Friday, August 29, 2008

Cameron is a whig

"Labour talk of a leadership change is not just petty and mean-minded; it is sublimely irrelevant. The question that matters is whether it can retrieve the non-statist democratic republican strand in its heritage — exemplified by John Milton, John Stuart Mill, Tom Mann and RH Tawney — and abandon the heavyhanded, statist democratic collectivism that has been second nature to Labour governments since the 1920s. There is still time. Just." —David Marquand

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Olympics v freedom

"I admit, I questioned the wisdom of giving the games to a city with such a poor human rights record — every citizen under surveillance, police executing suspects, people interrogated just for taking a photo in a railway station — but maybe London can rise to the occasion." —Dave Garner

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Trade deals replace gunboats

"Where once they used gunboats and sepoys, the rich nations now use chequebooks and lawyers to seize food from the hungry. The scramble for resources has begun, but — in the short term, at any rate — we will hardly notice. The rich world's governments will protect themselves from the political cost of shortages, even if it means that other people must starve." —George Monbiot

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Commission IP proposals are evidence-free

Bernt HugenholzIntellectual property policy can be a frustrating field. Despite endless debate, analysis of evidence and careful reviews, officials and legislators often go their own sweet way in deciding policy on (to pick one recent example) the term of copyright.

Bernt Hugenholtz, a distinguished IP law professor who directs the University of Amsterdam's Institute for Information Law, has just sent a blistering letter to the president of the Commission about their latest "Intellectual Property package":

We are, of course, well aware that several conclusions of the IViR studies do not agree with the policy choices underlying the Commission's proposals. And we are certainly not so naïve as to expect that the recommendations of an academic institution such as ours, however well researched and conceived they may be, will find their way into the Commission's policies in undiluted form. What we would expect however is that our work, which was expressly commissioned by the policy unit in charge of these proposals, be given the appropriate consideration by the Commission and be duly referenced in its policy documents, in particular wherever the Commission's policy choices depart from our studies' main recommendations.

As you are certainly aware, one of the aims of the 'Better Regulation' policy that is part of the Lisbon agenda is to increase the transparency of the EU legislative process. By wilfully ignoring scientific analysis and evidence that was made available to the Commission upon its own initiative, the Commission's recent Intellectual Property package does not live up to this ambition. Indeed, the Commission's obscuration of the IViR studies and its failure to confront the critical arguments made therein seem to reveal an intention to mislead the Council and the Parliament, as well as the citizens of the European Union.

In doing so the Commission reinforces the suspicion, already widely held by the public at large, that its policies are less the product of a rational decision-making process than of lobbying by stakeholders. This is troublesome not only in the light of the current crisis of faith as regards the European lawmaking institutions, but also — and particularly so — in view of European citizens' increasingly critical attitudes towards intellectual property law.

Profiling your mobile phone

If you've ever wondered what can be done with the vast quantities of information about our communications being collected by telcos, ISPs and others under data retention legislation, the London Review of Books has the answer!

ThorpeGlen (and VASTech and Kommlabs and Aqsacom) sell systems that carry out ‘passive probing’, analysing vast quantities of communications data to detect subjects of potential interest to security services, thereby doing their expensive legwork for them. ThorpeGlen’s VP of sales and marketing showed off one of these tools in a ‘Webinar’ broadcast to the ISS community on 13 May. He used as an example the data from ‘a mobile network we have access to’ – since he chose not to obscure the numbers we know it’s Indonesia-based – and explained that calls from the entire network of 50 million subscribers had been processed, over a period of two weeks, to produce a database of eight billion or so ‘events’. Everyone on a network, he said, is part of a group; most groups talk to other groups, creating a spider’s web of interactions. Of the 50 million subscribers ThorpeGlen processed, 48 million effectively belonged to ‘one large group’: they called one another, or their friends called friends of their friends; this set of people was dismissed. A further 400,000 subscriptions could be attributed to a few large ‘nodes’, with numbers belonging to call centres, shops and information services. The remaining groups ranged in size from two to 142 subscribers. Members of these groups only ever called each other – clear evidence of antisocial behaviour – and, in one extreme case, a group was identified in which all the subscribers only ever called a single number at the centre of the web. This section of the ThorpeGlen presentation ended with one word: ‘WHY??’

