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

Got a tip? tip@sroc.eu

Thursday, 30 June 2011

First impressions of Google+: rivals beware

Only time will tell whether circles become a killer feature that gives Google+ an edge over rivals.  I wrote a bit about the privacy angle of circles on the Open Digital Policy Blog.

It will take a bit of time for users to thoroughly understand the functionality - and any unintended side effects - of the new features of Google+.  Already, my partner in Open Digital Julian Ranger has uncovered a potential for spam.

But my general impression is that rivals should be very worried indeed.  Until yesterday there was no serious rival to Facebook.  If you wanted to share a few photos and have a chinwag with friends you had Facebook or a slew of buggy functionality-void rivals.

A challenger doesn't necessarily have to beat Facebook, it just has to offer a credible alternative.  There's enough reasons to leave Facebook, but I'll get on to that in a minute.

Part of the credibility challenge is providing impetus: a critical mass of initial users so enough people can try out the features; and Google is one of the few companies in a position to do that, literally overnight.

On the Open Digital Policy blog: Google+ and privacy circles

I've been arguing too few people pay attention to what privacy actually means.  We bandy the word around in all kinds of contexts.

Is data loss a privacy breach, or a breach of trust?  We willingly handed-over our private data to a third party - a data loss is just part of the risk equation, right?

Is a kiss-and-tell a privacy issue, or a disregard of implied confidentiality?

What is absolutely certain is that the web introduces a whole new domain of privacy issues.  Some say the internet changes everything, but at Open Digital we prefer to look at the internet simply as a tool facilitating human interaction; and, as such, the internet just offers a new and efficient medium for channelling some antisocial behaviour patterns.

Almost all online privacy worries boil down to one simple question: what are the likely consequences of my action?

>> Read more on the Open Digital Policy Blog >>

Monday, 27 June 2011

Competing with free

I'm often asked (sometimes quite angrily) at meetings, conferences and forums discussing digital copyright protection "how the hell are we [the rights holders] supposed to compete with free?"

Just because something's available for free:
  1. doesn't mean people aren't prepared to pay for the same item; and,
  2. doesn't mean there aren't ways to profit in some other way
The answer lies in audience.  Don't believe me?  I've used the Google search: Sainsbury's Customer Service Helpline for well over a year as an example.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Ed Vaizey, please open up your closed-door industry round table meetings

UPDATE 12:49 I'm delighted (and surprised) Ed Vaizey just responded on Twitter

Somebody took it upon themselves to tip me off about a series of closed-door industry meetings between large ISPs and representatives of copyright-holders' groups such as the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), Motion Pictures Asociattion (MPA) and the Premier League; chaired by minister for the internet Ed Vaizey.

Not only that, but they leaked a confidential proposal for censorship of websites carrying copyright infringing topics, which has since been reported on El Reg and the BBC.

I have three reasons why I felt the proposal needed public scrutiny, and none has anything to do with defending those who infringe other people's copyright.  Yes, I believe copyright reform is well overdue, but I'm not a copyright abolitionist and I don't condone the operating methods of many of the sites the rights holders want blocking.

Firstly, blocking is not the answer.  The risks of censorship outweigh the rewards.  I've dealt with this question in numerous past posts and will no doubt explain more in future.

Secondly, the technical feasibility and cost burden of censorship needs much greater scrutiny.  It places an undue burden on ISPs at a time when their margins are being squeezed by competition ( - a thoroughly good thing, IMO) and reinvestment in faster, higher-capacity services.

And thirdly, the closed-door approach is not compatible with aims of self-regulation in an open market.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

On the Open Digital Policy blog: Privacy, utility and clarity

Ask ten digital policy experts their view on internet privacy and you're highly unlikely to get a consensus. In fact you might not hear the same opinion expressed by any two.

It will take a great deal of time and research to understand the best approach to provide a balanced right to privacy in the age of data ubiquity whilst protecting core democratic values like free speech.

John Hendel, writing in The Atlantic, forecast a US/Europe split; with Europe heading down the regulation route as it attempts to protect individual privacy - through concepts such as the right to be forgottenwhilst the UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue's report on internet freedoms (pdf) clearly favours free speech - as does the US, given the First Amendment right.

A case from 2009 serves as a good example of the general conflict, when a German law firm attempted to get the names of convicted murderers removed from a Wikipedia page.

