Saturday, May 31, 2008

Labour must liberalise or die

"Labour politicians too often see a social problem—obesity, children at risk on the internet or declining interest in high culture—and make two assumptions: first, that the problem is amenable to a policy solution; and second, that this solution ought to involve the establishment of a council, commission or task force. But many of the issues facing modern society are too complex and too cultural for such a wooden approach." —Philip Collins, ex-speechwriter to Blair who has now been dropped as James Purnell's speechwriter after pressure from Number 10

Friday, May 30, 2008

Trust in online communities

Next month the OECD is holding its annual ministerial meeting in Seoul on The Future of the Internet Economy. I've been invited to speak on "Trust in Online Communities" at the meeting. My extended abstract and slides are below — any comments are welcome, and might even make it into my presentation!

Trust in online communities

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have attracted huge numbers of Internet users over the last five years. Dutton and Helsper (2007) recently found that 42% of all UK students had created a social networking profile, while DataMonitor found in August 2007 that North Americans spent almost 450m hours in total visiting these sites each month.

Other types of online communities are equally popular. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft and virtual worlds such as Second Life collectively boast tens of millions of active users. Many more specialised communities also exist online, linking for example physicians or those coping with diseases such as breast cancer or HIV (Bray, Croxson, Dutton & Konsynski, 2008).

What public policy interests do online communities implicate? Most generally, they provide a mechanism by which citizens can build social capital by strengthening their networks of emotional and practical support. They also present a means to reduce geographical barriers to participation in society, providing rural users with new means to interact and transact with those in more urban areas – particularly useful in countries such as the UK where urban/rural divides in broadband connectivity are now being overcome (OFCOM, 2008).

Recent social psychology research suggests a number of ways in which community designers can increase the production of these social goods by improving user trust in sites and in other community members. Green (2007) suggested the provision of non-verbal clues, links to mutual acquaintances and mechanisms to allow users to verify information. Reigelsberger, Sasse and McCarthy (2007) advised that sites should aim to increase users’ temporal, social and institutional embeddedness. These features can already been seen in social networking sites, such as Facebook’s lists of shared friends, institutional networks and links to external websites.

Reputation measures are also popular within online communities. These show how far community members have interacted with each other and with users’ own friends, sometimes with explicit ratings from peers. They also can identify users with similar activities and interests, a key predictor of trust (Jensen, Davies & Farnham, 2002).

Lacohee, Phippen and Furnell (2006) found that education, openness and tools for experimentation increase trust. Users need to feel in control, and be provided with restitution when problems occur.

Because it is difficult to reverse harms caused by the revelation of private information, community members need to be supported in setting appropriate limits on access to their personal data. Their trust can be seriously damaged by unintended releases of this information (Adams & Sasse, 2001). Facebook has seen a number of these incidents due to over-permissive sharing defaults (allowing for example Oxford University to fine students who had shared more widely than they had intended photographs of friends taking part in banned exam celebrations). Facebook's insecure application platform also allows unauthorised access to user data (Brown, Edwards & Marsden, 2007). The crude binary nature of “friend” relationships in social networks does not match the subtle manner in which individuals share different aspects of their lives with partners, friends, family members, managers, staff, acquaintances and strangers (Boyd, 2004).

Governments have two general policy levers at their disposal to encourage the development of trustworthy online communities. They can use competition law to drive up the quality of community sites – for example, by mandating interoperability for dominant players to reduce the winner-takes-all nature of markets based on networks of individuals. Privacy law can be used to enforce users’ control over their personal information, particularly in jurisdictions that have implemented the OECD's 1980 Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data.

Given the popularity of online communities with teenagers and younger children, governments have also come under pressure to intervene to reduce potential harms to young users. A recent review for the UK Department for Children, Schools and Families suggested that community sites targeted at young people should be encouraged to subscribe to a code of conduct that includes commitments to provide safety advice to users and to promptly takedown “harmful and inappropriate” content when notified of its presence (Byron, 2008). Byron also suggested that children be encouraged to talk with their friends, siblings and parents about e-safety; that parents install filtering software on home PCs; and that Internet Service Providers be required to block access to illegal content.


