Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Open Rights Group is go!

Open Rights Group held its first public event last night, to get together campaigners on digital rights from around the country to discuss priorities and opportunities to work together. Coincidentally the 1001st person pledged to join ORG and support its activities with £5 a month. If you think privacy, fair use of copyrighted works and free speech online are values worth fighting for, then sign up here!

Photo: suave City boy and ORG Company Secretary James Cronin celebrates with ninja-blogger and Executive Director Suw Charman.

Patients fear safety risk from electronic notes

Health campaigners are worried over the confidentiality of medical records being transferred into a new national online database. So they should be. The security and privacy concerns of this mega-project have been pretty much ignored by the government:
Concern that medical records will fall into the wrong hands is greatest among groups representing people with disabilities, HIV or mental health problems, who already face stigmatisation. They fear that if confidential information is intercepted electronically that their members could face greater discrimination.
I'll be refusing to have my records put online. If you value your privacy, you should too.

28 days is still too long

Conor Gearty (Director of LSE's Human Rights Centre) writes that Parliament should reject even a 28-day period of detention without charge in terrorism cases:
The set of assumptions about the necessity of terrorism laws needs to be confronted if we are not to drift further into an authoritarian state. Terrorism is a particularly serious form of criminal conduct that should be dealt with by mainstream law, the provisions of which are entirely robust enough to catch killers, bombers and conspirators. The police need to use surveillance, informers and forensic expertise to proceed against these wrongdoers, with all evidence (including intercept material) being made available to courts if required. Police powers include arrest, but only when close to a charge - it is about catching real suspects, not fishing among the potentially culpable.

An ode to Eurostar

Bullet trainJust got back from a meeting in Brussels on the social implications of pervasive computing technologies. More on that tomorrow, but first an ode to the technological marvel that is Eurostar. What a joy to fly through Belgium, France and (some of) south-east England at 186mph. Shame we still have to endure 12mph for the final 30-minute stretch, until the high-speed link to St. Pancras is completed in January 2007.

Still not as cool as the Japanese shinkansen though.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Google Books hysteria hits The Times

It's embarrassing to see columnists of the quality of William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times, completely missing the point on Google Books. Nor does it help the debate to have such misinformation published on the main editorial pages of a newspaper with nearly a million readers:
Obviously, there is a strong case for the universal library that Google wants to create. No one wants to stand in the way of the diffusion of knowledge. But the cost would be too high if the future publication of books, particularly learned books, was prejudiced. I am an interested party, at the interface between university authors and university libraries. So far as I am concerned, Google must accept the rights in intellectual property. The survival of the book depends on that.
Google is indexing books still under copyright from major university libraries, not making their contents available online. This will allow Google users to find text in books in exactly the same way as they search the Web. It will not allow them to see more than a few sentences from that book. Users will still need to borrow or buy books that they find using this search facility if they wish to access the book's contents.

This will certainly make the books that have been indexed much easier to search. It is likely to improve their sales, not damage the publishing market.

AIDS fight needs more than goats

Madelaine Bunting describes the still heart-breaking HIV situation in Africa:
Since HIV/Aids was first diagnosed nearly 25 years ago, more money has been put into combating this disease than probably any other in human history. It's not hard to see why: no other disease has ever threatened such a devastating impact as it attacks the generation whose labour and child-rearing is pivotal to the functioning of any human society. But the latest figures from UNAids ahead of World Aids Day on Thursday show that despite the billions of dollars (perhaps $22bn since the 80s), prevalence in most of southern Africa is still rising - Swaziland has now crossed the 40% mark, while Botswana, at 37%, is heading that way, and South Africa is close to 30%.
Bunting ends with an appeal for massive donations from the West to improve Africa's healthcare systems, investment in antiretroviral drugs and poverty reduction in general. These cannot be successful without parallel removal of agricultural tariffs and subsidies and the mass-production of generic versions of these drugs, under compulsory patent licences if necessary. Alongside US abandonment of its ludicrously naive focus on abstinence programmes.

Important news from Islington's pubs

Islington pub opening hoursFrom The Times:

On Saturday night, customers welcomed the first weekend of new licensing laws in a more genteel fashion — with the clink of wine glasses and the crunch of focaccia bread.

As media reports predicted a return to Hogarthian scenes of debauchery, London’s well-heeled residents showed early signs of adjusting favourably to late licensing.

Perhaps The Times is forgetting that Gin Lane is in the City, not Islington.

Empty threats from the Attorney-General

Marcel Berlins points out that the Attorney-General is being selective in his quoting of the Official Secrets Act:

He was merely reminding papers, in the words of his note to them, "that to publish the contents of a document which is known to have been unlawfully disclosed by a crown servant is itself a breach of section 5 of the Official Secrets Act". True, but only (Lord Goldsmith omitted to say) if the prosecution can prove that what was disclosed was damaging (I summarise) to the country's security or to its international relations and - an important "and" - that the newspaper knew (or had cause to believe) that it was damaging.

I have been trying all weekend to think of ways in which disclosing the memo - even if, apart from the al-Jazeera bits, it also contains what Bush and Blair said about the US attack on Falluja - could cause the damage required by the act. I have failed.

On the radio Lord Goldsmith added another warning, pointing out that there was a "live" prosecution. In other words, watch out, the media, that you don't commit contempt of court. But that would be triggered only by publishing something that creates a "substantial risk of serious prejudice" to a forthcoming trial. I cannot see how revealing more about the Bush-Blair conversation could create that degree of prejudice (or indeed any) to the case of the two men facing the official secrets prosecution. The final score: Threats to the media by Lord Goldsmith 2; empty threats 2.

This is even before the legitimate defence that could be raised under the right to freedom of expression in the European Convention on Human Rights.

It's unfortunate that no newspaper has yet moved to challenge the gag and publish the memo. It's also a great shame that the leaker of the document didn't realise that in the 21st century, all you need to do is anonymously fax such memos to Cryptome, where they will remain on full public view whatever the empty threats of the UK government.

Mindboggling assault on trainee Marine

This video of trainee Royal Marines being forced to have a naked boxing fight is surreal, completely weird... and then utterly sickening when their commanding NCO kicks one of them unconscious.

Is it grotesquely cynical of me to say that it's good training for what they may be expected to do to prisoners in UK and US military bases in Iraq?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Academic apparatchiks threaten UK science

Lord May is on top form in this interview:

Britain's most senior scientist warned last week that UK research is being stifled by an 'appalling, obsessive' bureaucracy. 'A bunch of academic apparatchiks' is threatening our scientific brilliance, said Lord May, retiring president of the Royal Society.

'Today, Crick and Watson's work on DNA would have been blocked before they had got started. Crick would have been sacked for being idle and Watson would have been told to piss off and stop messing about with his grant.'

May - in short - is in typical form. The Australian-born mathematician - scourge of greenies, homeopaths, lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians - leaves office on Wednesday, but he is not going quietly. He described the beliefs of US climate chief James Connaughton as 'loony' and warned that Christian and Islamic fundamentalists now threaten to create a blighted, blinkered world worthy of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Hopefully May will continue to be a strong voice on all of these issues in the House of Lords.

Lib Dem President to be ID card 'martyr'

No2ID's campaign pledge against ID cards gains another notable signatory:
The Liberal Democrat president, Simon Hughes, yesterday vowed to go to jail rather than carry the proposed new national ID card.

The Bermondsey MP became the first senior politician to sign up to a civil disobedience campaign being mounted by opponents of the government scheme, which is facing strong opposition in the House of Lords. He told The Observer that he still hoped the bill would be defeated. But if not, he was 'absolutely' ready to go behind bars if necessary.
You can sign up here.

Crunch-time in Cambridge IP battle

Cambridge University has been busy trying to grab control of intellectual property generated by its staff. Its public justifications are completely specious:
The university is concerned that the current system penalises junior staff who contribute to research but sometimes miss out while distinguished heads of departments can make millions of pounds. It is also feared that inexperienced academics lack the skills to negotiate with venture capitalists.
Fixing these two problems requires the provision of advice to staff, not the theft of their IP. But then that wouldn't build the empires of the university's administrators.

