Friday, March 03, 2006

A terrorist statistic writes

Andrew Brown was stopped and searched at Liverpool Street Station.

"Finally, they gave me a pink copy of the report he had made when searching me. I should show this to other officers, he said, if they stopped me, and I wouldn't have any trouble. At this point I let myself go a little. Wasn't this ridiculous? I said. Just because a terrorist had been searched once with a rucksack that was innocent didn't mean that he wouldn't have important terrorist supplies, maps or even worse, the next time he passed a policeman. If he could show a pink slip and get away, wouldn't this just encourage him? The policeman looked at me without affection or enjoyment. Any other policeman, he said, would be entirely free to search me even if I had a pink slip. And so I went to catch my train, greatly reassured.

The two things they never asked me were where I was going (and coming from) and what was my business. I do regret this. I would have liked to have watched their faces when I said that I had come from the BBC studios in Millbank, where I was making a radio programme on the Government's plans to deal with Islamic extremism, and that the next person I will interview is Assistant Chief Constable Robert Beckley, a member of the ACPO Terrorism and Allied Matters team. But perhaps they will stop me again on Thursday, when I go in to see him."

Read the whole thing.

Felten on the nuts and bolts of network discrimination

Ed Felten has a nice post on his blog on the nuts and bolts of network discrimination which shows why he's such a good teacher.

"Think of the Internet as a set of routers (think: metal boxes with electronics inside) connected by links (think: long wires). Packets of data get passed from one router to another, via links. A packet is forwarded from router to router, until it arrives at its destination.

Focus now on a single router. It has several incoming links on which packets arrive, and several outgoing links on which it can send packets. When a packet shows up on an incoming link, the router will figure out (by methods I won’t describe here) on which outgoing link the packet should be forwarded. If that outgoing link is free, the packet can be sent out on it immediately. But if the outgoing link is busy transmitting another packet, the newly arrived packet will have to wait — it will be “buffered” in the router’s memory, waiting its turn until the outgoing link is free.

Buffering lets the router deal with temporary surges in traffic. But if packets keep showing up faster than they can be sent out on some outgoing link, the number of buffered packets will grow and grow, and eventually the router will run out of buffer memory.

At that point, if one more packet shows up, the router has no choice but to discard a packet...

one type of network discrimination, which prioritizes packets and discards low-priority packets first, but only discards packets when that is absolutely necessary. I’ll call it minimal discrimination, because it only discriminates when it can’t serve everybody.

With minimal discrimination, if the network is not crowded, lots of low-priority packets can get through. Only when there is an unavoidable conflict with high-priority packets is a low-priority packet inconvenienced.

Contrast this with another, more drastic form of discrimination, which discards some low-priority packets even when it is possible to forward or deliver every packet. A network might, for example, limit low-priority packets to 20% of the network’s capacity, even if part of the other 80% is idle. I’ll call this non-minimal discrimination.

One of the basic questions to ask about any network discrimination regime is whether it is minimal in this sense. And one of the basic questions to ask about any rule limiting discrimination is how it applies to minimal versus non-minimal discrimination. We can imagine a rule, for example, that allows minimal discrimination but limits or bans non-minimal discrimination.

This distinction matters, I think, because minimal and non-minimal discrimination are supported by different arguments. Minimal discrimination may be an engineering necessity. But non-minimal discrimination is not technologically necessary — it makes service worse for low-priority packets, but doesn’t help high-priority packets — so it could only be justified by a more complicated economic argument"

Excellent.

Open Document Format Alliance

From the NYT:

"With government records, reports and documents increasingly being created and stored in digital form, there is a software threat to electronic access to government information and archives. The problem is that public information can be locked in proprietary software whose document formats become obsolete or cannot be read by people using software from another company.

To cope with the problem, 30 companies, trade groups, academic institutions and professional organizations are announcing today the formation of the OpenDocument Format Alliance, which will promote the adoption of open technology standards by governments."

Objects that blog

Cory is "jazzed" after reading a paper (940K pdf) about blogjects.

Cornell blog and the lawyer's letter

Cornell blog has received a letter from Thomas W. Bruce, Vice President for University Communications,Cornell University, advising that the blog "remove the name Cornell University from the name of your blog and website at cornell.elliottback.com. While we appreciate your hosting a forum in which Cornell news and events can be discussed, your use of the words Cornell University on the blog is confusing and can easily be misinterpreted to mean that the blog is maintained and/or sanctioned by the university. In fact, neither is the case.

Cornell University is a trademarked name and can only be used with the permission of the university. More specifically your use of the Cornell University name in this manner is unauthorized, misleading, and in violation of Section 397 of the General Business Law of the State of New York."

