Friday, May 21, 2010

Open University Academics Object to BBC DRM Proposals

Following up on our recent open letter to Ofcom on the BBC HD DRM proposal, a large group of Open University academics has written to the Michael Lyons, the Chairman of the BBC Trust, notifying him of our objections to the idea. The full text of the letter is below.
We write in connection with the BBC’s current application to Ofcom to vary the terms of its licence for its HDTV service by encrypting signals using DRM. We have written separately to Ofcom to oppose this proposal but write to you now because we believe it raises several important issues for the BBC Trust.

First, and procedurally, the BBC management’s application to Ofcom raises the question (interestingly identified by Diana Coyle and Chris Woolard in their book for the Trust, 'Public Value in Practice') whether a new application should be made to the Trust, analogous to that for the “bookmarking” function of the iPlayer. We believe that the encryption proposal is so fundamental a change from the original HDTV proposal, and one which raises such fundamental issues for the BBC, that it should be the subject of a new Public Value Test. You will be aware that DRM is a kind of encrypted digital lock used to control access to digital files and signals.  In order to access the BBC HD signal a viewer will require equipment containing the relevant decryption key.

Second, and substantively, the proposal to encrypt the HDTV signal using DRM breaks the clear and, seemingly unequivocal, undertaking made in the BBC’s Building Public Value (published in 2004), and underwritten by the last Chairman of the BBC Governors, Mr Michael Grade, that the BBC would not encrypt its services. Building Public Value stated (p 10) that “the BBC will always be on the side of universal provision, open access and unencryption”.

Third, and also substantively, the proposals to use DRM in the BBC’s HDTV signals breaks from the Trust’s policy, stated (at p 9) in the PVT authorisation of the HDTV proposal, that “Any move from the currently proposed HD standards on picture resolution should not disadvantage consumers who invest in HD equipment which meets the current standards”.

We believe that implementation of the proposals currently before Ofcom will have the effect of disadvantaging viewers who already have bought an integrated HD receiver (TV) and who have a separate PVR. It appears that the DRM proposed will permit recording only when the PVR is "integrated" with the HD receiver. It appears that the regime proposed will require purchase of a new PVR and the use of that tuner, rather than the one in the TV. This, we believe, not only breaks with the terms on which the Trust has authorised the BBC’s HDTV service but also sets an important, and very unfortunate, precedent whereby the interests of rights holders (and if the BBC's Strategy Review is to be believed, the interests of, at most the suppliers of 2.5% of BBC spend) are prioritised over the interests of UK viewers and licence fee payers.

We therefore urge the Trust to undertake a new PVT in respect of the HDTV proposals which are currently before Ofcom and which we believe depart radically from the terms of the authorisation you earlier granted, break with the undertakings made in 2004 in Building Public Value and undesirably and disproportionately prefer the interests of rights holders over those of licence fee payers.

A fuller statement of our analysis is to be found in our evidence to Ofcom at Please contact Blaine Price begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting ( and/or Ray Corrigan ( in the first instance should you wish to respond to or seek more information in respect of this letter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the undersigned and do not necessarily reflect those of the Open University.

Yours sincerely

Update: Ofcom have changed the link to our submission to

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Will Clegg's promises stand the test of time

The Independent considers yesterday's promises from Nick Clegg to dismantle Nu Labour's surveillance state to be some long-awaited cheer for liberal hearts.
"There is much to cheer liberal hearts in the Deputy Prime Minister's programme. He sounded the death knell for ID cards, the national identity register, biometric passports and the database of 11 million children. None of these will be missed...
Such innovations represented the very worst of the former Labour government. Successive Home Secretaries introduced criminal justice bill after criminal justice bill – creating some 3,500 new offences – not to serve the public interest but to broadcast their "toughness" on crime. Labour believed that technology offered a quick solution to just about every social problem. They behaved as if the threat of terrorism justified taking a wrecking ball to ancient civil liberties...
The real test of the liberal credentials of this coalition will come when the right-wing media starts to demand illiberal solutions from the Government on everything from drugs to anti-social behaviour and terrorism...
As the months go by and ministers get used to living in the bubble of government security, the temptation to acquiesce to the illiberal suggestions of the police and intelligence services on dealing with the terror threat will inevitably grow."
Update: The latest published coalition agreement provides no further details on the promising promises on civil liberties.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Deputy Prime Minister Speech on great reform bill

