetime, Zoom and Skype. If I’m asking myself the question above, my answer is a resounding “No“.
Which video calling service should libraries embrace?
This blog post is about video calling services: applications to communicate with individual or limited groups of colleagues or patrons. This means that applications for providing webinars are not specifically mentioned.
In a blog post on the Fers website I wrote about our positive experiences with Jitsi. This service is also praised in many other places, for example by Bits of Freedom and the Dutch Consumers’ Association. At Fers we are currently investigating whether we can provide our own Jitsi server. It is expected this will have a positive effect on the occasionally unstable connection when you depend on the official Jitsi server.
A few weeks ago I participated in a webinar from Waag Society, hosted on their own Jitsi server. Fot the duration of two hours 40 people at the same time took part without any issues. So that is positive. In the meantime, you can use Jitsi via Dutch servers here. Marcus Bergsma wrote a manual (Dutch) if you want to get started.
A tool that is gaining fame is BigBlueButton. Unlike Jitsi, this tool is much more than just a video calling service (it is designed for educational use), but like Jitsi, it can be managed independently. This also applies to the well-rated services Nextcloud Talk and Riot. And to experience that open source isn’t scary, try using Signal (and to get started ask a few colleagues to join you) instead of Whatsapp. It works the same, but is safe and privacy-friendly.
And which video calling service shouldn’t be?
If you take a closer look at the whole set of features of video calling services, and broaden them with core library values, a tool like Zoom easily can be ignored. Feel free to use it for yourself if you want, but using it as a library, and thus promoting it, simply does not fit. I would also not be approaching users with services that charge a premium for extra functionality, such as Whereby (which scores well on elements such as privacy and security).
Onwards to true digital inclusion
Video calling has become indispensable and therefore an important part of a digitally inclusive society. The aforementioned Letter to Parliament on Digital Inclusion is subtitled “everyone should be able to participate“. The British Good Things Foundation, whose approach to a Britsh Digital Agenda inspired the Dutch Parliament Letter, very recently published an already updated vision: A new manifesto for digital inclusion. For me, this is the core element:
“This is where digital intersects with community. The overriding reasons people give for their digital exclusion reflect poverty – they can’t afford a device or connectivity – but are also strongly based on motivation. Lack of interest and fear of harm are at the top of the list. So widening access to technology can only happen if these barriers are addressed.”
Therefore the challenge is to remove disinterest for the digital world. This is not made easier by an increasing and well-founded fear of internet crime, with phishing, data breaches and fake news & disinformation as important topics. The manifesto then continues with a direct invitation to libraries, which also ties in with Doug Belshaw’s individual approach in his Essential Elements of Digital Literacies:
“Only by building trust, and finding the way digital can be relevant for that person at that time, can you build the confidence to start learning digital skills. And this is the special skill and passion of special people in our communities: those who work in community organisations, from small charities and libraries to social enterprises and housing associations.”
Getting started: collecting and disseminating knowledge
The need for an increase in knowledge is substantiated in Alert Online’s Cyber Security Survey 2019, in which the researchers advise that only investing in knowledge helps making citizens more digitally resilient. That is a wonderful and necessary step for libraries to take and which we must make our own. This means however that we have to start with ourselves. However, that, starting with ourselves, there is work to be done. Let the need for secure video calling services be the best motivation we can wish for.
Original article in Dutch here.