Be more goat…

Tomorrow is the Chinese New Year – and depending on who you talk to, the new year can be called the Year of the Sheep, the Ram, or the Goat. Personally, I’m going for goat.

Goat

Sheep and goats have played a significant part in the history of people all over the world. They come into proverbs and religion – separating the sheep from the goats is the one that springs most readily to mind, and highly relevant in these days where governments seem intent on creating division and setting some people to one side as ‘worse’ than others. David Cameron’s recent suggestion that obese people on benefits should have those benefits cut if they ‘refuse’ treatment is just one of a plethora of attempts to create and emphasise division, to cement in peoples minds the idea that some people are better than others, that some are more deserving than others, and so forth.

That, indeed, was how I always understood the idea of ‘separating the sheep from the goats’. The vicar who I first heard tell it was pretty clear: sheep are better than goats. The Lord is My Shepherd, not my Goat Herd. Sheep are cuter and better. They’re obedient and subservient, and they get their reward as a consequence. We should be like sheep, and let ourselves be herded – not like goats, who are ugly, stubborn and disobedient. We even have a word specially for it: capricious. It’s a primarily negative word – to be unpredictable, ungovernable, stubborn, unwilling to follow rules. Unwilling to be ruled. Don’t be a goat, the message seems to go. Be a sheep.

With the Chinese New Year ahead, the political statements are already making the point. Hong Kong’s CY Leung said that  citizens had better ‘inherit the traits of the sheep, of being tame and friendly, in the New Year’. That’s how governments would like us to be – indeed that’s how ‘the powerful’ all over would like us to be. Tame and friendly. Obedient. Compliant. Not too much trouble. The increasing moves in the UK towards a more authoritarian approach to the internet are just one example. We’re expected to just accept surveillance – like sheep accepting sheepdogs watching us all the time. We’re expected to embrace ‘porn’ filtering – again, it’s for our own good. Being penned in, like sheep. We’re not supposed to question this. We’re supposed to believe that those set to watch us, those who build the fences that pen us in, have our best interests at heart – rather than wish to shear off our wool, roast us and eat us with mint sauce.

And the evidence that they don’t have our best interests at heart seems to be growing all the time – the tax avoidance and evasion stories are just another example of the same sort of stuff we’ve seen before. One rule for the sheep, another for the dogs, still another for the farmers.

So, in this New Year, I say we shouldn’t accept it. Don’t be a sheep. Be a goat. Be awkward. Challenge what we’re told – and disobey the rules if they’re not right. Don’t be afraid to challenge even the biggest trolls on the bridges. Goats can be more powerful than they seem. I’m not afraid of being less cute than a sheep, less valued than a sheep. I’d rather be ugly and ornery than compliant….

Be more goat.

Thanks to David Spencer (@Honxqp) for the quote from CY Leung.

Paris damages the case for mass surveillance…

Predictably, the horrific killings in Paris have led to a number of calls for more, and more invasive powers of surveillance for the police and the intelligence services. This always happens after an atrocity – the horrendous murder of Lee Rigby, for example – but as then, these calls are misguided at best. In particular, what happened in Paris doesn’t make the case for mass surveillance stronger – if anything, it damages that case. A huge amount has been written about this already, and I don’t want to go over the same material yet again, but there are a few key points to bear in mind.

Firstly, that France already has extensive surveillance powers. It already has ID cards. It already has more privacy invasions than we in the UK have – and we have a huge amount. That surveillance, those privacy invasions, didn’t stop the shooting in Paris. Why, therefore, would we believe that similar powers would work better in the UK? Because our police and intelligence services are somehow ‘better’ than the French? To say that’s an unconvincing argument is to put it mildly.

Secondly, and more importantly, it looks almost certain that the perpetrators of the atrocity were already known to the police and intelligence services. They had been identified, and noted. Just as the murderers of Lee Rigby had been identified. And the men accused of the Boston bombings. The intelligence services already knew who they were – so to suggest that more dragnet-style mass surveillance would have helped prevent the atrocity would simply be wrong. Let me say it again. We knew who they were. We didn’t need big-data-style mass surveillance to find them – and that’s supposed to be the point of mass surveillance, insofar as mass surveillance has a point.

