The new University Law degree, Boris Johnson style

We at the UEA, would  like to let it be known that we offer the perfect law course for any women who, as Boris Johnson suggests, is coming to university primarily to catch and marry Mr Right.

There are many elements to that law degree, each of which can help you in this task – and help you to deal with the many problems that can occur in the process. Each has a part to play – and don’t forget that it’s not just about catching your man!

Tort Law – Whom to sue when he lets you down for misrepresentation

Contract Law – How to keep him for life

Criminal Law – What to do if Mr ‘Right’ takes a ‘playful tiff’ too far

Family Law – How to ditch him when he turns out to be Mr Wrong

Constitutional Law – Crucial, if you’re lucky enough to snare someone in line for the throne

EU law – What happens if Mr Right is a johnny foreigner?

Law and medicine – The ethical issues of tending to Mr Right’s wounded pride

Trust Law – How to turn all those empty promises into real money

Company Law – Understanding what Mr Right does all day in the City

Commercial Law – What’s yours is his, what’s his stays his

Land Law – How to sell your flat when it’s time to move in with Mr Right

Competition Law – What to do when you’re two-timed, and how to deal with unfair competition.

Employment law – Knowing what to do when your nanny or housecleaner calls in sick

Internet Law – When and how you can find out what he’s doing online

Media Law – How to get that key injunction when the paparazzi catch Mr Right out

It’s everything you need – who could possibly want more? It’s not as though women want education for any other reason.

The course texts will include regular subscriptions to Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, as well as ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’.

*Errr… in case you didn’t realise, this is a joke….

**This post inspired by the excellent David Mead, with contributions from others in the Law School at the UEA.

Labour: time for a new ‘third way’?

The Falkirk row doesn’t look at all comfortable for Ed Miliband and Labour. Accusation and counter-accusation, a crucial resignation and now the police involved – but more important, perhaps, that the details, it asks huge questions about the current and future direction of Labour. Are they, as some sections of the media would have it, still in thrall to those ancient dinosaurs the unions? Or are they, as many on the left would suggest, little more than a ‘Tory-lite’ party, run by former Blairites and career politicians only in it for themselves: Tories with red ties.

On the surface, both claims seem to have substance. UNITE is clearly attempting to have an influence on Labour policy. So is Progress. Both have strong voices and strong reasons to do so. There are articulate, clever, politically-able people on both sides of the debate. ‘Remember your history’ say those on the side of the unions, ‘remember how you lost all those elections’ say those on the side of Progress, ‘and how Blair won all his’. Which way will Ed Miliband lean?

And yet, are those really the only two options? ‘Kow-towing’ to the unions, or ‘selling your soul’ to the corporates?

Perhaps it is time for Ed to find his own ‘third way’. Perhaps he could remember Labour’s history – but from a slightly different angle. Remember not just that Labour emerged from the unions – but why it was necessary for it to emerge from the unions. It didn’t emerge in that way because the unions were hungry for power – or even greedy for power – but because the people that the unions represented had no voice in politics. It emerged to provide an alternative to the existing powers: an alternative view and an alternative future.

Even a cursory look at today’s politics suggests that there are parallels with that situation now. The three main political parties are far too similar – and effectively represent the same kind of people and have the same outlook. They all offer the same ‘solution’ to the current crisis – the austerity ‘solution’ which doesn’t really seem to be a solution at all. No alternative is offered – and that provides the opportunity for a third way. Vast groups of people are suffering hideously – and seem to have no way to stop that, and no voice speaking for them.

What does that mean? Well, it means finding a way to support these people, and to find an alternative way. Ed doesn’t need to be in thrall to the unions – but he does need to understand how badly people are suffering, and to find a way to help them. And helping them wouldn’t mean that he was kow-towing to the unions – he should, for example, have opposed the Workfare programme NOT because the unions ‘told’ him to, but because it was a hideous and damaging programme. He should oppose many of Mr Gove’s ‘reforms’ of the education system NOT because the teaching unions tell him to – but because they’re retrograde, counter-productive and demoralising to the whole education system. There are parallels in many, many different areas.

