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

Got a tip? tip@sroc.eu

Monday, 28 February 2011

Barnet council's refusal to allow citizen journalists could breach ECHR - resident's solicitor to Barnet council

[Click on images on right to enlarge]

Barnet resident Vicki Morris has retained leading human rights and civil liberties law firm Bindmans to challenge Barnet council's refusal to allow citizen journalists to cover tomorrow's (March 1st) budget meeting despite advice from Communities under-secretary Bob Neill sent out last week to all council leaders that blogging, tweeting and filming should be allowed at all public council meetings.

Ms Morris' solicitors' arguments centre around possible breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights, and suggest that a refusal to allow access to citizen journalists at tomorrow's meeting could be open to a court challenge:
4. We have considered this matter carefully and reviewed relevant guidance, legislation and case law. It appears to us that there are no reasonable, lawful grounds for taking such a position. We have advised our client that a decision to refuse blogging, tweeting or filming may be amenable to challenge by way of judicial review for the reasons set out below, amongst others. 
To me this battle goes to the heart of transparency and accountability of local governments in a democratic society.  It also raises important questions about the role of citizen journalists, and a wider point about the role of government in determining who is, and who is not, an approved or accredited journalist.

Where is the line drawn between citizens and journalists?  This is an important philosophical question, since once there is a state-controlled scheme of accreditation for journalists, the state is taking control over all media reporting, deciding who can and who can not report on events.

Bindmans writes in their letter to Barnet:
8. We consider that the Council’s proposed differential treatment  between “respectable [professional] media” and those who the  Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government refers to as “citizen journalists” would amount to discriminatory treatment under Article 14 ECHR. Article 14 prohibits unjustified discrimination in the enjoyment of Convention rights such as Article 10 above “on any ground such as sex, race, [……..] or other status”. 

9. Further, as a matter of public law, the Council is bound to adhere to Government guidance unless there is a legitimate, lawful reason for departing from the guidance.  You will no doubt be aware of the Department of Communities and Local Government guidance of 23 February 2011 directly on this subject. The Secretary of State noted that “Councils should open up their public meetings to local news 'bloggers' and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency.. 

To ensure all parts of the modern-day media are able to scrutinise Local Government, Mr Pickles believes councils should  also open up public meetings to the 'citizen journalist' as well as the mainstream media, especially as important budget decisions are being made.”

Philosophy of democracies aside, perhaps more pertinent, in interviewing local politicians here in Surrey, I hear that many local papers don't have the resources to send reporters to every public council meeting.  I firmly believe citizen journalists can fill this gap, providing transparency of elected local representatives.

However citizen journalists face their own problem, aside from patchy access to press offices of councils due to accreditation issues already mentioned, in their credibility gap.

Local bloggers rarely - if ever - have the reputation a local newspaper carries.  Casual readers of a blog are right to question the accuracy of information posted, and footage from a council meeting allows the writer to offer a level of proof, helping to bridge the credibility gap.  Without such proof it would be very difficult for most bloggers to break an important story from the council chamber.

Of course, allowing just anyone(!) to record and say anything about proceedings at the council meeting creates its own problems. Those with an axe to grind may deliberately mis-quote or selectively edit footage.

But in allowing filming, photography and live blogging it's important to note the council and councillors are not waiving their existing legal rights.

I also believe the good that will come firmly outweighs the potential for trouble, plus anyone worried about trouble and mischief should take note; not only of the credibility gap already mentioned, but also how social networks function, and the potential for mass plurality when barriers to entry are non-existent should drown any rogue voices.

Firstly, a growing section of the public is already wise to the ways of the internet, taking allegations made on a blog at face value, understanding the difference between trusted established news outlets, and personal opinion.

Secondly, bloggers build trust through relationships, usually using so-called social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.  It's very hard for a lone blogger to build a reputation and a relevant audience.  Hard-won trust would be easily lost should a blogger choose to deliberately misreport events in the chamber in order to settle a grudge.

Thirdly, in allowing anyone to cover public meetings, it encourages plurality of reporting, again debunking the worry that malicious reporting will prevail.  Anyone with a grudge can easily be outed by fellow residents filing their own accounts.


Friday, 25 February 2011

Blogging, tweeting and filming must be allowed at council meetings - communities under-secretary Bob Neill MP

[click images to enlarge]

Excellent news for bloggers, citizen reporters and government transparency campaigners as parliamentary under-secretary Bob Neill MP (department for communities) has written to all council leaders urging them not to block citizen journalists from filming, tweeting or blogging from public council meetings as part of the government's transparency drive:
Council meetings have long been open to interested members of the public and recognised journalists, and with the growth of online film, social media and hyper-local online news they should equally be open to ‘Citizen Journalists’ and filming by mainstream media. Bloggers, tweeters, residents with their own websites and users of Facebook and YouTube are increasingly a part of the modern world, blurring the lines between professional journalists and the public.
Mr Neill expressed concern that stories of people being ejected from council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming was potentially "at odds with the fundamentals of democracy", adding that councils are urged to welcome anyone who wants to bring local news stories to a wider audience.

The Information Commissioner's Office was approached by the Department for Communities and Local Government to judge on whether citizen journalism, including filming and blogging from council meetings, could impinge on the Data Protection Act 1998.  Bob Neill, a barrister himself, wrote:
I do not see these obligations [under the Data Protection Act 1998] as preventing access for journalism. Nor are there grounds for any council seeking to obstruct a citizen or other journalist from processing information.
The Information Commissioner's Office guidance is quoted as:
‘In the absence of any other legal barrier to comment, publication,  expression and so on, the Act in and of itself would not prevent such processing of information. 

In the majority of cases the citizen blogging about how they see the democratic process working is unlikely to breach the data protection principles. 

