Piracy deal ahoy!

After years of impasse, UK Internet Service Providers and the copyright holders of the entertainment world look set to sign off an agreement on internet piracy.

According to the Beeb  a ‘voluntary copyright alert programme’ is to be agreed. Under this, ISPs will identify the IP addresses of alleged copyright offenders and send them ‘educational’ letters on copyright violation and legal alternatives to piracy. Whilst a similar ‘six strikes’ scheme in America sees ISPs able to impose sanctions (such as slowed internet speeds) on persistent offenders, the UK scheme does not. The amount of letters that ISPs can send is capped, and no individual will receive more than 4 letters. Following these, no further action will be taken.

This voluntary agreement breaks a deadlock between content giants, the government and ISPs caused by the Digital Economy Act (DEA). Rushed through in the parliamentary wash-up of 2010, the DEA’s copyright provisions instruct ISPs to keep a database of persistent downloaders, and to restrict then finally suspend internet access to those who ignore written warnings.

These provisions are deeply problematic. They force ISPs to police their own customers, burden the companies with compliance costs and ask them to protect another’s intellectual property. Punishing alleged copyright infringers without judicial involvement also undermines the rule of law. Criticized by many politicians, civil liberties groups and the ISPs themselves, none of the Act has been actually implemented.

On the face of it, it’s good that the new agreement is such a watered-down version of earlier proposals. It’s certainly a far cry from what the content industries really want: effective barriers to piracy and access to a list of infringers to hit with ‘compensatory’ legal action. Advocates of internet freedom should be pleased. That said, the agreement doesn’t change the power of copyright holders- they can still get infringing content removed and websites blocked under existing legislation.

Furthermore, skeptics might think that the entertainment industry’s acceptance of the new scheme is just them playing the long game. The programme is meant to run for 3 years but be regularly reviewed. Rights holders have warned that should the scheme prove ineffective they will push for the “rapid implementation” of measures in the DEA.

If the objective is to deter piracy it’s obvious that the scheme will be next to useless: sending ‘educational’ letters will do little to change the behavior of serial downloaders. What it does do, however, is let the entertainment industry claim that a soft approach doesn’t work, and gets ISPs creating a database of copyright infringers that rights holders might win access to in the future. Playing ball now gives the copyright giants credibility to push for more extreme measures later on.

This might seem cynical, but the established entertainment bodies are reluctant to let go of their increasingly outdated business models. Returning to the DEA also gets governments back in the picture, whom copyright bodies often have great success in lobbying. From the ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act’ of 1998 to the recent EU extension of the copyright in sound recordings, entertainment groups have a knack of preventing their goods from falling into the public domain, and ensuring that governments favor their industry’s profits over actual economic sense.

Understandably, media groups want people to stop illegally sharing their stuff. But instead of lobbying for legislation and slapping fines around the most effective deterrent is to understand consumer’s preferences and offer them valuable alternatives to piracy. Whilst movie bodies get angry at Google for linking to copyrighted material without really tackling their problem themselves, Spotify’s quite probably done more to combat music piracy than blocking The Pirate Bay ever has. However, instead of evolving the copyright industry seems to go out of its way to antagonize consumers, rent-seeking and objecting to even the most eminently sensible of copyright reforms.

Given the entertainment industry’s determination to protect their intellectual property, it’s unlikely that efforts to tackle piracy will end with a voluntary alert system. Whilst innovating companies will continue to find new ways of sharing and monetizing content, for the time being the copyright-holding giants of the entertainment world will remain preoccupied with the wrong prescriptions for piracy.

Technology, Privacy and Innovation in 2014

Prediction lists for the coming year are always revealing, though perhaps more of the current public mood than the future. A write-up of the tech trends for 2014 by Fast Company’s design blog is hardly controversial, but what is interesting is how the areas they’ve chosen highlight the existence of two wider and seemingly divergent technological trends. This apparent conflict in the way technology is heading is far from problematic. On the contrary, it shows our success in adapting and experimenting with new ideas and in response to shifts in the social and political context, without the need for any central guidance.

