Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Last Oil Shock

The Last Oil ShockAfter thoroughly depressing myself with Collapse and Heat, I went for a triple whammy with The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man by David Strahan (London: John Murray, 2007).

After the award-winning writing of Jared Diamond and George Monbiot, it is perhaps unsurprising that I was slightly disappointed. While Strahan covers an important topic and has clearly spent a great deal of time on research, much of the book felt forced. It could be the US-style emphasis on personal stories and anecdotes that illustrate every point. It could be the paranoid tone of much of the book, and the anti-Bush and Blair rants that may be partially justified but that will cause many readers who need convincing to put down the book after the first chapter. It could be a general anti-capitalist tone that is merely preaching to many of those already converted.

The only chapters I thought should be compulsory reading were on the public policy options available and the geopolitics of OPEC. Strahan has a cynical and hence realistic view of how difficult it will be to persuade the public and their elected representatives of the dramatic steps necessary to smooth the world's path beyond Peak Oil:

[E]ven achieving complete independence from hydrocarbons by 2030 should be possible, provided policymakers accept that energy consumption must fall massively, and that to achieve this markets must be taken by the scruff of the neck. Extraordinary things can be achieved when society is put on a wartime footing, which would be entirely appropriate to our situation. All it needs is some brave political leadership. What a terrifying thought. (p.237)

Unfortunately even the public policy chapter fixates on carbon rations as a solution. I think rationing is a massively invasive response appropriate only to genuine wartime shortages. Carbon taxes would be a much simpler, more efficient and hands-off market-based solution. And isn't Bush the leading proponent of wars on abstract nouns?

Unless you are a real enviro-junkie I'd suggest you stick to Monbiot and Diamond's books as more interesting considerations of the potential for global eco-disaster.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sunsets can save liberty

"If we go the route of a written constitution, the case for which is growing, given how our unwritten constitution is being degraded by ad hoc measures in response to terrorism, immigration, crime and new technologies, it should enshrine the principle that anything with negative implications for civil liberties must carry default sunset clauses. Circumstances change; no polity should encumber itself with limitations and prohibitions permanently; the best safeguard for liberty is that anything questionable in light of it should only ever be temporary, if it must be enacted at all." —A.C. Grayling

Police demand doctors report gun victims

It is kind of the police to lobby for outrageous policies such as requiring doctors to breach patient confidentiality when treating knife and gun wounds. It makes those of us worried about the potential abuse of national medical and social care databases look rather moderate. As Shami Chakrabati commented: "It's high time that child crime initiatives moved away from pure policing and back to social services — but forcing doctors to inform on patients is madness. British teenagers should never have to treat their own gun and knife wounds for fear of being reported to the police."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Small sops to freedom can't hide what Labour has stolen

"[Gordon Brown and Jack Straw] were members of the Blair cabinet which mounted the greatest attack in peacetime on the people's rights and liberties. Having taken what was ours, they now offer it back to us — reduced and compromised — but as though it was somehow their beautiful gift to the people." —Henry Porter

"About identity cards, [Brown] says there will be a 'continuing debate'. You bet there will, Prime Minister, as there will be about extending detention without charge. He has a lot of work to do to persuade many of his backbenchers, never mind the country, that either should be included in 'the next chapter of British liberty'. He will be judged as a Prime Minister not by his grasp of history, but what he does to our country's future." —Andrew Rawnsley

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The UK IT industry and party politics

"What are YOU doing to help educate and interest YOUR MP in why the contribution of our industry to modern society is so important and in what they need to do to help ensure that boring things, like our communications infrastructure (as essential to the health and wealth of 21st century society as clean supply and efficient drains were to Victorian England) are fit for purpose, that policies on issues like Data Protection, Identity Management are based on practical experience not theoretical fantasy and that restrictions on civil liberties, like the extension of detention without trial, are not blamed on ICT (time to decrypt computer files) without evidence that the changes would make a commensurate difference to public safety." —Philip Virgo

Why won't Brown walk his liberal talk?

"Ours is, in the end and in spite of all, the liberal country Brown identifies. It requires liberal solutions to its problems. If Brown steps forward across the threshold and offers the solutions implied in his implicitly liberal analysis, he may become master of the future. If he doesn't he may freeze on the doorstep. And in that case the rebuilding of liberal Britain will fall not to Labour but to its rival parties, who currently seem more comfortable and better equipped for what lies ahead if Labour falters." —Martin Kettle

Friday, October 26, 2007

Govt rejects Lords Personal Internet Security Report

The government has produced an extremely disappointing response to the House of Lords Personal Internet Security report published in August.

The government has completely rejected the report's far-seeing recommendation that liability redistribution is the key to Internet security. The Lords were convinced that allocating some liability to financial services institutions, ISPs and software vendors would drive an increase in the security of Internet-related products and services. The government's response is to sniff that additional burdens cannot be imposed on business. This is short-sighted to say the least.

