On Twitter: @JamesFirth and @s_r_o_c (post feed)

Got a tip? tip@sroc.eu

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Do you really want our politicians to be honest?

Before we start, I have a confession to make.  I too made a covert recording of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.

I secretly recorded Vince Cable giving a lecture soon after he came to power because I wanted to accurately recall the details of his speech on Keynesian macroeconomics and fiscal stimuli.  What I didn't do is leak it to the press.

I like Vince.  This isn't a blind admiration of someone I've never met - liking someone, just because it's a cool thing to do.  I've met the man, shaken hands with him, and heard him speak passionately and intelligently on contemporary issues of global importance.

On top of that, he seems a genuinely warm and affable man.  Self-effacing and acutely aware of his own position; in the speech I mentioned above he joked how surprised his host must have been, having booked a Lib Dem spokesperson months ahead of a general election - to get a Secretary of State!

I wouldn't go so far as to claim St Vince of Cable is the antidote to everything I see wrong in modern politics; but he does, in the words of a cider brewer, make a refreshing change.  He has a PhD in Economics and had a career outside of politics and academia, making him well-qualified for the job.

So when I read what constitutes "headline news" this morning I began to wonder if Vince Cable had not already made the undercover reporters with recording gear for who they were, and carefully selected his message to express the position the Lib Dems find themselves in!

Okay - I'm joking. A bit.  But in truth what is so shocking about anything he's reported to have said?  Perhaps showing some underlying frustration?  But unless the Lib Dems step up and speak out the whole party risks being lost in the sea of blue.

UPDATE: 15:46 - I wrote this post before learning of the "war on Murdoch" comments...

Reading between the lines of his description of a "nuclear option" - the fact he thinks he has no "conventional weapons" to fight his ground might actually relate to the way the Lib Dems have chosen not to tackle the press before now, instead opting to portray unity with their coalition partners at all costs.

I mean, would the world have ended if a government minister had abstained on a vote on government policy (tuition fees)?  The political classes certainly think so.  WAKE UP!  Let's stop pretending we don't have a coalition government!!  The fees rise was a Tory policy.

The Lib Dems had already agreed in the coalition agreement document that their MPs could abstain if they didn't like the outcome of the Browne report.  The government would still have won the vote, even had every Lib Dem abstained, including Mr Cable!  No-one would need to resign.  The government wouldn't have collapsed.  Life would just goes on.

I'm reminded of another speech made towards the end of summer, in private, by a senior Lib Dem in government.  Part of the speech explored how the Lib Dems in government should deal with the press, given a very real fear that the press would exploit even the smallest perceived split.

My own view differs from that of the Minister.  Whilst some in the party feel that the Lib Dems need to bite their tongue and wait for the press to learn to live with a coalition, I feel the Lib Dems need to grab the press bulls by the horns or risk disappearing into oblivion.  The country must learn to live with a coalition of two parties, rather than paper over differences to maintain an allusion of perfect government.

Maintaining a unified front may appear to be in the country's interests.  After all, given these difficult economic times (TM), we need a strong and stable government!  But I feel another cliché is far more apt: if it doesn't kill [the coalition], it will make it stronger.

So how about this...  How about proving the government is strong enough to survive differences of opinion between the coalition partners?  Surely that's the best option long term for reassuring the British electorate and pacifying  the itchy markets?

After all, if we continue to paper over the cracks, we never know how serious a problem we're ignoring.  At least airing differences in public gets the electorate used to accepting and living with a style of government new to most in the UK, and provides some transparency of how the government we elected arrives at its decisions.


Wednesday, 15 December 2010

QE hit savers twice as hard and left a dangerous moral hazard

Caught at this angle with a very shallow depth of field the Queen on my ten pound note looks like she might be winking at me. Which is about right. With inflation staying stubbornly high and savings interest rates pitifully low, cash is becoming a joke.

The joke started a couple of years ago.  The banking crisis meant cash was in short supply, but instead of the banks raising money from savers by hiking interest rates on savings, they thought it better to take assistance from the government, in effect shafting us twice.

One: they take our taxes to fix their funding black hole
Two: they give us no interest (in real terms) for cash in our bank accounts.

Banks needed money, but weren't prepared to pay the ordinary folk for the privilege.  Instead they went the indirect route - via HMRC and the Treasury.

With inflation at around 3.3%, any savings account offering less than this in interest is losing you money for every day your money sits in the bank.  A quick check of my own reveals: 0.1% (current account), 0.4% ("savings" account), 1.1% (business "savings" account).

Of course it's losing you even more money if it's sat on the shelf at home, which brings me on to the rest of the joke.  This morning a headline caught my eye:

Investors told forget savings accounts, think of shares

And the punchline came a few hours later:

Spain debt downgrade threat sends Euro and stock markets lower

It's clearly not worth having cash at the moment, which undoubtedly is the intentional effect of the current policy.  Those with cash should in theory wake up to the reality that it's rapidly losing its value and do something with it, pronto.

But this simplistic view sidelines human nature.  In uncertain times we like what little rainy day money we have.

And the problem is compounded by a mass of personal debt.  In the UK we have mountain of this - in addition to government debt and corporate pension deficits - of around £1.45 trillion pounds.  That's over £24,000 per person (including children).

And whilst the banks are penalising savers with low interest rates as they take our taxes to support their lavish reward structure, they're not dropping rates of interest on borrowing.  I checked the rates offered to me on junk mail sent out by my banks and credit card companies over the last 2 months.  Every single offer is at least 2 percentage points higher than the last loan I took out (8.9%) over three years ago, when the Bank of England base rate was 5.5%.

The base rate is now 0.5%, but so I should expect to be paying around 3.9% on my borrowing, right?!

Ok, so let's say we get the hint and decide to get rid of our devaluing cash.  What should we do with it?  Shares are still risky.  Gold and previous metals are at historical highs - not a best time to buy.  We should be paying-off our debts, but many of us fear we may need quick access to cash in the near future, which seems to put otherwise rational people off this option.

And who's the real villain in the piece?  I'm becoming suspicious of Quantitative Easing (QE).

Since 2009 we've injected £200bn into the money supply system by "printing money" in a way that isn't officially classed as "printing money" because (a) no money is actually "printed" - but it does appear on the balance sheet(!); and, (b) so long as the government eventually pays-off the debts financed (via a circuitous route) by not printing money, the money can presumably be "unprinted", and everyone's none the wiser.

So really QE isn't printing money.  It's transferring a portion of government debt from bondholders and securing it against the pound.  If the debt isn't repaid, the pound takes the hit.

But the problem in reality is that QE has increased the money supply.  The net effect is the same as printing money.  Banks have hoarded much of the extra cash created by QE, which must be another nail in the coffin for savers. Banks don't need our cash.  Banks don't want our cash!

And the extra money freed by QE that didn't get hoarded?  I'm left wondering what effect the extra cash that did hit the "real" economy has had on the higher inflation we're seeing now.  The high inflation that's devaluing savers' cash and making life difficult for anyone living with pay freezes or even pay cuts and job losses.

Yes, I can see all this has been done with the right intentions.  The right intention being to stimulate the economy, get the money supply moving again and make life better for everyone.

