Monday, 31 December 2007

Looking Ahead to 2008

We've made it almost all of the way through 2007 now (in fact in some parts of the world it is already 2008). 2007 has brought us the departure of Tony Blair, the arrival of another new Lib Dem leader. Climate change went mainstream, Facebook was everywhere, but participation television hit the rocks. What will next year bring?

Politically, the topic that will almost certainly dominate discussion throughout 2008 is that of who will succeed George W Bush and become the 44th president of the United States. The primaries start next month, and we have a whole year of vicious, muck-raking politicking from across the Atlantic to look forward to. Meanwhile, over here we're likely to be stuck with the Clunking Fist for the year's entirety.

Outside of the political realm, I don't anticipate much else other than the continuation of trends that have already begun. The economic downturn may become more pronounced, but for a number of reasons including the aforementioned US election, I think a real crisis in 2008 is unlikely.

Apart from the broad sweeps above, I don't see a lot of point in attempting to make predictions for the coming year. Instead, in an attempt to finish out this one on an optimistic note, I'm instead going to finish out this post with some hopes for 2008.

  • That a Democratic candidate wins the US presidency fairly and squarely, with as little rumour and scandal about electoral practice as possible, in the election on November 4. As for which candidate, I prefer Barack Obama to the other two plausible candidacy winners, despite some of his more hawkish foreign policy statements.

  • That honest debate about British participation in the European Union begins to take place. The Lisbon reform treaty was signed by Gordon Brown without the promised referendum and almost certainly against the wishes of the British people in December 2007. I hope that the PM will be made to justify and defend this decision in the coming year, rather than it being allowed to slip into the darker reaches of the public's memory.
    Encouraging news today: David Cameron has indicated he would 'consider' holding a post-ratification referendum on the Treaty (Telegraph)

  • That the importance of data security comes to the forefront, both in discussion and in practice. The year-on-year increase in the use of the previously unthinkable data storage and manipulation capabilities of modern-day computers isn't something that's going to cease anytime soon. So I hope that the people in charge of these systems begin to listen to the experts and put into practice their recommendations, rather than treating them as opponents for expressing their disapproval. Failing that, I hope those same experts, and campaigners such as Henry Porter continue to keep the issue in the public eye.

  • That the realisation that freedom of choice and freedom of expression are not God-given, and that liberties once lost are much more difficult to regain, begins to dawn. Previously, those who seek to restrict these freedoms have too often been allowed to steal the moral high ground with spurious arguments and caricatures. I hope that in 2008 true liberals will be spurred on to an increasingly vocal opposition to these restrictions and their advocates.

  • That Newcastle United replace their highly disappointing manager, Sam Allardyce, with someone who can get the quality players that they have playing attack-minded football, scoring goals and wowing the crowd, rather than playing 4-5-1 against Wigan Athletic (and losing anyway)!

All the best for 2008 to all readers!

Saturday, 29 December 2007

A Philosophical Chasm

In my second exploratory post, I take a look at a dichotomous view of political philosophy - The idea that a primary source of political disagreement is a fundamental division between collectivism and individualism.

I was spurred on to write about this by two things that happened this month. The first was a discussion at my local with a few other politically argumentative people, including one former Labour councillor who described himself as a 'collectivist' and made the philosophical statement that forms the premise for this post.

The second was a debate that took place on Radio 4 between civil liberties campaigner and Observer writer Henry Porter, and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, which concluded with a remark by the latter concerning the 'danger' of individualism.

This sort of post is not the place for excoriating Toynbee, other than to say that in my opinion she is largely wrong here and Porter is largely right. That is to say (as you may well have realised already if you've read much else here on QT), I tend to see things from the individualist's point of view (here represented by Henry Porter and those who argue on similar lines) much more.


So what does all of this actually mean? What are 'individualism' and 'collectivism'?

Like almost any word that ends in 'ism', different people's definitions of these words have small but important distinctions between them. This is where I like to make use of Wikipedia entries; not because it is a uniquely reliable source of information, but because (at least for articles of reasonable general interest) it is built on consensus*.

So:
Wikipedia on individualism: Individualism is a term used to describe a moral, political, or social outlook that stresses human independence and the importance of individual self-reliance and liberty. Individualists promote the exercise of individual goals and desires. They oppose most external interference with an individual's choices - whether by society, the state, or any other group or institution.

Wikipedia on collectivism: Collectivism is a term used to describe any moral, political, or social outlook, that stresses human interdependence and the importance of a collective, rather than the importance of separate individuals. Collectivists focus on community and society, and seek to give priority to group goals over individual goals.

It strikes me that, although I come from the opposing side of the debate from him, my ex-councillor friend's statement to the effect that most modern political division comes down to this fundamental difference of viewpoints. Everything from this point on is conjecture - food for thought from one person's viewpoint...

The terms 'left-wing' and 'right-wing', with one significant exception that I will come to a bit later on, can be mapped quite neatly onto the concepts of 'collectivism' and 'individualism'. Any time those dread words 'left' and 'right' are used with regard to politics, a hefty dose of generalisation is automatically being dumped onto the discussion.

This post, unavoidably, is barely different, but I don't think it's unreasonable to say that in a discussion about crime, or poverty, if you see someone talk about 'personal responsibility' or occasionally 'parental responsibility' (not necessarily using those exact words, of course), they can probably reasonably described as right-wing. If they talk about 'societal responsibility', it's probably safe to say they are left-wing.**

So far so good. Where things get a little more interesting is when you ask for a definition of 'society'. Does society consist of every human being in the world? Typically not, and here is where the exception I mentioned previously comes in and things can get rather contentious. By the definitions given previously, as well as the obvious (socialists, communists, social democrats, some types of anarchists), nationalists and fascists are also collectivists - they seek to subordinate individual interests to those of the state. However, we call these people 'right-wing', often 'far-right'.
What is interesting about this isn't so much that the terms 'left' and 'right' are used in the way described (they have their roots in 18th century revolutionary France and have been extended and twisted every which way since then). It's that, when you look at political positioning in this way, the same people can hold seemingly contradictory viewpoints.

To me, the individualist viewpoint and accentuation of personal responsibility and aspiration is intuitive, while the collectivist viewpoint, well, isn't - it requires rather more thought and analysis to see where they are coming from. From reading responses to the likes of Polly Toynbee's writing, it is clear I am not the only one. So I wonder: Are some people collectivists by inclination, who could unhesitatingly write the first sentence of this paragraph the opposite way around?

I decided in connection with this post to start a side blog aiming not to attack collectivists (goodness knows there's enough of that in the blogosphere already), but to aim to develop a greater appreciation of and understanding of the basis of collectivist ideas. Bridging, or at least narrowing, this philosophical chasm can only be a good thing (and I'd welcome the appearance of a similar blog from the 'other side', as it were). The side blog, with only a test post up at the moment, is at Collective Interest.


*Wikipedia is almost entirely volunteer-edited and administrated. Some contend that the lack of accountability means it is untrustworthy and even close to useless. Others, myself included, consider frequently-edited articles to constitute as near to a cross-community consensus on that topic as it is possible to get (with a couple of caveats, for instance the somewhat US-centric view often apparent in political philosophy articles).

**Go on, have a look at the writing of some bloggers or commentators you consider 'right-wing' and some you consider 'left-wing' (taking into account the caveat regarding nationalism) and see if this assumption holds. If I had more time I would survey Comment is Free and analyse how often these arguments as delineated come from the same people as traditionally 'rightist' and 'leftist' arguments on other issues.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Jahongir Sidikov: Encouraging News

Via k at Areopagitica

"Jahongir Sidikov has been released from detention.
His lawyer is putting in a fresh claim for asylum.
He's not safe yet but for now he is free.
It remains important to make a case for the principle that no Uzbek dissidents should be deported to Uzbekistan."

