31 December 2009

What Lies at the Heart of "Avatar"?

If nothing else, "Avatar" is a computational tour-de-force. Here are some details of the kit they used:

It takes a lot of data center horsepower to create the stunning visual effects behind blockbuster movies such as King Kong, X-Men, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and most recently, James Cameron’s $230 million Avatar. Tucked away in Wellington, New Zealand are the facilities where visual effects company Weta Digital renders the imaginary landscapes of Middle Earth and Pandora at a campus of studios, production facilities, soundstages and a purpose-built data center.


The Weta data center got a major hardware refresh and redesign in 2008 and now uses more than 4,000 HP BL2×220c blades (new BL2×220c G6 blades announced last month), 10 Gigabit Ethernet networking gear from Foundry and storage from BluArc and NetApp. The system now occupies spot 193 through 197 in the Top 500 list of the most powerful supercomputers.

Here's info about Weta from the Top500 site:

Site WETA Digital
System Family HP Cluster Platform 3000BL
System Model Cluster Platform 3000 BL 2x220
Computer Cluster Platform 3000 BL2x220, L54xx 2.5 Ghz, GigE
Vendor Hewlett-Packard
Application area Media
Installation Year 2009

Operating System Linux

Oh, look: Linux. Why am I not surprised...?

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30 December 2009

The Wisdom of the Conservatives

I don't have much time for either of the main UK political parties (or many of the others, come to that), but I must give some kudos to the Tories for latching onto an ironic weakness of Labour: its authoritarian hatred of openness. And here the former are at it again, showing the UK government how it should be done:

The Conservatives are today announcing a competition, with a £1million prize, for the best new technology platform that helps people come together to solve the problems that matter to them – whether that’s tackling government waste, designing a local planning strategy, finding the best school or avoiding roadworks.

This online platform will then be used by a future Conservative government to throw open the policy making process to the public, and harness the wisdom of the crowd so that the public can collaborate to improve government policy. For example, a Conservative government would publish all government Green Papers on this platform, so that everyone can have their say on government policies, and feed in their ideas to make them better.

This is in addition to our existing radical commitment to introduce a Public Reading Stage for legislation so that the public can comment on draft bills, and highlight drafting errors or potential improvements.

That said, the following is a bit cheeky:

Harnessing the wisdom of the crowd in this way is a fundamentally Conservative approach, based on the insight that using dispersed information, such as that contained within a market, often leads to better outcomes than centralised and closed systems.

Tories as bastions of the bottom-up approach? Stalin would have been proud of that bit of historical revisionism.

The only remaining question (other than whether the Conservatives will win the forthcoming UK General Election) is whether the software thus produced will be released under an open source licence. I presume so, since this would also be "a fundamentally Conservative approach"....

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What Took Wired So Loongson?

I've been writing about the Loongson chip for three years now. As I've noted several times, this chip is important because (a) it's a home-grown Chinese chip (albeit based on one from MIPS) and (b) Windows doesn't run on it, but GNU/Linux does.

It looks like Wired magazine has finally woken up to the story (better late than never):

Because the Loongson eschews the standard x86 chip architecture, it can’t run the full version of Microsoft Windows without software emulation. To encourage adoption of the processor, the Institute of Computing Technology is adapting everything from Java to OpenOffice for the Loongson chip and releasing it all under a free software license. Lemote positions its netbook as the only computer in the world with nothing but free software, right down to the BIOS burned into the motherboard chip that tells it how to boot up. It’s for this last reason that Richard “GNU/Linux” Stallman, granddaddy of the free software movement, uses a laptop with a Loongson chip.

Because GNU/Linux distros have already been ported to the Loongson chip, neither Java nor OpenOffice.org needs "adapting" so much as recompiling - hardly a challenging task. As for "releasing it all under a free software license", they had no choice.

But at least Wired got it right about the potential impact of the chip:

Loongson could also reshape the global PC business. “Compared to Intel and IBM, we are still in the cradle,” concedes Weiwu Hu, chief architect of the Loongson. But he also notes that China’s enormous domestic demand isn’t the only potential market for his CPU. “I think many other poor countries, such as those in Africa, need low-cost solutions,” he says. Cheap Chinese processors could corner emerging markets in the developing world (and be a perk for the nation’s allies and trade partners).

And that’s just the beginning. “These chips have implications for space exploration, intelligence gathering, industrialization, encryption, and international commerce,” says Tom Halfhill, a senior analyst for Microprocessor Report.


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29 December 2009

The Lost Decades of the UK Web

This is a national disgrace:

New legal powers to allow the British Library to archive millions of websites are to be fast-tracked by ministers after the Guardian exposed long delays in introducing the measures.

The culture minister, Margaret Hodge, is pressing for the faster introduction of powers to allow six major libraries to copy every free website based in the UK as part of their efforts to record Britain's cultural, scientific and political history.

The Guardian reported in October that senior executives at the British Library and National Library of Scotland (NLS) were dismayed at the government's failure to implement the powers in the six years since they were established by an act of parliament in 2003.

The libraries warned that they had now lost millions of pages recording events such as the MPs' expenses scandal, the release of the Lockerbie bomber and the Iraq war, and would lose millions more, because they were not legally empowered to "harvest" these sites.

So, 20 years after Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the technology, and well over a decade after the Web became a mass medium, and the British Library *still* isn't archiving every Web site?

History - assuming we have one - will judge us harshly for this extraordinary UK failure to preserve the key decades of the quintessential technology of our age. It's like burning down a local digital version of the Library of Alexandria, all over again.

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Copyright Infringement: A Modest Proposal

The UK government's Canute-like efforts to stem the tide of online copyright infringement have plumbed new depths, it seems:

Proposals to suspend the internet connections of those who repeatedly share music and films online will leave consumers with a bill for £500 million, ministers have admitted.

The Digital Economy Bill would force internet service providers (ISPs) to send warning letters to anyone caught swapping copyright material illegally, and to suspend or slow the connections of those who refused to stop. ISPs say that such interference with their customers’ connections would add £25 a year to a broadband subscription.

As Mike Masnick points out:

Note, of course, that the music industry itself claims that £200 million worth of music is downloaded in the UK per year (and, of course, that's only "losses" if you use the ridiculous and obviously incorrect calculation that each download is a "lost sale").

So this absurd approach will actually cost far more than it will save, even accepting the grossly-inflated and self-serving figures from the music industry.

Against that background, I have a suggestion.

Given that the UK government seems happy for huge sums of money to be spent on this fool's errand, why not spend it more effectively, in a way that sustains businesses, rather than penalising them, and which actually encourages people not to download copyrighted material from unauthorised sources?

This can be done quite simply: by giving everyone who wants it a free Spotify Premium subscription. These normally cost £120 per year, but buying a national licence for the 10 million families or so who are online would presumably garner a generous discount - say, of 50% - bringing the total price of the scheme to around £600 million, pretty much the expected cost of the current plans.

As I can attest, once you get the Spotify Premium habit, you really don't want to bother with downloading files and managing them: having everything there, in the cloud, nicely organised, is just *so* convenient (well, provided you don't lose your connection). I'm sure that my scheme would lead to falls in the levels of file sharing that the government is looking for; and anyway, it could hardly be worse than the proposals in the Digital Economy bill.

Update: On Twitter, Barbara Cookson suggested a clever tweak to this idea: "absolution for ISPs who include #spotify as part of package". Nice.

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28 December 2009

Making Money by Giving Stuff Away

Open source software is obviously extremely interesting to companies from a utilitarian viewpoint: it means they can reduce costs and – more significantly – decrease their dependence on single suppliers. But there's another reason why businesses should be following the evolution of this field: it offers important lessons about how the economics of a certain class of products is changing.

On Open Enterprise blog.

