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Some internet related stories from 2008

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:18 am on 2 January, 2009.
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?”

Jacqui Smith on “Protecting rights; Protecting Society”

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:53 pm on 21 December, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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[Hat Tip: Spy Blog and UK Liberty]

Jacqui Smith, Britain’s Home Secretary recently gave a speech on “Protecting rights; Protecting society” to Intellect, a trade association for the technology industries, in which she sought to set out the government’s position on subjects such as CCTV, the use of RIPA and the DNA database.

Smith’s speech contains numerous failings, however for lack of time for a comprehensive response, I shall limit myself to the following:

NB: The links in the above list will only work in the permalink view of this article. I’m not sure how to persuade Wordpress to do something more intelligent with them.

It seems to me these points alone seriously undermine the credibility of the speech. Those curious about other failings are referred the Spy Blog and UK Liberty responses to her speech, linked to at the top of this article, to see other topics covered. Meanwhile, I explain each of the claims made above in the remainder of this article.


Britain’s “Snoopers” database delayed

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:37 pm on 24 November, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Recently, a headline in The Independent inaccurately claimed that the database storing the communications data related to every website visit, download, email, phone call and text message sent within Britain has been shelved. In fact, as the article itself makes clear, it has merely been postponed:

The timetable for setting up a giant “Big Brother” database is slipping after the scheme was dropped from next month’s Queen’s Speech. The Independent has highlighted growing fury over government moves to collate details of every telephone call, email and internet visit.

Whitehall sources confirmed last night that the plans would not be included in the Queen’s Speech on 3 December, in which the Government outlines its legislative programme for the next parliamentary year. Insisting they were committed to the scheme as a tool in the fight against crime and terrorism, they said a consultation paper early next year would set out options for collecting the information.

But there is no firm indication when the new Communications Data Bill will be published, raising the prospect of it being delayed until after the next general election expected in 2010.

Admittedly, if it is delayed beyond the next election that might kill it off should Labour lose and the new government are determined to end the ongoing attacks on privacy and civil liberties. However it is clear the government is still planning to introduce such a scheme, and it could be in place by 2012, as this recent Register article explains:

The government Interception Modernisation Programme (gIMP), a plan by spy chiefs to centrally collect details of every phone call, text, email and web browsing session of every UK resident, could be in place by 2012, according to a Home Office minister.

Lord West told the House of Lords yesterday the government is aiming to have the enormous database of communications and “black box” interception hardware in place around the same time as BT completes its 21CN transition to an all-internet protocol network.

“Exactly how quickly that [BT’s new backbone] will come in is difficult to predict, but it will be complete by about 2011-12. That is the sort of timescale we are looking at,” he said. Advocates of the system say the completion of 21CN will seriously impinged on the ability of law enforcement to track serious crime.

Last month home secretary Jacqui Smith said the Communications Data Bill, which is planned to legislate for the gIMP, would be delayed a second time and not appear in the Queen’s Speech in early December. Instead, she said, a consultation will be opened in January with the aim of achieving consensus on GCHQ’s communications data harvesting ambitions.

Independent Register sources in politics, the civil service and industry have all said that the gIMP is proceeding anyway with initial funding of almost £1bn. It’s been reported that government estimates say the final cost of collecting and storing information about every electronic communication will be £12bn. Lord West said no decisions have been taken “on which way to go”.

The gIMP won’t record the content of communications, but the central database will be linked to wiretap hardware. The two parts of the system will together allow government eavesdroppers to easily dial into the content of any IP stream of interest.

Still the delay does allow those opposed the scheme more time to build up a campaign against it, and leaves it open to the vagaries of the electoral cycle, so the odds of killing the scheme off have improved as a result.

UK government still pressuring Nominet

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:13 pm on .
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.

Round up: Britain’s National Identity Scheme

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:00 pm on 23 November, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties, British politics, the database state.
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Update (24/11/2008): I should of course emphasise that the fines for failing to update your details are upto £1000. My understanding is that they will start, for a first offence, at £125, according to a thread on the NO2ID forum.

Here’s a round up of recent news regarding Britain’s National Identity Scheme (NIS):

  • Starting on November the 25th 2008, all foreign nationals from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) will be issued with a biometric identity card. The Register reported that the government estimates that it will issue 50,000 cards between November 2008 and April 2009.

    The government are selling this as the first step in setting up the NIS, however all that’s happening is that where people who needed a visa to live and work in Britain would get a stamp in their passport, they are now issued a biometric card. The National Identity Register (NIR) has not yet been set up, and thus whilst the applicants details are being centrally recorded, this is done on a database that will need to be merged with the NIR. A BBC report on the issuing of the cards to non-EEA nationals makes this clear:

    The cards partly replace a paper-based system of immigration stamps - but will now include the individual’s name and picture, their nationality, immigration status and two fingerprints.

