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MP accuses Brighton police of scare tactics

Posted by James Hammerton @ 3:53 pm on 14 February, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics.
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David Lepper MP has accused Brighton Police of ‘scare tactics’:

In a surprise intervention David Lepper, Labour MP for Brighton Pavilion, said the police’s decision to photograph people entering and exiting the Cowley Club in London Road for a meeting about the environment last week appeared designed to scare activists rather than prevent crime.

Mr Lepper has written to Chief Supt Graham Bartlett, the force’s divisional commander for Brighton and Hove, demanding why officers were posted opposite the venue on Friday.

Members of the Cowley Club, which was hosting a meeting of environmental protest group Earth First, were confronted with four uniformed officers outside the Somerfield store, opposite the venue, snapping visitors using a paparazzi-style lens.

Sussex Police has said the photography was part of ongoing police work to gather information to support future operations. But Mr Lepper yesterday dismissed the police’s response and said he wanted an explanation.

He said: “It looks more like an attempt to intimidate people going in and out of the Cowley Club rather than genuine surveillance. To have such a large number of uniformed officers with a camera with a telephoto lens seems like it’s meant to deter people from going in there.

“I accept that police need to gather information but this is a ham-fisted way of doing it.”

Momentum is building against the erosion of civil liberties in Britain

There definitely seems to be an increase in activity focused on the erosion of civil liberties in Britain.

Not only do we have the government backing down on trying to make MPs expenses secret after a concerted web campaign against the proposal, the Liberal Democrats launching a commission on privacy and the upcoming Convention on Modern Liberty, but now the Guardian has launched a new Comment is Free site, called Liberty Central, dedicated to discussing the erosion of civil liberties. Georgina Henry explains:

On the plus side, however, there is a growing number of journalists, bloggers, lawyers, MPs and civil liberties and human rights groups who tirelessly track this process, trying to unravel its complexities and stay on top of the relentless march of legislation. Their belief that we are at a particularly dangerous moment in the erosion of our fundamental rights is the driving force behind the Convention of Modern Liberty, called for the end of February (see below for details).

It’s also the reason why today we’re launching a new Comment is free site, liberty central, both to reflect and focus the debate, and as a resource to keep you abreast of legal and political developments.

The site will be the home of Henry Porter’s blog and his columns from the Observer, where for the past three years he has forensically and ferociously tracked the assault on civil liberties, in the process becoming the best informed writer on these issues, as well as a must-read for those interested in the debates. (Reread his first campaigning piece, published three years ago, on the growth of state power in the name of the so-called “war on terror”.)

The site will also contain an A to Z of key legislation of the last decade – ie all published and enacted by the Labour government – which will act as a constant reference point for readers. Read the Guardian’s legal correspondent, Afua Hirsch, on the importance of such a guide and what you can expect to find in it.

We’re also, with many thanks to the civil and human rights organisation Liberty, hosting a weekly clinic, where their specialist lawyers have agreed to answer readers’ queries.

Blogger’s summit at the Convention on Modern Liberty

Logo for Convention on Modern Liberty

Sunny Hundal, blogging at Liberal Conspiracy, has posted his own take on the Convention on Modern Liberty. In particular he highlights the Blogger’s Summit:

So, what does this mean for you?

openDemocracy have been kind enough to offer a special panel discussion for bloggers, which will be organised by Liberal Conspiracy. I would like to give an activist feel, not just a space for a calm talking-heads discussion with people coming out more frustrated than they went in.

Over the coming weeks, we need to ask:
- how we should look at privacy differently;
- how different powers affect our liberties, uniting football fans, clubbers, Muslims and even technologists.
- what can be done about it.

Ideally, I’d like to see a situation where, by the time we get to the event, we are looking to get organised and move forward, not just reiterate the issues that could have been discussed online anyway.

In my view the Convention has the potential to be a turning point leading to the halting and reversal of the erosion of civil liberties over the past 10 to 15 years in the UK. If people think hard about what needs to come out of the Convention, as Sunny suggests here, it will help to ensure that the Convention will become such a turning point.

[Thanks to Guy Aitchison, for alerting me to Sunny’s article.]

Barcode Nation

Barcode Nation seems to be the latest blog dedicated to covering the erosion of liberty in the UK, joining stalwarts such as Spy Blog and UK Liberty.