Adams A & Sasse MA (2001) Privacy in Multimedia Communications: Protecting Users, Not Just Data. In Blandford A, Vanderdonkt J & Gray P (Eds.) People and Computers XV - Interaction without frontiers. Joint Proceedings of HCI2001 and ICM2001, Lille, Sept. 2001. pp. 49-64

Boyd DM (2004) Friendster and publicly articulated social networking. Computer-Human Interaction ‘04, pp. 1279-1282

Bray, DA, Croxson K, Dutton WH & Konsynski B (2008) Sermo: A Community-Based, Knowledge Ecosystem. Distributed Problem-Solving Networks Conference, Oxford. Available from (last accessed 30 May 2008)

Brown I, Edwards L & Marsden C (2007) Stalking 2.0: privacy protection in a leading Social Networking Site. GikII 2 — law, technology and popular culture, London. Available from (last accessed 30 May 2008)

Byron T (2008) Safer Children in a Digital World (Department for Children, Schools and Families) p. 64

Dutton WH & Helsper E (2007) Oxford Internet Survey 2007 Report: The Internet in Britain (Oxford Internet Institute) p. 52

Green MC (2007) Trust and social interaction on the Internet. In Joinson et al. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Internet Psychology (Oxford University Press) pp.43-52

Jensen C, Davies J & Farnham S (2002) Finding Others Online: Reputation Systems for Social Online Spaces. Computer-Human Interaction ‘02, 4(1) p.449

Lacohee H, Phippen AD & Furnell SM (2006) Risk and Restitution: Assessing how users establish online trust. Computers & Security 25(7) pp.486-493

OFCOM (2008) The Nations & Regions Communications Market. Available from (last accessed 30 May 2008)

Riegelsberger J, Sasse MA & McCarthy JD (2007) Trust in mediated interactions. In Joinson et al. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Internet Psychology (Oxford University Press) pp.53-70

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

PM should do what's right

"Brown could do all the things I rather sense he would like to do. He could abandon 42-day detention, withdraw from Iraq and call the Olympians' bluff by slashing the 2012 budget. He could cancel Trident, stop ID cards and kill the NHS computer racket, saving billions. He could tax those who have grown enormously rich under his regime and give generously to the poor. He could even honour his hoary old pledge to liberate local democracy and reinvigorate civic pride." —Simon Jenkins

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Toffs can champion the poor

Bullingdon club
"Toff-bashing has become a displacement activity for a Labour party that has lost its popular roots and its radical faith. This is sham class war, a substitute for grownup politics, and the voters have noticed. In Crewe, Labour supporters passed by those stupid posters and voted Tory, and in London the white working class also voted Tory. It might be that we live in a new age of deference and that cheery Cockneys were so overawed by pictures of Johnson in his Bullingdon kit that the they doffed their cloth caps to him. Or it might just be that they are fed up with Labour." —Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Libertarianism from the left

Denis MacShane"Today's Prime Minister should seek to lead a more modest state. He might care to call it a prudent state which leaves more money with the citizen so that social justice is not confused with state aggrandisement." —Denis MacShane MP (Labour, Rotherham)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Privacy and terrorism

Thomas HammarbergThe Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights has published a new article on privacy and the fight against terrorism:
Surveillance technology is developing with breath-taking speed. This creates new instruments in the struggle against terrorism and organised crime, but also raises fundamental questions on the right to privacy for everyone. Individuals should be protected from intrusions into their private life and from the improper collecting, storing, sharing and use of data about them. Terrorism and organised crime must be combated — but not with means which undermine basic human rights.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Elections, Oxford-style

Oxford University is a highly democratic institution, governed by a Congregation of its academic and senior administrative staff and electing every committee and position imaginable. Of course, these elections have a distinctive Oxonian flavour:

  1. Ballot papers ask for the voter's name, signature, faculty and college. I suppose the University does predate the secret ballot in the UK by 800 years.

  2. Candidates are listed simply according to their degrees and previous Oxford positions (with positions at lesser universities relegated to an "Other relevant posts" section). No information is given on how successful candidates might exercise their powers.

I am as excited about voting for library and parks curators or members of the building and estates subcommittee as Americans must be at voting for their state sewage commissioner. Still, at least it is likely to be a century or two before anyone suggests the use of e-voting.

E-curator seminar at OeRC

SlideShare is addictive! Here is a presentation I just gave to the Oxford e-Research Centre on our e-curator project (which is coming along very nicely.)

The OeRC audience were interested to hear about our work and had some good ideas on how we might collaborate in future with their geometry imaging research.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Skype presentation on Internet blocking

I just had the interesting experience of giving a presentation (at Computers, Freedom and Privacy 2008) by Skype video. It seemed to work well — with minimal technical difficulty, we had a reasonably interactive panel discussion as well as my talking through my slides. It saved me two days of travelling; 1.3 tonnes of CO2 emissions; and having my photo and fingerprints taken by US Customs. Of course, I miss the opportunity to now go for a drink with the panel and audience :)

I'm also experimenting with SlideShare. Thanks to them you can see my presentation below (on proposals for "three-strikes" legislation that would force ISPs to terminate the accounts of alleged copyright infringers). All comments welcome!

