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

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Friday, 28 October 2011

We don't need *a* Public Data Corporation, we need a plurality of competing Public Data Corporations

From the Open Digital Policy Blog:

Yesterday we submitted evidence (pdf) to the Government's consultationData Policy for a Public Data Corporation
And:
The idea from government seems to be (phase 1) create a Public Data Corporation; (phase 3) profit.   
...

Our submission outlines many of the secondary benefits to free and open public data. 
...
I then argue that the idea behind an investment-led approach to public data is flawed
...
To solve many of the problems I propose encouraging the establishment of many Public Data Corporations, with input data sets being available to any qualifying organisation, and a series of public subsidies paid on a per-megabyte basis for data served.  Competition should make the Public Data Corporations lean and cost effective, helping the Government serve free and open data cost effectively.  Plus, a per-megabyte subsidy should reward services with fast transfer rates, as data consumers will shun slower providers.

 >> Read the full post >>

Download the submission (pdf)

@JamesFirth

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Newzbin Judge: studios have asked other ISPs to voluntarily block, circumstances may be different for each ISP

We knew it was coming, and today it came.  A high court judge confirmed BT must block file-sharing website Newzbin2, and it must do so within 14 days.

Mr Justice Arnold sanctioned the use of BT's pre-existing blocking technology known as "Cleanfeed" to implement the block.  Cleanfeed was installed to block access to a strict number of websites carrying images of child sexual abuse.

Interestingly, the Judge hinted that a different set of circumstances would need to be considered for any such ruling to apply to other ISPs (para 4).  For instance, Andrew Heaney of TalkTalk argued that TalkTalk didn't use Cleenfeed.  Justice Arnold responded:
"That may well have consequences for the form of any order that the Studios seek against TalkTalk; but it does not affect the order to be made against BT"
It emerged this morning that Everything Everywhere and Virgin Media also attempted to intervene by writing to the Court, following an earlier ruling in this case handed down on 28th July.  The Judge said the ISPs should have applied to intervene earlier:
"I have taken into account the points made in those letters, but I have given them limited weight for the following reasons. First, I consider that those ISPs could and should have intervened in the application, or filed submissions and/or evidence, prior to the hearing on 28-29 June 2011."
The reason for the fraught action from other ISPs is perhaps apparent from (para 13):
 "... the Studios are in fact in the process of trying to persuade other ISPs to submit to injunctions voluntarily"


Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Behind the headlines: libel committee report, anonymous comments & corporate defamation

Some reports are hard to summarise in a headline, and some headlines haven't done the report from the Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill much justice.

Headlines such as "Websites 'should carry libel risk for anonymous posts'" might leave the reader thinking the report is an attack on so-called anonymous culture. In fact the Guardian goes further:
"MPs and peers recommended tackling the culture of anonymous online comments"
But the report is far more nuanced than can be summed up in any headline or single sentence. Whilst the report contains a couple of worrying paragraphs about encouraging moderation of online content and perpetuating the idea that "upstream" web service and internet service providers continue to carry some responsibility:
"... in line with our core principle that freedom of speech should be exercised with due regard to the protection of reputation." 
The report is far from an attack on anonymous comments, contains a lot of very encouraging points on a breadth of issues, and interestingly draws some parallels with privacy law (true allegations the claimant wants to remain private) and defamation (untrue allegations).

Thursday, 20 October 2011

First Digital Economy Act warning letters: summer 2013 - Ofcom

The first copyright infringement warning letters sent under the Digital Economy Act won't be dispatched before summer 2013. That's not another one of my (now-proven-relatively-accurate) predictions, this was the view of Ofcom's Director of Internet Policy Campbell Cowie speaking this morning at the Westminster eForum Seminar "Implementing the Digital Economy Act..."

It's significant for a senior Ofcom figure to admit such a time frame for implementation - over three years since the Digital Economy Act was passed.  And there are still factors outside Ofcom's control.

Behind the admission lies a dysfunctional team in Ofcom and a government suffering from a heavy dose of loss psychology.

