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Friday, 28 June 2013

Timezones and sloppy journalism: why I have much sympathy for Alec Baldwin

Alec Baldwin had a twitter meltdown over an accusation that his wife Hilaria was tweeting during James Gandolfini's funeral, and I have a lot of sympathy for him.

What appears to have happened is that Hilaria has her Twitter location set to PDT, ie the time zone for California, which is 3 hours behind New York (EDT) where James Gandolfini's funeral was held at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine at 10:00 am EDT.

The Tweets highlighted by the Daily Mail [here, and here] appear to have been posted at 10:17 and 11:09 respectively, but this is definitely not EDT.

As you can see from this screen grab, Twitter reports right now these tweets as being posted 20 and 19 hours ago respectively:



At the time of writing it is 23 hours since the funeral, meaning the tweets were posted three to four hours after the funeral started; ie at 13:17 and 14:09 EDT.

As Alec Baldwin points out, his wife is heavily pregnant, so they didn't stay too long after the funeral.

Since it's almost certain from the timestamps she wasn't tweeting at the funeral and I've seen nothing Hilaria is alleged to have tweeted that is anywhere near out of order for 3-4 hours after a funeral I'd say Alec Baldwin can be forgiven for being very cross indeed.

@JamesFirth

Support UK justice

I just signed a petition after receiving the following email:
The odd scandal here and there, the UK has one of the fairest legal systems in the world, and much of that is down to our legal aid system which supports the critical right of defendants to access specialist legal advice.  
If Grayling gets his way, defendants will be assigned the cheapest public defender, regardless of whether they need a legal specialist in a complex case.

Justice will suffer. This isn't about politics, but about justice. 99,000 people have already signed this petition. Just 1,000 more are needed to force a Parliamentary debate on this critical subject:
http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628

@JamesFirth

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Bastard of Convenity

Empirically it is clear we can have incredible convenience, or we can have tight digital security, but not both.

This bastard of convenity - the child of security and convenience - sets a maximum for (security + convenience) and is a function of time.

When a new technology comes along, eg HTTPS, we can have security and convenience - but only for a brief period...

.. Because a high convenity factor prompts wide adoption.

Wide adoption piques the interest of governments, corporations and others wishing to exert control.

One way or another over time the security is circumvented.

Whether by legislation governing its use/deployment - ie the technology becomes bastardised at the behest of incumbent power - or by further advances in technology rendering the security obsolete, convenity drops off over time.

We can have security, or convenience, but not both; at least not over a sustained period in time.

Well, at least that's my premise!

@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Don't even bother asking governments not to spy on us

Electronic privacy is dead, now let's deal with the aftermath

Unlike most other technological innovations - particularly advancements in communication and mass media - for a relatively brief period the internet gave individual citizens an unprecedented edge over the state.

Previously everything media and comms was regulated by the state: from printing, broadcast radio and television to ownership of radio transceivers;  any UK citizen who feels oppressed by the state today should be reminded that until 1968 we had formal state censorship of theatres and stage plays.

Four factors made the internet impossible to regulate - at least in its early years:
  1. It happened by accident; governments around the world simply weren't anticipating the speed of growth, nor the impact the internet would have across many areas of life
  2. Even after (1) was appreciated, regulation during a period of intense growth would almost certainly have stifled development because growth relied mainly on private initiative
  3. The international nature of the network made many local laws irrelevant, e.g. in the UK, the Obscene Publications Act effectively banned hardcore pornography, but could not be applied against foreign websites 
  4. The nature of the network - a coalescence of many inter-connected autonomous networks - provided no centralised control point; and [early] limitations in technology, in particular latency and bandwidth, severely limited any government's ambition to impose content filtering and monitoring obligations on each of the autonomous networks
But what the internet giveth, the state can regulate away - it just takes time for the legislative machine to catch up.

And, now that technology has advanced to render point (4) obsolete, the legislative march is unstoppable.

It's unstoppable because it's impossible to change a mindset overnight.

The Government, its members and its security services all share one primary role: to defend the state; and currently defend is synonymous with control.

