Where next for open data?

It's been a big year for the UK government's open data agenda. Chris Yiu reviews what's been achieved and asks what needs to happen next.

Way back in 2011, the government's consultations on Making Open Data Real and Data Policy for a Public Data Corporation left many people - including org  - wondering whether the government's heart was really in it. Now that the dust has settled around the government's recent open data white paper, it's worth pausing to reflect on where we are.

For the first time ever, the white paper was accompanied by a set of departmental open data strategies. The government's central data repository, data.gov.uk, has had a long-overdue overhaul. Following a raft of open data measures in the autumn statement, a new Data Strategy Board (DSB) has been established to advise Ministers on maximising the value of data from the Public Data Group (PDG) for long-term economic and social benefit. A new Open Data User Group will advise the DSB on priorities for open data releases. On the edges of government, a new Open Data Institute has funding to demonstrate and exploit the commercial potential of open data.

These are real steps forward. It's important to remember, however, that the big prize isn't really about getting more strategies published, extracting promises to review legislation, or breathless announcements about how many data sets are now online. The game is won only when open is the default position for public data – where openness is set out in the admirably clear Open Definition, and public data means everything bar that which would prejudice privacy, national security or sensitive advice to Ministers.

We are not there yet, but there is still hope. In his foreword to the white paper, Francis Maude writes "we are unflinching in our belief that data that can be published should be published". The white paper goes on to talk about "a culture that supports a presumption to publish... where data owners in the public sector look to release the data they hold... as part of business as usual".

As is so often the case when technology meets the public sector, the road ahead is more about people than it is about hardware, software or systems. Here then are three big challenges to overcome on the next phase of the UK's open data journey:

  • Embedding the presumption to publish. The first pledge in the first chapter of the Conservative Technology Manifesto said "we will create a powerful new right to government data". Until this is achieved, we remain too reliant on forward thinking officials to get data out – fine while it lasts, but not the most sustainable approach if data really is the raw material for the 21st century. At present there is no strong incentive – carrot or stick – for public sector organisations to live by the presumption to publish. The government is grappling with a similar sort of cultural challenge as it tries to embed digital-by-default as the new operating model for the public sector.

  • Unlocking core reference data in its entirety. Basic geographic data in particular is often the bridge that allows other datasets to be combined and put to imaginative use. Much more open data is coming out of the PDG (made up of Companies House, the Ordnance Survey, the Met Office and HM Land Registry) than ever before – but there are still questions to answer about whether the Shareholder Executive's commercial objectives can ever truly be squared with opening up all the public data they hold. The future of the Postcode Address File is another long-running saga that still needs to be resolved.

  • Staying strategic. The recent surge of activity on open data has put an unprecedented number of bodies, boards, interactions and interdependencies in play (see page 18 in the DSB / PDG Terms of Reference for a simplified version of the landscape). These will need to find a way to work effectively together, and to avoid getting too distracted by micro demands at the expense of forcing a transformation in the way the public sector thinks about data. We also need to exercise caution whenever conversations start to edge toward sharing, linking or anonymising personal data. This is an important topic that merits more attention – but is well outside classic open data territory and the two should not be conflated.

None of these will be easy to achieve. Nevertheless, the open data revolution has the potential to deliver significant economic, social and political benefits. And the longer transparency beds in, and the further technology advances, the harder it will be for things to go backward. Sooner or later we will reach a world where public data is truly open. We just need to decide whether we are gutsy enough to head straight for it.


Chris Yiu is Head of the Digital Government Unit at the think tank Policy Exchange, where he authored the report A Right To Data. He is also a member of the new Coalition for a Public Interest Data Policy and sits on the Data Strategy Board. You can connect with him on Twitter: @PXDigitalGov

Image: CC-BY-SA Rubber Dragon

Feature Interview: Jane Park on the School of Open

Peer 2 Peer University and Creative Commons are joining together in a collaborative project called the School of Open. In advance of their virtual sprint today, ORG interviewed Jane Park the School of Open Project Manager to discuss openness, the collaboration and how the School will work.

 Ruth Coustick, ORGzine Editor, interviewed Jane Park at Creative Commons, on the School of Open, a new education collaboration with the Peer 2 Peer University.


Ruth: Could you start by telling us who you are and what you do?

 Jane: So my name is Jane Park and I am currently in a transition state at Creative Commons. I work for Creative Commons' organisation. I was the Communications Manager and right now I am transitioning to be the Project Manager for Education, so pretty much any work that Creative Commons is doing in education, particularly open education, I will be managing projects within that realm. One of the main projects I'll be managing is the School of Open project which is a collaboration between Creative Commons and the Peer to Peer University. P2PU, as you know, is an online grass-roots open education initiative that is working to build a community of peer learners where you don’t have to pay for an education and you don’t have to join an institution in order to eventually gain some sort of certification or accreditation to say that you learnt some kind of specific skill set or competencies.


Ruth: What is it you mean by 'open education'?

 Jane: OK so open education is actually a movement that dates back about 10 years ago, probably about when Creative Commons licenses were first created.

It is basically education as we know it -when you go online you can access things for free, such as Wikipedia or certain online courses or syllabi that people put online. But when it comes to reuse of those materials it is not always clear whether you can reuse them because of the copyright or other legal terms of use around that.

So Open Educational Resources [OER] are resources that have been openly licensed, either under Creative Commons license or another copyright license that allows for free and open reuse or remix or redistribution, by any member of the public. So for example, Wikipedia are OER because they are under Creative Commons attribute share-alike license which allows anyone to copy, distribute, remix, translate and adapt an article as long as they provide credit to Wikipedia.

If they do make a derivative work based on a Wikipedia article, they just have to share-alike under the exact same Creative Commons license


Ruth: Who are you targeting with the School of Open? Is it aimed at people who are already interested in Creative Commons, or are you trying to get those who don't even know about it involved?

 Jane: Both, actually. So we want people who already know about Creative Commons license and open education and openness in different sectors, such as museums or science or research. We want those people to get involved to help build and run courses at the School of Open that teach people who don't know about open tools and open practices or open standards how openness relies and relates to those fields. We want the lay person and the experts all involved together and we want them to be teaching and learning from each other.