    Immigration officials will store the details centrally and, in time, they are expected to be merged into the proposed national identity register. (emphasis added)

    The government has also suggested that people can pre-register their interest in getting a card and envisage handing out the first such cards in late 2009.

  • Until recently, the plan was that people would enroll for the identity scheme at a network of interview centres which would collect their details and biometric information. However the government has announced that it will be inviting the private sector to set up enrollment centres so that people could submit their biometrics via post offices, shops and other private firms. A consequence of this is that there will be price hikes for obtaining a card as firms charge for using their enrollment service. The extra charges are expected to be in the region of £20 to £40 pounds. Note that the cost of applying for a passport, which was £18 pounds when Labour came to power, £56 pounds in 2006 and £72 pounds earlier this year, is now set at over £100 pounds! The government claim this is to cover the cost of fingerprinting everyone. I suspect they are also paying for the NIS via the increased passport prices.

    A further consequence of this move is that now the biometric details will be collected separately from the rest of the registration process, raising questions about how secure the transmission of the data back to the government will be and how reliably they’ll be able to match up the correct biometrics with a given application. Naturally, the government assures us it will all be very secure, but they leak data like a sieve so why trust them?

  • Resistance to the ID card scheme seem to be growing amongst the trade unions, especially BALPA, the union for airline pilots. The government plans to start requiring airside airport works to enrol in the scheme from next year, but BALPA has expressed its opposition to this. According to the Register:

    News emerged today that government plans for a compulsory UK national ID card pilot scheme in the airline industry are deadlocked by industrial and union opposition, casting a blight over the unveiling of the cards’ design.

    The Financial Times reports this morning that the government’s intended rollout of the biometric ID cards among UK citizens - which was to start first among airport workers - is stalled. Both trade unions and industry bodies were adamantly opposed to the plans, and doubtful that the wider UK ID scheme would ever proceed given Conservative pledges to ditch it in the event of winning the next election.

    “We do not see the ID scheme bringing any security or business benefits,” Roger Wiltshire of the British Air Transport Association told the FT.

    “All we see is additional problems and costs.”

    Robert Siddall of the Airport Operators’ Association went further, telling the paper that the ID rollout “is not going anywhere, that’s for sure. You cannot run a pilot scheme in a sector where so many … are opposed.”

    Apart from air-transport management, it was also clear that unions were equally determined to resist the cards. The TUC has voted against them this month, and the airline pilots’ union Balpa threatened a legal challenge if the government tries to make ID cards compulsory for its members.

    More recently, the government announced that the issuing of cards to airside airport workers will only occur at 2 airports in 2009, namely Manchester and City of London, and BALPA are reported to be meeting to discuss how to ramp up their opposition.

  • NO2ID, the campaigning organisation devoted to opposing the NIS and other database state schemes, claims to have obtained Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s fingerprints surreptitiously. Guido Fawkes has also covered this.
  • The media have been helpfully reminding people that if they register on the NIR then they are required to keep their information accurate and uptodate on pain of a £1000 fine, e.g. see these reports at the BBC and the Guardian. E.g. failing to tell the Identity & Passport Service about a change of name or change of address could result in you paying up £1000 for the privilege.
  • The Scottish Parliament recently voted against the NIS, for the third time in a row. Although the Parliament can’t prevent the scheme being imposed north of the border, they can prevent Scottish public services from using the scheme and thus limit their use.
  • Finally, it has emerged that the government envisages that most biometric checks will not be done against the NIR, but merely with the biometrics stored on the card. The consequence of this is that a forged card is more likely to pass muster than if biometric checks were routinely done against the database.

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!

Is the UK government planning to regulate online content?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:53 am on .
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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[Hat tip: Guy Herbert writing at Samizdata]


  • This recent report from the Royal Television Society conference:

    Answering questions from the floor at the Royal Television Society conference in London last month, Minister for Truth Andy Burnham said:

    “The time has come for perhaps a different approach to the internet. I want to even up that see-saw, even up the regulation [imbalance] between the old and the new.”

    The idea that the internet was “beyond legal reach” and a “space where governments can’t go” was no longer the case.

    In his final annual lecture for Ofcom last week Lord Currie expressed a belief that tighter regulation was coming. He said: “Ask most legislators today and, where they think about it, they will say that period [of forbearance] is coming to an end.”