In the context of photographing or filming meetings, whilst genuine concerns about being filmed should not be dismissed, the nature of the activity being filmed – elected representatives acting in the public sphere – should weigh heavily against personal objections’. 
Mr Neill added:
Moreover there are within the Act itself exemptions from the data protection  principles which might apply in the circumstances of the citizen journalist. The first exemption relates to processing of information for journalistic purposes (section 32), the second for the processing of information for domestic purposes (section 36).

In short transparency and openness should be the underlying principle behind everything councils do and in this digital age it is right that we modernise our approach to public access, recognising the contribution to transparency and democratic debate that social media and similar tools can make. 
Battle at Barnet!

Along with the above I got a tip-off that this letter is being circulated amongst the residents of Barnet, who are being urged to bring their laptops, cameras and mobile twittering devices to the council meeting this coming Tuesday, 1st March.  I'll add details once confirmed.


Thursday, 24 February 2011

Cost of AV in perspective

Firstly, I very much doubt AV will cost the £250m the No2AV camp claim.  I explain why on my campaign blog here.

Even if we decide to introduce electronic counting at the same time as AV, that's 2 distinct decisions with 2 separate benefits. I've observed a general election count - I can see benefits of electronic counting even if we keep the existing first past the post voting system.

And it's simply disingenuous to include the cost of holding a referendum into the cost of AV.  One could argue the cost of voting "No" is the cost of hosting the referendum, since the No2AV camp clearly can't come up with any solid arguments not to take this progressive step - other than cost!

Besides, council elections are happening in many parts of the England, plus there's already Assembly elections in Wales and Northern Ireland and Scottish Parliament elections on May 5th.  It's far cheaper to hold a referendum at the same time as other elections, 5th May 2011 seems an ideal date!

Monday, 21 February 2011

Sweetheart tax deals: problematic - but not in the way you might think

It's preposterous to claim that every pound "lost" through a so-called (alleged) sweetheart tax deal between HMRC and any given big corporation is a pound that could have gone to the exchequer, thereby reducing the need to cut front line services, saving local libraries, forests and pandas.

In fact a sweetheart deal could, in theory, have increased the tax going to the exchequer.  Say, for example, some large bank or global services company sat down with HMRC and laid out the facts:  "We could channel all our profits through the Caymans, at at total cost to us in fees, etc, of £100m; or we could just hand the £100m to you, if you reduce our corporation tax bill accordingly..."

But sweetheart tax deals are still in my view incredibly bad for competition, enterprise and ultimately long term growth in the UK; as they reward massive corporations who can afford to pay tax specialists and absorb one-off costs associated with setting up offshore schemes, whilst leaving smaller businesses to do or die.

Whilst Barclays and Vodafone are reported to have been cutting deals to shave hundreds of millions off their corporation tax bills, hundreds of IT contractors and other small companies have seen their business investigated for sums involving just thousands of pounds because of HMRC's obsession with tackling what it perceives as payroll tax avoidance.

Firstly, surely, the cost of investigation in such cases outweighs the value of the tax recovered.

But, more importantly, the people striking out on their own - those prepared to go out on a limb, forsaking salary security, pensions and expense accounts; striking their own path in business - should be rewarded, as they form part of the entrepreneurial regeneration of the business cycle.  Instead, they face hassle and threats.

I know many IT contractors forced to work a few months "on site" with clients whilst using their remaining time managing small web design and hosting companies.  Why HMRC should use IR35 legislation to attempt to make these directors of Limited companies account for time spent "on site" as if they were in full time employment, whilst the small business owners are getting none of the salary security benefits - and paying through the nose for accountancy and other essential services that come part of running a Limited Company - is beyond me.

One-person enterprise should be encouraged as the first rung on the enterprise ladder.  Fair enough, I assume some contractors are in the game to avoid a bit of income tax, but I've yet to meet one.  These few exceptions have to be balanced against the numerous former contractors who have grown their one-person business into fledgling companies paying for half-a-dozen salaried staff.

Going off at a slight tangent, some draw comparisons between the total tax bill of the big corporations, once payroll tax is taken into account, and smaller companies left to foot their full share of corporation tax.  One thing I haven't seen is an analysis of tax paid per employee.

But IR35 and the willingness for the tax man to go after small business whilst striking deals with large corporations is only one hillock in the uneven playing field that is the UK business environment.

Competition, or lack thereof

I quite like capitalism.  I'm not overly concerned that the present government wants to trim the size of the state, so long as the business and regulatory environment is used to ensure provision of front line services is not affected.

I don't want to see libraries closed.  I don't want to see forests fenced off.  I don't want to see those too disabled to work have their allowances cut or face humiliating extended examinations to ensure that there really isn't some job they could be doing.

A balanced use of the private sector should not be feared, in that it's often preferable to handing over large sums of taxpayers' cash to government departments and quangos.  Such bodies are incapable of establishing the management structure, IT systems and business processes required to get the job done efficiently.  I know this, because I've seen this.

But a key aspect of capitalism, in fact the key requirement, is fair market competition.  Without competition, the bigger players tend to dominate, profiteering sets in and a large proportion of consumer cash ends up going direct to the shareholders and directors by way of whopping bonuses.

Yes, I really believe the root cause of many of the woes of the banking industry, especially huge bonuses, is lack of competition.

I refuse to accept that any salaried individual is worth, on pure grounds of merit, 1,000 times the salary of another full-time employee in the same company.  But the profits are there for the taking, and the people taking them are duly rewarded.

The profits are there because the customers are getting a raw deal.  Whilst the banks were desperate for taxpayer cash to keep them afloat, they were offering a measly 0.1% in credit interest to these same taxpayers who chose to lodge their cash directly with the bank, via their high street branches.

The key to clipping disproportionate rewards for people providing only a fringe benefit to society is to trim the opportunity to make easy profits, and the way to do that is to encourage better competition in the market.  Better competition would force the big banks to offer better deals for consumers.

