Monday, 28 May 2012

Cookie law implementation watch

Here's a quick listing of some sites, and how they have implemented the cookie law...the good, the bad and the ugly...

Last updated: 28th May 2012. Tweet your examples to me!

The Good


It gives clear information, clear routes to find out more and set preferences (a pain in the arse to implement for most small businesses, but actually very good for user-control), and an implied consent model that doesn't impact on their long term analytics and functionality (mainly due to the sheer number of page hits will receive).

Royal Bank of Scotland

Clear implied consent messaging, prominently placed. It's not amazing but it does the job, with settings easily accessible to disable cookies on site.


Barclays actually takes this one step further. While their initial messaging could possibly be a little more prominent, the way of interacting to set your cookie options is very clear and user friendly.


On the face of it, not a great implementation, opting for the less obvious "bottom toast" option for highlighting cookie options. However they save themselves well with what looks like a tool that others might be able to use that constantly stays on the page, showing the kind of cookies that are being used and quick access to turn them on or off

The Bad

Political party sites



Lib Dems

Yes, they've made an effort, a tiny little toaster pop up in the bottom right hand corner. But is it enough? In the case of the Lib Dems they follow the implicit consent model to the letter. Zero cookies on site before you continue usage, but with no options other than to change your browser preferences users are left slightly in the dark. The Tories do next best, though in reality the only cookies they seem to use are third party ones...and they let them through regardless. The presumption here seems to be they don't have to worry about third party cookies. They're wrong.

Either way, as with Labour, this messaging feels far from prominent and certainly not aimed at giving users of the site a clear choice or information.

Then you have Labour taking it to another level, setting every cookie under the sun on the presence that simply being on the site gives them permission. This is about the worst kind of implicit consent I can see. Yes they inform, yes they give links to how to cut the cookies out...but allowing all cookies all the time regardless of any user interaction seem, to me, to be stretching the advice of ICO very, very far.


Blink and you'll miss it. Instantly one of the better toaster pop ups hidden at the bottom of the is large and black and shiny looking after disappears after about 30 seconds, if that. No chance to see what it says if you missed it without going and deleting your cookies again. Quite simply someone could open this site amongst a flurry of tab opening and never see this message. Terrible.


At first glance Asda doesn't seem to implement anything to adhere to the law. Scroll to the bottom, however, and you'll see they do! Well, it might be up for debate on whether or not they actually can count as having implemented a consent mechanism here, actually...

The Sun

Marginally better than Asda, this tiny message at the bottom of the page on half faded out black is at least always nestled just out of natural view on the bottom of the window, but you don't have to scroll to see it. It's still a crappy implementation.


Like Asda, an afterthought, but at least styled better. What can I say, I don't believe that this method would stand up to any kind of scrutiny if someone took it to the ICO.

London Stock Exchange

On first inspection this may look like a good implementation, it asks an opt in question...but the reality is that it sets cookies (it tells you it sets analytical ones, not so much letting you know about the advertising based ones) and continues to use them even if you never use the message. Sure, this might be implied consent...but why have the explicit opt in message?!

The Ugly


It adheres exactly to the law, it is the shining example of how to follow the law...yet it is an ugly looking implementation that has already proved to ruin accurate analytical tracking through user indifference. It might be the right thing to do legally, but from a "business case" view, it is just a bit nasty.

All About Cookies

First I thought: "Good on them, making a statement". The prominent pop up really forces the issue in to the open. But then they still let google ads operate in the background, even when the cookie option is set to be restricted. Confusing much? Maybe they're just sticking two fingers up at the legislators while appearing to comply. *shrugs*

The Guardian

It's simple messaging, devoid of a clear opt out, instead relying on telling people that they can change their settings in their browsers. The only reason this doesn't make it in to the "bad" section is it's very clear way of showing what cookies there are on site, and what they are used for.


OK, so Ugly might be the wrong word given how cute they've tried to be (and how little most other ad agencies are bothering!)...but it kind of doesn't do what it's meant to. Like many other examples, a lack of actually letting people know what they're opting in to with a bar that is essentially just an annoyance urging you to press yes just to get it out of the way. It would be a perfect solution before ICO changed it's advice...except that it still sets an advertising cookie (or so it appears) from a third party so the information about cookies on the site is not really accurate.


Barclays and RBS really showed how you can be responsible on this front, on sites where people take their privacy and security a little more seriously as standard. This messaging by HSBC is ok, but it really feels slapped on.

Church of England

Some are preferring this option (see below), most that do so choose this route to make a statement about how ridiculous this law is. However the messaging here, to click a button that doesn't exist. The impression here is that by closing the window you're accepting the cookies, yet with such a window you'd also expect to be able to NOT accept....very poor and muddled design.

The... Absent?

Facebook/Twitter/Google etc.

These sites may be the ones you interact with most on a daily basis. They aren't required to adhere to this law, since they are not "UK based" as far as I can tell. It makes a mockery of the law in itself that UK businesses are having to go out of their way to adhere while there isn't a more "global" agreement. Other top sites viewed in the UK also include Yahoo, MSN...again, all not covered by this law that is far too geographically based for a world wide web.

