January 22, 2009 | Jim Killock

Online activism leads to important transparency victory

A legislative proposal to exempt MPs' expenses from the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act has been hastily withdrawn, with the media reporting cross-party support dissolved in the face of mass public outcry. Although there will still be a vote today in Parliament on the matter and Government seems resistant to develop a culture of FoI, this is a significant victory for transparency. The credit goes largely to campaigners who whipped up a storm of popular protest in the few days after the proposal was recently announced, most prominently the civic-minded hackers at mySociety.

It's ironic that while politicians are singing Obama's praises for online engagement, here in the UK one of its first impacts coming from beyond the tech community has bitten politicans rather than been driven by them.  The public outcry over MPs' expenses is in large part due to net-based activists using online tools like social networks and email, in addition to traditional media, to mobilise their supporters to tell more people to get involved by informing their MPs. This seems to us like a watershed-moment for net-based campaigning in the UK with, hopefully, wider implications for encouraging democratic engagement and accountability, coming straight from the grassroots.

Although FoI is not a priority campaign for the Open Rights Group, it is an important part of the digital rights agenda, and something we and the rest of civil society often depend on to get a clear picture of government activity. We have produced two consultation submissions arguing this. One made a case against tighter controls on the time that civil servants devote to requests and charging fees to release information produced with taxpayers' money (click to read in PDF).

Our other consultation response argued for expanding the scope of this legislation to more public bodies (click to read in PDF). It is disappointing to note that this latter consultation is yet to report any conclusions, despite taking almost an entire year to consider the options. Just as disappointing is the failure of four Government ministries to respond within the statutory time limit to requests we submitted last year.

We'll continue to make these arguments for a working FoI system. Like many of the innovations of the early Blair years, the Freedom of Information Act seemed a major step forward for popular engagement. It is ironic to see attempts to roll back its provisions, but from ORG's perspective, extremely heartening that net activism is helping to keep them in place.

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January 21, 2009 | Jim Killock

Consumers, citizens and information professionals around the world unite to condemn copyright extension

Update (22.01.09): The European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations (EBLIDA) and French digital rights activists La Quadrature du Net have added their support to the joint statement,

Today, organisations representing consumers, citizens and libraries around the world united to condemn copyright term extension in Europe. The joint statement was sent to MEPs who sit on the committees that will decide the flawed Term Extension Directive's future. It read:

The European Parliament is being asked to nearly double the term of copyright afforded to sound recordings. Industry lobbyists suggest that extending copyright term will help increase the welfare of performers and session musicians. But the Term Extension Directive, which will be voted on by the Legal Affairs Committee in a few weeks' time, will do no such thing. Instead it will hand millions of euros over to the world's four major record labels, money that will come direct from the pockets of European consumers. The majority (80%) of recording artists will receive between €0.50 - €26 a year.

Helping poor recording artists is a commendable aim. But the Term Extension Directive insults these good intentions. Andrew Gowers, former editor of the Financial Times, who conducted an independent review into the intellectual property framework for the UK Government in 2006, has called it out of tune with reality. Professor Bernt Hugenholtz, who advises the European Commission on intellectual property issues, has called it a deliberate attempt on behalf of the Commission to mislead Europe's Parliament. If passed, the Term Extension Directive will have serious consequences for Europe's IP policy.

  • Any extension of copyright term will take money directly from consumers' pockets. It will also consign a large part of Europe's cultural heritage to a commercial vacuum.
  • Europe's leading IP research centres have clearly shown the proposal does not do what it purports to do - help the poorest performers. It is simply a windfall for the owners of large back catalogues and the top earning performers.
  • The proposal will undermine public respect for copyright law and introduce an unworkable and unproven framework for copyright, at the very time when Europe's copyright framework needs to be at its most robust.

We therefore ask you to vote to reject this directive, as per Amendment 15 of the ITRE opinion (David Hammerstein).

As well as EFF, Open Rights Group and Consumer Focus, the statement was signed by BEUC, the umbrella organisation representing 42 consumer rights organisations in Europe, EDRI, the umbrella organisation representing 29 privacy and civil rights organisations across Europe, and IFLA, the umbrella organisation representing over 650,000 library and information professionals worldwide. You can download the full statement here.

Thanks to everyone for the great response to the cartoon we released last week. It's already had over 14,000 views, been translated into Spanish, and it's currently eleventh in YouTube's top favourited News and Politics videos (not bad for the week Obama got inaugurated). But the battle is by no means won yet - please, if you can, come to our event in Brussels next week, or invite your MEP to come on your behalf.

