Wednesday, May 31, 2006

China attacks over encryption

802.11i mit AES
The International Standards Organisation has rejected China's proposed encryption standard after criticism from the IEEE (thanks, Dave!):

China has asked the International Standards Organization to nullify its decision due to what it calls the engineer group's "unethical activities," such as allegedly conspiring against WAPI, insulting China, and using intimidation and threats, Xinhua reported, without elaborating.

I'd say it was more likely the IEEE 802.11i standard already does the job better than the proposed Chinese standard. Besides, engineers fought US government attempts to cripple encryption standards for most of the 80s and 90s. They didn't win that battle to roll over now for the Chinese government.

The Ambassador for Random Drug -Testing

Peter WalkerThe government has made its most ludicrous appointment yet (the "drugs tsar" doesn't even come close). A headteacher that introduced random drug-testing at his secondary school is to advise other schools:

Mr Walker, who has been appointed as an adviser to help schools throughout England to implement the scheme, said that 86 per cent of parents at his 960-pupil school had signed up to the programme in January 2005. No pupil was forced to take part, but if they refused, their parents were called in.

Headline of the month

Computer cock-up finds erection hard to handle

Gore: Bush is 'renegade rightwing extremist'

Al GoreIn a Guardian interview, Al Gore has attacked the Bush administration as "a renegade band of rightwing extremists". But he does seem to mean what he says about not running for President in 2008:

At the weekend, Time magazine reported that he was telling key fundraisers they should feel free to sign on with other potential candidates. The magazine quoted unnamed Democratic sources as saying that the former vice-president had also been asking the fundraisers to "tell everybody I'm not running".

I missed this Gore speech earlier in the year:

As we begin this new year, the Executive Branch of our government has been caught eavesdropping on huge numbers of American citizens and has brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue without regard to the established law enacted by Congress to prevent such abuses.

It is imperative that respect for the rule of law be restored.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Back from the Baltics

Suomilinnen churchNow busy recovering from the last ten days in Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, Parnu, Tallinn and Helsinki. All fascinating places to visit, with some similarities (medieval town centres, dumpling-dominated cuisine) but many differences. Helsinki prices were probably a good transition back to London!

Amazing to think everywhere except Finland was behind the Iron Curtain until only 15 years ago, and yet today these countries are all flourishing as emerging market economies. Estonia in particular has raced ahead since its liberation from the Soviet Union.

Former prime minister Mart Laar thinks that a commission of inquiry is still needed into the massive crimes committed against the Baltic peoples by the USSR. After seeing the twin horrors of the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Latvia, I unfortunately did not have any remaining emotional energy for visits to its sister museums of occupation.

The Allies may have had little choice, but it is still shaming to think that they abandoned eastern Europe to almost 50 years of tyranny at the end of the Second World War. As Churchill acknowledged in 1946: "this is certainly not the Liberated Europe we fought to build".

Forcibly deported from Eden

Diego GarciaJohn Pilger has a powerful Guardian article based upon his new book investigating the fate of the islanders of Diego Garcia:

During the 1960s and 1970s, British governments, both Labour and Tory, tricked and expelled the entire population of the Chagos, a British colonial dependency, so that their homeland could be given to a foreign power, the United States, as the site for a military base. This "act of mass kidnapping", as one observer describes it, was carried out in high secrecy, along with the conspiracy that preceded it. For almost a decade, neither parliament nor the US Congress knew anything about it, and no journalist revealed it. BBC newsreaders still refer to US aircraft flying out to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq from the "uninhabited" island of Diego Garcia. Not only was the Chagossians' homeland stolen from them, but they were taken out of history. This scandal is unresolved today - even though the high court in London has twice ruled that the islanders' "wholesale removal" was an "abject legal failure".

It is clear that UK and US government officials since the 1960s have colluded in a crime under Article 7 of the International Criminal Court statutes. When will they be brought to justice?

NHS electronic records are two years late

Lord WarnerHealth minister Lord Warner has admitted that the NHS electronic medical records programme is now running over two years late (via FIPR):

He also admitted that the full cost of the programme was likely to be nearer £20bn than the widely quoted figure of £6.2bn.

Now, why does the trebling of the cost of a large government IT programme sound familiar? Surely this couldn't happen with the ID cards database…

Passenger data transfer ruled illegal

The European Parliament has won its court battle with the Council of Ministers over the transfer of Passenger Name Record data to the United States (thanks, Gus!). The Court of Justice has ruled that the deal cannot be made under single market procedures as it is a security measure that comes under the EU's Third Pillar. Predictably, Commission officials are hyperventilating that the ruling could "spell the end of European aviation policy."

Hopefully the EU member states will now think rather more carefully about allowing the transfer of sensitive information about EU airline passengers to a United States that shows no interest in properly protecting that information, and that lied about the data being used only for anti-terrorist purposes.

Protecting whistleblowers

Peter PrestonAgain on the theme of the Guardian Media Group's mixed attitude to freedom, Fearghas points out that they are still employing Peter Preston, the editor that turned over a Foreign Office whistleblower to the police. Sarah Tisdall went to jail in the 1980s after revealing to the Guardian that Cruise missiles would shortly be arriving in the UK. Two decades later, Preston published a mea culpa.

