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October 24, 2007 | Jason Kitcat

Gould Review on Scottish Elections Published

The Electoral Commission and the separate review by Ron Gould that the Commission instituted have published their reports on the Scottish elections of May 2007

The Gould Review in particular identifies a number of important issues, many of which ORG addressed in our own report on the elections published this June.

  • The Review identified 'fragmented and antiquated' legislation which made it difficult for elections to be properly run as responsibilities were split between too many bodies. The Review makes a number of good recommendations including appointing a Chief Returning Officer for Scotland and removing administrative responsibilities from the Electoral Commission to help clarify its role.
  • The Review finds that combining the Scottish parliamentary and local government elections was problematic and should not be repeated.
  • The Review agrees with ORG's finding that combining the two parliamentary ballot papers onto one sheet was the primary reason for the high level of rejected ballots. The Review argues that ministers appeared to want to combine the ballots from very early on whilst going through the motions of consultation and analysis. The Review recommends that in future two ballot sheets are used. Interestingly these findings are based on analysis of actual rejected ballots. From this the Review suggests, and ORG agrees, that anonymised rejected ballot images should be made available for analysis in all future elections.
  • The Review recommends that in future registered party names are used on ballot papers before any descriptions, if they are to be allowed. The ordering of these names would be by a public lottery. This confirms ORG's view that the use of 'Alex Salmond for First Minister' at the top of the regional ballot was confusing for voters in May 2007.
  • That electronic counting added complexity and contributed to ballot design problems was acknowledged by the Review. These were compounded by many late changes and decisions by ministers which were often poorly communicated to stakeholders.
  • The Review comments that while lead supplier DRS did put emphasis on delivering a reliable system, some problems encountered on election night were missed because final testing did not use the same configuration and data as used on the night.

While the Review makes a number of positive, but minor, recommendations regarding electronic counting, it unfortunately fails to address the security and technical issues encountered by ORG observers. It seems that once again a lack of technical expertise has led an elections report team to focus on other matters at the expense of important issues regarding the security, accuracy and auditability of e-voting and e-counting systems. Whilst building trust in e-counting systems is mooted, the obvious method of using sample manual recounts to check the accuracy of electronic counts is not once mentioned.

While ORG remains unaware of any plans to introduce e-voting in Scotland, the Review states that:

"We strongly recommend against introducing electronic voting for the 2011 elections, until the electronic counting problems that were evidenced during the 2007 elections are resolved."

We welcome this caution but it raises questions about moves that Gould may be aware of that we aren't!

The Review overall concludes that there was too much emphasis on completing counts quickly and this, along with managerial failings and politically-motivated decisions by ministers led to 'voters [being] overlooked as the most important stakeholders to be considered at every stage of the election.' ORG welcomes the Review's repeated emphasis on conducting accurate and high-quality counts over speedy counts. However it's notable that the Review lacks the kind of strong language which will encourage rapid action on the problems noted. The Review notes that:

"... we have had no intention of -- and, in fact, have scrupulously sought to avoid -- assigning blame to individuals and institutions or questions the legitimacy of the 3 May 2007 elections results."

Given this perspective it's difficult to see how the Review could have come to any strong conclusions that would force political action. By avoiding the question of the results' legitimacy the Gould Review has abdicated itself from an important responsibility. ORG expressed doubts over the results, as did others, and yet the Review we've all been made to wait for dodges the issue.

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October 24, 2007 | Glyn Wintle

Microsoft accepts EC competition ruling on interoperability info: analysis

It's taken a while to pick apart Neelie Kross's announcement that Microsoft have accepted the conditions of the European Commission's 2004 ruling on abuse of market position. The European Commissioner for Competition Policy stated at a press conference on Monday that:

"Put together, these changes in Microsoft's business practices, in particular towards open source software developers, will profoundly affect the software industry. The repercussions of these changes will start now and will continue for years to come."

Yet it is not clear whether the news for open source is all that good.

Groklaw rightly points out that the €10,000 one-off fee for secret interoperability information "to be paid by companies that dispute the validity or relevance of Microsoft's patents" is out of reach of most of the open source community. And the options the European Commission lay out for open source developers implementing patented interoperability information are "design around these patents, challenge their validity or take a patent licence from Microsoft.", when, as Groklaw points out "The GPL can't take a license for a patent, period."