UK taxpayers have already invested £2,036,000 in the form of a loan from BIS to Ofcom to work on the implementation of the UK's 3-strikes law.  My own investigation showed this is expected to rise to £5.9m.

This money can only be recouped by implementing the notification provisions of the Act, but there's no certainty it will ever be recovered. The copyright owners then pay for each copyright infringement notification sent, a portion of which goes to repay Ofcom's set up costs.

Loss Psychology

Many rookie investors fall into the trap of holding onto falling shares hoping they'll recover and make a profit one day.  So-called loss psychology makes people afraid to admit they're on a losing streak, preventing them from getting out ASAP to limit their loss.  Instead they hold and hope for a spectacular recovery.

In a similar way, the UK government is holding on to bad legislation, spending stacks of cash implementing a complex scheme that will probably prove ineffective in its aims and perhaps never recover the vast implementation costs, as copyright owners won't use the scheme if it costs more than other initiatives to combat piracy.

The maths doesn't stack up for rights holders.  Experience from a similar scheme now operational in France showed only 1 in every 38 copyright infringement reports paid for was actually sent on to the account holder, mainly due to rules preventing account holders receiving multiple warnings in any one month.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Notes from Parliament & Internet Conference

The internet can't be regulated. The internet shouldn't be regulated. Discuss...

Whatever your view on internet and regulation, it's a separate question whether or not those who care about the internet should engage - or turn their back on - democratic processes which may ultimately result in internet regulation.

Cory Doctorow, all-round internet rights evangelist, turned his back on this year's eG8 summit, describing it as:
“An attempt to get people who care about the Internet to lend credibility to regimes that are in all-out war with the free, open net”.
Cynicism and scepticism are core values for many in the internet industry. I worked in software for 14 years before co-founding Open Digital, I know this. Any regular reader of industry press, especially El Reg, know this.  In many ways it's a healthy attitude.

But with one flaw.  Parliament, together with the EU, the G8, the UN and every other government and international organisation hold more official power than us the lowly internet users. Do I turn my back on the democratic process just because my attendance *might* lend credibility to any resultant legislation? And then what? Blog grumpily from the sidelines and support subversive groups attempting to undermine the legislation I did nothing to try and prevent?

Of course not.  And Parliament, to its credit, is bending over backwards to welcome anyone with a view.  Today I met members of relatively new campaign groups such as NoDPI, the more established Open Rights Group Advisory Board members, journalists, private individuals, industry representatives, MPs, Lords, as well as the usual slew of lobbyists.

We heard from 2 government ministers, MPs, multinational tech cos, a youth initiative, student journalists, a senior civil servant, Ofcom and Nominet.

And the main reason I support such initiatives? They're free to attend - by anyone - on a first-come, first-served basis.  It's not that I don't want to pay, or can't afford to pay; it's that levying a charge introduces a barrier to entry, and not everyone with a view has cash to spare.

Parliament has moved on from the in club where one had to pay substantial annual donations in order to attend events and lobby members.  Maybe this is an aberration, but whilst the circle remains open I support the move, even if it does "lend credibility" to a regulatory process I don't necessarily support.

I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the day, but the highlights for me were:

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

So with no internet, we had no porn, right?

The Micro-SD card is mightier than the filtered internet
The Mothers' Union should focus on the problem, not a sticking plaster of blocks and controls that will encourage parents to delegate their responsibility for the online safety of their children to their ISP.

When I went to school, the internet wasn't quite here.  For tech enthusiasts like myself (aka nerds) there was a kind of forerunner called Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), but it's far too early in the post to digress.

So with no internet, we had no porn, right?

Yeah, like we had no music, no video and no printed colour glossy magazines to substitute for everything the internet provides today - including porn.  The ban (I'm not even sure it was even a legal ban) on newsagents selling porn to children didn't stop children accessing porn - it just made some kids rich and others more popular than they would otherwise be.

Some boys had wheeler-dealer enterprises Derek Trotter would envy. They got you anything; mags, videos, alcohol, hash.  The going rate for a second-hand magazine was the cover price new; and believe me, you didn't want to choose second hand unless it was all you could afford.

