Monday, July 21, 2008

Blogpower Roundup - The Civil Liberties Edition

This is the second in the lastest series of Blogpower Roundups, and this is my roundup of some of the current live issues around Civil Liberties.

q-icon-blogpower-smallWhile there are differences between bloggers on some questions at the edge on just what comes under Civil Liberties, there's usually a strong consensus around the right to self-expression, and that restriction of topics that we can write about or the excessive monitoring of online activity are BAD things.

Heather Yaxley has reflected on the whole theme of Defending Blogs.

In this roundup, I've covered recent Blogpower posts, and highlighted a number of other posts that I have come across. As it is a thematic roundup, I am going back several weeks.

Colin Campbell's comment about extra speed cameras in South Australia prompted me to do some digging into just how many speed cameras we have now in the UK. The answer: one hell of a lot - perhaps 7,000-10,000 plus all those installed in cars and on motorcyles.

By my count there are 75 links in this post. Enjoy.

(This post is © Matt Wardman. It may be quoted up to this point by anyone as an excerpt. Blogpower members may reproduce in full without limitations.

Update 22/7: Another Blogger threatened with Libel Action in UK

This is since lunchtime today (Tuesday).

Of all people Dave Walker - the Artist in Residence at the Lambeth Conference - has been sent a cease and desist letter at half-a-day's notice to take down all posts (75+) relating to the reporting of the new management of the SPCK bookshop chain, which he has been covering for 2 years.
"Dave Walker, who has been flying the flag for the beleagured SPCK bookshop chain, has been threatened with libel by the St. Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG), who took over the chain last year. Since then, most (if not all) of the SPCK bookshops have closed, and there have been various questions about management practices. One former bookshop manager, Steve Jeynes, tragically took his own life just a few weeks ago.

Dave has been keeping a close eye on all of this, and providing a forum for people to share news about the chain. He has been told he'll be sued unless all SPCK posts are removed from his website."

Ed: This does not seem like a good way to do it quietly - the place is crawling with Journalists looking for "different" stories.

Blogpower Posts

I'll start with a rundown of Blogpower posts relating to Civil Liberties questions.


Watching them Watching You

Colin Campbell writes about plans for $3.5 million worth (roughly 1m UKP if my conversion rates are q-photo-speed-camera-specsright) of new speed cameras in South Australia. That involves 20 new red light and speed cameras, and will mean 90 would then exist in Western Australia (population 2 million people).

I thought I'd have a look at our situation since I'm currently involved in an argument about it elsewhere.

In the Old Country this Parliamentary answer shows just under 5,000 fixed speed camera sites (i.e., excluding red-light cameras) operating within the National Programme in March 2007, excluding sites established in each area before that area came into the national programme, or schemes not covered by it (I'm not sure how many of these there are). It quotes 439 such sites in London.

These people say that there are about 6,000 speed cameras operating nationwide, and that one on one road in my neck of the woods (Nottingham) has caught 76,000 motorists in 5 years.

For a comparison number, this Parliamentary Answer identified 681 sites for London "Safety Cameras" (it's in quotes as it is an official phrase), which includes Red Light cameras and Speed Camera sites in London in 2006-7.

I am not clear whether these these numbers exclude the almost 700 cameras at roughly 160 locations (and 10 mobile units) used for enforcing the London Congestion Charge. Incidentally these cameras operate 24 hours a day, despite the Congestion Charge being in operation for only around half of that period. Apparently they are on overnight because it is too expensive to switch them off - not very green.

The most comprehensive database (from Pocket GPS World) includes 7048 mobile camera sites plus another 948 pending. Some mobiles cameras are always operating at a number of these sites and there are 995 Red Light Camera Sites, and 4457 fixed camera installations (3545 Gatso, 17 temporary, 343 SPECS - average speed monitoring, 332 Truvelo, 188 Monitron and 32 Redspeed). The terms are explained here. Meanwhile the Government does not collect complete national statistics (see Parliamentary answers linked above). Hmmm.

This is all published data, it should be reasonably accurate if you read the qualifications. Adding them up, the UK fixed speed camera total is likely to be somewhere north of 6,000, with an unidentified number of mobile speed camera teams operating at designated sites, and perhaps another 1,000 to 2,000 more red light cameras operating.

On those mobile camera teams, one figure is that in 2005 the BBC identified 3500 of them.

And then there are all the cameras installed in traffic cars and police bikes, but I don't have numbers for those.

So ... enjoy your camera freedom while it lasts, Cobber. Or move here if you want to experience your future now.

