Friday, June 30, 2006

Research Councils reaffirm commitment to Open Access

Research Councils UKThe UK Research Councils, which fund basic research in the UK's universities, have published an updated position statement on Open Access to research outputs. They have reaffirmed their position of 2005 that publicly-funded research should be accessible to the public and scientists around the world:

Research councils agree that their funded researchers should, where required to do so, deposit the outputs from research councils funded research in an acceptable repository as designated by the individual research council. This requirement will be effective from the time indicated in the guidance from the individual research council, This guidance will be published on individual Research Council websites and will, where appropriate, require funded researchers to:

• Personally deposit, or otherwise ensure the deposit of, a copy of any resultant articles published in journals or conference proceedings, in an appropriate repository, as designated by the individual research council.

• Wherever possible, personally deposit, or otherwise ensure the deposit of, the bibliographical metadata relating to such articles, including a link to the publisher’s website, at or around the time of publication.

UK blasts EU Internet regulation plans

Shaun WoodwardMinister for Creative Industries Shaun Woodward has blasted European Commission plans to extend television regulation to the Internet:

"We have serious concerns over the inclusion of non-linear services [such as video-on-demand] in the Directive. This is neither desirable nor practical, as there is nothing to stop companies relocating outside the EU to bypass regulations. Companies may relocate, taking jobs and services elsewhere, while the content is still consumed here."

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Judge quashes house arrest orders

Aung San Suu KyiSix more of the government's "control orders" (executive house arrest by any other name) have been ruled incompatible with the Human Rights Act:

Mr Justice Sullivan said: "The freedom to meet any person of one's choice by prior arrangement is significant. As is the freedom to attend any temple, mosque, church as whatever you choose." He went on: "I am left in no doubt whatsoever that the cumulative effect of the order has been to deprive to respondents of their liberty, in breach of article 5. I do not consider that this is a borderline case." The judge said he had taken into account the importance of the needs of protecting the public from acts of terrorism, but "human rights or international law must not be infringed or compromised".

Robin Wilton is sceptical of John Reid's furious over-reaction:

Control orders were introduced as a 'preventive' measure... in other words, to stop someone who has not yet committed a crime from doing so; control orders are enforced 'on suspicion' that someone might do something. Because of the lack of judicial oversight of the process, the lack of any appeal option and the lack of any criteria for a control order to be lifted once it has been imposed, we are simply asked to take it on trust that control orders are being appropriately applied.

In other words, News of the World: this is not another case of "liberal" judges putting the rights of trrrists above everyone else. It is a case of Blair, Reid and friends thinking that a regime not unlike that used by the Burmese junta to keep Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest is appropriate in the UK.

Watching the bar staff


A Les Vegas casino is installing RFID technology to monitor how much alcohol is poured from bottles by bar staff (thanks, Manish!):

The Beverage Tracker consists of RFID-enabled liquor spouts, an RFID interrogator (reader) and software. The spouts contain a battery-powered 418 MHz RFID tag and a measuring device. Whenever a bartender pours a drink, the tipping of the bottle turns on both the tag and the measuring device, allowing the spout to measure the volume of liquor poured (in ounces) before the employee tips the bottle back up. The tag then transmits that information to the interrogator's antenna, attached to the ceiling above the bar.

What, no barman RFID tag to track who pours what?!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

MPs condemn plans to limit freedom of information

Oliver Heald"The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act has clearly become too embarrassing for this disaster-prone Labour government. I fear that they may be attempting to close down public scrutiny by introducing a new stealth tax for information. This should be strongly resisted." —Conservative Constitutional Affairs spokesman Oliver Heald on government plans to restrict FOI requests.

Democrats on SWIFT monitoring

Senator Max Baucus"I think you'll agree that we could fight terrorism properly and adequately without having a police state in America" —Sen. Max Baucus, Dem (Montana)

"The administration is basing its actions on a 1970's law that never envisioned a state of perpetual emergency. It wasn't meant to become the status quo. That is why Congress needs to look at its current use." —Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, Dem (NY)

Think of the children!

Terri DowtyYesterday's LSE conference on children's databases went very well. You can listen to the speakers (including yours truly) and see their slides from the programme page, and also see some photos.

Meanwhile I am glad to see the Daily Mail is hyperventilating on the issue:

Shadow Education Secretary David Willetts said: 'We are going to have bar-coded babies. This project is going to cost £224m over the three years to 2008 with subsequent operating costs of £41m a year. Would it not be better to focus this money on families in real need?'

Sage advice from Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke"All the ancient, honest, juridical principles and institutions of England are so many clogs to check and retard the headlong course of violence and oppression. They were invented for this one good purpose, that what was not just should not be convenient." (Via Daily Dish).