Rather strange, since the blog has nothing but positive things to say about the university, until now and it's unlikely to be confused with the official university site. Maybe someone whispered 'trademark dilution' in this vice president's ear? Though I'd need a lawyer to advise on the real chances of that.

Pam Samuelson's class

Professor Pamela Samuelson's Technology and Intellectual Property in Law class lectures are now freely available on the Web. Isn't technology great?!

Attack is the best form of defence

Your have to admire the sheer brass neck of the Microsoft legal team in their tactics to hold EU regulators at bay. The latest trick, just as the EU are about to start levying the long delayed fines for monopolistic behaviour, is to accuse the EU regulators of secretly colluding with Microsoft's competitors. There's very little that bothers administrators so much as the thought that they might have broken their own rules. I expect Microsoft are hoping for them to go into a huddle, set up another investigation into the complaints and further postpone the need for the company to pay those outstanding fines. The game could go on indefinitely. Some might suggest it already has.

Update: EU bite back.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

UK parents to get online check of 8m child workers records

John Lettice is less than impressed with the UK government's latest planned big database.

"The UK Government today announces plans for a massive data, security and privacy own goal, in the shape of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill. The Bill, which is intended to widen and centralise the vetting of people working with children (approximately 8 million individuals), will allow (indeed, compel) employers, including parents hiring nannies and childminders, to check the records of potential employees online.

The production of the centralised (with "real time" updating) list will be a mega IT challenge of itself. Several overlapping lists (including List 99 for education, the Sex Offenders Register and the Protection of Children Act lists) currently exist, and the task of merging them leaves plenty of scope for the usual delays and disasters...

Some considerable time will however elapse before the new converged, real-time register of everything ships. The DfES tells us that would be employees "will apply to the CRB [Criminal Records Bureau] for a vetting and barring report. The police will provide the CRB with relevant information, including convictions and cautions so that the new independent body can make a barring decision... Applications will start the process of continuous monitoring of police information about the individual, allowing the barring decision to be changed if any new information comes to light."

The "new independent body" will be a panel set up to take the blame, er, make the decisions over who is on the list and who is not. Its ability to do so, however, hinges on the police's ability to supply the "relevant information" and to keep it up to date in real time. In order to do this, the police need to have the IMPACT (Information Management, Prioritisation, Analysis, Co-ordination and Tasking) police information sharing programme fully implemented, and this (see Spy Blog for analysis (http://www.spy.org.uk/spyblog/2005/11/bichard_inquiry_recommendation.html)) was recently put back from 2007 to 2010. "

Update: Further details at Spy Blog.

EDPS urges caution on police information exchange

The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) wants the exchange of police information to be introduced more cautiously:

"The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) has issued an Opinion on the proposal for a framework decision on the exchange of information under the principle of availability. Introduced by the Hague program, the principle of availability means that information that is available to law enforcement authorities in one Member State should also be made accessible for equivalent authorities in other Member States. The principle raises a number of data protection issues, notably because of the sensitivity of the data and the reduced control of the use of the information."

EU sketches out plan for Internet library

THE EU Commission are continuing to work on plans for a European digital library.

There's an FAQ available at Europa.

The big DRM mistake

Excellent article, The big DRM mistake by Scott Granneman at Security Focus.

"Digital Rights Managements hurts paying customers, destroys Fair Use rights, renders customers' investments worthless, and can always be defeated. Why are consumers and publishers being forced to use DRM?

One of my favorite magazines is The New Yorker...When it was announced over a year ago that The Complete New Yorker: Eighty Years of the Nation's Greatest Magazine would be released on eight DVDs, I immediately put in my pre-order. After it arrived, I took out the first DVD and stuck it in my Linux box, expecting that I could start looking at the collected issues.

No dice. The issues were available as DjVu files. No problem; there are DjVu readers for Linux, and it's an open format. Yet none of them worked. It turned out that The New Yorker added DRM to their DjVu files, turning an open format into a closed, proprietary, encrypted format, and forcing consumers to install the special viewer software included on the first DVD. Of course, that software only works on Windows or Mac OS X, so Linux users are out of luck (and no, it doesn't work under WINE ... believe me, I tried)...

The final indignity is that, although other DjVu readers provide for text selection, The New Yorker has removed that feature from its DjVu reader. You can print, but you can't select or copy. As a teacher of several technology courses at Washington University in St. Louis, this limitation, frankly, completely sucks. Suppose I want my students to read ten paragraphs from a New Yorker story that I provide on a password-protected web page. Too bad! I want to copy and paste some sentences into a presentation? Nope! A student expresses an interest in a topic, and I want to send her a New Yorker article via email that would help further her education? No can do.

