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Thursday, 27 May 2010

Digital Surrey Wash-up(!) : a bit more on the 2 monsters and #deact

#debill on Twitpic
Am I really that immodest to sit here and write that my own talk on copyright and the Digital Economy Act at Digital Surrey was fascinating? But I don't mean my actual speech! I'm referring to other people's fascinating contributions.

(Image: my flag at the #debill protest, taken by @saronimo and linked to Twitpic original as per Ts & Cs)

During both the hosted Q&A debate and in smaller groups after the talk I finally got to hear balanced views from all sides.  People from the music industry attended.  As well as local performers there were songwriters, a producer/performer who's worked with household names and has a very impressive discography, a studio executive and at least one PR/promotional agent.

Two things were striking - even those broadly in favour of a clampdown to protect copyright online did not speak like Feargal Sharkey or Simon Cowell of an overriding need to protect the poor performers or songwriters who's money is being stolen, nor did anyone talk of protecting Britain's creative industries as if a UK Act of Parliament can solve a global problem and make the UK recording industry a worldwide leader.

These industry insiders avoided emotive language and spoke sincerely with intelligence and understanding of the internet and online culture (mashups, posting clips of favourite acts in concert, 3-year-old children at home dancing to Beyonce)

And they acknowledged there was a human rights problem with the Digital Economy Act. It's a law that will pursue and punish broadband subscribers - the people who pay the bill - not the actual person who broke the law by infringing copyright.  I argued that this was a cop-out, chasing the easy target rather than the actual law breaker, and quoted my own analogy, asking who would want to own a car (or at least let anyone else drive their car) if number plates were treated by the law as IP addresses are treated in the Digital Economy Act?

That's not to say that some, whilst acknowledging human rights issues, still believed the Digital Economy Act was on balance good because it sent out the right message.  I found myself nodding, and had to stop myself!  This was a lax moment probably due to the free drinks from our kind sponsor iBundle!!

I shouldn't have been nodding in agreement because I don't agree.  Or maybe I do, a bit.  I fully accept that some people will be forced to change their behaviour, at least in the short term, because of this act. But I can't accept that a bad law which overturns the presumption of innocence and circumvents due process is ever the right way to proceed; particularly here in this case to tackle what is essentially a minor civil offence.

Foremost I predict any behavioural change as a result of this act will be a short-term phenomenon, secondly it will do nothing at all to stop the hardcore infringers - criminals who make a profit from mass reproduction, and thirdly it will affect innocent net users like myself, who are currently able to visit any one of a dozen local pubs and cafes and work over a coffee using free broadband.

Several attendees disagreed with my last point.  They took my car number plate analogy and turned it back on me, arguing that just as people continue to break the speed limit, cafes will continue to offer free WiFi.  It will be a full year and then some before we know the answer to this (there are still a few legislative hoops such as a consultation with Ofcom that need to be cleared before the first disconnection; the shortest time-frame specified in the act is a year).

The act was described by the Earl of Errol in the House of Lords as a "dream for lawyers". I think small businesses, pubs and cafes with something to lose will adopt and over-cautious approach, not wanting to get dragged into a costly and lengthy legal battle to establish their innocence, so will lock their networks down.

Conversely larger organisations such as schools, libraries and university halls of residence will be drawn into costly legal disputes whilst students in shared houses will argue between themselves as no-one will want to have their name attached to the broadband subscription which the house will share.

Discussion in this area was dwarfed by another theme I was hearing from the industry insiders.  Yes there is too much money being spent by the industry that doesn't go to the artists and producers who actually make the music.

But the people making this point didn't see a solution.  They argued any company who attempted to trim promotion costs found their records were selling even fewer despite the theory of "community promoted music".  We should all be buying what we see our friends buying on Facebook etc, but - or so I'm told - we're not!

I can't remember the exact figure, but I was told how much it costs a music promoter in terms of advertising and "lobbying" (my word) to get a single onto radio playlists, and it was a staggering amount.

