Artificial Scarcity

The presence of bloggers at tennis press conferences can sometimes irritate the professional journalist, but when they can pick up full transcripts online and use 'professionally-asked' questions to fuel a quickly published opinion piece it can cause even more debate. Wendy Grossman explains the details.

A couple of weeks ago, while covering the tennis at Eastbourne for Daily Tennis, I learned that there is an ongoing battle between the International Tennis Writers Association and the sport at large over the practice of posting interview transcripts online.

What happens is this. Tournaments - the top few layers of the men's (ATP) and women's (WTA) tours - pay stenographers from ASAP Sports to attend players' press conferences and produce transcripts, which are distributed to the journalists on-site to help them produce accurate copy. It's a fast service; the PR folks come around the press room with hard copies of the transcript perhaps 10-15 minutes after the press session ends.

Who gives press conferences? At Eastbourne, like most smaller events, the top four seeds all are required to do media on the first day. After that, every day's match winners are required to oblige if the press asks for them; losers have more discretion but the top players generally understand that with their status and success level comes greater responsibility to publicize the game by showing up to answer questions. The stenographer at Eastbourne was a highly trained court reporter who travels the golf and tennis worlds taking down these questions and answers verbatim on a chord keyboard.

It turns out the transcripts particular battle has been going on for a while; witness this unhappy blogger's comment from June, 2011, after discovering that the French Open had bowed to pressure and stopped publishing interviews on its Web site. The same blogger had earlier posted ITWA's response to the complaints.

ITWA's arguments are fairly simple. It's a substantial investment to travel the tour (true; per year full-time you're talking at least $50,000). If interview transcripts are posted on the Web before journalists have had a chance to write their stories, it won't be worth spending that money because anyone can write stories based on them (true). Newspapers are in dire straits as it is (true). The questions journalists ask the players are informed by their experience and professional expertise; surely they should have the opportunity to exploit the responses they generate before everyone else does - all those pesky bloggers, for example, who read the transcripts and compare them to the journalists' reports and spot the elisions and changes of context.

Now, I don't believe for a second that there will be no coverage of tennis if the press stop traveling the tour. What there won't be is *independent* coverage. Except for the very biggest events, the players will be interviewed by the tours' PR people, and everything published about them will be as sanitized as their Wimbledon whites. Plus some local press, asking things like, "Talk about how much you like Eastbourne." The result will be like the TV stations now that provide their live match commentary by dropping a couple of people in a remote studio. No matter how knowledgeable those people are, their lack of intimate contact with the players and local conditions deadens their commentary and turns it into a recital of their pet peeves. (Note to Eurosport: any time a commentator says, "We talk so often about..." that commentator needs to shut up..)

This is the same argument they used to have about TV: if people can see the match on TV they won't bother to travel to it (and sometimes you do still find TV blackouts of local games). That hasn't really turned out to be true - TV has indeed changed this and every other sport, but by creating international stars and bringing in a lot of money in both payment for TV rights and sponsorship.

My response to the person who told me about this issue was that I didn't think basing your business model on artificial scarcity was going to work, the way the world is going. But this is not the only example of such restrictions; a number of US tournaments do not allow fans to carry professional-quality cameras onto the ground (to protect the interests of professional photographers).

What intrigued me about the argument - which at heart is merely a variant of the copyright wars - is that it pits the interests of fans and bloggers against those of the journalists who cover them. For the tournaments and tours themselves it's an inner conflict: they want both newspaper and magazine coverage *and* fan engagement. "Personal" contact with the players is a key part of that - and it is precisely what has diminished. Veteran tennis journalists will tell you that 20 years ago they got to know the players because they'd all be traveling the circuit together and staying in the same hotels. Today, the barriers are up; the players' lounge is carefully sited well away from the media centre.

Yet this little spat reflects the reality that the difference between writing a fan blog and working for a major media outlet is access. There is only so much time the stars in any profession - TV, sports, technology, business - can give to answering outsiders' questions before it eats into their real work. So this isn't really a story of artificial scarcity, though there's no lack of people who want to write about tennis. It's a story of real scarcity - but scarcity that one day soon is going to be differently distributed.


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: Shredded Cards CC-BY-NC Flickr: Philip Ray

The Olympics Organising Committee Run Rings Around Transparency

Recently Lia Hervey, Sky Sports News, attempted to seek information on the breakdown of Olympic tickets. Although Locog (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) has public sector funding, FOI does not apply and they refused to provide the information. Ian Clark looks at this case, and whether private companies should fall under transparency legislation.


The 2012 London Olympics is shaping up to be the largest sporting event ever held in this country.  Not only will it be the largest, it is also likely to be the most expensive sporting event hosted in the UK.  Current estimates place the overall public sector funding package for the Games at £9.298bn, a not insignificant sum of money.

Of course, the preparations for the London Olympics have not been without their critics.  In an era of austerity and public spending cuts, the question is often asked “why should we spend vast sums of money on a sporting event?”.  Indeed, when the rest of us are forced to tighten our belts, it appears to many a little unfair that the state is spending a significant sum of money on such an extravagance.  With austerity as the backdrop, and a government committed to ushering in a “new era of transparency”, you would expect transparency to be at the heart of the planning process for the Olympics, primarily to provide reassurance about the nature of any public spending on the event.

In terms of the planning and development of the 2012 Summer and Paralympic games, the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (Locog).  Locog, as its website makes clear, is a “private company limited by guarantee and is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000”.  If you ask nicely, they may or may not answer general queries with the information you require, although they are under no obligation to do so.  Not a promising start.

