Aug 112014
 
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A few months ago I was happy to sit with a short clever summary of the essence of privacy by Cory Doctorow (this is not to say he was happy to sit with it too – just to say I found it shiny enough not to need to pursue the matter further):

This needed to be said, and I’ve never seen it said better:

You should care about privacy because privacy isn’t secrecy. I know what you do in the toilet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to close the door when you go in the stall.

Today, however, this tweet came my way:

How do we define #privacy? Is privacy the ability to control with whom information gets shared? -@JulieBrillFTC #FOCAS14

This also seems a good approach, certainly at first sight anyhow.

But yesterday, Evgeny Morozov had already worried us thus:

The privacy debate, incapacitated by misplaced pragmatism, defines privacy as individual control over information flows. This treats users as if they exist in a world free of data-hungry insurance companies, banks, advertisers or government nudgers. Can we continue feigning such innocence?

He goes on to suggest:

A robust privacy debate should ask who needs our data and why, while proposing institutional arrangements for resisting the path offered by Silicon Valley. [...]

And:

[...] The intellectual ping pong over privacy between corporate counsels and legal academics moonlighting as radicals always avoids the most basic question: why build the “private spaces” celebrated by Mr Zuckerberg if our freedom to behave there as we wish – and not as companies or states nudge us to – is so limited?

This, of course, widens the issue immensely: it can even lead us to question the fundamentals of the corporate manifestation of capitalism which dominates 21st century life.  This morning I asked the following question:

The question we should be asking ourselves of 21st century revolution (oh,all right – “disruption”, if you prefer) runs as follows: >>

<< Is there enough spare resource in the world for people to create parallel spaces – or must the dispossessed dispossess the rich? >>

<< Answering this question will determine whether the revolution (oh, all right – “disruption”) is going to be humanely manageable or not.

Whilst the Zuckerbergs of the world (oh, all right – Facebook itself …) recommend (that is to say, like!!!) us to squabble over the crumbs and dregs that fall from their privacy tables, Morozov seems to be asserting that we should be much more ambitious.

Which brings me to the point of this post, after four hundred introductory words!

When we think about privacy, why not think as we do when we think about bullying?  Why not have a multi-polar definition in much the same way?  An example.  I wrote this paragraph quite a bit ago now on the subject under discussion, and related matters:

The problem with being accused of racism is surely one of point of view.  Let us take what I would argue is an analogous act of aggression.  As far as I understand it (please correct me if I am wrong), bullying is defined in labour legislation as depending on the perception of the victim not the oppressor.  If someone simply feels they have been bullied, this is enough justification in itself for an investigation of some kind to need to be carried out – whether the alleged oppressor intended to bully or not, this does not affect the significance of the event.

I then go on to apply the concept and approach to racism – an application you can read more about by reading the post in question, if you wish.  But for the purposes of today’s post, I would apply it further to the subject of privacy.  And it leads me to propose: let not there be one definition of something which invades a privacy or someone who feels invaded.  Let, instead, that definition be a matter of point of view of those who feel the invasion.

To go back to Doctorow’s shiny conceptualisation: some of us don’t care if the door of the toilet is open; others greatly treasure their intimacy; and to others, the carelessness about such privacy is quite objectionable.  As I point out towards the end of the post on bullying:

So it is that the racist, as well as the bully I’m sure we have all experienced, manages with an incredible precision to occupy simultaneously two miserable and quite contradictory positions in society: that of victim and oppressor both.

Yet we should not allow the horrible things such people succeed in doing to provoke a similar hatred or reaction in ourselves – for just as surely as the cruelty they exhibit to others is a sign of a brutalising upbringing, so our response to their resulting brutality can only serve to define how uncivilising was ours.

There are two ways of dealing with racism and bullying: a) outright rejection and a terrible shunning or b) a generous engagement and a never-ending instinct to education.

I know which process I would prefer to be a part of.  Have you considered which one most closely resembles your own?

If the envelope of what we should be allowed to consider privacy must include the right to define how far in our own particular cases – and, what’s more, at any particular and variable time – it must be able to place and extend its boundaries, the state will have to be far more fleet-of-foot if it is not to fall into the trap of behaving like the racists and bullies who throughout our shared histories have dominated accepted opinion with bald prejudice.

For in a sense, not asking someone where they see the limits of their own privacy reaching (or only asking them once but not repeatedly) (or not asking them with the education, politeness and cautious kindness a desire to both civilise and be civilised has to encompass) is to do what racists and bullies do constantly: take a personal point of view – that of the bully or racist – and impose it unquestioningly on the emotions and intellect of another.  No permission requested; all assumptions of every right to do so placed upfront; the complete and assumed disregarding of the need for dialogue and communication with the other party.

If it’s not racist for me, it’s not racist for you either; if it’s not bullying for me, it’s not bullying for you either; and if reading your emails and your text messages, listening to your phonecalls and Skype conversations and forming an opinion of your attitudes and being from your metadata (not to mention watching and sharing your sexual activity laughingly alongside others I work with) isn’t something I’d consider an invasion of privacy for me, it’s not something you should consider an invasion of privacy for you either.

But that’s because just like racists and bullies before me, I’m now doing exactly the same with privacy.  Perhaps we need to coin a new term: how does “privacist” suit the moment?

*

I tell you what: if the same people who in Britain have just sanctioned the long-term retention of citizens’ Internet data used the same process, behaviours and attitudes to define bullying and racism, to defining the envelopes of what governments with such a freer hand could now do to the governed, there’d be a hue and cry like no other heard in history.

Except that


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Jul 252014
 
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Here’s a batshit insane story, to quote from one of my Twitter acquaintances, Adrian Short:

Batshit insane Tory MP David Tredinnick wants more astrology in healthcare: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-28464009 …

And here’s the story he links to:

A Conservative MP has spoken of his belief in astrology and his desire to incorporate it into medicine.

David Tredinnick said he had spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work.

The MP for Bosworth, a member of the health committee and the science and technology committee, said he was not afraid of ridicule or abuse.

The MP in question goes on to describe astrology as something with a “proven track record”.  Proven, I suppose, as much as Tory economics has shown itself able to serve the nation equitably.

But Short makes a follow-up comment which really does interest me:

Which makes me wonder how we regulate negligence and misconduct in medical astrology.

Considering that so much of what the public-sector NHS is now carrying out is under the immediate control and management of private-sector companies, and considering that clinical negligence has been taken out of scope of Legal Aid provision, you might very well ask the same question of traditional non-batshit-insane medicine: without emanation of the state, without Legal Aid, effectively you have a system built not only to enable wide-ranging freedoms for medical corporations to do as they wish but also for MPs like David Tredinnick – and the similarly curious – to bring to our GP surgeries such prejudice-based treatments.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d suggest that it was all part of a whole.  Instead, I’ll simply remind us that battles must be fought by those most affected.  And we are now clearly those most affected by all this prejudice.