SWIFT complaints in 32 nations

Simon DaviesPrivacy International has filed complaints in 32 countries against SWIFT's wholesale transfer of banking records to the US government. SWIFT daily routes $6 trillion between almost 8,000 financial institutions worldwide:

"Swift appears to have violated data protection rules in Europe," [Simon] Davies said, "by making these transfers without the consent of the individuals involved and without the approval of European judicial or administrative authorities. The scale of the operation, involving millions of records, places this disclosure in the realm of a fishing exercise rather than a legally authorized investigation."

Safety elephant strikes back

Safety elephant squashes BlairWhere does this bizarre reputation of Charles Clarke as a "liberal" come from? How can a home secretary that introduces ID cards, tries to push through 90-day detention without trial, and shepherds the rest of the New Labour litany of horrors, be described as liberal?

"The prime minister of the day must appoint ministers whom he or she trusts and then leave them to carry out the policy. When differences of view emerge, as they are bound to do from time to time, they should be resolved privately and, whenever appropriate, collectively." —Nigel Lawson in 1990

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Angry man bites 'attack dog'

John KampfnerJohn Kampfner thinks that Charles Clark's return to the fray to savage John Reid and Tony Blair points to a deeper problem:

It is about courage in politics. It is about taking decisions that, while unpopular, are at least thought through. That is why Mr Brown’s pre-emptive decision on Trident last week was so depressing. It is not whether it is right or wrong — and I have seen virtually no evidence to show that the defence of the realm requires us to update our American- directed deterrent — but because it was based in the tired old notions of laying to rest past demons and/or making impending lunches with certain newspaper editors less difficult.

Enshrine these rights

Francesca KlugFrancesca Klug thinks that Labour's fatal mistake with the Human Rights Act was the lack of public consultation, which led to the current round of rights-bashing from tabloids and politicians:

The process of adopting a bill of rights could permit that period of consultation, which Labour avoided but Canada and South Africa undertook, before embracing a charter of rights that provided a statement of the fundamental values that define their democracies. It would allow consideration of rights not included in the Human Rights Act such as stronger equality provisions, protection for children or environmental rights. There could be a debate about entrenching a bill of rights, although the approach used in the act allowed parliament, rather than the courts, the final say on legislation. Such a bill could attract popular support. But we must beware of leaders bearing gifts which may serve their political interests above the rights and needs of the people.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Bill of Rights 'won't change anything'

George MasonDavid Cameron seems entirely confused in his argument for replacing the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights. Without withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (which would also require the UK to leave the European Union), UK law would still be subject to appeal to the European Court in Strasbourg, causing minor inconveniences to politicians like preventing the deportation of foreign nationals to countries that practice torture:

"If it contains the same civil and political rights, then why do we need it? If it is removing some of those rights, than that would be open to challenge in Strasbourg. If he wants to add to them, then it would be interesting to know what they are."

If the fledgling United States had suffered from newspapers such as the Sun and News of the World, the Constitution might not have lasted very long…

Drug firms a danger to health

A new report from Consumers International has found that the marketing practices of Big Pharma are putting peoples' health at risk:

"Irresponsible marketing practices form a serious, persistent and widespread problem among the entire pharmaceutical industry," says the report, which analyses the conduct of 20 of the biggest companies, two of which are British. It calls for tougher government controls and for the companies to put their house in order.

Family life faces State invasion

Eileen MunroTomorrow's LSE conference on government surveillance of children has struck a chord, leading to a front-page lead story in today's Telegraph:

Dr Eileen Munro, of the LSE, said that if a child caused concern by failing to make progress towards state targets, detailed information would be gathered. That would include subjective judgments such as "Is the parent providing a positive role model?", as well as sensitive information such as a parent's mental health.

"They include consuming five portions of fruit and veg a day, which I am baffled how they will measure," she said. "The country is moving from 'parents are free to bring children up as they think best as long as they are not abusive or neglectful' to a more coercive 'parents must bring children up to conform to the state's views of what is best'."

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Support police, not summary justice

"What he probably means by debate is not debate at all, but a popular acceptance of his disdain for civil liberties, a phrase, by the way, which has been successfully weighed down with ideas of liberal fecklessness and is now used to blame the failure on the ground of parts of the criminal justice system. Blair's government may have passed more than 40 separate pieces of law and order legislation since 1997, yet liberals and their addiction to rights are still held to impede progress in criminal justice." —Henry Porter on Blair's call for a "debate" over summary justice.