Meanwhile, a even less-sophisticated propogandist is doing his best to bolster academic opposition to the plans:
David Norwood, chief executive of IP2IPO, described the reforms as essential. “These academics are happy to take the money and use the university’s infrastructure,” he said. “The idea that the intellectual property belongs to them is ridiculous. UK taxpayers are paying for this. We expect returns for the investment in them.”
Has Norwood looked recently at the story of the goose that laid the golden egg? Or academic pay scales?

Cambridge staff have until 12 December to protect their IP rights by voting for the amendments from the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Shake ya ass... show me what you're workin' with!

Looking forward to seeing David LaChapelle's new documentary on krumping, the "improbable love-child of breakdancing and hip-hop clowning" from Los Angeles. LaChapelle directed some of my absolute favourite promos, particularly Christina Aguilera's Dirrrrrrty and No Doubt's It's My Life.

Katie Puckrick has a great run-down of Madonna's latest krump-fest video and the other dance styles she's popularised via MTV:

Disco: Disco dance is the fruity little brother of swing, mambo and merengue. Popularised by Saturday Night Fever and tantalising accounts of Studio 54's VIP decadence, disco's partner dancing is fleshed out by line dances and flashy solo moves.

This genre is the wellspring of Madonna's very Madonna-ness, and naturally enough, a discotheque is the standard setting for many of her videos: Hung Up, Music, Beautiful Stranger, Everybody, Into the Groove. In them, Madonna is always the disco maypole, with the less-fabulous dancing a respectful hustle-length away.

Perhaps her ultimate disco re-enactment is Deeper And Deeper - Madonna in eyebrow-less Angie Bowie mode, cavorting with hippies, trannies and Roman Polanski international-perv types at her own personal Studio Fifty-Faux.

God vs Science

It is still utterly baffling to me that Christian fundamentalists cannot wrap their heads around the idea that evolution is entirely consistent with anything but the most literal-minded reading of Genesis:
It isn't very often that a mere visit to an exhibition counts as a political act, but that's certainly how it feels these days as you mount the steps of the American Museum of Natural History, overlooking Central Park. Admittedly, there wasn't a protester in sight when I visited this week, and staff have not yet faced picket lines or hate mail. This is, after all, New York City not Salt Lake City. But organisers of the museum's terrific new exhibition on the life and work of Charles Darwin acknowledge that theirs is an explicit gesture of defiance towards an anti-scientific Christian fundamentalism that is again running fast and deep in contemporary America.
Newsweek also has a nice potted account of Darwin's development of the theory:
Toward the end of the voyage, the Beagle spent five weeks at the remote archipelago of the Galapagos, home to giant tortoises, black lizards and a notable array of finches. Here Darwin began to formulate some of the ideas about evolution that would appear, a quarter-century later, in "The Origin of Species," which from the day it was written to the present has been among the most influential books ever published. Of the revolutionary thinkers who have done the most to shape the intellectual history of the past century, two—Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx—are in eclipse today, and one—Albert Einstein—has been accepted into the canon of modern thought, even if most people still don't understand what he was thinking. Darwin alone remains unassimilated, provocative, even threatening to some

24-hour licensing apocalypse hits Canterbury


Back at the CCTV control room at 2.30am, Mr Kemble is watching the last revellers staggering out of the Bizz nightclub. "“There was a fight here at 1.19am and there were some squaddies having a bit of a rumpus in St George's Place at 1am. At 11.10 two lads got a caution for attacking a keep-left sign. That'’s it. The new opening hours have made no difference at all."”

Friday, November 25, 2005

Ice cores show dramatic rise in CO2

The evidence for global warming becomes ever-stronger, despite the fantasies of the US oil industry and its cronies in the US government:
Ed Brook, a climate scientist at Oregon State University said the rise in greenhouse gases ... was a stark indication of the influence industry was having on the environment. "The levels of primary greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide are up dramatically since the industrial revolution, at a speed and magnitude that the earth has not seen in hundreds of thousands of years. There is now no question this is due to human influence."
Polly Toynbee also does a good job deconstructing the argument that the only solution to rising carbon emissions is nuclear power:
Pro-nuclearists estimate a cost of £10bn to build and £10bn to decommission if we are to replace our existing stations. According to the 2002 Cabinet Office review, offshore wind costs the same per kilowatt. The engineers WS Atkins, reviewing an application to build a tidal lagoon generator off Swansea, say that will cost about the same. The Severn estuary could provide enough tidal power per unit price as three nuclear power stations. Onshore wind is cheaper again, but its beautiful turbines distress a countryside lobby that tolerates hideous pylons and forgets the thousands of windmills in every landscape a couple of centuries ago. Clean technology using biomass in coal-powered stations could become CO2 emission negative, eating more CO2 in growing fuel than is produced in burning it.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

LIBE waters down data retention directive

The European Parliament's civil liberties committee (LIBE) has adopted a raft of amendments to the Commission's draft directive on data retention. These will slightly limit the scope for which data can be accessed; impose an upper limit of 12 months; prevent the Commission from changing the types of data stored; clarify that transit networks do not need to store data; and require the publication of detailed statistics on use of the data.

Most interestingly, a further amendment requires judicial authorisation before retained data can be accessed. This would be a major change to UK law, where government agencies can currently self-authorise access to communications data.

The LIBE rapporteur commented:
"Surely the Council will not be happy with this. On the other hand you really have to consider how much the Parliament has already moved, how much people - including myself - have moved away from what they were initially up to, how much they have done to achieve a compromise. The Council has not moved at all for the last half a year. We are now expecting them to demonstrate that they want a compromise."

Royal Society must continue to receive subsidies

In one of the most transparent "contributions" to the debate over open access journals I've yet seen, the Royal Society argues that universities should go on spending vast sums of money purchasing access to their own research in order to subsidise the activities of... the Royal Society:
"At least a third of all journals are published by not-for-profit organisations. The Royal Society and other learned bodies currently use their publishing surpluses to fund activities such as academic conferences and public lectures, which are also crucial to the exchange of knowledge. A loss of income by not-for-profit publishers would lead to a reduction in, or cessation of, these activities"
This is as illogical and money-grubbing as the claims from the recording industry that the copyright term must be continually extended to fund investment in new artists.

Calling time on last orders

A momentous day for drinkers in England and Wales -- the restrictions on pub opening hours imposed during the first world war are finally swept away! The Guardian has an interview with an extremely sensible chap on the hysteria from the media and Tory party during the run-up to this long overdue reform:

"Turn the nation into alcoholics? It's a load of old bollocks," said one regular.

Newspapers gagged over Bush blunder

Bush the turkeyBlair didn't use the Official Secrets Act when advice on the legality of the war in Iraq was leaked. But when the minutes of an embarrassingly frank phone-call with Bush are published, he swings into action:

THE Attorney-General was accused last night of using the Official Secrets Act '“big stick'” to gag newspapers in an attempt to save President Bush from further embarrassment over Iraq.

Lord Goldsmith threatened newspapers on Tuesday with prosecution under the Act if they published details from a record of a conversation between Mr Bush and Tony Blair from April last year, when the President is alleged to have suggested bombing al-Jazeera, the Arabic television network.

Sounds oddly familiar. Oh yes, like when David Shayler was pursued through the courts and jailed for revealing that MI6 was planning to assassinate Colonel Gadaffi.

Hoodies: the latest Weapons of Mass Destruction

Imperial College declares war on hoodies:

The college's management board approved the new dress code at the beginning of the month. "Clothing that obscures an individual's face is not allowed on any of the college's campuses," it reads. "Employees and students should refrain from wearing clothing which obscures the face, such as a full or half veil, or hooded tops or scarves worn across the face." College officials said the move was part of renewed efforts to improve security after the summer bombings in London. It was also an attempt to combat theft and deter animal rights activists.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

58,000 Europeans reject data retention

European Digital Rights and Privacy International have handed to the European Parliament LIBE committee a petition against EU data retention legislation containing 58,000 signatures. This comes ahead of a LIBE vote tomorrow morning on the directive.

