Sunday, December 31, 2006

After a sinister year, it's down to us to protect our freedoms

"Another achievement of 2006 has been a vivid appreciation of the threat of databases, the potential for abuse in the ID national identity register, the national health database and the national children's index, which, until September, was being set up in conditions of virtual secrecy. In 2007, the fight must go on to popularise the menace that this apparatus of surveillance presents to democracy." —Henry Porter

Final proof that they’re all barking

Foxhunters"It is a noble old British tradition in some quarters to get up early on both Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, put on strange pink clothes and venture into the countryside on horseback to rip the throat out of the first fox you see. Maiming and murdering our wild mammal population is now illegal — but still the hunters were out in record numbers. They had a terrific time. They were once again able to wear their clothes and trot about braying to one another, condescending to the lower orders. Sure, they were deprived of the pleasure of actually killing an animal and, subsequently therefore, smearing the blood on the face of some infant out on his first 'kill'. But overall they pronounced the hunts an enormous success. So what’s the problem, gentlemen?

"Banning fox hunting, we were told (by the Countryside Alliance, the toffs and their genuflecting peasant followers) would wreak havoc on the rural economy. Where, exactly, is this havoc? How many jobs have been lost? How many hunts disbanded? How many rural villages condemned to poverty and decay? It was all rubbish — and the rather cheering thing is that we knew it was rubbish at the time. So, you lot, when you’re out tomorrow morning, remember: Foxes 1, Hunters 0. And a Happy New Year." —Rod Liddle

Friday, December 29, 2006

The secrets of Blair's iPod

Robin Gibb
"Blair's cultural tastes are compartmentalised to an unusual degree. He divides musicians into two groups: those he likes to listen to and those he categorises more as travel agents…

"Some columnists and opposition politicians have tried to make a scandal out of the fact that both of the Blairs' sunshine landlords are currently campaigning for an extension to songwriters' copyrights. But, in politics, the really dangerous links are the ones that only become apparent after the legislation has passed. By being so upfront about his pop obligations, Blair would guarantee reputation meltdown if one of his final acts in office were to ensure that Jive Talkin' and Mistletoe and Wine become nice little earners in perpetuity." —Mark Lawson

Thursday, December 28, 2006

ID card call to 'stop bullying'

Patrick HarvieA Scottish teaching union thinks that ID cards will help stop bullying. MSP Patrick Harvie disagrees (via Open Rights Group):

"We should be preparing young people for the reality of defending their privacy and civil liberties against ever-more intrusive government systems.

"We've heard proposals for airport-style scanners and random drug testing in schools, fingerprinting is already in place in some schools. There's a risk of creating environments which feel more like penal institutions than places of learning.

"These ID cards will do absolutely nothing to address the causes of bullying. Instead they will teach the next generation that an ID card culture is 'normal', and that they should have to prove their entitlement to services."

What's Wrong with the Music Industry in One Long Sentence

"We have an industry that is afraid of technology, its senior spokespeople lie to congress, they use Enron-like accounting, they somehow — WHOOPS! — forget to pay their artists, they are convicted price fixers, at the first sign of any kind of an economic rebound their instinct is to raise prices, they have ignored competitive pressures from other forms of entertainment such as DVDs, they ignore the devastatingly negative effects of radio ownership consolidation to their business model, they engage in all kinds of anti-competitive protectionism, they are unconcerned with the quality of their product, their customers are harried for time and distracted by other interests, their customers see nothing wrong with downloading music for free, some of their biggest stars are hoping the Internet will replace the labels, despite all too many signs that their product is over priced, they refuse to allow market forces to set competitive prices, they have consistently been one of the most mismanaged businesses in history, oh, and they somehow think they are immune from the business cycle." —Barry Ritholtz

7 reasons to be cheerful in 2007

Inspired by Terri, here are seven reasons to be cheerful going into 2007:

    David Blunkett
  1. The demise of David Blunkett: The loathsome multi-Big-Brother-award-winning former home secretary appears to have destroyed any hopes of a return to the political fray with his self-pitying and highly-remaindered autobiography.

  2. Only 150 days until the forcible retirement of Tony Blair: Our loathsome war criminal of a prime minister can head off into the sunset to join that select group (like General Pinochet, Henry Kissinger and John Yoo) who need to factor the reach of the International Criminal Court into their travel plans.

