Oct 232012

I stumbled across 3D printers the other day whilst watching an episode of “QI”.  Stephen Fry demonstrated how an intricate moving object made of plastic had been printed using the technology in question.

At the time of writing this post, home versions of 3D printers may cost around $500 – though they can currently only print plastic objects.  Industrial and professional printers are obviously going to be more expensive, but they can print very many more materials.  And it does make me wonder what the implications are.

After all, anyone who could send a digitalised model of a real-world object from one computer to another, and then from the second connected to a 3D printer engineer it so that it printed out a stash of firearms, would surely be able to wreak havoc with the security of any community or state.

Couldn’t they end up eliminating the profession of smuggling altogether?  Who’d need to smuggle practically anything if metal objects, circuit boards and machine parts various could be whizzed across the world in bits and bytes, only to be reconstituted at the other end using a $500 printing machine?

And what would this mean for the sovereignty and imperviousness of our national borders?  How could the security services control such a technology so that localities weren’t turned upside down from the inside?  Unless, of course, the regimes of Internet oversight were as vigorous and awful as the various snoopers’ charters whizzing round the world’s secret treaty negotiations do seem to be proposing.

Maybe copyright isn’t the technology which is driving government snooping after all.  Maybe copyright is just smoke and mirrors.  Maybe the real threat to our society’s integrity – or, at least, what the security services fear – is this technology that turns virtual images into real and potentially dangerous objects.

You can just imagine the tabloid headlines: “Has your teenage son become a bedroom terrorist?” or “Do you know what he really does after dark?”.  It’s enough to scare anyone, contemplated thus; enough to terrify the least imaginative amongst us.

But if this is the case, what are the implications for our freedoms?  Under the guise of ensuring that musicians, writers and film-makers can continue to earn a gainful living, all kinds of oppressive bills have been proposed and almost imposed.  We need only remember the recent battles over SOPA and PIPA to realise that those in power may take any and every opportunity to restrict our freedoms to communicate and our rights to privacy, especially when such restrictions ensure they may earn a few extra dollars into the bargain.  So just imagine the field day they’ll have when they describe to a wider populace the consequences of technologies that allow terrorist organisations to transmit weapons from one side of the world to the other in a virtual second. Just imagine how they might convince whole societies to give up any right to any kind of privacy whatsoever.

Of course, those very same leaders and security services will also be able to do exactly the same on behalf of the good guys: no further need to physically parachute freedom-fighting arms into a remote valley when all you need is to get such defenders of liberty a satellite connection, a 3D printer and some boxes of innocuous “toner”.

The age-old story of the sword and the shield verily repeats itself, right?

Even so, I do wonder if we’re thinking this properly through.  For what will be the point of sovereign borders when we can smuggle 3D objects across the web?

Anyone got me an answer to that?

May 262012

This post from Google the other day leads us to fascinating data:

We believe that openness is crucial for the future of the Internet. When something gets in the way of the free flow of information, we believe there should be transparency around what that block might be.

So two years ago we launched the Transparency Report, showing when and what information is accessible on Google services around the world. We started off by sharing data about the government requests we receive to remove content from our services or for information about our users. Then we began showing traffic patterns to our services, highlighting when they’ve been disrupted.

This page, on government requests for user data, is most revealing for example.  Whilst in the first half of 2011 the US made 5,950 requests for user data, with an acceptance rate by Google of 93 percent and a user/account total of 11,057, the United Kingdom made 1,279 requests in the same period, and of 1,444 users/accounts – requests which Google granted in 63 percent of cases.

A couple of observations.  Firstly, population-wise and comparatively speaking, the number of requests the US and UK made in the aforementioned period is very similar.  Secondly, it would appear that Google – an American company – has a significant bias towards accepting requests from the US government compared to, in this case, the UK.

But although the trends towards more requests for user and account data are showing a worrying increase, in reality what should really worry us is the data Google provides in relation to removal of websites from its search engine.  The public provision of data relating to the latter is, as Google underlines, recent:

Today we’re expanding the Transparency Report with a new section on copyright. Specifically, we’re disclosing the number of requests we get from copyright owners (and the organizations that represent them) to remove Google Search results because they allegedly link to infringing content. We’re starting with search because we remove more results in response to copyright removal notices than for any other reason. […]

And the figures for such removals?  Well, they’re quite startling – shocking one might even be inclined to say.  At the time of writing this post, and in the past month, over a million requests have been made to remove webpage addresses from Google’s search.  Interestingly, one of the major technology companies – Microsoft – heads the list with over half a million addresses it or its representatives claim infringe content which it holds copyrights on.

