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Why was Labour so quiet on the “Snoopers’ Charter”?

7 May

This piece was originally posted on LabourList at http://labourlist.org/2013/05/why-was-labour-so-quiet-on-the-snoopers-charter

“Protecting the public involves protecting all their freedoms. I won’t let the Tories or the Liberals take ownership of the British tradition of liberty. I want our party to reclaim that tradition.”

In his first speech as Labour leader, Ed Miliband made the case that his party had to rethink its approach to civil liberties. In thirteen years of government Labour had gone from being the party that passed the Human Rights Act to one that brought in stop and search without suspicion, tried to introduce 90 days’ detention without trial and contested the 2010 election with a commitment to ID cards in its manifesto.

But since Miliband’s dramatic election in Manchester two and a half years ago, he has led a party apparently struck dumb by the Coalition’s most illiberal proposals. By staying so quiet, Labour has missed a huge opportunity to redefine itself as a party of civil liberties and is letting the Lib Dems continue to paint themselves as the defenders of individual freedom in Government.

A good example is the Home Office’s Communications Data Bill, also known as the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’. Until Nick Clegg blocked it last week, the Home Office had planned to compel internet providers like Virgin, Sky and BT and web companies like Facebook and Google to record the web and email use of everybody in the country. Which websites you visit, who you email, who you speak to on social media, where you and your phone are – it would all have been recorded for the police and security services to trawl through.

Labour could have been a leading voice against the Bill and started the process of positioning itself as the party of civil liberties that Ed Miliband clearly wanted to lead. Instead, they remained silent throughout.

It wasn’t like there wasn’t enough ammunition. A cross-party committee of MPs and peers set up to scrutinise the draft Bill found the Home Office had severely miscalculated the cost of its plans, had failed to properly consult with industry and civil society groups and had paid “insufficient attention to the duty to respect the right to privacy.”

Elsewhere the Bill was variously criticised for threatening journalist’s ability to protect sources’ identity, increasing the burden on startup businesses and being technically naïve. The Treasury didn’t even sign off on the Home Office’s funding.

Labour’s reluctance to speak out against the Bill despite the cacophony of opposition outside Parliament also means Nick Clegg can now point to his veto as evidence that his party as the only one interested in defending individual freedoms – the Conservatives push authoritarian, invasive measures and Labour just sit on the sidelines. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are helping to dismantle our legal system by passing Secret Courts legislation and trying to cut legal aid.

This may all be part of a plan to avoid committing to concrete positions two years before the next election. If so, Labour will now need to work quickly to develop manifesto policies for surveillance laws that are based on thorough consultation, are technically viable and help law enforcement agencies to monitor suspected criminals rather than the entire British population.

Those tasked with drawing up Labour’s future approach could do worse than reading a report published recently by Open Rights Group. (Full disclosure: I work at Open Rights Group.) In it, internet experts, lawyers and campaigners offer a wide variety of options available to surveillance policy makers that would protect our civil liberties and combat crime.

Whichever direction Labour decides to take, the complicated issues around web surveillance aren’t going to disappear. The way a lot of criminals communicate is undeniably changing and protecting the public will still involve protecting all their freedoms. Staying silent won’t be an option for very much longer.

Ed Paton-Williams is a campaigner at Open Rights Group and a member of the Labour party. He writes here in a personal capacity

Has the German government’s Leistungsschutzrecht just protected the Internet by mistake?

1 Mar

This is a reprint  from ORGZine which is an online magazine affiliated with the Open Rights Group. The original is available here.

German newspapers have been lobbying for a change to German copyright law for several years. They think that search engines and news aggregators like Google News threaten their businesses by reproducing their content without permission. Google News shows its users links to newspaper articles, a 240 character snippet of those articles.

Google argues that they’re increasing the amount of people who visit newspapers’ websites and see the adverts on those sites. Google doesn’t sell any adverts for its Google News pages. German newspaper groups, including Axel Springer – a News International-style corporation – think that Google and others should pay a licence fee if they want to put links and snippets of articles on sites like Google News.

Germany’s coalition government of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Liberals proposed in their 2009 coalition agreement to pass a law to “improve the protection of press products on the Internet.” They then introduced a Bill in November 2012 (often referred to as Leistungsschutzrecht or ancillary copyright) saying that websites would have to pay for a licence if they wanted to show links to or snippets of publishers’ copyrighted content just like the newspaper groups had asked for.