It is not clear what the circumstances are surrounding this decision - the information came to k through a group 'assisting and supporting Jahongir'.

This certainly represents progress, though as k points out the battle is not over. The pressure brought to bear by Craig Murray, Areopagitica and other activists and bloggers (via their MPs and the media in most cases) may have made a difference in giving Jahongir temporary freedom.

But the real campaign, of which Jahongir has been the face as a particularly egregious case of Government neglect of human rights and contempt for international law (Link), is asylum reform.

It was highlighted last week that thousands of asylum seekers face deportation to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (Independent). Although the war the engulfed that nation officially ended in 2003 (Link); torture, violence against women and killings by militias remain endemic there, according to a UN report of July 2007 (Reuters).

Neither Uzbekistan nor the DRC could reasonably be described as safe for those denied asylum to be returned to - particularly not those who like Sidikov are known to the authorities as political activists. The Government has shown itself, for whatever reason, to be prepared to overlook this fact. We must not let their contempt be overlooked in turn.

Monday, 24 December 2007

12th Tube of Christmas: The Best At Being Bad

When historians of British politics look back at the first decade of the 21st century, 2007 will almst certainly be remembered for being the year that Tony Blair left 10 Downing Street after 10 long years at the helm. Fitting, then, that the YouTube of the year deals with exactly that. Tim Ireland's compilation, backed by music from Bugsy Malone, is a wry look back at those ten years. This is extraordinary and a must-see:

WINNER: Political Video of the Year 2007 = Bloggerheads - 'Goodbye, Tony Blair'





2007 Retrospective - Summary
1. Hit Song of the Year: Mika - 'Grace Kelly' (Runner-up: Feist - '1234')
2. Non-Hit Song of the Year: TAT - 'Peace Sex & Tea' (Runner-up: Groove Coverage - '21st Century Digital Girl')
3. Movie of the Year: Sicko (Runner-up: Taking Liberties)
4. Internet Craze of the Year: Lolcats (Runner-up: HuckChuckFacts)
5/6. Unintentionally Humorous TV Moment of the Year: Anonymous on Fox 11 (Runner-up: Guido Fawkes on Newsnight
7. Sporting Highlight of the Year: France 0-1 Scotland (Runner-up: Lewis Hamilton on the track)
8. Controversial TV Moment of the Year: Teapacks - 'Push The Button' (Runner-up: Bullying of Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother)
9. Ridiculous News Story of the Year: Teddy Bear Named Muhammad (Runner-up: Blue Peter Cat named Socks)
10. Under-reported Scandal of the Year: MMC/MTAS (Runner-up: Iraqi Interpreters)
11/12. Political Video of the Year: Bloggerheads - 'Goodbye Tony Blair' (Runner-up: Lib Dems - 'No Election in 2007')


Happy Christmas to all readers of Question That from me, and I hope you have enjoyed this retrospective of 2007.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

11th Tube of Christmas: Brown Bottles

Gordon Brown's misjudgement in allowing speculation on the timing of an early general election to build, appearing to back down in the face of discouraging polls and then denying that was the case, was the turning point of the political year. From the first week of October through until the end of the year, Brown's reputation for prudence and competence was irreparably damaged. Videos such as this official Liberal Democrat effort portraying Brown as 'the Grand Old Duke of York' served to put the boot in, reinforcing the 'Bottler Brown' image.

RUNNER-UP: Political Video of the Year 2007 = Lib Dems - 'No General Election in 2007






I had to fit this in somewhere. As Brown's decline continued through November, Vince Cable came up with the kind of epithet that won't be forgotten in a hurry. This sublime moment at Question Time led some to call Cable the Lib Dem leader who should have been, and left Brown reeling.

BONUS: Quip of the Year 2007: Vince Cable - 'From Stalin to Mr Bean'

Tied Up In Knols?

Google revealed their latest 'killer app' last week, and this time Wikipedia is the target.

Google Knols was revealed on December 13th at the official Google blog, which trumpeted it as "a way to help people share their knowledge". It is currently in a private testing stage, and speculation has already begun regarding the effect of the upstart knols on Wikipedia and its forthcoming social search site Wikia.

Steve Rubel at MicroPersuasion proposes that "knols are going to kill Wikipedia", citing the potential loss of the advantage Google gives Wikipedia articles in search results and the enormous financial clout that they have to put behind the project. TechCrunch are more circumspect, describing such statements as "a fanciful proposition".

Aside from the above, Google Knols brings two major innovations to the table. For the contributers to their repository of knowledge there is the prospect of income via an AdSense-like system of revenue sharing. For the users, knols provide the connection between content and author that Wikipedia's single-article, open-contribution model leaves behind.

The Google release of 13 December describes the latter as the 'key idea' behind knols. It could also, however, be its fatal flaw.


Having spent a little time editing and 'patrolling' (checking recent changes/new pages for vandalism, spam and general idiocy) Wikipedia, I have seen how fiery and entrenched disputes over content can get. Take a look at the 'Lame Edit Wars' page (Link) if you want to see some of the daftest disputes that have taken place there.

Google state that "For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing". But given that Wikipedians got into a serious argument about the presence of a single exclamation mark in an article (Berwick-upon-Tweed), would you bet against Google finding themselves with, well, too much of a good thing?!

It is far from clear how controversial or debatable topics that will likely end up with tens or even hundreds of knols will be dealt with. Google have already stated that they will neither serve as an editor nor 'bless' content. Rating systems can be manipulated by vested interests, as Comment is Free discovered this week when they had to suspend their 'best blogger' awards following an attempt to rig the poll (Link). The 'knol' rated most highly for a given subject may in the same way end up being the one which most people were instructed to vote for, rather than the most factually accurate and objective.

A lack of an equivalent of Wikipedia's requirement for 'neutral point of view' (NPOV) may give knols the reputation of being a partisan, rather than reliable, source of information - and may even reflect negatively on Google itself.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

10th Tube of Christmas: MMC/MTAS

The ones that the media would have let the Government got away with. Rushed-through changes in the way in which training posts are allocated to doctors, combined with a shortage of said posts, led to a crisis in the health service. The MTAS application process ignored clinical and research experience in favour of answers to highly general and often vague questions, turning the process into a near-lottery. Security failings meant that applicants' personal data could be accessed by changing a URL. A grass-roots campaign by the medics of RemedyUK (of which this video is part) eventually led to MTAS being scrapped, but the wider framework of Modernising Medical Careers (MMC) lives on.

WINNER: Under-reported Scandal of the Year 2007 = Baloney MMC


The campaign to save 90 translators who worked for the British army from torture and execution in Iraq gained some mainstream media traction in the form of a Times front page, but it is bloggers who have pressed continuously for the Government to reverse their decision not to grant them asylum. Tim Ireland's video shown below is short and to-the-point.

RUNNER-UP: Under-reported Scandal of the Year 2007 = The Plight of Iraqi Interpreters

Friday, 21 December 2007

9th Tube of Christmas: Teddy Bear

When Gillian Gibbons, a British teacher at the Unity high school in Khartoum, Sudan allowed her pupils to vote on the name of a teddy bear, she surely didn't anticipate a diplomatic incident and week-long dominance of the British news headlines. But that was the result of the choice of her second-grade class to name the toy Muhammad. From the breaking news of the arrest and threat of 40 lashes, through the prison sentence and demonstrations calling for execution, to Gibbons' eventual release a week later, the 'teddy bear outrage' was a thoroughly absurd storm.