My conclusions?  It hardly seems necessary for us to worry about ACTA or SOPA any more.  If so many powerful organisations can remove websites from Google’s search by simply making one of a million other monthly requests, the invisibility cloak this drops over anyone trying to get their voice heard could – in other quite different circumstances – be easily stifled and eliminated.

Powerful voices are made powerful because they are heard.  Removal from a private monopolistic search service like Google’s is a tool those in charge could easily begin to employ – without resorting to the courts – to ensure a certain way of seeing and doing held sway.

Requesting that someone become invisible on Google’s web is these days to allow the option for a de facto censorship.  Another example of how Western governments could now be preparing the ground for private industry to do their social-media and citizen-sourced “communication smothering” without due and proper judicial process?

For this is, in fact, one way that fascism may creep in to democracy: when governments allow private corporate figures – outside due legal process – to determine who may speak, who may debate, who may exchange ideas and who may publish.

As well as who may not do all the aforementioned.

Dangerous shiny times, this consumerism which superficially entrances so.

These are not free times we live in – but fearful.  This is not an open web we have but Google’s own private playground.

Facebook is not the enemy but a response.  Half-baked at that, it would seem from the latest news.  Meanwhile, the real cause of all our miseries lies clearly elsewhere.

And it begins with what has become our favourite cloak engine!

Apr 272012

Lawrence Lessig famously stated that “code is law”:

The primary idea, as expressed in the title, is the notion that computer code (or “West Coast Code”, referring to Silicon Valley) may regulate conduct in much the same way that legal code (or “East Coast Code”, referring to Washington, D.C.) does.[2] More generally, Lessig argues that there are actually four major regulators — Law, Norms, Market, Architecture — each of which has a profound impact on society and whose implications must be considered.

In a sense, then, the pincer movement is utterly complete.  Whilst a parliament of lawyers is taken over by a posse of businesspeople, exerting undue influence over our democracy, from the other side – the side of coders and software architects everywhere (and by everywhere I mean Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter; as well as, even, I have to say, open source projects such as Mozilla, LibreOffice and WordPress itself) – our behaviours, our attitudes, what we can do or not do with our possessions, what we can say, how we say it, the kinds of things that strike at the very heart of our economies and define what we are as human beings … all the above is equally structured by people who run transnational behemoths for the benefit of certain ways of seeing or doing.

Now I’m not, for the moment, passing judgement on those mindsets in question.  All I’m saying is that to date our society – our democracy – has been based on the rule of law as defined by lawyers.  Our parliaments are stuffed full of ex- or practising lawyers; our politicos all speaking with the care and general prevision of those who might avoid a future trap cleverly set by an ever-watchful media class.

But if what Lessig has sustained for quite a while now is in any way true, the kind of profession which dominates our democracy is entirely the wrong one for our times.  If more law is being made in the online constitutions we now all operate under for our communication, peer-to-peer exchanges, commerce and gaming than is being made in our parliaments, surely we need a parliament stuffed with those who understand the new tools.

Otherwise, we depend on the good faith of people working behind closed corporate doors to create online and connected offline worlds with a sensibility and sensitivity to the needs of a wider democracy.

The current situation is, in fact, as follows: it’s as if we had a civilisation where the more money and wealth you had, the more right you had to tell citizens what to do.

Which surely can’t be the case.

Can it?

The solution then?  As per the title of this post: we need a parliament not of lawyers – or not only of lawyers – but, rather, more importantly, of coders and software engineers.  Only then will we be able to not just track the changes in technology that take place and their impact on our societies but also implement and engage from the very beginning a wider citizenship in democratic debate.

We need a new and parallel parliament – parallel, at least, to start out with – which writes the rules of how we should act and behave through software code itself.  Much as books, as core repositories of information, have developed into films and latterday websites, so the legal code which once ruled our civilisations is giving way to billions of lines of software.

Any legal professional worth his or her virtual salt must understand the implications.

Any political professional who cares about democracy must accept that patching up 19th century code, as SOPA, PIPA and ACTA have tried to do, is simply going about the job to hand in a totally inappropriate way.  We’ve been creating the software tools and their permissions and ways of seeing and doing before typing their rights and responsibilities in the legal parliamentary code of old.  Inevitably, if we choose to act thus we are going to fail miserably.

We are buying the horse blindfold, without examining its mouth before it’s too late.

