December 11, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Home Office respond on Intercept Modernisation Programme - sort of

The Home Office have sent back a deeply disappointing response to our Freedom of Information request about the Intercept Modernisation Programme. The response reveals almost nothing about alleged proposals to build a giant database of the communications traffic data of all UK citizens, even though the Home Office admit the need for an informed public debate on the scheme.

Last August, and following reports of a radical new surveillance plan afoot at the Home Office, ORG submitted a Freedom of Information request in a bid to shed some light on the Intercept Modernisation Programme (IMP).

Back then, the fear was that the Communications Data Bill - slated to appear in last week's Queen's speech - would be designed to give legislative cover for a project to centralise data about the communications activity of every UK citizen into a giant database, and bring that database under the authority of a government agency.

After delays from the Home Office, we're now in receipt of a substantial response to the request [.pdf], and two released documents (see below).

In their response, the Home Office accept the value there would be in disclosing details of the scheme:

"The issues surrounding IMP are of significant public interest. There is a large amount of speculation about the options which may be under consideration with little firm information in the public domain. Increased openness with regard to what options the programme is considering and with whom discussion have or have not been held would increase understanding and transparency in this area and inform the public debate."

Unfortunately they find that, despite this, they are exempted by provisions in the Freedom of Information Act from telling us almost anything about the IMP. This outcome was predictable enough. What we failed to predict when we made the request, however, was the range of grounds upon which the Home Office would refuse it.

The request for details of meetings between the Home Office and communications service providers to discuss the IMP was refused on grounds that it related to:

  • Information relating to security bodies


  • National security



  • Law enforcement



  • Formulation of government policy



  • Prejudice to commercial interests


Looks like ORG scored the FOI equivalent a hat trick. Other parts of the request were denied on grounds that meeting it would exceed the £600 limit. In some parts, the Home Office also refused to answer the request on the grounds that they had no idea what we were talking about. For example:


"In your e-mail you ask for the agenda and minutes of all meetings of the Intelligence and Security Liaison Group (and prior and subsequent re-naming of this entity). I regret to inform you that the Home Office is not aware of the existence of this group or of a similarly named group; or indeed of previously titled entity of that name. As such the Home Office does not hold the information you request, but if you could provide us with more specific details this may help us to identify the group that you are referring to."


This part of the response is especially interesting in light of the fact that one of the two documents they did release (both agendas of meetings of the Government Industry Forum, held in 2006 and 2007) details a speaker from the "Intelligence and Security Liaison Unit". The intuitive and categorical differences between a "Unit" and a "Group" are clearly only obvious to career civil servants. We now realise we should have asked for a group that reported to that unit, and will be amending any future FOI requests accordingly. Another example:

"Your other enquiries appear to relate to the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) and in responding to this request I am assuming that you are again referring to the IMP when you ask for the draft or other plans for the technical architecture of the system.

"There are a multitude of systems employed in this Programme; unfortunately I am therefore unable to answer this request without further clarity as to which ‘system’ you refer to."

We'll be working out how best to respond to this over the coming weeks. In the meantime, here's the full text of the response, as well as the two documents that were released following our request (2006 Agenda - page 1 | page 2; 2007 Agenda - page 1 | page 2).

Although the Communications Data Bill was removed from last week's Queen's Speech, and Jacqui Smith has promised a public consultation on the scheme in the New Year, we feel there's still a value in finding out how far the Home Office have thought through these plans already, who they're talking to, and who among expert stakeholders are privately raising concerns. Watch this space.








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December 08, 2008 | Becky Hogge

IWF censors Wikipedia, chaos ensues

Update #2 (09/12/08): The IWF has just announced that they have removed the Wikipedia url from their blocklist. They say that "in light of the length of time the image has existed and its wide availability, the decision has been taken to remove this webpage from our list."

You can read the full statement here.

Update: Channel 4 covered this story extensively, including comments from ORG that the incident has significantly raised public awareness of network-level censorship.

The collision of two online content regulation systems over the weekend has left internet users with unanswered questions about web censorship in the UK.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) confirmed yesterday that it had added a Wikipedia web page to its blacklist, having assessed the image according to specified guidelines, and considered it to be a potentially illegal, indecent image of a child. The image depicted cover artwork of a 1976 album by the German heavy-metal band Scorpions. The album was originally distributed in the UK with a different cover.

