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August 13, 2006 | Glyn Wintle

Freedom of Expression - China's Internet

The House of Commons' Select Committee on Foreign Affairs have published a report on East Asia that strongly critisices internet corporations working for the Chinese government to filter, censor and control web content. Back in February, American politicians did not pull any punches when they condemned Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco for "decapitating the voice of the dissidents" as part of a "sickening collaboration" with the Chinese government. Despite the British flair for understatement an equally gutsy sentiment is expressed by Parliament's report.

We conclude that the collaboration of Western internet companies in the censorship and policing of the internet for political purposes is morally unacceptable. We further conclude, however, that it is in the interests of Chinese internet users that as much information be available for browsing as possible. We recommend that the Government put pressure on the Chinese government to relax its censorship of the internet and its requirement for foreign companies to restrict the political content of their pages. We further recommend that the Government represent to the Chinese authorities the damage which is done to economic growth by continued restriction of the free flow of information. If you want to read more detail on this issue we highly recommend Amnesty International's Undermining freedom of expression in China.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report on East Asia (Paragraph 343)

Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google are each singled out for criticism in the report. Although they have defended themselves by claiming China's laws force them to censor internet material, it is significant that none of the companies has been willing or able to precisely specify which laws or legal processes oblige this censorship.

In a new development, and to the dismay of human rights organisations, several Western internet companies have recently adapted their products in order to gain access to the Chinese market, by developing technology which censors their web-browsers in accordance with government diktat. Particular criticism has been aimed at Microsoft, which last year launched a portal in China that blocks use of words such as ‘freedom’ in the text of weblogs (‘blogs’); Yahoo!, for identifying journalist Shi Tao at the request of the Chinese authorities, leading to his arrest and sentencing for posting on the internet an internal Communist Party minute; and Google, for launching a self-censoring version of its website in China. Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft submitted evidence to our inquiry. The argument they put forward, in various ways, was that the choice faced by foreign companies in China was either to comply with domestic legislation, or to leave the country, and that remaining in the country has the beneficial effect of offering Chinese internet users increased access to information and internet services. However, in June, Sergey Brin, one of Google’s founders, admitted that Google’s actions had compromised its principles.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report on East Asia (Paragraph 341)

This report is not, however, all doom and gloom. The undercurrent of optimism felt by many Chinese, in terms of long term reform, is picked up by the committee. It is hoped that economic imperatives are likely to lead to broader liberalisation in the long run. Lord Powell is quoted as saying, "can you ever have a properly functioning, really successful economy without much greater freedom than exists in China today? My answer is: no, you cannot." Amnesty, on the other hand, is less optimistic that simply engaging with China will nudge the state toward democracy and away from human rights violations. The short history of the internet in China has been one of rapid growth, but more particularly of increasing sophistication in censorship and control, facilitated and driven by American companies.

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August 12, 2006 | Glyn Wintle

Consultation on the Creative Economy Programme

Shaun Woodward, Creative Industries Minister, has launched a consultation on the Creative Economy Programme draft working group proposals. The CEP - a division of the DCMS - was unveiled in November 2005 as "the first step in Government's desire to make the UK the worlds creative hub."

Their draft recommendations are now open for public comment, so if you have a spare half hour then please drop them a note pointing out your preferences, especially those parts of the documents you don't agree with.

I particularly welcome the proposal to collect together in one place all publicly owned audio and audiovisual material so that it is easier to find and use.

The establishment of a programme to digitally link all publicly owned audio, and audiovisual archives, databases and collections, in order to provide: (i) A source of creative inspiration and reference for the creative industries; and (ii) Public value to UK citizens who will be better able to access publicly owned assets and data and collections.

The Creative Economy Programme - Technology

The Competition and Intellectual Property recommendations properly note that the law today offers less value to consumers of copyright materials than they have come to expect.

There also needs to be greater clarity for consumers and users on how they can locate, access and utilise creative content. These findings support the UK All Party Internet Group results of a consultation into proprietary protections on copyrighted materials and concerns among consumers. The report said: "There is a significant mismatch between what consumers believe they ought to be permitted to do with copyrighted material and what the law allows."