That episode provides several lessons for whistleblowers. Tisdall was clever in how she supplied the documents to the newspaper, simply handing them in anonymously to be put in the news editor's in-tray. This avoided all the difficulties of later covering up contact (particularly via telephone or e-mail) between the source and newspaper; this is extremely difficult even for someone who understands in depth how these communications media work and what records will later be available to whom (short answer: assume all records of your communications will be available to junior security officials within government). Where Tisdall went wrong was in using a Foreign Office photocopier to duplicate the documents; even in the 80s, security copiers were adding invisible watermarks to copied documents that allowed them later to be traced. Because the Guardian had given copies to several journalists that could not be contacted when a Special Branch raid seemed imminent, there was no practical way to stop this information coming into the hands of the police.

It is difficult to know how far these watermarking technologies have spread. My best suggestion for a government whistleblower today would be to attempt to make contact with a journalist using a payphone, and arrange a physical meeting where the journalist can make notes based on a document without taking an actual duplicate. This also limits risk to the journalist and their newspaper, who can no longer be forced to provide copies of original documents.

Spyblog has just published a longer list of such practical considerations. I also wrote a chapter for an OSCE book on freedom of the media that goes into more detail on some of these topics.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Why should ministers pay the price for incompetence?

John ReidJackie Ashley thinks that the Civil Service needs to take greater responsibility for operational cock-ups:

There desperately needs to be a change in the rules of the game. The days when the civil service was a badly paid, understaffed operation are long gone. The people in charge of major departments are well-paid managers with excellent pensions and job security. Why shouldn't they bear responsibility when things go wrong? Everybody else does. If a journalist makes a mistake, she doesn't expect the editor to be sacked. If a shop manager loses billing information, the chief executive doesn't resign.

It's interesting to ponder a regular wholesale change at the top of the Civil Service with political appointees brought in by each new government, as happens in the US. That process of course is not perfect, with the danger of the appointment of cronies such as Michael "You're doing a great job" Brown (the head of FEMA whilst New Orleans sank beneath the waves).

A wider point is that the UK government is so enormous and therefore unwieldy (accounting for 60-70% of spending in some of the UK's regions) that it is effectively impossible to manage competently. Returning power to local authorities and individuals would be more likely to produce an improvement than the cronification of the Permanent Secretariat.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Blair just doesn't care about sleaze

Sir Alistair GrahamThe chairman of the committee on standards in public life could not be blunter about Blair's sleazy government:

“I’ve been disappointed that the prime minister has not given greater emphasis to standards in governing the country and I think it’s a major error of judgment. He sees standards as a peripheral, minor issue not worthy of serious consideration. Well, I think it is demonstrated by opinion polls that the public think this government is as sleazy as the last. He has paid a heavy price for ignoring standards.”

Gore goes from bad joke to great white hope

Al GoreAndrew Sullivan is amongst many US politicos who want Al Gore to run for re-election as President in 2008:

Americans would not, I think, fear a Gore presidency on matters of defence. Most other Democrats are much more vulnerable on this score, which matters after 9/11 much more than it did in the Clinton fin de siècle. What Gore would add, moreover, is a genuine, impassioned and justified revulsion at some of the tactics that the cabal of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld has deployed: torture, rendition, warrantless wire-tapping and unnecessary estrangement from allies.

Fighting hi-tech tyranny
Amnesty International has launched a new campaign against Internet censorship. You can sign up to the pledge below here (via FIPR):

'I believe the internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression. People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs online without fear or interference. I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression on the internet, and on companies to stop helping them do it.'

UPDATE: Fearghas McKay makes the point that was in the back of my mind while reading the Observer's claim to be co-launching this campaign with Amnesty. In fact, that newspaper has a nasty censorial streak, and during the nineties published some particularly vicious and inaccurate pieces about Demon Internet and anonymous remailers.

This pernicious mix of big business and busybodies

Henry Porter has an expose of Katherine Courtney, the woman leading the Home Office's ID schemes (thanks, Dave!):

I find myself wishing a hearty damnation to Courtney and her business plans, to the unified database of 'transformational government', to the incompetence and arrogance of the Home Office, to any bureaucrat who seeks to define an individual's identity with compulsory biometric measurement backed up by threats. If one thing has become clear in the last few weeks, it is that the government is not fit to be trusted with either setting up the National Identity Register or running it.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Blair dismayed and tongue-tied

Tony BlairIt seems that Americans are now feeling pity rather than admiration for Tony Blair, after his visit to Washington and speech on interventionist foreign policy:

Earlier in Mr Blair's tenure, similar foreign policy addresses were lauded. Now, several American commentators described them as just sad. Steven Clemons, of the American Strategy Programme at the New American Foundation thinktank, said that even after three years in Iraq Mr Bush showed little inclination to spend any of his dwindling political capital to support his friend's global causes. "I think George Bush's instincts don't want him to do any favours for Tony Blair," Mr Clemons said. "It's not going to happen."

The only bone thrown by Bush to Blair was UK access to Joint Strike Fighter software. Why was the UK even considering buying an aircraft it would not fully control?

