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May 14, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

Mobile Internet censorship: what's happening and what to do

A new report from Open Rights Group and LSE Media Policy Project reveals widespread over-blocking on mobile networks, helping to demonstrate why we shouldn't accept default-on adult Internet filtering

Today we're launching a new report called "Mobile internet censorship: what's happening and what we can do about it", which is a joint publication with LSE Media Policy Project. You can download a pdf of the report and LSE Media Policy Project will be posting responses on their blog, which we'll also be cross-posting these on ORGZine today.

The report is about how mobile operators' child protection filters work. It shows how systems designed to help parents manage their childrens' access to the Internet can actually affect many more users than intended and block many more sites than they should. It reveals widespread overblocking, problems with transparency and difficulties correcting mistakes. 

We argue that mobile operators need to offer an 'active choice', be far more transparent and open, and provide easier ways to address errors.

More broadly, the report helps emphasise that the 'neo Mary Whitehouse' campaign for default blocks, led by Claire Perry MP is calling for the wrong solution in looking to 'default on' filtering. The lessons from mobile filtering suggest fixed-line Internet filtering should concentrate on users and devices rather than networks, be properly described as 'parental controls' (because the content blocked is far broader than adult sexual material) and above all involve an 'active choice', not be set by default.

Without that guarded approach, seemingly simple, laudable goals such as protecting children through technical intervention may have significant harmful and unintended consequences for everybody’s access to information. 

Blocked.org.uk

The report is based on reports of inappropriate blocks provided to our website Blocked.org.uk through January to March. These were cases where sites or services were blocked that should not have been. Working with a small group of volunteers, we received over 60 reports, including personal and political blogs, sites for restaurants, and community sites. Here are some examples:

  • Biased-BBC (www.biased-bbc.blogspot.co.uk) is a site that challenges the BBC’s impartiality. We established it was blocked on O2 and T-Mobile on 5th March.
  • St Margarets Community Website (www.stmgrts.org.uk), is a community information site ‘created by a group of local residents of St Margarets, Middlesex.’ Their ‘mission is simple - help foster a stronger community identity.’ We established it was blocked on Orange and T-Mobile on 8th March.
  • The Vault Bar (www.thevaultbar.co.uk) in London. We established that the home page of this bar was blocked on Vodafone, Orange, and T-Mobile on 6th February.
  • Shelfappeal.com was reported blocked on 15th February 2012 on Orange. This is a blog that features items that can be placed on a shelf.
  • ‘Tor’ (www.torproject.org). We established that the primary website of this privacy tool (meaning the HTTP version of the Tor Project website, rather than connections to the Tor network) was blocked on at least Vodafone, O2 and Three in January.
  • La Quadrature du Net (www.laquadrature.net/en). The website of this French ‘digital rights’ advocacy group was reported blocked on Orange’s ‘Safeguard’ system on 2nd February. La Quadrature du Net has become one of the focal points for European civil society’s political engagement with an important international treaty called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. The block was removed shortly after we publicised the blocking.

Last week - too late to be included in this report - we wrote about how the site of peace advocates Conciliation Resources was blocked on Orange, O2 and Vodafone. O2's URL checker classified the site as pornography (the mistake now seems to have been corrected).

Our mystery shopper exercise also helped show that the mobile operators find it difficult to respond to reports of mistakes, especially when a site is stuck behind a filter for no good reason.

There are serious consequences to badly implemented, default child protection blocking systems. They include restrictions on markets, censorship, a failure to address young people's diverse needs and a false sense of security for parents. 

Some simple changes to how mobile operators run their filtering services would help address many of the problems with mobile filtering - including better ways to choose to activate filtering on an account, more transparency about how the filtering works and simpler more effective ways of addressing mistakes. 

In the longer term there should be an effort to move away from filtering at the ‘ISP level’ towards device-based filtering.

You can read the full report for more. We hope it helps contribute to a sensible child protection strategy, rather than one based on the overly-simplistic, albeit emotionally appealing, proposition that children need to be protected from seeing things parents don't want them to see. We need tools for parents that help them manage, through responsible and engaged parenting, their childrens' access to the Internet - that does not have to mean unresponsive and broad network-level filtering. 