Moving away from banks, any big company getting preferential treatment due to its size can be highly damaging to competition.  It raises the barriers to entry for smaller companies far too insignificant to warrant special treatment from the tax man.

There's already a large potential anti-competitive presence in the market, looking to smash any competition from smaller innovative enterprises, and that's the willingness of any established player to defend itself by any legal means necessary.  Patents, copyrights, trademarks are all tools of monopoly.

Smaller businesses should be given a leg-up, not screwed over by giving their larger rivals a tax break.

Corporation tax is becoming a threat to innovation

Because small, local companies are unable to take advantage of global tax planning, corporation tax itself is becoming a threat to innovation.

Any rule applied to large global businesses when calculating sweetheart tax deals should allow small local businesses a least an equal benefit.  In fact, because regeneration through innovation is essential in keeping the markets competitive,  smaller businesses should be able to cut a better deal.

If the rules aren't working, they need to be changed.  Not fudged to keep Vodafone and Barclays happy.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Want to try Pecha Kucha at Digital Surrey in April?

Inaugural Digital Surrey: April 2010
- we'll need a candle on the cake this year!
UPDATE 25/3: Assuming no-one drops out, we have one spot left!
If you want to pitch your idea for a talk, get in touch

Update 2: We are now have more pitches than we can fit in, many thanks!

(If you've previously said you'd be interested but haven't yet sent your pitch, then this is a last call, sorry!)

By my reckoning it will be Digital Surrey's 1st birthday in April, and what better way to celebrate than with a Pecha Kucha extravaganza!

As announced at our event in January, we're looking for | 1 additional speaker | up to 5 additional speakers to join our 3 "headline acts" | talking about almost anything digital.

The event will happen on Wednesday 20th April (yes, Digital Surrey is temporarily moving from Thursday to accommodate those getting away for Easter or the royal wedding).

The twist: you have exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds to talk, and you must do so to 20 slides, which advance automatically at exactly 20-second intervals!  Other than that the slides and content is up to you.

If you want to know more, I blogged about losing my own Pecha Kucha virginity at Guildford Pecha Kucha Night, we have some speaker notes (pdf), and there's more information on pecha-kucha.org.

Please note we have a couple of house rules:
  • no sales pitches, please!
  • please don't go out of your way to offend our audience.
If you want to pitch your idea for a talk, get in touch. In the event we get more than 5 submissions, we reserve the right to put your pitch to a public vote - please let me know in advance if you are not comfortable with this. (I also reserve the right to block anything that looks likely to break one of our rules.)

The event takes place with the kind support of Simon Strong from Human Zoo, organiser of Guildford Pecha Kucha night, and by prior arrangement with pecha-kucha.org.


Thursday, 17 February 2011

Open government, burried data: up to 40,000 people to be priced of the net

A written answer to a parliamentary question asked by Tom Watson yesterday revealed the existence of a government estimate.

The estimate: between 10,000 and 40,000 people may no longer be able to afford broadband when ISPs pass-on the cost of implementing sections of the Digital Economy Act designed to tackle copyright infringement over the internet.

This is a story I covered last week, after the government was forced to admit it was "regrettable" that some of the poorest people would be priced off the net in a wild attempt to save the profits of a struggling entertainment industry.

As it turns out, this estimate was first published in a government document dated April 2010 (pdf), but despite my keen and persistent interest in the legislation I had failed to spot this assessment.

Which brings me on to a major problem with open government initiatives - not just publishing information in the first place, but making documents and data readily accessible.

Take this Impact Assessment.  Try search the internet for Digital Economy Act (or Bill) Impact Assessment.  At the time of writing I get a link to a zero-length PDF document (here - may be fixed by the time you read this).

Nowhere in major search engines do I find the actual document I want.  As it transpires, there's a copy in the National Archives, leaving me puzzled as to why, with two instruments still to pass before all planned measures of the act come into force, this crucial impact assessment has so speedily found itself removed from the BIS website and stashed in the National Archives.

It's also worth publishing the URL for the document in full as it somehow captures how well it's been burried:
Granted, had I known such documents were likely to have been transferred to the National Archives, I could have started my quest with a search of nationalarchives.gov.uk.

But surely the government can do far better.  Why not link to such Impact Assessments from the relevant legislation page on legislation.gov.uk?  Checking the More Resources section under this act I found nothing linking back to useful documents such as this Impact Assessment.

Of course we can rely on the press office of government departments to thrust favourable reports into the face of journalists, published in a prominent position on departmental websites.  That's a given, and something I don't think we can do much about.

But I hadn't quite appreciated how well some of the less favourable reports were buried.  Parliament needs a better system - categorised and classified by subject, and linked to relevant Acts on legislation.gov.uk.  And a central portal so one doesn't have to trawl departmental websites, Parliament's website, the National Archives, and any other hidey holes I've yet to discover!


Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Why Alternative Vote (AV) makes for a fairer voting system

Extraopia is an imaginary country with three main political parties.

PORTISTS support a left-wing ideology.  They also believe Extraopia should join together with neighbouring Extraland to form a The United Extras, and also want to see major overhaul of the welfare state and social provisions.

CENTRISTS also believe in union with Extraland and in the need to overhaul the welfare state, although they disagree with the Portists on aspects of political ideology, instead preferring a smaller state.

EXTRAOPIA INDEPENDENCE believes in right-wing ideology.  They are against any union with Extraland and object to any reform of the welfare state.

By far the two biggest issues in modern politics in Extraopia are union with Extraland and whether the welfare system should be reformed.

At the last general election, the voting in every single one of the 100 constituencies was as follows:


Who do you think should rule the country?

Under the first past the post election system used in UK general elections, there is only one possible outcome.  The EXTRAOPIA INDEPENDENCE PARTY would wipe the board, getting all 100 seats despite getting only 34% of the vote. 

