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Fighting piracy requires carrots, not just a big stick May 10, 2012

Posted by Mark Hillary in Current Affairs, Internet, Software.
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The Pirate Bay (TPB) is a Swedish website that links to online copies of music, films, and software – anything that can be easily copied and distributed online. It is possibly the single largest library of illegally copied intellectual property in the world and has been resistant to the authorities for many years, largely because they don’t store the content themselves and the links use very strong cryptography to mask the exact location of copied material.

As the law enforcement authorities have failed to stop sites like TPB the UK courts (after an action raised by the British Phonographic Institute) decided to tell Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to just block access – preventing all but the most determined users from accessing them. This week, Virgin Media became the first UK ISP to stop their users from accessing TPB.

It did not go well. The Anonymous hackers collective attacked Virgin Media’s website and brought it down on May 9th for over one hour. Four other British ISPs have vowed to block access to TPB and BT is about to decide on their position.

The ISPs are in a difficult position as they are being forced to censor their service – preventing access to a particular site – yet they have always managed to stand aside from these debates in the past, arguing that they just provide the infrastructure and can’t be expected to police what people do online.

The bottom line for organisations like the BPI is that piracy will only end when the legal route to owning movies and music is easier than the illegal. Services like Spotify and Netflix are now making on demand legal renting of content far easier than searching for illegal copies. Perhaps they should be focusing on making the carrot, rather than the stick, a lot bigger, because banning access to a single pirate site is like putting a sticking plaster on a gaping wound.

Pirate deck at Club Earl

Photo by Earl licensed under Creative Commons

Is technology moving too fast for the law? April 30, 2012

Posted by Mark Hillary in Current Affairs, Internet, Software.
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Three people have been arrested by police recently as part of the investigation into the alleged naming of Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans’ rape victim on Twitter.

The right to victims of rape and sexual assault to remain anonymous is an area of the law that faces an enormous challenge in this era of information freedom. Many victims would not go to the police if they knew that their name would be splashed across the newspapers – whether a celebrity is involved or not – and traditional newspapers and broadcasters have always respected the law in this respect.

But now there is Twitter. It takes just one tweet from somebody with inside knowledge of a case and the victim details are published and cannot be erased. Those wanting to avoid detection can easily create a new Twitter account in a different name within minutes.

The implication is clear. Technology can be used by people with inside knowledge of a subject to broadcast it to the media and general public, with very little fear of recrimination.

This affects many areas of life where sensitive information is managed. Jurors tweeting their opinion as a trial proceeds are already disrupting court proceedings. Medical professionals are tweeting about celebrities receiving treatment – and assuming that they can go to a hospital without news of their condition being broadcast to the world.

In technological terms, the genie has already escaped. We cannot turn back the clock to an age before Twitter so it appears that the approach to this problem can only be the improved education of professionals who deal with sensitive information and greater measures – such as immediate dismissal – for medical or legal professionals who misuse social networks. It is not ideal, but then the world has changed forever.

Scales of Justice, Old Bailey, London

Photo by Andrew Middleton licensed under Creative Commons

Turn off the networks – says who? October 21, 2011

Posted by Mark Hillary in Hardware, IT Services.
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A recent poll by the BBC found that most British citizens would like to the see the police respond to riots with water cannon, tear gas, curfews and even a third suggesting the police should be firing rubber bullets.

With the British riots still quite fresh in the mind of most respondents and the police being criticised for a soft approach, it’s no surprise that the average man on the street wants a tough approach – regardless of how all these measure might appear to be the beginning of a police state.

But it was interesting to see that 55% of the people polled by the BBC also believe that the police should have the power to close down social networks such as Twitter, Blackberry BBM, and Facebook.

It seems like one thing for the public to be asking the police to take tougher action on rioters, but if the public are now asking for the police to have control of the Internet then will the politicians respond? It would clearly be popular with the public, but is it right?

Those in favour of this measure are clearly arguing that many of the riots were arranged or exacerbated by communication on social networks. The one to many broadcast ability of these networks and the ability for messages to be passed on and re-broadcast makes them far more powerful than the telephone or basic text messaging.

But did the police ever turn off the telephone network in the past when there was a riot, and where would this power stop? Who would give the command to suggest that a minor civil disturbance has gone past the line and now all social networks need to be closed?

In my own experience, the messages I was seeing on the Monday night of the London riots were mainly councillors and local businesses, all out there on the street and sending messages to help people stay safe. All of this would have been impossible if the networks were down.

This is one of those moral questions that make people realise the power of blogs and microblogs – instant, available to all, and easy for others to pass on. The world has yet to really absorb the power of one to many communications, but I hope the positive outweighs the negative in public perception soon as the measures being proposed are dangerous for democracy itself.
London Flames

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.