Tuesday, March 31, 2009

DRM freedom day

I finally had time to take advantage of Apple's recent offer to upgrade DRM-crippled iTunes content to unrestricted audio and video formats. I particularly relished this dialog box from iTunes:

Guess which button I clicked!

Spain opens war crimes probe into Bush administration

The painstaking work of Philippe Sands and others in documenting war crimes by the Bush administration is now bearing fruit:
Spain’s national newspapers, El País and Público reported that the Spanish national security court has opened a criminal probe focusing on Bush Administration lawyers who pioneered the descent into torture at the prison in Guantánamo. The criminal complaint can be examined here. Público identifies the targets as University of California law professor John Yoo, former Department of Defense general counsel William J. Haynes II (now a lawyer working for Chevron), former vice presidential chief-of-staff David Addington, former attorney general and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, now a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and former Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Das Bundesverfassungsgericht

"The Constitutional Court is in some people’s eyes Germany’s most powerful institution. Almost 80% of Germans trust it; less than half have confidence in the federal government and the Bundestag, the lower house. Although a political player, the court is seen to be above politics. Parties nominate judges, but they are usually approved unanimously by the legislature. Unlike America’s Supreme Court justices, Germany’s seek consensus and seldom write dissenting opinions. Any citizen may bring a constitutional case, an antidote to Nazi notions of justice, and some 6,000 a year do so…

"The court has elaborated rights that the constitution’s authors never envisaged. The Lüth decision of 1958 held that constitutional rights affect citizens’ relations not just with the state but also with each other, a judgment so far-reaching as to be termed a 'juridical coup d’état'. The court developed a notion of the 'duty to protect' basic rights from threats stemming from private action or social forces. In 1983 the court created a right for individuals to control their personal information. Last year, when considering plans to snoop on the computers of suspected terrorists, it found a right to the 'integrity of information-technology systems'." —The Economist

Friday, March 27, 2009

Floundering towards EU information law

I'm delighted to be in New York today to speak at Fordham Law School's conference on Intermediaries in the Information Society. It's a pleasure to hear in person some real giants of information law such as Jack Balkin, Helen Nissenbaum and Joel Reidenberg. My own modest contribution is below.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The authenticity of digital diplomacy

To the Foreign and Commonwealth Office this morning for a meeting on their digital diplomacy strategy. For a government department whose principal aim is to influence and persuade, it felt a curiously clumsy event — even with the organisational assistance of global PR firm Weber Shandwick. A set of (white, balding, upper-middle class) diplomats sat on one side of a row of desks and spoke at an audience that seemed to consist largely of other FCO and Weber Shandwick staff. Comically, the frosty FCO receptionists demanded that laptops be left at the front desk.

The speakers were blogging for Britain in a range of contexts. David Warren (ambassador to Japan) writes for both an English and Japanese audience, attempting to convey his public diplomacy work on climate change, trade and investment, the global economic crisis and international development. Mark Kent (ambassador to Vietnam) aims for a more local audience, particularly to encourage Internet use in Vietnam, and has experimented with new media such as filming a New Year greeting from local hero Sir Alex Ferguson and Foreign Secretary David Milliband. Alex Ellis (ambassador to Portugal) similarly targets Portuguese-language content to readers of a local newspaper website in an effort to reach new audiences and update the UK brand.

Slightly different were the experiences of John Duncan (ambassador for multilateral arms control and disarmament) and Philip Barclay (staff blogger at the Harare embassy). Duncan's main audiences are campaigners and other governments, with a key goal being to build political communities around UK campaigns. Barclay writes about the desperate situation in Zimbabwe both to convince local readers that the UK is making efforts to help, and to reach a wider audience through the media.

We also heard from Stephen Hale of the FCO's digital diplomacy team. He said that the FCO's "Web 1.0" presence had been very successful but they were now encouraging diplomats to listen better to gauge the right tone for local social media; to publish content in real-time to maximise attention (and Google rankings), without bureaucratic filters and delays; and to engage and campaign through blogs. Culture change is more important in achieving their goals than money.