Fears over faults in NHS patient records system

The NHS IT programme is now having such problems that it is causing "clinical risk," according to one of their own staff:

Industry sources familiar with the project told The Observer that the problems have seen many hospitals or trusts postpone the system's implementation. Just 12 of England's 176 major hospitals have implemented even the most basic part of the new system which electronically books patient appointments with specialist consultants - despite the fact 104 had agreed to have it operating by April. Furthermore, not one NHS trust or hospital in England has implemented the second phase of the system, which will allow doctors to order clinical services such as blood tests or X-rays electronically - contrary to the Department of Health's planned timetable.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Darwin's tortoise dies

HarrietHarriet, the 24-stone tortoise alleged to have been collected from the Galapagos Islands by Charles Darwin, has died in Australia Zoo aged 176. She was the world's oldest animal in captivity.

Political wisdom is wasted on the politically doomed

Home Office libertyzap"This is Blair beginning to bow out. These speeches are summations of his years in power and assessments of the problems that remain for the next generation of political leaders to solve. If the Bristol speech is any guide, they read like drafts of the later chapters of the Blair memoirs. The mere fact that the prime minister has begun to give speeches of this kind suggests that the countdown to Blair's departure from Downing Street has now begun. In that sense, even his bitterest critics should welcome them." —Martin Kettle on Blair's speeches on "Our Nation's Future"

Friday, June 23, 2006

Piracy is a cost of business

Lord PuttnamFilm director Lord Puttnam has a rather more sensible approach to copyright infringement than you normally get from the content industries (via Open Rights Group):

Let's stick with China and the billion people, and the fact that they have the Beijing Olympics. Where should my concerns lie? That 15m Chinese people (and I'm making the numbers up) might be attracted to buying a legal copy of 'Chariots of Fire'? Or that 200m of them might rip it off and not pay for it? I'll take the 15m, thank you very much indeed. I won't sue the 200m, I'll go through the protection process, obviously. But I'd rather have the opportunity to sell to 15m people than, because of fear of piracy, say we won't operate in that country.

Blair's crime policies are like 'sticking plaster on broken leg'

Ian LoaderIan Loader, Professor of Criminology at Oxford University, has criticised the prime minister's “legislative hyperactivity”:

“You seem to take the view that the role of government is to act as an uncritical cipher for public anger and demands viz crime and disorder,” said Professor Loader… He urged the Prime Minister to think hard before deciding that what Britain needed was “another grand statement of government purpose and a further round of headline-grabbing legislation”.

UPDATE: Blair has ignored Loader and gone for yet more "eye-catching initiatives" with which he can be personally associated. Loader said in response: "I think his thesis needs some more evidence to support it. My current position is that it beggars belief."

Tories: say no to nuclear

Mushroom cloudMary Ann Sieghart thinks that the Tories could steal a dramatic march on a pro-nuclear Labour party by campaigning for alternative energy solutions:

Our huge power stations — whether fuelled by coal, gas or nuclear — are grossly inefficient: they waste two thirds of the energy that they produce. Most of it rises into the air in the form of heat from the cooling towers. If Britain were to adopt a decentralised form of electricity generation, with much smaller combined heat and power (CHP) stations located in the communities they serve, then the heat produced by the stations could be channelled straight into factories and homes through hot water pipes. These CHP stations waste only 5-10 per cent of their energy… The whole of Rotterdam runs on decentralised energy. So does more than half of Denmark. Closer to home, Woking has set up a local network that, together with energy efficiency measures, has cut emissions by a whopping 77 per cent. That puts nuclear savings in the shade.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Lords debate RIPA orders

Viscount BridgemanOn Monday the House of Lords debated the government's latest RIPA orders, which give access to Internet and phone usage data to new bodies for new purposes. The Conservative spokesman Viscount Bridgeman commented:

The problem that we need to address today is not whether the additional powers sought in the communications data order are excessive—I agree with the committee that they are not—but why the Government once again promise one thing and do another. Not only do the orders suggest that the Government did not get it right when they insisted in 2003 on the RIPA orders, otherwise known as part of the snoopers' charter, in the face of opposition in your Lordships' House and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, but they allow the very "function creep" that the Government promised to protect us against. Then again, this Government have a record of function creep in all their data information collection projects, so unfortunately it is not a surprise. Indeed, it was one of our fears about the recent Identity Cards Bill.

Children's Commissioner denounces "Megan's law" proposals

Prof. Sir Al Aynsley-GreenThe Children's Commissioner is trying to introduce those pesky things, facts, into the hysterical tabloid campaign for convicted sex offenders to be "named and shamed":

"Introducing a version of 'Megan's law' in the UK would do nothing to help parents keep their children safe from sex offenders. In fact, it could increase the risk of sexual abuse from strangers as offenders could be forced 'underground' after being released into the community, making it more difficult for authorities to monitor them. And it could encourage vigilante activity within communities.

"We are concerned that a version of Megan's law could detract from the fact that children are most at risk from people known to them. We would prefer to see more efforts directed in this area with further emphasis on early therapeutic treatment for the victims of sexual abuse."