More promising promises, from the Deputy Prime Minister in the new UK coalition government, on dismantling the Nu Labour surveillance state.
"I'm talking about the most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great reforms of the 19th Century.
The biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy, for the first time extending the franchise beyond the landed classes...

Three major steps, that will begin immediately:
One: we will repeal all of the intrusive and unnecessary laws that inhibit your freedom.
Two: we will reform our politics so it is open, transparent, decent.
Three: we will radically redistribute power away from the centre, into your communities, your homes, your hands.
Big, sweeping change.
Not incremental, not bit by bit.
Our democracy has suffered at the hands of encroaching centralisation and secrecy for decades.
Take citizens' rights: eroded by the quiet proliferation of laws that increase surveillance, quash dissent, limit freedom.
Take executive authority: consistently increased by successive administrations to the point that we now have a neutered parliament and government that enjoys almost untrammelled control - over precisely the people who are meant to keep it in check...
Three steps to new politics.
First, sweeping legislation to restore the hard won liberties that have been taken, one by one, from the British people.
This government will end the culture of spying on its citizens.
It is outrageous that decent, law-abiding people are regularly treated as if they have something to hide.
It has to stop.
So there will be no ID card scheme.
No national identity register, a halt to second generation biometric passports.
We won't hold your internet and email records when there is just no reason to do so.
CCTV will be properly regulated, as will the DNA database, with restrictions on the storage of innocent people's DNA.
Britain must not be a country where our children grow up so used to their liberty being infringed that they accept it without question.
There will be no ContactPoint children's database.
Schools will not take children's fingerprints without even asking their parent's consent.
This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state.
That values debate, that is unafraid of dissent.
That's why we'll remove limits on the rights to peaceful protest.
It's why we'll review libel laws so that we can better protect freedom of speech.
And as we tear through the statute book, we'll do something no government ever has:
We will ask you which laws you think should go.
Because thousands of criminal offences were created under the previous government...
Taking people's freedom away didn't make our streets safe.
Obsessive lawmaking simply makes criminals out of ordinary people.
So, we'll get rid of the unnecessary laws, and once they're gone, they won't come back.
We will introduce a mechanism to block pointless new criminal offences.
And, we will, of course introduce safeguards to prevent the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
There have been too many cases of individuals being denied their rights...
And whole communities being placed under suspicion.
This government will do better by British justice.
Respecting great, British freedoms...
Which is why we'll also defend trial by jury...
We will regulate lobbying in parliament.
Not all lobbying is sleazy.
Much of it serves a hugely important function, allowing different organisations and interests to make representations to politicians.
But let's get real: this is a £2bn industry, where, according to some estimates there are MPs who are approached by lobbyists a hundred times every week....
And that activity needs to be regulated properly and made transparent.
Which we'll do, for example, by introducing a a statutory register of lobbyists.
As long as money plays such a big part in our politics, we are never going to curtail the tyranny of vested interests.
So, the repeal of illiberal laws, the reform of politics, and the redistribution of power.
Our very own Great Reform Act.
Not everyone will like it.
Not every MP...
Not the vested interests that want government to stay closed, opaque, easily captured.
But this new government, this new kind of government, creates an enormous opportunity for those of us who have spent our lives fighting for political reform..
This is a moment to step back and look at every shortcoming in our democracy...
Before we launch into the most radical programme of reform, empowerment, enfranchisement in over a century.
A programme so important to me personally that I will take full responsibility for seeing it through."
All very encouraging and possibly even Churchillian, apart from the populist, dare I say it 'Blairite', bit that says "We will ask you which laws you think should go." Nu Labour were big on "consultation", better described as collecting opinions and ignoring all but the privileged few that, amazingly enough, coincided with their own worldview.  The "nothing to hide nothing to fear" brigade are already swamping the broadcast airwaves with their anger at the audacity of Nick Clegg's plans.

