Archive for the 'current events' Category

Thoughts on monetising user data

Aral Balkan asked me to “cut to the chase, Bruce: do you find anything wrong with the business models of Facebook & Google (monetising data)?”

It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, but it needs more than 140 characters, so here goes. Note that these are my personal opinions. I work for Opera, which has business relationships with Google, Facebook, and its own advertising arm of the business.

But I also use Google and Facebook services privately so have my own views as a user; again, these are my opinions, not those of my employers.

I work on the web, but at home on my own, so I use Facebook and Twitter a lot. Not only is it useful for discussing work, but it’s my “watercooler”. I don’t mind that the personal stuff I write is publicly available, although I keep my location secret and no longer put the names of my kids online. (Facebook stuff isn’t public. I only really use it as it’s where non-geek real-life friends are.)

I don’t much mind that Google tracks my searching habits around the Web (although I would pay money not to have to watch Treehouse Woman again on YouTube, because she’s too shinyhappy, and puts her coffee down on a wooden surface without using a coaster).

The annoyance I find is offset by the fact that I understand why they do this; it’s how they make money to support the services I use for free, which are primarily Search, Gmail and YouTube. (I get no benefit from Google+.)

In short – I understand that “I am the product being sold”, and am OK with that. Similarly, I’m fine with getting tailored money-off vouchers for products that I use, sent to me by supermarkets who know what I use because they monitor it. I opt in, because I see value in that. You may not; that’s fine.

As long as the companys’ privacy settings are both clear, and honoured by the company, I don’t see this data gathering and data mining as inherently intrusive. I’m not sure that all companies privacy settings are sufficiently clear, however; I read a case study some years ago in which a good-sized sample of people were asked what privacy settings they had on their social networking, and it was compared with the actual setting – very few matched. The Facebook Android app permissions are certainly opaque.

Perhaps companies that do monetize data could make their privacy settings more transparent, and be even more obvious that the price of free is your data. But I think the latter is pretty obvious to those who give it a little thought; we can’t always handhold stupid people. There should certainly be a simple method to delete all one’s data and history from public view, and which will be removed from the company’s server/ archive within a defined period of time.

What annoys me most is when people or organisations use my data without my permission. For example, a few years ago, my wife had a minor car accident. Somewhere in the chain of insurance company, loss adjusters and repairs garage, our phone number was given to an unauthorised third party and occasionally I receive a phone call from a call centre trying to sell me “no win, no fee” ambulance-chasing legal services.

But beyond annoyance, what alarms me is secretive State intrusion into my life through my digital tracks. I assume that all companies – whether a supermarket loyalty scheme or a social network – regularly comply with warrants from law-enforcement agencies going about their legitimate work.

Let’s assume that the social networks and search engines, as they claim, don’t just hand over all their data to the governmental snoops. It then seems to me that, unless they’ve been fantastically lax with their security – which is certainly possible, but unlikely, given that it’s their core cash-generating asset – they can’t be blamed for the actions of the government.

We know from Edward Snowden that some companies’ data is just wholesale hacked by NSA, GCHQ and other state bodies. The legality of this is being debated in courts at the moment. The morality of this is clear (to me): it’s wrong. “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” is the refrain of the KGB, the Gestapo and every despot across the globe.

Government intrusion isn’t new. When I was a teenager, I joined a communist party. My letters from them were always opened (and no others). Presumably, this was done actually by the UK Post Office on police orders – that is, complete collusion, even thought there was no warrant or reason to fear an idealistic but naive 17 year old. It’s also long been rumoured that the voting slips of all UK communist voters were cross-referenced against their counterfoils and the names of communist voters given to Special Branch and MI5.

In short, to answer Aral’s question: I don’t feel that commercial organisations using data that I’ve opted to provide them, for the purposes they said they’ll use if for, is wrong. It’s part of modern capitalism, which contains plenty I have to hold my nose about, but that’s a much longer blog post which I can’t be bothered to write.

The worrisome aspect is states illegally stealing our data from those companies, and putting us under constant surveillance, justified by keeping us safe from this year’s bogeymen.

But those same social networks and web companies allow us to share information on what they’re doing and organise in order to protest against it. The tension between individual liberty (I believe privacy is an integral part of liberty) and state control is not new. The threat may be greater because of technology, but the platform to fight it from is greater, too.

News from a parallel universe

It’s been reported the United States of Yemen has killed 14 unarmed civilians attending a wedding party in America’s rural Al’a-Baama province.

Yemeni officials would not corroborate the reports, but it’s known that they have been using unmanned drones to bomb targets in America, United Kingdom and France, killing many civilians and children.