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Jul 242014
 
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I’m finding it increasingly difficult to comment on a whole host of matters.  Even where I do manage to type out eight hundred words of thoughts, half of what I write is so carefully pre-edited as to make me feel the only thing I’m learning to do of late is self-censor my output more ingeniously.

#DRIP was so very shocking as an abuse of everything the British body politic has meant for me, ever since I’ve been conscious of it, that I clearly couldn’t do anything but express my considerable disagreement.  But other matters, many other matters, have me declining in some way or another to comment.

At the moment, I’m finding it particularly difficult to say anything cogent on the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Even my choice of overarching terminology – to use the word “conflict” for example – is bathed in a lack of personal liberty: what I should say, what I can say, what might be held against me by people I value – on the one side and the other; both those who are in favour and those who are against.

To be honest, in a way I’ve been here before.  When Iraq hit our screens (always our screens, always our disempowering predigesting mediated screens), I found myself – as now – in Spain.  I saw the world stage from the Spanish majority view; from the British people taking astonishingly to the streets; from the peaceful people who saw only the interests of oil.  At the time, many of us asked why this dictator and not a whole host of others.  If invasion was needed to topple Saddam Hussein, why not the evil inheritors of barbaric colonial rule in other parts of the world too?  Why not aim, at one fell swoop, to dedicate painful resources in order to make a coherent entirety of international relations once and for all?  Where was the logic in prioritising Saddam over so many other genocidal maniacs?

We can ask the same questions now, of course – perhaps, ironically, in reverse.  So many of us find ourselves knee-jerking our hatred for the actions of the Israelis in – again – this thing I gingerly call a “conflict”.  And so many supporters of Israel remind us of the millions of affected in other tragic areas of “conflict” such as Syria, Ukraine – or the forty-two Commonwealth countries where it’s currently a crime simply to be gay.  With all this horrible stuff going down in so many places, why do so many of us find it easy to concentrate on Israel?

Well.  Of course, Europe has a history of anti-Semitism.  It’s in our DNA.  I have Jewish blood – yet my grandfather, who had more Jewish blood than I, expressed – on limited occasions – certain vigorously anti-Semitic sentiments in my youthful presence.  He’d talk about bankers and capitalism from his point of view as a committed lifelong socialist, for example – in the same breath as worldwide conspiracy.  Even at that age, I remember the incoherence and wondered why it was happening.

So those who support Israel do have history on their side, when they ask why Israel is dominating the news and not (for example) Syria.  And this is where I come to the title and subject of my post.  Comment is no longer free – for the following reasons:

  1. Modern history is too complex to be commented on properly – except by those who have lived it, or those who belong to communities whose elders have lived it.
  2. Modern history is too unhappy to be understood properly – except by those who stand aside and look on from afar, and find themselves de-legitimised precisely because of their distance.
  3. Modern technology makes it very easy to pass judgement – it becomes incredibly simple to be incredibly facile.  I’m trying not to tonight in this post – and I know I’m going to fail.
  4. Modern technology lends itself to manipulation on all sides – I am sure I will say a lot less today about Israel, Palestine, Syria or Russia than I would like to, and exactly because I’m aware of forces beyond my ken which might decide to interfere with my voice.  Yes.  I’m a coward.
  5. That we believe comment is free, that everyone can pass judgement on almost anything, means that we join a myriad of causes – sometimes out of a common and understandable desire to prove to others what we would like to be interpreted as our shared integrity.  In some cases, certainly in mine, we collect causes like badges – in the end, forgetting completely that a cause can only really be truly fought by those who find themselves at their absolute wits’ end: in desperate need of salvation, it is true – but a salvation which can only properly come through their own hands and tools.

For I remember Iraq – blogging furiously against its confusion.  I remember more recently the #bedroomtax; the cruelty the British disabled were exposed to; the scapegoating of the poor for the grave errors of powerful elites.  And from both these moments I remember the conclusion I had to come to: the solution is not for me to take on your cause but rather, far more fundamentally and humanely, and where not humanely at least cogently, to ensure that you have an even chance to fight your own battles where you must.

“Level killing-fields is that?” I hear you ask.  “Maybe so,” I answer wearily.  Maybe we’ve progressed no further than the Balkans.  Maybe we are condemned to repeat ourselves.

But in the end, it is the act of tragic elites everywhere to believe we can intervene with a right and freedom to comment from on high.

Give people the tools to defend themselves – or take away the tools their opponents use to attack them.  But stop, right now, using broken bits of babies to further your socially-networked causes, any of your causes – any bloody where in this repetitively nasty world.

____________________

Update to this post, 25/07/2014: I’ve just read this article from Open Democracy on the background to Israel’s point of view.  It makes for interesting reading – where not contextualising reading.  The crimes being committed are serious, of course – but there is always another position.

And history too.


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Jul 232014
 
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Two bloody awful pieces of rubbish which came my way today.

Rubbish not because they themselves are rubbish.  Rubbish because they just had to be made.

The first is this brilliant website from Open Rights Group.  The video they crowdfunded is below.


http://youtu.be/60eKauWFFPk

It explains quite clearly the idiocy of British government Internet filter policy.

Meanwhile, from the current Kafkaesque world of UK control-freakery we find ourselves off to the US world of Original Sin 2.0.  In such a paranoid environment as the Intercept article portrays, you’re not only dangerous at the age of two but also way after death overtakes you.  And as it becomes for such terrified security professionals so easy to contemplate real-life terrorists assuming the identities of those now dead – those now dead but previously suspected of thought crime when still alive – anyone who ends up shuffling off their mortal coil in these paradigms will remain a potentially violent citizen forever.

And on his tombstone, may RIPP mean “Revolve In Pain and Perpetuity”.

The grand virtue (or disgrace, depending on your point of view) of the Intercept article is to publish the guidelines which determine whether you’re going to be on the list or not.  But since they’re so opaque, self-serving, anti-legible and – ultimately – downright inexplicable, I don’t suppose many of us will be much the wiser.  Except inasmuch as it does become jolly clear from the tenor of the reporting that few people will find it inconceivable they won’t be on the list one fine day.

Actually, I’m not sure if that last sentence means what I meant to say – it comes of reading too much 21st century bollocks.  No matter.  What I would now like to ask of the Intercept and its really cool team is whether it mightn’t petition the US government to start drawing up a list of people who aren’t potential terrorists.  That would be much easier to structure, implement and work with – and presumably wouldn’t require so much funding.  And, for sure, would allow the rest of us to forget the need to oversee the legality of what they’re doing with us.