Update: responses to the report

As part of encouraging debate around the report we've been inviting responses from a variety of organisations. The first of these are now live.

 

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May 10, 2012 | Jim Killock

Can you help stop the Snoopers' Charter?

The “Snoopers’ Charter”: the Communications Data Bill is about to be published by the government.

The “Snoopers’ Charter”: the Communications Data Bill is about to be published by the government. When the coalition was elected, they promised that:

“We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason”

Nick Clegg added:

"We won't hold your internet and email records when there is just no reason to do so."

Now, the government is saying that companies like Facebook and Google must keep your email and messaging records for 12 months, whether or not you are under suspicion: and that the records (not the content) must be handed over on the say-so of a police officer.

The government are asking for powers to intercept and collect information about who you talk to online by snooping on your Internet traffic, in case companies based outside the UK don’t agree to hand over your information.

That makes us all a suspect. Instead of being under surveillance when there is evidence of wrongdoing, you will be under suspicion by default.

The government says this is nothing new. That is true: they pushed European “Data Retention” laws that are being rejected in many EU countries and challenged in the European Court of Justice as an abuse of our privacy rights.

What you can do now

1 You can write to your MP

We are asking people to write to them personally: you can use this tool here:

http://action.openrightsgroup.org/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1422&ea.campaign.id=8601

Can you visit your MP? Would you like training near where you live? Email straight back and we will help

2 Join ORG

We have been working on these plans for four years, and helped break the story this March. We've worked to make sure the Lib Dems are officially opposed, and are now organising the biggest lobby of Parliament for digital rights yet seen. Joining ORG works: we are dedicated to preserving your online rights.

http://www.openrightsgroup.org/join

We need to stop these plans: and we can, with your help. There is massive public opposition, and right now, plenty we can do to persuade MPs that they are taking a wrong turning.

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May 04, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

Peace advocates' website is blocked as porn on UK mobile networks

The past few days have seen a lot of attention given to the neo Mary Whitehouse campaign for default censorship. It's important to remember that filtering systems are fallible - for example, they 'catch' too much content, whether by accident or abuse.

Today we happened upon a fine example. Through our reporting website Blocked.org.uk, we established that the website of anti-violence advocates Conciliation Resources is blocked by mobile networks Orange, O2 and Vodafone by their child protection filters. That block applies by default on pay-as-you-go contracts. O2's URL checker, which shows how websites are categorised and why they are blocked on the network, tells us the site is classified as 'pornography': 

Here's what Conciliation Resources actually do:

"supports people at the heart of conflicts who are striving to find solutions. We work with them to deepen our collective understanding of the conflict, bring together divided communities and create opportunities for them to resolve their differences peacefully."

I had a look around the site, and I couldn't find any pornography. Or any reason why it would be a bad idea for a young person to have access to the site.

The group's funders (according to their accounts) have included the Department for International Development, the European Commission and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. One wonders how they would feel knowing that websites of organisations they fund are being caught by censorship systems here in the UK, and moreover, that this is because they are considered to be pornographic. 

This is clearly a mistake. But it demonstrates a key flaw with Internet filtering. It tends to block far too much content, both because the categories of blockable content are so broad (see Orange's categories) and because the systems doing the filtering make mistakes.

We will be publishing a report next week, jointly with the LSE Media Policy Project, which will detail the key problems with mobile networks' Internet filtering. It shows that this kind of over-blocking is by no means unusual. We've found political and personal blogs, restaurants' websites and community group sites caught by the filters.

This kind of problem is an inevitable byproduct of network level blocking. It creates an infrastructure that will, either through abuse or accident, deny people access to all sorts of legitimate content. 

All the previous independent reviews of this issue - including the one commissioned by this Government that reported only last year, and the two from Tanya Byron for the previous government - have recommended an 'active choice' approach, giving parents the decision about what tools to install. The evidence from academics such as Professor Sonia Livingstone from LSE points at proportionate response based on engaged parenting and clear choices about tools for managing internet access. This modern day Mary Whitehouse campaign is the lone voice that says otherwise. So we would welcome the mooted consultation.