And whilst the young dragons ran their black market rackets, the nerds discovered an enterprising German coding outfit called Team BNK, who had cunningly crammed many seconds of reasonable quality pornographic video onto a 1.76MB floppy disk, playable on a Commodore Amiga computer.  There was also a nice range of picture disks available.  Mum, I never watched any - honest!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Industry sources: ISP porn filter plans have been blown out of all proportion, ISP bosses "livid"

The massive web porn filter story is not what it appears, multiple industry sources tell me.

News broke late last night of a government-sponsored plan to block pornography by the country's four largest ISPs.  The Daily Mail ran a story that bore no relation to the position sources close to discussions with government had kept me abreast of over the last few months.

A report in the Guardian was at odds with a BBC story over whether the national porn filter will be opt-in (switched off by default) or opt-out (blocking porn by default).

Now I can reveal that ISP bosses are livid.  None want to speak on the record, but all confirm the same basic facts; that discussions between ISPs and the Department for Education in light of the Bailey Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood had to date focussed on consumer education and choice.

That is, providing better awareness to customers of the online threats to children, advertising the benefits of blocking software, and making such software easier to enable and configure.

"Discussions to date have focussed on education and clear choices," said a highly-placed contact in one of the four ISPs involved.  "We all want to make the internet as safe as possible, but we can't completely eliminate all risk - at least not without seriously affecting the vibrant and beneficial nature of the internet.  The primary responsibility lies with the parents, who have a responsibility to supervise how their children use the internet."

A second contact echoed this sentiment, adding "Grabbing headlines like today - in some ways it's useful, as it raises awareness of the issues, but it could backfire."

"Customers might be left with the impression they can phone up their ISP tomorrow and delegate their online parenting responsibilities."

Monday, 10 October 2011

Newswash over latest UK 4G delays

News seeped out very late on Friday afternoon that fast 4G mobile data in the UK would be further delayed.

Funny that the news should come out at 5:30pm Friday.  Strange that there should be no official Ofcom press release.  Even stranger that, according to the BBC's Rory Cellan Jones on his blog, the network operators themselves were spinning news of the delays.

So what's in the news this morning on the 4G front? Britain's first 4G trial begins. Big whoop. This is a limited trial of 200 people in Cornwall and has very little bearing on progress deploying commercial 4G services in the UK.

This is a total and utter pre-planned newswash! Get the bad news out Friday night when no-one's listening and spin a minor bit of positive non-news ready for Monday morning.

Those who stand to profit most from delaying 4G data - according to several studies data is the least profitable part of a mobile network, and the profitability per megabyte downloaded is falling - seem to have cornered the news agenda.

No news this morning of the legal threats from the big operators over Ofcom's plan to ensure strong competition in the mobile data market when it makes radio spectrum available for 4G; thereby, according to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, delaying the auction process.

I've heard two analysts briefing that our study into the cost to the UK economy from further delays in 4G deployment is flawed because it refers to the spectrum auction, yet 4G would also be deployed on existing spectrum currently used for 3G services.

My response: it's not  - the so-called re farming of spectrum can only occur at the same pace 4G is adopted in mobile phones attached to the network.  The auction makes new spectrum available to build a data-focussed network in parallel, allowing data-intensive users to move over sooner.

It also brings competition in the market.  As I noted, there is very little incentive for incumbent mobile network operators to speed up the deployment of 4G - they like the profits they currently get from voice, text and multimedia messaging.  Competition brought by the auction of new spectrum should - if Ofcom get it right - stimulate UK investment in fast mobile data.

News editors in particular - watch for the stories driven by the money!

@JamesFirth

Friday, 7 October 2011

Appeal granted for Digital Economy Act Judicial Review

The ruling by Mr Justice Kenneth Parker in this year's Judicial Review into the Digital Economy Act can be appealed, ruled the Court of Appeal this morning.  A full hearing is expected in 2-3 months time, although the court did not set a date.

For coverage of the original review see here.