On a very serious camera related Civil Liberties point - the right to restitution after a manifest injustice - there has been a recent case in Lambeth where the method used to issue tickets was thrown out by the Ajudicator on Appeal (380k pdf). A zoomed in camera reduced the apparent depth of field in the photo and hence undermined objectivity and fairness in the decisions, but the Council tried to justify holding on to the rest of the £628,000 that had been raised by the particular camera.

My concern is twofold: Firstly, I think speed (note: not red light) cameras are a monumental white elephant - because I think that the same objectives can be delivered more effectively by other means without the monitoring and enforcement bureaucracy. Secondly, as shown by the case quoted above, the rule of law is sometimes simply flouted by those who should be enforcing it without fear or favour.

Meanwhile, James Robson and Heather Brooke have recently identified that our Police Forces spend 40m UKP a year on Public Relations. I have no idea how much of that goes on justifying cameras.

And two more issues

At the moment there is no end of Civil Liberties causes to be chasing. Here are two more that I have not mentioned yet.

Harry's Place Legal Action

Harry's Place are under threat of legal action for simply reporting a story. More background here and here at Ministry of Truth, and at Bloggerheads.

Story "Borrowers"

[21/7/2008 5:45pm Paragraph re-edited for precision, and clearly to distinguish between the event and my interpretion].

There are cases where particular newspapers and their websites are taking blog stories and using, or even simply reproducing, them without asking permission first or when permission has been denied. This has been going on for years, but perhaps it's time to tackle it head on.

In one example recently the Mail on Sunday reproduced a story from the blog "My Private Secret Diary" without receiving permission to do so. As Jonny Norfolk stated in a letter sent the mail after the fact:

The piece (in its entirety) consisted of copyrighted articles lifted without my knowledge or consent from a website for which I am the registered owner…

Reproducing material a) in a way that falls outside copyright law and b) without permission is a simple violation of the law, and bloggers are as entitled to legal protection as any other writers - like everyone else. Reproducing material in a editorial context, for reporting or for review is one thing; reproducing whole articles without permission for your commercial publication is entirely different. What is worse, the Mail on Sunday does this as a matter of policy. When questioned they said:

We generally take the view that blogs published on the internet have already been placed in the public domain by their authors.

There you have it.

From outside Blogpower

It's traditional to include several stories from non-Blogpower sources. These are resources that you may not know about.

MySociety is a charity run by Tom Steinberg (interview with Nestoria Blog) which does projects aiming to help citizens make a difference in simple ways. Most people have heard of They Work for You, but there are other projects that can be useful. Here are two more.
  • HearFromYourMP encourages and enables MPs to run email lists for their constituents, and to allow those constituents to discuss ideas in a way which doesn't bombard them with email.

  • WriteToThem is the definitive place to contact any of your elected representatives. Enter a single postcode and it'll tell you who all your local representatives are, and a bit about who you should contact for which reasons. Note that this site covers Local Councillors as well as MPs and MEPs.
q-icon-bloghoundsBloghounds is a new blog network being set up by the founder of Blogpower, James Higham - now up to around 20 members.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation - the granddaddy of Open-Internet organisations - has had an office in Europe for a little more than a year. Watch the EFF Europe Webpage to keep an eye on EU and European Parliament related developments.

Finally, an object lesson in the collatoral damage caused by insufficiently tightly targeted restrictions. The EFF "Deeplinks" Blog has a post showing how a (laudable in my view) attempt to restrict child pornography on Usenet by closing down 88 groups, is resulting in some cases in the unnecessary closing of a total of 19,000 groups:
Attorney General Cuomo has pressured these companies into censoring enormous amounts of First Amendment-protected material after an investigation found 88 groups containing child pornography, or 0.5% of the active discussion groups in the alt.* hierarchy. Verizon and Sprint are taking down one gigantic subset of groups, the very popular alt.* hierarchy, AT&T will block all alt.binaries.* groups, while Time Warner Cable and AOL are shutting down their Usenet service entirely.
Yes it needs to be done, but that approach will lose the support of a lot of people.

And finally, China has finally blocked The Onion Router (read it to find out what that is), despite the promises for more openness in the year of the " Potemkin " Olympics.

And the BBC iPM programme has been doing some excellent work - they have recently covered the Lambeth story above, and also a story about the new Communications Data Act. They did a brief roundup (MP3 file) on 21st July.

Wrapping Up

OK. Enough. I've only covered half of the Blogpower blogs, and I'll do another roundup before long based on the other half.


Colin Campbell said...

Important stuff Matt and thanks for doing this. I may have to take this in in a few sittings.

fake consultant said... this is why we want to limit membership to some number below 200, is it?

that is a lot of work, matt...

jmb said...

Well done Matt, very important issues you have covered here and while I have already seen quite a few of them I will follow up on those I have not in the near future.
Excellent round-up!