Posts Tagged ‘policy’

Why do sheep need Twitter?

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Spot the broadband user in this picture

A House of Lords committee this week declared that British taxpayers must foot the bill for an internet that nobody wants – unless perhaps they have a second home in the country.

Some observations by the committee may be accurate: Britain’s broadband is slower than its rivals. But this doesn’t seem to be what vexes our noble and learned friends. Observations don’t amount to a rational argument – what the Lords are making is a very radical proposal. Huge and open-ended taxpayer funding must be committed, they argue, to build a national utility. One that will largely be used by sheep.

As every one knows, the nation’s finances are in a dire state. The national debt is increasing. So what’s the economic argument for new public spending? The peers won’t say: their report almost completely avoids making the economic case. To our knowledge, no study, public or private, has ever shown any benefit to UK plc from expenditure on rural broadband infrastructure. The committee has a glimmer of understanding how much this will be – citing a four year old Broadband Stakeholder Group study estimating the cost of building fibre to the home to every home as £28bn.
(more…)

How to fix the broken internet economy

Friday, July 13th, 2012

How can we begin to unpick the tangled mess that the technology and creative industries have created?

There’s certainly no shortage of blame to go around. In the past every new wave of technology has delivered healthy creative markets – but today this is no longer happening.

Just 20 years since the birth of the internet economy, with the advent of the worldwide web, it’s worth asking why. It’s time we looked afresh at where both industries went wrong, and how they can get on the right track again.

Much of what follows will highlight key mistakes made – but before we do that, we need to put them in some historical context. What worked in the past is a fairly reliable indication of what can work again in the future.

The current impasse between technology and copyright sectors is certainly an odd one. Historically, war is the greatest driver of technological innovation of all, but in peacetime it’s the demand for culture and entertainment that spurs the most innovation. People want to see and hear stuff, and are prepared to pay for it.

The cash generated is ploughed into more entertainment – even creating new art forms. (Recall how the first movie dramas were starchy, filmed theatrical plays.) This creates more investment in technology so people can enjoy the entertainment in a better way. Round and round it goes.

At the heart of this virtuous circle, copyright has been the obscure back-room business-to-business mechanism that keeps the players honest. Creators demanded that their industries engage with the new technologies to create new markets, which returned more money for their talent.

As a result technology innovators needed to attract talented creative people, and induce them to produce stuff for their kit: recording their music on long-players rather than shellac, or printing their movies in Technicolor™. So the two sides need each other. Technologists’ incentives were simple: create more amazing gear to deliver the best of other people’s stuff. And each wave of innovation grew the market, and ensured the creators and workers were richer. Remember: No innovation has ever made creative industries poorer.

Unfortunately, the truth of this historical mutual dependency gets forgotten today because the incentives aren’t lined up. Investment decisions in technology services are made without a thought for the health of the creative people who generate the demand for the goods. Creative investment decisions either don’t take advantage of the technology, or are hamstrung in a way that leaves the potential of the technology untapped. Things are also complicated by another factor we’ll call the Unicorn.

I’ll open the catalogue of errors at chapter one, the music industry.
(more…)

The IPO Enquiry

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

ipgroup_full_logo

Sketches from the three hearings held by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Intellectual Property’s enquiry into the IPO in April and May 2012

(more…)

Popper, Soros, and Pseudo-Masochism

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

ip_watchlist_2012

A new report by intellectual property campaigners has again put the UK on the naughty step.

This year, as last year, activists list the UK alongside Brazil and Thailand as having the most “oppressive” copyright laws in the world. The report was published by an international NGO called Consumer International, but this delegates the work out to a Soros-funded group called A2K.

It’s certainly a bold point of view. How does it arrive at this conclusion? Helpfully, we have the founder’s testimony to aid us.

A2K Network’s world view is that “publicly owned” knowledge is good, but “privately owned” knowledge is bad. It considers this a binary, zero-sum choice – and it is also one that trumps all other considerations.