Most privacy advocates such as myself are not, despite what the supporters of mass surveillance might suggest, ‘anti-police’ or ‘anti-intelligence services’. Most that I know are very much in favour of the police. None of us like terrorism – and to someone like me, a free-speech advocate, an amateur satirist and even occasional cartoonist – this particular attack hits home very sharply. When we say we oppose mass surveillance, amongst other things it’s because we don’t think it’s likely to work – and in particular, that we think other things are likely to work better.  And the evidence, such as it is, seems to support that. Police and intelligence services do no have unlimited resources – far from it in this age of austerity. If the resources – time, money, energy, intelligence – currently put into mass surveillance systems that are unproven, have huge and damaging side-effect, and are even potentially counterproductive, were, instead, devoted to a more intelligent, targeted approach, it might even be that counterterrorism is more effective. We should be looking for new ways, not going down paths that are costly in both financial and human terms.

The fundamental problem is that terrorism, by its very nature, is hard to deal with. That’s something we have to face up to – and not try to look for silver bullets. No amount of technology, no level of surveillance, will solve that fundamental problem. We shouldn’t pretend that it can.

Politicians of the year…

‘Inspired’ by The Times nomination of Nigel Farage, here is my wholly biased, evidence-free and not exactly serious set of ‘politicians of the year.

Politician of the year: Caroline Lucas
Honourable mention: Dennis Skinner

For sticking to her principles (hell, for even having principles in the first place!) listening to debates and generally being a good human being – something far beyond the reach of most MPs, Caroline Lucas took this award with relative ease – though Dennis Skinner’s NHS speech towards the end of 2014 took the breath away.

Liar of the year: Iain Duncan Smith

Extensive research has yet to find anything that IDS said in 2014 that was actually true. Full reviews of Hansard as well as of all his official speeches have failed, but close friends believe he may have been honest when telling the time once in late October.

Villain of the year: Chris Grayling

For his sadly partially successful attempts to destroy our justice system, Chris Grayling is my villain of the year. Hardly any aspect of the system has not felt his malign touch – what he has done to legal aid is nothing short of criminal, whilst probation and the prisons have been hit horribly and his judicial review plans are hideous. He’s been beaten many times in the courts, but his viciousness lumbers forward all but unabated.

Disappointment of the year: Yvette Cooper

Yvette Cooper had a real opportunity to change the authoritarian direction Labour has been heading since Blair’s embrace of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, and make Labour once again a party that understands the importance of civil liberties. Sadly she’s done pretty much precisely the opposite, seeming to want to ‘out-tough’ Theresa May, to love the surveillance state and out-Farage Farage on border controls. Sad, and totally unnecessary.

Failure of the year: Michael Gove

From leadership contender and the Man Who Would Save Education, Mr Gove has suffered a sacking, been stuck in the Commons toilet and been revealed to be a thoroughly incompetent Chief Whip – losing votes he should have won, having MPs defect just after having lunch with him. The world’s smallest violin is playing the world’s saddest song…

Racist Dog-whistler of the year: Nigel Farage

There are many awards that Nigel Farage could win – ‘Best Actor’ for his impersonation of an anti-establishment figure, despite being as establishment a politician as they come, right down to the employment of his family and full-scale exploitation of expenses rules – but the racist dog-whistles are his real forte. ‘You know the difference’ he told James O’Brien once. Yes, Nigel, we know the difference. And we know exactly what you mean.

Tragic figure of the year: Julian Huppert

Julian Huppert was one of the heroes of the commons in the way he was pivotal in the defeat of the Communications Data Bill – the snooper’s charter – but he went from hero to zero in 2014 by allowing himself to be used by Theresa May to ‘legitimise’ the passing of DRIP. That episode – the act was passed in mere days – was one of the most shameful in parliament’s recent history, and Huppert didn’t just fail to prevent it, he helped make it happen. It didn’t need to, and Huppert’s role in it was simply tragic.

