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

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Monday, 19 December 2011

Don't let SOPA ruin Christmas

So much has been written about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that I'm not writing any more.  Use your favourite search engine or listen to the interview I did with Cathy Gellis on the Pod Delusion last month.

The important message here is don't let SOPA, music or film industry lobbyists ruin Christmas.

Yes, the threat to an open and democratic internet is very real.  But the reality also is, unless you intend to stand on the steps of Congress with a banner on Wednesday or register your opposition to the bill with your representative there's very little else can be done at this relatively early stage.

The SOPA bill still has a long way to go.  After the House Judiciary Committee it needs to then go for a full vote.  After that, it needs to pass to the Senate and scrutiny of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and then a full Senate vote.  Then it needs to be signed by the President.

Yes, it could all happen very fast, but there will be some time for opposition to grow and mature.  Allies are emerging, like Senator Ron Wyden, who re-stated his intention to filibuster (delay) the passage of SOPA and its Senate counterpart PIPA.  Large tech companies like Wikipedia, Google and Facebook have raised concerns.

In some respects the rights holders have shot themselves in the foot by starting two separate bills in different houses of congress.  The Protect IP Act (PIPA) needs to pass from the Senate to the House of Representatives, and SOPA the other way.  Double the process, double the noise and, hopefully, double the opposition.

In the UK, similar provisions might make their way into the Communications Bill, and there's also apparently a second bill of interest that might be called the Communications Capability Bill, which will attempt to install monitoring and pinch points, maybe even an internet Kill Switch, into the UK infrastructure.

There's also ongoing attempts to block Newzbin on more ISPs, and get more sites blocked under Section 97A of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (under-the-radar censorship provisions pushed in by Statutory Instrument without the scrutiny of a full Parliamentary Bill back in 2003).

But seriously, all this will happen in the new year.  There's only so much can be done when campaigning for sanity in digital policy making on either side of the Atlantic, and there is nothing to be gained from getting too upset about events outside your direct control when you could be enjoying a beer and some turkey.

So, bar a major development this will be my last post till 2012.  Let's hope, as the days start to get longer, the light will dawn on the lawmakers ignorant of how the internet works and they'll shift towards policies fit for a digital age.

@JamesFirth

Result! Vodafone now allows internet underwear shopping

This could be another example of the power of blogs and social media, or it could just be coincidence...

Vodafone now allows its customers to buy underwear via their mobile internet service.  I reported at the start of December that Vodafone UK had blocked access to two popular lingerie retailers Bravissimo and Figleaves for customers using their "adult content" filter, which was enabled by default on all standard connections.

Essentially, customers had to prove they were over 18 and say words to the effect of "give me porn" in order to buy bras.  Having spoken to several parents in the interim I was not so surprised to hear of cases where parents had removed the adult content blocker (on non-Vodafone services) for their 14- and 15-years-old children because the block was "more trouble than it was worth."

One parent told me at one time Flickr was blocked on O2's service and twitter.com filtered as adult content on T-mobile, although neither are blocked today.

On the plus side it appears as though mobile ISPs act when a certain level of noise is made online about over-blocking.  I made sure Vodafone UK, Figleaves and Bravissimo were aware of the block.  I never heard back from either company, but it's certainly possible that one or both of the retailers also took the matter up privately with Vodafone, given profits were potentially at stake.

And when this blog was blocked over summer by T-mobile, Kevin Townsend made his readers aware and other blogs followed. Mark Jackson of ISPReview followed up with the ISP and my blog was saved.

On one hand the feedback loop seems to be working, on the other I worry how many websites fall between the cracks and never raise a big enough stink to get unblocked.

I'm interested whether ISPs can be held liable for losses suffered due to unfair blocking, but I'm told this is a completely untested area of law in the UK.  Maybe the risk of financial penalties for over-blocking would make companies far more careful over what they do block.

I've heard reports that some blocking companies, again not directly related to the case under discussion, use the digital equivalent of "sweat shops", paying pennies per link to anyone prepared to surf the internet and classify a website as suitable or not for children.

I can imagine such arrangements find it hard to provide an inventive for accuracy.  Additionally, if such classification takes place overseas, it might not take into account cultural sensitivities.  In some countries even lingerie shops would not get away displaying photographs of models promoting their wares.

A big thanks to an anonymous tipster for the original story and Dominique Lazanski for a wealth of research and insight.

@JamesFirth

Friday, 16 December 2011

Facebook Timeline removal?

Update: see more analysis on the Open Digital blog and a follow-up explaining where my privacy concerns lie: it's all about choice & control.

If any of these statements is wrong, or you have any extra info, please comment below.

1. Once enabled, the Facebook Timeline feature can't be removed.  Well I can't seem to remove it.
2. Once enabled, you do get a window of 7 days to "manage" your timeline, but I've got thousands of posts.  Why the strict 7-day deadline? Why not have an indefinite period to publish?
3. Yes, Facebook provides the option to set all old posts to "friends only" but what if I want to remove all old posts, or at least set the visibility to "only me" on all old posts?  Why am I forced to make my digital exhaust available to all at a minimum to all my friends?


@JamesFirth

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Sky blocks Newzbin, important legal and technical questions need answering

Expanding the blocking order for Newzbin to cover other ISPs seems a no-brainer, but fundamental differences in the way each ISP manages its network are small details that may have serious consequences for other unrelated websites.

Yesterday I started to see reports on twitter that Sky's broadband service was blocking access to Newzbin, an overseas website which rights holders acting for the film industry forced BT to block with an injunction coming into force last month.

The reports of a Sky block would be no surprise, a representative of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) told a round table meeting hosted by Communications Minister Ed Vaizey last week that legal action against other ISPs was ongoing (my report from the meeting here).

Today trefor.net spotted an official announcement from Sky confirming the block:
"We have received a court order requiring us to block access to this illegal website, which we did on 13th December, 2011"

Important legal and technical questions 

It appears that Sky waited for the court order, but the big questions are:
  1. Did they fight the order?
  2. Was the order modified in any way to take into account that the blocking technology at Sky is, as far as I understand, significantly different to BTs?
On point (1), Sky could be forgiven for rolling over easily.  BT were hit by a potentially massive costs ruling, making them liable for a large proportion of the rights holder's legal costs for adopting a stance of "all-out opposition" to the order (see paragraph 54 of the October 2011 ruling).

These types of costs rulings are unhelpful when there's a public interest in testing an application with a strong challenge.  The ISPs don't want to risk tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds in costs liability simply for mounting a robust defence, yet without a robust defence, censorship requests are more likely to be nodded through on unchallenged evidence presented by rights holders.

On (2), there is a serious risk of "overblocking" (blocking more services than just Newzbin).  The risk of overblocking was explored in detail in Justice Arnold's earlier rulings in July and October 2011. (Thanks to BT forcing the exploration via their stance of "all-out opposition" - see the public interest, now?)

Justice Arnold heard how BT's blocking system, commonly known as Cleanfeed, minimised the risk of over-blocking by using a 2-stage process.  As I understand it, first the IP address is matched against a list.  If a match is made, the request to access the website is re-routed via a proxy server.  The proxy server then looks more closely at the request to see if the URL (the text typed into the web browser) matches.  If so, access if blocked.

Justice Arnold heard arguments from both sides.  Should the IP address be blocked wholesale, or should it be re-routed via the proxy servers so that the URL can be matched too?  He ruled (para 6, October 2011):
"At all events, the Studios now accept that the order should refer to IP address re-routing and not IP address blocking. It appears that IP address blocking could lead to "overblocking" of sites or pages that ought not to be blocked"

"Overblocking" and IP address recycling, serious issues for other unrelated websites

The risk of overblocking is not an ethereal academic concept.  It is highly likely to occur because of two factors.

