Saturday, March 31, 2007

"Don't be evil" is a sick joke

"Yahoo!, Google and other internet giants have argued that cooperation with state censorship is the price of doing business in China. With the hypertrophy of the Chinese economy, the financial temptations have proved too great, even for a generation of dotcom companies built on the barefoot idealism of their young staff. Google's oft-quoted motto is 'Don't be evil', which might have sounded cool in a Stanford coffee bar, but has lately become something of an international sick joke." —Hari Kunzru

The irrelevant safety elephant

"The end of the month holds a special dread these days, because if four weeks have elapsed, one knows with absolute certainty that it will only be minutes before Charles Clarke issues a denial of his total irrelevance." —Marina Hyde

Friday, March 30, 2007

China's great game in Asia

"The Communist Party fears that allowing political freedom to flourish on its fringes would loosen its ability to monopolise power in China as a whole. And there lies the real reason why China is so friendless. With no attractive ideas or values to appeal to neighbours, it falls back on a resurgent nationalism that scares them instead: we were a great power, should always be a great power, and by golly look at us now, so get out of the way!" —The Economist

Shoe surveillance

One of Europe's largest shoe manufacturers is to embed RFID chips into the soles of shoes to reduce retail theft (via Open Rights Group). While these tracking devices will be deactivated at checkout, what guarantees do consumers have that they will remain switched off? Or that tags will not be linked with loyalty cards used at the till?

Commission report slams Copyright Directive

A report carried out for the European Commission has severely criticised key aspects of the EU's Copyright Directive, including its provisions protecting Digital Rights Management technology (via Open Rights Group):

"The Directive’s convoluted rules on [DRM] have little more to offer to the member states and its market players than confusion, legal uncertainty and disharmonisation."

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Terrorised by the war on terror

Zbigniew Brzezinski"The 'war on terror' has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration's elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America's psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us."—former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski

IT glitch could hit elections

120 councils are using faulty software to check postal vote signatures (thanks, Owen). Patches to fix the problem are causing data to be lost. Yet another reason why government plans to "modernise" elections by introducing e-voting are lunacy.

A monstrous war crime

"At a time when we are celebrating our enlightened abolition of slavery 200 years ago, we are continuing to commit one of the worst international abuses of human rights of the past half-century. It is inexplicable how we allowed this to happen. It is inexplicable why we are not demanding this government's mass resignation.

"Two hundred years from now, the Iraq war will be mourned as the moment when Britain violated its delicate democratic constitution and joined the ranks of nations that use extreme pre-emptive killing as a tactic of foreign policy. Some anniversary that will be." —Dr. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet

Blair's scary swansong crime review

The Conservatives are rightly suspicious of Tony Blair's "legacy" swansong on lawnorder. Shadow home secretary David Davis said:

"We would have great and grave concerns about any extension of the DNA database. This currently has no statutory basis and, sinisterly, the Government refuses to even have a debate about how it should operate.

"As for childhood intervention we await some actual evidence from the Government as to why they think this is worth considering.

"In the mean time, it looks like the nanny state gone mad. There is a real risk this could amount to nothing more than ineffective and costly intervention in the lives of innocent people with no criminal background."

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Internet is not fantasy

"I do not ask for draconian laws, but there should be at least a degree of justifiable fear and public contumely surrounding libellous bloggers, spreaders of hate, invaders of privacy, sexual exhibitionists, fraudsters and anyone still stupid enough to answer a “phishing” scam or to tap out their credit card number without even glancing up for the “https” . Cruelty, fraud, snooping, carelessness and gratuitous rudeness are still shameful, even online. The internet is real." —Libby Purves

13,000 mortgage details stolen

Halifax bankA Halifax building society employee last week had data on 13,000 mortgage customers stolen from their car. Halifax is now writing to each of these customers promising they will cover the cost of any fraudulent activity that results. The Financial Services Authority, after in February fining Nationwide building society almost £1m for a similar breach, is investigating.

I do hope the laptop disk concerned was encrypted. But why do financial services institutions persist in allowing employees to take massive collections of personal data home on laptops? And why is financial services the only sector where data breaches are taken seriously? If only the Information Commissioner's Office would take similar action to the FSA.