This lack of transparency was highlighted recently when it emerged that Lia Hervey, Sky Sports News’ Olympics producer, had attempted to seek further information about the breakdown of Olympic tickets to the public by sport and session.  Of course, as Locog is not obliged to provide this information due to its status as a private company, it has refused to provide this information, despite concerns that savings from the public sector package appear to be trickling over to Locog.  However, whilst it is a private company, Locog has been in receipt of public funding to the tune of £183m.

Increasingly, the exemption of the private sector from the Freedom of Information Act is looking like an anachronism.  As services are contracted out due to “austerity measures”, so services that were once open to public scrutiny now fall into private hands which are not subject to the same degree of transparency.  Such services become a closed shop with the general public given no right to know how their services are being delivered, regardless of the amount of taxpayers funding that subsidises such services.  It is for this reason that if austerity is pursued, such a policy should be coupled with a widening of transparency legislation to encompass the private sector, ensuring that they too are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Indeed, this is not a new idea.  In December 2009, the Scottish government declared that it would consider extending FoI legislation to cover:

“…contractors who build and maintain hospitals and schools, who operate and maintain trunk roads under the PFI Initiative or who run privately managed prisons or provide prison escort services. Only contracts above certain values would be covered. Trusts running local authority sports, leisure and cultural facilities were also being considered for inclusion along with the Glasgow Housing Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland.”

By January 2011, the Scottish government (under pressure from the private sector and despite popular support) reversed its position because “a majority of the bodies concerned had opposed being brought under the Act, although there was “near universal support” from everyone else who had commented on the proposals.”

As George Monbiot noted earlier this year, the Freedom of Information Act already has a clause enabling an extension of the Act to companies with public contracts but they have not, as yet, exercised this clause.  Indeed, the Commons public accounts committee recently called on companies doing business with central government to be subject to Freedom of Information legislation.  Margaret Hodge, chair of the Committee, argued that the Freedom of Information Act should be extended to ensure that private companies are “compelled to share with the public information on contracts which are funded with public money.”  Such calls are, of course, met with opposition by those that would be affected by extension of this legislation, such as the CBI who claimed that:

"Because of the commercial sensitivity associated with contracts delivered by businesses and charities operating in a competitive environment, we do not believe that extending the scope of Freedom of Information requests is an appropriate way of ensuring transparency."

Of course, transparency need not put at risk commercial sensitivities, as Monbiot points out in the article referenced above, South Africa provides a general right of access to the records of private bodies, whilst those same bodies also retain the right to “protect material that is of genuine commercial confidentiality.”  If it can work in South Africa, there is no reason why we cannot make it work here.

In an era of austerity and spending cuts, it is essential that there is complete transparency about both the process of government and the delivery of public services.  If private sector contractors are delivering public services whilst in the receipt of taxpayers’ money, it is clear that they should be subject to the same scrutiny as other taxpayer funded services.  When we are being asked to make sacrifices in order to reduce the deficit, we should have absolute clarity on where exactly our money is being spent.  This means that there must be transparency across the board, encompassing both public and private sectors in the provision of public services. The Act should be strengthened not weakened to the point of worthlessness. Without transparency, the government’s austerity programme is the ideological equivalent of the Artful Dodger; picking the pockets of an unsuspecting public.


Ian Clark tweets at @ijclark and blogs at

Image: CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: John Biehler

The numbers game

Following having her cheque intercepted and a couple of thousand pounds missing from her account, Wendy Grossman discusses the effectiveness of both cyber and paper-based fraud -and the particular problems of preventing the electronic type.

Sometime around mid-May I discovered a couple of thousand pounds were missing from my bank account. This was the result of a more haste, less speed situation: faced with an upcoming overseas trip, when someone said to me, "We can pay you electronically next week or send you a check today," I opted for the check, thinking it would be quicker.

What actually happened: somewhere in transit from me to my bank account the check was intercepted, the name of the payee was altered, and the check was paid to someone else. It took several weeks to establish this, of course. I had to get my bank's call center to call my bank to find someone who could say they'd never seen the check. Then *their* bank had to request a copy of the microfilm and then a second, higher-resolution image to establish whether the payee's name had been altered (in which case the bank was at fault for paying it) or left blank (in which case the payer goofed).

Through the whole thing, I imagined Mr Cashless Society, David Birch, smirking. My solution for the future, however, is not to insist that everything be paid electronically - when electronic payments go wrong, the results can be even more difficult to trace and unwind - but to digitally photograph every check, both incoming and outgoing. If I had done that in this case, our end of the investigation would have taken a minute, not a month.

There are some things about this theft that are striking. First is that it's very low-tech, even quaintly old-fashioned. While we spend so much time worrying about the strength of cryptography algorithms and the One True Way to devise good passwords, the postal and physical banking systems are supposed to be safe. I imagine our thief carefully working on the cheque like Lane Pryce in Mad Men. Second is that it's dumb, because it's enough money that people will notice it's missing and investigate when they do, and the likelihood is that the thief will be successfully traced. Had this guy instead run a small eBay scam and stolen £200 from ten different people - or £20 from 100 different people - he'd be enjoying his freedom and their money. Theft of physical pieces of paper doesn't pay even as well as the relatively low-profit crime of physical bank robbery.

Last year, Detica estimated the annual cost to the UK at £27 billion, a figure that was almost immediately (and rightly) questioned by both the press and security experts. Now, Ross Anderson and a team of co-authors has analyzed that number in detail. in a paper for the annual Workshop on the Economics of Information Security.

