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January 11, 2008 | Michael Holloway

House of Commons wants in on e-Petitions action

Petitions have historically been pen and paper affairs. But the popular uptake of the Prime Minister's and the Scottish Parliament's e-Petition systems effectively demonstrate that this kind of political engagement resonates in an e-enabled democracy. Most famously, over 1.7m signed up to the 'road pricing' petition in 2007. Now the House of Commons (HoC) wants to put e-Petitions on an equivalent footing with written petitions, guaranteeing the petitioner a written response if not necessarily discussion time in Parliament. Your opinion is sought as part of this process.

The inquiry is run by the HoC Procedure Committee: they will present to Government before Easter and expect a response soon after. Your route to participate is a forum (click here for the forum), open until Friday 18 February. We encourage everyone to weigh in with their perspective. Will opening a new communications channel between the people and their Parliament lead to closer and more rewarding relations?

The forum poses three questions:

  1. Would you consider signing an e-petition? If so, for what sort of issue?
  2. How do you think individual MPs should take part in an e-petitions system?
  3. What result would you expect from submitting or signing an e-petition?

There are valid questions over whether the relevant personnel actually respond in good faith to these petitions. But there are also privacy issues this forum fails to address. Asking the public to express their views on the record will generate much politically-sensitive and personal data. This data, given the State's appalling information assurance record, will almost certainly leak to both the private (e.g. commercial direct marketing, spammers, fraudsters) and public (e.g. security services) sector. For much more analysis of these systemic concerns, check SpyBlog's excellent post.

The Committee should as part of its recommendations require Parliament's e-Petitions mechanism be designed with robust legal, technical and cultural protections to ensure against undue intrusion on users' privacy. Unless these protections are central to the specification for the system, the potential to contribute to the redevelopment of trust between politicians and the public will inevitably be lost (as will yet more of our data).

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January 10, 2008 | Becky Hogge

BBC Director General grilled by MPs on iPlayer

Yesterday, BBC Director General Mark Thompson and other BBC representatives appeared in front of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. During the meeting, Dr John Pugh MP tackled him about the iPlayer. You can watch the full Public Accounts Committee meeting here (the talk of iPlayer starts about 10 minutes in).

During the meeting there is discussion of iPlayer's total cost to the licence fee-payer - the BBC representatives are unable to give a figure, but start the bidding at £20m, excluding staff costs. Thomson gives incorrect information - that Mac and Linux versions of iPlayer have the same functionality as Windows versions - and has to change his evidence at the end. Perhaps it was this confusion that prompted Dr John Pugh MP to follow up the encounter with a letter direct to Mark Thomson today discussing platform neutrality in greater detail. A copy of this letter has been passed to the Open Rights Group. Pugh writes:

"The more fundamental issue is [iPlayer's] failure to apply open standards and be sufficiently interoperable to work fully (stream and download) on more than one platform. The BBC is funded by licence players not all of whom have or chose to use a computer running Windows XP or Vista. By guaranteeing full functionality to the products of one software vendor it is as a public body handing a commercial advantage to that company - effectively illegal state aid!"

Dr John Pugh MP has previously accused the UK government of illegal state aid by excluding Linux and Mac Users from government services such as the Department of Work and Pensions online benefits system.

The BBC could avoid accusations like this if it eschewed DRM and instead employed standard formats. The BBC has made the wrong decision about DRM in its on-demand services. DRM threatens the future of public service broadcasting in the on-demand world and the BBC Trust and OfCom should assess the long-term economic case for the way the BBC buys rights to exhibit the programmes it commissions.

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January 08, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Pandora to shut off UK IP addresses from next week

Pandora, the US-based personalised internet radio service, has announced to its customers that it will be shutting down its service to all UK-based IP addresses as of next week. Back in July last year, Pandora blocked use of its service outside of the US because of what Tim Westergren, Pandora founder, described as "the lack of a viable license structure for Internet radio streaming in other countries". It kept UK IP addresses open, hoping to negotiate a viable license from UK collecting societies. Today, in an email to his UK-based customers, Westergren admitted defeat, and exited the European market with this caveat to the recording indiustry:

It continues to astound me and the rest of the team here that the industry is not working more constructively to support the growth of services that introduce listeners to new music and that are totally supportive of paying fair royalties to the creators of music. I don't often say such things, but the course being charted by the labels and publishers and their representative organizations is nothing short of disastrous for artists whom they purport to represent - and by that I mean both well known and indie artists. The only consequence of failing to support companies like Pandora that are attempting to build a sustainable radio business for the future will be the continued explosion of piracy, the continued constriction of opportunities for working musicians, and a worsening drought of new music for fans. As a former working musician myself, I find it very troubling.