Number 10

Why? The website of the premier office in the land...and they're technically breaking the law. Sure, they have a link to cookies in a prominent place, but this is 2003 legislation, not 2011 that would require some form of consent!

Money Saving Expert

After a brief tweet earlier I came to understand that the Money Saving Expert team seem to believe that having a link to a page for Cookies on each page, at the bottom amongst other legal links, is enough to adhere to the law. I don't know if this is just oversight, or poor advice, but even under new ICO advice it'd be surprising if this stance would constitute the correct "context" within which it's reasonable to assume a user has given consent.

Just to reitterate how ICO put it, if you roll up someones sleeve in a doctor's surgery and they don't stop you, then you don't have to explicitly ask them if it's ok to take their blood pressure, you can take implied consent since it's clear (from the environment, reason for the visit, and the action) that they would know what you're doing and tell you if they weren't ok with it. Is simply being on a website enough knowledge of how they work to take implied consent? If the law makers believed that users were that clued up then they wouldn't have felt the need to make the law in the first place!

DMA/Assorted digital agencies

The DMA are just an example of really how hostile (or indifferent) those who actually directly interact with this law as part of their profession are to the Cookie law. Look, they have at least 2 or 3 mentions of the Cookie law on their site, yet no adherence! This is the same across many of the top digital agencies in the country. Telling.


Arguably the biggest businesses in the UK, certainly in retail terms...does this mean they care about giving people information about the cookies on their site? Not yet.

Independent/Daily Mail/Express, etc.

I'd expect it of the Daily Mail and Express, sticking it to those EU bastards that are probably only doing this to hit the mail's visitor stats and therefore ad revenue </conspiracy theories> but why can't the Independent get it's act in gear?


So there may be an implementation here on the way, but for now I thought I'd just highlight the above. Essential cookies? According to who? Certainly not the ICO who take the user's view that analytical tracking, A-B testing and CERTAINLY "allow us to reward some external websites for directing you to us", are not "essential" functions for your site!


Quite simply, if the BBC can do it, and the ITV can try and fail to do it, why can't Sky at least have a go at implementing a solution?

The Monarchy

One does not care about cookies, it seems.


I won't bother with screenshots, suffice to say that while other banking groups have pulled their finger out to varying degrees, these have not. You'd think that things like PPI and causing an economic global crisis might make them a little more keen to play ball.

The Law Society

They're the law society. The LAW....SOCIETY...OF LAW... and yet they don't yet follow the rules. Enough said?

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Give prisoners the vote

Prisoners deserve a vote. I believe all of them deserve one, because it is something a civilised and democratic country should encourage. Prisoners that aren't able to vote are a dangerous thing to democracy, since the very existence of a means of stripping someone of their vote leaves the door open for politicians to abuse their position. While we may be a long way off Cameron being the sort of person to form a crack down on left-wing political activists to silence them and weaken their favoured parties, sharing that particular trait with much less democratic countries than our own is nothing to be proud of.

However I am also a realist, and I understand wholeheartedly that the public in their vengeful glory would rather punish a rapist or a murderer in any way possible, even if that includes the rather insignificant matter of them casting a vote. This is why I think it is absolutely right to support that any prisoner who's time of incarceration would be up within the life of the next parliament has the right to vote.

Think about it. If a person is in prison on the day of an election, yet then released the day after, as they have served their time and done their punishment...why is it correct for them to have not had a vote? They will spend every single day under a government, and under an MP, that they had no say is this fair?

Arguably any prisoner who will, at some point, become a free person again...a clean slate to start from...deserves to have a say in how the country is run to help them, as any other member of the public, all the way in to the future...but it's much easier to make the case for the clear interaction that the next government will have on that soon-to-be ex-prisoner's life.

There's really so little to lose, and so much to gain, by doing this. We send a message that the powers that be are not able to silence us for short periods of time, if they ever wished to do so, we give people that are supposed to be rehabilitated and reintroduced in to society as productive members of society the franchise to feel a part of it, and yet we also placate those who simply can't reconcile that a single serious criminal voting for their favoured MP is not going to turn the tide of the country to a dystopian criminal nightmare.

It's time the government stopped digging their heels in here, and I hope the Lib Dems will help soften the ground over the next 6 months. A modern civilised society allows everyone to vote who has a stake in the country, and that includes prisoners...whether it makes you feel uneasy or not.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Taxpayers' Alliance: Why the common person can't trust them

It should be fairly obvious to anyone that has had more than a passing understanding of The TaxPayers' Alliance that they are a "friendly" (not so friendly) front for right wing libertarian ideals.

What does this mean? Essentially they believe that the country would get on a whole lot better if the state did as little as possible, as simply as possible, and on this subject they center around taxation... i.e. people shouldn't really have to pay much of it at all.

They parade around making popular announcements about Petrol Tax and how it should be a lot lower, and it is enough to make some believe that they are interested in the common person on the street, fighting for the little guy against the big government.

