Monday, October 31, 2005

Freedom of the Media on the Internet

I got back on Friday from a meeting in Macedonia on Freedom of the Media on the Internet. The OSCE's Representative on Freedom of the Media had a pleasingly robust position on Internet censorship: that governments should limit themselves to regulating content served from their own jurisdictions. Child pornography is already illegal around the world, and should be prosecuted in the jurisdiction where it is hosted. Other controversial content such as "hate speech" (blocked by order of French and German courts), "violent pornography" (being targetted by the UK government) and political debate (blocked by China, Saudi Arabia, and in many other countries) should not be filtered by ISPs or governments in other countries. You unfortunately all-too-often hear European supporters of freedom of expression push bans on anything that offends their world view. Meanwhile, I talked about how this filtering has been accomplished legally and technically in both the West and repressive states.

Rupert Bear joins Basil Brush for £6m

Important intellectual property news in the Guardian... "Other brands owned by Entertainment Rights include Basil Brush, Postman Pat and the Little Red Tractor."

UN, US, EU panel on Internet governance

Chatham House held an interesting lunchtime meeting today on Internet governance, that much-misused phrase. The speakers were David Gross, US Ambassador to the World Summit on the Information Society; David Hendon, current EU representative to the UN Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG); and Markus Kummer, executive secretary of WGIG.

The panel agreed that Internet reliability and security were the paramount issues to consider. The US felt that its current unilateral oversight of ICANN and hence the Domain Name System was the best way to ensure this stability, and to make sure that free speech continues to be a core Internet value. David Hendon admitted that the EU had been horrified at support from countries such as China and Iran for its recent statements that multilateral oversight of ICANN should be introduced. He did not seem to have a compelling reason for changing existing arrangements beyond the fact that many countries were unhappy with what they saw as US control of the Internet. Markus Kummer suggested that nobody had so far suggested a realistic alternative to the existing arrangements.

I don't think that the US government is quite the paragon of free speech that it suggests. It spent many years trying to restrict the availability of cryptographic software online, and recently tried to meddle in ICANN's decision to create a .xxx Top Level Domain after a letter-writing campaign by evangelical crazies in the US. If it is to retain ultimate control over ICANN, it needs to be much clearer over the limits of that control, and preferably exercise it through an arms-length agency rather than under the direct political control of the Department of Commerce. But the alternative of repressive states having any ability to impose censorship through the DNS is much, much worse.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Osama loves a polished cannon

Bet the UK armed forces could use a localised version of Every Soldier's Battle Kit. What a wonderful Christmas present!

ID card technology not ready yet

The UK government's chief information officer has admitted that the technology needed for biometric identity cards is far from ready. His solution is to roll it out to groups such as "scoutmasters, teachers and school governors" -- all of whom will no doubt be delighted to be used as biometric guinea pigs. Should do wonders for recruitment. Perhaps the government should wait until the technology is actually ready before bringing forward the legislation?

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Lords debate ID Cards Bill

The House of Lords will be debating the Identity Cards Bill on Monday (31 October). They are the only people who can now stop this expensive, invasive disaster from becoming a reality.

This afternoon I wrote the following short briefing on the problems of the Bill. You can find much more at and read about the issues in much greater depth in the London School of Economics report on the scheme, to which I contributed.

The key issues at this point remain as follows:

  • The biometric technologies proposed by the government are still very far from meeting the reliability and security requirements that would be placed upon them by the Bill. The government’s own studies have found unacceptably high error rates for fingerprint, photograph and iris scan matching. The studies have shown that certain ethnic and disabled populations are particularly difficult to enroll and match using these technologies. Even those companies that would profit from supplying biometric cards have reservations. Roberto Tavano, a biometrics specialist for Unisys, was quoted in the Guardian of 21 October as saying: "A national ID card for the UK is overly ambitious, extremely expensive and will not be a panacea against terrorism or fraud, although it will make a company like mine very happy."

  • The National Identity Register would quickly become a database containing intimate details of the entire UK population’s lives. Government claims that the Register will only contain basic information are irrelevant: the ID number will be used to link together databases across Whitehall, from medical records to the Police National Computer. The “audit trail” will be a record of every citizen-state interaction where a card is checked. The fingerprints and iris scans may be used in future for further purposes – despite the fact that the government has admitted that the technology will not be accurate enough to detect multiple applications for different identities, the key reason given for storing these biometrics. The secure computing technology required to keep this amount of sensitive data safe would be unprecedented on this scale, and enormously expensive. Microsoft UK’s Chief Technology Officer recently commented: “I have concerns with the current architecture and the way it looks at aggregating so much personal information and biometrics in a single place.”

  • The government’s claims that biometric technologies are required by new international passport regulations are false. The United States will require a digital photo to be contained on a smart chip in a passport; this could be provided using existing data held by the Passport Agency. The Schengen agreement will require member states’ passports to contain digital photographs and fingerprints; however, the UK is not a party to this European Union initiative.