More importantly, 66% of the country voted for a party that supports welfare reform and union with Extraland.

Luckily Extraopia uses the Alternative Vote system.  In the majority of cases, voters supporting the CENTRIST PARTY gave their second-choice vote to the PORTISTS because of the common ground on the two key issues, and vice-versa for the supporters of the PORTIST PARTY.

By the time the second-choice votes were counted, the results of the election were thus:

34 seats
33 seats
33 seats

The CENTRISTS and PORTISTS formed a coalition government, with a mandate to pursue social reform and union with Extraland - as supported by 66% of the electorate.

Guildford Pecha Kucha Night 3

Pecha Kucha is a simple concept. The speaker prepares 20 slides, which advance at 20-second intervals throughout his or her talk.  No going back, no over-running, just 6 minutes and 40 seconds to get your point across.

It sounds a simple-enough challenge; until, 2 days before your speech and after you've submitted your slides you fire-up PowerPoint and attempt a dry run in the comfort of your own home...

As it turns out, there's no substitute for the adrenaline of a live audience to get you through!

Several failed attempts to avoid stumbling or losing my train of reasoning in the lead-up to last night's event at Guildford County School melted away as I launched into my rambling monologue; questioning why our education system encourages students to specialise in either arts, humanities or science - overlooking those who want to remain more rounded; pertinent, given a rise in multidisciplinary careers.

Benjamin Ellis:
- on computers and natural language understanding
In fact, speaking to some of the other speakers afterwards, I wasn't alone in my pre-show worries.  A tip for anyone attempting Pecha Kucha: assuming you know your subject, come the night, you'll be fine.

Your rehearsal may go appallingly, but once you're up in front of the friendly and supportive crowd it just happens, and it's a real buzz!

Multidisciplinarity was my chosen subject, which was somewhat fitting, since Pecha Kucha nights are excellent forums (yes, forums, not fora, since my first language is English, not Latin!) for those who want to learn a little bit about a wide range of subjects without the risk of being bored for hours as a speaker goes into great detail on a topic you have no interest in.

Last night I heard 7 truly excellent talks on a wide range of subjects.  All the speakers had put a great deal of care into their slides and clearly had a passion for their chosen topics, which made for a really entertaining evening for all. 

We heard, in (approximate!) order of appearance:
  • Ilse Howling, a trustee of Unicef, with an emotive talk about Namibia, poverty, orphans and a generation lost to Aids
  • Professor Dick Moody on palaeontology, and how he has recently had time to re-discover his passion after a spell working for big industry
  • Shaun Kenyon, talking about budget satellites and his contribution towards a mission to put a communications satellite in space for the benefit of UK schools and other scientific and educational purposes
  • Sam Milletti on film-making, and how despite being a generally happy person, his films tend to focus on darker themes
  • Me, on the need for multi-disciplinary skilled people, especially in emerging technology jobs, and how it isn't always a good idea to encourage children to focus on either science, art or humanities at A-level
  • Rob Anderson, with a light but pertinent take on the dire state of mainstream music and lyricists, drawing distinctions between the works of great poets and  Bruno Mars
  • Jules Carter, on life in Tokyo. From Japanese culture to love hotels and public indecency on the underground; suicide, to unlocked bicycles, to a love of a city
  • Benjamin Ellis, describing some of the challenges a computer faces when tasked with deciphering many of the ambiguities of natural language, together with an interesting slant on how marketing companies are "fishing" to retrieve and make sense of personal data posted on social networks
A big thanks and congratulations to everyone, in particular our host and organiser of Guildford PKN Simon Strong from Human Zoo.  The next Guildford PKN will be held on 10th May 2011, at The Refectory, Guildford Cathedral.  Sign up here.

In addition, Digital Surrey will be hosting a separate one-off "Digital" Pecha Kucha night on 20th April, with the kind help and support of Simon, Human Zoo and pecha-kucha.org.  If you want to pitch for a slot in this please get in touch.


Monday, 14 February 2011

Big Society BS - localism and communities can't be built from one top-down initiative

A missed opportunity to create competition in the consumer and SME banking sectors...

BS: Help local communities by giving money to big banks!
Strengthening communities? Tick! Local empowerment? Tick! Two initiatives I feel strongly about and wholeheartedly support.

But when I heard about the Big Society Bank I choked on my locally-produced granola* and reached for my laptop. (* denotes artistic licence, more commonly known as BS)

The problem with both the government's Big Society Initiative and the centrally conceived and funded Big Society Bank is that they both expand the portfolios of central government and multi-national mega-banks, respectively; which is somewhat ironic for an initiative designed to foster local initiatives and encourage community action.

It can't work.  At least not like this.  And henceforth I shall refer to Big Society as BS.

The BS Bank

I strongly feel the root cause of nearly all excess seen in the banking industry of late is lack of competition: both in the consumer and investment markets.  Huge profits and bonuses across the sector are symptoms of profiteering; the antidote to which is better competition, not targeted taxation and tweaks in regulation to temper the bonus culture.

What we need is not The BS Bank, but a multitude of community-driven Big Society Banks (I didn't abbreviate there, because I really meant Big Society and not BS).

Osborne's recent banking "deal" effectively handed Project Merlin money to the established banks.

But wouldn't it have been both more fitting of the community spirit and have gone some way to re-building competition in the consumer and SME business banking sectors to have used this opportunity to fund regional banks and credit unions like the proposed Surrey Save?

I'm not bitter about banker's bonuses, but I am furious that, in the wake of the credit crunch - a time when banks were desperate to get hold of cash to shore their balance sheets - high street savers and businesses alike were offered an impressive inflation-resisting 0.9% credit interest from some of the better banks.  Other banks offered far less.

Banks wanted our money, but didn't want to deal with us pesky customers, bypassing the saver and going straight to the government for our tax money rather than our savings.