The announcement confirmed evidence gathered by concerned internet users throughout the day that links to the image were returning 404 error messages through a variety of major internet service providers. Matters were confounded as a side effect of the operation to block the image emerged, resulting in all UK users of ISPs who employ the IWF blacklist appearing to Wikipedia servers to come from only a handful of IP addresses. That meant users from the affected ISPs – a large majority of UK internet users – were blocked from editing Wikipedia anonymously or creating new editing accounts, since one user committing vandalism could not be distinguished from all the other people on the same ISP.

People from the UK who wanted to log in to Wikipedia are thus trapped between two mutually incompatible content regulation systems. Their traffic is re-routed through one of only a handful of servers in an attempt by their ISP to protect them from what the IWF believes is "bad content". Then they arrive at one of the most popular websites in the world only to be blocked from entering thanks to the methods employed there to protect users from what Wikipedia believes is "bad content".

For many, the episode will have brought into focus for the first time the IWF’s work identifying URLs that link to illegal images, as well as the fact that most consumer ISPs have now agreed to block content on the IWF list. And those who already knew about this system, but thought it would not affect them, will today be thinking again. The question is how far this episode challenges current UK practice around censoring content online.

Is this a technical problem? Should ISPs employing the IWF list attempt to preserve the originating address information of users whose traffic they are re-routing? This could help avoid future unplanned interaction with the filtering and blocking technologies employed by the websites those users visit.

Is this a problem of process? The issue appears to some extent to have arisen from a difference in judgement between the Wikipedia community and the IWF over the legality of the image. Wikipedia is an international community-maintained website, with a consensus-based approach to what content it displays on its pages. The IWF is a non-governmental organisation, which works to minimise the availability of child sex abuse content to internet users in the UK. How open should these processes be to ordinary internet users, and what recourse should they have to each of these organisations when things go wrong?

Is this a bigger problem? Should ISPs be censoring web content at all? Although many may agree that the type of content the IWF seek to identify is content that should not be circulated, the fact is that Government are talking ever more loosely about internet "filtering" in other contexts, for example to block unlawful distribution of copyrighted content. This episode has demonstrated the disruptive effect such practices can have even when applied to content of limited appeal. Is this a road we wish to travel down further? And if so, what does the final destination look like?

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November 28, 2008 | Michael Holloway

Supporter update - November 2008

Here's an update on our works for this month, which is basically your quick and easy roundup of our campaigning and community efforts. Supporter update - November 2008

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November 26, 2008 | Becky Hogge

From bad to worse: MEPs to rush through disembowelled term extension directive.

image courtesy of harrymetcalfe@FlickrThe flawed proposal to extend the term of copyright protection afforded to sound recordings, robbing consumers in the name of performers but for the benefit of the world’s four major record labels, is being fast-tracked through the democratic process. Earlier this month MEPs from the relevant European Parliament committees presented their draft reports at a meeting of the legal affairs committee (JURI), the Committee which will make recommendations to the European Parliament on how to vote on the Directive early next year. They proposed a host of worrying new amendments which threaten to:

  • Weaken further already inadequate measures intended to allow orphan works, and commercially worthless but culturally significant recordings to pass into the public domain (Culture (CULT), Internal Market (IMCO) and the Industry, Technology and Research (ITRE) committees draft reports).
  • Allow record labels to deduct “costs” from a fund intended to benefit session musicians, further shrinking the pot of money made available to performers in favour of labels (IMCO committee draft report).
  • Dramatically widen the scope of the Directive to include audio-visual recording, even though no relevant impact assessment has been conducted into what effect this might have on consumers and follow-on innovators. (JURI and ITRE committee draft reports).
At the JURI meeting, Dr Lionel Bently of the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Law (CIPIL) Cambridge, dismissed the proposal stating that “record producers will gain the lion’s share of revenues on sales in the extended term”. He warned that the Directive would accrue serious social and economic costs, and concluded that MEPs should “oppose this measure in its totality.”

Bently is not the only expert to oppose the Directive. In an open letter to MEPs, Europe’s leading intellectual property research centres unanimously condemned the proposal. The European Broadcast Union has also stated publicly that the proposal will make consumers foot the bill while stifling innovation.

Earlier this month ORG met with MEPs in the European Parliament to express our serious concerns about the proposal. We warned that the European Commission’s own figures demonstrate that performers will benefit little from the extended term, while the world’s four major record labels will gain millions of Euros direct from consumer’s pockets. We argued that this damaged the respect necessary for a functioning IP system.