24 December 2009

ACTA as the (Fool's) "Gold Standard"

I've noted before that at the heart of the ACTA negotiations there is a con-trick being played upon the world: insofar as the mighty ones deign to pass down any crumbs of information to us little people, it is framed in terms of the dangers of counterfeit medicines and the like, and how we are being "protected". But, then, strangely, those counterfeit medicines morph into digital copies of songs - where there is obviously no danger whatsoever - but the same extreme measures are called for.

Unfortunately, the European Union has now joined in the parroting this lie, and is now pushing even harder for ACTA to be implemented:

The European Union appears to be preparing for adoption of the “gold standard” of enforcement, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), as intellectual property law expert Annette Kur from the Max Planck Institute of Intellectual Property, Competition and Tax Law said it is now called.

At a conference of the Swedish EU Presidency on “Enforcement of Intellectual Property with a Special Focus on Trademarks and Patents” on 15-16 December in Stockholm, representatives from EU bodies, member states and industry supported a quick enforcement of ACTA, according to participants. A representative of the Justice, Freedom and Security Directorate General of the European Commission, presented a plan for a quick restart of a legislative process in the EU to harmonise criminal law sanctions in the Community.


Only two members of Parliament attended the conference in Stockholm, which despite its high-level panels was not much publicised by the Swedish presidency. Not even an agenda had been published beforehand

That is, the inner circle of the EU, represented by the EU Presidency, was clearly trying to minimise scrutiny by the European Parliament, which has historically taken a more balanced view of intellectual monopolies and their enforcement. That matters, because:

Under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament would be kept informed of the negotiation process in a manner similar to the Council, a Commission expert said. Furthermore, the ACTA text would be approved both by the Parliament and the Council.

In other words, the European Parliament now has powers that allow it to block things like ACTA, should it so desire. That's obviously a problem for those European politicians used to getting their way without such tiresome democratic obstacles.

Despite this shameful attempt to keep everything behind closed doors, the presentations show that even among those with access to the inner circle there are doubts about ACTA's "gold standard". Here's what the academic Annette Kur said in her presentation [.pdf]:

Using the public concern about serious crimes like fabrication of fake and noxious medicaments as an argument pushing for stronger legislation on IP infringement in general is inappropriate and dangerous

It is dangerous because it obscures the fact that to combat risks for public health is not primarily an IP issue

It is inappropriate because it will typically tend to encourage imbalanced legislation

Similarly Kostas Rossoglou from BEUC, the European Consumers’ Organisation, was deeply worried by the following aspects [.pdf]:

Counterfeiting used as a general term to describe all IPR Infringements and beyond!!!

Broad scope of IPRED Directive – all IPR infringements are presumed to be equally serious!!!

No distinction between commercial piracy and unauthorised use of copyright-protected content by individuals

No clear definition of the notion of “commercial scale”

Things are moving fast on the ACTA front in Europe, with a clear attempt to steamroller this through without scrutiny. This makes it even more vital that we call out those European politicians who try to justify their actions by equating counterfeiting and copyright infringement, and that we continue to demand a more reasoned and balanced approach that takes into account end-users as well as the holders of intellectual monopolies.

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23 December 2009

Coming up with a Copyright Assignment Strategy

One of the deep ironies of the free software world, which is predicated on freedom, is that it effectively requires people to become experts in copyright, an intellectual monopoly that is concerned with restricting freedom. That's because the GNU GPL, and licences that have followed its lead, all use copyright to achieve their aims. At times, though, that clever legal hack can come back to bite you, and nowhere more painfully than in the field of copyright assignment.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Google Opens up – about Google's Opennness

Google could not exist without open source software: licensing costs would be prohibitive if it had based its business on proprietary applications. Moreover, free software gives it the possibility to customise and optimise its code – crucially important in terms of becoming and staying top dog in the highly-competitive search market.

On Open Enterprise blog.

All Hail the Mighty Algorithm

As long-suffering readers of this blog will know, one of the reasons I regard software patents as dangerous is because software consists of algorithms, and algorithms are simply maths. So allowing software patents is essentially allowing patents on pure knowledge.

Against that background, this looks pretty significant:

Industries, particularly high tech, may be waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court decision, expected this coming spring, in the Bilski case to decide some fundamental questions of when you can patent business methods. But in the meantime, there’s a newly published decision from the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences that establishes a new test to determine whether a machine or manufactured article that depends on a mathematical algorithm is patentable. The ruling is a big deal because it’s one of the few precedential decisions that the BPAI issues in a given year, and it will have a direct impact on patents involving computers and software.

For a claimed machine (or article of manufacture) involving a mathematical algorithm,

1. Is the claim limited to a tangible practical application, in which the mathematical algorithm is applied, that results in a real-world use (e.g., “not a mere field-of-use label having no significance”)?
2. Is the claim limited so as to not encompass substantially all practical applications of the mathematical algorithm either “in all fields” of use of the algorithm or even in “only one field?”

If the machine (or article of manufacture) claim fails either prong of the two-part inquiry, then the claim is not directed to patent eligible subject matter.

Now, the devil is in the details, and what impact this has will depend upon its interpretation. But what I find significant is that algorithms are foregrounded: the more people concentrate on this aspect, the harder it will be to justify software patents.

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16 December 2009

Hypocrisy, Thy Name is MPAA

I do love it when copyright maximalist organisations like the MPAA put out statements, because they invariably put their foot in it too. This "Testimony of Dan Glickman Chairman and CEO Motion Picture Association of America" is no exception. Here's a plum [.pdf]:

While not a Free Trade Agreement, the US motion picture industry – producers, studios and guilds -- has a keen interest in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), in particular the provisions to address Internet piracy. We firmly believe that for the ACTA to address the enforcement challenges our industry confronts today, it MUST include robust protections for intellectual property online. Practical secondary liability regimes for online infringement are essential to motivate stakeholders to cooperate in implementing the reasonable practices that promote legitimate consumer options and make the online marketplace less hospitable for infringers. ACTA parties should refine their secondary liability regimes to reflect current realities and adopt modern, flexible systems where they do not exist.

What the MPAA wants is for ISPs, for example, to change their businesses "to reflect current realities and adopt modern, flexible systems where they do not exist": how strange, then, that the MPAA is not prepared to do the same by working according to the new digital rules instead of clinging to the old analogue ones...

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EC Says OK to MS IE Deal: How Much of a Win?

Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Competition Policy, had some news this morning:

Today is an important day for internet users in Europe. Today, the Commission has resolved a serious competition concern in a key market for the development of the internet, namely the market for web browsers. Now - for the first time in over a decade - Internet users in Europe will have an effective and unbiased choice between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and competing web browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari and Opera....

On Open Enterprise blog.

15 December 2009

SFLC Gets Busy Around BusyBox

Contrary to some public perceptions, the Free Software Foundation is not keen on litigating against those who fail to respect the terms of the GNU GPL. Here's what Eben Moglen, very much the legal brains behind the organisation, told me a decade ago....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Australia Edges Us Towards the Digital Dark Ages

Last week, on my opendotdotdot blog, I was praising the Australian government for its moves to open up its data. I was rapidly – and rightly – taken to task in the comments for failing to mention that government's efforts to impose direct, low-level censorship on the country's Internet feed.

Although I was aware of these moves, I wasn't quite up to date on their progress. It seems that things have moved far and fast...

On Open Enterprise blog.

14 December 2009

Canadians *Do* Have a Sense of Humour

Want a good laugh?

One hour ago, a spoof press release targeted Canada in order to generate hurtful rumors and mislead the Conference of Parties on Canada's positions on climate change, and to damage Canada's standing with the international business community.

The release, from "press@enviro-canada.ca," alleges Canada's acceptance of unrealistic emissions-reduction targets, as well as a so-called "Climate Debt Mechanism," a bilateral agreement between Canada and Africa to furnish that continent with enormous sums in "reparation" for climate damage and to "offset" adaptation.