Unlike the Detica paper, Anderson and company fully expose their methodology and reasoning. Also unlike Detica, they don't provide a single big number. As they write, a lot depends on the assumptions you make and the types of crime you want to include. Welfare fraud has been with us as long as welfare has; should it be added to the cybercrime figures when the UK shifts all claims for welfare payments online next year? In any event, the authors estimate that traditional frauds cost each UK citizen a few hundred pounds a year; transitional frauds (fraud such as online payment card fraud that is moving online alongside the relevant infrastructure) cost each of us a few tens of pounds per year, and new cyber-frauds cost perhaps tens of pence per year. However, the cost of defending against those cyber-frauds - patching, anti-virus software, the opportunity costs of loss of trust - are something like ten times the cost of the frauds themselves. The authors wind up arguing for better policing: throwing the relatively small number of gangs in jail would do more to stop cybercrime than telling people to run anti-virus software.

I have my doubts about this part of the proposition. While clearly better - and better-resourced - policing would be a very good thing, I imagine that there are plenty of other criminals waiting for their chance. I liken the situation to what would happen if, say, 90 percent of the pregnancies on the planet were the work of just ten guys and you put them all in jail and took away their nookie privileges: smart women would still use birth control. It is not clear how much computer defense we could actually afford to do away with.

But what is very clear from the paper is the cost of getting our numbers wrong, and not just because when you spray around figures like £27 billion in losses to consumers (£3 billion), government (£3 billion), and companies (£21 billion) someone may start paying you large sums of public money to fix the problem. The consistent over-reporting of the number of phishing Web sites, types of malware, and attackers, Anderson et. al write, leads "some police forces to believe that the problem is too large and diffuse for them to tackle...This is part of a much wider problem of attributing risks to patterns of offending". Right. So instead of focusing on the technology by which crime is committed, focus instead on...yep, the people. Ain't it always the way?


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: L.A. Bank Robbery CC-BY Flickr: Colin Brown

Think of the Children!

Facebook proposes an under-13s ‘Junior’ version of its social networking site and Milena Popova explains why she finds herself, unusually, responding with a call for someone to ‘think of the children’.

I am usually the last person to cry "Think of the children!" It is a rallying cry too often used to restrict the rights of adults without having any measurable impact on children's lives. Want to impose your 19th-century morality on the country? Think of the children - we need to block all porn on the internet! (And never mind Page three of the Sun - that's run by our good friend Rupert Murdoch.) Want to read the nation's emails? Think of the children - by accessing your communications data we'll catch paedophiles! (If you're not a paedophile you have nothing to fear! You're not a paedophile, are you?)

And yet, as Jenny Thomas points out in her latest ORGZine article, such initiatives more often than not are actively harmful to children and infringe on their rights. Yet when it comes to the news that Facebook is considering opening up its service to the under-13s, "Think of the children!" is precisely what comes to mind. This is not because I'm afraid that kids will suddenly start looking at porn on the internet: they already do. We need to address our attitudes to sexuality to fix that, not censor the internet. Neither am I, frankly, terribly worried about young children being groomed on Facebook by paedophiles. Hype notwithstanding, the vast majority of child abuse perpetrators are people children already know and trust.

What I am worried about is the kind of attitude and behaviour that Facebook would normalise for these kids when it comes to privacy and identity. Facebook's entire business model is predicated on getting users to share as much information as possible about themselves. That's because on Facebook, you're the product. Your information and your attention span are being sold to advertisers around the world, for the benefit of Mr. Zuckerberg & co. Facebook wants to know if you're gay, so it can serve you ads for lesbian cruises; it wants to know if you have a cat, to serve you adverts for Whiskas; it wants to know that you're a role-player, so it can serve you ads for steampunk jewellery.

The bigger the data set Facebook - or any organisation - collects on you, the higher the chance that they can figure out something about you that you don't want them to know. I'm willing to bet that for most people of a certain age, Facebook was the first time they put their real name on the internet. This was back in the day when Facebook still vaguely cared about its users' privacy; when your information wasn't publicly visible by default and to add someone as a friend you generally had to know them. Still, I remember the first time I looked at Facebook's sign-up page. I was absolutely horrified by the amount of information they wanted from me, and I refused to give it -I didn't sign up.

I'd been elmyra for all things online for ten years at that point and that had been good enough. I cracked a few months later, though I was very careful to separate my Facebook activity under my real name from any online activity as elmyra. Merging the two took another three years and was a huge step for me. I agonised about it for a while, consciously weighing up costs and benefits. I locked down a lot of old content and started being a lot more careful about what I said. For younger people today, being transparent and sharing anything and everything on the internet is the default.

Facebook and other similar services have gradually eroded our resistance to this kind of public sharing, to the point where a young person entering the digital world today sees this kind of behaviour as the norm. If everyone does it, then where's the harm in me doing it too? Now Facebook is trying to get even younger kids to buy into its model of a post-privacy world. While US law stipulates a number of safeguards for under-13s using social networks and other online services, and Facebook is apparently looking at giving parents control over certain activities on their kids' accounts, it is questionable whether parents themselves have the knowledge and tools to preserve their children's privacy online.