Meanwhile, the music industry has called on the Parliament to allow access to data on EU citizens' Internet use for the purposes of prosecuting filesharing cases. The UK's new Open Rights Group explains why this is an outrageous attempt by the copyright lobby to get new powers that were promoted by the UK only as an anti-terror measure.

Case of mistaken identity over card figures

The LSE replies in the Telegraph to yet more ID report smears from the government:

Sir - What is going on with this so-called "debate" on ID cards? While appearing on the BBC's Hardtalk last week, immigration minister Tony McNulty claimed that, at a recent meeting in the House of Lords, the LSE had "admitted" that its estimate of the cost of ID cards was "hopelessly wrong". We made no such statement, and no one who attended that meeting could possibly make that inference.

This is typical of how debate over ID cards has degenerated into grand-standing and misrepresentation. With some minor adjustments, we stand by the figures we published in our June report. The reason our calculations differ from those of the Home Office is that we focused on the cost of implementing the scheme across government, while the Home Office estimated merely its own departmental costs.

It is the mission of the department of information systems at the LSE to be at the centre of academic research into any technological initiative that will have a major effect on the population. Having our position misrepresented by ministers will not deflect us from that position. So please, no more nonsense over figures. Let's get on with the real debate about the impact of this proposal on the nation, its effect on the lives of its citizens, and whether the systems stand any chance of functioning at an acceptable level.

Prof Ian Angell, Convenor, Information Systems, LSE, London WC2

Bristol city council votes against ID cards

Growing local opposition to the ID cards bill:

One of the biggest city councils in England has voted unanimously to oppose the government's plans for ID cards on the grounds that they could lead to abuses of human rights.

Bristol city council, which is led by the Liberal Democrats, yesterday became the ninth local authority in the country to officially oppose the plans, which will need the support of local government if they are to succeed.

European Court of Justice rules against Commission on transfer of passenger data

The European Commission is now reaping the consequences of pushing through an illegal agreement with the US to transfer passenger data from airlines to US Customs:

AIR travel from Europe to the United States could be thrown into chaos after a key transatlantic terrorism measure was declared illegal by a senior European Union lawyer.

Philippe Léger, the Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice, the EU’s supreme court, called for the annulment of an agreement requiring EU airlines to give US authorities access to a wide range of confidential data on passengers before they travel.

They cannot expect anything else to happen if they continue to ignore the European Parliament's view despite its mandated role under the EU Treaties -- as the Council is currently trying to do with a directive on data retention.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Are existing anti-terror powers being used properly?

A good point on the terror bill in yesterday's Lords Second Reading debate, where the government also conceded that it would not try to reinstate the 90-day detention clause defeated in the Commons:

Lord McNally, leader of the Lib Dem peers, urged colleagues to consider whether powers given in the six terror-related bills seen by parliament since 1997 had been used properly effectively.

"Otherwise every terrorist outrage will bring forth another bill, another notch on the ratchet, another turn of the screw until we find ourselves without the civil liberties which we are fighting terrorism to defend," he said.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Police reject four anti-terror bill powers

The Association of Chief Police Officers has warned the government that four key measures in the anti-terror Bill being debated today by the House of Lords risk alienating the Muslim community:
  • Amending human rights laws to get round obstacles to new deportation rules.
  • Making the justification or glorification of terrorism anywhere an offence.
  • Automatically refusing asylum to anyone linked to terrorism anywhere.
  • Banning the alleged extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and successor groups to al-Muhajiroun. Acpo says it knows of no intelligence to justify a Hizb ut-Tahrir ban.

This warning may be the key factor that leads the Lords to reject these measures, despite the fire-and-brimstone from the government that they would be "particularly out of touch with public opinion" -- which quite by design is not an enormous concern to many peers when human rights are under threat.

0.175% of pubs will open round-the-clock

Tim Hames provides some much-needed context to the "24-hour licensing" wailing:

There are about 200,000 pubs, clubs and hotels with a licence to serve alcohol. Of these, 80,000, or 40 per cent, sought an extension of any kind; the majority did not. Of them, 40,000, or half of the applicants, managed to alter their arrangements without new conditions being imposed on them.

A tiny collection of about 165 pubs, 75 clubs and 110 hotels have sought and won the theoretical right to serve drink around the clock — and even then almost every one of them intends to do so only infrequently. This figure constitutes 0.4375 per cent of those establishments that wanted different hours and 0.175 per cent of the entire assembly of pubs, clubs and hotels available.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Child Support Agency to get new snooping powers

One of the problems of giving government agencies snooping powers is that there is endless pressure to expand them into new areas not contemplated under initial legislation. Powers justified for fighting terrorism are turned towards environmental protestors, arms trade campaigners and unruly pensioners. And now parents accused of underpaying child maintenance:
Chris Pond, the welfare minister responsible for the CSA until May, told The Observer that snooping powers used against benefit fraudsters - including surveillance missions on homes and workplaces, and the examination of fuel bills and credit card statements - must now be extended to parents under investigation by the CSA.

UK moves to destroy Kyoto protocol

It seems that Blair is moving to align himself on a second front in Bush's War To Screw The World:

Britain is to open the door for other nations to abandon setting compulsory targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions: the principle at the heart of the Kyoto agreement to tackle climate change.

Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, has told The Observer she is prepared to accept voluntary targets - a move hinted at this autumn by Tony Blair.

The news caused consternation among green campaigners last night. 'Voluntary targets are not worth the paper they are written on,' said Stephen Tindale, head of Greenpeace UK. 'Without mandatory targets [the Kyoto Protocol] is effectively dead.'
This despite the fact that the government's Chief Scientific Advisor warned in 2004 that "climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today--more serious even than the threat of terrorism".

Random thoughts about the mood of the nation & ID cards

My dear friend Ian Brown offered to me the opportunity to post some guest musings on this blog. Thanks Ian. As it turns out I do have a few thoughts that are way too unstructured even for publication in the Guardian. So, here goes...

I figure that anyone hanging around a pub these days will know that ID cards are about as popular as tepid Carlsberg. True, there was a time when the "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" brigade was omnipresent. Now you'd be hard pressed - even beyond the realm of the chattering classes - to find that level of blind support.

For three years now the government has insisted that 80 per ccent of the UK public support their proposal. This, even when all the credible polsters (ICM MORI et al) were showing a support of 45 to 50 per cent, even after the London bombings. And of course the figure drops to about ten per cent when people hear about the costs and implications of the plan.

Last night I was interviewed on the popular radio station "Talk Sport". I'm not proud of the fact, but it was a Saturday night and, well, someone had to do it. What amazed me was that the rampantly indignant pro-ID ranting for which the station was once famous has largely disappeared. It used to be that swarms of indignant listeners would call up the studio, frothing about how "idiots like what youz got there" are enemies of the state. Now in the same tone they deride politicians and self-interested business and express quite passionately how the ID card is an enemy of the state. Or, at least, an enemy of the people.

The presenter, a personable guy called Mike, was indicative of this shift. He started out at 23.00 hrs completely disengaged from the subject of ID cards. By 23.35 hrs he had decided the proposal was a sham, and a dangerous one at that.

The government blames my colleagues and I at the LSE for destabilising public confidence in their plan. They say we fabricated cost estimates for the card scheme and conned the public into opposing them merely on the basis of the unit price. But if Talk Sport is any litmus test of opinion I'd say cost is likely to recede as an issue. Privacy, liberty and individual rights are waiting to terminally trample over these plans like a rampant elephant - and not the rampant elephant associated with the Home Secretary. See if I'm right. Within three months the rising indignation of the public will increasingly be founded on the pillar of privacy.

Gordon Brown will kill ID cards

Michael Portillo is a perceptive man. Here's hoping his prediction of Gordon Brown's ultimate treatment of ID cards will be proven correct. His opinion of Blair is hard to dispute:

Under a Brown premiership the numbers, more than a concern for civil liberties, will kill the legislation. Cost/benefit analysis has never been Blair’s strong suit. The problem now is worse than that. He fails absolutely to think his policies through.