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May 03, 2012 | Jim Killock

We don't have to choose between freedom and copyright

The court orders for the Pirate Bay blocking notice say that:

IP address blocking is generally only appropriate where the relevant website's IP address is not shared with anyone else. If it is shared, the result is likely to be overblocking (see 20C Fox v BT (No 2) at [6]). In the present case, however, TPB's IP address is not shared. Thus IP address blocking is appropriate. Accordingly, the Defendants have agreed to orders which require IP address blocking

The UK’s Pirate Party has decided to mirror TPB here. By doing so, they not only lay themselves open to charges of copyright infringement, but also to IP blocking, which may well shut down their main website.

This is because both websites are currently at the same IP address 95.172.29.90. The court order would therefore require both websites to be censored. That of course would mean a court ordering the censorship of a political party: an unexpected outcome.

There are already add-ons claiming to get round the blocks. Others are expecting the DNS level blocking to be circumventable: no doubt people will be testing this shortly, as Virgin Media are already reported to be blocking the site.

But just because censorship doesn’t always work, that doesn’t make it right. We are particularly concerned about blocking TPB’s public blog, which is an act of pure censorship, with no questions around copyright. It is unnecessary for the court orders to include this content.

There are also, of course, other legitimate torrents we all know about, such as Linux distributions and Vodo torrents which should be excluded from the blocking order.

We continue to state, the Pirate Bay could be an irrelevance to the rightsholders. The groups asking for the court order have chosen to arrest its slow decline, and to put it into the front line. They have created a martyr and a hero by making them the victim of censorship.

It’s hard not to conclude that the Pirate Bay have achieved their aim. After all, their aim wasn’t to make a fortune from copyright infringement, no matter what IFPI and the BPI claim. Their aim was to make the copyright industries look ridiculous, outmoded and to place these companies into direct conflict with music and film fans. The Pirate Bay’s point has been to try to demonstrate that copyright itself is past its sell by date and can only be sustained through creating a dystopia of control, censorship and surveillance.

At ORG we don’t agree with that, but the BPI seems to, every time it pursues policies like the Digital Economy Act,or ACTA and asks for more website blocking and controls on search results. When Claire Perry adds her voice to calls to introduce network level controls on content, we see a growing alliance between those who want to control the Internet for very different reasons.

Politicians, meanwhile seem to be faced with a choice: destroy the copyright industries, or destroy the freedom the Internet has delivered us. They weigh up that the Internet doesn’t matter so much, so go with incrementally increasing the mechanisms of control and censorship.

It is a false choice. The Pirate Bay was in decline. The Internet is the backbone of modern freedom, political, social and creative. Its destruction cannot be contemplated by anyone sane enough to remember that we are being pushed by people with quite extreme views, on the rights holder and the opposite side.

Which side are you on? We’re not on the side of copyright infringement or the groups ordering censorship.

We’re on the side of the people and their rights and dignity. We don’t have to tolerate any of this: it’s time for a lot of people to grow up.

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May 03, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

The 'spirit of transparency' haunts the copyright roundtables

We asked for details of the recent DCMS copyright roundtables. We've now received the minutes of both, and the proposals written by search engines for how they can improve their work to tackle infringement.

With all the waiting (and the waiting, and the waiting - so much of the waiting) for the Communications Green Paper, it has been easy to forget that DCMS have been continuing their meetings with rights holders and intermediaries about voluntary co-regulation agreements to tackle copyright infringement online. We've blogged many times about these before. There have been discussions about new website blocking measures, around action that could be taken by ad networks, and about additional powers over search engines

We asked, through the Freedom of Information Act, for details about some of the more recent roundtables - one broadly about online infringement and the narrower roundtable about search engine regulation. We've now received the minutes of both, and the proposals written by search engines for how they can improve their work to tackle infringement.

