Hyperlocals and the question of accesss

The continuing debate over press regulation in the UK has raised a question over what constitutes “news”, “news-related material”, and even a “blog”.

No one’s quite been able to nail down these terms (though Lord McNally did offer the notion that you know a blog “when you see it” during a parliamentary debate earlier this week).

Caught up in this conundrum are the so-called “hyperlocals” – neighbourhood websites providing a mix of news and comment for particular locales.

My own er, local hyperlocal, the Kentish Towner, is a great example of the genre, providing a mix of lifestyle, lists and occasional news. South of the Thames, the slightly more newsy Brixton Blog does a similar job (interestingly, both have launched print editions).

It is not just status under regulation that is of interest here: there is also the question of whether hyperlocals get to enjoy the same access to local politics and administration that newspapers do.

This issue was brought to light recently in the case of blogger Jacqui Thompson. The libel case itself was interesting, but more interesting was the question raised, after Thompson was removed from the chamber by police for refusing to stop filming, as to whether she had the right to film in the council chamber.

This was not the first instance of this controversy. In 2009, Jersey politicians proposed that “members of the public will not be permitted to take any form of footage”, adding that “Only those people working professionally for a recognised commercial media organisation who can identify themselves as such will be permitted to take footage of proceedings held in public”. The proposal was eventually dropped.

These moves seem to be counter to recent trends such as the increasing permission to allow live tweeting from court proceedings both by members of the press and the public.

Is there an easy solution? Livestreaming of all local government proceedings might seem to be the way forward, but some might argue that this would hand over control over footage to the authorities.

As traditional media models collapse, and more and more people feel the right, even the necessity, to record every detail of public and even private life, this is a question that will reappear again and again.

Padraig Reidy is Senior Writer at Index on Censorship. @mePadraigReidy

Quality overlooked in rush to spread digital access

The “quantity v. quality” debate around global digital access seldom gets the attention it deserves. Here I define “quantity” as the spread of internet access to remote and marginalised communities and “quality” as the extent to which these connections are free from corporate or government restrictions and surveillance.

digital-worldWith more than four billion people yet to come online around the world, basic connectivity is an obvious and necessary prerequisite for digital access. But handing out one laptop per child and selling low-cost smartphones does not solve the quality problem, and can in fact worsen it.

Repressive governments and opportunistic companies sometimes exploit their citizens’ and customers’ ignorance and apathy towards personal privacy and data protection in the name of national security and financial gain. Countries like Iran and China’s biggest web companies are obvious offenders, but western democracies and Silicon Valley startups are far from perfect.

Doling out laptops and ethernet cables without also spreading the internet’s core values of freedom and openness can inadvertently harm newly connected users and the wider web.

NGOs with good intentions sometimes make this mistake. More troubling are companies with financial incentives to lay cables and sell hardware in new markets. Africa is one of the least connected territories, making it, from a corporate perspective, a digital desert ripe for cybercolonialism. Despite being framed as aid, a $20 billion pledge from China to Africa last year was primarily about business. Chinese companies with troubling track records on digital rights and freedoms are also competing to lend their security and surveillance expertise to African governments, a serious cause for concern on the quality side of access.

Frank La Rue, the UN’s special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has described internet access as a right and acknowledged both the quantity and quality components inherent and critical to the enjoyment of this right. Other digital thought leaders, like Google’s chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf, has described the internet as an enabler of human rights but not a right in and of itself. Both perspectives hold weight, but we must not forget that the internet can also be used as a disabler of human rights.

Rather than a panacea, the internet can be poison when used to monitor, suppress and prosecute online speech and offline action.

Cyberutopians who think smartphones will set us free have been proven wrong time and time again. On the flip side, this does not mean that cyberdystopians who fear governments will exploit our dependence on technology and digital communications to neutralise dissent are necessarily correct. Increasing the quantity of internet connections without minding the quality of those connections forged can potentially bring greater harm than good for digital access, but such harm is not inevitable. Companies and NGOs working to spread access should ensure that the benefits they bring outweigh potential dangers they create or expose and should ensure that quantity is balanced by quality at the corporate and government levels. Only when this balance is achieved can global digital access truly be advanced.

Freedom of expression and disabilities

What does freedom of expression mean for someone with a disability?

The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted in 2006, and has now been signed by 82 countries. The convention amongst the document’s 50 articles, there is one that specifically guarantees disabled persons the right to freedom of expression:

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities can exercise the right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and through all forms of communication of their choice, as defined in article 2 of the present Convention, including by:

a) Providing information intended for the general public to persons with disabilities in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities in a timely manner and without additional cost;

b) Accepting and facilitating the use of sign languages, Braille, augmentative and alternative communication, and all other accessible means, modes and formats of communication of their choice by persons with disabilities in official interactions;

c) Urging private entities that provide services to the general public, including through the Internet, to provide information and services in accessible and usable formats for persons with disabilities;

d) Encouraging the mass media, including providers of information through the Internet, to make their services accessible to persons with disabilities;

e) Recognizing and promoting the use of sign languages.


The United Kingdom is one of the countries that has ratified the convention, and statistics on media literacy for disabled persons in the UK shows just how important it is to increase access to information across different channels. According to the UK regulator Ofcom, 64 per cent of disabled persons use television as a source of news, and are more likely than their able-bodied counterparts to rely on one source for news.

According to Jo Roach, who has worked with people with learning disabilities for over 30 years, freedom of expression hinges on having equipment and support workers who can “understand the person’s needs”. Roach says that the support worker is key to learning how to use things like the internet.

“If support workers aren’t well-informed, you aren’t well-informed,” says Roach.