I fear that the prime minister has become unhinged. He has always tended towards being messianic. Now he is more convinced than ever that he is right and everyone else wrong. Neither the views of parliament nor the home secretary count for anything. He courts unpopularity, outrages his supporters and has lost his instinct for survival. Logic plays little part in his calculations and economics none.

As recently as last summer I, like many others, believed that Blair was the man to lead Britain in a crisis. The alternative was Gordon Brown, once famously described by a Blair aide as “psychologically flawed”. While I do not dispute that description of the chancellor, the prime minister’s psychiatric advantage over his rival is clearly narrowing.

Workers, embrace your chains

Four days until the new licensing laws kick in. Rod Liddle identifies the root of the hysteria in the media:
The assumption seems to be this: it’s only fair that we civilised folk should be allowed to sit in an agreeable bar sipping a chilled sancerre or five whenever we like, but what on earth should we do with those ghastly oiks who clamber from huge vats of Carlsberg to cause mayhem in our town centres, beat each other up and later shag in the doorway of Dolcis? Can’t we stop them drinking all the time and let us quietly get on with it?
And right on cue, Tristram Hunt pops up in the Observer to tell us that the working classes must be protected from booze, gambling and even the opportunity to work on Sundays:
despite its killjoy reputation, Puritanism is about more than just banning earthly pleasures. Certainly, the Labour party pioneers hoped to discipline the feckless working classes and make politics their pastime. But they were also concerned with the exploitation of those employed by drinking, gambling and entertainment businesses. Restrictions on Sunday trading and opening hours were about protecting the workers as much as abolishing fun.
To think that the proles might be given the opportunity to make these decisions for themselves...

Torturing people to death is not a serious way to wage war on terrorism

Bush isn't just trying to protect his power to torture from Congress. Republicans are also trying to remove the extremely limited judicial oversight of the GOP gulags. Julian Sanchez writes:
in the absence of any judicial review, not only will we remain in the dark about how well interrogators are sticking to the rulebook; we also can't know how many of our detainees are hardened al-Qaeda killers and how many are Afghan farmers who'd been conscripted by the Taliban, or targeted at random by bounty hunters eager to reap a reward for catching terrorists, or singled out by informers who happened to be personal or political enemies, or simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. We do know that the Guantanamo prison continues to hold detainees who the government itself has determined are innocent—in one case prompting a reviewing judge to complain that the military had waited months before bothering to inform him of that determination. Under the habeas rules approved by the Senate, that judge wouldn't be involved at all. We also know that's not the only time military tribunals have ignored evidence exculpating detainees. But, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is fond of saying, we don't know what we don't know—and we'll know still less if habeas review is choked off. In the absence of oversight, the military will face a powerful temptation to keep ten innocent men secretly incarcerated rather than risk the embarassment of releasing one genuine enemy.
Meanwhile, Republican Congresswoman Jean Schmidt has been accusing Democrat Congressman and ex-Marine John Murtha of cowardice. As Jesus' General says: fly, my pretties!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Primordial sludge in Kansas

Charles Krauthammer has a nice summary of the "intelligent design" debate in the Washington Post:
How ridiculous to make evolution the enemy of God. What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule, pliable and fecund enough to give us mollusks and mice, Newton and Einstein? Even if it did give us the Kansas State Board of Education, too.

The thoughts of Chairman Patten

As excerpted by the Hong Kong Standard from Not Quite the Diplomat:

"Does America still believe in the world she created?... Has the great republic which ruled our hearts and destinies with such accomplished imperial ease, partly because she eschewed the prerogatives of emperor, now risked her safety and her standing by today claiming for herself imperial rights?... America seems intent on going back to the politics of gun-slinging Teddy Roosevelt with precision-guided missiles."

On Afghanistan: "We all kidded ourselves that we had bought the warlords, whereas it swiftly became apparent we had only rented them."

"Nor can terrorism ever be eradicated from the face of the earth. Complete elimination of the threat could only be achieved in a global Orwellian police state that denied freedom to everyone. That would negate the values for which America and Europe stand. Paradoxically, it would demand of good men the sort of just resistance and potentially violent resistance that we are seeking to stamp out."

"Even for a senior foreign official dealing with the US administration, you are aware of your role as a tributary: however courteous your hosts, you come as a subordinate bearing goodwill and hoping to depart with a blessing on your endeavours... Attending any conference abroad, American cabinet officers arrive with the sort of entourage that would have done Darius proud. Hotels are commandeered, cities brought to a halt, innocent bystanders barged into corners by thick-necked men with bits of plastic hanging out of their ears. It is not a spectacle that wins hearts and minds."

On George W. Bush: "His is a brand that does not travel well."

On the neo-cons: "The present world order must not be merely changed. It must be overthrown, overturned with Afghanistan and Iraq becoming the Normandy beaches in the next World War. What is required in this neo-con world is permanent revolution, or at least permanent war. This is Mao, not Madison... Fire and sword, shock and awe: this is the world of the neoconservatives, dangerous to us all because in Edmund Burke's phrase 'a great empire and little minds go well together.'"

"In Europe, we huff and puff; how much breath does that leave to do anything serious?"

On Shenzhen: "It was raw, frontier capitalism -- Adam Smith stir-fried by Gradgrind and Fagin."

"There is no evidence that China does business on a basis any different from everyone else; it seeks the best product at the best price. The fact that it goes on hinting that friendship and compliance with Chinese positions can lead to big, fat contracts is a tribute to Western (including American) gullibility. We cannot blame the Chinese for this. If we so regularly behave like suckers, why shouldn't they treat us as suckers?"

"If China's leaders were to learn to trust Hong Kong, it would be an important step on the road towards managing with wisdom, sophistication and the prospect of a successful outcome the political transition that China herself will one day surely have to make... As in political so in economic matters, we will all benefit from a China that succeeds and be damaged by a China that fails."

The triumph of the radical centre

Martin Kettle writes in the Guardian:
The centrist imperative comes from the fact that the old political divisions no longer make enough sense. There is a loose but powerful consensus that did not exist 100 or even 50 years ago, about democratic government, the rule of law, the limits of the state, the dynamism of markets, equality of opportunity, the international order and a host of other things to which all parties broadly subscribe. This convergence is not opportunistic. It is principled. It is, if you like, driven by history.
Blair, Cameron and the Lib Dems are all chasing this demographic. Who will seize it most effectively? Hopefully those who recognise that ID cards, mass Internet surveillance and ever-growing government databases are the anthesis of the rule of law and limited state in the 21st century...

Friday, November 18, 2005

Cameron backs licensing changes

I knew Cameron wouldn't let me down!
David Cameron last night backed the broad thrust of the government's controversial move to lengthen pub opening hours and defended his links with the drinks industry in a combative interview with Jeremy Paxman.

While Conservatives have attacked the reforms as dangerous and unpopular, warning that they will encourage binge drinking and antisocial behaviour, the leadership favourite told BBC2's Newsnight that it was not sensible to close every pub at the same time.

Govt flunkies smear LSE report

The government has been stooping to some pretty underhand tricks over the LSE's report on ID cards published earlier this year. Given that the report makes a mockery of their costings and much else of their proposals, ministers and backbench flunkies have now resorted to personal abuse of one of the report's editors, Simon Davies:
Baroness Corston: While my noble friend is finding the appropriate place, perhaps I may comment on something she said earlier. I have been very dismayed at the degree to which noble Lords have referred to a particular report as the "LSE report". It was actually written by a Mr Simon Davies, who works for Privacy International, which is an international organisation that is violently opposed to identity card Bills and has opposed them in many countries. Mr Davies came to a meeting in the other place chaired by me a couple of years ago when the Government first mentioned identity cards.

It is true that Mr Davies is a visiting fellow of the LSE, but that is a different matter. Indeed, the present director of the LSE, Howard Davies, has confirmed that the document itself is not an official corporate document of the LSE. Perhaps we should start calling it the "Davies report".