One thing clear from Fast Company’s list is that 2014 will bring a continued increase in the volume and depth of the personal data we create. Things like Google Glass, the ‘quantified self’, hyperpersonalised online experiences and the interconnectivity of theInternet of Things all create new reasons and mechanisms for data capture. This in turn increases the value of our data to ourselves, the companies with access to it and, in some situations, the state.

However, the article also predicts that 2014 will see increasing concerns over cyber-privacy and a movement towards greater digital anonymity. Users will increasingly chose to control their own data and how this is profited from, whilst we will begin to discover the joy of ‘disconnecting’ from the digital world and see the creation of intentional blackspots.

The fact that we seem to be embracing deeper technological integration yet simultaneously finding ways to mitigate and avoid its consequences is certainly interesting. Does this show that we’ve raced forward too fast and are trying to claw back a space we’re realising we’ve lost? It’s perhaps possible that this is the case, but far from giving us cause for concern the two-track path we’re seeing shows the ability of consumers and the tech sector to adapt over time, and in turn gives some hints on the optimal tech policy.

Continue Reading…

insight.png

Should fans be concerned by Bitcoin’s fall in value?

The last few months has seen a breathtaking rise in the price of Bitcoin. Starting around $15 at the beginning of the year, Bitcoin’s price went from round $200 to a peak of over $1,200 just during November. Then from early December BTC’s price began to falter, with a sudden drop and a low of $550 on the 18th: less than half its price just weeks before.

Commentary has been just as volatile, with some seeing BTC’s rising price as its explosion onto the scene and proof of its revolutionary potential. Others have scoffed, calling the whole thing a bubble inflated by overoptimistic geeks and people looking for a quick profit. Now that BTC’s price has come tumbling, should proponents of the crypto-currency be humbled and/or worried?

Recent rises and falls in Bitcoin’s price have reflected developments in China.  In November Bitcoin exchange BTC China secured $5m investment from Lightspeed Venture Partners, and surpassed Mt Gox as the largest exchange in terms of trading volume. However, on the 5th December the People’s Bank of China announced that it does not consider Bitcoin a currency, barring banks & other financial institutions from dealing with it. Around this time Bitcoin’s price took a sharp downwards turn. Then, on Monday, the central bank banned 3rd-party payment companies from working with Bitcoin exchanges. This left Chinese exchanges unable to take deposits, and the price cfurther tumbled.

This is potentially bad news for entrepreneurs who want to see Bitcoin widely adopted, as well as for more ideological fans who consider Bitcoin’s strength its decentralised and stateless nature. Governments will never be able to stamp out Bitcoin completely, but making it as difficult as possible to use will hamper the objectives of both groups. The Mercatus Centre’s Bitcoin Primer explicitly urges policy makers to consider the technology morally neutral, warning against restricting its development and its use by non-criminal users. Whilst China cracks down on BTC its uptake in developing countries -particularly amongst the unbanked-is strong, and Denmark has just announced that it will not regulate Bitcoin or its exchange. China may well realise that it is missing a trick and relax its hostility.

Nevertheless, innovation around this problem will occur if it continues. Bitcoin is a global start-up project, with swathes of  passionate and seriously techie fans.

Some take Bitcoin’s crash as proof that that it is an unstable and unsustainable folly- nothing more than a risky virtual commodity bet.

Certainly, Bitcoin’s volatility is an established fact, with its last big crash in April wiping out 80% of Bitcoin’s value over 6 days. Nevertheless, BTC has always recovered and increased in value. Indeed, since the 18th Bitcoin’s price has been creeping up yet again.

