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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