Friday, May 26, 2006

A drink a day is a hearty tonic

Guiness is Good for YouI'm glad to see my daily health regimen has been approved by a new Danish study:

Researchers found that the risks of coronary heart disease were lowest for the most frequent male drinkers. Men who drank on one day a week had a 7 per cent reduced risk, whereas men who drank daily had a 41 per cent reduced risk.

Daily beer also seems to have a preventive effect against cancers. I must drink more!

Parliament attacks Blair over rendition

Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights has concluded that the government is violating the UN Convention Against Torture:

"The committee concludes that the government has not adequately demonstrated that it has satisfied the obligation under domestic and international human rights law to investigate credible allegations of renditions, and should take active steps to ascertain more details about certain flights known to have used UK airports and suspected of involvement in extraordinary renditions."

The indictments against Blair demanded by Prof. Philippe Sands come ever-closer to Number 10…

.xxx rejected

The Onion has the final word on ICANN's rejection last month of the .xxx Top Level Domain, in their "What do you think?" daily vox pop:

Frank Schwarz, Eye Surgeon: "I'm glad they rejected it. It's not specific enough. What we need are designations like .asian or .shaved so we can really get what we're after."

Sleaze curbs to prevent firms from 'buying' MPs

Sir Philip MawerThe Times investigation into All-Party parliamentary Interest Groups is having a serious effect:

Parliament’s sleaze watchdog said yesterday that it was determined to limit the activities of lobbyists who are giving financial support to supposedly independent groups of MPs that investigate controversial policies in which they have a commercial interest. The watchdog held an inquiry into the activities of MPs and lobbyists after The Times discovered that representatives of the nuclear, pharmaceutical and drinks industries were funding the activities of politicians and even writing policy reports…

The Committee on Standards and Privileges upheld a complaint against three of the groups: Intellectual Property, Patient Safety and Pharmacy.

How interesting, yet unsurprising, to see that Big Pharma is involved in promoting stronger IP law without fully revealing the details. We need the transparency being proposed so that other groups such as APIG (which works on Internet issues, and has produced several valuable reports on data retention, spam and Digital Rights Management) are not tarred with the same brush.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Watchdog forces Iraq information from Goldsmith

The Information Commissioner has got tough with the government, insisting that the Attorney General release the information that led to his opinion that the invasion of Iraq was legal. Perhaps Richard Thomas could now take some further tough action, such as on the data retention legislation which the EU's Article 29 Working Party found to be a disproportionate invasion of privacy?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Reid vents fury at Home Office over prisoners fiasco

John ReidThe new Home Secretary is busy trying to spin his way out of the chaos engulfing his department by attacking his predecessors and officials:

He described the Home Office as "inadequate in terms of its scope, it's inadequate in terms of its information technology, leadership, management, systems and processes". His assessment of the government's premier domestic department raised questions as to the effectiveness of three previous Labour home secretaries, as well as four permanent secretaries, all of whom received honours.

Ah yes, like permanent secretary Sir John Gieve, whose maladministration was so great that the National Audit Office refused to certify the Home Office's accounts, and whose punishment was… appointment as Deputy Governor of the Bank of England.

The madness of King Tony

Perhaps I am hoping for too much from a prime minister who, in Alice Miles' words:

...seems to believe that if only he had more power, flexed it more openly and wielded it more ruthlessly, he could get everything he wants. The Prime Minister has gone quite mad.

Latvian Museum of Occupation

I spent this afternoon looking around Latvia's Museum of Occupation, which deals with the Nazi and Soviet occupations of this young country from the 1930s until 1991. The mass slaughter, torture and concentration camps of both sides are horrifying.

Seeing the details of the struggle against three successive invasions and occupation, and the eventual triumph of the Latvian people, was a very moving experience. Walking around Riga and enjoying its architecture, restaurants and bars, it is almost impossible to believe that these monstrosities were taking place in Europe until only 15 years ago. The US and EU nations deserve strong praise for standing up to the Soviet menace for the 45 years of the Cold War.

And yet today, the same US and European states are committing and facilitating torture, extraordinary rendition and secret prisons in the "war on terror." I felt particularly angry that the museum's copy of the letter from President George H. W. Bush congratulating the Latvian people on their independence in 1991 is so defiled by the actions of his son's administration.

I truly despair that our own prime minister is complicit in these actions. The longer they go on, the more strongly I feel that Bush and Blair must be tried for their criminal acts in the hope that future generations will not look back at the US and UK in the way that we now view the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

Human rights do not fit a cost-benefit analysis

Professor Ronald Dworkin of UCL is as appalled as I am at Blair's ignorance on human rights:

Simon Jenkins, in the Sunday Times, recently declared his enthusiasm for the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham who said that all that matters is the greatest happiness of the greatest number, and that the whole idea of human rights is therefore "nonsense upon stilts". But Europe, led by Britain, rejected Bentham's utilitarianism after the second world war when it established the European human rights convention. The 20th-century tyrannies have taught us that protecting the dignity of human beings, one by one, is worth the increased discomfort and risk that respecting human rights may cost the public at large. The Human Rights Act, which makes that convention part of Britain's own law, was one of the great achievements of this government. It is sad that Blair's political weakness has tempted him to rubbish ideals of which he and the country should be proud.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Blair to curb Lords powers

House of LordsIt seems that Blair has now decided to move against the House of Lords with or without the support of the opposition parties:

The change of tone dates from last Wednesday after politicians met Jack Straw, the new leader of the House of Commons, only to learn that a carefully agreed deal with Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, to balance changes in the powers of Lords with plans for a newly elected House had been torn up by Mr Blair.