I'll update with more details as they emerge, but one curious point about this appeal is why ISPs BT and Talk Talk were seemingly happy to keep quiet about the appeals process rumbling on behind the scenes.

I attended meetings where Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) officials were trumpeting an end to the review process, after the request to appeal was summarily dismissed soon after the conclusion of the original review.

Why did this assertion and other statements in the press about a definite end to the process go unchallenged, when, as I reported over summer, an attempt to overturn the earlier ruling was far from over?  A fact that had escaped the mainstream press and even tech blogs.

After breaking news of the appeal I asked BT in July for comment, and even went direct to a couple of contacts.  Nothing.  I was told by an industry contact that BT had agreed an uneasy truce with the government over deals potentially worth billions to expand superfast broadband roll-out across the country.

BT will be pleased to know I raised the possibility in my meeting last month with Ed Vaizey that some ISPs may be telling the government what they thought the government wanted to hear regarding the Digital Economy Act and associated issues with blocking overseas websites because they were chasing rural broadband subsidies.  Watch this space - I'm digging hard.  If you know anything, get in touch in confidence: tip@slightlyrightofcentre.com.

@JamesFirth

What's the real endgame? Catgate: a few bold predictions

OK it's Friday and there's not much going on in the world of digital policy today..

Whilst simultaneously preparing to wipe egg from my face I make a few bold predictions:

(1) Ken Clarke won't be retired
(2) Plans to scrap/replace the Human Rights Act will quietly be dropped
(3) It will transpire there was never any plan to scrap the Human Rights Act

Why? Firstly Ken Clarke has too much punch to let fester on the back benches with a grievance. He's got a loyal following and media attention whenever he wants. Unless Ken is fed up with ministerial hours and wants out I suspect he'll be left in place or shifted somewhere he can't cause harm. Maybe international development or culture (but only after the Olympics).

As for the last two points I reckon there never was a plan to scrap the Human Rights Act. It was merely a ploy to wind up the Lib Dems and their supporters. Just the sight of leading members of government speaking out as if the Act was seriously under threat further undermined the position of the Lib Dems in coalition.

Cameron and May made it look like liberalism would not stand in the way of their agenda, and left the general public wondering what influence the Lib Dems have, if they couldn't even hold on to the cherished Human Rights Act.

It also set the scene for a few illiberal tweaks to the statute books. The upcoming Communications Act and a Cabinet Office drive to control the internet, maybe?  I'm hearing disturbing rumours that William Hague and his stance on the importance of internet freedoms is being undermined by the Cabinet Office, siding with the Home Office and securocrats to push a secret plan to control the UK internet with a "kill switch" and new powers over ISPs and social networks.

The real human rights battles are somewhere down the line; meanwhile, the public is being buttered up with anti-human rights rhetoric.

@JamesFirth

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Massive privacy issue with new Norway law to tackle copyright infringement

Norway slashes data protection rights in the name of copyright, also introduces web blocking in proposed law

Norway submitted a draft law to the EC yesterday which would allow the Norwegian Media Authority to order ISPs to block websites "where, material is being made available to a great extent, evidently infringing copyright or other rights in accordance to this Act."

Worryingly, the draft law also exempts those investigating copyright infringement from obtaining a license to process personal information under Norway's Data Protection Act, effectively removing oversight of personal data handling by organisations investigating online copyright infringement on behalf of rights holders.

The draft text also introduces a mechanism whereby rights holders can force ISPs to unmask the identity of those alleged to be involved in copyright infringement, although this process will require a decision from the district court and sounds remarkably like a Norwich Pharmacal Order (NPO) used in the UK to unmask those behind alleged infringement  - and lead, ultimately, to the names and addresses of thousands of alleged file sharers to appear online, together with the title of the adult films they were alleged to have downloaded.

The account holder will be notified of the unmasking order, but only one month after the ISP has handed over the personal details.

Two things here are extremely worrying.  Web blocking, of course - but I've already covered the issues in great detail.