It's worth noting that we did this through Freedom of Information requests, which isn't ideal.  It still seems like DCMS think that opening a retrospective window onto these discussions is a sufficient methodology for open policy making. However, from the minutes of the meetings, perhaps there is at least some recognition that things need to improve on that count - see below. Baby steps. When and if the Communications Green Paper is published, there needs to be a meaningful, proper consultation process. In the short term, these roundtables need a serious dose of transparence. 

These documents are at the least useful reading to tide us over until we know more about the Communications Green Paper, which may take forward some of the ideas from these discussions. For more on that, see our briefing on the Communications Green Paper. Below is a brief look at the released documents, with links to download the full minutes and proposal.

1. Roundtable about online infringement. 22nd February, 2012.

Download the minutes. The following people were present:

Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries
Personal information - DCMS
Geoff Taylor - BPI
Lavinia Carey - FACT
Chris Marcich - MPAA
Gemma Hersch - Publishers Association
Bill Bush - Premier League
Theo Bertram - Google
Guy Philipson - Internet Advertising Bureau
Campbell Cowie - Ofcom
David Wheeldon - BSkyB
Mita Mitra - BT
Andrew Heaney - TalkTalk
Jon James - Virgin Media

(Worth saying that 'personal information' is not a name - it's the redacted name of a civil servant). First, once again it's hardly a broad spread of perspectives. There is no representation from civil society or consumer groups. Previously, Consumer Focus were attending these meetings. But no longer. They were the lone voice offering an alternate, consumer-based perspective. They can be a really important and valuable consumer voice on these issues too - for example, their intervention in the recent GoldenEye speculative invoicing case. It would be useful to know why they are no longer contributing to these meetings. 

On the other hand, there are some grudging nods towards the need to consider perspectives other than the industries involved. Point one on the minutes:

Everyone around the table agreed that the meeting note should be published along with a mission statement of what the roundtable was out to achieve.

Well, we got these via an FoI. After they said they would review the decision to publish initially because the information related to the formulation of government policy. That is the whole point of transparency regarding these meetings. Good, onging policy making would involve a proper, transparent and open process. To use an FoI Act as the means of pursuing this openness when there is an exemption for information relevant to the formulation of government policy is, therefore, not ideal.

As for the mission statement itself:

The OIC roundtable will meet regularly as a working group to check on progress that is being made both in the regulatory environment and in terms of industry-led initiatives to reduce the level and viability of online infringement of content. There will also be twice-yearly meetings involving others with an interest, such as consumer representatives and open rights organisations, and the note of the working meetings will be published on the DCMS website in a spirit of transparency.

Actual transparency and openness would be ideal, rather than their spirit. In most situations I would rather have the actual thing, rather than the 'notion' of that thing. Free and fair elections; accountability of those in public office; food. I can't find these documents elsewhere on the DCMS site as yet.

There are continuing discussions about the criteria for judging an infringing site in the context of ad networks trying to avoid advertising on them:

GP committed to holding a meeting with rights holders in February to ask them to consider the criteria for infringing sites. The issue of liability was briefly raised, and would be considered further by rights holders.
- EV asked for a timetable on the criteria for the DTSG. GP stated that the criteria needed to be agreed and the way in which the criteria were formed needed to remain transparent. EV agreed and asked for the formation of the criteria to be fast tracked. EV asked for an updated on the criteria at the next meeting.

The DTSG is the new Digital Trading Standards Group. Who exactly will make those decisions? What redress and recourse will there be when mistakes are made or the process is abused? Is it appropriate for industry bodies to be the sole arbiters of what services should be allowed to operate in a market? Will they be the people making those decisions? It's pointed out that the way the criteria is formed should be 'transparent'. Whether this will be spiritually transparent, or actually transparent, we will see. 

Assuming we are one of the 'open rights organisations' mentioned in the mission statement, we look forward to one of our twice-yearly updates.

2. Meeting on search engine regulation, 28th February

Download the minutes (.pdf), and the new proposal (.pdf). We blogged about previous proposals from rights holders for additional powers over search results. Search engines didn't like those much, so asked to write their own. This meeting was to discuss that proposal.