Friday, May 19, 2006

UN watchdog calls for Guantánamo closure

Guantanamo detaineeThe United Nations Committee on Torture has called for the closure of the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, as well as secret US prisons elsewhere in the world. Incredibly, the US still claims its torture facilities comply with international law:

The committee said the US should halt interrogation techniques constituting torture or cruel treatment, citing methods including sexual humiliation, mock drownings and the use of dogs to induce fear.

Government enlists public service 'spies'

Grinning harridanHazel Blears, Blair's mini-me, has drawn up plans for local government officials to be given access to police intelligence in an effort to reduce anti-social behaviour:

James Welch, legal director of Liberty, said: "Police intelligence is highly sensitive and can be very dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. It should only be disclosed on an absolute need-to-know basis. Wardens do not receive the same specialist training that police do. Why is such sensitive information, seemingly irrelevant to their work, being given to them?"

Blair's values aren't British

What does Blair mean by "British values"? A.C. Grayling has a most entertaining article to explain (thanks, Owen!):

He clearly did not mean tolerance, fair-mindedness, a deep love of independence and privacy, a sense that each individual is a volunteer in society, with whom no-one has a right to interfere, and certainly not with the aim of improving him or even protecting him against his will. Mr Blair did not mean this because every illiberal instinct of his politician's body drives him in the opposite direction - the direction of ID cards, limitations on free speech, more CCTV cameras, more control, less liberty, more interference, diminution of rights, ignoring of Parliament and public opinion, and generally more corralling of the national herd into situations amenable to policing.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

(c) is not a pension fund

Don FosterDon Foster MP organised a parliamentary debate yesterday on the Gowers review into intellectual property policy. While the usual suspects were there to make some transparently self-interested speeches, Mr Foster had a number of good points (via Open Rights Group):

Opponents also challenge the idea that back catalogue revenues provide investment for new ventures and to support new artists. Peter Jameson of the BPI argued in TheGuardian on 24 April that such investment had contributed to a boom in new British music, citing artists such as Arctic Monkeys, James Blunt and Kaiser Chiefs. However, Arctic Monkeys are with Domino Records, which was founded in 1993 and rarely re-releases records that predate itself, and James Blunt was signed by the US label Custard Records, which was set up only in 2004 and so has little back catalogue material to release; the same is true of Kaiser Chiefs, who are signed to B-Unique, which was also founded in 2004. Those are hardly good examples of recording companies that rely on significant revenue from the back catalogue profits that would be under threat if we were to stick at the 50-year copyright term.

The Treasury was also there to stomp on Cliff Richard's plea that the copyright term should be extended to provide a pension fund for musicians:

The broader intellectual property system is not one of rewards or, as the hon. Gentleman put it, a pension fund for old musicians. It is one of incentives to invest and innovate; that is its importance to the economy. It must encourage new innovators to create and generate ideas in the knowledge that they will be remunerated for their endeavour.

The government needs to consider the impact of any term extension on follow-on creativity, which is a major source of new works.

Blogzilla hits the Baltics

Blogzilla is on tour around Eastern Europe for ten days, first speaking about "Security technology and human rights" at a Hitchi conference in Warsaw, then giving a lecture on the evolution of anti-circumvention law at the Law University of Lithuania, and finally spending a week travelling through Latvia, Estonia and Finland. Sorry for the light posting until next Tuesday!

What European City Do You Belong In?

I Belong in Dublin

Friendly and down to earth, you want to enjoy Europe without snobbery or pretensions. You're the perfect person to go wild on a pub crawl... or enjoy a quiet bike ride through the old part of town.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Harrumphing safety elephant

Safety elephant is still sulking after being sacked by Tony Blair. He is now criticising the reshuffle as "not the best." Thank goodness we were spared his wish to move to the Foreign Office.

Blair's dodgy nuclear dossier

ICBMFriends of the Earth are none-too-impressed that Tony Blair has preempted his own energy review to signal a return to nuclear power:

The prime minister has not only betrayed public trust in a process; he has also shown two fingers to many people and organisations who would like to support him in his stated aim of doing something about climate change. Had he really pursued this process in good faith, listened to all the arguments and come forward with good reasons why he had rejected them, then he might at least have earned some respect, even if people still disagreed with him.

If the prime minister is looking for a lasting legacy, then perhaps there is none more durable than nuclear waste. Which leader from history can say that people some 100,000 years after he was gone still lived in fear of his rule?

Lord chancellor defends Britain's commitment to human rights

Lord FalconerAt least some within government are realising that a battle against the tabloids on human rights cannot be won with nonsense Blairite attacks on the judiciary:

The lord chancellor insisted yesterday that Britain will not leave the European convention on human rights or repeal the Human Rights Act and sought to dispel fears that the act protects criminals at the expense of public safety.

Britain's commitment to human rights was permanent, Lord Falconer said. "They are the bedrock on which our society has been built. We fought to defend those freedoms in the second world war, we enshrined them in the European convention, and we were among the first signatories of that convention."

