Copyright on languages and APIs: why it’s a bad thing

April 17th, 2012

landgrab

Computer languages and software interfaces may fall under copyright protection if Oracle succeeds in its Java lawsuit against Google. Amazingly, “copyfighters” appear to have paid little or no notice to this rare extension of copyright into new realms. But the consequences and costs for the software industry could be enormous.

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A short history of “Breaking the Internet”

April 9th, 2012

“I am the head of IT and I have it on good authority that if you type ‘Google’ into Google, you can break the Internet. So please, no one try it, even for a joke. It’s not a laughing matter. You can break the Internet”
- Jen, The IT Crowd

For 15 years internet companies have been waging a war against any kind of laws that establish properties and permissions for digital things. Every attempt to do so has been bitterly fought. It’s the one constant in Silicon Valley’s battles against the copyright industries. The fight has crippled the traditional, historical partnership between technology and creators that benefited everyone. But it has also had an awful unintended consequence: it has weakened our ability to establish the clear property rights we need to protect our privacy.

When, in February, the EU tentatively suggested rules based on the principle that people own their own data, and this property right includes exclusivity (“the right to be forgotten”) – guess who was firing all guns against it? Facebook and Google… At Davos, Google chairman Eric Schmidt said the EU proposal would “break the internet”.

Just this week the UK government caused a huge privacy storm when it floated the idea of making internet companies keep a record of all personal communications on the the internet. While it argued that it wanted to store “traffic” data, not the contents of communications, little would be exempt: emails, blog comments, Tweets and Facebook Likes.

And more alarmingly, this trove of information would be casually available to busybodies. In 2010 alone, public authorities submitted 552,000 requests for communications data under RIPA. We’ve already seen how local councils, for example, initiate surveillance operations using the Act.

RIPA is intended to prevent “serious crimes”, requiring necessity and proportionality. But councils have used it to tackle “serious crimes” such as smoking, and putting recycling in the wrong bag. Some even boast about it. The new store of electronic communications would add to the data available to them. It’s a huge intrusion by the state into business that isn’t its own.

At the same time, Facebook and Google operate their own global data collection systems, hoarding huge amounts of personal data. And this is merely the start. The regression models that Facebook and Google use to predict consumer behaviour for advertisers are exactly what law enforcement agencies dream can be put to use to predict crime or ‘deviant’ behaviour. In a 2012 rewrite of Philip K Dick’s Minority Report, the “Pre Crime Division” will not require mutants floating in tanks – just software.

Privacy is not a luxury, or an optional extra – a world without privacy raises all kinds of ethical issues, and everyday judgements made about us.

So how can we halt this slide to Panopticon, where everything we do online is dipped into?

Well, no matter what law you pass, it won’t work unless there’s ownership attached to data, and you, as the individual, are the ultimate owner. From the basis of ownership, we can then agree what kind of rights are associated with the data – eg, the right to exclude people from it, the right to sell it or exchange it – and then build a permission-based world on top of that. None of this is possible without the fundamental recognition that it’s the individual – you or me – who ultimately owns it, and ultimately decides what’s then done with it, and by whom. Without properties and permissions on digital “things”, there will be no digital privacy.

I’ll illustrate this with a short story that you probably haven’t heard before – about this great phrase.

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Indoor work relief for the middle classes

April 5th, 2012

RolwandsonSelectVestry

John Stuart Mill described the British Empire as “outdoor relief for the middle classes”. The phrase “indoor relief”, at the time, referred to the state-sponsored workhouse programme, which invented jobs for the poor to prevent them being idle. Mill was implying that the Empire was a gigantic job creation scheme.

But in the 21st century the British Empire appears to be resurrecting itself in a very strange and interesting new way. In response to a FOIA request from Leo Hickman, the Guardian’s ethical bloke, we learn of all the donations made for the purpose of climate energy projects by the Foreign Office (FCO).

And it’s fascinating reading.

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Nature ISN’T fragile – nor a bossy mother-in-law

April 4th, 2012

gaia-yarn

The Green movement needs to rethink its philosophy from the ground-up. That’s according to Peter Kareiva, a leading conservation expert and chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, the world’s biggest environmental group.

It must abandon the idea that nature is “feminine” and in particular that it’s “fragile”, he said, because not only is this artificial, it’s wrong, and so many bad ideas follow.

When people believe that a fragile “Mother Nature” is harmed by anything humans do, it’s actually the humans who suffer, Kareiva argues in the co-written essay called  Conservation in the Anthropocene.

Environmentalism is now dominated by “misanthropic, anti-technology, anti-growth, dogmatic, purist, zealous, exclusive pastoralists” – says Kareiva. Greenpeace’s co-founder Patrick Moore made similar points in an interview here.

The modern environmental movement views every human action – from fracking to flying – as both intrinsically evil and irreversibly harmful. But this is an artificial view, one generated out of convenience, says Kareiva. “The notion that nature without people is more valuable than nature with people and the portrayal of nature as fragile or feminine reflect not timeless truths, but mental schema that change to fit the time,” the authors write.

 

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Who killed ITV Digital?

