Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The perplexing banality of libertarian paternalism

"Despite the welcome weight Thaler and Sunstein throw behind a few genuinely liberty-enhancing policies, the thrust of the conceptual renovation behind the term libertarian paternalism is to empower, not limit, political elites. In the libertarian paternalist scheme, the rules will allow for an easy opt-out only so long as those writing the rules happen to care about preserving choice. The 'libertarian' part of the equation is secured by good will alone. If that falters, we are left with paternalism, plain and simple. Old-fashioned libertarianism, it turns out, had a great deal to say about the choice architecture of politics. Given the intense attractions of power and the limits of benevolence, liberty (and therefore the commonweal) is best secured by setting in place a structure of rules that strictly limits the discretion of the powerful. That includes the discretion even of choice-loving technocrats." —Will Wilkinson, reviewing the wildly popular Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Long-term solutions to cybersecurity threats

I'm in Brussels today talking about strategic policy responses to cybersecurity threats. We've had an interesting set of presentations from around Europe and the US. Here is mine:

Monday, September 29, 2008

Tories to scrap child database

The Conservative Party have been determined to scrap the government's National Identity Register project for the last two years. They have now also realised the dangers of the parallel ContactPoint database of all 11 million children in England, which we wrote about for the Information Commissioner's Office in 2006. Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove today told the Daily Telegraph:

"ContactPoint can never be secure. We are taking this action because we are determined to protect vulnerable children from abuse, ConactPoint would increase that risk. The government has proved that it cannot be trusted to set up large databases, and cannot promise that inappropriate people would not be able to access the database. It would be irresponsible to implement something that is such a danger to our children. After all the problems we have with this government losing sensitive data we need to do things differently. We need to invest in people. Strengthening relationships, not building another Big Brother system."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

All GikIIId out

This week's GikIII conference was a big success — we had a whole load of thought-provoking presentations on law, technology and popular culture. Thanks to everyone who helped us with the organisation and who visited us in Oxford to take part. You can read more from Wendy Grossman, Fernando Barrio, Andres Guadamuz, Peter Jenkins and Lilian Edwards.

Here is Chris Marsden and my GikIII effort on competition law and social utilities:

Friday, September 26, 2008

Legislating for Web 2.0

The Society for Computers and Law organised a great policy forum earlier this week in London on Legislating for Web 2.0:
Europe is fast approaching a new set of Directives to regulate European law, from four directions:

  • The Audiovisual Media Services Directive was enacted on 18 December 2007;

  • The new review of the Electronic Communications Services Framework (5 Directives and a Regulation) is taking place in the course of 2008;

  • The Electronic Commerce Directive remains under constant review and is in tension with several national laws;

  • The Consumer Acquis (8 Directives) is currently being reviewed.

This flurry of legislative activity at European level ties in with a set of activities at UK level that affect the Internet environment — the implementation of the governmental response to the Gowers Review, the preparations for reform of the Wireless Telegraphy Act to make spectrum secondary trading easier.

There may well be reform of the Communications Act 2003, flagged up by outgoing Culture Secretary James Purnell in his Oxford speech of 16 January 2008 — presumably after the next General Election and therefore timed to coincide with implementation of the European Directives, whether AVMS (by end-2009) or ECS (by 2010-11).

Notably, there is also significant competition law interest in the Internet aside from the “usual suspects” in telecoms — from the Google-Doubleclick merger to the failed Microsoft-Yahoo! Merger. The 2008 Forum will expand its focus a little by engaging with this debate — both from a law and economics viewpoint, but also in terms of the consumer, copyright and privacy law implications, as well as the ever-developing role of the Internet intermediary as enshrined in the E-Commerce Directive.

You can now listen to all the speakers (including my two contributions) at their website. More from Lilian Edwards.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Solving the UK's budget crisis

The Sunday Times reports:

The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), in a report to be published tomorrow, says that borrowing will hit £90 billion next year, more than £50 billion above Alistair Darling’s forecast in the March budget. This year’s budget deficit will be £63 billion, it says, £20 billion above the chancellor’s estimate.

