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

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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

ePetitions: 5 million signatories per year, run on a modest budget. An eGovernment success story?

Not every FOI request reveals a costly waste of taxpayer's cash.

I requested some statistics on the government's ePetitions service epetitions.direct.gov.uk and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

I was - still am - quite concerned that a deal of effort seems to go into moderating what petitions are allowed, with some petitions rejected e.g. for duplication when the text is substantially different to the nearest similar petition.

I'm a bit of a purist. I believe a petition is a petition and it's not up to the government to decide which are valid and which are not.  Duplication is a fact of life with user-generated content and the online crowd seems to deal with it in its own way.

Some petitions will get forgotten and others will rise to prominence on some trend or other.

Anyhow, that aside I was pleasantly surprised to find the epetitions service runs on a relative shoestring of £25,680 per annum in the last financial year.

Between April 2011 and March 2012 it serviced 5.1 million signatories, created around 15,000 new petitions and was relatively popular with 13.4 million visits (55.2 million page views).

In my opinion this service provides good value.

Whereas online popularity, signatory counts, etc are notoriously easy to game; the government's own service requires a UK address one assumes is validated in some way.  If not correlated with the electoral role, storing a physical address should make it easier to detect all but the most modest anomaly.

It's logical to assume the government trusts the signatory count on its own service far more than it would a. n. other ePetition service.

Assuming the Cabinet Office uses the feedback on this service when developing government policy I'm more than happy to have public funds spent in this way.

Full details here, with thanks as always to MySociety.org's FOI tool WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

@JamesFirth

Friday, 7 December 2012

Richard O'Dwyer fined £20k - but what of the "missing" £120k, or did the prosecution exaggerate?

The Guardian this morning reports Richard O'Dywer was fined £20,000 and ordered to undergo 6 months of some kind of US-UK remote probation as part of a deal which resulted in extradition proceedings against Richard being dropped.

Now, I don't blame Richard for accepting a deal in which this blog understands will result in no criminal record for Richard on either side of the Atlantic.  Proceedings against Gary McKinnon dragged on for ten years; the deal allows Richard O'Dwyer to put this behind him and get on with his studies and the rest of his life.

But I have a serious question about the fine, which is reported in the Guardian as (my bold):
He was also ordered to pay the US dollar equivalent of £20,000, which represents profits earned by his website between December 2007 and November 2010. The money will be used to "repay victims whose copyrights were infringed by TVShack", according to the agreement.
Comparing this to Westminster Magistrates' Court records, where the prosecution alleged:
Complaint is made of the operation by Richard O’Dwyer of a website “TVShack.net” by which, in essence, he is said to have enabled the web surfing public free access to copyrighted feature films/ “movies” and TV programmes earning “over $230,000 in advertising revenue”.  The complaint runs from about December 2007 to 29th June 2010 when a U.S.  “seizure warrant” seized the domain name  “TVShack.net”.
The prosecution alleged TVShack received the equivalent of over £140,000 in revenue, yet settled for £20,000 as equivalent to the profits of the venture.

So if the Guardian has got its facts straight here either TVShack had operating costs of £120,000 over 3 years - equivalent to £40,000 per year for what can't be more than a couple of servers - or the figures provided by the prosecution in the extradition request were a gross over-estimate.

Either way the deal, whilst a relief to Richard and his family, is quite distasteful.

"Pay or we'll extradite" is a high-stakes extension of the "pay or get sued" letters about to hit the doormats of 1,000 UK ISP subscribers for paying the internet bill in a house where someone allegedly used the internet to watch porn.

I don't doubt the extradition collapsed because either the prosecution realised its case wasn't as strong as presented to Westminster Magistrates' Court; or the Home Secretary, whilst publicly supporting extradition, realised how unpopular the decision would be and so privately warned the US Attorney General in his visit last month that they wouldn't get their man.

Either way this fine and charade of 6 months remote probation is a face-saving exercise.

We need to ensure that people who commit crimes whilst in the UK are tried in the UK.

And we need to keep a check on the scam forcing people into cash settlements because the cost, stress and risks in clearing their name through the courts are disproportionately higher than the settlement figure.

@JamesFirth

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Want a knowledge economy in the UK? It's time for the UK government to freeze-out the dominant voices of the big guns

From Wikipedia:
Regulatory capture occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or special concerns of interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. 
In a similar vein, I am increasingly worried about the UK government's reliance on advice from global (US) tech firms in drafting public policy and initiatives for the UK.

It's a difficult relationship. On one hand we cash-in on the funding and expertise of tech giants to help our own tech economy.

On the other hand we have a proud history of innovation in technology, science and engineering that was pretty much drowned out by the US giants of the 80's and 90's (IBM, Microsoft).

Reliance on advisers linked to Google and the like is in danger of creating a culture of subservience in technology.  Building an engineering resource tailored to the demands of today's tech giants.

Moreover, initiatives like Google's Campus London are nothing more than a government-sponsored business development tool for Google.

In exchange for housing Britain's innovative tech companies, Google gets to forge links allowing it to cherry-pick the best investment opportunities.

And investment from a giant like Google isn't necessarily about growing strong, independent companies. It's about growing Google through acquisition to bolster its own portfolio and, on occasions, quell competition.

Subservience also comes in other forms. For example, a business mainly reliant on Twitter's data feed can suddenly find itself on the wrong side of Twitter's Terms and Conditions and the whole business fails, losing investors - UK tech investors included - substantial sums.

If your tech business is reliant on a parent organism then there are only three realistic outcomes: become moderately successful, be bought out, or fail.

For if the venture becomes too successful then the parent organism will pull the plug one way or another in order to retain its dominance in the space.

One reason tech giants bend over to allow third party integration with their products is that it provides low cost, risk free innovation.  Private capital funds the 3rd-party application.  If the application proves successful then the company is bought out by the lager company, if it fails the company is forgotten.

I'm sure there are benefits to the approach, but I'm also sure it leaves many innovators and investors chasing dreams.

I'm not knocking the approach in itself. But everyone, governments included, need to see through the gloss when turning to US tech giants to grow Britain's tech sector.

@JamesFirth

Friday, 30 November 2012

#Leveson is excellent on internet free speech. He didn't brush over it, he robustly defended it

Leveson says 2 things about the internet.

Firstly, he draws a clear distinction between a news outlet which claims to provide trusted reporting and the internet in general, where there is no implied trust (although Leveson uses the term ethical rather than trusted, which in this particular case I believe are interchangeable as trust in news output flows from ethical journalism).

Chapter 7, section 3.2:
"... the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross mischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity."
Leveson doesn't say this but there is also a jurisdiction issue online. It's not strictly true that bloggers may act with impunity if based in the UK, as there's always the possibility they will be traced using existing legal instruments and prosecuted or face civil proceedings for libel or privacy breach.

7.3.3:
"The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct. Publishers of newspapers will be (or, at least, are far more likely to be) far more heavily resourced than most, if not all, bloggers and websites that report news (as opposed to search engines that direct those on line to different sites). Newspapers, through whichever medium they are delivered, purport to offer a quality product in all senses of that term."
Secondly, he draws a distinction between content being available (to those who search out such information) and being actively promoted, e.g. on the front page of a tabloid:

7.3.4:
"There is a qualitative difference between photographs being available online and being displayed, or blazoned, on the front page of a newspaper such as The Sun. The fact of publication in a mass circulation newspaper multiplies and magnifies the intrusion, not simply because more people will be viewing the images, but also because more people will be talking about them. Thus, the fact of publication inflates the apparent newsworthiness of the photographs by placing them more firmly within the public domain and at the top of the news agenda.
This I feel is a crucial point often overlooked when talking about privacy and defamation in an online context. Just because someone tweeted something doesn't mean anyone read it.

Having said all this I do feel Leveson is brushing over the effect of e.g. high profile tweeters, but it takes time and patience to feed an elephant.

@JamesFirth

The elephant in the anti-Leveson editorials: privacy and libel, and the paradoxes they bring

Leveson's free press paradox. He wants a free press. He wants a regulatory framework.

Cameron's voluntary body paradox. If major papers don't sign up, he'll pass laws to force them.