March 28th, 2012

itvdigital_monkey

After 25 years of watching the Murdoch TV empire unfold, the battle plan to beat him should be fairly obvious. You buy the best content – the most popular sport and movies – and raise lots of capital, and make watching it easy. Then you dig in for a very long fight.

In other words, this is the entertainment-business-as-usual. Wannabe telly and radio empires have failed because they bought the wrong stuff, were inconvenient to use or because they were under-capitalised in the long run – and typically it’s a mixture of all three. Entertainment isn’t an essential utility. It’s a discretionary purchase for households, and the market doesn’t tolerate inconvenience or rubbish for long.

But when the tale involves Rupert Murdoch, people will always look for diabolical reasons for his success. The myth demands it. A fascinating BBC Panorama researched by Guardian reporter David Leigh may give supporters of this view plenty of ammunition. It was enthralling TV about the TV biz, and must have been an eye-opening for anyone not familiar with the decade-old telly crypto saga. But for those of us familiar with the details and the context, the smoking gun just isn’t there. Murdoch’s telly rivals would have gone down even if nobody had ever watched a single one of their programmes for free.

 

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Cameron’s ‘Google Review’ sparked by killer quote that never was

March 21st, 2012

cameron_zeitgeist

Prime Minister David Cameron launched a sweeping review of UK intellectual property law based on an assertion – that the founders of Google believed they could "never have started their company in Britain" – he can’t support, from a source nobody can find. We know this because new information released by No 10 in response to FOIA requests has ruled out private conversations as the possible source.

This is truly a strange story, and it starts in November 2010.

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Are you a Nouveau-Reithian?

March 20th, 2012

How to fund a great BBC … without creating 142,000 new criminals a year

upstairs-downstairs-original-cast1 Not one Hollywood studio or record label company has ever incarcerated anyone merely for not paying for media consumption. A few years ago the entertainment industry filed civil suits against individuals, but received so much criticism it stopped. Now they target industrial-scale pirates, or push for milder sanctions such as speed slowdowns and contract termination.

To any reasonable person, prison is a harsh and unjust punishment for the action of not paying for media. This may be antisocial behaviour, but arguably less so than many crimes that receive a small fine or caution. A criminal conviction affects the individual’s job prospects and credit rating.

However, there’s a unique exception.

3,000 Britons a week, mostly in the lower income brackets, are being given criminal records for refusing to pay big media licensing fees. Figures from the Ministry of Justice show 165,000 have been prosecuted in the past twelve months, with 142,375 convicted and sentenced. This amounts to ten per cent of all court cases heard by magistrates. 74 individuals have even gone to prison for non-payment of the compulsory per-household fee, which sees all funds raised going to just one large media company: the UK broadcaster, the BBC.

Magistrates say they have pushed for a fairer subscription system for twenty years, and wanted it introduced with the switchover to digital TV. But it hasn’t happened.

In the internet era, refusing to pay for movies news and music – being a ‘paytard’ – is advocated by some. But this is minority fringe view; generally as a society we consider not paying for what we use to be unfair. So how unfair is being asked to pay for something you don’t use, but somebody better off than you really likes? It’s this socially regressive aspect of the fee that poses all kinds of problems.

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Our ‘digital economy’ is still a circular firing squad

March 12th, 2012

The British ISP industry has spent a small fortune of its customers’ money fighting the people who would, in a saner world, be its business partners – only to suffer a crushing defeat. On Tuesday Lord Justice Richards threw out BT and TalkTalk’s judicial review against the 2010 Digital Economy Act.

Yet as trench warfare goes, they may consider it worth every penny.

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Windows 8′s Metro means no gain for lots of pain

March 3rd, 2012
By far the most ill-judged design decision I can remember – Andrew

The public preview of Windows 8 has won “rave reviews” according to the Daily Mail, the newspaper that claims to reflect Middle England and is proudly conservative in every sense of the word. The Mail, it’ll have you know, is a feisty opponent of “change for the sake of it”.

So not only do I fear that somebody has spiked the water supply at the Kensington HQ of Associated Newspapers, the Mail’s publisher, I’m puzzled about what it is in Windows 8 that merits a “rave”.

For, apart from an outbreak of violent electromagnetic storms that zap our PCs at random, nothing is going to disrupt ordinary users as much as the design changes Microsoft wants to introduce. So detached from reality has Microsoft become, it touts every one of these disruptions as a virtue.

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Peak Oil: RIP

February 23rd, 2012

The idea that seized the imaginations of the bien pensant chattering classes in the Noughties – “Peak Oil” – is no longer relevant. So says the commodities team at Citigroup, and policy-makers would be wise to examine the trends they’ve identified.

“Peak Oil” is the point at which the production of conventional crude oil begins an irreversible decline. The effect of this, some say, is that scarcity-induced prices rises would require huge changes in modern industrial societies. For some, Peak Oil was the call of Mother Earth herself, requiring a return to pre-industrial lifestyles. One example of this response is the “Transition Towns” network, a middle-class phenomenon in commuter belt towns in the UK.

But in a must-read research note [PDF] issued this month (which is also implicitly critical of the industry) this is premature.

Thanks to “unconventional” oil and gas, which can be tapped thanks to technological advances, Peak Oil is dead.
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