The first is that Newzbin will - and there's strong evidence they have done already, several times - change their IP address.  It is well known that IP addresses have all but run out.  Nearly all IP addresses allocated are recycled - they've been in use before.

Pity the website owner who picks up Newzbin's old IP address.  Under Arnold, J's BT ruling the new owner of the IP address would have some solace in that the URL would not match, therefore BT customers would still be able to access the website, albeit via a proxy.   Re-routing via the proxy may cause some minor problems, but that's a bit of a side issue.

In the case of Sky, unless Sky happen to also use a 2-stage blocking system - and my contacts tell me they do not - then whoever picks up the old recycled IP addresses from Newzbin will find themselves blocked.

The judgements together are very long. I read them both and didn't find anything about much in the earlier rulings about IP address recycling and

In fact whilst I could find no mechanism described for removing IP addresses and URLs should they be no longer used by Newzbin, there was a mechanism for adding new IP addresses and URLs to the block list without re-applying to the court.

Not only that, but sites "whose sole or predominant purpose is to enable or facilitate access to the Newzbin[2] website" (para 10) can find themselves blocked, again without re-application to the court.  If someone creates a website explaining how to work around the block, and this website did very little else but explain how to access Newzbin, it too could be blocked.

So we're not just talking about recycling of IP addresses used by the main Newzbin site, we're talking about other websites.  Other websites highly likely to be transient and therefore recycle their IP addresses more frequently.

BT reported at a recent round table meeting on web blocking, where I was present, that:
"We've recently received an additional list of IP addresses and URLs under the Newzbin ruling orders of magnitude longer than the original list"
As if this wasn't worrying enough, there's no independent oversight of the IP addresses and URLs added to the list.  In fact Justice Arnold said BT wasn't responsible for verifying IP addresses and URLs added to the block list (para 12):
"I do not mean that BT will be obliged to check IP addresses or URLs notified by the Studios."

Conclusions

There is a financial disincentive for ISPs to mount robust legal challenges to blocking applications.  Whilst this is the case, important legal and technical issues might not be properly addressed and there is a very real risk that innocent websites unrelated to Newzbin could be blocked.

As I've explained many times before, anyone desperate to access blocked material will find a way of doing so.  Numerous reports, including a government-commissioned report into web blocking, support this.  At the same time, innocent net users who find broken links to websites perhaps won't be aware that the site is a victim of overblocking.  In fact the site owner may not notice either.

These are serious questions which need addressing now the courts and government has decided to go down the route of blocking.  And the risk will increase with every new site added to the block, as I doubt the rights holders will rest until many more websites are added to the block list.

@JamesFirth

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Megaupload, Newzbin, TPB - how much more publicity will the music industry gift the sites they don't want us to use?

Now I spend a lot of time online, but I'd never heard of a website called Newzbin until copyright owners filed a lawsuit in London against the site, which the rights holders won in March 2010.

Newzbin is, apparently, the place to get copyright infringing digital warez like movies and albums.  The site charges membership fees and, without condoning what Newzbin is doing in any way, I'd bet they've seen an uptick in traffic - if not membership - since copyright owners won an injunction forcing major UK ISP British Telecom to block access to the site.

Why? Because the site has been in the news quite a lot recently.

Similarly, I'd never heard of a digital locker service called Megaupload until Universal Music Group (UMG) allegedly got one of Megaupload's videos pulled from YouTube on copyright grounds.

The controversy?  The video in question was a specially commissioned advert for Megaupload.  There is, Megaupload argue in defence, no copyright infringement whatsoever.

Adding to the intrigue, the commissioned video features P. Diddy, Alicia Keys, Kanye West and Snoop Dogg, amongst others.  These A-list stars offered their tacit endorsement at a time when the Recoding Industry Association of America (RIAA) had branded Megaupload a "rogue" site.

The Megaupload case is potentially more interesting than Newzbin because the latter, according to a March 2010 ruling in the High Court in London, represents an unlawful business profiting on the copyright of others.

Conversely there's no evidence, other than the RIAA assertion, that Megaupload is in anyway engaged in any illegal activity.  Megaupload is now suing UMG for the erroneous takedown.

Interesting points in this dispute:
  • The digital service is fighting back.  The fact Megaupload commissioned the music superstars in the first place indicate they have serious financial clout.  The filing of a lawsuit against UMG indicates a new front opening up in the digital copyright wars and a shift in the power and cash balance between new and old media.
  • Megaupload has since come out in against American legislation the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), making the case for free speech and due process to prevent legitimate websites being hit in the battle to cleanse the web of copyright infringing content.
  • The takedown and associated legal tussle could actually help Megaupload make more money.  The Streisand Effect demonstrated the relationship between public curiosity online in the face of an attempt to censor information on a subject.  Megaupload is a new cause célèbre in a tinderbox of discontent at copyright over-reach and an old media landgrab for control of the internet to protect their analogue world charging models and digital deals with preferred suppliers.  

The move by UMG is just about the worst imaginable, if the aim was to prevent the service advertising itself.  In fact the action is just one in a long line of PR blunders across the old media industries, highlighting what little the analogue world understands of new media.

Ever heard of a film called Downfall? (Bear with me!) Sure you have, but did you know about it before the internet meme of the Downfall parody?  The Downfall parody has probably catapulted a mediocre European war epic into one of the best known films of the internet.  Downfall got publicity other film makers dream of, yet parodies started getting yanked from YouTube last year on copyright grounds.

And herein lies the madness in the control-dominated world of old media.  They stamp out sharing, parodies and remixes; things which could be give their product massive added visibility, whilst simultaneously advertising to the world how to get hold of infringing content, thrusting "rogue" sites into the spotlight by demanding unreasonable measures like national web filters to protect their business models.

Additionally, the continued and calculated downbeat outlook from the recording and film industries could be self-defeating.  It's said that several music lobby groups worldwide have an official policy never to put out a "good news" press release in countries where piracy is seen as a problem.  Could this policy be putting-off investors in content, because of the perception that piracy is a bigger problem than it actually is?

It's supremely ironic that music industry lawyers and lobbyists are fighting a battle with search engines to demote down the search rankings links to infringing content.  Links to websites like The Pirate Bay, when the very same lobbyists and PR people have spent the last few years advertising The Pirate Bay to the world by telling the press how important it is the site be banned.

Who's never heard of The Pirate Bay? Who needs Google to find The Pirate Bay?!

@JamesFirth

Monday, 12 December 2011

Solution for the GCHQ cyber challenge canyoucrackit.co.uk

Did you give it a go? The cyber challenge at canyoucrackit.co.uk was allegedly part of a recruitment drive for government spy agency GCHQ.  Open digital has the full solution to what turned out to be a 3-part challenge.

@JamesFirth

Saturday, 10 December 2011

"Two speed" Europe? It's already three speed

Okay, I'm going to get some stick about City protectionism and dilution of employee rights.  I accept many of the excuses made by Cameron in public for distancing the UK from the EU sound pretty lame.

But there's also some good reasons, especially in the area of bank regulation where the UK seems to be pushing for a tougher stance than other EU member states.  I can also see that making decisions on regulation within the EU could be beset by political squabbles resulting in half-baked legislation, and it might make sense at this stage for the City to go it alone.

And on the issue of transaction tax that's really a global question that the EU has only limited options without unduly affecting global institutions operating within the EU.  Yes, I know there are a lot of excuses out there, but the fact is global businesses will do all they can to minimise their tax burden.

But these are side issues. I'm disturbed by a load of shouty people crying out, "disaster!" How terrible it would be for the UK to be sidelined within Europe.  As the saying goes, don't panic!