If Labour can find this way – start being more active in opposing the false ‘strivers vs scroungers’ agenda, stop trying to match the Tories cut-for-cut in the austerity drive, then not only would Labour be a more distinctive and coherent party, they would also have a chance to be more independent of the unions…. because the unions would have both less desire and less need to interfere, to try to ‘influence’ policy or even candidate selection. Their members would feel less disenfranchised – and would feel Labour was more on their side. That’s what they want, I suspect. Some may be after power for power’s sake – but most just want to feel that they haven’t been abandoned, that what’s happening to them is being taken seriously. Right now, it doesn’t look as though it is. Politics looks as though it’s for the politicians, that’s all.

Will it happen? I doubt it very much. Right now the Labour Party looks as though it’s trapped – and that the ‘no alternative’ route will be taken. Finding the nerve, the guts to change that seems to be beyond the current Labour Party. They may still ‘win’ the election – but that ‘win’ would be next to meaningless for almost all of us.

This Falkirk furore, however, does offer an opportunity – at the very least for a reassessment of where Labour are, and what the alternatives are. If Ed Miliband asks the right questions, if he’s aware enough to ask not only what UNITE and others have done but why they might have felt it necessary to do it, there might be a chance that he could find his own third way. I hope he does.

Help us Obi-Wan Tom Watson, you’re our only hope!

Obi wanThe news that Labour MP Tom Watson has resigned from his position as Ed Miliband’s general election coordinator has provoked a lot of reactions – some surprise or even shock, some sadness, even some glee. From one particular perspective, however, Ed Miliband’s loss could be our gain: he could be crucial in the fight against internet surveillance. Indeed, if Labour win the election in 2015 – and despite the problems that the Labour Party have, that’s still a distinct possibility – he could be our only hope.

The Labour Party has a lot of problems over internet surveillance and privacy, as it has over many civil liberties issues. Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown its record was pretty disastrous, from the attempted introduction of ID cards to the ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’ that was the precursor to the Communications Data Bill – the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’. Surveillance seems to bring out the worst of the Labour Party’s authoritarian tendencies – and the ‘war on terror’ makes this even worse. A whole series of Labour Home Secretaries, from David Blunkett to Alan Johnson, succumbed to these tendencies in increasingly depressing ways – and in direct contradiction to the idealism that brought about such things as the Human Rights Act.

Labour badly needs to change this position – and beneath it all, I think many people in the Labour Party realise that. Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, recently said that:

“I believe our rights as citizens are under attack, and that it falls to Labour to be the defender of these rights.”

Khan is right – but he needs to realise that one of the many ways that our rights as citizens are under attack is through the internet surveillance programme – both the legal plans built into the Snoopers’ Charter and the practical ones that seem to have been in action for a while by GCHQ through their Tempora programme and through their cooperation with the NSA’s PRISM. Labour, if they are to be, as Khan puts it, the defender of our rights, needs to find a way to reposition itself as opposed to internet surveillance.

That’s where Tom Watson comes in. In his resignation letter he says the following:

“I wish to use the backbenches to speak out in areas of personal interest: open government and the surveillance state, the digital economy, drones and the future of conflict, the child abuse inquiries, the aftermath of the Murdoch scandal and grass roots responses to austerity.” (emphasis added)

Tom Watson gets it. He understands the internet – and he understands privacy. He has spoken out about the Snoopers Charter already (see here, for example) and though the current anti-surveillance climate after the PRISM revelations means that it’s not coming back very soon, as I’ve blogged before these measures have a tendency to re-emerge. This will – and it will need to be fought. As a back bencher, Tom Watson will have both the time and the opportunity to go against the authoritarian grain of Labour’s policies over surveillance. He can be a voice – and a strong and powerful one – that helps explain the reality of internet surveillance, its impact on people, and the ways in which it infringes our rights, not just theoretically but in practice. Labour has not had such a voice in its party over recent years – and it shows. The other main parties do have such MPs – David Davis for the Tories, Julian Huppert for the Lib Dems – and those MPs were crucial in the fight against the Snoopers’ Charter, raising awareness amongst their fellow MPs amongst other things.

…and awareness matters. One of the key characteristics of MPs when dealing with these issues, sadly, has been that they simply don’t understand the internet. Helen Goodman MP, the Shadow Minister who seems to be the most regular spokeswoman for the Labour Party on internet-related issues has demonstrated time and again that she simply doesn’t get it (see this blog by Terence Eden for an example). That level of lack of understanding is all too apparent pretty much every time internet surveillance is mentioned. If we are to get sensible decisions – sensible rights-based decisions – that ignorance has to be overcome. Talking from the back benches, lobbying from the back benches, Tom Watson has a chance to change that, and to drag the Labour Party into the internet age. It may not be a great chance – the level of ignorance is immense, and the vested interests in the security lobby of such Labour heavyweights as John Reid are pretty powerful – but it is still worth a try.