My Facebook wall is full of baby pictures and updates from proud parents on what their offspring achieved today. This time lapse video of a child aging from new-born to 12-year-old which went viral a few months ago is a great example of how parents can get carried away with the possibilities of technology without thinking of the consequences. Is the video very very cool? Yes. Will Lotte thank her parents for her 15 minutes of fame once she gets older? Remains to be seen. It is time to start having a conversation with children - and parents - about what our ubiquitous, transparent online presence really means; about how much power we're giving away to organisations which rarely have our best interests at heart. “Facebook Junior” is probably not the right way to do that, so will somebody - please! - think of the children?


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-SA 2.0 Flickr: Lars Plougmann

Long Awaited Libel Reform Puts Privacy at Risk

As the Defamation Bill enters the committee stage Simon Whitten looks at the problems it aims to address and discusses why, in its current form, it could do more harm than good.

 One day you receive an e-mail from a person you've never met. She claims that a comment posted on your blog defames her and she threatens to take you to court if it is not removed immediately. You dutifully check the comment; it doesn't seem libellous, provocative perhaps but not libellous. In your judgement the comment is fair and falls well within the norms of comment in a free society but you know these libel laws can be tricky and you definitely don't want to be dragged into the courts over this, so what do you do? Most of us would feel pressured to comply with the demand to take down the comment.

At present in England and Wales website operators, from the owner of a small personal blog through to Google itself are treated as the publishers of all content that appears on their site and as such are, in principle, liable for damages caused by libellous statements made by third parties appearing on that site. Worse, not only is the website operator liable, so potentially are search engines, ISPs and the web host. Some of these disputed claims of defamation are made in good faith and may or may not be upheld in court, others are clearly nefarious and are made with the intention of stifling legitimate debate, comment and criticism.

It's for the best then that Britain's libel laws are undergoing a much needed update. With the Defamation Bill (which entered the committee stage this week) likely to be passed into law we stand on the verge of a major victory for free speech. A response to popular demand following a number of recent high profile libel trials which exposed the inadequacy of Britain's archaic libel laws, if passed the bill would add new legal defences, grant immunity to peer-reviewed journals and crack down on libel tourism.

Of particular interest to internet users will be clause five which addresses the problem described above by granting website operators conditional immunity from liability for content posted by a third party. By allowing allegedly libellous comments to stay up while the dispute is on-going the law would provide some theoretical protection to free speech. There is, however, a catch. On receipt of a mere notice of complaint a website operator would be obliged to disclose the identity and contact details of the comment's author so that legal action may be pursued against him or her. Where the author cannot be identified the website operator will be required to take-down the content or lose their immunity.

As a result the privacy of individual internet users is put at risk. As no court order will be required to force disclosure, only a complaint, the system will likely be open to abuse. In its current form the bill seems likely to lead to website operators being pressured into disclosing the identity or contact details of a poster or user simply upon receiving a complaint by an allegedly injured party or face liability themselves. The operators of small blogs will simply be unable to risk facing the potentially costly battle in the courts that would come from protecting the privacy of their readers while major website operators are simply incapable of judging individual complaints on their merits. The implementation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US has already demonstrated the ways in which such a process can be abused, with claims under the Act routinely being used in attempts to censor legitimate criticism on YouTube.

It remains unclear what, if any, safeguards will be put in place to protect against the abuse of this mechanism, to protect the privacy of the individual internet user or to prevent malicious use of personal information once it has been disclosed. Although the bill does grant the Justice Secretary the power to implement regulations in this area, the privacy of internet users, individual citizens and freedom of speech on the internet cannot be left to ministerial whim. It's simply not right for the Government to be granted a legislative carte blanche to undermine or safeguard individuals' right to privacy as they please, especially given the track record of recent governments on privacy issues.

Unamended, the bill clearly does more harm than good for internet users. While the conditional immunity of website operators should serve to reduce the pressure for content to be taken down unreasonably, it does so by simply passing the threat of frivolous legal action from hosting companies and website owners onto the individual user who's even less prepared to deal with it and in doing so puts their private information at risk. Libel reform is desperately needed, but must give privacy equal weight to the protection of reputation.


Simon Whitten is an economics and politics student and campaigns for digital economy reform, international development and freedom of information.

Image: Gavel CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: afsart

Accessible ebooks: How DRM and copyright laws are inflicting a book famine

Dan Pescod, Campaigns Manager for RNIB, explains how, although ebooks can be made accessible to blind and partially sighted people, DRM and copyright laws prevent the format changes, and why the World Blind Union is calling for an international treaty setting out an exception to copyright law for blind people.

 Imagine going into a bookshop and being told that you were not allowed to buy 95% of the books on the shelves. Now picture other customers in that shop browsing freely and buying whichever title they wanted. Would you be disappointed? Angry, perhaps?

Blind people face such a ‘book famine’ every day. Why is that?

Well, it’s not because blind people cannot read. It’s certainly not because they don’t want to read, either.  The problem is that very few books are ever published in “accessible formats” that a blind or partially sighted person can read.  Braille is perhaps the most well-known of these accessible formats. A Braille book contains the same words as that of the print version, but these words are codified in a system of dots which can be read by touch.  There are other accessible formats used by the many people with sight problems who don’t read Braille. These include large print and audio books.

Publishers have long “turned a blind eye” to blind people as a market segment, believing that it would not be commercially viable to make accessible books for them. The very few books available to blind and partially sighted people are therefore mainly provided by charities with limited resources working for blind people, such as my own, RNIB.

Readers of this magazine will know that recently, digital publishing technology has been creating a revolution in the way books are published, sold and read. This revolution could do great things to help end the book famine faced by blind people, too.

Ebooks in particular seem to herald a golden age of accessibility. They could “speak” their text to blind people, or their print be enlarged in a user friendly way for those with some sight.