The government has also rejected advice that the Research Councils should fund significant new security work or a new centre of expertise between universities; that "kite marks" indicating a basic level of security in Internet-related products and services should be encouraged; or even that growing levels of fraud are significantly damaging people's trust in the Internet.

I've been doing quite a bit of work over the summer on e-crime. It is quite amazing just how quickly serious criminals are developing in their use of the Internet for fraud. I had high hopes the UK might lead the world in a long-term response to this problem. Instead it seems the government prefers to stick its head in the sand and hope the problem will go away of its own accord.

UPDATE: The Lords' special advisor isn't impressed.

Excel ate my election!

Excel ate my election! seminar
I'm currently on tour (!) in Scotland, visiting colleagues at Glasgow, St Andrews and Edinburgh universities.

Yesterday I did a seminar at St Andrews on the Open Rights Group's work observing e-voting and e-counting during the May elections. With impeccable timing, the Electoral Commission's independent Scottish Election Review was published this week, allowing me to update my slides.

ORG e-voting coordinator Jason Kitcat has already written about the review. But reading the full report gives an even more jaw-dropping picture of the fiasco that resulted from grossly inadequate planning, design and testing of ballot papers and e-counting systems in Scotland.

I am appalled that the Ministry of Justice is apparently still considering further e-voting trials in the UK.

UPDATE: Interesting response to the review from Secretary of State Des Browne:

"[T]here will be no necessity for electronic counting in elections, either for this Parliament or for the Scottish Parliament."

UPDATE 2: The Scotsman reports (via Open Rights Group): "CITY council bosses have secured more than £100,000 in compensation from the company behind the electronic count at this year's elections.

"The agreement comes almost six months after the fiasco that saw postal votes failing to arrive on time and election results delayed for hours because of problems with the counting software."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Microsoft throws in the towel in fight with EU

"Now that Microsoft has agreed to comply with the 2004 decision, the company can no longer use the market power derived from its 95 percent share of the PC operating system market and 80 percent profit margin to harm consumers by killing competition on any market it wishes." —Neelie Kroes, EU Competition Commissioner

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The mantra of the Whitehall Taliban

"The only real defence of Blair’s 'liberty, democracy and freedom' is to demand, constantly and tediously, that each extension of state power be justified as proportionate, cost-effective and consonant with these values. The onus should be on the executive to justify intrusion and repression, not on individuals to resist it. There is no way that ID cards pass this test." —Simon Jenkins

Putting minds in neutral

"Free speech is about the communication of the human experience. Without it, we are diminished: we put our minds in neutral and let others think for us." —Henry Porter

Friday, October 19, 2007

Parliament and the Internet

William GladstoneAn interesting visit yesterday afternoon to the Palace of Westminster for the annual Parliament and the Internet day.

We heard a lot about the new Police Central E-Crime Unit (which will come into existence shortly if the Home Office approves its funding). The Unit will support the 43 police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in investigating the "e-" component of crimes (rather than "e-crime", which most of those present agreed was a slightly dated concept).

We also heard about Alun Michael MP's plans for a "UK Internet Governance Forum", which like its international counterpart will act as a space where government, industry, law enforcement and civil society groups can partner to meet the challenges of the information age.

Most exciting speech of the day was from MIT's Professor Nicholas Negroponte, who gave us an update on his One Laptop Per Child project. The cute green $100 devices are now rolling off the production line, and will be arriving in various developing countries in the next few weeks. Negroponte's vision of the laptop as a breakthrough educational tool was inspiring.

Coincidentally one of this vision's key parts, the LOGO programming language, has just celebrated its 40th birthday. As a LOGO turtlechild myself, I am highly appreciative of programming as a tool to teach thinking. Negroponte did a great job in his presentation of overcoming the wave of cynicism that has hit OLPC. Let's see if the real-world deployment of the machines leads to the step-change in developing world education that he hopes for.

Tech 50 agenda setters

Mark ZuckerbergLast month I was one of the judges for silicon.com's annual Top 50 Agenda Setters list. We spent the day discussing the tech industries' most innovative and influential characters, and then each voted for our top 20. The results are in — and Mark 'Facebook' Zuckerberg has pipped Steve Jobs to the top spot.

Someone who can drop out of college and build a $10bn business in three years is certainly worth watching. Personally though I think that Jobs deserved the prize for his successful mergers and acquisitions strategy against the entire music industry and well-advanced takeover plans for the movie and mobile sectors. Next year maybe…

Other notable agenda setters include Emily Bell (Guardian Unlimited editor-in-chief), Kim Cameron (Microsoft's Identity Architect), Larry Lessig (Stanford law professor) and Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing co-editor).