They are not. They are greedy bastards headed by former Tories (that thought the Conservatives simply weren't friendly enough to the rich) and Tory sympathisers. They are supported at high levels by the kinds of people that want to see the rich in the country pay less. Their interests are in helping the wealthy get wealthier.

We can see this now fulling in their latest endeavor, the "2020 Tax Commission", named no doubt to fool people in to thinking this is a legitimate, unbiased, and measured set of proposals that are intended to be fair. They are not.

What are they proposing in their long report?

1) A single rate of tax at 30% for all incomes (essentially combining National Insurance and Income tax...while abolishing higher tax rates for higher earners).
2) A tax free allowance of 10k (as per current Lib Dem proposals).
3) A tiny cut in fuel tax of 5p (over 5 years)
4) Remove inheritance tax
5) Remove capital gains tax
6) Remove stamp duty tax
7) Remove stamp taxes on shares
8) Remove air passenger taxes

Well, how does that look for the common person? a 5p cut in fuel might be nice enough, in that it will stabilise prices over time (we certainly wouldn't feel it back in our wallets)...and a slight decrease on taxes for those under the 40 bracket might be favourable (though could be achieved less regressively through high tax allowance limits).

But inheritance tax? Capital gains? Stamp duty? Stamp on shares? Air passenger taxes? These are all taxes that fundamentally affect the rich more than they do the poor. By removing them we are encouraging those with wealth to pay less in to the pot...while at the same time lessening the amount of money everyone pays in* and encouraging more cuts!

If this got implemented, you know what, the TaxPayers' alliance might be may just stimulate job creation, but only to replace the public sector jobs that have to be outsourced to privatised groups to make up the shortfall in funding. This isn't a proposal for a simpler tax system, it's a proposal for the outright destruction of public services in the UK!

*Now I say everyone pays in less, this isn't true. A household with a person earning £200k would be, on these plans, at least £25k better off, as their top tax rate is slashed by almost 50% from 45% plus National Insurance (after Tories cut the 50p tax rate despite public wishes) to just 30%. A two person pensioner household would, if earning enough to go above the personal allowance threshold, see their top tax rate increase by 50% by comparison. If you thought the "Granny Tax" outcries were loud when the balance of policies increased pensioner earnings, wait until anyone tries to pass this doozy through a budget!

The Taxpayers' Alliance, everyone, fighting for high flying businessmen, wealthy families, risky hedge fund market traders, high income earners and bonus receivers...and maybe those that would like fuel prices to steady on for a little while.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Why minimum pricing of alcohol makes no difference to binge drinking bar goers...

Just a quick one here, for future reference.

First of all, as the proposals currently stand, minimum pricing is set to 50p per unit in Scotland, and maybe 45p in the rest of UK/England. This equates to between £1 and £1.50 for a normal pint in a pub, £1.50 for an "alcopop", 50p for a small glass of wine, and £1 for a double spirit mixer.

Those who have been out any time in the last decade will understand how these prices are "dream prices" for the wallet, and well below the real cost of buying a drink in the UK.

Take the real cost of a pint, easily over £3 in the city, or a spirit and mixer, usually around £2.50. With drinks promotions frowned upon when it comes to licensing arrangements, choosing to go out is one that means you know that you're going to spend a certain amount of money.

And this is why minimum alcohol pricing doesn't matter. A bottle of vodka, even with minimum pricing, will cost around £14 if you're going for a bargain. This will, if you are intending to get absolutely drunk of a night out, provide you with the equivalent of 28 vodka mixers for around 23% of the price of doing it out in the bars.

If you have a budget of £10 for drinks, you might say you'll spend £5 out (two drinks) and spend enough time inside to share the bottle with 2 other people. 11 drinks of a night for £10.

What if minimum pricing went up? To maybe 60p? That bottle of Vodka would go up to ~£17. You still have £10 to spend individually, so what's the answer? Simple really, you know a drink will be £2.50 out, so you can get one before you dance, which means you can have more of that bottle of vodka (you'd buy more than one bottle this time, which in itself is a problem) and your total night drinks would be 11-12 drinks before you go out, and then another when you're at the bar/club.

you spend the same, you drink *more*, you still end up going out, the only difference is you go out for less time to mitigate the issue of expense. You know you have to spend more on pre-drinking, but it's still significantly cheaper than the bars, so you just spend more time on the pre-drinks in your home.

Of course as the minimum price goes up, the situation changes. 75p per unit pricing would mean that you would probably, if you wanted to go out and buy a drink out, only get 10 drinks in total... at £1 per unit you're really eating in to that margin, the Vodka would be £28 per bottle, you'd maybe only manage 8 drinks for your £10 that evening...and so on.

As it stands, if anything, the law is potentially going to fuel worse binge drinking...I believe the economics of current levels just stack up to creating enough of a squeeze on how expensive it all is to push people to drink the cheaper booze at home more.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The problem with minimum alcohol pricing

Scotland is set to introduce a 50p minimum price per unit cost on alcohol, it has been reported. It's also a move that some in England are using to suggest that our government should be follow suit sooner than later.