WINNER: Ridiculous News Story of the Year 2007 = A Teddy Bear Called Muhammad



2007 hasn't been a good year for interactive TV. What began with failings on the part of the phone line operator behind the Richard & Judy show's 'You Say We Pay' ended up encompassing all the major UK channels. But surely the highpoint of daftness in this whole sorry saga was the revelation that the producers of Blue Peter had failed to name a cat according to viewers' wishes. Following wild speculation, it turned out that 'Socks' should have been called 'Cookie'!

RUNNER-UP: Ridiculous News Story of the Year 2007: A Cat Called Socks

Thursday, 20 December 2007

8th Tube of Christmas: Crazy Rulers

Perhaps not the most obvious selection for today's category in this 2007 retrospective, but this politically charged Israeli entry that failed to make it past the semi-finals of the competition was the latest in a long line of contentious Eurovision Song Contest moments. If you haven't seen this performance, prepare to be astonished.

WINNER: Controversial TV Moment of the Year 2007 = Teapacks - 'Push The Button'






A row that made tabloid front pages, TV news bulletins and led to demonstrations in India possibly wasn't the intention of the producers of Celebrity Big Brother 5 when they put Jade Goody in the 'house' with Bollywood star and eventual winner Shilpa Shetty back in January. But following incidents of racist bullying that is just what happened.

RUNNER-UP: Controversial TV Moment of the Year 2007 = Bullying of Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother


Wednesday, 19 December 2007

7th Tube Of Christmas: Tartan Army

I almost didn't include a sporting pick in this set, there being so much to choose from yet so little that stood out. Choosing a sporting highlight from what 2007 had to offer was always going to be a bit of a lucky dip. But as a football fan who cheers for all the home nations, I feel although the eventual outcome (of the qualifying campaign for Euro 2008) was disappointing all round, one match in particular stands out.

WINNER: Sporting Highlight of the Year 2007 = France 0-1 Scotland




Something of a strange video this one, but quality YouTubes of the man who in the Spring looked set to run away with the hearts of sports fans across Britain and clean up at awards ceremonies were surprisingly thin on the ground. I'm talking of course about Lewis Hamilton. Following the spying controversy; run-ins with team-mates; last-race defeat in the drivers championship; move to Switzerland; and finally loss of driving licence, a lot of that gloss had been lost. But the on-track performances of Lewis Hamilton were still, definitely, a British sporting highlight of 2007.

RUNNER-UP: Sporting Highlight of the Year 2007 = Lewis Hamilton on the racetrack

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Taking A Different View

Most of the serious pieces of writing I post on the blog tend to be in the form of an argument - sort of 'newspaper columnist-y' for want of a better description. Sometimes they are quite cautious in tone. Others, particularly of late, have been made rather strenuously - almost polemical.

I think there's room for another type of writing on this blog. Something that explores a topic perhaps in quite a playful fashion, rather than arguing for a specific position or trying to make a particular point.

In the 'blogosphere' and indeed in the general domain of political debate, participants often have highly entrenched views, are judgemental of their opponents in a simplistic 'I'm right and you're wrong' way, and have little conception of what leads people with differing viewpoints to take the positions that they do.

Although the most recent outstanding example of this sort of attitude was provided by Labour-supporting blogger Alex Hilton on Comment is Free, it is seen right across the political spectrum. Right-libertarian Devil's Kitchen, for instance, has asserted that socialists are "evil" on several occasions.

You might ask 'What's the problem with this?'. Clearly both Hilton and DK are very firm in their convictions and passionate in the way they express them. However there just doesn't seem to me to be any point in being judgemental and self-righteous about them. As I said in response to Alex Hilton in the spin-off thread on Liberal Conspiracy, "How the heck do you think you're going to bring a 'Tory' round to your point of view if this is your attitude [towards them]?".

Surely it would be more worthwhile and constructive to spend less time throwing epithets around, particularly in the sort of discussion with an ideological opponent that Hilton describes, and more time considering what it is that leads them (and you, for that matter) to take the positions on whatever issue that they do. Hopes, fears, priorities, blind-spots...

After all, if you know what the assumptions and beliefs underlying your opponent in debate's positions actually are, you are more likely to target your rebuttals of and counter-arguments to their position accurately!

Of course, there's only so far any one of us is going to be able to take their attempts at exploring and writing about this. I for one am a biologist by degree speciality - not a historian, sociologist, political philosopher or anthropologist. So any sort of analysis of these sorts of deep and complex questions I come up with is going to be highly incomplete and replete with biases and gaps in understanding. As will anyone else's, but with different gaps and skews! These are blogs we're talking about, after all, not doctoral theses.

But a great idea or a really useful piece of insight could come from anywhere, and online debate will be all the richer for the attempts.

6th Tube of Christmas: Epic Lulz

The most extraordinary, outrageous, unintentionally hilarious TV moment I've come across this year comes not from the BBC, or for that matter any of the myriad other channels the average Brit can now receive. It is a piece of 'investigative journalism' from Fox 11, the Los Angeles affiliate of the USA's most notorious news channel, Fox News.

The report centres on a loose-knit community of internet pranksters and 'hackers', and it's the most over-blown, sensationalistic piece of news reporting I have ever seen. I tried to pick out a high point of absurdity and just couldn't - Just when you think it can't get any more ridiculous, it does!


WINNER: Unintentionally Humorous TV Moment of the Year 2007 = Anonymous on Fox 11

Monday, 17 December 2007

5th Tube of Christmas: Guido Fawkes

With a few exceptions, the UK political blogosphere remains a self-contained corner of the web, with little cross-over with more convential media. The Guido Fawkes blog at order-order.com is one of those exceptions. Here's the voice of the man behind the blog, making an appearance in shadow on BBC's Newsnight programme with Nick Robinson and Jeremy Paxman.

As Tim Ireland put it, "Paul Staines is a twat, came across as a twat on Newsnight, and in doing so made all political bloggers look like twats".

RUNNER-UP: Unintentionally Humorous TV Moment 2007: Guido Fawkes 'appears' on Newsnight



Sunday, 16 December 2007

What Will It Take?

Even though I am generally up with current affairs, the contents of Henry Porter's Comment is Free article of December 12th served as a timely reminder of just how shocking New Labour's record on civil liberties since they came to power has been.

The article listed twenty-nine ways in which Labour has failed to 'deepen and extend civil liberties for all', as Jack Straw had previously claimed in a widely-derided article on the same site.

Porter's list1 included restrictions on the right to protest; eavesdropping legislation; ID cards & the 'database state'; new laws restricting freedom of speech; ASBOs; control orders; and detention without charge.

Commenters added to the list the Legislative & Regulatory Reform Bill2, the Civil Contingencies Act3, the NHS Spine (centralised database of medical records)4, the shoot-to-kill policy4, restriction of public inquiries5, the 'Dangerous Pictures Act'6. The smoking ban and hunting ban7 arguably also belong in the list.

Labour and their apologists have avoided anything that could remotely be construed as honest public discussion of the most clearly authoritarian and/or unnecessary of these. Given the unprecedented nature of the centralised database state (even if past authoritarian regimes had wanted to set up an NIR or NHS Spine, the technology did not exist for them to do so), this is an absolute travesty.