Had small regional or community banks existed in sufficient numbers, smaller businesses would have been able to borrow from savers, using a more traditional banking model, giving savers a better return and businesses access to much-needed capital.

Project Merlin has instead given the ball back to the big banks with no sign of where, when or how competition in the banking sector will be improved.


Friday, 11 February 2011

I don't need to defend porn to fight the UK net filtering proposals

Government censors set to decide what sites we can look at?
Personally I don't think we should judge what people choose to do in the company of their computer, so long as the curtains are drawn.

But if you're ideologically opposed to pornography there are still lots of reasons to oppose any government plans to regulate the internet.

What is being called for, mostly by the Christian right, is state censorship of communications.

Any attempt by the pro-filtering lobby to avoid the 'c'-word - censorship - is a tacit acknowledgement that the proposals are of momentous constitutional significance.

In addition to the inherent threats to the democratic process stemming from any media censorship; those claiming a system of net filtering to be both workable and effective are deluding themselves to the scale of the challenge, over-estimating the capability of technology, and under-estimating the cost of running any national net filter.

And so, without defending pornography, here's just some of the problems a national net filter will introduce.

Problem 1 : compiling and maintaining the block list

What is pornography, and what is art?  That is the question the censors will have to ask themselves many times an hour when we consider that popular photo-sharing websites like Flickr allow images most would consider pornographic.

Flickr does have its own community-driven content flagging system, meaning those who do not opt to see porn shouldn't see any.  But there's no robust age verification system for the opt-in, so will our national net filter opt for a wholesale block on Flickr?  Or will it assess each image?  Or is porn/art on Flickr OK, whereas other websites are blocked?

As well as compiling and managing a massive list of websites, how will appeals be handled?  A company finding themselves accidentally added to the list could lose thousands or millions of pounds a year in lost trade.  In fact, how will a legitimate company, especially one overseas, establish they are on a block list?

Who will review the list, and how will the list be open to public scrutiny in order to prevent any political interference?

Problem 2 : the creeping threat to democracy

A key problem with any single-purpose censorship system is that it soon becomes very hard for a government to resist the temptation to expand the scope of the filter in order to address other perceived threats.

Reports from Australia, where the government has trialled a national internet filter, have claimed:
  • Even when users opt-out of the net filtering; many sites, including some adult pornography, gambling websites and overseas websites covering the topic of euthanasia remained blocked.

    The pressure for creep is exemplified by this quote from Australian newspaper The Age:
    "But asked to specify the categories of content that Senator Fielding would like blocked by the mandatory first tier, a Family First spokeswoman indicated the party would want X-rated and refused classification (RC) content banned for everyone, including adults."
  • Legitimate businesses were accidentally blocked, including a dentist and a kennel operator.

The pressure for creep in the UK is also present.  In 2008, the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith made a speech about extremist websites.  In that speech she linked violent extremism and paedophilia before spewing her now infamous quote:
"Where there is illegal material on the net, I want it removed"
But there is a significant difference between tackling extremism and the very limited, targeted filtering which is already applied to most UK net connections to block images of child abuse; in that one can be defined objectively, with very clear almost-universal boundaries; whilst extremism is highly subjective.

Without wanting to over-play the current situation in Egypt, it is clear that the Mubarak regime considers many of its political opponents extremists.  Whilst we can draw clear distinctions between any recent UK government and less democratic governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Iran...there is nevertheless an inherent danger to democracy once politically-motivated censorship is tolerated.

Problem 3 : cost

Only yesterday I was perhaps the first news source to reveal that the UK government has been forced to acknowledge that the cost of implementing the anti-copyright-infringement measures of the Digital Economy Act could lead to an increase in the cost of broadband and consequently price some poorer families off the net.

The cost of implementing any national net filter, together with a proper oversight and appeals body, would surely dwarf the cost of implementing sections of the Digital Economy Act.

Furthermore, unlike the Digital Economy Act where ISPs will only be asked to pay a quarter of total running costs, it is likely that a larger proportion of the costs of censoring the internet would be borne by ISPs (subject to this being legal under European law, see below).

So whilst a national net filter may protect some children, subject to workability (see below), it may also lead to further increases in the cost of broadband, pricing more families off the internet.

Problem 4: effectiveness

The question "how effective will net censorship be in protecting children?" actually breaks down into 2 categories:
  1. How effective will the technical measures be preventing children accessing restricted sites
  2. Will the censorship system stop children accessing porn by other means
My friend Trefor Davies does a good job at tackling my first point in his post How to get round your school's web filter.  Provocative, for the chief of a sizeable UK tech firm.

Bypassing a national internet filter is as simple as accessing an oversees web proxy or VPN (virtual, private network) service.  Since many corporations provide employees with access to VPN services in order to provide secure corporate communications, it will be both impracticable and highly illiberal to ban such services.

On point 2 I'm reminded of my own pre-internet school days, where certain boys were well-known for exploiting the ban on shops selling porn to children with their own black market.  These boys with older brothers or liberal fathers made considerable extra pocket money for selling literature way above cover price.

Will the situation be any difference in 2015, by which time a 64GB MicroSD card will probably cost a couple of quid, can hold 6 full-length HD porn movies or hundreds of thousands of pictures, and being the size of a fingernail can be hidden practically anywhere?

Will the unintended consequence of a child protection filter be the rise of the child black-marketeer?

Problem 5 : European Law

Briefly, I question whether any national net filter will be compatible with strict European rules limiting controls that states can impose on telecommunications service providers (Authorisation Directive 2002/20/EC) and e-commerce rules (2000/31/EC) giving ISPs protection from prosecution (sometimes called Safe Harbour) so long as they only act as information carriers and do no other filtering; they act as mere conduits.

As the law stands today, it is possible that any ISP implementing a filtering system in the network could loose mere conduit status, and therefore open themselves up to civil claims for damages should a subscriber suffer loss or damage as a result of using their internet service.