There needs to be a clear read-across from the recommendations of the Gowers Review to the work of Creative Economy Programme (not only this group, but as a whole). The fundamental competition/IP problem appears to be lack of clarity about who owns what and how users can do what and with which and to whom!

The Creative Economy Programme - Competiton and Intellectual Property

Less sensibly the document goes on to recommend using government money to encourage more businesses to use DRM. This proposal should be rejected because in the long run DRM is neither in the interests of business nor the public. The authors are correct in that locking consumers into a single source or outlet should be discouraged by recommending clear standards and interoperable systems, yet this approach does not necessarily require the use of DRM. Open standards are a good thing because they avoid dependence, allowing you to move from one provider to an other with out any extra costs.

For example, digital music providers use different file formats that are incompatible. If you buy a tune from Apple then it won't tend to work on a Microsoft product. Once a user has invested in a digital music collection with Apple, even if a competitor comes with a better bargain that user is motivated to stay with Apple because his investment will be lost if his collection can't be enjoyed through competing products. Open standards prevents this situation from happening. Its also worth noting that Microsoft normally profits from incompatibility, but in the specific instance of music files they advocate interoperability because Apple's iTunes dominates the market and prevents them competing on even terms.

Develop a mechanism to assist SME’s in purchasing and using a specific DRM solution (similar to the BBC's use of DRM for its online archive).

The development of clear standards, accessible trusted third parties and interoperable, transparent DRMs would encourage consumers to take-up legitimate new business models.

The Creative Economy Programme - Competiton and Intellectual Property

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August 08, 2006 | Glyn Wintle

Gina Ford vs the Web

If someone defames you, most people support your right to stop that person from doing it again, and to pursue legal remedies. If a small number of customers in a pub were making defamatory comments about you, and you tried to close the pub down, most people would think this was over-reacting.

Why am I talking about people in pubs? To give an analogy for people who do not spend all their time on the Internet.

Miss Ford claims messages posted by users of Mumsnet.com amount to defamation and wants the site taken off the Internet.

Unless she has a last-minute change of heart, the website, which is used by 250,000 mothers each month to swop ideas and experiences, will have to close because it cannot afford a costly court battle.

The row centres on about 30 'postings' - comments made on the website's electronic discussion boards - which have contained allegedly abusive comments about her.

The baby guru who threw her bottle out of the pram - Daily Mail

The web site took down the postings when they were pointed out to them and they have now asked all their users not to talk about Ms Ford to avoid further legal problems. Mumsnet’s lawyers say that Ms Ford’s solicitors have objected to about 30 postings on the website since February, during which time the site has received an average of 10,000 postings a day.

Ms Ford and Mumsnet have been embroiled in the dispute for several months, according to the website. In January, the author asked for the transcript of an interview to be removed. After Mumsnet rejected the request, a lawyer’s letter followed, complaining of “vicious libels,” but suggested that if the interview were removed, the matter would end.

Mumsnet agreed to remove the interview in April, but Foot Anstey solicitors wrote another letter, asking for postings to be monitored and deleted if derogatory, and for damages. Mumsnet refused to pay, but said it was willing to agree to Ms Ford’s other demands. The lawyers wrote again to DSC on July 21. That letter listed three examples of allegedly defamatory postings, and demanded that the company act to “disable the website with immediate effect”.

Childcare guru goes to war over website - The Times

DSC are the web hosts for Mumnet. This approach could be used to shut down any web site that is popular and allows user comments. Shutting down a website because of a handful of postings, that the site took down when they were notified, sets a very disturbing precedent.