Until the collective thinking of law-makers advances to accept that a highly autonomous public does not itself threaten an established democracy - in fact it might well make us stronger - defending the state will necessarily involve maintaining a reserve of power and control over its people, just in case.

And the state now has these powers in respect to digital communications.

They have mastered the internet, in that it is now pretty much impossible to do anything of any significance online without running the risk of being tracked.1

I'm not saying you will be identified, but there's certainly now a non-negligible risk.

And I'm not saying that the internet does not still bring significant power to the people - it does, despite the tracking and monitoring.

But there are now two new realities.

One: everything online is monitored and traceable - if not [yet] by the state, by private companies be it Google, Facebook, your operating system vendor or ISP.

Two: there is nothing you can do, in calling for legislation or in your use of technology, that will be effective in stopping governments and corporations spying on you that doesn't severely impact what you want to achieve.

Any new laws will be symbolic because everyone, from states to corporations to private individuals - has become addicted to snooping.  (Yes, you, cruising Facebook to find out what your ex is up to...)

Only a step-change in technology can save us from ourselves, but don't sit on your hands waiting for any advancement that guarantees electronic privacy.  Encryption is creaking at the edges and passwords are becoming practically useless.

It's time to give up trying to prevent snooping and admit defeat.

Let them spy, for if we try and stop them they'll just do it anyway.

Instead, focus on building a wall around the spying that makes it hard for the state to wield its power against individuals.

We need to ensure robust laws are in place to mitigate the risks and dangers of a surveillance culture.

We need democratic transparency and oversight of the watchers.

We need to lift the veil of secrecy from the watchers and make them fully accountable.

And for that we need an end to ambiguous and unenforceable boundaries defining 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' monitoring2. We need the intelligence services to run within a framework of detectable and enforceable offences - ie governing how the state acts on data in its possession to guard against persecution.

Those who feel unfairly targeted by surveillance deserve to have their cases heard in public, open to media scrutiny, not by a "judge" sitting twenty metres under ground in the Home Office bunker.

@JamesFirth

Footnotes

1. TOR, VPNs and other encryption and anonymity systems help to some degree, but once the state has its claws in the heart of the network, as it seems to have today, the risk of being tracked increases significantly.

E.g. post to a public bulletin board using TOR.  The size and timestamp for that post can be correlated against all active TOR sessions.  Successive posts will, over time, identify the poster.  "Hidden" services on the so-called "darknet" can all be traced with relative ease now that network surveillance is widespread.

Use an internet cafe: risk CCTV either in the cafe or en route. Use an unregistered mobile and give away your location, which can be correlated with road monitoring (ANPR), street CCTV, etc.

2. e.g. there is no real distinction between so-called metadata - aka communications data - and content.  Part of the Content at one level can become metadata at a lower level.  At the IP level the metadata shows my internet connection talking to Facebook.  Within IP packets other metadata can be carried, e.g. showing I'm writing a message on Facebook to Bob.  Some data stacks have metadata nested 3 or 4 levels deep.

Friday, 21 June 2013

A collapse in trust could stall tech development by decades, causing substatial damage to the hi-tech economy

One message, a message that drove me into digital politics, still isn't getting through.

It's the link between trust and growth.

Economists and social scientists understand this.  Robert D Putnam looked at the concept of social capital and how bonds of trust within communities help them prosper over 10 years before Facebook launched.

Zak and Knack (1998), and Dincer and Uslaner (2007), went on to study how generalised trust - that is, the propensity of strangers to trust each other - contributes to economic growth.

The logic is incredibly simple.

Generalised trust is critical to an entrepreneurial society.

In the absence of generalised trust it is not possible to do business with strangers because they are unlikely to stick to their end of any deal.

Therefore you will be far less inclined to trade outside your own established network, and far less inclined to try something new as you would in a society with a high degree of generalised trust.

Generalised trust within a society is maintained through fairness at all levels through access to justice, and a belief in social structures and the political system.

Studies show a link between trust and prosperity, and I argue exactly the same principles apply to data.

