Friday, March 31, 2006

MPs will not be bugged

Harold WilsonThe Prime Minister has rejected the advice of outgoing Interception Commissioner, Sir Swinton Thomas, that MPs should no longer be protected from bugging under the "Wilson doctrine":

It was Sir Swinton's advice, taking into account the new and robust regulatory framework governing interception and the changed circumstances since 1966, that the Wilson Doctrine should not be sustained.

I have considered Sir Swinton's advice very seriously, together with concerns expressed in this House in response to my written ministerial statement on 15 December. I have decided that the Wilson Doctrine should be maintained.

A small piece of good news in an otherwise appalling week for freedom in the UK, which saw royal assent for the Terrorism and Identity Cards bills.

Straw embarrassed by comparison with Condi

Jack StrawJack Straw's tour around Blackburn with Condoleeza Rice is as bizarre as the Foreign Secretary. Gerard Baker comments:

Mr Straw was born in Buckhurst Hill in suburban Essex. He went to school in nearby Brentwood. It is not known if any iconic moments in the history of the struggle of middle-class white boys occurred in that vicinity.

Unfortunately for Mr Straw, Ms Rice's stately aura is in stark contrast to his own.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Dogbert on selling crap

Dogbert on marketing biathlonsDogbert won't let small obstacles like Google get in the way of marketing crap:

Lie of the month

Card and Bush"You're a good man, Mr President." —Soon-to-be-ex Chief of Staff to George Bush, Andrew Card.

Sandals, ponytails cramp open source

Peter Quinn, until recently CIO of Massachussets, blames the "sandal and ponytail set" for the slow adoption of open source software in government. Doesn't he realise that Richard Stallman goes barefoot these days?

"Open source has an unprofessional appearance, and the community needs to be more business-savvy in order to start to make inroads in areas traditionally dominated by commercial software vendors."

This could the opportunity that Lena Nalbach and I have been waiting for on our latest TV show pitch: Pimp My Geek. Any production companies out there listening? (Next show to go into production: Pimp My Bride).

Kabbalah water cures homosexuality, gynaecology

Kabbalah waterJesus' General has an excellent suggestion for Florida Rep. Katherine Harris, her new Biblical Heritage Institute campaign adviser and her miraculous kabbalah water:

Perhaps you and Dr. Dale could combine your specialties and use the magic water to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals or to make gynecologist's hands fall off or something. If it can cure citrus canker, it can certainly destroy homosexuals and OBG/GYNs.

I'm hoping I can become the UK distributor.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Lords finally cave in on ID cards

Lords a-leapingThe Lords have finally given in to government pressure and accepted a meaningless "compromise" over the ID cards bill. While cards will not be issued before 2010, the National Identity Register will start slurping information from passport applications and renewals long before then:

Home Office minister Andy Burnham said in a statement: "I am delighted that we have been able to give our backing to an amendment tabled by the cross-bencher Lord Armstrong.

"The amendment preserves the integrity of the national identity register by ensuring that everyone who applies for or renews a passport or other designated document has their biometric information and other identity details placed on the register."

Opponents of the ID scheme must now work to ensure the election of a Tory + Lib Dem coalition at the next general election in 2008/2009 to ensure this legislation is repealed before it can permanently damage human rights in the UK.

TACD debate on the politics and ideology of intellectual property

I wrote this review for EDRI-gram on the excellent TACD conference on the Ideology and Politics of Intellectual Property:


Jamie LoveCivil society groups from around the world met in Brussels 20/21 March to discuss the politics and ideology of intellectual property. Speakers included representatives from WIPO and the EU, former US Patent Commissioner Bruce Lehman, consumer and development campaigners and noted IP academics Peter Drahos and Susan Sell.

The conference tried to step back from immediate IP controversies and take a look at the rhetoric and politicking behind the framing of IP debates and legislation. Jamie Love set the tone for the meeting by looking at the loaded terms used by proponents and critics of stronger IP rights, contrasting positive language such as "innovation", "value" and "wealth creation" with negative descriptions such as "monopoly", "privilege" and "exploitation".

The practical politics of the recent software patent debate were laid out by pro-patent lobbyist Jonathan Zuck, anti-software patents campaigner Florian Muller and European Parliament member and patent attorney Sharon Bowles. Bowles complained that few involved in the debate understood even the definitions involved; many in the audience doubtless felt the same way! Bruce Lehman and Rufus Pollock described the pro-IP consensus that exists across mainstream US and EU political parties, which gave Green MEP David Hammerstein a chance to describe his party's lone stance that instead favours innovation and consumer rights.