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

It's time to cry freedom

Dominic GrieveThe Shadow Attorney-General thinks that Labour's war on civil liberties has been counter-productive:

Loss of some freedom and greater regulation is sold to us as necessary for a well-ordered society. But ours has thrived on freedom. Its curtailment undermines the capacity of individuals for self restraint, creates resentment and inhibits the development with others of shared values and goals. If we are not careful our children will find themselves deprived of a valuable heritage.

Mr. Grieve needs to convince his party leader that this is a more valuable argument to pursue than the Sun's hysterical campaign against the Human Rights Act.

Extraordinary Rendition: complicity and its consequences

Philippe SandsJUSTICE has published a transcript of yesterday's lecture by Philippe Sands on extraordinary rendition and international law. As well as setting out a powerful case that the US and UK administrations contain several international criminals (not least Bush, Cheney, Blair and Straw), he dissects the Prime Minister's casual relationship with the truth (pp.18–19):

It reads to me as though the Prime Minister’s concern with his legacy is driven by the fear that he is fundamentally misunderstood, and that those who seek to challenge him are out of touch. He attacks Mr. Porter’s “mishmash of misunderstanding, gross exaggeration and things that are just plain wrong”, as he put it. Yet it is the Prime Minister who displays these characteristics. It is he who is prone to errors of fact: for example, under the Human Rights Act – for which his government rightly deserves credit – the judges are not empowered to strike down acts of Parliament, as he claimed. It is he who is prone to gross exaggeration: the conditions of the modern world cannot possibly be said to be such that “traditional processes” are inadequate, as he claims. And it is he who is prone to misunderstanding: he says that his approach reflects “a genuine desire to protect our way of life from those who would destroy it”. But our “way of life” includes our system of values, and our system of values includes a commitment to the rule of law. Returning foreigners to near-certain torture is not consistent with our “way of life” or our values. Aiding and abetting the transfer of British nationals and residents to Guantanamo – if that is established to have occurred – would not be consistent with our “way of life” or our values. Turning a blind eye to extraordinary rendition – if that is established – falls within the same category. The Prime Minister’s logic leads inexorably in one direction only. “Whose civil liberties?”, he asks. Everyone’s, we should respond.

Where do I sign up to the campaign to have Blair indicted by any of the 140 state parties to the Convention on Torture, or the International Criminal Court?

A period of silence from Blair would be welcome

Lord LesterLord Lester has some sage advice for Tony Blair:

The Human Rights Act was New Labour's first constitutional reform. Yet Mr Blair persists in undermining public confidence in the rule of law and the protection of human rights by the senior British judiciary. Instead of defending the act and the judiciary, he joins the chorus of critics. Having sown the wind of ignorant opposition, he and his government reap the whirlwind.

It is a misfortune that there is no one in his cabinet able to adapt Attlee's advice to Harold Laski: "A period of silence on your part would be welcome."

Monday, May 15, 2006

Critical report leaked on Scottish fingerprinting errors

Shirley McKie
A report has been leaked into errors in fingerprinting which led to a murderer going free and a policewoman being wrongly prosecuted for perjury (thanks, Dave!). Former Tayside deputy chief constable James Mackay and former detective chief superintendent Scott Robertson were highly critical of the SCRO:

Mr Mackay believed that after an initial mistake "there prevailed a culture and mindset to preserve the reputation of individuals" within the Scottish Criminal Record Office (SCRO) followed by "a criminal course of action which disregarded the consequences and the impact on others".

The documents confirm the belief of Mr Mackay and Mr Robertson that certain SCRO staff refused to correct initial errors in their identifications of the fingerprints. The experts at the centre of the claims, which have never been tested in court, deny the allegations.

Mistakes led Ms McKie, a former Strathclyde police officer, to be wrongly identified as having entered a murder scene, and the man convicted of that murder was set free.

So much for "foolproof" biometrics such as fingerprinting, and their use in UK identity cards…

Tories attack Creative Archive

George OsborneThe Tories are lining up with Murdoch and friends to attack the BBC's online services, and it sounds like the Creative Archive is directly in their sights. The Shadow Chancellor George Osborne said:

“I am concerned that in too many of its non-core activities, particularly on the internet, it is stifling the growth of innovative new companies that simply cannot compete with BBC budgets.

“For example, the BBC’s licence-fee funded ability to hand out quality content free online makes it very difficult for others to move into the new video download market."

I certainly think that the BBC needs to be careful to stick to its public-service remit of fixing market failure in broadcasting. I cannot see how launching competitors to services such as MySpace achieves this goal.

However, making available content from the Beeb's archives under Creative Commons-style licences will be a huge boost to creativity in the UK and give licence-fee payers access to the content they have already funded. I hope the Conservatives do not fall into the trap of attacking this project simply because it upsets large commercial players such as Rupert Murdoch.