DPhil studentship available

This September at Oxford we'll be kicking off a major new research project on privacy. If you have or will shortly have the equivalent of a distinction in a relevant social science Master's degree and are interested in conducting outstanding research leading to a doctorate, you might be interested in our associated studentship. This will cover home fees and a tax-free stipend of £12,940 per annum. Apply soon — the deadline is only three weeks away!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Einstein on religion

"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish." —Albert Einstein

Friday, May 09, 2008

Legislating for Web 2.0

The Society for Computers and Law is holding its third annual policy forum this September in London, with a theme of "Legislating for Web 2.0". Speakers (including yours truly) will discuss the impact of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive and the Commission's reviews of the communications and consumer acquis, and UK government plans on copyright, spectrum trading and updating the Communications Act. Full details at the SCL website.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

GikIII is coming!

GikIII, a two day workshop on the intersections between law, technology and popular culture, will be held on September 24-25, 2008 in Oxford.

Previous Gikiis have featured net neutrality explained via LOLcats, the surveillance implications of Harry Potter, how to regulate Killer Robots, the first ever Facebook privacy paper, why Japanese manga porn is a challenge for TRIPS, fansubbing and the law, self regulation and slash communities on Live Journal, privacy as seen through sf films, 5D sensory trademarks, blogging and data protection, and why Irish medieval history foresaw Creative Commons. They are generally well attended, mind-blowing and fun:) Numbers will be limited to c. 40 to enable participation. A small number of attendees not presenting papers may be allowed in at cost price if numbers allow.

If you would like to participate, email your abstract of no more than 500 words to either or by July 15 2008. We will confirm acceptances by August 1. Abstracts may be accepted after this date depending on whether the workshop is full.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

FIPR is 10!

fiprI have vague memories of the sunny spring afternoon when we met in Holborn to set up the Foundation for Information Policy Research. How quickly ten years of information policy has passed by; and what a different landscape we now see

Surveillance, the Database State, Online Crime ... What Next?

WHAT: An open meeting to celebrate FIPR's tenth birthday.

WHEN: 2:00-5:30pm, Tuesday 27 May 2008, followed by a reception.

WHERE: JZ Young Lecture Theatre, Anatomy Building, UCL, Gower St, London WC1.

The Foundation for Information Policy Research was set up in May 1998 to bring together engineers, lawyers, economists, policy people and others who are interested in the interaction between technology and society. It has become the UK's leading Internet policy think tank.

On May 27th 2008 we will be celebrating our tenth birthday with a conference at the JZ Young Lecture Theatre, University College London, from 2:00 - 5:30pm, followed by a reception. The first two sessions will discuss the big information policy challenges of the last ten years, while the third may attempt some crystal ball gazing:

1. Surveillance, privacy and technology

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, NHS databases, children's databases, behavioural advertising.

Chair: Lord Phillips

Panelists: Caspar Bowden (Microsoft), Simon Watkin (Home Office), Terri Dowty (Action on Rights for Children), Richard Clayton (FIPR)

2. Crime, consumers' rights and the law

IP enforcement, online contracts, the resolution of financial and other disputes, service personalisation.

Chair: William Heath

Panelists: The Earl of Erroll, Ian Brown (OII), Roland Perry (e-Victims), Nicholas Bohm (FIPR), Joris van Hoboken (IViR, the Netherlands)

3. The next ten years

What will be the interesting policy challenges as computers and communication become embedded invisibly everywhere?

Chair: Baroness Miller of Hendon

Panelists: The Earl of Northesk, Nigel Hickson (BERR), David Howarth MP, Tom Steinberg (mySociety), Ross Anderson (FIPR)

Admission is free to the public but space is limited.

Please register by sending email to < birthday2008 AT >

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Observers… ready!

ORG election observers Ian Brown and Alex Robinson
After over 15 hours of electronic ballot counting, the Greater London Assembly election results for the south and west London constituencies were declared last night at the Olympia count centre. After another 30 minutes of checking, the overall results for the London-wide assembly members and the Mayor were announced at City Hall, with Conservative Boris Johnson beating former mayor Ken Livingstone by a 6% margin.

A team of dedicated Open Rights Group volunteers were at the three count centres throughout the day to observe proceedings, accredited by the Electoral Commission under procedures introduced through the Electoral Administration Act 2006. We hope to publish a report soon on the conduct of the polls and the count. But for now, thanks to everyone who took part — especially organiser Becky Hogge, and Alex Tingle for this photo!