Friday, December 01, 2006

Australia's new copyright law

IP specialist, Kim Weatherall, has been explaining Australia's new criminal copyright laws: strict liability, 'negligence' and why these laws just haven't been thought through. She also points out that though the worst excesses of the original draft, e.g. criminalising iPod owners, didn't make it through, the law still makes it a criminal offence to sell a second hand iPod with some songs still on it.

Podcast interview with Ross Anderson

Outlaw have a podcast interview with Ross Anderson about the government's approach to child surveillance and the powerful FIPR report for the Information Comissioner on same.

Ross highlights what he considers to be the two main concerns raised in the report. Firstly that by asking social workers to look into the affairs of about a hundred times more children, the overwhelming majority of whom need absolutely no such intervention, the government will take scarce resources away from children at risk, with the result that some of these children at risk will come to harm. Secondly the kind of intervention that is justifiable in cases where children are truly at risk e.g. where parent or guardian suspected of criminal abuse - e.g. removing the child from the family and holding the suspect in custody - is illegal if the intervention is as a result of welfare concerns such as not doing as well as might be expected at school. Child protection justifies overriding privacy and the wishes of a parent suspected of being a serious criminal but this is not the case in child welfare.

He also makes the point that in the case of the databases related to youth justice, the Home Office takes the view that it is immune from data protection and human rights law i.e. if it is using any data for police purposes it can do what it likes regardless of the law. "The government is not obeying the law of the land when it comes to getting consent for data sharing from children and their families."

It's a relatively short interview and worth listening to in full.

Software Freedom Law Center challenge Blackboard Patent

The Software Freedom Law Center set up by Eben Moglen has challenged the Blackboard patent on elearning systems, asking the US Patent Office to re-examine it with a view to invalidating it. Moglen's group are concerned at the potential impact of the patent on open source projects like Moodle, despite the fact that Blackboard have said they have no intention of targetting such initiatives for legal action.

Regular readers will know I believe that the Blackboard patent should never have been granted.

Haloscan censorship

Well I've had no reply from Haloscan to my request for an explanation as to why Spyblog was blocked from posting a comment to this blog last week. I think ten days is a reasonable length of time to allow them to get back to me but I have not even received an acknowledgement. So I will be removing Haloscan commenting from this blog as soon as I can get a spare moment.

I'm disappointed by Haloscan's lack of acknowledgement and by their filtering processes which, whatever the detailed mechanics might be, are interfering with the legitimate exchange of ideas.

Update: Well I've removed the code the template relating to Haloscan but when trying re-publish the template, Blogger helpfully tells me "there were errors" without specifying what they are and does not update the code. I'm not a code jockey and I accept that I've tweaked the html on this blog so often to make it more readable that it is now a bit cumbersome. I have probably therefore missed a stupid simple error in the changes. I just wanted to get rid of Haloscan and have spent the past hour and a half mucking about with the template, unable to get Blogger to accept the changes. If any readers happen to be html specialists I'd appreciate a pointer to the error(/s) so I can rectify them quickly and consign Haloscan to the past, as far as this blog goes. I can't updgrade to the new Blogger yet either, since my blog is too big.

Further update: I've finally erased Haloscan. Blogger still doesn't like my html but I can live with that.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Tony Blair is not Hitler: official

From The Register:

"An advert showing a close-up picture of Tony Blair with a barcode on his top lip was not offensive, the Advertising Standards Authority has ruled."

Evoting setbacks in Italy and the US

Currently deployed electronic voting has received a couple of setbacks in the US and Italy in recent days. The Italian Prime Minister's office has been reported as saying that evoting trials in Italy have been a failure and evoting will be discontinued there. (Thanks to Glyn via the ORG list for the link)

In the US the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is required to assist the Election Assistance Commission with the development of voluntary voting system guidelines, has issued a draft white paper. Amongst other things the white paper concludes that "Software-dependent approaches such as the DRE are not viable for future voting systems." (DREs are 'direct record electronic' machines run by proprietary software). From the body of the report "software independence" is described as follows:

"A voting system is software-independent if a previously undetected change or error in its software cannot cause an undetectable change or error in an election outcome. In other words, it can be positively determined whether the voting system’s (typically, electronic) CVRs are accurate as cast by the voter or in error. In SI voting systems that are readily available today, the determination can be made via the use of independent audits of the electronic counts or CVRs, and independent voter-verified paper records used as the audit trail.