  3. The continuing slow death of the ID card scheme: The government has already been forced to scrap plans for a new, "clean" National Identity Register database. Next to go: the card itself?

  4. More rational copyright policy: Andrew Gowers' review of the UK intellectual property framework wowed the reality-based community with its rejection of music industry lobbying for copyright term extension. Will 2007 see other Gowers recommendations such as a new "private copy" right implemented in UK law, decriminalising millions of iPod owners?

  5. A spectacular self-immolation for e-voting: Thanks to doughty campaigners like Rebecca Mercuri and Avi Rubin, the US is turning its back on insecure electronic voting. Hopefully pilots in May elections will be the last we will see of this pointless yet dangerous-to-democracy technology in the UK.

  6. Mass NHS database opt-out gathers pace: Thousands of people are writing to their GPs opting out of a central government health database. The British Medical Association is advising GPs to boycott the scheme if the government tries to bully their patients into uploading records. Will the government be forced to scrap the scheme if 11% of the population opts out, as happened in Iceland?

  7. More personally, I get to visit India, Rio de Janeiro, Machu Picchu and Antarctica, completing my all-continents world tour of the last decade :)


2006 has reinvigorated my faith in politics (with significant victories for ORG, FIPR, Privacy International and No2ID). You can help make 2007 an even better year by supporting all of these fine organisations!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

BMA may seek NHS records system boycott

The British Medical Association will advise GPs to boycott the government's centralised medical databases unless the Department of Health obtains consent from all affected patients (via TheBigOptOut). The chief BMA IT negotiator Dr Richard Vautry told privacy newsletter OUT-LAW:

"If a patient were to take action as a result of information being uploaded to the record against their wishes it is likely in our view that it would be the GP that would find themselves in the firing line, and we think that's unacceptable and it's our responsibility as the BMA to ensure that GPs are not put in such a vulnerable situation."

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Life on Planet Blair

Smeegle!
"Blair will leave Downing Street with the Labour Party in ruins, a vast swathe of progressive opinion in near-despair, public servants demoralised, minority communities increasingly disaffected, sleaze rampant and civil liberties in greater danger than at any time since the repressive legislation of the early nineteenth century. The suggestion that Blair's 2005 victory elevated him to a prime ministerial super-league would be risible if it weren't tragic. He scraped back to Downing Street with 35 per cent of the popular vote and not much more than 20 per cent of those eligible to vote. If that is a triumph then Waterloo was a victory for Napoleon and Stalingrad for von Paulus." —David Marquand

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Whoever says crime doesn't pay has obviously never met Lord Stevens

Lord Stevens"Last week Lord Stevens published his reportedly long-awaited report into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, an event he finally felt confident enough to declare was not the result of a conspiracy. The more cavalier among us might venture that any plot that could be foiled by a seatbelt could never exactly be described as fiendish, but it is a credit to Stevens that he spent £3.69m of public money establishing this via painstaking investigation, interviews with French embalmers, and a memorable photo opportunity that saw him walking through the Alma underpass in Paris with an expression of sombre thought one could class only as 'very Morse'." —Marina Hyde

Friday, December 22, 2006

Fat stats should override privacy?

Tam FryIn 2001 the government rammed through Parliament a power to share medical records without patient consent. Shroud-waving by cancer researchers ("people will die if we can't access everyone's medical records without their consent") means that s.60 of the Health and Social Care Act gives the government the power to waive privacy protections "(a) in the interests of improving patient care" and "(b) in the public interest."

Now we see just how widely that power is being interpreted by some in the healthcare sector:

An attempt to discover how fat British children are has been hampered by the refusal of many families to take part in the study…

Tam Fry, the chairman of the Child Growth Foundation, said that the exercise had been a waste of time. "Nationally, the data is useless," he said. He blamed the guidelines drawn up by a committee dominated by politically correct attitudes.

He is redrafting the guidelines for 2007 and intends to take a tougher line. "The Social Care Act says that when there is an urgent need for medical information it can override an individual's right to refuse." (The Times, 21/12/06, p.24)

Actually, the legislation does not say that. It says that the government can by order require private information (such as weight) to be shared when it is in the possession of a third party. Even so, what "urgent need" do we have for nationwide information on children's weight that would justify this invasion of privacy?

