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Friday, 30 September 2011

Cowboys and Aliens at Surrey Superfast Rural Broadband Debate

Haslemere Hall, the venue for
today's local talkfest
"Cowboys and Aliens" said the sign above the door of Haslemere Hall, venue for today's Surrey Superfast Broadband seminar with Surrey County Council and our MP, Jeremy Hunt, who just happens also to be Secretary of State for the department responsible for the UK's broadband infrastructure.

The cowboys? Contenders are Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), the government department who allocated only £1.5m to Surrey (there are far more worthy countys, apparently) and the big ISPs, who seem incapable of delivering broadband projects at an affordable rate (considering they will take the mix of public money from Surrey/BDUK for laying the cables, yet still make money leasing the lines and connectivity back to customers).
Jeremy Hunt MP (speaking) with Abigail Harrison (Digital Surrey),
Andrew Povey (Surrey CC) and Robert Knowles (Waverley BC)

And Ofcom. Or more precisely, the big mobile networks; who, according to Jeremy Hunt, are very litigious.  It seems the big corporations currently making a buck from our soon-to-be obsolete mobile phone network have a vested interest in delaying the roll-out of the next generation system which should see rural mobile broadband coverage rates significantly increase, with real-world download speeds of 14Mbps with a following wind.

Why? Because 4G is data centric, and recent market studies consistently show profits from data have plummeted across all mobile network operators.  The incumbents see data as a low-profit offering.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Assessing harm & benefit - measuring online freedom

On the Open Digital Blog:
Debates about internet governance are not sustainable at the current level.  All too often we hear three sides of an argument, but are left with no rational framework to evaluate the relative merits of each point of view.  
Can we quantify harm from loss of privacy and balance against the benefits brought by linked and accessible data? Or set the perceived risks to political discourse from blocking and censorship against the perceived benefit from limiting access to harmful content? 
One idea presented by Professor Andrew Murray (LSE) during his keynote speech at the Human Rights in the Digital Era Conference at Leeds University School of Law this month was to consider autonomy - how do certain laws and technologies affect our ability to act as autonomous human beings?
>> Read more >> 

@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Thank you, Facebook! (No, really - thank you)

Facebook has done more for digital privacy awareness than any other company in the short history of the internet, and I mean this to be a sincere statement.

One of the most significant problems to date has been getting anyone outside the tech world to care about the privacy implications of third party embedded web objects (more concisely: web tracking).

Actually, a bigger problem is trying to rationalise what those implications are - what does the social cost/benefit equation look like? What are the actual risks to society? (Please answer without referencing the Stasi, Stalin or Nazi Germany.)

Instinctively I don't like such tracking.  Knowledge is power, and I think immense data collection and retention puts large technology companies in a powerful position of control over us all.

But there's a balance, both between an empowered public, governments and corporations, as new technology has given us all new powers; and between the very real social benefits data sharing can bring.

No-one knows for sure whether the benefits of tracking, storing, linking and publishing data about our online behaviour will endanger democracy or bring huge social benefit, and what Facebook have done in announcing OpenGraph is bring the debate into the public sphere.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Libraries and universities left fuming as evidence emerges BPI and MPA pushed to effectively outlaw open Wi-Fi

Documents seen by me show Ofcom last week claimed they do not feel able to make special arrangements for schools, libraries and universities under the Digital Economy Act, effectively bringing all institutions under the  UK's three strikes copyright clampdown.

This could result in public institutions having their internet connection temporarily cut or otherwise restricted should three instances of illicit file sharing be detected on their connection.  It also puts public bodies at increased risk of civil lawsuits should these institutions appear on infringement lists (Section 4 of the Act*).

Last year, Copyright for Knowledge estimated the cost to universities alone in dealing with their obligations under the Digital Economy Act at between £24m-£56m over the first three years (these figures were presented to a public meeting at the British Library last year).

Groups representing schools, libraries and universities were until last week under the impression they would be granted special protection when Ofcom drafts the rules for dealing with copyright infringement under the Act, known as the Initial Obligations Code.

A source told me they had previously received assurances from both civil servants and the Minister, and they feel thoroughly let down by the lack of any clear assurances from Ofcom at this late stage in the drafting of the Code.

As recently as last June I'd separately heard directly from a contact working on the Code that public intermediaries would not be affected by the three-strikes rules, a revelation which had lead me to question why other groups offering shared WiFi shouldn't also be exempt (noting concerns in paragraph 240 of the Judicial Review into the Act around a "chilling effect" on free and open internet access).