Here we have a classic Catch 22 - or rather several circular arguments spinning at 45rpm.  The industry is spending vast sums getting music played in public via radio whilst lobbying for laws preventing music being shared by the public on the internet.  Music consumers aren't prepared to pay a rather sizeable 79p per track, but it costs so much because of the cost of promoting and advertising a single. Online radio stations happy to play niche or specialist tracks can't affort to operate because of the size of royalties demanded by the collection agencies.

All this takes me back to the two monsters I described in my talk, the monster each side created in their campaign for and campaign against the #debill.  The monster created by those opposing the bill was a by-product of their lack of understanding for businesses whose revenue comes mostly from royalties and rights.

The anti-#debill protesters were poking the grizzly bears jealously guarding their existing business, the campaigners were sometimes using flawed arguments such as copyright in the UK is 300 years old and is therefore outdated and useless given the internet.  Whilst the jist of this argument may have the ring of truth it's exactly because copyright is so old that the concept is ingrained across nearly everything we do in modern society.

Another well-meaning but perhaps counter-productive flawed analogy came from Lord Whitty who in a house of Lords debate described the journey Allegri's Miserere mei took to reach the public domain.  Papal decree prevented the piece being performed outside the Vatican, Mozart took his ear along, recorded the performance in his head and went home to torrent it via stave and clef, the fashionable music-sharing method of the time.  The Pope instead of fighting to preserve exclusivity relented and allowed the piece to be performed in public.

Again the papal analogy is flawed because it deals only with a single instance with very limited scope.  Today much of our modern economy relies on protecting intellectual property rights of some description.  The "set it free" argument  belies the "good" effects of copyright in society.  Copyleft or Share Alike mechanisms such as the GPL public license which force users of many open source software packages to release any improvements they make back to the public for the benefit of all is enforced via existing copyright law.

Copyright is pervasive and simply arguing that it's irrelevant on the internet created a monster that, coupled with some questionable strategies and a far-reaching lack of understanding of the opposition ultimately lost the battle and saw the Digital Economy Act passed.

Okay that's a bit harsh since the final act that passed had lost much of its bite thanks to the various groups campaigning against.  Further good news came when the new coalition government signalled that dormant web censorship provisions designed to stop infringement via non peer-to-peer file transfers, e.g. web downloads, were unlikely to be activated by this government.  Watch this space!

But by and large the monster created by the campaign against the act has already been on the rampage, done its damage, been captured and tamed.

The same can't be said for the monster created by the coalition of interests arguing for the Digital Economy Act.  The monster is still feeding from a massive undercurrent of dissatisfaction not just from rights activists but the industry's own customers and also many of the artists and songwriters themselves.

The disconnect of understanding between the two camps extends both ways.  Many in the music industry don't understand the culture of sharing that started well before the internet.  Home taping didn't kill music, but most of us who were teenagers in the 1980's borrowed at least one LP record from a friend and recorded it onto a C90 cassette.  Or did a spot of high speed dubbing on a twin deck!

The assertion that schools should teach children to respect copyright is somewhat patronising from an industry which has stubbornly refused change or learn its own lessons.

Leaks like the Mollet memo and the disgraceful stitch-up between Conservative and Labour benches that saw the bill pass through the elected chamber in 3 days at the fag-end of a discredited parliament have left a bad feeling in the mouths of a much wider audience.

The uproar generated in the battle that the campaigners lost still resonates not only on Twitter but also in Parliament, as this Early Day Motion shows.

Those still fundamentally opposed to the act have had time to reflect and consider the wider picture and some of the big problems that still need addressing: what will a new revenue model look like for artists and performers? How can we transition to the new model whilst accommodating the legitimate interests of existing businesses?

Journalists like @thoroughlygood are contemplating the issues on both sides, as in his piece I linked earlier.  The Digtial Econmy Act can be nothing but a stop-gap measure but we're no closer now to a solution on how to build a modern developed economy which fundamentally relies on innovation as a saleable and exportable commodity.

