Benefits rant: is cracking down on the “scroungers” really worth this?

So, apparently, a man who was suffering from depression was found “fit for work” in a Work Capability Assessment, and then killed himself. The enquiry into his death identifies the fitness for work verdict as the thing that pushed him over the edge.

As someone who’s suffered a lot from depression myself, this obviously makes me very upset and angry. The welfare system in this country is failing vulnerable people badly, and yet hardly anyone seems to care. This wasn’t the only case that’s resulted in a death that was directly attributable to the system: the case of David Clapson, a diabetic ex-soldier who died after his benefits were stopped, leaving him unable to pay for food or for electricity to keep his insulin refrigerated, has become quite well known. There are many other cases documented online as well, although shamefully very few of them seem to get reported in the mainstream media.

Of course, it would be virtually impossible to run something as large and complex as a whole country without sometimes causing problems for some of your citizens. Any big change, even if it’s clearly for the best overall, will still have adverse consequences for a few people. For example, if the government opens a big new hospital out of town and closes several old ones, some people who lived closer to the old hospitals might die because they can’t get to the new one in time in an emergency situation, even if the superior facilities of the new hospital save more lives overall. Although that would be a tragedy for the individuals and their families concerned, most people would understand that the decision made sense in the bigger picture.

I don’t believe the same thing can be said of the benefit-related deaths, though. These events weren’t random tragedies, or one-in-a-million corner cases that nobody could possibly have predicted. Those deaths were direct consequences of two current welfare policies: firstly, “sanctioning” people on Jobseekers’ Allowance for trivial (and sometimes even non-existent) infractions, leaving them with no income whatsoever; and secondly, forcing people who aren’t in a fit state to work into a system they can’t cope with. If you’re going to take away support from people who don’t have any other support, or bully them into doing things they’re not at all ready for, of course it’s going to end badly. It was obvious to any intelligent person who bothered to think about it what was likely to happen.

But apparently I’m on the wrong side of public opinion here; we’re endlessly told that the welfare cuts are popular and long overdue. It’s true that a lot of people do want the benefit system tightened up to make things harder for “scroungers”, but when you talk to them about it, most of them also want truly vulnerable people to be protected. It’s just a shame that they’re cheering on, and voting for, “reforms” that are hugely damaging to those same vulnerable people they supposedly want to help.

The trouble is, outside of articles in the tabloid press and anecdotes in the pub, there really aren’t that many scroungers and frauds. When you actually look at the statistics of the welfare system (which are by no means perfect, but still the best tool for understanding that we have), they consistently tell the same story: the fraud rate is very low (generally around 0-2%); unemployment benefits don’t cost account for very much of the welfare budget (compared to, for example, old age pensions and housing benefit); most people on Jobseekers’s Allowance are on it for a relatively short time between jobs, rather than living off it for years on end as the Sun and the Mail would have you believe.

So all of the “toughening up” of the benefits system is actually solving a problem that, for the most part, didn’t actually exist in the first place. But in the process, it’s creating much worse problems, like the deaths mentioned above. Of course there will be a few scroungers and cheats claiming benefits. No system is perfect, so it’s never going to be possible to eliminate them entirely. The statistics show that the number of them is already very low, which is probably about the best we can hope for.

But even if you’re determined that even so much as one undeserving scrounger living off the state is an unacceptable travesty, it’s doubtful that making claimants jump through ever more hoops is going to help much. Who do you think is really going to be more inconvenienced by having to pass ever-more stringent checks… someone who’s perfectly capable of working but instead chooses to game the system, or someone who’s genuinely struggling with a mental or physical illness? Who is going to be better able to deal with negotiating the increasingly harrowing system… someone who’s already adept at getting as much money out of it as possible, or someone who’s been pushed close to the edge by events beyond their control and is stressed, exhausted and confused? Making the system even tougher is only going to hurt those who need it the most.

“What would you do different, then?” you might reasonably ask. “At least the government is trying to reform the system. What’s your answer, just keep giving out free money to anyone who wants it?”.

