Freedom to be offended

Freedom of speech. An absolutely essential human right, and yet it seems to be such a difficult concept for many to grasp. People think free speech applies to themselves and no one else. Anyone that opposes them is fair game to be silenced.

To paraphrase Morbo the news monster, “Censorship does not work like that!”

According to reports, yesterday Facebook removed the EDL’s page. The EDL Facebook page had been “Liked” by some 80,000 people, and was frequently home to comments showing racist, bigoted views and discussing some quite disgusting concepts and behaviour. Even so, I cannot celebrate its removal. How is it right that people on the left complain when Facebook pages for anti-cuts protests and events are removed, yet celebrate when the same thing happens to the EDL?

In discussions about this some people have pointed out that the EDL page hosted discussions of illegal behaviour. It might have done. “Hate speech” is now illegal in the UK. Beating up people and harassment are illegal too. But is it right to shut down discussions, even of illegal behaviour? That sounds like thought crime to me. We have a right to freedom of association, to freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. By extension, we have a right to hold whatever opinions we want, even if they are repellent to most people. Surely freedom to associate with whoever we like must mean that we have freedom to discuss whatever we like? How can discussion of a crime be a crime? Even if someone is discussing plans for a crime, they have not actually done anything, and I believe they should not be arrested until they show that they are about to commit those actions and not just fantasise about them.

I must also point out that the various Facebook pages set up to organise anti-cuts protests have also sometimes discussed illegal behaviour. Civil disobedience in various forms often means breaking the law – by definition illegal! Yet people rail against the removal of these pages by Facebook but demand the removal of the EDL page. It does not work like that!

The issue of government censorship versus private censorship is a problem. Facebook is a privately owned platform and many people are quick to point out that freedom of speech does not apply as everyone that uses it had in theory to agree to the terms and conditions. This is true, but while in law obligations to facilitate free speech usually only apply to government, I think when a service becomes as large as Facebook and a de-facto standard, different rules must apply. While we have private services that host so much public discourse, this is something that we must address. I suspect that censorship on private services happens as much out of a fear of being sued as of a desire to shut down opposing views.

I worry that here in the UK we are losing our freedom of speech. We have the European Convention of Human Rights, but right-wing politicians like to blame it for all our ills and demand that we scrap it. Now we have laws against hate speech, and I can see the reasons for preventing harassment and bullying, but if those are already crimes, why do we need laws to make it illegal to voice disagreement with someone?

Ultimately, freedom of speech applies to all or it applies to no one. There is no middle ground. If someone decides to censor what some people say, then there is no guarantee that anything at all can be said. Someone somewhere has to make the decision on what to censor, and that decision will be shaped by their own opinions and political views. The alternative to freedom of speech is suppression of dissenting views by whoever is the most powerful. If you have a view that the establishment doesn’t like, you cannot celebrate censorship without endangering your own cause.

Civil disobedience and degrees of protest

Please note: The news media and others use the word violence to mean both attacks on people, and attacks on property. I believe this is misleading, and attacks on property should be referred to as vandalism, however when I am talking about what other people have said, I will use the word violence if that is what they used.

On the 26th of March the TUC held the March For The Alternative in protest against government cuts to services. UK Uncut were also active that day, first joining the march, and later as the TUC marchers listened to speeches in Hyde Park they occupied shops in other parts of London. While all this was going on a group of people dressed in black and with covered faces, a tactic known as Black Bloc, broke windows and threw paint bombs at shops and banks, and sprayed anarchy symbols wherever they could. The news coverage has been all about this vandalism and later fights with the police. For more information from people who were there, please read these accounts.

It is important to understand that there were distinct groups at these protests. The TUC and all the associated unions, UK Uncut, and anarcho-syndicalists. There were also various other groups and events such as Turn Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square and Stay for One Day. (In Hyde Park.) Members of UK Uncut are rightly annoyed that the news media and government ministers have repeatedly confused the groups and referred to UK Uncut as violent, blaming the vandalism on them. UK Uncut held an entirely peaceful protest inside Fortnum & Mason, (who are accused of avoiding tax) not damaging anything and even tidying up after themselves. A police officer was recorded on video stating that UK Uncut protesters were “non-violent, sensible.” (02:15 in the video below.)