Authoritarian of the year: Theresa May
Dishonourable mentions: David Blunkett, Hazel Blears

For her desire to bring back the snooper’s charter, preferably with all its powers strengthened and made less accountable, for her love of secret courts, and for all-round authoritarianism – and I’m not making this up – Theresa May is a shoe-in for the Authoritarian of the Year award. David Blunkett is past his prime, but still brings back memories of 90-day detention – while Hazel Blears’ supine efforts on the Intelligence and Security Committee make her seem positively starry eyed in the face of authority. Still, neither are a match for Theresa May!

The Mary Whitehouse Award for Puritanical Nanny of the year: Claire Perry
Dishonourable mentions: David Cameron, Helen Goodman

Fairly stiff competition for this award, but Perry wins in for her championing of ineffective, over-blocking Internet filtering systems. Cameron came close by championing of Perry, and Goodman would have loved to have had the chance. Perry, Cameron and Goodman would also have been in the running for the ‘technologically incompetent politician of the year’ award if it were not for the fact that more than 95% of MPs reached world-championship levels of technological incompetence.

Curate’s Egg of the year: Simon Danczuk

Danczuk is a quintessential Curate’s Egg: brilliant in relation to child abuse, abysmal over welfare and even worse about immigration. Tirelessly seeking out the truth about child abuse – but accepting the worst and most damaging of myths over ‘scroungers’ and strangers.

Cock of the year: Penny Mordaunt
Dishonourable mention: Brooks Newmark

It was a close run thing between Penny’s speech and Brooks’ Paisley pyjamas, but Penny’s cock was calculated whilst Brooks’ was essentially a cock-up, so Penny has the edge. She is the cock, rather than just having one.

Peacock of the year: Keith Vaz

Want a quote? Ask Keith. Want a photo? Ask Keith. Want to meet a Romanian at Luton Airport? Ask Keith. You ask for it, Keith will do it, and shake his tail feathers too.

‘The wrong tie’ award for MPs representing the wrong party: Danny Alexander
Dishonourable mention: Tristram Hunt

Danny Alexander just pips the rest of the Lib Dems and pretty much the entire Labour Front Bench for this critical award. He’s a Tory’s Tory, and if it wasn’t for the fact that his constituency is in Scotland he would probably have defected years ago. Tristram Hunt attempts to emulate Alexander’s Tory imitation, mostly by channelling mid-period Michael Gove, but doesn’t have Alexander’s sheer shamelessness in following Tory policy to the finest detail. Nice try though.

The Bulldog Award for persistence: Tom Watson

Not content with taking on Murdoch, Tom Watson is still pursuing the historical sexual abuse cases with patience and persistence – let’s hope 2015 finally starts to see some results.

…and finally…

The Clegg Award for broken promises: George Osborne

Osborne has shown a knack for missing every target he sets himself. He hasn’t quite matched Clegg for direct promise-breaking, nor has he managed an apology, let alone an auto-tuned one, but his record for missing targets is nothing short of remarkable.

50 at 50….

Today is my 50th birthday – and as you can imagine that has meant a lot of reflection, a lot of retrospection, and a fair amount of contemplation. Lots of interesting ideas came, themes, thoughts… but mostly, my feeling right now is one of general happiness and wonder. Life can be pretty hideous at times – but it can be wonderful too, and the thing that seems to make it wonderful to me is often random, seemingly unconnected stuff. The best things that have happened to me have very often – almost always – been unpredictable, chaotic, even sometimes dangerous.

A few things I do know. I know that you don’t have to lose your ideals as you grow older. I know that you don’t have to become more conservative as you grow older. I know that you don’t have to become more selfish as you grow older. I know that you don’t have to get grumpier as you get older. I know that you don’t have to get more afraid as you get older. I know that you don’t have to stop loving life, loving people, and loving things as you get older. I love things because I love them – not really for any rational reasons, but just because I love them. Yes, that means family and friends, but that’s not for here or for now. Here and now, I just want to set down a few things – well, 50 things, because I like numbers (!) – that make me smile, and that in some ways make me what I am.