After all, when the aforementioned concept of inescapable and automatic guilt becomes the state’s modus operandi, who needs anyone to administer the idea that we’re innocent until anything is proven?

Let’s, then, make that two things, the Intercept: first, encourage the American security sector to operate not with a list where to be a human being is, by default, to be dangerous (they’re already doing that) but, rather, to have just a simple couple of pages of those you can trust – citizens you can concentrate your time and energies upholding the Constitution for; and second, over the next couple of weeks (or months, if you prefer), publish some interesting stories about “regular” people – those ordinary souls who are deemed dangerous at two and forever risky after death; souls whose lives have been interfered with, intervened in and generally wrecked as a result of the unacceptably unreasonable inclusion on such wide-ranging lists as we have read today exist.


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Jul 232014
 
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The Guardian reported around a day ago that:

Two leading Westminster civil liberties campaigners, David Davis and Tom Watson, are to mount a high court legal challenge to the government’s new “emergency” surveillance law, which was rushed through parliament last week.

The application for a judicial review of the new legislation, which was passed with support from the three main parties, is to be mounted by the human rights organisation Liberty on behalf of the two backbench MPs.

However, David Allen Green notes on Twitter that:

I understand the @libertyhq challenge to #DRIP is actually only to section 1 – and *not* the entire Act: https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/news/press-releases/liberty-represents-mps-david-davis-and-tom-watson-legal-challenge-government%E2%80%99s- …

Going on to explain that:

In other words, despite the news coverage, the Tom Watson/David Davis legal challenge is not to entire #DRIP Act but to one section of it,

It appears not one of the news reports on Davis/Watson legal challenge have noted that the challenge is not actually to entire #DRIP Act.

Meanwhile, yesterday I suggested that:

It’s a mistake to start by protesting about the content of #DRIP – far more important, and firstly, the really shocking part was process.

I’d love to have the money to take political leaders to court for undermining democracy, process and procedure. #DRIP

Truth is, whilst Gaza, Ukraine and other awful parts of the news have occupied the front pages over the past two weeks or so, and whilst Labour cheerleaders are happy to leave their human rights credentials to the dustbin of history, passing quickly onto other far more important issues such as internal Party unity, a serious matter is clearly not being fully aired here.  As I said in a previous post (the bold is mine today):

#DRIP, as a process, for me, is just one drop too far.  Politics, if it is anything meaningful in liberal society, is process.  But if the process is no longer liberal, the society is just bald dictatorship.  And that is precisely what we are getting here.  Government diktat in the absence of proper scrutiny:

And when even committed libertarians (libertarians in their own ways, that is true – but libertarians all the same) such as Watson and Davis limit themselves to challenging only a part of the result of dictatorship – obviating a rigorous analysis of the process they participated in (even if unwillingly, I am sure) – then the bald dictatorship I talk of is not just beginning to kick in: clearly, in an ultimate analysis, it is simply proceeding to re-establish itself.

Make no mistake about it, dear readers: this is a full-throated attack on the integrity of democratic communication, dialogue and consensus.  We need to see it as such; we need to deal with it as such; we need to understand that from the so-called #gaggingbill onwards, the final intentions of the political elite – not just the Coalition I insist; not just the Tories or the Lib Dems – is to revert all political activity into the ever-developing injustice that is parliamentary procedure.

From the immorality of Thatcher’s times to the hand-holding hand-in-glove behaviours of our latterday political elite, it’s time we started shouting from the rooftops of all our democracies: “STOP NAYSAYING OUR HUMAN RIGHTS!”

For that, exactly that, is what they are doing.  And that, exactly that, is what they now need to step back from.


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Jul 182014
 
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I’m a member of Open Rights Group, the Fabians and Labour.  I also remain an associate member of the small trades union Accord.  The latter is more out of sentiment than practicality.  I no longer work in the sector where it operates, but the people who run it treated me well.  The add-on legal and travel services are also good value-for-money factors in my membership.

When I return to Britain after my working holiday here in Spain, I have decided – today – to curtail my membership of both Labour and the Fabians.  I shall continue to pay my dues to ORG.  This open letter to the current UK Home Secretary is the reason why:

Dear Theresa, see you in court

Parliament has a done a terrible thing. They’ve ignored a court judgment and shoved complex law through a legislative mincer in just three days.

But in doing so they won’t have had the final word. You’re already shown them the growing public opposition to mass surveillance. There was incredible action from supporters: 4458 of you wrote to your MPs with even more phoning up on the day of the vote.  Together we helped 49 MPs rebel against the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill. It may have passed, but thanks to you they know that we do not agree.

Help us challenge DRIP: Join now

Meanwhile, my own political party was rolled in ways I never expected possible.  And the process that was #DRIP, as described above in ORG’s letter, showed that:

When they’re of a mind, the political class is just that: a class, quite separate from the voters who vote for it. Able to decide anything.

#DRIP, as a process, for me, is just one drop too far.  Politics, if it is anything meaningful in liberal society, is process.  But if the process is no longer liberal, the society is just bald dictatorship.  And that is precisely what we are getting here.  Government diktat in the absence of proper scrutiny:

Tom Watson MP described the process as “democratic banditry, resonant of a rogue state. The people who put this shady deal together should be ashamed.”

The fact is that they are neither ashamed of what they are doing nor dislike the idea of giving other rogue states a lead.  And I know exactly what I am talking about.

Eleven years ago, almost to the day, I was hospitalised for believing the state was tracking me for my political beliefs.  I was hospitalised for a month, informed in their clinical judgement that I would be unable to work for more than two hours unpaid work a week on being released – only to then start, after a month’s poking and prodding, a full twenty-hour shift in a fast-food restaurant in Chester.

What did I believe was happening to me?

  1. My Windows computer was being intervened.
  2. My mobile phone was being hacked.
  3. My landline was being interfered with.
  4. My email was being intercepted.

I was – as a result – terrified, of course; my illness was manifest and real.  But the causes were not so clear, especially in retrospect.

The killer question I was asked at the time (in particular by the psychiatrist who insisted on interviewing me at 5 am in the morning, in the presence of an abusive family member and their doctor friend, but never in consultation with my wife – either before or after) ran as follows:

If all these things are happening to you, what have you done for them to happen?  Why are you important enough for anyone to want to do any of the above?

I now fast-forward to today, to #DRIP’s passing and what it really means.  #DRIP sanctions and makes real for us all what happened to me eleven years ago.  For it’s not just, as Paul Bernal has suggested, the normalising of surveillance worldwide that is so terrible (clearly the case here, it is true; clearly a reality which would have made that killer question, which destroyed my moral resistance at the time, entirely unreasonable).  It’s also the normalising of their absence of shame.  The fact that they don’t care we see them all as so undemocratic; the fact that they don’t care other truly rogue states now fully enjoy the cloak of precedence that #DRIP’s process provides; the fact that the trampling of democracy doesn’t make them bewildered in any way … all of this and so much more is the real and quite terrifying normalisation which is taking place.