The Convention on Modern Liberty in Glasgow and Belfast

I blogged earlier about the Convention on Modern Liberty.

The Convention website has since published details about the Glasgow Convention and the Belfast Convention.

Those living elsewhere in Britain can check out the Across the UK page to see what’s happening near them.

If you’re trying to get round China’s internet firewall…

[Hat tip: Samizdata]

…you might want to steer clear of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium.

They apparently provide details of their clients to “vetted” companies to personalised advertising. Should the Chinese authorities manage to set up a front company then it could have calamitous results for said clients.

Freedom of speech and anti-terror law stories from 2008

Still in catching-up mode, here are some stories I didn’t manage to cover on Labour’s anti-terror laws and freedom of speech from 2008:

  • First off is the case of the student arrested for downloading a document, an alleged al-Qaeda training manual, for his research, that was freely available on a US government website. UK Liberty, Samizdata and Harry’s Place all covered this story. The Register went into the case in some detail:

    An issue that refuses to go away is whether some academic research now needs a license from the local police. Regular readers may remember the case of Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir, which we reported on in May.

    This kicked off when Mr Sabir, a postgraduate student at Nottingham University, asked Mr Yezza to help him out by downloading a document described as an “Al Qaeda Training Manual”.

    Bad move. The matter was reported to the University authorities, who informed the police. They arrested the two and held them for the best part of a week. At the end of that time Rizwaan Sabir was released but Hicham Yezza was transferred to the custody of the immigration authorities for deportation. Inquiries had turned up some irregularities in his status.

    Outwardly, this is unfortunate but explicable. The University authorities decided that they were not a competent body to investigate, so involved the police, and the police did their job. Events hinge on section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which makes it an offence to possess material that might be useful to someone planning to carry out terrorist offences. But never fear, “it is a defence for a person charged … to prove that he had a reasonable excuse for his action or possession”.

    So here we see the impact of part of the Terrorism Act 2000 on the ability of students to access materials for their research, i.e. on academic freedom. The Register goes on:

    …It is what follows – and the entire thrust of the law - that is questionable. First, the law: If you possess dodgy material, it is for you to explain why. Parliament could have legislated the other way around - it could have made it a crime to possess such material “with intent”. But it didn’t, so now you must prove yourself innocent.

    Following Mr Sabir’s release, the police wrote to him. Allegedly, they warn that he risks re-arrest if found with the manual again and add: “The university authorities have now made clear that possession of this material is not required for the purpose of your course of study nor do they consider it legitimate for you to possess it for research purposes.”

    And:

    What the Police appear to be saying is that you can be given the all-clear as a bona fide researcher of terror material in the morning – then re-arrested the same evening for the same offence. Surely not, one might think, but that possibility is within the bounds of the Law.

    It doesn’t help that the list of materials that could assist a terrorist is very wide. It would certainly encompass broad swathes of chemistry, physics and biology – as well as current military training. This has therefore provoked the accusation, in some quarters, that the Act is likely to be applied in a selective and racist fashion – with individuals whose skin is not quite white being far more likely to be asked to justify what is on their bookshelves or hard drive.

    A subsequent case, that of Samina Malik, the “lyrical terrorist”, involved the appeal court quashing her conviction for offences under section 58:

    Is the “al-Qaeda manual” still an easy get into jail card? The UK Court of Appeal yesterday quashed the conviction of Samina Malik, aka the “Lyrical Terrorist”, for possession of information useful for terrorist purposes under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, but the Crown Prosecution Service still views this and other widely circulated documents as prima facie evidence of wicked intent.

    So the jury’s still out, as it were. The Court of Appeal ruled in Malik’s favour because it felt there was “a very real danger that the jury became confused”, and that her conviction was therefore unsafe. The prosecution conceded this, but Sue Hemming of the CPS counter-terrorism division said that although some of the 21 documents that had been used in Malik’s trial could no longer be seen as giving practical assistance to terrorists, “other documents in her possession, including the al Qaeda Manual, the Terrorist’s Handbook, the Mujahideen Poisons Handbook and several military manuals, clearly retain that potential.”

    Hemming added that Malik had already spent time on remand and would be likely to receive a non-custodial sentence if a further trial were pursued, and said that the CPS had therefore decided not to seek a retrial. Which you might well take to mean ’she’s guilty as hell, but we’re not going to bother with her, so there.’

