09 December 2010

Strangely Directed Argument of the Day

From a BBC story about the DDoS attacks on organisations withdrawing services from Wikileaks:
Carole Thierault, a security researcher at Sophos, warned against getting involved with the Anonymous campaign.

...

Ms Thierault said downloading and installing the LOIC attack tool was very risky.

"No-one should download unknown code on to their system," she said. "You're giving access to your computer to a complete stranger."
In general, it's a good point.  At the most basic level of computing, if your machine is running a Microsoft or Apple operating system, you've no way of knowing exactly what the code you've got installed is doing.  It's an argument that can be applied to most software that you might go out and buy.  The one type of software it can't be applied to is free and open source software, which is precisely what LOIC is.

17 November 2010

Not Necessarily...

From the BBC:
Culture minister Ed Vaizey has backed a "two-speed" internet, letting service providers charge content makers and customers for "fast lane" access.

It paves the way for an end to "net neutrality" - with heavy bandwidth users like Google and the BBC likely to face a bill for the pipes they use.
Why do so many journalists automatically assume that the internet will operate the opposite way to every other information transmission mechanism, where the broadcaster generally pays the content producer, not the other way around?

Musicians don't usually pay radio stations for playing their songs; the cash generally flows the other way.  Likewise with TV broadcasts.

In order to attract customers in the suggested landscape, ISPs would have to offer quality access to sites that people want to use.  I just don't see it being feasible for ISPs to threaten to hobble or block YouTube unless Google hand over cash, when Google know full well that people who want to use YouTube would just switch to other ISPs.

27 October 2010

Pope Pirate the First

He's possibly not the first person you'd expect to be speaking out against the current scope and trends in intellectual monopolies, but the pope has done just that:
on the part of rich countries there is excessive zeal for protecting knowledge through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property

20 October 2010

Really, Mr Jobs?

Steve Jobs, as reported by the BBC:
The customers, he said, just wanted something that worked and he was confident that this approach would triumph over the "mess" that was Android's multiple variants and different app stores.

The idea that somebody would buy an Apple product because it's a good option for somebody who just wants something that works, is, in my experience, laughable.  Let me give you a little comparison, Steve.  Here was my experience with my Android phone:
  • I received the phone in the post.
  • I took it out of the box.
  • I charged it.
  • I switched it on.
  • It "just worked".  It "just worked" incredibly well.  I moved my contacts over by bluetooth.  I connected it to my laptop as a standard drive and dragged and dropped my music and other files to it.
By comparison, here is the experience that somebody in the same position as me had with an iPhone:
  • Receive the phone in the post.
  • Take it out of the box.
  • Charge it.
  • Switch it on.
  • Find out that it refuses to work until it is connected to iTunes.
  • Borrow a friend's PC, because there is no way to get the phone operational with your Ubuntu Linux laptop.
  • Get phone working.
  • Phone crashes.
  • Go round to friend's house again.
  • Get phone working again.
Now, the iPhone set-up may have changed in the latest version.  It might now be possible to get it working without the use of a separate piece of equipment.  I don't know because I had no desire to risk it when I got my latest phone.  I wanted a phone that "just worked" and in my experience, an Android phone fits the bill far better than an iPhone.

18 October 2010

Free markets according to Monbiot

George Monbiot has an annoying habit of highlighting interesting facts, then completely misinterpreting them.  The latest example is his piece on the bonfire of the quangos.  In commenting on the failure to abolish, amongst others, the Commonwealth Development Corporation, Export Credit Guarantee Department and Sea Fish Industry Authority, he, quite reasonably in my opinion, says:
Can you see the pattern yet? Public bodies whose purpose is to hold corporations to account are being swept away. Public bodies whose purpose is to help boost corporate profits, regardless of the consequences for people and the environment, have sailed through unharmed
It is, of course, an example of what states, of all shades, will almost always do - provide privileges for their cronies and sponsors.  Unfortunately, Monbiot doesn't quite see it that way:
The government’s programme of cuts looks like a classic example of disaster capitalism: using a crisis to re-shape the economy in the interests of business.

In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein shows how disaster capitalism was conceived by the extreme neoliberals at the University of Chicago. These people believed that the public sphere should be eliminated, that business should be free to do as it wants, and almost all tax and social spending should be stopped. They believed that total personal freedom in a completely free market produces a perfect economy and perfect relationships
Put the two comments together and you can see that they are contradictory cack.  If this government were really an example of people working to eliminate the public sphere, they wouldn't have left the pile of qangos that Monbiot highlighted, they would have got rid of those too; otherwise, it isn't an example of eliminating the power of the state, but redirecting it to serve a different set of rent-seekers.  Similarly, siphoning off large wedges of taxpayers' cash to favoured groups isn't an obvious example of a desire to eliminate almost all tax.

The most ridiculous element is the use of the term "free market" in the context of a situation which is anything but.  A free market would be characterised by wealth transfers occurring purely by consent of all parties, yet in Monbiot world, the state taking substantial tax revenues from the general public and then dishing them out to a handful of corporates is somehow interpreted as being an example of the free market in full flow.

It's pure doublethink and it's embarrassing.

06 October 2010

The Evil Pointlessness of RIPA

As reported in the BBC, a 19 year old man has been sentenced to 16 weeks in prison for refusing to decrypt files on his computer.

From any legitimate perspective, it is a pointless approach. If somebody refuses to decrypt files because the material is perfectly legitimate but highly personal, such a sentence is an immoral attack on somebody attempting to defend their privacy. If somebody refuses to decrypt files because the material is evidence of serious criminal activity, the sentence serves no real purpose, as it's still preferable to disclosing the material and receiving a much higher sentence.

The obvious, but deeply unpalatable solution to the second possibility, which has already been proposed, is to increase the sentence to at least the level of the offence that may be associated with the encrypted material, but that would make the injustice of the first possibility even worse.

The only real purpose I can see for this law is to enable the state to outlaw privacy as and when it sees fit.

23 September 2010

22 September 2010

BBC breaks the depositor protection news I posted last week

Last week, during a piece I posted about Carswell and Baker's banking reform bill, I mentioned in passing that, due to changes in EU legislation, from January 2011, all deposits with banks across Europe will be guaranteed up to at least 100,000 Euros.  Eight days later, the BBC has published the same facts as if they are breaking news.

As a example of the seeming inability of politicians to think in any kind of connected fashion, it's highly instructive.  On one hand, we have EU politicians pushing out increased banking regulation and capital requirements in an attempt to increase prudence in the banking sector and reduce the likelihood of future losses being socialised, on the other hand, we have EU politicians pushing out increased depositor guarantees, which will reduce prudence in investment decisions and increase the likelihood of future losses being socialised.

The end result is two directives which grab headlines, increase bureaucracy, pull in opposite directions and ultimately, may well end up just cancelling each other out.

14 September 2010

Carswell and Baker's Bank Bill - Ultimately Pointless

There's been a fair amount of online discussion about Douglas Carswell and Steve Baker's bank reform bill. In simple terms, their proposal is to make banks specify whether an account is a straight deposit account, where the bank effectively holds the deposit in a vault, or an interest paying account, where the bank lends on the money to borrowers in order to generate that interest. I agree with the general principle, as I've said previously, but I think this particular bill, in the unlikely event that it were to become law, would be pointless.

The person putting money into a bank account would be faced with two options:
  1. Put the money into an account where the bank would act like a safety deposit box and would almost certainly charge you for the privilege.
  2. Put the money into an account where the bank lends the money on, with the risk that the money isn't repaid or the bank doesn't have the money available at the time you want to withdraw it, but with the benefit of receiving interest.
It would be a reasonable choice to present the depositor with, but for one thing; the government currently guarantees deposits up to £50,000.  If the depositor knows that any money put in the second type of account will be guaranteed up to that amount, then there is little point in taking on the extra cost of the first type of account, if the deposit is less than £50,000.  On that basis, the law would only serve any useful purpose if it also removed those guarantees and the UK doesn't have the power to unilaterally do that.  EU directives require that credit institutions in member states be members of deposit guarantee schemes, with the cover being a minimum of 50,000 Euros, rising to 100,000 by the end of 2010.

So in short, while the principles behind Carswell and Baker's proposal may be good, their execution of it is pointless.

13 September 2010

A Reversal of a Common LVT Example

One of the most common examples presented in support of LVT is the way that investment in public transport infrastructure can increase land values.

In a bit of a twist, The Wall Street Journal has an example of the effect working in reverse.  In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has cut some bus and subway routes, with the predictable result being a drop in property prices along affected routes.