Pandora's future is also uncertain in its homeland, the US, where it is fighting massive hikes in web radio royalty rates. Savenetradio.org has more details of their campaign stateside.

Last.fm - the UK's personalised internet radio service - has negotiated with individual record labels to ensure its service compensates artists fairly. Last year's sale of Last.fm to media giant CBS for a reported £142m shows just what value might lie in personalised internet radio. Part of Last.fm's business model is to gain commission from sales of music it has introduced to its listeners, supporting Westergen's assertion that services like Pandora and Last.fm eventually only increase the revenue that flows to artists. But complex licensing schemes, and collecting societies unsure how to interpret the advances of innovative web radio companies, can get in the way.

Last week, the European Commission announced a new initiative which aims, in part, to create a legal framework to encourage creators and owners to make content available on line. But any new framework emerging from this initiative looks like it will be too late for Pandora.

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January 08, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Consultation on proposed changes to copyright exceptions launched

I've just got back from the British Library, for the launch of a consultation into some of the changes to copyright law proposed by the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property. Those with long memories will recall that Andrew Gowers made several recommendations under the heading of "flexibility", with the intention of crafting the current law into one that was relevant to the way consumers, artists, librarians and educators expect to use content in the digital age. Only then, he maintained, would regular folk understand and respect the law.

The consultation launched today focuses on five of the recommendations, reproduced here:

Recommendation 2: Enable educational provisions to cover distance learning and interactive whiteboards by 2008 by amending sections 35 and 36 of the CDPA.

Recommendation 8: Introduce a limited private copying exception by 2008 for format shifting for works published after the date that the law comes into effect. There should be no accompanygin levies for consumers.

Recommendation 9: Allow private copying for research to cover all forms of content. This relates to copying, not distribution of media.

Recommendation 10a: Amend s.42 of the CDPA by 2008 to permit libraries to copy the master copy of all classes of work in permanent collection for archival purposes and to allow further copies to be made from the archived copy to mitigate against subsequent wear and tear. Recommendation 10b: Enable libraries to format shift archival copies by 2008 to ensure records do not become obsolete.

Recommendation 12: Create an exception to copyright for the purpose of caricature, parody and pastiche by 2008.

The first stage of the consultation is open until 8 April 2008. The Open Rights Group will be meeting with the UK IPO in the meantime, as well as submitting a formal response, to which we'd welcome your contributions on our interactive consultation tool.

At the launch event, the audience was dominated by groups representing artists and other rightsholders, although libraries and archives were also represented. Up on stage were Lord Triesman, minister at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Murray Weston of the British Universities Film & Video Council, Geoff Taylor of the British Phonographic Institute and Jill Johnstone of the National Consumer Council. British Library CEO Lynne Brindley kicked off proceedings with a speech that stressed the importance of balance between rightsholder interests and the public interest, and the need to make copyright both simple and also relevant to the digital age.

Those who welcomed the Gowers Review in 2006 might have been discouraged by Lord Triesman's insistence that it was "not the final word", and that exceptions for format shifting had to be narrowly defined; they should not, he stressed, permit legal circumvention of digital rights management (DRM) systems. However, the Minister was clear about the vital role evidence plays in policy-making around intellectual property and when questioned by the audience admitted that, while evidence of the economic damage caused by illicit filesharing is readily produced by industry, the economic value of "free" content has yet to be fully explored.

Murray Weston stressed how the archive of audio-visual material his organisation was responsible for maintaining had shed light on an aspect of human creativity which had previously been "the Cinderella of scholarship". Geoff Taylor predictably preached caution when creating new exceptions to the law and questioned Gowers' insistence that no levies be associated with the format-shifting exception. On the latter point, Jill Johnstone disagreed firmly: levies on recordable media were a blunt instrument that did not serve the consumer interest.

When questions were opened to the floor, the debate was momentarily hijacked by another Gowers recommendation altogether, number 39, which urges rightsholders and ISPs to come together to police illicit filesharing online. Lord Triesman re-emphasised the Government's view that this outcome was best achieved voluntarily, but hinted that, should no voluntary agreement emerge by late Summer, regulation to achieve such an outcome might be expected in November 2008.

Returning to the matter in hand, some members of the audience questioned the efficiency of such a laboured consultation when contract law so often trumped copyright law anyway, by compelling consumers to sign away their "fair use rights" before consuming digital content. And an author in the audience asked when he might expect to attend such an event and see creators on stage discussing rightsholder interests, and not representatives of the distribution industries.