But there comes a time when we have to face up to a couple of realities.  When we print more money, we create inflation, and inflation is a moral hazard.  Inflation penalises prudence and provides an out for indebted institutions.  And when we gift taxpayers cash to shore-up the balance sheets of the banks, we remove any incentive for those same banks to offer savers any reward for saving, again penalising prudence.


Friday, 10 December 2010

Violence is unacceptable, but it's up to the authorities to stem the dangerous cycle

Photo by Niel Cummings (License: CC-BY-SA)
Co-operation and good will, that's how we get by in 99.999% of our lives.  We don't live in an oppressive society governed by fear, violence and intimidation.

We don't have security services and police on every corner, and the majority of police don't routinely carry guns.  A good proportion of society support the police in their work.  It's beyond argument that police make our communities better, and consequently when required, most of us are co-operative and helpful to officers.

I won't say violent protest is never justified. Occasionally history has shown violence necessary in ending oppression.   However in the case under question there is no such justification.  Disliking laws passed by parliament in a reasonably democratic manner is no justification for hurling rocks at police, smashing public buildings and burning street furniture.  Besides, it's the tax payers who will foot the bill - an ironic point, in a demonstration essentially centred on public funding.

(I say reasonably democratic, as I acknowledge no democracy is perfect, but looking around the world I think we're in a pretty good shape).

But whatever the justification through misbehaviour of protesters, the police and authorities must take a step back and acknowledge their own role in exacerbating what could now descend into a destructive cycle of violence.

Many were critical of the police handling of the protest at the start of November, which also descended into violence when property was damaged at the headquarters of the Conservative party.  I however supported the police tactics.  Whilst it could be argued the police had failed in their aims to protect property, there were relatively few credible allegations on blogs and message boards of provocation or brutality from the police.

Furthermore, the wider community were rightly outraged by the violence and dangerous behaviour, symbolised by one protester putting lives seriously at risk by hurling a fire extinguisher off the roof of CCHQ.  The outrage lead to a media campaign to find the culprits.  The Twitterati, sometimes sceptical of mainstream media and authority alike, were happy to help distribute images of the wanted.

In short - the police lost the battle, but won the hearts and minds(!).

Skip forward to the next protest.  Police, eager to avoid criticisms levelled at them after the first demo, hit back.  Digging out the kettle  from the police armoury.  Obviously some commanders still believing that depriving ALL protesters - the non-violent majority as well as the violent minority - of their liberty is a top plan!

Kettling, coralling, containment; whatever you want to call it, is wrong on so many levels - not least of which shown by yesterday's destruction: it simply doesn't work.  It failed to protect property, and failed to prevent disorder spreading elsewhere.  Whilst massive police resource was deployed in parliament square, blocking exists and forming a cordon around the Supreme Court and busted doors to the treasury, disorder spread to Oxford street, and Charles and Camilla's car was attacked.

But yesterday's demo was notable for another reason.  I saw quite a lot of talk on twitter and blogs used by the protesters of tactics to avoid kettling.  A Google map was created so those using smart phones could share locations of police blockades to assist in what some called an attempt to "kettle the kettle" - to encircle the police encircling the protesters.

It is probably safe to say the kettling tactics deployed on the 24th November, when school children were detained for many hours, did a lot to stoke anger in an already volatile aggrieved section of society.

In short, in the second battle, the police appeared to win the day, but the protesters came back stronger.

I'm no expert in police tactics, but I'm vehemently opposed to mass detention except as a very last resort.  Surely police commanders should be encouraged to keep the protesters moving - round the streets in circles if necessary, allowing those bored to drop out, rather than confine many thousands of innocent peaceful protesters along with the violent minority.

I'm not denying violent disorder is an extremely serious situation.  The police are faced with a very difficult job.  But the long game is restoring order, and everyone at all ranks should remember that.  Despite the animals misbehaving, it might not be the best option to carry on prodding the already agitated beasts.

One can't help feel that kettling is being used not as a tactic of last resort but as a deterrent and a punishment.  To punish those who dare to protest, in an attempt to deter further protests.

I'm seriously concerned that repeated use of this tactic could lead to a downward spiral of violent protests.  There's already talk of a new protest against kettling.  And those showing an interest in such a protest come from a far wider cross-section of society than the student protests.

Another cause of public anger is of course the disgraceful horse charge against protesters.  A police spokeswoman justified this by claiming protesters didn't stick to the agreed route, and threw snooker balls and other objects at police. 

Again two wrongs don't make a right, and if the situation is to improve, someone has to take the moral high ground and refrain from retaliation.

The spin issued by senior officers from the Met just doesn't cut it.  What's an agreed route to a disorderly band of angry students?  Is our right to protest against the government limited to only what police agree to?  Of course it isn't.  Peaceful protest must be facilitated in all forms.

The police with helicopters at their disposal could surely have foreseen problems, and altered plans accordingly.  Plus it was somewhat inevitable that the protesters would focus on parliament square, since they tried - but mostly failed - to get there on the demo on the 30th November.

And, having been hit by a snooker ball in a pub riot in Halifax as a youngster, it's not fun.  But I wasn't wearing full armour - as nearly all the police I saw were.  And whilst this made a good headline, I can't imagine that many students thought to raid pool tables across the land for such missiles in advance of the demonstration. Maybe one or two were thrown - is this the extent of media training for senior officers?

Yesterday the police came under extreme provocation. They had a thankless task to complete. But I'm urging the police to take a rational approach.  To avoid kettles at all costs, as they only serve to increase anger and frustration.  To avoid charging with horses at protesters, as this is a serious risk to life and extremely cruel on the horses.  And to avoid spin in their attempts to justify their actions.

The tactics deployed yesterday only server to forment anger.  Retaliatory tactics will not help maintain long term order, as they destroy the co-operation and good will I mentioned earlier.  It is not a role of the police to punish those who break no law in their choice to protest peacefully by detaining them of their liberty for 8 hours.


Thursday, 9 December 2010

Lib Dems made a mistake signing the pledge, but voting against the fees increase will just make it worse

The Lib Dems are bearing the blunt of public anger as voters feel betrayed by a manifesto pledge to cut fees, and a separate NUS pledge signed by many candidates to oppose any increase in fees.

In my view the party made a massive mistake making such promises without first considering both the prospect of being in a coalition, and the likely content of the then-unreleased Browne review into higher education funding.

And I worry that opposing the fees increase in today's vote will make a bad situation worse.  There's over four years left to run in this coalition, and unfortunately coalition government is built around the currency of political capital.

I'm sure there are one or two Lib Dem policies that Conservative MPs feel they can't support.  If the Lib Dems waste all their capital now fighting this one battle, they put their entire influence in the coalition at risk.

For me the battle over university funding boils down to two questions: 1. are the proposals really that bad, given the circumstances? And 2. how difficult or complex would it be to undo them in any future government.

I hope the Lib Dem MPs will reluctantly support the vote today, and live to make a positive difference in the remaining 4 1/2 years of the coalition.  Some voters will have a long memory, and votes will be lost.  But the mistake has already been made.  Voting this bill down won't fix anything.  Supporting the bill will give the party chance to regain public support and confidence in the remainder of the parliament, as liberal policies are put into practice.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Fairness on Tax

Chasing alleged tax-dodgers (both corporations and individuals) seems a worthy cause, after all it's useful to stress paying one's fair share of tax is a key plank of social and corporate responsibility.