Hat-tip to Stephen Smith at the Market Urbanism blog.

31 August 2010

Location Aware OpenStreetMap

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been tinkering with OpenStreetMap and OpenLayers, mostly so that I can host walking and cycling routes and geographical photos easily.

As a bit of an experiment, I decided to have a bash at using the W3C geolocation API to mark up the viewer's current location on the map. With a bit of tinkering, I think I've made something fairly usable.  Clicking the "show location" check box should centre the map at your current location and show a blue circle there, if you are using a browser which supports geolocation (which is pretty much any up to date browser, other than Internet Explorer).  The circle will move and the map re-centre if you move to a new location.

It probably doesn't do anything which isn't available elsewhere, but it's got several features I quite like:
  •  As you move, the map shows a breadcrumb trail of black dots marking your last ten location readings.  It shows your direction of travel in a way that I prefer to the arrow which is used by most other maps, as the occasional inaccurate reading doesn't result in a completely inaccurate indication.
  • The title of the page changes to indicate how accurate the calculation of your location is, in metres.
  • There are a number of map base layers to choose from, including maps aimed at cycling, hiking and skiing.
  • The layout is set to vary if the map is viewed on a mobile device, so that it fits the screen neatly.
  • In terms of privacy, although your browser will ask if you want to share your location with my website, as the code is written in client-side Javascript, your location is never sent to my server.
As with most Javascripts I produce, it's a continual work in progress, so feel free to leave any questions, suggestions or feedback.

10 August 2010

The Forgotten Single Taxer Gets His Plaque

Last year I produced a post highlighting the work of Thomas Spence, the Englishman who'd outlined plans for a Single Tax society almost a century before Henry George and had been been imprisoned because of it.

At the time I was aware that there were plans to install a heritage plaque in Newcastle to commemorate him.  In June this year, it was finally unveiled:



So now, he's a little bit less forgotten.

Image courtesy of Newcastle City Council

29 July 2010

Reasons for Silence

Apologies for the recent lack of posting. I've been distracted.

I got myself an HTC Wildfire (A phone I'd thoroughly recommend if you're looking for a compact, relatively low cost Android phone, or even if you're not.), which resulted me going into a techy spell. I starting off configuring the phone and looking for apps to handle, amongst, other things, offline mapping, GPS track recording, PGP, FTP and file management. That then lead me to working with a few things I'd been meaning to get involved with for a while, such as OpenStreetMap, GPX file authoring and Microformats, which have taken up much of my free time.

I intend to get back to more frequent posting as of next week.

30 June 2010

Closer, but not quite...

From a BBC story about various actions being taken against people accused of unauthorised file-sharing:
ACS: Law has said its actions are legitimate, given how big a problem illegal file-sharing is for the music and film industries.

"It is the equivalent of someone stood outside HMV with a pile of the latest albums, handing them out to people who were intending to go in the shop and buy it," ACS: Law partner Andrew Crossley told the BBC.
On the positive side, it's good to hear a far more sensible analogy than the usual "it's no different to going into HMV and stealing a CD." This one at least acknowledges the difference between taking an item of material property, which prevents the owner using it and unauthorised copying, which doesn't.

On the negative side, the analogy still falsely implies that every file shared is a sale lost, but given ACS's business strategy, it's not too surprising that they'd want to maintain that implication.

28 June 2010

Ritchie Bottles it Again

This time, he didn't even bother to go down the route of putting up the "this comment has been deleted" sign, he just deleted two comments as if they'd never been there, including one which he'd already replied to and then posted this, in which he seems to have inadvertently barred himself from his own site:

@Richard Murphy and others - I am aware you are piling in with typical time wasting neoliberal pedantry on this issue - You add nothing to debate by doing so bar proving you have time to waste - As such I am closing this entry to further comment - And issue a polite warning that I am not inclined to ever post your nonsense - for precisely this reason - So please desist from time wasting again
The link goes to one of his previous replies to one of my posts, so I suspect I'm his actual intended target. As I've said previously, Ritchie seems to get most annoyed when you say something he should agree with, if he was being consistent, but doesn't want to.

In this case, the subject was football clubs and the high wages of footballers in the Premier League. As another poster commented that he viewed it as "A classic example of what happens when capital trumps regulation," to which I replied:
If anything, I would say it is a triumph of labour over capital.

English football is a relatively high-revenue, low-profit business. The scope for the capitalist, in this case, the owner of the club, to make a profit is severely constrained by the fact that the people labouring in the business to create the majority of the value to the consumer, in this case the players, are getting such a high proportion of the revenue.

I find it odd that people who would generally describe themselves as on the left (not directed at you, BenM, as I don’t know how you would describe yourself) are so quick to criticise a situation where the vast majority of the return goes to labour and very little goes to capital.
Ritchie chipped in:
If you really think £100,000 a week is a return to labour you have a lot to learn Paul

98% of that is capital

These people are businesses
This threw me a bit, as I was a bit confused about what capital he was implying was being provided by someone who, it appeared to me, was supplying nothing but their body. In the hope of getting some clarification, I posted this response, which was initially allowed through the moderation process, but subsequently deleted:
"If you really think £100,000 a week is a return to labour you have a lot to learn Paul"

It is a simple statement of fact. The player is paid for providing labour to the business.

"98% of that is capital"

What exactly is the capital that you believe they are providing? Other people own the shares in the club, the stadium, etc. The only asset they provide is their physical person and as far as I am aware, the human body stopped being viewed as capital when slavery was abolished.

"These people are businesses"

To the extent that anybody working in order to earn money is a business, then yes they are. It doesn't alter the fact that they are providing labour and not capital.
Ritchie replied (and bizarre left the reply even after deleting my comment):
Nonsense

Labour is not subject to transfer fees running to millions of pounds from which they do not by any means entirely benefit

The business is about the brand, not the labour

Brands are capital
My final reply, before he pulled down the shutters, was:
"Nonsense

Labour is not subject to transfer fees running to millions of pounds from which they do not by any means entirely benefit"


I think that's a bit off topic. Players enter into long term contracts to provide labour to clubs, which then have a value to the club, as they can insist on payment to allow the player to break the contract.

"The business is about the brand, not the labour

Brands are capital"


The business, if we are talking about the player, is the service provided by the individual. It is the training, playing and other labour provided by the person. If that labour provides an opportunity for the player to generate revenue from his reputation, it doesn't alter the fact that all he provides is labour, as all he is using is his physical person.

The only way he could be reasonably viewed as a capitalist is if you believe that a human being can be viewed as capital. I would hope that no civilised person would hold that viewpoint.
I really don't see anything controversial there. I was under the impression that Marxists and those with similar opinions on the the authoritarian left, generally wanted labour to get the full return from a business and in the Premier League, that seems to come close to happening. What many who call for greater state regulation of the sport tend to miss is that it would probably allow the owner to profit at the expense of the player.

Take the example of sports in the US, such as American Football. While the set-up is created by a closed-market franchise system, rather than state regulation, the end result is similar to what those calling for the latter in football want - capped wages, greater financial stability, very little business failure, etc. The overall consequence is that American Football tends to be more profitable, in spite of generating less revenue, so taking a similar approach would probably make more money for the owners of football clubs, while leaving the players with less.

This is what I think makes the situation so difficult for the authoritarian left to handle. They are presented with two options,
  1. A relatively free market, which will tend to favour the people providing the labour.
  2. A more heavily regulated market, which will tend to favour the people providing the capital.
and while in principle, they should probably favour the former, instinctively, they seem to prefer the heavy regulation that goes along with the latter.

19 June 2010

The Priceless Ritchie

I feel almost cruel fisking him, given what a soft target he is, but he invites it by his conduct. Even when he makes a post with some reasonable elements to it, he can't help but have a hissy fit if somebody points out, in reasonable terms, something which might hint that he isn't infallible.

Take the piece he posted today, the substance of which is essentially that a government isn't like a company because it can print money endless if it wants to. There's some merit to the point, but there are some issues with it. Another reader touched on one of them, to which Ritchie posted a reply which included this:
Take one simple example: there is no chance whatsoever of any company ever paying itself in currency it creates

But the government can demand it be paid in currency only it can create
In response to which, I posted this:
It generally operates that way, but it isn't inherently the case.

Any company can demand it be paid in whatever form it chooses and in terms of self-created currency, company issued scrip has existed in numerous forms.

I think the more significant difference is that, unlike most companies, a government can extract revenue by force and in doing so can maintain effective demand for its currency.

