When slogans are not enough

I was 18 years old in 1979; people of a certain age will remember that year as being the start of the ‘Thatcher Years’ – the start of 11 years of Tory Government that was characterised by radical right wing policies, many originating from the Chicago School of Monetarism, jingoistic manipulation of the electorate in a popular war (The Falklands).  The economic policies ensured a destruction of large swathes of British manufacturing industry, steel and coal, and it might be argued that it was a ‘mild’ form (relatively speaking) of the shock and awe school of political change that alumni of the Chicago School had already inflicted on Chile and other countries in the 1970s.

I entered the workforce in the middle of all this, working in Education for 18 months or so before becoming self-employed in IT, and witnessed the destruction of the communities in which I’d grown up and the politicisation and vilification in the media of family and friends in the  mining villages and towns of Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire.  I witnessed troops used as policemen and experienced roadblocks that prevented free travel within the UK.  It’s safe to say that those years coloured the political views of a whole generation – and still do today.

Which is why I could initially understand the surge of groups on Facebook and other online communities with names like ‘National Don’t Vote Tory Day’.

And after a while I began to think that this is rather a dumb and negative way to decide who to vote for.  To start with, it’s 13 years since a Tory Government – twenty years since Thatcher lost power when the great and the good of the Tory establishment decided that she was a liability and threw her out in a coup.  You need to be at least 31 years old to have actually been an adult under a Tory government, but it seems to be within the under 30 age group that this sort of group is popular.

As will be known to anyone who reads this blog or follows my tweets, I have little time for New Labour.  I have little time for the Tories or the Liberal Democrats either.  Which, I appreciate, means I have some serious thinking to do before the General Election.  I believe in small Government, subsidiarity and local, sustainable communities.  I believe in freedom of speech and expression, reduction in the intrusive powers of the state and controlled and managed immigration to the UK based on a points system for economic migrants and proof of oppression in the last country they were in for political asylum seekers. I believe in strong defence, continued possession of a tactical nuclear weapons capability, healthcare free at point of delivery, and a benefits system as a last ditch support for folks who genuinely need it.  I’m interested in seeing whether a flat rate of taxation would work, along with reduced red-tape for business, closer scrutiny of banking institutions, no further formal integration with Europe, repeal of the majority of Human Rights legislation and replacement with a written constitution.  And on a more personal basis, reform of copyright, patent and libel legislation to take on board the fact that the world’s changed.

In other words, a rag-bag, hodge-podge of policies which no party will offer.  But at least I’ve thought about what I believe in, and can make most of it join up.  Which is where the ‘Don’t vote Tory’ sloganising is ridiculously naive.  Wheeling out any party as a bogey man – especially one out of power for 15 years – is daft.  I demonise New Labour when, in my eyes and against the principles and policies I personally believe in, they deserve it – I’d like to feel that folks who’re signing up to the ‘Don’t Vote Tory’ sites have at least thought through their own political views and aren’t just signing up to the latest ‘slogan of the month’ based on what happened before many of them were actually old enough to directly experience it.

Slogans aren’t enough; I’d say one thing – if you disagree with a party’s politics, know WHY you disagree with them.  Think about it.  If you don’t like any of them, vote for the one that you disagree with least.  There’s an assumption of trust and competence here, which I’m not sure we can give or expect from any of the major parties this time around. 

I’m still to make my mind up.  I have significant issues with New Labour and the Tories; I was sort of leaning towards Liberal Democrat until I looked at their policies on Europe and Immigration policy, and I’m not convinced that their finances add up.  And I’m still not capable of trusting them on civil liberties and issues of Government intrusion in to the lives of citizens. 

But for crying out loud – please, please, think about it.

The obligatory General Election Post

Some years ago, a joke did the rounds about the first Albanian astronaut.  The main thing you need to know is that at the time the joke was told Albania was a head-bangingly totalitarian Marxist state with total media control.    Anyway….

Albania manages to launch an astronaut in to orbit, and Radio Tirana announces the fact with great pomp and circumstance.   The country goes wild, and there is much celebration.  Which goes on for days.  Anyway, after a few days Nico turns up at the office looking a bit of a mess, and his boss hauls him in for a telling off, particularly about his wrinkled shirt and tie.

“It’s not my fault, boss, i’s the fault of that damn astronaut…”

“How come,” says his boss.

” Well, the only thing on the radio for the last few weeks has been about the astronaut, so I turned on the TV. There was nothing on there except for stories about the astronaut and his family.  So I went to buy a newspaper – again, full of stuff about this guy.  Same with magazines and books – nothing but stuff about this guy.  I bought some records and tapes – all full of songs about the bloody astronaut…all the muzak in the market from the loudspeakers, even the hold signal on the telephone…all this bugger!”

“OK, but how does this explain your shirt and tie?”

“Well, I didn’t dare turn the iron on to iron anything because I was scared that news of the astronaut might come out of it….”

And that’s sort of how I’m starting to feel only a little over a week in to the campaign.  The news media are doing their best to make the event in to a super-duper, highly exciting news event, but it’s hard going.  And I think there are a few reasons for this. 

We’ve lost faith in politicians and the political process.  They’ve proved themselves singularly unfit to govern in the last year or so through their attitude towards expenses and the like, and it increasingly appears that politicians of all parties the world over have been unable to manage national economies when confronted by global interests such as the banks.