However, most ebook readers on the market are not fully accessible. If you are blind you’ll need the eBook reader to “speak” the menu to you- as well as the text of the book itself- so that you can buy your ebook, find the one you want to read from your collection, and so on. In fact, not all ebook readers have a “text-to speech” facility at all, and those that do often don’t speak the menu.  What’s more, where it exists this facility is often disabled by publishers whose authors have complained that such a service might conflict with the rights to an audio version of the book.

If you are partially sighted you might want to enlarge the text or change the colour contrast, but not all ebook readers can do this either.

Also, digital rights management (“DRM”) can prevent a blind person from format-shifting an ebook from, say, their PC to a portable Braille display machine, or disabled screen-reading text-to-speech technology.

There is in any case a long way to go before most countries even develop an ebook market. Developing countries in particular are perhaps still years away from doing so.  Not to mention cost. Blind and partially sighted people are among the least well-off and therefore the least able to afford high-tech means to read books.

So for the foreseeable future, we need to ensure that blind people’s organisations themselves can make as many books accessible as possible.

One crucial part of doing this is ensuring that copyright law facilitates, rather than hinders, both the making of accessible books in a given country, and the pooling of resources across national borders.

When charities convert the print or digital version of a book into an ‘accessible format’, they are of course making a copy of the book. That doesn’t break copyright law in countries where there is a legal ‘exception’ to copyright law for the benefit of blind people. However, only a third of the world’s countries have such an exception. Also, if a blind person’s organisation in England, say, reformats a digital version of the latest Harry Potter book so that it can be easily converted to Braille or large print, copyright law prevents that ‘master file’ from being sent to another blind person’s organisation in another English-speaking country. That means that the time and cost of re-formatting needs to be replicated by blind people’s organisations in different countries across the globe, costing thousands of Euros in duplicated efforts. That’s money that could have been spent making more titles accessible. 

The World Blind Union and its European subsidiary the European Blind Union have, these past few years, been campaigning for an international treaty requiring that all countries had an exception to copyright law for blind people, and permitting the sharing of these ‘accessible formats’ between these charities across the world. Blind people would be able to read thousands more books as a result.

Unlike most of the world’s countries, the EU’s member states, except for the UK and Czech Republic so far, have been resisting such a treaty, which the world intellectual property organisation (WIPO) in Geneva could finally agree on in July. The reason for this EU opposition is twofold. Firstly, there is a strong publisher lobby against the treaty in influential countries such as France and Germany especially. The publishers have not opposed our treaty because they feel that it lacks merit, but rather because they fear that it would set a precedent for other international treaties providing exceptions to copyright for other groups. Secondly, the EU member states oppose because of innate conservatism. France has been the most open and vociferous opponent. How ironic that the country which gave us Braille opposes the legal means to make more books accessible to blind people.

That’s why the EBU has just published a map to show which EU Member States are prepared publicly to back or oppose a legally-binding treaty.

Now is the time for the EU’s Member States to accept the will of blind people and of the European Parliament, and back a WIPO treaty. You can help! Using the link on the EBU webpage, you can write to urge your country’s WIPO representative to come out in favour of the treaty. If the EU stops its delaying tactics, the treaty could be agreed in July.  If your country does already support the treaty, then you might also want to write to EU Commissioner Michel Barnier, who is in charge of this matter for the Commission. You could ask him to do all he can to convince the sceptical countries, including his own, France, to back our treaty.

For more in-depth briefing on this issue, please follow this link:

With your help, we can get this treaty and help end the book famine!


Dan Pescod is Campaigns Manager, Europe, International and Accessibility, at the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the UK (RNIB), vice chair of the World Blind Union’s right to read working group, and coordinates the European Blind Union’s work on copyright issues. Dan campaigns in the UK and internationally to gain greater access to information, rights and services for blind and partially sighted people.

Image: CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: cubicgarden (Ian Forrester)

A License to Print Money

Wendy Grossman reports on the release of the Draft Communications Data Bill and looks over some of the major comments and criticisms it has recevied.

 "It's only a draft," Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, said repeatedly. He was talking about the Draft Communications Data Bill (PDF), which was published on Wednesday. On the 14th, in a room in a Parliamentary turret, Hupper convened a meeting to discuss the draft; in attendance were a variety of Parliamentarians plus experts from civil society groups such as Privacy International, the Open Rights Group, Liberty, and Big Brother Watch. Do we want to be a nation of suspects?

The Home Office characterizes the provisions in the draft bill as vital powers to help catch criminals, save lives, and protect children. Everyone else - the Guardian, ZDNet UK, and dozens more - is calling them the "Snooper's charter".

Huppert's point is important. Like the Defamation Bill before it, publishing a draft means there will be a select committee with 12 members, discussion, comments, evidence taken, a report (by November 30, 2012), and then a rewritten bill. This draft will not be voted on in Parliament. We don't have to convince 650 MPs that the bill is wrong; it's a lot easier to talk to 12 people. This bill, as is, would never pass either House in any case, he suggested.

This is the optimistic view. The cynic might suggest that since it's been clear for something like ten years that the British security services (or perhaps their civil servants) have a recurring wet dream in which their mountain of data is the envy of other governments, they're just trying to see what they can get away with. The comprehensive provisions in the first draft set the bar, softening us up to give away far more than we would have in future versions. Psychologists call this anchoring, and while probably few outside the security services would regard the wholesale surveillance and monitoring of innocent people as normal, the crucial bit is where you set the initial bar for comparison for future drafts of the legislation. However invasive the next proposals are, it will be easy for us to lose the bearings we came in with and feel that we've successfully beaten back at least some of the intrusiveness.