This is a policy that penalises being poor, without targeting the real problem groups when it comes to alcohol abuse.

Key Facts!
  1. Minimum pricing will not affect the price of "premium" or "above standard" brands in the supermarket.
  2. Minimum pricing will not have even a remote effect on the cost of alcohol in pubs and bars.
  3. Minimum pricing will make cheap alcohol more expensive, creating a higher financial threshold for ability to consume alcohol, however responsibly.

These points are important in stressing how much this is a policy that is only targeting the poor. Point 1 shows that those who are more able to buy "nicer" alcohol, branded spirits, more premium blends of cider or ales, are not going to be affected. At a push it will make 16 pint bottles of Magners unable to be sold under £21, an increase of £3 in total on some recent supermarket deals, and making the individual bottle price at around £1.31 a pint, under half the price you would spend on the same drink in a pub or bar.

On that point, relating to point 2, it's clear that pubs and bars already charge so much that there is no chance of them being affected by such a law. Any rhetoric about this policy stopping binge drinking is complete nonsense. Buy one, get one free, double vodka and cokes will still be perfectly legal to sell at no less than £2.

Which leaves us at point 3, that those who can afford to go out bingeing won't have their alcohol drinking lives changed, those who drink "better quality" alcohol won't have their lives the only people that will see a change are those that don't have the funds to do either of those things but still wish to enjoy alcohol, however responsibly that may be.

So that's the "penalises the poor" aspect explained...but what about not targeting the real problem? Does it, as some suggest, strike the right balance between infringing on people's liberties and providing a good barrier to stop the main problem of alcohol abuse?

You may investigate these stats for yourselves, check out the history of Scottish Health Surveys, and English statistics

Let me illustrate the general trends with the 2010 figures from Scotland, which mimic previous years'.

The largest grouping of men that have tried alcohol, are those in a household in the top 20% of incomes in Scotland. The group of men that have most given up alcohol are those in households in the BOTTOM 20% of incomes in Scotland. Those who usually drink either more than the recommended number of units, or binge heavily on one day's drinking, come from households that are (you guessed it) in the top 20% of incomes.

This pattern is slightly different for women, with more women having tried alcohol from households with incomes in the second highest 20%, but otherwise mimics the men's statistics entirely.

In fact let me just put a couple of numbers here...less than half of men that reside in the bottom 60% of households in income terms will usually exceed the recommended advice on alcohol consumption. Men from the households in the top 20% of income? 60% of them usually exceed that advice.

Women are generally better as a whole, but while less than a third of women in the bottom 20% of household income will usually exceed government guidelines, almost half will usually exceed alcohol consumption guidelines from the top 20%.

To be even clearer, just so you see it's not just about household income. Male managers/professional workers that abuse alcohol... 52%. Male small business/routine workers? 46 or 45% And for women, 45% of managerial or professional workers abuse their booze, while only 33-36% of small business/routine workers do.

It's a statistic that has been prevalent in many studies. Before my last blog got destroyed by terrible web hosts (sob), I did a review of health statistics on young people (12-18yo) that showed the same trend you can see in Scotland and England... poor people drink less than rich people, not entirely unexpected given they have less money. More than that, poor people tend to abuse alcohol less than rich people, and where there is a subset of poor people that do abuse particularly excessively, they are a very small minority.

This minimum pricing law may be about raising revenues, it may be about increased tax takings from the increased revenues, it may even be a super cunning way of making sure cheap alcohol becomes less strong (as if the government would have that level of intelligence!). It has also been said that it's a way of encouraging people to go to the pubs...though how adding a relatively small price to cheap vodka will make people go out and more than double their spend in a bar or pub instead, is beyond any logic I can comprehend.

What it is not, even if it is intended, is a way of dealing fairly with the issue of alcohol abuse. When most alcohol abusers are rich or live in affluent households, and your policy does absolutely zero to affect, and therefore dissuade, them from creating a strain on our health're not protecting the NHS, or people's health, you're just discriminating against those in society that have actually been on balance the most responsible, whether enforced through relative poverty or not.

This is illiberalism, and worse it's not even illiberalism that can be argued is going to go any way to dealing with the problem it was created to solve. It's control for the sake of looking in control, to prove popular with a set of busy-body voters that are actually the main cause of the problem themselves.

Edit, November 2012: So now the UK is going to put a consultation forward that includes plans for minimum pricing in the UK. Much, if not all, of what I have said above also applies to England.

Check the stats on alcohol use (pdf), in particular page 40-41. You'll see that as income levels fall frequency of alcohol consumption, and the quantity of alcohol consumption in one "session", falls...the one exception is men, where the economically inactive (retired, students?, carers, incapacitated) have an unusually high occurrence of drinking most days a week. This still isn't large, just larger than those who are similarly unemployed, and compared to the trends in other alcohol consumption stats.