Of course, everyone should have known that Canada wouldn't do anything like accept massive emission reduction targets, or agree to reparations. No, this is what it *really* has in mind:

Today as always, Canada's binding responsibility is to supply the world - including its burgeoning developing portion - with those means of transport, health, and sustenance that prosperous markets require. Stopping short of these dictates would violate the very principles upon which our nations were founded, and endanger our very development.

As you will note, there's nothing here about that tiresome need to minimise climate change, it's all about "prosperous markets", yeah. Indeed:

Canada's current energy policy represents an elegant synthesis of the most advanced science, while remaining faithful to Canada's tradition of political pragmatism. Experts note, for example, that the much-decried oil sands of Alberta, contrary to environmentalists' dire assertions, are enabling Canada to meet ambitious emissions goals by providing her, as well as her neighbors, with the energy resources needed to transition to a cleaner energy future.

Cunning, no? Canada notes how using energy from one of the dirtiest sources, the "much-decried oil sands of Alberta", is in fact absolutely fine because it will allow a transition to a "cleaner energy future". Which means that we can justify *any* kind of energy source, no matter how dirty, provided it makes things better at some ill-specified time in the future.

If we have one, of course. (Via Tristan Nitot.)

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Monsoft or Microsanto?

I and others (notably Roy Schestowitz) have noted the interesting similarities between Microsoft and Monsanto at various levels; but a major new story from the Associated Press makes the parallels even more evident.

For example:

One contract gave an independent seed company deep discounts if the company ensured that Monsanto's products would make up 70 percent of its total corn seed inventory. In its 2004 lawsuit, Syngenta called the discounts part of Monsanto's "scorched earth campaign" to keep Syngenta's new traits out of the market.

This is identical to the approach adopted by Microsoft in offering discounts to PC manufacturers that only offered its products.

Monsanto has followed Microsoft in placing increasing emphasis on patents:

Monsanto was only a niche player in the seed business just 12 years ago. It rose to the top thanks to innovation by its scientists and aggressive use of patent law by its attorneys.

First came the science, when Monsanto in 1996 introduced the world's first commercial strain of genetically engineered soybeans. The Roundup Ready plants were resistant to the herbicide, allowing farmers to spray Roundup whenever they wanted rather than wait until the soybeans had grown enough to withstand the chemical.

The company soon released other genetically altered crops, such as corn plants that produced a natural pesticide to ward off bugs. While Monsanto had blockbuster products, it didn't yet have a big foothold in a seed industry made up of hundreds of companies that supplied farmers.

That's where the legal innovations came in, as Monsanto became among the first to widely patent its genes and gain the right to strictly control how they were used. That control let it spread its technology through licensing agreements, while shaping the marketplace around them.

Monsanto also blocks the use of "open source" genetically-modified organisms:

Back in the 1970s, public universities developed new traits for corn and soybean seeds that made them grow hardy and resist pests. Small seed companies got the traits cheaply and could blend them to breed superior crops without restriction. But the agreements give Monsanto control over mixing multiple biotech traits into crops.

The restrictions even apply to taxpayer-funded researchers.

Roger Boerma, a research professor at the University of Georgia, is developing specialized strains of soybeans that grow well in southeastern states, but his current research is tangled up in such restrictions from Monsanto and its competitors.

"It's made one level of our life incredibly challenging and difficult," Boerma said.

The rules also can restrict research. Boerma halted research on a line of new soybean plants that contain a trait from a Monsanto competitor when he learned that the trait was ineffective unless it could be mixed with Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene.

The result is yet another monoculture:

"We now believe that Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics). This level of control is almost unbelievable," said Neil Harl, agricultural economist at Iowa State University who has studied the seed industry for decades.

The key difference here, of course, is that this is no metaphor, but a *real* monoculture, with all the dangers that this implies.

Fortunately, things seem to be evolving for Monsanto just as they did for Microsoft, with a major anti-trust investigation in the offing:

Monsanto's business strategies and licensing agreements are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and at least two state attorneys general, who are trying to determine if the practices violate U.S. antitrust laws.

Amazingly, David Boies, the lawyer that led the attack on Microsoft during that investigation, is also invovled: he is representing Du Pont, one of Monsanto's rivals concerned about the latter's monopoly power.

Let's just hope that Monsanto becomes the subject of a full anti-trust action, and that the result is more effective than that applied to Microsoft. After all, we're not talking about software here, but the world's food supply, and monopolies - both intellectual and otherwise - are simply morally indefensible when billions of lives are stake.

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13 December 2009

Of Access to Copyright Materials and Blindness

In a way, I suppose we should be grateful that the content industries have decided to dig their heels in over the question of providing more access to copyright materials for the visually impaired. For it leads to revelatory posts like this, which offer an extraordinary glimpse into the twisted, crimped souls of those fighting tooth and nail against the needs of the blind and visually impaired:

the treaty now being proposed would not be compatible with US copyright laws and norms, and would undermine the goal of expanded access that we all share. This overreaching treaty would also harm the rights of authors and other artists, and the incentives necessary for them to create and commercialize their works. We strongly believe improving access for one community should not mean that another loses its rights in the process.

Let's just look at that.

First, in what sense is providing more access to the visually impaired not compatible with US copyright laws? The proponents of this change have gone out of their way to make sure that the access given is within current copyright regimes, which are not serving this huge, disadvantaged constituency properly. And how would it undermine expanded access? It would, manifestly, provide access that is not available now; the publishers have proposed nothing that would address the problem other than saying the system's fine, we don't want to change it.

But the most telling - and frankly, sickening - aspect of this post is the way its author sets up the rights of authors against the rights of those with visual disabilities, as if the latter are little better than those scurvy "pirates" that "steal" copyright material from those poor authors.

In fact, *nothing* is being taken, it's simply that these people wish to enjoy their rights to read as others do - something that has been denied to them by an industry indifferent to their plight. And which author would not be happy to extend the pleasure of reading their works to those cut off from it by virtue of physical disabilities?

If Mark Esper thinks that is an unreasonable, outrageous goal for the visually impaired, and that maximalist copyright trumps all other humanitarian considerations, he is a truly sad human being, and I pity him. He should try looking in the mirror sometime - and be glad that he can, unlike those whose rights he so despises. (Via Jamie Love.)

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11 December 2009

The Future Impact of Openness

The European Commission has released a report [.pdf] with the rather unpromising title "Trends in connectivity technologies and their socio-economic impacts". Despite this, and a rather stodgy academic style, there are a number of interesting points made.

One of the best chapters is called "Projecting the future: Scenarios for tech trend development and impact assessment", which describe three possible future worlds: Borderless, Connecting and Scattered. What's interesting is that Connecting essentially describes a world where openness of all kinds is a major feature. The implications of these kinds of worlds are then examined in detail.

I wouldn't describe it as a gripping read, but there's a huge amount of detail that may be of interest to those pondering on what may be, especially the role of openness there.

Uncommon Meditations on the Commons

It's significant that books about the commons are starting to appear more frequently now. Here's one that came out six months ago:

Who Owns the World? The Rediscovery of the Commons, has now been published by oekom Verlag in Berlin. (The German title is Wem gehört die Welt – Zur Wiederentdeckung der Gemeingüter.) The book is an anthology of essays by a wide range of international authors, including Elinor Ostrom, Richard Stallman, Sunita Narain, Ulrich Steinvorth, Peter Barnes, Oliver Moldenhauer, Pat Mooney and David Bollier.

Unfortunately, its text no longer seems available in English (please correct me if I'm wrong), although there is a version in Spanish [.pdf]. For those of you a little rusty in that tongue, there's a handy review and summary of the book that actually turns into a meditation on some unusual aspects of the commons in its own right. The original, in French, is also available.