    Section 58 covers the collection or holding of information likely to be useful for terrorism, but doesn’t require any specific terrorist intent, and is therefore particularly useful for sweeping up small fry, wingnuts and thought criminals. The three documents referred to by Hemming are all widely distributed on the Internet (sometimes, indeed, by the US Department of Justice), and have been used frequently in UK terrorist prosecutions.

    In yesterday’s judgment, Lord Phillips said that an offence would only have been committed if the material was likely to have provided practical assistance to a person preparing an act of terrorism, and that mere propaganda wasn’t covered by Section 58. The Court of Appeal has therefore clarified the law, ruling out documents that are just plain nasty, but leaving in ones that are probably nasty, and at least arguably practical.

    It seems to me an A to Z of London, or any other city, would provide “practical assistance” to someone preparing an act of terrorism.

  • Back in August, the UN’s Human Rights Committee criticised the British government for enacting laws that restrict freedom of speech:

    The government has been accused of creating laws that have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in the UK in a sharply critical report from the United Nations’ committee on human rights. The report calls for the reform of Britain’s libel laws and controls introduced under recent terrorism laws.

    The government’s use of the Official Secrets Act to prevent issues of public interest being published is also condemned in an intervention from the UN which warns that public servants are being gagged even where national security is not at risk.

    The criticisms are made as part of the committee’s analysis of a report which the UK is required to submit to the UN every three years, appraising human rights in its jurisdiction.

    Among the problems identified, the UN says:

    · Terrorism Act 2006 provisions covering encouragement of terrorism are too broad and vague, and should be amended so that their application does not lead to “a disproportionate interference with freedom of expression”.

    · Libel laws should be reformed to end so-called “libel tourism”, whereby wealthy foreigners have gone to the high court to sue over articles that would not warrant action in their own country.

    · Powers under the Official Secrets Act have been “exercised to frustrate former employees of the crown from bringing into the public domain issues of genuine public interest, and can be exercised to prevent the media from publishing such matters”.

    The committee also warns that, in the age of the internet, Britain’s unduly restrictive libel laws create the danger of affecting freedom of expression worldwide, contrary to a UN covenant on civil and political rights which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and to exchange ideas and information “regardless of borders”.

  • Spy Blog covered a clause in the Counter Terrorism Bill that looks as if it may impact on journalists, bloggers and photographers.

    The clause is now on the statute books as clause 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008. It amends the Terrorism Act 2000 with a new section 58A that makes it an offence to elicit or attempt to elicit information about an individual who is or has been a member of Her Majesty’s forces, a member of any of the intelligence services or a constable, and where that information is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. It also makes it an offence to publish or communicate such information. It is a defence for a person charged with the offence to prove they had a reasonable excuse for their action.

    Note that we’ve seen similar wording for the offence of possessing information in section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Again we have a broadly defined, vague offence where you are required to show your action was reasonable, rather than the presumption of innocence applying. Note further that a photograph of a police officer is useful to someone committing or preparing an act of terrorism. As Spy Blog points out:

    “attempts to elicit information” is an excessively wide, “catch all” power, and should never have been allowed into the wording of the Act, but Parliamentary scrutiny , such as it was, was successfully diverted by the Government towards the controversial “42 days internment without charge” debate, allowing this, and other controversial sections of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 through without opposition.

    A mainstream media outlet, freelance journalist or blogger, political activist, street or demonstration photographer or any innocent member of the public, might be able to claim that their research or photograph (or conceivably, even their perfectly legal Freedom of Information Act 2000 request) etc. was in the public interest, but, once they have been arrested on a Terrorism charge, it will be too late to continue with a normal life - they will have been branded as terrorists, even if they are entirely innocent.

    The threat of forced arrest, perhaps via a dawn raid by armed Counter Terrorism Police, followed by DNA sampling, fingerprinting, photography, and searches of your property, confiscation of your computer equipment (often for months on end, whilst it awaits forensic examination) and the subsequent blacklisting as a “terrorist suspect” on UK and foreign government and police databases, must surely frighten many people from daring to comment or publish on this, or similar stories.

    This Section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000 should never be commenced, and should be repealed as quickly as possible.

