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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Trials by Virgin Media of copyright tracking CView delayed

EXCLUSIVE: Virgin Media has delayed its plans for a "full public trial" of controversial copyright-infringement monitoring technology CView.

CView is a monitoring system created by Detica, a subsidiary of the defence, security and aerospace company BAE, which uses deep packet inspection (DPI) technology that the makers claim can detect whenever certain copyrighted works, such as music, are being shared on a computer network.

Virgin Media and Detica both claim that no personal information is gathered or stored, and that the system would be used solely to monitor the extent of illegal file-sharing on their network.

A Virgin Media spokesperson told me this morning that the situation was complicated, and that Virgin Media (as with all ISPs) has to take into account the current legislatory framework as well as striking an appropriate balance between copyright holders and their customer's needs.

The spokesperson would not be drawn on the future, explaining that Virgin Media's initial decision to trial the technology stemmed from a proactive approach in fulfilling the ISP's likely obligation in the then embryonic Digital Economy Bill.  Even though the Bill passed into law in April, many aspects of the implementation are yet to be defined by Ofcom and subject parliamentary review, leaving a great deal of uncertainty for ISPs.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group spoke last night at an open session of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Digital Economy to express concerns about the likely privacy impact of large-scale surveillance and evidence gathering by private organisations required to detect infringement and drive the provisions in the Digital Economy Act.  The measures required to detect and prevent infringement are seen by many as disproportionate to tackle what is in effect a minor civil offence.

The use of CView and other similar technology is hugely controversial:- privacy and rights campaigners and some academics and legal commentators argue that such systems could fall foul of one or more laws, including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.

As I've commented in previous posts, large-scale copyright infringement is a huge problem across many industries; from music to books, films and software and there are no clear answers to the basic problem that it is nearly impossible using current technologies - at least without impinging Articles 8 and 10 of the ECHR - to identify beyond reasonable doubt specific individuals responsible for the infringement.

I strongly believe mass surveillance is not the answer, but there is now strong entrenchment in all sides of this debate and it's easy to see that progress could be hampered by the hostility which is clearly visible between certain individuals in opposing camps.

But my 20-minute interview with Virgin Media this morning gave cause for optimism as the spokesperson was extremely well informed and knowledgeable about both the detailed technology and the legal and rights issues, indicating the seriousness with which such issues are now taken and perhaps acknowledging many of the concerns I and others have been raising over the last 3 years.

I was left with the strong impression that Virgin Media are working very hard to strike an appropriate balance, although I of course note that I was talking to a public relations professional whose job centres around selling a positive image!

I'm still concerned that Virgin Media and many other ISPs including British Telecom (BT) in their trial of the Phorm advertising system haven't seemed in the past to share my view that my communications data is mine and mine alone.  It's my private data, not a large resource available to be mined by the music industry and/or sold to advertisers.

But I'm encouraged when ISPs are willing to enter into discussions and attend meetings as Virgin Media and at least one other large service provider did at Westminster last night, and  I'm optimistic that open sessions will give those who work in the tech industry like myself, as well as rights campaigners and bloggers (like myself), a chance to explain the problems we see with the current legislation.

The Digital Economy Act came into existence at least partly because of the sheer simplicity of the argument by rights holders.  People were disregarding the law - and it was costing the creative industry money.

I don't dispute this argument - that online infringement has in all likelihood lead to lost revenues from sales of traditional media, but I do believe the Act is a deeply-flawed piece of legislation.

But the arguments against the Digital Economy Act are about as complicated as any legilator has to deal with.  They cover complex legal areas, including European law; the ever-evolving capabilities of internet technology as well as philosophical and moral arguments on privacy, freedom of expression and proportionality of justice.

With such a richly-textured opposing viewpoint it's little wonder that those campaigning against the Act have so far had reasonably little success persuading those who originally supported it to change their mind, leading to the inevitable frustrations expressed so succinctly online (and usually directed at key figures within the BPI and UK Music, to name two institutions).

Clearly the only way forward is for all sides to engage with each other.  And in addition I'd also like to see institutions like the BPI engaging directly with technical experts from e.g. the Open Rights Group before demanding action from MPs.

I'd also like to see the BPI - a body representing the music industry - to involve recognised technical experts when they approach institutions like the British Library, universities and colleges to offer guidance on the kind of measures which might be needed to meet these institutions' obligations under the Digital Economy Act.


Friday, 9 July 2010

Austerity and the economics of populism

Governments can be accused of cynicism when for example they mask sweeping tax rises with popular sweeteners to keep certain key voters happy.

Famously there's no money left,  but cash isn't the only currency of government.

On the surface the Coalition's willingness to get behind Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems' freedom agenda could be seen as part of the Lib/Con compromise deal.  Plus it shouldn't  be a surprise to see a Conservative government wanting to cut the bureaucratic burden in order to shrink the size of the state and ultimately lower taxes.

But there could be another driver for the Freedom agenda and it's linked to austerity.  Scrapping unpopular laws and business regulations can serve to improve national morale (and government popularity) at a time when spending cuts and tax rises threaten strikes and wider civil disobedience as seen in Greece.

If the intentions signalled by government are driven by a need to rebalance national morale, should this be viewed as a shrewd or cynical move by the Coalition?

I'm confident that some rebalancing of civil liberties was overdue despite the great recession due to the assault on freedoms during the second half of the Labour government - I'm not trying to make a party-political point here, I support many of the earlier laws passed by the Blair government, including Freedom of Information and minimum wage.

But populism does have a price, and I see the implementation of populist policies as analogous to borrowing money, in that many unpopular policies are actually driven by long-term goals: short-term pain bearing long-term gain.

Take for example the scrapping of plans to build additional runways at London airports.  For many years travellers to or from Heathrow Airport have faced delayed takeoffs and queues (stacking) prior to landing when travelling at peak times (early morning and early evening).