The most notable comment of the conference came from Bruce Lehman. While head of intellectual property policy for President Clinton, he drove the creation of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which embedded IP into global trade treaties. But Lehman now feels that TRIPS has been a "huge failure" for the US, providing US market access to developing countries that have not reciprocated with strong IP enforcement.

Europeans can only hope that those in the Commission and member state governments responsible for IP policy are listening to this gale of criticism of ever-stronger private property rights in ideas. Leonardo Cervera Navas of DG Internal Market said at the meeting that shorter copyright terms were politically unthinkable. The debate will only move forward once such blinkers are removed and we see evidence- rather than faith-based IP policy development.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Charity shops attempt to destroy music industry

Captain PugwashThanks to the idiocies of UK copyright law, anyone who copies their CDs to their PCs or iPods is already a criminal. But to then give those CDs to charity shops is, to mix various content industry metaphors, just like stealing a CD from a record store / taking the shirts from artists' backs / sending the Boston Strangler on a visit to a woman home alone. How can Scope sleep at night?!

The charity Scope said today that its 300 stores were being inundated with donated CDs, as more and more people trim their collections - or even get rid of them altogether to free up space.

Govt admits ID cards would not be voluntary

The government has finally been forced to admit that its "voluntary" ID cards will be no such thing:

Identity cards will effectively be compulsory for large numbers of British citizens, Home Office Minister Andy Burnham said.

I'll fight the little Hitlers in coffee bars

Masked hoodieDavid Aaronovitch is upset by shop managers who feel that anyone wearing a hat must be a criminal trying to evade their CCTV systems:

Such people are, recognisably, the descendants of that lost — and now romanticised — breed, the little Hitlers who used to tell you that whatever it was you were doing was infringing a bylaw and that you should now get off the grass, off your bike, off the bus, off the train and generally cease to be. This function has now been privatised and the role taken over by the local representatives of Costa Coffee or Bluewater. It has gone too far.

Monday, March 27, 2006

DRM technology fails in practice

The afternoon sessions at the Guardian's Changing Media conference sadly had to take second place to the completion of my sections of a FIPR report for the Information Commissioner that is due later this week. But I did catch the fascinating second half of Tamar Kasriel's presentation on "The distribution of the future." She believes that brands will find it harder than ever to maintain trust with consumers, but that today's big organisations will still be in control in a decade as long as they make a minor accommodation to the Internet.

Modesty forbids that I attribute this quote from a presentation on Digital Rights Management after lunch:

Fundamentally, it's an antiuser technology. It's a technology that allows content owners to provide data to their customers with restrictions on how they can use it that aren't justified by copyright law.

Increasing the cost of crap

Chris DobsonI'm at the Guardian's Changing Media Summit today. This morning saw a couple of fascinating presentations, one from MSN International's head of sales and trade marketing, another from Virgin Radio's chief executive.

Chris Dobson's presentation was a revealing insight into the changing direction of Microsoft, who now foresee themselves being as much a media as a software company. They expect very large advertising revenues to fund many of their services, and have largely given up on the subscription model as a result. Worryingly from a privacy perspective, they expect to manage all of your contacts, messages, documents and other personal data from centralised servers.

Fru Hazlitt had a hilarious rant that the "old" media will not be going away any time soon; it just needs to learn lessons about connecting better with audiences. Children's entirely naturalistic use of the Internet shows the way forward.

The panel session that followed featured some gems from Jon Snow on the way that Channel 4 News is augmenting its programming with the help of "citizen journalists" (I hate that phrase). It also had Ben Hammersley warning that the Internet makes it impossible for companies and politicians any longer to sell crap, because they will be exposed in short order by user-generated content.

I think Ben has a touching faith in technology; at best, I'd say Google merely increases the cost of selling crap, and it will still be entirely profitable under many business models. As Jon Snow commented: this conference would not have sold out if the 300 attendees from the marketing and media worlds thought otherwise ;)

Now to prepare for my afternoon presentation on the joys of Digital Rights Management!