    It does nothing to deter real terrorists, and will be used to harass political opponents and to try to suppress embarrassing facts about military, intelligence agency or police personnel, forces and agencies, especially those with lax or inept or treasonous operational or computer or communications security. Similarly, based on previous scandals, it will be used to try to hide or cover up individual or institutional corruption or other abuses of power, from public scrutiny.

Some internet related stories from 2008

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:18 am on .
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics.
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Here’s a round-up of some internet related stories I didn’t manage to cover in 2008:

  • The Telegraph reported in November on plans to set up a watchdog to protect internet users from abusive or malicious content (note that libel and privacy laws can already deal with the cases referred to in the article):

    Internet users will be protected from abusive bloggers and malicious Facebook postings under proposals to set up an independent internet watchdog, The Daily Telegraph has learnt.

    The body, made up of industry representatives, would be responsible for drawing up guidelines that social networking sites, the blogosphere, website owners and search engines would be expected to follow.

    The recommendation is one of several that the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee is expected to make tomorrow (Thurs) in its long-awaited report on harmful content on the internet and in video games.

    Under the proposals, the new internet watchdog would operate in a similar way to other industry bodies such as the Press Complaints Commission, which enforces a code of practice for the UK newspaper and magazine industry, covering accuracy, discrimination and intrusion.

    The watchdog would not have any statutory powers to impose fines but would investigate complaints and most likely publish its decisions in instances when its guidelines have been breached.

    It is understood that it would also be able to order bloggers and social networking sites such as Bebo and MySpace to take down offensive messages or photographs.

    Thanks to They Work For You, you can read the Parliamentary debate online, in which the MPs seemed mainly focused on how to regulate the internet and not whether it should be regulated. The UK Liberty blog provided pertinent commentary on this debate, as did John Ozimek at the Register. The Report on Harmful Content on the Internet can be found at the 2007-2008 publications page for the Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport. I’ll return to this report in a later post.

  • In September, The Guardian reported that the Thai government tried to shut down 400 websites during a state of emergency:

    Thailand’s Information and Communications Technology Ministry sought court orders yesterday to shut down about 400 websites and advised internet service providers to block 1,200 sites it considers are disturbing the social order or are a danger to national security.

    ICT minister Mun Patanotai said the department had advised ISPs to immediately block these websites, which it claimed were detected between March and August this year, and had sought court actions against them under article 20 of Thailand’s Computer Crime Act.

  • Also in September, Spy Blog reported on some attempts to use the threat of libel action to force bloggers to remove material they had posted:

    We have been challenged by the Miserable Old Fart blogger in Wales to support a Labour blogger Kezia Dugdale in Scotland, who has been forced to take down a blog article at short notice, as a result of bullying legal threats from Glasgow based “media lawyers” Bannatyne Kirkwood France & Co hired by a millionaire Scottish Nationalist Party Councillor Jahangir Hanif, even though there has, as yet, not been any libel action or court order.

    This political censorship seems to have been as a result of Kezia being one several bloggers who published what seems to be the full letter from Noor Hanif , the 17 year old daughter of Jahangir Hanif, to the leader of the SNP Alex Salmond, which paints her father as a violent, devious, domineering bully, as well as puncturing some of the spin and gloss put out by him regarding the AK-47 incident in Pakistan, for which he has been temporarily suspended from the SNP. Parts of the letter have been quoted in National and Scottish newspapers and it has been referred to in debate in the Scottish Parliament.

    This letter was removed from this site after Councillor Hanif’s solicitors intimated their intention to raise a summons in the Court of Session for interim interdict. The firm of Bannatyne, Kirkwood, France and Co., gave this site 15 minutes to remove the letter.

    15 minutes ? Such bullying is reminiscent of the notorious Schillings in London or Lavely & Singer in Los Angeles.

    See Tim Ireland’s write up of some the recent media coverage of the Jahangir Hanif scandals.

    We are a bit unclear about the differences between libel law in Scotland and in England & Wales. There certainly have been cases where an English High Court Injunction has been perfectly legally broken by newspapers in Scotland, so, presumably, the reverse must also be true.

    The libel laws in the United Kingdom, which allow expensive lawyers to bully poor people, especially those expressing their right of free speech on the internet, despite the guilt of their rich clients, must be reformed as soon as possible.

    When will rich clients demand their money back, with interest and damages, after hiring “media lawyers” who only succeed in stirring up the Streisand Effect, and spreading the information which they are trying to suppress on the internet, to a much wider audience, than if they had simply ignored it ?

