Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts)

From Mark Pilgrim: The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts)

Act I: The act of buying

When someone buys a book, they are also buying the right to resell that book, to loan it out, or to even give it away if they want. Everyone understands this.

Jeff Bezos, Open letter to Author’s Guild, 2002

You may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not, and you will not encourage, assist or authorize any other person to, bypass, modify, defeat or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.

Amazon, Kindle Terms of Service, 2007..."


Friday, July 17, 2009

Open Source Apps For Writers

Thanks to Glyn Moody for the pointer to these Five Open Source Apps For Writers and Authors. I've been mulling over some of the ideas for a new book on the insanity of large organisations whilst taking a few days leave from the day job. So it might be worth experimenting with some of these tools to see if they can help.

The basic thesis of the book btw is that as organisations, public and private, evolve, they converge on bureaucracies and administrative systems which are effectively simultaneously insane and oblivious to as well as extremely resistant to efforts to cure that insanity. The working title at the moment is 'Insanity and stupidity: the twin curses of managerialism' (I know - it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue but I'm not good at soundbites). At the moment the plan is to include stories from personal less-than-satisfactory experiences as a customer of large organisations like Talk Talk, through tales from NASA, the Tahoma Narrows Bridge, aircraft crashes, the 1927 Mississippi flood, and the intellectual property, education and criminal justice systems.

Boyle: were we smarter a 100 years ago

Jame Boyle has been re-reading the legislative history of the 1909 Copyright Act and come to the conclusion that
"100 years ago we were smarter about copyright, about disruptive technologies, about intellectual property, monopolies and network effects than we are today. At least, the legislative hearings were much smarter...

I find no injustice in the composers getting a share of the revenues produced by sound recordings and piano rolls — I would have voted for it myself. And the solution to the problem of the latent monopoly — namely a compulsory license — accomplished that goal without stultifying the technology or restricting distribution to the public. All in all — the fulminations of Sousa and Mauro aside — it was a pretty nice piece of legislation. The legislators actually seemed to understand the arguments made to them. The conceptual confusions of absolute property rights were repeatedly debunked. There were explicit balances made in the statute — weighing technological progress and the encouragement of the arts and culture. Constitutional arguments were weighed and taken into account. They even saw and mitigated the threat of monopoly with a compulsory license. Nowadays when a compulsory license over, say AIDS drugs, is pursued by a country like Thailand, the US Trade Representative beats them up for adopting such “radical” and confiscatory approach. Nothing could be more foreign to the American tradition of intellectual property than compulsory licenses! Hogwash. Our music industry is built on them.

The world of 1906 was hardly perfect — I wouldn’t want to live then. And the 1909 statute was full of its own boondoggles and industry grabs. But if one looks back at these transcripts and compares them to today’s hearings — with vacuous rantings from celebrities and the bloviation of bad economics and worse legal theory from one industry representative after another — it is hard not to feel a sense of nostalgia. In 1900, it appears, we were better at understanding that copyright was a law that regulated technology, a law with constitutional restraints, that property rights were not absolute and that the public would not automatically be served by extending rights out to infinity."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Horowitz: government's twisted view of society

I've admired Anthony Horowitz's range of entertaining writings for some time and when I brought my kids, who consider him 'brilliant', to see him speak at the Oxford Literary Festival a few years ago, was interested to hear him express some mild disquiet over our growing surveillance society. He wasn't openly critical of government but expressed his concerns in a way that was very accessible to the children in the audience, encouraging them to be thoughtful about the deployment and their use of new technologies at the same time as enjoying them.

The UK government's latest 'cure it with a database' plan, however, has Horowitz and other widely admired children's authors criticising those with a "twisted view of society" that could conceive of such a thing.
"A group of respected British children's authors and illustrators will stop visiting schools from the start of the next academic year, in protest at a new government scheme that requires them to register on a database in case they pose a danger to children.

Philip Pullman, Anne Fine, Anthony Horowitz, Michael Morpurgo and Quentin Blake all told The Independent that they object to having their names on the database – which is intended to protect children from paedophiles – and would not be visiting any schools as a consequence...

The Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) is being managed by the Independent Safeguarding Authority, set up after the 2002 murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells by Ian Huntley, a janitor at their school. All individuals who work with children from 12 October will be required to register with a national database for a fee of £64."

Horowitz, writing in the Independent says:
"It is hard to know what is most objectionable about the database proposed by a government that seems more and more like a dying wasp, determined to sting one last time before it goes.

In essence, I'm being asked to pay £64 to prove that I am not a paedophile. After 30 years writing books, visiting schools, hospitals, prisons, spreading an enthusiasm for culture and literacy, I find this incredibly insulting.

It is also so ludicrous as to be very nearly insane...

This is a law made by people with a bleak and twisted view of society. And such people, quite simply, should not be making laws."

Very well said Mr Horowitz.