Here’s what I would do differently:

  • Scrap the Work Capability Assessment and have people signed off sick by their own doctor instead. Apparently GPs don’t want this additional workload, but they already manage to sign working people off sick, so I don’t see why passing a sick note to the DWP is so much harder than passing one to an employer. The GP is much more likely to have a full and accurate picture of an individual’s situation, so this would radically cut down on the number of spurious “fit for work” decisions.
  • JSA sanctions should be monitored much more robustly to make sure that they’re fair and reasonable. In addition, only a maximum of 25% of someone’s benefits should ever be removed. This would still be enough to give people an incentive not to get sanctioned, but wouldn’t leave anyone completely destitute. I’m aware that this would lead to people still getting paid benefits even if they refuse to look for work, but frankly I’d much rather have that than risk another David Clapson… and if you disagree, I think you need to have a good long think about it.
  • Publicise the statistics I mentioned above a lot more, and show people that there’s a good side to the welfare safety net. For far too long, the Tories and the tabloids have made out that it’s nothing but a burden, “stealing” money from hardworking people and giving it to the lazy. The facts simply don’t back up that point of view and it needs to be challenged.

I could rant a lot more about this, but that’ll do for the moment.


I resisted for a while, but here’s a political rant (mostly about UKIP)

(Sorry… I haven’t posted in over a month and when I do, it’s a politics rant. I’m not even sure why I wrote it, I just got fed up with a lot of the comments I was reading in various places and wanted to articulate why. And now it’s written I might as well post it).

Right now it seems like it’s hard to say anything negative (or even just neutral) about UKIP on the internet without a load of angry people jumping down your throat, telling you you’re behind the times, out of touch with ordinary people’s concerns, and you’d better get used to this because the whole country’s moving to the right, and they ain’t going back. But I’m going to try anyway ;).

Firstly, I’m not convinced UKIP’s recent performance was quite as astonishingly brilliant as a lot of the press seem to think it was. Yes, they did well for a “minor” party, and they improved a lot on their share of the vote from last time, that much is true. Though I’m sure I remember a European election years ago where UKIP polled a similar share of the vote and everyone was going on about how well they’d done and how this was the start of big things for them. So I can’t help but have a slight sense of de ja vu right now.

Plus, the turnout was pathetic – 31% on average according to this page on the BBC, a full ten points lower than the same elections in 2009 – which means UKIP’s 25% of the vote translates into only about 8% of the electorate, a rather less impressive number. Meanwhile, over 20% carried on voting for the same old parties they’ve always voted for, while (and surely this is the really telling statistic) nearly 70% of people didn’t even think it was worth bothering to vote at all.

Strange, that. You would think if a party really was revolutionising British politics, providing such a breath of fresh air and finally offering policies that address the concerns of ordinary people, they would be engaging a large proportion of that 70%. Instead we see turnout continuing to drop like a stone – almost like what you’d expect to see if large numbers of people were both disillusioned with the 3 main parties AND unimpressed by UKIP.

You also have to remember that this wasn’t a UK-wide election. It was mostly a rural England election – no Scotland, no Wales (except for Anglesey), and no London or other big cities. In other words, all the places that traditionally vote Conservative – the places you’d most expect a right wing party to do well. It seems doubtful that they would have got so much support in the places in England that are traditionally Labour strongholds, or in Scotland where the left wing (by Westminster standards, at least) SNP won a landslide victory at the last election. But I guess “Right wing party wins votes from 8% of electorate in traditionally right wing areas” wouldn’t be such an attention-grabbing headline and wouldn’t fit with the narrative of the whole country moving to the right that most of the press seem keen to push.

I also don’t see how anyone can really claim to know why those 8% chose to vote for UKIP. Some people say they are only taking votes from Tories who don’t think Cameron’s government is right wing enough; others that they’re only attracting “protest” votes from those who are sick of all three main parties and want to register their disgust; UKIP themselves of course claim it’s because their policies are popular and they’re taking votes from across the political spectrum. In truth, no-one actually knows – there’s no reliable way to know because the ballot paper doesn’t ask for reasons why.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there aren’t people out there who genuinely like UKIP’s policies and would want a UKIP government. Of course there are. But you can’t claim they’re the majority of the population or anywhere close to it on the basis that 8% of people, in the most UKIP-friendly areas of the country, voted for them, especially not when over two thirds of people eligible to vote were so uninspired by ALL the parties, INCLUDING UKIP, that they didn’t even bother.

Ahem. As you can probably tell, I don’t like UKIP very much. But it’s actually not their flagship anti-EU stance that bothers me the most. I disagree with them on it, for sure – I mostly like the EU and I think it would be a mistake to leave, but I’m not such a rabid Europhile that I can’t see any reasons people might oppose it. It’s UKIP’s other, so far less talked about, policies that worry me more. They want to get rid of most legislation protecting workers’ rights for example. How on earth is that going to help ordinary people? I don’t care how much Nigel Farage seems like the kind of bloke who’d be fun to go for a pint with or how much his hatred of immigration/wind turbines/the EU might resonate with many people… as long as his party propose policies like that, any “ordinary” (i.e. non-millionaire) people voting for them are like turkeys voting for Christmas.