The FFII are one group not happy with the decision. In a statement issued yesterday, Benjamin Henrion, FFII representative in Brussels, accused the commission of misunderstanding the challenges faced by open source:

"The Commission does not understand how open source works. It naively accepted Redmond's assurances that they will play fair. It is a sham. They have planned for years to control the open source economy through software patents."

Business Week have a range of reactions from elsewhere in the software community, including the Free Software Foundation Europe and the European Committee for Interoperable Systems. As they put it, "The open-source software sector isn't popping open champagne bottles just yet."

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October 22, 2007 | Becky Hogge

TV-links.co.uk - the story so far...

Today, and following this report in the Guardian, the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) reported the arrest of the proprietor of tv-links.co.uk:

"A man aged 26 from Cheltenham was arrested on Thursday (18th October) in connection with offences relating to the facilitation of copyright infringement on the Internet. The arrest came during an operation by officers from Gloucestershire County Council Trading Standards Service working with investigators from the Federation Against Copyright Theft (‘FACT’) and Gloucestershire Police. The man has been released pending further enquiries.

"The site, TV Links (www.tv-links.co.uk), was providing links to illegal film content that has been camcorded from within a cinema and then uploaded to the Internet. The site additionally provided links to TV shows that were also being illegally distributed."

TV-links.co.uk is a website containing a list of links to downloads of TV programmes and films, hosted on other websites. The site is no longer available, but the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine has preserved this copy from July 2007.

The involvement of local Trading Standards services in a copyright infringement case presumably follows from the new powers and resources granted Trading Standards in April this year, after Andrew Gowers recommended they be given the power to enforce copyright infringement laws in his 2006 review of intellectual property law.

Now seems an apt moment to reflect, therefore, on the progress of some of Gowers' other recommendations. While at least one of the report's enforcement recommendations has already made it into the light of day (and onto the streets of Gloucestershire), all of his recommendations around flexibility remain on the drawing board. A quick call to the UK Intellectual Property Office this morning confirms that consultation around implementing the recommendations for format-shifting (recommendation 8), library use (recommendation 10) and parody and pastiche (recommendation 12), originally expected in May, still has no firm date, but could happen "towards the end of November".

But back to enforcement. The Open Rights Group spoke with Gloucestershire police this afternoon, and their spokesperson confirmed that the man referred to in the FACT press release had been arrested under suspicion of a violation of Section 92 of the Trademarks Act ("Unauthorised use of trade mark, et c. in relation to goods"), which reads:

(1) A person commits an offence who with a view to gain for himself or another, or with intent to cause loss to another, and without the consent of the proprietor—

  • applies to goods or their packaging a sign identical to, or likely to be mistaken for, a registered trade mark
  • sells or lets for hire, offers or exposes for sale or hire or distributes goods which bear, or the packaging of which bears, such a sign, or
  • has in his possession, custody or control in the course of a business any such goods with a view to the doing of anything, by himself or another, which would be an offence under paragraph (b).

(2) A person commits an offence who with a view to gain for himself or another, or with intent to cause loss to another, and without the consent of the proprietor—

  • applies a sign identical to, or likely to be mistaken for, a registered trade mark to material intended to be used—

    • for labelling or packaging goods,
    • as a business paper in relation to goods, or
    • for advertising goods, or

  • uses in the course of a business material bearing such a sign for labelling or packaging goods, as a business paper in relation to goods, or for advertising goods, or
  • has in his possession, custody or control in the course of a business any such material with a view to the doing of anything, by himself or another, which would be an offence under paragraph (b).

Until the police have concluded their investigations, the exact connection between this piece of law and "the facilitation of copyright infringement" will be up for speculation. You can read some speculation here, here, here and here. We will keep on this story and keep you updated.

The Open Rights Group does not condone the download of copyright-infringing materials. However, sites like tv-links.co.uk wouldn't exist (and according to Alexa's "daily reach" measure, receive more traffic than channel4.com) if there wasn't demand for the material, demand the industry is not meeting. Perhaps if industry released their content online in a timely manner, and for a reasonable price, it would profit from this lust for downloading. Indeed, as reported over at Techcrunch, today's news comes hot on the heels of an announcement of serious "seven-figure" funding for Tape it Off the Internet (Tioti.com), who plan to invest the cash in extending the service to other platforms, including TV download services from household-name broadcasters.