New Windows DRM a disaster for entire PC industry


"In order to work, Vista's content protection must be able to violate the laws of physics, something that's unlikely to happen no matter how much the content industry wishes it were possible. This conundrum is displayed over and over again in the Windows content-protection specs, with manufacturers being given no hard- and-fast guidelines but instead being instructed that they need to display as much dedication as possible to the party line… This is an exceedingly strange way to write technical specifications, but is dictated by the fact that what the spec is trying to achieve is fundamentally impossible." —Peter Gutmann

Thursday, December 21, 2006

You're attacking the wrong nation, Mr Blair

"That Saudi Arabia remains deeply involved in the terrorist nexus was implicitly acknowledged by Mr Blair himself when he declared last week that Britain would face a greater risk of terrorist attack if the Saudi Government withdrew its security co-operation. That the Saudi Government has made its security co-operation conditional on Mr Blair blocking any further investigations into the sweeteners paid to Saudi princes by British companies shows the shallowness of the country’s supposed commitment to the War on Terror." —Anatole Kaltesky

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Xmas in Miami Beach


Sadly I didn't get to spend Christmas day on sunny Miami Beach. Back to London this morning, where it is around 25C colder and a lot less sandy.

I was very impressed by Miami, the Keys and Fort Lauderdale — the perfect place to spend a cold UK winter. Perhaps not as good in the summer, at least according to one Miamian I met a few years ago who said he needed four showers a day because of the heat and humidity.

Coincidentally but happily, Bush Jr. II (Jeb) completed his term as Florida's governor during my visit. One down, one to go…

When music gets out of control

"Like toll collectors through the ages, the record labels fear a loss of income resulting from a loss of monopoly. Their we-define-your-rights, pay-per-use, DRM-encrusted vision relies on a group of companies that owns most of what's popular agreeing to tax consumers in the same way. But the deal their predecessors struck with the public half a century ago is coming back to haunt them. The monopoly is ending, and the music's getting out of control." —Gervase Markham (via Open Rights Group)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Cloak, dagger, bluff, blackmail, and Tony's nervous protector

"Since a London jury may show scant respect for the ethical standards of politicians, the police might be reasonably confident in a prosecution. Goldsmith can stop them, as he has just stopped the SFO. He could rule that the 'public interest' in the dignity of his good friend the prime minister outweighs the mere rule of law. He is indeed chief state prosecutor but he is also Blair’s defence lawyer, not to mention final arbiter of whether a criminal case comes to court. Nor need he give any reasons for his decision. As Tam Dalyell once said, to understand this government you should read not a constitutional textbook but a memoir of the court of Louis XIV." —Simon Jenkins

Our delusions of propriety gurgle out their death rattle

"In this self-styled greatest country on earth, the suspicion that cash donations might have had something to do with peerages has been studiously ignored for decades. It barely raised an eyebrow when Lord Sainsbury, one of New Labour's most generous donors, was given not simply the right to wear ermine, but the right to make policy as a government minister. But if the noxious stench emanating from Scotland Yard's current inquiry has not terminally laid our delusions of virtue to rest, then the attorney general's breathtaking halting of a major international criminal investigation on the nebulous grounds of 'security' - what else, in this wretched day and age? - should see them off for good.

As they gurgle out their death rattle, we can only wish the PM bon voyage on his Middle Eastern lecture tour, and remind ourselves not to begrudge him the air miles. There may, after all, come a day when Mr Blair is unable to travel outside the country without having his collar felt on another matter entirely, and finding his destination altered to The Hague. In the meantime, tales of such days as Thursday should be just the sort of push toward idealism his pupils require." —Marina Hyde

Happy FSM Xmas!

Flying Spaghetti Monster at Xmas
Thanks to Boing Boing for passing along this timely Xmas manifestation of His Noodliness, Flying Spaghetti Monster. May all of your bolognaises be bright!