We need to start at the beginning of the process; not come in way beyond the end of its implementation.

What needs sorting – and opening up to public scrutiny – are the software constitutions themselves.  It’s not open government we need any more but an engagement of end-users – let’s call them virtual voters – before software code is written and implemented; before it impacts on our societies.

It’s not open source code we need to promote (though that, of course, is virtuous) so much as open source process.

Not open government but the kind of open Internet we still have not seen.

A parliament of societally focussed coders, then – able to communicate and liaise with the above-mentioned virtual voters?

Why not?

Apr 182012

Ever wondered how those conflicted confusions of politicos with vested interests might already be affecting our democracy?  Whilst Éoin speaks of “sleeper cells” in Clinical Commissioning Groups throughout the NHS, and expresses his unhappiness with great precision, the US has had a rather longer history of such organised pork-barrel politics.  Which does, in fact, give them an advantage in some matters as the Internet’s myriad of tools allows the people in some way to strike back.

This, then, in my opinion anyhow, really does deserve to be imported from the States.  More about it here and reproduced in full below:


I launched Sopatrack in late December, 2011. At the time, SOPA and PIPA were being rushed through Congress without public debate. There was major, one-sided funding for these issues, and it was alarming how much traction that could get.

Sopatrack had a few goals:

  1. Help voters find their local congresspeople on any connected device
  2. Allow voters to contact their members of Congress by phone or social networking site
  3. Show whether a congressperson supported or opposed this issue
  4. Show how much money the congressperson raised both for and against SOPA/PIPA

The site was immediately popular, with lots of press coverage including The Atlantic, Mashable, Lifehacker, and Hacker News. Twitter, Facebook, and Google drove the majority of the traffic, which peaked at over 40,000 unique daily visitors on key days around the issues.

The wider internet community also rose up, and Congress eventually tabled these bills. Great sites like SOPA Opera were developed, and ultimately Google, Wikipedia, and Reddit staged major actions so that their users would understand the issue. The resources of SunlightLabs, MapLight, and OpenSecrets were hugely helpful to developers and voters.

But there was still more data on other bills, and I wondered what Sopatrack would look like if automatically applied to all bills.

And so it is that we get the new Sopatrack:

How does Fundraising Impact Congress?

The new Sopatrack has the same goals as the original, except that it will work across all bills in the 112th Congress with contribution data from MapLight. Since there’s more data across more issues, the site also tracks how often a congressperson votes on the side of the greater contributions. Individual positions on pre-vote issues will not be tracked.

The votes with the money percentage is also applied to each state for all their congresspeople, and to all Congress.

A brilliant use of public data: follow the people who follow the money, analyse how this affects the way they vote – and make the information available to everyone.  With such a simple and manifestly open system as this, we don’t need to ban lobbyists; we don’t need to pass legislation; we don’t need – a priori – the politicians to change anything they’re already doing right now.  All we need to do is harness a kind of consumer value-for-money instinct and give the voters the data they need to decide on their lonesomes who should deserve our approval and who our disapprobation.

And if shame doesn’t change how politics is conducted, datasets such as these will surely have some sort of beneficial impact in other ways with an evermore tech-savvy public.

As I suggested recently in relation to political funding, approaches which pull together disparate but publicly available information – and then disseminate equally publicly this information about how our politicians and their supporters behave – might have more chances of changing cultures than self-administered and half-hearted patches to the weary body politic; patches which, in any case, the politicians will always find a way of working around and undermining.

If the latest memes and buzzwords in social media involve using the Twitter firehose and similar sets of information to analyse the voting public into submission, why not turn the tables on the politicians and their marketers and use the same tools to analyse the latter into acquiring good and democratic behaviours?

In the light of reports such as Éoin’s tonight, it’s high time we considered doing something similar to Sopatrack here in Britain.

Anyone up for it?

That is to say, anyone up for saving our democracy from the people who follow the money instead of our interests?

Apr 182012

For those of you who live in the UK and are affected by its legislation, the Open Rights Group – of which I am a recent member – has just published this briefing page on what the government most likely is planning for our web.