In short the difference is not so much that "the government can demand it be paid in currency only it can create" but that "the government can demand it be paid."
I don't think that's a particularly unreasonable point to make, but unsurprisingly, as I am a heretic who has previously denied the absolute truth of the word of Ritchie, it was blocked.

Of course, a government printing more money to cover its debts is perfectly possible. The flip side is that as a course of action, it doesn't exist in a bubble; it creates side effects. Most obviously, it is inflationary. Another significant element, which doesn't get mentioned as frequently, is that it is effectively a tax; it's just less obvious, because instead of the government taking cash directly, it funds its activities by making the cash which is in circulation less valuable.

Now, as Ritchie has previously criticised me for suggesting that it would be a good idea to increase the proportion of tax taken from land based taxes, on the basis that he feels that Council Tax is regressive, then I would expect him to examine whether or not this is a regressive tax before supporting it. I'm going to guess he hasn't, because it would appear to be a tax which is, at the very least, moderately regressive.

The burden of the tax falls on those who hold Pounds Sterling (or assets denominated in Pounds Sterling), with the burden being in proportion to the amount held. At first glance, that may appear to be a fairly progressive wealth tax, as the very poorest will have no savings and will face almost none of the burden. However, as you go up the wealth scale, a different picture emerges. Those with a small to moderate amount of savings will tend to have most of it in cash and accounts denominated in pounds. As you move further up the wealth scale, you would expect that proportion to fall, for two main reasons; firstly because those with more wealth will tend to feel a need to diversify and secondly, because there are transaction costs involved in converting cash to other investments which tend to produce economies of scale. For example, the dealing costs involved in buying a few shares would probably outweigh any potential gain in a way that wouldn't be the case if buying a larger number.

So, it would appear that the burden would fall, in proportion to total wealth, most heavily on those with low to moderate levels of savings. That's not the most obvious thing for somebody who supposedly dislikes regressive taxation to support.

17 June 2010

Quote of the Day

From Mervyn King's Mansion House Speech:
Still, we should not put all our faith in regulation. It has limits. If the structure of banking creates incentives to take excessive risk then regulators will be overwhelmed by the avarice so vividly captured by Michael Lewis in his book The Big Short. Incentives must be right. One misalignment of incentives today is the implicit guarantee to banks that are "too important to fail", so that creditors have little incentive to monitor the behaviour of banks because they believe they will be bailed out. This problem is too important to ignore.
It's not the first time he's made a point of letting people know that he understands how incentives matter and that moral hazard is a serious problem which has to be allowed for.

16 June 2010

WTF? of the Day

From the BBC:
Fifa is considering legal action against a Dutch brewery it accuses of using women fans to advertise its beer at the World Cup.

Stewards ejected 36 Dutch supporters from Monday's match between the Netherlands and Denmark midway through the second half in Johannesburg.

All were dressed identically in tightly hugging short orange dresses, sold as part of a gift pack by a Dutch brewery.

...

However, they were reportedly taken to a Fifa office where police quizzed them about the dresses and asked if they worked for the brewery, Bavaria.
FIFA establishing a dress code which bans the use of clothing for advertising in a World Cup venue sounds reasonable enough. If the rules are made clear up front, then requiring people to leave the ground for breaking the rules also sounds perfectly fair.

What I find outrageous is the existence of a system of law and policing which appears to be so corrupted by corporate interests that a choice of clothing which, at most, constitutes a breach of contract, should be considered worthy of police investigation.

Who is Materialistic?

I ask the question as a result of reading this sentence from a piece by George Monbiot addressing the Tea Party movement:
In the United States one of the biggest exercises in false consciousness the world has ever seen - people gathering in their millions to lobby unwittingly for a smaller share of the nation’s wealth
I have mixed feelings about the Tea Party movement, so I've no desire to be seen to defend it or align myself with it, but Monbiot's criticism of it contains an ironic focus on materialism which often appears when instinctive authoritarians criticise those who are more liberty minded.

Those of us who value liberty highly are often criticised by authoritarians for wanting to created a selfish "me, me, me" world. That certainly isn't true in my case and while it may be true for others, it seems to me that, more often than not, it is the authoritarians making the criticism who are the more materialistic.

Take another look at the quote. Monbiot is criticising people for choosing to follow a course of action which does not appear to serve their financial self-interest. It's a thought process which appears to put the material above all else (or at least, above liberty) and assumes that those who do not focus on the material must be driven by misunderstanding, rather than a focus on other values.

It seems that those who value liberty face being both criticised by authoritarians for being selfishly materialistic and ridiculed by authoritarians for failing to be sufficiently selfish materialistic.

14 June 2010

Ofcom - Disgraceful and Pointless

I say that primarily because they've announced that they're happy to give the BBC the power to control which devices you can watch their transmissions on and even to delegate that decision to an unaccountable trade body.

This is going to be a significantly longer post then normal, but I think it's worthwhile given the issues involved. In January, Ofcom published a consultation in response to the BBC's application to amend their licence so that they could apply content management technology to their HD transmissions, which would allow them to restrict the ability to receive those transmissions to devices which had received their approval and which would follow their instructions with regard to copying and re-use of the material. Disgracefully, Ofcom has agreed to this.

Of course, the fact that a regulatory body has done something which I personally disagree with doesn't make it a disgraceful decision in itself. In this case, the two things which I think do make it a disgraceful decision are:
  1. The scheme completely violates the basis on which the BBC operates. The fact that the BBC is funded by a compulsory levy has been partly justified by the fact that it provides an unconstrained, free to air services. For broadcasts using future technologies, it seems that principle is being thrown out of the window. In spite of my generally market liberal principles, I've generally been relatively tolerant of the BBC, on the basis that, in a democracy, both electorate and elected need information and having a state broadcaster, in the area of news, at least, can serve a valuable purpose by supplying that information to a predefined editorial standard. However, if were moving to a situation where the BBC is no longer meaningfully free to air, I see no justification for it's continued existence in its current form. A BBC which wants to operate this way should not be licence fee funded. If the news aspect is capable of existing in an unencrypted form, then I think there is an argument for separating it and enabling it to do so, but the rest of the corporation should be privatised and left to fend for itself.
  2. In spite of the vast majority (running into hundreds) of responses being overwhelming negative, the response by Ofcom was almost wholly dismissive of any criticism of the BBC's proposed approach, in such a way that it looks like nothing more than one arm of the state doing what is wanted of it by another arm of the state, irrespective of what any of its obligations to the private individual may be.
With regard to the second point there were two aspects of Ofcom's detailed response that stood out, on the first skim through, as being particularly outrageous. The first related to the fact that proposed system would make it difficult or even impossible for people to exercise "fair dealing" exemptions to copyright:
Whilst we recognise that viewers may wish to record or copy material within the confines of the provisions of the CDPA, that legislation does not grant rights to copy material to viewers. Rather, it provides a defence to any action for copyright infringement. Viewers do not therefore have any right to copy any material broadcast on the HD DTT platform. In this context, it would not be appropriate for Ofcom to refuse to allow copy management on the basis of such a right.
This is, of course, an idiotic argument. By the same token, the law doesn't grant a specific right to watch the BBC, so using the same line of reasoning, Ofcom would have granted them the right to completely block transmissions as and when they felt like it, if that's what they'd asked for.

The point is not that people have a right to copy for fair dealing purposes, it is that they are currently able to copy for fair dealing purposes. In removing that ability, the proposal creates a negative impact on the viewer. Given that the basis on which Ofcom claimed to be carrying out the assessment was:
Our aim in assessing the BBC's proposed licence amendment has been to determine whether this change would deliver net benefits to citizens and consumers by ensuring they have access to the widest possible range of HD television content on DTT, whilst not unduly restricting their ability to make use of content or the range of receiver equipment available in the DTT receiver market.
In refusing to consider a negative impact on the consumer, they have put themselves in a position where they can't claim to have, in any meaningful way, calculated whether or not there is a net benefit.

The second aspect of the response which stood out as being outrageous was the response to this section:
Along with a small number of individual respondents, the RNIB opposed the BBC's proposal on the grounds that it would have a detrimental impact on partially sighted viewers. The RNIB asserted that a large number of receivers with special functionality for the partially sighted (for example audio description set top boxes) are produced as a result of innovations made by open source developers. The RNIB argued that the proposed licence amendment would restrict the use of open source software and therefore constrain innovation in this area. Additionally, the RNIB was concerned that small niche manufacturers that produce specialist equipment for the partially sighted may not be able to absorb the licensing costs associated with content management technology. The RNIB contended that this would result in a reduction in the availability of receivers with audio description functionality.
I agree with RNIB's point. In fact, I was one of that "small number of individual respondents" who Ofcom refer to. It is a serious concern. When there is a regulatory barrier introduced, it would be reasonable to expect it to impact most heavily on those benefiting least from economies of scale, chief amongst which would be those manufacturing equipment aimed specifically at those with disabilities.