  • Several stories appeared relating to the EU and blogs. EU Referendum, Pub Philosopher and the Telegraph have covered various stories about how the EU intends to regulate blogs, including disciplining a UKIP press officer, working in the European Parliament, for writing an EU sceptic blog. The European Parliament also discussed banning anonymous blogs.
  • The Open Rights Group reported on the banning of a Wikipedia page by the Internet Watch Foundation:

    The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) confirmed yesterday that it had added a Wikipedia web page to its blacklist, having assessed the image according to specified guidelines, and considered it to be a potentially illegal, indecent image of a child. The image depicted cover artwork of a 1976 album by the German heavy-metal band Scorpions. The album was originally distributed in the UK with a different cover.

    The announcement confirmed evidence gathered by concerned internet users throughout the day that links to the image were returning 404 error messages through a variety of major internet service providers. Matters were confounded as a side effect of the operation to block the image emerged, resulting in all UK users of ISPs who employ the IWF blacklist appearing to Wikipedia servers to come from only a handful of IP addresses. That meant users from the affected ISPs – a large majority of UK internet users – were blocked from editing Wikipedia anonymously or creating new editing accounts, since one user committing vandalism could not be distinguished from all the other people on the same ISP.

    People from the UK who wanted to log in to Wikipedia are thus trapped between two mutually incompatible content regulation systems. Their traffic is re-routed through one of only a handful of servers in an attempt by their ISP to protect them from what the IWF believes is “bad content”. Then they arrive at one of the most popular websites in the world only to be blocked from entering thanks to the methods employed there to protect users from what Wikipedia believes is “bad content”.

    For many, the episode will have brought into focus for the first time the IWF’s work identifying URLs that link to illegal images, as well as the fact that most consumer ISPs have now agreed to block content on the IWF list. And those who already knew about this system, but thought it would not affect them, will today be thinking again. The question is how far this episode challenges current UK practice around censoring content online.

    Note that the IWF eventually unblocked the offending page. However this episode has raised questions about how the IWF carries out its functions.

  • The Register has been covering the story of how the Australian government plans to put filters in place on the internet down under:

    Regular readers will be aware of the Australian Government’s plans to clamp down on the internet down under. These, the brainchild of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, have been bubbling away since last year, and began, as so many half-baked government schemes do, with the plea that someone “think of the children”.

    The scheme would put in place a server-level content filtering system, to block material unsuitable for children. The cat was put well and truly amongst the pigeons with the recent claim by Internode network engineer Mark Newton that there will be no opt-out from filtering for parents.

    Rather, there will be a blacklist that parents can opt into to “protect their children”.

    But failing to opt into that list would merely switch users to an alternative filtering system, trapping content deemed unsuitable for adults.

    According to Newton: “That is the way the testing was formulated, the way the upcoming live trials will run, and the way the policy is framed; to believe otherwise is to believe that a government department would go to the lengths of declaring that some kind of internet content is illegal, then allow an opt-out”.

    Cue outrage from the leaders of three of Australia’s largest internet service providers — Telstra Media’s Justin Milne, iiNet’s Michael Malone and Internode’s Simon Hackett. They variously describe the scheme as “loony”, a “bugger to implement”, likely to slow down Australian access to the internet significantly, and quite possibly illegal.

    According to Justin Milne, group managing director for Telstra BigPond, “you would need to pass a lot of legislation, a huge packet of legislation” just to achieve this.

    Is this such an impossible task? We spoke to CensorNet, a UK company that provides software that enables official bodies to filter out content in the UK, and which is speaking to a couple of Australian ISPs about this project. Its view is that the slow down feared by ISPs is unlikely.

    However, the firm foresees two issues with any solution. Most filters tackle just the HTTP. But HTTP accounts for an average of 25 per cent of a user’s bandwidth, with the rest taken up by other traffic, including email, peer-to-peer and instant messaging.

    The other issue is about identifying the content to filter in the first place. Most filtering systems use a database that categorises content, and then blocks or filters webpages according to category. CensorNet uses the RuleSpace technology, which automatically classifies web content before filtering.

    At present, no automated classification works perfectly - no system can automatically detect content that is allegedly “illegal” - and RuleSpace is no exception. A popular implementation for, say, schools is to block specified categories and unclassified content. Whether adults would be happy with a solution that could block over half the internet from their screens is another matter.