I finally got so frustrated that I decided to break through The New Yorker's limitations and DRM...

t turns out that it's entirely possible to copy all the DVDs to your hard drive and then make one simple change in the SQLite database. The result? The slow-as-a-turtle, multi-DVD-swapping The New Yorker turns into super-duper fast The New Yorker. Ta-da!"

The whole piece is well worth a read.

We must stand up to the creeping tyranny of the group veto

Timothy Garton Ash writing in today's Guardian:We must stand up to the creeping tyranny of the group veto "
He says the "arguments around animal rights, Danish cartoons, Livingstone and Irving have more in common than you think" and starts with the recent anti-animal rights protests in Oxford.

"For a few minutes, Mansfield Road, Oxford, was at the front line of a new struggle for freedom that is being fought in many different places and guises. These days, the main threats to freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of association no longer come from the totalitarian ideological superstate that inspired George Orwell to write his 1984... the distinctive feature of this new danger is the creeping tyranny of the group veto.

Here the animal rights campaign has something in common with the extremist reaction to the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, as seen in the attacks on Danish embassies. In both cases, a particular group says: "We feel so strongly about this that we are going to do everything we can to stop it. We recognise no moral limits...

If the intimidators succeed, then the lesson for any group that strongly believes in anything is: shout more loudly, be more extreme, threaten violence, and you will get your way."

Sad but true.

A bit of BitTorrent bother

BBC Newsnight producer, Adam Livingstone, has had some grief over a script line in the programme last Friday saying that filesharing was theft.

"File sharing is not theft. It has never been theft. Anyone who says it is theft is wrong and has unthinkingly absorbed too many Recording Industry Association of America press releases. We know that script line was wrong. It was a mistake. We're very, very sorry.

If copyright infringement was theft then I'd be in jail every time I accidentally used football pix on Newsnight without putting "Pictures from Sky Sport" in the top left corner of the screen. And I'm not. So it isn't. So you can stop telling us if you like. We hear you.

Railways and canals

Now we've got that out the way, let us ask you a question. Why is it that every time the media starts to talk about the internet they feel compelled to bang on about paedophiles and terrorists and generally come over like a cross between Joe McCarthy and the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?

Well here's one answer - it sells copy. Another answer is that we're totally scared of new media, because new media is railways and we're canals, and you all just know how that's going to end.

So we seek to equate the internet with all bad things to scare you off it. At some corporate freudian level, there's some truth to that accusation. "

It's quite an amusing piece. Worth a read.

Downloading Empathy to Your iPod

From the Washington Post Downloading Empathy to Your iPod, an article on the way people are sharing iTunes playlists and how it could be seen as a form of expression.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

French Supreme Court oks drm

The French Supreme Court has overturned an Appeal Court decision which effectively blocked the implementation of drm because it interfered with private copying.

Ending the Tyranny of the Link

Frode Hegland has an interesting idea. He reckons it is time for the Web to move on from hyperlinks.

"Web links are curious things, they are actually addresses but they are called links. This is not just semantics, it’s important: A link has two ends, hence it links two things (or more). But web links only have one end, and that end is an address saying ‘go to this computer and this directory and that file’. That is an address, a pointer. The file pointed to doesn’t even need to exist...

But links required the author to know what links would be useful to the reader and it did not allow the reader to create links or connections on the fly.

The reader was forced to follow the links, or spend time copying text, going to other sites, such as search engines or dictionaries and pasting the text, then waiting for the results.

Additionally, once the author decides to make a link, the author can only make the link go to one place. The author cannot make the link go to multiple destinations. For example, a link to a politicians name, should that go to the official page for that politician, to a page on voter records, or maybe to news about the politician?

a different perspective

Instead of making a few words special and interactive, instead of making the author have to decide on all the useful navigation options, why not make all the words interactive?

Instead of special hyperlinks, why not also have all the word become (for want of a better name) ‘hyperwords’?

an approach

Hyperwords would allow users to interact with any text in many ways. For example, select text and search the web, search for people or search for information about the page they are viewing.

Or look up references like Wikipedia, dictionaries and so on. This could be considered ‘implicit’ links - a word is always implicitly linked to its entry in the dictionary for example.

Different dimensions of the text should be accessible, such as the map of a place, perhaps even the local time right now and the temperature. Why not?

How about translations, of full pages or or single words or snippets of text, why can that not be within a the reach of a single click, as quick as a pre-made, hand-made link?

Other commands, like shopping should also be available. And many more than I can think of.

Why should the world wide web be limited to the authors simple links? Why should it be limited to software designers browser controls?

For that matter, why should it be limited to the imagination of the designers of the extension designed to make Hyperwords real?