Ofcom's response to that point, tacked on at the end of a comment about open source software, is so dismissive as to be offensive.
As discussed in the previous section, the evidence we have reviewed indicates that DTLA licensing does not preclude manufacturers from including open source software within products, although we recognise that manufacturers are required to prevent users from easily modifying or re-configuring the equipment such that the content management is circumvented (and that this will generally be achieved through the inclusion of proprietary elements within the receiver). We expect that the availability of these proprietary solutions based on open source software could allow the development of niche products, such as those of interest to the RNIB. We also note that audio description capability will be required to be included in all HD Freeview receiver products, which was not the case for standard definition receivers.
The comment about open source software is technically irrelevant to the significant issue regarding open source software, which is that the ability to amend the software will be significantly constrained. In terms of technology which is useful to those with disabilities, this is significant. On a computer running free and open source software and capable of receiving TV signals, the software can be amended to suit the specific needs of the end user. With the locked-down nature of the system approved by Ofcom, where the output must by definition be strictly controlled, that will not be possible. The end user will be constrained to use a device which works as defined by the manufacturer, which will in turn have to ensure the device works only in ways authorised by the BBC. The final comment about audio description is nothing more than an insulting attempt to patronise, by pointing out that a small amount of what is being taken away is being offered back.

Below, I've attached my original submission to Ofcom, should anybody be interested in my more detailed arguments, but the significant thing I've taken from this process is that neither Ofcom, nor the BBC, are fit to serve their claimed purpose.

MY RESPONSES

Question 1: Do you agree that copy management would broaden the range of HD content available on DTT and help secure its long term viability as a platform? :
No, in fact the opposite is more likely to be the case.

On the supply side, I see no evidence that copy management would broaden the range of content available. In the US, a similar proposal was made to mandate the use of a "broadcast flag" which would have enabled copy management, a proposal driven by claims made by content producers that without it, they would cease to supply content. The proposal was rejected, but that decision appears to have had no tangible negative impact. While it is to be expected that producers might like to have copy management in place, the idea that they would no longer supply content without it appears to have been a bluff. The principle would appear to apply even more strongly in the UK. The idea that producers would refuse to provide content to the largest broadcasting corporation in the world, solely because it didn't employ copy protection which would, in any case, be useless at stopping those determined to produce copies, is simply not credible.

On the demand side, previous evidence shows that whenever copy management is applied to a platform, it tends to drive people to other, less restrictive media. If the same content is available without copy management, either in an authorised or unauthorised form, which it almost certainly will, people will tend to prefer it to the unencumbered format.

As has been shown with failed attempts at imposing DRM on music, it is the removal of copy management which opens up the possibility of a platform becoming viable, not the imposition of it.
Question 2: Do you agree that the BBC's proposed multiplex licence amendment represents the most appropriate means for securing an effective content management system on HD DTT? :
No. There is an implication in the consultation that encrypting the EPG is somehow materially different to encrypting the whole stream and that the BBC's proposal somehow qualifies as being free-to-air, whereas encryption of the whole stream doesn't. I see no basis for this implication. The objective and the end result for both approaches is the same and as such, they deserve to be viewed as being equally bad.
Question 3: Do you agree with the proposed change to Condition 6 in the Multiplex B Licence? :
No.
Question 4: Do you agree that Multiplexes C and D should be granted a similar amendment to their Licences as Multiplex B?. :
No.
Question 5: Do you agree that the BBC's proposed approach for implementing content management would safeguard citizens and consumers legitimate use of HD content, and if not, what additional guarantees would be appropriate? :
No. Content management will impinge on fair dealing rights and no safeguards, no matter how strong or well intentioned, will prevent that. Of particular concern is the impact on the disabled. By creating a "locked-down" environment, where the only receivers available will be those created by approved manufacturers, under non-disclosure terms and incorporating consumer resistant features sufficient to make circumvention of the content management technology sufficiently onerous, it will become much harder for those with sensory or physical difficulties to adapt either their hardware or software to make it better suited to their needs, which could otherwise be achieved either by incorporating improved software or using non-standard devices combined with a receiver.
Question 6: Do you agree that the BBC's proposed choice of content management technologies will have only a negligible impact on the cost of HD DTT receivers and their interoperability with other HD consumer equipment? . :
No. By its very definition, the purpose of content management is to impede interoperability, so that content cannot be transferred to devices not produced by a manufacturer approved by the producer. This is also likely to stifle innovation.

The cost impact is debatable. It may end up being negligible, but it is also possible that receivers could become significantly more expensive if, for example, the uptake of receivers is reduced as a result of them being less attractive due to the incorporation of content management.

Where the impact is much more likely to be severe is in more specialist areas, such as, as addressed in the response to question 5, devices aimed at those with disabilities. The smaller market for such devices would make it much more likely that the cost of compliance with the content management requirements would be felt much more severely in their manufacture, resulting in such devices either becoming more expensive, or perhaps not manufactured at all. That situation would be made even worse by the fact that incorporating content management would make ordinary devices less easily adapted to the needs of users.
Question 7: Do stakeholders agree that the BBC's proposed Huffman Code licensing arrangements would have a negligible effect on the market for HD DTT receivers? :
No, they could potentially have a very severe impact. The need for a licence would inherently require non-disclosure of the look-up tables. The compliance issues surrounding such a requirement would present a barrier to entry into the market, impeding new entrants to the market and limiting the amount of competition which could occur.

Particularly noteworthy is the assertion that the licensing arrangements for the look-up tables would be on a non-discriminatory basis, which would almost certainly not be the case in practice. Almost certainly, large electronics manufacturers would be granted licences, but I would be astonished if the BBC were prepared to grant a licence to a lone electronics enthusiast looking to build his or her own receiver. The very nature of this kind of proposal is "security through obscurity" which relies on the information being available to as few people as possible. Non-discriminatory access terms would make the look-up tables available to anybody prepared to agree to the disclosure and use terms, which could result in them being so widely available as to be effectively useless.

If Ofcom wishes to answer this question effectively, it needs to demand that the BBC discloses the exact licensing terms that it would wish to use, so that everybody can see what "a royalty-free basis and on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms" actually means and comment accordingly.
Question 8: Do the BBC's proposed content management states and their permitted use for different categories of HD content meet the requirements of other HD broadcasters on DTT? . :
I don't believe that the broadcasters have requirements in the sense implied by the question. I would not be surprised if some broadcasters wished to have a content management system, but that does not amount to a need for one, as evidenced by the existence of television for decades without such a system.
Question 9: Are there any issues that you consider Ofcom should take into account in assessing the BBC's proposal, that have not been addressed by this consultation?:
I have seen no evidence that HD content is materially any different to standard definition content, in terms of being reproduced and redistributed, yet the BBC's entire case seems to be based on an assumption that HD content inherently needs more restrictive technology attached to it. This makes little sense. HD content, which consists of more data, will take up much more memory space and bandwidth if redistributed over the internet than SD and will tend to be viewed on hardware which is less well suited to getting the full benefit of HD. If anything, SD broadcasts are much more vulnerable to illicit copying and redistribution, yet the absence of content management on the BBC's SD broadcasts has not resulted in its demise, which makes me very sceptical of the BBC's claimed benefits of content management on HD.

This proposal appears to be an opportunistic attempt to bypass the BBC's PSB and FTA principles under the cloak of a relatively minor shift in technology and I believe it should be rejected.

12 June 2010

You can always count on John Prescott...

...to say something thoroughly banal:
Mr Prescott said people should blame the City, not the last government, for the scale of the deficit facing the country and its future impact on public services such as new housing.

"Don't be silly, that was an international problem. Why is it that US, Spain, Portugal, Greece have all got similar problems about debts."
Off the top of my head, is it possibly because their government's took the same irresponsible approach to state finances as the one you were a part of?

It's thoroughly ridiculous to claim that, because other people have made the same poor decisions as you, none of you should be held responsible for those choices. I wonder what Prescott's response would have been if, when the scale of problems at RBS came to light, its senior management had taken the same approach and claimed that, as other financial institutions were facing similar problems, they clearly couldn't be blamed for those problems.