Time for an atheist prime minister

"As things stand, religious groups in our society get a slice of the pie vastly larger than their numbers or merits truly justify. The big advantage of an atheist prime minister would be that he or she would see that fact, and act accordingly. An atheist is not going to have the lingering sense that because someone has chosen to believe one or another ancient dogma, he is to be respected and honoured, listened to, given the public's money to bring up his children in the same beliefs and exempted from some of the laws of the land." —A.C. Grayling

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The rationality of US foreign policy

"If we seek to understand American foreign policy in terms of a rational engagement with international problems, or even as an effective means of projecting power, we are looking in the wrong place. The government's interests have always been provincial. It seeks to appease lobbyists, shift public opinion at crucial stages of the political cycle, accommodate crazy Christian fantasies and pander to television companies run by eccentric billionaires. The US does not really have a foreign policy. It has a series of domestic policies which it projects beyond its borders. That they threaten the world with 57 varieties of destruction is of no concern to the current administration. The only question of interest is who gets paid and what the political kickbacks will be." —George Monbiot

Saturday, August 16, 2008

UN criticises UK on freedom of expression

As reported by yesterday's Guardian, the UN Human Rights Committee has criticised the UK's record on freedom of expression in their triennial review (CCPR/C/GBR/CO/6):

24. The Committee remains concerned that powers under the Official Secrets Act 1989 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. It notes that disclosures of information are penalized even where they are not harmful to national security…

25. The Committee is concerned that the State party's practical application of the law of libel has served to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work, including through the phenomenon known as "libel tourism." The advent of the internet and the international distribution of foreign media also create the danger that a State party's unduly restrictive libel law will affect freedom of expression worldwide on matters of valid public interest…

26. The Committee notes with concern that the offence of “encouragement of terrorism” has been defined in section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006 in broad and vague terms. In particular, a person can commit the offence even when he or she did not intend members of the public to be directly or indirectly encouraged by his or her statement to commit acts of terrorism, but where his or her statement was understood by some members of the public as encouragement to commit such acts.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Thought for the day

Emmeline Pankhurst
Apropos Oxford University's elections:

"It seems to me that if you allow people to enter your legislatures without asking them any questions as to what they are going to do when they get there you are not exercising your citizen's rights and your citizen's duties as you ought."

Emmeline Pankhurst, leading Suffragette, Hartford, Connecticut, 1913

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Why Microsoft and Intel tried to kill the XO $100 laptop

OLPC XO-2The twists and turns of the One Laptop Per Child Project (OLPC) make for a compelling case study of technology and development.

From the start, OLPC has been criticised for some rather techno-utopian thinking, and the more common mistake of technology designed with little input from its potential users. Its development process has not run smooth. It has been fought at every step by Microsoft and Intel, who have the most to lose from an open source operating system running on a low-cost AMD processor:

Computers are like drugs, literally. If the drug companies wanted to do the most good in the world, they would divert all investment from the illnesses of the rich — cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes — to the much more catastrophic ailments of the poor, primarily malaria, but also Aids. But they don’t; they sit comfortably on their high-margin drugs. Equally, if the technocrats really believed in the human value of universal connectivity — and all of them say they do — they would find ways of wiring southeast Asia and Africa. But they don’t; they sit comfortably on their high-margin laptops.

Nonetheless, the economics are on OLPC's side. As chairman Nicholas Negroponte frequently observes, the relentless drop in computing prices year-on-year will dramatically lower the cost of the notional $100 unit. At the same time, we must hope that developing world primary education systems can move from per-child annual spends in the hundreds of dollars to the $10,000+ levels of the West.

As long as the project can hold together for another year or two, it could have an enormous impact. How the developed world's high-value-add information workers would be affected by tens of millions of new competitors in South America, Asia and Africa remains to be seen.

An Olympic crack in China's wall

"The last great dictatorship on Earth must have regarded paying for the Games as a cheap admission fee compared with taking a gamble on free speech, regional devolution, the rule of law and contested elections." —Simon Jenkins

Monday, August 04, 2008

The new political dividing line

"The new dividing line between Labour and the Tories is less about a left-right split than about an authoritarian approach on one side and a more liberal one on the other. And Labour are on the wrong side of it. Many of their social and economic policies may have failed, but where they have succeeded is in developing a targeting, controlling, distrustful state. From the micromanagement of civil servants, teachers, doctors and the police, to ID cards, super databases and the growth of surveillance, the government's answer to too many problems has been the removal of autonomy from individuals and more oversight from Whitehall." —Jenni Russell