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

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.