A warning of grief ahead over Iran

"Here is a new manifestation of the loss of moral authority resulting from the Iraq policies of George Bush and Tony Blair. Iran is controlled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Its cruelties fall not merely on its opponents, but upon its entire female population. It is a proponent of international terrorism, committed to the illegal acquisition of nuclear weapons. Its president is a Holocaust denier. Yet in dealing with Tehran, Washington and its allies must duck and weave." —Max Hastings

Monday, March 26, 2007

We can have 'win-win' on security vs. privacy

Excellent new report just released on privacy and security by the Royal Academy of Engineering (via Open Rights Group):

People think there has to be a choice between privacy and security; that increased security means more collection and processing of personal private information. However, in a challenging report to be published on Monday 26 March 2007, The Royal Academy of Engineering says that, with the right engineering solutions, we can have both increased privacy and more security. Engineers have a key role in achieving the right balance.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Donald Rumsfeld"What was Rumsfeld doing on 9/11? He deserted his post. He disappeared. The country was under attack. Where was the guy who controls America's defense? Out of touch!" —former White House official quoted in a new biography of Donald Rumsfeld

Stop treating us like children, Lord Falconer

Lord Falconer"Whatever Lord Falconer professes in public, you may be sure that this bustling personage is not the citizen's foremost champion and the idea that denying journalists access to information will benefit the citizen should be dismissed with the derision it deserves." —Henry Porter

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The world as it is, and could be

Psychology by GleitmanThe stunning End of Poverty prompted me to compile a list of the five books that I think best explain the world as it is and could be:

  • Information Feudalism by Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite: an extraordinary account of how a small cabal of multinational patent and copyright holders strongarmed the world into the TRIPS agreement.

  • Collapse by Jared Diamond: will our societies continue to rape the planet, or change in time to save themselves from extinction?

  • The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Zhisui Li: the most jaw-dropping demonstration imaginable that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

  • Psychology by Henry Gleitman: a comprehensive introduction to the science essential for understanding human beings that is almost unknown outside universities and hospitals.

  • The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs: a comprehensive explanation of how and why we should end extreme poverty by 2025.

Any other suggestions?

The end of poverty

The End of PovertyYou might not imagine that a dense 400-page tome of economic history and development economics would make the best holiday reading. But The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs had me turning pages as avidly as a Tom Wolfe novel whilst travelling around India.

Sachs shows how the developed world's spectacular economic growth since the industrial revolution is unprecedented in human history — and how with small efforts on debt, aid and trade linked to good governance that growth could be replicated in the Least Developed Countries whose one billion citizens live in abject poverty. Sachs shares his experience helping Bolivia, Poland, Russia, China, India and many African nations overcome obstacles of geography such as tropical disease, lack of navigable rivers and coastlines, and inadequate water supplies. He also looks at the cultural barriers, geopolitics, governance failures, fiscal traps and lack of innovation that all hold back countries' growth.

From all of this economic theory and practice, Sachs describes a simple step-by-step plan by which extreme poverty could be ended by 2025. Debt cancellation and aid linked to good governance requirements would allow developing countries to make the investments in infrastructure, healthcare and education necessary for them to move successfully up the development ladder in the same manner as the Asian tigers during the last 30 years. The 0.7% of GDP already promised by rich nations in development aid would be entirely sufficient to achieve this goal. Elimination of tariff barriers and export subsidies by the US and EU would give the developing world fair access to American and European markets, as the Doha round of trade talks is struggling to agree. Flexibility in intellectual property rules, as emphasised by the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health, would allow the technology transfer essential to healthcare and innovation in developing nations.

