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May 23, 2012 | Jim Killock

Is the government’s transparency agenda hitting the rocks?

Are the big opportunities for citizen engagement, creating accountability and economic growth being missed?

Is the government’s transparency agenda hitting the rocks? Are the big opportunities for citizen engagement, creating accountability and economic growth being missed?

For the last 18 months, ORG has been watching the coalition’s Open Data policy. It has morphed from being an extremely ambitious project, with huge potential to revitalize democracy and drive innovation, to something rather confused. It has failed to address the big questions around data that is vital as infrastructure, like maps and post codes, but is currently sold rather than freely released.

Worse, the Open Data agenda has been used to promote the release of access to psuedonymised data, like health or benefits records, on commercial terms. This carries considerable risks and has nothing to do with (freely released) Open Data.

Today, we are presenting evidence to the Public Accounts Committee about the state of government Open Data policy. They are examining the National Audit Office’s report, which is critical of the government’s Open Data Strategy.

We will be highlighting two major problems. Firstly, the lack of a way of assessing the impact of releasing public data, especially data currently sold. This has led to essentially the status quo being kept in relation to the Public Data Group (Ordnance Survey, Met Office, HM Land Registry and Companies House).run by BIS.

These companies want to keep selling data, because it works for them. But is it the way to get the best value for the economy? The fact is that the government does not seem to know and has not published any methodology for assessing this problem.

The second question we will be talking about is privacy. A debate about commercial use of personal datasets, through ‘anonymisation’ techniques, has been thrown into the Open Data debate. It has nothing to do with Open Data, and raises serious questions. We want this placed in the open, and debated separately. We also want to know why the O’Hara report into privacy that the Cabinet Office commissioned has been demoted to a ‘consultation submission, needing no official response.

Read our full submission

[Read more]


May 21, 2012 | Jim Killock

Board elections and Supporter Council

Board elections: ballots in the post

Ballot papers and booklets with the candidates' statements are now in the post and you should receive yours shortly. Please make sure you vote and return the papers so that they reach us before 12 June - post them by Thursday 7 June to be safe. The ballot count will take place on 16 June at ORG's offices. If you wish to observe, please let me know.  

All the candidate statements are online here.

If you want to ask the candidates questions, please send them to elections@openrightsgroup.org. Please send your questions by midday Wednesday this week (23 May).

We will send you all the answers via this list - you won't get more than three emails.

Nominations for our new Supporter Council

We are also asking for nominations for our new Supporter Council, to help build ORG's community and local networks. Would you like to help lead our local groups and national projects? Or do you know someone who should?

We are asking for nominations by 11 June 2012. We will announce the first appointees to the Council after the 18 June, and get the Committee running straight after.

[Read more]


May 18, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

New reports of overblocking on mobile networks

Since we launched our new research about Mobile Internet censorship on Monday, there's been a rise in the number of reports to our website Blocked.org.uk of what people consider to be incorrectly blocked sites. The 19 new reports include technology news sites such as GigaOM, a style and fashion magazine, the website of political party the BNP, and a local community discussion forum.

Since we launched our new research about Mobile Internet censorship on Monday, there's been a rise in the number of reports to our website Blocked.org.uk of what people consider to be incorrectly blocked sites. The 19 new reports include technology news sites such as GigaOM, a style and fashion magazine, the website of political party the BNP, and a local community discussion forum. To clarify, we are talking about blocking that happens under mobile operators' child protection filters. These are in many cases 'on' by default. And they can, usually through mistaken categorisations, block too much content. 

These new reports help underscore two important points. First, that the 60-odd reports we noted in our report do not represent the sum total of inaccurately blocked sites - they are the sites that we had reported to us through January to March this year by the group of volunteers who were helping us monitor mobile filtering. The publicity this week has led to an upturn in reports of overblocking.

Second, the sites blocked fall into a far broader set of categories than adult sexual content. As with all the reports we receive, we aren't suggesting all are categorically suitable for all young people. But for many of the sites, mobile networks are making decisions that should best be made by parents - in discussion with their children - about the scope of content that young people may have blocked on their phones. This is especially problematic when the debate is so focused on the blocking of adult sexual content. Much broader judgements are being made about what people under 18 should be accessing.

So here is a quick update on what's been reported this week. 

New reports of blocked sites

We had a couple of, for want of a better word, lifestyle sites reported, too:

  • http://www.glam.co.uk - A magazine of style, fashion and celebrity. Content appears at first glance no racier than many daily newspaper websites. Blocked on Orange
  • http://www.thewinesociety.com/ The wine societies aim is 'to introduce members to the best of the world’s vineyards at a fair price.' Blocked on Vodafone / Orange

The blog of author Dr Brooke Magnanti, better known as Belle du Jour.

We were also told about a group of forums that do not offer adult content. Orange do state that they block forums under Safeguard (see their list of categories http://help.orange.co.uk/orangeuk/support/personal/480591).

We also received as number of reports about sites that are likely blocked as they are considered 'hate sites'. For example, O2 classifies the BNP website as a hate site. You can argue that hate sites should be blocked, or that the BNP should be blocked. And some parents may wish to block hate sites. But the blocking of 'hate sites' does not tend to be part of the debate - which usually focuses on adult sexual content. Should ISPs be blocking, for example, a political party's website at all? At the very least, ISPs need to be absolutely clear that under child protection filters, political content may be blocked under their filters.

Whatever you think about the BNP's politics, political speech is at the core of the activities protected by freedom of expression rights. So long as they remain within the law, political parties' websites should never be blocked by ISPs. Schools and families are of course able to install their own blocking software if they want to make this choice.

In addition to the BNP site, we've had four reports of sites that may broadly be described as being, in some sense, 'anti-feminist' - and apologies to the sites if that description is inaccurate.

We also received seven reports this week of technology related news or discussion sites. Coadec have this week been attempting to get their site unblocked from Orange's filters - and I wold strongly recommend reading their blog about the experience they've had trying. It emphasises the point that mobile networks do not offer an easy enough way for sites to get themselves unblocked.

We haven't comprehensively tested these reports across all networks yet, so the may be blocked on more networks than those noted here. Please do let us know in the comments if you find these sites to be blocked or not blocks on your child protection filter enabled account.

We'll be posting the list of reports sent to Blocked.org.uk between April and May next week. Please do continue to send reports of inappropriate blocks you come across to us through Blocked.org.uk.

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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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