As you were, folks.  There's already at least "three speeds" in Europe.  Firstly there's the European Union of 27 countries, then there's the 17 Eurozone countries sharing the common currency.  And then there's the real periphery of the European Economic Area, which includes all 27 EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Oh, and there's the Council of Europe, covering 47 states, not to be confused with the Council of the European Union.

It's tempting to see David Cameron's move as catastrophic, but I can't see any evidence that it will be.  It might not be the best move for the UK or Europe, but equally it might actually be a good move for the UK... And Europe.

Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) to return, again. Version 2.2?

Update 13-Dec: Just heard from another source that government plans have a new title.  IMP becomes the Communications Capabilities Development Programme (CCDP)...

Multiple sources indicate the controversial Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) first floated in 2008 and appearing in revised form in 2009 is to resurface when Parliament returns from its Christmas break.

The original plan was to create a huge centralised database of "communications traffic data" (sites visited, people emailed, etc).

Version 2 in 2009 scaled back on data centralisation, but increased what was to be collected.  The ISPs would keep the data, only handing it over to police and local council school admission compliance officers, dog wardens etc so long as they produced a warrant piece of paper from their boss signed under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

But the little black boxes to be installed within ISPs under IMP v2 would have been capable of reading much more, including who was writing to whom via webmail services, etc, using a technology called deep packet inspection.

Sources tell me the current plan is similar to version 2, a central database is still off the table. ISPs will keep the extra data gathered "as they do now, under the data retention rules".  But it's not the same as data retention. Data retention obliges ISPs and other communications service providers to store only the traffic data generated as part of their normal business.

Drilling deeper

IMP requires new equipment to be installed to "drill deeper" into the data stream, then obliges ISPs to store this data.  I'm told the focus is personal/direct messages sent via social media websites and instant messenger services.

On the surface officials want ISPs to install equipment to record who we're communicating with. The new capability is needed given a shift away from traditional email towards cloud email and services like Facebook, Google+ etc.  ISPs will be compensated for the equipment, data storage and each data access request from money already set aside for cyber security projects new money (claims a third source). (Updated 12/12/11)

But this argument doesn't bear close inspection, since a lot more traffic these days is encrypted, sometimes by default, than in 2009 when this plan first surfaced.  Most web email services, Skype, Google+ and Facebook allow users to connect more securely, using https://

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Notes and thoughts from Ed Vaizey copyright and web blocking round table, 7th December

Not much in the way of substantial progress resulted from this 90-minute meeting hosted by Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries yesterday at the Department for Media, Culture and Sport.

But that didn't make the meeting pointless.  In fact I found the meeting extremely useful, as it gave Open Digital and the Open Rights Group a platform to explain the basis of our opposition to sections of the Digital Economy Act and new measures proposed by rights holders to rapidly block websites accused of carrying copyright-infringing content.

The main purpose of the meeting, as the Minister explained, was a chance to discuss concerns and for people on all sides of the debate to meet in person.

Issues of substance discussed were live-tweeted by me during the meeting (tweets collated here).  We learned the MPAA are in the process of obtaining injunctions against other big ISPs to force them to block Newzbin (after an injunction was won against BT and other ISPs refused to implement a voluntary block).

The remaining Statutory Instrument (SI) needed to complete the Digital Economy Act should be published late January.  This order dictates how the process of dispatching warning letters to those accused of copyright infringement and hearing appeals will be run.  After one year in operation, the warnings can be supplemented with a "3-strikes" scheme, bringing penalties - technical measures - for those accused 3 times of copyright infringement.

In fact two SIs need to be approved by Parliament before the measures come in to force.  Whilst one has already cleared the hurdle of notification to the European Commission (a 3-month standstill period to allow comment from other member states), the second will not start this process until end of January.  The delay is so that any findings from an ongoing Judicial Review into the Act can be incorporated (this wasn't said explicitly at the meeting, but I heard this from other reliable sources).

DCMS and Ofcom officials did confirm that the first warning letters are unlikely to arrive on doormats until late spring to summer 2013 - that's three years after Her Majesty signed the Act!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Live tweets from Ed Vaizey round table on content protection and web blocking

For comments or corrections please email editorial@slightlyrightofcentre.com or call 01252 560 426

Update: I now have a write up of the meeting here, and there's another report on the Open Rights Group blog.

We got some transparency today of the ongoing meetings between Minister "for the internet" Ed Vaizey and rights holders, ISPs and other stakeholders on the subject of content protection (copyright) and web blocking.

The meeting was useful, but towards the end became dominated by a discussion over openness and whether the exposure brought through live blogging was appropriate. It was clear there was plenty of hostility towards my presence and that of Jim Killock from the Open Rights Group.

I put the view of Open Digital that public policy should not be developed in private, but we were willing to compromise if, for example, the discussion was not focussed on new laws.  If the purpose of the meeting was exploratory, we would support Chatham House Rules, where we were free to talk about the topics discussed but not identify the particular participant raising the issue.

Anyway, I don't have time to do this justice in a blog, so for now here's my live tweets (please excuse spelling, etc.  If you have a serious issue with anything tweeted I will offer a [short] right of reply right here in the main blog).

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Facing a "lost decade", ORLY? Time to look beyond GDP to measure progress

The term "lost decade" appears twice on Guardian.co.uk this morning.  Once in relation to Afghanistan, and again in relation to the UK economic outlook.  Using the same term to describe an impoverished war-torn country and the outlook in one of the richest countries in the world is bizarre at best.

But it's not just the distinction between Afghanistan and the UK that jarred.  When it comes to quality of life we've become obsessed with economic measures. And, worse, we've come to expect economic growth as a norm; periods of zero growth, however sustainable they may be, are seen as disastrous. Recession? Horrific!

But we might have to face up to the prospect that GDP - the size of the overall economy - as a measure of our quality of life and general well-being is reaching the limits of its usefulness.

The economic system needs to adapt to a new reality.  Capitalism we know, with the exception of a handful of high profile failures, is great at driving efficiency.  Inefficient manufacturers fail, usurped by more efficient rivals.  But there is a finite limit to efficiency - a base cost reflecting the fair price for any good or service.

Once we've reached this, growth must come from innovation and new products and services.

But the full social benefit of new products and services brought by innovation in the digital revolution is not fully reflected in GDP. In fact the digital revolution might be driving down traditional consumption, reducing GDP yet simultaneously increasing our quality of life.

Take for example eBay and second-hand goods.  Having a new baby would have cost us twice as much in the pre-eBay era.  Advances in communications technology has reduced consumption.

Friday, 2 December 2011

The GCHQ Cyber Challenge: hqDTK7b8K2rvw

UPDATE 11th Dec (11:59!): Solution here on the Open Digital Blog.

We used a few spare hours in the Open Digital office yesterday and today to have a go at the GCHQ cyber challenge _Can you crack it? 

Using a combination of Linux and Windows machines, a bit of JavaScript knowledge and 25 years' programming experience we got to stage 2 of 3.   We hope to bring you the full low down of how to solve it if we get there, however we don't want to spoil the fun for those still doing it so we won't say anything until the competition closes, bar this: hqDTK7b8K2rvw  - just to prove we got to where we did, when we did!

Hope to have the full explanation for you a week on Monday!

UPDATE 4th Dec: Just cracked it!

@JamesFirth

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Vodafone customers can't buy underwear online (unless they opt-in to porn)

Profits at some online retailers could be under threat because their websites are being blocked by some ISPs.

UPDATE 19-Dec-2011: both sites unblocked, result!

Vodafone's "child protection" filter, which is switched on by default for all new customers, currently blocks lingerie websites bravissimo.com and figleaves.com.

Following a tip-off, we used an iPhone connected to the Vodafone network.  The account holder had not asked for any filtering measures to be added or removed from their connection.  We were unable to access these two popular retailers, as well as a range of alcohol suppliers.