Diverting slightly for a moment, let me say that the charge of Aggravated Trespass for the Fortnum & Mason occupiers seems very odd. Fortnum & Mason is a privately owned shop, open for business. This gives the public an implied license to enter private property, so on entering, UK Uncut were not trespassing. In this situation a person can only be considered to be trespassing if they are asked to leave. They were not asked to leave, and in fact as the video above shows they were actually prevented from leaving by the police for a while. The charge of aggravated trespass also requires that a person enters the land with the intention of disrupting the normal activity there. In this case, customers were able to continue browsing the shop and even drinking tea. The arrest of 138 peaceful protesters while ignoring most of the people smashing windows is baffling, the lying to them before hand, and their treatment afterwards even more so.

After the march many people including the TUC condemned the vandalism and violence, and seemingly, all groups that protested separately from the main march. Arguments broke out between different groups that otherwise would be united in opposition to the cuts. People were accused of hijacking the march. Richard Murphy at Tax Research UK said on his blog UK Uncut are right in protesting – but it would have been better not to do so on Saturday, which seems to be the opinion of many union members.  Some members of UK Uncut distanced themselves from black bloc protesters, while others did not. On the 28th of March Lucy Annson, a UK Uncut protester, appeared on Newsnight and refused to condemn the violence at the march. This video is the Newsnight interview.

Following the march MP John McDonnell started Early day motion 1146 stating “That this House congratulates UK Uncut for the role it has played in drawing attention by peaceful demonstrations to tax evasion and avoidance and to the need for firm action to secure tax justice.” It was signed by 27 MPs. During Prime Ministers Questions on the 30th of March David Cameron was asked to comment on UK Uncut. Here is what he said.

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. First of all, we should be absolutely clear that the scenes in central London of property, shops, banks and livelihoods being destroyed were completely and utterly unacceptable. The police should have our full support for the way they policed the march and the action they took. I think that it is important for people to understand that UK Uncut refused to condemn this violence and Opposition Members should remove their names from the early-day motion.

After this statement five MPs withdrew their support for the motion.

A growing number of people are expressing the idea that the anti-cuts movement should have solidarity across all forms of protest. The idea being that you don’t have to support a groups tactics, but if you support their aims then you should not condemn the group either. Early on in this argument the Brighton Solidarity Federation wrote A letter to UK Uncutters from the ‘violent minority’ In it they stated “We think the whole idea of dividing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ protest serves only to legitimise police violence and repression. As we saw on Saturday, repression is not provoked by violent actions, but by effective actions – there is a long history of peaceful pickets and occupations being violently broken up by police, from the Chartists to the Miners Strike.” Vince Cable stated that he would not change policy as a result of protest. He said “No government – coalition, Labour or other – would change its fundamental economic policy simply in response to a demonstration of that kind.” Given this statement many will argue that more drastic tactics are necessary anyway.

This Comment by Kate Belgrave on an article at Liberal Conspiracy gives some insight into this solidarity.

Some of us are aligned to no particular groups and are simply pleased to see protest against cuts breaking out in all shapes and forms. Want to kick in a window? Fine. Join Black Bloc. Want to sit-in and close a bank down? Good – sign up with UKUncut. Want to march with a big group of union members? Excellent. Head out with the TUC. It’s all part of the same thing – an angry reaction to Conservatism. Nobody owns any of it. Nobody has the right to say how protest should look, or what does and doesn’t work, or to try and define the tone. Some of us see the thing as a whole, not as a bunch of competing bits.

Tim Hardy wrote a very interesting article at Beyond Clicktivism: Solidarity Forever. In it he wrote about the Saint Paul Principles. In his words: “These are a set of principles of unity for resisting the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) agreed in February 2008 by those planning to confront the RNC.” These principle are set out below. I agree that these represent an excellent model that all anti-cuts groups would do well to follow.

The principles are:
1. Our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the plans of other groups.
2. The actions and tactics used will be organized to maintain a separation of time or space.
3. Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.
4. We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance, infiltration, disruption and violence. We agree not to assist law enforcement actions against activists and others.

 

Politics, Civil Disobedience, and UK Uncut

A couple of weeks ago I made a big fuss about UK Uncut taking over Vodafone’s World of Difference blogs.  I was very critical of it here on my blog – see UK Uncut triumph over the Vodafone website… but lose my support. (I have actually edited that now to remove a lot of my initial criticism.) For the reasons why I was so critical, have a look at what Tim Hardy said in his response at Beyond Clicktivism in Activism is Serious Business. The main cause of my reaction was the seriousness of the potential offence. Computer crime can have some fairly serious consequences.