First, because I think such information generally informs people’s wider prejudices about the Internet, here are some stats pulled from the briefing on what people think the web means for children:

Key facts

  • One quarter of UK 9-16 year olds say that they have seen sexual images in the past 12 months, whether online or offline. 11% encountered sexual images online. (See Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., and Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the UK report. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. p. 8-9)
  • “…overall, most children have not experienced sexual images online and, even of those who have, most say they were not bothered or upset by them”. (See Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., and Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the UK report. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. p. 8-9)
  • 24% of those who said they had seen sexual images online, or 3% of all the children surveyed, claimed they were upset or bothered by something they had seen. (See Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., and Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the UK report. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. p. 8-9)
  • 23 per cent of parents think it likely that their child will experience something that bothers them online in the next six months. (See The Bailey Review, page 36)
  • Ofcom found that in 2010, 26% of parents were very or fairly concerned about the content of websites their children were visiting. (UK Children’s Media Literacy, Ofcom, 2011, p. 66)

A pretty damning set of stats I might say – if, that is, sexual imagery is a particular issue for you in relation to how our kids are supposedly using the web.  Two things here: first, the real world presents its own challenges on this matter – the sexual imagery which is present in the music industry, for example, can often go beyond a similar pale and make us wonder if everything is as it should be; and second, the suspicion will always exist that the above – whilst covering important and key matters for our younger citizens – will be used and even exploited by governments and big business to make access to the Internet more convenient for their rather more closed interests.

On the wider issues of Internet freedom and innovation, then, here we have a couple of paragraphs on what ORG judges the government’s approach might lead to:

The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, noted (page 8) last year that restrictions on access to information can have a ““chilling effect” on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Without adequate safeguards, handing powers over what information people can access, or over the visibility of certain kinds of information, inevitably opens the door to censorship, either through mistakes or abuse.

Overall, we are concerned that powers that DCMS will propose in the forthcoming Green Paper to restrict access to information are being given away too cheaply. The result is a suite of proposals that will likely damage the Internet as a tool for the promotion of freedom of expression and innovation through fair and open markets.

Something I’d be inclined to agree with one hundred percent.

Meanwhile, and as a footnote to what is now an ongoing debate, I’d just like to underline that the reason I think we have the web we have is because, quite simply, we don’t have the democracy we deserve.  Some examples to follow, then, so you can see what I mean:

  1. If it’s too easy to access sex online, if the demand in itself exists, in part it’s because first-time sexual “experiences” offline – the music industry stuff I mention above, for example – is as teasingly bent out of shape as it could be.  Get it right in an offline context, with proper and sensitive education, and you might find the subject came out of the underground the web currently seems to so delight in positioning it.
  2. If it’s too easy to access illegal music online, it’s because right at the beginning of digital music the industry itself failed to move with the needs of the market – they felt that they could continue to run their traditionally massive overheads and generate waste on an industrial scale just as generations already did previously.
  3. If it’s too easy to access news and journalistic endeavour online, and we discover we can’t fund the mainstream media we supposedly deserve, it’s because offline for far too long it’s been a privileged medium where those in the know often tend to protect those who keep them in the know.  We’ve simply lost interest in listening to the clever bods who play with our interests – far better a Web 2.0 experience where we speak to our peers and can at least suss out the fakes before they get too big and important.
  4. If it’s too easy to access general knowledge in the form of digital encyclopaedias, it’s because Microsoft – of all companies – failed to see the virtues of getting users truly involved and crowdsourcing the future generations of content.

If we have the web we currently have, it’s because the society we should be able to fashion – a modern, democratic and freely discursive 21st century ecosystem of connected voters and legitimate business interests – just simply isn’t getting there at all.

If we have the web we currently have, it’s because the real-world alternative is so damningly corrupt and unfree.

And if they’re now trying to take away from us the web we’ve achieved to date, it’s precisely because they understand that – in truth – for every excess that now takes place on the Internet, a man or woman or corporation has taken the wrong path in offline endeavour.

Why do we have the web we have?  Because those of you who run the real world have made such a mess of what could’ve been a real journey of discovery!  The web we have isn’t in its natural state – it’s reacting violently as a corrective to a sequence of violences committed by those who prefer to impose, on this Planet Earth, their anti-democratic ways of doing.

That, my dear friends, is why we have the web we have.  And in order to properly sort it, we first need to properly sort the real world which has caused it.

Not patch, flailingly and foolishly, the technology that simply reflects our own grubby visages.

For that really would be a churlish – as well as childish – act of uncommon vengeance.

Feb 112012

As I logged onto Twitter an hour ago, a long line of tweets came my way in which I had been included in the early hours of this morning.  Brian started the ball rolling by linking to a post of mine on the subject of what I tentatively called the “Big Agreement” – where a new contract would be drawn up between interested parties on what to do about both the “Big State” and “Big Capitalism”, neither of which were appearing to be especially relevant to a 21st century society with evermore devolving instincts.