This is particularly important when thinking of ever-advancing mobile phone access and capabilities: while internet usage for disabled persons currently sits at 62 per cent, mobile phone access is 82 per cent. Most disabled people under 65 use mobile phones for calls and text messages. With smartphone penetration on the rise in the UK, there are possibilities for increasing accessibility for disabled persons — but this relies entirely on access to not only the equipment, but tailored training on how to use it.

Smartphones open up the doors to apps catering to disabled persons, and this is already being explored. For example, the voice-operated “Georgie” app, which helps blind users find buses or navigate. The UK’s Department for Work and Pensions recently announced a plan to train 200 people to use the application. Apple’s iPhone has been celebrated for the usability of its “assistive” features, and this also increases options for developers of apps.

But there is still a long way to go: the head of London-based accessibility consultancy Hassell Inclusion, Jonathan Hassell, told the Guardian that a narrow definition of accessibility could also be a barrier:

“In audience terms, the needs of the small audience of totally blind people are being catered for well, whereas the needs of the much larger audience of people with more moderate vision difficulties, probably because of ageing, seems to be being ignored.”

While this is a slow process, it will surely improve in the coming years.

Poverty and freedom of expression: How the poor are being silenced

Poverty can restrict your access to basic human rights. This is neither a controversial nor revolutionary statement — it is clear that access to food and shelter is diminished by poverty. But poverty also blocks the less tangible rights many of us nonetheless take for granted, among them, the right to freedom of expression.

Poverty can be a very powerful barrier to accessing the abilities and tools to communicate your interests, ideas and needs, and as such, your rights to fully participate in society. This lack of access to freedom of expression manifests itself in a number of different areas, including in education, online and in the arts.

Poverty remains the biggest block to access to education, with young people from the poorest households globally being three times as likely to be out of school compared to the richest households. Direct costs connected to education, such as tuition fees, school materials, uniforms and transportation can constitute huge barriers to education. In addition to this, many poor people live in rural areas with fewer schools. For poor families there can also be significant opportunity costs connected to sending children to school rather than work. Among other things, this explains the higher levels of illiteracy among the poor globally. The damaging effect illiteracy has on your ability to express yourself, and subsequently fully participate in civil society, cannot be overstated.  If you can’t read newspapers, write to your politicians or even fill out the necessary paperwork to apply for national identification documents to vote, your voice is severely limited.  This is without even considering the many costs connected to the above.

But poverty doesn’t only block participation offline. The internet, mobile phones and other modern communication tools provide some of the biggest potential platforms to freedom of expression. New technology can be used to take part in debates, organise large-scale campaigns, monitor elections and hold those in power to account. However, the gap between rich and poor in this sector is big enough to warrant its own term — the digital divide. While developed states can boast 71.6 internet users per 100 inhabitants, the corresponding figure for developing states is only 21.1. On the African continent it drops 9.6/100. This phenomenon also exists within states, along gender, geographical social, and significantly, financial lines. The latest figures from the UK show that 15 per cent of the population has never used the Internet. Of those, 15 per cent cite equipment costs as a reason; while 14 per cent cite access costs. Tellingly, 5.7 per cent of those earning less than £200 per week had never used the internet, while the corresponding figures for those earning £600 and above is less than 1 per cent.

Less has been said about access to artistic freedom of expression among poor people in development terms. However, the Millennium Development Goal Achievement Fund has recognised access to culture and arts as a significant factor in combating poverty. A study by the European Commission also concluded that cultural activities can be instrumental in helping people overcome poverty and social exclusion, through “building skills and self-confidence” and “enhancing self-esteem and identity”. The same study stated the groups like the long-term unemployed and poor families are often excluded from access to and participation in arts and cultural activities. Barriers include basic costs, as well as the daily struggle of surviving leaving little spare time to participate in cultural activities.

This example cuts to the core of the problem. As explained above, poverty often means that you generally have fewer channels through which to communicate your interests on international, national or even local levels. While lack of freedom of expression is a violation of human rights in itself, this inability to raise your voice and speak for yourself can have devastating spill-over effects. As the UN Communication for Development UN Communication for Development  panel pointed out in 2004, “challenges of poverty alleviation (…) must be designed and implemented with active participation of the communities in question”. How can the programmes meant to help the poor hope to effectively do that, if the poor themselves do not have a say in them? The lack of participation in policies that affect them and their communities means poor people are made vulnerable to misguided policy-making misguided policy-making . Or, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights  put it in a recent statement: “Lack of participation in decision-making is thus a defining feature and cause of poverty, rather than just its consequence.” The outcome is that the people with potentially the most to gain from freedom of expression are the ones who lack the access to it.

The idea that freedom of expression can help lift people out of poverty is has been recognised in development circles for decades, often masked in less politically charged development jargon like “voice”, “empowerment” and “participation”. But action based on this idea has left much to be desired.  The Millennium Development Goals, widely recognised as the biggest global push to eradicate poverty, have thus far put very little focus on freedom of expression. The term isn’t included once in the MDG progress reports from 2005 to 2012.

However, there are reasons to be cautiously positive about recent progress on the matter. In 2012, the UN appointed a high-level panel to determine a new development agenda to take over from the MDGs when they “run out” in 2015. A number of actors involved in this process have signalled they would like an increased focus on human rights human rights, among other things calling for media freedom to be included in the agenda. The Institute of Development Studies also recently launched their Participate project which aims to “put cameras in the hands of the poor”, to have their own stories be part of the post-2015 development agenda. DFID, USAID and the Swedish government are launching Making All Voices Count, a project to help the global poor access new technology to help them participate in society and the political process.  These are important steps, but the momentum must be maintained.