Governments aim to provide stability and a degree of certainty for citizens, businesses and the economy and are unlikely to drive disruptive change without clear sight of where that change is heading.  People are now starting to address this.

And it's not just the music industry cultivating a monster.  Firmly in the spotlight is the technology industry and its problems with software patents, and also a more general principle unnnerving many - that large organisations can "own" simple basic ideas or protect their image and trademarks so aggressively that small independent providers who resell, service or enhance these trademarked products can't mention said trademarked product in search engine adverts.

Big businesses are doing what comes naturally - protecting their business by creating barriers of entry for newer [innovative] players.  But without digressing even further into the relationship between big business and government I'll have to leave it here again, unfinished and without answers as yet more food for thought.

@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The dangers of not having a written constitution

The Queen's Speech today announced the European Union Bill, which will guarantee a referendum before any future treaty handing powers to the European Union can be ratified by the UK.  It also included the Parliamentary Reform Bills, which include the somewhat controversial proposal that 55% of MPs must vote to dissolve parliament before an election can be called ahead of the new fixed 5-year term.

Apart from the fact I don't believe the 55% threshold for the dissolution of parliament to be controversial, as Iain Roberts agues this is not restricting an existing power of parliament, but removing a power from the Prime Minister - to ask the Queen to dissolve parliament - and handing that power to the parliament; there is a loophole in both these pieces of proposed legislation.

What's to stop any future government, or even this current government, repealing the European Union Bill and then ratifying a controversial treaty without a referendum?  In short: nothing.  There is even a small possibility that a majority in parliament could push through a law changing the dissolution threshold to 50.1% and following that, push to dissolve parliament and hold an election.

Both these scenarios arise due to the lack of a written constitution in the UK.  Constitutional matters are dealt with using the same process as primary legislation (ordinary law).  In countries where a written constitution exists, the political process involved in changing the constitution is necessarily more rigorous than passing primary legislation in order to prevent this type of scenario arising.

In the US, for example, a constitutional amendment must pass both houses by a two-thirds majority before being ratified by all of the states.

I'm left wondering whether the European Union Bill in particular is worth the parliamentary time needed to pass it.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Online privacy is not a myth, just do your homework and model human nature


A friend congratulated me after a recent talk I gave at Digital Surrey for being brave enough to talk and host a discussion about digital rights in a public forum.  It's a big amorphous subject with no clear answers; a subject about which everyone (in the industry at least) seems to have a strong opinion on one or more of the sub-topics: privacy and data protection, rights management, censorship etc.

My talk was on rights management, namely copyright protection and the Digital Economy Act, however online privacy is perhaps a subject which carries far more emotive overtones. Like with censorship, there are unavoidable links with extremely difficult and sensitive subjects such as child protection.  The "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" mantra is largely discredited, yet is often quoted without even a hint of irony.

A kind of Goodwin's Law for both privacy and internet censorship is that the discussion inevitably tends to the subject of child abuse.  But please I beg that this unsavoury premise does not become known as Firth's Law!  I'm probably not the first to make this parallel, and on the slim chance I am let's call it the law of disproportionate fear.  Speak out against censorship and people inevitably scrabble to find an example of why censorship is sometimes OK.  Argue for privacy rights and you can literally feel the question brewing, "what are you hiding?".

With that out of the way I can say I firmly believe privacy is as important today as it ever was, despite the internet and our love to share, be creative and show off.  It's important despite our disproportionate fear that those who crave privacy are up to no good.

Think of an embarrassing story you wouldn't mind sharing with your friends, or even broadcasting on Twitter or Facebook.  Your parents may or may not be following you on your social networks, but I'll bet most of us can find at least one example of a story they wouldn't mind sharing with friends down the pub but would be uncomfortable, mortified even, if our parents found out.

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides the right to privacy in home and family life.  It does so because it's widely acknowledged that privacy is an important side of human nature that we must respect.  Breaching a person's privacy can severely upset that individual.  Many victims of home burglaries speak of the anger they feel that someone has been through their private belongings. But what we each choose to cherish as private in our life differs from person to person, and from culture to culture.