I have a suggestion for our Chancellor. Why not cancel the upgrading of the UK's nuclear arsenal; the National Identity Scheme; and radically scale back the NHS National Programme for IT? That will save the UK respectively £70bn; £20bn; and around £15bn. Couldn't £105bn be used rather more productively right now?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Psychologists vote against role in interrogation

The complicity of the American Psychological Association in torture at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere has been deeply disturbing. Particularly repellent has been the CIA's perversion of Martin Seligman's work on learned helplessness. Finally, the APA has rejected this disgusting conduct, with a (small) majority of members voting in favour of the following petition:

Whereas torture is an abhorrent practice in every way contrary to the APA's stated mission of advancing psychology as a science, as a profession, and as a means of promoting human welfare.

Whereas the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Mental Health and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture have determined that treatment equivalent to torture has been taking place at the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. [1]

Whereas this torture took place in the context of interrogations under the direction and supervision of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) that included psychologists. [2, 3]

Whereas the Council of Europe has determined that persons held in CIA black sites are subject to interrogation techniques that are also equivalent to torture [4], and because psychologists helped develop abusive interrogation techniques used at these sites. [3, 5]

Whereas the International Committee of the Red Cross determined in 2003 that the conditions in the US detention facility in Guantánamo Bay are themselves tantamount to torture [6], and therefore by their presence psychologists are playing a role in maintaining these conditions.

Be it resolved that psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights[7].

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Presidency of Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney"As Cheney sees it, public opinion is fickle, ill-informed, self-contradictory, emotional — nothing like his own conversation with himself and trusted aides. He speaks disdainfully of critics as 'elites,' but his own view of democracy is at the far elite extreme. Voters are entitled to choose a president every four years, he said at the National Press Club, but then they need to let him do his job. The transaction is like hiring a surgeon; pick a good one, and don’t try to tell him where to place the knife. This 'trustee' model of democracy is associated with Edmund Burke, the Old Whig philosopher in 18th century England. It is not the model that took root here when the Founders designed a plan of government that derived its authority from the people. If you take Cheney’s view, aggressive efforts at secrecy, for our own good, to prevent us from making the wrong choices or interfering with government’s important work, are a rational response." —Bart Gellman, author of a new biography of Vice-President Dick Cheney

John McCain invented the BlackBerry!

Al Gore and his Internet are nothing on Senator McCain:

Monday, September 15, 2008

Lack of privacy controls costs Barclays £500,000

The Daily Mail reports:
A teenage bank worker who helped fraudsters fleece her wealthy customers out of nearly £500,000 in an 'alarmingly simple' sting was jailed for 18 months today.

Ruth Akinyemi, who was 18 at the time, leaked vital details including dates of birth and account passwords from the Barclays bank computer system.

Some questions:
  1. Why could a teenage bank worker access sensitive personal data (especially passwords) in the first place, without any check that she had a specific reason to do so? What else was she doing with this information? Why did the bank allow cash to be withdrawn based on such carelessly protected "secrets"?

  2. Why didn't Barclays' auditing procedures pick up her patterns of access to this data for further investigation? Why aren't customers notified on their monthly statements of bank staff access to their records, so they have a chance of picking up abuse?

  3. When will more businesses realise that such lax privacy controls can have extremely costly consequences?

Panopticon highway

In June the House of Commons Home Affairs select committee declared that: "We reject crude characterisations of our society as a surveillance society in which all collections and means of collecting information about citizens are networked and centralised in the service of the state."

It is difficult to square that with today's discovery that all car journeys within the UK are to be logged for five years; or the government's plan to build a central data warehouse to store details of all calls, texts and e-mails. Henry Porter comments:

With parliament dead from the neck up when it comes to issues of liberty, it is difficult to know how the [Automated Number Plate Recognition] surveillance and the equally important proposal to seize data concerning all phone calls, text messages and internet connections, can be resisted. But resist we must if we are to save our free society.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Govt intervention not needed on high-speed broadband

A review for the government has concluded that there is no need for panic over the speed of Britain's broadband networks compared to the 100Mb/s+ more common in Asia:

The high costs of [Next Generation Access], and high expectations of what it can deliver, tend to raise expectations in some quarters that the Government should make a major intervention — such as a large subsidy or structural change to regulation — to support the market. However, it is the conclusion of this review that the case for such a major intervention is weak at best.