Scientists denounce teaching of creationism

A worldwide coalition of scientists has told schools to stop teaching creationism:

"Within science courses taught in certain public systems of education, scientific evidence, data, and testable theories about the origins and evolution of life on Earth are being concealed, denied, or confused with theories not testable by science".

Monday, June 19, 2006

Marauding judges fight back

Marauding judgesThe judges are staging a fightback that is making John Reid's pronouncements on "soft sentencing" look increasingly foolish. It is now widely realised that the 5-year minimum tariff applicable to a paedophile's life sentence was a result of the government's own sentencing reforms. The Lord Chancellor and Attorney-General have both criticised Reid's ravings. And now the Lord Chief Justice has written to all 600 circuit judges to reassure them that the tabloids' ill-informed rantings are having the opposite effect intended:

It is quite legitimate for the media and commentators to criticise any particular sentence and the judiciary recognise and accept that. But they are entitled to expect such criticism to be accurate and objective. Personal and unmerited attacks on the characters of individual judges can only damage the public’s understanding of, and confidence in, the criminal justice system as a whole. We will continue to do what we can to counter such unfair and damaging criticism.

Lords look at new RIPA powers

The House of Lords Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee has been looking at Home Office plans to give new authorities access to communications data for new purposes under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (thanks, Simon!):

Although the additional powers sought do not seem excessive, the House may be concerned that this appears to step back from the Home Office consultation document “Access to communications data – respecting privacy and protecting the public” issued in March 2003. At the beginning of Chapter 3 this document listed the provisions of section 22(2) of RIPA, and then stated explicitly that the Government did not intend to add any further purposes to this list.

Gates resigns; what do you think?

Alex Martinelli, Sous Chef: "This will certainly give him more time to tighten his tyrannical monopoly on philanthropy."

UK censors target Internet

The British Board of Film Classification, which rates films in the UK, is planning a huge land grab — suggesting that it should rate Internet content. Simon Davies has an apt comment:

“It sounds like the most stupid intervention since the registration of fax machines and photocopiers in communist China.”

Football is pants

Dutch fansDutch supporters wearing shorts bearing the logo of a FIFA sponsor's competitor were made to strip off before watching a match in Stuttgart on Friday:

"It's ridiculous," said Sjoerd Schreurs, a Dutch supporter who had to take his trousers off. "I queued for 25 minutes to get in. When I reached the front, an official told me: 'You're not getting in like that'. I took my trousers off. I managed to chuck them over the fence to some friends. But another official spotted them and took them away.'

"I watched the game in my pants," Mr Schreurs, 33, added. "Fortunately I had quite a long T-shirt."

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Restricting all but the predators

There seems to be a growing media realisation that UK government attempts to bully ISPs into installing Web filtering tools will not achieve their aim of blocking access to child pornography:

Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.org, argues that educating children about potential dangers online is the way to keep them safe. "No one in any country, no matter how well meaning they are, can block everything," she says. "It's about education. And most of it has to be done at a home, school, or kid level. It's the only way to protect them."

Bugs in the system

The Times is worried about the NHS National Programme for IT:

The failure to win broad backing from NHS staff is the project’s final, and potentially fatal, flaw. Doctors and nurses remain not only unconvinced by CHP. Three in ten of them, according to the audit office report, remain unaware of it. The report’s main recommendations — that the NHS ensure its contractors deliver what it needs, and that it wins the support of its own organisations and staff — are deceptively gently worded. But the implied criticism is damning. At least £12 billion of taxpayers’ money is at stake, and yet the health of that investment is not guaranteed.

Balancing act of judges and politicians cannot last

James MadisonPeter Riddell has an interesting article asking whether the shaky compromise between Parliament and the judiciary represented by the Human Rights Act can survive for long:

At present, according to Professor Bogdanor, “the British constitution is coming to mean different things to different people”. Either Parliament will defeat the challenge of the judges, or the Human Rights Act will trump Parliament. What to him seems unlikely is that the current compromise embodied in the 1998 Act can survive over the long term. Admitting that his sympathies lie with the judges, he says that there may be “many squalls, and indeed storms” before a new constitutional settlement emerges. That should worry all of us.

It was not until Marbury v. Madison in 1803 that the US Supreme Court assumed the power to rule acts of Congress unconstitutional. Will it take the new UK Supreme Court as long to attempt to overrule Parliament?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Ethical design of surveillance infrastructures

Ethical surveillance poster
Have now just about got over the jet lag from my trip to Austin for the university's workshop on the ethical design of surveillance infrastructures. I did wonder beforehand if this was an oxymoron, but the participants came up with some useful ideas on turning surveillance technologies towards ethical ends.