Yemen, along with Pakistan, Afghanistan and other permanent members of the UN Security Council, accuses America of causing instability in the Middle East and around the world, tolerating extremists who advocate invasion of other nations to export their state religion, “Capitalism”.

America is regarded as a failing state by Yemen. America’s President, Barack Obama, is the first from its sizeable black minority that was, until the 1960s, segregated from its white majority and which still makes up a disproportionate number of its prison population (which is the highest incarceration rate in the world).

A Yemeni government official noted that President Obama is dangerously weak, and unable to control the huge numbers of weapons circulating unchecked inside the country. There are regular reports of massacres in schools in the country but the government is unable or unwilling to intervene.

Analysts report that the growing influence of fundamentalist Christianist preachers – many closely linked to members of the ruling elite – has systemetically eroded the rights of women and gay people. The concentration of the nation’s wealth into the hands of a few oligarchical dynasties has left a large minority without access even to healthcare.

There were furious anti-Yemeni riots in America’s capital, Washington DC. American security experts have argued that drones have on numerous occasions have directly played into the Christianists’ favor, turning peaceful tribal communities into vengeful killers.

Reporter Bruce Lawson is a citizen of the UK, but was born in Yemen.

UK ISPs confirm central database of filter opt-ins

After convincing my Member of Parliament, John Hemming, of the folly of Cameron’s plan to censor the web in the UK (sorry, I mean filter the web), he’s been doing some digging with the ISPs, writing to them to ask whether they plan to store your opt-ins privately on your router, or centrally.

He’s published the answers to his emails to BT, Sky and Virgin. BT were evasive, and TalkTalk didn’t formally respond, but it’s pretty clear they’ll store them in a centralised database. What could possibly go wrong with the government having access to a list of all those who want to see porn or “extremist” sites? It’s not like we live in a surveillance society, is it?

John and I would like to publish a fuller list. If you are a customer of an ISP that’s not on the list, please email them and ask them if they plan to store your opt-ins on a centralised database, what categories they intend to filter (eg, porn, extremism, alcohol, drugs) and how they will categorise them (eg, who will decide whether BNP/ EDL sites are “extremist”?) and paste it into a comment below. Please include the date and time the reply was sent, and who signed it (so we can double-check before publishing on John’s blog).

Thanks!

We need a war on authoritarianism

It was with incredulity that I read the reports of that David Miranda, partner of the Guardian journalist who worked on the Snowden leaks, was detained by UK agents for 9 hours under anti-terrorism legislation. (In what sense is Snowden related to terrorism, anyway?)

It felt like when I was back in my teens, when the government attempted to ban books and every CND or anti-fascist march I went on (most weekends) would be surrounded by police photographing all the marchers, and every newsletter I received from the British Communist Party was mysteriously opened in transit.

The Thatcher years were dark times for real liberals – the neocons were economic “liberals” but social authoritarians (see Section 28 as an example), and I hoped that the UK was getting better when Blair came to power. Ha!

I used to switch voting between the Labour and Liberal parties, in order to ensure the Tories stayed out. Eventually, I decided I couldn’t vote Labour again while those who supported introducing ID cards were in its hierarchy. For people my age (who grew up in the 70s, just 20 years after the end of WW2), a representative of the state murmuring “papers, please” in a film was a short-cut for Soviet or Nazi state. I’ve always been proud that in the UK, if I’m lawfully going about my business, no-one has a right to ask me to prove who I am. (Of course, if I had been a young black man, the Sus law would have been my nemesis).

But now we have a government made of a coalition of the Liberal Party and the Conservatives that seems to me even more authoritarian. The Conservatives constantly bang on about “rolling back the state”, but that is a smokescreen for ideological dismantling of state benefits, of planning regulations and of redistribution of wealth. The state increasingly meddles in the lives of people in the UK, even though the government promised

We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion. The Coalition: our programme for government (section 3) (PDF, 475K)

Yet they want to censor the Web (probably the UK’s greatest contribution to the modern world) and set up centralised databases of who wishes to view certain types of material with no transparency or accountability, and without a Parliamentary debate. They snoop on us via information provided by the outrageous US PRISM surveillance system. People are hounded for expressing unpleasant views on social networking. They use anti-terrorism legislation to intimidate a journalist. I’m too scared to go on protests because of heavy-handed policing – Ian Tomlinson was killed by the Metropolitan Police.

I used to mock Americans who were programmed to believe their government was corrupt and intrusive. Of course, that can lead to weirdos in the mountains with huge caches of legal guns, or the absurdities of an American friend of mine who told me once that she had no moral obligation to pay any tax while bemoaning the fact that there is no NHS in the USA.