If we don't trust the custodians of our data - companies we choose to share our personal data with - then we will be less inclined to share our data, and also less inclined to try new products and services.

If we're less inclined to share we are unlikely to see continued growth in a sector which is becoming increasingly reliant on trust; and, if we're less inclined to try new products and services, then competition and innovation will be affected.

Trust brings convenience; and, from our willing participation in networked online communities, the prospect of further technological advancement, and further benefits in future.

If we want convenient access to what has become for many a digital extension of our brains, from anywhere, at any time, then we need to trust someone to look after our data in the cloud as we would ourselves in our home.

A collapse in trust could stem from wholesale misuse of our data by big companies themselves; or from the recent revelations that governments snoop on our data - a practice that tech giants can't distance themselves from.

Technology companies asked us to trust them with information that we would otherwise keep close - within our homes or about our person.

With than comes an expectation of legal safeguards comparable with those preventing police from entering our homes to read our diaries and letters.

Yet the tech giants failed to fight for our rights as we would have fought ourselves had the police been battering down doors to read our email.

And governments, whilst reaping many benefits of the high-growth technology sector, have failed to appreciate a potential impact on digital trust.  

The land grab for our data and control of  the data networks might bring short-term rewards for law and order and through the gathering of foreign political intelligence.

But it might have a longer-term impact on the digital economy through a collapse in trust.

President Obama claims the balance between privacy and security is about right.

I disagree.

I think we need to look to replicate the law of the physical world - a balance that has evolved over centuries - in the digital world.

Our personal data that we choose to store remotely needs to be afforded the same protection as our homes - the state should not access either without equivalent judicial oversight.

And because data can transcend jurisdictions it's not good enough to offer one level of protection to "citizens" whilst offering almost no protection and zero safeguards to "foreigners" - at least not without causing those "foreigners" to distrust your jurisdiction entirely.

@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Why you need to strip-search your child EVERY DAY

By staff reporter Moor L Panic

Irresponsible global technology giants are selling thumbnail-sized devices capable of storing millions of pornographic images and are REFUSING to make such devices safe for children.

Yes, on the very day the government has finally tackled the menace of rogue internet service providers not doing enough to protect your child online, a new threat emerges.

The widespread availability of such tiny devices make it possible for one enterprising youngster to circulate vile pornographic images to hundreds of other children, virtually undetected.

If you're a parent concerned that your child may have access to such devices we can only recommend installing an airport-grade body scanner at your front door until manufacturers of such devices face up to their responsibilities.

Failing that, strip searches on entry act as a major deterrent.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Join the dots - Snowden has defected to China

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden was quoted last week as saying "I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things"

Yet in a supreme act of irony he may end up living his life in the privacy equivalent of the fires of hell, having leapt there from the NSA's frying pan to expose that the USA does "these sort of things", things that one expects of China or Russia.

First Russia seemed to come out with an offer of asylum.  Then Putin went on telly and seemed to praise the NSA for doing what he would expect then to do to fight terrorism.

But what grounds are there to suspect Snowden has already struck a deal with Beijing?

First there is the lack of arrest warrant and no start of formal extradition proceedings.  This strikes me as strange - surely the USA would want to do what it can, in addition to the persistent threat of a CIA rendition squad on Snowden's tail, to prevent him leaving Hong Kong for another territory.

If the US already knows - or at least suspects - Snowden now has the formal protection of China it wouldn't want to suffer the embarrassment of fighting an extradition demand doomed to fail.

Secondly there's Snowden's interview with the South China Morning Post, in which he alleges US cyber attacks against Hong Kong and China.  

This seems out of character from a man who seemed primarily focussed with the privacy of Americans.

Remember this is a guy who signed-up, at first directly and then later indirectly, to work for military arms of government.  Now he's all squeamish about the odd electronic bombardment..

He must also surely see these kind of revelations might affect his home support; currently one in three Americans see Snowden as a patriot, not a traitor whilst less than a quarter take the counter view.  

So why give that interview?  Or was that part of the deal to keep the extradition warrant at bay.