In classic workshop stylee, one of the things we did was to produce posters illustrating our ideas. Above is my small group's efforts on the principles that would inform ethical surveillance technology. What an artistic masterpiece!

Jay-Z boycotts Cristal

Jay-ZBling bling! Jay-Z is boycotting Cristal champagne after the head of the company said he would prefer rappers to drink Dom Perignon and Krug (thanks, Nic!):

Cristal champagne - which sells for between $450 (£215) and $600 (£324) in Jay-Z's bars - has become synonymous with the "bling" lifestyle after being referenced in countless rap songs.

Cost of NHS IT programme to double

A National Audit Office report claims that the NHS National Programme for IT will come in at twice the price claimed by the government. One reason is the conflict between government and doctors over the system.

The deputy head of the British Medical Association's family doctors committee commented:

"The government wants patients' complete medical records to be made available through the IT programme. We think that is unnecessary and compromises patient confidentiality. Patients should be able to specify what they want on the electronic record, though information such as allergies and current medication would ideally be included."

Shut up, Blair

Lord RamsbothamFormer Chief Inspector of Prisons Lord Ramsbotham is not impressed by Blair's latest posturing on the criminal justice system:

"I just wish he'd shut up, frankly. One of the problems that there has been recently is announcement after announcement from the prime minister that he's going to do this and that and the other"

Thursday, June 15, 2006

DVLA nets £6m from sale of motorist details

DVLAIt seems that the government has a new stealth tax and privacy outrage rolled into one (thanks, Dave!):

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) has revealed that it made more than £6m last year selling access to the names and addresses of motorists to private sector companies such as wheel clamper, bailiffs and debt collection agencies.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Stop hiding behind an odious sex offender

Margaret Moran MP
Alice Miles thinks that the Labour party should stop using attacks on judges as a diversion from their own problems:

Hark at Margaret Moran, MP and member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, the closest the BBC could get to a government minister, talking about “serial paedophiles” on the Today programme yesterday. “We are talking about child abuse, we are talking about abuse of babies,” she protested. Nothing over-emotive there, then. The Government has seized upon Craig Sweeney as a particularly revolting figleaf for the manifest failings of the Home Office.

Fingerprint scanner stores school meal choices

FingerprintA South Tyneside school has a new twist on the "fingerprint children for school meals" idea:

The scanning machine debits the cost of their food from their account and also stores information about any allergies, so that pupils can be alerted to foods they cannot eat. It can also give parents details of their child’s diet.

Bit by bit, childrens' opportunities to learn to make their own choices are being chipped away…

Call off the ministerial dogs

The Guardian is not impressed by ministerial attacks on prison sentences:

This campaign has got little to do with reforming the criminal-justice system. It is about Labour, sliding in the polls and alarmed by its own mortality, desperately attempting to jump on a bandwagon and willing to trash important principles in order to do so. We have a perfectly good system for reviewing the few rogue sentences that the system generates, vigorously managed by the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith. It should be left in place. The current hysteria does little to protect the public and much to destroy public confidence in the criminal-justice system. It substitutes the rule of the lynch mob for the rule of law. It is time for the government to call off the dogs.

How embarrassing that a government full of lawyers has such contempt for the rule of law.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Saturday

SaturdayHad time while away to read Saturday by Ian McEwan, one of that long list of critically acclaimed novels I never quite get around to. It's a thought-provoking life in the day of consultant neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, set against the gathering storm of Iraq during 2003.

The writing has a slightly dreamy quality, emphasised for me by a setting that I walk around every day of Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury. The graphic descriptions of brain surgery were less interesting than Perowne's reminiscences of his children growing up and his relationships with his wife and dying mother. The poetry of Perowne's daughter is echoed by the lyrical quality of McEwan's writing.

Recommended even if you are not interested in the details of removing a blood clot from between the brain and skull!

Torture is a Moral Issue

A new campaign against torture has been set up in the US (via Daily Dish). If you are a religious American, sign up now!

Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved – policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished values. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.

Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed?

Let America abolish torture now – without exceptions.

Sympathy for the record industry

Mike SkinnerTom Robinson works out how much of the £7.99 iTunes price for Mike Skinner's new album goes to the artist (via Open Rights Group):

The government (of course) took its 17.5% in VAT off the top, leaving £6.59 net. Under a standard record contract, the split, according to the BACS, would go something like this: performer 48p, songwriter 53p, credit card company 59p and Apple 99p - while the record company trousers the remaining four quid. Even at the megastar rates enjoyed by Macca, Jagger and Jacko (22% of retail, no deductions), the performer gets maybe £1 more and the record company a quid less. Hey, do the maths.

Regardless of what royalty rate he's on, Skinner will still have to cover all recording and promotional costs from his share of the income. So if he can still afford a Ferrari, go figure how well his record label, Warners/679, is doing right now - and which one of them has the harder way to make an easy living.