Instead, copious quantities of untruth and misdirection have been employed by Ministers and those in charge of these projects. The invocation of the abuse and neglect of Victoria Climbie to justify the introduction of the ContactPoint children's database8,9 was one particularly distasteful example. Another, perhaps out of ignorance, is the reference by Chancellor Darling to data on the National Identity Register being "biometrically secured"
and therefore invulnerable to loss or theft10. For sheer contempt for the voter, though, it's hard to beat the director general of NHS Connecting for Health, Richard Granger, for his statement on the difficulties in setting up the centralised patient records system11:

“The main problem we are facing are two extremities – waiting patients and privacy fascists and we are trying to find a pathway for the middle of the two.”

I don't think it really needs to be explained what is wrong with the above statement, and it is a particularly outrageous example of the genre. However, this sort of attitude to privacy and individual liberty is everywhere in the Government. People with genuine concerns; concerns that are backed by security experts such as Ross Anderson12 - are dismissed as paranoid and worse13
by apologists.

The Government claims regarding the security benefits of biometrics (following the HMRC data loss scandal) were demolished by Ben Goldacre14 so well three weeks ago that even Polly Toynbee15 admitted that the article is "devastating" to the case for the cards, and they will be an "expensive failure". However, this doesn't stop her reiterating her paranoia slur and calling civil liberties campaigners 'unduly obsessed' in the same Guardian column.

All this leaves me wondering: What will it take for Polly Toynbee to concede that the concerns of civil liberties campaigners are valid? It seems to me that there is nothing New Labour can do that would cause the likes of her to desert them. No matter what new illiberal legislation they bring in, how many lies they tell in support of it, how long they are willing to lock people up without trial for, and how much personal data they are going to store centrally and risk losing just like the HMRC data, we're still told that the alternative is worse.

I hope against hope that Polly will prove me wrong, and say enough is enough, but I'd bet any amount of money against it.
I fully expect come the next election we'll still be advised to don that nose-peg16.

1. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/henry_porter/2007/12/what_jack_straw_forgot_to_mention.html
2. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/henry_porter/2007/12/what_jack_straw_forgot_to_mention.html#comment-984957
3. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/henry_porter/2007/12/what_jack_straw_forgot_to_mention.html#comment-984989
4. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/henry_porter/2007/12/what_jack_straw_forgot_to_mention.html#comment-985224
5. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/henry_porter/2007/12/what_jack_straw_forgot_to_mention.html#comment-985357
6. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/henry_porter/2007/12/what_jack_straw_forgot_to_mention.html#comment-986266
7. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/henry_porter/2007/12/what_jack_straw_forgot_to_mention.html#comment-985162
8. http://archrights.wordpress.com/2007/11/24/security-assessment-of-contactpoint/
9. http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2007/12/05/against-contactpoint-latest/
10. http://dooooooom.blogspot.com/2007/11/biometrics-are-not-panacea-for-data.html
11. http://www.e-health-insider.com/News/2643/granger_says_'consultation'_led_to_records_delays
12. http://www.lightbluetouchpaper.org/2006/12/01/health-privacy-breaking-news/
13. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,1941210,00.html
14. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/nov/24/idcards.homeaffairs
15. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/polly_toynbee/2007/12/polly_toynbee.html
16. http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/election2005/archives/2005/04/13/hold_your_nose_and_vote_labour.html

4th Tube of Christmas: Lolcats

I turn my attention to Internet subculture for several of the remaining entries in the list, starting today with something of an oddity, which I expect most regular web-users will have come across at least once during the course of 2007. These doctored images of cats are thought to have originated in 2005 at 4chan, an underground image board where almost anything goes*. In January 2007 a dedicated website was set up. By mid-2007, they seemed to be everywhere!

WINNER: Internet Craze of the Year 2007 = LOLCATS




Jokes about US martial artist and actor Chuck Norris have been around on the web for years, centring on his tough, heroic image. The craze reached another level to most in November, however, when Republican candidate Mike Huckabee's campaign released a YouTube video interposing Huckabee facts with Chuck Norris jokes.

RUNNER-UP: Internet Craze Of The Year 2007 = HuckChuckFacts



* We'll meet 4chan again later in this list.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

3rd Tube of Christmas: Sicko

Michael Moore's follow-up to Fahrenheit 9/11 was a polemical documentary on a subject about which awareness-raising was sorely needed.

WINNER: Cinema Movie of the Year 2007: SICKO, by Michael Moore


Here is the official US trailer for the movie:




With 28-day detention without charge, bans on peaceful protest, the Identity Cards Act, ContactPoint, the RIP act etc. etc. (see Henry Porter's recent article for an (almost) complete list), New Labour's contempt for civil liberties over the past ten years has been scandalous.

RUNNER UP: Cinema Movie of the Year 2007: TAKING LIBERTIES

Here is the official trailer for the movie:

Friday, 14 December 2007

2nd Tube of Christmas: TAT

One of the live performances I most enjoyed this year was that of the female-fronted punk band TAT, supporting the Bouncing Souls in Newcastle in February.

WINNER: Non-Hit of the Year 2007 = TAT - 'Peace, Sex & Tea'





This really shouldn't work - A cover of a punk song (Bad Religion's '21st Century Digital Boy') that was written as a homage to a prog rock track (King Crimson's '21st Century Schizoid Man'), by a German dance band. Just trust me that it's worth a listen!

RUNNER-UP: Non-Hit of the Year 2007 = GROOVE COVERAGE - '21st Century Digital Girl'


Common Censorship

The BBC is happy to broadcast material that mocks Christianity, but when it comes to other religions it is a different story. There is a double standard - Is it acceptable?

Hat-tip: Commenter raider111 at Comment is Free for making me aware of the Mail on Sunday article discussed below.

An article in the Mail on Sunday published in October 2006 described an 'impartiality summit' called by BBC chairman Michael Grade1. BBC executives are described as agreeing that 'a Bible could be shown to be thrown into a dustbin on a comedy programme ('Room 101'), but not a Koran', and admitting that the Corporation:

"...deliberately promotes multiculturalism, is anti-American, anti-countryside and more sensitive to the feelings of Muslims than Christians"
In response to the article, an Editors Blog2 at the BBC News website written by Helen Boaden that, well, doesn't refute most of the claims of the article, apart from one dubious description of the summit as having been 'secret'.

Can anyone seriously deny that the BBC is 'more sensitive to the feelings of Muslims than Christians'? The 'Jerry Springer: The Opera' controversy, in which a performance of a play considered by some Christians to be a 'wilful denigration' of their beliefs3 was broadcast in full on the BBC is perhaps the most-cited example of the double standard. Indeed, the evangelists who brought a blasphemy case against the BBC made essentially the same point:
"The show was...one that no-one would dream of making about the prophet Mohammed and Islam — two judges were told."3

This issue reared its head once again this week with the announcement that "the BBC's version of the Nativity this Christmas will depict Mary and Joseph as asylum seekers rejected by brutal Britain"4. Iain Dale, hardly a seasoned BBC-basher, made essentially the same point in response5:
"We look forward to the BBC Drama Department making insulting dramas about other religions. No names, no pack drill. But they won't. They would be too scared of the reaction, whereas they think Christians and Jews will just sit there and take it. One day they may be surprised." - Iain Dale
As did Charles Moore, writing in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday that he would "bet Jonathan Ross's salary" that the BBC would not make even a sympathetic drama about the life of Mohammed6.

You can't seriously deny that, as reported by the Mail on Sunday1, the BBC are more sensitive to the feelings of Muslims than Christians. And, honestly, I haven't even seen a serious attempt at it. Pro-BBC bloggers and commentators dance around this issue rather than confronting it. Sunny Hundal on Comment is Free on Monday7 is typical of this. He quotes Iain Dale's post above, calls it an 'example of muddled thinking', but doesn't even try to argue that the BBC's treatment of Christianity isn't unfair when compared to that of Islam - Because it is, and Hundal knows it.