But Huppert is keeping his eye on the ball: maybe we can not only get the worst stuff out of this bill, but make things actually better than they are now; it will amend RIPA. The Independent argues that private companies hold much more data on us overall, but that article misses that this bill intends to grant government access to all of it, at any time, without notice.

The big disappointment in all this, as William Heath said on Thursday, is that it marks a return to the old, bad, government IT ways of the past. We were just getting away from giant, failed public IT projects like the late unlamented NHS platform for IT and the even more unlamented ID card towards agile, cheap public projects run by smart guys who know what they're doing. And now we're going to spend £1.8 billion of public money over ten years (draft bill, p92) building something no one much wants and that probably won't work? The draft bill claims - on what authority is unclear - that the expenditure will bring in £5 to £6 billion in revenues. From what? Are they planning to sell the data?

Or are they imagining the economic growth implied by the activity that will be necessary to build, install, maintain, and update the black boxes that will be needed by every ISP in order to comply with the law. The security consultant Alec Muffet has laid out the parameters for this SpookBox 5000: certified, tested, tamperproof, made by, say, three trusted British companies. Hundreds of them, legally required, with ongoing maintenance contracts. "A license to print money," he calls them. Nice work if you can get it, of course.

So we're talking - again - about spending huge sums of government money on a project that only a handful of people want and whose objectives could be better achieved by less intrusive means. Give police better training in computer forensics, for example, so they can retrieve the evidence they need from the devices they find when executing a search warrant.

Ultimately, the real enemy is the lack of detail in the draft bill. Using the excuse that the communications environment is changing rapidly and continuously, the notes argue that flexibility is absolutely necessary for Clause 1, the one that grants the government all the actual surveillance power, and so it's been drafted to include pretty much everything, like those contracts that claim copyright in perpetuity in all forms of media that exist now or may hereinafter be invented throughout the universe. This is dangerous because in recent years the use of statutory instruments to bypass Parliamentary debate has skyrocketed. No. Make the defenders of this bill prove every contention; make them show the evidence that makes every extra bit of intrusion necessary.


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: Houses of Parliament CC-BY-NC Flickr: racoles

Firewalling child rights in the name of "protection"

Broad restrictions on children's access to information on the grounds of child protection prevent them from making informed choices and fuel discrimination, argues the Child Rights International Network (CRIN)

A harmful trend

In 2009, Lithuania banned discussion of homosexuality in schools as well as any related reference in public information that can be accessed by children.

In 2010, Venezuela approved a restrictive media law to "protect children from crude language, sexual content and violence"

In 2012, Russia made amendments to laws to promote the "protection of children from information harmful to their health and development."

Now, mobile phone operators in the UK are filtering access to websites they consider unsuitable for under 18s on the grounds of child protection. The reach of such filters extends far beyond adult sexual content, however, with many reports of blocks to other websites, including some that contain political and advocacy content.

These are just a few among a litany of news stories signalling a growing trend among governments and private companies to restrict children's access to "harmful" information. While no one would deny that children have a right to protection, the lack of transparency by some, and the overt prejudice by others, in what makes information "harmful" gives cause for concern.

Children's rights advocates quite rightly fear that imposing broad restrictions on children's access to information couched in arguments about child protection not only contributes to discrimination against certain groups - most often sexual minorities - but that such blocks also serve to deny children age-appropriate information about issues such as sex education, sexuality and drug use. This is information to which children have a right, and which can support them to make informed choices. In this way, providing children with information clearly contributes to, rather than detracts from their right to protection.

Arguments against providing children with sensitive or controversial information feed into the notion of children as helpless human beings, incapable of making choices for themselves.

Children's right to information

In many cases restricted access to information extends to the population of a country as a whole. The most obvious recent examples emerge from the repression of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, although the existence of on-going programmes of censorship is also well-known in many other countries like China.

In other countries, where adults' right to access information is and remains well-established, young people's access is limited and determined by the same adults, through online censorship or other tactics like imposing textbooks which impart bias, as discussed below. And yet, the ability to access information is particularly critical for children's development as it is the means by which children form views about the world, participate actively in society and potentially stand up for their rights and those of others later in life. If they are to function as responsible citizens, it is therefore critical that children have access to honest and objective information.

Along these lines, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out a number of provisions which specifically protect civil and political rights for children in its articles 12 to 17. Article 17 addresses children's right to information, including the right to access information and material from a variety of sources, international and national, especially where it is aimed at the protection of their social, spiritual, moral well-being and physical and mental health.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors States' compliance with the Convention, sheds light on the sort of information it considers should be provided to children: "[i]t is the obligation of States parties to ensure that all adolescent girls and boys, both in and out of school, are provided with, and not denied, accurate and appropriate information on how to protect their health and development and practise healthy behaviours. This should include information on the use and abuse, of tobacco, alcohol and other substances, safe and respectful social and sexual behaviours, diet and physical activity."[1]

The Committee has further emphasised to individual countries in its direct recommendations their obligation to provide children and their parents with accurate and objective information about issues such as drug use (Liechtenstein, Belize) and sexual and reproductive health, including family planning (Benin).

Frankenstein's monster?