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October 22, 2007 | Suw Charman Anderson

Creative Business in the Digital Era

The Open Rights Group, in collaboration with 01zero-one and funded by the London Development Agency, is beginning an exciting new research project, examining how the internet enables creative entrepreneurs to develop innovative business practices by being more open with their intellectual property. Creative Business in the Digital Era will examine new business models and the wider context in which they sit, culminating in one day-long and two evening courses at which we will share our findings.

In the fine tradition of eating our own dogfood, we are developing the course out in the open, and under a Creative Commons licence, using a wiki. But we need your help. We have only a couple of months to do our research, so we need you to help us shape of the course, figure out the format of the case studies, and carry out research. Time is genuinely tight - we must complete all the course materials by the beginning of February, ready for delivery in March.

Right now, this week, we need your ideas. What open-IP business models have you come across? And who is experimenting with opening up their IP? We're thinking of examples like Radiohead letting their fans decide a fair price for the digital version of their new album. Or Magnatune's use of Creative Commons licences to allow music buyers to sample songs before they buy. Or writers like Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig and Tom Reynolds giving away their books for free under a CC licence whilst also publishing and charging for print copies. Or websites that produce an API so that others can build third party applications using their data, such as Google Maps. Once we've gathered a list of examples, we will pick a few case studies to focus our research on.

We also need to know what you would want to know about these business models and examples if you were thinking of opening up your information to the world. What questions would you ask? What would you be concerned about? What would you be excited to know more about? Getting answers to these questions will be essential to ensuring that our case studies are meaningful and useful.

This project is about the real world, not theory, and we want people to walk away from the course with a good understanding of what others are doing and feeling inspired to do something innovative themselves. Which means we also need to know about failures. Who has tried an open-IP business model and failed? What did they do? Why didn't it work? It's easy for us to be optimistic about the future of such businesses, but we've already drunk the kool-aid. In order to convince those sitting on the fence, we need to honestly examine what can go wrong and what can be done to ensure that people pursuing an open IP business don't fall into the same traps.

If all this sounds exciting to you, and you want to get involved, then there are several things you can do:

  1. Sign-up for a free account on the wiki and get cracking!
  2. Join the ORG-Discuss mailing list and contribute to the conversation there.
  3. Save relevant links to Del.icio.us using the tag org-cbde
  4. Follow our Twitter stream
We're really excited about starting this project, and we really hope you'll join us on the wiki.

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October 17, 2007 | Michael Holloway

Support ORG (and look good doing it)

With Open Rights Group slowly but surely becoming a cultural icon, marked most recently by our logo's appearance on Channel 4's 'The IT Crowd', now is the perfect time to donate to digital liberties. As always, the best way is to join up as a supporter and commit to a monthly donation.

One other way to express support is buying an ORG T-Shirt, on sale from our shop at openrightsgroup.spreadshirt.net. We have a few different logo styles for you fellas to choose from, in both tasteful black and white options. There's also a couple of designs especially for our female followers. Perhaps most exciting of all is the ORG-branded mug. The £20 price-tag includes a £5 donation to your favourite evidence-based agitators.

Drop us a line if you'd like to help us expand our range of merchandise. We're especially keen to hear ideas for slogans and visual designs to help communicate any of our issues.

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October 16, 2007 | Becky Hogge

BBC U-turn: Full iPlayer service may never be available to Mac and Linux Users

Yesterday, the BBC announced that a cross-platform "streamed" version of its on-demand service the iPlayer would be available by the end of the year. According to this report from BBC News Online:

"At the end of the year users of Windows, Mac or Linux machines will be able to watch streamed versions of their favourite TV programmes inside a web browser, as well as share the video with friends and embed programmes on their own websites, sites such as Facebook and blogs."

If the idea sounds vaguely familiar, that's because back in March, when the BBC Trust put the iPlayer out for consultation, the Open Rights Group gently suggested that streaming was a far better short term solution to on-demand services than DRM-restricted market-distorting technologies that would serve to widen the digital divide. We observed that:

"Such an approach is cheaper, lower risk, more inclusive (it works for example in libraries) and more flexible than the current BBC proposal. It may not appeal to consultants looking to make huge profits at public expense however, precisely because it is simple, clean and low-risk.