Here's the conclusion:

Those who love the commons and reciprocity rightly highlight the risks entailed by their necessary relationships with politics and the State, with money and the market. This caution should not lead them to isolate the commons from the rest of the world, however, or from the reign of the State and market. State and market are not cadavers which can be nailed into a coffin and thrown into the sea. For a very, very long time, they will continue to contaminate or threaten the reciprocal relationships that lie at the heart of the commons, with their cold logic. We can only try to reduce their importance. We must hope that reciprocal relationships will grow in importance with respect to relationships of exchange and of authority.

Worth reading.

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Preserving Patents Before the Planet

I don't think this needs much comment:

The Chamber's Global Intellectual Property Center (GIPC) has been front and center in this debate, and our position is clear: if governments are serious about addressing climate change, and all agree that new technologies are a vital part of the answer, then IP laws and rights need to be protected in any Copenhagen agreement. Indeed, in our view, a Copenhagen Summit with NO mention of IP at all is a successful conclusion. Current international laws and norms are working, and need to be preserved.

Got that? Stuff the environment, we've got to protect the *important* things in life, like intellectual monopolies...

Mandelson's Power to Censor the Net

I and many others have already noted that the proposed Digital Economy Bill gives far too many sweeping powers to the government. According to this detailed analysis, looks like there's one more clause to worry about:

What is the problem with clause 11 that I am getting so alarmed about it? It amends the Communications Act 2003 to insert a new section 124H which would, if passed, give sweeping powers to the Secretary of State. It begins:

(1) The Secretary of State may at any time by order impose a technical obligation on internet service providers if the Secretary of State considers it appropriate in view of—

Pausing there. Note that this says nothing at all about copyright infringement. For example the power could be used to:

* order ISP's to block any web page found on the Internet Watch Foundation's list
* block specific undesireable sites (such as wikileaks)
* block specific kinds of traffic or protocols, such as any form of peer-to-peer
* throttle the bandwidth for particular kinds of serivce or to or from particular websites.

In short, pretty much anything.

And how might that be used?

The definition of a "technical obligation" and "technical measure" are inserted by clause 10:

A "technical obligation", in relation to an internet service provider, is an obligation for the provider to take a technical measure against particular subscribers to its service.

A "technical measure" is a measure that— (a) limits the speed or other capacity of the service provided to a subscriber; (b) prevents a subscriber from using the service to gain access to particular material, or limits such use; (c) suspends the service provided to a subscriber; or (d) limits the service provided to a subscriber in another way.

As you can see blocking wikileaks is simply a matter of applying a technical measure against all subscribers of any ISP.

Hidden away inside the Bill, there's unlimited - and arbitrary - censorship of any site the Secretary of State takes against:

Surely something must limit this power you ask? It seems not. The Secretary of State may make an order if "he considers it appropriate" in view of:

(a) an assessment carried out or steps taken by OFCOM under section 124G; or (b) any other consideration.

Where "any other consideration" could be anything. To their credit the Tories do seem to have realised that this particular alternative is overly permissive. Lord Howard of Rising and Lord de Mauley have proposed (in the first tranche of amendments proposed that the "or" be replaced by an "and".

What astonishes me is that there is no obligation for the Secretary of STate to even publish such an order, let alone subject it to the scrutiny of Parliament, yet he could fundamentally change the way the internet operates using it. Other orders made under other parts of the Bill will have to be made by statutory instrument and most will require Parliamentary approval. Not this one.

If this goes through, we are in deep trouble, people....

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Visualising Open Data

One of the heartening trends in openness recently has been the increasing, if belated, release of non-personal government data around the world. Even the UK is waking up to the fact that transparency is not just good democracy, but is good economics too, since it can stimulate all kinds of innovation based on mashups of the underlying data.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the more such data we have, the harder it is to understand what it means. Fortunately, there is a well-developed branch of computing that tries to deal with this problem: visualisation. That is, turning the reams of ungraspable numbers into striking images that can be taken in at a glance.

Of course, the problem here is that someone has to spend time and effort taking the numbers and turning them into useful visualisations. Enter the Open Knowledge Foundation, which today launches the self-explanatory site “Where Does My Money Go? - analysing and Visualising UK Public Spending” (disclaimer: I have recently joined the OKFN's Advisory Board, but had nothing to do with this latest project.)

Here's what the press release has to say about the new site:

Now more than ever, UK taxpayers will be wondering where public funds are being spent - not least because of the long shadow cast by the financial crisis and last week’s announcements of an estimated £850 billion price tag for bailing out UK banks. Yesterday’s pre-budget report also raises questions about spending cutbacks and how public money is being allocated across different key areas.

However, closing the loop between ordinary citizens and the paper-trail of government receipts is no mean feat. Relevant documents and datasets are scattered around numerous government websites - and, once located, spending figures often require background knowledge to interpret and can be hard put into context. In the UK there is no equivalent to the US Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which requires official bodies to publish figures on spending in a single place. There were proposals for similar legislation in 2007, but these were never approved.

On Friday 11th December the Open Knowledge Foundation will launch a free interactive online tool for showing where UK public spending goes. The Where Does My Money Go? project allows the public to explore data on UK public spending over the past 6 years in an intuitive way using an array of maps, timelines and graphs. By means of the tool, anyone can make sense of information on public spending in ways which were not previously possible.

There's currently a prototype, and a list of the datasets currently analysed available as a Google Docs spreadsheet. There are some really cool interactive visualisations, but I can't point you to any of them because they are hidden within a Flash-based black box – one of the big problems with this benighted technology. Once HTML5 is finalised it will presumably be possible to move everything to this open format, which would be rather more appropriate for a site dedicated to open data.

That notwithstanding, it's great to see the flood of information being tamed in this way; I hope it's the forerunner of many more like it (other than its dependence on Flash, of course) as governments around the world continue to release more of their data hoards. Meanwhile, do take it for a spin and pass on any suggestions you have that might improve it.

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10 December 2009

Why Does Amazon Want to Be Evil?

I like Amazon's services. Indeed, judging by the amount I spend with the company, I'm probably a suitable case for treatment for Amazon addiction (whatever you do, don't sign up for Amazon Prime, which makes getting stuff *far* too easy).

And yet despite the fact that it offers an incredible service, Amazon seems hell-bent on proving that it is not a cuddly new-style company, but just as rapacious and obsessed with "owning" commonplace ideas as all the bad old ones.

Specifically, it is *still* trying to get a European patent on things that are both obvious and manifestly just business methods, neither of which can be patented in Europe:

The Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office (EPO) has recently heard an appeal against revocation of one of Amazon's "one-click" patents following opposition proceedings. The Board of Appeal found that the decision to revoke the patent should be set aside and that the patent should be returned to the opposition division for further consideration of an alternative set of claims.

Here's that brilliant "invention" that Amazon is so keen to claim as its very own:

The particular patent in issue is concerned with allowing a first individual to send a gift to a second individual when the first individual knows only the second individual's email address but not their postal address.

Wow, you can tell that Jeff Bezos and his crew are geniuses of Newtonian proportions from the fact that they were able to conceive such a stunningly original idea as that.

Undettered by its rejection, Amazon is now trying an even more pathetic track:

The Appeal Board decided that revocation of the patent as granted was correct, but that more limited claims relating to details of technical implementation of the invention should be considered further.

That is, having failed to patent the idea itself, it is now trying to claim that a "computer implementation" of the idea is patentable - as if implementing an obvious, trivial idea in a computer stops it from being obvious and trivial.

*Shame* on you, Amazon.

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UK Data Retention Double Standards

As we know, the UK government intends to force UK ISPs to store vast amounts of data about our online activities. The idea that this might be an undue burden is dismissed out of hand. But what do we now read about using intercept evidence in court?

Lord Carlile said the long-term aim was to introduce intercept evidence, but the circumstances were not yet right.

"Before intercept evidence can be useful in court it has to be able to satisfy two broad tests," he said. "It has to be legally viable and it has to be practically viable.

"I suspect that [the government] may well say that neither of those broad tests have been met."