I also find their claims to be “libertarian” and in favour of getting rid of state interference in people’s lives to be pretty spurious, demonstrated for example by their opposition to gay marriage. It looks a lot like they just oppose state interference when it comes to rich people trampling over everyone else to get even richer and apart from that they’ll interfere with the lives of anyone they happen to disapprove of.

They apparently want to increase defense spending by 40%. For the love of god, why? Where’s the threat that justifies this? We already have a big enough military budget to be fighting two completely unnecessary, destructive and probably counter-productive wars. Surely that’s more than enough? Not to mention, where’s the money for this and all their other promises going to come from? After all, they also propose to slash income tax, corporation tax and National Insurance. It seems hugely hypocritical for people to bash Labour for being financially irresponsible, as UKIP’s target demographic often tend to do, and then turn round and cheerfully vote for a party that appears to be promising both massive tax cuts AND massive spending increases without any explanation of how they plan to balance the books.

As for their denial of climate science… well, as far as I’m concerned, any party that rejects established science for their own political ends is a menace. I don’t want to turn this into a global warming rant so I will just say this: I know people don’t like the implications of climate change, and I can totally sympathise with that, I don’t like them either. I’d much rather there was no downside to cheap electricity, cheap flights and virtually unlimited personal mobility because I like all those things. But to bury your head in the sand and pretend there isn’t a problem when all the reputable science suggests there IS a problem is utter madness.

Why I don’t like restricted computing

Sort-of-preachy, serious-ish post today, sorry.

Back in the mists of time when I first started using computers, you could basically do whatever you wanted with them, in the sense that you could run any program you wanted, whether you wrote it yourself or bought it or acquired it from some dodgy geyser down the pub or whatever. It wasn’t necessarily easy to get it to do what you wanted, but at least the computer companies didn’t go out of their way to make it particulary difficult either. Now, with systems like the iPad and iPhone gaining popularity and Windows 8 on the horizon, that’s no longer true, and I find it worrying.

For those of you that don’t know, you can’t install just any software you want on an iPhone or iPad like you can on a PC – you can only install things from the official app store. Unless you jailbreak the thing or pay to become a developer, that is. The same situation exists with Windows Phone 7 (though not, thankfully, with Android and Blackberry – they both allow you to install apps from anywhere you want, more like a traditional PC).

You could argue, though, that the iPhone is still an improvement over previous mobile phones in this regard. After all, on earlier phones you couldn’t generally install extra software at all, and at least on the iPhone you can do this, even if you are restricted in where it comes from. But locking users into one source for their software appears to be a trend that’s migrating away from phones and towards more traditional computers. The upcoming Windows 8 contains two examples of this:

1. “Metro” apps, which are a new kind of application more similar to the ones you get on Windows Phones, will only be installable from the official Microsoft store. While you’ll still be able to install traditional Windows programs from anywhere like before, the new style apps won’t allow this.

2. The new ARM version of Windows 8 is mandating locked-down boot code, preventing users from replacing the operating system with something else. Installing Linux, for example, which is generally fairly easy on current PCs, would be made much more difficult or impossible on a Windows 8 ARM system. (There were fears that this would be the case for Windows 8 on all platforms, including standard PC systems, though this thankfully seems to have fallen by the wayside for now). By the way, there is no technical reason for this difference whatsoever – it’s like a car manufacturer deciding that if you buy a blue car from them you’ll be allowed to service it yourself and get hold of spare parts and so on, but if you buy a red one, the bonnet will be welded shut to stop you doing anything to it.

So why do I think this is a bad thing? Well, several reasons, but mainly this: I got into programming and doing other more advanced (and fun!) things with computers by tinkering around with my own computer (first a Spectrum, then a PC) at home. There was nothing to stop me writing my own programs, or modifying ones other people had written to see what would happen. It’s now my career and I’m pretty convinced that without those early experiences, I wouldn’t be doing it now. At the very least I certainly wouldn’t be as good at it or as enthusiastic about it. I worry that if the trend towards locked-down systems continues, the next generation of kids won’t get this same chance. They will miss out on experimenting and having fun with technology the way I did, and everyone will miss out on the things they might have created as a result.

The argument about whether this is a good thing or not rages on in various forums online. I already know a lot of what people will say in defence of the closed systems, so I’ll pre-empt it by giving my responses first.