Yes.  The example will be repeated.  But I can promise you, for many unimportant people like myself, at a personal level only satisfaction emerges from the shenanigans that is the current British body politic.  What happened to me, what I suffered for and had to make my family suffer too, was happening to you as well I am sure.  It’s just that you didn’t perceive or understand it.

And so now I enjoin you to become an associate member of the paranoid.  Don’t worry.  It won’t mean you’re ill.  It’ll just mean you understand what’s happening.  Whatever we are, do or think in our lives will now be important enough to be tracked, exchanged and intercepted by the state.

For as paranoia, it is manifestly no longer the case.  That is exactly how personal it gets.


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Jul 162014
 
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I just tweeted in rather ironic tone the following:

Plaything of cybercriminal, paedophile, govt – even social-network users for goodness sake! – the web’s breaking up like a rusting old car.

I’d just read this, where under current legislation (significantly, no need for #DRIP here), but with new process and procedure, forty-five police forces have managed to coordinate their efforts and capture 660 suspected paedophiles.  I presume mainly online paedophiles (ie paedophiles who use online tools to commit crimes), and do wonder if in the future this won’t lead to another digital divide opening up: that where law enforcement concentrates on arresting a far larger proportion of those who operate online than it will do with respect to those who operate more carefully behind closed doors – and in that far more difficult-to-profile real (or, indeed, historical) world.

I am also minded to wonder how many hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of damaged adults are now hiding within their very private selves the consequences of historical child abuse.  Some would argue that the web augments the activity: I would suggest (with no professional background or figures to boast of, mind) that child abuse is probably a pretty steady statement of intent in most societies, and if less than a year’s concerted effort yields 660 arrestees in the UK, how many more criminals in how many other years have, at all levels in society, avoided the same fate?

I don’t, of course, suggest they’ve historically avoided detection.  I do suggest they’ve historically avoided prosecution.

Meanwhile, this story popped up a little late in my timeline this afternoon:

 Former Labour shadow minster Diane Abbott said her party’s leadership had been hoodwinked into supporting the legislation.

“I believe – I hate to say this because they are all nice people – that those on the opposition front bench have been rolled,” she said.

“All ministers had to do was to raise in front of them the spectre of being an irresponsible opposition, and that children will die if they do not vote for the bill on this timetable, and they succumbed.”

And yet, I would remind you, we have the news already mentioned that, under current legislation, 660 suspected paedophiles can be tracked down and captured.  So why the urgency for making the extra-legal behaviours of the past decades entirely legal law right now?

The problem for me with the surveillance state we’re getting is that it mimics very closely long-running debates of a very technical nature between closed source and open source software licence regimes.  In the former, we trust that one company knows what it needs to know, and will be able to protect us in a timely fashion from any and every cyberattack.  In the latter, when it works at its best, we make the knowledge available to everyone, so that any clever corruption of good intentions can be anticipated, resolved and removed from the system as quickly as possible.

The million eyes which – when they work as they should – work to a common cause.

The dynamics are very similar in the case of child abuse and the passing of #DRIP: allow the relatively few eyes of the security services total access to information, trust they will do with it what they should (we never get paedophile police officers, after all!) and assume that the only criminals acting out there belong to the levels of society who won’t get the right to see the intelligence about each other – or perhaps, more worryingly, won’t get to doublecheck the intelligence about their “betters”.

What we’re getting, then, is the undue exertion of power.  What we need is something different.  If the worldwide web and the Internet it runs on was a real-world chain of, say, toddlers’ playgroups or young children’s schools, and we suddenly and analogously proposed changing the ground rules as savagely as has been demanded (for example, installing CCTV in all children’s environments; recording every word spoken; registering for years the acts of every carer and parent), all of us would find outrage within our reach.  We would see it as abuse (even as it claimed to look to prevent its taking place); we would perceive it, at the very least, as a supremely uncoordinated act of change management; and we would realise how anti-democratic it was all shaping up to be.

Instead, to paraphrase Diane Abbott, we’re all on the point of allowing ourselves to be rolled.

The web and the wider Internet are, indeed, oxidising into uselessness.  There’s still time to rescue them, I’m sure.  But it’ll require a mighty change of mentality and mindsets from us all: from the voters; from the parents; from our MPs who still claim to represent us; from our leaders and from the led together – from anyone, in fact, who cares about democracy.

For that’s what the #DRIP process really stands for.  Unintentionally, perhaps.  In reality, all the same.

democracy | rest in peace


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Jul 162014
 
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Sunny has an excellent summary of all the issues surrounding #DRIP, especially in relation to the mess on civil liberties which my own political party, Labour, now finds itself irremediably in.  You can find this summary here (whilst I have previously posted here and here).  One of the most important points he makes is this one (the bold is mine):

Civil liberties are a social justice issue too – a point some Labour MPs and activists don’t seem to have quite yet grasped. When the police or security services abuse their ever-growing powers, the victims are invariably ethnic minorities and/or the most marginalised in society. From stop-and-search to 90 days detention and even the Malicious Communications Act – it has always people from minority backgrounds or those with unpopular opinions who get harassed, spied on or arrested.

And so on the back of this thoughtful article, I had the following thought: Parliament is often no more than a reflection of many tendencies in a wider society.  The one I would focus on this morning is that which is inscribed by corporate capitalism: as the free market is now controlled and progressively marshalled by interventionist wealth, a wealth which in the ultimate analysis is anything but a creature of libertarian mindsets, so what we might describe as a once “free” democracy – understood as that liberal beast where the opportunity to express oneself without too much fear, alongside the economic liberty to create business without too much heavy-handed interference from above, was far more important than almost any other marker in the sand – in the end has quite similarly been taken over by the monopolistic tendencies of commercial representation.

The #DRIP process is nothing more than the logical result of representative democracy in general.  It started out as a fairly scattered and individualistic kind of thing – but over the years it has become imperceptibly more concentrated: not more unrepresentative, you understand – it continues to represent like hell, and represent both directly and indirectly the interests of billions of people.  It’s just that the individual voters who used to be called to the urns to rubber stamp rising political stars and movements no longer have a place in the hierarchy of representation which such a democracy now manifests.

Where capitalism and the free market are owned by the giants of business (go no further than the international trade treaties being negotiated behind our backs), so representative democracy no longer belongs to individual people.

This is why #DRIP really should come as no surprise at all.  It’s not a question of the security services doing a big evil to our freedoms and democratic processes.  They were overly ripe for picking – bordering on the rotting – as they stood, as they hung, anyway.