Appendix A: The ineffective censorship paradox

The last time I spoke on the subject of censorship (during a debate in the Jubilee Room at the Palace of Westminster, no less!), I was challenged to explain how a censorship system could be both ineffective and a threat to free speech, free expression and press freedom.

Firstly, a clarification.  When I talk about ineffective censorship I do need to acknowledge that in some cases even ineffective censorship is effective in preventing accidental exposure to content considered harmful.  But I strongly assert that the potential harm for any national net filtering plan far outweighs the limited good.

The answer to unravelling the paradox lies in motivation.  Anyone who's motivated to bypass a web filter will, in all likelihood, succeed in their aim, as all web filters are inherently ineffective given the limits of current technology and the current topography of the internet.

If a corrupt government decided to censor politically damaging information, until anyone knew of such information, no-one would be motivated to dig it out.

When the presence of such information becomes known, still only a minority of the electorate would be motivated to confirm this information.  If you remain unconvinced on this point, consider what proportion of the population take what they read in one newspaper as fact, never bothering to check with other news sources?

Censorship can be simultaneously effective in its misuse (as a political PR tool) and ineffective in its stated aim (protecting children from pornography) if children are more likely to (i) hear of the existence of porn on the internet; and, (ii) become motivated to bypass the access restriction; than the electorate are likely to learn of the existence of a cover-up and be motivated to find out more.

Appendix B: The compromise solution

Trefor again has some excellent parenting tips to help keep children safe on the internet.

If I were out there lobbying for measures to protect children from dangerous net content I would seriously consider scaling-back my demands, as network-level blocking is simply not workable, and instead look at compromise solutions, for example to encourage all ISPs to make protection software available for free, and easy to activate should the user so choose.

If such software was provided on home internet routers, all devices in the home would automatically be protected, not withstanding the ease of bypass.

In some respects it's easier to make filtering more robust in a domestic environment because it's practical to block some VPN and proxy services too.  If a similar block was put in the network, it would also catch everyone who needs to make a remote connection to their office for work, leaving such people faced with the prospect of having to phone up their ISP and ask for the porn filter to be lifted, leaving themselves open to potentially embarrassing questions from their partner.

I would still oppose any attempt to ship computers or routers with filtering enabled by default.


Thursday, 10 February 2011

UK government acknowledges that Digital Economy Act may keep net access from the poor

... and the DCMS gets confused between a leak and freedom of information...

The explosive revelations are contained in a government response by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to an obscure parliamentary body known as the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee.

The committee met to discuss the Statutory Instrument (SI) that sets out how the cost of running the anti-copyright-infringement measures of the Digital Economy Act will be shared between rights holders and ISPs. I'd already blogged that the European Commission had raised official concerns about this SI.

Responding to a challenge that the measures designed to tackle file sharing of music and films would increase the price of broadband and lead to some consumers being priced-off the internet, the government acknowledged that broadband take-up may be effected by the cost of running the scheme, said this was "regrettable", but they were going to do it anyway: 
The cost imposed on ISPs will increase broadband retail prices for all consumers, leading to low income consumers being priced out of internet access service;
Response (8): the Government has acknowledged that there may be an effect on broadband take-up should ISPs pass on the full cost of the process. This is regrettable, but needs to be balanced against the wider benefit to the UK’s digital economy.
It's simply astonishing that the government can admit, at a time when public libraries and places where internet access is available to low income families are under threat, that they are pushing through legislation that may further limit the number of households that can afford broadband.

More good news for Digital Economy Act campaigners
...and the leak - that wasn't!

The official report, the 21st Report of Session 2010-11 from the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee draws "special attention of the house" to the SI.  This is excellent news for those campaigning against the disproportionate measures contained in the Act. 

The full report is well worth a read as it contains as an appendix the submissions by several bodies including (amongst others) UK Music, Creative Coalition Campaign, British Telecom, Talk Talk, Consumer Focus, barrister Francis Davey and Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

I've highlighted the last two because Francis Davey wrote this blog post based on my "leaking" (note I never used this word in my blog post) of the EC concerns raised on this SI.

In their official submission to the Committee, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport refused to divulge the UK Government's response to the points raised by the EC, citing:
"The communication from the Commission is considered to be confidential, and since the UK Government’s response would essentially reveal the contents of the Commission communication we have not published it."
Then, amazingly, the DCMS refers to my "leak":
"We are aware that a leaked copy of the Commission communication is available, but we do not comment in such circumstances."
Over the past few weeks I've been trying to contact the press offices of BIS, DCMS and Ofcom to get comment on this and other information passed to me.  If only they'd been a bit more helpful they may have asked me a question - about the source of my leak.  Or they could have simply followed me on Twitter, where, after using the #firthyleaks hashtag in my original post, once I had verified the pedigree of the document I then made the source clear:

Freedom of information regulations!  Not the UK's Freedom of Information Act but "Regulation No 1049/2001" of the EC concerning public access to information, and below is the covering letter to prove it.

(Journalists - if I know you I can provide a non-redacted copy).

Surely a quick telephone call from an official within the DCMS to either my blog (contact details above) or the EC would establish this fact?

The only limitation on EC information published under Regulation No 1049/2001 is that it not be used for commercial purposes.  My blog is a news source and makes no money, and I don't think a parliamentary committee would be classed as a commercial venture.


Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Dalton Firth web traffic survey II

A few months ago I combined web logs for the sites I run (not just this blog!) with a database of web browser 'user agent strings' I maintain to give some indication of the popularity of various mobile phone platforms.

I now have a database of over 3 million page views covering an 8-month period.  Together with my growing categorised database of over 69,000 web browsers gives an interesting if not too scientific* overview of the market.

