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December 11, 2013 | Peter Bradwell

Important opinion about data retention due tomorrow

Tomorrow we're expecting an opinion about the 'Data Retention Directive'. It's a significant moment in the debate about laws that define the limits of digital surveillance.

Update: The opinion has now been published, with the Advocate General arguing that the Directive breaches the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Read our new post for more on what he said.

The Directive is a European law that allows governments to require companies to collect information about our communications and then make it available to law enforcement.

The case we'll hear about tomorrow concerns whether this law conflicts with the rights to private life (Article 7) and the protection of personal information (Article 8) set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The opinion due tomorrow will come from an "Advocate General" at the Court of Justice of the European Union. Their job is to provide a legal opinions regarding cases before the court, which the judges involved have to take into account.

Who is involved?

The case is a combination of two complaints, one brought in Ireland by Digital Rights Ireland and another in Austria by a group including AK Vorrat Austria and an individual Austrian citizen. The Court decided to hear these two together.

There was a hearing on 9th July during which the parties who brought the complaints gave evidence, as did the European institutions (Commission, Parliament and Council) and the European Data Protection Supervisor.

What are the main issues?

The parties are arguing that the Data Retention Directive is incompatible with the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Basically, the question is whether governments can require communications providers to collect store communications information about all of us and for law enforcement to be able to access this data.

If legislation conflicts with our rights, the Court has established that the measures need to be necessary and must strike a proportionate balance. So the Court asked about how the law might interfere with articles 7 and 8; what objective evidence the European Union used when deciding that the Directive was necessary; whether the Union achieved a balance in this case; and about the provisions relating to the security of the data involved.

In their arguments in the hearing in July, the parties said that there is no evidence that the retention powers set out in the Directive are a necessary and proportionate method of tackling crime and terrorism, and that the data has been used for investigating crimes for which the Directive was not intended. You can read more about what was said at the hearing in the summary by EDRi.

ORG has also campaigned against Data Retention, and we co-signed a letter in 2010 to the European Commission which goes through some of the reasons why. 

Statewatch also recently produced a report on the effectiveness of Data Retention. The report describes how the Directive became law, how countries in Europe implemented it, and describes the various legal challenges that Data Retention is facing.

What happens next?

The Advocate General opinion is not the final result from the Court - it's effectively a guide for the judges. They do give a good indication of what the final judgment will look like. So this is an important intervention.

We'll bring you news of the opinion when we hear it tomorrow.

[Read more]

December 06, 2013 | Ruth Coustick-Deal

A milestone for Open Rights Group: 2000 supporters

This December Open Rights Group is approaching 2000 supporters. We look back at all that has happened in 2013 and celebrate our community growth.

We are really proud of what we've achieved in 2013. We've become louder and more effective at defending your rights. We've seen an enormous amount of interest in our campaigns, with unprecedented numbers responding to Government consultations through us, and thousands signing our petition against mass filtering of the Internet.

Open Rights Group was founded in 2005 when a group of activists pledged their support for creating the first UK digital rights organisation. Since then we've grown rapidly in capability and reach, appearing frequently in the national press and having an impact on technology laws through giving evidence to those drafting bills and organising supporter led campaigns. We now have 7 staff, (3 full time and 4 part time) a dedicated Advisory Council and a fantastic group of volunteers and interns who help make it all happen.

The greatest growth has been in our brilliant community of supporters. Thank you to all who have joined ORG and those who taken part in our campaigns. We are now at a huge landmark for Open Rights Group:

Can you help us reach 2000 supporters?

Join ORG button

We have nearly doubled in size since we were formed. We started this year with 1500 and the fact that we are rapidly approaching 2000 this December is dramatic evidence that people are passionately concerned about their rights online.

Help us reach the 2000 supporters milestone, and become part of this movement for change.

Please consider joining ORG, enabling us meet the many challenges to digital rights we will face next year.

Here are some of the big things our supporters have helped ORG achieve in 2013:

Stopping the Snoopers' Charter

We led the campaign that got the Snoopers' Charter dropped. Our evidence to the committee in Parliament scrutinising the Communications Data Bill influenced their damning final report. Our Digital Surveillance report and letter-writing actions gave MPs realistic alternatives to blanket snooping.

Challenging PRISM and TEMPORA

We immediately responded to Edward Snowden's leaks of agencies spying on the population by organising a campaign for parliamentary scrutiny of GCHQ. Thanks to donations we're also running a European legal challenge, with Big Brother Watch and English PEN, against UK surveillance practices on the basis that they breach our human rights.

Fighting to keep Facebook from controlling your personal information

We are part of a coalition of European civil liberties groups campaigning for new privacy-friendly data protection laws. We met with MEPs and helped supporters petition theirs, trying to ensure that the new Regulation keeps you in control of personal data.