In fact, as was made clear in a letter to the Daily Telegraph in the summer, the report is a joint effort of dozens of academics (including myself):
Sir - The Home Secretary and his ministers have repeatedly claimed that the LSE identity-card report has been inspired and controlled by Simon Davies, a visiting LSE academic. The assertion is both unfair and incorrect. Simon Davies has certainly played a valuable and inspiring role, but his has been one role among many.

We, along with many other professional colleagues, have worked diligently on this report. Our teams have striven over the past six months to ensure that the research is both comprehensive and correct. We see the recent aggression as a political tactic to undermine the research and to shore up the Government's desperate portrayal of the report as "mad", "preposterous" and "rubbish".

No one person involved in this work would ever take sole credit for the report's many achievements and no one person should suffer a kicking because of its remarkable impact. All of us fully stand by the report and its findings. We therefore collectively offer ourselves up in sacrifice to the Government for our share of ridicule and abuse.
It seems that the government's only response to the report's substantive contribution to the debate has been to attempt to shoot the messenger.

CIA joint operation centres winning against terrorism

Andrew Sullivan points out this interesting piece in the Washington Post on CIA joint ventures with overseas intelligence agencies. They are apparently a big success in tracking down and killing or exporting for torture suspected terrorists. I'm unsurprisingly keen on the former but not the latter.
The CIA has operated the joint intelligence centers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, according to current and former intelligence officials. In addition, the multinational center in Paris, codenamed Alliance Base, includes representatives from Britain, France, Germany, Canada and Australia.
The National Security Agency is also playing a big part:
The new cooperative ventures depended as well on loosening U.S. rules for sharing electronic eavesdropping and other precious "signals intelligence," which experts estimate provides 80 to 90 percent of the information the United States gathers about terrorist networks.
Doubtless the UK's GCHQ will be undertaking a similar role.

Swiss President denounces Tunisian censorship

The Swiss President made an extraordinarily pointed speech at the opening of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis earlier this week:
It is not acceptable - and I say this without beating about the bush - for the United Nations Organisation to continue to include among its members those States which imprison citizens for the sole reason that they have criticised their government or their authorities on the internet or in the press.

Any knowledge society respects the independence of its media as it respects human rights. I therefore expect that freedom of expression and freedom of information will constitute central themes over the course of this Summit.
Kieran McCarthy has the key excerpt on his blog, along with the news that the Tunisian media has been harassing the Swiss delegation ever since. And that a key Swiss media site reporting the incident has been added to the list of sites filtered in Tunis.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

ID theft figures exaggerated

Brian Bergstein (via Bruce Schneier's blog) points out that identity theft figures should be taken with a pinch of salt:
Consider a February survey for insurer Chubb Corp. of 1,866 people nationwide. Nearly 21 percent said they had been an identity theft victim in the previous year.

But when the questioners asked about specific circumstances -- and broadened the time frame beyond just the previous year -- the percentages diminished. About 12 percent said a collection agency had demanded payment for purchases they hadn't made. Some 8 percent said fraudulent checks had been drawn against their accounts.

In both cases, the survey didn't ask whether a faulty memory or a family member -- rather than a shadowy criminal -- turned out to be to be the culprit.

It wouldn't be uncommon. In a 2005 study by Synovate, a research firm, half of self-described victims blamed relatives, friends, neighbors or in-home employees.

When Chubb's report asked whether people had suffered the huge headache of finding that someone else had taken out loans in their name, 2.4 percent -- one in 41 people -- said yes.
This is important to bear in mind when the UK government claims that identity theft is an enormous problem that justifies the introduction of ID cards (not that cards would make much difference anyway in solving that problem).

Weaselboy spammer jailed

A particularly nasty spammer has been sent to jail for six years:
BRITAIN’S most prolific internet spammer, known to his victims as “Weaselboy”, was jailed yesterday for threatening to kill women working for trading standards and the police as they closed in on his £1.6 million internet scam.
The spammer also threatened to use a Denial of Service attack to disrupt access to all domains ending with '.uk' just before he was arrested for breach of bail conditions. Internet resistance to DoS attacks is still unfortunately just in its infancy.

As China rises, so does Japanese nationalism

Martin Jacques writes on Japan's increasing isolationism within East Asia, as symbolised by the continuing visits of leading politicians to the Yasakuni shrine where several war criminals are buried:
The rise of Japanese nationalism should be seen alongside another trend: the increasingly close links between Japan and the US. Earlier this year Japan affirmed, for the first time, its willingness to support the US in the event of a conflict over Taiwan. It has also agreed to work with the US to develop and finance a missile-defence system whose intention is clearly the containment of China. It is not difficult to see the early signs of a new cold war in east Asia, with Japan and the US on one side and China on the other. It does not have to be like this. If Japan grasped the nettle of its past and ushered in a new era in its relationship with China, South Korea and the rest of the region, it would surely play a major role in the evolution of the most economically powerful region in the world. Instead it looks increasingly likely that Japan will remain in splendid isolation from its continent, weighed down by fear, suspicion and anxiety that its neighbours, above all China, will seek to lord it over Japan in the way that Japan did over them for over a century.
Not a position that will ultimately be best for Japan, China or the US.

Liberty's march has been reversed

Timothy Garton Ash laments the loss of freedom that Bush's GWOT (global war on terror) has brought:

As America's former anti-terrorism chief Richard Clarke records, when George Bush was reminded of the constraints of international law on the evening of September 11 2001, the president of the United States yelled: "I don't care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass."

Kicking ass, as it turns out, meant not just the invasion of Iraq but also Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and, it now emerges, probably other secret prison facilities where people were held, and tortured, in a lawless limbo. Vice-president Cheney is reportedly fighting hard to exempt the CIA from a law, proposed by the conservative Republican and former prisoner of war John McCain, that would ban all American forces and agencies from using torture. At home, the USA Patriot Act allows routine invasions of privacy and curtailments of civil liberties that would never have passed before September 11. The words of America, the Beautiful - "Confirm thy soul in self-control/Thy liberty in law" -seem to have been forgotten in the "global war on terror"; or, as Bush put it, in kicking ass.

Unfortunately, this country, which was a beacon of liberty before the US was even invented - if you doubt this, read Voltaire's letters about his time in England, published in 1734 - has followed suit. After the entirely justified invasion of Afghanistan, we gave a patina of international legitimacy to the unjustified invasion of Iraq. There our own armed forces seem to have been reduced, in circumstances of extreme duress, to some practices of which we can hardly be proud. At home, we have seen successive tightenings of the anti-terrorism legislation - or, to put it another way, successive erosions of the Human Rights Act, and of other, older individual freedoms secured by common law, such as habeas corpus. This culminated in the proposal that terrorist suspects should be held for 90 days without charge. Legislation to outlaw the "glorification" of terrorism and a misguided attempt to protect Muslims by criminalising an ill-defined "incitement to religious hatred" both threaten free speech. And so we find ourselves in the surreal position of depending on unelected lords, and the Conservatives, for the defence of our liberties.

We can only hope that Bush's current plummet in popularity is terminal, and that we get a completely different type of leader -- a Republican or Democrat prepared to "rendezvous with reality", in Chris Patten's beautiful turn of phrase -- as the next US president.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

ID cards useless against terrorism, says ex-MI5 chief

Absolute dynamite from the ex-head of MI5 (the UK internal spy agency), who says that the government's claims that ID cards would combat terrorism are garbage:
Identity cards would not make Britain a safer place and nobody in the secret intelligence services supports their introduction, according to the former head of MI5.

Asked at a further education conference whether she thought ID cards would make the country safer, Dame Stella Rimington replied: "No is the very simple answer, although ID cards have possibly some purpose.

"But I don't think anybody in the intelligence services - not in my former service - will be pressing for ID cards."

The Lords Committee stage on the ID cards bill began yesterday, and should make interesting reading in Hansard.

FSA warns of bank insider fraud

Thanks to Nicholas for pointing out that the FSA has warned banks that they are being infiltrated by organised crime gangs aiming to commit fraud:
A spokeswoman for the FSA said evidence of the problem had come from discussions with financial services firms and law enforcement agencies and, she said, intelligence suggested it was ongoing.
It is disturbing that the FSA's suggestion is that data protection laws should be changed so that banks can investigate further their employees' private lives. Instead, banks should be designing systems that are secure against insider attack and that protect customers from liability for employee fraud.