Ruth: So will this be like P2PU, based purely online, or will there be physical courses as well?

 Jane: Everything is online. P2PU is a virtual initiative; it is all about peer learning online. That doesn’t of course discount, if people who want to, people forming offline learning groups based on the online courses. That's totally fine and we encourage people to do that. In fact, we encourage all kinds of experiments based on the courses, but the basic philosophy is that everything is online: free and open and reusable and what they want to do with that is up to the universe.


Ruth: How are the courses going to be run and assessed? Please lay out how it all works within one course.

 Jane: So School of Open is going to build on what P2PU has already done. P2PU started in 2009 they have this open platform that runs on Learnata technologies. We are in the middle of revamping the course structure. Previously there were three different kinds of things you could choose from on the website:

-You could choose to run a study group.

-You could choose to run a formal course that is more like the traditional classroom setting, with one facilitator teacher and students.

-Or you could choose to develop a challenge which would just sit on the platform and people could take on there own time whenever they want.

A challenge is like 'how to reuse a photo that is Creative Commons licensed'. When you complete the challenge you earn a badge and so on.

 We are in the middle of revamping everything and it is all called a 'course', but it integrates the best part of all three kinds of structure. The course will be very interactive and it will be peer learning based and there can be a facilitator or it can be more static. So you go on a platform you play around, you click on 'create a course' on any topic that you wish to give a course on and there is a support group of peers who can give peer review on your course so it can get up to a quality where you are satisfied with it.


Ruth: What is the current level involvement in P2PU?

 Jane: So I am not exactly sure about the P2PU numbers themselves. I know we have 1000s of people who have active accounts. In terms of active members each month you would have to ask P2PU staff. In terms of School of Open, we didn’t even launch it, we just announced it and so we are right in the middle of working on it now in Berlin. We want to get the community involved as much as possible. We are going to have a virtual sprint on 24th Tuesday afternoon Berlin time. Hopefully we will create some initial courses there to see how it goes. We have people coming to Berlin to work on it as we speak.


[Note: I got in touch with Philip Schmidt at P2PU to ask about the anticipated involvement in the School of Open and he said:

"We have about 6,000 users active on the site per month. I think School of Open has great potential internationally. As more and more of our work and lives are conducted online, questions about open practices are becoming more relevant to all of us. I know Jane is thinking about a roadmap that maps out her expectations for numbers of courses and users."]



Ruth: So you are based in Berlin at the moment. Does this mean that the School of Open is going to be international, will it be run in many languages?


 Jane: That is the ultimate goal, yes. P2PU is a kind of global grass-roots initiative. The founders are from South Africa Australia, Canada, the US, Europe. I am based in Berlin only for the month We are having a P2PU pop-up office because it is the cheapest European city to have a pop-up office in, and it is central to many places around the world. I am actually going to be based in California, as of of August, but it doesn’t matter where we are based because we are all working remotely and connected online. Plus it's a virtual initiative.


Ruth: Going back to the concept of the School of Open, what do you think the term Open means?

 Jane: So that's a good question -which I think could make a good challenge, a good course as part of the School of Open. From the Creative Commons perspective, openness has to do with the re-usability of a resource, the copyright terms with which you surround it, but openness can obviously mean transparency, Open Government and all sorts of things. I think having a discussion on the different meanings of open, depending on what domain you are coming from and what your profession is, is a useful activity to have. A useful introductory to any course as part of the School of Open.


Ruth: Do you think the term 'open' is over-used at all? I can think of Open Data, Open Government, Open Culture and Open Access immediately. It is such a used term in the digital world, has it begun to lost its meaning?

 Jane: I don’t think so. I think when you say open, when it applies to those domains, it is kind of similar in the meanings. When you say Open Data, well I guess Open Data is a little different. In once sense Open Data is the right to re-use the data and Open Government could mean transparency, but you can also talk about open policies that the government has implemented in terms of sharing their information and the rights to reuse that information, and open education and OER are the same. So I don’t think that it's been over-used; you just need to be clear at the beginning and in the context of where you are discussing it and what your aim is at. At Creative Commons we always deal with the copyright aspect, the right to reuse it.


Do you think that openness can ever be a bad thing?

 Jane: From the licensing perspective, if you view is as an opt-in system, rather than 'everything should be open' then you know it's not really a good or a bad thing: it's a choice. Obviously not everything in the world should be open: there are certain things that are confidential and should be kept non-open or closed for good reason. It is a matter of applying open tools appropriately and being able to gage that, which is also a challenge.


Ruth: Do you think that openness as a concept goes beyond the web or is something that is always linked to 'the digital'?

 No definitely not, even CC licenses can be applied to offline work. They have just been specially designed for the web because of the machine readability aspect of them. Anything that can be copyrighted, copyright goes beyond the web. The web is just another medium when it comes to open licensing anyway.


Ruth: What was it that inspired Creative Commons to work with P2PU?

 Jane: I think that P2PU started as a fledgling initiative and people who are working in the open education space have been looking to P2PU for a long time as this very experimental initiative: is it going to work/ is it not going to?  And since 2009 I think it's kind of proved itself to be self-sustaining. There is a community of learners who keep going with it. It it is entirely volunteer based with a few staff, but for the most part is a very cheaply run organisation and it is kind of amazing that it has come this far. I think Creative Commons recognised that when they wanted to build the School of Open, they realised that P2PU had had the same idea years ago too, so rather than 2 different organisations doing similar activities why not bridge those activities and build the School of Open together.


Ruth: Thank you. I have just one last question. What is the School of Open's main goal?

 Jane: The point of having a School of Open is to spread further openness in all fields. If more people know about openness, more people can implement it in their life and improve their life.


Ruth: Thank you very much for your time.

 Jane: No problem


 Details for joining onto the School of Open virtual sprint today are here:


(Live chat is at 1.00pm GMT)

Or find out more and discuss it further by using the #schoolofopen hashtag

Image: CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: zen Sutherland

In the country of the free…

Wendy Grossman responds to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s ‘ideas’ piece on copyright in the The Atlantic with a firm rebuttal.

About a year and a half ago, I suddenly noticed that The Atlantic was posting a steady stream of interesting articles to Twitter (@theatlantic) and realized it was time to re-subscribe. In fact, I would argue that the magazine is doing a lot of what Wired used to do in its digital coverage.