Monitoring and documenting UK censorship

We have fought for greater transparency in the use of court orders to censor material on the net. We're also exposing secret court orders mandating the blocking of websites through our project.

We also ran a petition against Cameron's plans for default-on filters of the Internet. These proposals ignore free speech issues so we demanded that ISPs tell us how the filters will work in practice and what they will actually block. We've seen some responses from them to us on issues of over-blocking as filtering is rolled out.

Defending the right to parody

Thanks to overwhelming responses from supporters to the Hargreaves Review we're expecting reforms that will broaden consumer rights and make it legal for people to create parodies using copyrighted works, like Downfall videos.

Exposing sales of your data
We uncovered the full story of how mobile companies like EE sell data about you. We held them accountable at a public meeting in Parliament and are exposing their possible exploitation of loopholes in the law.

These are some great successes, but there's even more we need to do.

Open Rights Group provides a vital campaigning voice for digital rights. Governments are very keen to legistlate to control the Internet. We expect to see even more problems next year as default Internet filtering is fully rolled out, the Government looks at censoring more types of content, continued efforts to campaign against mass surveillance from NSA and GCHQ as well as the negotiations towards the "TTIP" trade agreement between the EU and the US.

In 2014 ORG hope to be:

  • Speaking to MPs about surveillance reform
  • Leading supporter activism
  • Monitoring over-blocking of websites on default filters
  • Working with UKCCIS, a body set up to discuss online child safety issues, to improve the approach to over-blocking through dialogue with government and ISPs.
  • Pressing on behalf of website owners for easy ways to have correct blocking mistakes, reviewing what falls under filters
  • Providing a knowledgable rights-focused voice to the press on technology issues.
  • Running educational training for lawyers and journalists on online security
  • Producing a report into the impacts of PRISM and Tempora on UK businesses
  • Running an MP Lobby Day to mass petition Parliament for change

These are big tasks and we can't do them without more support.

Please consider joining ORG with a regular donation. Most supporters give £5/month, but please give as much as you are able.

How do I join?

Please set up a Direct Debit. Direct Debits are the best way to join ORG: it’s cheaper for us to do the paperwork and means more of your hard earned cash can make a difference.

You can also set up a PayPal subscription if you prefer not to use Direct Debit.

Or you can make a one-off donation to us. You can do this via PayPal, Flattr or by making a cheque payable to Open Rights Group.

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December 04, 2013 | Jim Killock

Lord Younger promises right to parody

We received a reply from Lord Younger today, who is the minister responsible for copyright reform. He says that the government plans to legislate for all the copyright changes in the New Year, including parody.

lord_younger_cc-by-nd-bisgovuk.jpgLord Younger's letter to ORG is here in reply to our letter

Thank you to everyone who signed our petitions, gave evidence or wrote to Lord Younger and the IPO on parody. We haven’t won yet, but Lord Younger has made a public commitment to keep this in the mix.

These changes are ultimately sensible and relatively modest, although that hasn't stopped them from being controversial. They emerged from the Hargreaves Review, which was labelled by opponents from big content lobby groups as weakening copyright and helping Google rather than UK firms.

Content lobby groups such as the BPI have argued – and as far as we know, continue to argue – against format shifting without a 'levy', against data mining without licenses, and against parody rights as creating a loss of control for creators.

However, the changes as a whole will strengthen copyright. They do this by making the system fairer and more flexible, which makes copyright more legitimate and less open to abuse. 

As a reminder, the copyright changes include:

  • A new right to format shift (ie, copy your CDs to your computer or iPod)

  • A new right to make caricature, parody or pastiche

  • A new right for quotation

  • A new non-commercial data mining right

And then changes to the

  • Exception for Public Administration

  • Exceptions for Education

  • Exceptions for Research, Libraries and Archives

  • Exceptions for people with disabilities

(“Exceptions” is the legal language used for what we would think of as user rights - they are “exceptions” to the rule of having to ask the copright holder).

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December 02, 2013 | Javier Ruiz

Brighton Crypto Party

Brighton had it own Cryptofestival on Sunday, with a mix of talks and hands on skill sharing in an inclusive family friendly atmosphere.

CC-BY-SA @limbicfish

Lego Panopticon - Image CC-BY-SA @limbicfish

The event was jointly organised with the Lighthouse, Brighton's leading digital culture agency. The day started with designer and social entrepreneur Aral Balkan. Aral explained the need for open technology to focus on the user experience, which he terms XO, design‐led / experience‐driven open source. He believes this is critical to stop the "digital feudalism" of Google and co. who offer "free" well designed services in exchange for our privacy. Aral is implementing this philosophy in an ambitious project to build a complete smartphone where the user is in control, the Indie Phone.

Our next speaker, Paolo Vecchi from commercial open source provider Omnis Systems, explained why data control is important to organisations. US based cloud services simply cannot provide any guarantees to their clients, who should look for suppliers of open source auditable technologies that fully comply with Europe's more stringent privacy laws.