He said that under European human rights law all material intercepted during the course of an inquiry would have to be available at trial, possibly several years later.

The practical means to electronically store that much data did not currently exist, he said.

Obviously the government's intercept data is special heavy *pixie* data that can't be stored on ordinary technology in the same way that the terabytes of *ordinary* ISP data can...

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09 December 2009

Is EU Parroting the ACTA Lie?

I've written several times about the trick that ACTA uses to blur the distinction between large-scale, criminal counterfeiting, and domestic, personal copyright infringement. Sadly, the EU seems to be following the same script:

In Europe, counterfeiting and piracy have a dramatic and damaging effect on business and they have the potential to become even more problematical due to the recent economic downturn and the growing range of fake products being sold. While luxury goods, fashion, music and film products have traditionally been targeted, today counterfeiting and piracy affect a wider variety of mass consumption goods such as foodstuffs, cosmetics, hygiene products, spare parts for cars, toys and various types of technical or electrical equipment. In particular, the increase in fake medicinesis of growing concern.

IPR infringements cause widespread economic harm and an increasing number of counterfeit products now pose a real threat to consumer health and safety. It is therefore in the interest of stakeholders and consumers alike to have a responsive enforcement system which is robust, proportionate and fair.

Notice how "piracy", which presumably includes file-sharing, morphs into counterfeit products that "pose a real threat to consumer health and safety" - not to mention that weasel word "proportionate"?

As La Quadrature du Net points out:

The communication calls for so-called “voluntary agreements” between rights holders and ISPs in order to fight filesharing, without prescribing the practical measures that could be implemented through such agreements. We know however that the Commission has held several meetings in the past few months with representatives of both rights holders and ISPs. Also, it seems that the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreeement (ACTA) currently negotiated at the international level could provide a basis for the strategy the Commission calls for in the communication.

All-in-all, worrying stuff that we need to keep a close eye on.

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From Open Source to Open Hardware

This column mainly talks about open source software, for the simple reason that code dominates the world of openness. But open source hardware does exist, albeit in a very early, rudimentary form. Last Friday, I went along to NESTA for what was billed as an “Open Hardware Camp”. Fortunately, I didn't see any tents, since that's not really my kind of thing; what I did see was a huge amount of enthusiasm, and some interesting hints of things to come...

On Open Enterprise blog.

08 December 2009

Nothing to See Here, Absolutely Nothing At All...

As we all now know, Climate Change is fake. Sure the precarious resource and geo-political struggle fossil fuels continues to place us in are clearly real but instead of investing in clean alternatives, we should continue to destroy and re-build nations half way around the world. That’s a much cheaper and more productive alternative than investing in our own infrastructure and innovating our way out of the very real logistical and foreign-policy problems we’ve created for ourselves.

Speaking of cost, we can’t afford to save the planet or invest in our future. That could hurt the economy and we can’t risk that. We can just switch planets or go back in time when the planet dies. At least the economy will be safe though. There’s no possible way that comparing the needs of the economy to the whole planet is a false dichotomy. Sure, the economy depends on the fact that our world remains as it is today – No mass migrations due to new extreme climates. No real shortage of energy. No resulting wars (well, not too many anyway). Land to grow things. The status quo is the most likely future scenario right?

To my shame, I fell, hook, line and sinker, for the first paragraph of this hilarious piece...

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Intellectual Monopolists Scorn the Blind

The ever-vigilant James Love pointed to this fascinating submission from the UK's venerable Royal National Institute of the Blind [.pdf]:

Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is the UK's leading charity offering information, support and advice to over two million people with sight loss.


Even in the wealthiest markets, less than 5 percent of published books are made accessible in formats that reading disabled people can use. In many developing countries the figure drops to one per cent. We call this a “book famine”.


In theory, reading disabled people can read any book a non-reading disabled person can read, thanks to so-called “accessible formats”. These formats do not change the content of a work, but rather the way in which the person reading accesses it. They include large print audio, Daisy [http://www.daisy.org/] and braille.


What is certain is that the market has failed to deliver anything like this ideal scenario, despite the best efforts over many years of campaigning organisations like ours and of some examples of “best practice” from publishers.

The five per cent figure shows that mainstream publishing, which quite legitimately exists to make a profit, has not catered for the “reading disabled market” to any significant extent. To hope therefore that “market forces” will resolve the book famine problem would be to put faith in a tried and thus far failed model.

This, then, is the reality of "modern" copyright: it fails to serve huge numbers of people, many of whom are already suffering from discrimination in other ways.

Given this situation, various organisations are not unreasonably trying to facilitate access to copyrighted works for those who are visually disabled with a new WIPO treaty that would define basic rights for this group. Who could object to such a humanitarian cause? Well, the publishers, of course.

The RNIB explores the reasons for this:

At WIPO, broadly speaking, rights holders and some Member States maintain that the solution can be found entirely through the use of voluntary, cooperative measures between rights holders and members of the reading disabled community. They therefore “back” the WIPO Stakeholder Platform and oppose the treaty proposal.


A worldly observer might therefore suggest that opposition to a treaty stems more from a dislike of any kind of exception to copyright, than from a conviction that a treaty would not help increase access to books.

A worldly observer might indeed - just as an equally wordly observer might suggest that publishers don't give a damn about those with visual impairments, and are prepared to fight tooth nail against even the blind to preserve their intellectual monopolies.

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07 December 2009

Publisher, Know Thyself

If it weren't sad - and serious - this would be hilarious:

Springer, which publishes the biggest daily in Europe, the tabloid Bild, as well as other newspapers in Germany and Eastern Europe, says it wants publishers to get paid for their work on the Internet, at a time when many people assume that online news should be free.

“The meta-philosophy of free — we should get rid of this philosophy,” said Christoph Keese, Springer’s head of public affairs and an architect of its online strategy. “A highly industrialized world cannot survive on rumors. It needs quality journalism, and that costs money.”

OK, that sounds fair. So what exactly had Herr Keese in mind?

What kind of content would come at a cost? Any “noncommodity journalism,” Mr. Keese said, citing pictures of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy cavorting poolside with models at his villa in Sardinia — published this year by the Spanish daily El País — as an example.

“How much would people pay for that? Surely €5,” he said.

Er, no comment.

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Microsoft Gets in on the ACTA

The other day I was writing about the great digital bait and switch:

Counterfeiting morphed into copyright infringement


there's clearly a collateral campaign underway to support ACTA by hammering on the wickedness of counterfeiting - allowing the bait and switch game to be played again.

Now it looks like Microsoft is joining in:

a common tactic of intellectual property holders is to blur the distinction between counterfeit and pirated goods (and even legal generic goods, in the case of the pharmaceutical industry). Microsoft's press release exemplifies this, talking about "counterfeit Microsoft software purchased at resellers" and the "black market for pirated software" as if the two were synonymous. In fact, most consumers who obtain pirated goods on the black market realise that they are not original. Whilst Consumers International discourages consumers from using pirated goods, in many countries they have little choice, because originals are either unavailable or are priced far beyond their means.

The post, from Consumers International, also points out:

there is a strong argument that copyright protection of computer software is skewed against the interests of consumers. In most countries computer software is protected for between 50 to 70 years after publication - so for example Windows 95 will not become free to copy until at least 2045. Even after the copyright expires, it may be impossible to make a copy due to technological restrictions (which, in many countries, are illegal to bypass). Assuming that you can make a copy, you still won't have access to the original source code that was used to create the software - which means that it can't be used as a building block for new works in the same same way as public domaini music or literature.

It also offers a solution to this state of affairs:

So if copyright on computer software is unbalanced against the interests of consumers, but if Consumers International does not advocate the use of pirated copies, how can consumers around the world have access to safe and high quality computer software? One option that many consumers around the world have found useful is the use of free and open source software.

Great to see people connecting the dots.