The question isn't "why would children want to buy lingerie" because these filters are active by default for all customers.

The question then is whether the average [adult] customer of these websites has had the forethought and motivation to disable the content filter on their account.  Indeed customers might feel embarrassed asking for the block to be lifted, as, essentially, the message behind this action is "I want to access adult content."

Blocked websites could be losing money to rivals.  We found several high street clothing chains and department stores who happen to sell underwear or alcohol as part of a wider product range are not blocked, raising the possibility that potential customers will turn to alternative retailers rather than getting the content filter removed from their connection.

Additionally, we've discovered this morning that Vodafone's "child protection" filter allows access to a host of pornography hosted on popular photo sharing websites.  The filtering system doesn't stop customers signing up for services at these websites, nor does it stop them checking boxes confirming they wish to access "restricted" content, thereby allowing access to pornography in circumvention of such filters.

As an earlier commenter points out, filtering systems seem nothing but a fig leaf, and may leave parents under the false impression that the internet in their child's pocket is "safe".

"Voluntary" blocking schemes operate with no transparency and oversight, and website owners usually only find out by accident their sites are blocked.  My own blog slightlyrightofcentre.com, a blog which often focusses on issues of web censorship, was itself blocked for a while by T-mobile's adult content system, until I kicked up a fuss.

Open Digital has a policy position on this, calling for such filters to offer transparency of the sites they block.  ISPs offering filtering should provide a mechanism for website owners to test if their websites are blocked, and a dispute resolution service so that sites who find themselves unfairly blocked can get themselves unblocked, and quickly.

I'm hearing disturbing news that Downing Street policy chiefs want to expand adult content filtering systems to fixed-line ISPs too, in a move designed to attract female voters.  I think it's safe to assume such policies are being developed by men, as the women I spoke to on this issue aren't convinced by a policy which blocks them from their shopping.

@JamesFirth

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Fiscal stimulus? £100m of public money for broadband where it's least needed

Yesterday the Chancellor announced £100m of extra money (or at least I assume it's new money) for broadband investment in UK cities.

Of those, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast and London have already been identified. 6 More cities will follow.

Here's a map from July showing areas with best broadband coverage (light grey) and those with the worst (red). The map is from Ofcom, via ISPReview.  (Click to enlarge).


You shouldn't have to ask your old geography teacher to identify the four capitals receiving some of the £100m.

I'll give you a clue, they're all painted grey or light grey, indicating they already have better than 70% availability of "superfast" broadband (roughly faster than 20Mbps actual line speed download, essentially access to BT infinity service).

The red areas have less than 30% availability.  They will share £20m of funding.  Yes, pretty much the rest of rural Britain will share 1/5th of the money set aside for cities.

The business case: tipping the investment equation, or lining BT's pockets?

The reason I'm so angry about yesterday's announcement is that it doesn't, from a policy position, make much sense.  Yes, I understand innovation isn't a zero-sum game.  Spearheads are needed in order to advance; and we all end up benefiting - even the rural notspots.  If all we knew possible was 56kbps dial-up we'd still be left with 56kbps dial-up.

But parts of Britain still are on 56kbps dial-up, and we face a challenge because large telcos don't see a business case for investing in faster broadband outside of the more densely populated towns and cities.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Untangling free speech & press regulation in light of phone hacking and Leveson

At Open Digital® Policy we're preparing a paper summarising the entangled issues of free speech, privacy and press regulation in light of the ongoing phone hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry into the press.

Clearly the system described as "self regulation" has failed, what we call the Social Contract has been breached.  Is this fatal?  We don't think so.

There is confusion between what has been described as "self regulation" - a self-regulatory body, and market regulation, where the customer makes informed choices based on the ethical behaviour of a publication (or any other company).

I believe, if steps are taken to root-out clearly illegal practices and re-level the playing field for competition in the media sector, the market will regulate itself, acting as the arbiter of public interest between the somewhat conflicted rights of free speech and privacy.

Read a full preview version of the short paper on the Open Digital Blog.


@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The best winter soup recipe, ever?

Broccoli, Pumpkin (or Squash) and Stilton Soup

Take a break from getting all worked up about the internet (based on my posts saying you should get all worked up about the internet) and enjoy my wondrous culinary discovery!

1 kg of pumpkin (or butternut squash), peeled and de-seeded (peeled weight)
1 crown of broccoli
100g of Stilton cheese
2 teaspoons of grated ginger
4 vegetable Oxo stock cubes, made up to 750ml of stock
2 pinches of cinnamon
Ground black pepper to taste

Boil the squash in the stock and leave to simmer for a good 10 minutes in a large pan.  Add the broccoli and cook for 10 more minutes until the squash and broccoli is tender, adding pepper to taste.

Use a hand blender to blend the squash and broccoli.  Put back onto the hob and crumble the Stilton into the soup.  Add 2 pinches of cinnamon and stir until the cheese melts into the soup.

@JamesFirth

Fixing copyright: the solution

Unless you've been living in a cave you'll have guessed there's a problem with copyright and the internet. And if you've read any of my blog before you'll have guessed this worries me. A great deal. So much so I co-founded a new policy organisation to deal with such issues now and in the future.

We can't stop digital copying without infringing on even more important rights and freedoms.  Besides, even if we shut down the internet, entirely, lossless copying on an "industrial scale" can happen silently and remotely between handheld devices using point-to-point communications technologies such as Bluetooth, WiFi, etc.

We need to reassess not only what copyright means to society, but do this whilst bearing in mind what free and open information flows mean to society.

It's been 2 years in the making, here is my proposed "solution" (or, rather, a framework for creating a legislative solution):

1.) Redefine copyright as: the right to prevent a person from making financial gain from another person's creative works for a fixed period long enough to suitably reward the creator(s) and provide a competitive return on any commercial investment needed to bring that class of creative work to the market.

2.) Define "financial gain from another person's creative works" in clear unambiguous terms suitable for the digital era.

3.) Develop a legal framework of proportionate measures designed to tackle those who gain financially from another person's creative works.

We can't continue to build on a system designed for the analogue era.  The time has come to start again, re-write the rule book.  Redraft the laws and treaties and create a new intellectual property right fit for the new reality.

@JamesFirth

Forget the "looped Andrew Lansley" distraction

A lot of people are tweeting/commenting on the BBC story about health secretary Andrew Lansley's bedside propaganda campaign.  Yes it's a bit 1984 and yes, in Frimley Park Hospital at least you can turn off these screens without signing-up to a paid TV service.

I encountered the screens and Lansley at the back end of summer, when my wife had a stay in hospital after the birth of our son.  Like Winston Smith in Orwell's classic I hated the screen, then I found the "off" button.

I hated the rip-off costs to watch TV, then I started to think about the investment and engineering challenge in installing a bedside TV, phone and internet station in every bed, complying with all necessary health, safety and hygiene standards.

On that theme, the lady in the bed opposite noted her bedside light was broken.  She needed it during the night to feed her newborn.  To my outrage the midwife told her it would take 2-3 days for a new bulb to be installed.  "We used to keep a stash and do it ourselves, but they don't trust us with bulbs any more."

Some of the most competent medical staff in any hospital, trusted to deliver each and every one of us into the world and think quickly to deal with the range of possible complications, aren't trusted to screw-in a 20w light bulb.  A duly warranted FFS.

I was minded to drive to nearby Waitrose and buy the lady a bulb, but then I realised that's where her own husband should have stepped in!

But there's a lesson here, somewhere.  Getting a private company to invest in providing a non-essential but useful service like a bedside TV seems entirely reasonable.   You can take it or leave it, unlike light.  Besides, some people brought their own portable DVD and media players. (Fine, so long as it runs on batteries. Woe betide anyone who plugs in an unregistered power cord!)