Leveson's voluntary body paradox. There are benefits for joining and, through exemplary damages and court cost arrangements, potentially hefty punishments for not joining.

Sitting at the heart of all these seemingly paradoxical positions is one reality: we do not have, today, a press that is entirely free from all state control.

And the shackles of privacy and libel law would become far more restrictive should we have an effective enforcement regime for all.

Whether or not we want or need privacy and defamation rights enshrined in law is itself a question I can't answer without tying myself in knots.

But we have them today.

Day-to-day enforcement is through the civil court, and because the judiciary is independent of the state, some argue there is no "state control" of the press.

And here is the problem at the core of Leveson: the state has granted us all a right of privacy and a right to defend our reputation, yet today we don't all have access to defend these rights due to the cost of access to the civil courts and the threat of being bankrupted by the opposing side's costs should we lose.

So Leveson is proposing a tribunal of sorts that should offer a means of redress for anyone wronged by the press without having to resort to a court.

Whilst Leveson conveniently (and thankfully) ignored the far more complex online questions - complex because we all become publishers and potential victims of intrusion - defamation and privacy are becoming increasingly important rights for everyone.  

Particularly victims of crime and those falsely accused of a crime, who can suffer at the hands of the press and, the latter at least, at the hands of online publishers too.

Inevitably any such tribunal will face the accusation that it is restricting a free press unless the body is run entirely by the free press; which is where we were with the "toothless" and "ineffective" Press Complaints Commission.  

Full circle.

A war by proxy on privacy rights and smaller publications

However you analyse it, attacking Leveson's findings is a war by proxy against effective redress for privacy violations and defamation for the less wealthy. 

We need to have this debate now.  A debate about privacy and defamation rights and access to redress.

It upsets me to hear politicians arguing in parliament that newspapers should be prevented from "printing rubbish" as behind such words seemingly in the public interest lies a desire to control the output of the press in some way that is quite frankly unacceptable. 

And it upsets me to see powerful publishers - the country's biggest - rubbishing the debate before its already started because there's another power play bubbling under the surface.  Protection of the old media's established position against smaller publishers and online sources.

Supporting the status quo leaves questions of privacy and libel in the sole care of the court.  And this leaves smaller publications disproportionately affected by the threat of high court costs - even when defending well-founded and valid criticism of powerful people.

I'm absolutely convinced that dominance and monopoly is a major contributing factor to the collusion, corruption and unethical workplace behaviour that became normalised in a small but notable section of the tabloid press.  A small section that commandeered a very large audience.

The "guardians of democracy" became complicit in the subversion of democracy. But not all the "guardians", and this is crucial because there won't be a perfect solution - there'll be a least-worst option - and we might have to put up with such abuses as an unavoidable side effect of the benefit of a free press.

We need plurality but we also need large, powerful news outlets capable of going where smaller organisations cannot afford or find the balls to go.

Freedom to, freedom from (again)

I see no clear answers. But perhaps more worrying I see very little honest debate. 

I sympathise with much of what David Cameron said yesterday, yet he spent half his time at the dispatch box trumpeting the questionable fact that Leveson had exonerated him and his then media minister of collusion in the Murdoch affair. The rest of the time he merely deflected, rather than answered, his critics.

Grossly unfair generalisations and simplistic statements flowed back from the opposition benches.  

Anyone following the debate would be lead to believe we are a country void of honest journalism; when in fact we have today a free press, one of the freest in the world - and yes that is a considered opinion - which consistently exposes issues in the public interest and, tabloids aside, generally behaves itself.

And yes it's not perfect. The MPs' expenses scandal was exposed. Arms to Iraq was exposed. Yet neither Jimmy Savile nor Cyril Smith were exposed; and I suspect the true scale of corruption at the heart of the North Wales child abuse scandal and other pockets of localised corruption have so far evaded press scrutiny.

We need a debate not about press abuses but about privacy, defamation and redress.  

A debate that is focussed on protecting freedom, properly balancing the "freedom to" publish against the public's right of a "freedom from" intrusion.

Past debates on privacy and defamation have in my view been steered by vested interests towards the concerns of the powerful in defending their own reputation and privacy, hence why court costs are rarely seen as a problem and why corporations have defamation and some privacy rights.

Yet "freedom from" protection in a free society should be aimed primarily at protecting the vulnerable against the strong; not the powerful against the public, for the powerful should use their platform to defend themselves, not fall back to laws which encumber free and open discussion.

I imagine it's hard for an MP, the protection of whose image and reputation is vital to his or her chances of re-election, to see privacy and libel from the perspective of an ordinary person wronged in the press or defamed on Facebook, whilst acknowledging their own rights as an elected representative must necessarily be curtailed to facilitate open political debate in a democracy, but I hope one day this debate will take place.

Can we draw clear lines to weed-out unacceptable abuses, to provide strong but well-defined protection, a "freedom from", without impinging too far on free speech - a "freedom to"?

Can we have effective privacy and defamation laws that protect all regardless of ability to pay without creating a monster which eventually shackles the free press? I genuinely don't know the answer.

@JamesFirth

Thursday, 29 November 2012

What hand did the British government have in halting the Richard O'Dwyer extradition, and why are they not claiming credit?

Here's a thought.  US prosecutors demanding extradition of Sheffield student Richard O'Dwyer for copyright infringement definitely did not wake up one morning feeling generous.

Granted, it might have started to dawn on prosecutors, pressured by film and record studios to pursue the case, that their demand for extradition might be a tad flimsy.

Plenty of lawyers have been in touch with me with the view that, whilst Richard, some argue, should have faced prosecution in the UK, the case for extradition was very thin indeed.

The novel Deferred Prosecution Agreement deal reached with O'Dwyer is almost certainly a face-saving exercise.

But the timing of the deal suggests to me the British government had a welcome hand in bringing the case to a relatively speedy resolution (18 months, compared to the ten years Gary McKinnon remained in legal limbo).

16th October: Gary Mckinnon's extradition was halted. US Attorney General Eric Holder was reported to be "very disappointed" and "completely screwed" by Theresa May's decision.

7th November: Obama is re-elected, ending months of political uncertainty in Washington. Note in his 2nd and final term, Obama is no longer fighting for campaign dollars from traditional Democrat supporters like the Hollywood movie studios.

21st November: Attorney General Eric Holder visits UK on a charm offensive. Accepts he was "disappointed" but denies saying he felt "completely screwed" re McKinnon in a Radio 4 Today interview.

Whilst I tweeted the BBC's Sarah Montague that she should have asked about O'Dwyer, Eric Holder trotted off for tea and biscuits with Theresa May.

Just one week later..

28th November: The extradition of Richard O'Dwyer, hugely unpopular amongst British voters according to a YouGov survey last June, is dropped.

Just 9% of respondents thought O'Dwyer should be extradited, whilst 46% believed he should not be prosecuted at all.  26% thought he should be tried in the UK.

Crucially for Theresa May, the same poll showed even more Conservative voters (33%) thought he should be tried in the UK, with 45% believing he should not face prosecution at all.

It's well known international diplomacy is mostly about positioning and face-saving so it's hardly surprising the British government, if it did have a hand in this very welcome outcome, is staying quiet.

But it's a shame for democracy that we don't have a bit of transparency on the positions adopted by our elected representatives.

The US studios take something home from the Deferred Prosecution Deal struck with O'Dwyer - the press hysteria over a student potentially being shipped abroad as punishment for serving films from his Sheffield flat has almost certainly made a whole generation wary of crossing the big guns who control the world's supply of western music and film.

Whether or not Theresa May did have a hand in halting the extradition in reality there's not going to be another O'Dwyer.

The US prosecution authorities walked naively into a political minefield.

Whilst the Hollywood studios lapped up the publicity as a massive, free anti-piracy commercial carrying a potent warning, I doubt Washington ever envisaged the burgeoning publicity and political backlash in Britain around O'Dwyer - nor in New Zealand for Kim Dotcom.

The message sent back across the Atlantic is simple: the UK/US extradition deal is a political hot potato in Westminster. Any attempt to abuse the process to nab petty criminals who've never set foot in the US may seriously hinder future attempts to ship terrorists, rapists and murderers back to the US.