Everything here matters to me in some way – and has some connection to what it feels to me to be 50, to be alive, to be here. This is not a carefully calculated list – making sure there are no omissions, or that everything is in balance – but mine has not been a carefully calculated life. Very much the opposite – successful long term plans have been very much the exception, not the rule. Anyway, in the unlikely event you’re interested, here they are, in no particular order – or rather, in the random order that they came to my mind.

1 Bacon

streaky_bacon
2 Studio Ghibli

mononoke

3 Wolves

wolves

4 Wolves

wolvesfc

5 Protests

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 15.19.19

6 Marmite

Marmite

7 Romania

romania-2

8 Snow Leopards

Snow_Leopard_Sitting_In_Rocks_600

9 Cambridge

Pembroke_Homepage_LowRes_0046_header

10 Fatherhood

11 Marvin Gaye

marvin

12 Socialism

red-flag-madrid-spain-may

13 Travelling

map

14 The Princess Bride

swordfight

15 Twitter

Twitter

16 Realising I’m wrong about something

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 07.51.35

17 Multiculturalism

multicultural

18 Dumplings

dumplings

19 The Clash

Clash210513

20 Train journeys

train2

21 Law

scales

22 Cold, clear days

cold clear day

23 Trees

24 Sushi

sushi

25 Bringing Up Baby

bringing-up-baby

26 Computers

old mac

27 Children’s films

Merida

28 Parodies

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 07.38.14

29 Regina Spektor

Regina-Spektor-midcoast-9771

30 Mathematics

trigonometery

31 Indigo snakes

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

32 Boston Legal

Boston-Legal-cast

33 Gene Wolfe

Gene-Wolfe-007

34 Poetry

Windscale

35 Surprises

surprised-animals-3

36 Dartmoor

dartmoor

37 Axolotls

axolotl1-960x960

38 Castles

Castle 2

39 Croquet

croquet

40 Judge Dredd

dredd

41 Social Justice

social_justice

42 Bridge

Bridge

43 Cooking

Toad

44 Tea

mug-of-tea

45 Roast dinners

Roast beef

46 Ancient history

47 Beethoven

beethoven-1

48 Steve Bull

Steve Bull

49 Writing

writing

50 Fairy Tales

Fairy tale

———————–

Well, that’s me for now. Congratulations for reaching this far – it’s been a bit of a trek. I hope I keep trekking a lot longer.

A new Snoopers’ charter, drip by drip?

Snoopy with charterWhen the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act was passed with undue haste this summer, the one ‘saving grace’ promised to us by the Liberal Democrats, hitherto guardians of our civil liberties and killers of the Snoopers’ Charter, was the ‘sunset clause’ of December 2016, and the promise of careful and considered review of powers before then.

That careful and considered review – or rather several careful and considered reviews – began. Specifically, the Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee continued the review that it had begun before the hasty passing of DRIP, while the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation began his own consultation. Both these reviews do seem to have been both careful and considered – I made submissions to both of them, and was invited to a highly illuminating ’round table’ session by the ISC, as well as receiving a fast and clear response by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation that showed he had read and understood what I said. In both cases, the feeling I was left with was one of cautious optimism. Those of us advocating a more privacy-friendly, less invasive approach were being listened to, or so it seemed….

…but at the same time, something very different seems to have been happening. There have been a series of speeches by important people that seem to be working directly against that careful, considered approach. The incoming head of GCHQ made a speech that was remarkably aggressive – effectively calling Google and Facebook tools for terrorists. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police followed that with what amounted to an anti-privacy tirade, in particular condemning the use of encryption, and saying that the net had become a ‘safe-haven for terrorists and paedophiles’. Both seemed to be trying to suggest that the social media was an untamed wilderness that needed to be reined in – and at the same time seemed to want to inspire fear of the ‘deep, dark web’. The Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, followed that with a speech suggesting that Article 8 – the right to a private life – had gone too far, and again invoking the threat of terrorists and paedophiles.