“Kids will still be able to learn programming at school, or on specialist teaching devices”

Yes, no-one’s suggesting that learning programming is going to become impossible, but there’s no denying that it could get difficult enough to put a lot of people off. If the trend towards closed systems continues to the point where you can’t write programs on a standard PC anymore without either paying a “developer fee” or jumping through hoops to jailbreak it, there are going to be significant extra barriers in the way. And some people who might have persisted if it was as easy as just downloading one of the many free programming environments available online (as it is today) are going to give up if they find they have to make costly purchases or risky modifications to their computers before they even get to write a line of code.

And yes, school computing departments are likely to have programmer-friendly computers of some description. But I know I would never have got into programming in such a big way if I was restricted to doing it in school classes, and I’m sure the same applies to a lot of people. I did most of my learning and experimentation on my own at home.

“This isn’t like the old 8-bit days. Computers are too complicated for anyone to be able to understand now anyway, so it doesn’t matter if you’re prevented from programming them yourself”

They’re still perfectly understandable to many of us, thank you very much. The concepts are still very much the same. It’s true that computers are a lot more complex than they were in the days of the Spectrum and C64, probably complex enough that no one person can be an expert on every area of them now… but at the same time, software has improved a lot and got much better at hiding that complexity. So most times you don’t need to think about the details of the hardware while you’re coding an app… though in some cases it is useful to know those details, and in those cases it’s nice to be able to find them without slamming into an artificial brick wall that really doesn’t need to be there.

“Haven’t you got anything better to complain about? Surely this is trivial compared to global warming/starvation in Africa/the economic crisis”

Yes, it is, but I still think it’s important enough to be worth talking about, and I’m a lot more qualified to talk about this than about any of those other issues.

“This is nothing to do with you. Companies have a right to sell locked down computers and people have a right to buy them. If you don’t like them, just don’t buy them!”

I certainly don’t intend to buy them, in fact one of the main reasons I chose an HTC phone is that their policy on this is much better than most phone manufacturers (they allow you to unlock the phone’s bootloader and replace the entire operating system with a new one of your choice if you want to). And yes, people have a right to choose whatever hardware they want for themselves. But I also have a right to say why I don’t like this trend and try to warn other people of the possible downsides before we reach the point of no return. This is especially important because the downsides may not become obvious to most people until it’s too late to do much about them.

“Only a tiny minority of geeks want to write their own apps or install a different operating system. They will be knowledgeable enough to choose hardware that doesn’t restrict them”

Until we reach the point where it’s virtually impossible to find hardware that doesn’t restrict them, that is.

In any case, I think that argument is flawed. Not everyone knows when they buy a computer that they will at some point in the future want to replace the OS. I’m typing this right now on my netbook, and when I bought it I fully intended to just use it with the operating system it came with (Windows 7). It wasn’t until after I’d had it a while and found it was quite slow that I decided to give Linux a try on it. Thankfully today it’s quite easy to install Linux on any computer, even one that wasn’t designed for it, so it worked even though I hadn’t specifically looked for a Linux-compatible machine when purchasing it. Tomorrow I might not be so lucky if current trends continue.

I’ve also installed Linux for my dad and brother at various points when they were having problems with their Windows PCs and didn’t have the recovery disk anymore. They certainly wouldn’t have specifically looked for Linux compatibility when they bought their computers, but they were very grateful for it when it saved them from having to buy a new copy of Windows or a whole new computer just to get back up and running. (Though one can see why Microsoft and the hardware manufacturers might be less keen on users having this option).

I’m not convinced that it is only a “tiny minority” that want more flexibility with their computers, anyway. I think if you looked at the percentage of people who’d used their PCs for something that might not be approved of (or even envisaged at all) by Microsoft or Apple – whether that’s using a Bittorrent client, installing a free alternative to some of the built in software of Windows/OSX, or messing around with a programming language or game creator or something similar – it would be a lot more than a tiny minority. Almost everyone I know has probably used their PC for at least one thing that is likely to become difficult or impossible in future if Windows transitions to a locked down, iPhone-like model.

It’s hard to find numbers for the percentage of iPhones that have been jailbroken, but most estimates seem to put it around 10-15% in the West and much higher (33-50%) in China. That’s hardly a tiny number of people, and it doesn’t even include the percentage who might like to jailbreak if they knew it was possible and knew what it could do, or the people who decided not to buy an iPhone at all because of the restrictions but might have if they were a bit more open.

Even if it was only a “tiny minority” of geeks that want to do this stuff, I’m still not convinced that’s a good argument for preventing them from doing it. They may be tiny in number, but they’re likely to be playing a disproportionately large part in creating the next generation of innovative software. If they’re held back from doing so, it will be bad for the majority as well in the longer term.