Respecting an individual's privacy boils down to respecting that individual's choice.  This is no different on the internet than in the real world, but the internet introduces some new concepts, particularly trust and complexity.

In the physical world we have a well established principle of "home life".  There are things we chose to do behind closed doors despite the fact that doing the same thing in public would not be illegal. Obviously this preference varies from individual to individual.

One such common example is singing.  I love to sing in the shower, but I'm embarrassed to be overheard - even by my wife! Yet I'm a bit of an extrovert, so there's no logic to my discomfort of making a "tune" in public - apart from being crap at singing. But so are many other people, yet they're happy to warble away down the karaoke every Tuesday.

Society has evolved over thousands of years to provide structures to accommodate human emotion in this area; to respect our choice over what we do in public and what we do in private.  By and large we don't live in large communal halls without screens or doors to afford us a private space.  Some communities do, through necessity or choice, but a far larger proportion of the population chose privacy.

Furthermore social norms reflect a strong respect for privacy.  We don't like to intrude, we knock before entering, and we look away if we feel our presence may  prove embarrassing.

Of course there is no absolute right to privacy. Society has evolved to remove some of our rights, e.g. for public officials and celebrities choosing to live in the public eye - an important concept, a safeguard to prevent abuse of power for those who have a strong influence on the lives of others.  We also accept as a society our privacy might be invaded in the course of an investigation into a serious crime, although the definition of serious and the concept of private (e.g. contents of a mobile phone, home computer) are continually under review.

In contrast to the physical world, confusion reigns online.  There are no absolutes, no givens.  So some argue simply  privacy is a myth. Well, it probably is - if you confuse privacy with traceability.

Almost everything is traceable back to an individual unless one undertakes concerted measures to avoid detection.  Just like plotters throughout history, the people who really need privacy and to avoid traceability - the criminals - will find that privacy and non-traceability in one way or another.

And conversely the extroverts who crave publicity have in the internet found just that.  Those who, self included, are not perturbed - excited, in fact - by broadcasting and sharing information and ideas in the public arena are making the most of the opportunity.

But what then for the masses, the ordinary folk who see this pervasive and useful tool but remain too confused or afraid to embrace its potential?

In some respects it's not possible to build the concept of a "home life" central to Article 8 of the ECHR on the internet due mainly to the issue of trust.

Your physical home is a domain under your control (exclusively, or jointly with those you chose to live with).  Yet to build a private space on the internet over which you retain exclusive control is all but impossible.  It can be done, should one host one's own service and use encryption for all external communications, but it remains largely impractical.

But we shouldn't just accept this as a fait acompli and declare, as many seem to be suggesting, that all information posted online is public, is "fair game".  As humans, in Western culture at least, we choose to spend rather a lot of our free time indoors; in private.   Internet services offering social experiences should take note and reflect this.

We must not let the internet, or at least the interactive aspect of the internet in social media, become the sole preserve of the extroverts comfortable with living their entire lives in public and sharing their thoughts with absolute strangers.

I happen to love this aspect of the internet, hence why I write a blog and tweet. Over the years I've participated in numerous public mailing lists. I think ultimately the "extreme sharing" principle will be an incredibly positive force in our evolution.  It's already providing a rich data source that new applications are already tapping.

But this is a personal choice and we should not overlook the majority who want to exert closer control over their online image, the information they chose to share and the people they chose to share it with.

When such delicate psychological issues exist we must model software on society rather than expecting society to embrace our software. What we absolutely must not do is attempt to force society to comply with revenue models heavily reliant on exploiting the value of private data.

Service providers and ISPs must accept that they are custodians of our data, not owners. These companies must provide a foundation of trust on which people are able to build a digital home life.

Without this trust its clear that a digital equivalent of a home life cannot be built, and online privacy will indeed become a myth.  I hope that governments will act under Article 8 of the ECHR to ensure that ISPs and service providers contribute the building blocks - trusted communications and protected data storage - to allow a private digital home life to be built and function.