Help us, Obi-Wan Tom Watson, you’re our only hope….

Privacy, me, and the NSA?

I wrote a piece back in 2011 about how I had first become interested in internet privacy – I reproduce it below (and the original online version is here). The essence of the post is simple. I became interested in internet privacy after I had a chilling experience: writing an email (to a friend) in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan that was critical of US foreign policy – and having my email account almost immediately cancelled. As I wrote back in 2011, I never discovered the real reason for the cancellation – but it started me becoming interested in internet privacy, an interest that changed my whole career.

The PRISM revelations have given me a moment’s pause: perhaps I wasn’t such a conspiracy theorist at all in thinking that my critical email was responsible for the cancellation of my email account. Perhaps I was one of the early victims of the NSA’s full scale email trawling. The email account I had was a Hotmail account, run by Microsoft, one of those companies directly implicated in the PRISM affair, if Snowden’s revelations are to be taken seriously. Of course this is still very much tin-foil hat territory, but the possibilities seem just a touch more likely than they did before.

Anyway, this is what I wrote back in October 2011: privacy is personal!

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My real interest in privacy – and specifically internet privacy – arose a little over ten years ago. Something happened to me that change the way I thought about the whole issue – something personal, something direct. Up until that point I hadn’t really thought much about privacy, though I’d been involved with the online world from a very early stage, setting up projects to provide rural communities with access to information, and trying to provide online education to housebound children in the mid 1990s – not exactly cutting edge stuff, but not too far from it. I’d also been involved in human rights work – most directly children’s rights – but I’d never thought much about privacy. To me, then, just as to many people now, it just didn’t feel important, particularly compared to the problems happening all over the world. 911 had just happened, and war was in the air.

I was living in New Zealand when the US invaded Afghanistan – and I was deeply concerned about the consequences of that action. I wrote about my concern in an email to a friend, also in New Zealand, and in that email I was at least partially critical of US foreign policy. I even mentioned Israel at one point. Some time over the next three hours, my email account became inaccessible.

At the time I was using a free email account – one of the big ones – that I had set up whilst in the US a few years earlier. A ‘.com’ email account. As I was living in a very isolated part of New Zealand, this email account was one of my few links to the outside world. It had all my contacts’ details, and all the messages I had sent and received for a long time – and I had been foolish enough not to keep written records elsewhere of a lot of the details. At first I thought it was just a blip, an accident – and I set up another email account and wrote to the service provider asking what had happened to my account, whether the password had been accidentally reset or something else. I was met with terse replies saying that the account had been terminated for a breach of contract terms. Friends told me to give up, and go with the new account – but I’m not that kind of person. I kept on badgering them, trying to find out what was going on. I hadn’t yet thought that it might be connected with the email that I’d sent. Eventually I got a message saying that I had been using the email for commercial purposes, which is why it had been cancelled – which was absurd, as anyone who knew my financial position at the time would know. Then, about six months later, they reinstated the account, minus all the content, contacts and so forth.

Now of course I have no evidence to prove that the account was cancelled because of that particular email – it may indeed just have been a mistake, the account may even have been hacked into (though such things were much rarer in those days), but even the suspicion was enough to disturb me enormously, and set me on the path that I’m still on today. I started asking how it could have happened, what happens to emails, how easily they can be read, how my privacy might have been invaded. The more I investigated, the more I uncovered, the more interested I became – and it ended up changing my whole life. The perceived invasion of privacy – in a sense it doesn’t even matter if it was real – was so personal that it cut me to the quick.

Back then I had had very little to do with the law – my degree was in mathematics, I qualified as an accountant and worked with technology, not the law. Now, as a result of following this path, I’m a lecturer in a law school at a good university, have published research and submitted a PhD on the subject of data privacy – and it seems even more relevant than it did ten years ago, as the online world has expanded and become more and more intrinsically linked with everything we do. Invasions of privacy do matter – whatever the likes of Mark Zuckerberg might think – and they matter because they’re deeply personal, and touch the parts of us that we really care about.

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