Adrift on a tide of panic

The Guardian is disgusted by Labour's new willingness to play along with the hysterical tabloid campaign against human rights:

The current tide of panic about the Human Rights Act and the courts that interpret it is almost entirely misplaced. When a serious criminal is released on licence and reoffends, that is neither the responsibility of the courts which sentenced him nor of the act (the parole system was in operation for a generation before 1998). When a judge rules that a detainee should not be deported to a country that uses torture, that is not an act of judicial prissiness but the strict and proper enforcement of an international obligation rightly entered into by the Conservative government in 1985 which has absolutely nothing to do with the Human Rights Act. And when a court rules that a group of hijackers should not be deported to Afghanistan, that is an entirely proper (but appealable) exercise of judicial judgment of the kind for which courts have always existed.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

A shabby attempt to undermine human rights laws

Philippe SandsThe Observer has a robust defence of the Human Rights Act:

The decision to put the convention on to the the statute book should be recognised as a great liberal reform; instead, it has been misrepresented by politicians in their haste to appear tough on crime and, in the case of the Conservative party, to reject anything that looks like European interference in British sovereignty.

Prof Philippe Sands, an expert on international law, thinks that justice will catch up with Blair sooner rather than later:

From the materials I have seen on decision-making in relation to Iraq, on the attitude to the proposed removal of people to countries where they may face torture, on the failure to condemn Guantanamo for more than four years, on the desire to allow English courts to admit evidence that may have been obtained by torture, on the indefinite detention without charge of certain foreigners who cannot be deported, on the evasive answers in relation to rendition, it would not surprise me if materials were eventually to emerge which could show involvement in decisions concerning the international transfer of British nationals or residents.

In such circumstances, neither the Almighty nor instinct would be available by way of a defence.

No party has the answer to a state in chaos

Michael Portillo is delighted at Blair's troubles;

A man who trades on his virtue, which he believes to be self-evident, deserves to be crushed. The penalty for hubris was set long ago. When Blair so liberally accused the last Tory government of sleaze he chose his own lingering political death. To see him now sucked into a suffocating bog of his own sleaze is enough to make the heart leap for joy.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Should the Human Rights Act be banned?

Or, as William Heath puts it, "Authoritarian shroud-waving by crapulent Murdoch tabloid."

The Sun is continuing its campaign to blame all right-wing bogeymen (asylum seekers, serial sex beasts, drug addicts, etc.) on the Human Rights Act. You can vote here. Oh dear, currently 81% of voters think no!

Majority of Britons breaking (c) law

Jill JohnstoneThe National Consumer Council has some new figures highlighting the absurdity of UK copyright legislation (via Open Rights Group):

Over half of British consumers are infringing copyright law by copying their CDs onto other players they own, according to a new survey for the National Consumer Council (NCC). The YouGov poll reveals that the practice is common across all ages and social classes, highlighting the absurdity of current copyright law…

NCC’s submission also challenges the current long periods of copyright protection. Jill Johnstone says:

‘Whether for films, literary or musical works, sound recordings or broadcasts, the length of all copyright terms should be reduced to fit more closely the time period over which most financial returns are normally made.

‘The current campaign by the music industry to extend copyright terms for sound recordings beyond 50 years has no justification. Evidence shows that music companies generally make returns on material in a matter of years not decades. Current terms already provide excessive protection of intellectual property rights at a cost to consumers.’

The rule of common sense

Tony BlairAfter the granting of asylum this week to Afghani plane hijackers, Matthew Paris is astonished that Tony Blair thinks that "common sense" should take precedence over the law:

We do not have such a law. Perhaps (as The Sun believes) we should. Perhaps the present law is wrong. EVIL TRIUMPHS said its headline; but, demonstrating a more sophisticated grasp of the issues than the Prime Minister, The Sun went on to conclude that the law we have is “a stupid law”. So The Sun at least recognises that it is possible for the law to yield results that defy common sense. Mr Blair’s reasoning is more primitive. He thinks that if something does not seem to him to be common sense, it cannot be the law. It was dismaying to see David Cameron and David Davis chiming in too; and cheap of the Conservatives to jump on this bandwagon.

It is doubly dismaying that Labour and the Conservatives are now using the Human Rights Act as a political football, with Blair making dark threats of reform and Cameron promising to amend or repeal the Act.

Friday, May 12, 2006

BPI 'willing to discuss' CD ripping

The British Phonographic Industry has denied that it wants to see private copying of digital media in the UK, as reported by the Telegraph on Sunday (via Open Rights Group). But it would like to see more use of DRM crippleware. Other music bodies are taking a more enlightened view:

The UK's independent label trade body, the Association of Independent Music, has a contrasting view on consumer rights. Speaking to the Parliamentary/New Media Industries Forum in February, that group explained: "Independent music companies are primarily artist-orientated and want to give their artists every possible opportunity to reach national and international markets: using rather than refusing new technologies; encouraging broad and niche consumer access to new music; avoiding a punitive approach to copyright enforcement and realising that loss of some measure of copyright control is a factor in reaching new and enthusiastic music markets around the world - and believing that there can be a fresh approach to all these factors."

European Community goes criminal

The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure has more information on the European Commission's attempt to criminalise intellectual property infringement:

The Commission is playing a dangerous game here which at the same time threatens to undermine respect and support for

  • IP rights
  • the European Union project
  • the Constitutional Treaty project
  • the battle against organised crime and terrorism

We therefore urge the Commission to retract this ill-conceived directive.