We walk in to these kinds of policies because people believe it's necessary to fix prices so that the poor unemployed around the country are protected from themselves from drinking the devil's juice. The reality is that it's social discrimination without basis. This is the most hurtful kind of "compassion", where we tell the poor that alcohol consumption is only something they can do if they join the ranks of "normal" society and get a job and a wage. Then, of course, you can drink to your heart's (mal)content.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Online Safety Bill (1st draft) Review

There is a new bill out there, ready to be discussed and debated by Parliament, called the Online Safety Bill. This is the bill, that has received a lot of pre-release attention with news reports in the past few weeks, that Tory MP Clare Perry has been pushing for to change how ISPs "filter" out adult material as standard unless requested by the bill-payer.

There are a few things I want to make sure are absolutely clear before I go in to the detail of the Bill.

1) This bill is fundamentally flawed before it even begins as it presumes that by ISPs "filtering" out adult material, such as pornography, that it won't be able to be viewed by children. This is dangerously wrong, if it leads parents to believe that their kids are suddenly safe to roam the net without guidance then it is making the internet less, not more, safe. This is without even going in to the easy to find ways to circumnavigate ISP blocks on adult material.

2) This bill has not come about out of some altruistic and evidence based concern for the kids. It is a bill made by an MP who is presenting the findings of a report that is funded and pushed by Christian groups that aim to censor the web, not only from porn but from violence, bad language, and all the other nonsense that was present in the "video nasties" censorship culture of the 80s.

3) Absent from the debate so far, but hopefully will be interjected by those in the Lords and the Commons, is the issue of parental responsibility on this subject, with the assumption being that the state must intervene in order to "protect children". This is a terribly illiberal stance to take, and is the main reason I'm opposed to it.

So, on to the bill...

1 Duty to provide a service that excludes pornographic images

This section says that ISPs and Phone Networks will be legally mandated to ensure pornographic imagery is blocked, unless someone requests to be able to see pornographic images, and is verifiably aged 18+.

This is the meat of the bill. It doesn't tell ISPs how they should block content, only that they must legally provide a service that is 100% free of pornographic images outside of an age verified opt-in by the subscriber to the ISP.

From the get go this law is unworkable, as it is simply impossible for an ISP to be able to ensure that someone connected to the internet through their service won't be able to see porn without opting in. TOR networks, I2P...this is just scratching the surface on possible ways that people will be able to view porn through their ISP's connection without the ISP being able to do a thing about it.

As soon as the law comes in to effect, every ISP will be breaking the law simply by operating their service.

Taking the above issue aside, assuming that legislators will realise that it needs to create a caveat, what about the technical issues with such a law being adhered to in good faith by ISPs?

There is the issue of whether it is technologically possible to simply ban pornographic imagery. The bill only targets the images, yet images have no meta-data. Perhaps, if the ISP is lucky, the image may have content in it's name that is identifiable as pornographic in nature...but then this would block images that are not pornographic but have problem keywords in their name.

We have to, then, extrapolate this out. Since ISPs won't have the detail to be able to ban just the pronographic images, they'll be banning connections to domains that contain text and content that suggests imagery on the page is pornographic. It'll catch pornographic sites, sure, but it'll also catch Wikipedia, newspaper websites that report on pornography (such as this law), and other informational sites that don't actually contain pornographic imagery at all.

Sure, ISPs might in theory be able to be smarter with their filtering, excluding known sites like Wikipedia or the Daily Mail..however in practice they would not be able to, since to do so would open the possibility that a pornographic image is shown, even if it is for the purpose of commentary, debate or illustration.

The best ISPs will be able to hope for is page level detection of content on a case by case users browse sites the content of the page they visit will be intercepted, searched, and flagged as 'clean' or 'pornographic' on the basis of keywords in the page and the presence of images.

Yet even that last part, detecting presence of images within the code of the page, is unlikely to be a criteria since javascript insertion of images in to pages after their initial load would circumnavigate such checks.

Are we seriously going to ask ISPs to monitor our traffic usage in real time, to filter content (by blocking it's appearance) through this monitoring by running user-interaction scenarios to ensure that no content will be loaded in through secondary action? Does the government have any idea about how much this would cost to implement and run, and the effect it would have on the speed of our web browsing?

MPs and Lords may think that this is as simple as turning the Opt-Out system in to an Opt-In system, but they'd be wrong. My understanding is that right now an Opt-Out system is not required to filter all pornographic images, and is instead a filtering of known adult content on the web. Changing this to comply with a law that ensures web browsing "excludes pornographic images" is a whole different beast

2 Duty to provide a means of filtering online content

This section says that anything that can connect to the internet and receive data must have some kind of filtering element or software that can be used, at the point of purchase.

On we go to "ridiculous law" part 2, whereby MPs and Lords show how little they know about technology.

Thankfully not a law that also means the default for such filtering is "on", its still a ridiculous law. They talk about "electronic devices", defined by themselves as something that can connect to the internet and download something.