Other interactions could be useful, such as printing, blogging about, tagging or emailing a chunk of text, complete with attribution, quickly and easily, with a single click."

And there is a team of folks in Silicon Valley, including Frode Hegland, who seem to have built a beta model for us to try out.

Expectation vectors

Susan Crawford suggests that consumer expectation, or what she calls 'expectation vectors' are probably not the best guides when considering policies on copyright and privacy in the knowledge society.

The Lion, the Witch, and Linux

From NewsForge,

"Walden Media, the company that produced The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, wanted a community-driven Web site that would encourage discussion and collaboration on the educational products related to its movies. After considering the options, Walden Media chose Liferay's MIT-licensed open source content management system (CMS), running on Linux.

Walden Media says its movie ideas spring from "compelling source material," such as classic literature and worthwhile true stories. The company is responsible for producing movies like Holes, Because of Winn-Dixie, and most recently, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Though they turn out good movies, what makes Walden unique is its in-house education team that works with educators around the country to develop movie-related curricula such as activity guides, discussion topics, and "enhanced" DVDs."

Government go ahead for compulsory water meters

Contrary to its fiece opposition to the idea when, long ago, it was in opposition, the Labour government have now given the go ahead to a water company in Kent to force 65,000 householders to install water meters.

Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill

The more I learn about the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill the more it concerns me. There is a case to be made for more effective legislative decision making processes. But there must absolutely be proper scrutiny of legislative proposals by parliament. Giving ministers and other officials, of whatever political persuasion, the power to make it up as they go along and when they feel like it, to amend any legislation, is just plain daft. Even the brightest, most well intentioned politician gets it wrong occasionally.

Michael Smyth and Patricia Barratt of law firm Clifford Chance are amongst those who have also expressed concern about the proposals.

Typically the bill is being sold by the government as a way of cutting through unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy but as usual we should be paying attention to the small print which says something completely different. Sadly, as usual the sales speak is proving persuasive even in the case of those who should know better.

David Frost, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), has said:

"We welcome this Bill which could represent a major step forward in the drive to reduce the burden of regulation on British businesses. Complicated and costly regulation is one of the main barriers to business growth, especially for smaller companies. The new measures in this Bill are long overdue.

“This legislation must equip Parliament with the power to scrap costly and burdensome regulation so that businesses can be free to grow and succeed. “This Bill needs to make a real difference to employers in the day to day operation of their business. "

Well you can be sure it will make a difference to business. Ministers with the power to change any law, without the tedious process of having to shepherd their ideas through parliament, and under pressure to stimulate headline writers, just won't be able to resist their infinite numbers of opportunitites to "make a difference." It'll be the kid in a sweet shop syndrome. And if you think government interferes too much with business now, just wait until a flurry of eager ministers are let loose in this particular legislative sweetshop.

Thanks to EU Serf for the links.

Lords reject "glorifying terrorism" clause again

The House of Lords has, very sensibly, yet again rejected the UK government's proposal to outlaw the "glorification of terrorism." The vote was fairly close, as before, 160 to 156 but it means that the government have to convince MPs to overturn the Lords opposition to this again.

Biopiracy

The Brazilian Ambassador for the UK has a letter in the Independent this morning praising the paper for including an article on African bio-resources exploited by the West:

"The silent disease of biopiracy

Sir: I congratulate Andrew Buncombe for the article "African bio-resources 'exploited by West' " (17 February). It greatly contributes to raise public awareness on the deleterious effects of biopiracy, a serious environmental offence that affects every biodiversity-rich country in the world.

Biopiracy is like a silent disease: it is hardly detectable, it frequently does not leave traces and is an elusive activity perpetrated and oft abetted by many well-known multinational companies. Unfortunately, it does not attract the same media coverage or public outcry as other environmental problems, such as deforestation and pollutant emissions.

In accordance with the Convention of Biological Diversity, benefits generated by the commercial utilisation of genetic resources should be shared with the countries of origin of those resources. But those who passionately defend the environment often forget that this silent pillage is effectively robbing developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia of the means to finance important sustainable development projects, and is also a powerful disincentive for their biodiversity conservation efforts.

Brazil will host the eighth meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention (Curitiba, March 20-31) and has strongly defended the adoption of an international regime to ensure benefit-sharing arrangements under the Convention, which we believe is an important step for eliminating the scourge of biopiracy.

JOSÉ MAURICIO BUSTANI

AMBASSADOR OF BRAZIL LONDON W1"

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Government secretly wants the Abolition of Parliament Bill?

Lib Dem MP David Haworth has a piece worthy of widespread attention in last Tuesday's Times but it seems to have bypassed most people including me until now. The government have apparently proposed a bill that would allow ministers to change any law without recourse to Parliament.