* The data sample is self-selecting by the types of sites I run - mostly data sets related to UK current affairs

1. Mobile traffic share: where's the Android surge?!
The key surprises here are:
  1. Android is slowly growing market share despite a dip in November, but failing to take any great chunks out of the iPhone share
  2. iPod use (nb p.o.d) is dropping off.  A surprise of my last survey was the high proportion of traffic coming from iPods.  It's no surprise we're seeing use dropping off - the demand for iPods is surely giving way to the iPhone...
  3. Symbian is on the rise again - maybe! Assuming the November data point is an anomaly we're still seeing steady growth of share over the 8-month period

 2. All traffic share - still dominated by desk/laptop
The slow rise in iPad use is to be expected here.  The key surprise is the Apple desk and laptop share dropping away again.  It looked like it was set to continue the rise seen June-September, especially given Apple's recent Stellar Quarter.  Another quirk is seeing Windows take a temporary chunk out of Apple over December.  Does this indicate that fewer home users have Macs, therefore we see a surge in Windows use when everyone's at home for Christmas?

Another surprise is the non-show for mobile traffic share.  Judging by what others are saying I'd expected to see mobile traffic start to appear above the noise.  Oh, and Android tablets?! I'm seeing a spattering, but not enough to make the chart.

3. Windows traffic by version: XP just won't die!

Windows 7 has overtaken Vista in traffic share. Great! If only Microsoft pushed-out Windows 7 in the next Vista update I'd be over the moon...

But Windows XP just won't die.  There's maybe a hint of a decline between June and November, but then yet another strange Christmas effect.  And I can't explain this one away as a home/office split - surely we'd expect XP to lurk in the office where some IT support staff are reportedly still reluctant to roll-out Windows 7.  Or are they?

4.Bots and crawlers - don't be fooled by your site's hit counter!
Web crawlers and robots accounted for a whopping 16.9% of all traffic.  That's over half a million visits.  Not sure what the chart tells us about spikes of the traffic share in August and December.  The content of my sites didn't refresh much over the summer, but there was a big refresh in December.

On the subject of fooling yourself on the number of real visits to any given site, I happened to do a few experiments with links posted on Twitter over this period.  I found a floor of 20-30 bots visited each link posted.  And this value was pretty much independent of the follower count.

So if you post your latest blog on Twitter and see a flurry of page views, say 25... I'm sorry to report that it's highly likely they're all crawlers.  On my own blog I've found it takes a fair few hours and a handful of helpful retweets before the "real" visitors (those with recognised web browser user agent strings) overtakes the bot count.

That's all for this quarter - I plan to post an update in 3 months.


Friday, 4 February 2011

Pod Delusion Episode 70 : *almost* a digital rights special!

I'm on this week's Pod Delusion talking about privacy implications of browser add-ons highlighted by the Bing copies Google spat..  But don't just skip to my section (15 minutes in, but seriously, don't skip...) as the whole show is excellent.

MP3 Download : Episode 70 on the Pod Delusion Blog

Completely by chance it's a bit of a digital rights special; with my good friend from student radio days Salim Fadhley talking about mesh networks such as the Serval Project, and how they can be used to route around censorship, with reference to the current situation in Egypt; and Alex Foster talking about the copyright implications from the community-run talking book service Librivox.org.

There's also excellent pieces on library closures by James O'Malley and  Kash Farooq drawing a distinction between Skepticism and Denialism.

Reggie from The Suburban Pirate joins James to talk about their campaign against library closures, and closes the show with an excellent dub track in support of democracy in Egypt, featuring John Farnham's barrel of a gun: "We're not gonna sit in silence, we're not gonna live with fear...."

Oh, and there's me - talking about privacy!  (Did I say that?!)


Wednesday, 2 February 2011

*Exclusive* International body representing libraries raises official objections to UK Digital Economy Act

As will be clear from previous postings, the legislative progress of the measures in the Digital Economy Act designed to clamp down on those who unlawfully share copyrighted works such as music and films over the internet is both complex and hesitatingly shaky.

A quick recap on a very complex piece of legislation

The act passed last year can be broken into three sections:
1.) Measures to tackle those who download or share infringing content
2.) Measures to block [oversees] websites which facilitate infringement
3.) The rest of the act dealing with a whole range of unrelated issues

None of the measures listed under (1) and (2) above are currently active in law.

There are already 2 separate reviews under way covering the measures I list under (1).  A judicial review brought by ISPs BT and Talk Talk, and a review by the Culture, Media and Sport select committee.

In addition, the government yesterday announced a further review by Ofcom into the web blocking (2) - AKA net censorship - provisions of the Digital Economy Act.  Whilst yesterday's announced review of these (currently dormant) provisions was welcomed by come campaigners, the government has previously stated it had "no immediate plans" to enable these provisions, so I'm left wondering whether the review by Ofcom could mark the start of the end, or the start of another draconian power-grab for control of the internet.

To enable either of the measures falling into categories (1) and (2) in my list, enabling legislation must pass a vote of both houses of parliament.

Furthermore, to enable measures falling under (1) requires two pieces of legislation - Statutory Instruments (SIs) - are required, that together form what is know as the Initial Obligations Code.

The first SI sets out how the cost of running the measures will be split between Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and copyright holders, and is known as the Initial Obligations Code (Sharing of Costs) Order.  The second SI will describe how the measures to punish those who infringe copyright will actually work, including how the appeals process will operate.

Still with me?  Left wondering how much valuable parliamentary and departmental time has already been wasted on a behemoth of a law that will probably (hopefully!) never see the light of day; or, if finally enacted, do very little to change attitudes of net users?

The exclusive bit

The passage of the Sharing of Costs Order in parliament has drawn the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) into the prolonged row between civil rights groups and entertainment industry bodies.

The IFLA represents over 750,000 library and information professionals in more than 150 countries worldwide, including many UK libraries, the British Library and Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), so its views should carry significant weight in a battle where those opposing the Act are often dismissed as "freeloaders" by those pushing for stricter controls over the internet.

