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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December 17, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Who's been losing your data?

The ORG data loss questionnaireYou hand over your personal details to councils, hospitals, employers and businesses all the time. But these institutions don't always keep that data safe. In fact, since HMRC lost its entire database of child benefit claimants last year, high profile data losses have hit the headlines with worrying regularity. But how does this affect you and your family? Click here to find out how likely it is that a government department or corporate entity has been losing your data recently.

Industry and Government want to aggregate and share more and more of your personal data. Schemes like the National Identity Register, ContactPoint and the Intercept Modernisation Programme are just the tip of the iceberg. But data insecurity is inevitable if large datasets are stored centrally and accessed by hundreds of different people. Data loss can lead to identity fraud and harassment for anyone affected. It is also likely to further complicate or even threaten the lives of those who are fleeing abusive relationships or on witness protection schemes. And that's without even getting into the debate about how data sharing and aggregation can change the relationship between citizen and state [.pdf].

Once you've taken the test, please share the link - - with friends. And if you learn of other incidents that should be added to the questionnaire, then please add them to our list of UK privacy debacles, which feeds into the questionnaire.

Thanks to Sam, Glyn, Casey and Rowan, the Open Rights Group volunteers who conceived and realised this project. Finally, please note that the application does not record users' responses or IP address. In fact we don't store any user data, which means there is no danger of us losing or leaking anyone's personal information.

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December 15, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Lessons and questions for the IWF

Last week's outrage over the blocking of Wikipedia by the UK's major ISPs after the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) added, and then removed, an image hosted by the online encyclopedia to their blocklist may have died down. But lingering questions about the UK's internet censorship practices remain unanswered.

According to this report in the Guardian:

"A spokeswoman for the IWF said that to her knowledge it was the first time in its decade-long history that any image or page banned by the IWF had been reassessed, and the first time that any page or image on Wikipedia had been banned."

These two IWF firsts could well be related. Until the activities of the IWF and the ISPs who employ their blacklist was brought into the open by their catastrophic interaction with Wikipedia, it was nearly impossible to scrutinise decisions made by the IWF.

We fully appreciate the sensitivity of the work carried out by the IWF. The efforts the IWF makes to be open about how it goes about that work on its website put many other organisations to shame. We also understand and applaud the fact that the activities of the IWF are audited by independent legal and technical experts. And we're pleased that a consumer representative was recently appointed to the IWF Board.

But improvements can be made, both at the IWF and at the ISPs who employ the IWF blacklist. Users at many ISPs will have seen error 404 messages (which means "file not found"). We think it would be more appropriate for ISPs to ensure that their users see error 403 pages (which means access to the requested material has been forbidden). For example, Demon return the following error message for those attempting to access images on the IWF blocklist:

"We have blocked this page because, according to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), it contains indecent images of children or pointers to them; you could be breaking UK law if you viewed the page."

This way, internet users will know what's going on, and will have more of a clue whether a URL has been added to the blocklist either in error or as the result of a misjudgement.

For the IWF's part, we think they could do a lot better at notifying people when a URL is added to the blocklist. Firstly, this means notifying site owners. The Wikipedia community had to work out for themselves that a URL on their site had been targeted by the IWF. If site owners are responsible enough to leave contact details on their website, the IWF should be able to notify them when a URL has been added and also notify them of the routes of appeal.

Secondly, the IWF should review the feasibility of contacting ISPs hosting illegal content outside of the UK. Notification and takedown is a lot more effective than blocking, and it also allows for more transparency, as site owners and ISPs know what's going on, and have better access to routes of appeal. If banks can now remove phishing sites hosted outside of the UK within a matter of hours, it shouldn't take the IWF an average of a month to have illegal images removed [.pdf].

Finally, we would support introducing judicial oversight to the IWF's decision-making processes. The IWF do have a trained team to assess images against sentencing guidelines, and IWF assessors can contact the police for their opinion. But this system can only ever decide whether an image is "potentially illegal" - it does not replace the independent scrutiny of a judge. This could be seen as an expensive imposition, but we believe it's worth it - censorship should not come cheap in a civilised democracy.

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December 11, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Screw the evidence, says Burnham, let's extend copyright term anyway think about extending term, maybe, perhaps...

Update (15/12/08): The Department of Culture Media and Sport have now released the full text of Burnham's speech last Thursday, and it appears the report we referenced in Music Week was misleading. It is in fact far from clear whether the Government have U-turned on their policy not to support term extension, or whether this is just Burnham going out on a limb. Was he, as Andrew Gowers suggested in the Financial Times this weekend, merely star-struck? From the speech:

"There is a moral case for performers benefiting from their work throughout their entire lifetime.

"That is why I have been working with John Denham, my opposite number in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, to consider the arguments for an extension of copyright term for performers from the current 50 years. An extension to match more closely a performer’s expected lifetime, perhaps something like 70 years, for example, given that most people make their best work in their 20s and 30s.

"And we must ensure that any extension delivers maximum benefit to performers and musicians. That's the test of any model as we go forward."

He goes on to say

"Let me be absolutely clear so there are no misconceptions about where the Government is on this. I have been working closely with John Denham, and we both share a real support for artists and musicians.

"We want the industry to come back with good, workable ideas as to how a proposal on copyright extension might be framed that directly and predominantly benefits performers – both session and featured musicians."

Read the full text of the speech here.

UK Culture Secretary Andy Burnham today indicated that he would support an extension of the length of copyright protection granted to sound recordings from 50 years to 70 years.

The announcement directly contradicts previous Government policy on term extension, and could disappoint many UK citizens hoping the UK will reject proposals currently being discussed at EU level to extend the copyright term. Back in 2006, the independent Gowers Review of Intellectual Property recommended against term extension. The review commissioned significant independent research [.pdf] which found that extending term would have a negative effect on consumers, and scant benefits for the majority of performers. Making the announcement today, Burnham indicated that he was prepared to ignore the facts in favour of what he called a "moral case".

But the U-turn can probably be more accurately ascribed to the intense lobbying activities of record labels and collecting societies - the bodies likely to see the most benefit from extending term - ever since Gordon Brown accepted Gowers' recommendations in full.

The EU proposals recommend an extension of term to 95 years, so it's possible that the UK will still not support the Directive as it stands. If Burnham is sincere in his intention that the term extension should benefit performers he'll also need to iron out several other problems with the Directive [.pdf]:

  • The majority of performers could gain as little as 50 cents per year from sales related to the proposed extension, set against as much as €4m going to each major record label
  • The Directive threatens to actually decrease the amount performers receive in airplay royalties in their lifetime, as payments are transferred from artists at the beginning of their careers to the estates of dead performers
  • The proposal to set up a fund for session musicians (who otherwise would not benefit from the term extension at all, because of the contracts they originally signed with record labels) is low on detail. There's a real risk that the small amount record labels are compelled to set aside for this fund will be swallowed by admin costs before it gets to musicians.

If it turns out the UK Government are unwilling to reject the Directive, then it will be up to the European Parliament to see sense and vote it out when they come to consider it (likely next February). Which means it's all the more important to write to your MEP if you object to the proposal to extend copyright term.

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