US wins WSIS battle on ICANN oversight

Kieran McCarthy reports from the WSIS summit in Tunis:

An expected fight over the governance of the internet looked to have been averted last night as a tentative deal was struck which would allow the US government to retain overall control of the medium for the foreseeable future...

It is a far cry from the inter-governmental oversight body that was proposed by the European Union in September. That proposal, which shocked the US as much as it pleased Brazil, China and Iran, pushed the previously unnoticed issue of internet governance on to the world stage and turned the topic into the main focus of the WSIS.

Just as surprising as the EU's proposal, however, has been its failure to push that model in Tunis this week. In fiery opening statements, China and the US laid down their same, strong positions, but when it came to the EU to speak, delegation head David Hendon said only that it had "looked carefully at all positions, including our own" and deferred to the chair of the committee over which direction the meeting would take.
The EU was obviously stunned by the reaction to its proposal last month. A recent letter from Condoleeza Rice apparently also helped...

Meanwhile, Tunisia is living up to its repressive reputation. The EU has made an official complaint to the Tunisian government after 70 plainclothes police blocked a civil society meeting being hosted by the German UN ambassador. Ultimately the meeting went ahead at the EU's offices in Tunis.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Islam not behind French riots

Good look at the lack of evidence for any "Muslim" cause of the current French riots by David Aaranovitch, and wider conclusion:

We need to resist the choice that seems to be offered to us at the moment. On the one hand we have the relativism of sections of the intelligentsia on the one hand, who cannot say the words “Western democracy” without a sneer. On the other there is the notion that we are in an unavoidable clash of cultures with almost everyone who calls themselves a Muslim. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Dialogue and debate can both exist alongside a muscular defence of certain values: freedom of speech, democracy, human rights — including equal rights for women. We should allow — with modesty — that it is precisely because some of these rights have been won comparatively recently, and not in the days of the Athenian Republic, that we defend them so resolutely.
If you judged Christianity by the frothings of the US evangelical right, you might come to the same conclusions as some of the badly-informed criticisms of Islam in the US and UK media.

Tory licensing hysteria continues

Hopefully David Cameron, soon-to-be leader of the Conservatives and coincidentally until recently a director of a chain of late-night bars, will stop Conservative hysteria over the reform of licensing hours about to come into effect:
Theresa May, the Shadow Culture Secretary, said: “Yet another of the ministerial assurances we have been given on the licensing laws has proved to be worthless. The promises of only a handful of 24-hour licences were about as accurate as the ones we were given about the power of residents to object to rowdy bars or the pledges that all licences would be through on time.

“A few government-funded posters will not solve the anarchic scenes of alcohol-fuelled chaos we see in our towns and city centres.”

You would think that Conservatives should support a move from rigid centralised control to flexible local licensing of pub opening hours.

Hong Kong WTO must succeed for world's poor

Rare good sense from Tony Blair:
The Prime Minister, in remarks clearly aimed at President Chirac of France, among others, said that the EU and the US must reduce trade distorting subsidies, set a credible end date for export subsidies and put an “ambitious limit” on the number of sensitive products that could be given extra protection.

US used chemical weapons in Iraq

Another disaster for Western public diplomacy over the Iraq war. George Monbiot describes how US troops have been using these two banned chemical weapons:
In the March 2005 edition of Field Artillery, officers from the 2nd Infantry's fire support element boast about their role in the attack on Falluja in November last year: "White Phosphorous. WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive]. We fired 'shake and bake' missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out..." White phosphorus is fat-soluble and burns spontaneously on contact with the air. According to "The burns usually are multiple, deep, and variable in size. The solid in the eye produces severe injury. The particles continue to burn unless deprived of atmospheric oxygen... If service members are hit by pieces of white phosphorus, it could burn right down to the bone..."

There were widespread reports that in March 2003 US marines had dropped incendiary bombs around the bridges over the Tigris and the Saddam Canal on the way to Baghdad. The commander of Marine Air Group 11 admitted that "We napalmed both those approaches". Embedded journalists reported that napalm was dropped at Safwan Hill on the border with Kuwait. In August 2003 the Pentagon confirmed that the marines had dropped "mark 77 firebombs". Though the substance these contained was not napalm, its function, the Pentagon's information sheet said, was "remarkably similar". While napalm is made from petrol and polystyrene, the gel in the mark 77 is made from kerosene and polystyrene. I doubt it makes much difference to the people it lands on...

Saddam, facing a possible death sentence, is accused of mass murder, torture, false imprisonment and the use of chemical weapons. He is certainly guilty on all counts. So, it now seems, are those who overthrew him.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Treacherous currs

Kitty Ussher MP, a Blairite flunky, accuses the Tories and Lib Dems of having blood on their hands for rejecting the demand for 90 days detention without trial:
Let's be clear about this: this country is a less safe place because of the actions of the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and, yes, a minority of our own side, last Wednesday. I very much hope that we will never have another terrorist atrocity in Britain. But if we do, and if it happens because the police have not had sufficient time to accumulate enough evidence to charge the perpetrators, then the Tories, the Lib Dems and our own rebels will have blood on their hands.
Isn't it scary to hear Blair loyalists and Sun journalists both parroting the same hysterical line about traitors in our midst?

Government plans airline-style security on railways

Sounds completely barmy -- the volumes of passengers on British trains make scanning all travellers completely impractical. Yet the government plans "selective" trials at major stations such as Paddington:

A small number of randomly-chosen passengers will be asked to take part in the tests of the scanning equipment at Paddington station over a four-week period. This will involve them going through an X-ray machine or being searched with a body scanner or sniffer dogs. Luggage could also be put through the scanner.
This leaves smaller stations as the boarding point of choice for bombers, who are then still free to wait until their arrival at major destinations before detonating explosives -- exactly as happened in the Madrid train bombings.

In-flight movie reviews

The Island: great action flick with gruesome premise starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansen. Stealth: unmanned fighter jet gets a mind of its own. Dumbest nonsense I have seen in some time, perhaps ever. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: quite awesomely weird, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton were obviously born to make this movie, and Danny Elfman's music matched Roald Dahl's demented Oompa-Loompa lyrics perfectly. Runaway Jury: jury-fixing saga featuring great story and acting by John Cusack, Rachel Weisz, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. Fantastic Four: mostly silly but mindless enough for a 4am viewing.

Hong Kong kicks ass

Flew back from Hong Kong to London overnight. As usual I had a great trip there, and couldn't help but spend time planning how I could emigrate. The mixture of great bars and restaurants in Lan Kwai Fong and Soho, the skyscrapers of Central, and the beaches all around the place (and 30C temperatures to enjoy them even in November) are such a winning combination. Not to mention the Chinese Elvises...

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The best democracy money can buy

Greg Palast's recently updated compilation of his investigative journalism makes for eye-opening reading. The long, detailed examination of how the Florida Republicans managed to wrongly exclude many tens of thousands of black and poor citizens from the electoral roll shows how persistance, lying and lawbreaking can deliver the presidency of the world's most powerful country. The look at the influence of corporate lobbyists from the beginning of the Blair era shows yet again that Bush rather than Clinton seems the better match across the Atlantic for our own Dear Leader. And the look at the effects of IMF/World Bank interventions in developing nations do not provide much to be happy about for supporters of the "Washington consensus" on economic development. I saw some of the pot-banging and window-smashing protests in Buenos Aires over this issue in 2002; according to Palast, even the middle classes were starving as a result of the pay cuts and damage to the economy caused by IMF dictats.

Like Michael Moore, Palast might get his well-researched points over better if they were put more moderately. But there is a great deal in this book for supporters of globalisation to think about.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Return of the Last Governor

I've been enjoying some of Fatty Pang's favourite egg tarts in Wanchai today. His visit to Hong Kong to promote his memoirs has also produced some memorable press coverage:

Of the damage caused by the Bush administration, he says: "I don't think it is terminal but we can't assume that the last years of this administration will see a rendezvous with reality and therefore a change. I don't think everything will be hunky-dory after this administration. It is important to conduct the argument about the damage caused by the sovereigntists and assertive nationalists like [US Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and [Vice- President Dick] Cheney, by the neo- cons like [Paul] Wolfowitz and [Richard] Perle."

