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Thursday, 28 July 2011

Newzbin blocking and ISP "mere conduit" defence

In light of BT being ordered by the High Court to block links aggregation service Newzbin on copyright grounds, I'm reminded of a discussion taking place several years ago.

When the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) was established and some UK ISPs started blocking sites hosting images of child abuse very few people were willing to fight this move in public.

The establishment of the IWF and installation of systems to block websites was seen as a dangerous step towards censorship by civil rights campaigners at the time, but it was also a highly-focussed and tightly-controlled censorship mechanism in which the state played no role.

So the majority of civil rights campaigners accepted the system as part of the imperfect compromise in every democracy.

But one interesting discussion I was party to many years ago centred around whether an ISP's legal rights would shift if they installed a blocking system commonly referred to by its trade name Cleenfeed.

28 July 2011: UK internet enters new era of censorship and control

Do not for a minute convince yourself that the High Court's decision to force ISP BT to block access to newsgroup link aggregator service Newzbin is right on any level.

Today is a terrible day for liberty and democracy.  The precedent has been set - there is a mechanism for state-backed censorship of the internet in the UK.

[Full ruling available on the BBC website (pdf)]

Put issues of copyright, ownership of intellectual property etc aside for a minute and consider that, today, we entered an era of centralised control over what we can and cannot view on the internet.

Who runs and oversees the process deciding what we can and cannot see online?  The courts?  Well who pays for the action to force ISPs to block websites?  More importantly, who pays to defend the interest of the overseas sites being blocked?

Who pays to represent the interests of the public in an adversarial legal system which puts the interests of rights holders against the interests of ISPs?

You may see this as a clear-cut case to protect against piracy.  I don't and never have condoned piracy, but I'm convinced this new era of censorship is open to abuse.

Government purchasing: an insider view

Some companies spend over £250,000 bidding for a large government contract.  They bid with the knowledge they will win on average only one in four bids.  That's a spend of £1m to recoup on each successful project to cover the cost of bidding.

My experience isn't limited to the IT sector, but when a report by MPs released today found some government departments were paying ten times the market value for goods and services I wasn't surprised.

Before I started blogging I ran my own small IT company, with a product - Budget Activity Tracker - designed to manage spending decisions on publicly-financed construction projects.  As a new company with an unproven track record the only way I could get near a government contract was via a third party supplier - who would add their slice of profit on their terms.

But my career has been an eye-opener into the world of government contracting.  I worked closely with two large UK companies selling (non-IT) services to government departments. Before that I worked as a system architect on the police communications network Airwave, and before that on MoD and DoD funded radar research.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

UK growth and the impact of that extra bank holiday

Ask the bunting manufacturers...

The leaves on the line or wrong type of snow excuse for yesterday's growth figures was the Royal wedding.

The extra day's bank holiday reduced what should have been a 61-day working period to 60 days; and this, apparently, seriously impacted our productivity.

But GDP isn't strictly a measure of productivity - it's a measure of combined economic activity; such as, activity stimulated by the estimated 2.3m extra visitors coming to London for the wedding.  The rail/air/bus fares paid by said tourists.  The food purchased and beer drank...

In fact, some forecasters claimed longevity to the tourism boost brought by the wedding, raking in an extra £2bn over time.

How many people buy bunting in the average 13-week quarter? Folding trestle tables and cheap vodka? Moreover, what of the boost to the insurance industry, with councils asking residents to club together for public liability insurance before streets could be closed for a party?!

Now, if there is an economic downside to the workforce taking an extra day off work to get lashed on vodka punch, that surely will be reflected in next quarter's figures, when the impact of customers returning wonky goods manufactured on 2nd May 2011 - the day factories re-opened after a long weekend of partying - is factored in!

@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

On Open Digital Policy Blog: Will social media background checks be the catalyst for a consumer privacy backlash?

(From the Open Digital Policy Blog): Studies show an overwhelming majority of people are ‘concerned’ about their online privacy [see here (pdf), and here], yet when I talk to technology companies large and small they tell me privacy awareness amongst the general public is patchy at best.

As social media background checks start to result in applicants being rejected for jobs simply because of pictures and comments posted on social websites, could we start to see a crippling privacy backlash that will prevent adoption of useful technology because of public fear and mistrust?

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

Monday, 25 July 2011

On Bad Culture: What do fashion houses expect to get from fashion copyright?

(From me over on Bad Culture) : For 5 years many designers and at least one fashion trade association have beenlobbying congress for fashion design copyright laws in the US.

I have one simple question: what does anyone expect to gain from such a law?
The answer might sound obvious; fashion designers want to stop other designers stealing their designs, right?
But there’s two far more searching questions behind this one simple inquiry:
1. How do fashion houses and designers expect to gain, financially or otherwise, from such protection?
2. Will consumers gain, or lose out?

>> Read more on Bad Culture >>

Friday, 22 July 2011

BT, Talk Talk to appeal Judicial Review ruling on 7th October, Digital Economy Act now unlikely to take effect before 2013

Exclusive: The progress of the UK's three strikes laws to combat internet file-sharing of copyrighted works has been hit by a series of further delays which make it highly unlikely the first infringement warning letters will be received by ISP customers until the very end of 2012 at the earliest.