Daniel Davies retorts that the music industry acts like a venture capitalist with very few successful ventures:

The biggest single cost that a record label faces is the number of acts they sign who just turn out to be no good. So when Mike Skinner gives up £4 from every album he sells to his record label, it isn't just champagne and coke for the company executives and shareholders he's paying for. He's paying for all the dreadful acts they sign every year who take an advance, record an album at vast expense, never sell a copy, break up and go back to university, all without paying back the money advanced to them at the start of the process.

It would be interesting to compare the investment successes vs. failures of the record industry compared to venture capital benchmarks. It would also be interesting to think up approaches whereby artists could defer "investment" by the record industry until a later stage at which they could extract a fairer amount of "equity" from the deal…

EU allows export of medicines for public health emergencies

Influenza virus
The EU has published a Regulation that allows medicine necessary for a public health emergency (such as HIV and tuberculosis epidemics) to be manufactured and exported from the EU under a compulsory patent licence (via Open Rights Group). This implements the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and public health.

Now, we just need the EU to withdraw their idiotic promise to the WTO that member states will never use this facility in the case of a public health emergency within the EU. Tamiflu, anyone?

Microsoft's sordid spyware

Windows Genuine AdvantageIt seems that MSFT is undoing some of its good recent work on privacy (e.g. Kim Cameron on InfoCards and Jerry Fishenden on the problems of ID cards). The latest update of their Windows Genuine Advantage tool (which checks that Windows installations are not pirated) is phoning home at every boot-up and sending various pieces of information to Redmond. Not the best way to build customer credibility.

Where are the British giants of cyberspace?

George OsborneShadow Chancellor George Osborne has a confused opinion piece in the Times lamenting the lack of a UK Silicon Valley. (Starting the article with the mistaken claim that the Internet was invented by a Briton does not add credibility. I assume he is referring to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, which came almost 30 years after Polish-American Paul Baran thought up the distributed packet-switching network that eventually became the Internet.)

Osborne claims that the US university funding and intellectual property systems are better-focussed on innovation. I see little difference between how NSF and EPSRC, for example, choose and fund areas of Internet research. UK universities were allowed to exploit IP from government-funded research long before the 1994 US Bayh-Dole Act. Osborne praises Stanford University for setting aside the land that houses many IT giants, but UK universities such as Cambridge have done the same. The Shadow Chancellor also praises the US venture capital industry, but I'm not sure there's much he could do to recreate that industry here.

Let's hope Osborne's ideas become a bit more sophisticated during the remainder of his visit to California.

Monday, June 12, 2006

It's human rights, innit?

James Delingpole thinks that the Human Rights Act, Data Protection Act and health and safety legislation are being used as the modern equivalent of "the dog ate my homework" excuses (thanks, Dave!):

Much, then, as we would love to ascribe all our ills to intrusive, nannying, politically correct government legislation, it would seem that the law itself is only partly to blame. As much, if not more, of the damage is done by lame-brained councils, lunk-headed policemen, overprotective school teachers, and obstreperous bureaucrats who are either unable or unwilling to understand the true nature of the law.

Punishing silence

It seems that the Home Office has been assiduously briefing The Times about their plans to enable powers to compel the production of decryption keys. I suspect the leader writer(s) in question will not be receiving a more balanced picture from anyone else…

Punishing silence is a dangerous concept and should be rejected in all but severe cases. But the consultation paper circulated by the Home Office sets out the hurdles, designed to protect the innocent, which prosecutors would have to jump. For a suspect to be charged and face a prison term of more than two years for failing to unlock computer files, he would have to be a convicted paedophile; his computer would have to contain indecent pictures of children; or there would have to be evidence that he had communicated the encrypted information to someone else. The court would have to be satisfied that the encrypted data was likely to contain illegal images of children. The battle against paedophiles, like that against money-launderers, has been made more complicated by the internet. It is reasonable that law enforcement acquires stronger powers to fight back.

Queenstown police are being given similar powers in Australia (thanks, Dave!)

Saturday, June 10, 2006

NSA Wiretap Reveals Subject May Be Paying Too Much For Long-Distance

NSA HQThe NSA director is concerned about one of their surveillance subjects: "Bear in mind that this is a man who earns only $43,220 a year. With both a Dodge minivan in desperate need of repair and the upcoming vasectomy to pay for, he should be more concerned about these expenses."

Court upholds Net-wiretapping rules

Judge Harry EdwardsA US court has upheld the decision of the Federal Communications Commission decision to require ISPs to fit wiretapping devices to their networks (thanks, Dave!). This is despite the fact that the relevant legislation (the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act) explicity exempts "information services," and that Congress was assured in 1994 that the act would only cover the telephone network.