All speakers felt that authenticity was key in engaging with their audiences, and blog on a range of day-to-day personal experiences for this reason. This can sometimes backfire, as the ambassador to North Korea recently found. The impact of fluffy lifestyle pieces may decline as their novelty wanes. Clearly though social media are a key new way for embassies to amplify and explain the UK governments' messages to local audiences.

More pertinent to my mind is how "authentic" pronouncements can ever be from what is ultimately the UK government's global PR agency. Craig Murray, the ambassador who spoke out over Uzbekistan's torture and murder of political activists, was hounded out of the FCO as a result. Carne Ross, the UK delegation's Middle East expert at the United Nations who testified to the Butler Review that the invasion of Iraq by the US and UK was illegal, left the FCO shortly afterwards. While today's ambassadors stressed their day-to-day independence, there is a strong limit on how far this can be taken. I suggested that some of these public diplomacy activities might be better undertaken by the British Council and BBC World Service, who are widely seen as more independent and critical.

It will be interesting to see how the digital diplomacy strategy develops, and whether the initial media and public interest is sustained as a growing range of more independent voices joins the diplomatic and foreign policy blogosphere. Tony Curzon Price has some other interesting comments at openDemocracy.

William Patry on effective (c)

A pleasure last night to hear William Patry on "Crafting an effective copyright law." Patry is one of the world's most distinguished copyright lawyers, as former copyright counsel to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee for seven years and author of the seven-volume treatise "Patry on Copyright." He is now senior copyright counsel at Google.

The theme of Patry's talk was the irrationality of the public policy process around copyright. As he said, most of the substantive arguments on the subject have been around since at least the time of Lord Macaulay's 1841 speech to Parliament on term extension:
[P]roperty is the creature of the law, and … the law which creates property can be defended only on this ground, that it is a law beneficial to mankind… The system of copyright has great advantages and great disadvantages; and it is our business to ascertain what these are, and then to make an arrangement under which the advantages may be as far as possible secured, and the disadvantages as far as possible excluded&hellip

It is good that authors should be remunerated; and the least exceptionable way of remunerating them is by a monopoly. Yet monopoly is an evil. For the sake of the good we must submit to the evil; but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good.

Even so, the presence in the audience of Lord Justice Hoffman and Mr Justice Jacobs could be interpreted optimistically. If they and the other lawyers in the room could better convey to the government the folly of rejecting empirical evidence on the impact of copyright in favour of romantic notions based on natural rights, we might see fewer naked grants of extended monopolies to international recording and film companies at the expense of the UK public.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Security flaws halt ContactPoint

A day after the publication of our report on the dangers of large personal databases, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has paused work on the ContactPoint register of England's 11m children due to security fears. This action speaks rather louder than the government's spin against the report.

Ross Clark also has a nice article in today's Mail:
Today's database-builders don't seem to understand that the more the authorities watch us, count us and photograph us, the less they actually see.

Further coverage in the International Herald Tribune, Times and Guardian.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Let people control their own data

"There are evidently opportunities provided by databases for improving people's lives but it is fundamentally wrong to assume as a consequence that the state has a right to know everything about us.

"Personal data is ours to be handed over when it suits us, not the other way around. Why can't we just keep our own health records which are updated on a card or a memory stick whenever we go to the GP or to hospital. Why should not parents and schools keep the records of their children to be handed over when they reach 18 rather than loaded onto a central system known as ContactPoint?" —Philip Johnston

Database State

Database State
The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust has this morning published our report on the UK Database State, which finds that:
  • A quarter of all major public sector databases are fundamentally flawed and almost certainly illegal. These should be scrapped or redesigned immediately;
  • The database state is victimising minority groups and vulnerable people, from single mothers to young black men and schoolchildren;
  • Children are amongst the ‘most at risk’ from Britain’s Database State, with three of the largest databases set up to support and protect children failing to achieve their aims;
  • Data sharing is a barrier to socially responsible activities. It is deterring teenagers from accessing health advice and undermining goodwill towards law enforcement;
  • Only 15% of major public sector databases are effective, proportionate and necessary;
  • We spend £16 billion a year on public sector IT and a further £105bn spending is planned for the next five years – but only 30% of public-sector IT projects succeed.