>> Read more and see the video on the Open Digital Policy Blog >>


Reports this blog blocked by T-mobile as "adult" content

Reported on Kevin Townsend's blog (and I've no reason to doubt him) is that this blog is now being blocked by T-Mobile as "adult content".

That'll teach me not to upset the censors by writing about the down-side of web blocking, or leaking industry proposals for a national copyright filter that very much warrants public scrutiny.

So are any other ISPs blocking me?


Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Premier League joins group lobbying for web blocking, proposing confused "voluntary" scheme - overseen by the courts

If I put the document online,
will I get extradited for infringement?

UPDATE 18:31 Oh look, the
Open Rights Group have
published the full proposal...
"Confidential" documents sent to this blog show the Premier League has joined a coalition of rights holders including the Publishers Association, BPI, Motion Picture Association and others lobbying hard for a great copyright firewall of Britain.

The group is attempting to influence public policy with a desperate-sounding and confused in places confidential submission to minister for the internets Ed Vaizey, who discussed the proposal at a meeting of stakeholders (including ISPs) last Wednesday.

A source very close to the situation told me, "whatever you think about copyright enforcement, this isn't the right way to draft public policy - in closed-door meetings discussing confidential documents with selected attendees."

The eight-page memo makes copious yet unsubstantiated reference to rights and freedoms, yet calls for a court-overseen blocking scheme "speedy enough to deal with urgent time sensitive material (such as live events)".  the report later goes on to say:

"Evidence should also be submitted to show the urgency with which the measures are sought to inform any balance that needs to be struck by the expert body and the Court between the need for swift action and the need for sufficient evidence."
(my bold)

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Launching: Open Digital Policy - the mission

In a word it's about trust. The rapid pace of technological development over the last 30 years has left a generation of consumers baffled as to the risks and rewards of online engagement.

Open Digital Policy believes in the positive power of the internet; bringing convenience and new opportunities; as a global communications tool, to bridge cultural divides; as a citizen and consumer feedback channel, to hold governments and corporations to account; as a social platform to enrich lives; and, as an opportunity for all ethical businesses to innovate, compete and be rewarded.

> Read more on the Open Digital Policy Blog >>

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Grumpy blogger: DCMS and BIS late with FOIA responses, grrr @ mainstream press

I know, it's the ultimate blogging cliché - bashing the mainstream media... I've refrained from bashing journalists on my blog, partly because my wife is one!

Yesterday the Guardian ran a story about the cost of the Digital Economy Act.  They linked to my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but not my blog up 24 hours earlier.  On one hand I thank the Guardian for running the story and raising awareness, but would it be so hard to provide a link-back to my original story?

So I tweeted the story author Josh Halliday, who updated the article, but insisted on calling me a lobbyist.  A digital rights lobbyist, but still a lobbyist.  Ok, what's in a name - I can live with that.  But then, minutes later, the article reverts to the original.  No credit for the legwork.

A bit more work went into my series of  requests than just firing them off.  I had to work out how to word them to ensure I got an answer, and I've been gently reminding officials at DCMS and Ofcom that it would be hard to refuse my request under the law!  A surprising number of FOIA requests are not answered for various technical reasons.

The dilemma I have is in my use of the MySociety website whatdotheyknow.com to submit future FOIA requests.  On one hand it saves on public money by reducing duplication - any response enters the public archive and is searchable by people wanting similar information.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Richard O'Dwyer extradition to the US for UK-based links website: it's essential we stand up for our sovereign rights

Make a fuss on Twitter, #ODwyer
When I first blogged on Wednesday about an attempt to extradite Richard O'Dwyer, a 23-year-old student at Sheffield Hallam University, to face criminal copyright infringement charges in the US; facts were still scarce.

I credited Metro, but it turns out the Sheffield Star broke the story.  But it was unusual for a city paper or Metro to break a potentially huge news story; especially a tech story.  Credit to Chris Williams at the Telegraph for doing some proper digging over 2 days to establish some reasonably solid facts, and keeping me in the loop, so I'm confident good journalism, not churnalism, lies behind the Telegraph story.

Possibly the first blogger to comment; on the limited facts available, I was outraged.  I drew parallels with the failed attempt to prosecute OiNK administrator Sean Ellis last year in the UK, for what appeared to be similar charges.