But I fear adverse publicity for a few alleged wrongdoers will do little to change corporate attitudes to tax, given the persistent undercurrent of corporate tax émigrés.

What the UK needs is a wholesale review of tax, with a focus on corporation tax and high net earners, as the current system clearly is doing very little to encourage global corporations to use the UK as a base, with many favouring EU countries with far preferable corporation tax rates such as Ireland, or principalities and dependencies such as Lichtenstein or Jersey.

Moreover the current system is unfair.

Firstly it's unfair to smaller businesses, who don't have the revenues to warrant investing in complex tax reduction practices that larger corporations can afford.  Consequently my own small business Dalton Firth Limited paid more corporation tax on 5-figure turnover in 2009 than it was reported that Google UK paid on £1.6bn of advertising revenues.

But I'm not begrudging Google this tax win!  Another unfair element to the UK's system of business-related taxes is the large variation in the total tax revenues generated by different business models, irrespective of the pre-[corporation]-tax profits made by these companies.

Despite vast differences in the amount the exchequer gathers from taxes such as employer's national insurance, VAT and the indirect taxes collected in income tax from their employees; each and every business is expected to comply with the same rules regarding corporation tax.

I'm not making a judgement, positive or negative, on how various organisations hitting the headlines recently choose to run their business, so lets take three generic businesses: a mobile phone operator, an investment bank and a large high street retailer.

Both the mobile phone operator and high street retailer will be generating positive VAT returns on goods and services sold, yet the investment bank is unlikely to generate much if any VAT.

Running a national network of stores requires a large workforce.  For example Tesco currently employs more than a quarter of a million people in the UK alone.  Furthermore the bulk of these employees are UK-based through necessity, so it's pretty safe to assume a retailer will provide a large amount to HMRC by way of national insurance contributions as well as - indirectly - income tax via its staff.

But for other corporations, staff costs as a percentage of turnover can be far less.  If our generic investment bank made use of overseas staff, e.g. to run call centres and internet services, they could further-reduce the amount to the UK exchequer by way of their employees.

On paper it's probably fair to tax profits with corporation tax, in addition to all other taxes.  But in practice given international competition for global corporate tax revenues it seems only logical that governments should look at the total benefit to the UK economy for each business before deciding the rate at which profits are taxed.

I can stomach paying more in corporation tax than a global megacorp, if that same megacorp is providing jobs and bringing other tangible benefits to the UK economy.  But I can't quite face the prospect of some other business with a reasonably high turnover and relatively low employee count finding clever ways to avoid paying taxes.

Only today the Telegraph reports that recently-acquired iconic British name Cadbury is considering a move to Switzerland in order to reduce its annual tax bill.  This can't be in the country's best interest.

Perhaps the government has to accept that corporation tax must come down across the board to restore our competitive advantage and level the playing field between businesses who chose to employ expensive tax consultants and those that do not.  

Obviously given the current deficit any reduction in corporation tax would have to be offset with an increase in other taxes, but the government must not do what is reported to be occurring: individual settlement deals with some companies, as this somewhat obviously sets a dangerous precedent that could lead to future allegations of favouritism and corruption.

We need a tax system that works fairly for all corporations - one that doesn't rely on intervention on a case-by-case basis to protect the overall interests of the economy, even though such interventions - if they are occurring - are almost certainly in our best interests.


Live-tweet tedium, but what else can one do?

My Twitter stats indicate a fair amount of churn in a week I live-tweeted from 2 events.  I lost some long-term followers, and friends are ribbing me about the impenetrable hashtag soup that was my tweet stream over the last few days.

Still, follower count is up and I made quite a few new contacts from these meetings.  Also, aside from Twitter and blogs there's no formal coverage of such events, so live tweeting is useful for those interested but unable to attend.

And the week also brought a couple of welcome compliments for my coverage, which got me thinking: is there a better way to do it?

I considered using a separate account, but I've tried - and mostly failed - to keep 2 accounts updated in the past, as it became rather cumbersome.  Overlap of the two streams gradually increased, and inevitably they became indistinguishable.  Plus I want to keep in touch with the new people I meet through such events and I don't want to partition my life: one life, one twitter! So no second stream.

The only other 2 options seem to be: (i) accept it, you can't please all of the tweeters, all of the time; or, (ii) limit my tweeting.  But option (ii) would amount to polish on what should be a free-flowing medium.  No point in turning the antidote to traditional media into... traditional media, by applying a heavy layer of spin and forethought into managing my twitter. 

I'm reminded of a couple of observations Antony Mayfield, author of Me and My Web Shadow, raised when he spoke at Digital Surrey last September.  The first: grow a thicker skin, and the second: social networks are human spaces ... which reward human behaviour.

I won't pretend lost followers doesn't bother me.  It does - a bit, especially when they're people I know from the "real world" (TM) - and I'm fascinated by the minutiae of the social web as part of my quest to understand emerging media.  So for now I think I just have to lump it - accept that you can't make a cliché without breaking a few eggs - and carry on as before, unless anyone's got a better suggestion?


Tuesday, 30 November 2010

BPI still entrenched in Digital Economy Act debate at DEAPPG

This afternoon's workshop session on the Digital Economy in the House of Commons was extremely useful, but the entrenchment of the BPI was still obvious.  (I'm not an impartial observer, so I would say that, wouldn't I; but this is after all my blog stating my views.)
Other people's take on this:
 - trefor.net
 - DEAPPG Blog
A fair amount of time was spent covering old ground, including, frustratingly, the legal liability and potential problems facing public intermediaries and other subscribers who allow third parties to share their internet access (such as schools, businesses, hotel owners, shared accommodation etc).  I say frustratingly because this was covered in depth earlier this month during a session at the British Library entitled Public Intermediaries and the Digital Economy Act  (blogged impartially here by @copyrightgirl).

During heated exchanges I noted I don't remember seeing the BPI turn up to listen or participate in the excellent detailed discussion at the British Library. Although I was corrected - a BPI representative did attend - I highlighted the absence of the BPI's main "attack dogs"!

I was however impressed with FAST's Julian Heathcote-Hobbins' balanced pleas when putting the case for [software] rights holders, reminding me in my enthusiastic opposition against the illiberal measures in the Act that there is still a problem to be solved - protection of intellectual property rights - and no-one has come up with a better solution.

I reminded the session of the disparity between various laws protecting rights holders, a problem which I believe makes it hard to educate young people on the subject as the mishmash of laws and regulations defy logic.  The writer of a book gets copyright protection for 70 years after his or her death, yet music performers get a flat 50 years' protection (soon likely to become 70 years) from the date of publication for recorded music.  Films follow similar rules to books, taking the death of the last remaining director to trigger the 70-year timer.

Disparity in protection

The protection afforded to copyright holders is far greater than that given to patent holders - a flat 20 years from application date - yet this doesn't seem to affect the pharmaceutical industry's willingness to invest in research and development, where the cost of developing a new drug is quoted in this article at $800m.

The $800m figure is far higher than the cost of even the most expensive feature films ($300m), yet the film industry gets around 5 times the length of protection.