"in an almost deserted chamber, the Government proposed an extraordinary Bill that will drastically reduce parliamentary discussion of future laws, a Bill some constitutional experts are already calling “the Abolition of Parliament Bill”.

A couple of journalists noticed, including Daniel Finkelstein of The Times, and a couple more pricked up their ears last week when I highlighted some biting academic criticism of the Bill on the letters page of this paper. But beyond those rarefied circles, that we are sleepwalking into a new and sinister world of ministerial power seems barely to have registered.

The boring title of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill hides an astonishing proposal. It gives ministers power to alter any law passed by Parliament. The only limitations are that new crimes cannot be created if the penalty is greater than two years in prison and that it cannot increase taxation. But any other law can be changed, no matter how important. All ministers will have to do is propose an order, wait a few weeks and, voilĂ , the law is changed...

Looking back at last week’s business in the Commons, the Bill makes a mockery of the decisions MPs took. Carrying ID cards could be made compulsory, smoking in one’s own home could be outlawed and the definition of terrorism altered to make ordinary political protest punishable by life imprisonment. Nor will the Human Rights Act save us since the Bill makes no exception for it.

The Bill, bizarrely, even applies to itself, so that ministers could propose orders to remove the limitations about two-year sentences and taxation. It also includes a few desultory questions (along the lines of “am I satisfied that I am doing the right thing?”) that ministers have to ask themselves before proceeding, all drafted subjectively so that court challenges will fail, no matter how preposterous the minister’s answer. Even these questions can be removed using the Bill’s own procedure. Indeed, at its most extreme, in a manoeuvre akin to a legislative Indian rope trick, ministers could use it to transfer all legislative power permanently to themselves...

The Government claims that there is nothing to worry about. The powers in the Bill, it says, will not be used for “controversial” matters. But there is nothing in the Bill that restricts its use to “uncontroversial” issues. The minister is asking us to trust him, and, worse, to trust all his colleagues and all their successors. No one should be trusted with such power.

As James Madison gave warning in The Federalist Papers, we should remember when handing out political power that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm”. This Bill should make one doubt whether they are at the helm now."

Thanks to Michael Froomkin for the link.

Australia Copyright Agency to schools: pay Internet licenses or shut down the net!

From Cory, Australia Copyright Agency to schools: pay Internet licenses or shut down the net!

More idiotic IP overreaching - the Copyright Agency want schools to pay a copyright fee every time someone in the school accesses the Web. The now ex-MP, Sam Buite, tried the same trick in Canada before she got voted out in the recent general election.

As an educator excited by the possibilities technology provides for expanding our educational horizons (as well as marked by the experience of using modern technology at the educational coalface for over ten years) this kind of thing really concerns me. Most of my colleagues in academia have got no interest in the obscure branch of law with the eye glazing title intellectual property. When a company like Acacia finally starts suing educational institutions in the UK as it has been doing in the US, for allegedly breaching their patents on delivering materials via the web, it will come as a huge surprise. Those on the receiving end just will not be expecting it.

Policies that fundamentally affect something as basic as access to education are being formulated in areas of technology and law that most of the stakeholders affected (key ones being educational institutions, parents and students) don't even realise have anything to do with us.

The keys to access the basic raw materials of education could well get sold off to the most influential bidders. It's an issue I'm planning to raise prominently in my book, when I can get it back on schedule. (Looks like publication may now be delayed until 2007 but I'm still hoping to get it out by the end of the year.) I'd rather my kids didn't grow up into a world with pay per view education.

Viruses plague British businesses

Viruses plague British businesses according to the BBC. More people really should try the 10 week online Open University course in cybervandalism and how to combat it. Created by my colleagues David Phillips and John Naughton, it is an excellent introduction to the subject.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Amdedo challenge

I've been juggling various stories as potential options for opening the first chapter of my book. One provisional option is the issue of open access to medical information. A very rough draft of the possible opening:

"In 1998 the British Medical Journal (BMJ), based on the principle of facilitating free and unrestricted access to scientific information, decided to make the entire contents of the journal freely available on the Internet. By January 2005, due to a drop in income, the journal partly reversed that decision, making some of the contents accessible online only to paying subscribers, though many elements of the journal such as a selection of research articles remained freely available at bmj.com. In February 2006, the BMJ published the results of a survey ‘To determine whether free access to research articles on bmj.com is an important factor in authors' decisions on whether to submit to the BMJ, whether the introduction of access controls to part of the BMJ's content has influenced authors' perceptions of the journal, and whether the introduction of further access controls would influence authors' perceptions.’