Modern TVs connects to the internet and downloads will now need filtering software. Modern MP3 players, even without any graphical interface, can connect to the internet and download data...they will need "filtering software".

Right now you can buy internet connected coffee machines, fridges and garage doors. All of these "devices" would, by law, be required to have filtering technology built in to them.

Can you see how ridiculously vague this law is, and how many facets of modern manufacturing it will affect? The world is moving in to one where we have to increase the number of IP addresses (unique identifiers of a devices location on the internet) because of the sharp increase in internet connected devices that we will use in our homes, from TVs and Games Consoles, to lights and doors.

Once again there is little definition or structure here, while the implication is that the filtering would be for webpage traffic, the wording doesn't limit that. It would be easy to say that these devices would need filtering technology for any part that displays web-based content, sensible even since this part law isn't about stopping pornography from being able to be seen (section 1 does that), it's about limiting what individual devices can use that they download even if the ISP block is turned off (while on the move, for example, connecting to WiFi).

Yet this is why the section here shouldn't be here. If a parent is looking to view pornography, but set their kid's device to filter content, on a parental lock for example, then the reality is that the child will have every opportunity and ability to simply reset the phone to it's defaults and get around their parent's control.

But that's not all! The legislation talks about "point of purchase". This may well mean, for some, that manufacturers have to bundle in software to the box, if not in to the device, that allows for this filtering. But what of all the devices already out there? Does a firmware update that is up to the user to carry out constitute provision of a way to filter content?

What about devices that can't be updated in this way, via the internet (pre-filtered internet at that)? Does the manufacturer need to recall their devices so they can manually include the filtering provisions in the box or on the device? What about devices sold second hand? Should someone receive a 5 year old Nokia (for example) phone they bought of EBay, can they bring legal action against Nokia because the phone did not contain a way to filter the internet at that particular point of purchase?

It's insulting to the market that such an overarching and vague law would be placed here, with many manufacturers of devices and software doing everything that they can to provide parents with the tools to help, however futilely, to control what their children see on the web. If parents aren't happy with a company's products on an "online-safety" point of view, then there are other products out there that will make them happy.

Why we need legislation here is beyond me.

3 Duty to provide information about online safety

This section says that, despite already being legally mandated to block porn, ISPs must have some kind of online safety guidance that they can provide to customers.

ISPs will have to have a page on their website that says something, that hasn't been defined, about online safety. Whoop.

4 Reports

This section says that OFCOM will be responsible for reviewing how the law is being adhered to.

The government has been trying in various laws to make OFCOM responsible for regulation of the internet, and this bill is no different. OFCOM will have responsibility to assess how this law is going, the principle reason (given it's 3 year cycle of requirement to produce reports) likely to be to flag up changes in technology that need amendments making to this bill.

The final administrative bits of the bill states that the law would come in to effect 6 months after it's passing, a grace period for those affected to get their services and products compliant.


Here we have a law that aims to make it damn hard for your kids to stumble upon a reference to porn on your internet-enabled toaster.

This bill is ridiculous, it puts unrealistic expectations on ISPs and product manufacturers, ignores the gaping holes in the ability for both to adhere to the law even if they do everything physically possible to try to comply. It is a placebo to the issue of child safety online, one that will only help lazy parents get even lazier about helping their kids understand how the web works.

As I said in point 2, this is the internet's "Video Nasties" moment, and so it's important that these first stages towards regulation of the web are opposed. This isn't the same issue as TV or video games, the internet is a virtual equivalent of walking out your front door and strolling around the's time we treated it with the same realistic thinking and respect, and not as another medium for the state to filter and control.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

What's really "chilling" about not releasing the NHS Risk Register?

EDIT: I have expanded this article from it's original

BBC and others are reporting that the Government is deciding to stick two fingers up to the Freedom of Information laws of the country, intended to ensure that governments and public bodies aren't able to do things without transparency and scrutiny, by not publishing the NHS Risk Register as they have been order to, thus creating a situation of lack of transparency and lack of proper scrutiny.

The reason given for the veto by "ministers", rumoured to be Andrew Lansley who seems to be unable to cope with his job as a public servant as he works tirelessly to go against what the public want rather than with it, is that it will have a "chilling effect" on civil servants. A Chilling Effect?

A chilling effect is the description used to suggest that through a law or action being in place, people will act differently than they would usually. If you put police on street corners, then they have a "chilling effect" on muggers in the area as they decide not to chance getting caught there and then. This is a "good" chilling effect, as it essentially stops people from doing what they shouldn't be doing (though there are bad effects that go with it, the balance is said to be "good").

Online, however, there are libel laws that greatly favour content owners and intellectual property owners, and the mere whiff of one of those owners bringing a case against you is enough to make you take down what you've written (or choose not to put it up in the first place). Rather than be proven guilty of anything, you are bullied in to an action you shouldn't have to do. This is a "bad" chilling effect, as it puts barriers up that ordinary people cannot fight, and concentrates power away from people that aren't necessarily doing anything wrong in to the hands that aren't necessarily doing anything right.