Cycling with alligators

Baby gator
Spent a pleasant if wet afternoon cycling through the Florida Everglades today. Plenty of colourful wading birds to keep us company; and enough alligators to restock Imelda Marcos' shoe closet. This young specimen was eyeing up my foot.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Privacy rights block kiss-and-tell tabloid sleaze

Hugh Tomlinson QCA Court of Appeal ruling could mean the end of tabloid "kiss-and-tell" stories (thanks, Dave!). The press are alarmed; but I can think of few things sleazier than selling details of the private lives of former friends and partners.

Hugh Tomlinson QC commented: "This judgment is a turning point in the development of English privacy law."

Greek privacy watchdog fines Vodafone $100m over wiretapping scandal

Greek data protection authorityIt seems that the Greek data protection authority is a little more determined to punish privacy lawbreakers than many others around Europe. They have just fined Vodafone $100m for lax phone network security that allowed unknown hackers to wiretap the Greek prime minister as well as senior military officers, human rights activists and journalists (thanks, Dave!). George Danezis has more about the original hacking offences.

Small corruption bad. Big corruption good.

"For a prime minister who once taunted his predecessor as someone 'knee deep in dishonour' over an arms deal and who promised that he would be 'purer than pure' in office, yesterday was a shabby, shaming day, among the most inglorious he has spent in office. First Tony Blair was interviewed by Scotland Yard at Downing Street, which in itself was an extraordinary thing. Nothing like it has ever happened before. Then, in the House of Lords, the attorney general hauled up the flag of surrender in the face of Saudi demands that the Serious Fraud Office stop its investigation into BAE Systems' arms deals with Saudi Arabia, amid fears for its vast contract to sell Typhoon fighters…

"Yesterday will leave stains on Mr Blair that will survive any amount of scrubbing. They are serious contributions to the air of evasion and shabby practice which has already enveloped this government and which threatens to become Mr Blair's legacy to his successor." —The Guardian

"Our society is based on the rule of law. The explanations that have been offered are nugatory or unconvincing. That the investigation was uncertain is insufficient reason for dropping it. So is the Attorney-General’s judgment at this stage about the likelihood of a prosecution. When this fundamental principle of the rule of law in our society is set aside, for whatever reason, we are a lesser country." —The Times

Thursday, December 14, 2006

IBM wants universities to tone down IP regimes

Stuart Feldman"Universities have made life increasingly difficult to do research with because of all the contractual issues around intellectual property. We would like the universities to open up again." —Stuart Feldman, Vice President of Computer Science Research at IBM

More stop-and-search will not catch terrorists

Andy HaymanAssistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner Andy Hayman has said that extended police stop-and-search powers are doing damage to community relations that outweighs any counter-terrorism benefit (thanks, Steve!):

"It is very unlikely that a terrorist is going to be carrying bomb-making equipment around with them in the street.

So, I am not sure what purpose it serves, especially as it upsets so many people, with some sections of our community feeling unfairly targeted."

It seems clear that the Metropolitan Police Authority, to whom Hayman was giving evidence, will recommend that use of the powers in London be scaled back.

Giving Americans privacy rights

Senator Patrick Leahy"At a time when government is trying to databank and datamine more and more information about ordinary Americans, this Administration has been less and less willing to let us know what they are doing.

Americans’ privacy is a price the Bush Administration is willing to pay for the cavalier way it is spawning new databanks. But privacy rights belong to the people, not to the government. They need to stop treating the privacy of ordinary Americans as an expendable commodity.

When it comes to protecting Americans’ privacy, what we have today are analog rules in a digital world. We are way overdue in catching up to the erosion of privacy, and the Judiciary Committee now will help to bring this picture into focus. This will be one of our highest priorities.

I have long questioned Secretary Rumsfeld about the Defense Department’s creation of dossiers on Quakers and peaceful anti-war protestors. Congress acted to rein in Admiral Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness program. Recently we learned through the press -- and I’m thankful for a free and vigilant press -- that the Bush Administration has secretly been compiling dossiers on millions of law-abiding Americans. It is incredible that the Administration has reportedly been sharing this sensitive information with foreign governments and even private employers, while refusing to allow U.S. citizens to see or challenge the so-called terror score that the government has assigned them based on their travel schedules.