The runaway growth of public sector databases was surprising even to those of us that follow them closely. They have taken six months to catalogue.

You can see coverage of the report in the Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Independent, BBC News, Daily Mail, Metro and from Reuters.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Robust privacy protection for the Future Web

Thanks to Lilian Edwards and the organisers of Web Science 2009 in Athens, I was just able to give a video presentation remotely using Skype. I talked about future Web privacy, and was even able to record the video! The wonders of teh interwebs ;)

1. The EU Data Protection Directive has aged remarkably well — especially since it is based on principles that date back to a 1973 US Health, Education and Welfare report, updated by the OECD and Council of Europe in the early 1980s.

BUT purely legal protection isn’t sustainable given:
  • Ongoing rapid increase in CPU, bandwidth, storage
  • Sensors everywhere (CCTV, mobiles, ubicomp)
  • Corporate and government data-lust (marketing/Phorm, counter-terrorism, efficiency and personalisation drives)
  • Flaky systems and insiders
  • Speed of judicial system — DNA Database case took 17 years before decision by European Court of Human Rights (S & Marper v UK)

2. The UK's Database State/Transformational Government programme shows one possible direction of travel — a National Identity Register supports databases on steroids (NHS care records, DNA, Intercept Modernisation Programme, ContactPoint, ANPR), with CCTV everywhere.

3. Web Science can help! Privacy by Design is needed:
  • Accountability for data use — explored by people like Danny Weitzner at MIT — BUT subject to legal and social changes such as greater acceptability of profiling
  • Minimisation is critical — proper requirements engineering, and design of protocols and systems that limit 2nd-party access to identifiable data
  • PETS can make a large contribution to this (like the anonymous credentials in CardSpace and Idemix)
  • Understanding user and organisational concerns eg Privacy Value Networks.

4. Immediate wins:
  • Web 2.0 encrypt cloud data for storage and processing, decrypt at client with eg Google Gears
  • Privacy-friendly advertising with client-side user-controlled segmentation and Private Information Retrieval to access adverts
  • Ubiquitous communications encryption

5. Privacy by Design is a good opportunity for Web Scientists to bring together expertise from law, computer science, political science and psychology to safeguard fundamental human rights on the Internet and throughout society.

Where has the special relationship taken the UK?

"A true, valued friend is the one who tells you when are doing something stupid or wrong, not the one so anxious to keep your friendship that he will never bawl you out. I am sure that is what many people in the Obama administration feel in their hearts today, even if they wouldn't articulate it so clearly. So that this subservient fetishisation of the special relationship, with intelligence-sharing at its heart, ends up weakening even the special relationship." —Timothy Garton Ash

Monday, March 16, 2009

Newspapers going same way as recording industry

"In short, the newspaper industry is in the same death spiral as the recording industry, without the lawbreaking that’s commonly blamed for the recording industry’s troubles… The newspaper example suggests that even if we could completely shut down peer-to-peer networks, we should still expect the recording industry to decline over time as consumers gravitate toward more efficient and convenient sources of music. Piracy obviously accelerates the process, but the underlying problem is simply this: the recording industry’s core competence, pressing 1s and 0s on plastic disks and shipping them to retail stores, is rapidly becoming pointless, just as the newspaper industry’s core competence of pressing ink on newsprint and dropping them on doorsteps is becoming obsolete. Not surprisingly, when a technology becomes obsolete, firms who specialize in exploiting that technology go out of business." —Tim Lee

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mass media: nothing changes

"The first duty of an editor is to gauge the sentiments of his readers and then tell them what they like to believe. By this means he maintains or increases the circulation. His second duty is to see that nothing is said in the news items or editorials which may discountenance any claims or announcements made by his advertisers, discredit their standing or good faith, or expose any weakness or deception in any business venture that is or may become a valuable advertiser. By this means he increases the advertising value of his circulation. The net result is that both the news columns and the editorial columns are commonly meretricious in a high degree.