And thirdly there's the bizarre revelation that Edward Snowden is officially banned from entring UK.  

What purpose could such a ban serve?  Surely as an ally of the US the UK would welcome the leaker with open arms, before promptly attaching a GPS ankle bracelet and assigning a crack team of G4S security guards to enforce strict bail conditions pending extradition to his homeland.

It's possible the UK just didn't want another Assange holed up on its territory fighting a lengthy case against extradition, but it's equally likely he's been classified as a foreign intelligence threat.

If Snowden has won the protection of China he may end up regretting his words:  I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things.

@JamesFirth

Shocking: UK minister promotes commercial tool directly to industry at closed-door ministry meeting

On 30th May I reported yet more delays in implementing the UK's three strikes law to combat online copyright infringement.

I reported sources telling me the first copyright infringement warning letters were now unlikely to go out until 2016.

With thanks to Glyn Moody for pointing me in the right direction, it seems the government's own civil servants agree... Well, to within 6 months.

Published 5 days later on the 4th June, minutes of a recent quarterly lobby parlour, where Ed Vaizey, the UK's minister responsible for the internet, invites copyright lobbyists and global internet giants to tell him how to do his job whilst shutting out the likes of you or I, reveal:
"DCMS expects the first letters to be sent in the latter half of 2015"
Considering the Digital Economy Act was passed in early 2010 this official assessment marks a delay of well over five years.

Sources for my original story were clear that the remaining legislation - two statutory instruments (that might possibly, now, be rolled into a single instrument) - were unlikely to go before Parliament until after the 2015 General Election.

By my own estimates it will then take around 9 months to establish the systems necessary to get the first letter out, including the crucial appeals process, hence my claim of 2016.

It seems the Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) thinks it can be done slightly faster, hence their note of optimism in their timetable of back-end of 2015.

Commercial infringement tool promoted

The same minutes note an alarming development.

A commercial system by whiteBULLTET,  whose representative was present at this meeting with minister Ed Vaizey, is being touted as a potential tool to prevent online advertisers serving ads on websites hosting copyright infringing content.

Alarming for 2 reasons.  Firstly, what transparency and oversight will there be for an automated system that could potentially ruin any online business unfairly accused of hosting infringing content by an automated system?

What redress will there be for websites unfairly tarred?  Will the government be culpable for any loss suffered by a legitimate business for allowing this solution to be presented to advertisers at a formal meeting held in a UK government ministry?

And the second reason for alarm: have rules concerning market procurement processes and commercial promotion been revoked?

Is it now acceptable for a UK government minister to allow a commercial company to promote what is effectively a compliance product directly to key industry representatives?

How was whiteBULLET chosen? Have any other commercial systems been evaluated? How many companies were invited to bid for this compliance work?

In fact it's even more alarming, given that the compliance element is to unwritten rules drafted by a bunch of lobbyists and endorsed by the chair, a government minister.

@JamesFirth

UPDATE

Another example of that 95-year copyright term fostering cultural innovation

Want to include a rendition of "Happy Birthday To You" in your next film or documentary?  Well, it will cost you $1,500 to license the copyright in the music and lyrics; that is, unless a lawsuit claiming the song actually dates back to 1893 rather than 1924, as held by the current licensors, succeeds.

The case itself doesn't interest me, but it highlights the stupidity of the argument that copyright fosters innovation: when companies can exploit a single work for a lifetime and then some, where's the financial incentive to come up with something new?

If, as I've argued for, copyright terms were limited to 20 years - comparable to patent protection, then producers would be forced to find something new to keep the cash rolling in.

Furthermore, the courts would be freed up from ruling on this guff whilst media lawyers and indemnity insurers skimming from the kitty meant to remunerate original artists would have to find something more productive to do with their time.

One of the symptoms of long copyright terms is that rights owners continue to market their catalogue many years after its sell-by date.

Not only that, but holders of previously successful franchises have a great deal of cash to reinvest in future marketing, keeping the likes of Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman, etc on our screens in perpetuity.

Is it any wonder that directors like Spielberg and Lucas are predicting a meltdown of the film industry - although perhaps not sharing my view that long copyright terms are to blame.