Why the UK's “Smarter Government” Plan is Not So Clever

There's no doubt that the area outside computing where the ideas underlying open source are being applied most rapidly and most successfully is that of open government. Alongside the US, which is has made great strides in this area, Australia, too, has caught the transparency bug. So what about Blighty?

On Open Enterprise blog.

Declaration of Open Government by Australia

The Australian government is emerging as one of the leaders in the sphere of open government. It has now published a draft report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, entitled "Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0" (hmm, not quite sure about that phraseology). Here's the central recommendation:

A Declaration of Open Government by the Australian Government

Accompanying the Government’s announcement of its policy response to this report, the Australian Government should make a Declaration on Open Government, stating that:

* Public sector information is a national resource and that releasing as much of it on as permissive terms as possible will maximise its economic, social value to Australians and reinforce its contribution to a healthy democracy;

* Using technology to increase collaboration in making policy and providing service will help achieve a more consultative, participatory and transparent government;

* Online engagement by public servants involving robust professional discussion, as part of their duties and/or as private citizens, benefits their agencies, their professional development, those with whom they are engaged and the Australian public. This engagement should be enabled and encouraged;

* The fulfilment of the above at all levels of government is integral to the Government’s objectives including public sector reform, innovation and utilising the national investment in broadband to achieve an informed, connected and democratic community.

What's interesting is that in addition to this strong central declaration in favour of openness, the draft report is peppered throughout with references to "open source"; indeed, the whole thing is permeated by its spirit - which is probably why it is such an inspiring document. Let's hope that other governments are indeed inspired by it, and come out with something similar themselves.

Update: As people in the comments have rightly reminded me, this plan to open up some data is rather negated by the Australian government's moves to censor massively the Internet. Interestingly this schizophrenia mirrors almost exactly that of the UK government.

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03 December 2009

US ACTA Official Squirms, Talks Drivel

Great work by James Love here:

After attending the three day WTO Ministerial meeting in Geneva, I took the non-stop United Airlines Flight back to Washington, DC. On the airplane were a number of U.S. government officials including the head of USTR, Ambassador Ron Kirk. I had a chance to talk to Kirk about the secrecy of the ACTA agreement. He said the ACTA text would be made public, “when it is finished.” I told him it that was too late, and the public wanted the text out now, before it is too late to influence anything.

Kirk said he was aware there were those that wanted the text public, but the issue of transparency was “about as complicated as it can get,” and they didn't want people “walking away from the table,” which would likely happen if the text was public, he said.

*Who* exactly would walk away from the table? Why on earth would they do such a thing if there's nothing to hide, and the treaty will be made public anyway? This answer is pure and utter drivel - evidently the weak best that he could come up with after being put on the spot by the quick-thinking Love.

It basically amounts to each delegation trying to suggest that while *they* are in favour of opening up, the other delegations would go bananas, and so, regretfully, everything remains shrouded in secrecy. It's a kind of sick variant of the prisoner's dilemma, as implemented by and for self-serving delegations.

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RSS Feed for All Comments for Opendotdotdot

After some prodding by a reader (thanks Rob), I've finally switched on the RSS feed for *all* comments, not just on a per-story basis, for anyone who might want such a thing.

You can find it in the top right-hand corner of the main page at http://opendotdotdot.blogspot.com/.

The Great Digital Bait and Switch

One of the (many) things that get my goat about ACTA is the sheer dishonesty of the project. It was originally put forward as aiming to curb large-scale counterfeiting - hence its name, Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.

It was sold as only going for the "big fish", with promises that ordinary people wouldn't be inconvenienced. In fact, it was purely for their benefit, its proponents explained, since one of the most heinous kinds of counterfeiting it attempts to tackle is counterfeit drugs - an undeniable health hazard.

But then something strange happened. Counterfeiting morphed into copyright infringement, and yet all the legal heavy guns aimed at massive, criminal counterfeiting remain, now ranged against little you and me.

What's interesting is that there's clearly a collateral campaign underway to support ACTA by hammering on the wickedness of counterfeiting - allowing the bait and switch game to be played again. Here's an example:

Canada trails far behind the United States, United Kingdom, Japan and France by not enacting tougher laws and penalties for selling imported bogus goods, an anti-counterfietting conference heard yesterday.

Lorne Lipkus, of the Canadian Anti-Counterfeiting Network, said a private members' bill will soon lobby Parliament for expanded copyright laws, seizure rights similar to those that block suspected fake goods entering the U.S., plus heavier sentences for convicted sellers and importers.

The Toronto lawyer and conference organizer estimated Canadian manufacturers lose $20 to $30 billion and thousands of jobs to cheaper knockoffs.

We are warned against "knock-offs": counterfeit goods are clearly knock-offs, but so, in the minds of the media cartel, are unauthorised copies of copyright material. The difference between counterfeit and copyright has been subtly elided. As a result, the solution demanded for this large-scale counterfeiting of goods - clearly *physical* goods - is "expanded copyright law".

Nor is this the only underhand attack. Here's a very poor article in the Wall Street Journal:

The palm-sized Arduino serves as an electronic brain running everything from high schoolers' robots to high-end art installations. But perhaps the oddest thing about the device is the business model behind it.

Plans for the Arduino, a simple microcontroller board, are available online, and anybody may legally use them to build and sell knockoffs.

This, in some ways, is even worse. It's equating the ability to *build* on the work of others, and improve upon it, as another kind of "knock-off". This is not just wrong-headed, but really pernicious, because it implies that open source is little better than counterfeiting.

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Smart Grid, Dumb Government

Now, what could possibly go wrong with this?

The government has announced the results of its consultation with the public and other interested parties on plans for "smart" energy meters to be installed in all British homes and businesses. The most controversial aspects of the devices - the fact that they will effectively allow remote control of a home by energy companies and/or the grid authority - have apparently passed unchallenged.

More specifically:

But this pales into insignificance compared to the more radical ideas. The smart meter is also supposed to enable remote cut off or restoration of supplies - though there has been a row over the cut-off valve which would be required in the case of gas, and the government says it will have another think before deciding on that.

Apart from being able to turn a house off and on remotely, however, the unspecified people who control the "meters" from afar will also have other capabilities. Specifically, the boxes will have "load management capability to deliver demand side management - ability to remotely control electricity load for more sophisticated control of devices in the home".

These are fairly complex operations that will need to be carried out across millions of homes; so, inevitably, the smart meters will be controlled by computers. And, equally inevitably, those computers will be part of the supplier's network, otherwise it wouldn't be possible to monitor and control *them*.

And, of course, those computers controlling the computers will be accessible - and vulnerable - from the Internet. Which means that at some point terrorists will have the perfect way to take down an entire city from the comfort of their own homes on the other side of the world.

Smart thinking, lads. Not.

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02 December 2009

James Hansen: the RMS of Climate Change

Under the rather, er, dramatic headline "Copenhagen climate change talks must fail, says top scientist", we have the following:

In Hansen's view, dealing with climate change allows no room for the compromises that rule the world of elected politics. "This is analogous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill," he said. "On those kind of issues you cannot compromise. You can't say let's reduce slavery, let's find a compromise and reduce it 50% or reduce it 40%."

Wow: someone whose refusal to compromise matches that of RMS. Respect.

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LexPublica: Open Sourcing the Legal Process

Yet more innovation around open source ideas, from an outfit called LexPublica (with a clever URL, too):

There is a crying need for access to legal help. No one can afford lawyers. Individuals, professionals and small businesses can’t afford lawyers. Startups can’t afford lawyers. Big companies with large budgets for legal services struggle to afford lawyers. Even lawyers complain, genuinely, that they can’t afford lawyers.

LexPublica aims to solve this problem by opening up the world of legal knowledge to everyone.

The first practical step we’ll take is to make common contract templates available free of charge. These will include things that many businesses need, such as employment agreements, website development agreements and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs for short). The contract templates will be written in plain language and have supporting guides to help you use them properly.