    His comments are not so much a call for a new role for Ofcom as a recognition that such a role may be coming. A spokesperson for Ofcom added that decisions would need to be taken by the government, particularly as to where any new regulatory responsibility would lie.

    Ofcom is not pitching for such responsibility. Rather it is highlighting the importance of issues that are likely to arise from this new government direction.

    One such issue is just how practical it would be to put in place any form of regulation based on site – or even page – classification.

    According to Andy Burnham, the introduction of a ratings system for internet content would not be “over-burdensome”. We have asked the Ministry of Truth (aka Department for Culture, Media and Sport) on several occasions how such a system might work and how its Minister’s view that such regulation would be easy to implement could be squared
    with general consensus that it would be unworkable. Or, as one expert put it: “bonkers”. We asked again last week.

    The Ministry did not feel they could elucidate further. A spokesperson explained that as the UK Council for Child Safety on the Internet had only just been set up, and would be making recommendations about regulating the internet in due course, “it wouldn’t be helpful or appropriate for us to speculate about what those recommendations might

  • This report about a possible power grab for a company at the centre of the UK’s internet infrastructure:

    Ministers led by Peter Mandelson are considering a power grab at the independent company at the centre of UK’s internet infrastructure, The Register can reveal.

    Mandelson’s Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) has asked Nominet, which is in charge of the registry, to justify its independence from Whitehall.

    In a letter dated October 15, senior civil servant David Hendon, BERR’s Director of Business Relations, asked Nominet chairman Bob Gilbert: “What arguments would you employ to convince my Ministers that the present relationship between government and the company is appropriate in ensuring that public policy objectives in relation to the management of the domain name system and the standing of the UK in the internet community are understood and taken into account?”

  • Hazel Blears MP’s recent article attacking bloggers (and other commentators) at Comment is Free:

    But with the caveat that politicians always complain about their own political culture, let me say that we are witnessing a dangerous corrosion in our political culture, on a scale much more profound than previous ages, and the role of the media must be examined in this context.

    Famously, Tony Blair called the media a “feral beast” in one of his last speeches as prime minister. But behind the eye-catching phrase was a serious and helpful analysis of a 24-hour broadcast media and shrinking, and increasingly competitive, newspaper market which demands more impact from its reporting – not the reporting of facts to enable citizens to make sense of the world, but the translation of every political discussion into a row, every difficulty a crisis, every rocky patch for the prime minister the “worst week ever”.

    The changing structure of the media is what drives this desire for impact and the retreat from dispassionate reporting.

    And I would single out the rise of the commentariat as especially note-worthy. It is within living memory that journalists’ names started to appear in newspapers; before then, no name was attached to articles. 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. 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. I can understand when commentators disagree with each other; it’s when they disagree with themselves we should worry.

    There will always be a role for political commentary, providing perspective, illumination and explanation. But editors need to do more to disentangle it from news reporting, and to allow elected politicians the same kind of prominent space for comment as people who have never stood for office.

    This brings me to the role of political bloggers. Perhaps because of the nature of the technology, there is a tendency for political blogs to have a Samizdat style. The most popular blogs are rightwing, ranging from the considered Tory views of Iain Dale, to the vicious nihilism of Guido Fawkes. Perhaps this is simply anti-establishment. Blogs have only existed under a Labour government. Perhaps if there was a Tory government, all the leading blogs would be left-of-centre?

    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.

    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.

Could it be that the government does not like being subjected to the scrutiny that many bloggers and commentators now provide?

I intend to write a direct response to Blears’ article later. In the meantime, below are links to some of the online responses to Blears’ article:

Jacqui Smith on the Snooper’s Database

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:59 pm on 19 October, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith recently gave a speech to the IPPR, where she made (admittedly indirect) reference to the plans to record all communications data, i.e. data about who you phone, who you email, which websites you download material from, but not the content of such transactions, in a central database.

I shall focus here solely on the part of the speech dealing with communications data:

Our ability to intercept communications and obtain communications data is vital to fighting terrorism and combating serious crime, including child sex abuse, murder and drugs trafficking. Communications Data – that is, data about calls, such as the location and identity of the caller, not the content of the calls themselves – is used as important evidence in 95% of serious crime cases and in almost all Security Service operations since 2004.

But the communications revolution has been rapid in this country and the way in which we intercept communications and collect communications data needs to change too. If it does not we will lose this vital capability that we currently have and that we all take for granted. [For example, in the Soham murders and 21/7 convictions.]

All this is a reflection of the technological and behavioural changes that the growth of the internet brings. Once again, that is not a Government policy which is somehow optional. It is a reality to which Government needs to respond.