I could not agree more with Sachs that a failure by the developed world to live up to these promises would be both a moral obscenity, and extremely short-sighted given their benefits to global security and stability. He concludes:

As global prosperity has accelerated in the past two centuries, each generation has been called upon to meet new challenges in extending the possibilities of human well-being. Some have faced the harrowing challenge of defending reason itself against the hysterias and mass brutalities of communism, fascism, and other totalitarianisms of the twentieth century. Others have been blessed with the opportunity to expand the ambit of human freedom and reason, spared from war and equipped with increasingly powerful tools to improve the human condition. Our own generation lives with a precarious peace, one threatened both by terrorism and the overly militaristic response of the United States, but a peace on which we can build if we can sustain it. Ending poverty is the great opportunity of our time, a commitment that would not only relieve massive suffering and spread economic well-being, but would also promote the other Enlightenment objectives of democracy, global security, and the advance of science.

This magnificent and moving book is an essential read for anyone concerned with ending the horrendous threats of starvation and disease that stalk the world's billion poorest citizens.

Stand up for your rights

"For people in the poor world, as for people everywhere, the most reliable method yet invented to ensure that governments provide people with social and economic necessities is called politics. That is why the rights that make open politics possible—free speech, due process, protection from arbitrary punishment—are so precious. Insisting on their enforcement is worth more than any number of grandiloquent but unenforceable declarations demanding jobs, education and housing for all." —The Economist

Friday, March 23, 2007

Rusbridger: no idea where industry is going

Alan RusbridgerAt the closing session of yesterday's Guardian Changing Media Symposium, editor Alan Rusbridger admitted he had absolutely no idea where the newspaper industry was going. He showed a graph with one line measuring plunging sales and another optimistic projection of massive increases in online readership and revenues. The industry's problem is how to make that projection happen. He also said that papers will have to cut costs by increasing the proportion of user-generated content on their sites. If the Guardian's commenters are any guide, much of this will not be worth the electrons it is printed on.

Rusbridger also had a sideswipe at the "hereditary" nature of the industry, asking whether the junior Murdochs, Barclays and O'Reillys will really be interested in taking over such risky businesses when their fathers retire — and whether the Times and Telegraph are already fading away.

I agree that the Times is fading fast, completing its drift mid-market with an atrocious website relaunch. I certainly don't want to read a garish, Web 0.7 version of the Daily Mail when there is so much better available elsewhere.

Gowers: music industry shares responsibility for piracy

Another interesting comment from Andrew Gowers yesterday was that the music industry's atrociously slow move online was partially responsible for massive online copyright infringement by music fans. Not a new thought, but rarely heard from such an establishment figure. Film4 head of business affairs Paul Grindley agreed, and wondered whether the Internet had robbed the music industry of much of its raison d'etre as a promotion and distribution channel.

I did disagree though with Gower's veiled threat to ISPs that a copyright levy should be imposed on Internet users if ISPs cannot come to some licensing agreement with right holders by the end of this year. Why is it that the music industry is so keen for "the market" to solve problems like DRM usability and interoperability, but clamours for government intervention over anti-circumvention laws and "value recognition rights"?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Gowers: case for term extension still rubbish

Andrew GowersI just spoke on a copyright panel with Andrew Gowers, who produced a review of the UK intellectual property framework for the Treasury last year. I'm glad to hear that he continues to take a robust line on the economic case for an extension of the term of copyright in sound recordings. Despite the "unrelenting lobbying" of the music industry, he is quite clear that such a case simply does not exist.

MPs to investigate New Labour surveillance state

Jack Straw snogs Condoleeza RiceJack Straw has announced that MPs are to investigate the lurch of the UK into a surveillance state (thanks, Owen!). How appropriate — Mr Straw started this process as Home Secretary, for which he won a Big Brother award in 1999.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Google privacy still has some way to go

Google has announced that it will anonymise the logs it keeps of search terms after 18-24 months. Previously, they kept records of users' searches indefinitely, linked to their IP address and cookies (thanks, Joris!).

Two questions:

  1. Why keep the data in identifiable form for 18-24 months? That is still 18-24 months longer than necessary.

  2. Will the anonymisation used break the link between queries from the same individual? If not, it will still be relatively easy to link queries back to users, as several journalists did when AOL released "anonymised" search logs last year.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Tories attack NHS IT

"Labour have ripped the heart out of our NHS and replaced it with a computer." —David Cameron MP

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Supermarkets to get medical records

Yet another ill thought out "eye-catching initiative" from our Dear Leader:

The prime minister will respond to Tory claims that he has left the NHS in “crisis” by publishing his ideas for “progressive” reform of public services. He will allow GPs to link up with pharmacies and supermarket drug counters by sharing electronic patient records.