It sounds like Not Quite The Diplomat will be a good read...

It couldn't happen to a nicer person

What a bizzare set of friends David Blunkett keeps:

The editor of Britain's best-selling daily newspaper became embroiled in controversy yesterday after being arrested on suspicion of assaulting her soap star husband. Rebekah Wade, 37, who recently launched a campaign in her newspaper, the Sun, to stamp out domestic violence, found herself in a police cell in Battersea, in south-west London, after being subjected to fingerprinting and DNA testing...

Wade, who became the first woman editor of the Sun early in 2003, had spent the day at work overseeing the story of the resignation of Mr Blunkett as work and pensions secretary. Within hours of Mr Blunkett standing down, he was at the Sun's Wapping headquarters being treated to a consolatory drink with Wade, whom he counts as a friend.

Dodgy Dossier mark II

Blair can't resist those dodgy dossiers, this time from the Association of Chief Police Officers. Simon Jenkins writes:

Recent evidence suggests that what is needed is not more power, which the police have in abundance and sometimes abuse, but more intelligence and resources in the right place...

Instead this matter was so chaotically handled that the balance between civil liberty and police power was lost in the shouting... The Andy Hayman 90-day dossier was treated by Blair with the same biblical reverence that he once showered on Alastair Campbell’s notorious variations on a 45-minute theme.

By Wednesday the prime minister appeared to believe that only 90-day detention stood between Britain and the imminent arrival of Hitler’s storm troops. Charles Clarke, the home secretary, said it would be “obscene” not to go for 90 days in the immediate aftermath of the July 7 memorial service, lending weight to the suspicion that the St Paul’s event had been politically orchestrated. Nor did Clarke rebut The Sun’s absurd allegation that those voting for less than 90 days were “traitors”.

And Andrew Sullivan hits the nail on the head on Blair's proposed "religious hatred" law:

In Britain new laws forbidding the defamation of someone’s religion are an affront on one key freedom that distinguishes us from theocracies — the right to challenge theological dictates. There are already laws banning speech that amounts to incitement to violence. The new unnecessary law is sharia-lite. If we are fighting theocratic enemies, why are we simultaneously inching closer and closer towards them?

Reminds me of the comment from Polly Toynbee that having a large number of Church of England clergy installed in the House of Lords is one of the best arguments for its reform.

No buyers for one badly dented prime minister

Barbara Toner isn't surprised at the recent political damage suffered by the government:

I would like to understand what the prime minister is on about but he lost me on the terror bill. I wanted to trust him when he told us the police needed every one of 90 days to investigate jailed suspected terrorists without the fuss of laying any charges against them. But he had no sooner said he wouldn't brook any compromise than he said the 90 days were not his idea, or the government's. The police wanted them. Plainly he didn't hear how scary it was for a Labour prime minister to connect police and state in the same thought even in troubled times.

God alone knows none of us wants to be blown up on a train, but we didn't elect the terror squad to run the country. Especially, I'm bound to say, those whose record on suspected terrorists includes pumping eight bullets into the head of an innocent one.
The police and intelligence agencies have always had a powerful voice within government -- which is how we ended up with legislation like the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. At long last, the House of Commons has made it clear that other voices also deserve consideration.

UK wartime torture camp

Official papers have been discovered detailing a UK torture camp operated during World War II.

A subsequent assessment by MI5, the Security Service, concluded that the commanding officer had been guilty of "clear breaches" of the Geneva convention and that some interrogation methods "completely contradicted" international law.

This kind of thing is damaging to the UK's reputation 60 years on. Why is the US storing up such trouble for itself by building a global network of these camps now?

Friday, November 11, 2005

The wrath of Robertson

The "Reverend" Pat Robertson is upset that some US citizens have voted to remove from their local school board the clowns who wanted creationism to be taught in science lessons.

“I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover. If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city. And don’t wonder why He hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I’m not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for His help because he might not be there.”

I too am outraged: Flying Spaghetti Monsterism should be a part of every "faith-based" curriculum. Ramen!

Ou sont les riots?

Thanks to Keith for these handy French phrases:
  • Ou sont les pompiers? - Where are the firemen?
  • Avez-vous un extincteur? - Do you have a fire extinguisher?
  • A quelle heure est le couvre-feu? - What time is the curfew?
  • Pourquoi brulez vous ma voiture? - Why are you burning my car?
  • Avez-vous du feu pour allumer mon cocktail molotov? - Do you have a light for my petrol bomb?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Crucify the enemy

I'm beginning to get a clearer picture of Bush and Blair's "faith-based" approach to the war in Iraq:

Mark Swanner [is] a forty-six-year-old C.I.A. officer who has performed interrogations and polygraph tests for the agency, which has employed him at least since the nineteen-nineties. (He is not a covert operative.) Two years ago, at Abu Ghraib prison, outside Baghdad, an Iraqi prisoner in Swanner’s custody, Manadel al-Jamadi, died during an interrogation. His head had been covered with a plastic bag, and he was shackled in a crucifixion-like pose that inhibited his ability to breathe; according to forensic pathologists who have examined the case, he asphyxiated. In a subsequent internal investigation, United States government authorities classified Jamadi’s death as a “homicide,” meaning that it resulted from unnatural causes. Swanner has not been charged with a crime and continues to work for the agency.

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord to Dubya?

Blair loses vote on 90-day detention without trial

Amazing -- Blair's plans to allow detention of suspects without trial for 90 days was so extreme that even a substantial number of his own MPs voted against. The poor prime minister made a Putin-esque defence of his plans for a police state:

Mr Blair, who personally decided to gamble by putting the 90-day detention to the vote, sounded an uncomprehending note afterwards. "The country will think parliament will have behaved in a deeply irresponsibly way, I have no doubt about that at all," he said. "Sometimes it is better to do the right thing and lose, than to win doing the wrong thing. I have no doubt what the right thing was to do in this instance, to support the police.

Gareth Pierce comments that there has been zero evidence from the police that an extension of this period is required, and plenty that their existing powers are already being misused.

One down; two ("glorification" of terrorism and ID cards) to go...

President Hu meets Queen Liz

It's certainly pleasant to be back in the free world here in Hong Kong. But lucky me: the President of China may still be visiting London when I return:

As he was swept through Canada Gate and into Buckingham Palace in a gilded carriage drawn by six white horses yesterday morning, the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, could have been forgiven for feeling a little confused. On one side of the Mall a crowd of a few hundred largely silent supporters waved the red flag of China and held out banners saying, "Welcome leader of the motherland". Just metres away, on the other side of the Mall, a much more boisterous but similarly sized crowd chanted, "China, China, Out, Out" amid a blizzard of Tibetan flags in red, yellow and blue. (There was trouble during Jiang Zemin's state visit in 1999 when police stopped protesters carrying the Tibetan flag, banned in China, but this time a lighter touch was applied.)

Perhaps President Hu will be able to swap ideas on anti-"terror" legislation with Mr Blair?

Christopher Meyer on Blair's adultion of Bush

The former UK Ambassador to the US has just published some memoirs that provide further evidence of the real cause of UK involvement in the war on Iraq. Simon Jenkins comments:

Meyer's account of Blair's Washington antics is toe-curling. The prime minister's eyes are permanently out on stalks as he meets showbiz stars, is flown here and there by helicopter, and purrs round town in a Rolls-Royce. Even before 9/11 he had the demeanour of an eager presidential candidate, grinning, pumping flesh, making speeches of breathtaking platitude. Blair gulped down adulation and offered unconditional support in return: "However tough, we fight with [America], no grandstanding, no offering implausible and impractical advice from the touchline." British policy towards America was simply a blank cheque.