So...civil servants are going to have this "chilling effect" if we are all able to see the NHS Risk Register? How can that work, for a civil servant to be "chilled" from giving "frank" advice to Ministers? In theory, it can't, since the civil servants all work to a civil servant code (pdf) that states, very clearly...

You must:
provide information and advice, including advice to
Ministers, on the basis of the evidence, and accurately
present the options and facts;


You must not:
ignore inconvenient facts or relevant considerations
when providing advice or making decisions;

The code itself is not just a set of guidelines, it is a constitutional document of sorts, a contractual document. By not adhering to the "code" you are, in fact, breaching your contract as a civil servant.

Thus, the idea of civil servants having such a "chilling effect" begs a couple of questions. 1) Do ministers not understand the need for civil servants to be impartial, honest, and to act with integrity? 2) If they do understand, then is the government admitting that there must be a culture in the civil service of breaching the code in order to either a) help minister's causes or, worse, b) to further the agenda of the "civil service party"?

The fact that a "chilling effect" is the main reason for the NHS Risk Register publication being blocked, to me, brings up more worrying connotations about how civil servants act, and the fact that the civil service has (to my knowledge) not come out and quickly put a stop to the idea that their workforce would omit, skew or be dishonest about facts that they are asked to bring is thoroughly confusing.

The only other option is that the ministers in question are trying to use public ignorance to flout the laws that are there to keep the public informed...but they'd never be so brazenly dishonest, would they?

(Updated 09/05/2012):

Since I posted this there has been a lot of retweeting (Thanks @Glinner!) but also a further view on this issue from David Heath MP. He says, in defence of not fully releasing the NHS Risk Register (though not in defence of the veto used)...

The principle of not releasing the private advice of civil servants as part of the process of policy formation was recognised even when we were arguing over the original legislation line-by-line. Indeed, I remember trying to persuade ministers then to differentiate between the information on which policy was based — statistics, factual information and the like — which ought to be made available, and the opinions expressed by policy-makers disclosure of which might harm the process.

I fundamentally disagree with this view, though it may be naivity of the machinations of parliament and government on my part. For me the part a civil servant plays is black and white. They are there to provide information and advice for ministers and politicians that don't have the benefit of a long understanding of policy progressions and the realities of policy creation. At their core function civil servants are the glue that keeps successive parliaments moving along smoothly (in theory!).

However I once again ask, if the advice they give is not something they can back up with facts and figures, then shouldn't we know about this? If it is not ministers who come up with direction, but ultimately just take on the advice of a civil servant, how can we lay blame for failure in policies at the minister instead of at an unknown set of individuals giving poor advice?

I don't have a problem with civil servants being frank about their own experiences and views, and how they would colour their decision...more than anything else there is no way that we can ensure that such informal advice could be made transparent anyway...what I do balk at is the idea that actual official advice, the sort that would be formally recorded for an NHS Risk Register, for example, is not something we should see.

If we were talking here about companies, and business leaders, securing visits to ministers and giving them "advice", we'd want to know what influence those companies are having. We are tired of the practice of lobbying where companies get to operate under the radar in influencing our policy direction, and rightly so. Yet on the flip side we're meant to just accept that civil servants should be able to do the same?

I would argue that we need much greater accountability, and if poor decisions are being made through formal advice the public shouldn't be shielded away from how that advice came about. Who knows how many policy decisions are being based on bad statistics, or incomplete or questionably relevant studies? If ensuring FOI requests also shone a light on the advice given by the civil service, and results in civil servants no longer giving questionable advice...isn't this a good thing? If anything it would mean ministers would have to choose to operate on little advice, or to commission a more robust fact finding exercise, something I feel we sorely lack in policy decisions right now.

Publish the NHS Risk Register, let civil servants stop giving advice that they know would not stand up to public scrutiny, I don't see how our political system would be worse for it.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Elected Mayors... why limit ourselves?

It's been said that one of the reasons we must have elected mayors in Bristol is that it provides someone that people can vote for that has a "city level" programme of policies. The implication is that without an elected mayor, directly elected by the whole population of the council area, we couldn't achieve this.

That is patently false.

A lot of the reasons being given for the "benefits" of an elected mayor are not actually unique or even guaranteed by the use of such a "democratic" tool. More transparency, a city wide mandate, accountability...they're all just smoke and mirrors.

First of all, a Mayor is no more city-wide than the Leader of the Council. In fact I would go as far as to say they are LESS so. A Mayor has to consider how to get elected, the more candidate the more chance a prominent figure may get in, usually from one of the big three parties. Does this mean that they have to be "city-wide" in their scope? Of course not!

By tackling, for example, issues around anti-student feelings in Bristol, the in the Clifton, Cotham, Horfield and other such areas of the city, a Mayor could generate a serious amount of token support that may well help to guarantee an election, without that individual having any care for other less student oriented areas of the city. Indeed in Doncaster their mayor was elected precisely because he was a protest vote and struck a chord with a very specific set of politically motivated voters.