The discussion on this issue I took part in today on an unrelated Comment is Free thread, Theo Hobson's 'Nothing is Sacred'8 centred not on whether the double standard exists, but whether it is right. (Hobson, too, acknowledges that the BBC "would not dare to make a film about the life of Muhammad"). The rationale for this espoused by commenters 'diotavelli' and 'necroflange': That it's common sense in the face of militancy.

diotavelli: "The BBC should not self-censor so that Muslim fundamentalists won't get upset - but there is a strong case to say they should self-censor if the alternative is that people will die needlessly...Principles matter but some battles are more worth fighting than others."

necroflange: "It is a pragmatic and obvious fact that mocking these minority groups will (a) bring a huge storm of contraversy and (b) pander to prejudiced elements already present within our society. So why be bloody minded about it? It would be idiotic of the BBC to start some huge storm of controversy for the sake of some bizarre idea of balancing out the insults.
Sometimes pragmatism has to trump principle."

Remember, we're not talking about a newspaper where if you are unhappy with the political slant or religious favouritism you can buy something else or go without. Like it or not, none of us - Christian or Muslim, socialist or libertarian, Labour or Tory - have that option with the BBC. In fact even if we only want to watch DVDs on a TV, and never watch the Beeb at all, we still have to fund them. So isn't it time there was at the very least an honest debate about this situation, rather than weaselling and half-baked denials.

Because if there can't be openness about admitting such an obvious, and perhaps justifiable (if you accept the arguments of diotavelli and necroflange - I do not) case of imbalance, why should anyone be prepared to believe that the Corporation are committed to impartiality in other matters?

More:
BBC Impartiality Guidelines
Biased BBC Blog


1. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=411846&in_page_id=1770
2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2006/10/bias_at_the_bbc.html
3. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article2908833.ece
4. http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/393311/the-bash-britain-corporation.thtml
5. http://www.iaindale.blogspot.com/2007/12/bbc-casts-jesus-mary-as-asylum-seekers.html
6. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2007/12/08/do0805.xml
7.
http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/sunny_hundal/2007/12/a_festive_gathering_to_avoid.html
8. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/theo_hobson/2007/12/nothing_is_sacred.html

Thursday, 13 December 2007

1st Tube of Christmas: Mika

One of the most distinctive and memorable new pop acts in many a year burst onto the scene in January, won several awards, had a top selling album in 'Life in Cartoon Motion', and surely the song of 2007.

WINNER: Hit Song of the Year 2007 = MIKA - 'Grace Kelly'




The latter half of 2007 belonged to the female solo artist. There was headline-grabbing Amy Winehouse; there was radio favourite Kate Nash. And then there was this...

RUNNER-UP: Hit Song of the Year 2007 = FEIST - '1234'


The 12 Youtubes of Christmas

So with twelve days to go until Christmas Day, it seems as good a time as any to begin a retrospective of 2007. The website that has probably attracted more media coverage than any other this year is Facebook - but embedding 12 Facebook profiles into blog posts wouldn't work very well, so I've chosen to go down the Youtube road. From today until Christmas Eve, I'll be posting a video that represents some aspect of the year just gone, starting with the 1st (You)tube of Christmas, the Hit Song of the Year.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Sceptical Libertarian

Chris Dillow at Stumbling & Mumbling has a good, thoughtful post up about the 'two libertarianisms'; two different attitudes to markets and governments that he describes as 'utopian' and 'sceptical'.

As the title of this post suggests, I identify more with the second of these 'libertarianisms' rather more than the first: "markets and governments both fail [to maximise well-being]...because society and big organizations are unmanageable. Our choice is between the centrist errors of the state and the (smaller?) dispersed ones of markets.".

Perhaps because I perceive the errors in thinking from those who believe in statist utopianism to be more egregious and larger in scale (see this recent post, or just about any Polly Toynbee column you care to choose), I can perhaps come across on here, and even more so when responding to the authoritarians on CiF, as one of the first type - one who believes that markets maximise well-being.

This is not the case at all. You don't have to look too far for counter-examples to that particular statement. The USA's health insurance 'market' is one example. Another, in the UK this time, was provided by the recent revelation that at least seven companies including three of the country's major supermarkets colluded to fix the prices of dairy products1. It's hardly a well-kept secret that businesses and businesspeople act to maximise their own well-being, not that of society as a whole*.

However, the converse of this is true as well. There's a quote at the top of arch-bloggertarian Devil's Kitchen's blog2 from right-wing US humorist PJ O'Rourke that bears repeating at this point:

"Politics is the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit." - PJ O'Rourke
I get the impression from reading some left-wing blogs that their authors somehow believe that politicians, particularly of the Labour variety, are a superior sub-species of Homo sapiens, somehow immune from the failings and foibles of the rest of us (and evil capitalists in particular). So despite all of the evidence to the contrary (I don't really need to provide links do I? You've read a newspaper in the past month?), leftists continue to push for ever-greater authoritarianism. The current trend is for climate change3 to be used as the justification for this. If it isn't climate change, it's 'child poverty'4. If it isn't 'child poverty', it's terrorists5. Whatever the problem, the solution is always the same - More centralisation, more authority, more power in the hands of Government.

In my opinion, no issue betrays this tendency more than that of the growing 'database state'. The loss of 25 million child benefit records has not deterred New Labour from collecting and storing and centralising more and more personal data. Through ignorance or by design, they mislead the public time (on the effectiveness of biometrics), and time (on the motivation behind the ContactPoint childrens' database), and time (on the benefits of the ID cards project) again.

There is no easy solution to the outlined dilemma. State socialism and anarcho-capitalism are extremes, and given the basic fact that states and businesses both are run by human beings, both are utopian. It is impossible for the populace to make all of the political decisions that will end up affecting their lives, so some representational element is required. As Sir Winston Churchill is quoted on the subject, "it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time". All that remains to be debated is which form of democracy would provide the best outcomes, in terms of individual liberty and general well-being.

Personally, I believe that a more direct democracy would be superior to the current modus operandi, that places too much power in the hands of a select few whose main focus is being re-elected and obtaining funding to do so. That is, however, a complex subject deserving of a full exploration another day.


1. http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/business_money/supermarkets+fined+for+dairy+cartel/1153947
2. http://devilskitchen.me.uk
3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2225387,00.html
4. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2225566,00.html
5. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4705390.stm

* Doubtless, some of the negatives I've hinted at here are partly a function of the interplay between states and corporate entities. That too is a subject for another post another day.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

CiFView: Three Questions

I'll be away for a short while due to work commitments. With reference to this post on Liberal Conspiracy, here are three questions to ponder while I'm away...

1) Who said of a prominent British politician: "Jester, toff, self-absorbed sociopath and serial liar, the man could still win."?

2) Who referred to opponents of the EU reform treaty as "Euro-crazies" and "Euro-hysterics"?

3) Who described a British icon dead for ten years as "a sad neurotic", "brainless" and "a celebrity who believed her own hype"?


UPDATE: 8/12
This was posted in response to Paulie (of 'Bloggertarians' fame). The answers to the questions above are:

1) Polly Toynbee, in her Guardian column entitled 'Boris, The Jester, Toff, Serial Liar and Sociopath for Mayor', published on July 17th 2007 (Link)

2) Polly Toynbee, in her Guardian column entitled 'We can't let the Euro-crazies drag us out of the club', published on October 16th 2007 (Link)

3) Polly Toynbee, in her Comment is Free article entitled 'Live and Let Di' on April 27th 2007 (Link)

Full explanation: here, follow-up post here.
The latest installment in the 'Bloggertarians' saga is up at Paulie's blog here.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Power Grab

The link between environmental scaremongering and support for statism bordering on the totalitarian has hardly gone un-noticed, but rarely has the power grab been advocated so openly as in a comment article printed in today's Guardian1.