But our voice is not as powerful as yours. It’s vital that you contact your MEPs now and tell them why term extension is bad news.

With all the evidence pointing against this measure, you can call on your MEPs to put a stop to bad IP law and reject this proposal. You can also also tell the appropriate government department in your own EU country (in the UK it is DCMS), as they will be meeting in the Council of Ministers to discuss term extension.

With the European elections next year, Parliament is set to move quickly on this issue. It’s up to you to remind your representatives that their job is to look out for your interests, not to rush through bad law.

Image courtesy of Steve Cadman.

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November 19, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Our busiest year so far - and what lies ahead...

image courtesy of harrymetcalfe@FlickrToday I'm proud to release ORG's annual Review of Activities [.pdf]. It's been a bumper year for digital rights. From HMRC posting half the nation's bank details to the Darknet, to the ongoing campaign against Phorm, to three strikes and the rightsholder lobby's so-far thwarted attempt to take control of your internet connection, this year was the year digital rights went mainstream. Thanks to generous support from the ORG community, we've been there giving an informed perspective on the issues to the natonal press, working with policymakers behind the scenes and mobilising the grassroots into effective action.

As ORG Chair William Heath writes in his foreword to the review:

"Built on the enthusiasm and promise of people who live, work, play, socialise and create online, ORG is a celebration of the emerging possibilities that technology and the internet offer us. ORG exemplifies that social activism which brings out the very best people have to offer: expertise, creativity, energy, and professionalism – and none of this ever without humour.

"Behind this lies an irrepressible motivation. The ORG community knows there are real abuses of our rights online, and real threats to our information society."

Image courtesy of Sheila EllenThreats to our digital liberties continue to menace us. 2009 will see new challenges, such as the Government's proposed Intercept Modernisation Programme. That's why, as we celebrate ORG's third birthday, we're also asking the community to renew their support for ORG. The ORG-GRO campaign is delivering excellent results (huge thanks to all the people who have contributed so far). But the leap from 750 to 1000 fivers received each month is not yet enough to guarantee us long term financial stability. We must reach our target of 1500 fivers before the end of the year. And we can't do that without you.

So please, if you're not an ORG supporter, become one today. And if you are, and can afford to up your monthly donation, please consider doing so. As our Review of Activities demonstrates, you'll get a lot of bang for your buck. If money's tight, then remember talk is cheap. How many people that would like to join the ORG community could you email right now? If you're sat in an office, how many of the people around you could you recruit before lunch? Why not spam your mates/make your colleagues a cup of tea and find out?

Finally, thanks to all the people - Advisory Council, Board, volunteers, staff - who have contributed mentally and physically to ORG's activities this year. ORG couldn't exist without you. I hope you enjoy reading about what ORG's been up to. You can download the report here, or read the html version.

Happy Birthday ORG!

Image courtesy of psd@Flickr

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November 13, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Council of Ministers move to delete vital safeguards from EU Telecoms Package

Update (17/11/08): Write to your UK representatives today! French campaigners La Quadrature du Net have today launched a letter-writing campaign to urge Council of Ministers delegates from each of the European Member States to honour amendments passed by the European Parliament that ensure only proportionate and just sanctions against illicit filesharing can be proposed by national governments. From their press release:

"Should amendment 138 be removed from the Telecoms Package by the Council, it would show to the whole of Europe that the technocratic structure can be used by the executive branch to bypass the democratic expression of the Parliament. Such an acceptance of the will of Nicolas Sarkozy, to serve the interest of a very few lobbies from the entertainment industries, would be a very sad example of the failure of European Democracy."

More information about the Quadrature du Net's campaign to save amendment 138 is available here.

If you're living in the UK and you'd like to take part in the campaign, write to your MP and ask them to pass on your concerns to the relevant official, and/or write directly to Stephen Carter, Minister for Commnications, Technology and Broadcasting, and Shiriti Vadera, Minister for Economic Competitiveness, both at BERR (Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET). Feel free to leave a copy of your letter in the comments to this post.

You can find resources for your letter in this legal brief [pdf] (which has a 9 point summary at the end), in ORG's submission to BERR's recent consultation on domesitc proposals to combat illict filesharing [pdf], and on the Quadrature du Net's wiki. The Council of Ministers will meet on 27 November, so it's vital you get in touch with UK representatives as soon as possible.