Eager-eyed readers will notice the absence of Recommendations 11 and 13 from the consultation:

Recommendation 11: Propose that Directive 2001/29/EC be amended to allow for an exception for creative, transformative or derivative works, within the parameters of the Berne Three Step Test.

Recommendation 13: Propose a provision for orphan works to the European Commission, amending Directive 2001/29/EC.

It is unclear when such proposals will be made, or indeed who will be doing the proposing. Discouragingly, the UK Intellectual Property Office conclude on their website simply (and mistakenly) that the "Recommendation is to the European Commission". Still, hats off to the UK IPO for finally getting at least some of Gowers' most exciting recommendations on their way to implementation.

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January 04, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Computer Misuse Act guidance published

Whilst ORG was on holiday, the Crown Prosecution Service published long-awaited guidance on section 3A of the Computer Misuse Act, which comes into force in April 2008 and outlaws making, supplying or obtaining "hacking tools". Back in 2006, when amendments to the Computer Misuse Act were discussed in Parliament, ORG echoed widely-reported concerns that the legislation was far too broad. The security community were especially alarmed that tools routinely used to test for vulnerabilities or to stress-test networks would be erroneously covered by the legislation.

The guidelines bring some good news for developers, in that the offence will not be triggered unless hacking tools are developed "primarily, deliberately and for the sole purpose of committing a Computer Misuse Act offence". However, the trigger for distribution offences - whether the tool is "available on a wide scale commercial basis and sold through legitimate channels" - should cause alarm amongst open source advocates.

ORG Advisory Council member Richard Clayton has provided excellent analysis of the guidance at Light Blue Touchpaper, and you can read up on the issue on the ORG wiki.

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January 03, 2008 | Becky Hogge

MPs call for tougher data protection regime

The House of Commons Justice Committee has today released a report into the protection of public data. The report is a good summary of the state of play and, in particular, of developments since the Chancellor announced to Parliament in November last year that HMRC had lost confidential records affecting 25 million UK citizens.

The report recommends a data breach notification law, criminal penalties for data controllers who are responsible for reckless or repeated security breaches and greater powers and resources for the Information Commissioner's Office. Currently, the Information Commissioner receives roughly £10 million each year to conduct all of his data protection activities.

These recommendations echo those made by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in August 2007, recommendations that the Government rejected almost entirely. Perhaps the public outcry following the HMRC data security breach will help Government think again.

Today's report is explicit about the real risks associated with big databases containing personal data that are open to large numbers of licensed users, and mentions the children's database ContactPoint, as well as the planned National Identity Register. It also notes further risks associated with obligations to share data with EU member states:

"If data held by the Government is available for inspection outside the jurisdiction, then the importance of restricting the amount of data held, as well as proper policing of who had access to it, takes on even greater importance."

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January 02, 2008 | Michael Holloway

Supporters Update - December 2007

Follow this link to read our December 2007 Supporters Update. Along with details of our recent media forays and major success for Canadian copyright activists, we ask that you contact your MP over the 'privacy timebomb' and that you get involved with consultations (on Freedom of Information and Data Sharing regulations).

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December 21, 2007 | Becky Hogge

Gowers update

Over a year since Andrew Gowers made his recommendations for the reform of IP law, the UK Intellectual Property Office has finally announced a date for the first stage of a two-part consultation into modifications to the copyright rules so that private individuals, students and libraries can benefit from improved access to copyright material. A launch event will take place on 8 January at the British Library, and all interested parties are welcome to attend. Email copyrightconsultation [AT] ipo.gov.uk with your name, job title and the company or organisation you represent if you want to be on the list.

In his email inviting ORG to attend, Lord Triesman, the minister for intellectual property, assured us that he is "eager that all interests should make the fullest use of the consultation." His speech to the Social Market Foundation last month [pdf] predicted much debate around Gowers' recommended format-shifting exception:

"[This] recommendation raises an interesting point: there are some people who believe that such a change to the law will provide the consumer with a ‘right’ to copy a DVD for example – but that is not the case. Any change in the law will merely provide an exception from infringement for certain limited acts, and will not override any terms and conditions which the consumer agrees to when he or she buys a DVD in the first place."

Meanwhile, the UK IPO has been quietly implementing Gowers Review recommendation numbers 46 and 47. Thanks to the IPKat for bringing ORG's attention to the fact that we had missed the deadline for putting forward a suitably open candidate to the new Strategic Advisory Board on Intellectual Property, a panel that will advise Government on IP issues. Since ORG is subscribed to a large number of UK IPO message lists, we were surprised not to be informed that recruitment was underway. So we've asked the UK IPO to consider a late application for SABIP from the Open Rights Group.

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