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August 04, 2006 | Glyn Wintle

ID card - Inconsistent approach to scientific evidence

The Select Committee on Science and Technology recently published a report entitled Identity Card Technologies: Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence. Many quotable phrases from this report reflect what NO2ID have been saying about the ID card scheme. We are disappointed that two years after the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into identity cards the problems regarding clarity have not been resolved. We urge the Home Office to address these issues immediately. (Para 47), confusion ... inconsistent use of it as evidence (Para 88), We are surprised and concerned that the Home Office has already chosen the biometrics that it intends to use before finishing the process of gathering evidence. (Para 93), We are sceptical about the validity of costs produced at this early stage. (Para 105), It is important that the impact of a politically-imposed deadline will not override the impact of scientific advice or evidence on the readiness of the scheme and we seek reassurance from the Government on this point. (Para 120), an inconsistent approach to scientific advice and evidence. (Para 144),

We have also identified weaknesses in the use of scientific advice and evidence. We are disappointed with the lack of transparency surrounding the incorporation of scientific advice, the procurement process and the ICT system. Potential suppliers are confused about the extent to which the scheme will be prescriptive and when technical specifications will be released. Whilst the Home Office has attempted to consult the wider community, stakeholders have complained that consultations have been unduly limited in scope and their objectives have been unclear. As a result, the wider community does not have the level of confidence in the scheme that could reasonably be expected at this stage. Whilst the Home Office has determined some aspects of the scheme such as the biometrics, it has left other aspects such as the structure of the database undetermined. Its decisions demonstrate an inconsistent approach to scientific evidence and we are concerned that choices regarding biometric technology have preceded trials. Given that extensive trialling is still to take place, we are sceptical about the validity of costs produced at this stage. We note the danger of cost ceilings driving the choice of technology and call for the Home Office to publish a breakdown of the technology costs following the procurement process.

Select Committee on Science and Technology - Sixth Report - Summary

As always the place to go for the full story on the ID Cards and the database state is NO2ID

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August 04, 2006 | Michael Holloway

Next ORG networking event - 14th August

Scrambling for Safety 8 is taking place on the 14th August at University College, London, where the focus will be on the Home Office's access to keys and communications data code of practice consultations.

Those unable to make the main event are invited to the Jeremy Bentham pub on University St., WC1, to join attendees and speakers from the conference. We'll have a room in the pub from 1730 til close.

Hope to see you there.

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August 01, 2006 | Glyn Wintle

Content Online Consultation

The European Commission have launched a consultation titled "Content Online". Topics that are asked about include DRM, network neutrality, privacy online, lack of interoperability, protection of public interests, competitiveness, P2P and piracy. Input to this consultation will help shape a Commission Communication on Content Online, due to be adopted at the end of the year. The deadline for replies is 13 October 2006.

As always ORG has a wiki page that we are encouraging people to edit Public Consultation on Content Online in the Single Market.

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July 29, 2006 | Glyn Wintle

Personal Internet Security

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has established a Sub-Committee, under the Chairmanship of the Lord Broers, to examine Personal Internet Security in the UK. A call for evidence and a press release were issued today.

Areas the Committee will consider include:

  • What is the nature of the security threat to private individuals and what is the scale of the problem?

  • How well do the public understand the nature of the threat they face?

  • What can be done to provide greater personal internet security?

  • How much does this depend on software and hardware manufacturers?

  • Is the regulatory framework for internet services adequate?

  • How well equipped is Government to combat cyber crime?

  • Is the legislative framework in UK criminal law adequate to meet this growing challenge?

If you would like participate but don't feel like witting a full response by your self, ORG has a wiki page that we are encouraging people to edit Personal Internet Security Consultation.

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July 27, 2006 | Glyn Wintle

Tapping VoIP

We have seen attempts to add more legislation to voice over IP in America so I guess it was only a matter of time.

"The Guardian has learned that police and security agencies have been lobbying ministers and senior officials, expressing fears about the potential for voice-over-internet-protocol technologies to hide a caller's identity. Their aim? To get VoIP providers to monitor calls and find ways to identify who is calling whom - and even record them."

Lifting the veil on internet voices - The Guardian

The proposed requirement for all VoIP services to have to provide 999 services would kill any free VoIP service, unless the government is offering to cover the costs. If they want to log and trace VoIP why not Instant Messages? If they want to log and trace IM then what about email… (You get the idea)

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