New and improved technologies make data banks and data mining more powerful and more useful than they have ever been before. They can be important tools in our national security arsenal, and we should use them in an effective way. But data banks are ripe for abuse and prone to mistakes without proper safeguards. A mistake can cost Americans their jobs and wreak havoc in their lives and reputations that can take years to repair. Mistakes on government watch lists have become legendary in recent years and would be comical if not a tragic reflection of dangerous government incompetence. Not only do we need checks and balances to keep government data bases from being misused against the American people, that is what the Constitution and our laws require." —Senator Patrick Leahy, forthcoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (thanks, Dave!)

YouTube, Google and the Majors - a classic example of how not to do it

"The recorded music industry has been given this incredible gift of a new technology which permits the liberating freedom of self-expression in ways which permit communicating with the public and by the public in totally new ways, and permits new forms of communication, creation, distribution and manufacture of recorded music, at a fraction of historical prices. As an industry though, we seem be trying to shackle it with the chains of nineteenth century concepts of copyright that aim to control copying in an era where a whole new world economy is being built on the ability to copy and reproduce, deliver and exchange with extraordinary ease and minimal cost." —Peter Jenner, International Music Managers' Forum (via A2K)

Data mining useless for catching terrorists

Bruce Schneier points out an interesting new report from CATO on the uselessness of data mining for finding terrorists:

Though data mining has many valuable uses, it is not well suited to the terrorist discovery problem. It would be unfortunate if data mining for terrorism discovery had currency within national security, law enforcement, and technology circles because pursuing this use of data mining would waste taxpayer dollars, needlessly infringe on privacy and civil liberties, and misdirect the valuable time and energy of the men and women in the national security community.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Guardian paid by government for data sharing supplement, now writes glowing report

The Guardian has a servile piece on the Children's Database being set up on the UK's 12 million young people. The feature quotes only one critical voice, despite the growing opposition to the scheme (and the recent publication by the Information Commissioner of our report that the scheme will likely harm children as well as illegally invade their privacy.)

Could this be anything to do with the recent supplement on the scheme published by the Guardian with financial support from the government, who were given a right of veto over the journalists used?

Coppers should keep their noses out of politics

Longrider has a succinct response to the call by Commander Dave Johnstone for DNA samples to be taken from all UK citizens at birth(via Action on Rights for Children):

It is up to politicians to listen carefully to power hungry coppers on an ego trip; nod earnestly, smile and then tell them to fuck off and get on with policing and keep their noses out of politics. Dodgy Dave may think it appropriate to stimulate debate. In a personal capacity as a citizen that is within his rights. As a serving police officer, this is politics and well outside his remit.

The same goes for calls for 90-day detention without trial by the criminally incompetent head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair.

Rampaging blaggers receive slap on the wrist

Lord AshcroftInformation Commissioner Richard Thomas is leading two prosecutions of "blaggers" who illegally obtained personal information for high-profile clients such as newspapers and Wetherspoons (who claim to be unaware the law was being broken). One private detective carried out over 11,000 illegal enquiries into personal information for the UK press. Another has just been convicted on 16 counts of obtaining and selling personal information, and has been sentenced to 150 hours of community service, put on probation for 18 months and ordered to pay £2,000 towards prosecution costs (thanks, Dave!).

If such fraudsters can make tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds and face a small slap on the wrist even if caught, is it any surprise that this is an increasing problem? Richard Thomas is calling for prison sentences of up to two years to be available under the Data Protection Act. Wouldn't a better alternative be a right for the victims of privacy intrusion to bring class action suits with statutory damages of 100% of profits of blaggers and those that employ them?

Will Thomas be naming the 305 journalists and their newspaper and magazine employers? Former Conservative Party chairman Lord Ashcroft used a Freedom of Information Act request to find out that the top newspaper employed 58 of these journalists, and that the top ten journalists were responsible for over 3,000 illicit inquiries. I hope Ashcroft will encourage his colleagues to introduce legislation that will choke off this growing menace.

Blair is blinded by a belief that big is always beautiful

Simon Jenkins has put his finger on the reasons behind Blair's mania for centralised, IT-driven government services:

Small is fiddly and hard to control. Big is beautiful and computable. That is why Tony Blair's legacy crisis is seeing yet another wave of "closures", this time of 29 accident and emergency departments, 81 hospitals, 3,000 post offices, and more police stations after the 630 closed over the past decade. He also wants bigger (and fewer) local councils, bigger police districts and bigger health trusts, plus more Tescos and therefore fewer high streets. To Blair and his cabinet, everything about Britain seems too small.