More worrying is the attempt to exempt those investigating copyright infringement from obtaining a license under the country's Data Protection Act.  As the ACS:Law data breach I mentioned above went to show - those involved in investigating copyright infringement often process sensitive personal information when e.g.  it relates to adult films.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

UK 4G fast mobile data at least 2 years behind major countries, will cost UK businesses £732m/year

Open Digital's first paper (pdf) out today looks at the impact of late roll-out of 4G fast mobile data for UK businesses.

In fact it's an issue that affects consumers and businesses alike, but social benefit is hard to quantify whereas the number of business hours lost through slow or completely absent mobile data is relatively easy to estimate and put a price on: 37 million business hours, costing £732m per year.

We acknowledge that early adoption is not always essential to reaping the benefits, but in the case of 4G in the UK we are so far behind other leading countries that UK businesses and consumers will miss out on the benefits.

In addition to the lost time through slow mobile data, UK businesses won’t be able to fully benefit from new cloud-based business tools until the UK has a nationwide reliable high speed mobile data network

Ofcom doesn't expect the first commercial UK 4G services until 2013, and roll-out is not expected to complete until 2017.  This is 4 years behind the world's first 4G services in Oslo and Stockholm and the same year South Korea plans to complete its roll-out, which started this summer.

Germany and the US are also in the leading pack, with 4G deployment well under way in 2011.

UK deployment over a 4 year period between 2013 and 2017 is too slow and starts too late to keep the UK competitive.  Studies show 4G will offer average download speed over 3 times those seen on today's 3G network, plus it brings much needed capacity as mobile data volumes have increased by 67% year-on-year.

4G can also support larger cell sizes without the performance penalty seen with 3G, meaning many rural "fringe" areas currently stuck on 2G will get mobile broadband for the first time.

Our calculation of the lost hours is based on data available across a number of reports from Ofcom.  It uses as a starting point Ofcom's assertion that the average 3G daytime mobile download speed is 2Mbps.

One thing we didn't factor in is how the quality of 3G broadband is likely to be impacted as mobile data use continues to grow.  More capacity will be needed as data use grows, and mobile operators will be reluctant to invest with 4G technology on the horizon, meaning our estimate is likely to be an under-estimate.

Yet Ofcom is yet to hold the auction to allocate necessary spectrum, and news that the auction has been delayed for 3-6 months itself has a price tag of £183m - £366m.

Whilst mobile data use has rocketed, revenues per megabyte carried have fallen, meaning data is not seen as profitable for the incumbent mobile network operators clinging on to lucrative voice and multimedia messaging services.

4G is a data-centric technology. Everything - voice, text messages, etc - is carried as data.  With life set to get tough for the big four network operators when data is the only commodity they have to sell, it's no wonder they're not chomping at the bit to see the government push 4G fast mobile data out quicker.

@JamesFirth

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Home Secretaries and human rights

After getting some stick I updated this
Venn diagram, see update here.
"We must replace the Human Rights Act with a bill of rights and responsibilities..." or variations of the above is the rallying cry for the campaign to reform the Human Rights Act (and take us out of the European Convention on Human Rights).

Normally at this point, having sat for several hours or days trying to understand those not sharing my viewpoint, I write a bit about the merits of both arguments.

In this case I'm completely lost. How can anyone who understands just a little bit about the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights and just a few of the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights come to the conclusion that the current Human Rights Act is anything other than a list of rights and responsibilities. 

Those who think the Human Rights Act gives murderers more rights than their victims or their victims families should try reading the Act from the begining.  Schedule 1, Part 1: Right To Life.  Hell, even those keen on reintroduction of the death penalty should note the exception:
No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.
The Human Rights Act, European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and rulings of the European Court of Human rights are about as far from a criminal's charter as you can get.  It is everyone's responsibility to respect the rights of others as far as is practicable.

Far from the dodgy assertions made on radio talk shows and the columns of the Daily Mail the ECHR is not a relic of a bygone era where the main threat to our human rights wore a uniform.  It is a framework for assessing and balancing the rights of the individual against the need for an ordered and stable society.