Calling bubbles is a funny thing, because both falls in price and continued rises offer ‘proof’ of the hypothesis. It is perhaps more accurate to say that Bitcoin is undergoing a long period of ‘price discovery’. A lot of purchases have been speculative or made out of curiosity, but as more users and ways to spend the currency emerge, so will a clearer and more stable idea of its price. Bitcoin’s shifting price isn’t even that much of an issue for those using it for purchases: vendors adjust their Bitcoin prices regularly to reflect the changing exchange rate. It is short-term investors and those calling Bitcoin the ‘new gold’ who should perhaps be more wary.

Others say that Bitcoin’s falling price reflects underlying concerns with the currency – such as issues with security and fraud, and exchanges’ ability to cope with demand. Some suggest these issues mean that Bitcoin will never be much more than a digital curiosity. But at the early stages of the computer and the internet few thought they would be so transformative, or could imagine how they would evolve. Bitcoin is certainty not ready for mainstream adoption or about to cause a central banking crisis, but that is zero reason to write it off.  So much of how Bitcoin can and should operate is yet to be discovered, let alone decided. Despite all the recent attention it is still in its infancy, and growing pains and price shifts are an inevitable path of its development.

Even if Bitcoin’s price were to come crashing devastatingly down, the world’s first digital, decentralised ledger-based currency has created a new paradigm: a new way of thinking about money, transactions, anonymity and even our relationship with the state. Even some of Bitcoin’s biggest fans say it could one of the alternative, retweaked and ‘improved’ cyrpto-currencies which will really take off.

On which note- why care about the price of Bitcoin when you can be an early adopting millionaire of everyone’s favourite meme-cum-cryptocurrency, the shibe-tastic, very money Dogecoin! (wow)

BTC pic.jpg

The Internet Watchmen

As Tim Worstall notes, new government plans to block online terrorist and extremist content are extremely worrying. Along with the introduction of default ‘opt-out’ porn filters and the criminalisation of rape porn, they are another example of Cameron’s politicised censorship of the web. Whereas reducing the proliferation of child abuse images is a good thing, this new measure results in the censorship of ideas. Furthermore, whilst it is relatively straightforward to identify child abuse imagery, it is much less so (and arguably impossible) to decide which ideas are ‘too dangerous’ to viewed in the UK.

Aside from these issues there is also the question of how such a content block would work in practice. In many ways, how to block can be as problematic as the censorship itself.

The government has said that it wants to model the new blocking unit on the Internet Watch Foundation: a part-EU, part internet industry-funded UK ‘hotline’ for child abuse imagery. The IWF assesses material submitted by the public and flags up UK-hosted content to be removed by service providers. Content from outside the UK is added to a URL ‘blacklist’ which ISPs then block UK access to.

There are a number of issues with this model. First, there is no guarantee that what the IWF flags up is actually illegal. With no legal clout, the IWF acts on content it deems ‘potentially illegal’ – and there is little to stop legitimate content getting wrongly marked. One controversial case saw a picture of an album cover on Wikipedia getting blocked until the backlash forced the IWF to reverse their decision. Appealing against the IWF’s decisions can be a difficult and opaque process, not least because of the difficulty of appealing against the illegality of an image you can’t even see.

Despite the IWF’s lack of legal authority, the Open Rights Group claims that their blacklist has never been assessed by a court or legal body. This makes their actions rather murky. Given its sensitivity ISPs can’t see the content of the blacklist to make their own judgement; they must either block all of it or none.  On top of this, there are also problems with the technology ISPs use to actually block the URLs – which can be unreliable and block too broadly.

In addition, from April 2014 the IWF will shift from a being reactive body -acting only on content sent to it – to a proactive one, actively seeking out images of abuse behind pay walls and on peer-to-peer networks.  This approach is another step in the active policing of the web, and is also likely to be followed by the new anti-extremist unit.

Issues of political and religious censorship are much more complicated than that of child pornography. The unaccountability of the IWF and its lack of judicial oversight  therefore make it a poor model to copy for what is an incredibly controversial (and dangerous) policy. Since the new unit will be publicly funded, its decisions may come under greater legal scrutiny. On the other hand, a government-funded body could become politicised and overzealous in its mission. In any case, a clear due process and a rigorous appeals system will be absolutely essential.