It was a relatively small survey with a little over 200 authors participating but the results suggested free online access was important to a large majority (75%) of them, so the publishers agreed to retain their partial open access policy for the time being.

Other important medical journals, like The Lancet, only provide online access to paying subscribers. Hundreds of other science and medical journals offer a variety of access approaches between the BMJ’s initial completely open access and The Lancet’s closed access policies. Some give you a trial free period after which you have to pay; some offer some articles freely, or for a limited period, or a number of years after the original publication; some sell individual articles separately to non subscribers. The range of approaches is huge and somewhat confusing.

In recent years the UK government has been very interested in pursuing the concept of ‘patient choice’ in the National Health Service e.g. choosing your GP and what hospital you would like to have your operation at. To an even greater extent in the US there has been a focus on “consumer-driven health care,” with personal healthcare plans, insurance and saving accounts.

So is putting complex personal healthcare decisions in the hands of the individual a good idea? Well to a large degree that depends on the capacity of the individual to make informed decisions about the management of their health and in the context of the circumstances within which we find ourselves having to make those decisions. We don’t diagnose on manage complex illnesses or medical emergencies on a daily basis and neither have we received the formal medical training to do so. If I do find myself or a member of my family facing a serious medical emergency, I want access to a doctor who has successfully dealt with the condition thousands of times previously, who can make a rapid diagnosis, prescribe the most effective treatment and explain her carefully thought out, well worn options for managing the aftercare towards a full recovery, once the worst is over.

What about if I have a bit more time to do some research and find out a bit more about say an ongoing chronic condition? A friend of mine with a hip complaint went to great lengths to research his condition and ended up impressing his doctor with the depth of his knowledge on the subject. But supposing the materials he read had not been as freely available as they had been and he had to pay The Lancet, the BMJ and hundreds of other sources a hefty fee for each article he read, would he have had the ability to make the decisions he did about his treatment? Doctors could justifiably claim that most lay people are insufficiently well trained to understand even the language of medics or the reliability of the sources, especially on the Internet, from which we might derive much of this medical ‘information.’ And if the truly reliable peer reviewed sources like the BMJ do gradually move towards a subscription only service, where is the average patient going to get access to important medical information required to make informed healthcare choices?

Well it looks as though, for the moment at least, the BMJ will remain at least partly open, due to the commitment of journal’s contributors to making medical research freely available. On balance that is a good thing but this book is not really about healthcare or medical journals. It is about decision making related to and involving important socio-technological information systems. Information systems which have a considerable impact on public welfare are being created, deployed and regulated without a fundamental understanding about what these systems are required to do, (or even, in many cases, that it is an information system rather than just information technology that is being deployed)."

The material then goes on to outline the two ideas in the book and its structure. The reason I mention it even though the draft is barely presentable is that I've just come across Amedeo Challenge sponsored by Bernd Sebastian Kamps who is offering prizes to physicians who write and publish free medical textbooks. I also know there is a lot of unsung work going on in this area and would be interested in any significant projects B2f readers could point me to. Any comments you might have on the above draft would also be welcome.

Thanks to Peter Suber for the link to Amedo Challenge.

Hollywood should learn Fashion's secret

David Bollier and Laurie Racine think the film industry has a lot to learn from the fashion industry regarding the real impact of intellectual property on creativity.

"The Hollywood studios and major record labels consider it self-evident and axiomatic that creativity must be strictly controlled through copyright law, lest it be "stolen" and creators forced out of business. It is a significant point that creators, especially individual artists, need effective, reliable ways to be paid for their work - and copyright offers one important vehicle. But the fashion industry has a deeper faith in the power of creativity. Despite scant legal protection, fashion businesses invest enormous sums in each new season's creative cycle - and reap substantial profits year after year."

Da Vinci Code copyright case in High Court

The latest intellectual property dispute over Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" has reached the UK High Court today.

"Writers Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh are claiming that the American novelist Dan Brown appropriated themes and ideas they explored in their 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

They are suing their own publishers, Random House, which is also Mr Brown's publisher, for breach of copyright in the potentially far-reaching case."

Don't bet on it being a "potentially far-reaching case." It seems like a straightforward copyright case to me. I doubt that Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh will get another book deal with Random House after this but it does, however, have the potential to interest the general public in the issue of copyright and it will be fascinating to see how it works out.

Decency and talented people

A heartwarming story outside the usual scope of b2fxxx scribblings.

"Jason McElwain is a seventeen year old high school senior. He is also autistic. McElwain did not talk until he was five. He lacked social skills. Many of his classes were very small (about six students) so that he could have more individualized attention. For one four minute period, Jason McElwain was a star."