Internet advocacy groups like Digitale Gesellschaft ran campaigns against the Bill as did Google with its Defend Your Net campaign and Wikimedia Deutschland. Despite those campaigns and the opposition of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party, the German Parliament passed the Bill this morning. Victory for the newspaper publishers then. Actually, no.

There had been last-minute changes to the Bill which actually allowed websites to show short snippets of copyright text without paying a licence fee. Websites that want to use longer extracts or an entire article will still have to pay a fee. The Bill has done a complete about-turn and the German Parliament has in fact legislated to protect Google News’ model.

The easiest conclusion to draw is that the German government just hasn’t realised what it’s done. It’s legislated to allow Google and others to continue what they’re doing anyway. Even though their instincts seem to be to ensure that newspapers can continue with their current outdated business models, the German government has passed a law which may well ensure that newspapers have to change the way they make money.

Whether that’s what the German government intended or not, we should hope that the newspaper publishers dedicate their efforts to developing a business model that doesn’t rely on Governments passing laws that cripple the internet. Getting people to pay for the privilege of increasing another site’s traffic and advertising revenue just doesn’t make any sense and it discourages innovation. The newspapers should concentrate on doing some innovation themselves and work out how they can use the Internet to make money without charging those who want to link to their articles.

If the German newspaper industry wants to carry on pushing for licences for links and snippets then they’ll come up against dedicated opposition from Digitale Gesellschaft, Wikimedia and others again and again.

Capitalism in the Offline and Online Worlds: the Domination of Tesco, Facebook and Google

29 Sep

Nothing particularly ground-breaking here. Just some thoughts that’ve come to me in over the last few days on the similarities between the development of the domination of supermarkets in the modern retail industry and that of Facebook and Google in online social media and services. (I’m trying to take away the pressure to write something particularly insightful when I post and accept that it’s ok to make mistakes in public.)

Facebook announced this week that users of online music streaming services like Spotify will soon be share or every song they listen to to Facebook automatically, so-called frictionless sharing. I’ve used a similar service for years called Last.fm which is owned by CBS. Every song I listen in Spotify or my desktop music player foobar2000 to is sent to Last.fm, who then build a picture of my listening habits and recommend music I’d probably like. I’ve found countless new bands this way and it’s only been possible because lots of other people with similar listening habits use the service too. It’s one of my favourite web services.

Facebook has about 750 million users while Last.fm has about 40 million. Facebook is in a very strong position to become dominant in yet another aspect of online life. Facebook already offers many services within one website. which other  websites and mobile apps focus entirely on: location sharing (Foursquare and Gowalla), instant messaging (countless services), surveys and questions (Ask MetaFilter etc, Survey Monkey) and so on. A similar observation could be made of Google who have a huge array of products and services.

What strikes me about this is how similar this is to the relationship between supermarkets and independent traders. Supermarkets like Tesco offer everything from fruit and vegetables to laptops. Independent traders sell either fruit and vegetables or laptops. Speaking recently on the ‘Tesco-isation’ of Britain, the Labour leader Ed Miliband commented

I think it is a problem that people think the character of their local high street is being changed and they have no power against big corporations in this country.

In its report The Guardian made the point that

Labour…has to make a judgment on whether the big four [Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrisons] dominate simply because they are popular and more efficient, or because they can stifle competition and choice.

The same questions need to be asked about the domination of large internet companies like Facebook and Google. Is it in the interests of the online public for small companies offering specific services to be dominated by much larger companies who can offer a myriad of services?

I haven’t completely made up my mind on that yet. The concentration of shopping and online activity on companies who offer lots of services within the same site or building do seem to be the effect of the same phenomena though. I made a similar point a while ago here where I said

In the same way that small, independent shops are going out of business because customers find it easier and more efficient to go to large shopping centres to do their shopping, internet users have turned from complicated HTML sites, to slightly less complicated Myspace pages and finally to the easy-to-use Facebook to create their online identity. What both of these phenomena have in common is a societal shift towards a more market-friendly behaviour.

Supermarkets are more similar to Facebook and Google than shopping centres but my general point is the same. The effects of capitalism of companies driving towards making efficiencies by reducing costs and of increasing profits by expanding into different markets apply to the online world just as they do in the offline world. This is having effects on small internet companies just as it does to small traders on the high street.