The BBC empire must be decolonised

"One day Britain will have a public service broadcasting commission, using public money to purchase and distribute a range of news and cultural programmes across a range of platforms, on the strict criterion that they are not supplied in the marketplace. It will have no licence fee, no palaces, no unions, no meetings and certainly no 23,000 employees. The only question is whether that body will be called the BBC." —Simon Jenkins

Monday, October 15, 2007

Competition regulators ignore Google privacy concerns

Herbert KohlEU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes has rejected calls to consider the privacy implications of the Google bid for DoubleClick. She told The Guardian: "We are looking at the influence on competition and that's it." The US Federal Trade Commission is similarly expected to restrict its investigation to anti-trust grounds.

This is both unfortunate and another sign that competition authorities are taking some time to adjust to the new world of winner-takes-all infogopolies. As we have seen with the Microsoft competition enquiries, more traditional competition regulation has not proven up to the task of remedying the monopolistic behaviour of companies taking advantage of network effects to crush their rivals. Regulators need to move faster, be more willing to impose structural remedies, and to act in the spirit of competition law — preventing abuse of dominant positions, whether the impact is on competitors or consumers. As Senator Herb Kohl told a recent US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

"Some commentators believe that antitrust policymakers should not be concerned with these fundamental issues of privacy, and merely be content to limit their review to traditional questions of effects on advertising rates. We disagree. The antitrust laws were written more than a century ago out of a concern with the effects of undue concentrations of economic power for our society as a whole, and not just merely their effects on consumers' pocketbooks. No one concerned with antitrust policy should stand idly by if industry consolidation jeopardizes the vital privacy interests of our citizens so essential to our democracy."

National road pricing plans dumped

Stockholm charging zoneToday's Telegraph leads with news that the government is to drop plans for a national road pricing system. Is this the first victory for e-democracy, following the petition on the prime minister's website that drew 1.8m signatures? It's certainly a victory for evidence-based policymaking, with the government finally paying attention to data that showed 88% of congestion occurring in urban areas rather than out in the countryside.

Privacy concerns also played a strong part in the policy reversal, with motorists worried about satellite tracking of journeys. Perhaps the national Automatic Number Plate Recognition system should be next on their list…

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Democracy and freedom will beat terror

"It is ironic that defeat in the cold war should have led Russia to the exuberant self-confidence of Vladimir Putin’s Moscow, while victory has plunged the West into a loss of nerve. In both Washington and London are leaders who have so little confidence in democracy as to regard it as vulnerable to a few madmen, and who have so little respect for democracy’s freedoms as to suspend them at the bang of a bomb." —Simon Jenkins

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Gordon Brown deserves infamy

"New Labour is an empty vessel. The governing party is a political movement without content.It’s all a bluff. It always was. Third-way politics will not be unpicked, it will implode. Gordon Brown will not be countered, he will be debagged. The deserved fate of this administration is infamy. The way to bring it about is mockery, exposure and abuse." —Matthew Parris

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Yahoo to labels: no more DRM, ever

Ian Rogers"I'm here to tell you today that I for one am no longer going to fall into this [DRM] trap. If the licensing labels offer their content to Yahoo! put more barriers in front of the users, I'm not interested. Do what you feel you need to do for your business, I'll be polite, say thank you, and decline to sign. I won't let Yahoo! invest any more money in consumer inconvenience. I will tell Yahoo! to give the money they were going to give me to build awesome media applications to Yahoo! Mail or Answers or some other deserving endeavor. I personally don't have any more time to give and can't bear to see any more money spent on pathetic attempts for control instead of building consumer value. Life's too short. I want to delight consumers, not bum them out." —Ian Rogers, Yahoo! Music (via BoingBoing)

Monday, October 08, 2007

March for free speech!

"It's becoming remarkably hard to escape the feeling we're ruled by people who are basically paranoid authoritarian incompetents." —Iain Banks

If you are in London today and think freedom of speech and assembly are worth something, join the protest march to Parliament Square, which the government has banned using legislation from the 19th century!

UPDATE: great to see that the police were forced to back down and allow the march to take place.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The dark stain of the Bush presidency

"I am increasingly confident that when the history of the Bush Administration is written, this systematic violation of statutory and treaty-based law concerning fundamental war crimes and other horrific offenses will be seen as the blackest mark in our nation's recent history — not only because of what was done, but because the programs were routinely sanctioned, on an ongoing basis, by numerous esteemed professionals — lawyers, doctors, psychologists and government officers &mdash without whose approval such a systematized torture regime could not be sustained." —Marty Lederman

Who will mourn the passing of copyright?

Neither new nor established artists, who are leaving record companies in the dust and generating new business models based on touring, merchandise, ad-revenue sharing, sponsorship and scoring films and adverts.

Not consumers, who get faster access to a much wider range of music at prices much closer to the marginal cost of distributing works.