I am so looking forward to Tesco linking their massive customer loyalty database with customers' medical records. Just think of the marketing opportunities! Oh wait, one commenter on the article already did:

What a wonderful idea. I can get a pint of milk, some vegetables, have a quick prostatectomy and get some extra Tesco points. Congratulations Patricia, you have really cracked it this time. So good to know the NHS is safe in your hands.

Information systems for genocide

Hollerith tabulatorJesus' General is the triumphant überblog of the blogosphere. After the Coloniser of the Year award comes this powerful Sunday sermon from Austin Cline on the history of US corporate complicity in genocide:

By mid-1944, the Nazis had Hollerith Departments (Hollerith Abteilung) "installed at the main concentration camps at Mauthausen, Ravensbrüch, Flossenbürg and Buchenwald." The SS Hollerith cards included codes for the grounds for confinement (Jehovah's Witness=01, homosexuals=02, Jews=05), birth date, gender, ethnicity (Reich German=0, Ethnic German=1, Foreigner=2), labor capacity, occupation, and reason for departure (execution=3, escape=4, special treatment=6). These IBM Hollerith numbers would be tattooed on the arms of people entering Auschwitz

All of this information was sorted and tabulated to make the administration of the massive camp system possible. Dachau alone was using 24 IBM machines by the end of the war. These machines were, in many ways, both the origin of the "surveillance society" and an example of everyone's fears about what happens when powerful authoritarians have too much access to too much information about us.

Of course, in the Brave New Labour World, national ID registers, centralised medical records, child surveillance systems and countless other databases could never be abused in this way.

2006 Coloniser of the Year

Jesus' General distinguished guest blogger The Unapologetic Mexican has named the winner of his coveted 2006 Coloniser of the Year award: Angelina Jolie.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Actress Angelina Jolie picked up a new Baby of Color (BoC) from a Vietnamese orphanage Thursday. She arrived carrying her 5-year-old Child of Color, Maddox (whom she adopted from nearby Cambodia in 2002), and wearing a huge pendant sporting a photograph of 2-year-old Zahara, whom she adopted from Ethiopia. Together, Jolie and her Latest Brown Baby (LBB) went to a ceremony where Jolie was expected to detour to Laos, so she could adopt a third non-White child, officials said. When pressed, Jolie would not swear that she wouldn't "browse a bit" if she found any "exceptionally exotic-looking" infants along the way…

Friday, March 16, 2007

Incredible India

Holy cow!
Returning from a month in India, my mind is still whirling. The vivid flashes of colour of saris were everywhere. Whole cities were washed with pink (Jaipur), blue (Jodhpur) and gold (Jaisalmer). Icons like the Taj Mahal, familiar from a thousand calendars and books, felt entirely different up close. Cows, oxen, goats, dogs, boars, camels, elephants, monkeys and mosquitoes owned the cities equally with their human cohabitants. Auto-rickshaws, mopeds, trucks and buses flowed around them in a rampaging torrent, sounding horns constantly as echo-location to stay inches apart. How pedestrian the stately Georgian terraces and garden squares of Bloomsbury appear in comparison!

Arriving at conferences in Bangalore and Delhi, the similarities with the culture of the subcontinent in the UK were striking. The Times (of India) featured news and gossip of the cricket world cup and of Bollywood and Big Brother star Shilpa Shetty meeting the Queen. Photos of girls in shalwar kameez walking to school through the snow could have been from Bradford — but were actually of Srinagar in Kashmir. The British Council held a conference club night for visiting and local conference participants that was a highly successful exercise of the soft power that is so much more influential in international relations than illegal invasions of oil-rich nations.

Varanasi ghatsOur post-conference Holi party was a first reminder that not all aspects of India are yet everyday in the UK. We started in white tunics and trousers and ended up all shades of the red, green, yellow and orange paint being thrown around in celebration of the arrival of spring.