The article, entitled 'Eat, drink and be miserable: The true cost of our addiction to shopping' starts blandly enough with a typical environmentalist's lament, followed by a segment of anti-consumerism. The sting is in the tail - specifically, the final paragraph:

"...In the early 1940s, a dramatic drop in household consumption was achieved - not by relying on the good intentions of individuals...but by the government orchestrating a massive propaganda exercise combined with a rationing system and a luxury tax. This will be the stuff of 21st-century politics - something that, right now, all of the main political parties are much too scared to admit." - Madeleine Bunting
There it is. Bunting (a regular columnist in the Guardian, the newspaper beloved of the public sector above all others) has implied that we should have "rationing", and to get us to accept it there should be "massive propaganda".

They know best. Individuals in British society cannot make our own decisions about how much to buy (not to mention how much to eat2, how much to drink3, whether or not to smoke4). No-one is actually capable of making any informed decisions in this country. So the Government has to make our minds up for us. And if that means brainwashing people with alarmist bullshit, so much the better.

I know, I know. I said5 I wouldn't use this blog to rant and swear. But this shit is dangerous. It's hardly likely that people would vote for austerity were the idea of introducing rationing put to the vote in a national referendum. Furthermore, it is likely that, in a democracy, any party that imposed such measures as Bunting suggests would be voted out at the soonest possible opportunity. Therefore it is not unreasonable to interpret this and arguments like it as a brazen call for the overturning of same - i.e. for totalitarianism.

Fortunately, aside from being dismayed by Bunting today, I read at PJC Journal that a new political party has just been set up - the Libertarian Party6. On this sort of evidence, despite some of the policy I consider it to be a very timely development.
"The current 'state must run everything' mentality will be put to rest. The corruption within politics will be rooted out, and those guilty of abusing their positions of power will be brought to book." - From the Libertarian Party press release, reproduced at PJC Journal6

1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2220838,00.html
2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2220572,00.html
3. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/emily_hill/2007/10/drink_drivel.html
4. http://politics.guardian.co.uk/consultations/story/0,,1549508,00.html
5. http://questionthat.me.uk/2007/10/hello-welcome.html
6. http://thejournal.parker-joseph.co.uk/blog/_archives/2007/12/1/3385439.html

Saturday, 1 December 2007

The Information Mine

Before it was called the World Wide Web, the system of interlinked hypertext documents was intended to be named The Information Mine (TIM) by its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee - until he decided that would look too egoistic1.

In retrospect, how apposite that name would have been! The concentration of information available to just about everyone (in the Western world at least) is utterly phenomenal - and though we use it every day few of us spend much time reflecting on how it has changed the way we relate to information.

As a science undergraduate student, when I began my degree only a few journals were available online, and I would spend long afternoons in the library, photocopying papers of interest out of bound folders of back issues. Now, as a graduate student a paper of interest that is not online is a very rare exception to the rule.

It's the same for blogging (and journalism in general). 15-20 years ago the idea of having back issues of newspapers and magazines at your fingertips, to be searched by typing some word or phrase into a box on a computer screen, or browsed through a directory (such as LexisNexis2), would have seemed like a journalist's dream - Now it's as though it were never different.

All of us are familiar with certain websites. Names like Google, Wikipedia, Ebay, YouTube and Facebook have permeated our society and need no introduction. But listed below are 5 websites that I personally consider especially valuable outposts of the World Wide Web that you may not have heard of:


Ian's 'Hidden Gems of the Web':

  • BoardReader - I find discussion forums (otherwise known as 'message boards') to rank alongside blogs as one of the most useful aspects of the social web, providing a kind of (usually) moderated web equivalent of newsgroups. BoardReader does for forums what Google Blogsearch or Technorati do for blogs.
    If you like this, you might also like: BoardTracker, Google Groups.

  • BuzzFeed - The newest website on this list. Find out what people on the web are talking about. Self-explanatory, really - until you see some of the things this links to. From 'All Your Base'3 through Leeroy Jenkins4 to Lolcats5, the web's subculture is something to behold.
    If you like this, you might also like: Encyclopedia Dramatica, eBaum's World (neither of these are work-safe).

  • Everything2 - Like Wikipedia. With commentary - but it's not a discussion forum. With poetry and songs - but it's no Myspace. And with silliness - but not too much, it's not Uncyclopedia either (if you like pure unadulterated daftness, that site's worth a look too). I wouldn't use it as a reference, but it's highly entertaining and surprisingly informative along with it.

  • MoneySavingExpert - The articles on the website by consumer guru Martin Lewis are worth a read, but the real gold-mine (in both senses of the word) here is this site's discussion forums. This is possibly the best example I've come across of a really well-run, active, dedicated online community which will give you advice on anything from credit cards to entering competitions.
    If you like this, you might also like: HotUKDeals, Two Plus Two forums.

  • Snopes - Otherwise known as the Urban Legends Reference Pages, this essential site is the authority on urban legends, chain letters, scams and internet humour. If you want to check whether some rumour that has arrived in your inbox is true or not, come here. If you want to be entertained by tall tales, amused by some of the daft hearsay people take as gospel because they read it on the internet, and horrified by some bizarre pictures and lurid warnings of doom, have a browse of this site.
    One caveat (apart from the above) - This site has some rather annoying (and dated) pop-up and banner advertising.
    If you like this, you might also like: The Straight Dope, ScamBusters.

1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/dec/01/timbernerslee.weekendmagazine
2. http://www.lexisnexis.com/news/
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Your_Base_Are_Belong_To_Us
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leeroy_Jenkins
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lolcat

Friday, 30 November 2007

It's Just Not Good Enough

"I confirm that it is Home Office policy to remove political dissidents to Uzbekistan"
- Response to a letter to the Home Office by MP Bob Marshall-Andrews regarding Jahongir Sidikov, reported by Craig Murray.
Well, the relieving news that Thursday brought regarding this horrifying situation was that Sidikov's deportation has been "postponed". It is may be that Marshall-Andrews' efforts1 in his capacity as an MP were what brought this about. A Tuesday evening report by the one mainstream media outlet to put their heads above the parapet on this case - Channel 42 - may also have played a part.

Whatever it is that persuaded the Home Office to back off from delivering Sidikov into the hands of the Uzbek security services on Wednesday, it does not look as though an actual reversal of the astonishing policy move to start deporting dissidents to Uzbekistan is on the Government's agenda. It has to be asked: Do they not know what goes on there? Or do they just not give a fuck?

Craig Murray1 points to the pressure on the Government to appear 'tough' on asylum seekers which emanates from certain quarters of the media:
"But she [the case judge] was merely indicative of the general mindset of the "Fast-track", a disgraceful device by which the government seeks to curry favour with the tabloids by increasing deportation numbers...Boosting New Labour with focus groups infinitely outweighs the torture to death of the odd dissident."
It is clear what the stakes are who those who fall foul of this particularly inhuman efficiency drive. I had hoped in the beginning that this was all a big mistake, borne of bureaucratic officials who do not know any better treating this man's life as just another set of documents to be filed away.

On the back of the information provided by the Home Office to Bob Marshall-Andrews, and considering also the Government's treatment of a separate group of asylum seekers* who are at serious risk of torture and execution3, that hope now seems somewhat naive.

In both cases, it appeared at first that they were careless. Now it seems that they just could not care less. What an awful observation to make about those in charge of this supposed beacon of civilisation.