Outrage of Outreau could not happen here

Charles Clarke gloweringCharles Clarke has been pushing the French inquisitorial system of investigating magistrates to the Home Affairs Select Committee. Marcel Berlins reports a recent French case that shows Clarke could have not chosen a more inappropriate moment:

In Outreau, near Boulogne, 13 local people were accused of sexually abusing children. By the time their innocence was established, one had committed suicide and the others had spent long periods in prison - some of them four years. Their lives were ruined. All this can be directly traced to the cornerstone of the inquisitorial system - the wide powers of the examining magistrate (juge d'instruction), which are difficult to appeal against and allow him to keep suspects in detention as he slowly makes up his mind whether or not charges are justified.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Blair’s fundamentalism is the real enemy of western values

Tony BlairSimon Jenkins is as merciless as usual about Tony Blair's latest "vision" speeches:

Blair is now trotting round the world and showing his fear of Bin Laden. He is curbing civil liberty at home and releasing bombs and bullets across the Middle East. The resulting loss of life and of respect for the West have been appalling. Perhaps in his next speech Blair might re-examine his lack of faith in the robustness of western democracy. Perhaps he might find its values stronger and its liberties more trenchant than he supposes. Perhaps he might be more of a liberal and less of a wimp.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Medical researchers have plans for patient records

Colin BlakemoreGordon Brown has announced that the research funds of the National Health Service and the Medical Research Council will be merged. The response of the MRC's chief executive is highly revealing of the government's intentions regarding the nascent online database of patient records:

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the MRC, said: "We have the chance through the combination of funding to build in this country something that is not just the equal of the NIH but is superior because of our world-leading biomedical research and the unified system of patient care and record-keeping in the UK."

So it seems that medical researchers already have grand plans for the use of patients' medical records. Will the requirement to obtain patients' consent be swept aside using the Health and Social Care Act 2001?

GP puts patient records on Internet

I'm all for giving patients access to their medical records (which is their right under the Data Protection Directive across the EU). Whether providing that access via the Internet is a sensible balance of risk and convenience is quite another question:

A GP in England last week claimed to be the first NHS doctor to make patients’ records available on the internet. Richard Fitton, of Hadfield Medical Centre, Glossop, posted the notes of two volunteers on a commercially run website as part of a programme to test the feasibility of giving patients, and any other authorised individual, access to their records from anywhere in the world. At least two other GPs are also planning to recruit patients to the programme.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Innocent teacher's DNA removed from database

Until the judgment is made available, I'm not sure how far-reaching this ruling will be. But it potentially could mean that around 125,000 people that have never been convicted but whose DNA is stored on the national database can now demand that it be removed:

A supply teacher who was accused of hitting a child twice with a ruler, but was not prosecuted, has won her legal battle to have her fingerprints, DNA sample and photograph destroyed within 28 days.

UPDATE: Today's Telegraph states that DNA samples were taken while the teacher was illegally detained, after the Crown Prosecution Service had decided not to prosecute. This was why the court ordered they must be removed from the national database. A small but not decisive step forward for privacy.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Forthcoming paper on anti-circumvention law

Meanwhile, I just completed a survey of the evolution of anti-circumvention law as it has moved from niche provisions in US laws passed during the late 80s to a global mandate enforced via US trade policy. You might not be too surprised at this part of my conclusions:

Without acceptance by rightholders of the balance that is required in copyright law, it is likely that anti-circumvention laws will be brought into further disrepute, with collateral damage to the public respect shown to copyright law in general. Neither governments nor rightholders should welcome this prospect...

A recognition of the problems of anti-circumvention law as so far implemented would enable courts and legislators to re-balance these provisions to ensure that all stakeholders can participate equitably in the information society of the coming century.

Circumventing Competition: The Perverse Consequences of the DMCA

Fellow copyright-obsessives are in for a treat: read and laugh out loud at this beautifully-written, devastating critique of Digital Rights Management laws from the Cato Institute. One of several gems refers to the Motion Picture Association of America's comparison of the effect of the video recorder on the movie industry to the Boston Strangler's visiting of women home alone:

Contrary to Valenti’s predictions, the VCR turned out to be a great boon to the movie industry. Although some sales probably were lost to customers who chose to build libraries of movies recorded from TV, many consumers found the process too cumbersome and time-consuming and opted to purchase them instead. Meanwhile, within a few years, the “prerecorded cassette” market became a major revenue source in its own right. If this was Hollywood’s Boston Strangler, every woman home alone should hope for a visit.