The dissenting justice was not impressed:

"What we see in this case is an agency attempting to squeeze authority from a statute that does not give it," Edwards wrote. "The FCC's interpretation completely nullifies the information services exception and manufactures broad new powers out of thin air."

Hola from Texas

Don't mess with Texas!At a workshop on "The Ethical Design of Surveillance Technology" in Austin this weekend. Will write more about the event when it's over, but for now I'm enjoying the contradictions of being in Texas' outpost of liberalism, with almost 10% of the city's population students at the University of Texas at Austin. Have seen a few cowboy hats and quite enough evangelical TV channels, but there is a lot of Spanish in evidence and plenty of good food. So it isn't quite the monoglot Dubyaland I expected ;)

This dialogue of the deaf is corroding our human rights

"In a democracy, the rule of law matters more than anything, and the human rights of individuals and minorities are at the heart of that rule of law. The Human Rights Act does not stand in the way of modern democratic government. In many respects it makes modern democratic government possible. It explicitly defends both the right to security and the right to civil liberty. Both matter, though not at the total expense of the other. Most people understand this. The real madness is not human rights but the attack on human rights." —Martin Kettle

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Google compromised principles in China

Sergey BrinGoogle founder Sergey Brin has admitted that their censor-friendly Chinese service might be better shut down:

"It's perfectly reasonable to do something different, to say: 'Look, we're going to stand by the principle against censorship, and we won't actually operate there.' That's an alternate path."

This also might have something to do with the fact that hardly anyone in China is using the censored service…

Rendition 'massively damaging' to counter-terrorism effort


The Council of Europe's investigation into US "extraordinary rendition" of terrorist suspects has now published its report. It found that 14 European countries have supported the activity. Former Foreign Office Minister Tony Lloyd says:

"If these things are born out, this process is really damaging to any attempt to combat terrorism in our society. It leads to the suspicion that what we are doing is the wrong tactic and even as bad as the terrorists themselves."

Employers routinely read staff emails

38% of UK companies with 1,000 or more employees hire staff to read or analyse outbound email, according to a security company survey (thanks, Dave!)

King Dubya's power grab

Grover NorquistDemocrats are not the only Americans appalled by Bush's power grab and attempted rewrite of the US constitution (via Daily Dish):

Grover Norquist, a principal organizer of the conservative movement who is close to the Bush White House and usually supports its policies, says, "If you interpret the Constitution's saying that the president is commander in chief to mean that the president can do anything he wants and can ignore the laws you don't have a constitution: you have a king." He adds, "They're not trying to change the law; they're saying that they're above the law and in the case of the NSA wiretaps they break it."

Surveillance system scrambles people's faces

Example footage
A Swiss company has released a CCTV filtering system that masks the appearance of people in the video feed until an encryption key is used to unmask a specific individual:

Its developers say the system could let law enforcers use closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras without invading the privacy of those being watched. For example, a video stream could remain anonymous until its operators realise that a crime has been committed. The video could then be unscrambled by authorities with the necessary encryption key.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Iraqi Horror Picture Show

Dr Doubly BushyThe Guardian has some suggestions for new West End musicals:

The Iraqi Horror Picture Show

'It's just a step to the right!'

The Scene: Excited at having reaffirmed their party vows, Anthony and Cherry set off to tell their friend Dr Reid the happy news. But on the way the rains set in and the car gets a puncture. Seeking shelter, they arrive at a grand, white house - the home of Dr Doubly Bushy, a hairy Texan in suspenders. The doctor is holding a party to celebrate his new creation, Chainy, who is going to give the world a proper seeing to.

NHS trusts pay millions in fines to suppliers of delayed IT system

More eye-popping bonfires of cash in the NHS National Programme for IT:

Arrangements disclosed today by the magazine Computer Weekly show the government committed trusts to provide 200 staff to work with the computer companies to devise the best possible systems.

In southern England the NHS was unable to meet an obligation to second 50 full-time employees to the Japanese-owned Fujitsu Corporation. The trusts will now have to pay Fujitsu £19m.

Monday, June 05, 2006

US is a rogue nation

Andrew SullivanConservative US columnist Andrew Sullivan cannot quite believe what is happening in his adopted country:

The United States is a rogue nation that practices torture and detainee abuse and does not follow the most basic principles of the Geneva Conventions. It is inviolation of human rights agreements and the U.N. Convention against torture. It is legitimizing torture by every disgusting regime on the planet. This is a policy mandated by the president and his closest advisers. This is the signal being sent from the commander-in-chief to his troops: your enemy can be treated beyond the boundaries of what the U.S. has always abided by. When you next read of an atrocity of war-crime or victim of torture by the U.S., just keep in mind who made this possible.