There are some limitations placed on children's right to receive information: the Convention encourages States to develop guidelines to protect children from information and material "injurious to [their] well-being". The definition of what constitutes information injurious to children's well-being is not altogether clear, but presumably shielding children from information about the rights of others and how to make informed choices about their own lives is not what the CRC drafters had in mind. On the contrary, the history of how the CRC came into being reveals that this caveat was introduced to ensure children's protection from harmful influences in the mass media in relation to apartheid, racist theories, and other prejudicial ideologies.[2]

Failure to provide children with objective and accurate information that promotes tolerance from a variety of sources can foster exactly the sort of biased, harmful thinking the Convention aims to avoid, and thereby only serves to reinforce adult prejudices.

A textbook error.

School textbooks provide one example of how adults' determination of the information children receive can impact them negatively and distort their impressions of different peoples and history. Israeli textbooks for example have been criticised for portraying all Palestinians as terrorists, refugees and primitive farmers. In Syria children are taught that Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar - a man responsible for mass killings and violent oppression - is the son of God. The Council of Europe has expressed concern about the teaching of creationism in schools, which it says introduces confusion in children's minds about the difference between religious belief and scientific fact; it cites examples from Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom. In addition, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has highlighted the gender bias in many countries' textbooks.

These examples illustrate how receiving one-sided information, can threaten to influence and obstruct children's enjoyment of other rights, such as the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (article 14 of the CRC) and freedom of expression, enshrined in article 13.

From information to action

Children's capacity and desire to exercise their right to information are evident around the world. The salient features of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, for example, were that so many of the protests were organised online and that they involved large numbers of young people - a reflection of the region's demographics.[3] In the United States, meanwhile, a 17-year-old boy in Tennessee organised a Twitter campaign to protest against a bill that would have banned teachers from discussing homosexuality in schools.

The need to protect children from violence, obscenity and incitement to hatred, across the range of electronic devices, particularly where they risk the consequences of laying bare their private lives to strangers, goes without saying. And it is true that the distinction between illegal and harmful content can be hazy and subjective, often inadvertently bleeding into censorship. However, it is crucial for an open and just society that any labelling systems for online content are transparent, age-appropriate within the span of childhood, and decided collectively with civil society organisations, and children themselves. Indeed, the proliferation of what could be termed "protection creep" in which there is too much focus on protection for victims, rather than empowerment and rights, is encroaching on an ever greater number of children's freedoms. In Jamaica, for example, after schoolchildren protested against the conditions of their community's roads, the country's education minister, Andrew Holness, told schools that those who failed "to protect children from these illegal acts" would be subject to sanctions.

States and private companies are not alone in suppressing this right; some incidents have come to light in which schools have invoked child protection arguments when found to be spying on their pupils. One school in Philadelphia, for example, was found to have captured more than 56,000 images of children - mostly in their homes - on laptop cameras. The scandal broke when a school official reported the presence of drugs in one pupil's bedroom.

It is not the role of States, parents or schools to suppress or spy on children, but instead to guide them to exercise caution and encourage them to ask questions and think critically. In this way, we both recognise children's capacity to play a role in their own protection and respect their civil and political rights. Protecting children's right to information is not only fundamental to ensuring all other civil and political rights for children; it is the foundation of the rule of law and democracy for all.

Jenny Thomas is Senior Child Rights Officer at CRIN. CRIN is a global network for children's rights advocacy. We press for rights, not charity. Visit the website:

[1] Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment 4, paragraph 10.

[2] UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Save the Children Sweden, "Legislative History of the Convention on the Rights of the Child" (May 2007), p. 483, paragraph 39

[3] In Yemen, for example, 70 cent of the population is under 25, according to IRIN

Image: Model United Nations CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: Mr Ush

Free Speech in Online Communities

Milena Popova discusses when forum moderators become censors and the line between enforcing online politeness and freedom of speech

An increase in traffic to my blog inevitably comes with an increase in comment spam. I must admit I do not exactly feel like an enemy of free speech every time I hit “Delete” on something like this:

Elegant vintage women's evening gowns have manner that namely timeless. These vintage women's nighttime dresses are quite chic today as well. The detriment of the corset was a excellent impetuous for fashion apt take a radical alteration and ideas started ...

Nor did I feel like an enemy of free speech when I used to moderate the mailing list of my university’s rock society. Back in the days of dial-up I suspect most people were glad I didn’t let that 20 MB attachment go through and were happy to sacrifice the occasional argument about the correct spelling of “Red Hot Chili Peppers” (one L) in exchange for a manageable phone bill.

I can think of several other sensible cases that can be made in favour of limiting what people can say on the Internet. A lot of the message boards I hang out on have rules around civilised debate, around not calling people names, around employing common sense and courtesy when discussing sensitive topics like violence against women. Sometimes such communities are self-regulating; often they will have administrators or moderators whose job it is to enforce the rules. The bigger a community gets, the more likely it is that at some point someone will have to make a call between freedom of speech and members’ convenience (in the case of spam) or right to a safe space (in the case of abusive comments).

The best moderators will use a light touch. In a reasonably small, close-knit community a simple reminder of the rules and standards everyone has agreed to can be enough to calm a heated discussion, to remind people that on the other side of screen and keyboard there’s another human being. Even some larger communities can work very well on the basis of consent and consensus. Hummus wars notwithstanding, Wikipedia’s principles of discussion and consensus tend to serve it well the vast majority of the time.