I doubt anyone will try a stunt like this for quite a while.

@JamesFirth

Monday, 26 November 2012

Signals drowned by noise: top 5 conspiracy bullshit lines

The online signal-to-noise ratio is approaching 1:∞ and some of the nonsense repeated by blog after blog gets so tiresome I can't believe anything online gets taken seriously any more.

Or maybe the massive increase in the noise bed is just all part of a disinformation cover-up conspiracy??!

Either way readers need to get a bit more discerning in a world where anyone can publish anything.

Here's my top 5 of the dodgiest crap cropping up over and over again, no matter what the conspiracy is.

5. Documents snatched by police/MI5 or other shady intruder

Yes it's convenient for your alleged foe that your cache of documents was disappeared. But it's also convenient for your conspiracy you were too lazy or stupid to take precautions.

You're bright enough to spot the value of the evidence you hold but not clever enough to work a photocopier and find a hidey-hole?

Since 1987 you could walk into most local shops and libraries and copy away without raising an eyebrow. Deposit said copy with a friend, a solicitor - in the event  of my death, etc, etc.

There's even  fewer excuses today. Scan them onto a USB stick or set an email to go out in the event of your death from ifidie.org or similar.

4. The unnamed military/political/intelligence insider

When a newspaper runs a story from an unnamed insider you can bet your life at least one other person - a senior editor at the paper - thoroughly checked the reporter's notes and that publication has been discussed at the highest level.  Papers hate running important stories with unnamed sources.

Why? Because it's so bloody easy to invent secret sources to back up any story.  Check The Wire Season 5 for a picture penned by journalist David Simon.

And just assuming the person stepping out of the shadows to tip you off does exist, and he or she is actually affiliated to MI5 or whatever... How do you know they're not just yanking your chain? Leading me on to...

3. The story that mainstream media can't/is too scared to publish (or is subject to a D-Notice)

Why did your unnamed military/political/intelligence insider come to you and your crappy little blog and not the mainstream media? (Yes, yes... I've had people leak stuff to me - but it's hardly been explosive. Falls into the category: too niche for mainstream media).

Wait a minute, a D-Notice you say? The D-notice system, being voluntary and known as DA-Notices since 1993.  Whilst I'm sure the D-Notice system has been abused in the past there's little hard evidence; which is weird, considering journalists are a talkative bunch.

Even contemporary assertions such as use of a D-Notice to cover up an "embarrassing" 1971 bank robbery are at odds with what was printed in The Times in the 1970s (see Wikipedia for sources).

Recently we know there was a widely reported blackout over Prince Harry's Iraq deployment and a reminder to editors of the standing DA-Notices over Wikileaks, the existence of both was quickly reported, you'll note.

News of Prince Harry's first tour was outed by overseas media and Wikileaks is publicly accessible - hardly evidence of effective media censorship.  The MOD seem to have realised secrecy is futile for Prince Harry's second deployment.

So the question remains: why feed this ground-breaking story to your crappy little blog?

2. Person X is linked to person Y

Take one person who maybe did die in suspicious circumstances or has proven dodgy connections, person X.  Combine with the person you want to implicate, person Y.  Add to Google.  Discover the wife of the cousin of person Y  sat on some school or charitable board with person X.  Bingo!

"Person Y, who has proven links to disgraced/jailed/dodgy person X..."

Sometimes the connection is even more tenuous, like both living in Hampshire.

1. It's always a Freemason/Bilderberg/Common Purpose/Priory of Sion conspiracy

Yes, the bulk of evidence offered up by conspiracy theorists still plays to that most basic of human emotions: social rejection. A secret society that you'll never be able to join.  

They must be up to no good. How very dare they gang together behind closed doors with all their weird rituals? They must be murdering children and orchestrating world domination!

Freemasons are responsible for everything. Including Britain's love of CCTV cameras. Apparently. BS.

Buy the book!

One true fact I did uncover trawling the web of conspiracy.  Many of the bloggers and "truth-seekers" quite conveniently have a book for sale through the marvels of self-publishing.  How convenient. Sure signs of a conspiracy if you ask me!

One notable conclusion from the above: secrecy breeds conspiracy.

@JamesFirth


Alcohol minimum price, economically flawed?

There are two questions regarding action on alcohol abuse. Should the government act to artificially raise the price of alcohol and should it do this through duty (taxation) or setting a minimum price per unit.

I don't much care for the ideological debate about whether the government should act; but if it does intend to act, is minimum price setting the right way forward?

I have a major concern about how the wholesale market will work.  In a free market there is no legal distinction between someone who sells to an end user (retailer) and someone who sells to other traders (wholesaler).

Whilst many wholesalers erect, for various reasons, artificial barriers, e.g. only admitting customers who can prove they are working on behalf of a vat-registered entity; there is nothing in law to prevent a member of public buying direct from a wholesaler.

Nor is there anything to prevent a retailer buying discounted goods from another retailer and selling themselves at profit (although again there are sometimes attempts to prevent this by the retailer).

It's the free market.  We are free to buy and free to sell.

So if a minimum price per unit for alcohol is set, will this also apply to wholesalers?  And breweries?

It's an important question, because either way it really messes up the economy.  If it does apply to all sales, then there will need to be a mark-up each time the alcohol is traded.  A 45p minimum unit price could easily reach 60p at retail.

For this reason small shops who can't afford to buy direct from the brewery will be disproportionately affected (supermarket chains rarely if ever buy from wholesalers).

If it doesn't apply to wholesale then what's to stop those of us with access to a wholesaler bulk-buying cheaper alcohol for personal use?  In fact wholesalers could be in for a cash bonanza.

Whilst officially they don't like members of the public shopping there, secretly it's positively encouraged. Cash is cash.  Someone once told me the only reason they have membership requirements is because the manufacturers insist on it in order to qualify for huge buyer discounts.

Buying in bulk from wholesalers will encourage stockpiling, and this is known to be bad for health.  I haven't got references (sorry) but a Swedish researcher once told me experience in Sweden where shops were banned from selling alcohol at weekends was that people stockpiled on Friday, over-stocked for fear of running out, yet invariably drank all they bought.

And of course many will be encouraged to illegally resell wholesale alcohol if the profits available made up for the risks of getting caught.  After all, who's going to dob in the guy selling 4-packs down the Crown that *didn't* fall off the back of a lorry?

I can see why the government favours minimal pricing over taxation - the middle classes don't want to see a £9.99 bottle of Cab Sauv rise in order to hike the price of Buckfast and Tennent's Super.

But I seriously wonder if this well-intended move will either do little for public health (maybe encourage home brewing too?) or cause a major headache for the alcohol trade.

@JamesFirth

Friday, 23 November 2012

The IT 'community' - conspiracy and scandal for future decades?

A lesson from history?
There is a whiff of conspiracy in the London offices of global tech giants.

Policy advisers - senior guys - from several companies have in the past assured me over the years they are taking a more robust line internally towards protecting free speech online than they're prepared to admit in public.

On one hand it's sad that Jimmy Wales is one of the few tech giants who has consistently taken a stance protecting internet freedoms (e.g. campaigning against SOPA, Richard O'Dwyer extradition, Russian web controls, etc.)

On the other hand it's reassuring that many in tech, at all levels, are quietly working behind the scenes to defend freedom and human rights.

Or is it?

Will the duplicity, secret deal-making and lack of transparency over the "corporate line" end up threatening democracy?

And that's without considering the international angle - how the "corporate line" for China sits with the ethics and values of a company headquartered at the home of the first amendment.

~

Take the recent Twitterstorm over McAlpine libel madness.  Watching conversations on Twitter, blogs, etc I saw the beginnings of a conspiracy emerge along the lines of (not verbatim as I didn't capture logs):

"Twitter are about to strike a deal with McAlpine's lawyers as soon as the Met Police investigation gets underway..."

"No they're not, a friend actually works for Twitter, they're going to do all they can to stop this"

"Someone inside Twitter is on our side, they suspended that account for spreading unhelpful disinformation"

Of course the above is probably nothing more than idle speculation, but it did make me wonder whether the IT community would become tomorrow's "in club" to fear.