Dedicated to basketball he helped out his high school team in every way he could except by playing but the coach let him play for the last 4 minutes of the last game of the season, when team had a large lead. Contrary to all expectations the young man then promptly scored 20 points!

Thanks to Michael Froomkin for the link.

Ballistics and the vice president

Alex Jones is convinced that Dick Cheney is not telling the whole truth about the accident in which he shot a friend, Harry Whittington.

Dan Gillmor has been thinking about what might have happened if Al Gore had shot someone.

"Suppose Al Gore, back in 1998, had shot someone in the face and chest in a Tennessee hunting accident. Suppose, further, that he had a) not told authorities (or President Clinton) promptly; b) kept the news from the American people for a day, letting word leak out via contradictory stories, initially through a small local newspaper; c) stonewalled for another several days until Gore sat for an interview with a hand-picked journalistic pal; and d) Clinton had pronounced the entire affair totally fine in retrospect.

We all know what would have happened. The right wing noise machine would have gone ballistic. Several Congressional investigations would already be in the works, not least a probe into why the local authorities had behaved as they did.

But at least some Democrats -- and lots of left-leaning commentators -- would have agreed, publicly, that such behavior was outrageous."

Apple overreaching on the DMCA?

Dan Gillmor is concerned that Apple is using the DMCA to stop a discussion of how to use its new operating system.

"The DMCA itself is bad enough, but abusing an already bad law would only make matters worse.

The company has a long history of challenging speech. This looks like yet another unsavory example."

Fearmonger in Chief

William Greider reckons George Bush has only himself to blame for the controversy surrounding the Dubai company control of US ports controversy.

"A conservative blaming hysteria is hysterical, when you think about it, and a bit late. Hysteria launched Bush's invasion of Iraq. It created that monstrosity called Homeland Security and pumped up defense spending by more than 40 percent. Hysteria has been used to realign U.S. foreign policy for permanent imperial war-making, whenever and wherever we find something frightening afoot in the world. Hysteria will justify the "long war" now fondly embraced by Field Marshal Rumsfeld. It has also slaughtered a number of Democrats who were not sufficiently hysterical. It saved George Bush's butt in 2004.

Bush was the principal author—along with his straight-shooting vice president—and now he is hoisted by his own fear-mongering propaganda. The basic hysteria was invented from risks of terrorism, enlarged ridiculously by the president's open-ended claim that we are endangered everywhere and anywhere—he decides where. Anyone who resists that proposition is a coward or, worse, a subversive. We are enticed to believe we are fighting a new Cold War. But are we...

So why is the fearmonger-in-chief being so casual about this Dubai business?

Because at some level of consciousness even George Bush knows the inflated fears are bogus. So do a lot of the politicians merrily throwing spears at him. He taught them how to play this game, invented the tactics and reorganized political competition as a demagogic dance of hysterical absurdities, endless opportunities to waste public money. Very few dare to challenge the mindset. Thousands have died for it."

A brush with the law at Heathrow an ominous sign?

I wonder if Jenni Russell, writing in the Guardian on Saturday, about what she found to be a scary encounter with officials and police at Heathrow, would accept Mr Blair's claims to be protecting liberties. After two British Airways customer service employees proved unhelpful and obstructive she raised her voice to them "The sign behind you says you're here to help customers; why are you being so unhelpful?" "Right," said the older man, gleefully. "You're being threatening. I'm calling the police."

"Within minutes, to my shock, two policemen were at my side. They were grave. One was suspicious; the other, eventually, sympathetic. But I was left, just as the BA staff had intended, feeling intimidated and powerless."

A friend stranded with a young baby at a train station explained a similar situation where beligerant staff summoned armed police when she complained.

"In both of these incidents, the normal rules of customer service had been suspended and replaced by something alarming: an assumption, by those in uniform, that a member of the public who questions them can now be treated as a potential threat...

Dangerously for all of us, the fear of terrorism is legitimising intimidating behaviour by petty officials and agents of the state. It has become an excuse for bullying people when they step out of obedient lines...

I fear that many of us are failing to see the danger we are now in, precisely because we have grown up in a largely benign state. We still trust in the good sense and reasonableness of its agents, and the rest of officialdom. We don't understand that that has been sustained only by the existence of our legal rights, and by a respect for our freedom of action. We don't see the lesson of every society: that if you do not place constraints on official power, its instinct is to grow. Our tolerant world is disappearing, and it is only when many more of us start running up against that reality that we will realise what we have lost."

Blair "I don't destroy liberties I protect them"

Tony Blair has an article in yesterday's Observer saying I don't destroy liberties, I protect them , in response to a series of articles in the paper recently on our disappearing freedoms.