A second source tells me even this is highly optimistic: "it would need serious political will and hustle [to get warning letters out before the end of 2012]".  A more realistic timetable seeing letters hit doormats in the first few months of 2013 is, reportedly, a whole year behind the "accelerated timetable" (known internally within DCMS as the 'reboot') being pushed by culture secretary Jeremy Hunt 6 weeks ago.

Noting that the primary legislation was passed in 2010, this latest series of delays could see a full 3 years pass between the Queen granting Royal Assent to the Digital Economy Act and the first warning sent out under the act.

It also emerged today that British Telecom and Talk Talk have been granted a hearing for "permission to appeal and expedition" against the findings of a judicial review into the Digital Economy Act earlier this year.  The hearing will be heard at the Court of Appeal on the 7th October 2012 2011.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Knowledge and public interest: the six knowledge traps

Most of today's governance challenges sit at the interface of knowledge and public interest.

Regulation of information represents a unique challenge; in regulating information, we're regulating the way we communicate - and the ability to communicate openly and freely with another human being is undoubtedly a fundamental right.

In a world where some knowledge interchanges are prohibited by law, we risk a Heller-esque lock-in whereby evidence that could exonerate the defendent cannot be examined openly during a public trial because of the need for information to remain out of the public domain.  This becomes incredibly dangerous if the state is the claimant and the judicial process is not transparent to public scrutiny. The legal system could gradually become subverted by vested interests within the state.

Whilst it's unhelpful to say the internet changes everything; it's equally unhelpful to bury our heads in a hacking scandal and ignore the wider problem:- far more people than ever before hold powerful tools capable of intrusion, harassment and knowledge-abuse.

Friday, 15 July 2011

A corporate aristocracy: obfuscation, disrespect for personal data and collusion - let's fix the root cause of hackgate

Why would a local council or police force need to employ public relations specialists or image consultants? Transparency of public bodies is important, and gloss and spin are the tools of obfuscation.

What is the role of a press office in a public organisation? To facilitate enquiry and access to information, or dress the good news and hide the bad?

And what about favouritism? Are some organisations more worthy than others when it comes to relations between the media and public organisations?  Even the mighty ITV was banned from a police press conference after a critical report on News at Ten during the investigation into the murder of Joanna Yeates.

I hope the forthcoming inquiries in the wake of the News International hacking scandal look closely at the concept of media plurality, and hopefully make recommendations that will end favouritism or discrimination of any news organisation.

It's clearly unacceptable to have a news organisation effectively holding MPs and the government to ransom, yet it's equally unacceptable to have public bodies threatening news organisations who refuse to toe the line.

And what about innovation, regeneration and regrowth of the news sector?  That itself could be hard if, as I've found over the last few years on the various blogs I've written, bloggers are effectively frozen out by the press offices of many organisations with a public service role.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Mini update on Digital Economy Act progress

A source told me the planned announcement on the Digital Economy Act, dubbed by one minister as the reboot, could be delayed until after the summer recess.  The current session of parliament closes on Tuesday, so it sounded feasible.

This was quickly rebuffed by a DCMS official, who told me this evening:
The Government will set out the next steps for implementation of the Digital Economy Act shortly.
Essentially I expect this to be an announcement that the Initial Obligations Code and Cost Sharing Order, two Statutory Instruments needed before the UK's 3-strikes law comes into force, have been sent to the European Commission as part a procedure required under the Technical Standards Directive for changes in the law by EU member states which affect telecommunications providers.

No word on whether these documents will be published at this time, however I was previously assured by a source within DCMS that they would be.

@JamesFirth

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Insurance company Direct Line in PR drive to trash open data crime maps?

Example crime map (Google/Tele Atlas/www.police.uk)
Why would insurance company Direct Line be developing a PR strategy that appears to be focussed on stimulating public opposition to police crime maps released under the open data initiative?

Many government data sets are valuable resources. Resources belonging to the public, therefore it's right that data should be released to the public under the government's open data initiative.

Additionally, allowing open access for companies to build new data services - services from which they may profit - is arguably the best way to drive research and innovation in how public data is used.

On Monday Direct Line issued a press release enitled Fear of Crime Maps Hits Reporting of Crime.  A reader of my blog, whom I've known of through professional circles for several years, wasn't convinced by the assertion that:
"More than 5.2 million (11 per cent) people have not reported a crime because they were scared it would drive away potential purchasers or renters when the incident appeared on an online police crime map"
So he asked Direct Line to release the text of the questions asked in the survey behind the press release. He got more than he bargained for, as what appears to be a brief to staff or agencies developing the PR strategy was included in the company's response:

Do we come to bury copyright — or to praise it?

The Statute of Anne, 1709
Speaking first in praise of copyright, Emily Goodhand paid heed to the question, offering no middle ground. We must support copyright because it protects creators; and, despite its flaws, there is currently no proposal for a viable alternative

The debate, organised by the 1709 and IPKat blogs, was useful despite the constraints of the binary question posed in its title.

