January 28, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Happy Data Protection Day!

What... you didn't know? Today is Data Protectection Day, an initiative of the Council of Europe, designed to be:

"an occasion for European citizens to become more aware of personal data protection and of what their rights and responsibilities are in that regard."

But, in this regard, UK citizens have been rather spoiled of late. And last weekend was no exception: The Daily Telegraph revealed that HMRC had advised certian high profile celebrities, MPs and royals to refrain from using its online tax return system amid concerns that their confidential details would be put at risk, and a Financial Times editorial called for the government to rethink its wrong-headed ID card scheme because of the opportunity for abuse of personal details on an undreamed of scale. If their newspapers are anything to go by, then, it looks like the British people have never been more aware of their data protection rights.

But are your elected representatives aware of your concerns about data protection? You might consider using today to make sure. If you haven't already, write to them and let them know your thoughts on the Government's privacy timebomb.

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January 25, 2008 | Michael Holloway

Bloodspell: audio of panel session now online

Machinima is a film production technique similar to stop-motion animation that uses computer-generated imagery, most typically video games engines. So its something like making Wallace and Gromit with the characters and sets of Halo or Doom.

Back in November we helped out with a screening at the London Metropolitan University of Bloodspell - the world's first feature-length machinima movie. The film went down a treat, as did a panel session raising interesting questions about the legal, commercial and business aspects of machinima: is this art form copyright infringement? Should it be seen as a form of hacking?" An audio recording of the session is now available. Fortunately, our legal eagles gave machinima a - conditional - all clear.

Hugh Hancock, Bloodspell's producer, director and writer wrote to us today to let us know that Bloodspell was downloaded an impressive 28,000 times in the 6 weeks to 31 December!

Thanks to Fernando Barrio for the link and to Robin Scobey for the recording.

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January 22, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Devote Your Day to Democracy #2: London elections

Update: The ORG Electionwatch08 pledge has succeeded in record time! Thanks to all of those who signed the pledge and agreed to dedicate 2 May 2008 to observing the electronic counting of votes for the London mayoral and London Assembly elections. Before the sun had set, 12 (and more) democracy enthusiasts had signed up. If you haven't signed but you'd like to help - don't worry. You can sign anytime before 1 March.

Image from Bedford polling station in May 2007, courtesy of Richard ClaytonThis May, 6 million Londoners are expected to vote for the Mayor of London and for London Assembly members. The next day, their votes will be electronically counted in three count centres across the capital. ORG is looking for 12 volunteers to devote their day to democracy and become ORG’s Electoral Commission-accredited election observers for the e-count, which takes place on 2 May 2008.

Last year, the Open Rights Group sent 25 volunteer election observers to observe electronic voting and electronic counting pilots in England, and to observe the electronic count in Scotland. The resulting report raised serious questions about the future of e-voting and e-counting in British elections, questions which were echoed in the Houses of Parliament and by the Electoral Commission. To read more about e-voting in the UK and across the world, download our briefing pack.

London Elects, the body that runs the London elections, invited Open Rights Group members to view its systems in November last year. Last week, they invited us to meet their technical team, and discuss their plans to audit their systems. We were impressed with the consideration London Elects had given to system security - a marked contrast to many of the e-voting and e-counting pilots we saw last year. London Elects have hired-in two independent consultancy firms to audit both their own processes and the source code of some of the software used to count the votes.

However, this "independent" scrutiny gives no hard and fast guarantees that systems won't go wrong. And in terms of voter trust, it cannot replace the scrutiny of candidates, agents and independent observers on count night. Despite the Open Rights Group's recommendations, London Elects have declined to include a sample manual recount of e-counted ballots in their process on the night. This makes independent scrutiny very difficult, and makes it even more vital that techno-literate independent observers like ORG are there to watch proceedings.

So if you think you've got what it takes to be an ORG election observer, sign our pledge on Pledgebank. We’ll provide you with full instructions on the kind of things that will be expected of you on the day. We’ll also supply a factsheet of what to look out for. We’ll expect you to stay at your allocated count centre until the count has finished, and to turn around a quick report for us afterwards. It would also be good if you could attend the Electoral Commission briefing for observers on 29 April.

If you live in or around London (or are willing to travel there) and you'd like to help out, please let us know by signing our pledge on Pledgebank.