The final tweet in the line of tweets in question was this one from Frances Coppola:

@brianfmoylan @eiohel @legalaware Big Society, Big State, Big Corporates, Big Capitalism….big is the problem

Now whilst I am inclined instinctively to agree, I do wonder if the problem is size or – on the other hand – behaviours.  After all, we do have a perfect paradigm of vastness in 21st century life which actually behaves like very small: here, I refer, of course, to the Internet and its various bits and bobs.  In essence – with its billions of pages of data and interactivity, its millions of connected servers and its ability to find and remember what’s relevant and apposite – it both acts like a human brain on a very discrete scale as well as performing the tasks of a globalised entity.

Very big then – or very small?

I’m inclined to believe it is both.

I’m not sure, therefore, that Frances is right to assume big can never act small for all our benefits.  In reality, the very fact that so much of modern lawyerly energy is being expended on trying to shoehorn the current web and Internet into the traditional business models of content industries across the world is a clear indication that the aforementioned elements of virtual communication are currently big enough to attract the attention of these corporate behemoths – but too small in some aspect or another for them to be able to fully trust the selfsame Internet’s ways of seeing and doing.

So it is that I might argue we need to examine how the web and the Internet manage to carry off this wonderful sleight of hand with such apparent aplomb.

For the experience such behaviours provide us with is surely applicable to other areas of human endeavour.

And, if only we were able to stand back and analyse with intelligence, we might take advantage greatly of such clear examples of overwhelming achievement – as we continue to strive to create more responsive public and private sectors.

Feb 072012

There’s a fascinating thesis over at opensource.com at the moment, which essentially argues that both SOPA and PIPA were fundamentally broken from the start.  Worth a read in its entirety, the conclusion of this post runs as follows (the bold is mine):

Copyright and trademark are very different. They are wrongfully placed under the same umbrella of “intellectual property” when they have nothing in common. They are authorized by different parts of the Constitution – the Copyright and Patent Clause for copyright (“The Congress shall have power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”), and the Commerce Clause for trademark (“The Congress shall have power … To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes”). They protect different interests – intellectual creation on the part of copyright and fair trade on the part of trademark. And so they never should have been in the same bill; the two areas of law are not bedfellows. But the manufacturing industry threw in its lot with the content industry and lost.

It’s an attractive idea – and, in its simplicity, perhaps provides a way forward for all sides in the debate.

Let’s take a Hollywood-like process to illuminate.  In the art that is screenwriting – an apposite example for reasons I shall shortly explain – confusion and writerly pain generally arise from a lack of properly worked-through structure: the foundations are poorly devised and so nothing builds easily.

Perhaps we could say exactly the same of lawmaking: a law, after all, is a script which – once fashioned – we as a society are supposed to follow in all good faith.

The big content industries might yet care to take an arrow out of their own swashbuckling quivers here.

Good structure, my dear souls.  Good structure is what we need.

As well as that editorial wisdom of yore.

Jan 312012
Wikipedia Commons

“¡El capitalismo es la leche, joder!” as the Spanish might say.  Loosely translated this might mean: “Capitalism is fucking amazing!”  And not in a necessarily complimentary sense …

James has the publishing industry’s very own version in his crosshairs this week:

Although documenting Stalinism, the lessons in Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four could apply equally to copyright and intellectual property.

Like Animalism, copyright is a system that should protect all creators.  But, as in Animal Farm, the pigs of the publishing industry – the ones who decide the rules amongst themselves – are running the farm for their own ends.

Moving on to Nineteen Eighty Four, a system designed for common social good can only be enforced with a policeman – in the form of Big Brother – in every home, street corner and gymnasium.

In an era where very low barriers to self-publishing make us all both copyright owners and capable of serious infringement, fundamental questions about enforceability and proportionality are being raised.

Will a system of copyright which attempts to detect and punish every minor infringement ever work? At least not without the threat of disproportionate punishment alongside the ability of Big Brother to monitor every web server, internet connection and home computer.

James’s post deserves to be read in full by everyone unhappy about SOPA, PIPA and now ACTA – amongst other pieces of draconian legislation currently being forced both on countries around the globe and very much behind the scenes.  The real issue here, then, is how our democracies are being circumvented – essentially, I suppose, because the voting publics of these democracies are composed of very many infringers of copyright, infringers who have so grown up in an environment of such casual law-breaking that they would probably consider what they do to be a generational norm.