I don't, overall, regret it. But this month's issue is severely marred by this gem, from Elizabeth Wurtzel (the woman who got famous for taking Prozac and writing about it):

Of the Founders' genius ideas, few trump intellectual-property rights. At a time when Barbary pirates still concerned them, the Framers penned an intellectual-property clause--the world's first constitutional protection for copyrights and patents. In so doing, they spawned Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Motown, and so on. Today, we foolishly flirt with undoing that. In a future where all art is free (the future as pined for by Internet pirates and Creative Commons zealots), books, songs, and films would still get made. But with nobody paying for them, they'd be terrible. Only people who do lousy work do it for free.

Wurtzel's piece, entitled "Charge for Your Ideas", is part of a larger section on innovative ideas; other than hers, most of them are at least reasonable suggestions. I hate to make the editors happy by giving additional attention to something that should have been scrapped, but still: there are so many errors in that one short paragraph that need rebuttal.

Very, very few people - the filmmaker Nina Paley being the only one who springs rapidly to mind (do check out her fabulous film Sita Sings the Blues) - actually want to do away with copyright. And even most of those would like to be paid for their work. Paley turned Sita over to her audience to distribute freely because the deals she was being offered by distributors were so terrible and demanded so much lock-in that she thought she could do better. And she has, including fees for TV and theatrical showings and sales of DVDs and other items. More important from her perspective, she's built an audience for the film that it probably never would have found through traditional channels and that will support and appreciate her future work. As so many of us have said, obscurity is a bigger threat to most artists than loss of revenues.

Neither Creative Commons, nor its founder, Larry Lessig, nor the Open Rights Group, nor the Electronic Frontier Foundation, nor anyone else I can think of among digital rights campaigners has ever said that copyright should be abolished. The Pirate Party, probably the most radical among politically active groups pushing for copyright reform, wants to cut it way back, true - but not to abolish it. Even free software diehard Richard Stallman finds copyright useful as a way of blocking people from placing restrictions on free software.

Creative Commons' purpose in life is to make it easy for anyone who creates online content to attach to it a simple, easy-to-understand license that makes clear what rights to the content are reserved and which are available. One of those licenses blocks all uses without permission; others allow modification, redistribution, or commercial use, or require attribution.

Wurtzel fails to grasp that one may wish to reform something without wishing to terminate its existence. It was radical to campaign for copyright reform 20 years ago; today even the British government agrees copyright reform is needed (though we may all disagree about the extent and form that reform should take).

The Framers did not invent copyright. It was that pesky country they left, Britain, that enacted the first copyright law, the Statute of Anne, in 1710. We will, however, allow the "first constitutional" bit to stand. That still does not mean that the copyright status of Mickey Mouse should dictate national law.

As for pirates - the seafaring kind, not the evil downloader with broadband - they are far from obsolete. In fact, piracy is on the increase, and 1 major concern to both governments and shipping businesses. In May, the New York Times highlighted the growing problem of Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa.

Her final claim, that "Only people who do lousy work do it for free" was the one that got me enraged enough to write this. It's an insult to every volunteer, every generous podcaster, every veteran artist who blogs to teach others, every beginning artist finding their voice, every intern, and every person who has a passion for something and pursues it for love, whether they're an athlete in an unpopular sport or an amateur musician who plays only for his friends because he doesn't want his relationship with music to be damaged by making it his job. It is certainly true that much of what we imagine is "free" is paid for in other ways: bloggers whose blogs are part of the output their employer pays for, free/open source software writers who like the credit and stature their contributions give them, and so on. But imagine the miserable, miserly, misanthropic society we'd be living in if her claim were true? We'd need that Prozac.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


Image: Image from Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Tangled Web of Implementing the Digital Economy Act

Saskia Walzel explains the position of Wi-Fi providers, businesses and public bodies providing internet access under the new draft Initial Obligations Code. The consultation on the proposals closes on the 26th July.

Ofcom published a revised draft Initial Obligations Code on 26 June for a one month consultation under section 403 of the Communications Act 2003, and would like to hear from anybody who is likely to be affected by the implementation of its proposals. Businesses, public bodies and consumers need to establish how this draft code applies to them. The deadline for responding to the consultation is the 26thJuly.

What is proposed?

Ofcom proposes that the initial obligations will apply to fixed line ISPs with 400,000 or more subscribers. These “qualifying ISPs” are BT, TalkTalk, Virgin, BSkyB, O2 and Everything Everywhere. The initial obligation will be to pass on notices to subscribers if a copyright owner submits a “copyright infringement report” for a relevant IP address. Qualifying ISPs need to maintain “copyright infringement lists” for those subscribers who are notified three times or more in 12 months, and these lists need to be made available to copyright owners.

In principle a subscriber is anybody receiving internet access under an agreement, be they a domestic household, business or public body. In the draft code Ofcom is proposing that mobile broadband providers are generally exempt from the initial obligations, as they will only apply to “fixed internet”. Ofcom is also proposing that Wi-Fi hotspots should be exempt, but only commercial public Wi-Fi services such as BT Openzone or The Cloud. Anybody else, according to Ofcom, who receives internet access from a fixed ISP and passes that on as Wi-Fi to others within the premises, would be treated as a subscriber.


How does the draft code deal with businesses and public bodies providing internet access?

Ofcom acknowledges that there will be many situations where a subscriber to one of the six big ISPs essentially acts as a “downstream ISP”. Ofcom therefore sought to provide in the new draft Initial Obligations Code that the six big “qualifying ISPs” do not have to pass on notifications if they receive a “copyright infringement report” for a downstream ISP. However, the draft Initial Obligations Code does not clarify who is a downstream ISP.

In the consultation document Ofcom explains that in principle any undertaking receiving internet access for their own use (for example by staff) and providing access to others, should be treated as a subscriber. Ofcom explains that those receiving internet access “essentially and verifiably” to pass it on to others, should be treated as a downstream ISP by the six big qualifying ISPs, meaning that they should ignore any “copyright infringement report” submitted for such internet connections. Ofcom tried to address concerns raised about the last draft Initial Obligations Code it consulted on; namely that, unless otherwise stated, qualifying ISPs are legally obliged to pass on notifications to their subscribers, which is anybody who received internet access under an agreement. However, the new draft Initial Obligations Code does not define who may be a “downstream ISP”, instead Ofcom suggests that businesses and public bodies contact the six big qualifying ISPs and negotiate their status with them. That means businesses and public bodies which provide internet access to others, such as hotels, pubs, libraries and universities have to persuade their qualifying ISP to accept them as “upstream ISP” for the purpose of the Digital Economy Act 2010.