It's plans are splendidly ambitious - nothing less than to create a global legal commons:

Tackling an enterprise of this magnitude requires an enormous team effort. LexPublica will need to be a global online community of lawyers and non-lawyers working together to create contract templates and informational guides for those templates.

The grand vision is to harness this community effort to create the reference source for contract templates generally, for practical legal information, and beyond that, for all legal knowledge across all areas of law. You might call it a global legal commons.

Think we're crazy? Wikipedia, Linux and other similar projects provide successful and similarly sized examples for us to follow.

And yes, it has a business plan:

There’s a commercial twin to LexPublica, called 8.5x14 (named after legal size paper). It will provide a wide range of commercial services, both for people and businesses who need legal services, and for the lawyers who serve them. These services will be built around LexPublica’s open content and open APIs.

As one example, imagine an online workspace to manage your business’s standard contract templates, your contract negotiations and your dealings with your lawyer. The service is simple contract management, something like the Basecamp project management web service, but for contracts and negotiations.

Wow, exciting stuff. (Via Rory MacDonald.)

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Making Government IT Better - and Open

As I've noted many a time, the UK government has been one of the most backward when it comes to adopting open source solutions.

The fact that over the last few years it has started to make vague noises about doing so shows more that it's realised it looks pretty dumb compared to other governments as a consequence, not that it's serious about things. Indeed, it's still the case that closed-source software dominates government procurement. A leaked copy of the government's IT strategy has the following imaginative attempt to explain why that is...

On Open Enterprise blog.

01 December 2009

Crowdsourcing Tony Blair

This is brilliant:

The former prime minister Tony Blair has received millions of pounds through an unusual mixture of commercial, charitable and religious income streams. Since he stepped down from office in 2007, his financial affairs have been described by observers as "Byzantine" and "opaque". The Guardian is now launching an online competition offering a prize to the person who can shine the brightest light on those financial structures.

Blair has a commercial consultancy, called Tony Blair Associates, plus jobs advising a US bank and a Swiss insurer. He has a multimillion pound book deal. He also has a charity, the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, and another called the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. But much of the income, which includes charitable donations from other sources, has been funnelled through a structure called Windrush Ventures No 3 Limited Partnership. Our contest asks: what is Windrush?

What could be more condign than for a man who frequently manifested his complete contempt for the view of the ordinary voters (Iraq war, anyone?) should have his money-obsessed and vulgar post-PM life investigated by those self-same little people?

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30 November 2009

Estonia's Open Source Shame

Last week I wrote about the curious case of Mr Kallas, vice president of the European Commission. He seemed to have problems with the word “open”, imagining that this meant “unprotected”, judging by his comments. I put this down to some linguistic misunderstanding as a result of the distance of the Estonian language from English, rather than an intentional and wrong-headed attack on openness. Looks like I was wrong....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Harnessing Openness in Higher Education

Surprisingly, perhaps, education was one of the late-comers to the openness party (couldn't be all those fiercely protective academic egos, could it?) Happily, ground is rapidly being made up in areas like open access, open courseware and open educational resources (OER), with a steady stream of important studies looking at how openness can be applied to make education better.

I've not come across the Committee for Economic Development before, but I like their thinking in this new report "Harnessing Openness to Improve Research, Teaching and Learning in Higher Education". Here's a sample from the summary:

We do not expect OER to simply replace more closed, proprietary educational materials which themselves are increasingly becoming digital. And there are many issues that must be addressed if OER is to live up to its potential. OER has been supply driven, with creators posting whatever interests them regardless of how or even whether it is used; to be successful OER must meet the needs of users. We need to know how OER is actually being used, how effective it is, particularly in comparison with existing materials, and what impact it has on learners. We need to rethink our copyright rules to allow increased non-commercial educational uses of copyrighted materials beyond the traditional classroom in order to facilitate the further development of OER. Just as new approaches to sustainability are being developed to support open-source software and open-access scientific journals, we will need to see if there are ways to sustain the development and distribution of free high-quality, academically rigorous, and pedagogically sound OER that take full advantage of its digital nature.

It also shows a good appreciation of one of the key obstacles to openness in education - and elsewhere:

The intellectual property arguments that have been invoked to oppose public-access mandates for government-funded research and the digitization and partial display of the world’s books suggest to us the need to recalibrate our intellectual property rules for the digital age. Intellectual property rules should serve not only those who first create a work (and subsequent rights holders) but should also recognize the needs of users who often are follow-on creators. When the application of existing intellectual property rules appear to regularly have perverse effects — electronic books having text-to-speech capabilities turned off to the detriment of the visually impaired, or university presses, created to increase the accessibility of scholarly materials, invoking copyright protections to have their material removed from the globally accessible Web — it is time to step back and revisit not only the specific applications of the rules but the rules themselves. Given the complexity of these issues, universities should be forceful proponents for greater openness in legislative debates about IP, and should be educating their faculties about their intellectual property rights.

That's truly remarkable given the background of the Committee for Economic Development that is behind the report:

CED is a Trustee-directed organization. CED's Trustees are chairmen, presidents, and senior executives of major American corporations and university presidents. Trustees alone set CED's research agenda, develop policy recommendations, and speak out for their adoption. Unique among U.S. business organizations, CED offers senior executives a nonpolitical forum for exploring critical long-term issues and making an impact on U.S. policy decisions.

CED is proud of its reputation as a group of business and education leaders committed to improving the growth and productivity of the U.S. economy, a freer global trading system, and greater opportunity for all Americans. CED's Trustees understand that business, government, and individuals are jointly responsible for our mutual security and prosperity.

These are clearly not a bunch of sandal-wearing hippies, but a bunch of hard-headed business people who can see the economic case for more openness in education.

The rest of report offers useful potted histories of openness in education, and even broadens out to include transparency - an interesting indication of this rising meme. Overall, well worth reading for those interested in this area.

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Open Source House

One of the central questions this blog tries to answer is to what extent the principles behind open source software can be applied to other fields. One issue that emerges is whether or not the area in question possesses something like underlying source code: if it does, then the open source techniques can generally be applied; if it doesn't, it's much harder (not suprisingly, really.)

One area that seems ripe for open source ideas is architecture, which does indeed possess something close to source code with its blueprints. So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to see things like this:

You are about to witness a quantum leap in design and accessibility of housing in developing countries. The event is the birth of an open source on the web that offers professional designs for affordable, durable, modular and climate-specific houses. The designs are brought in by architects from all over the world and are continually under construction in search of the solutions most suitable to the needs and preferences of the local buyers and future owners of these houses.

We want to make knowledge and creativity in housing accessible to a large group of people and are looking for architects to bring in new ideas. Welcome to Open Source House.

Crucially, the Open Source House project is collaborative, actively soliciting "code" from external contributors:

Discover the OS House platform while becoming an active member

Once inside you'll rapidly get familiar with the intuitive environment we have set for you. By clicking through our 100% sustainable architecture content you'll find ready-to-download designs and information created during our workshops and creative sessions.

This content is our open knowledge database. To keep it growing os-house's platform is currently open to receive any material you have. So, if you have any sketch ideas, drawings or vision on sustainable housing, upload it and share it.

The extent to which these other aspects of open source software practice are implemented is probably a good rough guide as to whether the larger ideas are applicable or not.

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27 November 2009

Time to Abolish the Olympics?

This is incredible:

An American author and broadcaster claims Canadian border officials questioned her about whether she would discuss the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games at a speaking engagement Wednesday evening in Vancouver.


They began to search her notes and computers and those of her two colleagues, Ms. Goodman alleged. They then photographed the journalist and gave her a stipulation to leave the country by Friday night. They were delayed over an hour.

Now, there are two explanations for this. One, is that free speech no longer exists in Canada, which is news to me. I can't imagine even the most zealous border official was really trying *in principle* to restrict Ms Goodman's general right to talk about anything.