As a result, those who would like copyright to be exerted more firmly simply do not trust democracies to be able to deliver on their expectations.  For the content industries, the people are unhappily both their nadir and their potential salvation.

A psychologically complex place for a powerful sector to find itself so demonstrably in.  “We need you,” they’re admitting, “but neither as you are – nor just yet.”

Clearly, if you are starting out and have a book or film to sell, you need to recover your investment.  You need to make a living.  But whilst it’s one mighty step for an eager and enthusiastic new self-publisher to require a value-adding platform such as Amazon’s Kindle, it’s quite another for an established and dinosaur-like business structure to decide it has the right to covertly change – behind democracy’s discourse – the rules of something as strategic as the worldwide web before the processes of its very own business model.

Instead of attempting to circumvent democracy, the content industry should surely try and circumvent the worldwide web.  Not by detonating what it does but – simply – by refusing to use it.  Not use it themselves.  Not tease us with their porous paywalls.  Not play silly games as they attempt to gain our dollars.

That’s all just fiddling around with an existing way of doing business – without caring to innovate in the least.

That’s all just lazy.

That’s all so 19th century.

For Pete’s sake, if you don’t want to get your tootsies cold, don’t dip them in the ocean.

So why not just leave the worldwide web for the producer-consumers amongst us – and let us consume and produce our own content to our virtual heart’s content?

And, meanwhile, use the infrastructures of the Internet itself to set up parallel systems of distribution and monetisation which fit your goals for the future.


As a final – perhaps dramatic – thought: how about we decide – as a society, democracy and global community – that, once such reasonably watertight systems of distribution and monetisation are in place, everything which can currently be found on the web enters an automatic public domain?

An intellectual property amnesty, if you like.

Draw a line under all infringement; draw a line under all our complaints about the shrinking public domain; draw a line under all our potshots at lazy cash-cow industries; draw a line under content confrontation …

Decide, instead, to turn over a page in the historic battle between traditional producers and those consumers who would mimic them – and start from the boldest scratch in publishing history.

After all, in a globalising world, it’s not only time we liberated capital’s right to go wherever it should choose but also, far more importantly, especially in a democratic context, producers’ rights to decide how, where and when they might both produce and deliver their content – whether this be rather more traditionally, as in the US film industry, or as part of the more amateur and widespread generation of latterday producer-consumers.

Those who make massive investments in content and creativity do, of course, deserve a commensurate return.  But in their desire to assure that return, they do not – in the 21st century – have the right to erect barricades to entry which once inevitably existed for technological reasons … but do not have to exist any more.

And in the absence of such technological barriers, they should most certainly not be allowed to get away with using the law to prevent the wider progress of that grandeur under discussion today – that is to say, that socialised human imagination.

Jan 302012

I’ve just received this email from Avaaz.org – it’s well worth a read as it highlights how large corporations and wealthy interests continue to try and game the free markets and our wider economies in their favour:

Dear friends,

A new global treaty could allow corporations to police everything that we do on the Internet. Last week 3 million of us successfully pushed back the US censorship bills — if we act now, we can get the EU Parliament to bury this new threat to all of us: 

Last week, 3 million of us beat back America’s attack on our Internet! — but there is an even bigger threat out there, and our global movement for freedom online is perfectly poised to kill it for good.

ACTA — a global treaty — could allow corporations to censor the Internet. Negotiated in secret by a small number of rich countries and corporate powers, it would set up a shadowy new anti-counterfeiting body to allow private interests to police everything that we do online and impose massive penalties — even prison sentences — against people they say have harmed their business.

Europe is deciding right now whether to ratify ACTA — and without them, this global attack on Internet freedom will collapse. We know they have opposed ACTA before, but some members of Parliament are wavering — let’s give them the push they need to reject the treaty. Sign the petition — we’ll do a spectacular delivery in Brussels when we reach 500,000 signatures:


It’s outrageous — governments of four-fifths of the world’s people were excluded from the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiations and unelected bureaucrats have worked closely with corporate lobbyists to craft new rules and a dangerously powerful enforcement regime. ACTA would initially cover the US, EU and 9 other countries, then be rolled out across the world. But if we can get the EU to say no now, the treaty will lose momentum and could stall for good.

The oppressively strict regulations could mean people everywhere are punished for simple acts such as sharing a newspaper article or uploading a video of a party where copyrighted music is played. Sold as a trade agreement to protect copyrights, ACTA could also ban lifesaving generic drugs and threaten local farmers’ access to the seeds they need. And, amazingly, the ACTA committee will have carte blanche to change its own rules and sanctions with no democratic scrutiny.