How does the draft code deal with consumers who pass on internet access to others?

Domestic households typically share internet connections, where one member of the household enters into a contract with the ISP, and then provides internet access to other members of the household under an agreement (which may be verbal or more formal). Domestic internet access is now typically provided via Wi-Fi routers, to enable multiple individuals and devices to use the same Internet connection. The six big qualifying ISPs cover 93.5 percent of the retail broadband market in the UK. Ofcom is proposing that only Wi-Fi hotspots, such as BT Openzone, and mobile broadband providers, would be exempt. Therefore under current proposals a consumer, who provides internet access to others in the household or to the public, will be treated as a subscriber. If you receive internet access and provide that to your housemates with the agreement that they pay a share of the monthly bill, you will be treated as a subscriber. If you are a landlord, who provides internet access to tenants, you will also be treated as a subscriber. Unless that is, you manage to persuade your qualifying ISP that you are a “downstream ISP”.

Key points:

  • Mobile broadband providers and Wi-Fi hotspots are supposed to be exempt
  • Those receiving fixed internet access at their premises, which they then make available to others via Wi-Fi, will be subscribers
  • Undertakings which “essentially and verifiably” receive internet access to pass it on to others, should be treated as “downstream ISP” by the big six “qualifying ISPs”
  • Undertakings which receive internet access for their own use (for example, by their staff) and pass on internet access to others, are subscribers

What does it mean to be a subscriber?

Under the Digital Economy Act 2010, if you are treated as a subscriber by your ISP, it means that you will be notified if a copyright owner lodges a “copyright infringement report” with the ISP for your IP address. This “copyright infringement report” is an allegation of copyright infringement, and it will relate to the IP address of your internet connection. The ISP will keep track of the number of notifications you receive, and Ofcom is proposing that those who receive three or more notifications in 12 months are placed on a “copyright infringement list”. Under the Initial Obligations Code, copyright owners can take disclosure orders, known as Norwich Pharmacal orders, out for “copyright infringement lists” to force the ISP to hand over subscribers’ personal data such as name and address. The Government then wants copyright owners to take subscribers on those lists to court for civil copyright infringement. Under the Technical Obligations Code, which can be implemented 12 months after the Initial Obligations Code has come into force, any subscriber on a “copyright infringement list” would be a “relevant subscriber” for what is termed “technical measures”. These may include the slowing of an internet connection, or “suspension”, by an ISP.

Subscribers can appeal notifications, but the Government wants to impose a £20 appeals fee (a cost order imposing such a fee will be discussed by Parliament in September), and under the Digital Economy Act 2010 subscribers are expected to show that they took “reasonable steps” to prevent others from infringing on their Internet connection. Ofcom does not define “reasonable steps” in the draft Initial Obligations Code it is currently consulting on. Neither does the draft Initial Obligations Code clarify the situation for open Wi-Fi providers. “Subscribers” such as Wi-Fi providers, hotels, pubs, libraries and universities would thus not only be incurring the cost of appealing notifications, but also of taking reasonable steps to prevent others from infringing, regardless of whether there are low or high levels of copyright infringement on their networks.

Why is Ofcom proposing exemptions for some ISPs?

In principle the initial obligations of the Digital Economy Act 2010 apply to all “internet service providers”, though Ofcom may specify under which conditions ISPs will be subject to the initial obligations. Ofcom is proposing to exempt mobile broadband providers and Wi-Fi hotspots because it is assumed that they have low levels of copyright infringement on their networks, and therefore the cost of imposing obligations under the Initial Obligations Code on them is judged to be disproportionate.


Saskia is policy manager at Consumer Focus responsible for copyright policy. She tweets as @SaskiaWalzel

Image: Fixing up the Network CC-BY 2.0 Flickr: Fabio

The Ninth Circle of HOPE

Wendy Grossman reports on the discussions at Hope 9, the 2600 hacker conference. Drawing on the key points of the conference, she analyses what is meant by technology failure.

 Why do technologies fail? And what do we mean by failure?

These questions arise in the first couple of hours of HOPE 9, this year's edition of the hacker conference run biannually by 2600, the hacker quarterly.

Technology failure has a particular meaning in the UK, where large government projects have traditionally wasted large amounts of public money and time. Many failures are more subtle.

To take a very simple example: this morning, the elevators failed. It was not a design flaw or loss of functionality: the technology worked perfectly as intended. It was not a usability flaw: what could be simpler than pushing a button? It was not even an accessibility or availability flaw: there were plenty of elevators. What it was, in fact, was a social - or perhaps a contextual - flaw. This group of people who break down complex systems to their finest components to understand them and make them jump through hoops simply failed to notice or read the sign that gave the hours of operation even though it was written in big letters and placed at eye level, just above the call button. This was, after all, well-understood technology that needed no study. And so they stood around in groups, waiting until someone came, pointed out the sign, and chased them away. RTFM, indeed.

But this is what humans do: we make assumptions based on our existing knowledge. To the person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the person with a cup and nowhere to put it, the unfamiliar CD drive looks like a cup holder. To the kids discovering the Hole in the Wall project, a 2000 experiment with installing a connected computer in an Indian slum, the familiar wait-and-wait-some-more hourglass was a drum. Though that last is only a failure if you think it's important that the kids know it's an hourglass; they understood perfectly well the thing that mattered, which is that it was a sign the thing in the wall was doing something and they had to wait.

We also pursue our own interests, sometimes at the expense of what actually matters in a situation. Far Kron, speaking on the last four years of community fabrication, noted that the Global Village Construction project, which is intended to include a full set of the machines necessarily to build a civilization, includes nothing to aid more mundane things like fetching fresh water and washing clothes, which are overall a bigger drain on human time. I am tempted to suggest that perhaps the project needs to recruit some more women (who around the world tend to do most of the water fetching and clothes washing), but it may simply be that small, daily chores are things you worry about after you have your village. (Though this is the inverse of how human settlements have historically worked.)