But in Varanasi we were plunged into a totally different world. The warren of streets of the old city were squalid, with piles of dung and rubbish everywhere. But our hotel looked out over the serene Ganges, with hundreds of devotees down below bathing and brushing teeth in water heavily polluted with sewage, toxic waste and even the cremated bodies we occasionally saw floating past. Thousands of visitors crowded the ghats or steps that lined the river — including the burning ghats from where funeral pyres were launched.

Taj MahalOur train to Agra took us to yet another culture. The monumental marbled tombs, mosques and palaces of the Mughals could have been a real disappointment given their global fame. Seen from a hundred different angles, up close and from far away, they were instead an awe-inspiring living reminder of the central Asian empires that ruled northern India centuries ago.

The fort cities of the desert state of Rajasthan were our final destination. The Amber Fort overlooked the bazaars, back-street factories and elephants of the pink city of Jaipur, where we celebrated my birthday in a marbled colonial hotel with chocolate cake and a fortuitous TV viewing of Octopussy. Our haveli (merchant mansion) in Jodhpur sat amidst a sea of blue-washed cubist buildings in the shadow of the towering Mehrangarh fort, which has remained impervious to the charging elephants and sieges of numerous invading armies since it was built in 1459.

The golden sandstone fort of Jaisalmer rose out of the Thar desert, where we spent an afternoon camel trekking before watching the sun set over the sand dunes. The languorous pace of life in a city whose summer temperatures top 50C was interrupted only by the roar overhead of the Indian Air Force's MiG-29s and Mirages, a reminder of the still tense stand-off with Pakistan, which saw just last month 68 people killed in a bombing of the Delhi-Lahore Friendship Express.

Looking down from Jaisalmer fort

Travelling back into Delhi, just feet from the slums that line the train tracks, it felt as though this trip had been much more intense than my previous travels — even to countries such as China. Perhaps it was the centuries of history visible from every corner — largely crushed from China by Mao's Cultural Revolution. Perhaps it was the flashes of recognition of elements of an intertwined Anglo-Indian culture that goes back centuries. It certainly had something to do with the extreme poverty that is whitewashed from tourist areas by most other governments.

This grinding poverty upset me less than many European visitors because I spent the first two weeks of my visit devouring The End of Poverty by the head of the UN Millennium Development Project, Prof. Jeffrey Sachs. He is highly optimistic that with appropriate aid, fair global trading rules and action on debt, the developing world can leap forward to sustainable economic growth that will bring billions of developing world citizens out of poverty.

This astonishing, intense and awe-inspiring visit has redoubled my enthusiasm to try and make some small contribution to these Millennium Goals myself. We hope that our Fair Tracing project will encourage a more ethically and environmentally sound global trade system; and the increasingly successful campaign for a development focus in world intellectual property rules should help developing nations move decisively into high-value information industries in the same manner as North American and European nations last century, and as the regions surrounding Bangalore and Hyderabad have already done so successfully in software and outsourcing.

The fortunate one billion citizens of the rich world owe nothing less to the remaining five-sixths of humanity.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

China's next revolution

"Without an accountable executive branch, the necessary reform of the [Chinese] legal system is not going to happen. As the passage of the property law itself demonstrates, the party is showing itself somewhat more responsive to public opinion than it was in the past. But it still runs a government that does its best to silence most dissenting voices, strictly controls the press, and lavishes resources on the best cyber-censorship money can buy. Property rights are a start; but only contested politics and relatively open media can ensure that they are enforceable." —The Economist

Don't wear your red nose in Westminster

Click here to find out how to avoid arrest on Red Nose Day
(Thanks, Ben!)

Friday, March 09, 2007

Drug law must be reformed

"It is incongruous, incoherent and out of date; unwieldy and peppered with anomalies, an agglomeration of miscellaneous provisions adopted to address situations that in many cases no longer apply. The law governing illegal drugs should be scrapped almost in its entirety." —Alice Miles

Democracy in action

How appropriate to hear about the Commons vote for a fully-elected House of Lords here in the world's largest democracy of a billion voters!