Chris Williams confirms in his article that the allegations relate to mere links to infringing material, and solicitor David Cook, part of the defence team in the case against OiNK writes in the Telegraph about another links website TV-Links (which I also mentioned in my post on Wednesday!) to show how British law has failed to prosecute websites which merely link to pirated material.

But behind my outrage does not lie a desire to see copyright rules flouted online.

To understand the importance of the O'Dwyer story I need to make a clear distinction between the rights and wrongs of the copyright debate and the legal and political issues surrounding the case.

Note: parallels to the Gary McKinnon case are not helpful in explaining my position!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Ofcom to spend an estimated £5.9m as real cost of Digital Economy Act starts to emerge, and there's a lock-in!

As your MP to sign an Early Day
Motion calling for a re-think
UPDATE 10-June-2011:  DCMS have responded with an estimated total spent of £115,626.49.  From my understanding of the legislation, unlike Ofcom's costs, these costs can't be claimed back as "set up costs" from rights holders once the notification process gets up and running.

Although the DCMS were quick to point out that "93% of our judicial review court costs should be paid by the claimants".  See the full answer from DCMS on the excellent MySociety.org website WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

>> Original post >>

Another scoop for SROC today as Ofcom answered the first of a series of Freedom of Information Act requests I made to government departments to uncover the cost of implementing the digital copyright enforcement measures in the Digital Economy Act.

Noting that Ofcom is only one department involved (the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, DCMS, has undertaken a substantial amount of work but is yet to answer), the total amount spent since the Act was passed is £1.9m; which includes £1.8m on the 3-strikes notification and appeals procedures and £100,000 on a review of the potential efficacy of the site-blocking provisions of the DEA (section 17 and 18).

Ofcom expect to spend a further £4.0m in the current financial year, responding to my request to divulge any estimates made in their forward plans, taking the grand total to £5.9m - excluding anything spent at the DCMS.  It also doesn't include any pre-legislative work on the draft bill as it passed slowly through the Lords (and very quickly through the Commons).

Is Facebook contempt case just the tip of the iceberg?

Juror Joanne Fraill was jailed for 8 months today after admitting one charge of contempt of court when if was discovered that she contacted defendant Jamie Sewart.  BBC has the full story.

For a while now I've been raising the issue of judicial secrecy having potentially undesirable unintended consequences.  Firstly, Fraill was jailed by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, without a jury trial.  There was even speculation the contempt hearing could have been heard in secret, although this was not the case.

We don't know how widespread the problem is; is Frail just the one that got caught, whilst countless other offences go undetected? Yet because it's a criminal offence under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 for anyone to solicit any information from a juror about any case we may never know whether there is a problem or not.

Parliament.uk to move to Creative Commons?

Last night the Hansard Society asked the question: "The digital agenda for change: where are we one year on?" at their democracy (eDemocracy?!) forum in Parliament last night.

Andy Williamson sat in the chair, with opening speeches from MPs Julian Huppert and Kris Hopkins.

Tom Barfield covers the debate on his blog and Andy Williamson has posted his thoughts about Parliamentary Copyright.

The most interesting remark of the evening came from Richard Ware in the audience, who happens to be Director of Programmes and Development at Parliamentary ICT.  Richard indicated that Parliamentary Copyright, which applies to most content on parliament.uk, could be replaced with a Creative Commons license.
"We're not looking to make any kind of return from this content.  For us it's more important to open up the information and see what people can do with it."
This wasn't a firm promise, but it's very encouraging to hear senior parliamentary staff speaking so positively about a change.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

US try to extradite UK student for "copyright infringement" allegedly committed in UK

Follow the #ODwyer hashtag
Metro has the story of a UK student Richard O'Dwyer, who faces extradition and possible US jail time for alleged copyright infringement on his [UK] website.

O'Dwyer is reportedly on bail, set at £3,000.

When I wrote about problems regulating online content and services across multiple jurisdictions I never dreamed countries would attempt to use extradition proceedings for acts committed on UK soil.

The metro story lists mere hyperlinking to content as the alleged grounds for extradition.

The US-UK extradition pact is already under the spotlight over the Gary McKinnon extradition. Gary was in the UK when he gained unauthorised access to US military systems, an offence he admitted, but claims he should be tried under equivalent legislation in the UK (Computer Misuse Act 1990).