Once trust is established, a simple privacy model also needs to be defined.  A model whereby individuals can make a clear choice for any given online activity of where the activity is to be performed: in public, or in private.  Two choices, the former having a presumed right of access (e.g. being photographed walking down the street) and the latter where no right of access, by anyone, can be presumed; behind closed and locked doors.

I'm not just defining how "friends" or "followers" can access information; the concept runs far deeper. Information which the owner has deemed private for whatever reason should be protected from advertisers, even staff working for the service provider.  It should be encrypted in "the cloud" - all necessary steps should be taken to prevent accidental disclosure.  Systems must be designed with privacy in mind.  Law enforcement officials should not have access to private data without a warrant.  Private data should be treated in all cases as if it was locked inside a private residence.

And critically it is up to the individual and no-one else to decide what class (public or private) each piece of information belongs.  Information commissioners for various governments have struggled to define the concept of "personally identifiable information" for the purposes of data protection legislation.  This definition is largely unnecessary in a model which respects consumer choice. It is up to the information owner to decide whether any given piece of data is public or private.

That's not to say that private activities can't be shared, but the owner remains in full control; they send the invites, and act as doorman able to chuck out guests at any point.

Of course the nature of the internet introduces new problems or complexities that don't exist or are far easier to handle in the physical world. Will  your guests misbehave by capturing and re-broadcasting in public your private performances?  Such problems still need to be addressed by society, but social norms will be established, just like one knocks on a door before entering and doesn't film at a friend's house without permission.

If and only if the data owner remains in full control of the guest list can such problems be addressed.  Guests will not want to jeopardise a friendship from anti-social behaviour.  Once the data owner loses control of the guest list - keys to his or her digital home - the concept collapses.

Ultimately it's up to us as a society to choose whether we want to endorse the concept of a digital home life and consequently make available the necessary building blocks in terms of trust structures and, where needed, legislation to support them.

I see a clear business opportunity for any organisation wanting to put the individual back in control of the personal data they chose to share.  I'm optimistic that government intervention needed is minimal, namely to define when and how law enforcement can access one's digital home and extending the existing principles of data protection so that there's a clear commercial incentive to ensure custodians of our data act resposibly at all times.

I don't see an end to profiling of individuals by advertisers nor do I believe that returning control of personal data to the owner will be a death-knell for exciting new services which rely on personal information being shared.  I think over time individuals will become more comfortable living more of their life in public, just as we're now far less squeamish dealing with issues of sex, race or disability on prime-time TV.

There's a clear danger in rushing to persuade people to adopt a more public private life. Many will resist this change, and the backlash could stymie adoption and extend the normalisation period - the time society needs to adopt and adapt.

Advertisers will be free to build behavioural models on the data we chose to make public, and I predict the public proportion will increase over time.  There may still be restrictions imposed on analysing even public activities to prevent exploitation.  After all whilst it's not illegal to take a picture of a random stranger in public, it is not usually acceptable to exploit this person's image, e.g. to endorse a product or service, without clear permission.

Only by returning control of data back to the owner will we encourage those who currently don't feel comfortable sharing any information online to use these services and find their comfort zone at their own pace.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Heathland fire on military training ground near Deepcut


Fires currently rage across a "very large geographic area" on a military training ground near Deepcut, Surrey, although Surrey Fire and Rescue Service stress there's currently no threat to nearby property due to adequate fire-breaks around the perimeter of the training ground.

At times smoke could be seen in Farnborough approx 3 miles to the west.

11 fire appliances from 3 neighbouring stations are currently at the scene between Deepcut, Pirbright, Lightwater and West End.
A large amount of unexploded ordnance could be heard detonating every couple of seconds or so in the hour I spent on the heath.

The Territorial Army are at the scene to advise the fire brigade on safe routes through the site, although the current strategy is to protect the perimeter.

The site has been in use for "live fire" training for over 100 years.  A source at the scene told me a large amount of unexploded weaponry had built up on the range over time.


Below is a selection of photos I took at the scene, the full set is on our photo site.