Big corporate interests are pushing hard for this, but the EU Parliament stands in the way. Let’s send a loud call to Parliamentarians to face down the lobbies and stand firm for Internet freedom. Sign now and send to everyone you know:


Last week, we saw the strength of our collective power when millions of us joined forces to stop the US from passing an Internet censorship law that would have struck at the heart of the Internet. We also showed the world how powerful our voices can be. Let’s raise them again to tackle this new threat.

With hope and determination,

Dalia, Alice, Pascal, Emma, Ricken, Maria Paz and the rest of the Avaaz team

More information:

European Parliament member resigns in ACTA protest

If You Thought SOPA Was Bad, Just Wait Until You Meet ACTA

ACTA vs. SOPA: Five Reasons ACTA is Scarier Threat to Internet Freedom

What’s Wrong With ACTA

The secret treaty: Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and Its Impact on Access to Medicines

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Jan 212012

Louis quite rightly defines the forked paths ahead of us thus:

So the question is this:

* A lifetime of licenses routinized into the cost of living, and invisible in the enormous harm such a licensed life would put in play if only by suturing close the possibilities of having it some other way; or

* A lifetime open to innovation, collaboration, production unencircumscribed by closed licenses; markets would be built and profits made on the merit of one’s work and not on the right to work itself.

It seems to me that with the traditional content industries’ massive desire to make copyright a tool for guaranteeing enormous cashflow without further creative effort – that is to say, without further artistic creative effort (for marketing tricks and discourses these moguls will always value and understand) – we are running the serious risk in our Western civilisations (and wherever their values manage to prevail) of destroying the very right to artistic creation itself.

Just imagine if versions of SOPA and PIPA finally get through, sanctioning the right of one discourse and society – the US capitalist cash-cow industrial model – to decide who sees what, where and when, as well as for how much and how often.  With the vast quantities out there of already existing and licensed content, who needs new ground-breaking applecart-upturning ways of looking at the world?

The grand paradox of the traditional content industries since time immemorial (and certainly since Hollywood’s inception) has been how they required of their artists an anti-artistic series of behaviours.  Thus it is we could argue that finally working out how to censor the Internet’s flow and exchange of information is nothing more nor less than an easy but unhappy return to a previous age: a Hays Code for our time.

It may be that history will teach us that the progress we thought was being achieved via virtual freedoms was actually a simple parenthesis between the instincts of the 1930s and the beginning of this fearful 21st century, where an openness to new ideas – and an inability to properly sustain the existing order – are taken as signs of a dangerous unpredictability which could serve to shake the very foundations of our societies, instead of a source of brilliant imagination and game-changing thought which – to the benefit of us all – could totally alter our future socioeconomic growth and development.

Proprietary cash cows which see creativity mainly in terms of repackaging and marketing existing material – or fleet-of-foot online and offline nexuses of real artistic endeavour?  That is the crossroads we find ourselves at.  And the stakes are far higher than simply a matter of whether the traditional content industries manage to reimpose far more forcefully a tired business model which – over the last decade – was clearly losing traction. 

I would, in fact, posit that we run the risk of losing the very environments, conditions, instincts and impulses which would allow for future art itself – or, at least, future art as we have understood the concept to date.

A world without art then? 

Or, at least, a world with only a marketable, packageable and securely licensable history of art – but no possibility any more of a confident future of mould-breaking innovation?

One step too far in my train of thought?  It might all be closer than you think …

Jan 182012

Compare and contrast the following two positions.  First, from Rupert Murdoch’s editors at the Times and Sunday Times, giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry:

The editors of the News International-owned Times and Sunday Times have told the Leveson inquiry they were implacably opposed to any form of statutory regulation of newspapers because of the “chilling effect” it may have on the press.

The editor of the Sunday Times even goes so far as to say:

[…] he would have “very serious doubts about some sort of statutory body that’s been set up by parliament” because he thinks further down the line “politicians would be tempted to intervene”.

So statutory regulation, for Mr Murdoch’s editors – and presumably Mr Murdoch himself – is quite out of order.

I agree too.

However, Mr Murdoch – himself – doesn’t seem to entirely agree with himself.  At least, not in a slightly different context.  Witness this story from last year on the subject of his very personal support in favour of far-reaching legislation – SOPA and PIPA – to control what is published, where and how on the worldwide web:

News Corp. honcho Rupert Murdoch threw his weight behind Congress’ attempt to restrict the Internet, personally lobbying leaders on Capitol Hill Wednesday for two measures that purport to combat piracy.