Blair's luck has run out - and he has no one to blame but himself

Jonathan FreedlandJonathan Freedland thinks that the current Labour sleaze scandal is symptomatic of a wider loss of trust in the Prime Minister:

The crude, harsh truth is that no one can take what Blair says on foreign policy seriously, because he is responsible for the greatest foreign-policy disaster in half a century of British history. No matter that he emerged as a major world leader during the Kosovo war, or that he won international admiration after the Good Friday agreement. Now, because of that one fateful decision, his credibility is shot.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Echos from the Thirties

Compare and contrast this news from 1933 with Tony Blair's Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill

The Cabinet at its meeting this afternoon decided on the text of the Enabling Bill which it will submit to the Reichstag. If this bill is passed, the Hitler Government will be endowed with absolute dictatorial powers. The Act will enable the Cabinet to legislate and to make laws even if these "mark a deviation from the Constitution", except that the Reichstag and the Reichsrat must not he abolished. But as these will be put out of action for four years, this provision will not inconvenience the Government, which will even have full powers at the end of four years to alter the electoral system by decree.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Lehman: TRIPS was a mistake

Bruce LehmanI'm attending a great meeting in Brussels on "The Politics and Ideology of Intellectual Property". We just had quite a newsflash from Bruce Lehman, President Clinton's head of intellectual property policy who was largely responsible for the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

Lehman now believes TRIPS has been a failure for the United States, because the WTO agreement in which it is included opened US markets to overseas manufactured goods and destroyed the US manufacturing industry. He feels that the US has kept its part of the TRIPS bargain, but that with 90% piracy in China, higher-end developing nations have not. In retrospect, he feels the US should instead have introduced labour and environmental standards into the WTO agreement so that jobs would not be lost in the US manufacturing sector to countries with few environmental standards and weak unions.

How exhilirating that Mr Lehman agrees with civil society IP experts across the developed and developing world!

UPDATE: Mr Lehman also feels that were there to be a penicillin-resistant anthrax outbreak in the US, a compulsory licence would be issued for Cipro like a shot were Bayer unable to meet demand. Shame that the EU has waived its right to use such compulsory licences even in public health emergencies. (Thanks, Manon!)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

This ID project is even more sinister than we first thought

Henry Porter has some interesting details from an anonymous tip-off of how UK ID cards will quickly extend their tentacles into everyday life:

'Private businesses,' says the writer, 'are going to be given access to the national identity register database. If you want to apply for a job, you will have to present your card for a swipe. If you want to apply for a London underground Oystercard or supermarket loyalty card or driving licence, you will have to present your card.'

You will need the card when you receive prescription drugs, when you withdraw a relatively small amount of money from a bank, check into hospital, get your car unclamped, apply for a fishing licence, buy a round of drinks (if you need to prove you're over 18), set up an internet account, fix a residents' parking permit or take out insurance.

Every time that card is swiped, the central database logs the transaction so that an accurate plot of your life is drawn. The state will know everything that it needs to know; so will big corporations, the police, the Inland Revenue, HM Customs, MI5 and any damned official or commercial busybody that wants access to your life. The government and Home Office have presented this as an incidental benefit, but it is at the heart of their purpose.

$cientologists censor South Park

The Scientologists have intimidated Viacom into withdrawing the recent Tom Cruise episode that provided an educational introduction to Scientology. You can read all about it on Wikipedia, and write to press@viacom.com to demand Viacom reshow the episode as normal.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Boris for PM!

Boris JohnsonHere's a good reason to vote Conservative at the next general election, from the ever-hilarious Bozza Johnson:

When Cameron's Conservatives come to power it will be a golden age for cyclists and an Elysium of cycle lanes, bike racks, and sharia law for bike thieves. And I hope that cycling in London will become almost Chinese in its ubiquity.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

ID bill pongs again

David Davis MPMPs have again rejected Lords amendments that would stop the government issuing ID cards to all those applying for passports:

Mr Clarke is reported to be happy to see the legislation ping-pong between the two houses until July if necessary rather then back down...

Ministers were trying to force the majority to have ID cards through "covert compulsion" because they fear they will never win the vote to make it compulsory otherwise, Mr Davis claimed.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Pirate Party sails ahead

Pirate PartyThe Swedish Pirate Party is going full-steam ahead:

It may sound like a joke, but Sjöman said the Pirate Party has 1,500 members, and has gathered enough signatures to participate in the Swedish general election in September. He said the government estimates that there are 1.2 million file sharers over the age of 18 in Sweden, and the Pirate Party needs only four percent, 225,000 votes, to get seats in the country's parliament...