Crime & security minister James Brokenshire says an update on the proposals will arrive shortly, though the fact that civil liberty groups claim not to have been consulted on the matter is rather worrying. The sensible thing to do would be to scrap this idea altogether. Since this is unlikely to happen, both the politics and the technicalities of the initiative are bound to prove difficult indeed.

Cyberterrorist.jpg

Digital Conversations

Last week I went to an event put on by the Meetup group ‘Digital Conversations‘. Hosted by the digital agency Reading Room, the theme for the night was “Society, Government and Public Life”. Six speakers gave a range of short but varied and interesting talks, bringing together people from digital design, non-profits and the government.

The topics ranged from software design to government snooping via community engagement and smarter government services. It has become cliched to talk about these last two, especially alongside phrases like ‘the data revolution’ and ‘people power’. What’s less clear is if these ideas really mean something and in practice help forge better outcomes. In this way it was interesting and encouraging to see what people in a range of different jobs were doing within the intersection of technology and government.

Despite the breadth of topics, certain themes ran throughout the night. One was the use of digital technology to amplify the ‘soft’ power which citizens posses through traditional civic engagement.
Will Perrin from kingscrossenvironment.com gave his experience of holding government to account using methods from the humorous – sticking council logos on dog mess and blogging them – to the serious – using freedom of information requests to spark a corporate manslaughter investigation into TFL. The ability to use digital to empower citizens was shown to be even stronger within less developed and transparent states. For example, a basic app of the Nigerian constitution has allowed citizens to learn and assert their rights, and has been downloaded over 8 million times.

The event also highlighted the importance of the micro and designing for humans. Websites such as ‘What Do They Know‘ and ‘They Work For You‘ are popular because they take chunks of information and display them in a way which is easy for people to understand, informing and empowering them.

Designers should make sure the systems they create are designed with the user’s habits and needs in mind, instead of forcing them to tackle rigid and unintuitive systems. Similarly, whilst the concept of big, open date may be brilliant, it is essential that this data can be manipulated by all. Many potential users aren’t programmers or statisticians, and giant datasets which need APIs to navigate them can hinder as well as help analysis.

Government services benefit from this re-imagining. Dominic Campbell spoke about the Patchwork app designed to provide better collaboration within child protection services, and which was designed in response to Baby P’s case and the total failure of the incumbent ContactPoint system to prevent it. Despite retaining huge swathes of data on every single child from birth till 18, the expensive system raised serious privacy concerns, failed in its objectives and was ultimately scrapped. In contrast, Patchwork allows professionals to ‘group round’ children and share information only when necessary and in a way which is clear and intuitive.

It was interesting to see what attendees and speakers thought the future would hold for government. Some ideas were rather libertarian-friendly- for example, the goal of efficient ‘invisible’ government, which would do things like automatically create and process visa applications with the purchase of flight tickets. It was also encouraging to hear a speaker insist that a world in which 14% of the health budget comes from the sale of narcotics on a government version of Silk Road is not inconceivable!

However, some other ideas – such as government gathering social media data to create a ‘community hive mind’ -were rather more alarming. Most remarkable was the level of complacency of the organisers and attendees regarding mass government surveillance. One speaker’s entire presentation was summed up by a slide saying “NSA am I bothered? Not really LOL :)” Of course, not everybody is going to find the recent revelations earth-shattering, but it is unnerving to hear people working within these sectors have such little regard for civil liberties and privacy concerns.

When those responsible for designing government systems (and ultimately the use of citizen’s information) seem not to perceive potential abuses of state power and trust, it is hard to be enthusiastic about new government initiatives. With tech companies tightening security and encryption in response to Snowdon’s revelations, I don’t want well-meaning and forward-thinking designers to be asleep on the job, and dismissive of questions about the proper power balance between citizens and the state. This aside, it was really good to see such smart and engaged people talk about the exciting work they do.

islington council.jpg