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January 16, 2009 | Becky Hogge

Come to Brussels and demand sound copyright

The European Parliament is set to vote on whether to double the term of copyright in sound recordings in early 2009. The Open Rights Group Sound Copyright campaign invites you to register your concern at an event on the proposed Term Extension Directive, on Tuesday 27 January 2009, in the European Parliament in Brussels.

Update: this video is now available to stream and download in Ogg Vorbis format.

This flawed Directive has been unanimously condemned by Europe's leading intellectual property research centres. The European Parliament must address the mounting concerns of consumer groups and copyright users if they want a modern, workable intellectual property policy.  Please, if you can, come to Brussels and register your concern. If you can't make it, please invite your MEP to attend on your behalf.

How you can help the campaign:

1) Come to an event on 27 January in the European Parliament in Brussels to hear academics, musicians and activists discuss the Directive with a roundtable of MEPs.

2) Invite your MEP to attend the 27 January event on your behalf (you can get their contact details here: UK residents; Other EU residents)

3) Invite your MEP to sign the Sound Copyright petition

4) Ask your MEP to watch the Open Rights Group's cartoon "How copyright term extension in Sound Recordings actually works"

The Open Rights Group and animators Eclectech, whose work has included pieces for Friends of the Earth and No2ID, have produced a short animation explaining "How copyright term extension in Sound Recordings actually works". Check it out and show your friends and your MEPs why term extension is a really bad idea.

In other news, the former editor of the Financial Times, Andrew Gowers, has hit out at the possibility of an "out of tune" term extension, following the UK Government's  suggestion that they should consider a copyright extension. Gowers whose original evidence-based review for the UK Government concluded against extending copyright described it as as "out of tune with reality".

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January 08, 2009 | Jim Killock

A crucial year for ORG - let's make sure our voice gets heard

I'm delighted to be writing this as the new Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, whose work I have been watching with enthusiasm for the last few years.

In the last two years, under Becky's leadership, ORG has developed a formidable media presence, and built a reputation for strong, evidence-based policy in fields as diverse as copyright enforcement, communications interception and electronic voting. ORG's profile has radically increased: both among legislators in Westminster and Brussels, and among the communities of technology enthusiasts who continue to provide the core funds which keep the organisation going.

Becky is rightly proud of her part in developing ORG, and I'm very pleased to be taking up the reins of this inspiring organisation in the healthy and promising state it is in today. I'd like to offer her my thanks for her work.

First impressions of the task we face are that ORG's role needs to be felt ever more strongly over the coming years.

Because the fact is that we face a lot of change in the digital era, and people like you, our supporters, Board and Advisory Council are the ones who understand what citizens want. Your voice is vital to hear if we don't want the digital era shaped exclusively by corporate IT salesmen and internal Government agendas.

Change is coming rapidly – and ORG is the leading voice championing your rights. Privacy, civil rights and personal security are easy to be undermined by Government policy if it runs ahead with its desire to accrue information.

Sometimes policy makers are prone to admit that we might have a point, but they don't think anyone cares. This is where you come in. Your voice needs to be heard.

An immediate example of this is heading our way with Jacqui Smith's proposals for “modernising” Government's communications interceptions capabilities. What this means we will find out next month: but if reports that it includes an archive of the communication activities of every UK citizen are true, logging who you contact, where and when, then you can be sure that ORG will be speaking out.

It's easy to start sounding paranoid. But freedoms are best defended by setting clear boundaries between citizens and the state. And abuses are best prevented by designing them out of our systems.

ORG is also right now campaigning on changes to copyright. If Government policy is not given full scrutiny, and if your voice is not heard, lobbyists can easily persuade lawmakers to rig the game in favour of established players challenged by technological change.

Thanks in part to ORG, the Gowers Review recognised that copyrights and patents were about balancing economic interests, and getting the best for society. Unfortunately, the European Commission, who appear to only have ears for the recording industry, has taken a rather different tack with their current Term Extension Directive, proposing to nearly double the term of protection for sound recordings.

But, although the proposal is made in the name of poor and ageing session musicians, 80% would go straight into the pockets of big media conglomerates, and nearly all the rest to the biggest recording artists. Meanwhile, many of the cultural and economic benefits of being able to explore music from the recent past will be cut off, and creation of new works will be discouraged in favour of reselling back catalogues.

Campaigning for a saner, citizen-based and evidence-based approach to digital rights was the reason why ORG was formed, and why ORG's role is becoming ever more vital.

It's also why ORG will be opening up the organisation and becoming more active at the grassroots, including more tools for you to campaign directly. Your voice needs to be heard, alongside ORG's. Let's work together as online citizens, for an open, democratic and creative society, and to make sure our digital rights are understood and respected.