After all, the sysadmins at two of the companies I previously had association with were incredibly well-informed when it came to company gossip - on account of them reading my and presumably others' files and emails.

I established this by laying traps, sending private links to redirectors I controlled and checking when they were being accessed; plus, when possible, checking the "last access" time-stamp on my mailbox.  In one case many years ago I overheard a sysadmin telling a joke I'd just sent to two colleagues via email.

~

History has shown those who control a useful commodity become powerful.

The high priests of ancient Egypt controlled your spiritual destiny. Few questioned why when they suggested you must be buried with your most valuable possessions, at a location where only they knew...

Biblical "money-changers" were the early bankers and became powerful through controlling the supply of money.

And as the law became more pervasive and important to all sections of society, the lawyers who understood the complex instruments became powerful as the gatekeepers to justice (for all who could afford their fees).

Now data, or connected data, has rapidly become a commodity vital to us all. Our social lives lived out through Facebook, our entertainment through video download and our daily business conducted online.

One challenge for the future, as well as ensuring no one company or nation controls the majority of internet communications, will be to prevent those who understand the complex domain becoming the gatekeepers in order to subvert the power for their own gain.

Preventing rogue employees dipping into the data, playing their own power games on users whose accounts they control, etc, is challenge enough. But here technology can solve technology's problem through end-end-encryption, access controls, logs and safeguards to detect anomalous access patters.

The other challenge will be to ensure the minority with the skills to understand connected data systems - and it will always be a minority - is a sizeable and diverse minority and not one which closes ranks and forms shady select groups to profit from their access and cover each other's back.

The challenge is to ensure that freedom remains at the heart of the online agenda, and also in the heart of those who have become the gatekeepers to our data.

@JamesFirth

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Allegedly defamatory content definitely de-indexed from Google UK, Google does not do this lightly, injunction likely

One of the websites I've been keeping an eye on as part of my reporting of the McAlpine saga and my series on how rumour, fact and falsehood spread online (1, 2, 3) has been de-indexed from Google UK; and this is most likely the result of a court order (injunction), as I will explain.
"In response to a legal requested submitted to Google,
we have removed 1 result(s) from this page."
Notice on Google.co.uk this morning
The website is still available when searching from overseas locations using Google.com.

For very obvious reasons in the current climate I will not say more about the website in question than I need in order to report the significance.  The website makes several serious allegations about UK politicians relating to events over a decade ago.

For full clarity there is no evidence to suggest the removal has anything to do with Lord McAlpine or his legal team, as the website mentions several other politicians.

To those not familiar with Google's stance on free speech this might not be surprising, given the recent furore over false identification.

False allegations of the most serious nature have elicited an emotional response - from both sides of the debate.

Even some free speech advocates are wrestling right now with the question of whether some "regulation" (for want of a better word) might be necessary, whilst others are arguing that cover-ups will continue whilst the establishment continues to maintain a grip on communications.

That said, I have it on extremely good authority from multiple high level sources within Google that the company does not  take down defamatory content lightly.

"Normally, in the UK, that would require a court order" said one of my contacts.

This raises the likelihood that there is at least one court injunction in place preventing allegations being made about one or more of the people mentioned on the website in question.

From Google's own Transparency Report, over 80% of UK take-downs for defamation in the last 2 years stemmed from a court order, the rest from "Executive, Police, etc":
Google UK take-downs requests by category
Source: Google's Transparency Report (UK)
It is not thought that Google will remove defamatory content merely on application from the subject or the subject's lawyer, without a court order; therefore it's reasonable to believe either a court order exists (>80% probability, based on the stats), or the request originated from the police or the security services (<.20% probability).

The above stats are for requests, not take-downs.  Similar statistics are not available filtered by compliance. Google's take-down ratio is around 61% as of this summer so it's highly likely the ratio of court orders to police, etc requests for content actually taken down is higher than 80%.

Google have so far taken a firm line with requests from UK police in the absence of a court order, highlighting (under United Kingdom section):
"We received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove 14 search results for linking to sites that criticise the police and claim individuals were involved in obscuring crimes. We did not remove content in response to this request. In addition, we received a request from another local law enforcement agency to remove a YouTube video for criticising the agency of racism. We did not remove content in response to this request. 
The number of content removal requests we received increased by 98% compared to the previous reporting period."
In any case we may soon be able to view the actual order at some point due to Google's participation in the Chilling Effects project.

@JamesFirth

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Two takes on McAlpine's attempts to make a criminal complaint

Not content with a BBC apology, damages, resignation of its Director General; ongoing attempts to extract damages from ITV for a flash of a card that anyone without specialist software and an inkling what to expect on the card could read; targeted action against several high profile tweeters and mass action against thousands more...

It was reported today that Lord McAlpine's lawyers have approached the Met Police with a view to making a criminal complaint.

If you want the legal ins-and-outs of criminal malicious communications try David Allen Green.

But it's also interesting to look behind this complaint at what might be happening.

There's two schools of thought.  @Syn0nymph has had some interesting observations to date and he speculates that a criminal complaint will make it easier to extract user information from Twitter than through the civil courts.
"Earlier in the week a spokeswoman for Twitter in the U.K. pointed out the company’s statement on requests for personal information: 
“U.S. law authorizes Twitter to respond to requests for user information from foreign law enforcement agencies that are issued via U.S. court either by way of a mutual legal assistance treaty or a letter rogatory. It is our policy to respond to such U.S. court ordered requests when properly served.” 
Read his full post here.
It's worth noting that South Tyneside Council is reported to have spent £142,725 trying in vain to unmask one user in the infamous "Mr Monkey case".

It could get very costly for McAlpine to unmask hundreds of tweeters via the civil courts, with no guarantee of success.  A criminal complaint might be very handy indeed.

My own take on this relates to the online backlash since McAlpine announced he'd take action against 10,000 tweeters.

Opinion in my own circle is split - with the majority sympathetic of McAlpine - whilst I argue many tweeters could be forgiven for their folly and that such moves risk dramatically narrowing the range of voices and participation in online debate.

However I have noticed through keeping an eye on certain noisy quarters of the internet that McAlpine's attempts to rein-in Twitter have created a pretty awful backlash.

Not quite the Streisand Effect but a degree of anger and rage at perceived injustice and cover-ups in general in relation to child abuse inquiries.

I'm wondering whether McAlpine's approach to the Met Police might actually be in relation to the strong abuse and re-statement of serious allegations by a minority online.

Obviously personal attacks can't be condoned but I can't help feel that the best way to put this and so many other rumours doing the rounds to bed is not criminal action against the angry mob but a wide-ranging inquiry into historical mistreatment of children in care and a historical unwillingness for police to investigate allegations at the time.

@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The de-democratisation of democratised media

Ignorance is no defence in law.

No-one gets off a murder charge just because they thought it was legal to shoot a Welshman with a longbow in the city of Chester.

But what happens when laws get so complex that the vast majority of people genuinely have no grasp of what they can and cannot do or say?

What happens when laws are so far removed from natural concepts of justice and fairness that the vast majority of the population have no idea that such a law even exists?

What happens is this. We create barriers and social divides that alter the way that the public participate in mass media such as Twitter and Facebook; and this, ultimately, leads to the de-democratisation of what is inherently a democratic medium where each participant starts on a relatively level playing field.

Let's take some recent examples.

Libel 

The basic principle is actually well aligned to principles of natural justice.  We should expect everyone to understand that it is simply wrong, morally and legally, to smear someone without proof.

Especially of serious crimes such as child abuse - smears that can lead to vigilante attacks and fundamentally alter lives.

But there are genuine areas where I'd guess that well over 50% of the population are understandably confused.  E.g. if you retweet, like or share a libellous post.

On one hand yes, it's clear the person doing this is contributing to the spread of a lie. On the other hand though, especially on Twitter, it's useful to retweet someone who you don't agree with just to show that person A is making a dumb statement.

Where the law gets even more unfathomable is in relation to innuendo and other "mischief".  Say you tweet the name of a person without context, in the hope of starting a trend that will provide the missing piece in a libellous jigsaw.