I tried to recap what we have learnt from the Snowden leaks, with a focus on the activities of the UK government and its critical role in the global spy dragnet. I explained what ORG is doing to stop these abuses, including our legal case.

Icelandic software developer and activist Smari McCarthy proposed that we use ubiquitous data encryption to raise the cost of surveillance from it's current basement bargain price of 13 Cents USD per global internet user a day to something more reasonable. His contribution to this goal is developing a Gmail alternative, Mailpile, which he hopes to lauch in alpha at the beginning of next year.

The skill sharing session saw people split into small groups to focus on specific platforms and technologies. Most participants joined the groups on web browsers and mobile phones. Both kids and grown ups enjoyed the Lego Panopticon game organised by Maf'j Alvarez.

Duncan Campbell closed the day with a thorough overview of state intereference with privacy on the internet. Brighton resident Campbell is the investigative journalism hero who first broke the existence of GCHQ to the public, and was arrested and threatened with 30 years imprisonment.

[Read more] (1 comments)

November 28, 2013 | Peter Bradwell

Government touts backroom deals to block extremist websites

Why should we trust some backroom deal from a combination of civil servants, Internet businesses and law enforcement with decisions about what we are allowed look at and do online? The correct answer is we shouldn't.

david-cameron-cc-by-nc-sa-worldeconomicforumRumblings about a forthcoming announcement to block “extremism” and “terrorist” content began this summer. Then last month the Prime Minister made comments during Prime Minister's Questions about blocking extremism:

"We have had repeated meetings of the extremism task force—it met again yesterday—setting out a whole series of steps that we will take to counter the extremist narrative, including by blocking online sites."

Yesterday, in response to a question from Patrick Robinson of Yahoo! at a conference, Home Office Minister James Brokenshire confirmed that an announcement is "forthcoming". Amongst others, the Guardian are now also reporting on this.

The "Extremism Task Force", mentioned by the Prime Minister, was set up in the aftermath of the Woolwich murder and is due to report very soon. So one assumes this announcement will likely be related to that.

We don't know what this forthcoming announcement will be. We don't know what sort of content the Government want to see blocked, or why, and how much it extends beyond what already happens through the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit.

There has been no public discussion about this so far. As far as we understand, no freedom of expression groups have been involved. The Guardian suggest the Government want to follow the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) model, who supply Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with a list of child abuse material they then block.

But the Government's policy on extremism content can't just be that ISPs should block sites that have been classified as extreme by some secretive government body, without any court decision about a law being broken or any public, democratic discussion in Parliament about the process involved.

This should not be another drift towards vague, unaccountable and privatised Internet regulation. This sort of Internet regulation is about who decides what we - not just 'terrorists' - can look at and do online.

Once again we see that website blocking has become the go-to button for politicians to press when they need to be seen reacting strongly to the latest media outcry.

But website blocking is not an easy or effective option. Anyone who wants to look at blocked content will find a way to do so - it is fairly simple to get around any blocking for a start. It also, unhelpfully, adds an edginess to blocked material if those making or sharing it can say it is banned by the government. 

We also know that unrelated content gets caught by blocking systems. Extremist content is not easy to define. Moreover, as Big Brother Watch point out in their blog, law enforcement agencies can define words like extremism broadly enough to include groups like political activists or protestors who are not terrorists or seemingly breaking any laws. If law enforcement agencies are responsible for drawing up a list of sites to be blocked, it is not a huge stretch of the imagination to think that block lists would include material that is not illegal. By accident or abuse blocking powers are likely to lead to blocking lists featuring content that has little if anything to do with terrorism and national security.

More half baked policy making?

It looks like James Brokenshire and the Home Office are following a well trodden path with this approach. When it comes to the Internet the government seems to like voluntary arrangements in which they arm twist Internet service providers into doing what they want.

That spares the Government from having to deal with complicated issues like involving a court to prove a law has been broken, or a normal policy process that would involve public, democratic scrutiny of their ideas.

The IWF model for dealing with child abuse images is tolerated because their focus is such abhorrent and unequivocally illegal material. This model is not appropriate for less clearly defined content.

Maybe the Government will surprise us with their announcement. But we have seen that when it comes to Internet blocking the government has a tendency to prioritise making favourable headlines above a smart, effective policy fix. So fingers are crossed in hope rather than expectation.

[Read more] (5 comments)

November 26, 2013 | Ed Paton-Williams

Necessary and Proportionate: Support the 13 International Principles

In 2013, we learned digital surveillance by governments across the world knows no bounds.

Their national intelligence and investigative agencies capture our phone calls, track our location, peer into our address books, and read our emails. They often do this in secret and without adequate public oversight, violating our human rights.

We won’t stand for this anymore.