A simple example of this is op scan, in which a voter marks (by hand or using an EBM) the paper ballot. The voter verifies the paper ballot is correct, thus it is voter-verified, and the paper ballot is “outside” or independent of the voting system, i.e., it cannot be changed or modified by the voting system. As a consequence of these two factors, the paper ballot can be considered as independent evidence of what the voter believed he or she was casting. After the paper ballots are scanned, they can subsequently be used to provide an independent audit, or check, on the accuracy of the electronic counts.

If an undetected change or error in the optical scanner’s software were to cause erroneous counts, subsequent audits would show the errors. Even if malicious code was inserted into the scanner’s software, the audits would detect resultant errors in the counts. Therefore, the correctness of the scanner’s counts does not rely on the correctness of the scanner’s software, and thus op scan is software independent: changes or errors in its software will be reliably detected by independent audits of its electronic counts. Thus, the primary ingredients to SI as illustrated in op scan are (1) voter-verified records that are (2) independent of the voting system used in (3) audits of the scanner’s electronic counts."

Well worth a read for evoting geeks.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Italian prosecutors investigate Google over bullying video

Italian prosecutors are, according to, investigating to Google representatives after a video of teenagers bullying an austistic classmate appeared on the Google video site.

"The two are accused of failing to check on the content of the video posted on the Internet search engine's Web site.

The video, which sparked outrage in the country, showed four teenagers beating and poking fun at a 17-year-old disabled boy in a classroom in the northern Italian city of Turin.

Prosecutors have already put the four students and a teacher under investigation. The students have also been suspended until the end of the school year.

A spokeswoman for Google in Europe said the Internet search engine was sorry for the distress caused by the video and had acted swiftly when it was informed of its content."

This is a tough situation. Would the authorities have dealt with the bullying if it had not come to light via Google? Are they dealing with it appropriately even now? How could the situation have been allowed to happen in the first place? Schools are required to have anti-bullying policies but such policies are meaningless if they are left to gather dust on the shelf without meaningful measures tackling real bullying in practice. What about the privacy of the victim, which has been compromised in this case? Michael Geist has been thinking about the challenges ubiquitous video is imposing on society

"While there are some obvious benefits that arise from the transparency and potential accountability that can come from video evidence of controversial events, the emergence of an always-on video society raises some difficult questions about the appropriate privacy-transparency balance, the ethics of posting private moments to a global audience, and the responsibility of websites that facilitate Internet video distribution...

Rather than banning the technology, we must instead begin to grapple with the implications of these changes by considering the boundaries between transparency and privacy. As our expectations of the availability of video changes, so too must our sense of the video rules of the road. "

Time to re-visit David Brin's The Transparent Society.

Universities urged: 'share benefits of health research'

Eva Tallaksen at SciDev.Net has a succinct report on the Philadelphia Consensus Statement which "outlines how universities can improve access to medicines and transfer of knowledge to the developing world by changing their licensing policies and intellectual property (IP) rights." From the Philadelphia Consensus Statement:

"According to the World Health Organization, about ten million people—most of them in developing countries—die needlessly every year because they do not have access to existing medicines and vaccines. Countless others suffer from neglected tropical diseases, such as sleeping sickness, lymphatic filariasis, and blinding trachoma. Because these neglected diseases predominantly affect the poor, they attract very little research and development funding, which leads directly to a paucity of safe and effective treatment options.

We believe that access to medical care and treatment is a basic human right.1 Lack of access to medical treatment in developing countries stems from several factors, including high prices for medicines, underfunded health care systems, and a global biomedical research agenda poorly matched to the health needs of the world’s destitute sick. Comprehensive solutions are thus needed to increase both access to existing medicines and research on neglected diseases.

We believe that universities have an opportunity and a responsibility to take part in those solutions. University scientists are major contributors in the drug development pipeline. At the same time, universities are dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge in the public interest. Global public health is a vital component of the public interest. Therefore, universities best realize their objectives when they promote innovation and access to health-related technologies.

To this end, we, the signatories of this Statement, urge universities to adopt the following recommendations.

As owners of intellectual property, universities have the ability to promote widespread availability of their technologies in the developing world. When university-owned intellectual property is necessary for the development of a health-related end product—including but not limited to drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, monitoring tools, know-how and technical expertise—universities should:


1. Require the inclusion of licensing terms in exclusive technology transfer agreements that ensure low-cost access to health-related innovations in the developing world...