Having time to kill and no alternative we ended up paying for the bedside TV service.  It was comparable to the cost of food and parking at the hospital.  The twist here is that, like the light bulb in the bed opposite, Emma's TV malfunctioned.  I called a service number from the attached phone and a technician came and fixed it within 30 minutes.

Not bad for £10 every 2 days, and, complainants should note, an average of £5 per day inclusive of internet is cheaper than many hotels.

(There is a serious censorship issue to note.  The "safe content" filter prevented access to many websites giving tips on breast feeding.  In a maternity ward!)

Clearly though something has gone wrong when a simple operation like changing a light bulb essential for the nigh time care of newborns takes 2-3 days.  I assumed at the time a private maintenance company was involved - I could think of no other reason for prohibiting the people we trust with the lives of our newborns from safely changing a light bulb.

So this is perhaps a tale of good private involvement, bringing investment in new services, and bad private involvement, profiteering from a simple household job millions of us perform safely each year in our own homes.

Incidentally it took 3 days to fix a broken tap on the ward.  Other than that I couldn't fault the medical care and attention from all the fantastic staff on the delivery suite and maternity ward.


@JamesFirth

Friday, 18 November 2011

Retributive malware protection, hacking laws and self defence - is there a "reasonable force" in cyberspare?

If you confront me in the street with violent intent and I whack you in the face there's a good chance I can argue self defence and avoid punishment; similarly if I belt someone in an attempt to stop them stealing my car.

It's well established that assault, more precisely, the use of "reasonable force", is sometimes necessary and valid. The Crown Prosecution Service website states:

A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances for the purposes of:
  • self-defence; or
  • defence of another; or
  • defence of property; or
  • prevention of crime; or
  • lawful arrest.

After a bit of banter on twitter I wondered about the possibility, morality and legality of retributive malware prevention.

One of the natural moderators against some forms of physical violence in the real world is the fear of coming off worse.

If, in hacking or otherwise attacking my computer with malware, there was a risk of the attacker coming off worse, wouldn't it act as a natural moderator against such a crime?

I'm sure it would be possible to build this into popular antivirus software.  When a verifiable attack is detected, computers could counter-attack with a wide range of known exploits.

If an exploit succeeds, wipe as many critical files as possible from the system directory, disabling your attacker - reasonable force in order to defend your computer, your property?

Of course there would be collateral damage; many malware attacks are launched from compromised machines belonging to innocent third parties.  But there would be a public good in taking a compromised machine out of service, preventing further attacks; and the machine, in distributing malware, is already compromised - damaged - in need of repair.

Do we now start to see a definition of "reasonable force" as disabling the operating system, removing system files which could be replaced by a repair technician with physical access to the computer, but leaving all other files untouched, so as not to risk trashing irreplaceable items such as family photographs, etc?

The problem is especially acute for server operators.  Running a small farm myself I regularly see automated attacks in the region of 6,000 per day, per machine.  I've given up monitoring and tracing - I used to fire-off emails to the registered owner of the IP address block, but it never seemed to help.

@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

A million EU album downloads for Adele, but why has this iTunes first taken so long?

I'm amazed it's taken this long for an artist to reach a million iTunes album downloads in Europe, but at £7.99 to download an album the answer to poor sales lies mainly in the ridiculously inflated pricing model set by music publishers.

When a man with no experience of professional writing or publishing sold a million e-books on Amazon, the whole publishing industry should have taken note.

How did John Locke do it? I haven't read his book Vegas Moon but let's assume it's good.  But being good doesn't itself make one rich.  In a cut-throat competitive capitalist world one needs to let the public know that the goodness is out there, and telling the world costs money.

And herein lies the excuse for the excesses of the traditional publishing industry. Investment in branding and promotion costs money.  Providing up-front advances, managing the worldwide rights distribution, organising book signings and press coverage all costs money.

John Locke's secret weapon? He decided to make his book accessible to as much of the paying public as possible, letting the public see for themselves how good his book was.  He set a price of 99 cents (US).

The paying public make a different spending decision for an item at 72p (99c) than they do at £7.99, the cover price of most published books, as well as the iTunes price for Adele's album 21.

At £7.99 I want to be sure I will enjoy the book, album or film.  I don't want to get to the third chapter and bin it.  In fact, if I do get to the third chapter, having paid £7.99 I'm damn well going to finish the bastard book even if I risk death by tedium in the interim.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Feargal Sharkey/UK Music rumour mill

Feargal Sharkey has resigned as head of industry lobby group UK Music.

Feargal and UK Music were one of the loudest proponents of the clampdown of online music sharing under the Digital Economy Act, but their approach had softened somewhat over the last 6 months or so.

UK Music's attention had shifted from lobbying parliament to wining and dining journalists, party policy-makers and even the odd activist (but not me!).  I have also been struck by the more conciliatory tone of representatives of UK Music I chatted to during recent policy forums.

Feargal's departure has fuelled a couple of rumours amongst those in the digital policy arena. Either Feargal didn't sign up to the new approach, and has quit in protest; or, Feargal was driving the new approach, and has been driven-out by hard liners within UK music.

However, a third rumour doing the rounds last August is that Feargal is being lined up to enter the House of Lords as the government's music and creative industries Tzar.

An extension to this rumour is that his recent work with UK Music wasn't taking him any nearer to the Lords. The anti-piracy scene got a lot muddier recently, with the Liberal Democrats voting-in an official policy position of repealing all the anti-piracy sections of the Digital Economy Act at their last conference.

I hear Feargal took a senior Lib Dem policy advocate to lunch at the Ivy a couple of weeks ago, whether this had any bearing on his resignation is anyone's guess.

Either way, I'm guessing rumours of an Undertones reunion are the least likely to be true!

@JamesFirth

Behind the headlines: illegally downloaded games 'up 20% in five years'

BBC reports that illegally downloaded games are 'up 20% in five years'. A few things are worth noting on this.

First and foremost, the figures are attributed to "research" firm Envisional. Envisional sell services to companies to help them defend themselves against threats like online piracy. From their own website:
"Envisional provides the services, expertise, intelligent systems and actions necessary to keep your brand and revenue safe from fraudsters, counterfeiters and online criminals."
This is sloppy reporting from the BBC, who should have used the term "anti-piracy firm" rather than "research firm", so that the reader could be alerted to why the firm was keen to get its story and its name into the press; namely, publicity for its services.

(Yes, I spend my working life doing the same - it takes one to know one, and I'd like to think Open Digital operated in a transparent way as to our funding, motives and services.)

Secondly, a tipster has emailed me with a suggestion that "physical" unit sales of games (as opposed to downloads and games played online) have increased by approximately 20% over the same period, suggesting that piracy as a proportion of demand has remained pretty constant over the same period.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Why it's important to pull together on libel reform, despite some differences

Snippet from a libel threat received
by this blog, from a public body!
The government has published a draft Defamation Bill, and there's a powerful series of recommended amendments in a report by an influential Joint Committee, so libel reform is a given, right?

Not so, as there's a risk, hinted at by Julian Huppert in his closing comments, that if we don't put-aside arguments over some of the detail, we might not get reform at all.

Last night's event held in Parliament was organised by English penSense about Science and Index on Censorship.  For more details see the Libel Reform Campaign, and sign the petition

There's an overwhelming need for a new Libel Act, as people and organisations from cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst and scientist Simon Singh, to Facebook, AOL and the Publisher's Association spoke of their own experiences and reminded a packed committee room of the free speech imbalance brought by the UK's arcane law, developed throughout an era of Fleet Street dominance.

Libel in the UK was an issue but never a real problem before the internet.  It is heavily weighted in favour of the plaintiff; but, until the advent of blogging and social media, this kind of worked.  It gave citizens an effective tool to fight the massive power of the unregulated British press.