The changes we need to make may require legislation. The safeguards we will want to put in place certainly will. And we may need legislation to test what a solution will look like.

So far, one needs to be remember several things at this stage and consider these comments in context:

  • Phone and internet companies already record communications data, that is data about the origin, location, destination and length of phone calls, emails, text messages, downloads and website visits. The government can demand this data, and has granted the power to demand the data not only to the police and security services but to local councils, government departments and numerous government bodies. In most cases, they can demand this data without a warrant.
  • The government has pushed, at EU level, for phone and internet companies to be required to store this data for at least a year.
  • The EU data retention directive already requires phone companies to store the data related to phone calls for at least a year, and will soon require internet companies to store the data related to emails, downloads and website visits too.
  • The government is proposing (though this is not directly mentioned in the speech), to store all this data in one central database for its own purposes.

It seems to me that the government and security agencies can keep on top of the terrorist threat quite adequately as it stands now with the current arrangements. Moreover it is still a targetted approach in that they have to ask for the data related to those they suspect of being up to no good, whereas if a central database is created, then they have the data relating to everyone.

This changes the nature of what is going on and thus becomes mass indiscriminate surveillance. It also enables the data to be stored for whatever length of time the government chooses, using tax payer’s money to bear the costs of doing so, where extending the length of time for such data retention by the phone and internet providers would impose a burden on those businesses. It gives the government a lot more freedom of action over exactly how much data is retained for how long and over how it will be used.

I do not trust this or future governments to refrain from using such data for fishing expeditions or worse. I do not trust this or future governments to secure this data against being stolen by foreign spy agencies, organised crime, terrorists or corrupt government officials. The database will be a honeypot for such organisations wishing to subvert the institutions of the state, including institutions such as GCHQ, MI5 or MI6. For some reason, Jacqui failed to mention these risks.

But before proceeding to legislation, I am clear that we need to consult widely with the public and all interested parties to set out the emerging problem, the important capability gaps that we need to address and to look at the possible solutions. We also need to agree what safeguards will be needed, in addition to the many we have in place already, to provide a solid legal framework which protects civil liberties.

This consultation will begin in the New Year and I want this to be combined with a well-informed debate characterised by openness, rather than mere opinion, by reason and reasonableness. In this, as in the other work we do, my aim is to achieve a consensus and I hope that others will approach the serious issues posed for our national security capabilities in the same spirit.

If this government genuinely approaches this in a spirit of openness and reasonableness, it’ll be a first. They have lied and obfsucated repeatedly over issues such as identity cards and pre-charge detention, it’ll mark a considerable change of habit to do otherwise now…

So let me set the terms for that open and reasoned debate now, and be clear on what we are not going to do.

There are no plans for an enormous database which will contain the content of your emails, the texts that you send or the chats you have on the phone or online. Nor are we going to give local authorities the power to trawl through such a database in the interest of investigating lower level criminality under the spurious cover of counter terrorist legislation. (emphasis added)

And here we have the classic, “attack a straw man” tactic designed to distract attention from what they are planning to do. I’m not aware that anyone has claimed the government want to store a database of the content of all phone calls, emails, etc. The media coverage I’ve seen has been clear that the database would store only the communications data, not the content of the communications themselves.

And note the promise being made with regards to local authorities. Smith is saying that they will not be allowed to trawl a database of the content of your communications.

She is not saying that they won’t be allowed to trawl a database that records who it is you are communicating with.

Local authorities do not have the power to listen to your calls now and they never will in future. You would rightly object to proposals of this kind and I would not consider them. What we will be proposing will be options which follow the key principles which govern all our work in this area – the principles of proportionality and necessity.

So she reiterates that the government won’t do something nobody is claiming they are doing anyway.

And that’s all she’s said on the matter in this speech.

Thus she has in fact dodged the issue.

Proposal to require passports to buy mobile phones

According to both Scotland on Sunday and the Times, the British government is considering requiring people to present their passports, or other official ID, when buying mobile phones. From the Times’ article:

A compulsory national register for the owners of all 72m mobile phones in Britain would be part of a much bigger database to combat terrorism and crime. Whitehall officials have raised the idea of a register containing the names and addresses of everyone who buys a phone in recent talks with Vodafone and other telephone companies, insiders say.

The move is targeted at monitoring the owners of Britain’s estimated 40m prepaid mobile phones. They can be purchased with cash by customers who do not wish to give their names, addresses or credit card details.

The pay-as-you-go phones are popular with criminals and terrorists because their anonymity shields their activities from the authorities. But they are also used by thousands of law-abiding citizens who wish to communicate in private.