2. Develop a transparent, case-by-case global access strategy to ensure access to health-related technologies where licensing provisions like the EAL will not serve the access objectives defined above...


1. Adopt policies promoting in-house ND research...

2. Engage with nontraditional partners to create new opportunities for ND drug development...

3. Carve out an ND research exemption for any patents held or licenses executed...

Given their avowed commitment to the public good, universities should measure success in technology transfer by impact on global human welfare rather than simply by financial return. The positive social impact from university innovations—particularly in poor countries—would go largely unnoticed if technology transfer were to be measured in dollars alone. In order to develop transparent criteria measuring access to health technologies and innovation in neglected-disease research, universities should:


1. Collect and make public statistics on university intellectual property practices related to global health access...

2. Collaborate with other universities and consortia to develop more robust technology transfer metrics that better gauge access to public health goods and innovation in neglected-disease research."

Thanks to Thiru Balasubramaniam of the Consumer Project on Technology, via the A2K list, for the pointer.

We need leaders to adhere to the rule of law

Martin Kettle had a nice article in the Guardian on Saturday reporting on Lord Bingham's recent speech at Cambridge on the rule of law.

"In my view, no more important speech has been given in this country this year, for Bingham warns that some of the most sensitive decisions made by government are currently incompatible with his definition of the rule of law...

the law must be accessible and intelligible; disputes must be resolved by application of the law rather than exercise of discretion; the law must apply equally to all; it must protect fundamental human rights; disputes should be resolved without prohibitive cost or inordinate delay; public officials must use power reasonably and not exceed their powers; the system for resolving differences must be fair. Finally, a state must comply with its international law obligations. Now start to tease out what these implications might mean in practice. This is where Bingham's legal principles suddenly lock gears with the real world.

If the law is to be accessible and intelligible, for example, then there must be an end both to judicial prolixity and to what Bingham calls "the legislative hyperactivity which appears to have become a permanent feature of our governance - in 2004, some 3,500 pages of primary legislation; in 2003, nearly 9,000 pages of statutory instruments." This applies particularly in the "torrent of criminal legislation", not all of which is "readily intelligible". To uphold the rule of law, in other words, lawmakers will have to do less of it and be clearer...

No government is perfect. But when the most revered of these guardians suggests that critical decisions by ministers have fallen short of the rule of law on a range of counts, then it follows that Britain needs a better form of government, whose members can succeed where the current ones have failed and who better understand the real meaning of the principles they claim to support."

Update: John points out that an audio recording of Lord Binghamm's speech is also available here.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Government attempt to smear FIPR report

The UK government have been at it again. Instead of engaging with the constructive criticism of their mass surveillance approach to child safety contained in the FIPR report for the Information Commissioner, Children's Minister, Beverley Hughes, decided to attack the report with vague claims of factual inaccuracies, in a letter to the Telegraph on Friday. The report authors have now replied and I hope they don't mind me quoting them in full:

"Sir – Beverley Hughes, the Minister for Children (Letters, November 24), does a disservice to families by an evasive response to our report to the Information Commissioner on the range of databases being set up to monitor children.

She makes a vague claim that the report contains factual inaccuracies, but she does not mention that the chapters on the different databases were sent to her department for checking before publication.

She also suggests that it is not based on evidence, when there is extensive evidence in the report drawn from government publications and interviews with senior officials and practitioners.

The Minister's response misleads by referring only to the Information Sharing Index. This is just the hub of several more detailed databases that will contain highly personal and often subjective information on children and their parents. Moreover, the index will reveal which children are known to other databases and hence provide sensitive information (such as attendance at a special school) to any viewer.

The Information Commissioner has called for a debate on the challenges this policy is posing to traditional family life. The Minister for Children should not duck this challenge. Trying to smear us is not an adequate response.

Dr Eileen Munro, London School of Economics
Professor Ross Anderson, Cambridge University
Dr Ian Brown, University College London
Dr Richard Clayton, Cambridge University
Terri Dowty, Action on Rights for Children
Professor Douwe Korff, London Metropolitan University"

Ms Hughes, by the way, was the Immigration Minister forced to resign in 2004 for making misleading statements about suspected visa fraud. According to the BBC at the time,

"The Tories had accused the Home Office of approving visa claims from eastern Europe despite warnings they were backed by forged documents.

Ms Hughes had dismissed calls to quit, saying she had not known of the claims.

But No 10 said it was now clear she was warned about it a year ago, by Labour deputy chief whip Bob Ainsworth."