For if truth be told, at least the truth I see, the next step will be to widen the #DRIP process to other areas of policymaking.  Especially in the interests of a spurious “democratic efficiency”.  Especially in the interests of future “ease of management”.

The logical result of free-market economics?  Corporate capitalism – and all the inefficiencies it implies.

The logical result of representative democracy?  Government by diktat – and a return to the violence of previous political agendas.

A violence we thought well vanquished.

How wrong we were.


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Jul 152014
 
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In my previous post today I outlined why I’m unhappy with the data retention legislation, commonly called #DRIP, which is being careered through Parliament at a rate of knots never before seen.

I pointed out one of the reservations many people may begin to have in the near future about the legislation itself: who can practically remove from state servers the information ISPs pass to them when the twelve-month best-by date falls?

You might want to visit that post before we continue this one.

*

My disgust with #DRIP’s process leads me to want to simply disengage.  Cameron has recently stated it is his clear intention to prevent, by law and coercion, workers from withdrawing their labour (ie striking).  Up to now, however, I don’t think he has considered the need to act in a similarly coercive way with respect to those of us who use the Internet to interact with the government, public institutions and so forth.  I suggest he might want to.

In the very near future too.

What can we do when laws are passed in such unseemly ways?  If we are talking about strike legislation itself, all we can do is not go to work – and take the sucker punch as best we can.  It will cost us too: with respect to our standards of living; our families’ sense of equilibrium and balance; our own sense of security and wellbeing.

But what if we are talking about the desire to communicate privately?  Not secretively.  Just privately.  Perhaps it is time to flood government with paper documentation, local councils with postal complaints and observations – and friends and families with blue-enveloped real-world letters that take a little bit of time to write, a while to reach their destinations – and a deliciously savoured half hour or so of reflective reading and rereading.

But if in exchange we regain our sense of privacy, why not?

My observation is the following: imagine millions of us started using snailmail for government communication; imagine billions of us, all worried about state and corporate snooping, began to wean ourselves off – in obviously painful cold turkey sorts of ways – the habit of communicating instantaneously with each other; imagine we were able to make a date to meet someone a week ahead and stick to it; imagine we began to value being over reacting and participating over spectating; imagine we really decided to pursue that privacy we’ve lost … would governments like Cameron’s – and body politics like the ones Clegg and Miliband manifestly form a firm and irresistible part of – eventually end up passing laws which required us, on pain of state-sanctioned fines and imprisonment, to use the Internet to communicate with their servants and – indeed – between ourselves?

That is to say, if we began to boycott #DRIP’s wide-ranging reach and powers by simply not using the Internet wherever we could avoid it, would they come together one fine July afternoon in, say, 2015, and pass the kind of coercive measures which made it impossible for any private person to go about going offline in a focussed, organised and structured manner – even when this manner was engineered with a demonstrably benign intention?

Or would “demonstrably benign intention” not be an option in such circumstances?  Would anything which involved attempting to disengage with tools of surveillance – simply out of a desire not to be, say, watched inside one’s home and in conversation with one’s beloved ones – be interpreted as an attack on the integrity and security of the state?

‘Cos it’s one small step, in my suspicion-filled world, from preventing a worker who wishes to withdraw their labour from doing so on the one hand to preventing a once habitual Internet user who wishes to retire their footprint and profiles from easy access from doing so on the other.

And I don’t half get the feeling, today of all days, that this one small step is about to be taken.


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Jul 152014
 
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I posted recently, unwisely I suppose, on the Facebooking of the political party I belong to – the Labour Party.  Today, I realise this has extended to the whole British body politic, state, security services and every citizen who lives on our islands.

The Guardian reports the so-called #DRIP lawmaking process thus:

Forty-nine MPs have voted against rushing the government’s emergency surveillance legislation through all its Commons stages in just one day.

A deal between the three major parties, however, secured the fast-track timetable by 436 votes to 49, despite accusations from one Labour MP that the move amounted to “democratic banditry resonant of a rogue state”.

It concludes with the following summary of the powers being rushed through:

The bill requires internet and phone companies to store the communications data generated by phone calls, email, texts and internet use for 12 months and make it accessible to police and security services.

So why do I call this a “state-run Facebook imposed on every UK Internet user”?  Mainly because once you’re a part of Facebook, the most you can do is delete your osmotic public persona – if you’re looking to remove your data from their servers, however, think twice, three times, as many times as you want: it won’t ever be clear whether it’s happened or not.

A similar issue with this #DRIP bill.  (Bill?  How naive of me.  Probably law by now … they’ve had two days, after all, bless ‘em, to get through the complexities of the process.)

In the same way as I’ve never been very clear about what happens to your Facebook data – even on deletion of your account – so I’m not clear about the implications of the conclusion of the Guardian‘s report; and it’s a fact I’m sure is not due to the reporters themselves.

How can I ensure Facebook has removed my data, likes, posts, comments and photos from every single server it owns, when I ask for us to go our separate ways?  I can’t be.

Equally, after the last twelve months of my Internet activity’s been released to the police et al, what happens next month to the first of that last twelve months’ block?  Do the police et al conscientiously remove the first half of a telling email thread from their files because it started thirteen months ago and is now out of my best-by date?  Or do they realise – for the security of the nation, its peoples and paedophile political classes (or not as the case may unjustly be alleged) – that they actually need to hang onto not only thirteen months of my Internet history but, now, as I slowly progress down the evil road they believe I am taking, fourteen, fifteen or even twenty-four long months – whilst they wait for me to make my surely criminal moves?

Really, what I’m asking, much as I’d ask in the case of a data subject’s desire to be permanently removed from Facebook’s servers, is who is possibly going to be able to oversee the correct removal of tens of millions of British citizens’ datasets on a 24/7 rolling basis, week after week, month after month, year in and year out – until the end of civilisation as we know it?  (This latter date being probably July 16th, when #DRIP will clearly be law.)

I suppose if we really cared to do it right, we could solve unemployment overnight.

In the 20th century, they talked about digging holes, burying bags of money – and then proceeding to dig them up again.

In the 21st century, they now may talk about invading privacies, hollowing out voters’ lives – and then proceeding to pay other people bags of futile dosh to ogle the multiple intimacies of the obviously guilty multifarious.

The principle’s the same, of course.  The utility, creativity and imagination required too.


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Jul 092014
 
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First, we had #FacebookExperiment, where Facebook took it upon itself, for a week or so in January 2012, to make people happy or sad by deliberately manipulating the kind of content they saw.  Now we have #DarpaExperiment:

Several of the DoD-funded projects went further than simple observation, instead engaging directly with social media users and analysing their responses.