In practical terms, with absolutely no political support in Westminster for the prodigious leap into the unknown that is copyright abolition, the options available aren't so black and white.

There's a colourful spectrum of challenges: what classes of works should be protected? How long should protection last? What enforcement powers are appropriate? Should licensing be facilitated by a central body, and how? And what exemptions should apply to facilitate eg news reporting, educational debate, personal convenience (format shifting, digital lockers)  and innovation of new digital services?

Despite the limitation in the title, the four speakers did a good job by avoiding circular arguments of previous debates I've attended.

Over 300 years of copyright

In favour of copyright, the 302-year-old legal right withstood the test of time because it works. Reprover Crosbie Fitch counters that copyright is rooted in immoral and archaic privilege first granted to facilitate Crown control of the printing presses and thereby limit criticism of the state.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

When the sum of the parts is way more than the value of whole

It's been bugging me for quite a while. Paul Marden (@orcare) summed it up nicely as:
"It's like the opposite of the whole being bigger than the sum of the parts"
The issue under discussion at Thursday morning's #tvsmc was the price range demanded for licensing intellectual property, particularly in software products, on the rumours that Microsoft is about to strike a deal with Samsung worth around $10-15 per unit for every Android device sold.

For those outside the industry that might not sound much, but it's simply massive. It's on a par with the cost of the CPU - the processor at the heart - of some low-end Android phones.  Considering some lower-spec smartphones now wholesale as low as $100 - and that includes: display, mobile phone transmitter (RF) components, GPS etc - handing $10-15 to Microsoft for a Linux-based mobile phone seems quite extraordinary.

Patent holders are in a monopolistic position, and the limits to what they can charge for licensing relatively small components are not governed by normal market forces.  It's a pay up or else scenario for a company like Samsung, who took-on Google's Android platform [presumably] in good faith.

Did Michael Meacher paraphrase this blog in phone hacking debate yesterday?!

I applaud Michael Meacher's contribution to yesterday's phone hacking debate in the House of Commons.  There was one particular section of his speech I couldn't agree more with. In fact I felt as though I could have almost written it myself...

Hansard 6 July 2011 : Column 1577

The combination of News Corporation and BSkyB will be in a position to distort or bend competition through cross-promotion, price bundling, preventing rivals from advertising and other distortions in the advertising market. The fact is that none of those issues, which are crucial to the question of competitiveness, was even considered by the Secretary of State. That is the decisive reason why he should reconsider.

(my bold)

@s_r_o_c 17th March 2011

The proposed deal could put News Corporation in a position to give discounted, bundled or preferential access for Sky Broadband subscribers to its online news titles; in particular its non-free services such as The Times, News of The World and The Daily (iPad newspaper).
This dominant position could adversely effect other publishers in the online news sector if News Corporation chose to promote News Corporation's online titles to Sky Broadband customers (so-called "cross-promotion" deals). It may also give News Corporation a dominant position in the sale of advertising slots should the company decide to offer cross-media deals providing TV, online and printed newspaper advertising; and this may have an adverse impact on competition in the market for advertising.
Whoever said blogging to change the world was a waste of time?

@JamesFirth

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Sovereignty Creep

Will a net without borders be policed by the US?
According to the Guardian this weekend, Erik Barnett, assistant deputy director at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), made an extraordinary announcement that amounts to the United States claiming criminal jurisdiction over any online publisher operating under a .com or .net web address; and website operators could be extradited to the US to be tried under US federal law for an activity that could in theory be legal under UK law.

The revelation came just two-and-a-half weeks after the start of extradition proceedings against Sheffield student Richard O’Dwyer, alleged to have infringed copyright on a commercial scale via a website he operated called TVshack. An allegation that warrants closer inspection, but I’ll get back to this.

The claim of jurisdiction could have far wider implications, and should concern anyone who publishes anything via a .net or .com website. It also adds to the wider debate of if, or how, the global internet can be regulated - without compromising the sovereignty of individual nations.

Monday, 4 July 2011

No one died - literally. 'Obama Dead' Fox News Twitter hack shows nothing to fear from social capital

A few months ago I planned a whole series of blog posts about trust and social content, covering citizen journalism; and, in particular, viral messages and the propensity to worry about the social internet and its capacity for harm.

I stalled after the first instalment, but my analysis of the verified  @foxnewspolitics twitter account hack, where President Obama was declared assassinated early this morning, will serve as the second episode in the series I never wrote.

Two key points: it took almost two hours for the news to reach my Twitter stream, despite keeping an eye on trends and several keyword searches, as I do; and, within minutes of RTing (with a preceding disclaimer) it was rebuked.

Well, of course it was rebuked - we expect the channel footprint for any given news story to be roughly proportional to the magnitude. The fact that BBC news continued with its coverage of Mladic at The Hague immediately confirmed my suspicions.

But what might have happened had the hackers used a verified Twitter account from an established news agency in a more subtle way?  Could they have caused e.g. the collapse of a company stock on Wall Street?  Well, this happened already, to Apple; twice! (At least..)