Then again, there are the trainwrecks. Comment may be free on the Guardian, but don’t go below the line unless you have to. I am sure Guardian moderators do their best, but a lot of abuse still gets through and the comment threads are so far from constructive debate that they’re a waste of time unless you particularly enjoy feeding trolls., the popular sales site for handcrafted and vintage items is notorious for being another trainwreck. When your forum admin needs to make a 1200-word post (that’s six times as long as their actual forum policy) about banning, muting, locking, closing and all the other things the Etsy forum teams to do members and forum threads, you know you have a problem. When that post starts out with a threat to close the thread if anyone asks the wrong question, you want to hand them a dictionary with the word “irony” highlighted.

Of course keeping it civilised was ostensibly the motivation behind Google’s highly controversial real names policy for its Google+ service. You can have free speech as long as you put your name to it, apparently. And while it is true that being able to hide behind anonymity can bring out the less pleasant sides of most of us (guilty as charged, on occasion), abolishing anonymity is in its own way a good method of stifling free speech. When what you want to talk about is being a survivor of sexual or domestic violence, or could land you in jail because your government isn’t terribly tolerant of your opinion of it, anonymity is in many cases the only real enabler of free speech.

Looking at the examples above, the online communities which strike the necessary balance most successfully are those which are self-regulated, where moderators come from within the community, where moderation happens by consent. This is not to say that SNAFU doesn’t happen in these communities, but in my experience it is rarer and easier to fix. Don’t like that I didn’t let your email on the number of Ls in Red Hot Chili Peppers through? Drop me a note or catch me at the next club night and we can talk about it. Get a second moderator in to get a more balanced view. There are options. When moderation is imposed from outside, such as on Etsy, Google+, Comment is Free or when Twitter suspends accounts which are inconvenient to commercial interests, you have two choices. You play by those imposed rules or you don’t play at all.

There are a number of efforts out there to wrest control of our online social spaces from corporate interests, to make them more open and return them to community ownership rather than market ownership., DreamWidth and DIASPORA* are just some of them. Some are more successful than others. Some are easier to migrate to than others. If we want to maintain the Internet’s openness and to fulfill its potential as enabler of free speech, we need to support and encourage those projects, to at least spread our eggs between the commercial and the community baskets, lest we find ourselves in a position where we can only consume, conform, obey

Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She tweets as @elmyra

Image: New Troll and Old Troll (Back) CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: Dunechaser

German Agency Wants to Snoop Social Networks to Analyse Creditworthiness

Tashalaw explains the details on the response to and future of Schufa's plans to link social network information, such as personal relationships, to credit agency data.

A German credit agency in is planning to analyse the creditworthiness of individuals by using information gathered from online sources such as Facebook and other social networking sites.

Schufa, Germany’s  largest credit agency intends to assess peoples ability to make repayments by using ”crawling techniques,”  such as those used by Google, for the purpose of “identifying and assessing the prospects and threats.” A spokesman for Schufa told Spiegel Online that “everything is happening within the legal frameworks in Germany.”

Nevertheless, the proposal raises serious concerns over assessing a person’s reputation from information found on the web. Schufa is planning to analyse automatically recorded information on the Internet such as on social networks, and this can then be linked to the stored data gathered by the credit agency. Although Facebook pointed out that according to its terms and conditions, automatic registration of members was actually not permissible.

For a country with some of the strictest privacy laws in Europe, it is no surprise that the proposal has come under a strong criticism. Analysing data related to personal relationships which can be found on Facebook and Twitter in order to judge a persons creditworthiness is a severe invasion of privacy.

Since the German broadcaster NDR reported on the research project last  Thursday there has been a public outcry. Numerous privacy advocates and politicians have strongly criticised the proposal.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger,  the German Justice Minister, was quick to condemn the credit agency’s plans. She told the Spiegel that Facebook “friends and preferences” should not prevent an individual from, for example, being able to obtain a mobile phone contract. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger stated “Schufa and other credit agencies should disclose their full intentions of using Facebook data to check creditworthiness.” She said that the data used to determine someone’s credit report is already controversial and called for the process to be made “fully transparent.”

On Thursday, the Justice Minister was joined by Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner in warning Schufa and HPI about tracing individuals on social networks, and requested further information on the research plans. Rainer Brüderle a parliamentary member of the Free Democrats (FDP) stated that “Schufa’s plans go too far…social networks, like a circle of friends, are part of a person’s private life, and should therefore not be tapped.”

However, the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) which was to be commissioned by Schufa to develop a proposal for the project, has now pulled out due to mounting criticism from politicians and privacy advocates. The privately-funded information technology institute was going to explore the extent to which information from the Internet can help in evaluating the creditworthiness of individuals. HPI  announced that it has withdrawn from the contract with Schufa.

In a statement, the institute claimed there had been some “misconceptions” by the general public about their research approach. HPI Director Christoph Meinel stated that the project could no longer be carried out with the ease and in the “unburdened” conditions necessary.

The move by HPI, a clear blow for Schufa, has been welcomed by critics of the proposal, but it is unclear whether the credit agency intends to pursue the project regardless. The proposal could be hugely damaging to the privacy of individuals, linking their private relationships and their online reputation to their creditworthiness seems hugely invasive. Schufa’s plans could have detrimental effects on a person’s everyday life and further highlight the dangers of disclosing personal information on the internet. It is unclear whether Germany, a country with some of the most sophisticated privacy laws in the world, would be able to justify such actions in accordance with its legal framework.


Natasha Kuilak writes on legal issues in her Weekly Law Blog, Tashalaw; this article was a cross-post from the blog. You can also follow her on twitter @tashalaws.

Image: Shredded Cards CC-BY-NC Flickr: moofbong

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Schmidt Happens

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

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