But I’m starting to feel that the Americans who are healthily suspicious of government have a point. Just as any company in a capitalist economy tends to monopoly (the imperative to maximise profit and marketshare inexorably points that way), it seems that, without proper check and balances, all government tends towards authoritarianism.

It’s obvious that in the UK we no longer have the correct checks and balances. “They” do as they please, because we – and “they” – have forgotten that they work for us, and are not our masters. This doesn’t feel as the UK should. We, the people, need to declare a war on authoritarianism.

Letter to my MP about web censorship

This morning I wrote to my MP, John Hemming, via writetothem.com to express my concern about web censorship:

Dear John Hemming,

I noticed you tweeting that your geek rating is 90%, so I guess I don’t need to explain why David Cameron and Claire Perry’s attempts to censor the Web are so dangerous.

I’d like to know your thoughts on why this isn’t being debated in parliament; why it seems to go against their own policy after a consultation on the issue, and whether you (as my representative) agree with Mr Cameron’s ideas?

I’m deeply concerned at the scope-creep of these policies. We all oppose obscene images of children and rape. But those are illegal, and filtered, already. Is it true that we will have to opt-in to “extremist” material, and material on “smoking”? Who decides what is “extremist”?

I urge you to oppose this censorship by the back door, and I hope you’ll raise it in parliament, which is the proper place to debate such matters.

Yours sincerely,

Bruce Lawson.

To Mr Hemming’s credit, his reply came after a couple of hours:

My understanding is that the proposals relate to the default or factory settings of the domestic broadband router. I don’t think anyone has a problem with this.

Why not write to your MP? Hopefully you’ll get a more sympathetic response.

Added 17 August 2013: I’ve just had an hour long meeting with my MP, John Hemming (both of us lying on his floor as his back was gone, and it was weird for me to sit while he lay) about the plans for a UK-wide Web filter. He agrees with me that it’s a civil liberties problem, and we’ll work together to campaign against it. More detail later.

Viva Istanbul

I lived in Istanbul for a couple of years and love the city enormously, so have been glued to the coverage of the Istanbul protests (revolution?) over the last few days.

It started out as a peaceful sit-in by some citizens who were angry over plans to redevelop one of the few remaining green spaces in the city (the population of which has increased tenfold between 1950 and 2000). Heavy-handed policing brought more people out into the streets. This cartoon (circulated by a Turkish friend) illustrates this well:

women watering flower is sprayed with tear gas by policman in riot gear

When I lived in Turkey (in the mid nineties) the police were a law unto themselves. Every month they’d come to the bar where we English teachers hung out to demand on-the-spot “fines” for our not having passports (they knew that the passports were taken away for weeks by the grindingly bureaucratic work permit authorities). When a bomb planted by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) exploded, my Kurdish girlfriend hid in the house for a week; she explained that the police would beat or rape local Kurdish people. Forced virginity tests were common.

So what do the protestors in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir want? It seems (bucking the comfortable Western narrative) that this group of young muslim people aren’t reactionary zealots. Sumandef, a Turkish woman writing in English on her blog post What is Happenning in Istanbul? says what many of those interviewed on TV and friends of mine say:

By so called «complaining» about my country I am hoping to gain:

Freedom of expression and speech,

Respect for human rights,

Control over the decisions I make concerning my on my body,

The right to legally congregate in any part of the city without being considered a terrorist.

To all who are protesting in Turkey (or anywhere else) against authoritarians who wish to tell us how to live our lives, I wish you safety, and success.

Eating well, cheaply

When the horsemeat scandal was all over the papers showing that lots of readymade and fast food is really nasty, I said to some friends that I was glad that my family always buys real meat, and fresh vegetables and prepare them ourselves (we don’t do it to save money, we just hate junk food). Some of my friends told me that’s because I’m comparatively well-off and that many poorer people can’t afford to do that.

I decided to cost up a favourite meal of ours: free-range roast chicken with all the trimmings: roast potatos, roast pumpkin, carrots, parsnips and frozen peas (life’s too short to shell peas). We also had Yorkshire pudding, even though this shocks traditionalists who clam they exclusively accompany beef.

This easily serves five (including two ravenous teenagers) so that generally we don’t need an evening meal if we eat this at lunchtime.