But the era of the libel arms race is over. Many traditional newspapers no longer have the spare cash, in relative terms, to fight libel. And certainly most website operators and social media participants lack the cash to mount a legal defence, when the "Cost of action in England is 140 times that of the average in other European countries," says the report.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Big cat, panic! An evidence-based approach to dealing with UK lion sightings

"Did you hear the one about the humans hiding
from a lion on train in north England?!"
A whole train was delayed for 2 hours because of one claimed sighting of a lion. In West Yorkshire. In England.

This whole episode epitomises safety-first culture, where any discernible risk must be mitigated if at all possible, no matter the inconvenience to the wider public.

The same tale is repeated with other risks, both virtual and real.  The "ban it" brigade are only trying to create a better world, it's just they often fail to balance an accurate assessment of risk and likely individual harm against wider inconvenience, cost or risk to society.

Members of the public are easily convinced of the immediate risk to their health from dangers they don't understand, like lions.  I understand this feeling, having camped in Ishasha, Uganda, in search of tree-climbing lions, and walked through prime lion habitat in Queen Elizabeth National Park (also in Uganda).

Seeing how locals get on with life despite an actual threat from real lions calmed my nerves, a bit.  Besides, hippos, crocodiles, snakes, elephants and the tiny mosquito (and the diseases they spread) pose a bigger threat to life than lions - in sub-Saharan Africa!

An evidence-based approach to UK lion sightings

Big Cat Deaths

As far as I can tell, the last UK mauling by a big cat was earlier this year.  But this involved zoo workers inside a zoo at Eynsford, Essex.  The last reported death seems to be that of a zoo keeper in a private zoo in London in 1994.  Before that?  A mad reverend who preached from inside a lion cage in Skegness, the year: 1937.

Likelihood of escape?

Whilst there are a number of reported "escapes" of big cats from UK zoos, all seem to have been addressed rather rapidly. A jaguar escaped from a Devon wildlife park - but found his way not into the wild but into the tiger enclosure of a neighbouring park.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Pirate Bay blocking and Newzbin - what precedent?

Josh Haliday today tweeted that Hollywood studios music majors have requested BT block The Pirate Bay website after the “precedent” of the Newzbin ruling, which forced BT to block Newzbin (strictly Newzbin2, but I’ll refer to it as Newzbin) and any other site whose predominant purpose was to provide access to Newzbin.

This raises one question and one serious issue.

First, and most importantly, where’s the precedent?

The blocking order against Newzbin was granted after it had already been established – in separate court proceedings, 20th Century Fox v Newzbin [2010] - that Newzbin was substantially involved in copyright infringement. Mr Justice Arnold included in his July ruling as part of a summary of earlier proceedings against Newzbin [para 37]:
"the vast majority of films in the Movies category [on Newzbin] were commercial and very likely to be protected by copyright and that members who used the NZB facility to download those materials, including the Studios' films, were infringing copyright." 
Unless there’s already a similar ruling against The Pirate Bay, then the two cases are not in my view comparable, and the music rights holders should be forced to apply to a court to ask it to rule whether The Pirate Bay is indeed substantially about infringement.

Costs

Why would an ISP grant such a request from the studios without a court order?

The answer most likely lies in the thorny issue of court costs. Costs are the undoing of a court-based ad-hoc censorship system enacted by a 2003 amendment to the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (S97A).

We have an adversarial legal system, and a general principle – although there are many exceptions – is that the losing party pays the legal costs of the victorious party.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Copyright law and data analytics (data mining) discussed in depth at PICTFOR

For comments or corrections please email editorial@slightlyrightofcentre.com or call 01252 560 426

Last night’s Parliamentary ICT Forum (PICTFOR) event on copyright and data analytics (“mining” published works for trends and other nuggets of information) was one of the most enjoyable and useful events so far for the newly-merged Parliamentary Committee.

There’s currently no copyright exemption (e.g. fair dealing-type justification) for computer processing of published works without permission from the copyright owner, and this can seriously impact academic study and areas such as medical research, we heard.

It can also make it very hard, from a legal perspective, for a rival to Google to emerge in the UK; although IBM’s legal advisor was very careful not to mention the ‘G’-word, instead focussing on the legal uncertainty around processing even unprotected web-based content. “We largely advise against doing it, because of the legal risk. We might even be accused of incitement to commit copyright infringement if we provide tools to enable others to analyse online content.”

IBM have a fairly balanced view on data analysis, trying to tread a path between the right to analyse openly published online content and the right of publishers to limit access to other content.


Friday, 28 October 2011

We don't need *a* Public Data Corporation, we need a plurality of competing Public Data Corporations

From the Open Digital Policy Blog:

Yesterday we submitted evidence (pdf) to the Government's consultationData Policy for a Public Data Corporation
And:
The idea from government seems to be (phase 1) create a Public Data Corporation; (phase 3) profit.   
...

Our submission outlines many of the secondary benefits to free and open public data. 
...
I then argue that the idea behind an investment-led approach to public data is flawed
...
To solve many of the problems I propose encouraging the establishment of many Public Data Corporations, with input data sets being available to any qualifying organisation, and a series of public subsidies paid on a per-megabyte basis for data served.  Competition should make the Public Data Corporations lean and cost effective, helping the Government serve free and open data cost effectively.  Plus, a per-megabyte subsidy should reward services with fast transfer rates, as data consumers will shun slower providers.

 >> Read the full post >>

Download the submission (pdf)

@JamesFirth

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Newzbin Judge: studios have asked other ISPs to voluntarily block, circumstances may be different for each ISP

We knew it was coming, and today it came.  A high court judge confirmed BT must block file-sharing website Newzbin2, and it must do so within 14 days.

Mr Justice Arnold sanctioned the use of BT's pre-existing blocking technology known as "Cleanfeed" to implement the block.  Cleanfeed was installed to block access to a strict number of websites carrying images of child sexual abuse.

Interestingly, the Judge hinted that a different set of circumstances would need to be considered for any such ruling to apply to other ISPs (para 4).  For instance, Andrew Heaney of TalkTalk argued that TalkTalk didn't use Cleenfeed.  Justice Arnold responded:
"That may well have consequences for the form of any order that the Studios seek against TalkTalk; but it does not affect the order to be made against BT"
It emerged this morning that Everything Everywhere and Virgin Media also attempted to intervene by writing to the Court, following an earlier ruling in this case handed down on 28th July.  The Judge said the ISPs should have applied to intervene earlier:
"I have taken into account the points made in those letters, but I have given them limited weight for the following reasons. First, I consider that those ISPs could and should have intervened in the application, or filed submissions and/or evidence, prior to the hearing on 28-29 June 2011."
The reason for the fraught action from other ISPs is perhaps apparent from (para 13):
 "... the Studios are in fact in the process of trying to persuade other ISPs to submit to injunctions voluntarily"


Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Behind the headlines: libel committee report, anonymous comments & corporate defamation

Some reports are hard to summarise in a headline, and some headlines haven't done the report from the Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill much justice.

Headlines such as "Websites 'should carry libel risk for anonymous posts'" might leave the reader thinking the report is an attack on so-called anonymous culture. In fact the Guardian goes further:
"MPs and peers recommended tackling the culture of anonymous online comments"
But the report is far more nuanced than can be summed up in any headline or single sentence. Whilst the report contains a couple of worrying paragraphs about encouraging moderation of online content and perpetuating the idea that "upstream" web service and internet service providers continue to carry some responsibility:
"... in line with our core principle that freedom of speech should be exercised with due regard to the protection of reputation." 
The report is far from an attack on anonymous comments, contains a lot of very encouraging points on a breadth of issues, and interestingly draws some parallels with privacy law (true allegations the claimant wants to remain private) and defamation (untrue allegations).