If elected, the Pirate Party promises to strengthen Swedish privacy protections, weaken copyright laws, abolish the EU Data Retention Directive and roll back government surveillance legislation, said Sjöman. The party plans to hold its first convention in April, aboard a pirate ship.

Pro-British Beeb to get some OFCOM regulation

BBC TubbievisionA draft new BBC charter has been released by the government, with two noteworthy aspects: a new requirement to promote the UK and good citizenship, and limited OFCOM regulation. Libby Purves is not impressed:

On past form, the odds are that the new charter will be clumsily drafted and awash with weasel words; but it is worth analysing why this meddlesome mind-set is so dominant. We have two prime ministers: one nearly gone, one running on a shadowy twintrack. They both realise that there is something amiss with the mood of the nation, and do not admit that they may have made it worse. The incumbent PM, in the harrumphing tones of a cartoon colonel, enjoins “respect”. His heir-apparent wants patriotism.

OFCOM is to be given the responsibility of reporting on the market impact of new BBC services:

But having seen off recommendations from an independent committee chaired by Lord Burns to put the BBC under the auspices of a new regulator last year, the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, has made it clear she does not plan to back down. Instead, she will point to Ofcom's increased role as evidence the government has listened to commercial rivals, the media regulator and a Lords select committee, all of which called for radical change.

Far more radical would be a solution along the lines of that outlined by BSkyB's chief executive in 2003: private companies should be able to buy the rights to produce popular programming from the BBC. After all, if the private sector is willing to pay to provide specific programmes, where is the market failure that should be the raison d'etre of the BBC to correct?

In praise of... Sandra Day O'Connor

Justice O'ConnorI love this Guardian coded attack on Tony Blair, as well as what it says:

The reassertion of certain traditional conservative views is to be welcomed in an era in which politicians of both right and left too often inflate the temporary and limited mandate democratic elections confer into a charter to turn anything and everything upside down. Sandra Day O'Connor, recently retired after nearly a quarter of a century on the US supreme court, has spoken eminent sense on this issue to a legal audience in Washington.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Latest Home Office ID letter to Labour MPs

Andy Burnham MP10th March 2006
IDENTITY CARDS BILL

Dear Colleague

I thought it might be helpful for you to have an update on the Identity Cards Bill before it returns on Monday.

Agreement has been reached on the issues of cost and the route to compulsion (ie primary legislation). The only remaining area of disagreement with the Lords is over the consequences of 'designating' a document. Clauses 5 and 8 mean that where certain official documents are designated (with the approval of Parliament) a person applying for one of those documents must simultaneously apply to be registered on the National Identity Register and be issued with an ID card.

The Government has always made clear its intention to designate the passport. This proposal was at the heart of the original Bill introduced before the last election. Biometric information (fingerprints and possibly iris) will be introduced into the British passport from around 2008-09. People will have to enrol such information when applying for a passport and this will require the UK Passport Service to enrol and store more information on an expanded database.

Our proposal is to use this development to create a clean database - the National Identity Register - as the source for the issuing of the biometric passport and identity card. It will mean that we can extend to our everyday life the benefits of much higher standard identification in international travel documents.

Last week, the House of Lords voted to weaken the consequences of designation, by rendering registration on the National Identity Register (and an application for an ID Card) optional extras when applying for a designated document. We will be resisting this amendment because it goes to the heart of our plans for delivering a successful scheme that we have always said should become compulsory in time. Our detailed reasons are set out here:

  • We have a clear manifesto commitment to introduce the National Identity Register (NIR) and the identity cards scheme "as people renew their passports".

  • The manifesto reference that this process would initially take place on a voluntary basis refers to the fact that no order setting a date for compulsory enrolment would be laid in this Parliament.

  • It is a fact that people have an element of choice (albeit small) about whether to have a passport. However, all passports holders are able to choose when they renew their passport and can do so at any time.

  • Irrespective of the Identity Cards Bill, people will have to register fingerprint biometric information when applying for a passport from 2008/09 to keep us in line with standards being adopted in the rest of the EU . Last week, the United Kingdom Passport Service began issuing first generation biometric passports to the public, containing an electronic chip with a digital facial image of the holder.