You might know a bit about libel law.  You might check your "publication" - your tweet - for correctness.  It might simply ask why a person's name is being mentioned.  On its own you might be sure that your tweet is not, as the lawyers say, "actionable".

Injunctions and court orders

Other cases could put a tweeter in the dock for mentioning something that is subject to a court injunction, without actually being served by the court or even aware of the existence of the order.

One recent case put the name of a child in the public domain in order to find that child. An order was subsequently imposed to prevent further reporting of the name in order to protect the child.

Now, journalists and those familiar with the law in relation to media reporting see it as obvious that a child would be protected in this way.  And privacy advocates argue it is right that privacy should be protected wherever there is no public interest to use a child - or anyone's - name in a public forum.

But the general public are understandably gob-smacked to find that someone's name previously plastered across the media now can't be uttered on Twitter or Facebook on penalty of a £5,000 fine.

Malicious Communications

Even legal commentators are surprised at recent legal action in the UK against people posting things online that others find offensive.

There is a worrying and growing list of cases where people have mocked the dead, particularly dead children and soldiers to make a joke or a political statement, and found themselves with a criminal conviction and in at least one case behind bars.

There is much to say on this in other contexts but I'll stop at a simple note in this post.

Conclusion

Conscientious citizens are understandably becoming wary about the public statements they make.

On one hand this is seen as a good thing. Some commentators are taking a rather simplistic line that the online world will be better if everyone thought before tweeting.

And a nudge in the right direction - there is a consequence for each of your actions - can't be a bad thing.

But this becomes a problem if the nudge becomes a shove so hard it dissuades people from participating in the debate.

When a conscientious majority are dissuaded form participating because the rules are unfathomable to mere mortals, the online debate will be steered by a minority.

On Channel 4 news last night a studio guest actually suggested it wouldn't be a bad thing if people just used Twitter to discuss life in general without, presumably, the political debate.

This made me fume, my wife will testify to the huffing.

The internet has the capacity to change the evolution of the human race in two ways.  In science and technology, through the sharing of ideas and developments instantaneously throughout the world; and in politics, where the news agenda is no-longer the sole preserve of an elite media clique and even the weak and oppressed can find a voice.

If ordinary folk sit on the sidelines for fear of transgressing laws they don't understand or even know about then the old media elite and their oft corrupt ways will simply be replaced by a new media elite.

The online message will be dominated by those who understand the law and those who don't care about the law (through e.g. being based outside the UK or having nothing much to lose through any court action).

Neither of these voices will necessarily be representative of society as a whole.

The upshot of laws designed to keep the old print and broadcast media in check might be to extend their reign, with a few notable newcomers.

I don't mean to be completely dismissive of established news-gathering organisations, democracy would probably be weakened even if one of my most hated news outlets went under.

But I want to see the "comment agenda" snatched from the likes of the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Murdoch Press, etc and moved into the hands of real people. Instead of a millionaire paid by the Guardian telling me what it's like for a job-seeker on benefits I'd actually rather read it in a blog.

Yes, I *know* nothing discussed above prevents a blog on life as a job-seeker. But it will stifle the blog of an abuse victim, as it will someone treated unfairly by a corrupt organisation or politician.

In summary the "chilling effect" that many - especially in power - seem to dismiss as a mythical highbrow theory bandied around by free speech enthusiasts becomes reality when large sections of the population are afraid to participate in a debate for fear of not understanding the UK's laws on what you can and cannot say online.

If ignorance is no defence we at least need clear and concise laws.

@JamesFirth

Friday, 16 November 2012

How to remain as untraceable as practically possible on Twitter

I've thought long and hard about whether this post is irresponsible or in the public interest.  I decided to publish, due to the numerous issues it raises.

The first thing to remember is that online, at a transaction level, there is no guaranteed way to ensure your online behaviour is untraceable.  There's always a chance that someone with sufficient access to enough of the network might be able to link your actions to you.

No method of so-called online anonymisation is foolproof.  In addition, your behaviour over time when using Twitter might give you away.

To use Twitter with minimum chance of being traced you need at least two things:
  1. Access to the internet that cannot be linked to you, or anonymisation software such as TOR
  2. A Twitter account that can't be linked to you
This may sound like stating the obvious but it's vital not to forget that a Twitter account you created using e.g. your home internet connection or an email address you used for other purposes can probably be linked back to you.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

McAlpine Libel Madness

Amid reports "angry" Lord McAlpine is 'Set To Sue' Sally Bercow, ITV's This Morning and 'Long List' of Twitter users let's just take a step back.

Okay, it's very bad indeed to be falsely labelled a child abuser (yet not as bad as being abused, I'll get back to this later).

But in this particular case, with many days of headlines charting the subsequent implosion at the BBC, this false accusation was corrected in double quick time and in a rather spectacular fashion.

It's inconceivable that more than a handful of individuals would have seen the original allegation on Twitter yet missed the fallout.

So the overall reputational damage should be framed in this context. A few people for a short space of time heard through highly unreliable channels that the missing piece of the jigsaw laid out on BBC Newsnight was Lord McAlpine.  A claim that was quashed within a week.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A reverse ion drive as a hydroelectrical generator

Bujagali Falls, Jinja, Uganda in 2003
prior to the dam. credit: J. Firth
Nine years ago to the month I sat on a bank of the Nile in Jinja, Uganda, discussing the then proposed Bujagali Falls hydro project with an international development expert.

Hydroelectric power is attractive, especially in developing countries.

But hydroelectric power comes with a reasonably high price tag and high ecological impact both at the dam site and downstream - which, with a very long river like the Nile, is a substantial area.

I began to plot ways of capturing energy from the flowing river without such large capital outlay whilst minimising the environmental impact.

I was especially keen on micro generation at the time as that would come with the added advantage of not requiring lengthy power transmission cables.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Market manipulation: the consumer can't win

This quick blog is in response to some weak reporting about the alleged manipulation of the energy markets.

Someone interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme this morning claimed that, since the manipulation appears to have been an attempt to artificially lower the market price, consumers shouldn't have lost out.

But this is a gross over-simplification.

Markets are complex systems which take many input variables to arrive at what is meant to be the fair market price for a commodity like gas.

The price paid by the consumer for gas covers not just the wholesale cost of gas but also a mark-up added by the utility company to cover the cost of distribution and profit to shareholders.

Now, here's the important bit: profit.  When a market works, competition between rivals keeps profits in check.

Energy companies should in theory be trying to undercut each other on the retail price charged to consumers in order to maximise market share, whilst minimising the price paid on the wholesale market to maximise their profit.

If a small number of utility traders learn how to rig the wholesale market in order to lower the price paid for gas; then traders who, for whatever reason, won't or can't rig the market will always end up paying more for their gas.

So the overall effect of manipulation to artificially lower prices may well be to reduce competition in the retail sector.

And because there's less competition it might be possible to increase the mark-up without losing customers.

So the overall effect of rigging the market in this way may be consumers pay more for gas whilst utility companies pay less - the winners: bumper bonuses for traders and increased dividends for shareholder.
UK wholesale vs retail gas price 2007-2012
Source: Consumer Focus 
UK wholesale vs retail electricity price 2007-2012
Source: Consumer Focus 
There probably isn't enough data to draw conclusions from the above graphs but it certainly looks like there is an upward trend in the retail price that is not reflected in the wholesale price.

Of course the energy companies will moan about setting money aside for infrastructure upgrades and future investment, but if the market was competitive there should also be pressure on these companies to find more efficient ways of delivering energy.

UPDATE 15-11-2012: Energy company profits up 40% - an indicator of a collapse in market competitiveness?

@JamesFirth

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Liar Paradox and quantum physics

(In my previous post I used the term Truth Paradox, leading in a roundabout way to this post)
 This sentence is false
This is the classic Liar Paradox.  I was surprised to read philosophers still can't agree on a way out of this paradox... Having studied quantum physics the answer seems obvious.

The observer effect (often confused with the uncertainty principle - even by its discoverer Werner Heisenberg) means it is not possible to measure certain properties of some systems (especially of elementary quantum particles) without affecting the system in some way that alters what is being measured.

An object in a dark room - you can't see it without turning on a light.