But this leads me to an important question: How far can protesters go to make their point? All the famous protests in history, all the ones that made a difference, involved civil disobedience. The American Civil Rights Movement, the Suffragettes, and much that Gandhi achieved involved civil disobedience.

Several issues are raised:

  • How serious is the offence committed for the civil disobedience?
  • What is the threshold of injustice at which civil disobedience becomes justifiable?
  • Should civil disobedience target only unjust laws, or should protesters break other laws to make their point?
  • Can protesters break a law to argue for the imposition of another law?

One of my concerns is the severity of the law breaking. The actions of UK Uncut so far, in occupying shops and banks and refusing to leave, are civil disobedience. The protesters are trespassing once asked to leave by a shop manager. In England, trespass is largely a civil wrong not a criminal offence. To me, that makes it a less serious issue than damage to property or violence against people, which are criminal offences. Although seemingingly trivial, the unauthorised access to Vodafone’s blogs is potentially a breach of the computer misuse act, and therefore a more serious criminal offence. The difference is mainly academic in this case, but what about other more serious law-breaking? How far should it go? I don’t know.

What about deciding when to break the law for a cause? Is there a threshold at which it becomes ethically acceptable to break the law? In 1849 Henry Thoreau said in his essay, Civil Disobedience:

“All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now.
…..
In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”

Many people are opposed to speed limits; they could argue that their speeding is civil disobedience against speed limit laws. Is that acceptable? Some people do not pay their council tax in protest at bad service in emptying their bins. How about that? Should civil disobedience be restricted to protesting against loss of freedom, or only breaches of human rights?

It seems to me that civil disobedience becomes acceptable once a person has found a group of other people that accept it! The larger the group, the more acceptable, perhaps. Obviously there will always be a group of people opposed to these actions, otherwise it wouldn’t be disobedience. When Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man, you can bet that an awful lot of white people thought she was wrong.

Some would argue that the only laws that should be broken by the protesters should be the laws that they are protesting about. This would rule out occupations, refusing to obey police with a section 14 order, and all sorts of other protest methods. I have come to the conclusion that protesters must break other laws to make their point. Although the right to peaceful protest is enshrined in law, the government and the establishment work very hard to make it meaningless. An example being the current protest method allowed by the police: Arrive, march from A to B along routes checked by the police, getting in no ones way, then go home. All innocuous and quiet and not offensive in the slightest. And completely useless for achieving political aims, even when a million people attend. More is needed, but more may be illegal. And so laws must be broken to get results, or even to get noticed by those responsible for the injustice being protested against.

UK Uncut are arguing for a change in the law to clamp down on tax avoiders. Inherent in this argument is a respect for the law – how can anyone argue for large companies to obey a law on paying tax if they themselves do not respect the law? Civil disobedience can only make sense in this context if the laws broken in protest are carefully selected. Go too far, break the wrong law, and the argument will fall apart and public opinion will turn against the protesters.

And so, I have concluded that UK Uncut must break laws to achieve their aims. Since they are not directly protesting against specific unjust laws which they could break in protest, other laws must be broken instead. I think it is important to consider precisely which laws to break very carefully, or risk losing public support. But after much thought on the subject, and despite my initial reaction to their actions, they still have mine.

Further reading

Civil Disobedience – the history of the concept

Civil Disobedience – an essay written by Henry Thoreau in 1849

The Role of Civil Disobedience in Democracy


UK Uncut triumph over the Vodafone website… but lose my support

Earlier today UK Uncut posted their own updates on several blogs belonging to Vodafone. Here’s there press release. I’ve posted screenshots of their twitter stream and their screenshots of the affected websites below.

Haha preparing this e-mischief is fun. We're about 30 minutes away. Stay tuned!We're about to do a little Internet takeover. 12.00. Pass it on.We just hijacked dozens of blogs on Vodafone's flagship CSR site to highlight cuts to charity fundingThe passwords were leaked to us by a lovely World of Difference 'winner' who is angry about Vodafone's £6bn tax dodge

Vodafone blog screenshotVodafone blog screenshot 2

The text of the hijacked website read:

For the last five months, people all over the country have occupied Vodafone’s high street stores in outrage at the company’s £6bn tax dodge.

Today, UK Uncut have occupied this website.

We demand that the government force Vodafone to pay the £6bn in tax it owes the public, in order to prevent the cuts to charities and essential public services.