This case lowers the insanity bar to ridiculous levels.  The only case I know about for criminal copyright infringement in the UK that went to full trial (R v Alan Ellis, more below) failed when the defendant argued linking to copyrighted content did not constitute infringement.  He was cleared of one count of conspiracy to defraud.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Software patents: protecting innovation or a monopolistic tool and barrier to entry for small tech firms?

My single biggest concern under the digital policy umbrella is the emergence of monopolistic practices from dominant players; and software patents sit, alongside copyright, centre stage.

Once the cost of litigation, speculative patent portfolios and patent-office folly is taken into account; what should be a finely-balanced weapon to protect innovators has become, in the world of software at least, the nuclear missile of corporate warfare.

Market competition vs regulation

Government micro-regulation of most aspects of online business can be avoided if the free and open market works.

It's not that I'm a raving libertarian see-no-evil capitalist - capitalism sucks! But it sucks less than state control, since the link between customer and corporate revenue is far more direct than the link between elector and government in most democracies.

The public can kill almost any corporation if sufficient numbers choose not to put their ££s, €€s, $$s into its products.

The internet helps open up all markets, even offline businesses, as it closes the feedback loop between customer and supplier on a scale never previously possible:- where suppliers choose to "bunker down" and ignore customer concerns, customers will simply communicate their experiences directly with other customers.

Friday, 10 June 2011

British Transport Police apologise to Emma after her escape from South West Trains

British Transport Police have today issued a statement saying:
"We fully understand the concerns and frustrations of passengers, particularly the heavily pregnant woman, and we are sorry if anyone felt our officers were not sympathetic to their plight."
 A press officer explained to me:
"Our clear priority is the safety of passenger safety and making sure they do not do anything that puts them or other persons at risk.

Even when power may seem to be off, some parts of the tracks can remain electrified.
Only last Saturday, a woman received serious burns after forcing open the doors of a stationary train and walking on tracks in South Croydon before coming into contact with the live rail"
We both appreciate the safety concerns and this statement.

Major questions over incident management as thousands of passengers stranded on South West Trains suburban commuter services

After the train had been stationary for around two hours passengers on the 18:25 South West Trains service from London Waterloo to Alton heard an alarming announcement: "If there is a doctor or anyone with insulin on board, can you please make yourself known to the driver or the guard."

Emma is 8 months pregnant.  Having waited twenty minutes for the delayed service she joined at Clapham Junction at ten to seven, she expected to be home in Farnham and enjoying a cooked meal by eight. At twenty past ten, four hours after arriving at Clapham Junction, she was still on a train that had been stationary for over 3 hours outside Woking. "It was just really lucky I had a Mars bar at Clapham," she joked.

A source at South West Trains told me up to 22 trains were stranded at 9pm this evening.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

First they blocked...

First they blocked the child pornography,
and really, who could argue with that?

Then they blocked the terrorist websites,
and I didn't speak out, because I'm not a terrorist.

Then they blocked Anonymous and the hacktivists,
and I didn't speak out, because I'm not a hacktivist.

Then they blocked my blog,
And there was no way I could speak out about political censorship.

Adapted from First They Came, by Pastor Martin Niemöller


Digital Economy Act to be "rebooted" before summer recess

1. Check cable, power and then reboot #deact
Jeremy hunt at election night 2010: J. Firth
Exclusive to my blog I've had several opportunities to collar officials very close to the continued progress of the Digital Economy Act and can reveal:
  • Minister(s) are driving a "reboot" (not my phrase) of progress to complete the remaining two pieces of legislation required before the Act comes in to force
  • Both the draft Cost Sharing Regulations (determining how much ISPs will pay towards copyright enforcement) and the Initial Obligations Code (determining how the notification and appeals process will work) will be notified to the European Commission before the parliamentary summer recess, meaning the three-month EC consultation period will have closed in time to lay both Statutory Instruments (SIs) before parliament in early autumn

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Barclaycard robots read each link I post on Twitter

This is a real WTF.  As some may have noticed I've experimented over the last couple of years with my own url shortener ejf.me. I use the data along with amalgamated visitor stats from other sites I run to compile my web trends charts.

I have also spent the last few years studying robots that visit my blogs and sites, and as part of this study I maintain a categorised database of web browser user agent strings, and a list of IP subnets where robots are likely to reside (e.g. Amazon Web Services, Google, Yahoo etc).