Attendees at the meeting:

Donna Whitehead – Microsoft
Theo Bertram – Google
Patrick Robinson – Yahoo
Richard Mollet – Publisher‟s Association
Bill Bush – Premier League
Geoff Taylor - BPI
Chris Marcich - MPAA
Ed Quilty – IPO
Sam Carter - Ofcom

The new proposal takes search engine prioritisations off the table, which we think is a good thing. That's really the crux of the issue. We think that external influences like this over rankings of results should only be permitted in exceptional circumstance, governmened by clear legal processes. It is interesting to see that Jeremy Hunt has taken a personal interest in search engine result prioritisation - as a note from the minutes revealing this action point:

"Search engines – to provide a short paper explaining their key concerns around prioritisation of search results (which EV emphasised the SOS does want to see proposals on)"

There should really be a proper consultation to test and examine such proposals properly. It is critical to note that DCMS have not laid out evidence or analysis or stated their position, meaning it is hard to know how they are judging what a good or proportionate or effective proposal looks like, or given others an opportunity to put their opinion and evidence forward.

The new proposal also encourages a broader dialogue and process, which is also welcome. We haven't analysed the new proposal in depth yet. Please leave your comments and notes on it below. 

Why do we care?

It's all very well banging on about openness and proper processes. But why do we care about what comes out of these proposals?

Funnily enough, it's not because we think everything should be free. Essentially, all these ideas amount to a big digital power carve up. The Communications Green Paper will help create a framework for the regulation of information on the Internet.  This will establish the way that decisions are taken about what content is or is not accessible to the UK public, who makes those decisions, and how they are enforced. The results will have enormous consequences for how the Internet works and in whose service it operates. 

A series of closed shop policy making roundtables, driven by unclear goals and reasoning through an opaque process, are unlikely to lead to proportionate, effective and balanced internet regulation. The results, added to proposals such as Claire Perry's broad, opt-in porn filters and casual ideas to block terrorism-related content, will not only undermine people's ability to access information freely here. It will critically undermine efforts to promote internet freedoms globally. This is about choosing who has the power to decide what we can access, look at, read and do online. 

 

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May 01, 2012 | Jim Killock

What they want is control

If you want to know how bad things are getting, look no further than the confused conversation on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning.

If you want to know how bad things are getting, look no further than the confused conversation on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning.

Claire Perry was asked to comment on the Pirate Bay blocking, as an advocate of the default blocking of pornography.

She drew parallels between her proposal for ISP network level filtering to prevent access to “pornography” and the new blocking order for Pirate Bay.

She claimed (1h40m) that the Internet needed to be ‘regulated’ like all other media.

“I think the time is coming when the Internet should not be treated differently from any other form of media. We don’t accept it with any other media, with telly, or mobile phones, or anything else. Why should the Internet be any different?”

The Internet is not a broadcast medium, but politicians want to treat as such. Politicians want to know who the broadcaster and  publishers are and then ask them to act in the perceived interests of a passive audience.

Fortunately, speech on the Internet is more like a village square or a pub than television. That gives us tremendous power, but it won’t stop politicians for looking for the off switch when they find something they don’t like.

This strange alliance between copyright lobbyists and people concerned about children accessing pornography, is potentially extremely toxic. They both speak to a desire to control, monitor and pre-vet communications.

Internet regulation is intense and highly sophisticated, including e-Commerce, e-Privacy, copyright and data protection. The new push is for control, to replace regulation. Touchy subjects including copyright and child protection are merely the tools by which to advocate and build the infrastructure of control. The aim is to take the decision about what you are allowed to see and do online out of your hands.

Will we let it happen? That’s up to you. Join Open Rights Group and get involved in the fight.

Three reasons censorship is pointless

1 You’ll almost certainly still be able to visit the website, without any additional software, simply by using an SSL link, like https://www.thepiratebay.se/

2 You no longer need a website to find shared bit-torrent files. You can use decentralized search tools, built into torrent clients, such as the EU-funded http://tribler.org

3 Most copyright industries seem to be doing quite well (books, films, games, software). The case hasn't been made that drastic censorship measures are needed.