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January 21, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Contactpoint and the eCAF: experts on film

Action on Rights for Children (ARCH) have today released a series of videos outlining the dangers posed to children by the Government's plans to roll-out ever larger databases which track their development and contact with social services. The two systems in the ACRH spotlight are ContactPoint, a directory of all children which tracks them from birth and provides a list of the agencies with which they have come into contact, and the Common Assessment Framework (eCAF), an in-depth, personal assessment tool for cross-agency information-sharing on children not seen to be progressing well enough towards the government's "five outcomes".

The videos are short, snappy, and well worth watching. Here are some choice quotes from the experts interviewed:

"This whole information sharing, 'Every Child Matters" agenda has been sold as a response to the death of Victoria Climbie. In fact that isn't true. This agenda was under discussion years before... It was initially envisaged as part of the e-Government agenda. The agenda to create a central spine... through which all services would be provided. And early on children were identified as a useful area to start."

Terri Dowty, Director, ARCH

"The methodology that has evolved in Whitehall... is towards building large centralised databases that allow greater... control of the activities of public sector workers out in the field. And I'm afraid that this has become a programme that has acquired its own momentum and has been driven as an e-Government thing, rather than as a social work thing. And that's wrong. If you want decent systems, they've got to be driven by the people who are actually going to use them."

Professor Ross Anderson

"The government's talking about over 300,000 people having authorised access. Inevitably, some of those people will be open to taking bribes to provide information from the database to people who shouldn't have access."

Dr Ian Brown

"The 'Every Child Matters' agenda is an agenda of criminalising children, rather than protecting them. If you're going to view children as potentially being a problem to society then it's very difficult to view those same children as possible victims of child abuse."

Dr Elizabeth Davies

"Too often, government responds to various legitimate fears about child protection and terrorism with the idea that what we need are ever larger databases [but] of you're looking for a needle in a haystack, why build an ever bigger haystack?"

Shami Chakrabati, Director, Liberty

Watch the videos here:

Check out ORG's campaign resources on Children's digital rights on the ORGwiki.

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January 17, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Creative Business Seminars - Now open for applications

Today, the ORG Creative business team have announced that the application process for their free seminars "Creative Business in the Digital Era" is now open. The seminars, aimed at artists and creative entrepreneurs who want to make the most of the opportunities presented by the internet, will take place in March in central London and the deadline for applications is 15 February. You can find out more on the Creative Business microsite.

When the Open Rights Group stands up to over-zealous intellectual property legislation, or intrusive and censorious regulation intended to "protect artists", we are often asked "well, how else do you expect artists to make money?". This course might not have all the answers to the question, but its a good start. Suw, Michael and Jordan have been working away since the middle of last year preparing it - and they deserve hearty congratulations for what looks to be an excellent and innovative result. If you're a writer, musician, film maker or visual artist, or a manager, promoter, or executive in the music, publishing, film/TV or visual arts industries, get on over to the Creative Business microsite and find out how to apply.

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January 11, 2008 | Michael Holloway

House of Commons wants in on e-Petitions action

Petitions have historically been pen and paper affairs. But the popular uptake of the Prime Minister's and the Scottish Parliament's e-Petition systems effectively demonstrate that this kind of political engagement resonates in an e-enabled democracy. Most famously, over 1.7m signed up to the 'road pricing' petition in 2007. Now the House of Commons (HoC) wants to put e-Petitions on an equivalent footing with written petitions, guaranteeing the petitioner a written response if not necessarily discussion time in Parliament. Your opinion is sought as part of this process.

The inquiry is run by the HoC Procedure Committee: they will present to Government before Easter and expect a response soon after. Your route to participate is a forum (click here for the forum), open until Friday 18 February. We encourage everyone to weigh in with their perspective. Will opening a new communications channel between the people and their Parliament lead to closer and more rewarding relations?

The forum poses three questions:

  1. Would you consider signing an e-petition? If so, for what sort of issue?
  2. How do you think individual MPs should take part in an e-petitions system?
  3. What result would you expect from submitting or signing an e-petition?

There are valid questions over whether the relevant personnel actually respond in good faith to these petitions. But there are also privacy issues this forum fails to address. Asking the public to express their views on the record will generate much politically-sensitive and personal data. This data, given the State's appalling information assurance record, will almost certainly leak to both the private (e.g. commercial direct marketing, spammers, fraudsters) and public (e.g. security services) sector. For much more analysis of these systemic concerns, check SpyBlog's excellent post.