38 Degrees’ Strategy is Spoiling the Potential of Email

10 Aug

I wrote in May (twice!) about the problems involved with 38 Degrees offering its users the ability to email MPs without having to write their own message. At the time the Labour MP Tom Watson was complaining about receiving  1700 identical or near-identical emails about PR. Now, a request from Dominic Raab, the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton, that 38 Degrees remove his email address from their system due to being overwhelmed by emails has provoked outrage from the campaign group.

Raab’s argument that it’s impossible to deal with huge amounts of identical emails is completely understandable. Yes, the taxpayer does pay his wages and should be able to expect him to read and reply to correspondence but this correspondence surely has to be original and unique to warrant his attention. Email, when used in the right way, does have the potential to be a highly useful tool for those without the time or money to lobby MPs. But it’s a huge waste of time and money to have Raab and other MPs’ staff trawling through thousands of indistinguishable emails from 38 Degrees users. Indeed, 38 Degrees’ strategy is proving to be counterproductive in that it is obviously forcing MPs to spend more time working out the logistics of reading the emails and less time actually acting on the issues dealt with in the emails.

38 Degrees’ strategy is not beyond reform. I provided 38 Degrees with a reasonably detailed set of proposals for altering their system back in May. I got some positive feedback from their team but they don’t seem to have changed their strategy in the months since then. One proposal was to ensure that emails sent to MPs are written by individuals and not by the campaign organisers. This is easily achievable by not providing a pre-written message for users, automatically ensuring originality. It would of course still be possible to offer a series of style tips and campaign points to assist the website’s users

There are several advantages to writing original emails (and letters) to MPs. They get a reply from the MP and maybe from a government minister. They provide useable evidence of their constituents’ feelings for MPs to cite in parliamentary debate. They also show an individual’s strength of feeling on an issue in a way that adding your name to a message written by the campaign group doesn’t.

Continue reading

Covert Surveillance and the Digital Economy Act 2010

20 Jun

I wrote an essay titled ‘The Disciplining of Behaviour in an Online Panopticon: A Foucauldian Perspective on the Digital Economy Act 2010′ which is available here. I’m considering writing a journalistic version of the essay to make it more accessible.

Here are some excerpts from the introduction to this essay:

Continue reading

A Proposal of Adjustments to 38 Degrees’ Mass-Email Strategy

27 May

I published a blog post around two weeks ago which concluded with some brief criticisms of 38 Degrees’ mass-email strategy which has been used to lobby MPs on a range of issues such as voting reform. 38 Degrees asked me on Facebook if I had any ideas of how to overcome the problems I mentioned. Here, I outline in more detail the ways in which I think this strategy could be reworked. Many of the existing issues and proposed solutions which I mention here could very well be replicated in other organisations which use email to create mass-petitions to send to representative bodies such as the House of Commons.

I lay out some of the problems to which the current strategy is contributing. I then identify some proposals to solve these issues and also make some suggestions about how these potential solutions could be publicised both to MPs and to the internet-using public. I do not wish to give the impression that I think 38 Degrees is a failing organisation. On the contrary, it is doing a tremendous job. By its own admission though, it is a young organisation and one of the first to utilise internet technology to lobby MPs. These criticisms are meant constructively and my proposed solutions are intended to contribute to the organisation’s continued success by making it more efficient at working with an emerging set of online tools.

Current Issues with 38 Degrees Mass-Email Strategy

1. MPs are receiving a lot of emails from people who are not their own constituents.

  • MPs are actually only required to read correspondence from people who live in the constituency they represent.
  • Because thousands of people from outside their constituency are contacting them, MPs are receiving more emails than can viably be read or answered.

2. 38 Degrees has been accused by Tom Watson MP of ‘spamming’ his inbox.

  • Watson is one of the House of Commons’ most internet-friendly members. If he dismisses these emails as spam, 38 Degrees’ strategy must be causing even more irritation for the rest of the House of Commons.
  • It is important that MPs receive emails in the spirit in which they are meant and not interpret them as spam.

3. The current system does not do enough to encourage people to write high-quality, original emails.

  • There are only limited suggestions about what to write to the right of the email text box.
  • Users are likely to take the easy option of just sending the example email given by 38 Degrees.

4. MPs have resorted to sending out generic replies which often do not apply to the issue raised in the original email.

  • Recent examples of this include Labour MPs’ responses to emails which had dealt with electoral reform. The replies were entirely on why they were unable to form a ‘progressive’ coalition with the Liberal Democrats and other parties and nothing to do with electoral reform.
  • This might be seen as a symptom of the other problems which I have outlined.