For content re-licensing, image gallery and high-resolution images contact here. We always protect our copyright. Copyright (c) 2010 Dalton Firth Limited

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Time to stop blaming the Human Rights Act and get over our secrecy hang-ups

What a difference a new government makes. The front page of the Daily Mail was not screaming that Britain has gone soft on terrorists (... from its front page, at least...) despite alleged al-Qaeda terrorists yesterday winning their appeal against deportation to Pakistan (BBC news, video) owing to the risk they could be tortured or killed if returned to their home country.

According to the Guardian the court ruled the Pakistani students caused a 'serious threat' to national security.  But this court was a Special Immigration Appeals Court (Siac), which can hear some evidence in secret but only has the power to rule over immigration and deportation issues.

For me this case raises several extremely important issues, yet the muted response from the mainstream media has focussed on the obvious scapegoat - the Human Rights Act.

The country does find itself in a predicament which probably deserves to be front-page news.  This case highlights a loophole whereby dangerous people could escape unpunished, remaining free in society to plausibly try again.

But in this case the Human Rights Act is a herring redder than Bob Quick's face when he was embarrassingly snapped clutching clearly visible secret documents relating to this case.  This blunder accelerated the initial police action against the men appearing in front of Siac yesterday, and this fact is pertinent.

The glaringly obvious issue is whether deportation is ever a fitting "punishment" for individuals who allegedly pose a serious threat to national security having, allegedly, been involved in the preparation of a terrorist attack against the UK, planned and to be executed from within the UK.

One of the reasons often given for our war in Afghanistan was to prevent oversees terrorists using the country to plan and train for attacks against the UK.  The war continues, presumably the battle against the terrorists there is not yet won.  So it's a mystery to me why any government would want to deport seemingly dangerous individuals to a neighbouring country sharing a famously porous border with Afghanistan - the hotbed of international terrorist activity (as we're told).

Ok, it's not a mystery to me. I'm guessing the reason deportation was chosen over a UK criminal prosecution for terrorist offences is that some of the evidence against the men is secret.

Siac can hear evidence in secret in deportation cases for non-EU nationals.  The same evidence would not be admissible in secret to a UK criminal court.  Bob Quick's blunder could also play a role here, if the timing of police action against these men was brought forward, cutting-short covert evidence-gathering against the alleged plotters.

The reason UK criminal courts can't hear evidence in secret probably does lead us back to the Human Rights Act and related constitutional rights, but denying right to a fair trial where the defendant can test the evidence against them in a court of law open to public scrutiny is perhaps just as wrong as allowing a man or woman to be sent abroad to be tortured or killed.

True, imprisonment due to a miscarriage of justice is certainly preferable to torture for the individuals concerned in this kind of scenario, but subverting the legal system in this way is dangerous to society as a whole.

The issue at the heart of this and several related terrorist cases, including controversial control orders, is secrecy.  Secrecy, not the Human Rights Act, should now be under the microscope.

A short article on the One Show (BBC 1, 10th May) looked at Russian maps of the UK from the cold war era.  The maps drawn in the 60s, 70s and 80s by Russian cartographers based on intelligence and (presumably) spy plane and spy satellite photographs contained an extraordinary level of detail, especially in respect to key civilian and military sites.

Map expert John Davies of sovietmaps.com pinpointed one now defunct naval dockyard that was censored from contemporary Ordnance Survey maps of the same area.  The Russian intelligence maps showed not only the establishment's buildings in great detail, but also the connecting rail and service roads.

I use this example to highlight that information, methods, details etc. that we think must be kept secret from our enemies may already be known by our enemies.

I read another more modern example describing how a certain police force from an unnamed country failed to bring prosecutions against key drug dealers because they didn't want to disclose the methods used to link the multiple mobile phone SIM cards used by each of the individual dealers, only to find that drug dealers had already learned of this method and adopted further precautions.  But on the surface this sounded quite like a plot-line from The Wire so please treat this second example with caution.