The editorial in the paper is less polite:
"A toxic combination of bureaucratic stupidity and popular hysteria over paedophilia has brought us to this absurdity."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Forensic science and human rights: the challenges

Thanks to Caspar Bowden for directing me to the Hon Jack Beatson's recent speech on forensic science and human rights.
"30 years ago Sir Robert Megarry VC in Malone v Metropolitan Police Commissioner1
said that if something “can be carried out without committing any breach of the law it
requires no authority by statute or common law; it can lawfully be done simply
because there is nothing to make it unlawful”. In that case he was talking about
telephone tapping. Had the issue arisen more recently he might have been talking
about CCTV or retention of biodata.
Sir Robert said what he did because, following the nineteenth century constitutional
lawyer AV Dicey, he considered this to be “a country where everything is permitted
except what is expressly forbidden”. Their approaches ignore the special position of government officials. They do not recognise that the power of government officials to
act depends on statutory authority and that the institutional position and de facto
power of government officials may justify their being subjected to greater restrictions
than ordinary citizens. Modern examples of such de facto power include the ability
of the state to erect a network of CCTV cameras in a city centre or on a motorway, to
track the movements of an individual using signals from his mobile telephone, and
other manifestations of what the Information Commissioner and the House of Lords’
Constitution Committee have called a “surveillance society”.2
Things have changed in the 30 years since the decision in Malone’s case. Common
law rights such as the right of access to an unbiased and independent court or
tribunal, the right to property, and the right not to be detained capriciously have been
recognised as fundamental.3 Our rights under the European Convention on Human
Rights (the “ECHR”) have been brought into our domestic law by the Human Rights
Act 1998. The result is that those embarking on a legal career today would find Sir
Robert’s approach to the position of a public authority extraordinary. But the mindset
underlying his approach has not vanished altogether. It bears a similarity to some of
the approaches to the possibilities open to the state today as a result of technological
and scientific developments.
My topic this evening concerns the intersection of forensic science and human rights.
It is a big topic and I shall only deal with a small part of it. Forensic science may
impact on a number of the rights under the ECHR, but the human right I am
concerned with today is the right to respect for private life in Article 8. Privacy, and
thus the right to respect for private life, can be more vulnerable in the modern world
as a result of technical and scientific developments. Developments such as a system of CCTV cameras and a DNA National database have the capacity to narrow the area
of an individual’s autonomy and privacy. This area may also be narrowed as a result
of an increase in the role of the state. In his book, Genetic Privacy, Graeme Laurie
said that one of the greatest threats to individual privacy in the last century has been
the development of a public interest in the welfare of individuals. The state has taken
responsibility for basic services, such as housing, subsistence, education, and health
care. Notwithstanding the attempts since 1979 to “shrink the size of the state”, the
state’s legal responsibilities and the very significant financial burdens upon it have
led to the development of a position in which the state considers it has an obligation
to guide individuals to prudent behaviour that is considered to be of benefit to the community, for example in relating to smoking, consumption of alcohol and the
wearing of seatbelts in cars. It is this position that Laurie sees as threatening
individual privacy and autonomy.
Within forensic science, the development that has led to most discussion in recent
years has centred around DNA. This is understandable. The UK has been the
scientific pioneer in this area. The position in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland
(but not, as we shall see, in Scotland) has, broadly speaking, been that all
bioinformation taken from those arrested is retained indefinitely whether or not the
person providing the sample was subsequently convicted or even charged. At present
volunteers who have given bioinformation, for example in mass screens, have no
right to have it removed from the database. Chief Constables, however, have
discretion to destroy the samples and profiles of both those arrested and volunteers
in “exceptional circumstances”.
Our National DNA Database is the largest database in Europe. In March 2007
approximately 4 million people were on it.4 The figure included over a million
children. 5By March 2009 the figure had risen to some 5.1 million people,6 over 7% of
our population. The comparable figures for France and Germany are respectively
approximately 856,000 people, 1.44% of the French population, and some 611,000
people, 0.74% of the German population.7
There are notable examples of the use of DNA both in detecting crime and in
exonerating individuals. So, for example, a number of “cold” cases of murder and
rape have been cleared up, sometimes years later, when an individual is arrested on
another matter and a sample taken from him which implicates him in the unsolved
crime.8 Again, as shown by the cases of Stefan Kisko and Sean Hodgson, DNA can
exonorate.9 The European Court of Human Rights (the “ECtHR”) has recognised the
“rapid and marked progress [of member states] in using DNA information in the
determination of guilt or innocence”.10
The potential uses of DNA material of course go far beyond the prevention and
detection of criminal activity with which many members of the British Academy of
Forensic Science (hereafter “BAFS”) are concerned. Issues of genetic privacy arise in
the context of health care, insurance, and personal identity.11 There is a natural and
understandable desire to make full use of technological and scientific developments
in combating disease and crime, and improving our quality of life. But, equally
understandably, there are also sensitivities about the retention and use of such
material by public authorities and companies whether or not the material is retained
in order to assist in the prevention and detection of crime.
It is clearly justifiable to retain and use DNA material for the overall good of society,
whether by enhanced screening for disease or by creating a method of deterring and
detecting crime. But should the increased power of technology and science be
balanced by a greater sensitivity to the need to protect legitimate areas of “privacy”
and “autonomy”? No one argues against a balanced approach. It is recognised to be
necessary in order to maintain public confidence in systems, to ensure fairness and
appropriate autonomy to individuals, and to provide a method of identifying and
correcting error. But there is controversy as to what constitutes a balanced approach."
He goes on to look at the S. and Marper case (where the UK lost in the ECHR on the issue of retention of DNA and fingerprints) in one of the most comprehensive clear minded analyses of the issues I've seen anywhere. Highly recommended. Caspar tells me that the honourable judge also wrote the first human rights QC’s Opinion for FIPR pro bono in 1999

Update: The Tech and Law blog has picked up Judge Beatson's speech too.

Berners-Lee OU-BBC 'Digital Revolution' speech

Along with several colleagues from the OU I had the privilege last Friday of attending the launch for a series of BBC/OU programmes on the history and future of the web. It was an interesting session.

Tim Berners-Lee's talk and responses to questions at the event are available on YouTube.