01 June 2010

Ofcom's Plans to Build Corporate Cronyism into the Digital Economy Act

I've been meaning to talk about the Digital Economy Act for a while and I'll address the wider issues in another post, but I thought I'd raise this issue while the Ofcom consultation document is still fresh.

On the basis that Big Government and Big Business generally work hand in hand, I thought it was inevitable that the provisions of the DEA, as terrible as they already were, would be made even worse by the Ofcom code ensuring that all the benefits go to Big Content and other corporate associates, while all the restrictions fall on the private individual.  Two items in particular in the draft code consultation seem to point to that being the case:
  1. Corporate providers of open Wi-Fi will be offered some degree of protection, private individuals won't.

    From the code:
    In principle, operators of Wi-Fi networks would fall within the definition of internet service provider where the service is provided by means of an agreement with the subscriber, even where this is oral or implicit. Indeed, Wi-Fi operators would be regarded as offering a fixed service on the basis that it is offered from fixed locations and is not a licensed mobile network. It may not, however, apply to open access Wi-Fi networks where there is no payment from, and no agreement with, those making use of them. In those circumstances, the person making open access Wi-Fi available would themselves be a subscriber

    ...

    Where a Wi-Fi network is provided in conjunction with other goods or services to a customer, such as a coffee shop or a hotel, our presumption is that the provider is within the definition of internet service provider.
    So, as the initial obligations will only apply to the seven largest ISPs, commercial providers of Wi-Fi won't initially face any consequences if their customers use their networks to share copyright protected material without the copyright holder's permission. In itself, that's a good thing, but it's quite clear that the intention is to treat non-commercial providers differently and make them responsible for all users of their networks.

  2. The copyright infringement notification scheme will be geared so that it is only readily usable by Big Content

    From the code:
    section 124C(4) of the 2003 Act indicates that it may be appropriate for the Code to specify that rights or obligations do not apply unless a copyright owner has made arrangements with an ISP in relation to the number of CIRs which it intends to make to the ISP within the relevant period and has paid a contribution to the costs of the ISP in advance.

    ...

    In the Code we therefore propose that, to be a qualifying Copyright Owner for a given notification period, a Copyright Owner must have provided estimates of the CIRs it intends to make two months before the beginning of the notification period.
    First of all, I find it more than a little bizarre for somebody to suggest a regulatory process which requires that a person has to estimate how many unlawful acts will occur in future. It sounds a little bit too "Minority Report" to me. That aside, it's clear that the process is only really practical for bulk holders of copyright.
The act stank before, it stinks even more now.

Another Political Quiz

Found via Jock Coats, I had a go at the C4SS Political Philosophy Quiz.  These are my results:


25 May 2010

Pot and Kettle

Given the level of criticism the Australian government has faced for its extensive internet censorship scheme and laptop porn searches, the condemnation directed at Google by Stephen Conroy (the Minister responsible driving the filtering scheme) because of, amongst other things, its approach to privacy, looked desperate and petulant:
In a very personalised attack, and with the freedom offered by parliamentary privilege, Senator Conroy singled out Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, describing his approach as "a bit creepy, frankly"...
Coming from a digital libertarian or privacy advocate, I might find that an understandable sentiment, if possibly a little overstated, but coming from Conroy, it is laughable. This is a man who considers himself fit to define what internet content is "inappropriate" for Australian's to view and should be censored, with the definition going way beyond any boundaries which could be considered reasonable in a liberal democracy. He's part of a government which has created a regime which enables laptops to be examined at the border for "pornography," be it professional or home-made. Creepy Conroy really isn’t in a position to point fingers at anybody else.
...He also said that Google considered itself above governments:...
If they do, then, quite frankly, good!

Google has had its faults and failings, particularly on privacy issues, but they are definitely the lesser of two evils when compared to governments such as the one inflicted on Australia. Google can't inflict violence on me if I don't do what they wish (unless of course the government does it on their behalf), it can’t demand from me more than I choose to give them, it can’t enforce a right to be the only legitimate provider of its services in a given geographical area (and to be fair to Google, compared to many in their industry, they’ve got a pretty good record when it comes to not attempting to create "lock-in.").

It seems to be a fairly common facet of the authoritarian politicians’ mindset that they consider themselves to be better representatives of us than people or organisations that we’ve freely chosen to deal with, even though the government almost never receives anybody’s explicit consent.
..."When it comes to their attitude to their own censorship, their response is simply, 'trust us'. That is what they actually state on their website: 'Trust us'."
I’m tempted to just put the words "pot" and "kettle." The Australian government has a censorship list. It is maintained in secret and Conroy condemned the leaking of a version of it on Wikileaks. There is no clear review or appeal process. How are the Australian public supposed to have confidence in the process? The implication from the government is clear – "trust us." That's another common facet of the authoritarian politician - they consider it perfectly reasonable to vilify others for following courses of action which they follow routinely.

12 May 2010

How to Drive Electoral Reform

The coalition agreement states:
We agree to establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation.
In terms of electoral reform for the Commons, I think this is more significant that the AV referendum.  At this stage, it's in that half hearted position of being a commitment to look at a reform, rather than a commitment to get on with reforming, but as the three largest parties all have a stated commitment to some degree of election to the Lords, anybody attempting to block it would be inviting significant criticism.

A proportional Lords will be able to claim more democratic legitimacy than an unreformed Commons, so without reform of the Commons, there could be some constitutional head-butting between the two houses.  The Commons would almost certainly have to be reformed in some way, not necessarily to satisfy public demand, but to defend its supremacy over the Lords.

What did they expect?

If I hear or read another person complaining that "I didn't vote Lib Dem to let the Tories in" I think I might grind my teeth to a pulp.

I remember Nick Clegg saying that he believed that the party with the most votes and seats should have the opportunity to form a government. That was the deal the Lib Dems were offering. Complaining because the leader of the party you supported stuck to his word can tend to make you sound like a sulky arse.

The Labour Party doesn't have a moral right to be the government of first choice. They don't have the right to demand that all other parties join them in an alliance to keep out the Tories. If, as a voter, all that matters to you is getting a Labour government at all costs, then vote Labour and take your chances.

All that aside, the numbers just weren't there for a Lib-Lab coalition anyway and given the sharp contrast between what seemed to be constructive Lib-Con negotiations and what seemed to be stubborn Lib-Lab negotiations, I don't think it would have been anything other than a shambles even if the numbers had been workable. The ideological differences on civil liberties between the Lib Dems and Labour are so severe that I don’t think they could have been overcome. On the other hand, any ideological differences on spending between the Lib Dems and the Tories have probably be narrowed significantly by the need to address the public sector deficit.

I think we’ve got the only outcome which was either sensible or workable.

Mild Optimism

Nothing more than that. It's still a government. It's still a group of people who have sought out power over the rest of us with the intention of using it. However, as governments go, I've got a feeling this might be one of the less objectionable ones.

I just hope this post doesn't come back to bite me.

10 May 2010

Having AV and PR together

I've covered this before, but I'll do it again, now it's in the shop window.

I quite like the Alternative Vote and in the event of a referendum, I'd be in the yes category, but clearly, one concern is that it isn't proportional.  I think there's a way to address that which might be acceptable across the political spectrum - PR for the Lords.  All the major Westminster parties back election for the Lords (at least in part).  All it would take is a repeal of the Parliament Act and STV or open lists for the Lords and you would have a proportional house with an absolute power of veto over legislation.

I think it's a viable compromise.  Labour have flirted with AV for the commons and both open lists and STV for the Lords.  The Lib Dems want STV for the Lords and seem prepared to tolerate AV for the commons.  The Tories are prepared to accept a referendum on AV and I can't see them objecting too severely to a proportional system in the Lords.  I don't imagine too many smaller parties or independents would have serious objections either.

The only sticking point could be repealing the Parliament Act, but I see that being almost inevitable if the upper house were to become elected and have democratic legitimacy on a par with the lower house.