The market for creative ideas is skewed.  Owners of previously successful franchises have a loud voice, whilst contemporary innovators are often struggling for cash to support themselves, never mind push their ideas to directors and producers.

The result is the same shit, different decade; decade, after decade, after decade...

@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The morning after the weekend the Big Data bubble burst

A cynic might say worldwide intelligence services are only doing to our data what countless Big Data Corporations have done for well over a decade now.

That cynic might say government security services, even with the types of data syphons revealed in the Guardian over the last few days, generally know far less about our lives than our supermarket or bank.

But for some reason, and despite the power large corporations hold over our lives (the power to deny: deny credit, deny access to a service, or erase an online identity...), exposure of a government tap into this data has, finally, causes a shit storm big enough to seriously damage a whole industry.

My surprise is only that it has taken this long for people to realise that there are practically no legal safeguards for the data of non-US nationals held by US companies, wherever the data is physically stored.

Yes, that's right.  If you pay a US company for a service, even if the data is physically stored on servers based wholly in the EU, your data can still be sequestered by the US government.

Last weekend politicians and spy chiefs lined up to defend the actions of the NSA as invaluable in defeating terrorism.

Cut through the rhetoric and there were numerous admissions that spying on electronic communications of foreign nationals was to be expected as just something nations do.  They spy on other nations; they always have, and they always will.

Last weekend was the weekend when the world woke up to conspiracy fact.

It was the weekend that British MPs, many of whom I know to use gmail, Yahoo or Microsoft to conduct their political affairs outside parliament, realised there were no safeguards in place to prevent a foreign government spying on their private correspondence.

Note: MPs are expected to have secondary email accounts, they're essential because MPs only have access to Parliamentary email once elected - they need to get elected first!

It was the weekend that corporations, some of whom were already alerted to laptop seizures at border posts and had previously instructed employees to travel only with a "clean" laptop in order to protect industrial secrets such as pharmaceutical research being cloned on entry, realised all their data was already at risk because they purchased "secure" cloud storage and other data services from a US-based company.

Despite legislation being brought-in over a decade ago, many have only taken note when hard evidence emerged that this was actually happening.

There is in place today a mechanism for US government agencies to read nearly all our email, check our web searches, possibly what websites we visit - since each click may be sent to Google or Microsoft depending what browser features are enabled...

And there are no safeguards or limits unless you are a US citizen.

I hypothesise this revelation has burst the Big Data Bubble.

The immediate effects will be small.  Charities and NGOs lobbying on changes to US policy, politicians worldwide and companies at the cutting edge of innovation will be the first to turn their backs on a jurisdiction that offers no legal safeguards for data that can be shown to belong to a foreign entity.

A jurisdiction, remember, that spear-headed the fight against copyright infringement with extra-judicial take-downs of websites worldwide.

It's a bubble that will take a while to deflate, for there are at the moment few alternatives to many of the services run by US-based tech companies.

But the damage is done and the trend will, in all likelihood, be irreversible - at least in the short term.

Last week I asked whether people cared enough about their data to make a difference.  Today I'm under no doubt that the slow demise of Big Data, and particularly data hosted outside the EU, will snowball as viable EU-based alternatives emerge.

This time next year we may see Silicon Valley bosses scratching their heads and licking their corporate wounds; and, maybe, finally fighting the cause they should have fought a decade ago.

For only when citizens worldwide are given the same legal protection as US citizens will EU-based companies and citizens feel comfortable handing their data over.

@JamesFirth

Bootnote: The British lobby effort against enhanced EU data protection will find it much harder to garner support from the public and businesses alike - which may be a shame as the EU really messed up with the cookie law, focussing on the method rather than the overall trade and exploitation of personal data.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Does the public really care if governments spy on them? The acid test may have just begun...

Beyond what looks like irrevocable evidence that US government electronic surveillance goes way beyond what all but the most conspiratorial of conspiracy theorists have theorised is one uncomfortable question: do people care in sufficient numbers to make a difference?