World of Difference is Vodafone’s flagship Corporate Social Responsibility initiative, designed to project the image of a company that cares about the society it is part of. But Vodafone’s charitable giving pales into insignificance next to their massive tax dodge.

Charities across the country are having funding slashed by up to £5bn by a government that claims there is no alternative the cuts. But Vodafone’s unpaid tax bill on its own could cover every single cut to every single charity.

The cuts are not fair, and there are alternatives, like making corporate tax dodgers pay. Until the government stops these cuts, people will continue to fight.

See you on the high streets.

 

I personally think that this may constitute unauthorised access to a computer system and modification of data. Both are illegal under the Computer Misuse Act 1990. If true, this could earn up to five years in prison.

 

Relevant parts of the Computer Misuse Act

Section 1

A person is guilty of an offence under this section if:

  • he causes a computer to perform any function with intent to secure access to any program or data held in any computer
  • the access he intends to secure is unauthorised; and
  • he knows at the time when he causes the computer to perform the function that that is the case.

Section 3

A person is guilty of an offence under this section if:

  • he does any act which causes an unauthorised modification of the contents of any computer; and
  • at the time when he does the act he has the requisite intent and the requisite knowledge.

Although the password was given to the activists by the authorised user, it was not authorised by the owners of the blog, Vodafone. I personally am not happy with this step. I do not believe that it was necessary to introduce activities that may be a criminal offence at this stage since public opinion appears to be in favour of the UK Uncut message.

Banks, tax, and offsetting losses

The Telegraph today is reporting that Lloyds will not pay corporation tax until profits hit £15bn. This has been met with outrage and taken as a further sign of injustice in favour of the banks. I must disagree. While I think the banks should be held responsible for their actions which crashed the economy, in this case they are not even using loopholes, simply doing what they are meant to do.

So what are the banks actually doing to avoid so much tax? They are offsetting their losses against future profit. Here’s how it works.

Imagine a small business that made a £10,000 profit last year. The tax on profits for a small business is 20% so they will pay £2,000 in tax.

The following year, the recession hits them and so they make a loss of ten thousand pounds. Unfortunately tax doesn’t work in reverse and they don’t get two thousand back from the taxman.

That doesn’t seem fair, does it? Well to balance things up, the rules allow a company to take that ten thousand loss and offset it against profits over the next five years until it is used up.

So, in the 3rd year of our example business, they return to profit and make £5,000. They should be liable to pay £1,000 in tax on that profit. Instead, they offset it against the £10,000 loss and pay no tax. The remaining £5,000 of the loss is carried forward for future years.

Finally, in the fourth year, our business makes £10,000 profit again. The have £5,000 of their loss remaining, and so they pay no tax on the first half of their profits, and they pay the full 20% on the second half of their profits. Their tax for that year is £1,000 instead of £2,000.

Enough about small business, what about the banks?

Lloyds and the other banks are applying exactly the same rules about losses and tax as smaller businesses do. We are outraged because of all the other loopholes that the banks use such as overseas subsidiaries and tax havens, and because we have paid money in to these banks in the form of bailouts to the tune of at least £850bn. ($2.4tn if you believe the BBC, but according to this government document no one really knows.) and yet we are not getting tax in return, and because the banks caused so many of our economic problems in the first place. The public are right to be outraged over banks paying minimal tax on their profits, but in this case the anger has been directed at the wrong thing. (For the record, I am in favour of prosecuting the banks for their actions, and have never been in favour of bailing out the banks. Let them fail.)

That is not to say that the ability to offset loss against future tax is entirely fair though. What if, for example, BP attempted to offset their losses resulting from oil spills against their UK tax? Given the environmental damage that they have inflicted and the strong likelihood that wilful negligence contributed to the failure of their equipment and structure, I am firmly of the opinion that it would not be right for them to offset. There is a good case for restricting the offsetting of losses incurred overseas too. Perhaps we should consider preventing the offsetting of losses incurred as a result of negligence or deliberate policy.

One last question to leave you with. RBS has just paid out £950m in bonuses despite incurring losses of £1.1bn. Should they be allowed to offset that £1.1bn loss against tax next year?

Thanks to Frances Coppola for the discussion which prompted this blog post, and to @Puffles2010 and @ntlk for help in finding the numbers.

