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New domains for a new Internet June 14, 2012

Posted by Mark Hillary in Current Affairs, Internet.
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Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) is the organisation that organises the Internet – assigning the domain names we all know, such as .com and .org.

They just announced plans to create many new domains and asked organisations to submit requests for new suggested domains. Big tech firms like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have all asked for new domain names, but what is interesting to see is that even non-tech firms like Land Rover have made requests for domains such as .landrover.

There is a concern that this process has commercialised the control of the Internet itself. Of course, brands and big commercial companies like Amazon and Google dominate the Internet as we know it, but it is also a resource that can be freely used just for the exchange of information.

With brands spending over £100,000 just to apply for the right to create a new domain it means that only those with deep pockets can guide the direction of the Internet and is that really the way we should be taking it?

The US government still takes a keen interest in the overall governance of the Internet and all the key organisations like Icaan are still based in the US, but perhaps it is time for a supranational body to be created – so the future of the Internet is not just auctioned to the highest bidder.

Land Rover Badge
Photo by JW Sherman licensed under Creative Commons

Twitter can now remove tweets by country February 1, 2012

Posted by Mark Hillary in Current Affairs, Internet.
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The micro-blogging service, Twitter, recently announced that they can now ‘censor’ messages by country. Many in the technology community were shocked by this news as the transparency and free access to information sharing on Twitter was seen as a catalyst for some of the Arab spring revolutionary activity this time last year.

Twitter has said that the price they need to pay for operating in some countries is to have the ability to delete certain messages at the request of a state government. They claim that transparency has increased because they are being open about government requests to remove information.

But are we seeing democratic values, such as free speech, buffeting against national and commercial interest? Most users of Twitter probably read information from, and talk to, people in dozens of countries everyday. The information is just there, regardless of national borders.

Twitter appears to be capitulating to national governments, considering this as a price worth paying to do business in those regions, so it appears that censorship on major social networks can be bought. If the company doesn’t want to miss out on entering certain markets, they will do whatever it takes to be there rather than defending the free exchange of information.

Of course, Twitter is just a company. They are not supposed to be a champion of international free speech or human rights, but the service has developed a track record for being simple, open, and transparent. If that’s all about to change so governments can delete anything they see as seditious then where will the next Arab spring be created?

Arab Spring [LP]

Photo by Painted Tapes licensed under Creative Commons

Shutting down Twitter August 17, 2011

Posted by Mark Hillary in Government, Internet.
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The recent civil unrest in several English cities that turned from a political protest into looting and criminality within a couple of days has led lawmakers to explore the social networks blamed for organising the wave of crime.

Though many commentators are pointing out that cars should not be banned because lawbreakers may have used a vehicle to get to the riots, some in government appear adamant that social networks need to be controlled during times of civil disobedience.

It sounds like a cross between the controlled Internet of China and the Egyptian government behaviour – faced with the Arab spring and a popular uprising, the government forced telephone operators to shut down their networks. For a couple of days there was no Internet in Egypt. Citizens resorted to dial-up connections via international phone calls to get any news out of the country.

Could this really happen in the UK?

Former BT Chief Scientist Peter Cochrane dismissed the idea as bluff, suggesting that the government doesn’t understand how the Internet works and that information would always flow, despite any attempt to block it. Others are not so sure.

The Prime Minister himself announced to MPs last week that he is working with the police and intelligence services with a view to exploring the consequences of limiting access to these websites and services if they are being used for criminal purposes. The government already has extensive online intelligence tools available, such as wire-tapping and the boffins inside GCHQ.

So if they started actively requesting offending social media accounts are shut down, would the social networks listen? They might, but then again, would any serious criminals be broadcasting their plans in public? In which case the government would need to directly ask phone networks to suspend their entire 3G services.

In any case, in stark contrast to Egypt, many of the UK networks would refuse on principle, and where would we be then? I don’t believe there is any law that gives the government a right to instruct a phone company to just shut down because of a threat.

[Note: these are the views of the author and not necessarily reflected by Thomas Eggar]

The Government App Store April 15, 2011

Posted by Mark Hillary in Government, Outsourcing, Software.
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Detractors have argued that the concept of a government cloud (g-cloud) is so complex and fraught with privacy issues that it will never get off the ground, but supporters argue that in a time of austerity, reuse of software and systems is essential.

The general cloud concept has been outlined on this blog before. One of the great attractions for cloud-based applications is central management, eliminating the need to manage local versions, upgrades, and maintenance. Virtual infrastructure, such as data centres also work well within the cloud-based model, allowing several departments or organisations to share storage and computing power.

For all these reasons, the British government has been interested in two key concepts in recent years:

  • A cloud of government applications and tools that can be shared by many departments
  • A government app-store, allowing standard tools to be used anywhere within government.

These are common concept for consumers. The cloud itself is merely centrally managed software, such as Microsoft’s Gmail, and the app-store is what every Android or iPhone user is now used to – plug and play systems. It is not so long ago that your telephone could only do what it did when you bought it. It was not possible to upgrade or load new software, and when it was possible, it was with great difficulty. Now consumers are used to modifying, customising, and using their equipment in new ways.

The advantages for government are obvious. Think of how many software systems are used within the police, the NHS, the devolved local governments and councils… the list is mind-boggling and yet in all these places there will be a set of common tools that can theoretically be shared with other government organisations. The advantages of getting the G-cloud working are obvious. Will the detractors derail it as too ambitious?

As with most things in politics, only time will tell.

What will happen to NHS supplier contracts if power is devolved? August 30, 2010

Posted by Mark Hillary in Government, IT Services, Outsourcing.
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The NHS is under fire once again. This time it’s a familiar story, the need to eliminate the swathes of red tape and middle management that prevent nurses and doctors doing their jobs.

This is a familiar refrain. If may be more shrill now the government is led by the Conservative party, but even the previous administration used to talk of devolving power to the frontline care-givers. Yet, how will that latest proposals affect the NHS and particularly the huge array of technology contracts that had been agreed over the past couple of years?

First, it’s never as easy as just wiping out red tape. Devolving budgets to each individual GP or hospital sounds great in practice, but if a doctor is to spend most of his or her time on the frontline with patients then they actually need some of those administrators – without the admin team, the doctor is going to be poring over spreadsheets all day.

It’s important to identify waste and red tape – nobody can dispute that – but the elimination of administrators can go too far. And the devolvement of budget responsibility could have further implications for centrally controlled programmes.

Connecting for Health may be maligned, but it’s supporters would argue that this is because it is an immense programme of work, creating a communications network between GPs, hospitals, and pharmacies, allowing a truly joined-up health service to operate. That level of complexity does take time to get right, but in a devolved world it would be impossible to plan for such a grand vision of how the NHS could operate.

The NHS currently works with a joint venture firm, NHS Shared Business Services, to offer finance and accounting services back into the primary care trusts. What will happen to ventures like this if the PCTs are abolished?

There is much to applaud in the new government plans to rid the NHS of waste, but there are many areas that could change in a negative way if these plans are not thought through in detail.