Furthermore the 20-year timer on patents generally starts at the time the company needs to go public - the start of trials - yet a well-placed source in the industry tells me it can take 4-8 years to take a drug through the rigorous approvals process, meaning the drug is left with a mere 12-16 years of patent protection.

Of course the arguments are complex, and drugs are a completely different product to movies, but I think it's worth examining the discrepancy and highlighting that big pharma is still investing in new products despite the limited length of IP protection.

What is creativity, anyway?

Yes I understand that authors and performers have rights - rights to be rewarded and rights to control their work.  But there is symbiosis between performer and audience.  Without audience there is no publicity and no royalties.  And it's a complete fantasy to claim that without copyright protection new works would not be created.  Maybe the creative industry would die, and I concede that this is not desirable and that's why I'm not arguing against copyright as a concept, but in the absence of copyright I'm confident people would continue to express their creative talents and share them with others.

It's also worth remembering that most "new" creative works draw heavily on past culture, and as such owe a lot to past masters.  William Ralph Inge is credited with the quote "What is originality? Undetected plagiarism".  Personally I think this is rather extreme, as it undermines the creative input of each author or artist; but it's a sound bite that challenges the role of the author or artist as the sole input to their works.

Beatles -> Oasis.  Kate Bush -> Florence and the Machine.  Orson Welles -> Stanley Kubrick.  Each generation builds on past generations and there's a strong argument that music, films and books which both draw on past culture and become cultural icons themselves should at some point be returned to society and placed in the public domain.

The Digital Economy Bill is the answer to nothing.  It's costly, illiberal, infringes on civil rights, is probably unworkable and in my view will not go far in changing attitudes or behaviour of those infringing others' copyright.

Censorship threat

Calls for censorship of overseas websites that promote infringement are both dangerous and will be ineffective.  The question was asked how a measure could simultaneously infringe civil rights yet be ineffective.  In the case of web blocking most people with an urge to bypass firewalls with the aim of acquiring illicit content will be able to do so, rendering the control ineffective in its aim.  Yet any censorship system risks over-reach, as is reportedly the case in Australia, where politically-motivated blocking of gambling sites and Wikileaks was alleged.  

Anyone setting out to find illicit content can - given the current limits to technology - find easy ways to bypass the blocks, yet the law-abiding majority risk becoming the unwitting victims of politically-motivated censorship.

Copyright: the good and the ugly

Copyright laws are a mess, and this hampers both creativity (eg the complexity in clearing a "mash-up") and education.  The fact that it's still technically illegal in the UK to copy a CD onto a personal digital music player highlights the absurdity in existing laws.

But there is no better alternative to the Digital Economy Act, and like it or not most of our modern economy is reliant on intellectual property and our ability to protect such rights.

Personally I don't think there needs to be an alternative to the Digital Economy Act in order to continue to protect intellectual property.  The law as it stood prior to the DEA allows rights holder to take action, and the perceived threat from file sharing is overplayed.   In my view rights-holders should tolerate the majority of infringement online and focus their efforts on promoting legal services.

Competing with free

The question was asked: "how can a legitimate download service compete with free?"  I would advise the music industry learn lessons from the bottled water industry.  They somehow convince millions of us to shell out £1 for 500ml of drinking water, a product that's available essentially for free from all good taps.  Good marketing is the key to success, not bad law.

Furthermore most illegal download services are hard to use and unreliable.  Criminals have been known to add viruses to downloaded content, and virus risk aside the quality of downloaded tracks is variable.  I know how to get most stuff I want for free but I take both a practical and moral decision to only use legitimate services.


In my view the debate needs to move away from the Digital Economy Bill and focus on radically renewing the UK's 300-year-old copyright laws, making them fit for the digital era, before we start talking about oppressive regulation of the greatest invention of all time.


Sunday, 28 November 2010

Abi Titmuss turns-on Farnham!

This year the great showbiz lottery that spits out a celeb or two in the town's direction gifted Abi Titmuss (an "award winning" actress who shot to fame on the back of the John Leslie scandal 7 or 8 years ago) and Andrew Agnew (PC Plum from CBeebies Ballamory) to Farnham to "switch on" the Christmas lights.

Andrew and Abi are appearing in panto at the Anvil in Basingstoke, which is nice.

Andrew tried - and mostly failed - to whip up the crowd to sing a tune from the children's TV show whilst Abi looked pretty dressed in a Rode Dead Cat.

According to Farnham tradition, a countdown from ten commenced before both stars reached out to press an imaginary button atop a balsa box (which was wheeled on stage minutes earlier, contained no visible wires and was not installed by a competent electrician as per Part P of the Building Regulations) -- and Farnham's festive lights were lit!

The event was actually quite fun and extremely well attended.  Oh, and the award Abi Titmuss won? In 2007 she won a Fringe Report Award - Best West End Debut for her role in Two Way Mirror.  Top one!

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Gas Leak Gridlock in Farnham

Severe traffic congestion currently in Farnham (as of 08:45 25th Nov) is due to a gas leak on the corner of Union Road and South Street, next to the Darjeeling restaurant .  The right hand lane is closed and it's not possible to get onto Union Road from South Street.

Thanks to a tip from my twitter spies @knockbuckle @EmmaBandey @JHHYPNOTHERAPY and @AbigailH I went on a quick reconnaissance mission.  The worst affected routes are heading into Farnham town centre from the west along West Street, from the east along East Street (yes, the town does have imaginatively named streets) and there are also very long queues coming into town from the north down --- Castle Street.

The problem is not being helped by cars attempting (and executing rather badly) 3-point turns in the bottom half of South Street in the coned area pictured, holding up traffic who want to get to the bypass.  The official diversion takes drivers onto the bypass, down to the Coxbridge roundabout and back to South Street, so it's little wonder drivers want to avoid a 2.2 mile diversion.

The south of Farnham is relatively unaffected, with the normal queues but traffic moving relatively freely on the bypass.  The area around the station is no busier than usual at this hour - if anything it's a bit quieter.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Farnhamwood update!

Thanks to my fellow Farnhamite and twitter friend @neil_p and confirmation from IMDB (where Bourne Woods is listed as a filming location) it now looks certain the current film being shot in Farnham is Sherlock Holmes 2 (working title).

Neil reports in his tweet:
#farnham #farnhamwood news. SH2 signs spotted on A31 aka sherlock holmes 2. Jude Law spotted by mums in the Bourne Woods
Thanks Neil!


Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Public Intermediaries and the Digital Economy Act

Last night's session of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Digital Economy (DEAPPG) held at the British Library covered many of the problems public bodies are likely to face as the provisions of the Digital Economy Act designed to tackle copyright infringement are brought in over the next couple of years.

The most nauseating aspect of the Digital Economy Act for me is the responsibility shifted onto ISP subscribers (essentially, the person who pays the bill) for any copyright infringement that occurs via their internet connection.

To the layman this might make some sense - it's often impossible to trace infringement to the actual person copying the film or song, and we live in a civil society where someone must take responsibility, right?  Not quite, as I've explained in the past.

Obvious issues arise in any household with 3 or more occupants - notwithstanding the security of WiFi - and these problems are magnified many times over when considering larger organisations offering casual internet access to members of the public.

Intermediaries - organisations who are not ISPs but offer internet access to multiple persons; eg employers, schools, universities, libraries, café owners, etc will soon be forced to consider the consequences of what people do with this internet access.