At a non-quantum level the object could be a thermometer and the light a very powerful light.  You can't read the temperature without the light, but in turning the light on you'll heat the thermometer.

If the object is truly minuscule the light photons themselves will alter the position and direction of the particle. Without the light you don't know where it is, and with the light you don't know where it was.

In some cases it is possible to negate the observer effect by calculating the exact effect the observer had on the system and working back.  At a quantum level this is simply not possible when measuring some properties, leading to uncertainty.

Language itself has an observer effect.  Language means nothing unless it can be understood by the observer.

In processing the text to understand what is written the observer's understanding of what is written can be altered by what is written.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The truth paradox: can we get to the truth without the lies and idle speculation?

An establishment paedophile ring?

Plenty of names are doing the rounds online.  I previously blogged that secrecy ultimately hurts more people when wild speculation fills the void.

Just because allegations of a cover-up are being taken seriously doesn't mean everyone smeared over the last twenty years is guilty.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Britain's long term 4G future is not about max download speeds or huge data bundles

Last year I was pacing the corridors of power handing out copies of a paper I co-authored on the cost to UK businesses of slow mobile broadband (pdf) - essentially a paper outlining why the UK could not afford further delays to the roll-out of 4G data.

Watching the news last night on Everything Everywhere's (EE) 4G launch people who know me must have asked themselves why I even bothered.

A measly 500MB of data allowance on their standard tariff at £36 per month... I chew through 100MB on the average morning - that's why I use GiffGaff's unlimited data for £10 (rising to £12 next month).

Even if I did happen to live in a 4G area, EE doesn't really open up cost-effective remote working options.

Of course EE's 4G network is so patchy they can't really afford to offer more - 4G is only available in 11 cities and their 3G network (from personal experience) seems so clogged they must surely be wary that the bulk of any bundled 4G data might still end up routed via their 3G network.

But this is all very far from the point of 4G - the reason I published a paper last year and badgered any politician who'd listen as to the benefits.

The real 4G dividend comes when 4G is deployed outside the cities.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Google's extreme digital capitalism is just a different form of socialism

A news story has been rumbling on for a while.  France wants to find a way of taxing search engines; Germany proposed such a law back in March, Italy is reported to be considering such a law and even the US Federal Trade Commission embarked on such a project, in vain, two and half years ago.

This row is separate to the storm over multinationals not paying their fair share of taxes on local profits; although arguably the strength of feeling against Google may have been dampened if Google, as per many multinationals in general, weren't aggressively minimising local profits in an attempt to reduce their overall tax bill.

This row is about journalism and the poor, suffering, local newspapers coming to rely on Google for a large proportion of their readers.

For I doubt any publication worth their salt is worse off in terms of web traffic.

I'm no fan of Google, but the position of Google as an audience generator can't be overlooked.  I've been privy to web stats from companies who mysteriously find themselves de-indexed by Google and it's invariably catastrophic, with traffic falling to between 20 and 40 percent of previous volumes.  Those who do manage to get re-indexed recover pretty much all of their traffic.

And, for the record, I'm sympathetic to the news publishers' plight.  They pay for quality journalism, Google - I would say search engines in general but let's face it, this is an ideological battle against the Big G - reaps the profit.

So let's take this as a given, Firth's lemma, if you like.   Google brings news websites in general more traffic than they would otherwise get.  Additionally, I'll add for the sake of clarity: Google brings news websites more opportunity to present display advertising to its users.

So why the uproar when there's no evidence that the average news website is any worse off and plenty of empirical evidence to the contrary?

Friday, 26 October 2012

The scandal of the missing children: care home runaways are not tracked

When a 15-year-old schoolgirl ran away with her teacher it sparked a Europe-wide manhunt.  Yet an estimated 10,000 children go missing from care homes in the UK every year; and - this is the real scandal - no-one really knows what happens to these children.

Councils who run care homes don't collect statistics, nor does the government, so we don't actually know how bad the problem is.  These were the stark findings of a report by MPs last summer.

Bubbling under the surface in web forums often frequented by what many would dismiss as conspiracy theorists are some shocking but unsubstantiated allegations relating to systematic abuse of children in care.

Allegations bordering on surreal often focus on an elite paedophile network linked to the establishment, and a question by respected MP Tom Watson in Parliament on Wednesday about a "powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No 10" raised a small possibility that some of these theories may be based on fact.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Secrecy ultimately hurts more people when wild speculation fills the void

Yes, I'm a bit of a conspiracy nut - not that I believe the vast majority of the theories I read online (he says, trying to convince you there's an ounce of sanity between my ears).

But I'm fascinated at the point at which truth and speculation intersect.  How rumours spread outside of "trusted" channels such as official findings and reports from respected news sources.

So I find myself drawn in by pages and pages of conspiracy nonsense, perhaps kidding myself that I'm conducting informal research into online truth, rumour and influence.

As in previous furores, whenever there's a lack of official information, rumour and speculation fill the void.

And, with most people now able to connect via the internet, the massive void hanging under today's current child sex scandal is adequately filled to overflowing with rumour and speculation.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Amazon Kindle "wipe" confusion: some questions for Amazon

There is much confusion over what happened in the strange case of a Norwegian woman who claims to have had her Amazon account suspended and therefore could no longer access upwards of 50 ebooks she'd paid for.

What now seems clear:

  • Amazon didn't "wipe" her kindle. Her kindle broke, her account was suspended and it was therefore not possible to recover her paid-for ebooks from Amazon's "cloud". 
  • Since the press got involved her access has been restored.
  • Amazon customer service and PR don't come out of this at all well and it leaves serious questions over the "ownership" of your "purchases".  In effect you don't own the ebook, despite in many cases paying more for an ebook than a regular book, and despite reports of Amazon using their near-monopoly on the supply of ebooks to screw publishers and authors into the ground.

Whatever the whys and wherefores of this specific case, Amazon have since issued a rather blunt statement:
"We would like to clarify our policy on this topic. Account status should not affect any customer's ability to access their library. If any customer has trouble accessing their content, he or she should contact customer service for help. Thank you for your interest in Kindle."
This leaves three questions for Amazon:

  1. Why was Linn not able to restore her access after contacting "customer service for help"?  It took the press to get involved before she saw any action.
  2. "Account status should not affect any customer's ability to access their library," but in this case it clearly did.  I note the use of the word "should not" rather that "does not".  Clearly this is a statement of intent rather than implementation.  What steps are being taken to ensure that no customers are ever affected in this way again, so they can always access their lawfully-acquired content?
  3. Given both of the above, isn't it also time to provide customers with the tools to back-up their kindle content to their computers so that purchases will always be accessible to users in any eventuality?  After all hackers seem already to have found ways to crack the content-protection mechanisms; the "bad guys" with the know-how can pirate ebooks yet the "good guys" can't back up their kindles?

@JamesFirth

Friday, 19 October 2012

Prejudice and bigotry in role models

I was talking to someone picking my brains about inspirational British scientists, engineers and inventors to help encourage children to follow in their footsteps.

We went through the usual suspects: from James Dyson back to James Watt, Stephenson and Brunel.

"How about modern tech entrepreneurs, is there a British Bill Gates?"

Well, the Economist asked this question last year.  Turns out we're just a nation of digital shopkeepers...

Of course, we're not... the Economist article missed out Britain's important contribution in developing computer games, the development of innovative platforms such as the low-cost ZX Spectrum perhaps responsible for today's generation of coders and in computer chip design such as gallant Cambridge-based RISC processor giant ARM.

But role models?  I admire Sir Clive Sinclair but he's more often derided for the C5 than he is remembered fondly for the ZX Spectrum, and Sir Alan Sugar to my mind deserves no credit for riding in Sir Clive's slipstream.

And who outside the tech world has heard of Herman Hauser and Chris Curry? Although many more will have heard of Acorn Computers having used a BBC Micro at school.

"And women?"  The conversation went.

"Well I haven't got binders of them," should have been my answer.

But then I started thinking, are British school kids so ridiculously prejudiced that they will only be inspired by stories of tech entrepreneurship by role models who are British themselves?

Why not just tell British kids about the actual Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison?  Or are we so inherently prejudiced that we can't follow in the footsteps of overseas inventors?