Trying to replace local services with large national databases isn't just causing great damage to UK citizens' privacy. It's got us to the stage where government expenditure of tens of billions of pounds on IT systems with worse results than those they replace is no longer newsworthy.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Intellectual propriety

"The Gowers review has established that Britain will not make retrospective changes to copyright. That is an important principle. But wider international debate about the optimal term for patents and copyright will rage on. Less protection would not be popular with writers or movie stars. But it might be in the interests of society." —Financial Times (via A2k)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Madge the chinchilla

chinchilla"It may be that Madonna, tiring of herself as we all are, wishes to become a chinchilla and is, with typical subtlety, expressing this desire through her clothing. In which case she should surely be encouraged. Chinchillas are modest, intelligent and unassuming little mammals, never happier than when skittering across the rocky Andes, gnawing on seeds.

That seems to me more socially useful than churning out third-division anodyne disco music and coffee-table soft porn, moaning about the British weather and buying small black children. Whether she will be successful in her attempt to become a chinchilla is open to question — but there is one reliable method of finding out. When threatened, chinchillas emit a curious high-pitched bark and a stream of sulphurous urine. If you bump into Madonna, threaten to electrocute her and see if she reacts the same way." —Rod Liddle

Peter Roberts

Peter Roberts
Animal welfare campaigner Peter Roberts has died aged 82. The Economist has a nice obituary:

WHAT commonplace activity that most people never think to condemn will one day be seen as a profoundly shameful crime deserving of nothing but moral outrage? Those are the terms in which Tony Blair was talking this week about the slave trade, and it would be an incurious soul who never thought to ask whether future generations will not similarly come to condemn some practice that is today widely accepted. Some may speculate that the offensive activity will turn out to be waging wars, practising abortion or driving 4X4s. Peter Roberts, however, would surely have suggested 21st-century man's treatment of farm animals. He might even have cited meat-eating…

Iraq has led Bush and Blair to their doom

"It is impossible to exaggerate the counter-productivity of this venture. The naive belief that US power could create a beacon of secular democracy in the Islamic world may have been confined to the salons of neocon Washington and London, to whom war seemed like an intellectual party game. Yet it captured the leaders of two world governments and led them to their doom." —Simon Jenkins

Saturday, December 09, 2006

They live like aristocrats. Now they think like them

Mick Hucknall"It was, of course, barely a fortnight ago that readers of these pages were pleased to take a lesson in political theory from my temporary Guardian colleague Mick Hucknall, the lead singer of Simply Red and a signatory of the aforementioned ad, who opened a presumably self-parodic opinion piece with the statement 'copyright is fundamentally socialist'. Mick then contrived to conflate notions of intellectual property - and there's something about 'property' that grates with our fifth-form Marxist's thesis - with solid leftwing values, though I'm afraid I'd rather lost track of his point by the second mention of 'the free flow of ideas', and realised we were being asked to conceive of a Beverley Sisters track as such." —Marina Hyde

Friday, December 08, 2006

Home Office mulls anti-terrorism judges

A Home Office review group is considering the creation of special anti-terrorism judges that could make use of intercept evidence in cases (thanks, Dave!)

EUCD best practice guide published

I worked over the summer with Urs Gasser and a great team of copyright experts from around the world on a best practice guide for countries implementing the European Union Copyright Directive. The project report has now been published, but the project wiki will go on evolving as a copyright resource for civil society.