BPI and MPA lobbying fingered in Ofcom report

Separately, clear evidence emerged in an official document (pdf - see section 4) released over summer that the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) and MPA (Motion Picture Association) had pushed to "nudge" or "educate" internet users into securing their Wi-Fi access points, a scheme which included an undertaking to secure all internet access points or, if not using Wi-Fi, describe the device used to access the internet and circumstances that allowed an "unauthorised person" to commit copyright infringement over their connection.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Bad stats

A quick break from digital policy to question @fleetstreetfox on an assertion made on her blog today:
"Domestic violence is the main cause of death for women in Britain aged 19 to 44.

Read that again, and then look at it like this: being abused by a partner kills more women in that age group then cancer or road traffic accidents.

On average two women die at the hands of their partner every week."
Without detracting from the seriousness of domestic violence, I doubt this statistical assertion, and no matter how just your cause it usually helps in the long run to stick to the facts.

Mortality statistics are readily available from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).  The latest data available is for 2009 - the 2010 data set is due to be published towards the back end of next month.

Delving into the underlying data set (.xls) shows this simply cannot be true.  Even taking the broadest definition of death from assault (not all assault is in a domestic setting), and including deaths awaiting determination; and taking the narrowest definition of road accidents (car occupants)  shows 29 females per million population in the 15-44 age group died from all forms of assault compared to 39 car occupants (per million population).

There are a few disclaimers to this: (1) the statistics I quoted are for England and Wales only; and, (2) the age group I quoted is 15-44 not 19-44 as Fleet Street Fox stated.  However, there would have to be a huge disparity in Scotland and Northern Ireland, or in the 15-19 age groups, to even start to get anywhere near her assertion.

Another stark fact in the ONS data set is deaths from self harm (which includes intentional suicide and unintentional causes). 83 females per million population in the 15-44 age group are included in this category of death - again far greater than deaths through assault.

What about diseases?  Respiratory diseases: 75 per million population for females in this age range.  Digestive diseases? 139.

Cancer (malignant neoplasms)? 464 women per million population in the 15-44 age group died of cancer in 2009.  More than the total number of females of any age who died from any form of homicide in 2009 in the whole of the UK.

@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Notes from Ed Vaizey Digital Economy Act meeting, 20th Sep 2011

Ed Vaizey at the IPv6 party this spring
The prize won from writing a blog post criticising a government Minister was a seat at a meeting with said minister. We're already in uncharted territory - far from the closed-door policy meetings I originally blogged about.

Far also from many people's view of government and its relationship with the public. I opened submissions, mentioning the blog post in my second sentence. "Don't make a habit of it," the minister responded. 

Of course as a strong advocate of free speech I'm not going to pander to a government minister just because he offered me - together with a diverse range of critics - a platform.

But in reality three points follow. (1) Ed should be congratulated for merely agreeing to the meeting - and providing a proper platform for a frank exchange of views. (2) I am going to write differently about a politician after meeting him [properly] for the first time (Ed, we had met briefly at IPv6, I asked you for an interview for the Pod Delusion)... 

... and (3) I sincerely felt the meeting was useful. 

Of course everything is relative. I don't for a minute anticipate government policy towards file sharers under the Digital Economy Act will change direction overnight. 

But I didn't approach today's meeting expecting a shift in policy as a likely outcome. I was already aware that a second series of meetings between The Big Boys (multi-national ISPs and rights holder groups) was separately taking place, the most recent of which was held yesterday. 

Attendees of yesterday's meeting had given me a heads up as to what was discussed. Essentially, demands for a court process which results in a website blocking order for sites accused of copyright infringment - with a turnaround time of ONE HOUR. Two words to this: due process!

I was fired up to raise my dissatisfaction that our meeting today was nothing but a side show to the main event, held yesterday, but in truth it wasn't; it was an opportunity for groups and individuals to present their cases first hand to the Minister. 

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Copyright extension: make it truly about the artists or give up pretending

When the EU extended copyright on music from 50 to 70 years yesterday, under the guise of protecting creators, why didn't they also legislate to ensure that 100% of revenues collected in years 51-70 went directly to the artist and not to the publisher, record label or studio?

The rationale for extending copyright terms by 20 years is centred around modern life expectancy.  An artist publishing in their twenties is likely to still be alive 50 years later - in their 70's - therefore copyright should last longer.

It's the same argument used when copyright in written works was extended in many countries over the last 13 years.