And women in technology.  I'm sure it helps for a schoolgirl to see a successful tech entrepreneur and think, "yeah, I can do that."  But holding aloft Ada Lovelace, a pioneer in computable algorithms but dead for 160 years might actually be counter-productive.  Computers don't have cogs these days.

Might it not be better to get the message to Britain's schoolgirls that they can be inspired by any successful technologist, male or female; British, Russian, American, whatever.

The message should be that there is today no barrier to achieving; don't be put-off by the lack of stereotyped role models because there's nothing stopping you, Wendy Robinson, being inspired by Sergey Brin and Larry Page and making internet search relevant again.


@JamesFirth

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The slow march of sunlight: 240 years of Parliamentary transparency


1771: A man stands in a darkened corner of the gallery making notes by what light spilled in his direction from the few lanterns dotted around this the darker end of the chamber where the public were, in theory at least, allowed to observe debates.

The MPs below are debating Brass Crosby, the Lord Mayor of London.  The arguments are well rehearsed.   Parliament would cease to function should every word spoken appear under the microscope of public scrutiny. Members would refrain from honest debate for fear of what their constituents might conclude should a few rash words be quoted out of context, opting instead to act like showmen playing to the journals.  And how could the journalists be regulated to ensure their accounts remained unbiased?

Despite rowdy oppostion, Wilke's motion carried in the early hours.  The government was defeated not by tonight's debate but by the judiciary, who had previously refused to try Crosby for treason.  His crime? Refusing to punish another man, Miller, for publishing several accounts of proceedings in the House.

~s~r~o~c~

Nearly forty years later a pioneer in Parliamentary transparency did find himself in prison, but his crime was not related to the transcripts of debates he had published in his journal The Political Register over the previous eight years.

William Cobbett had used his journal to object to inhumane treatment of local militia by forces sworn to Hanover, and this threatened the union between the House of Hanover and Great Britain.  Convicted of treasonous libel, Cobbett spent the next two years in a notorious prison of the era.

Cobbett continued a campaign for Parliamentary reform until his death in 1835, being charged at least twice more with libel.  He stood against bribery and corruption in politics, for the removal of 'rotten' boroughs where the tiny electorate could easily be bought, and died in 1835 a Member of Parliament after finally winning an election in 1832.

~s~r~o~c~

One hundred and eighty years later many of the arguments surfacing in the decades leading up to the Great Reform Act of 1832 are still playing out today.

Of course television cameras now supplement Parliament's official written record Hansard, which still bears the name of Thomas Curson Hansard, a printer who first extended the circulation of Cobbett's debates before taking over publication entirely in 1812.

But Parliament is a body operating independently of Government and daylight has been slow to find its way into the many ministries and quangos of Whitehall and beyond.

Finland introduced transparency legislation in 1951. US citizens got Freedom of Information in 1966.  France formalised a constitutional right to access public documents in the seventies and Australia introduced legislation in the early eighties.

Citizens of the United Kingdom had to wait till the onset of the third millennium, and even then its powers didn't come into effect until 2005.

~s~r~o~c~

British citizens exercising their democratic right to request information face a myriad of problems.  Delays and outright refusals under one of many broad exceptions are common.

Public interest tests are highly subjective and make it relatively painless for officials to hide embarrassing detail with very few consequences.

Should a refusal be overturned on appeal the Government may well appeal to a higher authority, delaying publication of said embarrassing detail for a couple of years or longer, by which time the news agenda and perhaps the embarrassed official has moved on.

MPs and ministers are quick to brief, strictly off the record, of course, how damaging too much transparency can be.  How costly freedom of information is.  What little benefit comes from allowing the unwashed hordes to pore over every meeting minute and other minutiae of officialdom.


~s~r~o~c~


Many of the arguments against transparency are at least two hundred and fifty years old and, if not disproved, now widely disputed.

Yet local councils are preventing live video transcripts of official proceedings, lobbyists responding to formal consultations can request not to have their responses published, commercial confidence is a barrier to those wishing to investigate whether government departments get value for money when e.g. deploying 'superfast' broadband in rural areas, and revealing the names of MPs landlords is prejudicial to their safety.

(But, inconveniently, also prejudicial to anyone trying to investigate whether MPs might be letting the houses they own out to each other in order to inflate their expenses claims.)

Transparency is a balance between the public's right to know and the government's right not to have to justify the decisions it makes on our behalf.


@JamesFirth

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Assange: if there was a conspiracy, the conspirators have already achieved their aims

I haven't written much about Assange because, well there's already a few years' harvests worth of wheat and chaff out there...

I'll assume regular readers of this blog (yes, it still surprises me too!) are pretty clued up on the established facts and general arguments.

One thing continues to puzzle me.  Whatever you say about the strengths or weaknesses of the Swedish legal system, I've seen not one solid piece of evidence supporting the theory that Sweden would be a stepping stone of choice towards extradition to the US.

If there was a conspiracy then I find it hard to believe the Top Secret Plan started life with one of its aims as "get Assange to Sweden."

Swedish law lecturer Mark Klamberg outlines three reasons why not on his blog.

Of these, the third reason is most compelling.  Sweden does not extradite military personnel, spies or political prisoners.

UK legal commentators have, when referring to other cases, been quick to point out there are few legal obstacles preventing either British citizens or foreign nationals from being whisked west across the Atlantic to face trial in the US.

Surely Britain would have ranked higher up the conspirators' wish list.

It's worth noting that the conspirators (if any) could not have known Assange would have been 'caught' in the UK, so any direct comparison between Sweden-US and UK-US extradition is somewhat moot.  What is relevant is that Sweden is simply a bad place to try and extradite someone for alleged spying.

All this doesn't mean there isn't a conspiracy.

Let's say the US simply wanted to damage Assange and his organisation's reputation.  Well then they've succeed.

With legal commentators and campaign groups becoming entrenched in their position on Assange, lobbing increasingly tenuous blogs and accusations to and fro.

With Assange sat somewhat impotent in the Ecuadorian embassy.

With the public's suspicions alerted to questions over the way Wikileaks is run, with Julian Assange himself alleged to have exhibited some interesting behaviour - perhaps due to spending so much time on the back foot - in his dealings with journalists; and with journalists getting quite tired of the former darling of the transparency world Wikileaks.

If there was a conspiracy, the aim wouldn't be to get Assange to Sweden...  It would have been to discredit Assange.

Fifty years ago a sex scandal might have been the tarnish of choice; but not now, surely?

Well, yes.  Because it backed Assange into a corner, exposing his paranoia and willingness to sacrifice his principles in order to survive.

It wouldn't surprise me if the rumours of a sealed Grand Jury indictment and likely extradition weren't invented by the conspirators to add to the pressure on Assange.

And these conspirators must have laughed their heads off the moment Julian Assange entered the sanctuary of the Ecuadorian embassy.  A few discrete phone calls pointing out Ecuador's questionable record on press freedom to a few journalists.  More damage done.

"A dead man can't leak stuff"... well neither can a discredited alleged sex offender holed up in an embassy, driven to distraction avoiding US extradition proceedings that might never materialise.

@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

What's the difference between a sick joke and a criminal offence?

When a pie factory exploded in Huddersfield my Twitter timeline, not normally awash with sick humour, caught one particular joke:
"Explosion in Pi Factory, 3.1415927 Dead"
The problem here is that someone was actually killed.  Not only that, but my brother used to work for the butcher who owned the factory, although he didn't know the dead man or the six injured.

Someone died, the joke was sick. So should those who repeated it on social media have been charged under Section 127 of the Communications Act for sending "a message or other matter" which is "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character"?

Thankfully, to best of my knowledge, the law didn’t see fit to interfere – we can’t go locking up mathematicians with a penchant for paronomasia, clever little buggers!

But yesterday Matthew Woods was sentenced under this law to 3 months in a young offenders' institution for – let’s face it - far worse 'jokes' posted on Facebook in relation to April Jones.

It's not clear at this stage whether the jokes were posted on an appeal or memorial page dedicated to the missing girl, or on his own timeline.

What is clear from multiple reports is that the bulk - if not all - of these offensive 'jokes' were lifted from Sickipedia, a website dedicated to sick jokes.