I've been lucky to work with some extremely committed and knowledgeable peers over the last few years. I hope that the electoral system used for the reformed Lords/Senate will allow those with great expertise but fewer party political connections to have the chance to stand for seats. That certainly means avoiding the electoral abomination of closed party lists used for the European elections.

As Tony Benn remarks:

In arguing for this major constitutional reform, no one should interpret it as a personal attack on those who have worked hard and conscientiously in the present Lords, and who have made an impact in securing changes, as for example in some anti-terrorism legislation - for they have done a good job, and some might want to stand in a senate election.

The Lords have done a vital job in holding back the authoritarian control freaks of New Labour. Their successors must be given enough power to protect our freedoms in the same way.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

'Pay as you drive' schemes are in disarray

Rod EddingtonIt seems that even the government's transport adviser Sir Rod Eddington is dismayed at plans for a national congestion charging scheme. He (rather sensibly) thinks that charging should be limited to congestion hotspots such as the 10 most congested cities.

Why would anyone sane spend £600 per driver to manage non-existent congestion on country roads?

The fat-cat jukebox

"Take iTunes — where a download costs you and me 79p compared with 50p for US residents. Tax is cited as one reason, but the other, as we all know, is that 79p is the smallest amount UK record companies would settle for. Nor is it to protect the interests of British musicians and composers. Out of that 79p, the person who actually wrote the song gets just 6p to share with their publisher. Even the credit card company sees 7p per individual download, while Apple takes about 12p for administration costs." —Songwriter Tom Robinson

Salt Lake City mayor calls for Bush impeachment

Ross C. Anderson"Never before has there been such a compelling case for impeachment and removal from office of the president of the United States for heinous human rights violations, breaches of trust, abuses of power injurious to the nation, war crimes, misleading Congress and the American people about threats to our nation’s security and the supposed case for war, and grave violations of treaties, the Constitution, and domestic statutory law." —Salt Lake City Mayor Ross C. Anderson (via Boing Boing)

Friday, March 02, 2007

Olympics are the biggest overselling scam in history

"The Olympics are like the ID cards computer, the Eurofighter and the Afghan war — billion-pound projects which politicians know they should have stifled at birth." —Simon Jenkins

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A better way to help the poor is to reduce poverty

"Many of the claims made about [policy] effects on the poor are, in fact, rubbish. Among the poorest 20% of Britons, 59% don't have access to a car. Cheap flights are mostly used by the affluent for weekends in their French or Spanish holiday homes: the average annual income of passengers passing through Stansted in 2005 was £51,000, and fewer than 8% came from the bottom two social brackets. Poor children never got through the 11-plus in large numbers, and in England's surviving grammar schools, only 2% receive free school meals against 14% nationally. It isn't transport policy or education policy that hits poor people hardest. It's poverty." —Peter Wilby

DRM is doomed

You've been ZUNED"The fight against file sharing is not being won and DRM is not doing anything close to a sufficient job of preventing online piracy. CD ripping is actually a much bigger deal and the labels are moving away from CD copy protection after painful experiences such as the root-kit debacle. Added to that, there is widespread consensus among the music industry to look at alternatives to DRM." —Mark Mulligan, Jupiter Research (via Open Rights Group)

Dutch e-voting vendor blackmails govt

Wij vertrouwen stemcomputers niet - www.wijvertrouwenstemcomputersniet.nlIt is quite astonishing to read various blackmail threats from Jan Groenendaal, head of the main e-voting supplier to the Dutch government.

Documents revealed under Freedom of Information requests showed Groenendaal threatened to cease all activity if an e-voting sceptic (Rop Gonggrijp) was appointed to an independent review committee. He then proposed that "The ministry buys the shares of our company at a reasonable price, [...] and we will still cooperate during the next election (the Dutch 2007 provincial elections to be held March 7th)." Groenendaal also told the government that Gonggrijp should be arrested for exposing flaws in e-voting machines: "After all, his activities are destabilizing society and are as such comparable to terrorism. Preventive custody and a judicial investigation would have been very appropriate."

Do we want to let this type of person anywhere near the administration of UK e-elections?

Stalking elephant

I'm delighted to see that Safety Elephant's brief return to the political fray has been captured by Steve Bell.