Thursday, 20 October 2011

First Digital Economy Act warning letters: summer 2013 - Ofcom

The first copyright infringement warning letters sent under the Digital Economy Act won't be dispatched before summer 2013. That's not another one of my (now-proven-relatively-accurate) predictions, this was the view of Ofcom's Director of Internet Policy Campbell Cowie speaking this morning at the Westminster eForum Seminar "Implementing the Digital Economy Act..."

It's significant for a senior Ofcom figure to admit such a time frame for implementation - over three years since the Digital Economy Act was passed.  And there are still factors outside Ofcom's control.

Behind the admission lies a dysfunctional team in Ofcom and a government suffering from a heavy dose of loss psychology.

UK taxpayers have already invested £2,036,000 in the form of a loan from BIS to Ofcom to work on the implementation of the UK's 3-strikes law.  My own investigation showed this is expected to rise to £5.9m.

This money can only be recouped by implementing the notification provisions of the Act, but there's no certainty it will ever be recovered. The copyright owners then pay for each copyright infringement notification sent, a portion of which goes to repay Ofcom's set up costs.

Loss Psychology

Many rookie investors fall into the trap of holding onto falling shares hoping they'll recover and make a profit one day.  So-called loss psychology makes people afraid to admit they're on a losing streak, preventing them from getting out ASAP to limit their loss.  Instead they hold and hope for a spectacular recovery.

In a similar way, the UK government is holding on to bad legislation, spending stacks of cash implementing a complex scheme that will probably prove ineffective in its aims and perhaps never recover the vast implementation costs, as copyright owners won't use the scheme if it costs more than other initiatives to combat piracy.

The maths doesn't stack up for rights holders.  Experience from a similar scheme now operational in France showed only 1 in every 38 copyright infringement reports paid for was actually sent on to the account holder, mainly due to rules preventing account holders receiving multiple warnings in any one month.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Notes from Parliament & Internet Conference

The internet can't be regulated. The internet shouldn't be regulated. Discuss...

Whatever your view on internet and regulation, it's a separate question whether or not those who care about the internet should engage - or turn their back on - democratic processes which may ultimately result in internet regulation.

Cory Doctorow, all-round internet rights evangelist, turned his back on this year's eG8 summit, describing it as:
“An attempt to get people who care about the Internet to lend credibility to regimes that are in all-out war with the free, open net”.
Cynicism and scepticism are core values for many in the internet industry. I worked in software for 14 years before co-founding Open Digital, I know this. Any regular reader of industry press, especially El Reg, know this.  In many ways it's a healthy attitude.

But with one flaw.  Parliament, together with the EU, the G8, the UN and every other government and international organisation hold more official power than us the lowly internet users. Do I turn my back on the democratic process just because my attendance *might* lend credibility to any resultant legislation? And then what? Blog grumpily from the sidelines and support subversive groups attempting to undermine the legislation I did nothing to try and prevent?

Of course not.  And Parliament, to its credit, is bending over backwards to welcome anyone with a view.  Today I met members of relatively new campaign groups such as NoDPI, the more established Open Rights Group Advisory Board members, journalists, private individuals, industry representatives, MPs, Lords, as well as the usual slew of lobbyists.

We heard from 2 government ministers, MPs, multinational tech cos, a youth initiative, student journalists, a senior civil servant, Ofcom and Nominet.

And the main reason I support such initiatives? They're free to attend - by anyone - on a first-come, first-served basis.  It's not that I don't want to pay, or can't afford to pay; it's that levying a charge introduces a barrier to entry, and not everyone with a view has cash to spare.

Parliament has moved on from the in club where one had to pay substantial annual donations in order to attend events and lobby members.  Maybe this is an aberration, but whilst the circle remains open I support the move, even if it does "lend credibility" to a regulatory process I don't necessarily support.

I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the day, but the highlights for me were:

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

So with no internet, we had no porn, right?

The Micro-SD card is mightier than the filtered internet
The Mothers' Union should focus on the problem, not a sticking plaster of blocks and controls that will encourage parents to delegate their responsibility for the online safety of their children to their ISP.

When I went to school, the internet wasn't quite here.  For tech enthusiasts like myself (aka nerds) there was a kind of forerunner called Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), but it's far too early in the post to digress.

So with no internet, we had no porn, right?

Yeah, like we had no music, no video and no printed colour glossy magazines to substitute for everything the internet provides today - including porn.  The ban (I'm not even sure it was even a legal ban) on newsagents selling porn to children didn't stop children accessing porn - it just made some kids rich and others more popular than they would otherwise be.

Some boys had wheeler-dealer enterprises Derek Trotter would envy. They got you anything; mags, videos, alcohol, hash.  The going rate for a second-hand magazine was the cover price new; and believe me, you didn't want to choose second hand unless it was all you could afford.

And whilst the young dragons ran their black market rackets, the nerds discovered an enterprising German coding outfit called Team BNK, who had cunningly crammed many seconds of reasonable quality pornographic video onto a 1.76MB floppy disk, playable on a Commodore Amiga computer.  There was also a nice range of picture disks available.  Mum, I never watched any - honest!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Industry sources: ISP porn filter plans have been blown out of all proportion, ISP bosses "livid"

The massive web porn filter story is not what it appears, multiple industry sources tell me.

News broke late last night of a government-sponsored plan to block pornography by the country's four largest ISPs.  The Daily Mail ran a story that bore no relation to the position sources close to discussions with government had kept me abreast of over the last few months.

A report in the Guardian was at odds with a BBC story over whether the national porn filter will be opt-in (switched off by default) or opt-out (blocking porn by default).

Now I can reveal that ISP bosses are livid.  None want to speak on the record, but all confirm the same basic facts; that discussions between ISPs and the Department for Education in light of the Bailey Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood had to date focussed on consumer education and choice.

That is, providing better awareness to customers of the online threats to children, advertising the benefits of blocking software, and making such software easier to enable and configure.

"Discussions to date have focussed on education and clear choices," said a highly-placed contact in one of the four ISPs involved.  "We all want to make the internet as safe as possible, but we can't completely eliminate all risk - at least not without seriously affecting the vibrant and beneficial nature of the internet.  The primary responsibility lies with the parents, who have a responsibility to supervise how their children use the internet."

A second contact echoed this sentiment, adding "Grabbing headlines like today - in some ways it's useful, as it raises awareness of the issues, but it could backfire."

"Customers might be left with the impression they can phone up their ISP tomorrow and delegate their online parenting responsibilities."

Monday, 10 October 2011

Newswash over latest UK 4G delays

News seeped out very late on Friday afternoon that fast 4G mobile data in the UK would be further delayed.

Funny that the news should come out at 5:30pm Friday.  Strange that there should be no official Ofcom press release.  Even stranger that, according to the BBC's Rory Cellan Jones on his blog, the network operators themselves were spinning news of the delays.

So what's in the news this morning on the 4G front? Britain's first 4G trial begins. Big whoop. This is a limited trial of 200 people in Cornwall and has very little bearing on progress deploying commercial 4G services in the UK.

This is a total and utter pre-planned newswash! Get the bad news out Friday night when no-one's listening and spin a minor bit of positive non-news ready for Monday morning.

Those who stand to profit most from delaying 4G data - according to several studies data is the least profitable part of a mobile network, and the profitability per megabyte downloaded is falling - seem to have cornered the news agenda.

No news this morning of the legal threats from the big operators over Ofcom's plan to ensure strong competition in the mobile data market when it makes radio spectrum available for 4G; thereby, according to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, delaying the auction process.