Well, there's a surprise.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

I am Charlotte Simmons

Tom Wolfe's latest 700-page opus has been keeping me busy during 11-hour flights and the like whilst travelling. It was even better than expected: a rocketing pace and a hilarious cast of frat-boys, sorostitutes, geeks and nerdy academics that reminded me ever-so-slightly of universities I have known and loved. It is almost as amusing as Neal Stephenson's Big U in that regard. The transformation of the main character from small-town southern hick to queen of the campus is beautifully described.

The book almost reaches the standard of my favourite novel, Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, and is much more tightly edited than his A Man in Full. The language and lifestyle of the students at a fictional Ivy League university are portrayed in loving detail. The story feels like an alarmingly accurate insight into US college life, in the same way as the masters of the universe and social x-rays seem to be only thinly fictionalised in Bonfire of the Vanities. Highly recommended!

Goodbye to Shanghai

I've been enjoying a visit to Shanghai this week to see a friend who works here. The city's skyline is even more spectacular than last time I was here in 2004. We've been spending vast quantities of money in some of the great local restaurants, bars and clubs. Best view so far is from the Cloud 9 bar on the 87th floor of the Jin Mao tower in Pudong. Funkiest club was Friday night electro in Fabrique from a range of sixth-form DJs. Fantastic Sichuan, Nepali and local cuisine in some restaurants whose names I've already forgotten.

The city has big plans for building 8 new Metro lines, 3 new airport terminals, and many more skyscrapers. Apparently though the cost of doing business here is already approaching that of Hong Kong and Taipei. It will be interesting to see if investors start moving elsewhere, perhaps further west.

We also had a fun trip to Nanjing, the capital under the nationalists in the first half of the 20th century and previously under some of the Ming emperors. The mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen (leader of the nationalists and father of the modern state) was pleasant if crowded, and the tomb of the first Ming emperor was interesting to see. The museum of the Nanjing massacre (when 300,000 Nanjing residents were killed by the invading Japanese army during the Second World War) makes it clear why Chinese relations with Japan are still extremely strained. It is hard to understand how the Japanese prime minister continues to visit the grave of war criminals in Tokyo, and how Japanese history textbooks can cover up the incident.

I'm off to Hong Kong tomorrow to see another friend and marvel at the architecture, bars and countryside of my second-favourite city.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The perils of Leicester Square

“Leicester Square at night is the resort of the worst type of women and girls consorting with men of the British and American Forces, in which the latter seem to predominate. Of course the American soldiers are encouraged by these young sluts, many of whom should be serving in the Forces. At night the Square is apparently given over to a vicious debauchery.” --Admiral Sir Edward Evans, 1943

EU Data Protection Commissioners criticise data retention plans

The Article 29 Working Party, an EU body that advises on privacy issues, has released an opinion on EU plans for data retention legislation. ISPs and phone companies would forced to store information on their customers' communications for a year or more, which could be accessed by all manner of government agencies under laws such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act in the UK.

The opinion is still sceptical about the need for data retention:

"The Working Party questions whether the justification for an obligatory and general data retention coming from the competent authorities in Member States is grounded on crystal-clear evidence. The Working Party also doubts whether the proposed data retention periods in the draft Directive are convincing."

The Working Party therefore suggests that the legislation should automatically expire three years after it is passed so that the evidence for such invasive requirements can be re-evaluated. The WP also sets out 20 safeguards that should be implemented before any data retention legislation is passed:

"1. Purposes

The data should only be retained for specific purposes of fighting terrorism and organised crime, rather than with regard to any other undetermined “serious crime”. This limited purpose should be also referred to in the title of the proposed Directive.

2. Recipients

The Directive should provide that the data be only available to specifically designated law enforcement authorities where necessary for the investigation, detection, prosecution and/or prevention of terrorism. A list of such designated law enforcement authorities should be publicly available.

3. Data Mining

Prevention of terrorism should not include large-scale data-mining based on the information referred to in the Directive in respect of the travel and communication patterns of people unsuspected by the law enforcement authorities. Access must be restricted to those data that are necessary in the context of specific investigation.

4. Further Processing

Any further processing of retained data by law enforcement authorities for other related proceedings should be ruled out or limited stringently on the basis of specific safeguards, and any access to the data by other government bodies should be prevented. The rules set out in previous European legal instruments concerning the electronic communications sector may not be applied in a manner that is inconsistent with this principle.

5. Access Logs

Any retrieval of the data should be recorded. The records should only be available, upon request, to the authority and/or body mentioned below in point 6 as well as to data protection authorities in case of control, and have to be deleted one year after being produced.

6. Judicial/Independent Scrutiny

Access to data should, in principle, be duly authorised on a case by case basis by a judicial authority without prejudice to countries where a specific possibility of access is authorised by law, subject to independent oversight. Where appropriate, the authorisations should specify the particular data required for the specific cases at hand.

7. Addressees

The Directive should clearly define which providers of publicly available communication services are concerned by the obligations. In the case of the Internet, a limitation on access provider and one-to-one communication (e-mail services, voice over IP) is necessary.

8. Identification

It is important to clarify also in this Directive that there is no obligation for identification in cases where the identification is not necessary for billing purposes or other purposes to fulfil the contract.

9. Public Order Purposes

Providers of public electronic communication services or networks should not be allowed to process data retained solely for public order purposes for their own purposes.

10. System Separation

In particular, the systems for storage of data for public order purposes should be logically separated from systems that are used for the business purposes of providers and protected by more stringent security measures (for instance by means of encryption) in order to prevent unauthorized access and use.

11. Security Measures

The Community measures should provide for minimum standards for technical and organisational security measures to be taken by the providers, specifying the general requirements regarding security measures established in Directive 2002/58/EC.

12. Third Parties

The Community measures should specify that access to retained data by any other third parties is illegitimate.

13. Definitions

There should be a clear definition of the data categories and a limitation on traffic data.

14. List of Data and Mechanisms for Its Revision

It is necessary for the Directive to directly specify the list of personal data to be retained. This is important in order to accurately gauge the impact on fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens concerned, by having regard to the risks for their personal sphere and taking also account of the issues related to ensuring accuracy and updating of the retained data. Any proposals for changes to the list of the types of data to be retained should be subjected to a strict necessity test. In the light of the impact of these measures on fundamental rights and freedoms, the revision of the said list should be carried out only with the approval of the European Parliament and by involving data protection authorities. The participation of representatives from consumer and user associations, other relevant non-governmental bodies, and the European associations of the electronic communications industry should also be envisaged. In this perspective, it does not appear to be appropriate to carry out the revision of the said list merely according to the comitology procedure as envisaged in the Directive.

15. No Contents Data

Since the scope of the proposal is meant to exclude contents of communications, specific guarantees should be introduced in order to ensure a stringent, effective distinction between contents and traffic data – both for the Internet (i.e., only log-in/log-off data, or else any information, including mail server logs, web cache logs and IP flow logs) and for telephony (conference calls, fax, sms, voice).

16. Unsuccessful Communication Attempts

The different categories of traffic data related to unsuccessful communication attempts should not be included, failing an in-depth adequacy assessment in the light of the principles mentioned above.

17. Location Data

Storing location data should not go beyond the cellID at the start of a communication.

18. Effective Supervision

There should be effective controls on the original and on any further compatible use (including duplication), by judicial authorities within and for the purposes of a criminal procedure and, concerning data protection regardless of the existence of a judicial proceeding, by data protection authorities.

19. Publicity

The Directive should envisage the obligation to adequately inform all citizens with regard to any and all processing operations to be possibly performed further to the implementation of its measures.

20. Costs

The Article 29 Working Party notes that additional costs upon provider of public electronic communication services or networks are to be compensated by Member States. The Working Party would like to stress the importance of this issue exclusively with regard to the features that are directly related to data protection. Data retention measures should also involve both reimbursement for investments in the adaptation of the communication systems, for the disclosure of data to law enforcement authorities and about security measures. A comprehensive view is required in order to prevent any negative effects from being produced both on the data protection level and on the economic sphere of citizens, who might be charged some of the costs incurred by providers. In this context, it might also be considered whether a provider's entitlement to reimbursement for costs should be subject to fulfilment of the minimum standards and should take place on a case-by-case basis."