During the session we heard a detailed summary of the legal uncertainties, technical challenges and likely costs (huge) that our schools, libraries, councils, universities and colleges must confront.  Refreshingly, the speakers were drawn from a wider pool than the internet and technology advocates I usually hear speak on the Digital Economy Act, yet the overriding message is the same: this is a badly-conceived retrograde piece of legislation.

The speakers were Ben White of Copyright for Knowledge, Marshall Mateer from the National Education Network, Mathew Dean, technology manager for the Association of Colleges, and Trefor Davies, CTO of Timico. The meeting was chaired by Eric Joyce MP - who's also the DEAPPG Chairman.

Frustratingly we were promised but didn't get an Ofcom speaker.  Ofcom being the body responsible for filling the copious blanks in the primary legislation,  I feel it would have been useful to get their take and have a representative listen to the numerous issues raised in this meeting.

Speaking first Ben White outlined the problem.  Multiple public bodies are often involved in providing internet services, complicating even the basic task of distributing infringement notification letters to the school or library responsible.  For example, the finance department of a local council might be listed as the bill payer for all local libraries. New systems and procedures might be needed just to distribute the notification to the library where the infringement occurred, without even considering the task of tracking the library user responsible and preventing repeat infringements.

Ben presented cost estimates for the additional technology overhead in Universities.  The estimates were provided by Copyright for Knowledge with a headline figure of £24m in equipment and software over the first 3 years, with an additional £32m if taking into account the cost of dealing with appeals.

It's worth noting some of the unintended consequences of the Digital Economy Act I see; such as the increased monitoring of internet use in public spaces, or the possibility that services will be restricted or even stopped altogether.

At a time when government is actively encouraging digital inclusion, does it at the same time want to be discouraging bodies from offering public internet access?

The Digital Economy Act unwittingly impinges on the whole spectrum of digital rights issues; from privacy, to universal access for essential internet services, and censorship of content on the grounds of copyright.

Marshall Mateer expanded the problem of layered responsibility in respect to the National Education Network (NEN).  NEN have created a nationwide high-bandwidth low-latency content delivery network for schools.  Several technical challenges were overcome to make NEN work reliably whilst providing facilities such as the "e-safeguarding" of children using the network.  Marshall's worry is by the time challenges created by the Digital Economy Act are solved, the technology will have moved on.

Children need educating about intellectual property rights rather than living their online life in the face of threats of disconnection or civil penalties.  Marshall described blocking and disconnection provisions as a barrier to learning, and also highlighted the large amount of copyrighted works used legally in schools under educational license, hinting at the complexities of challenging wrongful accusations of infringement for already-licensed material.

I raised a point in Q&A, without wanting to wheel out the "think of the children" card, I did just that: the primary concern for schools must be safeguarding their pupils online, protecting their privacy and preventing access to harmful content.  Why should schools be faced with the additional burden of policing their networks in order to stave-off the threat of disconnection or civil legal action for copyright infringement?

I put the above words in Marshall's mouth, but he did seem to agree with me in his closing statement.  Of course a term bandied around parliament during the limited debates on the Digital Economy Bill was blocking.  Schools, libraries etc would simply block "peer to peer" services and access to websites facilitating copyright infringement.

Several members of the panel dismissed blocking as both costly and ineffective.  Innovative school children made it their game to break through firewalls, and Trefor Davies reiterated the imperfection and expense of blocking.  He also touched on private intermediaries such as hotels, who would also be affected in similar ways to public bodies.

On the subject of blocking I raised the oft-forgotten good uses for peer-to-peer services that would be blocked along with the infringement.  Peer-to-peer is a hugely efficient and scalable technology for delivering large volumes of data to multiple users.  Many free Linux distributions are shipped this way - do we want to prevent school children from learning to install and use Linux in the computer labs?

Mathew Dean highlighted the massive legal risks all bodies face due to the incomplete definitions in the Act, not least of which being the legal status of public intermediaries: ISP? Subscriber? Something in between?

The chair mused on the amount of government machinery in terms of regulatory oversight that may be needed because of the Act, wondering if this was something a Conservative-led coalition would support in their quest to trim government.  I countered with the words of the Earl or Erroll, who said in the House of Lords (8th April 2010) the act would become "a dream for lawyers" since it would rely on inadequate definitions being tested in the courts, not government or regulatory oversight.  So no fat government then - just fat cat lawyers.

Legal costs from public bodies are ultimately met by the taxpayer, therefore a Conservative government promising small state should be aware that the incidental cost to the public purse could be large, and was not accounted for when the act was rushed through parliament at breakneck speed at the fag end of the last parliament.

UPDATE: It's probably worth capturing a comment from the audience representing a university, who described the work done recently to open up the institution's networks to accommodate the changing way that students use mobile devices. Her fear is that the Digital Economy Act will undo this move towards open networks and restrict how students use new devices to study.


For clarifications or corrections please contact editorial@slightlyrightofcentre.com

Monday, 8 November 2010

Caesar's Camp filming mystery, and an 8-tentacled clue

Following in the Farnhamwood vein a mystery is developing.  Yet another movie is being filmed on the outskirts of Farnham, this time on the military ground around the Caesar's Camp/Beacon Hill area just north of the A287 at the top of Folly Hill.

But there's mystery and confusion over what's being filmed. Judging by the amount of trucks, lights, cars and people on set it's certainly not a low budget indy film or TV production.

I spoke to three dog walkers, all of whom claim to have been told something slightly different by security guards.  One claimed it was a world war 2 film whilst the other a cold war film. The third said it was "The Ice Men or something to do with the cold".

Carrying a camera and having previously received threats and abuse from security guards at the film set in Bourne Wood (despite being on a public bridleway) I decided not to approach the guards - especially since I wasn't as sure about access rights to this land owned by the MOD.

But I did snap a clue - an 8-tentacled clue on this tank carrying a futuristic-looking laser weapon:
I'm not a huge action comic fan but I do know Dr Octopus AKA Dr Otto Gunther Octavius is a recurring villain in several Marvel Comics stories.

A quick search of IMDB revealed Captain America: The First Avenger is not only being filmed at the moment but lists Aldershot (as well as Bourne Woods) as filming locations.

That said, I did note the cast list didn't include the character Octavius/Dr Octopus.

A further search revealed another Marvel Comics movie currently in filming, X-Men: First Class.  UK filming locations are listed, including a wind tunnel in nearby Farnborough, but not Farnham, nor Aldershot, and there's no Octavius listed in this film either.

If you have any more info on this mystery please let me know via the comments below, or email editorial@slightlyrightofcentre.com

UPDATE 08/11 22:11 Thanks to comment from PaulH below, Octopus logo clearly visible in shot on IMDB from Captain America: http://www.imdb.com/media/rm1957070592/tt0458339

UPDATE 10/11 21:05 Seems the guards are telling people the film is called "Frostbite", which, according to this website, as actually the code name for the Captain America movie.


Audience monopoly: why net neutrality was yesterday's battle

Don't get me wrong, I support the principles of network neutrality; namely that information should be free to travel between end-points on the internet without the network carriers making a decision to allocate bandwidth to traffic they deem worthy - or financially lucrative.

But don't be fooled into thinking supporting network neutrality is about standing up for internet entrepreneur David against incumbent Goliaths of the technology world.