A more intriguing example, cited by Chris Anderson, a former organizer with New York's IndyMedia, in the early panel on Technology to Change Society that inspired this piece, is Twitter. How is one of the most important social networks and messaging platforms in the world a failure?

"If you define success in technical terms you might only *be* successful in technical terms," he said. Twitter, he explained grew out of a number of prior open-source projects the founders were working. "Indymedia saw technology as being in service to goals, but lacks the social goals those projects started with."

Gus Andrews, producer of The Media Show, a YouTube series on digital media literacy, focused on the hidden assumptions creators make. Some believed, for example, that open source software was vital to One Laptop Per Child, for example, believed that being able to fix the software was a crucial benefit for the recipients.

In 2000, Lawrence Lessig argued that "code is law", and that technological design controls how it can be used. Andrews took a different view: "To believe that things are ineluctably coded into technology is to deny free will." Pointing at Everett Rogers' 1995 book, The Diffusion of Innovations, she said, "There are things we know about how technology enacts social change and one of the thing we know is that it's not the technology."

Not the technology? You might think that if anyone were going to be technology obsessed it would be the folks at a hacker conference. And certainly the public areas are filled with people fidgeting with radio frequencies, teaching others to solder, and showing off their latest 3D printers and their creations (this year's vogue: printing in brightly colored Lego plastic). But the roots of the hacker movement in general, and of 2600 in particular, are as much social and educational as they are technological.

Eric Corley, who has styled himself "Emmanuel Goldstein", edits the magazine, and does a weekly radio show for WBAI-FM in New York. At a London hacker conference in 1995, he summed up this ethos for me (and The Independent) by talking about hacking as a form of consumer advocacy. His ideas about keeping the Internet open and free, and about ferreting out information corporations would rather keep hidden were niche - and to many people scary - then, but mainstream now.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

Image: CC-BY-NC Flickr: nicolasjon

When Worlds Collide

The Anita Sarkeesian case, the troll clause in the Defamation Bill, Not in the Kitchen Anymore: These are moments when Feminism and Digital Rights interact with each other. Milena Popova explains how these two causes can then collide -and how and why the challenges that are created must be met.

As a woman and feminist working in technology and interested in digital rights, I occasionally find that the different worlds I am part of collide quite spectacularly. Case in point: the growing controversy over how women are treated in certain online spaces, notably gaming and blogging, but also in everyday social interactions online. Let’s take a quick tour of the female experience of online spaces.

Chat users with female-sounding usernames get 25 times more malicious messages than those with gender-neutral or male-sounding names. That’s on average 163 times a day that some random stranger will ask you if you’re feeling horny, if you want to strip in front of your webcam, or suggest that their dick and your pussy will make a great pair. Incidentally, while the anonymity of the internet probably exacerbates the issue, this is not a phenomenon confined to online space. In meatspace, we call it street harassment, and it’s just as problematic.

Online gaming is a particularly nasty corner of the internet if you happen to have the wrong reproductive organs. There are now several blogs devoted to the female online gaming experience. The categories of posts on Fat, Ugly or Slutty speak for themselves: crudely creative, death threats, fat, lewd proposals, pen15 club, sandwich making 101, slutty, ugly, and x-rated are some of the more descriptive ones. From telling women gamers they should “get back in the kitchen” to “am gonna slit your throat you fucking slut”, it’s all in there.

A special sort of hell is also reserved for women who dare to express an opinion online. From Laurie Penny, to Cath Elliot, Dawn Foster, and Natalie Dzerins, anybody who is anybody with a vagina on the internet has been told, often graphically, that they deserve to be raped or killed (and raped, before and after). This kind of thing is so common that a female blogger’s first “fat and ugly” comment is practically a badge of honour - a sign that they’ve truly made it.

The most recent example of the kind of vicious harassment women bloggers are subjected to was Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter funding drive for a series of videos on sexist tropes in video games. The backlash included [trigger warning for the following three links] thousands of misogynist comments on Anita’s YouTube video, vandalism of her Wikipedia page, and image-based harassment including portrayals of rape and a game where players could “beat up Anita Sarkeesian

Physically speaking, these kinds of comments are mostly harmless. It is highly unlikely that one of these sad individuals will step away from the keyboard, find you in meatspace and do you physical harm.[1] They do, however, create a threatening environment; they make you wonder if one day somebody will come after you; they are designed to intimidate and scare, to make women put up, shut up, and “get back in the kitchen”. Some of us grow a thicker skin as a result. Some give up blogging, gaming and other activities they enjoy to get away from it all. Even high-profile professional women like programmer and games developer Kathy Sierra are not immune to the intimidating effects of the prolific, vicious harassment they are subjected to.

It is therefore hardly surprising that some feminists are welcoming provisions in the Defamation Bill which have been reported to provide tools to make identifying and prosecuting trolls easier. Misreporting aside, as a digital rights campaigner any proposal to make it easier to track people back from online space into meatspace tends to make my hair stand on end. Unless strong safeguards are built into such legislation, it is wide open to abuse. We may only use it to track down people who threaten women today, but who’s to say that the BNP government of tomorrow[2] won’t use it to track down Green party supporters based on posts they’ve made in online forums?

I am rapidly reaching the conclusion that such a collision of two issues I deeply care about is actually a good thing. People like me, who have skin in the game on both sides of a particular issue, have a unique and vital role to play in finding a workable, sustainable solution as opposed to a kneejerk reaction. In the copyright wars we need to recruit musicians and other creative artists who see the potential of the internet to show that the internet isn’t “killing music” - it is just making a particular business model of music distribution obsolete. In issues around free speech, censorship, and online privacy we also need to acknowledge where there are genuine problems and recruit people who, for instance, have a strong personal interest in making online spaces safer for women but also in ensuring speech remains free and uncensored. A good first step would be to recognise that online harassment of women is a free speech issue too, as many women are silenced by this kind of experience, and to call out unacceptable behaviour when we see it. This can then allows us to build a dialogue and start figuring out - together - what works and doesn’t work, and where the right balance lies when it comes to free speech and safe spaces on the internet.