Most Americans Want Electronic Health Data, But Fear For Privacy

Nearly two-thirds — 65% — of U.S. consumers want personal electronic health records, but 80% of them have concerns about the misuse and security of their information, according to new survey of 1,003 Americans. (Thanks, Dave!)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Open Rights Group praised by the Guardian

Support the Open Rights Group
It's nice to see the Open Rights Group (where I'm treasurer) getting some recognition for all of its staff and supporters' hard work on the Gowers review of intellectual property. The Guardian's technology editor Vic Keegan writes in today's paper:

About 15 months ago I went, rather dutifully, to a meeting about digital rights in London's Soho. I was amazed to find quite a big crowd talking animatedly about a subject that was difficult to raise in polite conversation at the time. I was told that this was an inaugural meeting after 1,000 people had pledged £5 a month to get a new pressure group, Open Rights (openrightsgroup.org) established. Its aim was to campaign for people's rights in the digital age when decision-making is dominated by governments and the huge lobbying power of the music and publishing industries. It is clear that it has already become a force to be reckoned with and has had a big influence on making the Gowers review of intellectual property rights, published this week, more consumer-friendly.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Christmas propaganda presents

Get your propaganda calendar now in time for 2007!

UK govt proposes radical copyright shift

Prime-minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown is spinning his new intellectual property proposals as being tough on enforcement. In reality he is proposing a radical shift in European copyright law in favour of consumers and creativity, to allow a generic "fair use" exception (rather than the limited set of "fair dealing" exceptions we have under the Copyright Directive Article 5.)

The Treasury obviously took notice of the pointed reminder in Google's submission to the Gowers review that their indexing and caching of websites, legal in the US, would be highly risky in the UK. I have heard the Publishers' Association copyright counsel frothing on this subject in the past, claiming that Google should have to ask the permission of every single website operator on the Internet before indexing their sites. Search engines would simply not exist if that was required.

Gordon Brown may be proposing copyright reform in the expectation that there is not a hope in hell of the EU making such a radical change to its laws. If the Hugenholtz review of the copyright acquis made similar proposals, we might see just how "evidence-based" European law really is. (The Commission's dismissal of evidence that the Database Directive actively damages the database sector in the EU is not a good precedent.)

Term extension would cost UK £155m per year

The Treasury has just published the report commissioned by the Gowers review on the economic evidence on copyright term extension. It has a resounding conclusion:

Putting all of this together this means that one would need to find a minimum ratio of general (not marginal) welfare to deadweight loss in the range of 21 to 90. These are very high numbers and we find it difficult to imagine that the ratio is this high. As a consequence we believe it very likely that a term extension of the type under consideration would cause a net welfare loss to society. As it may be useful to the Gowers Team we attempt to provide an explicit estimate of the likely welfare change. Using a set of conservative parameter values (as detailed in the appendix below) we estimate the present value of welfare loss equal to approximately 7.8% of total current annual revenue, which expressed in monetary terms amounts to 155 million pounds.

E-democracy is a fraud

"If you look down the list of Downing Street petitions, is there one, a single one, you can actually imagine making a difference? 4,391 people have signed a petition to scrap the independent nuclear deterrent, 1,629 want Mr Blair to stand on his head and juggle ice cream ('if he’s not going to resign, the least he can do is provide us with some entertainment'), two people have called on the Prime Minister to allow the sale of elephants in pet shops ('We believe that every child in the UK would benefit from owning an elephant'). I would estimate the chances of success of each of these petitions as roughly equal." —Daniel Finkelstein

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Free speech and EU new media regulation

My colleague Peter Molnar passed on the recommendations below developed at a recent workshop on freedom of expression and media regulation.

On 1 December 2006 the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the Center for Media and Communication Studies of the Central European University Budapest with support of the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights hosted a workshop on 'non-linear audiovisual media services' and the draft EU audiovisual media services directive (AVMS). Following this workshop these recommendations have been developed by the signatories.

Recommendations to the European Parliament on the draft Audiovisual Media Services Directive

The draft Directive on Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) carries with it unintended harmful effects on the exercise of the right of freedom of expression. The consultation process so far has not given appropriate attention to these freedom of speech issues.

Accordingly, we urge the members of the European Parliament to further debate the report of the Committee on Culture and Education in its current form and to take into account the following recommendations:

1. The AVMS Directive should be anchored in the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and information as protected by article 10 ECHR and as interpreted through the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. This should be expressively reaffirmed also in the recitals of the preamble to the Directive.

The harmonization of the internal market and the intended protection of human dignity should take into account the principle of subsidiarity and the already existing legislation of member states. Where sector specific content-based regulation is established this should be specifically justified on the basis of the technological features of the respective sector and done through minimum standards only and within the limits of article 10 ECHR.