Fifteen years ago, sure. Ten years ago, maybe.  Ten years ago the internet was still dominated by the telcos and equipment manufacturers.   But the real service operators - not the ISPs but the companies providing services via the internet - were already on their unstoppable march to supremacy.

Whilst the established giants of the software world were figuring out what to do with the internet a new breed of tech companies started to colonise cyberspace.  Amazon.com formed in 1994 and launched in 1995.  A mere 15 years later and only two other retailers - Wal-Mart and Home Depot - were larger in terms of market capitalisation.

And the "old" guard of software manufacturers were quick to wake up to the challenge.  In terms of corporate size both Microsoft (3rd) and Apple (5th) beat Wal Mart - the world's biggest retailer - in in this year's FT Global 500 list of the worlds largest companies by market capitalisation and Google, although at number 30, is set to continue its climb up the rankings; its marcap at time of writing is over $50bn higher than quoted in the FT Global 500.  With Google at number 30 this year it's worth nothing that Apple shot 28 places - from 33rd in 2009.

By contrast (and excluding China mobile with its state-sponsored "selective capitalism") AT&T is the world's largest communications service provider, yet can only reach 24 in this year's global ranking (down 17 places from 7th in 2009) and Cisco as the world's largest telecom equipment manufacturer is 3 places below at 27.

Controlling the audience

So why do the dominant forces in the technology world like Google support network neutrality - equality for all data - when they already have the batting power to demand the bandwidth they need?

The answer lies in the way that the new gatekeepers control the audience.  A survey of US sites in March this year found that the top 10 most popular websites accounted for around 32% of all internet website visits.

In a survey of UK traffic in July this rises to 39%, with Facebook taking a staggering 16.7% of all page views.

Update 22-Nov-2010: Mashable report Facebook now accounts for a staggering 25% of all US page views.

Having a neutral internet that affords small websites and services equal priority simply doesn't bother the incumbents, they've already built their castles from which they control the audience share.

Take a look at the strategy of Facebook - the dominant site on the internet.  When a friend posts a YouTube or Vimeo video you don't have to leave Facebook to view that video.  In fact I'd say you're actively encouraged to view the video embedded in your stream. 

It's not just pictures, video and audio that Facebook want embedded in their service.  Facebook Markup Language (FBML), Facebook Social Plugins and a library of JavaScript routines allow developers to create websites that integrate within a Facebook profile or fan page.   A web user will soon never have to leave Facebook to do all their surfing.

The battle is for control of the audience, not the networks, yet the network operators hold a trump card that worries the giants.  ISPs could abuse their control over the data carried on their networks to force their subscribers into using their own "portal" services.

But that's only a small part of the story behind support for network neutrality.

There's more than one way to keep the little guy down

In parallel, tech companies are actively harvesting the products of the little guy deluded by dreams of online equality.  The giants have actively  transformed network neutrality from a threat into an opportunity.  Small-time developers are encouraged to develop products, services and apps that integrate with the offerings of Apple, Twitter, Facebook, etc. and get their own slice of the pie in terms of revenue or subsidiary traffic.

But this symbiosis is a very one-sided relationship.  Whether through onerous legal agreements, technology lock-outs or media clout there's no chance of the micro-organism ever growing into a problem for those at the top of the food chain.  Personally I'd think very carefully before investing in a company developing a product solely reliant on Facebook, Twitter or any other established service operator; there's only one of four possible outcomes:
  1. The product fails, you lose money, the service operator is unaffected
  2. The product succeeds, the service operator is impressed and buys you out before you become too powerful
  3. The product succeeds, you refuse a buy-out from the service operator, but they go on to develop their own version of the product and/or freeze you out via Ts & Cs, shutting you out in one way or another
  4. The service operator goes bust and everyone loses out
All of the risk is borne by the innovator, yet the rewards are effectively capped at the discretion of the parent organism.

The weapon of free
In fact the cynic within tells me the gold rush era of the internet is already coming to a close, and the days of rags to riches stories of internet entrepreneurs are limited - even if one avoids the pitfalls of working as a tiny parter to a giant.  Sure, the internet still has many millionaires to be made, but billionaires?  Not since the weapon of free was invented.

Contrary to the opinion of some the internet is not about free.  It's about mass markets and low margins, or reaching new audiences for niche markets: these are the territories for sustainable businesses, whilst free is the new anti-competitive weapon at the big companies' disposal.

Take the example of any web service available for free at the point of access.  These basically fall into three categories: (i) ad funded, (ii) promotional for other corporate offerings, eg a premium pay-for service ("freemium") or consultancy and customisation sold off the back of the free service; or (iii) torpedoes

I see very little difference to the possible outcomes for any new innovative web business launching a new product - the next big thing:
  1. The product fails, you lose money, the world continues
  2. The product succeeds, an existing web giant is impressed and buys you out before you become too powerful
  3. The product succeeds, you refuse a buy-out from a tech giant, but the giant goes on to develop their own free offering and/or freeze you out via Ts & Cs, abusing their market dominance to torpedo your own product
  4. A national regulator steps in - note: questions over jurisdiction in a global market
No wonder companies who have quickly become so very adept at harvesting the yield of the little guy are keen to support the cause of the little guy and back network neutrality.


Saturday, 6 November 2010


So the name doesn't quite have the ring of Hollywood, or the weather, but I've been constantly surprised by the popularity of Farnham and the surrounding areas as a filming location.

As I recently posted, Steven Spielberg himself was spotted on location in Bourne Woods whilst filming his current project War Horse.

IMDB lists 13 feature films using this location, many of them blockbusters including Gladiator, Children of Men and Robin Hood. In addition I heard mention that scenes from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have been shot in Bourne Woods.

But it's not just the big studios jetting in to capture the Surrey woodland and countryside for their worldwide releases.  There's this Marmite advert, with scenes shot down Castle Street, and also a raft of TV shows and smaller independent films have made use of the town.   Back in 1999 I bumped into Stephen Tomkinson (Damian Day from Drop the Dead Donkey) at the cash machine outside Barclays, and then saw him later that day with Robson Green filming a scene from Grafters at what's now the Disability Challengers centre on St James Avenue.

A couple of weeks ago I walked straight onto the set of The Death of Merlin, an independent feature-length contemporary thriller from the Farnham Film Company.  Not being part of the film world I was surprised there was such a company - and that it was formed 25 years ago!

For the price of a beer I agreed to be a background extra for the scene pictured here.   I've pencilled in a coffee with director Ian Lewis to find out more about his company and the film when he finally gets a moment when the hectic filming schedule concludes.

Discovering Farnham Film Company is just another example of the diversity of businesses in and around Farnham.  In my first Farnham Friday I wrote about Farnham Castle and their modern inter-cultural training business run from the ancient buildings, and in the coming weeks I'll be looking at a couple of high-tech businesses in the town.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The elastic jurisdiction

Many claim further legislation or regulation of the internet is not needed, perhaps citing principles of "digital Darwinism" (letting businesses, practices and procedures evolve online) or claiming the internet - whose origins lie in a mishmash of independently-owned networks (autonomous systems) - has done just fine building itself up until now.