…and then, yesterday, Theresa May announced more powers for the police – technical powers, crucial, she said, for the fight against terror. Technical, and yet not discussed with the Internet Service Providers Association, or, seemingly, with those few MPs (such as Julian Huppert) who actually understand the internet, at least to some degree.

…and all this, at the same time as the reviews are taking place. It has the feeling of a drip, drip, dripping, trying to build up a stronger ‘anti internet freedom’ atmosphere. ‘The internet is something to be scared of, full of paedophiles, terrorists and extremists’ so needs to be reined in. Theresa May openly admits she wants to bring back the Snoopers’ Charter – despite its defeat the last time around – so she’s trying to lay the foundations for its return. Working on our resistance. Wearing us down. Trying, it seems, to make sure that the careful, considered review is anything but careful and considered – because the invocation of terrorists and paedophiles makes it impossible to be careful and considered. If you aren’t in favour of these obviously sensible measures, you’re on the side of the extremists, of the terrorists, of the paedophiles. Today, whilst debating the subject on Twitter, I was effectively told that I would have blood on my hands if I opposed the extension of powers.

We should do our very best to resist this. The review must be careful and considered – because there are significant and important issues at stake. Privacy matters – as do all the rights and needs that it supports, from freedom of expression to freedom of assembly and association. Civil liberties like these need privacy – because without that privacy there is a distinct and direct chill. Those of us who suggest that surveillance has gone too far can point to a number of recent revelations – that communications between journalists and their sources, between lawyers and their clients, between prisoners and their MPs, have all been compromised. This matters – and needs to be taken seriously.

On the other hand security also matters – and none of those who I know as privacy advocates deny this, despite what some of our opponents might suggest. We know that it matters – and want to have a sensible, rational, level-headed review of the whole system. We don’t expect our privacy needs to override security – but we do expect that some kind of a balance can be found. That needs an atmosphere without the kind of hyperbole that has been produced in the last few weeks. Can we find that? It does not seem very hopeful at the moment, particularly with a general election looming at the two major parties seemingly competing to see who can be ‘tougher’. I hope we can be equally tough – but tough in terms of fighting for our rights. If we’re not, then we’ll have a new Snoopers’ Charter before we’re even aware what is happening.

 

#TweetlikeanMP?

A year or two back, the hashtag #TweetlikeanMP trended – and it was fun. Inane tweets about meeting and greeting constituents, about party loyalty, about attending crucial meetings with business groups, lovely photo opportunities and so on. It was funny because it was, to a great extent, true – and because it revealed something about the way that our politics works. It also showed how badly MPs generally used Twitter – how they missed the opportunities that Twitter provides, opportunities to genuinely engage with their constituencies, to listen as well as to broadcast to the populace how wonderful they are. Opportunities to show that they’re human – and not just this remote, elite group looking down on the rest of us.

In the last couple of years, I’ve ‘met’ a fair few MPs who have been able to do it differently – to understand how Twitter can really work, and to engage with it. My own MP, Julian Huppert, is one of them – in practice, tweeting ‘to’ him is the best way to engage with him. I get answers – and real ones – most of the time, and I get the sense that he’s actually listening.He’s not alone – and it’s not been, so far, a party thing. I’ve engaged with MPs of all parties online, and of a wide range of views within each party. Michael Fabricant, Jamie Reed, Caroline Lucas amongst others – and members of the House of Lords from Ralph Lucas, Meral Hussein-Ece, Steve Bassam. I’ve even exchanged tweets with Nigel Farage. It felt as though twitter gave an opportunity to reach out to politicians, and to actually engage with them…

….which is one of the reasons I’m deeply saddened by what happened to Emily Thornberry last night. It’s not that I think her tweeted picture was anything but foolish, ill-judged, insensitive and revealing. It was all of those things… but the consequences are likely to be that MPs will retreat into their shells on social media. The way that she resigned just a few hours after ‘the’ tweet will have sent shivers down the spines of MPs across the spectrum – and party whips will be, well, cracking the whip, to keep their MPs in line for these next six months. We’ll see less humanity, less engagement, less humour – and much more ‘tweeting like an MP’ from everyone. An opportunity for politics to become more engaged will be lost – and at a time when the detachment of MPs from ordinary people is one of the main problems in politics, as Thornberry’s tweet sadly shows.