Privacy traders 'must be jailed'

Richard ThomasInformation Commissioner Richard Thomas has told Parliament that new criminal penalties are needed to reduce the trade in personal information (thanks, Dave!). His report found the following black-market prices:

  • Obtaining or checking an address: £17.50
  • Tracing addresses from a telephone number: £75
  • Vehicle check at DVLA: £150-200
  • Licence check: £250
  • Criminal records check: £500
  • Finding a person across a wide area: £60
  • Ex-directory search: £65-75
  • Mobile telephone account enquiries: £750

It would seem a sensible use of (voice) biometrics by companies to authenticate customers before giving access (even to staff) to confidential personal data.

US phone firms gave spy agency records of billions of calls

Your world. Delivered. To the NSA.
Yet more details have emerged about the US National Security Agency's programme of illegal warrantless surveillance:

USA Today reported that since the September 2001 terror attacks, AT&T Corp, Verizon Communications Inc, and BellSouth Corp had been providing the agency with detailed records of the calls made by their 200 million customers, both international and domestic.

The companies' cooperation with the spy agency has created the largest calls database in the world, allowing the agency to track the number of calls made and their frequency and duration, and search for other patterns in communication. The newspaper believed no agents listened to the content of the calls.

Only one company, Qwest Corporation, which operates in 14 western states, refused to help the agency. It said it had concerns about the legality of the taps.

The US government is trying hard to have the EFF's class action lawsuit against the phone firms dismissed. Let's hope the US courts are more robust in their response to Bush's lawbreaking than the US Congress, which should have impeached the man by now.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Dumping Blair's legacy

Brown in Blair's shadow
Anatole Kaletsky has some thoughts for the Chancellor:

The key lesson of history for Mr Brown concerns the steps he must take to avoid the long-term fate of John Major: to do this he must immediately ditch the Blairite policies most responsible for the present Government’s demise. Mr Blair’s equivalent of poll tax may be legislation on ID cards or hospital reforms, but the policy at the heart of Mr Blair’s failure — the equivalent of the rows and misjudgments over ERM membership under Margaret Thatcher and then under John Major — is Mr Blair’s relationship with the Bush Administration and his policy on Iraq.

Ahmedinejad on human rights

Mahmoud AhmedinejadThe US and EU have put themselves in the extraordinary position of being lectured on Christianity and human rights by crazed Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who thinks that the US conspired to cause 9/11 and that Israel should be nuked:

European investigators have confirmed the existence of secret prisons in Europe too. I could not correlate the abduction of a person, and him or her being kept in secret prisons, with the provisions of any judicial system. For that matter, I fail to understand how such actions correspond to the values outlined in the beginning of this letter, i.e. the teachings of Jesus Christ (PBUH), human rights and liberal values.

US research wants to be free

John CornynTwo senior US senators have introduced legislation that would require government-funded research to be published in open access journals six months after appearing on subscription-only sites. This follows a report recommending the same to the EU. The UK Research Councils are still prevaricating after a gale of criticism from publishers when they proposed open access requirements last year:

Peter Willis, Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of the science and technology select committee, said the proposed US law should serve as a warning to the government this side of the Atlantic that the current model needs to be changed. "This is yet another example of the dissemination of research moving into the 21st century and the UK must not be left behind," he said. "To cling on to what are basically 19th-century principles of publishing research seems to me a rather bizarre concept in the 21st century."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

EU moves to criminalise IP offences

Comission Vice-President Franco FrattiniI wrote this article for today's EDRI-gram on the latest European Commission machinations over intellectual property law.

The European Commission has revived a proposal to criminalise infringement of all intellectual property rights "on a commercial scale" after a European Court of Justice ruling that the Commission may include criminal offences in their Directives.

The proposal would also criminalise the "attempting, aiding or abetting and inciting" of infringement, and introduce multi-year jail sentences, confiscation of equipment and fines of hundreds of thousands of euros. This goes much further than the EU's obligations under the World Trade Organisation's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Right holders could participate in police investigations into infringement.

While the Commission focuses in its press release on counterfeiting by organised criminal gangs, the legislation would have a much wider effect. It could cover teenage file sharers, authors of file sharing and DRM-circumvention software, and even incautious campaigners for intellectual property law reform.

It is this type of outrageous legislative manoeuvring by large intellectual property right holders and their allies in European and US administrations that has brought IP law into such public disrepute.

Civil liberties as an antidote to violent extremism

John C. GannonJohn C. Gannon, former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, thinks that civil liberties are a vital bulwark against terror (thanks, Dave!):

"I believe that the hard-won Constitutional freedoms enjoyed by Americans, along with our unparalleled commitment to civil liberties embedded in law, work against the development of domestic terrorist networks that could be exploited by foreigners," testified Gannon, who is now a Vice President at BAE Systems Information Technology…

"This is not an academic point for me. It is an observation from a career of watching the domestic consequences of repressive regimes elsewhere in the world--including US-friendly Islamic governments such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt."

Europeans blast UK ID card

Renew for freedomNewropeans Magazine has a selection of continental European views on the UK's ID card scheme (thanks, Dave!). For citizens of countries that have had ID cards for decades, they are surprisingly critical. One expert comments:

The UK eID scheme seems out of proportion with comparable projects in Europe. It is moving from one extreme to another: from no ID card to implementation of the most complex, sophisticated and potentially intrusive eID infrastructure in the western world, collecting and storing an unprecedented amount of personal data.