It's got to be Lib-Con

At this point, nothing else makes sense:
  • A Lib-Lab coalition wouldn't have nearly enough seats.  A Lib-Lab coalition with the regional parties would be incredibly unstable and would require an extremely unpleasant level of pork barrel bribery.
  • Having a second Labour Prime Minister who wasn't leader at the time of the election would not be particularly popular.
  • In spite of the both Labour and Lib-Dem politicians saying that they are closer to each other in policy than the Lib-Dems are to the Tories, on a lot of controversial issues, I don't think they are.  On civil liberties issues (ID cards, databases, vetting,...) Labour and the Lib-Dems are poles apart and it's one area where I don't think the Lib-Dems could afford to concede any ground without losing all credibility.  The Lib-Dems might instinctively be closer to Labour on certain tax and spend policies, but the state of the public sector finances might limit the options available to the next government anyway.
  • Forcing through a pact with Labour could irreparably damage the Lib-Dems.  It seems to be what the MPs and party activists would prefer, but it would involve backing away from Nick Clegg's pre-election offer of support to whoever was the largest party, it would look like a rash self-serving act, it could make them seem so close to Labour as to be irrelevant and to the wider electorate, I think a more stable Lib-Con deal is what would go down better at this point.  Even those who don't like it could probably see the sense in it, which probably couldn't be said of an incredibly unstable Lib+Lab+others arrangement.
It's time to get on with it.

08 May 2010

Newer is Not Always Better

It was almost inevitable that there would be groups looking to use the problems at polling stations as an excuse to push technological solutions and it's already happened at the BBC:
David Monks is a local authority chief executive, and chair of Solace, the Society for local authority chief executives' electoral matters panel.

"What we've got here is a very Victorian system, that many Solace members have argued is much in need of modernisation," he said.

"We need a system for the 21st Century that is suitable for our lifestyles".
Of course, it's to be expected that the people who are in part responsible for delivering elections would try to put the blame on the system in order to distract from any potential shortcomings of their own, but I think this particular argument is weak. If there are too few staff in the polling station, then there will be problems irrespective of the voting method. If there are a lot of people trying to vote in the period just before the poll closes, there will be problems irrespective of the voting method.

There is a technological snobbery at play, which implies that paper is outdated and always a poor choice when there is a more high tech option. In this case, I don't think it is. The system might be Victorian, but it's a good one. Elections conducted on paper are transparent and auditable in a way that entirely electronic systems aren't.

I expected the first suggestion to deal with the issue to be a move to more widespread postal voting, rather than electronic voting, which is something I'm even less happy with and would like to see scaled back. There's no guarantee that a postal votes will reach it's destination and the whole approach destroys the principle of the secret ballot, opening the voter up to potential coercion.

It might be over 150 years since the Chartists pressed for elections conducted on paper in secret, but I think the principle is as sound now as it was then and has yet to be surpassed.

If there are issues with timings at polling stations, then either increasing the number of staff, or having some kind of "last orders" system, where people are allowed to votes so long as they are at the polling station by a certain time, would seem to be a more sensible approach. The secret ballot is too valuable to be sacrificed because of a few procedural failings.

07 May 2010

Just a few thoughts on the election...

...but no more, because I find it generally uninspiring:
  • I wanted a hung parliament and that's what we've got. I would have preferred a slightly different balance, as it would have made electoral reform a more likely prospect, but all in all, I'm not too disappointed. I feel that there is a reasonable chance that the Tories will try to hobble forward as a minority administration and parliament will tie it in knots, hampering its ability to force its will on the general public. If that happens then, so long as it doesn't result in another election any time soon, it will be one of the better possible outcomes.

    My only serious concern is the prospect of minor parties being bribed for support with pork barrel funding, but given the state of government's finances, the scope for offering it may be limited.

  • The spectacle of people being turned away from polling stations and angry voters holding ballot boxes hostage has the potential to rumble on. The Electoral Commission has already said it will conduct a review and I wouldn't be surprised to see one or two by-elections.

  • The success of the Greens in Brighton shows that a long, focused campaign in the right areas can yield results for smaller parties.

  • The defeat of Evan Harris left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. The situation surrounding Harris was summed up pretty well by Ben Goldacre in his Bad Science blog, prior to the election. Harris had a reputation for promoting science and evidence based policy and while I didn't agree with everything he promoted, part of the campaign against him had the kind of extreme religious anti-science tone which is don't generally associate with British politics.

  • However, the story of the night for me has to be the Alliance Party victory in Belfast East, in which they more than tripled their vote and went from third place to first, with a massive 26% swing from the DUP. I can't claim to know too much about politics in Northern Ireland, but a success for a non-sectarian candidate feels like a good thing to me. The fact the Alliance Party had a manifesto commitment to repeal the Digital Economy Act also gives me a lot of positive sentiment towards them.

21 April 2010

The BNP's Economic Banality

I think it's probably wise that opposition to the BNP focuses on its racism, but it does mean that they tend to a get an easy time on their other policies.

Take the one they're trying to sell in this BBC piece:
The British National Party have called for restrictions on imports from China to protect British jobs.

Leader Nick Griffin told BBC Radio 4 British industry faced "disaster" unless something was done to halt the flow of cheap goods into the country.
It's the Corn Laws for the 21st Century!

Like so much of this kind of nonsense, it focuses on the interests of the producer and ignores the interests of the consumer. The consumer will be turned into a captive market to be exploited by domestic producers, because in the fascist and Stalinist approaches (I struggle to decide which category the BNP fits into), that's all that matters; to them, we as individuals don't exist to enjoy and experience, we just exist to produce in order to enrich and empower the state.
He denied reciprocal restrictions would hurt the British economy, saying trade with China was a "one-way street".
If it were a "one-way street", it's wouldn't be trade, because there would be no exchange. The correct term for a movement of goods which is not reciprocated is "aid".

In spite of what the BNP claim, I'm fairly confident that no significant number of Chinese manufacturers are operating in order to give the British aid and even if they were, only a total moron would suggest that the Chinese giving the British free goods is inherently so bad for the British people that it must be legislated against.
We have got eight million adults of working age not working in Britain and if we protect certain sections of our industry to create jobs we would get these people off the dole.
And of course, replace them with the workers in the exporting business which you would be crippling. Welcome to the world of unintended consequences.
He said his party was not "isolationist"
I decided to ask my correspondent out in the field for his reaction to this claim:

20 April 2010

The Big House of Lords Ballot

The Guardian on reform of the House of Lords:
The paper says a reformed second chamber would be 300-strong, with the Commons retaining primacy, and members elected by an open list, proportional system

...

They would be elected from 12 electoral regions, with nine in England and the other three in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The regions would be drawn up by May 2012.
For those who aren't as interested in the minutiae of electoral systems as I am and aren't aware, this is how open list systems generally work:
  • Each party submits a list of candidates to stand in the seat.
  • Each voter votes for a specific candidate.
  • The total votes for each party are added up and the parties win seats in proportion to their share of the vote.
  • The elected candidates for each party are the candidates with the most votes for that party.
So, as a very simplified example, in a constituency returning 10 representatives, if party X's candidates got 30% of the votes, the 3 candidates from party X with the most votes would be elected.

For those familiar with the mechanics of the European elections in Great Britain, which use closed lists, it produces the same results in terms of the number of seats won by each party, but it puts the decision about who gets elected for each party in the hands of the people voting for that party, rather than allocating them in the order of the list submitted by the party.

In general I prefer open lists to closed lists, but looking at the proposal on offer here, I see a potential problem - the constituency size.

If we're talking about electing 300 people (the initial proposal that the article refers to is to elect two-thirds of the members as a first step, but the implication is that a fully elected house is the end goal) from 12 electoral regions, that means an average of 25 members from each region. On that basis, even if you required a deposit from each individual, rather than the party as a whole, I'd expect the larger parties to average at least 10 candidates, a number of smaller parties averaging at least 5 and a wealth of minor parties fielding 1 or 2 candidates. It wouldn't be exceptional to see constituencies with 80 or more candidates, each requiring space on the ballot paper and a box to put a cross in. That would mean either very small boxes or very big ballot papers.

19 April 2010

Anarchism, Minarchism - or Lessarchism

Over at Counting Cats, Ian B posted a piece contrasting anarcho-capitalism and minarchism, coming down in favour of the latter. This prompted responses from, amongst other, Jock Coats and DK. I thought I'd chip in by explaining my own position, which to some extent is inclusive of both and which I tend to describe as lessarchism.

To properly understand anarchy and minarchy, you first have to understand archy. It means rule generally by the state. So what in essence is the state? The most accurate description I think you can make is that it is a protection racket; it is an organisation which forcibly takes money on the pretence of offering protection, when in reality, the primary protection on offer is from the racket itself. At root, the state is a coercive organisation which operates on the basis of violence and the threat of it.