If the jokes were simply posted on Woods' own timeline it raises the possibility that the people who uploaded the material to Sickipedia in the first place are also guilty of the same offence as, given this was a high profile UK story, it's highly likely that UK users uploaded the original jokes.

A post on Facebook is a limited public disclosure aimed at friends; a post on a public website is aimed at a wider audience - so there are clear grounds for equal treatment.

Just one case and we're already in a legal minefield.

Legal equality is of critical importance.  We can't just pick and choose who we want to prosecute based on whether the suspect "looks like a wrong 'un" or we risk giving the people who make such decisions power to act in a discriminatory manner or work towards political aims.

And to have equality we must have an objective test on whether material is or is not "grossly offensive".  Any joke about a death could be seen as "grossly offensive" to his or her family.  Does that therefore mean the Darwin Awards are now illegal in the UK?

I really do not intend to be flippant in this question on such a sensitive but important subject.

The death of a child is of course a circumstance bringing unimaginable heartbreak but that doesn't mean we should subvert the law so that it is applied differently in high profile cases and that doesn't mean we shouldn't question the wider implications of having such laws.

Looking at recent cases we know criminal charges are likely if you post highly distasteful comments about police murders, that a criminal conviction is possible for disrespectful comments about dead soldiers in a post critical of the role of the UK's armed forces overseas and sick 'jokes' about a child murderer can get you locked up.

To be absolutely clear I am not condoning such behaviour and there is no easy answer to such questions for law makers.

We can't ignore the fact that Matthew Woods' home was besieged by around 50 people after posting the material, indicating the public mood for action.  Similarly there is a report today that a court in Huddersfield is currently under siege by nationalists after it failed to deliver a custodial sentence to Azhar Ahmed for his Facebook comments about dead UK soldiers.
Read more on the difficulties:
1. The free speech thorn is there to stop us living in our cosy little bubbles
2. Freedom of speech: 'freedom from', 'freedom to' and protection of the individual
It's now nine years since Parliament enacted a law that gives some state control over what can and cannot be posted online; we have already embarked on a journey that results in jail time for significant transgressions.

And indeed UK public opinion is most likely in favour of "doing something" to prevent these "vile" abuses of free speech - since public opinion tends to form around black and white positions without considering the subtleties e.g. of enforcing such a law given the vast amount of grey separating black and white.

We're part way down a very slippery slope and in the absence of a change in the law the best we can hope for to prevent the UK's online speech laws affecting democracy is for:
  • prosecutors to establish a clear set of objective rules on how the existing law will be applied; and,
  • that the law is applied uniformly, regardless of the offender (a 19-year-old unemployed man or a high profile comedian) and regardless of the medium (ie a public comment on Facebook is analogous to one on a website such as Sickipedia)

@JamesFirth

Monday, 8 October 2012

Forget crowd funding, how about we go one stage further and invent a stock market?

Ask a technology start-up in London how they're thinking about raising investment cash.  Angel investors probably feature highly.  And at least half will probably mention crowd funding.

The problem with the former is that there's only a limited number of wealthy individuals prepared to risk hundreds of thousands if not millions in a start up.  And risk they do as, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, three out of four start-ups fail.

And this leads to government pandering via tax policy to ensure the wealthy people needed to fund growth don't leave the country.

But we are the 99.9%! A thousand pounds' investment from a thousand people is as good as a million from a single high net worth individual.

And, for many businesses, crowd funding offers a solution.

Say you want to make a funky new bracelet-cum-intergalactic-communicator. You've already invented the technology, have a prototype and a business plan, but you need £1m to finalise the design and set up production.

If you can convince 12,500 people to effectively pre-order at a price of £80 you achieve three things simultaneously.

You create a tried and tested market for your product (your investors are also your early buyers, buyers who are prepared to stump up hard cash), your raise the cash needed to launch; plus, you distribute the risk of failure over many (ordinary) people at an amount they can afford to lose.

Crowd Funding has limited appeal

But crowd funding doesn't suit every venture.  Few tech start-ups have a tangible first product that's attractively priced to convince enough funders to pre-order at risk.  Funders still need to be convinced of the integrity of the business and the plausibility of the business plan.  What if development costs double in the first year, are we all left with nothing or all tapped-up for a further £80?

And who owns the company?  In many circumstances the crowd is left with very little more than one shiny thing and their name on a roll call of founding members; and as for the latter... Well you can get your name in the International Start Registry for far less.

As in a conventional funding arrangement, the funders take all the financial risk.  But when a crowd-funded company becomes successful, the founders not the funders end up owning the whole company.

Now wouldn't it be better if there was a way to offer shares to the crowd funders...

But there is a system to manage multiple investments from many people that does guarantee investors a share in any future success; but it just so happens that many crowd funding platforms specifically outlaw offering shares to funders, possibly to work around legislation designed to protect investors.

Why do companies float only after they've grown?

Only we don't today see stock markets used much for growth in the raw sense (i.e. seeing a company grow from 10 employees to 500).

The stock market has been corrupted into a place where wealthy investors make their mega-fortunes after companies have grown.  Google's floatation valued the company $23 billion.  Facebook's at $104 billion.

Pluck a few companies at random off the FTSE 100 - are these innovative companies that will help the UK grow out of recession?  British Telecom, Barclays, British American Tobacco, G4S, ITV, National Grid...

Around the time of the millennium I worked for Motorola during the so-called dot-com bubble burst.  Executives pressured departments to continue to hit unrealistic growth targets for the following five years.  Why? Because that's what the market wanted.

But Motorola was a large company - over a hundred thousand employees when I joined, if I recall correctly.    Yet it had investors wanting revenue growth; month on month, quarter-on-quarter, year-on-year.

Despite the tech bubble collapsing.

Any fool could see the growth market was tough.  South east Asian rivals like Samsung and LG, strategic mergers like Ericsson and Sony.  Plummeting revenue expectations from operators from cash cows like data and value added services (i.e. crappy WAP services to tell you e.g. the weather).

Shouldn't the company be focussing on consolidating, retaining customers and delivering on its customer commitments rather than fanciful growth?

I actually asked that question to the UK general manager.  I was given a pretty angry response about me being too young to understand what investors wanted and should stick to my job as a technologist - a job I would be increasingly lucky to keep if I continued to question the corporate wisdom flowing down from on high.

Over ten years later and I look back on what became of my old employer and can't help but believe I understood the market far better than the majority of the corporate execs.

But they can be forgiven, for they had the wrong kind of investor!

Investors want growth

So why is it we're re-inventing the wheel with crowd funding?  Why are we not instead reconfiguring the existing mechanisms - the stock markets - to make them attractive places for small growing companies to raise money to grow?

This seems to be such an obvious solution, but it would require a culture shift in regulation and investment banking.

Firstly everyone - investors, the regulators and the public need to accept that three in four companies will fail.  This isn't as bad as it sounds, as the one in four that are successful can and do make huge returns for investors - enough to cover the failures.

The stock market seems an ideal place to spread the risk over these companies.

Regulation needs to be geared around managing - not eliminating - risk.  And in many respects it is; well as far as entry criteria for "junior" markets such as London's Alternative Investment Market are concerned.

In fact the AIM has been criticised because of this 'casino' element.

But risk is inherent in all investment and it's so blindingly obvious I can't believe the hype around crowd funding has been allowed to grow for so long without anyone realising what these growing tech companies actually need is a stock market.

If crowd funding works as a concept, surely you can find some way of convincing the very same people - maybe offering similar incentives - to invest not in having their name on a meaningless list of founders but in having actual shares in the company.  Shares they can sell if the company makes it to the big time.

But the fact so few software and technology companies look to markets to raise capital is noteworthy.  Are the markets not well suited? Are the listing, transaction and nominated advisor fees disproportionately high?

Is public confidence so low and barriers for institutional investors so high that the stock markets don't offer technology start-ups a realistic prospect of success?  Is it still seen as too complex for the 99.9% to open a brokerage account and buy shares?

But surely it's worth fixing the markets rather than inventing replacement wheels that aren't quite round and don't quite fit the vehicle.


@JamesFirth