“Phones and tablets aren’t computers, they’re appliances, so it’s fine that you can’t modify the software on them. Would you expect to be able to modify the software in your microwave?”

This seems a completely arbitrary distinction to me. Of course a microwave is an appliance, it may technically have a computer inside to control the electrics, but you wouldn’t be able to run a word processor or browse the web on it, so it’s no big loss that you can’t install your own software on it. I’d even say the original (pre-Touch) iPod was more of an appliance because its hardware made it not particularly useful for anything other than playing music. But tablets and phones are pretty obviously just small computers. They can do a lot of the same things a full size PC can do, access the same websites, even run some of the same apps. If you add a Bluetooth keyboard to your iPad, as many people do, it’s not that much different from a small netbook – so why is one a “computer” and one an “appliance”? It’s entirely an artificial distinction intended to muddy the waters and get people to accept that it’s OK for tablet computers to be locked down and restricted because they’re somehow “different” from traditional computers with a keyboard.

“This is a good thing for most people. It means better security and higher quality software”

If you can’t install software, you can’t install buggy software or malware, right? So it must be a good thing!

I don’t really believe this argument. If (for example) Apple wanted to, they could include a checkbox in iOS like the Android one that allows you to install apps from anywhere you like, they could also include an HTC-style bootloader unlocker tool on their website, and these things would have absolutely zero impact on security or usability for most people. How could they? Most people would never use them anyway (at least that’s what we keep being told). Sure, if people really wanted to, they could then go and install malware from dodgy websites. If people really want to, there’s nothing to stop them driving the wrong way up a motorway or walking down a dark alley in a bad area at night laden with expensive jewellery either, but I don’t hear many people clamouring for rules to stop people from driving their own cars, or going out after dark without a police escort. So why this desire to stop people installing software on their own computers?

In any case, if you think locking down computer systems makes them immune to bugs and security flaws, just look at the iOS 6 maps fiasco, the alarm clock fiascos, the security hole that allowed iPhones to be jailbroken just by visiting a website, numerous games console hacks and jailbreaks, and one study that found the official App Store had more spyware in it than the unofficial, unsanctioned Cydia store (sorry, I’ve lost the link for this one).

So if security and usability isn’t the real reason for doing this, what is? I can think of at least two:

1. Money. Apple takes a 30% cut of anything you buy from the App Store, and anything (such as music, ebooks) that you buy from within apps as well. Allowing competitors to operate app stores, or allowing you to install apps from outwith the store would obviously interfere with them getting this cut. I keep hoping this will be ruled illegal under EU competition law or something – I don’t think a car manufacturer would get away with demanding a 30% cut of any accessories you buy, or a stereo manufacturer demanding 30% from all the CDs you buy, so I’m not sure why it’s considered acceptable in the computing world.

2. Control. If they can control what you can and can’t install on your computer, they can prevent you installing things they don’t approve of. For example, programs that copy DVDs and BluRays can be outlawed, as well as software that competes with one of the supplier’s own products. Bittorrent clients could be forbidden altogether, and web browsers could be made to automatically block access to sites that Apple (or the authorities) disapprove of.

“It doesn’t matter, people will just jailbreak them anyway”

Typically, jailbreaking relies on finding holes in the security that aren’t supposed to be there. Often these are fixed in future software or hardware updates, meaning that new jailbreaking methods have to be found. Often they are found quickly, but there are no guarantees – some devices haven’t been jailbroken even after months or years. Security is getting ever more sophisticated as well.

Relying on jailbreaks being available is like agreeing to live in a prison cell because you’ve found a secret tunnel in the floor that allows you to go out whenever you like. Maybe that will work for a while, but what are you going to do if the guards discover the tunnel and block it up? Maybe you’ll find another one… then another… what if one day there isn’t another one? If you value being able to go outside, the only safe option is to not agree to live in the cell in the first place.

There is also the fact that jailbreaking will likely void your warranty and may permanently damage your device if it goes wrong, so a lot of people will be hesitant to do this to their expensive phone or tablet.

“This will never happen, you’re just scaremongering and you’ve got no evidence”

Right now, I don’t know what’s going to happen. No-one does. I would love nothing more than to be proved wrong about all of this, to still be living in a world where people can do whatever they want with their computers (and indeed phones and whatever other devices are around by then) in ten or twenty years time. But currently there is a definite shift going on away from general purpose programmable systems, and that’s enough to make me very concerned. I’d rather say something now and help raise awareness even if it does seem like scaremongering than sit back and watch in silence as Apple and Microsoft attempt to flush the technology landscape that got me to where I am today down the toilet.