By contrast the Leader of the Council has to get the endorsement of a significant number of councilors from all around the city, councilors that are going to be concerned that the person they make leader has to be right for their area. By it's very process, albeit currently behind closed doors, the Leader has to have the confidence of half the city's councilors, who in turn had to gain the confidence of you, their voting public. can the former be guaranteed, or even LIKELY, to be more city focused than a Leader of the Council?

That's not to say that the Leader role is perfect. Currently we elect local councilors to deal with our local issues, and we don't know what Leader we'll get on the council. This has been referred to as being a "stitch up" among other things, with the pretense that it's some kind of secret cabal that is trying to get a Leader in that the public simply don't want. That in itself is highly fantastical, but is born of the reality of the lack of transparency in our current system.

Now, let's see...there is a lack of transparency, so what could the solution be? Ah, of course, a new democratic construct that actually offers only a little transparency up front, to "tie you in" as an electorate, after which a democratic deficit in the processes mean that the individual can sit in office for 4 years finding it very easy to NOT do what they said they would do.

Analogy: If we built a house and it had no windows, what should we do? Knock some holes in the walls and put some windows in...or knock the whole house down and build a barn?

The system isn't right now, take the comparable national system. A Party Leader is selected in a transparent election process from their peers. This person has to publicly lay out their direction for the future, that forms the basis then of the manifesto that is put to the people, transparently, in an election. We elect MPs, these are local representatives who's primary purpose is to ensure that our local needs are being met on a national stage...but at the same time we know that if we vote for that Tory, Lib Dem or Labour MP that they come with the possibility of helping that manifesto happen.

This doesn't happen at local elections, we just elect local people on local issues. Some may think about who they want to run the council but this will be a strictly partisan thing since very little will be guaranteed about how the council will be run before the election is over. Why can't prospective leaders be put forward BEFORE each local election? Councilors could then pledge their initial support to individual leaders leaving the public in no doubt as to the direction the council would go in if they picked that councilor. And how would they know the direction? Because the leaders would have to put forward their manifesto for the city at the same time.

If this sounds a lot like the level of information and commitment to the city that you'd get from a Mayor, you'd be right, because functionally the roles are exactly the same...the only thing that differs right now are the processes. Do we need to knock down the house when a little renovation would solve our problems? It seems like (expensive) overkill! Just reform the processes, cheaply and easily.

From this you know that you'll have a leader that will have to cater to various specific parts of the city, and not concentrate on issues that only affect higher voting wards alone, because if they don't they will lose their position quickly, either through the councilors abandoning them or the voters sending a message through the change in their elected councilor next time around.

This leads on nicely to the next thing...accountability. Whoever tries to tell you that a person sitting in office for 4 years unable to be touched is more accountable than a Leader that knows a bad set of results for their party in every three years out of four could oust them, is a bloody liar.

But then the argument goes that it's better to have everyone choose directly rather than have their vote diluted through to a small core of individuals...yet it is that level of layers of democracy that gives us power. A councilor is much more in tune with keeping their voters happy in their small area than a mayor needs to be on a city wide level. A councilor is therefore much more able to be influenced and lobbied than a Mayor is. Likewise, that councilor is then a significant proportion of a Leader's support, and so they have a lot of lobbying power there too.

We have great connections with who runs our councils and how, if we wanted to exercise that power (and had more transparent information to do it on). You stick an elected mayor in there and we lose that power. Sure, we directly elect them, but then we have no sway over them until they decide they need to get us on board for their next term (if they want more than one go at the job). Worse, by economies of scale less individuals will find their voices are effective as more of their voices will fall in to groupings of populations that simply aren't necessary to listen to for the mayor to get re-elected anyway, and in geographies that make it harder for those individuals to spread any feeling of antipathy that could have an effect on policy direction.


People will say that a Mayor will work for the whole of the city, but that is just an "ideal" situation, not guaranteed.
People will say that a Mayor will be more accountable, but depending on the politics of the city, and what the mayor does, that's not guaranteed
People will say the Mayor has a mandate, democratically and directly elected, but with a flawed voting system that can see a mayor with less than 50% of the vote winning, more people could *not* want their policies than want them
People will say that the Mayor won't need to be a career politician....but they are being largely delusional as to the realities of politics.
People will say it will help local governance grow versus national governance, yet the power that central parties gain by having a single Mayor to control through their party system doesn't allow that argument to hold any water.

The arguments for an elected mayor just don't make logical sense...they *sound* nice, and they *look* nice....who doesn't want MORE elections to directly say who we want to take a quasi-dictatorial role over our daily lives? It's gesture politics at it's worst, because not only does it not enhance anything that couldn't be enhanced on it's own, it actually removes safeguards.

I hope, for Bristol's sake, that they've voted No in this referendum.

Turns out that Bristol doesn't know what's good for them. While other major cities have realised that the system is flawed, we've jumped in (on a low turnout) and said "sure, let's give ourselves less chance to influence the direction of the city, and potentially get stuck with exactly the same situation we've currently got!". Well done Bristol. *slow claps*