The move aims to close a loophole in plans being drawn up by GCHQ, the government’s eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham, to create a huge database to monitor and store the internet browsing habits, e-mail and telephone records of everyone in Britain.

The “Big Brother” database would have limited value to police and MI5 if it did not store details of the ownership of more than half the mobile phones in the country.

So this seems to be a knock-on effect of the plans to introduce the snooper’s database of the origin, the location, the destination and the length of phone calls, emails and website visits in the UK.

However as an anti-crime/anti-terrorism measure it seems rather ineffective to me. Surely anyone wishing to circumvent this requirement merely has to do one of the following:

  • Steal a mobile phone.
  • Obtain a mobile phone second hand in a private transaction.
  • Forge ID documents with which to buy phones.
  • Obtain a phone from abroad.
  • Learn how to alter a phone’s identity.

Making any or all of these illegal is hardly going to stop people already intent breaking the law from doing these things. Meanwhile the law abiding public get subjected to ever greater levels of surveillance. Perhaps that’s the point.

Is “42 days” dead?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:49 pm on 18 October, 2008.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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After being defeated heavily in the House of Lords on the issue, the British government has dropped plans to allow suspected terrorists to be held for upto 42 days without charge from the Counter Terrorism Bill (CT Bill).

This means that they won’t try to use the Parliament Act to force the bill through without the Lords’ consent, thus in the normal course of events, the issue won’t be raised again this side of the next general election, where the Tories, pledged to repeal the measure if it had passed, look likely to win. However, they haven’t quite conceded defeat either. Instead of including the measure in the CT Bill, they have decided to publish a bill that will implement 42 days to be used in a terrorist emergency.

It seems clear the government would still like to put this measure on the books, but have simply bent to the political reality that opposition is such that the measure is unlikely to get through Parliament this side of the next election and the government does not wish to be bogged down by the issue in the run up to the election. The only situation they can therefore realistically hope to use to put the measure on the books until then is the aftermath of a terrorist attack, when feelings will be running high and opposing such a measure would allow the government to cast the opposition as being “soft” on terrorism. Yet, if there really was a serious “terrorist emergency” (as opposed to simply another of the attacks or attempts Britain has experienced so far from Islamist extremists), they already have the option of using the Civil Contingencies Act to do whatever they feel needs to be done. This fact shows that they’re simply trying to save face and that the prime purpose of such legislation would not in fact be to combat the threat of terrorism but to make the opposition look soft on terrorism. Indeed Jacqui Smith’s statement after the defeat of the bill pretty much accuses those opposing the measure of exactly that:

In a forceful statement to MPs less than two hours after the vote, Ms Smith said: “I deeply regret that some have been prepared to ignore the terrorist threat, for fear of taking a tough but necessary decision.”

She said she had prepared a new bill which would allow the director of public prosecutions to apply to the courts to question a terrorist suspect for up to 42 days “should the worst happen”.

She said Britain still needed to “be prepared to deal with the worst”, adding: “My priority remains the protection of the British people.

“I don’t believe as some honourable members clearly do that it’s enough to simply cross our fingers and hope for the best. That is not good enough.”

Thing is, no one who opposes the bill suggests we should cross our fingers and hope for the best. The key to combatting the terrorist threat lies not in ramming ever more draconian legislation through Parliament, but in gathering intelligence and providing the resources, technology and manpower necessary to ensure thorough and timely investigation of terrorists and their crimes. This government seems to think that if a evidence cannot be found in time to charge someone arrested for terrorism, that they must extend the time with which that suspect is held rather than consider the possibility that the reason the evidence cannot be found is either that they’re innocent or that there’s a lack of resources or a lack of competence in the investigation.

And yet, it seems to me the measure won’t be dead whilst there is life in the idea that someone who opposes a law ostensibly targetted at fighting terrorism is “soft” on terrorism. This idea has enabled the government to pass ever more draconian measures over the last decade. With 42 days, it may have received some wounds, but the fact the government can still produce a bill for emergency use, and make statements like the above when a measure they want is defeated, shows there’s still some life in it.

Moreover I fully expect the measure to be included in Labour’s next general election manifesto. The government hasn’t admitted they’re wrong, they’ve simply decided to accept the battle is lost at this point but they still clearly hope to use the issue to their advantage later on. In the run up to the election, I fully expect them to attack the Tories and the Lib Dems for being soft on terrorism for opposing these measures. Nailing the lie that opposing attacks on civil liberties means being soft on crime or soft on terrorism will thus be the key to ensuring that whoever wins the next general election stops using draconian legislation as a stick to beat the opposition with.

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