“Apple and Microsoft would never use their app store rules for censorship or to block competitors, only to block buggy or dangerous software”

Right now it is likely that they are treading carefully, because they won’t want to scare people away to the many open alternatives that still exist at this point. But if closed platforms become more widespread in the future, there will be nothing to stop them from being a lot more restrictive. Even so, there have already been some bad policies and decisions from both Apple and Microsoft. Many of the rules have got nothing whatsoever to do with the security or quality of software and are purely about censoring content or preventing competition. This article points out that the majority of recent popular PC games would be forbidden from the Microsoft Store due to their content. Both companies ban or severely restrict apps that compete with their own – so in future there may be no more installing Firefox or Chrome, you could be stuck with Internet Explorer whether you like it or not. Apple have already used their app store restrictions for censorship of political cartoons. They also used to have a policy against any app that allowed any sort of scripting – this prohibits (among other things) emulators for old computers and consoles, and software designed to teach kids programming.

Yes, some of these decisions were eventually reversed, others were not. But in any case, can you count on every bad decision that affects you being reversed in the future? No. That’s why the only safe option is not to give them this power in the first place.

Phew. That was longer than it was supposed to be!


Government Internet Snooping

I just filled in 38 Degrees’ email form against the UK government’s internet monitoring plans and would encourage you to do the same.

“Why should I be opposed to the authorities being able to track down criminals?” you might ask. “I’ve got nothing to hide, so I don’t care about being monitored”.

The 38 Degrees form letter includes the following point: “The government doesn’t track our letters or face-to-face meetings. Why should it assume the right to track us online?”. I think this is key. The latest proposals would involve keeping a record of every email sent and every website visited, ready for the authorities to sift through at will. Nothing on this scale has been proposed for monitoring people’s real life movements or snail mail communications, so why should the internet be any different? What is the justification for this extreme level of surveillance?

Is it because people can commit much more heinous crimes online than they can in real life, therefore a proportionately higher level of monitoring is called for? Well, no. Whilst it’s certainly possible to commit certain crimes online, the majority of the most serious criminal acts (murder, rape, acts of terrorism, assault, armed robbery, etc.) can only happen in the real, physical world. You might be able to use the internet to help organise such an atrocity, but at the end of the day you’re not going to be able to stick a knife in someone/point a gun at a bank teller/fly a plane into a building unless you venture out from behind your computer at some point.

Despite all the hysteria being stirred up about the big scary internet by some elements of the mainstream media practically from day one, it’s a far safer place than good old reality has ever been. Sure, someone might swipe your credit card details and yes, that’s bad, but surely it’s not as bad as if they beat you up in a dark alley and ran off with your entire wallet and anything else valuable you happened to be carrying. Some people might look at illegal pornography online, and yes, that’s bad as well, but surely it’s not as bad as going out and dragging people off the street to abuse. Some people bully online, but a lot of people bully in real life too… at least online you can block their emails, delete them from Facebook and stop reading what they write, an option you don’t generally have when you’re surrounded in the school playground. I’m not trying to minimise any horrible online experiences people might have had. I just think it’s important to get a sense of perspective and not to fear things disproportionately just because they’re newer and stranger and more hi-tech.

Ok, so maybe online crimes aren’t more serious than real life ones. But maybe they’re much harder to police? That could also justify a higher level of surveillance. I’m sceptical about this as well. Terrorism and paedophilia are the usual two reasons given for needing to clamp down on the internet, but terrorist acts remain (thankfully) extremely rare, and paedophiles seem to get rounded up often enough even with the powers police have at the moment if news reports are anything to go by. I’m not convinced any extra powers are really needed to deal with these threats. Any serious organised criminals will have already learnt how to cover their tracks pretty effectively, or they would have already been caught. Sure, you might catch a few more poor sods who thought the girl in that picture was 18, or bored teenagers who download bomb making manuals out of idle curiosity, but does that really warrant recording massive amounts of privacy-infringing information about every single person in the country? I don’t think it does.

In my opinion, the real reasons for this being introduced are a lot more flimsy and opportunistic:

1. In practise, monitoring everything everyone does in real life would be a stupendously huge undertaking, and probably impossible with current technology. You would need cameras literally everywhere, or else would need to tag everyone somehow and even then you’d still need tag readers everywhere. The cost would be astronomical. By contrast, internet access is relatively easy to monitor. It’s already in electronic form ready to be saved to disk, and almost all of it goes through a few large service providers. The cost of recording all traffic is still large but nowhere near as large as for monitoring everyone’s real life movements. So, I suspect the first reason they want to monitor all internet communications is simply “Because they can”.