In which I talk about abortion and upset everyone

A lot of my friends on twitter have been discussing abortion from a feminist pro-choice point of view. Many of my friends on Facebook have mentioned abortion from a Catholic pro-life point of view and requested that I go and sign petitions or join groups against it. I’ve decided to try and work out what I think, and probably upset all the Christians AND the feminists in one go. This is an emotive subject and it can’t be written about or debate without upsetting someone. I have been assured by several people that they will still be my friend whatever I write here, so I just want to remind them that I have that in writing! If you’re going to be upset by reading opinions, or call me names because of it, don’t read this.

As a thirty-something man I often feel that feminists think I am not allowed to comment on some issues. I comment here as a husband who knows what it is like for his wife to have a pregnancy scare at a bad time, and also as a former Christian, a skeptic and an advocate of science. I am not telling anyone what to believe, and I do not force anyone to change their behaviour because of my opinion on this subject. This is what I think, not what I am telling you to think. So don’t attack me on it.

Unlike the idea parodied in the famous Monty Python song, I don’t believe that every sperm is sacred, nor every egg, and not even every fertilised egg. How can it be, when of thousands of sperm and thousands of eggs, only a very few will meet and fertilise, and of those, most will not implant, and even then, a blastocyst may well not stay attached to the lining of the womb? The logic that says otherwise does not stand up to scrutiny. Accordingly, I have no problem with the morning after pill. (There goes the Christian vote.)

At some point between fertilisation and birth, a fetus becomes a living human being, conscious, and capable of feeling pain. We don’t know at what point that happens. Once you have a baby that can move, kick and feel pain, I think a woman’s choice is no longer relevant. There are two people involved, not just the mother. The baby is a living being, a human, and has human rights. End of story.  (There goes the feminist vote.) I am fairly sure that self awareness and learning to respond to outside stimulus continues long after birth, and so what is the difference in consciousness between a 23.5 week old fetus and a week old baby? That is a genuine question, I’m not trying to evoke emotion to back an argument either way.

Currently the law allows abortion up to 24 weeks through a pregnancy. Some MPs have campaigned for that limit to be reduced to 20 weeks. The earliest known surviving birth is at 21 weeks. I believe that the 24 week limit is political, not based on facts. I’ve heard a fetus described as “just a clump of cells” but I have also seen abortion decscribed as “deliberate procedure of hacking an unborn child to pieces in the womb.”  In reality the development of a baby is a continuum and we do not know enough to be able to pinpoint a change between clump of cells and living baby.

In 2007 the commons science committee investigated the issue. A Guardian report said this:

“A report on the scientific issues surrounding abortion published yesterday by the Commons science and technology select committee finds that survival rates of babies born before 24 weeks are not high enough to warrant cutting the limit.”

I strongly object to that phrase “not high enough to warrant” as I am of the opinion that any possibility of survival from that early means that an abortion could be ending the life of a living being. Ultimately though, I have no more knowledge of when the limit should be than anyone else does.

I accept that abortion is a necessary evil in some cases. UK law currently allows an abortion to take place later than 24 weeks in certain circumstances:

  • if it is necessary to save the woman’s life
  • to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman
  • if there is substantial risk that if the child were born, it would suffer from physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.

I think those are a good guideline for when an abortion should happen at all, not just when a late abortion is allowed. I don’t like the idea of aborting a baby because of detected illneses, but I can live with that. I certainly don’t like the idea of ending pregnancy for other reasons such as finance, career, or just not wanting to be a parent. I honestly don’t know what I think in the case of rape.

However, and this is important, where I have said that I don’t like it, that is my opinion and I do not have any right to force that on anyone else and so I won’t.

Soph Warnes has put up a very insightful response with lots of links to more information on her blog.

Barclays claim they comply with spirit of tax law

This statement from Barclays was read out on BBC news at 11:23am

“We comply with taxation laws in the UK and in all the countries where we do business – both in the spirit and the letter. In 2010 the group paid over £2.8bn in taxes in the UK and we’ve signed up to the government’s code of practice on taxation.”

Read this Guardian article for details of accusations that Barclays paid only 1% tax on profits of £11.6bn.

UK Uncut are out in force today holding a “bail in” at branches of Barclays bank across the UK.

For live photo updates from Barclays protests, follow these photo streams.

http://www.yfrog.com/froggy.php?username=UKuncut

http://www.yfrog.com/froggy.php?username=MissEllieMae

http://twitpic.com/photos/UKuncut

http://plixi.com/8333076

http://www.yfrog.com/froggy.php?username=directreaction

http://www.demotix.com/news/596509/ukuncut-protest-occupy-banks-londons-west-end

Do we live in a police state? (Short version)

The words “Police State” are thrown about a lot. People often say that we live in a police state. Others, myself included, would say that we are certainly headed that way. But what do the words actually mean? Well here is what the dictionary says about it:

Police State: A political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures. (From the Merriam-Webster dictionary.)