  • Free range chicken, £4.99 (1.5 kgs)
  • Yorkshire Puddings, 55p for 15 (we used 7, so 26p)
  • 1kg Potatos (90p at our local shop)
  • roast pumpkin, 79p (we used half, so 40p)
  • 1 bag Aldi baby carrots, 49p (put them raw around the chicken so they slowly absorb the chicken juice and cook that way)
  • 3 Parsnips (half a 79p bag, so 40p)
  • Sainsbury’s Sage & Onion Stuffing, Basics 85g, 15p (we’ve tried the posher stuff but the kids like this best)
  • broccoli, 79p
  • frozen peas, 99p/ kg. approx 250g, so 25p.
  • Small amount of sunflower oil – say 25p
  • 1 Knorr chicken stock pot to mix with veg water to make gravy (8 for £2.40, so 40p)

The sum total of the ingredients was £9.67.

Running a gas cooker costs £7.24 a month to cook for a family of 4, so let’s divide that by 30 days and estimate that it cost 25p in fuel to cook this meal.

To go with the meal, we had a £3.59 bottle of Toro Loco Tempranillo 2011 (which won a silver medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition).

This makes the ingredients, fuel and wine cost £13.51, or £2.70 a head. I can’t find the pre-recall price of Findus “beef” lasagne ready meals, but a search on Tesco website for “ready meal” suggests that the cheapest are about £1 for about 300g of food, which wouldn’t satisfy me let alone growing kids. My meal was at least double that size – each person had 200g of roast spuds as well as all the other stuff – and included a large glass of wine each for the three adults (and a good glug into the gravy).

Therefore, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that it certainly isn’t more expensive to eat properly, and is much better for you (although it took me about an hour of prep time rather than 5 minutes to microwave).

A cake for Thatcher’s legacy

My daughter’s Easter holiday homework was to design and make a commemoration cake. Like most of her class, she had planned to make an Easter cake, until the day when Margaret Thatcher died.

She researched her life and found a graph of unemployment figures during the Thatcher premiership which resembled the letter “M”. Add a swift “T” for the initials of The Great Helmswoman, the dates of her life in icing over a home-made Victorian values sponge and we have an edible commemoration of a true “Let them eat cake” politician.

cake commerorating Mrs Thatcher

My daughter felt it important that the cake be entirely factual. There were other graphs and statistics we considered, many of which contradict the hagiographies that are being circulated by the right wing at the moment.

For example, her Right To Buy scheme turned the UK into a nation of homeowners, we’re told. Actually, a third of ex-council homes are now owned by rich landlords rather than their occupants. Because councils were forbidden from building new housing with the cash they received from selling their old houses, we now have a huge housing problem, with many young people unable to leave home at all.

It’s a similar story with the utility privatisations which were to make us a nation of shareholders and participatory capitalists. “Small British shareholders have no influence over the overwhelmingly non-British owners of the firms that generate and distribute power in Britain.” writes the London Review of Books:

when local electrical engineers dig up the roads in London, they’re working for East Asia’s richest man, the Hong Kong-based Li Ka-shing … In north-east England, they work for Warren Buffett; in Birmingham, Cardiff and Plymouth, the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company; in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Liverpool, Iberdrola; in Manchester, a consortium of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and a J.P. Morgan investment fund.

Like the American neo-cons she was so friendly with, her fiscal policies were laissez-faire but she believed in government small enough to fit into the bedroom. She was deeply socially conservative and enacted the shameful Section 28 legislating that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

You might believe the way she treated striking miners was justified, but her contempt for the working class is demonstrated by the Hillsborough cover-up.

There was no economic miracle: British GDP has grown in line with Germany and France, neither of which had the twin blessings of North Sea oil or Thatcher.

Statistical analysis in 2012 shows Britain has some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world; only Portugal is more unequal with less social mobility:

Social mobility hasn’t changed since the 1970s – and in some ways has got worse. For every one person born in the 1970s in the poorest fifth of society and going to university, there would be four undergrads from the top fifth of society. But if you were born in the 1980s, there would be five.

Yes, yes, Thatcher stopped the unions “bringing the country to its knees”. Then she delivered it to the bankers’ exemplary stewardship. Her Big Bang city deregulation paved the way for casino banks with decreased reserves, so the financial crash could happen.

If only her legacy were as easily swallowed and as quick to demolish as my daughter’s delicious cake.

Goodbye Thatcher

Goodbye Mrs T, friend of Pinochet and the Khmer Rouge, homophobe, opposer of sanctions in South Africa and destroyer of the domestic mining industry.

It’s bizarre that a grand funeral is planned, when she believed that “there is no such thing as society” and that the state should be rolled back.

I hope that her funeral will be a huge demo against the savage austerity policies her successors are enacting. Let’s also note that her City deregulation allowed the casino banks to behave so recklessly before they collapsed, causing the financial system catastrophe that (apparently) requires the current attacks on the poor.

She was long ago irrelevant. But her legacy is vile, and current.