Personally I'm hopeful demand for air travel can be curbed.  I'm painfully aware of the environmental impact, carbon emissions and problems with oil security.

Yet I think Heathrow probably needed a third runway even if the number of flights was to remain constant.  This could even be a "green" measure to save fuel wasted when planes are stacked waiting to land.  Queues and delays are exacerbated in extreme weather such as fog, when additional time is allowed between each aircraft using the runway.

But what if demand for flights into and out of London increases, and the UK starts to lose business because of the hassle and cost of flying in and out of the country?

Even seemingly simple cases such as the recently announced postponement of the switch-over to digital radio (DAB) and the hugely unpopular closure of all FM radio stations comes at a price.  The introduction of digital radio in the UK has in my opinion been a complete shambles, but that doesn't necessarily mean that leaving the system in limbo for a few more years is good for the broadcasting industry and the country as a whole in the long term.

Listeners have been let down by the failure of the UKs digital radio strategy but will continue to be let down whilst the long-overdue introduction of new technology is delayed.

Many parts of the UK would benefit from an increased diversity of radio stations.  Digital broadcast radio in some form is probably the best way to achieve this to meet all existing demand (e.g. in cars, out walking, at home, on building sites...).  The FM impending switch-off would at least have served as a catalyst for the government and broadcasters to sort out the system or face outright revolt!

I'm supportive of the Freedom agenda, I want to see rights at the centre of government policy, and I'm even quite pleased that additional runways and the FM switch-off are early casualties of the Coalition government.

But broadly speaking populist policies of now can impact future prosperity, so in that respect courting popular opinion now is building a debt that needs repaying at some stage in the future.


Tuesday, 6 July 2010

My Picks from Your Freedom

Last week Nick Clegg launched the Your Freedom website as a forum for the public to suggest how the law could be changed to restore and protect civil liberties, reduce state intrusion and cut some of the red tape associated with running a business.

Jump straight to my top 5 suggestions from the site

Whether or not you believe the site will have any impact on government decision making - personally I'm optimistic - the site has received a substantial number of ideas since the launch 5 days ago.

I like the simple "go do it" approach, and the website itself is most definitely fit for purpose.  It's simple in operation, obviously (well, hopefully) hasn't had an obscene amount of taxpayer money thrown at it, is fast to load and registration is extremely simple. 

Importantly, the site operates as a proper forum.

Unlike the e-petitions section on the Number 10 website, there's no pre-moderation of submissions.  Shock/horror! This is a government website where the government has not attempted to control proceedings but instead embrace the power of user-created content.

One of the weaker points of the site is the number of duplicate suggestions, caused by the simple structure and lack of pre-moderation I trumpeted earlier(!) - the onus is on the submitter to use the site's adequate search feature and tag cloud to research other similar entries before creating a new one.  This isn't ideal but on balance is probably an acceptable compromise (I don't want to see pre-moderation and I certainly don't want to see large amounts of government cash thrown into solving a minor problem).

The problem of duplicates is exacerbated by the conceptual overlap between two of the categories: restoring civil liberties and repeal unnecessary laws.  In many cases repealing an unnecessary law also has a positive impact on civil liberties and so, at the time of writing, requests to repeal the Digital Economy Act 2010 appear multiple times under each category.

I'm hopeful that the problem of duplicates can be mitigated when the results are analysed using either simple keyword matching or more sophisticated semantic analysis to pool the votes for near-identical proposals.

Here's my top 5  from the proposals made to date, feel free to vote for any you agree with in order to bolster support!

1. Repeal the Digital Economy Bill (sic, should be Act)
 - I've written enough about this already!

2. End IR35 
 - Unfair legislation that affects small businesses and, in all likelihood, costs more to administer and enforce by HMRC than it yields in tax revenues and adds to red tape and running costs for independent consultants like me.

3. Fix the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA)
 - I've linked to search results rather than a specific idea because there are several ideas to fix this monster problem.  RIPA was intended to regulate police and other authorities' powers to use intrusive surveillance.  It succeeded the Interception of Communications Act 1985 but also attempted to regulate even basic close surveillance of suspects in a public place.  Furthermore it introduced an extremely illiberal and intrusive crime of failure to disclose encryption keys, which could lead to a severe miscarriage of justice for IT professionals like myself who dabble with encryption techniques on behalf of clients then forget that we've even created an encrypted volume, never mind log and retain the keys.

The problems with this act are fourfold: it gives police powers to access some private communications data without a warrant, it required councils and other bodies to file unnecessary paperwork when undertaking surveillance in a public place (eg. to prevent dog fouling), it gives elevated powers to councils to access private communications, a power that should in my mind be reserved for the police, and it is not fit for purpose in the digital age since the sections dealing with interception of electronic communications do not specifically define how to handle internet communications such as IP packets.

In summary, the whole act needs replacing.

4. Repeal s57 of the Finance Act 2010 which allows opening of postal mail without a warrant
- A powerful change to the law was made in the rush to pass the Finance Bill at the fag-end of the last parliament.  Section 57 of the Finance Act 2010 amends the Postal Services Act 2000 to allow post to be opened without a warrant and without the presence of the recipient.

To hide such a wide-ranging change to the law in the budget and to rush through parliament during the wash-up I see is itself an affront to our parliamentary democracy.

5. Scrap the P11D return of benefits and expenses form 
 - If you're involved with the running of a company and know about P11d forms, you'd probably agree with me that this crazy bit of red tape, which was an attempt to stop expenses being used as a way of avoiding tax, represents a large burden on small businesses and, like IR35 legislation above, I feel represents a penny-pinching bureaucratic burden on small businesses and probably yields very little in way of increased tax revenues.