In any case it's clear, to me at least, that instead of eroding rights to be treated fairly under the law with due legal process and protected from torture or death, we must instead examine our attitudes to secrecy, and whether much of the information our police and security services feel must be kept secret from open court really does need to remain secret.

And finally... Many cryptographers believe that public scrutiny of the algorithms used to encrypt data actually make the resulting encryption more secure.  At first this seems to defy logic - why should publishing a major component of the encryption "machinery" make the machinery more secure?  Surely as many details as possible should be kept secret?

First and  foremost public scrutiny allows weaknesses to be found.  Many encryption algorithms have lived a thankfully short life due to flaws being discovered early in the development cycle thanks to public consultation.  This consultation has prevented flawed algorithms being used to protect personal data and prevent e.g. electronic fraud.

Time and time again, researchers and hackers have shown that one doesn't always need access to the encryption algorithm to uncover flaws, but early publication of the algorithm does help the good guys minimise the possibility of such flaws being present in encryption used to protect important data.

Maybe the same argument could be used for opening up some of the secret methods used to tackle terrorists.  Legal and public scrutiny of evidence-gathering could eventually help ensure more terrorists are caught and successfully prosecuted.

Like the example of the Russian maps, our enemy may already have learned our methods and worked around them, isn't it worth considering that the secrecy is only helping the terrorists whilst threatening too harm our human rights?

A bit of background reading:
I read this from the BBC, detailing Britain's "murky record of official secrecy".  I think as a society we really must investigate why a culture of secrecy still prevails in the fight against extremists, and whether this secrecy helps or hinders the fight against terrorism.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Don't get ashed, get a shed!

Topical comedy banner signs from the shed shop off the Shepherd and Flock roundabout have become a local landmark:

Friday, 14 May 2010

Elected Mayor for Waverley?

An obscure act passed by the previous government, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, obliges all councils to reconsider their leadership arrangements and adopt one of two models.

Councils can choose between a "Strong Leader" and Cabinet or a Directly Elected Mayor and Cabinet. Waverley Borough Council will open a consultation this summer for people living in the borough (Farnham, Haslemere, Godalming and surrounding villages) and I thought I'd jump the gun with this, my first post on my new blog.

I'd love Waverley to choose an elected mayor for three reasons:
  1. The mayoral race and the mayorship could energise residents and encourage participation in local politics
  2. An elected mayor will not necessarily come from the same party as that which controls the council, leading to - dare I say it - consensus politics (this year's must-have political accessory)!
  3. The "chain of responsibility" is shortened. The council leader is responsible to the residents, so getting the residents to elect directly is surely preferable to the current model whereby the local councillors chose the leader
Someone once told me, and I can't vouch for the veracity of this statement, that people are more likely to write to the Prime Minister with their dissatisfaction of their local bin collection arrangements than they are to approach the council or local councillor.

Whether the previous statement is true or not, it highlights the shadow that central government casts over local government in many people's minds. Aside from a directly elected mayor, I'd like to see Waverley embrace social media and other internet tools to reinvigorate public participation in local politics.

As a first step, all council meetings and other public events should be webcast live. With services such as Ustream providing readily accessible and scalable infrastructure to deliver live content, this if done sensibly should cost the council no more than the price of a laptop and half-decent webcam.

This summer Waverley are also due to open a public consultation on their website.  My advice would be to view the Waverely website as only one of a range of tools the council can use to engage with residents.  Without mentioning the F-word (okay then, Facebook), there's Twitter and the rest of the blogosphere.

Any public consultation could start with Google (if you don't have Google, any good search engine will do).  A suitable web search will often return residents' feelings as embodied in their blog posts.  Of course for some subjects it won't be possible to search for local views without catching the national noise.  This is where social networks come into play.  Bloggers should be able to simply "@Waverely" and get their blog posts read and considered in any consultation.

Social media can be used to break-down the barriers to public participation whilst simultaneously increasing awareness of local issues.  Maybe one day people in the borough will care as much who the next mayor will be as the next Prime Minister!