Given the nature of the beast, the obvious question is, why would anybody want to tolerate any archy whatsoever. I think there are two primary answers to that, which can be observed in the changing nature of the state over time.
  1. The state incorporates more people into the racket, by offering privileges to those who could potentially threaten it. It's a complex area, but it's one that can be observed through, for example, the gradual inclusion of merchants in what was previously an aristocratic state. When the effect is spread widely enough, it gives rise to the effect Bastiat is alluding to when he describes the state as "the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else."
  2. The state maintains the appearance of being better than any alternative. This is the driver of changes such as expanding the franchise and instituting constitutional restrictions. These are concessions which are generally granted by an existing state in order to defend itself. If revolution is in the air, it can be mutually beneficially for the existing state to agree to constrain itself in that way. The top brass of the existing state (be they aristocrats or politicians) get to maintain their power, all be it diminished, rather than being completely deposed. The people living under the state get improved circumstances without the risk of a new state arising which is significantly worse than the previous.
Looking at the two reasons, I don't view the first as being any kind of moral justification for tolerating a given state. Moving from the outside to the inside of a protection racket might make things look more pleasant from your own perspective, but it doesn't make it any less oppressive or abusive. The second reason, on the other hand has something to recommend it. Just as you might tolerate a protection racket if you believed the alternative was a far more violent neighbouring protection racket coming into the area, it might make sense to tolerate a relatively benevolent state if the alternative is a military dictatorship or an oppressive invader.

This is where I tend to depart from many (although, by no means all) who describe themselves as either minarchist or anarchist. Both, to me, appear to be terms which focus on an end position. One asserts that the optimum amount of archy is that which has a small state limited to certain purposes, the other that the optimum amount of archy is no state at all. When I look at the minarchist position, I ask myself if it is really possible to have a limited state which won't gradually expand to become a over-bearing and the answer I come up with is, I don't know. When I look at the anarchist position, I ask myself if it is really possible to have a stateless society without either a state, or something operating like a state, taking over and the answer I come up with is, I don't know.

That is why I would describe myself as a lessarchist. To me, it implies a focus on a process, rather than a focus on an end position. I don't know what the optimum arrangement is, but I do know that in any given situation, I want less archy. I want less oppression, I want less aggressive violence, I want less coercion and compulsion and more voluntary and consensual action. It may be that at a very low level of archy it might be infeasible to significantly reduce any further that which is left within the state without opening the door to an aggressor who will bring more archy than was their before. Or, it might not. It might be that once there is so little archy that the last bit can't survive, given the prevailing mindset of the population. I don't know, but at this stage, I don't think it's that important, mostly because I don't think there will ever be a definite end position; arrangements will always be in flux, eternal vigilance will always be the price of liberty. I'm less concerned about where we can be tomorrow than what we can chip away at today.

Odd Strategy of the Day

From the BBC:
For Labour Lord Mandelson warned a hung parliament might give "disproportionate power" to the Lib Dems.

...

He warned: "A hung parliament may seem attractive to some but it may give disproportionate power to a small party holding the balance of power and bring its own danger. Important legislation, for example on fighting terrorism which the Lib Dems are likely to oppose, would be difficult to get through."
If you are a member of a political party which, at the last general election, obtained 55.2% of the seats with 35.3% of the vote, it would appear wise to avoid raising the issue of disproportionate power. Also, if you want to stop people giving their support to another political party, claiming that voting for that party will give them disproportionate power doesn't seem like the smartest way of doing it; it's a complete reversal of the "it's a wasted vote" strategy.

17 April 2010

Testing Online Vote Matchers - Part 2

Following the test drive of two vote matchers I performed, I decided to see if any of the parties had similar tests and if so, if they are skewed towards getting more votes for them. The first one I came across was the Green Party Test, which gave me these results:


So, bizarrely, while the Vote Match test rated my agreement with the Green Party at 62% and the Who Should You Vote For test rated my agreement with the Greens at 51%, the highest of any of the parties, the Greens' own test rated my agreement with them at a lowly 35%.

I think there are two possible explanations for this:
  1. The Green Party have tried so hard to stop their test appearing skewed in their favour that they've ended up going in the opposite direction and skewed it against themselves.
  2. The questions the Greens have included in their test relate to the policies which they think are mostly likely to appeal to voters, which, in the main, are the policies on which I have least agreement with them.
I'm leaning towards number 2.

WTF? of the Day

From Michael Gove:
The greater degree of scrutiny these policies have, the more that people will realise that while Nick Clegg is a very attractive individual in many ways, the policies of his party are outside the mainstream and a little bit eccentric
If the cosy closed shop within the political establishment is so narrow that even the Lib Dems are being considered as outside the mainstream, then things are worse than I thought.

16 April 2010

Testing Online Vote Matchers

Out of interest, I decide to test drive two of the websites which claim to be able to tell you who to vote for based on the answers you give to questions on a range of issues. The two sites were Vote Match and Who Should You Vote For.

My initial results for Vote Match looked like this:


However, after you’ve completed the questions, they offer you another five questions to refine your search, which changed my results to this:


So, strangely, after the extra five questions, I seemed to agree with every party more!

My results for Who Should You Vote For were:

Green51
Liberal Democrat50
UK Independence13
Conservative-16
Labour-26
Your recommendation: Green


My general feelings about the quizzes are:
  • Both quizzes seem relatively unbiased and give a conclusion which doesn’t seem completely unreasonable to me.
  • I’m a little surprised at how highly the Green Party rates in my results, but I suspect that the choice of questions has resulted in the similarities in terms of ID cards and digital rights outweighing the differences in terms of market liberalism. Of the two quizzes “Who Should You Vote For” had more questions relating to civil liberties, which probably goes some way to explaining why it gave a higher ranking to the Greens and a lower ranking to Labour, when compared to the “Vote Match” results.
  • I was initially surprised at the relatively good ranking given to Labour in the Vote Match quiz, but there were quite a few questions on electoral reform, which is probably where a significant amount of the agreement lay.
  • With the exception of the BNP, the big two of Labour and Conservative ranked below all the other parties on both quizzes, which does tend to make a mockery of the approach taken by the media of using one representative from each of the big two to represent balance and a range of opinions.
  • Only the Vote Match quiz included the BNP and it seemed to show that, if you take the racism out of the equation, which the quiz did, the BNP are in the same ball park as the big two. That highlights something I’ve believed for some time; beyond the overt racism, their claim to represent something different significantly different to the status quo is nonsense.
I think they’re both interesting and potentially useful tools, but from a personal perspective, I’m in such a safe seat that any choice about if and how I vote will be more an issue of strategy than expecting my vote to get someone elected.

15 April 2010

Facebook Button-gate

I've steadily warmed to Bill Thompson's technology articles on the BBC. When I first started reading them, he took a fairly strong state socialist line, to the point of suggesting a heavily regulated "walled garden" internet for Europe, to promote socialist principles. Recently, however, his tone has become noticeably more liberal; the promotion of internet regulation has been replaced by the promotion of a free, user defined internet.

One of the bits of writing which has impressed me most recently is this excerpt from a piece about selling the benefits of the internet to those who choose not to get online (emphasis is mine).
I do firmly believe that the internet is one of the best tools on offer to create a better world, and that we need to work harder to get this point across to those who see Facebook being bullied into adding a "panic" button to its website and believe that this is all the network can give us.
It’s the first time I’ve seen some in the mainstream media describe the actions of CEOP as bullying and I think it’s a brave move.

I agree with Bill. The move by CEOP comes across as a muscle-flexing attempt to assert dominance over Facebook, especially given the threat issued by Jim Gamble, the chief executive of CEOP that:
If they don’t adopt the button we are simply not going to go away.
I don’t believe for a second this is just about child protection. The desire to have their own "panic button" placed on every Facebook page has more than a hint of CEOP attempting to raise their own profile by getting a prime advertising spot. It isn’t as if Facebook doesn’t have a reporting facility; it has even put a system in place to pass reports on to CEOP at the user’s request. The continued objections by CEOP increasing look like a fit of pique because Facebook haven’t meekly given them prime billing and allowed them to create the impression that a report direct to the state is the only available avenue. In terms of continued stability, I prefer Facebook’s solution. Government departments come and go, especially when power changes hands, so having a consistent reporting mechanism built into the site’s own processes, rather than relying on a third party mechanism which my change without notice, would seem to have some advantages.

One of the more pragmatic comments on the issue comes from the BBC's home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw:
Other independent child protection experts say it's time to call an end to the dispute.

They say that Facebook is relatively safe, and further damaging publicity could drive users to seek contact in more risky online environments.
I think it’s a valid point which CEOP would do well to consider.