Stuart Hamilton, senior policy advisor at the IFLA based in the The Hague wrote to the parliamentary committee currently studying the Sharing of Costs Order outlining the IFLAs objections with a list of comments that had previously been sent to the European Commission when it studied this Order before Christmas.

The bulk of the IFLA's concerns relate to the confusion around the definition of libraries and other public bodies providing internet access to borrowers, as these institutions fall between two categories: subscribers of internet services (ie ordinary users) and providers of internet services.  I previously explored these issues in my write-up of a session of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Digital Economy (DE-APPG) at the British Library in November.
"As an ISP, a library can be made responsible for the monitoring of their networks for copyright infringement and incur significant financial obligations as a result. As a subscriber, libraries are likely to receive notifications from their ISP to the effect that a copyright owner has made a report against them for alleged copyright infringement. The financial and time costs of complying with or appealing against this type of situation cannot be underestimated, nor can the types of penalty that could be imposed on libraries as result of an infringement by an individual user, such as the imposition of technical measures (such as reductions in quality of internet service, which ultimately affect library users)."
Mr Hamilton went on to re-emphasise the "as yet-unknown costs" (in complying with the Digital Economy Act) came "at a time when library budgets are being cut across the United Kingdom and Europe".

The IFLA also feel that "adequate impact assessment have not been undertaken to assess the true financial implications of the act", after previously highlighting that the Act will bring "likely significant" cost on "all types of ISP"

The submission goes on to explore a couple of significant civil rights issues that were only just touched on in the November DE-APPG session at the British Library:
"the imposition of new restrictions on library networks runs counter to the library’s vital mission of providing freedom of access to information to its users. Not only does the legislation potentially lead to or encourage the adoption of blocking technologies that are valuable for learning and information sharing in an educational context, it also raises fundamental freedom of expression and privacy issues as public bodies inevitably monitor the activities of their users.

The chilling effect of the monitoring of Internet use should not be underestimated, and the electronic recording of library users’ information seeking activities is not consistent with a democratic approach to access to knowledge. Library users should be free to seek information without barriers, and without fear of surveillance."
The IFLA also highlights the potential for creep in European Law, arguing that acts such as the Digital Economy Act in the UK and HADOPI in France have the potential to "to shape the European legislative environment with regards to digital copyright in the future" and that could be to the detriment of library users across Europe "as libraries pick up the financial and ethical burdens of complying with the new laws."


What the Bing-copies-Google spat has to do with your privacy

Adapted from original image by Alan Cleaver CC-BY
It's an interesting heavyweight spat between technology giants, but behind the allegation that Bing copied search engine results from Google lies a frightening reminder of a practice that intrudes on your private web habits.

When Danny Sullivan posted on Search Engine Land that Bing had been copying search results from Google the story went viral, and has since appeared in the morning papers here in the UK.

The resulting traffic crippled the Search Engine Land website, and forced Microsoft to issue a denial: we do not copy Google's results.

I caught the news early on Twitter and, unable for a couple of hours to access Danny's original article, I puzzled over how Google could let this happen!  The technology exists to limit the ability of your rivals to take a wholesale copy of any website.

I'd bet my house on Google having the technology to prevent rivals stealing results.  To do this on a commercial scale, as required by a large rival like Bing, and not get caught, would simply be : impossible.

Which brings me on to privacy and why this story is important to us all.  A post on the official Google blog links Bing's copying of search results to the Bing browser tool bar and/or the Suggested Sites feature of Internet Explorer.  Many people use these convenient browser add-ons, but few are aware - or even care - exactly how much personal information might be sent back to the maker of the add-on.

Implicit in the allegations detailed on the official Google blog is that the browser, combined with the Bing tool bar, does, in certain circumstances such as the configuration outlined in Google's blog posting, send substantial portions - if not the whole - of the web page visited back to Microsoft.

Software engineers have known ever since web browser add-ons were invented that any add-on has the potential to snoop on your entire web browsing session.

Of course any reputable company is restricted by privacy laws* and a desire to protect their reputation and maintain public trust, but I wonder how many of us have clicked the "accept" button for an add-on without realising we had just granted permission for the maker of that tool to snoop on your web browsing? Without really appreciating that almost everything you do in your web browser could be relayed back to a third party?

Because of this I use very few browser add-ons; and, without sounding too paranoid, I would seriously urge readers to review the list of add-ons installed on their browser and consider whether (a) that tool brings you any tangible benefits and (b) you trust the supplier of the add-on to only take the information it says it wants and process any information gathered in a secure and sensitive way.  If the answer to either question is no, then remove it without hesitation!

Privacy isn't about having something to hide, it's about taking sensible precautions to limit who knows what about you.  In practical terms this will limit the capacity of spammers and marketeers to hassle you with marketing messages and reduce the possibility that some of your personal details may fall into the hands of criminals and be misused in an attempt to hijack your online accounts.

But in general terms privacy is about limiting the power others have over you once they know information about you.  Again we're not talking about hiding illegal or even immoral or embarrassing acts, but how many of us would be happy for our parents to know every detail of our lives that our close friends know?  It's a basic right to be able to choose what information we share and with whom.

*A quick note on privacy laws - laws are local to a particular state or country, whilst most internet services have an international reach.  I discussed the implications of this in my elastic jurisdiction post.
And also a caution on reputation.  Whilst a company may well take your privacy very seriously, there is always the risk of a data leak.  All it takes is one rogue employee who may be tempted to sell for example account names or email addresses on the black market - and there is such a market - or one engineer to make a simple error or miscalculation for private data to be released.

Taking privacy seriously also encompasses several basic principles, such as: collecting and storing only the minimum amount of data necessary for any given purpose; and, processing the information in such as way as to remove or decouple identifying information such as IP and email addresses, account IDs etc from the data gathered at the earliest opportunity.