I've identified several methods to detect anomalies, such as robot behaviour from visitors who don't identify themselves as robots in the user agent string.  Behaviours such as: frequent repeat visits; frequent visits within a very short time of publication; failure to download images and other superfluous page elements during a visit; and, odd combinations of capabilities in the user agent string itself.

Since 19th May 2011 I've noticed one such anomaly from an IP subnet listed as belonging to Barclaycard:

FAST: software rights-holder group listening to all sides of #deact debate... Really!

When I heard that a group representing the interests of software rights holders, the Federation Against Software Theft, was hosting a legal seminar to discuss issues relating to copyright I  had rather dark visions of a cluster of lawyers concocting the most fee-intensive solution to enforcing intellectual property (IP) rights online.

The agenda was interesting, and I wanted to hear what they had to say:
  • Hargreaves review, from the perspective of two members of the review
  • Digital Economy Act, including a progress update from DCMS
  • Cloud computing law, by lawyer and author Renzo Marchini
  • Online IP enforcement, by enforcement firm MarkMonitor (owner of DtecNet) - used by the MPAA, movie studios and many other rights holders to detect, monitor and tackle online IP infringement
But FLAG - the FAST Legal Advisory Group - were charging non-members a not-inconsiderable entry fee.  My views on copyright enforcement and particularly the Digital Economy Act well-known, I doubted my speculative request for a free ticket would yield results.

The fact that FAST responded with an invite is notable in itself, as was their approach to the seminar. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Poll: blogs and advertising

According to my own research there are an estimated 22 million active blogs with sufficient monthly traffic to be ranked by web traffic monitoring companies such as Alexa and Hitwise.

As for the total number of blogs, it's anyone's guess - estimates range from 100 million to half a billion.  Gartner claimed at the end of 2006 that the number of blogs would "level out" at 100 million, adding that 200 million people had already given up writing their blogs!

My question is:
If I put unobtrusive advertising on my blog, would that affect your perception of me and the issues I raise?
You can vote here until midday next Tuesday, 14th June.

Data percolation and court injunctions/super-injunctions

7-day search keyword report for this blog 7/6/11
I guess many of us think twice before typing certain search terms into our favourite search engines; but, outside the internet industry, how many have thought they might be breaking a court injunction from merely searching for a subject?

The picture shown is the top-10 search terms used to find this blog.

I was surprised to see at number 3 a name I'd never heard of, in quotes, followed by the word injunction.

I've no idea if this person has an active UK court injunction; however, it highlights a fact that many might not be aware of: every time you click on a link in most search engines, the term you entered in the search box is passed to that website.

Friday, 3 June 2011

The UK criminal "libel" law

Multiple sources are reporting that lawyers acting for Simon Cowell have made a complaint to the police of "malicious communications" for the already-infamous "insider" allegation that Britain's Got Talent is rigged.

Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 states:
(1) Any person who sends to another person—

(a) a letter, electronic communication or article of any description which conveys—
<sub-clauses removed for clarity>

(iii) information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender;

<sub-clause (b) removed for clarity>

is guilty of an offence if his purpose, or one of his purposes, in sending it is that it should, so far as falling within paragraph (a) or (b) above, cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any other person to whom he intends that it or its contents or nature should be communicated.
I have mixed feelings about this.  The law should act as a backstop, and I'm not convinced it's an entirely appropriate use of police resources - especially in this case, where a multi-national entertainment empire should be more than capable of defending their own reputation against the internet equivalent of pub talk.

I don't want to speculate on the details of what appears to be an active investigation, but in a general sense the prosecution would need to prove an intention to cause "distress or anxiety".  Quite a subjective question, since one could argue that the very fact someone had knowingly made a false allegation could cause distress or anxiety in itself!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Windows continues decline, Android approaches iPhone, Apple dominates weekend: DF web traffic survey III

Percentage of all web traffic:
Windows continues to lose out to Apple (Mac and iPad)
I now have a full year's worth of traffic data from the sites I run, giving me a sample size over 4.2m page impressions and a categorised browser user agent database of over 84,300.  I know this is a non-representative sample, but the trends are still interesting to note.

First chart shows Windows continue to lose out to Apple Mac and Apple iPad.  Windows traffic is down 7.4 percentage points, whilst Mac OS X traffic increased by a whopping two-thirds (up 5.2 percentage points) to 12.6% of all traffic. iPad has collared a 3% traffic share since launch.