Promising but now let's see the detail and the energy to follow it through by a government that is, very shortly, likely to become extremely unpopular when the spending cuts start biting, and when the law and order junkies start screaming about the liberal Clegg being a friend of terrorists and criminals and the "nothing to hide nothing to fear" brigade come marching on again .

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Lib Con forces of Liberty

Henry Porter believes we got lucky with new UK government at least on civil liberties.
"The pernicious laws of the last 13 years are to be swept away in a repeal act thanks to a chance electoral result.
One of the great pleasures of last week was hearing Jack Straw speaking on the Today programme in that patient, reasonable way of the true autocrat, and suddenly realising that I never have to pay attention to him again...
This is not merely a hopeful inference drawn from the change of government. The coalition agreement makes an explicit commitment to liberty and privacy, rolls back state intrusion, restores freedoms and puts a brake on the erosion of rights. There are omissions, of course, but overall this is a moment to cherish because along with specific guarantees, it is clear that the tone of government has changed and that the influence of the new administration may extend right down to the rude and officious exercise of petty authority that flourished under New Labour.
The Queen's speech, now being drafted, will establish a Freedom or Great Repeal bill – the title has not yet been chosen – as a major part of the coalition's legislative programme. All the areas detailed in the agreement between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, such as the abolition of ID cards and the children's database (ContactPoint database??), the further regulation of CCTV and the restoration of right to protest will be in it. Measures that weren't in the published agreement will reassert the right to silence and protect people against the huge number of new powers of entry into the home allowed by Labour.
Separate from this will be a complete review of terror legislation that will assess 28-day detention, control orders, section 44 stop and search powers, the harassment of photographers, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, and its amendments, which sanctioned 650 agencies and local authorities to carry out undercover surveillance...
Clearly, this all has to be watched very closely indeed – a lot has yet to be decided and there will be pressures from the civil servants, police, GCHQ and MI5 on such things as internet surveillance and phone intercepts. European plans for data collection and surveillance are a particular worry. But the essential point is that this exciting turn of events would not have been possible under a Labour-Lib Dem coalition or a Conservative minority government. It is a rare stroke of luck for the interests of liberty that the coalition allows the prime minister, David Cameron, to embrace this Lib Dem policy with open arms and ignore the reservations of the law-and-order nuts on his right...
Thinking about the five years of this campaign, I realise that the most agonising part of it was the sense that few people were really paying attention, and that Labour politicians could dismiss those who were as cranks and hysterics. This fear was behind the setting up of the Convention on Modern Liberty last year by Anthony Barnett and me, and the commission of a survey of all the laws that attacked liberty by University College law students, which we published as he Abolition of Freedom Act. The same fear compelled David Davis MP to resign during the previous summer and campaign against 42-day pre-charge detention and the database state, a gesture that cost him politically but which was critical in the defence of liberty.
This vindication is almost as much fun as not listening to Jack Straw. The programme of measures listed in the agreement between the governing parties "to reverse the substantial erosion of liberties under the Labour government" proves for once and all that we weren't making it up. We are very fortunate that the election played out the way it did."
Very well said.  As I said a few days ago, the promises of the new regime on civil liberites are promising but it will be interesting to see the details.  As Henry Porter rightly says, the most agonising part of Nu Labour's systematic destruction of liberty was the sense that few people were really paying attention.  The reversal of the damage the previous government has done in this area is a massive undertaking but here's hoping they have political will and energy to carry it through even when Sir Humphrey advises "that's a brave decision minister."