  • Finally, late last year, the Telegraph reported that the British government may require websites to have cinema-style age ratings:

    In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Andy Burnham says he believes that new standards of decency need to be applied to the web. He is planning to negotiate with Barack Obama’s incoming American administration to draw up new international rules for English language websites.

    The Cabinet minister describes the internet as “quite a dangerous place” and says he wants internet-service providers (ISPs) to offer parents “child-safe” web services.

    Giving film-style ratings to individual websites is one of the options being considered, he confirms. When asked directly whether age ratings could be introduced, Mr Burnham replies: “Yes, that would be an option. This is an area that is really now coming into full focus.”

    ISPs, such as BT, Tiscali, AOL or Sky could also be forced to offer internet services where the only websites accessible are those deemed suitable for children.

    Mr Burnham also uses the interview to indicate that he will allocate money raised from the BBC’s commercial activities to fund other public-service broadcasting such as Channel Four. He effectively rules out sharing the BBC licence fee between broadcasters as others have recommended.

    His plans to rein in the internet, and censor some websites, are likely to trigger a major row with online advocates who ferociously guard the freedom of the world wide web.

    However, Mr Burnham said: “If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn’t reach. I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now. It’s true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is [also] an emerging issue.

    “There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people. We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it.”

    Mr Burnham reveals that he is currently considering a range of new safeguards. Initially, as with copyright violations, these could be policed by internet providers. However, new laws may be threatened if the initial approach is not successful.

    “I think there is definitely a case for clearer standards online,” he said. “More ability for parents to understand if their child is on a site, what standards it is operating to. What are the protections that are in place?”

UK government still pressuring Nominet

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:13 pm on 24 November, 2008.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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In an earlier article, I mentioned that the government may be planning a power grab at Nominet who handle the internet’s .uk domain registry. The Register reported recently on a further development with Nominet:

Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform official David Hendon was speaking on Wednesday at the not-for-profit’s annual registrars’ meeting, where recent infighting over the future of the .uk registry took top billing. He said Nominet and the domain industry need to take more heed of the government agenda on phishing, spam and “bad content”.

Hendon said: “These are all internet problems and [internet users] think someone should do something about it. Although many internet users think the government should keep out of the internet, I suggest to you that most ordinary people who just use the internet like they use the banking system or the trains think that the government should make sure it all works properly for them and that bad things get stopped from happening.”

In response to a worried letter from Hendon, Nominet will imminently appoint an independent reviewer to examine whether its corporate structure is able to represent government and wider concerns, as well as those of its members. A boardroom split has emerged in recent weeks; two elected non-executive directors have called for the CEO Lesley Cowley and Chairman Bob Gilbert to resign, saying the views of members on issues such as pricing are not properly considered and alleging mismanagement of discipline and executive pay.

Hendon said: “It is hard to find another example like the DNS where such a vital aspect of the critical national infrastructure is left in the hands of a private company which is unlicensed and unregulated. I have to say that my searchlight has swept round to Nominet because I am not certain that my previous confidence in the way the board runs the company will continue to be well founded in the future.”

Of course the government has done a sterling job of making sure our banking system lends responsibly and our public sector IT systems don’t leak information like a sieve, so they’re just the people to run the UK’s internet into the ground.

On Hazel Blears and blogging

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:14 pm on 8 November, 2008.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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Further to my previous article, here is my direct response to Hazel Blears’ Comment is Free article entitled Nihilistic new media, in which she attacked bloggers (and commentators in the mainstream media) for fueling “a culture of cynicism and despair”.

In a nutshell, I accuse Blears of talking authoritarian rot. She does not present a shred of evidence that cynicism about politics and politicians can be traced to bloggers, and the argument she uses in her attempt to portray them as fueling cynicism about politics actually implicates the politicians, not the bloggers who are merely the messengers. She simply fails to understand how blogging and bloggers work. She also exhibits some very authoritarian tendencies in the language she uses.

Below, I illustrate these points by examining several quotations from her speech:

And in recent years commentary has taken over from investigation or news reporting, to the point where commentators are viewed by some as every bit as important as elected politicians, with views as valid as cabinet ministers.