Not the City, whose financiers are far too smart to fall for the garbage economics peddled by the recording industry.

Shed a tear only for those members of the recording cartel who feel their industry should uniquely be protected from the creative destruction of capitalism.

All quiet on the leadership front as our troops die in faraway lands

"Under Blair the British government expended its hard-won capital of soft power — commercial, cultural and legal diplomacy — in favour of practising swordplay in the shadow of the Pentagon. This has led to bloodshed and disaster. But were that shadow to be withdrawn and were British soldiers still facing defeat in the deserts of Helmand, who then is to hold their hand, what lodestar is to guide them? Last week answer came there none." —Simon Jenkins

The government trumpets free speech while trampling on it

"The art of government these days is to extend power without people noticing. Gordon Brown proclaims his solemn duty 'to uphold freedom of speech, freedom of information and freedom of protest', yet his ministers steal through the night to attack each one of these rights. We are moving with a sickening speed to a point where the reality of government intentions is the precise opposite of its presentational rhetoric." —Henry Porter

Saturday, October 06, 2007

In the land of oddballs, the fake hardman is king

"There are more unconvincing hardmen in politics than in 500 episodes of EastEnders. George Osborne, scion of one of our finest fabric and wallpaper families, has been jeering blokeishly that the PM might 'bottle it' on the election front. 'Bring it on,' he scoffs. One can only hope the response runs along the lines of 'Time for your pasting, wallpaper boy!'. It would certainly maintain the level of debate.

"Or think back to David Blunkett, forever talking about 'nailing' criminals when he was home secretary. Blunkett, of course, had four houses, was best friends with the Duchess of Devonshire, and seemed to like Annabel's. Yet he appeared to be positioning himself as the SW1 version of Richard Harris in This Sporting Life. Only in Westminster can you get away with this." —Marina Hyde

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The war on erratic driving

Britten-Norman Islander"The intelligence agencies are using military aircraft equipped with sophisticated surveillance equipment to eavesdrop on and monitor the movements of suspected terrorists, the Guardian has learned.

"The Britten-Norman Islander is already being used by the police to combat dangerous driving, trace missing persons, and find escaped prisoners or stolen vehicles. It was used by the army in Northern Ireland, and is now being deployed in counter-terrorist operations when, it is understood, it is flown by an RAF crew…

"Cheshire police recently revealed they were using the Islander to identify people speeding, driving when using mobile phones, overtaking on double white lines, or driving erratically." —Richard Norton-Taylor (thanks, Gus!)

Netherlands junks voting machines

My friend and colleague Dr. Anne-Marie Oostveen writes from Amsterdam with some interesting news:

Just a quick update on the Dutch e-voting situation. The last couple of days have been quite exciting in the Netherlands with regards to the use of voting computers. As you all might know, the foundation 'Wijvertrouwenstemcomputersniet' initiated a serious debate about the risks associated with the use of the voting machines by approximately 98% of the Dutch population. It wasn't until the foundation showed with a well-documented hack how easy it was to commit fraud that Mr. Atzo Nicolai, the Dutch Minister for Government Reform and Kingdom Relations, decided in December 2006 to set up two committees to investigate the electoral process.

The first committee was led by ex-Member of Parliament L. Hermans and looked back to the early 60s to examine the decisions made surrounding the introduction of voting computers. The second advisory committee was chaired by Minister of State Mr. F. Korthals Altes. The task of this committee was to review the current electoral process in the Netherlands and make proposals to improve or alter it. One point the committee considered concerned the risks of using electronic voting versus paper ballots. The committee issued its 'Voting with Confidence' advisory report last Thursday 27 September 2007 in The Hague. Main conclusions: the ballot paper is preferable to electronic voting since it makes a recount possible and it is more transparent. Internet voting should be limited to people living abroad, citizens resident in the Netherlands will have to cast their ballots in polling stations, making vote selling and coercion very difficult, if not impossible.

The deputy Minister for Interior A. Bijleveld said in a first response that she would accept the committee's advice, and ban electronic voting. She announced that the 'Regulation for approval of voting machines 1997' will be withdrawn forthwith. Elections in the Netherlands will be held using paper ballots and red pencil for a while. After that, citizens will probably be using 'vote printers' and optical scan counting computers.

But this was not all! The icing on the cake came on yesterday 1 October 2007 when a Dutch judge declared that the use of the Nedap e-voting machines in recent Dutch elections has been unlawful. The District Court of Alkmaar decertified all Nedap voting computers currently in use in The Netherlands. The court order is a result of an administrative law procedure started by 'We do not trust voting computers' in March 2007.

More information: http://www.wijvertrouwenstemcomputersniet.nl/English

Articles in English:

There will be an English translation of the 'Voting with Confidence' advisory report in a couple of weeks time.