I confess I agree - to a level. When governments legislate in the face of new advancements they often over-react, and sometimes attempt to assert centralised government control where it's not needed or warranted.  I write this with a strong belief that national governments will do a pretty crap job if they're left to draft and enact legislation through existing parliamentary structures.

But in a domain where the fittest - and largest - survive, who's left batting for the consumer? And importantly, who's funding the organisation batting for the consumer?

The domain is complex, and, like other complex areas lawmakers - MPs and civil servants - will be looking to outside guidance.  In the absence of an established, recognised and adequately funded policy research institution, the loudest voices heard will be those of the industry lobbyists defending the business models of their paymasters.

Given the number of stories I see inserted into the press about the threat from terrorists (real and cyber) using the internet to co-ordinate attacks, one can also assume there will be the loud voice of security apparatchiks claiming civil rights need to be sacrificed in the name of national protection.  

Even the Guardian inserted a scare element to an otherwise worthy story, claiming Chinese readers were "stealing" ebook downloads "loaned" from British libraries in order to "circumvent copyright laws".  Quite what relevance the Chinese link has - aside from it's one of the countries frequently mentioned in association with cyber terrorism - when most ebooks appear on file-sharing websites within hours of their release (sometimes even before their release) anyhow, entirely unconnected to loans from British libraries, is beyond me.

Playing to our inherent fears and insecurities is symptomatic of governments, organisations and media, especially when arguing for stricter controls - in this case over electronic media and digital copyright protection.

Stretching national boundaries

Putting fear, terrorism and copyright controls aside, we are now firmly in an era characterised by the fluidity of data, yet our laws still defer to national boundaries.

A case in point is the variation across nations in the strength and effectiveness of data protection laws.  All European countries have laws designed to protect the consumer when they hand personal and often sensitive data over to private companies.  EU law not only limits how this data can be shared with other companies, but also where in the world the data may be "exported" to or stored.

So-called "cloud computing" services, where the practicalities of managing physical servers, and indeed the geographic location of said servers and the data stored upon them, is delegated entirely to the service provider, bring unique data protection compliance issues for the data controller of any EU company putting customer data into "the cloud".

But what we see now is only the beginning of a problem that's about to get a lot more complex.

Today many companies apply the word "cloud" as a marketing ploy to tempt customers into using their server farms.  In reality they end up selling access to physical servers running standard operating systems, or a virtual server on a moderate-sized cluster sat in one physical location firmly inside one national jurisdiction, meaning customers with enough buying power are still able to specify where in the world their data resides.

But I believe at least one company - Google - has developed a genuine cloud computer.  Perhaps the world's first true globally-distributed "gigacomputer" (my tagline).  A processing fabric acting to all intents and purposes as a single computer would, but whose physical processing and storage is genuinely abstracted from the programmer or end user, and distributed around the world. 

In short Google's cloud offering, the App Engine, acts like no other computer on earth.  It takes a processing request, fires it off into the cloud where it will find its way somehow to an idling lump of silicon CPU somewhere in the world, process the request, and fire the response back to the end user.  From what I've learned so far, each request from a series of 10 issued by the same user may end up being processed in a different country, and similarly data stored in a database may end up distributed across a dozen national boundaries.

Naturally Google are coy about what they've actually developed to power their cloud-based services, but given my professional experience in this area I'm inclined to believe they may already have reached the computing holy grail of a near-infinitely scalable distributed computing fabric.

But if they have, it also follows that Google, as the operator, aside from choosing where to build its data centres, has very little - if any - control over where in the world data will end up being stored.  In fact it's most likely to be stored in several locations, simultaneously, as the traditional concepts of memory and [disk] storage blend together in a true cloud.

In the cloud, data is stored in enough places to overcome the likelihood of failure of the storage medium, whether that be dynamic memory, non-volatile memory or traditional hard disk.  Replication is increased in order to overcome bandwidth bottlenecks and storage is chosen by the fabric and within the fabric to maximise storage capacity whilst minimising latency (the time taken to access the data when needed).  That's all the programmer knows or indeed cares about when building services running in a true cloud, and the algorithms dictating storage are unlikely to take national boundaries into account.

That's not to say that Google aren't taking data protection and issues of jurisdiction extremely seriously.  A well-placed source outlined some of the technologies they were working on to make their global gigacomputer suitable for sensitive processing tasks.
"One of the things I talk about quite a lot is the need for data to be 'tagged' with metadata indicating how it should be handled - e.g. 'this is medical data that must be treated according to UK law'

"Any cloud infrastructure can then make appropriate decisions akin to how router move traffic according to type today.

"We're not there yet on an international standard for such a data taxonomy. I am told some industries (such as insurance) do have a good internal taxonomy but what we need is a true global cloud standard for the classification of data."

With issues of privacy, trust and data protection appearing higher than ever on the public and corporate agenda when (if it's not already with us) the world's first global computing fabric is launched, the concept of national boundaries will never have been less relevant in the digital domain, leaving one pertinent question: who ultimately is the responsible party - or government - in charge?

Funding the enemy

When a handful of private companies hold the reigns to the world's data, the issues are monumental and broad-ranging, covering free speech, censorship, copyright protection, sub judice as well as data protection and privacy.

Data protection itself extends to the vast amount of data incidentally generated daily by each of us, eg. each time we make a phone call or send a text our exact location is pinpointed and stored by our phone company for both legal compliance and - in at least one case - for soon-to-be-launched geographic advertising services.  Companies we chose to trust literally know where we are for most of our lives.

The new jurisdictional problems created by global services also extend into law-enforcement and national security, as the recent spats between national governments and the Canadian maker of the BlackBerry over access to encrypted private communications demonstrates.

Policy research and advocacy work is badly needed to ensure a balance is struck in the three-way mash of the interests of the consumer, the corporation and the nation, yet there's no clear answer as to how this can be funded to achieve a largely impartial and untainted outcome. 

Industry bodies such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau have raised related issues in an attempt to increase consumer confidence in the global market for personalised internet advertising, which ultimately relies on the trade of personal profiles - a list of interests and likes of individual net users - in order to display adverts relevant to their tastes.

Yet campaign groups tell me they're sceptical of such approaches, fearing groups like the IAB have opted for self-protection over self-regulation, and act as a body promoting the business interests of its members - the advertisers - and not the consumer.
The concept of funding ones enemy may be counter-intuitive.  Barmy even, to some organisations, who see digital rights activists as an unworthy and unnecessary distraction from the business of offering innovative new services that will improve our everyday lives (as well as monetising their digital offering whilst protecting more traditional revenue streams).

Yet some organisations do at least see the benefit in having a much-needed open and honest debate in public now, rather than burying their head whilst continuing in their own interest and hoping no-one notices.  They understand that delaying debate may actually be bad for business.  Whilst critical reports may dent consumer confidence in the short term they may lead to a stable environment for long-term growth.  Festering problems left untreated for too long may be difficult to tackle when they eventually manifest themselves as a debilitating disease.

But unilateral funding of policy research by any single organisation is a non-starter for two reasons.  It's a given that consumer confidence would likely remain unmoved by "research, funded by Microsoft, shows that Microsoft is brilliant at privacy and data protection." (Which of course they might actually be, so don't sue!)