Three reasons censorship is dangerous

 1 It places ISPs firmly in the role of censor. Now that a gatekeeping, censoring role is established in politicians’ minds, new duties will be added. We see this spreading from a tiny number of child abuse sites under the IWF, to a growing number of copyright infringement sites, to proposals for extremist sites and default supposedly-adult content blocks.

2 It reduces pressure to deal with the real problems. In the case of Pirate Bay, some copyright industries, have a problem. They think it is control of the market and product; we think it is their speed of innovation. Pushes for copyright enforcement continue to create an illusion that control can be obtained by force rather than consent. People will pay for content: but they need to be tempted, rather than cajoled and harassed.

3 It makes the Pirate Bay into heroes. Whether you think the Pirate Bay was a bold experiment, an irresponsible criminal act, or a distraction, censorship makes them look both genuinely threatening and victimized. Like it or not, study after study shows Pirate Bay users are also the highest paying music and film customers. Changing their behaviour needs a better strategy than censorship, which will push these customers further away from the music industry.

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April 25, 2012 | Javier Ruiz

UK new co-chair of the Open Government Partnership

Välisminister Urmas Paet Brasilias Avatud valitsemise partnerluse (Open Government Partnership, OGP) kõrgetasemelisel kohtumisel, 17. aprill 2012

In April 2012 representatives from 55 governments and hundreds of delegates from civil society gathered in Brazilia for the second annual meeting of the Open Government Partnership.

The Open Government Partnership is a new multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. In the spirit of multi-stakeholder collaboration, OGP is overseen by a steering committee of governments and civil society organisations.

Open Government Partnership

Each signatory country presents a National Action Plan, with list of commitments that it will be expected to fulfil in the following year. This is the list of the top ten commitments presented by countries in Brazilia.

At the 2012 annual meeting, the UK took on the co-chairing of the OGP for the next year. ORG has joined with other civil society organisations to form a coalition that will engage with the government to ensure that it fulfils its obligations and delivers on its commitments.

Our initial civil society analysis of the UK National Action Plan, can be found here. It was produced with contributions from Article 19, Campaign for Freedom of Information, Christian Aid, Global Witness, ONE, Open Rights Group, Publish What You Fund, Tiri and Transparency International UK.

These are the main issues we found:

  1. The UK government must improve its engagement with civil society including wider consultation and clear mechanisms for collaborative design and progress monitoring of the national action plan.

  2. The current national commitments are too focused on open data, information technology and public services and should be expanded to cover a comprehensive model of open governance.

  3. Internationally, the UK is a global leader on aid transparency. However, the UK must now address the transparency of natural resource revenues and international corporate transparency more broadly.

The paper can be directly downloaded here:

WORD - OGP UK Civil Society Perspectives

LIBREOFFICE - OGP UK Civil Society Perspectives

PDF - OGP UK Civil Society Perspectives

We have helped create a common web space for UK organisations at OpenGovernment.org.uk and we will be posting much of our work there as well as in our site.

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April 23, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

Open standards in government: one week to make it happen

The Government's consultation on committing to 'open standards' is coming under some intense lobbying. So it is really important that if you value open standards and wish to see the Government maintain its momentum towards openness, you respond to the consultation. Here's a short guide to how.

Update 2012-04-26: The deadline has now been extended to Monday, 4th June 2012.

The Government are currently deciding whether they should commit to 'open standards'. If they do, when they publish information or data to the public or share documents within governments, they would have to use formats that are not 'owned' by one particular vendor.

This will improve access and reuse of government information, reduce government dependency on particular companies, reduce the costs of procuring ICT in government, and help boost the market for software by driving a wider adoption of open standard formats.

Open standards are a vital ingredient of plans to open up the UK government. So far the government have made great strides towards committing to open standards, for which they should be applauded and supported.

But the proposals are under serious threat from some heavy lobbying by those businesses who deploy 'proprietary', or closed, standards. Some extraordinary pressure is being applied by vested interests who want to maintain the status quo and water down the proposals for a commitment to true open standards. Glyn Moody, for example, has been writing a series of articles about 'how Microsoft lobbied against true open standards'.