08 April 2010

Quote of the Day

An oldie, but a goodie, from Bastiat:
The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.
Always worth keeping in mind in the run up to an election.

27 March 2010

All your mail are belong to us

The ever insightful Henry Porter, in the Guardian, dissects the government's attempts to enable the interception of mail by tax inspectors without the recipient being made aware.

Given the government's desire to monitor all electronic communications, it was only a matter of time before they started to apply the same approach to other, lower tech forms of communication.

19 March 2010

Liberty and (Intellectual) Property

I've been involved in a few debates recently about whether or not "intellectual property" is compatible with a libertarian system of maximal personal freedom.  My answer is yes and no!  The reason for that inconclusive answer is the use of the term "intellectual property."  It is essentially a propaganda term which covers a range of rights/privileges, some of which are compatible with full liberty and some of which aren't, so unless you are specific about what you mean by "intellectual property," you can't reach a definitive conclusion.

For copyright and patents, which seem to be the main bones of contention, I think the answer is no, because, for a property right to be compatible with full liberty, it has to be granted over a rivalrous good.  My reasoning is thus:

If you take rightful liberty to be as described by Jefferson or, as per this Herbert Spencer quote:
every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man.
it should be fairly clear that, in those circumstances, unless I've personally agreed otherwise, I may claim the right to use an idea, concept, expression or other non-rivalous intangible good that I am aware of, because, in doing so, I do not prevent you doing likewise.

With rivalrous goods, which in the main are tangible goods, the same does not apply.  If we both want to wear a coat at the same time, we can't.  Physical reality makes that impossible.  Therefore, an appeal to maximal liberty doesn't enable us to claim the right to wear the coat, because neither of us can wear it without infringing the like freedom of the other.  In essence, property rights over tangible goods exist outside the framework of maximal liberty.  There are any number of ways in which those property rights could be allocated, many of which will be inequitable, unjust or downright stupid, but the crucial thing for the purpose of this argument is that, however you've come to acquire it, your property right over a rivalrous good doesn't inherently infringe my rightful liberty, because it is impossible for us to both to enjoy the freedom to use the good simultaneously.

Which brings me back to my initial answer of "yes and no."  The term "intellectual property" is applied to a range of intangibles, but it isn't tangibility which makes a property right compatible with maximal liberty, but rivalry, so any intangible which is impossible for two people to use simultaneous could have property rights applied to it without violating maximal liberty.  One area where this arguably could be the case is internet domain names, as it is not possible for two websites to share the same name at the same time.

The moral of the story is, if want to reach a meaningful conclusion about "intellectual property," don't use that term; talk about the specific right/privilege you're addressing.

17 March 2010

Bull of the Day

From the latest bit of copyright lobby propaganda:
Agnete Haaland, the president of the International Actors' Federation, which supports the research, said that education was key to tackling piracy.

"We should change the word piracy," she said.

"To me, piracy is something adventurous, it makes you think about Johnny Depp.[1]

"But we're talking about a criminal act.[2] We're talking about making it impossible to make a living from what you do.[3]"
[1] We've currently got a propaganda term for copyright infringement which equates it to attacking a ship on the high-seas, but the copyright maximalist lobby appears to have gone so utterly insane that they believe that comparing somebody who copies a CD to a Kalashnikov toting hostage taker doesn't do justice to the heinous nature of their act. Maybe calling it copyright genocide might suit them better.

[2] In general, copyright infringement is a civil, not a criminal matter.

[3] Given that actors have been making a living from stage work since time immemorial, I think "impossible" is pushing it a bit.

10 March 2010

The Big Guns

The letter sent by the Open Rights Group and published in the FT today, spelling out objections to the web-blocking amendment to the Digital Economy Bill, is well reasoned and no more than should really be expected.

What did surprise me is the list of signatories. Somebody's done a fantastic job of rounding up some big hitters to put their name to it.

05 March 2010

Lord Clement-Jones - Legislating on Copyright without Understanding it.

Having followed the progress of the train-wreck that is the Digital Economy Bill, there has been so much about it that is truly awful, that I've so far been unable to pick out any one bit to comment on. The replacement of the dreadful enabling act Clause 17 with a dreadful Tory and Lib-Dem amendment which creates a framework for web censorship under the pretence of preventing copyright infringement, has given me a kick-start, mostly because of this section of an interview conducted by ZDNET with Lord Clement-Jones, the Lib Dem peer who put forward the amendment:
Question from ZDNET: Some people have drawn an analogy with UK libel laws, where super-injunctions sometimes have a chilling effect on the media. Will this not also cause self-censorship in the face of expensive legal action, in this case by ISPs?

Answer from Clement-Jones: This is completely different. Libel law is often a matter of opinion. Sometimes there are super-injunctions made, as with [John] Terry, which are often designed to gag free speech.

This is about the protection of legitimate rights. It is perfectly easily establishable whether there are rights attached to a particular copyright owner.
Of course, what he says is utterly disingenuous. Copyright law is often a matter of opinon, just as libel law is. Take this posting as an example. I've reproduced an extract from the ZDNET article above. ZDNET holds the copyright on that article, so I have reproduced, without seeking permission, something on which somebody else holds the copyright. So, does that mean I have infringed copyright? No. It isn't quite that straight-forward. UK law grants fair dealing rights, including:
Fair dealing with a work for the purpose of criticism or review, of that or another work, or of a performance of a work, does not infringe copyright in the work, provided it is accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement, and provided the work has actually been made available to the public.
Any copyright law not allowing that sort of use would be absurd beyond belief. It would effectively outlaw debate. No view could be subject to effective challenge, as the person expressing the view could claim total control over the use of their words and take legal action against anyone repeating any portion of them.

This is where opinion and judgement comes in, because there will always be a point at which fair dealing under the law becomes copying other than for the purpose of criticism or review. My quoted section above is, I believe, clearly fair dealing. On the other hand, if I put a full copy of a film on here and accompanied it with a review along the lines of "I like this film," then, even though I have reviewed the film, I think it would be hard to argue that my full reproduction of the film is fair dealing for the purpose of review. Between those two points, there will be a range of possibilities and where fair dealing stops along that continuum will always be a judgement call. The mere presence of material on which somebody else holds the copyright is not enough to declare material infringing, in spite of what Clement-Jones implies.

So, it appears that Clement-Jones either doesn't understand the issue he is legislating on, or he is being dishonest about it. Either way, his comments are a disgrace.

This example highlights why a court of law is the only place where material should be declared to be infringing copyright and any subsequent action taken. If the burden is put on ISPs and they are made liable for failing to stop any infringement which they have been informed of, there will be two effects. Firstly, there will be no opportunity for a fair trial and secondly, ISPs will naturally avoid legal risk by ignoring fair dealing considerations and taking down anything containing quoted material. Online fair dealing and the open debate which goes with it will be killed.

04 March 2010

The Supermajority

One of the most significant problems with the government over the last decade has been its legislative diarrhoea. Legislation has been enacted and amended at an astonishing rate, prompting the editors of the 2009 Archbold Handbook to add the following preface:
It has been a recurring theme of the preface to this work that there is far too much criminal legislation. The willingness of the Labour Government to continue its practice of legislating by trial and error has shown no signs of abating even in its eleventh year in office ... The state of the criminal statute book is a disgrace. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 is the usual hotchpotch of measures, with no theme, with much of the detail tucked away from close scrutiny in the schedules, and consisting in large part of textual amendment to earlier legislation. Much of the amendment is by way of undoing this Government's earlier legislation.
I've been considering if there is any way of avoiding such a situation. One posibility I've been mulling over is the use of supermajorities. Here's one idea:

Require the support of two-thirds of those in parliament before legislation is enacted, but allow legislation to be repealed with a simple majority.

Some of the benefits I would envisage would be:
  • Making it easier to repeal legislation than enact it would hopefully thin out the statute book, making the law easier to understand.
  • Making it harder to enact legislation would slow down the rapid changes in law which have been occuring.
  • Requiring broader support for new legislation would force governments to seek wider input from across parliament, producing more widely considered legislation.
  • Having legislation which has wider support would reduce the tendency for governments to amend it when power changes hands, producing a more stable and predictable body of legislation.
Of course, one downside is that it could result in parties deliberately blocking legislation for party political reasons, but hopefully, such actions would be limited by the fact that a failure to operate a working government would begin to reflect badly on all involved, not just the largest party. In any case, I would still tend to prefer too little legislation than too much.

Are there any other major down sides I've missed?