1. http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2007/11/a_chance_to_fig.html
2. http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/politics/international_politics/deportation+fears+for+uzbek+man/1107647
3. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article2211281.ece

*There is I'm pleased to say a separate bloggers' campaign to urge the Government to give the Iraqi interpreters who worked for the British army asylum and save them from the militias.
Read more: Dan Hardie.
Watch Tim Ireland's video 'The plight of Iraqi interpreters (explained with post-it notes)' here.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Biometrics Are Not A Panacea For Data Loss

Reproduced from Blogzilla, blog of Internet expert and former directory of Privacy International Dr Ian Brown (in my opinion the most under-rated British blog). Just look at the signatories on this:

Mr Andrew Dismore MP
Chair, Joint Committee on Human Rights
Committee Office
House of Commons
7 Millbank
London SW1P 3JA

cc: Committee members; David Smith, Deputy Information Commissioner

26 November 2007

Dear Mr Dismore,

The government, in response to the recent HMRC Child Benefit data breach, has asserted that personal information on the proposed National Identity Register (NIR) will be 'biometrically secured':

"The key thing about identity cards is, of course, that information is protected by personal biometric information. The problem at present is that, because we do not have that protection, information is much more vulnerable than it should be." - The Chancellor, Hansard Column 1106, 20/11/07

"What we must ensure is that identity fraud is avoided, and the way to avoid identity fraud is to say that for passport information we will have the biometric support that is necessary, so that people can feel confident that their identity is protected." - The Prime Minister, Hansard Column 1181, 21/11/07


These assertions are based on a fairy-tale view of the capabilities of the technology, and in addition, only deal with one aspect of the problems that this type of data breach causes.

Ministers assert that people's information will be 'protected' because it will be much harder for someone to pass themselves off as another individual if a biometric check is made. This presupposes that:

(a) the entire population can be successfully biometrically enrolled onto the National Identity Register, and successfully matched on every occasion thereafter - which is highly unlikely, given the performance of biometrics across mass populations generally and especially their poor performance in the only, relatively small-scale, trial to date (UKPS enrolment trial, 2004). Groups found to have particular problems with biometric checks include the elderly, the disabled and some ethnic groups such as Asian women;

(b) biometrics are 'unforgeable' - which is demonstrably untrue. Biometric systems have been compromised by 'spoofing' and other means on numerous occasions and, as the technology develops, techniques for subverting the systems evolve too;

(c) every ID check will be authenticated by a live biometric check against the biometric stored on the NIR or at the very least against the biometric stored on the chip on the ID card which is itself verified against the NIR. [N.B. This would represent a huge leap in the cost of the scheme which at present proposes only to check biometrics for 'high value' transactions. The network of secure biometric readers alone (each far more complex and expensive than, e.g. a Chip & PIN card reader) would add billions to the cost of rollout and maintenance.]

Even if, in this fairy-tale land, it came to pass that (a) (b) and (c) were true after all (which we consider most unlikely), the proposed roll-out of the National Identity Scheme would mean that this level of 'protection' would not - on the Home Office's own highly optimistic projections - be extended to the entire population before the end of the next decade (i.e. 2020) at the earliest.

Furthermore, biometric checks at the time of usage do not of themselves make any difference whatsoever to the possibility of the type of disaster that has just occurred at HMRC. This type of data leakage, which occurs regularly across Government, will continue to occur until there is a radical change in the culture both of system designer and system users. The safety, security and privacy of personal data has to become the primary requirement in the design, implementation, operation and auditing of systems of this kind.

The inclusion of biometric data in one's NIR record would make such a record even more valuable to fraudsters and thieves as it would - if leaked or stolen - provide the 'key' to all uses of that individual's biometrics (e.g. accessing personal or business information on a laptop, biometric access to bank accounts, etc.) for the rest of his or her life. Once lost, it would be impossible to issue a person with new fingerprints. One cannot change one's fingers as one can a bank account.

However, this concentration on citizens 'verifying' their identity when making transactions is only one issue amongst many when considering the leakage of personal data. Large-scale losses of personal data can have consequences well beyond an increase in identity fraud. For example, they could be potentially fatal to individuals such as the directors of Huntingdon Life Sciences, victims of domestic violence or former Northern Ireland ministers.

It is therefore our strongest recommendation that further development of a National Identity Register or National Identity Scheme (including biometric visas and ePassports) should be suspended until such time that research and development work has established beyond reasonable doubt that these are capable of operating securely, effectively and economically on the scale envisaged.

Government systems have so far paid little attention to privacy. Last week's events have very significant implications indeed for future government information systems development.

We would be pleased to clarify any of these points or provide further information if useful to the Committee.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Ross Anderson
Dr Richard Clayton
University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory

Dr Ian Brown
Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Dr Brian Gladman
Ministry of Defence and NATO (retired)

Professor Angela Sasse
University College London Department of Computer Science

Martyn Thomas CBE FREng

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Sidikov: Deportation Rescheduled for Tomorrow

From Craig Murray's latest post:

Firstly, and most importantly, Wednesday 28 November has now been set as the date for Jahongir Sidikov's deportation. The Home Office have received an impressive number of representations, including a united one from effectively all of Uzbekistan's opposition and human rights groups. We now need a further push to try to save this man's life.
It is seriously disheartening that despite this, and the efforts of what being realistic is a small proportion of active political bloggers (listed here and here), publicity has been very sparse. There has been nothing in the mainstream media whatsoever, not even on Comment is Free which I find very surprising.

This is an appalling and surely noteworthy case that would set a seriously worrying precedent should deportation go ahead. I find it extremely difficult to believe - it would require incompetence and dereliction of duty on an extraordinary scale - that all involved in this case are ignorant of the facts regarding Uzbekistan's record of torture and execution of political and human rights activists as reported by numerous independent sources (summarised here). The alternative, however, hardly bears thinking about.

UPDATE 28/11 1320: At last a breakthrough on mainstream media! More4 News report on Sidikov's case.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Hate To Say It

Should offence caused and potential threat to public order be sufficient to deny people with repulsive views their right to free speech, provided they do not break the law?

It is at least safe to say that tonight's Free Speech Forum at the Oxford Union debating society has caused quite a bit of controversy. From the multiple discussions on the subject at Comment is Free1,2 and elsewhere3,4, to the UAF5 protesters currently gathering outside the venue [as I write, 30 of them have now pushed their way into the venue and are staging a sit-down protest that has postponed the 'debate'], the issue of freedom of speech has once again shown its ability to polarise and confound.

We already do not have absolute freedom of speech in this country. Restrictions on speech include slander, incitement to violence, and now the encouragement of terrorism6. There is not the expectation that Nick Griffin (BNP leader) and David Irving (history author infamous for Holocaust denial*) will contravene these laws this evening.

But do the above laws go far enough? Unite Against Fascism, organisers of tonight's demonstration7 against the invitation of the two, cite the "violence and intimidation"5 that the likes of Griffin and Irving bring in their wake. OUSU, Oxford University's student union, also voted to oppose the invitation.

The views of Griffin and Irving are transparently hateful, bigoted and ignorant, and there is little question that they have the potential to inflame bigotry and hate in others. The question is, should this be enough for them to be restrained from exercising their right to free speech, with the proviso that they obey British law as it currently stands, whether that be by 'no platform' policies or sit-down protesters?