So do we live in a police state? Lets look at some evidence. I made a long list of areas that the government, past and present, has been very authoritarian about. Some in particular stood out to me as indicative of a police state.


A poster used in London in 2002

Social and economic interference

In addition to all the examples of government control of political life which I have already detailed, there are also the economic and social factors. Our government is very keen to change the way that the public behave through the use of tax. In particular they use this method on petrol and other fuels, on alcoholic drinks and cigarettes. They also plan to introduce a charge to couples that make use of the Child Support Agency when splitting up. Since there often is no choice but to go through the CSA this amounts to a tax on splitting up in the eyes of many and is seen as a government attempt to make people stay married. There has in the past been a married couples tax allowance which some see as doing a similar job. The government is also known to use Nudge Theory to try to change our behaviour. They also want to censor our internet connections by default to remove pornography. (Extreme pornography was made illegal in 2009.) Some of these things are specific to a Conservative government, but most of them apply to all governments that we have had.

When I wrote down this list I was staggered by the length of it. I had expected a few minor items, not this many. The examples on this list add up to our rights being systematically abused and removed for the benefit of those in power and those who chose to serve them, and to force on all a moral code accepted by only some. Surprisingly, in light of all that I have detailed here I do not think that we have a police state yet, but we do have a highly authoritarian legacy of laws from the last government and the current government does not look to be changing much of it.

So what does a full-blown police state actually look like if we don’t have one? Belarus is probably the most horrific example from recent months. When Lukashenko appeared to have won the last election the people were not happy. There were riots outside parliament. The police shot and beat up rioters. Then they arrested all of the opposition leaders and all the protesters. They tracked down people that were there by taking location information from the mobile phone networks. Even the children of opposition leaders were not safe and one child was taken away from family by the government. That is how bad a police state can get. More info: Link 1 Link 2 Link 3

We are not in a situation like that of Belarus, nor is it likely to happen any time soon. Nevertheless, we should be wary of this slow-but-increasing erosion of our rights and civil liberties. Through the last decade the public has been encouraged to be afraid of “terrorists” so that governments may pass whatever laws they want for their own convenience. This masks the cancellation, selling off and privatisation of our public services. It seems that many people in our society actually want this level of authoritarian control from their government and with the level of governmental and police control, we could very easily cross the line into a police state. We must stamp it out now before that happens.

This article is also available in a longer version.

A sense of entitlement

This headline annoyed me. “Gaming industry lose ‘billions’ to chipped consoles

Big business and media companies frequently complain that piracy loses them vast amounts of revenue, a cry which all too often is swallowed up by the news media and wheeled out as headlines.

It’s rubbish.

Copyright violation (call it by the proper name please) costs businesses nothing like the amount that they claim it does. So what if copying a game, film, song or piece of software gives nothing to the creator at that point? In the vast majority of cases the person that copied something was never going to give the publisher any money. They either would have gone for a cheaper alternative, or they would not have paid for anything at all.

This idea that a copyright holder is losing out comes as part of a larger sense of entitlement that seems only to be held by rich people. When they see something getting popular, making money or not, they think that they ought to be getting some money out of it. This happens even when they had nothing to do with it!

There is a very strong argument that people that copy things actually generate extra income for the copyright holders. People that download a lot of music and video tend to purchase more music and video than those that don’t. People that copy software often then recommend that other people get, and usually pay for, that software, or may use a copy at home but pay for a version for work.  Photoshop is a common example of that. I’m sure Microsoft is quite happy when teenagers and students copy Windows and various development tools, because it means that they learn on those systems, and later go on to purchase and recommend those systems later in life. Microsoft has even been known to give away copies of these things to students at university in order to hook them.

Patent trolls are another example of this inflated sense of entitlement. There are companies that exist purely to gather up patents and copyrights purchased at low prices, wait until someone builds a business on principles affected by those patents but not say anything, then years down the line, suddenly threaten a lawsuit unless that business pays royalties on all of the affected products, past and future.