This is a curious comment. Blears seems to suggest that being a cabinet minister confers some sort of validity on ones views when it does no such thing. Being a cabinet minister merely means you are in a position to inflict your views on the country in the form of public policy. For this reason, the views a cabinet minister has and the reasoning they use to justify them and the polices they pursue as a result deserve to receive the utmost scrutiny. To the extent that commentators provide that scrutiny they are providing a public service.

And if you can wield influence and even power, without ever standing for office or being held to account by an electorate, it further undermines our democracy.

The commentariat operates without scrutiny or redress. They cannot be held to account for their views, even when they perform the most athletic and acrobatic of flip-flops in the space of a few weeks.

This claim betrays both an authoritarian view point, a flawed view of democracy and a false view of the commentariat’s ability to act with impunity. Blears comment suggests that being an influential commentator speaking their mind is undemocratic, when in fact, for a democracy to operate properly, it is insufficient just to hold elections, one must also have a culture that encourages people to express their views and to scrutinise the views and actions of those who (would) rule over us. The fact that influential commentators can speak their mind is in fact a sign of a healthy democracy! Yet Ms Blears seems not to like it.

Also, Blears is wrong to suggest that the commentators are not, or cannot be, held to account and operate without scrutiny or redress. They are and can be held to account, and are scrutinised in several ways:

  • We have laws against libel and defamation to deal with the worst instances of misrepresentation and deceit on the part of individuals and newspapers, when such misrepresentation damages the reputations of others.
  • Their outpourings can be read and criticised by both politicans, other commentators, readers’ letters and these days… wait for it… bloggers! Indeed one well known blogger, Tim Worstall, regularly dissects the outpourings of Polly Toynbee, George Monbiot and other commentators pointing out errors of fact, errors of logic, the consequences of the things they propose, their changes of position and occasions when their views contradict each other. This is not unusual. I have seen many bloggers attack the mainstream media for representing only a narrow range of views, for misrepresenting issues or occasionally for forgetting or contradicting what they wrote the previous week.
  • Their editors can hold them to account.
  • The readers of the newspapers can vote with their feet if they don’t like what they’re reading.

I get the impression Blears does not like the freedom the press has, and does not understand the impact of the freedom that bloggers currently have.

There are some informative and entertaining political blogs, including those written by elected councillors. But mostly, political blogs are written by people with a disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy.

I take issue with Blears’ characterisation of political bloggers. Yes some may have a disdain for the political system and for politicans, but many do do not. Nor is it true that they mostly unearth scandals and conspiracies or perceived hypocrisy (but what would be wrong with that if they did?!). The political blogs I’ve read include highly partisan blogs promoting a particular party and attacking the rest, blogs that examine the impact of government policies, blogs that scrutinise the outpourings of the commentariat and politicians, blogs that cover international affairs, blogs that specialise in covering elections and opinion polling, and blogs that examine government legislation. Many blogs contain elements of all the above mentioned topics. Blears seems to be unaware of the diverse nature of political blogging.

Unless and until political blogging adds value to our political culture, by allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.

Ms Blears this comment is unmitigated bullshit, for the following reasons:

  • Even if you were right that bloggers predominantly disdain politicians and politics and see their role as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and hypocrisy, they would already be adding value, by exposing those politicians who undermine democracy by lying, engaging in corruption, acting hypocritically and trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes as they do so.
  • Anyone with internet access (e.g. someone with access to a public library!) can set up a blog without paying a penny to do so. Blogging has thus already allowed new and disparate voices, ideas, legitimate protest and challenge to emerge on a scale never seen before. You can find people blogging from every conceivable political viewpoint whether it be hardline Marxist, radical free market libertarians, greens, conservatives, socialists, fascists or for that matter racists. This is freedom of speech in action!
  • To the extent that exposing scandals, conspiracies and hypocrisy fuels cynicism and despair, blaming bloggers and commentators for engaging in such activity is shooting the messenger. The politicans who lie, engage in corruption, act hypocritically and try to pull the wool over the eyes of the public are the fuel for such cynicism here. You seem to be suggesting that bloggers should not expose such people, lest it fuel cynicism!

The fact that you attack the messengers, the people who are subjecting politicians to scrutiny on a scale and in a manner that hitherto was not previously possible makes me wonder whether you really believe in “allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge”. Bloggers are already doing exactly this, and yet you write rubbish like the above about them. You are fuelling my cynicism about your politics in doing so. Shame on you!

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