Even more distasteful for me is the blanket secrecy around surveillance.  If we knew what governments actually did in our name to keep us safe we might worry less.

If there was less secrecy we might trust safeguards to actually guard our data, safely.

But the secrecy was necessary to keep us safe, claim the spies.

In fact we were told we couldn't be told if this surveillance was even going on, the names of companies compelled to hand over our data, or how often such requests were being made.

Blanket secrecy around blanket surveillance is an incredibly convenient way of ensuring surveillance practices are never scrutinised by the public.

Democracy is broken if the voters can't know what the government does in their name.

The acid test?

But now, over the next few years, we will finally get to see how the public react to a large-scale general threat to our privacy.

We will also see how market forces react to that threat.  Will citizens in Europe turn their backs on the US tech giants, sparking a new phase in the internet's evolution?

Or will they find it hard to escape the gravitational pull of the established giants? Is privacy worth the effort?

I'm prepared for either outcome.

The public might not care in sufficient numbers.

The public might actually like the increased security (perceived or actual) that such surveillance programmes bring.

A new era

The secret is out.

Once data leaves the devices under your direct control you no longer control who accesses that data.

But does such spying by governments really skew the power balance today; compared, eg, to how it is understood to have done during the reign of the Stasi, since technology has made us all more powerful?

In fact technology brings tools for privacy as well as tools for surveillance; will ready access to tools such as cryptography blunt the instruments of surveillance?

And, given the decentralisation of power with the emergence of strong and powerful corporations - something the anti-capitalists worry about - coupled with the foreign cyber-threat, are governments even the threat they once were?

Or will the new decentralised global power balance work in a twisted way to improve citizens privacy and autonomy; with corporations fighting to keep valuable commercial secrets secret, challenging governments, and challenging each other.

Realistically, can anything change, or is our future predestined?

Whilst I'm absolutely convinced that excessive secrecy is dangerous to democracy, I'm less convinced that the public will care about mass surveillance in sufficient numbers to make a difference.

Can we even expect to control data that leaves our private network?  Why should we expect to; what makes us think we can transmit bytes into the ether and expect to keep them private?

Additionally, few have any real control any more over what data leaves our local devices; things just happen automatically.

So we're left facing a stark choice: join in and put our data at risk, or stay dark and deny ourselves the benefits.

Is privacy synonymous with democracy?

Even if "privacy is dead" (it's not, by the way - we just have to adapt), does that necessarily mean that democracy is dead?

Or can we focus on the wider goal, beyond privacy, of building a data democracy, with privacy just one aspect?  

Can structures providing effective accountability, strong judicial oversight and public transparency mitigate the democratic risks?

Now that the veil of secrecy has been lifted we might all - even the spies - be surprised to learn how the public reacts in the long term.

Increased surveillance might become an accepted and necessary part of life in a modern democracy.

Granted this may seem an absurd position - especially given my previous bloggings about privacy.

It's a no-brainer, right? Democracy is threatened if the government spies on the opposition - using their secrets against them.

But might we all just adapt, relying on fewer secrets, thereby removing our vulnerability to exposure and becoming inherently stronger, rather that merely being good at exploiting others' weaknesses?

Yes, such widespread eavesdropping is worrying.  But there really is no precedent; and no simple answers.

@JamesFirth

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

We don't need less lobbyists - we need more, from a wider cross-section of interests

I started lobbying in 2010 when I realised writing blogs and forum posts, whilst useful, had limited reach.

Since then I've spoken in Parliament, had face-to-face meetings with a government minister, been invited to drinks receptions and conferences inside the Palace of Westminster, and got close enough to power to have the vested interests lined up against me - and some lined up with me - close ranks to make it clear my participation was unwelcome.

There is a stench in Westminster, but the lobbyists are only part of the problem.

Lobbyists have the power they have, in some part at least, simply because they have bothered to build a relationship with those holding office.

Parliament is not a closed place. Excluding special events like the State Opening citizens can, on most days Parliament sits, enter the Palace and lobby for themselves.

All you need do is state your reason for attending at the entry gate, join the queue, navigate security and stick to the public areas.