"Systematic insincerity on the part of the ostensible purveyors of information and leaders of opinion may be deplored by persons who stickle for truth and pin their hopes of social salvation on the spread of accurate information. But the ulterior cultural effect of the insincerity which is in this way required by the business situation, may of course, as well be salutary as the reverse. Indeed the effect is quite as likely to be salutary, if 'salutary' be taken to mean favorable to the maintenance of the established order, since the insincerity is guided by a wish to avoid any lesion of the received preconceptions and prejudices." —Prof. Thorstein Veblen (1904) The Theory of Business Enterprise §10 (via Boing Boing)

Big Brother is not the solution to domestic violence

"The whole violent-man register smacks of bogus 'initiatives' from an overcentralised government. It is neither the Home Office’s nor the police’s job to monitor people’s intimate relationships: checking up on somebody you may be thinking of having sex with is not the same thing as running a potential child minder through a police check. There is a huge difference between employment and people’s private lives.

"Domestic violence is an appalling problem and I appreciate the fact that the Home Office and the police are keen to help to eradicate it — but eradication will come from agencies taking their lead from people who know their subject, not from creating yet more Big Brother lists of names on a computer." —India Knight

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Tracking UK travellers

The Daily Telegraph has picked up on the government's e-borders programme, which will track 250m journeys in and out of the UK every year — including those by yachters, cross-Channel swimmers and booze cruisers.

The UK Border Agency (who do the tracking) tell us proudly:
"The e-Borders scheme has already screened over 82m passengers travelling to Britain, leading to more than 2,900 arrests, for crimes including murder, drug dealing and sex offences. e-borders helps the police catch criminals attempt to escape justice."

So, 35 arrests per million passengers screened. It would be interesting to know what proportion of those arrests were for serious crimes. Is this a good value security investment at an estimated £1.2bn cost over the next decade, even aside from the privacy impact?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Politicised prying

"There are those, well represented in the government, who argue that the great eye of surveillance is a hallucination of the paranoid middle class. For most voters, certainly, paying the bills and being safe on the street are more pressing concerns than the proliferation of CCTV. The deep worry, however, has never been mere discomfort at the idea of being filmed or otherwise tracked. Rather, it is the potential for abuse that comes with the electronic logbooks. The lesson of history is that the powerful cannot be relied on to use the information they possess for the public good, as opposed to their own convenience." —The Guardian

Friday, March 06, 2009

Failed states and failed policies

"Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless. That is why The Economist continues to believe that the least bad policy is to legalise drugs." —The Economist

Our surveillance state

"We have the largest DNA database in the world, a police force that invades parliamentary offices without a warrant, European laws that allow personal data to be shared with other countries and government encouraging police to hack computers without a court order. It seems that the more personal data this government gets its hands on, the more it is emboldened to ask for more." —Syed Kamall MEP

Thursday, March 05, 2009


Fans of geek law face an embarrassment of riches this summer. GikII goes south on 9 June, with the first SoGikII being hosted by the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Then on 17/18 September GikII crosses the English channel to the Institute for Information Law in Amsterdam. Hope to see you and your lolcatz at one or the other (or if you are feeling extravagant, both!)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

What depression?

"What do you do when you used to have a couple billion dollars and now you only have a billion or so? The pain of the loss is profound, but there's certainly no reason to start shopping at Wal Mart." —anonymous reader of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish

Let the creative destruction commence

Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser is writing here about the automobile industry:
Growth requires change, not binding our country to declining industries.

but I can certainly think of a few other 20th century cartels where this applies.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The highest duty of government is liberty

"The truth — as Lord Acton, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, and practically all those in our tradition who have thought carefully about what matters most in the organisation of political relations in society, have argued — is that the highest duty of government is the protection of our liberties. Manifestly, this is not how the present government thinks (or its predecessor thought). If they did, our liberties would be in a very different state of health now." —A.C. Grayling