Author Francesco Caio, former chief executive of Cable and Wireless, instead suggests that the government removes obstacles to market provision of this access, for example by coordinating the build-out of fibre optic cables.

Universities should declare independence from government

Universities play a vital democratic role as a source of information independent of government spin and patronage. Unfortunately their independence in the UK has been undermined by the former Conservative government's Education Reform Act and by current ministers. They have also been pushed to promote wider government objectives such as greater social equality.

It is unsurprising that those responsible for so much of universities' income will seek to meddle in their affairs. Simon Jenkins describes the simple solution:

Universities must bite the bullet and charge their students what their courses cost. For the half who allegedly cannot afford this, the Treasury should be challenged to convert teaching grants to bursaries. For British universities to deny themselves the revenue base enjoyed by their American competitors is self-defeating. It denies the poor the financial help that might attract them into higher education so as to relieve the middle classes of paying their way.

The billions spent by the government on undergraduate teaching would have a much bigger impact on social mobility if redirected towards the schools and families of less well-off children. Why, after all, should poorer non-graduate taxpayers subsidise individuals who will realise private gains of hundreds of thousands of pounds during a career built on their first degree? Whether tuition fees are covered by larger student loans, charitable bursaries or a graduate tax is a secondary question.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Google must try harder on privacy

Google got some positive press coverage last week with their announcement that they would retain search data linked to individuals for nine rather than eighteen months. However, it seems that we need a lot more information to properly evaluate this move. Chris Soghoian certainly wasn't impressed:

To the naive reader, the announcement seems like a clear win for privacy. However, with a bit of careful analysis, it's possible to see that this is little more than snake oil, designed to look good for the newspapers, without delivering real benefits to end users.

Google has previously claimed that European data retention laws force them to store this data. As the European data protection regulators have replied, this is just not true.

By default, Google should not be logging this type of user-identifiable data. If users wish to benefit from personalised search and other features that allegedly require logging, they should opt-in before potentially sensitive personal data such as medical information is stored. That after all is what European privacy law requires.

Nothing to add, really

The George W. Bush years

Friday, September 12, 2008

© bites Spielberg

"If Steven Spielberg has broken [©] law it is a law that is only on the statute book because of the power that producer lobbies have in framing law. The consumer doesn't get a look in. Spielberg should fight to get it changed. The law is often called an ass, but when it becomes an ass-assinator of creativity, that is the time to call a halt." —Vic Keegan

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Our obsession with crime is crushing our freedoms

"We have forgotten all our empirical skills when it comes to law and policing. Instead of assessing what the problems are — the fact that prisons do not reform offenders, that crime is caused by complex social issues as much as by individual moral failure, that police officers at their desks or in squad cars do not deter crime as well as those on the beat — we have allowed a blind and vengeful regime to skew our sense of reason and what is right for a liberal democracy." —Henry Porter

A billion here, a billion there…

"Prison reform, along with hospital cleaning, inner-city schools or armoured vests, lacks the glitz that has atom smashers, velodromes and aircraft carriers sailing through the Treasury door. A lobbyist has only to say that some giant scheme is 'good for Britain' and the cabinet goes limp.

"If I had a pet project to push I would include in its title the words terrorism, computers and international league table, and ensure that it cost not less than a billion." —Simon Jenkins

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Security tech and democratic legitimacy

Praise the Flying Spaghetti Monster for Eurostar, which got me to Brussels and back today for an EU meeting on security research and human rights. I talked about how we can make sure new security technology supports rather than subverts European political values:

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Activism 2.0

I just spent a fascinating morning with Amnesty International's communications team, who are developing their strategy for the next decade. They asked me to talk about how Web 2.0 tools can be used in campaigning on human rights issues. Here are my slides, with some examples of how other NGOs have run such campaigns:
Activism 2.0
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: politics campaigning)

Happy birthday to GNU!

Stephen Fry wishes a happy 25th birthday to free software.