Whilst there's usually a queue to watch the main chambers there are numerous groups and committees which  sit in public.  Some less formal meetings offer the public a chance to ask questions or mingle with the odd Lord or MP.

It helps to plan in advance so that you can explain on entry where you're heading.

But if you want to get your voice heard above the noise you face a string of problems.  After 2 years I ran out of cash - it takes a lot of time and effort to find your way around Westminster and keep track of what's going on and where.

One of the current problems with lobbying is that the lobbyists themselves control many of the groups meeting inside parliament.  They offer "secretariat services"  which usually includes general admin like sending out invites and providing a website - which the lobby group often ultimately controls(!) - and paying for drinks receptions to ensure the attendees are, well, refreshed.

Coming from outside the lobbying clique I had to build my own network to find out what went on, when, and where.

Although many sessions are "public", space is often limited.  Sometimes an invite is needed (although never checked), and turning up ahead of time is always essential to bag space in Parliament's cramped committee rooms.

But the lobbyists offering secretariat services sit at the heart of this information web.  As event organisers they are responsible for sending out the invite lists.  They even get a say over who writes what on the Parliamentary Group's website.

It's a delicate equilibrium - MPs themselves can't hope to organise such a wide and diverse range of discussion groups - known as All Party Parliamentary Groups - themselves.

There are hundreds of them (I haven't counted, a current list is here) - and it's reassuring to me at least that such a diverse range of interests get represented in Parliament.

Lobbyists fund and help run these groups, but in return they get a degree of control and influence.  It's not unbridled power, as MPs and Lords are ultimately left holding the reins - but it's a useful influence.

However it's an imperfect system which marginalises all but the most persistent and powerful voices and encourages the creation of Parliamentary groups which, occasionally, are less than useful.  In fact one could argue some groups serve just one aim - that of the lobbyists.

But I don't argue for radical overhaul - the system on the most part seems to result in vibrant debate with reasonable access to outsiders - which is why I argue that Government and Parliament should look instead at opening up access to a wider group of interested parties rather than focussing on clipping the lobbyists' wings.

One area that badly needs overhauling is access to Government ministries.

I noticed the same faces milling round Westminster and listed on minutes of meetings - minutes which I or other activists struggled to obtain through protracted Freedom of Information requests rather than being published by default.

Whilst a small guy like me occasionally slips the net, for the most part these Westminster Faces usually represent large commercial interests.

Smaller businesses are only usually represented through umbrella groups like the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).  But groups like the FSB have a lot of bases to cover with limited resources, so the interests of Britain's small and entrepreneurial businesses are rarely heard at the heart of Government - especially on niche issues such as internet regulation.

Ministries need to open up on two fronts: do more to listen to a wider range of voices, and be far more transparent on the meetings they do have - rather than attempt to keep contact with lobbyists under the radar.

But the really seedy side of Parliament that badly needs an overhaul is how the lobbyists themselves trade on their influence.

For example, many of the lobbyists offering secretariat services are given Parliamentary passes by a sponsor MP or Lord who usually chairs the Parliamentary group.

Such a pass to a lobbyist is gold dust - it's a badge of honour, a seal of approval.  The badge says these are the men and women (note: I met far more men than women) with access worth paying for.

These are also the people who I know to have organised banquets and dinners inside Parliament itself.

Invites go out to companies and other people the lobbyist wants to impress.

Where tickets are paid for I couldn't say who keeps any profit, but either way the lobbyist who is seen to organise a dinner inside the Palace of Westminster sits bright on the radar when a company is looking to get their voice heard in Parliament.

Again there is a balance to be struck - my first taste of Parliamentary cuisine was at an event organised by my former university.

I'm not necessarily saying that lobbyists are cash-hungry, power-crazed demons - I'm saying that their well-polished messages delivered on behalf of a narrow but wealthy section of society often reaches the ears of MPs at the expense of a louder but distributed voice from the rest of society.

Again the way to fix this is for more people to get involved to widen the debate and temper the power of the professional lobbyists.

@JamesFirth