Continue reading

Email, Lobbying and a new Participatory Democracy

17 May

MPs are receiving increasing amount of email from users of 38 Degrees , a website which provides the ability for members of the public to MPs en masse. The Purple Revolution campaign for Fair Votes made use of this service to let the strength of their feeling be know to Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs  on proportional representation. According to a 38 Degrees blog post they, “sent over 150,000 emails to the Lib Dem MPs as they started weighing up their next move [on who to form a coalition with].”

The emails appear not have have been received in the best of spirits however. One of the most socially-connected (though anti-PR) MPs Tom Watson tweeted :

Thks @38_degrees. Inbox now full. Why didn’t you check to find out the MPs that supported your proposition before spamming us all?

3 days later Watson added :

Hello 38_degrees. Just thought you’d want to know it’s taken me two hours to work out how I’m going to email 1700 progressives en masse ;-)

While I applaud Watson for engaging with the electorate so well on Twitter and understand his frustration at having a sudden deluge of emails, his sentiment is fundamentally misplaced.

At the moment, email is simply the most efficient method for members of the the general public who feel strongly about an issue to register their opinion with those who legislate. It is a method by which people without great wealth or privilege can lobby their representatives in Parliament. Big business can spend millions on lobbying legislators and the civil service to make law conforming with their interests. Such monetary resources are just not available to normal people.

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Facebook and Capitalism

15 May

I recently wrote a university essay on the British government’s Digital Economy Act 2010 which introduced measures to combat online copyright infringement to protect Britain’s creative industries. Essentially, the government is using power to protect the financial interests of these creative industries. But the effect of capitalism on the internet is more than just what has been legislated on by governments. It is omnipresent, but especially pertinent in the case of Facebook.

The cyber-libertarian John P. Barlow argues in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace that the online world is somehow removed from the power relations of the offline world:

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter, There is no matter here.

Two recent contributions to this debate fundamentally disagree with the cyber-libertarian view and argue instead that the relations prevalent in the offline world apply equally to online society. In the BBC’s excellent The Virtual Revolution series, Doug Rushkoff made the observation that:

the way we represent ourselves online has devolved from the quirky, personalised HTML webpage, homepage of the ’90s, to the somewhat modular but still strange presence of a MySpace page, to the completely formatted and market-friendly presence of a Facebook page.

Just yesterday, Andrew Brown, a writer for the Guardian who usually blogs about religion, posted an article about Facebook and the website’s well-documented misuse of users’ data. He ends the article on an interesting point:

Ever since money was invented, the people who have made money out of aimless chat have been the landlords, whether they were selling beer, coffee or a space on the web…The only people to whom that information is worth even a fraction of a penny are those who want to take advantage of it to sell you something you don’t need – except, that is for your real friends.

The implications of all of this are clear. Not only is power omnipresent, but so is the effect of capital and the continual need to acquire capital. The vast majority of the online community has — after an initial period of market-unfriendly websites — created its online identity on Facebook. This is a website which has a particularly privileged position from which to use these identities for its own capital’s interests. Facebook does not charge money for the use of its services, but users pay instead with their privacy and personal data which can be used to make money by selling adverts and data to third party companies.

Continue reading

Upcoming Academic Posts

10 May

I have a couple of things that I’d like to publish on here but I’d rather not run any risk of being accused of plagiarism. I’ll make them public in June after my degree is finalised. They’re on New Labour’s constructions of fatherhood in public policy and an application of Bentham’s Panopticon prison as a metaphor for the measures put into place in the Digital Economy Act 2010. Contact me if you want more information on this before I post about them in full.

Wikileaks Needs Our Support

12 Feb

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the University of Birmingham student paper ‘Redbrick.’ The original is available here.

When an ex-SAS offi­cer John Wick came across the details of MPs’ expenses claims, he con­tacted the Daily Tele­graph for pub­lic­ity. But what hap­pens when jobs, lib­erty or lives are threat­ened if cen­sored infor­ma­tion can­not be leaked anonymously?

Since 2007, Wik­ileaks has offered an online repos­i­tory for anony­mous whistle­blow­ers to upload doc­u­ments show­ing uneth­i­cal prac­tices by gov­ern­ments and com­pa­nies. These doc­u­ments detail mis­de­meanours rang­ing from oil-traders Trafigura’s dump­ing of toxic waste off the West African coast to human rights abuses in China to the names of British National Party mem­bers includ­ing sev­eral police offi­cers, doc­tors and solicitors. Continue reading

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