So, by A2K’s yardstick, it doesn’t matter if the knowledge is easily accessible to citizens. It doesn’t matter, either, if a wide range of cultural material is available: a plurality of goods. Or that all this material is accessible to us at a low cost. Private ownership is the most important factor in any consideration; private ownership is evil.

(more…)

A short history of “Breaking the Internet”

Monday, 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.

(more…)

Indoor work relief for the middle classes

Thursday, 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.

(more…)

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

Wednesday, 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.

 

(more…)

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

Wednesday, 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.

(more…)

We can ditch the laws when the Valley’s snotty web teens grow up

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

stop-sopa

I am going to propose something that may sound radical, but really isn’t. Legislation like SOPA ideally isn’t necessary in an ideal world, and this idea comes about through voluntary agreement. The Stop Online Piracy Act was proposed because of a tragic impasse, a lack of agreement between two powerful and deeply entrenched sides. Although one side has moral force on its side, being ‘right’ doesn’t mean it’s going to ‘win’. Like a classic game theory tragedy, both sides are losing.

To understand why I shall tell you a story. If management sages and internet gurus annoy you – it’s a story you might enjoy.

When he died in 1903, the prolific Victorian journalist and author Herbert Spencer was thought to be one of the cleverest people in the land, and England’s greatest philosopher. Such was his reputation, there was a clamour to bury him in Westminster Abbey. But in reality, Spencer was a hard-working clot, whose reputation fell more sharply and quickly than that of a disgraced fraudster.

Spencer knew all the right buzzwords, but was loathe to read past the first chapter of a book. Spencer even carried ear-plugs in case he was exposed to interesting new ideas, as he feared intellectual stimulation might keep him awake; he often inserted the ear-plugs midway through a conversation. He masked all this, and his books were phenomenally popular, because he stuck to opaque but calming generalisations. Rather than resolve a matter, his generalisations allowed him to waffle around it. (He also heaped on masses of detail to sidetrack the reader). When the novelist George Eliot complimented the old man on the lack of wrinkles on his forehead, Spencer replied that he’d never encountered anything that ever puzzled him.

Spencer may have been the Victorian Malcolm Gladwell, or Tom Peters, or Tim O’Reilly. Generalisations are a great way of avoiding looking at what’s really going on, and tackling a subject with arguments from first principles. Social media has turned this kind of showy avoidance of reality into a massive multiplayer game. Twitter is an ocean in which armies of cliches swim pass each other. You can even badge your avatar to remove any doubts in the audience about nuances in your position: ‘STOP SOPA’ being the most recent. SOPA has indeed been stopped, or fatally gutted.

While the legislation is now moribund, the underlying concerns behind SOPA haven’t gone away. No amount of bloviating is going to resolve this. The main provision of SOPA (and PIPA) is website-blocking, which has no friends here at El Reg. But SOPA will return next year, and the year after, until the issues have been tackled head on. The STOP SOPA stickers will return. It’s all avoidable and getting quite tedious.

The internet has a problem

In the Panglossian worldview of Silicon Valley, everything is perfect on the internet, it’s the best of all possible worlds, and any tinkering with this robs humanity of its last Utopian hope. This is a view of the world that actually owes much to religion, or the desire to recreate the certainty of religion. It’s faith-based, and isn’t a view grounded in reality, especially the reality of doing business. On the internet, fame may arrive quickly, but financial reward doesn’t follow. It’s the only area of business where this is true.

(more…)

Oops: Public supports web-blocking in Google-funded poll

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Talk about an inconvenient fact. A survey into US attitudes to internet piracy shows strong public support for blocking access to websites guilty of serial copyright infringement. No fewer than 58 per cent support the idea of ISPs blocking the pirate sites, and 36 per cent disagree with this. Of the respondents, 61 per cent want sites like Facebook to take more action to screen for infringing material.

This may not be what the corporate sponsor Google, which benefits from internet piracy and fights enforcement proposals, had in mind when it funded the research. Google is currently leading the opposition to the new SOPA legislation in the US, which obliges service providers to take greater responsibility.

Perhaps, as in Brecht’s poem, Google wishes “to dissolve the people and elect another”, until they get the answer they want.
(more…)