2. The internet is still relatively new and so people will be more likely to accept the idea that it needs to be closely monitored… especially thanks to all the tabloid scaremongering that’s made it sound so threatening. The average person would (I hope!) not take kindly to being electronically tagged so that all their movements could be monitored, or to having cameras installed in their house so the police can watch what they do, but the internet still seems new and different enough that maybe it doesn’t have to be subject to the same rules. So the second reason is “Because the internet’s new enough and perceived as dangerous enough that many people will accept invasions of their privacy that they’d never accept in the physical world”.

3. If I was more paranoid, I’d add a third reason here, pointing out that governments and traditional media outlets have very good reasons to be scared of the internet (in terms of its ability to open them up to greater scrutiny in the first case, and make them increasingly irrelevant in the second) and so would have good reasons to try to assert control over it or make people afraid of it or afraid of using it for anything that might mark them out as somehow different. But I’ll leave it at that for now.

“If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear”, according to a lot of people. Personally I prefer “If I’ve done nothing wrong, they’ve got no right to be spying on me”.

The bottom line is, police can still get a warrant if they need to investigate something happening online, and then they can start monitoring communications, just like they’ve always had to do. Maybe having to get a warrant makes it difficult for them to do their job. Good. I want it to be difficult for them. If it’s difficult, they will only investigate things that are actually serious enough to be worth investigating and will leave everyone else alone. If it’s easy, they will be tempted to trawl through everyone’s data looking for any minor infractions or slight deviations from the norm that they can find. And that’s not a direction I’d like this country to be going in :(.

On Internet Censorship

(This post is a bit different from my normal ones. Instead of talking about something from my own life I’m going to have a rant about something that annoyed me from the news. It’s pretty common for things in the news to annoy me, but what’s slightly more unusual is I actually feel somewhat qualified to rant about why I think it’s stupid this time).

So. The Pirate Bay is now blocked by the biggest ISPs in the UK. If, like me, you’re on Virgin Media, BT or one of the other big ones, that link won’t work… it will take you instead to a page explaining why that site’s blocked. (For those of you that didn’t know, The Pirate Bay is a site where you can search for torrent downloads of music, movies, TV shows, operating system ISO images and virtually anything else that can be represented as a chunk of bits).

The block itself won’t have much of an effect; there are a million and one ways round it, from using proxies in other countries to using Tor to using this address helpfully provided by the Pirate Party UK. But I still think the fact that they’ve done this brings up a number of interesting (and concerning to an internet user) issues.

First of all, the block is implemented using the BT CleanFeed system, which was first created only for blocking child porn sites. Most people didn’t have a problem with this originally, although some may have been concerned that it wouldn’t do much good or that there would be bad side effects. (My own personal view, shared by many computer professionals it would seem, is that the filter is so easy to get around as to be completely pointless, and that any small good effects that may come from it would be far outweighed by the problems – sites being wrongly blocked, for example). But at the time, some people voiced worries that this was just the first step and that the system would eventually be used to block other sites that those in power don’t like as well. No way, said the officials in charge. This is only for child porn, which is so abhorrent we have to make a special exception for it. They lied. Now that very same infrastructure is being used in an attempt to prevent copyright infringement as well. What might it be used for next? Blocking “hate speech” (which might sound appealing at first, but could have pretty far-reaching results when you consider how broad and subjective it can be)? Blocking political sites that the government of the day doesn’t approve of (again a matter of opinion)? Of course they’ll say that could never happen, and I hope they’re right. But then they’ve already lied about what it would be used for and gone far beyond their original mandate, so in my opinion they’ve demonstrated that they can’t be trusted with it. There is already a pretty questionable plan afoot to use it to block all “adult” material and make people opt in if they want it unblocked again.

“But”, you might say. “Copyright infringement is still illegal. OK, it’s not as serious as child porn, but it’s still wrong and still against the law, so what’s wrong with using the filter to block sites that allow it?”.

Lots of things, in my opinion. Firstly, The Pirate Bay (and torrent sites in general) do have legal, non-copyright-infringing uses. For example, the last time I downloaded a torrent, it was a new version of Xubuntu for my netbook, which is freely distributable. Torrents are generally faster for downloading these large files than using the normal web. I’ll freely admit that this probably only accounts for a small proportion of The Pirate Bay’s traffic and will be dwarfed by illegal downloading. But there are less clear cut examples. The filter is a blunt instrument – it blocks access to the entire Pirate Bay, not just the copyright-infringing portions. Any site that allows its users to upload their own content (YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, and countless others) is bound to have plenty of illegal stuff (copyrighted and worse) on there at any given time because people can upload it much faster than the sites can check it. Does that mean they should all be blocked as well, just in case?