[1] Having said that, publishing women’s personal details, including address and telephone number, is also a commonly used form of online harassment which adds significantly to the level of threat experienced by the women it is targeted at.

[2] This is what I call the Stross Test, based on a short story by science fiction writer Charles Stross called “Minutes of the Labour Party Conference, 2016”. In the story a BNP government uses anti-terrorism legislation passed by Labour in 2006 to establish and uphold a fascist state by labelling all opposition, including the Labour Party, as terrorists. I strongly feel that the Stross Test of “Would you trust the BNP with this law?” should be applied to any legislation passed by Parliament.


Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She is also a member of ORG's board and continues to write for the ORGzine in a personal capacity. She tweets as @elmyra

Image: CC-BY-NC-ND Flickr: Darkain Multimedia

Bring Back the Magic

Osprey, a UK-based publishing company, are selling their military history books DRM-free. This move to go against the grain of the publishing industry is explained by Rebecca Smart, CEO of the Osprey Group, in an informative and exciting article for the zine.

 I am CEO of Osprey Group, a UK-based international publishing company focused on producing the best content for enthusiasts across a broad range of specialist areas including military history, heritage and nostalgia, transport history, crafts, antiques, science fiction and fantasy. Osprey Group publishes under four brands: Osprey Publishing, Shire, Old House and Angry Robot. A fifth brand, Strange Chemistry (YA genre fiction), will launch in September 2012 and a crime fiction brand, Exhibit A, will follow in Spring 2013. What defines us is not what we create but for whom we create. Osprey Group publishes books and content based on subject enthusiasms and passions, whether authoritative technical data on the military technology of World War II, a history of the Great Western Railway or an edgy genre novel set in near-future South Africa.

 DRM-free on our websites

We have recently announced the launch of an Osprey DRM-free series of ebooks, but in fact all of Osprey’s military history books are sold DRM-free on our website already, in both PDF and ePub format. In our science fiction brand, Angry Robot, we sell ebooks DRM-free on our websites, and always have.

 Why? The basics

We agree with two of the fundamental, well-worn arguments against DRM:

  • DRM does not work

DRM is pointless. It doesn’t stop those who are determined to avoid paying for content, and acts as a barrier for those who will happily pay, preventing them using their content on all devices. It protects large corporations from innocent consumers and actively encourages those who would steal to do so in order to spite those same large corporations.

  • Obscurity vs piracy

We are a small, independent publisher and we know that obscurity is a far greater enemy than piracy for us and our authors. Osprey’s military history books have been pirated as scans of print copies for many years and we have evidence that the transmission of pirate copies has led to purchases. This has not changed since the advent of ebooks. Having read the now infamous Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered, I noted the following comment: I might not have spent my money on a freaky krautrock album that had the potential to thrill or repel me when safer buying choices were available ... if I were to cease all illegal downloading, this would necessarily restrict my listening habits.

Why? Niches and brands

But the bigger reason for our no-DRM philosophy is that our core business model is based upon repeat sales to loyal customers. When you publish for an enthusiast, niche market, the relationship between author, publisher and reader becomes symbiotic. The publisher creates and evolves the brand as a platform, providing an attractive home for the author, who in turn promotes the brand and his or her fellow authors as part of the ‘gang’. The reader knows what to expect from the brand and from the authors, and also wants to be part of the gang. Not surprisingly, in a relationship like this, copyright becomes self-policing – we have evidence of readers scolding those who point others to a source of pirated content. Additionally, the lack of DRM shows customers that we trust them, and this in itself increases their loyalty to the brand and reduces the likelihood of piracy.

The world does not owe the publishing industry a living

I worry that the publishing industry is protesting too much. All the resistance to any kind of copyright reform, and insistence on DRM, makes publishers appear like whining children. The world does not owe the publishing industry a living and we need to prove that we add value. But the world does need to support creation, and that means somebody has to fund it. The only sensible way to do this is for those who consume creations to value them and pay for them. The Osprey Group approach is to ensure that readers do just that, because what we do matters to them. I refer you again to the Letter to Emily White post (it really is good), where another comment states: I remember the first time I walked into a record store and bought a CD without my parents paying for it ... I played the shit out of that CD. There was something magical about music ownership ... I want the magic back. We, as publishers, have an opportunity, even a duty, to bring back the magic.


Rebecca Smart is CEO of Osprey Group. She tweets at @rebecsmart. You can investigate their military history DRM-free books for yourself  here.

Image: CC-BY-NC Flickr: pamhule

The Orphan (or Hostage) Works Problem

Paul Keller effectively explains 'the orphan works problem'. He gives an in-depth analysis of both the proposed EU and UK government solutions, and their strengths and failings.

The European Union is currently finalizing a directive on the mutual recognition of orphan works. Last week the UK government expressed their intention to improve copyright licensing in order to address the orphan works problem. So what exactly are orphan works, and what is the problem they present?

One of the most fundamental principles of copyright (law) is that authors (and other right-holders) of copyrighted works have the exclusive right to determine if and how their works may be used by others. Copyright covers both the making of copies of a work, as well as the making available (publishing) of protected works. If you want to make use of a work that is protected by copyright you need to have permission to do so from the right holder(s).

This system works relatively well as long as anyone who wants to make use of a copyrighted work is able to get in touch with the right-holder(s) of that work. However, there are situations where right-holder(s) cannot be identified or if they can be identified they cannot be located and as a result they cannot be asked for permission to make use of their works. These works are called ‘orphan works’ (some people argue that the term is misleading and that they should be called hostage works instead).

Orphan works represent a relatively new problem (the term was first used in 1999) that is primarily affecting memory institutions (libraries, archives and museums) that want to digitize their collections. Large parts of their collections (some estimates are as high as 60%) consist of works without known right holders or right holders who cannot be found. As a result these institutions cannot obtain permission to digitize these works (as this involves making a copy) and to make them available online. This severely hampers these institutions in their quest to provide online access to their collections.

The reasons for the presence of orphan works in the collections of heritage institutions are manifold, but are rooted in two facts: the extremely long duration of copyright that can easily exceed 100 years after the first publications of a work, and the lack of a registration system for copyrighted works. Add to this the fact that copyright can get transferred from the original creator to others (such as publishers), that corporate owners of copyrights can cease to exist or merge, that individual creators tend to move places change names and professions and that many works (such as photographs) do not contain information about the right-holders and you get an idea of the scope of the problem.