With thanks to ThisIsIt2Back in September MEPs responded to public concerns over the EU Telecoms Package by voting through vital safeguards that would help ensure that only proportionate and just sanctions against illicit filesharing could be proposed by national governments. Since then, you'd be forgiven for thinking your internet connection was safe from disconnection via corporate fiat.

However, deep inside the belly of Brussels, the Council of Ministers and the European Commission have been amending the European Parliament's adopted text. Crucially, they've been arguing over whether to remove the very safeguards MEPs fought hard to include against the so-called "3 strikes and you're out" plans favoured by the French. The result is a high level of uncertainty, underpinned by a forest of papers and amended texts that even the toughest legal minds might have trouble unpicking.

We're lucky, then, that cyberlaw expert and ORG Advisory Council member Professor Lilian Edwards, together with her former student and now trainee barrister Simon Bradshaw, have been scrutinising the ongoing negotiations process, and the resulting proposed texts. In a 14-page paper [.pdf] analysing the various Directives that make up the Telecoms Package (as amended by Parliament in September) and the reactions to these amendments from the Council of Ministers and the Commission, they conclude:

"On the basis of our analysis it is clear that the package does, or at least can, provide a mandatory basis for the "warnings" part of a French-style connection sanctions law (the "strikes") (see para 12 of brief), and also potentially provides a means by which public CSPs (ISPs and the like) can be compelled by the national regulator to work with ("promoting cooperation") rightsholders to implement a disconnection scheme (the "you're out" – see para 19 of brief). Wording in various places of the latest version seems to confirm that this "co-operation" is a more extensive obligation than simply providing copyright-related public interest information.

"This is a crucial set of obligations, about to be imposed on all of Europe's ISPs and telcos, which should be debated in the open, not passed under cover of stealth in the context of a vast and incomprehensible package of telecoms regulation. It seems, on careful legal examination by independent experts, more than possible that such a deliberate stealth exercise is indeed going on."

Negotiations are ongoing and Edwards and Bradshaw promise to update the brief as developments occur. You can download the full brief here.

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November 03, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Illicit filesharing: don't legislate, innovate!

ORG has submitted a response to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform's consultation into legislative options to tackle illicit peer to peer filesharing [pdf]. Here are some of the main points from the response:

  • Illicit peer to peer filesharing is not a law enforcement problem, it's a business model problem. The best way to tackle the problem is to provide consumers with competitive legal alternatives. This would deliver substantial additional revenues to the recording industry, and render the enforcement challenge radically different.
  • All enforcement measures suggested by the consultation are either wildly disproportionate, completely ineffective, or both. In the ten years the international recording industry has been fighting peer-to-peer filesharing, every development in enforcement has been matched by a development in technology that circumvents it. Without competitive alternatives, this cycle will only continue.
  • No case has been made for legislative change. Those who seek to alter the balance to make enforcement cheaper, more arbitrary and less respectful of privacy rights must show a sufficient justification. We do not believe that this has happened.
  • None of the regulatory solutions have satisfactory consumer safeguards. Consumers have been locked out of the negotiations between ISPs and rightsholders currently being chaired by OfCom. As recent news reports show, rightsholders are already levelling false accusations of file-sharing at consumers. Without proper safeguards, many more consumers will suffer. The clandestine OfCom negotiations are a disgrace.

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October 31, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Remix the Big Picture

As regular readers will know, on 11 October 2008, thousands of images of the database state sent in from around the UK by citizens fed up with Government's cavalier attitude to their civil liberties were combined to show Parliament what will happen if it continues to allow itself to be frog­marched away from freedom.

The Big Picture in situ - thanks, Felix_cohen

"The Big Picture" was part of a worldwide day of protest dubbed "Freedom Not Fear".

But we want the Big Picture to live on beyond Freedom Not Fear day. So we invite you to download it and turn it into whatever you can think of - T-shirts, screensavers, posters, mugs, duvet covers, curtains, tablecloths, even boat sails (it's big enough).

The whopping 5.4MB high-res image is now available for download under a CC-Attribution-ShareAlike licence from the ORG wiki. And if you're looking to do something even more pixel-tastic with it, there's a 17.2MB file available on request.

All we ask (beyond the licence terms) is that you let us know if you've found a good use for it, and consider dropping a percentage of any financial gains you get from it in the Big Picture Honesty Box (via Paypal).

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