Refashioning the state

Jonathan FreedlandJonathan Freedland thinks that Blairism has now exhausted the possibilities of government by management consultant ("the McKinsey state") and that nothing less than a total redefinition of the state is needed:

Blairism's great contribution was its assertion that it was not just private value that mattered, but public value too. It tried to make that work, but failed by too often imagining that public goods could be delivered by quasi-private means. On this logic, the next stage in the journey will be nothing less than a refashioning of the state - replacing the top-down, centralised behemoth of today with a looser, more diffuse, even "organic" (Taylor's word) network of services that fit the people who use them. Citizens won't be passive recipients, but direct participants.

Doubtless the Internet will be seized upon as a way of delivering this new organic government. If so, let's hope it's used in a more imaginative way than the current rather feeble efforts.

Women want flings with strong-jawed men

An absolutely fascinating new study has shown that women prefer more stereotypical-looking masculine men (strong jawbones and prominent eyebrows, both of which correlate with higher testosterone levels) for short-term flings, and less masculine-looking men for long-term relationships (via Boing Boing). I had wondered where the evolutionary pressure came from for more feminine male faces (i.e. why all men don't look like Neanderthals).

Of course, evolutionary psychology hypothesises that women choose resource-rich men as partners to help bring up their children, but then have flings with younger, more masculine men to provide better genes to their offspring. Recent studies have indeed found that ovulating women prefer more masculine-looking men, and that men are more wary of masculine-looking men when their partners are ovulating.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

You've stolen my religion

Andrew SullivanAndrew Sullivan is appalled by the Christian fundamentalist takeover of US politics, and particularly the Republican party:

I dissent from the political pollution of sincere, personal faith. I dissent most strongly from the attempt to argue that one party represents God and that the other doesn't. I dissent from having my faith co-opted and wielded by people whose politics I do not share and whose intolerance I abhor. The word Christian belongs to no political party. It's time the quiet majority of believers took it back.

ID cards will make ID theft worse

Leonardo DiCaprioA renowned fraudster who has worked for the FBI since his release from prison 30 years ago is visiting the UK to advise banks and utilities on ID fraud. Frank Abagnale inspired the Leonardo DiCaprio film Catch Me If You Can. He is not impressed by the government's argument that ID cards will reduce ID theft:

Plans to introduce identity cards will be even more problematic because “there will be so much information about someone on one card”, Mr Abagnale said. “It’s more information to steal. You will be dealing with someone in a government office on a low salary. The details are going to be vulnerable. These sorts of cards are very easy to forge.”

To baldly go

Mark OatenThe Guardian has a special feature on male baldness:

The news that Mark Oaten blames his baldness for his midlife crisis is certainly parting the nation's opinion neatly down the middle. There are some who feel that losing one's hair is hardly an excuse to inaugurate a same-sex relationship behind one's wife's back at around the same time as one is running for the leadership of one of the country's major political parties.

On the other hand, there are those men whose reaction to the bad news of their baldness would differ from Oaten's only in the details. Maybe not a rent boy, and maybe not the Lib Dems - but, on the whole, they can see where he is coming from.

Oaten had an interesting mea culpa in yesterday's Times.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Legalise personal music copying, says BPI

Pigs at the troughThe British record industry has finally realised that they are made a laughing stock by copyright laws preventing Britons from copying their own CDs to digital music players. They are therefore recommending to the Gowers review into IP policy that a "private copy" exception be introduced into UK law (thanks, Nicholas!):

The BPI has vigorously prosecuted consumers who share music illegally over the internet using peer-to-peer (P2P) websites. It wants the current legislative protections to remain in place for these music "pirates", but believes allowances should be made for individuals who simply want to copy music for their own use.

Of course, the BPI could make this change tomorrow by releasing CDs under a licence that permitted private copies…

Generation Y scorns religion

The Archbishop of CanterburyA Church of England report into young people's views on religion has found it irrelevant to most of their lives:

Nevertheless, young people do not feel disenchanted, lost or alienated in a meaningless world. “Instead, the data indicated that they found meaning and significance in the reality of everyday life, which the popular arts helped them to understand and imbibe.” Their creed could be defined as: “This world, and all life in it, is meaningful as it is,” translated as: “There is no need to posit ultimate significance elsewhere beyond the immediate experience of everyday life.” The goal in life of young people was happiness achieved primarily through the family.

Parisiens contre les DRM

DRM = Droit de Racket MaximalSeveral hundred Parisians held a demo against DRM yesterday. Frédéric de Villamil took some fun photos of the event (via Open Rights Group).

Dying days for Blair

Tony BlairToday's Guardian and Times are full of voices calling for Blair to go. David Clark says that the demotion of Jack Straw is the second time the UK foreign secretary has effectively been sacked by the US neocons. Tim Hames says that Blair is his own worst enemy. Lord Hattersley says that the Labour party will not tolerate for long a leader whose only concern is his own political epitaph. And Jackie Ashley says that the transition to Gordon Brown will not be smooth'n'orderly, because Blair will not allow it to be.

I do wish the Labour party plotters would hurry up and publish their letter calling for Blair to name a date…