The Committee should as part of its recommendations require Parliament's e-Petitions mechanism be designed with robust legal, technical and cultural protections to ensure against undue intrusion on users' privacy. Unless these protections are central to the specification for the system, the potential to contribute to the redevelopment of trust between politicians and the public will inevitably be lost (as will yet more of our data).

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January 10, 2008 | Becky Hogge

BBC Director General grilled by MPs on iPlayer

Yesterday, BBC Director General Mark Thompson and other BBC representatives appeared in front of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. During the meeting, Dr John Pugh MP tackled him about the iPlayer. You can watch the full Public Accounts Committee meeting here (the talk of iPlayer starts about 10 minutes in).

During the meeting there is discussion of iPlayer's total cost to the licence fee-payer - the BBC representatives are unable to give a figure, but start the bidding at £20m, excluding staff costs. Thomson gives incorrect information - that Mac and Linux versions of iPlayer have the same functionality as Windows versions - and has to change his evidence at the end. Perhaps it was this confusion that prompted Dr John Pugh MP to follow up the encounter with a letter direct to Mark Thomson today discussing platform neutrality in greater detail. A copy of this letter has been passed to the Open Rights Group. Pugh writes:

"The more fundamental issue is [iPlayer's] failure to apply open standards and be sufficiently interoperable to work fully (stream and download) on more than one platform. The BBC is funded by licence players not all of whom have or chose to use a computer running Windows XP or Vista. By guaranteeing full functionality to the products of one software vendor it is as a public body handing a commercial advantage to that company - effectively illegal state aid!"

Dr John Pugh MP has previously accused the UK government of illegal state aid by excluding Linux and Mac Users from government services such as the Department of Work and Pensions online benefits system.

The BBC could avoid accusations like this if it eschewed DRM and instead employed standard formats. The BBC has made the wrong decision about DRM in its on-demand services. DRM threatens the future of public service broadcasting in the on-demand world and the BBC Trust and OfCom should assess the long-term economic case for the way the BBC buys rights to exhibit the programmes it commissions.

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January 08, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Pandora to shut off UK IP addresses from next week

Pandora, the US-based personalised internet radio service, has announced to its customers that it will be shutting down its service to all UK-based IP addresses as of next week. Back in July last year, Pandora blocked use of its service outside of the US because of what Tim Westergren, Pandora founder, described as "the lack of a viable license structure for Internet radio streaming in other countries". It kept UK IP addresses open, hoping to negotiate a viable license from UK collecting societies. Today, in an email to his UK-based customers, Westergren admitted defeat, and exited the European market with this caveat to the recording indiustry:

It continues to astound me and the rest of the team here that the industry is not working more constructively to support the growth of services that introduce listeners to new music and that are totally supportive of paying fair royalties to the creators of music. I don't often say such things, but the course being charted by the labels and publishers and their representative organizations is nothing short of disastrous for artists whom they purport to represent - and by that I mean both well known and indie artists. The only consequence of failing to support companies like Pandora that are attempting to build a sustainable radio business for the future will be the continued explosion of piracy, the continued constriction of opportunities for working musicians, and a worsening drought of new music for fans. As a former working musician myself, I find it very troubling.

Pandora's future is also uncertain in its homeland, the US, where it is fighting massive hikes in web radio royalty rates. has more details of their campaign stateside. - the UK's personalised internet radio service - has negotiated with individual record labels to ensure its service compensates artists fairly. Last year's sale of to media giant CBS for a reported £142m shows just what value might lie in personalised internet radio. Part of's business model is to gain commission from sales of music it has introduced to its listeners, supporting Westergen's assertion that services like Pandora and eventually only increase the revenue that flows to artists. But complex licensing schemes, and collecting societies unsure how to interpret the advances of innovative web radio companies, can get in the way.

Last week, the European Commission announced a new initiative which aims, in part, to create a legal framework to encourage creators and owners to make content available on line. But any new framework emerging from this initiative looks like it will be too late for Pandora.

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  • ORG Glasgow: A discussion of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
  • ORG Aberdeen: March Cryptonoise event
  • ORG North East: Take control of your online life
  • ORG Cambridge: Monthly March Meetup