"...there is a serious debate about the nature of liberty in the modern world. I accept the good faith of our critics. I just believe them to be profoundly mistaken...

If we fail to tackle ASB because the court system is inadequate, other people's liberties suffer. If we don't take head-on organised criminals or terrorists, others are harmed. The question is not one of individual liberty vs the state but of which approach best guarantees most liberty for the largest number of people.

In theory, traditional court processes and attitudes to civil liberties could work. But the modern world is different from the world for which these court processes were designed."

There is a strong academic temptation to dissect some of the phrases (like that last one) but it is largely the usual rhetoric, delivered with no real thought or feeling behind the words other than to repeat them often enough in the hope of having them accepted (a proven rhetorical tactic). But this "this world has changed; trust us we're acting in your best interests; we must protect your liberties by taking them away" just leads to further mistrust, as so clearly explained by Bruce Schneier here in the context of the US Ports controversy.

"when it comes to government, trust is based on transparency. The more our government is based on secrecy, the more we are forced to "just trust" it and the less we actually trust it."

Yahoo! music executive wants to kill off drm

Derek Slater is impressed with the music folks at Yahoo!, most especially Music executive, Dave Goldberg, who is reportedly advocating that the major labels give up on DRM.

CDT: Developing technology make surveillance easier

The CDT have issued a new report calling for privacy laws to be strengthened, since developing technologies have made surveillance so much easier.

On the same subject, John Dean has been explaining why the warrantless wiretapping approved by President Bush, should be of concern to US citizens. He's bothered about the widely overlooked problem with data mining of false positives - targetting the wrong people as suspects; and also the potential for hackers to tap into the vast databases of personal information and wreak havoc. He has an unnecessary dig at "young people" for being unconcerned about privacy and concluded by saying his generation will fight for the right to "prevent the zeal of good intention in fighting terror, from letting the terrorists win by permitting the government to take those rights."

He's right about false positives being a big problem. Of equal concern is the false negatives, where those who are plotting dangerous criminal attacks are labelled with a clean bill of anti-terror health. Likewise the external hacker attacks are an issue especially if the system security is poor but of potentially greater concern is the potential for ill-intentioned insiders to also compromise the system. With these big systems you have to look at how they fail - how they fail naturally and how they can be made to fail by someone with malign intent both on the inside and the outside.

Neither, in the wake of reports from Human Rights First, the UK parliament's Human Rights committee, the Council of Europe and Amnesty International, is President Bush the sole target of those concerned with civil rights. This morning Andreas Whittam Smith and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent are both having a go at Tony Blair. They're particularly annoyed at the prime minister's attempts to sidestep questions on Guantanamo Bay and US rendition through the UK of US terrorist suspects for torture in other parts of the world. Mr BLair said Guantanamo Bay was an anomaly and that people should spend more time focussing on the terrorist threat to the UK and the US than on the possibility that the UK and the US might be facilitating torture. Alibhai-Brown:

"So, Guantanamo Bay is an "anomaly" is it Mr Blair? Caging, manacling, beating, isolating, threatening, terrorising, torturing 500 - fathers, brothers, husbands, sons - seems to you just an oddity, an eccentricity, a peculiarity then? How could you not choke on your own words and splutter with shame even as you uttered them?"

Whittam Smith:

"If I could know that cruel treatment of terrorist suspects would reduce the risk of being blown up on the London Underground which I use every day, would I say "go ahead"? Mr Blair would say "yes" in case he is blamed for my death. I say "no". I would rather risk my life more than I already do than be part of a society that uses torture or its results for any reason whatsoever."

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Blackberry saga

John's column in the Observer this morning nicely sums up the story of the Blackberry patents dispute between RIM and NTP.

"...in major terrorist incidents, mobile phone networks rapidly become overloaded and unusable for voice and SMS communications. But the BlackBerry PIN message still gets through (which is why UK government agencies are increasingly enamoured of the technology)...

...the US Patent Office...has now issued non-final rejections on all five of the patents at the centre of the legal tussle. But bizarrely, this is expected to have little impact on the judge's verdict...

...NTP makes nothing, delivers no service, makes no contribution to society other than by paying its taxes. RIM has created a service that apparently offers fantastic benefits to consumers - and may enhance governments' ability to communicate in crisis situations. Yet it's RIM which may go under."

I suspect there are too many crackberry adicts in Washington DC for RIM to go under and therein is the potential solution the intellectual property expansionist problem. The more senators, congress persons and DC staff that get hooked into IP and drm strangling technology, the more they will finally get the restrictions being visited upon the possibilties offered by that technology in the interests of protecting a small number of outdated business models. That's when we'll start heading back towards a more balanced IP landscape.