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January 07, 2009 | William Heath

Welcome to Jim Killock, ORG's next Executive Director

ORG is pleased to announce the appointment of Jim Killock as the next Executive Director of the Open Rights Group.

Jim joins us from the Green Party, where he was External Communications Co-ordinator.

Jim was a leading figure in the campaign to elect the Green Party's first party leader, Caroline Lucas MEP. He coordinated their successful "Census Alert" campaign, which prevented the census data of UK citizens from being handled by US arms company Lockheed Martin. He also promoted campaigns on open source and other copyright and patent reform issues.

We're confident Jim is the right next Executive Director for ORG, from a very strong field of applicants.

He takes over at the end of January from Becky Hogge, who has served ORG very effectively for two successful years as its Executive Director. We all wish Becky the best of luck in her future endeavours, and are happy that she will continue to support ORG in all sorts of ways.

Jim and Becky will work closely together throughout January to ensure a smooth handover.

Welcome, Jim!

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January 02, 2009 | Michael Holloway

Supporter update - December 2008

December 19, 2008 | William Heath

Changes to the ORG Board

We have two fresh faces and one departure from the Open Rights Group Board, which oversees the running of ORG.

Our new Board Directors are Harry Metcalfe and Simon Collister.

Dan MacQuillan meanwhile has had to step down owing to pressure of other commitments.

Harry is a web entrepreneur and activist. He was a founding supporter of ORG and hopes in particular to drive our involvement with public sector information reuse.

Simon has NGO experience in PR and policy roles at NGOs and now works on digital thought leadership and creative strategy for a public affairs firm.

We'd like to thank Dan for his contribution in the last year, and wish him all the best with his work and young family.

The Board seeks to make new appointments once a year. Thanks to those who worked on the appointments process.

You can read more about the Board here.

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December 18, 2008 | Becky Hogge

UK Government launches new consultation on copyright

UKIPO logo When Andy Burnham indicated last week that he was willing to consider extending copyright term despite robust, independent evidence that it would cost consumers dear and benefit artists little, many in the Open Rights Group community were outraged. On top of the now 2 year delay to see vital exceptions and limitations to copyright law updated for the digital age, and with promises that consumers would have a compelling, legal alternative to illicit file-sharing by the end of this year looking emptier than ever, it felt like the consumer was in the process of being shut out of the intellectual property deal. And we couldn't help wondering, who ministers had been talking to since Gowers.

So it was with heavy hearts yesterday morning that ORG representatives attended the launch of a new initiative to "develop a copyright agenda for the 21st century". The initiative, which is accompanied by this fetching logo of some young people enjoying the collective realisation that copyright is indeed the future, presumably after spending all night at an illegal rave (or are they the only living humans left in Britain, awakening to a new dawn after a night spent slaughtering the zombie-pirates their copyright-flouting fellow humans had inexplicably become? you decide), forms part of a wider Government programme announced in October called "Digital Britain". But does it signal the end of Gowers? In his preamble to the new mini-consultation, Minister for Intellectual Property David Lammy writes:

"We believe that there is scope to build on the Gowers Review and consider a wider range of issues in relation to copyright. It is vital that we have a system that supports creativity, investment and jobs and which inspires the confidence of businesses and users."
At the launch, Lammy was insistent that the review was not intended to replace Gowers, and pointed to the fact that over 50% of his recommendations had been implemented. Unfortunately, it's the ones that the ORG community have the biggest stake in - exceptions and limitations to allow format shifting and transformative use, ensuring that copyright should never be extended retrospectively - that have been left on the shelf. The consultation document states that the Intellectual Property Office will "continue to take this forward". In the meantime, the document actually raises some interesting new questions which are worthy of detailed responses.

One question appears to ask whether artists are sufficiently protected from exploitation when negotiating with commercial rightsholders - an issue ORG has come up against, for example, in the discussions over whether copyright term extensions can ever put significantly more cash in artists' pockets. Another addresses the issue of End User Licensing Agreements (EULAs) and Digital Rights Management (DRM) over-riding users' rights under statutory exceptions, which is a matter of concern particularly to libraries and to those adapting content for the visually impaired. A third addresses the way copyright functions to protect old business models at times of technological change - a problem ORG has identified in our recent submission to the BERR consultation on illicit p2p.

Despite any cynicism that you may have detected in this post, then, we'll be responding to this consultation. And we'd like you, the ORG community, to help us. We've uploaded the short consultation document to our interactive consultation tool - please drop by and leave your comments and we'll use them to draft our final submission, which is due at the beginning of February 2009.

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: Electronic Voting - Response to Scottish Government's consultation on Electoral Reform-->
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