2. No derogations from the country of origin principle should be allowed other than those recognized by the European Court of Justice, as excessive derogations undermine both the main aim of the directive to create an internal market as well as the free flow of information. The ‘country of origin’ principle should be guaranteed at least for non-linear services without exception.

One of the driving motivations to modernize the existing TVWF Directive was to harmonize the internal market especially for new and emerging audiovisual media services in order to allow for the unhindered distribution of these services of the information society throughout the member states, which was not yet guaranteed by the eCommerce Directive. The current CULT report, however, again proposes to allow derogations from the country of origin principle and thus establishes obstacles for the free flow of information and legal uncertainty for these audiovisual services.

3. The platform-neutral approach of the draft AVMS Directive targets a vast area of new and yet to be developed services, including those that differ considerably from 'classic' broadcast. This goes beyond regulatory necessities and the scope of the Directive should be limited and not include new media services.

The Directive for the first time on the European level permits content-based restrictions of speech outside traditional broadcast, including content on the Internet, so called 'non-linear audiovisual media services'.

This poses enormous regulatory challenges. The debate until now has shown that there is no sufficient level of common understanding on how to address this rapidly changing communication environment. Also, unlike in classic broadcast, audiovisual content delivered through services of the information society (‘pull’ media) offers the user a high degree of choice and control and thus requires a different regulatory approach.

Peter Molnar
Senior Research Fellow
Central European University
Center for Media and Communication Studies
molnarp@ceu.hu

Christian Möller
Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media
christian.moeller@osce.org

Tom O. Kleppestø
Board Member
Rafto Foundation for Human Rights
tom@kleppesto.no

Monday, December 04, 2006

Chipping away at freedom

RFID tag"Regardless of the legitimacy of their fears — and the increasing police use of OysterCard records suggest this really isn't a baseless concern — if 70% of the population really do consider that RFID tags will lead to monitoring of their movements then ID cards could turn out to be an even harder sell than imagined. There's something primeval, perhaps, in the fear of being tracked that gets to the gut in a way that popping up on a thousand distant databases doesn't. Maybe we still carry that hardwired instinct to avoid the hunter, back from the days when we were more often prey than predator. Whatever the reason, it's clear that while a narrow majority feel being asked to prove their identity on demand poses no immediate threat, they're not yet willing to be herded and tracked like cattle." —Frank Fisher (via Open Rights Group)

Creative accounting

"Popster Mick Hucknall recently wrote in the Guardian that 'Copyright is fundamentally socialist — it is radical and redistributive, subversive even. How else would you describe a form of property that anyone can create out of nothing.' Among the many problems with this view is the assertion that creativity happens 'out of nothing'. It does not. Creativity builds on what has gone before, it is always a cumulative process. The framers of the original copyright statute recognised that when they sought to provide the shortest possible term of private monopoly to enable creators and innovators to earn a reward. This, they reasoned, would provide an incentive for others to innovate - and innovation is a fundamental process of human progress." —Paul Crake (via Open Rights Group)

German court says customers can order deletion of IP logs

A German court has ordered that ISP customers may demand that logs concerning their online activities be deleted (thanks, Dave!). Sadly, this decision will be overturned once Germany implements the EU Data Retention Directive at some point in the next 2 years.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Just say no to Cliff Richard

Andrew Gowers confirms that his review of the UK's intellectual property regime will be published this Wednesday.

Several leaks have suggested he will reject Cliff Richard and the record industry's lobbying for a longer copyright term. The industry has now switched focus to persuading the government to reject this conclusion. Don't forget to sign the Open Rights Group petition asking the government to listen to consumers rather than multinational companies for a change.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Data protections are being eroded, says European watchdog

EU Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx has warned that member states are trying to weaken privacy protection for data exchanged by European police forces (thanks, Dave!)

This is a good time to strike at the monstrous power of the media

Rupert Murdoch"Paying OJ Simpson £1.8m for a hypothetical confession was a shock too far in the US: Murdoch, who had sanctioned the deal, had to retreat fast. Yet bugging, bullying and persecuting elected politicians, the royal family and anyone else who takes his fancy has failed to raise the same voltage of shock over here. How supine are we?" —Polly Toynbee