A less publicised problem is the reluctance of a campaign organisation to accept money from potential adversaries.  Several have tried this approach, feeling more can be achieved working with an organisation that fighting against it.  But in at least one case the organisation's reputation was almost destroyed by media fall-out, and in another instance funding was abruptly pulled after it became clear the organisation in question was coming to some pretty damning conclusions.

Before anyone mentions government funding, let me cite (i) the budget deficit; and, (ii) the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs.  The former is self-explanatory and the latter, a government-funded policy body, was recently torn apart by political interference, culminating in the sacking of Professor David Nutt.  And yes, there is significant political interest in controlling the debate on internet regulation, just as there is for drugs policy.

But a gap needs plugging.  Research budgets are under severe pressure and, in the UK especially, digital rights organisations are woefully underfunded.  They couldn't for example afford to fight a high profile court case against a large corporation or government department, as equivalent US-based organisations such as the EFF or ACLU have done on many occasions.

And the situation in the UK may be about to get even worse with the announced closure of statutory consumer body Consumer Focus, who in the past has fought some important privacy and data protection cases against major ISPs on behalf of consumers.

I see the answer in a digital council funded wholly or in part by global technology companies, but with a mandate and structure that helps to eliminate interference by its backers.  Easier said than done, you might think.  But with privacy and digital rights high on many corporate agendas, funding the enemy may be seen as the least-worst option, given the noises emanating from national governments, and in particular, the hard-line coming from the European Commission.


Friday, 29 October 2010

Ungrump: Well done Southern Gas Networks

Credit where credit's due. Station Hill in Farnham was re-opened yesterday afternoon, a full 3 days ahead of schedule. Also traffic disruption during the works was far less than I'd feared, mainly because Approach Road to the north of the railway station was kept open (despite this map indicating it may be closed).

In my defence I did in my original post make heavy use of qualifiers and disclaimers but I'll hold my hands up and say yey! And thank God the disruption wasn't as bad as I'd feared whilst congratulating Southern Gas Networks for finishing ahead of schedule.


Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Should we be planning now for the immininent arrival of robot slaves?

Hattie Tinfoil reports:

Are we all agreed that the human race will eventually develop robot servants?

Now, we already have robots in factories doing jobs which would in times past have been done by people, we have domestic help in the form of robot vacuum cleaners (I want one of those purely to freak the cats out) and automated control of devices ranging from jet airliners to tunnel boring machines. 

But by “robot servants” I mean something a bit more versatile. Robots which can identify broken equipment in a workplace, diagnose it, grab a tool and fix it.  Or perhaps a robot which can help in the house by doing our laundry from laundry bin, to washing machine, to ironing board, back to cupboard.

Assuming we don’t nuke the place and let the apes take over, such robots are on the way at some point, right? Good. Because I believe in them - they're mankind's hope for a better future. If we have free labour, the possibilities are huge and not just because we won’t have to pick our own socks up any more

The cost of everything will drop through the floor because, for a reasonable one-off cost, any manufacturer will be able to replace their meatbag employees with cost-free, trouble-free, 24-hour labour. Mining and refining materials, assembling the goodies and loading them on a train will all be virtually free - will we be paying for anything other than mineral rights and cool design? Well, yes, we will also still be paying for manufacturers’ advertising budgets.

Of course, employees (aka meatbags) who work in these jobs in today’s world will be less keen on customers’ "savings" - which will of course be their "disappearing income". But let’s not lose sight of the big picture. All through the ages, history is full of jobs becoming, ahem, history, as efficiency improvements reduced human labour. Each time, there’s a short-term cost of lay-offs but in the long term unemployment levels have stayed remarkably reasonable.

And just look how good it’s been to us (in the first world, at least) - even today’s jobless are more comfortable, more healthy, live longer and have fancier toys than the wealthy merchants of 200 years ago. A quick search on eBay shows that, in 2010, £14 can get you a 4GB mp3 player - I bet the Luddites who smashed the machines never saw that one coming.

So, since we’re going to have a robot slave army, let’s plan how to deploy our troops. Since manufacture will be much cheaper than mining rights or land (because they’re limited by nature), solar power will become a financially attractive power source to the great benefit of the environment.

Sunny countries - including most of the developing world - will find they have a natural energy resource. It’s unlikely to become precious like oil or coal, but combined with diminished costs, it should lead to infrastructure (roads, electricity, irrigation, communication networks) in Africa, India and so on blossoming at an impressive rate.

The future’s so bright, I’ve gotta wear shades. Fortunately the shades were made by robots and so are very reasonably priced.

Hattie Tinfoil is a guest writer on slightlyrightofcentre.com

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Scrap the Interception Modernisation Programme? Of course, Minister, but first you really should read this...

Coalition agreement document, page 6, section 10 (bullet 11):
- Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason
I imagine a scene straight out of Yes Minister as the new Home Secretary Theresa May stretched her legs under her new desk at 2 Marsham Street.
"Of course Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg were very right to include this noble statement in their agreement; but you see, Minister, there is very good reason why we need to store all internet and email records..."
But this isn't a gripe at the traditions and balances of power within the Great Offices of State but at the hoards of consultants advising the civil servants who in turn advise the ministers and secretaries of state about what needs to be done to reign-in control over information in the information age.

And at the naivety of the Liberal Democrats for allowing "without good reason" - what must be the most flexible Get out of Jail Free card since PC Simon Harwood probably quite literally kept out of jail by avoiding criminal charges over the death of Ian Tomlinson.

The IMP is nothing more than a fig leaf - an attempt by those in power to be seen to be doing something to stop the bad guys.

It's kind of like having a life jacket under your aeroplane seat at 38,000 feet yet no parachute.  Yes it could be useful, if we make it down to sea level in one piece.   Except having a life jacket under every seat costs relatively little and harms no-one.  May as well have one there as not.

Anyone who believes that storing petabytes of  data is going to make the country safer and have no tangible impact on civil rights is misguided.  Terrorists and serious criminals will change-up their game.  The early casualties are likely to be innocent net users wrongly accused of serious crimes, the ISPs shouldering the huge technology costs, and households paying far more for their broadband.

Oh, and the taxpayers - with an estimated bill likely to exceed the £2bn already slated.

The only possible winners here are the technology consultants and equipment manufacturers.

I'd like to bet money on four outcomes:
1.) A stable of consultants from the big accountancy and IT firms have already made substantial sums advising various government departments, charging fees reportedly topping £3000 per day for senior partners
2.) The same firms and consultants will continue to rake in huge sums
3.) The IMP plans eventually prove to be infeasible, mainly due to (i) a shift towards encryption as standard for oversees websites outside UK jurisdiction and (ii) the huge cost burden about to be placed on ISPs
4.) The public never gets to hear a compellingly "good reason."

The Consultant's Trap

The biggest problem I have with consultants is the inherent conflict of interest.  They're hired to make the will of department heads and senior policy advisers seem feasible.  A bloody-minded old fool convinces him- or herself that something is a good thing, therefore it must happen. 

Only the greenest of naive (albeit honest) consultants would turn up and explain to said bloody-minded old fool that they can't have what they want, and expect to invoice anything more than half a day's fees.

Better take the work whilst you can get it, and start sketching-out the cutting pattern for the Emperor's brand new cloak.

Over the last couple of days I've been too annoyed about this broken promise to write on the IMP - until now.  Expect much more to follow!