The only counterweight to this lobbying will be your voice. It's like this: if enough people that care about open standards tell the government why, now, then they might actually commit to truly open standards. But if people don't take this opportunity, then the government are more likely to water down their plans, and the opportunity will be missed.

So it is really important that if you value open standards, and you wish to see the Government maintain its momentum towards openness, you respond to the consultation. If they don't hear from us, then they won't have the democratic ammunition to commit to open standards.

  • Luckily enough, it is really easily to respond at the Cabinet Office website or by sending your response to this email address: openstandards@digital.cabinet-office.gov.uk
  • Details, including the full proposals and the questions the Government is asking, are on the Cabinet Office website. The consultation document is available as a pdf too.
  • The deadline is Tuesday May 1st Monday June 4th. So have your say now!

What should I say? What's at stake?

If the Government wants to promote truly open government, boosting transparency, innovation around public services, and the IT market, then it is critical they commit to truly open standards. Without this commitment, the government will be clipping the wings of their openness agenda.

If you've not submitted to a government consultation before, don't worry, it's very simple. Just write down your opinion as clearly and simply as you can. Writing short answers is helpful - they will get a lot of responses so it's easier for them if they don't have to go through thousands and thousands of pages! And you don't have to answer all of the questions.

You should answer in your own words, of course. If you have evidence of the effects of open standards, or the lack of them, that is likely to be especially helpful.

Here are some points covering what we think are some of the key issues, in case it helps.

Open standards are a vital part of open government

The Government plans to publish more 'public data' than before under plans to promote transparency and improve engagement in and innovation around public services. This is part of a concerted drive towards more 'open government'.  

An important part of that is ensuring that the information released is in a format that is usable as widely as possible.

Open Standards are a publicly documented common language that computer programs can speak. They are critical to interoperability and freedom of choice in technology. So committing to open standards means that information the Government releases to the public is not locked in to a particular platform, can be used or read more widely, and will likely be easier to archive and read in the future.

Committing to truly open standards

The definition of an open standard in the consultation is good as it stands. But there are questions in the consultation about adopting licensing terms using what is called 'FRAND'. This should be treated with some caution - there are important concerns about the adoption of 'FRAND' as a model for the Government's commitment to open standards, and for dealing with those who have patents or copyright in some components of the software in question.

The acronym stands for Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory. It can refer to the terms attached to the use of elements within a standard that are covered by other people's patents, for example.

The terms 'fair' and 'reasonable' and 'non-discriminatory' sound pleasant enough. But there is no strict legal definition of FRAND, and the owner of a patent can set the terms. And these will be set by companies who may attach conditions that still have the effect of disadvantaging rivals. It could chill development and restrict the market if it creates uncertainty, and can rule out some free software providers where there is a royalty requirement.

Open standards that are not bound by these requirements, and which don't make development and use dependent on third parties in this way - specifically, for example, 'royalty-free' standards - are far preferable.

'FRAND' gives patent owners too much power to determine the evolution and use of the standard. It can be a way for existing market dominant players to retain leverage in the provision of services. We agree with Simon Phipps, who says in an article on ComputerWorld (he calls FRAND, 'RAND'):

RAND policy allows patent holders to decide whether they want to discourage the use of open source. Leaving that capability in the hands of some (usually well-resourced) suppliers seems unwise…

These questions are really at the heart of the consultation. What kind of open standards should the government commit to, and consider acceptable? 

Supporting the market, not the businesses in it

Open standards will unlock the technology market, shifting procurement from a reliance on de facto standards to true choice and competitiveness. It will mean that the government can choose from a broader range of providers and won't suffer from 'lock in' with legacy providers. 

If you support open standards and want to see the government commit to them, please add your voice to this vital consultation. It will make a difference. 

How do I learn more?

There are plenty of informative articles to read to help you learn more. 

If you come across other useful information, evidence or analysis, do add them in the comments below!

 

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