  • Introducing the scheme alongside the passport allows for a managed introduction that will enhance the likelihood of successful delivery and keep overall costs down.
  • Many members of the Lords have made clear that their principal concern is the creation of the biometric database. One of the perverse effects of their amendment would be to create two biometric databases instead of one - the NIR for those choosing to join and an expanded passport service database for those who don't - adding cost and complexity.

  • It would mean that strong safeguards that the NIR brings would not extend to the other database. These include: the creation of the statutory National Identity Scheme Commissioner with powers to scrutinse the use of the NIR; the introduction of extra criminal sanctions for misuse of the NIR over and above what normally applies for misuse of databases ; and the provision of much greater information to individual citizen about use of their personal data (such as the audit log).

There has now been a long public debate about identity cards, but the fact is that this is a manifesto commitment that still commands majority support in the country.

It is also worth remembering that at the last CCLA the Commons disagreed with the Lords' amendments on designation with a healthy majority of 31.

I hope this is helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact me on 0207 035 8796 if you need any further information.

Best wishes


ANDY BURNHAM MP

Clarke insult to King's Cross bombing victims

Charles Clarke MPIt seems that Charles Clarke may be as deeply unpleasant as David Blunkett, which is quite an achievement.

Meanwhile, Blunkett is attempting yet another political comeback, with an extremely questionable statement in a Guardian interview: "I have made mistakes in the past, but when I have, I have always said so."

As Spyblog comments, in the context of the revelation that Sir Ian Blair has been illegally recording telephone conversations with ministers:

Given the spin and media leaks which the disgraced Home Secretary David Blunkett inflicted on Sir John Stevens, the predecessor of Sir Ian Blair, it is quite understandable that this most politically correct of NuLabour apparatchiki would, in classic police state style, feel the need to have an independent record of exactly what was, or was not said to his NuLabour political contacts.

Retired Supreme Court judge warns over US dictatorship

Justice Sandra Day O'ConnorUK rightwingers like David Blunkett have also been guilty of this dangerous practice:

Sandra Day O'Connor, a Republican-appointed judge who retired last month after 24 years on the supreme court, has said the US is in danger of edging towards dictatorship if the party's rightwingers continue to attack the judiciary.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Holographic Kate Moss

Spectacular holographic appearance by Kate Moss as the climax of Alexander McQueen's autumn 2006 fashion show. She appears as a wreath of smoke, then morphs into herself in a voluminous flowing white dress, before disappearing into a few points of light. Well worth watching the video (5m45s-6m59s). (Via Boing Boing)

PS As a friend suggested this evening: this could only have been bettered if La Moss disappeared in a cloud of cocaine. Or snorted herself up her own nostril.

The battle for free ideas

The Da Vinci Code front coverNick Cohen thinks that it's vitally important that Dan Brown successfully refutes the claims of plaigarism made over The Da Vinci Code:

How much of The Da Vinci Code is - ahem - 'borrowed' from Holy Blood, Holy Grail is the subject of the plagiarism case at the High Court in London that enters what should be its final week tomorrow. 'Too bad they can't both lose,' said Henry Kissinger about the Iran-Iraq War and I felt the same when I went to the court…

Restricting free use of ideas is the spirit of the age. Firms have claimed copyright on plants and parts of the human genome because ideas are worth more than all other assets. The World Trade Organisation recognised this when it made international acceptance of intellectual property rights one of the central aims of the drive to globalisation in the Nineties.

I hate to be the one who has to say it, but Dan Brown needs to win. If he doesn't, free thought may be stifled in the name of protecting ideas.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Security blowout is over

Homeland Security sealRobert Cringely says the homeland security spending extravaganza is over, with IT security the main casualty of the US budget crisis:

Barrons, Boeing, and all of us were suckered by the homeland security opportunity, which seemed at the time to have infinite funding. Today's reality says otherwise. The current dearth of funding was probably tipped by Katrina, but it would have come anyway, driven by that age-old imperative of police work, that empires are built of men and women, not computers. I'm not saying it was wrong to do so, but by the time all the new nobility of homeland security got finished hiring their vassals and nephews, there wasn't much money left over. That was okay, they thought, because the trough was infinitely deep. Only, it really wasn't.