That is by no means an easy question to answer. One counter-argument to UAF's that is to my mind clearly worthy of consideration was well put by commenter Scott Free at Harry's Place4 in response to Peter Tatchell's pro-'no platform' article, in which he paraphrases part of Tatchell's argument as follows:

"Let’s go back in history. It is possible that if there had been no free speech for [Karl Marx] and the [Communist] Party in Germany during the early 1920s – if their meetings and marches had been stopped – they may not have grown in strength and influence. Denying them an opportunity to propagandise, gain respectability and enter the political mainstream might have thwarted their rise to power. This may have prevented the [Communists] from assuming the government of [Russia]. Without [Lenin] in power, the [Ukranian Genocide] and World War Two may not have happened. Tens of millions of lives may have been saved if the free speech of [Communists] had been suppressed early on.

This is, of course, historical speculation. We don’t know for sure. But it is plausible that “no platform” for [Communists] in the 1920s could have prevented the horrors the [Communists] later perpetrated. On these grounds, I would argue that it would have been justified to deny the [Communist] Party freedom of speech."

Still sound like a good idea?- Scott Free9

Some might say in response to this "Er, yes!". Just as many might be mortally offended by the suggestion of denying advocates of far-left ideologies freedom of speech on this basis.

Similar arguments could be made regarding some of the more extreme religious ideologies, and perhaps extreme anti-religious ideologies too. Some environmentalists might argue that scepticism regarding climate change (tellingly, referred to as 'denialism') is a harmful idea that should be suppressed. Less extreme (but still hateful) forms of Nick Griffin's racist anti-immigration ideology are propagated by pundits in mainstream newspapers. Should they too be censored? Basically, once you begin to restrict the propagation of ideas based on a perception or supposition of harm or offence caused, outside of law, where does it end?

Do we really want to go down that road? Within the law, the principles of liberty and freedom of expression should be upheld.

1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2217014,00.html
2. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/brian_klug/2007/11/oxford_in_wonderland.html
3. http://blog.prospectblogs.com/2007/11/26/free-speech-for-some/
4. http://hurryupharry.bloghouse.net/archives/2007/11/26/do_fascists_have_a_right_to_free_speech.php
5. http://www.uaf.org.uk/news.asp?choice=71123
6. http://www.england-legislation.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts2006/ukpga_20060011_en_2#pt1-pb1-l1g1
7. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/oxfordshire/7113984.stm
8. http://zoo.ousu.org/main/news/ousu-council-votes-to-oppose-nick-griffin-and-david-irving
9. http://hurryupharry.bloghouse.net/archives/2007/11/26/do_fascists_have_a_right_to_free_speech.php (Comments, 26/11/07, 8:40)

* Irving sued US historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel in the UK for calling him a Holocaust denier in her book on the subject. The judge ruled against Irving and found Lipstadt's claims against him to be "substantially true"
.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Substantial Grounds: Update

Further to the evidence from a variety of human rights groups and other concerned parties of torture and repression in Uzbekistan, a new statement has been put out by Human Rights Watch, making urgent recommendations in response to a UN report1.

Hat-tips: andy cyan at Craig Murray's blog (18:03, 24/11); b at Craig Murray's blog (15:56, 25/11).

"In a highly critical assessment made public today (Friday), the committee concluded that torture and ill-treatment remain “widespread” in Uzbekistan and continue to occur with “impunity.”"
"The 10 independent experts making up the [UN Committee against Torture] panel noted a range of concerns about...numerous, ongoing, and consistent allegations concerning routine use of torture...committed by law enforcement and investigative personnel, or with their instigation or consent."
A fortnight ago, an asylum court ruled against Jahongir Sidikov in a fast-track deportation hearing2. They 'didn't believe' there is a genuine threat to the political activist's life in Uzbekistan, and they 'didn't believe' that he will be subject to torture and human rights abuses3.

Therefore, they denied the conclusions of the UN Committee against Torture, The US Department of State, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Craig Murray (ex-UK ambassador to Uzbekistan), and also the leader of the banned opposition party (ERK) of which Sidikov is a member, Muhammad Salih4 - They said his letter was not genuine3.

In Murray's words4, "they got it disastrously wrong".

1. http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/11/23/uzbeki17406.htm
2. http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2007/11/jahongir_sidiko.html (Craig Murray, Comments 25/11, 22:39)
3. http://freecommonwealth.blogspot.com/2007/11/jahongir-sidikovs-story.html
4. http://www.muhammadsalih.info/englishms/index1.htm

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Substantial Grounds

Why it is illegal under international law (and of course utterly morally wrong) for the UK to deport dissidents such as Jahongir Sidikov to Uzbekistan.

The UK is a state party1,2 of the UN Convention Against Torture3, Article 3 of which states that:

1. No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

2. For the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.

Craig Murray, ex British Ambassador to Uzbekistan resigned from the Foreign Office in February 2005 over Western support for the brutal dictatorship of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan4. Prior to that he was removed from his post as Ambassador following the leaking of a memo that stated that Uzbek security services abuse prisoners, to extract often dubious information, or even to kill.5
"We are selling our souls for dross" - Craig Murray5
Craig Murray is not the only human rights campaigner raising the issue of torture in Uzbekistan.

Amnesty International's 2005 report on Uzbekistan6 stated that "Evidence reportedly obtained under torture was routinely admitted in court and there was no presumption of innocence" and that the death penalty, including "secret executions" is continuing on a large scale.

Human Rights Watch released a 92-page report entitled 'Nowhere to Turn: Torture and Ill-treatment in Uzbekistan' (PDF) earlier this month7. In it, it is stated that "torture remains a serious problem" (under 'The Scope of Torture'). Surat Ikramov of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders is quoted in the report as follows:
“Everyone who comes in [to talk to me] says there is torture. In fact, I do not remember a single case where someone was held in detention and not tortured.”
Human Rights Watch describe common methods of torture to include: "Beatings with truncheons and bottles filled with water, electric shock, asphyxiation with plastic bags and gas masks, sexual humiliation, and threats of physical harm to relatives.". In 2002, two religious prisoners, Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov were tortured to death8. In 2005, human rights activist Elena Urlaeva was committed to a psychiatric institution and forcibly drugged for distributing anti-Karimov material9.

Repression of human rights activists and dissidents is reported by Human Rights Watch to have worsened significantly since the 2005 Andijan massacre, in which hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed by Uzbek security forces in the city of Andijan in Eastern Uzbekistan10.

Finally, the US Department of State reported on Human Rights in Uzbekistan in 200611,12, and found that:
"Security forces routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees under interrogation to obtain confessions or incriminating information."Section 1(c) of this United States Government report describes several instances of torture in detail, including two human rights activists, Azam Farmonov and Alisher Karamatov, who were reportedly:
"...[Subjected] to torture and abuse during pretrial detention before their June 15 conviction (see section 4), including dropping them onto concrete floors, forcing needles under their fingernails, suffocating them with gas masks, and burning their skin with lighted cigarettes." - US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor12

Once again, it is illegal under International Law to expel or return a person to a state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

If the above does not constitute substantial grounds, what the hell does?

Jahongir Sidikov must stay in Britain.

1. http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2007/11/save_jahongir_s.html
2. http://www.ohchr.org/english/bodies/ratification/9.htm
3. http://www.ohchr.org/english/law/cat.htm
4. http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2005/04/was_craig_murra.html
5. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3732488.stm
6. http://web.amnesty.org/report2005/uzb-summary-eng
7. http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/11/07/uzbeki17229.htm
8. http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article3943.htm (Horrific images)
9. http://www.bloggerheads.com/archives/2005/10/elena_urlaeva.asp
10. http://hrw.org/campaigns/andijan/
11. http://freecommonwealth.blogspot.com/2007/11/save-jahongir-sidikov-no-deportations.html
12. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78848.htm