DRM report launched by parliamentary group

Rachel WhetstoneI spent this morning at the launch of the All-Party Parliamentary Internet Group's report on Digital Rights Management. They make several sensible recommendations, but could have gone a lot further, as Open Rights Group explains.

What struck me most about the meeting was the entirely different world that IP lobbyists inhabit. They spent a considerable amount of time attacking Google Europe's director of communications and public affairs over Google Print, for the reason that Google quite outrageously has to scan a whole copy of a book to make that book searchable. (This was after they sang the praises of Google's Web index).

You have to wonder if they have the first clue about the public policy aims behind copyright law, or how technology actually works. You especially have to wonder if they realise quite what a powerful enemy they are making in Rachel Whetstone.

Can science get by without your tax money?

Roger NeedhamTerence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the UK's only private university, thinks that government science funding only displaces private sector research:

Contrary to myth, the private sector does tons of science — because it is so profitable. Consider IBM. The Times Higher Education Supplement’s survey last year showed that Harvard University’s science papers are the most cited globally (20.6 citations per paper on average) but coming in second was IBM (18.9), outranking all other universities and research bodies. And because IBM invests so much in science, it has for the past 12 years been awarded more patents (3,000 annually) than any other institution. And by its patents IBM earns more than $1 billion annually in licence fees.

This is difficult to believe for someone who has had and continues to receive funding from the UK government's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council ;) From a less biased perspective the late Prof. Roger Needham, head of Microsoft Research Cambridge and Cambridge University's Computing Laboratory for many years, put a powerful case for the government funding of pre-competitive computer science research.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected

The excellent Action on Rights for Children and LSE have organised a free half-day conference on public sector databases on children, which are multiplying like you would not believe.

I'll be speaking about "Information sharing: the risks for families". Hope you can make it along on 27 June!

Hideous company sends Boing Boing a pre-emptive nastygram

Boing Boing
Here's yet another reason to love Boing Boing: their response to a nastygram from law firm Baker & McKenzie warning about "unauthorized streaming and downloading of FIFA World Cup matches":

I don't even know what the FIFA World Cup is. I'm guessing it's soccer, which I hate just as much as any other pro sport. Every editor at Boing Boing detests professional sports, and we would sooner stream a video of a crumpled up paper napkin in the corner of a room than show some jackasses running after a ball. The only time we would ever post anything about pro-sports would be to make fun of them.

Just imagine what the NHS could do with £20bn

Nick Cohen thinks he knows why NHS National Programme for IT costs have trebled to £20bn:

New Labour is a creature of the 1990s that allowed itself to be overawed by the private sector without ever understanding how the private sector makes its money. Private management consultants make theirs by billing for as many hours as possible. If their clients are dumb enough to let them get away with it, they will inevitably suggest creating a new and complicated IT system from scratch rather than adapting tried-and-tested technology. Complicated and error-prone technology may not help doctors but it is a marvellous method for generating billable hours for consultants.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The war on privacy

The Economist thinks that the ECJ ruling on the transatlantic transfer of passenger information will have little long-term effect:

Only the most egregious breaches of online security and deliberate attempts to procure personal information are reported in the media. But smaller leaks that compromise privacy are everyday occurrences. The mass of personal details used by government agencies or businesses increasingly renders old notions of privacy obsolete. The electronic trails that diminish privacy may help to trap crooks and terrorists, but where net curtains once shut out nosey neighbours it will, for good or ill, become increasingly difficult to shut anyone out in future.

The BBC's plan for cyberspace domination

David Rowan thinks that the BBC is losing its way with its "Creative Future" plan:

In its exemplary drive to innovate and meet new audience demands in this barely begun digital revolution, the corporation is in danger of forgetting its core mission: to produce programming that must “inform, educate and entertain”. Nowhere did the original charter suggest that Auntie should build empires such as those now envisaged for their own sakes. There is little evidence of consumer dissatisfaction with existing web search sites and media portals such as Google, AOL and Yahoo!, so the BBC would not be filling a particular market gap by starting another. Nor, with plenty of businesses already offering homes for citizens’ own creativity — from YouTube to Flickr for video and photographs — is it clear why a publicly funded competitor needs to come along and paddle other innovators’ canoes.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Companies endorse RFID privacy guidelines

RFID tagIBM, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Visa and other major companies have endorsed new guidelines on the use of RFID tags that are linked to personal information (thanks, Dave!). They stress consumer notification, choice and data security:

Paula Bruening, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology in the U.S., which led the working group, says, "This document recognizes the core privacy needs of citizens, while acknowledging that early-stage technology needs the flexibility to change as it evolves. RFID is a fast-evolving technology that may soon become ubiquitous in our lives."

I had some involvement in similar work by Enterprise Privacy Group on the use of RFID tags on pharmaceuticals.