DoJ opens music download price-fixing investigation

Eliot SpitzerThe US Department of Justice has opened an inquiry into anti-competitive practices in the music download industry:

What has probably happened is that Mr Spitzer and the Department of Justice have been dragged into a massive public row between the music industry and Apple, a computer-maker which has 83% of the market for music downloads through its iPod music players and iTunes download service. The music majors want Apple to stop charging a fixed price of 99 cents per track and $9.99 for an album. They want variable pricing, so that new releases can be priced higher than older stuff.

The music companies will soon have a chance to get their way. Their contracts with Apple are up for renewal from April onwards. They will presumably tell Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, that he cannot have their music unless he pays them more than the 65-75 cents they get now. That could force Apple to raise its retail price. The music firms' strongest position, of course, would be to present a united front. That three of the big four—Sony BMG, Warner Music and EMI—are all saying roughly the same thing about Apple's pricing has aroused the suspicion that they may be colluding, says a Washington lobbyist. The music labels reckon that the Digital Media Association, which represents Apple, among others, has complained to the Department of Justice.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Home Office delays gun owner database again

Buff HoonTen years after the massacre of 16 school children and their teacher at a Dunblane school, the Home Office has still not managed to set up a database of licensed gun owners. This is the goverment department that wants to set up a £20bn National Identity Register recording the intimate details of every UK citizen's life…

"Buff" Hoon said (Via No2ID):

"I recognise the disappointment, and I share it, that the national firearms licensing management scheme has taken so long to deliver."

Thursday, March 09, 2006

UK the worst in Europe at enforcing spam laws

Stephen GroomA new survey of EU implementations of anti-spam laws has unsurprisingly found that UK law and enforcement is amongst the weakest of the 25 national laws (thanks, Dave!):

· the UK (just one legal case to date, a civil action in which £270 damages were paid), Malta (0) and Portugal (0) are the most spineless European states when it comes to penalties for getting it wrong and enforcement action to date…

Stephen Groom, a marketing law partner at Osborne Clarke, said:

"This survey confirms what many feared, which is that UK digital marketing law enforcement is in crisis, with responsible marketers wondering why they are bothering to be compliant when they see their competitors riding roughshod over the laws, gaining market advantage and suffering little or no penalty.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

How we move ever closer to becoming a totalitarian state

Blair's role modelHenry Porter has been following the progress of Labour's latest and most spectacular piece of authoritarian legislation, which this week was considered by a Commons committee:

The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is hardly an aerodynamic title; it doesn't fly from the lips. People have difficulty remembering the order of the words and what exactly will be the effect of this apparently dull piece of lawmaking.

But in the dusty cradle of Committee A, a monster has been stirring and will, in due course, take flight to join the other measures in the government's attack on parliamentary democracy and the rights of the people. The 'reform' in the title allows ministers to make laws without the scrutiny of parliament and, in some cases, to delegate that power to unelected officials. In every word, dot and comma, it bears the imprint of New Labour's authoritarian paternity.

Pro-animal-torture

Oxford protestorsThere has been a lot of coverage of last week's pro-vivisection march in Oxford. While I'm absolutely opposed to using violence against humans to combat violence against animals, I do find rather repulsive the views of those who believe it's right to torture and slaughter animals for the benefit of humans. (And yes, I am a vegetarian.)

This letter in the Sunday Times puts it well:

I will not have my moral compass set by a 16-year-old self-publicist (Focus, last week) and a bunch of students who will march in any cause. Neither will I pontificate on pain that I haven’t inflicted or experienced.

Edward Wheatley
Hunstanton, Norfolk

Friday, March 03, 2006

EU funds massive digital library

The Commission could do even more good by reforming European copyright legislation so that anyone could do this without fear of retribution from the great-grandchildren of copyright holders...

The European Commission is to set up a European digital library able to display around six million books, photographs and films and available to all internet users by 2010.

Following a period of consultation, the commission on Thursday (2 March) announced that it would study the copyright issues that might arise with the library and help speed up the project by co-funding a network of digitisation sites.

HRH vs human rights

Prince CharlesLord Irvine, Tony Blair's first employer and Lord Chancellor, became a scapegoat for many New Labour policies towards the end of his career. But it turns out he was doing sterling work in deflecting some quite demented criticisms of the Human Rights Act from the Prince of Wales:

Lord Irvine, the head of the judiciary, brusquely rejected the Prince’s argument in a letter in August: “There is in fact scant hard evidence that people overall are more litigious,” he wrote. “There has been no upward trend in the work of the civil courts over recent years.”