Given all of the above, the orphan works problem is one of the most clear-cut illustrations of the fact that the copyright system needs to be adjusted to the digital age. The fact that orphan works cannot be legally used benefits no-one while it imposes substantial harm on society as a whole. In its recent  Government Policy Statement the UK Government puts it like this:

The Government’s position […] is that it benefits no-one to have a wealth of copyright works be entirely unusable under any circumstances because the owner of one or more rights in the work cannot be contacted. This is not simply a cultural issue; it is also a very real economic issue that potentially valuable intangible assets are not being used […].

So how can this problem be resolved? We can identify at least three different approaches to the problem that are currently being discussed:

  1. The first one is based on the principle of 'diligent search'. In this approach (as exemplified by the proposed EU directive on orphan works and the proposal by the UK government) a person or institution that wants to make use of an orphan work needs to show that a 'diligent search' for the rights holder has been carried out and that they have failed to locate a rights-holder (what exactly constitutes a 'diligent' search has to be defined by law or regulation). Once this has been established the work can be used under certain conditions (these can either be implemented in the form of an exception to copyright, as proposed by the EU directive, or in the form of a license, as proposed by the UK government) and may or may not include payment of a fee.

On the positive side this approach guarantees that efforts to locate the rights’ holders have been made. On the negative, this approach imposes quite a substantial burden on potential users, especially if the requirements for a diligent search are high. Given the size of many collections memory institutions have argued that a requirement to perform a diligent search for each individual work does not provide a solution for mass digitization projects and will only be useful for small scale digitization efforts.

2. The second approach is called 'Extended Collective Licensing'. This approach, which hails from the Scandinavian countries but has also been included in the UK Government’s proposal, relies on collective rights management organizations (such as ACLS). The idea is to extend their mandate to allow them to, not only license the use of their member’s works, but also of all similar works (for example all fiction books). This would mean that a collecting society could issue a license that allows a memory institutions to use all works of a certain type (including all orphans). The collecting society would collect licensing fees for all works and would undertake efforts to identify and reimburse unidentified rights holders.

On the positive side this approach makes it very straightforward for memory institutions to obtain permission for the use of orphan works (they would be included in the extended license for the category of works) as it shifts the burden for identifying and locating right-holders onto the collecting societies. This approach relies on the existence of well-managed collecting societies that represent a substantial part of the right holders for a certain category of works. Currently this is not the case for many categories of works (such as audiovisual works). In addition, it is extremely difficult to determine fail licensing fees for the use of orphan works by memory institutions.

3. Another approach would be a general exception to copyright that would allow memory institutions to use all works in their collections online for non-commercial purposes. Such an exception would be conditional on some form of  statutory remuneration scheme (i.e the works can be used as long as a remuneration is being paid). This would effectively allow memory institutions to develop online access to their collections without having to obtain permission from rights holders and would apply to orphan works and works with known right holders alike.

On the positive side this approach would ensure that memory institutions can effectively operate in the digital realm. Statutory remuneration schemes are a substantial limitation of the exclusive rights of authors, but they have been effectively used in other contexts in the past (for example, to allow radio stations to broadcast music without having to obtain individual permissions for each individual song). Such a scheme would most likely be more problematic in cases where memory institutions hold works that are still available commercially and therefore it should probably only be applied to works that are not available commercially anymore.

While current policy initiatives on the European and British level seem to focus on the first option, it is important to realize that there are more options and that these options will most likely be more effective in making orphan works available to the public. While the discussion on the European level seems to be over for now it is encouraging to see that the UK government, while it clearly favors the diligent search approach, also provides room for experimentation with Extended Collective Licensing.

Finally, this orphan works problem also makes it obvious that we need to address the underlying problems that have gotten us into this mess. In a situation where millions of copyrighted works are created every day that often do not require any protection or have a very short economic life after which the need for protection stops, a system that automatically grants copyright which lasts for decades does not make sense anymore. Copyright needs to be made more flexible so that it applies only where it is wanted and or necessary. One suggestion for achieving this can be found in this recommendation made by the COMMUNIA association:

In order to prevent unnecessary and unwanted protection of works of authorship, full copyright protection should only be granted to works that have been registered by their authors. Non registered works should only get moral rights protection.


Paul Keller is copyright policy advisor and vice-chair of Kennisland <www.kennisland.nl/en/>, an Amsterdam based think tank dealing with issues related to the knowledge society. Paul has worked extensively on copyright related questions of mass digitization projects, is one of the founders of the COMMUNIA association <www.communia-association.org> that advocates for a strong public domain in the digital environment.

twitter: @paul_keller

Image: CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 Flickr: jbhapler

The license, the judge, and the wardrobe

The big news story in licenses last week was the German Federal Court of Justice's ruling on re-selling Oracle software: Wendy Grossman explains what it means and gives her take on the story.

A lot of people have wondered for a long time whether the licensing conditions imposed by software publishers really would stand up in a court of law. And now we know: this week the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled (PDF) that people who buy downloaded software cannot be prohibited from selling on their used licenses.

The case: the German company UsedSoft advertises and sells, among others, licenses to Oracle software. These it acquires from Oracle customers who either are no longer using them or bought group licenses (sold in blocks of 25) and don't need all of the seats. The customers then download the software from Oracle's Web site. The license you buy from UsedSoft includes the remaining portion of the maintenance contract with Oracle, which marks its licenses "non-transferable". Oracle sued to stop this; the German regional court upheld the complaint. UsedSoft appealed to the German Federal Court of Justice, which referred the case to the EU.

With physical objects we take for granted the concept the US calls "first sale doctrine". That is, the person or company who manufactures the object only gets to sell it the first time. Thereafter, it's yours to do with what you like - trash it, recycle it, loan it out, sell it on to someone else, even burn it, all without owing anything to the person who made it and/or sold it to you. Software manufacturers, however, have emulated the publishers of books, music, film, and other media by unbundling the right to distribute the physical object and the right to make copies of the content embedded in it. When you buy a book, you gain the rights to that one copy of the book; but you don't gain the right to scan in the contents and give away or sell new copies of the contents. Or at least, if you do such a thing you would be wise to be Google Books rather than a 22-year-old college student with broadband and a personal Web site.