The other possibility, seems much more likely: that this was another epiphenomenon of the Olympic trademark insanity, whereby ordinary words are suddenly forbidden to lesser mortals - unless they pay.

In other words, it is precisely the privatisation of language that is used as an analogy for the patenting of algorithms - something so manifestly absurd, that no one would ever do it. Except that in the case of anything touching the Holy Olympics, we are already there.

If it's got to the point where border officials are checking people for "prohibited Olympic words" that they may be about to use without permission, perhaps it's time to call a halt to this corporatisation of language by abolishing the Olympics in their present, hypertrophied form. How about going back to basics: a competition in Olympia, for amateurs, with none of the commercial superstructure that has accrued: just pure sport?

Too much to ask? Yes, probably, until the widespread assumption that intellectual monopolies like copyright, patents and trademarks are in some sense *good* for us, despite all evidence to the contrary, is preceived to be the con-trick it really is.

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Openness as the Foundation for Global Change

What do you do after Inventing the Web? That's not a question most of us have to face, but it is for Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Heading up the World Wide Web Consortium to oversee the Web's development was a natural move, but valuable as its work has been, there's no denying that it has been sidelined somewhat by the rather more vigorous commercial Web activity that's taken place over the last decade.

Moreover, the kind of standards-setting that the W3C is mostly involved with is not exactly game-changing stuff – unlike the Web itself. So the recent announcement of the World Wide Web Foundation, also created by Sir Tim, has a certain logic to it.

Here's that new organisation's “vision”:

On Open Enterprise blog.

26 November 2009

Of Government 2.0, Open Source and Open Data

Great to see this in Australian Senator Kate Lundy's big speech "Government 2.0: co-designing a better democracy":

Open source software as an example of another, often less thought of opportunity for open and transparent government is through the tools we choose to use. Software underpins almost everything we do, whether it be for work, play or creative endeavour. To be able to scrutinise software – to see the human readable instructions and trust it has, if you will – becomes almost a democratic issue, for many in the technology community.


So we consider that the time is now right to build on our record of fairness and achievement and to take further positive action to ensure that Open Source products are fully and fairly considered throughout government IT; to ensure that we specify our requirements and publish our data in terms of Open Standards; and that we seek the same degree of flexibility in our commercial relationships with proprietary software suppliers as are inherent in the open source world.

There's also good stuff on open data:

as has been evident in the US for many years, open access to government data can dramatically increase the value created from the data both socially and economically. This means the society as a whole benefits from access to the data.
Public sector information ought to be available in the public not just to facilitate innovation in the public and private spheres, but to enable individual citizens to make informed choices.

Just to be clear, I am not talking about personal information that we expect to be private and secure. I am talking about general information about the places we live, the environment we live in, the things we do as a society.
A general policy of openness in this area would create a culture of scrutiny and collaboration rather than a culture of secrecy.

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UK Data Retention: the First 70 Years

If you thought retention of communications data was a new habit of the UK government, think again:

What was also new to me is the fact that the British even back then [during the Second World War] demanded that Cable+Wireless provides copies of all telegraphs through their network. And that's some 70-80 years before data retention on communications networks becomes a big topic ;)

Nothing new under the sun...

Who Owns Science? The Manchester Manifesto

One of my heroes, Sir John Sulston, has a piece in the Guardian today with the intriguing headline "How science is shackled by intellectual property":

The myth is that IP rights are as important as our rights in castles, cars and corn oil. IP is supposedly intended to encourage inventors and the investment needed to bring their products to the clinic and marketplace. In reality, patents often suppress invention rather than promote it: drugs are "evergreened" when patents are on the verge of running out – companies buy up the patents of potential rivals in order to prevent them being turned into products. Moreover, the prices charged, especially for pharmaceuticals, are often grossly in excess of those required to cover costs and make reasonable profits.

IP rights are beginning to permeate every area of scientific endeavour. Even in universities, science and innovation, which have already been paid for out of the public purse, are privatised and resold to the public via patents acquired by commercial interests. The drive to commercialise science has overtaken not only applied research but also "blue-skies" research, such that even the pure quest for knowledge is subverted by the need for profit.

Great stuff, but this is actually just a teaser for the launch today of something called rather grandly "The Manchester Manifesto" [.pdf], which states the problem as follows:

It is clear that the dominant existing model of innovation, while serving some necessary purposes for the current operation of innovation, also impedes achievement of core scientific goals in a number of ways. In many cases it restricts access to scientific knowledge and products, thereby limiting the public benefits of science; it can restrict the flow of information, thereby inhibiting the progress of science; and it may hinder innovation through the costly and complicated nature of the system. Limited improvements may be achieved through modification of the current IP system, but consideration of alternative models isurgently required.

Unfortunately, after asking the right questions, the answer that the manifesto comes up with is pretty thin gruel:

We call for further research towards achieving more equitable innovation and enabling greater fulfilment of the goals of science as we see them.

Further research?

Modified and alternative models of innovation have the potential to address problems inherent in the current system. An investigation and evaluation of these models is required in order to determine whether they are likely to be more successful in facilitating the goals of science and innovation identified above, and if so how they may be deployed.

Hey, let's not get too radical, eh?

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25 November 2009

A Proportionate Response to "Proportionate"

There is a nauseating piece of troll-bait in the Guardian today. It's called "My DNA dilemma", and in it Alan Johnson attempts to convince readers he suffers as much as any of us bleeding-heart liberals at the thought of the terrible, terrible sacrifices of freedom we must make for the sake of security.

I won't bother demolishing the rickety edifice of its spin and half-truths, since that has been done expertly elsewhere. Instead, I'd like to concentrate on the key argument of the piece, implicit in its title:

This is a classic home secretary dilemma. It is not a clear-cut choice between liberty and security – between siding with the civil liberties lobby or the forces of law and order. The far less headline-friendly reality is the need to balance all these factors – protecting the public, but in a way that's proportionate to the threat. I believe that the government's proposals do precisely that but I also welcome the debate as a necessary part of implementing such sensitive measures.

There's a tell-tale word in there that I have been tracking for many months as it silently worms its way into public discourse in this country: "proportionate".

It's the ultimate argument-killer when people raise the big issues like liberty to defend themselves from ever-more intrusive "security" legislation - which strangely always turns out to be "surveillance" of the little people like you and me. Yes, it seems to say, you're right, this *is* a tricky one, but we must find a compromise "to balance all these factors", as Alan Johnson puts it. And the way we do that is by making a *proportionate* response.

How could anyone argue with something so reasonable? After all, that's exactly what we all want: a proportionate response that represents a compromise position.

There's just one little problem. As the UK government has shown by its use of this word time and again to justify everything from ID cards and policing to Internet monitoring and DNA databases, what they really mean is: we're going to do what we've said because it's what we've decided. In effect, this use of "proportionate response" is simply shorthand for the tautological "our response", but dressed up in a costume of apparent concession.

If you don't think this is a serious problem, just watch out next time you read or hear a government discussion of why they realise something is a contentious area, and that there are many people who disagree profoundly: I can almost guarantee that at some point they will roll out the "p"-word, and that will be the end of the argument - because if you argue for something else, you are clearly *against* a proportionate solution, and can therefore be dismissed as part of the lunatic fringe.

Because it is such a slippery, weaselly word, I think we need to try to pre-empt these attempts by claiming immediately that *our* solutions are proportionate. Then, when the government inevitably claims the same for theirs, it comes down to a slanging match - which at least makes it clear that there is no "consensus".

The more we point out the UK government's constant invocation of "proportionate" responses to hide a complete refusal to engage with critics - despite Alan Johnson claiming to "welcome the debate" - the sooner it will drop that tactic. It might not start to listen - that would be too much to hope - but at least we will have reduced the verbal undergrowth in which it can hide.

So, please pass it on about the UK government's "proportionate" meme: after all, it's a proportionate response.

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