Also I think the claim that all copyright infringement is wrong or harmful is highly questionable. If I download a torrent of an ancient TV show I used to like that isn’t available anywhere else, who’s been harmed? No-one lost out… I didn’t download it instead of buying the DVD because there IS no DVD to buy, even if I wanted one. This is still illegal but it doesn’t seem wrong to me. Even when it comes to music or films I could have bought instead, it’s still a grey area because there’s no guarantee I actually would have bought them, and therefore no guarantee that anyone’s lost money due to me downloading them. This argument has already been done to death all over the internet, but the copyright system as it stands was never really designed for the times we live in. It worked well back in the days when only large companies had the means to copy things, so it was only affecting large commercial competitors, and not really impinging on the rights of individuals, who mostly couldn’t copy books or records even if they wanted to. But these days everyone and their cat has PCs and smart phones that can effortlessly copy music and movies at the touch of a button, and we’re starting to see that copyright can’t really be enforced in this world without resorting to some quite oppressive measures. A lot of people are questioning whether copyright in its current form is actually worth all the trouble anymore.

You will have got the impression by now that I don’t think these filters are going to work. I don’t, and what’s more, I believe anyone who does expect them to be effective fundamentally misunderstands how the internet works (or else they themselves understand it perfectly well but they’re trying to exploit people who don’t into buying some useless snake-oil filtering product they’re selling). The filter, you see, is basically a blacklist. That means it has a list of “forbidden” sites and everything else is, by default, allowed. But given the vastness of the internet and the speed at which sites appear and disappear, any blacklist is doomed to be forever out of date. For example, there is nothing to stop me putting a copy of The Pirate Bay site up on the domain right now, and it would be accessible to everyone in the UK. The filter wouldn’t be able to prevent that because it has no idea of the existence of the copy of The Pirate Bay until someone updates its blacklist. By the time they get around to that, a hundred other mirror copies of the site might have sprung up in other places, still unfiltered until they also get found and added to the blacklist. Whatever authority is maintaining the list is reduced to playing a very large game of whack-a-mole that they can’t possibly win.

And that’s before even considering proxies (which allow you to access a blocked site by bouncing your connection off an intermediate server somewhere else, completely bypassing the filter), or more advanced solutions like Tor (which encrypts and anonymises all your communication, making it almost impossible for anyone watching your internet traffic to even tell what you’re accessing). There is pretty much no way around this problem unless you go down the road of having a “whitelist” instead, where people are only allowed to access a restricted list of sites that are known to be “safe”, and where all their communications are closely monitored to make sure they aren’t using any clever encryption or proxying to hide what they’re doing. If that were the case, it would completely change the internet as we know it. I wouldn’t have been able to set up this site the way I did, just buying a domain name, pointing it at my server and starting to write articles. I would have had to get government permission to do it, would have had to get the site vetted to make sure it’s not breaking any rules, possibly have to prove that I own the copyright of every last little thing I post (or even link to)… and presumably would have to be re-checked every time I added new content to make sure I was still worthy of the whitelist.

Even then, even with all the stupendous amount of effort it would take to police such a system, I actually doubt that it would remain water-tight for very long. Given a combination of clever tricks like steganography (hiding nefarious data within harmless looking data), and the security holes that plague virtually all new software, it would still be possible for enterprising people to share whatever they wanted. Or they could just ditch the “official” internet and setup a new one using cheap wireless comms technology, which is everywhere now.

Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that stopping the “free” internet now would be like shutting the stable door after the horse has not only bolted, but flipped the security guard the V sign, mooned the CCTV camera, set free all of the other horses and had a wild party with them, culminating in burning the entire stable block to the ground.

If it’s that futile, then why do politicians keep trying? Well, it’s mostly just posturing to try and look good, in my opinion. None of them is going to stand up in front of parents whose votes they want and say “sorry, but we can’t completely rid the internet of child porn”, or in front of corporations whose donations they want and say “sorry, we can’t completely stop people downloading your movies/software for free”. They’re going to keep up the tough talk about tackling the challenges of the internet, even if “tackling” them in this way makes about as much sense to anyone computer literate as investing in perpetual motion machines to solve the energy problem.

Summary: you won’t stop people using the internet to do Bad Things with a little bit of tweaking around the edges, only by tearing down the whole system and starting again (even then you still probably won’t succeed). And I don’t want you to do that. Please don’t.