Does Prince Charles realise the long-term damage he is doing to the monarchy by attacking the UK implementation of a 60-year old convention designed to prevent a Nazi regime ever again taking power in Europe? Shouldn't a future king be slightly more careful of his subjects? Particularly given his great uncle's fraternisation with Adolf Hitler?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

We must stand up to the creeping tyranny of the group veto

Timothy Garton AshHow gratifying to hear one of the staunchest defenders of freedom and democracy in Europe over the last 20 years, Timothy Garton Ash, resoundingly reject last month's Stalinist mob tactics of the Danish cartoon protestors, pseudo-judges of Ken Livingston, and jailers of David Irving:

If the intimidators succeed, then the lesson for any group that strongly believes in anything is: shout more loudly, be more extreme, threaten violence, and you will get your way. Frightened firms, newspapers or universities will cave in, as will softbellied democratic states, where politicians scrabble to keep the votes of diverse constituencies. But in our increasingly mixed-up, multicultural world, there are so many groups that care so strongly about so many different things, from fruitarians to anti-abortionists and from Jehovah's Witnesses to Kurdish nationalists. Aggregate all their taboos and you have a vast herd of sacred cows. Let the frightened nanny state enshrine all those taboos in new laws or bureaucratic prohibitions, and you have a drastic loss of freedom. That, I think, is what is happening to us, issue by issue. These days, you can't even read a list of the British war dead in Iraq outside the gates of No 10 Downing Street without getting a criminal record. Inch by inch, paragraph by paragraph, we are becoming less free.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

BBC: file sharing is not theft

BBCA producer of BBC Newsnight, who screened a by-all-accounts-awful piece on BitTorrent last week, is very sorry! (Via Boing Boing):

File sharing is not theft. It has never been theft. Anyone who says it is theft is wrong and has unthinkingly absorbed too many Recording Industry Association of America press releases. We know that script line was wrong. It was a mistake. We're very, very sorry.

If copyright infringement was theft then I'd be in jail every time I accidentally used football pix on Newsnight without putting "Pictures from Sky Sport" in the top left corner of the screen. And I'm not. So it isn't. So you can stop telling us if you like. We hear you.

I'm speaking at a Guardian conference next month on the related subject of Digital Rights Management (aka Defective Retail Merchandise).

Electing the Lords

Lord ChancellorThere is much talk again in government circles of reform of the House of Lords. This is partly due to Labour frustration at the number of defeats they are suffering from peers (rather a good sign I'd say). The recent Power Inquiry has also recommended that 70% of peers be elected under a proportional representation system.

Elections increase the democratic mandate of a House. However, they do not necessarily improve the deliberative quality of democracy. John Parkinson writes:

Appointees are not dependent on parties for their future career. This is why governments often find that even their political appointees become so independently minded once in the job. Life tenure can have a wonderfully liberating effect on the mind. From a deliberative point of view, the problem is not that the Lords are unelected, but that they have relatively little power to force the government to stop and think again.

The Power Inquiry has suggested that elected peers should be over the age of 40 to ensure they have a reasonable amount of life experience and that peers should be elected for one term of around a decade. I would add that they should not have been an MP for at least 10 years. These restrictions would all minimise the influence that political parties could have on peers, and prevent the Lords becoming a rest home for career politicians at the end of their long and meaningless political lives.

Goethe, Marlowe, Chaucer and Shakespeare: master plagiarists

Geoffrey ChaucerMagnus Linklater finds the High Court action accusing Dan Brown of plaigarism over The Da Vinci Code baffling:

Plagiarism in its most common form — cutting and pasting whole sections of other people’s academic work from the internet — is no better than theft; it deserves to be punished; but it is easily counteracted. You can buy a piece of software which is a form of electronic detective that casts its eye over the finished product and lets you know in seconds how much is simply copied, passage for passage. There is no such simple test for a work of fiction. An idea may be “inspired” by a previous work, as Alex Haley claimed when he was accused of lifting his book Roots from an earlier work on African slavery; or it may be an “echo” from another writer, as Graham Swift argued, after claims that he had imitated William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying rather too closely. T. S. Eliot thought that plagiarism in the hands of a good writer was an artform: “Immature poets imitate; great poets steal,” he said simply.