Usedsoft v Oracle revolves around the interactions of several pieces of EU law covering copyright and the distribution of goods, but ultimately the court's decision is clear enough. The purpose of the "exhaustion" of the manufacturer's distribution rights after the first sale was, in the ruling's argument to ensure that the original manufacturer should not be responsible for damage to the physical object that takes place between the first and second sales. Digitally distributed copies (especially from the original site) don't have this problem. Hence the ECJ's decision: first sale doctrine applies to software. The one caveat in all this: the original license-holder must delete or render unusable his original licensed copy of the software, even though it's difficult to prove he's done it.

The conditions of software licenses have never seemed fair. For one thing, back when software was primarily distributed in shrink-wrapped packages, you couldn't read the license to agree to it until you'd rendered the software unreturnable by opening the package. "Clickwrap" more or less ended that issue.

For another thing, the terms are contrary to the way humans normally think about the objects they acquire. In England, as the retired solicitor and fellow Open Rights Group advisory council member Nicholas Bohm explained to me for the Guardian in 2008, this has always seemed particularly dubious; precedents have established that valid terms and conditions are a contract set at the point of sale. In his example, a notice in a hotel room on the wardrobe warning that you leave items there at your own risk has no legal weight because the contract was made at the reception desk.

Finally, with physical objects we take it for granted that we have the right to demand satisfaction - repair, replacement, or refund - if the item we buy is flawed. Obviously, this right has its limits. We can reasonably expect a refund or replacement for a piece of clothing that rips badly or discolors on first washing (assuming we haven't done something dumb). And we can reasonably expect the manufacturer to pay for repairs to a new car that turns left when you steer right, unstoppably leaks fluids, or whose battery overheats to the point of bursting into flames. With software, we are pretty much stuck with the bugs and security holes, and software licenses pretty much universally disclaim liability for anything that happens when you install and use the software. This was the subject of a failed attempt in the around 2000, to modify the Uniform Commercial Code to both hold software publishers liable for defects - but in return allow them to impose any restrictions they wanted.

The impact of this week's judgment will be interesting. How will it affect music, ebooks, DRM, movies, games? That's a question for the lawyers and judges in future cases.

We can just say this: what an amazing week. First this ruling. Then the news that the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement was finally and truly rejected by the European Parliament. And a British man will play the Wimbledon final for the first time in 74 years. I don't know which of the three was less likely.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

Image: CC-BY 2.0 Flickr: Squeezeboy

Musubi Tackles Privacy

Monica Lam, Director of the MobiSocial Lab, responds to our series on protecting privacy, and introduces 'Musubi' a social networking platform that doesn't collect your data.

In response to Dr Paul Bernal's piece on The Right to be Forgotten, we are featuring a series of digital businesses who have created tools which they believe solve issues related to online privacy.

Paul Bernal, in his article "Right to be Forgotten", wrote: "For individual autonomy - and individual rights - there needs to be something to rein in the data gathering, and cut down the amount of data held."  He wondered if the ``Right to be Forgotten'' can be made to work at all.  We, the MobiSocial Computing Laboratory at Stanford, think so.  In fact, we believe in the ``Right to Socialize Digitally Without Intermediation'', and we have built a social network that gives users that right.  The network is called Musubi, short for Mobile, Social, and UBIquitous.  (It means a rice ball in Japanese).  By not collecting any data at all, Musubi simply has nothing to forget!  It therefore trivially supports the ``Right to be Forgotten''.

 How does Musubi work?

 Musubi relies heavily on cryptography--messages are only decrypted on the end users' devices so only the communicating parties can see the data.  Normally, cryptography-based systems are hard to use.  Musubi hides the complexity of cryptography from users so even kids can use it.  More importantly, it is designed to be fun to use so everybody, including kids would use it.

 Using Musubi, groups of friends can chat with each other, share status and pictures like any other group chat apps.  It has some distinctive features, such as letting people who meet for the first time to form a group with a click of a button.  In addition, Musubi is an application platform with a growing list of social apps, from a Scrabble-like word game to shared to-do lists. 

 Pictures shared on Musubi are available in a photo folder on the phone, and can be synched or backed up to a home computer or a cloud service of the user's choice.   Regardless of where the data are backed up, we can uniformly just click a picture in the feed to view it.  We no longer have to sign up to the same proprietary network to share, nor do we have to give away rights to our information to the network provider.  This means (1) users have control over the ownership of their data, and (2) companies can compete openly to provide users with the best data services.  

 An Open Mobile Social App Infrastructure.

 Musubi strives to provide the best, open, mobile, social application infrastructure.  Musubi helps make apps viral--users can share apps with friends easily and results from apps can be displayed on Musubi friends' feeds to help drive adoption.  Then Musubi handles the complexity in managing friends' contacts, communication, and notifications; in the meantime, its ``identity firewall'' protects friends' information from the apps.  By not peeking at users' data, Musubi is suitable for all applications; from business applications to educational, health, and finance apps.  Note that the apps can choose individually to monetize users' data, with the consent of the users.  By foregoing the ability to monetize users' data ourselves, Musubi aims to win the support of consumers and app developers to achieve ubiquity. 


The proprietary social app platforms today impose a significant toll on both users and app developers: users must give up their data and developers have to give up a significant portion of their revenues.  Musubi is an open non-proprietary, device-independent, disintermediated platform for building social apps easily.  Just like how http and the web browser ushered in the open world wide web, we hope platforms like ours will bring about an explosion of secure, social apps in all categories, from business to education, shopping, banking, and health.

Your help is needed

Please help us develop this open platform by giving us feedback on the beta version of our software on the Google Android PlayStore (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=mobisocial.musubi).  You can find more information and sign up for a beta of our forthcoming iPhone app at http://mobisocial.stanford.edu/musubi. 


Monica Lam

Professor in Computer Science

Director of the MobiSocial Computing Laboratory

Stanford University


Image: CC-BY-NC-ND Brian

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Wendy M. Grossman responds to "loopy" statements made by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt in regards to censorship and encryption.

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