The implications of SOPA and PIPA – if you’re not entirely aware – are summarised at EFF’s site here:

In addition to going after websites allegedly directly involved in copyright infringement, a proposal in SOPA will allow the government to target sites that simply provide information that could help users get around the bills’ censorship mechanisms. Such a provision would not only amount to an unconstitutional prior restraint against protected speech, but would severely damage online innovation. And contrary to claims by SOPA’s supporters, this provision—at least what’s been proposed so far—applies to all websites, even those in the U.S.

As First Amendment expert Marvin Ammori points out, “The language is pretty vague, but it appears all these companies must monitor their sites for anti-circumvention so they are not subject to court actions ‘enjoining’ them from continuing to provide ‘such product or service.’” That means social media sites like Facebook or YouTube—basically any site with user generated content—would have to police their own sites, forcing huge liability costs onto countless Internet companies. This is exactly why venture capitalists have said en masse they won’t invest in online startups if PIPA and SOPA pass. Websites would be forced to block anything from a user post about browser add-ons like DeSopa, to a simple list of IP addresses of already-blocked sites.

Perhaps worse, EFF has detailed how this provision would also decimate the open source software community. Anyone who writes or distributes Virtual Private Network, proxy, privacy or anonymization software would be negatively affected. This includes organizations that are funded by the State Department to create circumvention software to help democratic activists get around authoritarian regimes’ online censorship mechanisms. Ironically, SOPA would not only institute the same practices as these regimes, but would essentially outlaw the tools used by activists to circumvent censorship in countries like Iran and China as well.

So.  On the one hand, in Britain, in the context of the printed press, Mr Murdoch is right about state regulation.  Such regulation would inevitably lead, at some time in the future, to governments and individual politicians spreading out from such legislative “beachheads” – as they took lazy intellectual and strategic advantage of the opportunities thus presented.

On the other hand, however, as his adventures in MySpace and other online ventures have indicated, his knowledge and intuitive understanding of the ways of the worldwide web leave much to be desired:

Many questions and jokes about My Space.simple answer – we screwed up in every way possible, learned lots of valuable expensive lessons.

And, unfortunately, the primary lesson he seems to have learned is that whilst the package that is politicians, governments and state regulation is indisputably bad – phone-hacking, Leveson and bizarre print media behaviours notwithstanding – it would seem that he thinks the package that is private businesspeople, content corporations, the Internet and the once again aforementioned thorny state regulation – in the form of massively invasive new laws which give a potentially total control to put the shutters down on freedom of speech everywhere – is actually really rather a jolly good idea.

That is to say, whilst it’s bad to pass laws politicians and governments might be tempted to use for their own benefit in an industry which is dying, it’s fine to pass laws businesspeople and corporations are aiming to use for their own benefit in an industry which is on the point of flourishing like no other.

Talk about pork-barrel politics.  These businesspeople appear to have absolutely no shame whatsoever.

Dec 312011

This came my way via Charlie on Facebook yesterday:

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, after thirty years of silence, authors of a standard clinical psychiatric bedside test have issued take down orders of new medical research. Doctors who use copies of the bedside test which will have been printed in some of their oldest medical textbooks are liable to be sued for up to $150,000. […]

That is to say, after a third of a century of silence, someone has responded to legal advice and decided they’d like to take a whole profession to the cleaners for using a medical checklist to assess the mental health of its patients.

The result?

This news is highly relevant in light of the ongoing SOPA scandal that is currently threatening the internet as we know it. Many fail to realise that copyright is valid 70 years after the death of the author and up to 120 years after the creation of the work. The use of copyright law to prevent the clinical use of medical tests and to prevent new medical tests being developed is something many of us would only expect to really happen in dystopian fiction. The fact of the matter is that it is happening in real life.

This, then, is truly an example of how copyright can (really) damage your health.  And if every time I mention the term you decide (as the stats would seem to indicate) to turn off – as if the matter had little to do with your real-life existences – I suggest you keep today’s post close to your heart for when you might dust it off the next time I bring the matter to your attention.

Copyright shouldn’t be so important, it is true.  But wicked men and women are abusing its power to make sitting on piles of cash an easier objective to achieve.

And whether this is at the cost of freedom of speech on the Internet or – alternatively – the mental wellbeing of millions of patients across the world, they care very little for the consequences on the rest of society as they proceed to gather together and concentrate more and more of our finite resources for their own individual benefit.