Of course there are other reasons to find yesterday’s turn of events saddening – from the level of abuse that Thornberry got on Twitter (regardless of what you think of the tweet, abuse like that is deeply unpleasant) to the fact that we’ve lost another woman from frontline politics, and another of those increasingly rare lawmakers who actually understands law has departed for the backbenches, at a time when parliament is trying to put through legal absurdities like Chris Grayling’s ‘Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill’ (SARAH).

Don’t misunderstand me – in the circumstances I’m not at all surprised that Thornberry resigned, and I do understand why Labour MPs like Chris Bryant were so sure that she was right to do so. I do, however, think that the consequences may be wider than we suspect – and one part is that we’ll see far more MPs just tweeting like MPs, not like human beings. That, regardless of the rest, is sad.

Surveillance, power and chill…. and the Chatham House Rule

Yesterday I attended a conference at Wilton Park about privacy and security – some really stellar people from all the ‘stakeholders’, industry, government, civil society, academia and others, and from all over the world. A version of the Chatham House rule applied, making the discussion robust and open…. something to which I will return.

At one point, in a conversation over coffee, one of the other delegates asked me a direct question: had I seen any evidence of the ‘chilling effect’ of surveillance. They’d been told the previous day by someone from civil society that in the US there had been a direct chill – in particular of advocacy groups – as a result of the Snowden revelations, something that has been reported before a number of times, but that it’s hard to ‘prove’ in ways that seem to convince people. As I sipped my coffee I thought about it – and realised that I, personally, had seen two different but very graphic and direct examples of chill in the past few weeks, though I hadn’t thought of either of them in that kind of a direct way.

The first was the Samaritans Radar debacle. Not just theoretically, but individually I had been told by more than one person that they were keeping off Twitter for a while as a result of feeling under observation as a result of Samaritans Radar. Their tweets could be being scanned, and by people who they didn’t trust, and who they felt could do them harm. The second was even more direct, but I can’t give details. Another person, who felt under real, direct threat – their life in danger – told me they would be keeping offline for a while.

In both cases they felt threatened – not just because they felt under surveillance, but because they felt themselves under surveillance by others who have power over them. The power, it seemed to me, was one of keys – and one of the reasons that so many people, particularly in the UK, don’t find surveillance threatening. Where Samaritans Radar was concerned, a lot of the people affected were the sort of people who are vulnerable in various ways – partly because of their mental health issues, but more directly because they were under threat, whether from trolls and stalkers or from certain people in positions of authority. Some have very good reason to worry about how the local authorities or even mental health services might treat them. Or how their relatives might treat them. For my other friend, the threat was even more direct – and proven.

So yes, the chill of surveillance is real. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s real for precisely those people that need support in freedom of expression terms. People whose voices are heard the least often – and people who have the most need to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that our modern communications systems offer. The internet can enable a great deal, particularly for people in those kinds of positions – from freedom of expression to freedom of assembly and association and much, much more – but surveillance can not just jeopardise that but reverse it. If it only enables freedom of speech for those already with power, it exacerbates the power differences, and makes those already quiet even quieter, whilst those with power and voice can get their messages across even more powerfully.

…which bring me back to the conference, and the Chatham House Rule. Even the existence of the rule makes it clear that we understand that the chilling effect exists. If we know that for people to really speak freely, they need to know that their comments will not be attributed to them – the essence of the rule – then we must make the leap to recognise that surveillance chills. Surveillance is precisely about linking people’s communications to them as individuals – not just what they say, but what they seek out to read. At our conference, we gave ourselves – the vast majority of us people with at least some power and influence – the benefits of this. Surveillance, and mass surveillance by others with power over us – whether that means our or other governments, massive corporations (Google, Facebook etc) or others – denies that benefit to us all.