Well, almost.  Copyright in written works and feature films was extended from life plus 50 years to life plus 70 years.  The argument being that descendants of successful authors and film directors should benefit from their parent's legacy, and these descendants were outliving their parents by far longer.

I kid you not, the arguments bought by lawmakers centred on some arbitrary argument that children of successful creators should benefit from their ancestor's achievements throughout their (typical-length) adult life.

So, here's the googly (American readers, see under curve-ball); if this change really is about protecting the interests of creators, why not legislate at the same time to ensure that labels, studios and publishers are automatically cut-out of deals in the latter years?  Deals which can see the artist taking as little as 10% of the sale price, even after 50 years.

After all, publishers invested in these artists in the knowledge that copyright in recorded music lasted 50 years, slicing-off enough from each record sale over this term to amortise their investment.  Why should they and not the artists take the windfall?

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

UK re-enters top 10 of Global Competitive Index despite 50p tax rate

>> Listen to my full report on 50p tax on this week's Pod Delusion >>

On the very day leading economists claimed the 50p top tax rate risked "doing lasting damage to the UK economy" the World Economic Forum published this year's Global Competitive Report, placing the UK once again in the top 10 of the Global Competitive Index - the best places in the world, according to the World Economic Forum, to do business.

The UK climbed two places since last year, re-entering the top 10 for the first time since 2007, despite the 50p tax rate introduced in 2009 by then-chancellor Alistair Darling.

And what of the claims in the FT by 20 leading economists that:
[The 50p tax rate] gives the UK one of the highest personal tax regimes in the industrialised world, making it less competitive internationally and making us less attractive as a destination for both foreign investment and talented workers.
According to the recently-published Global Competitive Report, the Total Tax Rate of the UK is 37.3%, the 61st-lowest in the 140 countries ranked. The United States sits at 96, with a total tax burden of 46.8%, Germany at 100 (48.2%) and France at 128, with a whopping 65.8% total tax rate.

According to the World Economic Forum, 6 of the 10 most competitive countries in the world have a higher Total Tax Rate than the UK: Sweden (54.6%), Japan (48.6%), Germany (48.2%), US (46.8%), Finland (44.6%) and Netherlands (40.5%).

Of course the open letter calling for the scrapping of the 50p tax rate specifically mentions "personal tax regimes" in the "industrialised world", and the World Economic Forum's ranking is just one measure.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

An online ad-funding correction is due

The UK online advertising sector is worth £4bn, and, any way I do the maths, content providers seem to be getting a very raw deal.  In my post on Bad Culture I look at a couple of examples - a large and a small content provider - arriving at the conclusion that approximately 10% of the money spent on internet advertising gets to the companies actually generating content.

Comparisons with other forms of advertising, specifically looking at what content can be funded exclusively through advertising, show a clear gulf between the online and physical media worlds.

Print and broadcast media adverts can fund an entire TV channel, free City newspapers and commercial radio, yet online equivalents struggle; and since the online ad sector is worth more than any other ad sector, this can't be due to a lack or cash or confidence in the medium.

The market for online advertising is skewed by several factors, including:
  1. Relative youth of the sector means net pioneers such as ad brokers are able to cream huge profits
  2. An abundance of content creates an illusion that content is even less valuable than it should be if ad income was more evenly distributed by traffic or audience share.  Advertisers are on the front foot, able to cherry-pick great deals.
  3. Audience measurements are skewed by high-traffic, low-cost-of-creation content sites - usually User Generated Content (UGC) sites, and again by a lingering fundamental misunderstanding by advertisers of  target audience and the importance (or not) of click-through.
Over the next decade, the market will mature.  The huge profits possible will encourage competition in the sector, driving-down overheads and improving the deal for content providers. 

Monday, 5 September 2011

On Bad Culture: Is the Ten Percent Problem getting worse?

By me over on the Bad Culture blog..

What happens to the vast sums of money spent on online advertising?
Associated Newspapers, the national newspaper publisher of The Daily Mail (currently number 1 UK newspaper website by ABC) reported in May this year that only 1.8% – £8m from its 6-month revenues of £438m – came from “digital”. 
According to website traffic monitoring company Alexa, dailymail.co.uk is the world’s129th most popular website by traffic.   DoubleClick puts the Daily Mail website 22nd most-visited in the UK. 
If the UK’s number 1 newspaper website and 22nd most-visited website overall can only muster £16m/year – 0.4% of the £4bn annual UK online advertising spend: (i) where does all the money go; and, (ii) what hope is there for online content creators generally?
>> Read more here >> 

@JamesFirth