One of multiple studies looking into how to spread messages on the networks, titled “Who Will Retweet This? Automatically Identifying and Engaging Strangers on Twitter to Spread Information” did just this.

The researchers explained: “Since everyone is potentially an influencer on social media and is capable of spreading information, our work aims to identify and engage the right people at the right time on social media to help propagate information when needed.”

Of course, this is no creepier in its essence than Facebook showing me a picture of a hearse and a tagline which runs along the following lines: “Are you 53 next birthday?  Want to leave something to your nearest and dearest?”  (This, by the way, happened to me a couple of days ago.  I wonder, now,  whether it was actually part of the #DarpaExperiment – a warning of some sort or other!)  (Well.  I don’t really … but the thought is engaging.)

What really cheeses me off about all these stories circulating around how institutions, corporations and governments are treating end-users as laboratory garbage to be summarily dealt with and experimented on is that people like myself, brought up to believe in good science, in the scientific method and in progress through robust and rigorous experimentation, are allowing ourselves to become 21st century Luddites: through a natural preoccupation about privacy abuse, we’re reacting with closed minds, knee-jerk responses and an impulsive resistance to anything which involves going out on a limb.

What I’m really worried about, what I really hate, is that Facebook, Darpa and God knows who else are destroying our belief in any science at all – as they promote their activities and interests through examples of very bad practice.

As a kid, I was always fascinated by new ideas, by stuff which wasn’t quite right but seemed worthy of exploration.  At one point in my childhood, I devoured Isaac Asimov sci-fi; read things like “Robinson Crusoe” and “Lord of the Flies”; was exposed to the injustices of “Julius Caesar”; discussed and debated all manner of moral and political quandaries.

And now all the terrible things they’re doing with our personal lives have turned me into one of those people whose very first – and very last – instincts are to declaim self-righteously: “NO!  NO!  NO, NO, NO!”

So where did my open-minded, generously boyish nature go to?  How did my excited, excitable, wide-rangingly young mind vanish from the amplifying experiences of new thought?  What have these behemoths of permanent analysis, control and manipulation done to the environments which once nurtured me in the direction of new ideas so positively and constructively?

And does anyone else feel the same has also happened to them?

Really, I don’t dislike Facebook, Darpa or any of the rest for trying to make me change my mind on stuff – nor for wanting to influence my society’s future direction and development.  Really, it matters not a jot to me.  Mostly, I think our ideas remain pretty steady – oh yes, elections may be won or lost on the cusp of a stupid public statement or policy slip-of-the-tongue, but then do elections actually ever change anything anyhow?

What does upset me, however, is how they’ve buggered up our practice in weaving thoughtful trains of thought, and basing civilisation’s growth on proper and valid argument, debate and discussion.

I don’t want to be a 21st century Luddite.  And you’re making me more so, every hour that goes by.

So for that, I really do object in the strongest terms.

Can you understand why?


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Jul 082014
 
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I got it mostly wrong in my previous post when I said that people may be sending missives to Google, in order to get links removed from its listings when my name – miljenko williams – is searched.  Usefully, the always kindly Paul Bernal tweeted me a number of clarifications, which – as is my wont – simply make me think of more questions.

To summarise what Paul has said to me this evening (please correct me if I am wrong) in two easy-to-understand points:

  1. Google slaps the phrase “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more” at the bottom not only of my search results but Paul’s and almost everyone else’s because – according to its algorithms, listings or other opaque critera – we are not public figures.
  2. If, for example, you search a famous singer – paul mccartney, say – no such message appears at the bottom of the screen.  This is precisely because he is a public figure.  Only ordinary people have a right to be forgotten; the paul mccartneys of this world do not (though I did read yesterday that he and other famous people were, as we speak and write, getting Google to rub out Street View images of their mansions various).

So if this is as clear to me as it is to you, why do I find myself asking more questions?  Well, judge for yourself – here are those questions I’m asking as a result:

  1. When is a person not a public figure?  I can understand, for the reasons I gave yesterday about my own professional trajectory, why Google would judge me not to be a public figure – but what about someone like Paul Bernal, so involved in and committed to modern digital rights at both a personal and institutional level?  I mean, how is it possible Google judges that under the recent EU legislation he still has a right to be forgotten?  He has written, spoken, published and debated in so many public spaces that it really begs the question: what do you have to do to become a public figure?  What does being a public figure mean?  What, in fact, are its criteria actually aiming to define?
  2. Is there not something quite pernicious in this defining of what a public versus a private figure is?  And doesn’t it seem to indicate that for a long time now Google’s been using certain assumptions to define whom people more generally would prefer to find on the web and whom they wouldn’t?  Assumptions, I assume, which could be quite questionable for many of us.  So what am I saying?  That a real downside of Google’s application of EU principles on the right for private figures to be forgotten is that it can be used to reinforce the power the eagerly public have over the rest of us.  Sure, it’s important we can regain our privacy if we should want to – but what if the already powerful and politically galvanised, implicated and cleverly controlling look to use, in the future, the related right not to be forgotten (for alongside the right to be forgotten must exist its opposite) to push ordinary people out of public spaces all over again – returning, as a result, the body politic, public discourse and ordinary participation in political communication and activity back to the 19th century of hierarchical elites?

Yes.  Essentially what I’m suggesting – to develop the argument a little more – is that whilst Europe has been looking to recover a sensible take on online identity and ordinary people’s control over the same, the consequence of its cack-handed absence of a due consultation process on the matter is that public figures who wish to remove unpleasant truths from the worldwide web’s historical account can return themselves unreasonably to the domain of private figures – especially where their legal resources permit this to happen.  But this isn’t the only – and rather obvious – consequence.  The other dangerous possibility – particularly for democracy and its future health – is that those figures Google already judges to be public will become more public, more powerful and more able to influence our societies as time goes by.

And all because Google refuses, in cahoots with well-meaning legislation, to hide their activities – even as the rest of us scurry, understandably, to recover our rabbit-in-the-headlights anonymity.

The already famous will become proportionately more so.

The already relatively private (people like you and me), looking to recover a semblance of 20th century intimacy, will become increasingly – and simultaneously – irrelevant.

As the old adage goes: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity!”  In the world where Google exerts an absolute control over whether one is visible or not, this could well become even truer than it was in the past.

So.  Tonight I have some questions for those who know about these things, to take away and mull over and contemplate their implications:

  1. In order to become visible on the web, as a figure defined by Google as public, what degree, level or quality of achievement or notoriety will be required in order to remain resultingly visible?
  2. Who will define such criteria, what ideology or ideologies will be used to define them and how transparent and democratic will the process of definition be?
  3. How will Google measure the right to visibility (even as Europe tries to measure the right to be invisible) when comparing, for example, “notorious” celebrities with “deserving” scientific researchers, authors or philosophers of tryingly challenging discourse?
  4. Who or what will ultimately decide who has the right to be read, listened to, watched and observed on this supposedly even-handed worldwide web?