"It does not, of itself, address the desire for users to obtain content in DRM-free downloadable form for any platform, but it provides a basis until the BBC is able to identify more open solutions for the download of content, preferably ones which do not depend upon DRM... The Open Rights Group considers it is quite possible that, as already is clearly happening in the music world, the use of DRM will soon be abandoned by the market itself."

You can read our full submission to the BBC Trust here. But enough of the I-told-you-so-s. Is yesterday's move good news for licence fee payers who do not use Windows? Well, not really. Although they will now be given online access to content their licence fee has helped pay for, there are still fundamental inequities between users on different platforms, and this still leaves the BBC deforming the market in favour of Microsoft DRM and Windows. People on Macs, Linux, PDAs and other handheld devices are still losing out on all the features that make the downloadable iPlayer different from, say, the kind of streaming that the BBC has done for years with the RadioPlayer.

And that's not all. Ashley Highfield, director of Future Media and Technology at the BBC has now indicated that the full, downloadable iPlayer may never be made available to those who do not use the latest versions of Windows. When the iPlayer launched in June, Highfield was quoted as saying:

"I am fundamentally committed to universality, to getting the BBC iPlayer to everyone in the UK who pays their licence fee."

But yesterday, he admitted:

"We need to look long and hard at whether we build a download service for Mac and Linux. It comes down to cost per person and reach at the end of the day."

The BBC could avoid all this mess if it eschewed DRM and instead employed standard formats. The Open Rights Group believes that the BBC cannot be truly public service in the 21st century until it gives the British public access to the programmes that they have paid for without DRM or restriction. This is not a technology problem, but cuts to the heart of what the BBC is for and how it makes and commissions programming. ORG challenges the BBC and the BBC Trust to re-examine the BBC's commissioning and rights frameworks with the goal of creating public service content, owned by the public and available to all.


Update: The BBC Trust have hit back at the Future Media and Technology team, reiterating their condition that the entire service must be platform neutral and adding "we would expect BBC management to come back to us if they are planning any changes to iPlayer." Read the full report here.

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October 11, 2007 | Becky Hogge

UK Government accused of breaching state aid rules in software procurement

On Tuesday, John Pugh MP led an adjournment debate on IT software procurement, where he accused the UK government of excluding Linux and Mac Users from government services such as the Department of Work and Pensions online benefits system.

"The Government are spending public money, and in doing so, it is difficult to see how they are not also breaching state aid rules and providing illegal state aid. If someone cannot access benefits online without using a Windows-based computer, as is currently the case, I do not see how the Government can be doing anything other than involving themselves in illegal state aid."

Angela Eagle MP, speaking on behalf of the Treasury, neatly side-stepped Pugh's accusations, stating that "the Government must... provide software that is relevant to the computers that most people in the UK have" and that avoiding market distortion was "up to the people contracting". The debate is reminiscent of concerns about the BBC's Microsoft-only iPlayer raised by the Open Source Consortium, the Free Software Foundation, the Open Rights Group and many others over the Summer.

Also during the debate (well-spotted, Glyn!) it looked like Andrew Miller MP might have raised the spectre of Microsoft's failed OOXML standard, when he asked:

"Would it not help in the quest for openness if the British Standards Institution were to follow the lead in other parts of the world and make open source XML (sic) one of the standards to be applied throughout the world? It would mean that people working outside the Microsoft sphere could have access to the code, and it would help the world in future-proofing big projects such as the British Library archives."

You can read a full transcript of the debate here.

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October 09, 2007 | Becky Hogge

Today: Westminster Hall debate on government software procurement

John Pugh MP will today lead a Westminster Hall debate on government software procurement. The Liberal Democrat MP for Southport (and veteran speaker at ORG's e-voting events) is a well known advocate of free and open source software. Yesterday, he released the results of a survey he had conducted which showed that many local authorities had no real idea how much money is being spent on IT within their schools. From the Open Schools Alliance press release:

"The survey also found that while almost 50% of Local Authorities are using some form of open source software within their schools there is no apparent systematic strategy to get best value from such procurement. Only 3 of the respondents, Cumbria, East Yorkshire and Lancashire, offer an open source solution as a standard learning platform throughout their area."

You can watch the debate live from Westminster Hall - it starts at 12.30.

The Open Schools Alliance are hosting an event called "Success in Education" to look at issues surrounding the use of Free and Open Source software in education in Liverpool later this month.

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