I've heard two analysts briefing that our study into the cost to the UK economy from further delays in 4G deployment is flawed because it refers to the spectrum auction, yet 4G would also be deployed on existing spectrum currently used for 3G services.

My response: it's not  - the so-called re farming of spectrum can only occur at the same pace 4G is adopted in mobile phones attached to the network.  The auction makes new spectrum available to build a data-focussed network in parallel, allowing data-intensive users to move over sooner.

It also brings competition in the market.  As I noted, there is very little incentive for incumbent mobile network operators to speed up the deployment of 4G - they like the profits they currently get from voice, text and multimedia messaging.  Competition brought by the auction of new spectrum should - if Ofcom get it right - stimulate UK investment in fast mobile data.

News editors in particular - watch for the stories driven by the money!

@JamesFirth

Friday, 7 October 2011

Appeal granted for Digital Economy Act Judicial Review

The ruling by Mr Justice Kenneth Parker in this year's Judicial Review into the Digital Economy Act can be appealed, ruled the Court of Appeal this morning.  A full hearing is expected in 2-3 months time, although the court did not set a date.

For coverage of the original review see here.

I'll update with more details as they emerge, but one curious point about this appeal is why ISPs BT and Talk Talk were seemingly happy to keep quiet about the appeals process rumbling on behind the scenes.

I attended meetings where Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) officials were trumpeting an end to the review process, after the request to appeal was summarily dismissed soon after the conclusion of the original review.

Why did this assertion and other statements in the press about a definite end to the process go unchallenged, when, as I reported over summer, an attempt to overturn the earlier ruling was far from over?  A fact that had escaped the mainstream press and even tech blogs.

After breaking news of the appeal I asked BT in July for comment, and even went direct to a couple of contacts.  Nothing.  I was told by an industry contact that BT had agreed an uneasy truce with the government over deals potentially worth billions to expand superfast broadband roll-out across the country.

BT will be pleased to know I raised the possibility in my meeting last month with Ed Vaizey that some ISPs may be telling the government what they thought the government wanted to hear regarding the Digital Economy Act and associated issues with blocking overseas websites because they were chasing rural broadband subsidies.  Watch this space - I'm digging hard.  If you know anything, get in touch in confidence: tip@slightlyrightofcentre.com.

@JamesFirth

What's the real endgame? Catgate: a few bold predictions

OK it's Friday and there's not much going on in the world of digital policy today..

Whilst simultaneously preparing to wipe egg from my face I make a few bold predictions:

(1) Ken Clarke won't be retired
(2) Plans to scrap/replace the Human Rights Act will quietly be dropped
(3) It will transpire there was never any plan to scrap the Human Rights Act

Why? Firstly Ken Clarke has too much punch to let fester on the back benches with a grievance. He's got a loyal following and media attention whenever he wants. Unless Ken is fed up with ministerial hours and wants out I suspect he'll be left in place or shifted somewhere he can't cause harm. Maybe international development or culture (but only after the Olympics).

As for the last two points I reckon there never was a plan to scrap the Human Rights Act. It was merely a ploy to wind up the Lib Dems and their supporters. Just the sight of leading members of government speaking out as if the Act was seriously under threat further undermined the position of the Lib Dems in coalition.

Cameron and May made it look like liberalism would not stand in the way of their agenda, and left the general public wondering what influence the Lib Dems have, if they couldn't even hold on to the cherished Human Rights Act.

It also set the scene for a few illiberal tweaks to the statute books. The upcoming Communications Act and a Cabinet Office drive to control the internet, maybe?  I'm hearing disturbing rumours that William Hague and his stance on the importance of internet freedoms is being undermined by the Cabinet Office, siding with the Home Office and securocrats to push a secret plan to control the UK internet with a "kill switch" and new powers over ISPs and social networks.

The real human rights battles are somewhere down the line; meanwhile, the public is being buttered up with anti-human rights rhetoric.

@JamesFirth

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Massive privacy issue with new Norway law to tackle copyright infringement

Norway slashes data protection rights in the name of copyright, also introduces web blocking in proposed law

Norway submitted a draft law to the EC yesterday which would allow the Norwegian Media Authority to order ISPs to block websites "where, material is being made available to a great extent, evidently infringing copyright or other rights in accordance to this Act."

Worryingly, the draft law also exempts those investigating copyright infringement from obtaining a license to process personal information under Norway's Data Protection Act, effectively removing oversight of personal data handling by organisations investigating online copyright infringement on behalf of rights holders.

The draft text also introduces a mechanism whereby rights holders can force ISPs to unmask the identity of those alleged to be involved in copyright infringement, although this process will require a decision from the district court and sounds remarkably like a Norwich Pharmacal Order (NPO) used in the UK to unmask those behind alleged infringement  - and lead, ultimately, to the names and addresses of thousands of alleged file sharers to appear online, together with the title of the adult films they were alleged to have downloaded.

The account holder will be notified of the unmasking order, but only one month after the ISP has handed over the personal details.

Two things here are extremely worrying.  Web blocking, of course - but I've already covered the issues in great detail.

More worrying is the attempt to exempt those investigating copyright infringement from obtaining a license under the country's Data Protection Act.  As the ACS:Law data breach I mentioned above went to show - those involved in investigating copyright infringement often process sensitive personal information when e.g.  it relates to adult films.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

UK 4G fast mobile data at least 2 years behind major countries, will cost UK businesses £732m/year

Open Digital's first paper (pdf) out today looks at the impact of late roll-out of 4G fast mobile data for UK businesses.

In fact it's an issue that affects consumers and businesses alike, but social benefit is hard to quantify whereas the number of business hours lost through slow or completely absent mobile data is relatively easy to estimate and put a price on: 37 million business hours, costing £732m per year.

We acknowledge that early adoption is not always essential to reaping the benefits, but in the case of 4G in the UK we are so far behind other leading countries that UK businesses and consumers will miss out on the benefits.

In addition to the lost time through slow mobile data, UK businesses won’t be able to fully benefit from new cloud-based business tools until the UK has a nationwide reliable high speed mobile data network

Ofcom doesn't expect the first commercial UK 4G services until 2013, and roll-out is not expected to complete until 2017.  This is 4 years behind the world's first 4G services in Oslo and Stockholm and the same year South Korea plans to complete its roll-out, which started this summer.

Germany and the US are also in the leading pack, with 4G deployment well under way in 2011.

UK deployment over a 4 year period between 2013 and 2017 is too slow and starts too late to keep the UK competitive.  Studies show 4G will offer average download speed over 3 times those seen on today's 3G network, plus it brings much needed capacity as mobile data volumes have increased by 67% year-on-year.

4G can also support larger cell sizes without the performance penalty seen with 3G, meaning many rural "fringe" areas currently stuck on 2G will get mobile broadband for the first time.

Our calculation of the lost hours is based on data available across a number of reports from Ofcom.  It uses as a starting point Ofcom's assertion that the average 3G daytime mobile download speed is 2Mbps.

One thing we didn't factor in is how the quality of 3G broadband is likely to be impacted as mobile data use continues to grow.  More capacity will be needed as data use grows, and mobile operators will be reluctant to invest with 4G technology on the horizon, meaning our estimate is likely to be an under-estimate.

Yet Ofcom is yet to hold the auction to allocate necessary spectrum, and news that the auction has been delayed for 3-6 months itself has a price tag of £183m - £366m.

Whilst mobile data use has rocketed, revenues per megabyte carried have fallen, meaning data is not seen as profitable for the incumbent mobile network operators clinging on to lucrative voice and multimedia messaging services.

4G is a data-centric technology. Everything - voice, text messages, etc - is carried as data.  With life set to get tough for the big four network operators when data is the only commodity they have to sell, it's no wonder they're not chomping at the bit to see the government push 4G fast mobile data out quicker.

@JamesFirth