The answers to these and other questions will define the future in two ways:

  1. It may lead to a reassertion of traditional modes of hierarchical representation in our civilisation and societies – in plain language, posh elites telling the plebs what they can do, think and say!
  2. It may lead to a continuing development of a more decentralised and distributed democracy – in plain language, ordinary people telling the elites to bugger off!

For if we get the next year or so as wrong as we’ve got the past month, I do fear it’ll be the ineffective, inefficient and finally lazy former at the terrible expense of what would surely be a far more constructive latter.


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Jul 072014
 
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Liberal society has always faced us with that partnership that is rights and obligations.  That is to say, no right can imply an absence of a corresponding obligation.  Recently, we’ve been hearing a lot about “the right to be forgotten” – today bringing us this story from the Guardian for example, with stuff like this:

Following the ruling, Google has implemented a system where individuals can make a legally binding statement, requesting particular links be removed from searches on their name. The web pages with the information remain.

The newspaper goes on to report:

But the Guardian has now established from sources familiar with Google’s process that “queries that involve the name and other terms will also have the same effect” of hiding the pages complained about. “It wouldn’t make sense if you could simply add an extra term and negate the restriction,” the source said. [...]

Getting to be a bit of a weird and trying situation, isn’t it?

It gets weirder and more trying in my case.  If you search my name – miljenko williams – you’ll get a message from Google at the bottom of the search which says: “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more”.  Meanwhile, if you separately search the name of this blog – 21stcenturyfix.org.uk – no sign of this message is to be found.  It’s clearly not a standard message which gets pasted at the end of any and every search request.

So what’s going on here then?  Why may certain references to my name have been removed – especially as I (promise!) haven’t asked Google to do so myself?  Who might have done?  And for what reason might they have done it?  (And if references to my name, why not references to my blog?  Surely blogs are more likely to encounter censorship than people’s individual lives and happenings.)

Back to our liberal partnership of rights and obligations: if we truly want to maintain such a society (there is of course, in latterday political behaviours, the growing feeling that we’re losing the desire to do so), we can’t sustain that there should be a “right to be forgotten” without a corresponding “obligation to be remembered”.  And as child abuse stories overwhelm the establishment, political life and mainstream media, this “obligation to be remembered” becomes evermore important.

But before I finish today, I would like to add one more concept to the mix: not just the obligation to be remembered – also the right!  Yes.  I’d like to assert the possibility that someone may prefer not to have their online identity munched away at the edges.

Listen: if someone has been firing off missives to Google, asking them to remove links which my name throws up from their listings, I would really like to know on what authority.  What’s more, I’d really like to know why they’re bothered in the first place.  I’m a smalltime blogger, rarely getting more than forty hits a day; a smalltime language trainer, getting by as best he can; an excellent proofreader, but again hardly bigtime; and a wannabe editor (for longer than I can remember), who once could’ve had a great future ahead of him.  Something bigger I may achieve some day – but hardly at the expense of anyone I’ve ever had dealings with, surely.

Oh yes.  There’s a process whereby notifying Google of one’s desire to be forgotten leads to links being removed.  But what if a data subject doesn’t want to be forgotten?  What if they would like to recover an even-handed online profile?  What if they don’t want to have their history digitally – and what’s more, opaquely – mashed up and minced as would seem is beginning to happen?

What, dear Googlers and the European Union both, is the procedure going to be when someone like me actually wants to exert the right to be remembered?


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Jul 052014
 
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If, that is, we don’t do something first.

But first, a photo.  A badge of courage.  A statement of principles.  A declaration even, in times such as these, of battlecry proportions.

The principles of Bevan's NHS

(This photo and its text are, I believe, taken from a Bernadette Horton posting on a Unite the Union Facebook page – if other copyright owners also exist, please contact me for attribution or any other relevant action.)

So what different kind of illness am I talking about?  I’ve already posted recently on these pages about how – in a world of Snowden-like revelations – paranoia is becoming the default setting.  I left Spain in 2003, after a year of growing and ultimately debilitating paranoia, as I thought Microsoft was intervening my computer due to my work on OpenOffice.org – especially with respect to my desire to expand the software’s reach to Croatia.  And although these thoughts were clearly an illness at work, in the light of Snowden and everything we’ve discovered recently, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that I was being tracked, manipulated and objectivised as well.

Who by?  Who knows!

The illness was real enough, but the causes may not have been as random as my diagnosis – carried out under the NHS of the day – ultimately chose to conclude.

(The problem with paranoia, at the best of times, is that you never know if the people who walk behind you are following you – or “following” you …)

So fast-forward to now.  And we see, all of a sudden, a new challenge to our mental wellbeing: the EU/Google “right to be forgotten” story – pounding, as it is, on our virtual doors and castle gates.  Whilst the NSA/GCHQ/Microsoft nexus was bringing us – indeed, has finally brought to a whole society – a virtual paranoia about as real as earlier centuries’ individual manifestations of sadly dodgy mental health, so the EU – alongside, in this case, Google (all on its lonesome, as befits behemoths everywhere) – has brought us a virtual memory loss about as real as any an Alzheimer’s could physiologically impose on us.  As search engines have taken away our ability to remember stuff without their help, once in such a position they – and others, presumably – have conspired to kick away the stools we’re been so happy to sit tall on.

This is why the real challenges ahead don’t only lie in what they wish to do to the principles of a society caring societally for its most infirm members.  They also lie in what hugely untransparent and opaque structures like our security services and our largest corporations do to normalise such consequentially infirm behaviours: from the paranoia Snowden’s world generates and validates in us to the inability to remember history – and therefore our progress and its stumblings – accurately, it’s quite possible that both attitudes will, in the future, become embedded in our psyches without our even realising it; without our even having the distance to acknowledge what’s happening.

To summarise then, in a tweet I didn’t send but which did serve to spark this post:

Time to forget “right to be forgotten”: whilst NSA/GCHQ bring us virtual paranoia, EU/Google hasten virtual memory loss.
Freedom to confuse.

As the man says: the freedom to confuse.  What a gloriously democratic right that is indeed.  And how magnificently they are taking the opportunity to do so.


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Jul 042014
 
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One of the great things about being a member of a political party is that it teaches you patience, tolerance, understanding and charity.  One of the bad things is when you strongly disagree with the implementation of a fantastic idea, you can’t hold your tongue even as you know someone’ll want to give you a tremendous bollocking.