The concept of net neutrality is needed because of another example. Take the scenario of a person at home watching a Youtube video.  The consumer pays Internet Service Provider, which we will call ISP A. The content provider pays ISP B. Both ISPs link in the middle. In the UK the link up is often at Telehouse in London. Currently, those two ISPs have an agreement to carry all traffic from each other because it balances out. But now, ISP A is demanding money from content provider to transfer information to consumer. If the content provider doesn’t pay, ISP A could slow down their traffic while speeding up that of another content provider that did pay, or worse, just dump their traffic. But hang on, the consumer has already paid their ISP to carry traffic from the content provider! ISP A is effectively taking bribes to sell out their customer.

With internet providers selling out their customers, big businesses using overly broad patents to kill innovation and small business, music copyright holders demanding extra money to use a song that you have already purchased on your MP3 player instead of a CD, and many other examples, be in no doubt that big business and its rich owners are not working in your interests.

How to be an MP: two-faced politics

A few days ago I was bored and joking around with people on Twitter. My thoughts went off on a tangent and I coined some rules on how to be an MP. Here they are.

  1. Always answer a different question to the one that you where asked.
  2. When confronted with a good argument, claim that your policies have not been understood.
  3. Make any promise you like during your election campaign. After election you can claim things have changed.
  4. Choose a political party based on your chances of making it to the top, not on policies.

These aren’t actually rules, of course. They are observations of the way that our politicians behave.

Evading the question

We have all seen and heard politicians evading questions during interviews. Some radio and television presenters have become well known for pressing hard for an answer, but on so many occasions the politician will try to deflect attention away from giving one. The sad thing is that politicians feel that they can’t answer so many questions. I would put it to you that if they are ashamed or afraid to give the public the real answer, then they are doing something wrong. A policy that has to be kept secret is not a policy that belongs in a democracy. Sometimes giving the correct answer can be damaging to a reputation or a policy simply because the public do not have all of the information behind a decision – once again this is a failure to be an open government.

“I’m just misunderstood”

Nick Clegg insulted a lot of people during the recent protests against increased tuition fees by suggesting that they had not read and understood the policy on tuition fees, because otherwise they would agree with him.

“I make just one request of those planning to protest – examine our proposals before taking to the streets. Listen and look before you march and shout.” (From The Guardian)

This tactic of insulting the opposition by suggesting that if they read your policy, or were just a bit cleverer then they would agree, seems to be horribly common.

Promises, promises

The most famous promise broken by a politician has to be Nick Cleggs anti-tuition fee pledge. He won many votes after he and most of the other LibDem parliamentary candidates signed a pledge stating “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament.” When it came to the time to vote, though, he voted for the increase. Being in a coallition does not give an MP a mandate to go back on an absolute promise like that and the LibDems would not have won so much of the vote if the pledge had gone on to say “except if we are in a coallition government.”

David Cameron was asked on many occasions during the last election if the Conservatives would increase VAT. He gave the same answer over and over again. “We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT.” He also said “You could try, as you say, to put it on VAT, sales tax, but again if you look at the effect of sales tax, it’s very regressive, it hits the poorest the hardest. It does, I absolutely promise you.” It is clear that he knows that VAT hurts the lowest paid. While this is not the same thing as promising not to raise VAT, he mislead people when he said these things.

The promise to get rid of control orders is another one that the LibDems are likely to break. Instead of clearly opposing them, as they promised to do, they are considering various options, non of which are scrapping them. According to the BBC it looks likely that they will be replaced with slightly less restrictive, but still disgustingly illiberal “Surveillance orders” – another name for nearly the same thing.

It’s my party and I’ll change if I want to

MPs switching party in protest does not seem to be uncommon. I find it as baffling as Anglican priests becoming Catholics.

In 2007 Quentin Davies  moved from Conservative to Labour.

In 2004 Jane Griffiths threatened to leave Labour for the Conservatives but didn’t go through with it.

In 2001 Paul Marsden went from Labour to the Liberal Democrats and back again in 2005!

In 1977 Reg Prentice left the Labour party for the Conservatives because Labour had become too left wing.

Just for fun, here is an interesting allegation that Nick Clegg was once a member of the Cambridge University Conservative Association.

Compromise

It seems that no matter what you believe before an election, actually getting into power means compromising your beliefs. Some argue that it is inevitable, but I don’t think it has to be. I think the current system requires a politician to become two-faced, to make promises that they don’t mean or can’t keep. Once in power, hiding the truth from the public becomes imperative. Things have to change.

I will leave you with this quote from Baron Acton (1834–1902).

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”