Necessary & Proportionate

Over the past year, 300 organisations have come together to support the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.

Today we're launching a global petition supporting the 13 International Principles alongside a range of international NGOs including Access, Chaos Computer Club, Center for Internet & Society-India, Center for Technology and Society at Fundação Getulio Vargas, Digitale Gesellschaft, Digital Courage, Electronic Frontier Foundation,, Open Rights Group, Fundacion Karisma, Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic, SHARE Foundation and Privacy International.

These thirteen Principles establish the human rights obligations of governments engaged in communications surveillance.

They've been developed over months of consultation between internationally-recognised technology, privacy, and human rights experts.

Can you join people from around the world to lend your name and support to the Principles?

The Principles make clear:

  1. States must recognise that mass surveillance threatens the human right to privacy, freedom of expression, and association, and they must place these Principles at the heart of their communications surveillance legal frameworks.

  2. States must commit to ensuring that advances in technology do not lead to disproportionate increases in the State’s capacity to interfere with the private lives of individuals.

  3. Transparency and rigorous adversarial oversight is needed to ensure changes in surveillance activities benefit from public debate and judicial scrutiny, this includes effective protections for whistleblowers.

  4. Just as modern surveillance transcends borders, so must privacy protections.

We'll deliver the petition to the United Nations, world leaders, and other policymakers who need to hear the voice of the people demanding an end to mass surveillance.

Please support the principles by adding your signature, and encouraging those around you to do the same.

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November 25, 2013 | Javier Ruiz

Open government groups demand curbs on mass surveillance

ORG joins dozens of civil society organisations in asking governments that participate in the Open Government Partnership to start curbing disproportionate mass surveillance.

The current wave of open government programmes puts a heavy emphasis on the use of digital technologies - websites and smartphones - to deliver on transparency and accountability. In this context, it is particularly troubling that as many of these governments drive democratic engagement online, they are simultaneously tracking and analysing the behaviour of whole populations.

The UK has just hosted the Open Government Partnership summit, where dozens of governments from all continents launched commitments to improve transparency, engagement and accountability. ORG coordinated a session on surveillance that generated a lot of interest. You can see the video here:

The British government has been leading calls for more open data to improve transparency and accountability. The UK even launched an Open Data Charter at this year's G8 summit. Yet the UK is also at the forefront of global surveillance through its close partnership with the US. This inconsistency is unsustainable.

The joint statements calls on OGP governments to:

  • recognise the need to update understandings of existing privacy and human rights law to reflect modern surveillance technologies and techniques.
  • commit in their OGP Action Plans to complete by October 2014 a review of national laws, with the aim of defining reforms needed to regulate necessary, legitimate and proportional State involvement in communications surveillance; to guarantee freedom of the press; and to protect whistleblowers who lawfully reveal abuses of state power.
  • commit in their OGP Action Plans to transparency on the mechanisms for surveillance, on exports of surveillance technologies, aid directed towards implementation of surveillance technologies, and agreements to share citizen data among states.

We urge David Cameron to heed this call.

The full text of the statement is here.

[Read more] (1 comments)

November 20, 2013 | Jim Killock

Dear government, copyright reform – is it happening?

The Hargreaves Review was presented to government in 2011, with recommendations to modernise copyright: two years later, we are still waiting for the changes.

copyright - just when you thought it was safe to parodyThe recommendations it put forward, for instance for user rights to format shifting (ie, copy CDs to your iPod legally), archives, education and parody are modest but necessary. After two years and another consultation, the new 'exceptions' to copyright were proposed this summer. The government then ran a 'technical review' of the proposals.

We're now waiting for the final versions. The government appears to still be debating how and whether to proceed.

We've been here before – almost exactly four years ago. The last Labour government, after years of debate following the Gowers Review, bottled it. The exceptions were never put in place.

Parody seems to be a particular bugbear. Content lobby groups have tried to create doubt and fear surrounding a right to parody – yet it is obvious that nobody should be able to use copyright to suppress others from making a joke at their expense. Or indeed, in tribute.

We set up a website to campaign for a parody exception in 2011. We asked people to create parodies and submit evidence to the Intellectual Property Office.

We are pretty sure that the same pressure is going on now. Minister, these groups will say, there's no need to legislate for parody. There's lots of parodies – and we will give people a licence, at least most of the time, if people ask. And parody depends on a sense of the illicit, so it helps parody that it’s not really legal!

These are beguiling but bad arguments. People dislike legal risks, so avoid them. We also know plenty of people get caught up in disputes, even resulting in Youtube takedowns, when parodies are accused of copyright infringement. Such actions are an infringement of free expression, yet do no real harm to copyright owners. Many countries, including copyright hardliners like France and the US, have legal protection for parodies.

If you want to see the Minister get on with putting exceptions including parody into law, then please write to the IPO at and ask Lord Younger to hasten along with copyright reform!

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