So what’s on my mind tonight?  Well.  This you see below is.  And it’s a classic example of a brilliant concept – unfortunately and miserably (and, what’s more, without an ounce of self-awareness) implemented about as idiotically as it could have been.

The Facebooking of Labour

Let’s look at the data that’s being asked for, and see how relevant, proportionate, focussed and appropriate it might be:

  1. DOB – not just year, mind, but day and month too
  2. Your first name – though some will surely enter both first and last names
  3. Your email – clearly a key piece of data in order to discover your NHS baby number (not)
  4. Your postcode – hmm, yep, that’s manifestly of incredible utility here

Then in small print (admittedly smaller in my screengrab than on the webpage itself, but small on the webpage too) we get the following statement: “Please note: your baby number is only our best estimate, using census data. We’re also assuming you’re one of the 97% of babies born on the NHS.”

Then in very small print: “The Labour Party and its elected representatives may contact you about issues we think you may be interested in or with campaign updates. You may unsubscribe at any point. You can see our privacy policy here.”  (By the by, the phrase “You can see our privacy policy here” is in standard blue hyperlink colour, but on a grey background and thus virtually impossible to read.  It does nevertheless go to a very complete and I’m sure decently compliant overview of Party procedures and IT policies.)

Anyhow.  Imagine this wasn’t a Labour Party page.  Imagine, instead, this was an angel-funded, heavily-breathing, start-up competitor to, for example, Facebook.  (Just to imagine the possibility is quite difficult, don’t you think?  Just imagining that Facebook could actually have a competitor is challenging.  A terrible sign of the times in itself.)  Or if not a competitor to Facebook, something more prosaically English: say, for example, a revitalised replacement to the NHS patient record #caredata project.  Something where you had to give your opinion on huge changes – but in order to do so, you had to go to a website which asked you to give up your age, name, email and postcode, in exchange for telling you when you were going to – oh, I dunno – run out of money to pay for your healthcare.

We’d be rightly horrified; terribly shocked.  But the Facebooking of Labour, of politics in general, is complete.  Yes.  I appreciate the driver behind the whole shenanigans is the need to generate desperately needed funds for the Party’s relatively depleted war chest.  And I understand the importance of creating a shared love of pragmatic English socialist projects like the NHS and Legal Aid, both of which have been deliberately hollowed out by the Tory Party’s ideologues over the past four years.  But it would have been far better to separate the two objectives: first, allow people with just a single piece of data – year of birth, maybe – to find out an approximate NHS baby number (it is, in any case, very approximate) – and create that buzz of historical sharing in such a proportionate way; second, move on to the next page where – less eagerly, less breathlessly – further contact information could be reasonably and honestly obtained.

Anything else to say?  Not really.  I’ll get a bollocking for this now – or, even worse, will just get ignored.  Meanwhile, people like this are getting stuff like this done to them.

And so this Facebooking – not just of Labour, of course, but of society too – continues enthusiastically apace.


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Jul 032014
 
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I posted this yesterday on the subject of the #FacebookExperiment scandal, quoting from a Cornell press release:

Because the research was conducted independently by Facebook and Professor Hancock had access only to results – and not to any individual, identifiable data at any time – Cornell University’s Institutional Review Board concluded that he was not directly engaged in human research and that no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required.

I then went on to conclude:

So, then, it’s OK to use research that has been obtained without permission from any source whatsoever, as long as one cannot identify the victims unwilling participants social network users in question – creatures, incidentally, who occupy the lowest of all low strata in the 21st century litany of unobserved rights and excessive obligations.

The thesis of my post was that Facebook was not just doing what other tech corps out there are doing – which is true – but that their behaviours in testing out “emotional contagion” in their users was very similar to what our Coalition government here in the UK has been doing since 2010:

And if the ICO feels that data protection laws may have been broken when Facebook experimented on the way that people reacted to negative and positive stories, without asking their permission first and even though they’d signed up to a wide-ranging set of T&Cs, who is to say this Coalition government didn’t similarly break human rights laws when they decided to experiment on how a nation might react to a barrage of false stories about immigrants “nicking” jobs, the “scrounging” poor, the “feckless” disabled and a well-packaged myriad of other lies, distortions and half-truths?

Today, Jay Rosen, writing in the Washington Post, adds a further twist to the resistance a whole host of people should feel with respect to this entire adventure, when he argues that the most culpable participants have been the universities themselves, for not observing the difference between “thin” and “thick” legitimacy:

Thin legitimacy is when the experiments conducted on human beings are: fully legal and completely normal, as in common practice across the industry, but there is no way to know if they are minimally ethical, because companies have no duty to think such matters through or share with us their methods.

Thick legitimacy: when experiments conducted on human beings are not only legal under U.S. law and common in practice but also attuned to the dark history of abuse in experimental situations and thus able to meet certain standards for transparency and ethical conduct— like, say, the American Psychological Association’s “informed consent” provision.

After having spoken to people who work in pharmaceuticals, I’m inclined more and more to believe that tech corps have shrugged off both thick and thin legitimacy in a way that, for example, the former sector usually finds very difficult to manage.  Perhaps the problem is the degree to which we’ve wanted to legislate data outwith the very specific field of medicine, as well as the wider issue of consent (whether spoken or unspoken) in general.

Ethical committees in a medical context are there to ensure two things: firstly, that people are protected in an informed way, and as much as is possible, from the potentially toxic side-effects of otherwise useful experiments; and secondly, that the experiments carried out are robustly designed and take full advantage of the opportunities to learn and develop understanding.  There’s no point in exposing people to the downsides of science if the options are not properly explored to ensure the upsides; if maximum advantage isn’t part of the gameplan.  And whilst we all understand why medical data should be collected, collated and handled with care (or at least we did before #caredata hit the screens), other kinds of data have seemed to slip through the net of our awareness and coherence.

So.  Perhaps we should forget the nature of the data and focus our attention, instead, on the simple quantity.  Given that, for example, a sufficiently clever and substantial collecting of metadata can say far more about what someone intends than a close line-by-line reading of the content it inscribes, I would suggest we stop defining when something requires thick legitimacy with respect to the degree of intimacy or fragility or sensitivity of the material in question, and started defining it in terms of how much we hold.  Big data means we can find out practically everything – assuming we have enough of it – from the virtual equivalent of rubbish bins strewn across the web.  It doesn’t need to be intimate or fragile or sensitive in itself to allow intimate or fragile or sensitive conclusions to be reached.

Thick legitimacy for everyone and everything above a certain size, then?  I think so.  A thick legitimacy which should imply the oversight of independent ethical committees – just as with pharmaceutical corps, just as with the medical sector – and which, as committees of the ethical and the proper, should know far more about the subject than a cack-handed PR awareness of the potential for reputational damage permits.


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