There is a higher level of distrust of politicians than at any time in my memory.  The current government claimed they wouldn’t increase income tax in the Parliament – they lied.  They lied about the circumstances around the invasion of Iraq. They’ve introduces law after law that erodes our basic civil liberties.  From the opposition parties we have heard very few loud protesting voices.  The Liberal Democrats are so keen to achieve some element of power that they won’t even give a straight answer as to how they would determine which party to support in the event of a hung Parliament.  I’d like to think that this is because they’ll play each vote on it’s merits, but given the fact that it was Liberal Democrat peers who tightened up the Digital Economy Bill, I don’t particularly trust them either.  And the Tories – those of us with long memories know that the Tories were just as bad liars when they were in power.

I have no idea how I’m voting yet.  The best I’ve got so far is a few precepts, in order of application:

  • I will vote for whichever party will not introduce more laws that stifle our civil liberties – even better the party that will revoke some of the more outrageous laws bought in over the last 13 years.
  • I will vote for whichever party undertakes to keep the hand of State out of my day to day life – i.e. that will impose a smaller Government on me and that at least does something to decrease the red tape I encounter trying to run a business.
  • I will vote for whichever party promises to give me an effective and streamlined public sector and health service – not the bloated monstrosity we seem to have today.

All bets are off for me; I won’t be voting for a minority party – it will be either one of the ‘Big Three’ in England or a spoilt ballot paper.  I’m old enough to remember the impact of the unions under Callaghan in the late 1970s, and the economic devastation wreaked on the economy by Thatcher in the early 1980s.  Oddly enough, on a personal basis I’ve always been better off under the Tories and suffered under Labour, but would never consider voting Tory because it went agaisnt my attitudes about society.  How ironic that NuLab, therefore, have introduced policies that attack our liberties in ways that the Tories would never have dared.

I have no idea how I’ll be voting.  Watch this space and if I work out what I’m doing I’ll tell you.

You may have missed this…the day China pulled the plug.

You might have missed this.  I certainly did – but then again for the last week or two I’ve been running around like the proverbial ‘blue arsed fly’ trying to juggle a variety of personal, professional and voluntary responsibilities whilst avoiding cat-induced sleep deprivation.  Anyway…where were you when China appeared to ‘turn off’ access to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all over the world?

Because yes, it actually happened – from sometime on Wednesday traffic destined for the servers of these three social media giants was noticed to be going to servers based in the People’s Republic of China.   Technicians overseeing the world’s DNS systems (the ‘phone books’ of the Internet that tell servers and routers around the Internet where to send traffic to) noticed this, and eventually traced it back to a node on the DNS system in Sweden, that may have either been accidentally reconfigured or deliberately reconfigured by hackers.  Whatever the reason, it’s been an eye opener in principle, it means that any reasonably equipped government or terrorist organisation can subvert the whole routing system of the Internet – at least until the holes that allowed this to happen are secured.

The nature of the Internet is such that it has always been possible to do this sort of subversion; it’s just that the Net has never been important enough to be worth worrying about until recently.    The recent kerfuffle between Google, the Government of the PRC and the US Government has put the Internet firmly on the political stage – much more prominently than took place during the Iranian disturbances last summer.  (I’ll be commenting again on Google / PRC in the next few days, but here are my previous comments on that particular story)

It’s almost certain that this was an act either ordered or condoned by the government of the People’s Republic.  Their much vaunted ‘Green Dam’ is clearly capable of acting way beyond the borders of the PRC, especially if the remote control ‘exploits’ are used to take control of PCs running the program.  This would effectively give the PRC a massive cyberwarfare potential, with every PC legally installed in the PRC being capable of taking part in a botnet.

This action very much appears to be a shot across the international community’s bows; the PRC demonstrated their ability to break the Internet.  There are ways around this intrusion, of course, and steps will be taken to deal with it, but it does show that the gloves are off in what is increasingly a battle of wills between governments wishing to restrict what their citizens can read online and those that aren’t interested.  And I’m afraid that I have to include some democratic governments – like Australia – in that list.

The Internet is a political weapon; last Dceember I commented on how the rules of online civil unrest might be changing, as people on the receiving end of protest decided to do something about it – in that item it was Iran and Twitter.  It may well be that that was simply the beginning of ongoing efforts from repressive regimes to control the streets of cyberspace as well as the streets of their own cities.  What is important to realise is that the nature of the Internet – it’s flexibility, expandability, it’s ability to be used for things that the original creators had never even thought of – is at the root of the relative ease with which people can break it.

Unfortunately I expect the ‘powers that be’ to react to this sort of threat by using it as an excuse to tighten up various aspects of security and surveillance on the Net.  Expect legislation such as ACTA and The Digital Economy Bill to be tightened up in a ‘9/11’ style response to this act of online retaliation.

Facebook and the panic button….

Since the recent case in which a teenage girl was groomed and murdered by a paedophile via the Facebook site, there has been a lot of pressure from the UK Government for Facebook to put a ‘Panic Button’ style link on the site – a move supported by the CEOP organisationFacebook have commented that they have no objection in principle to making it easier to report abuse on the site, but that they feel that the CEOP supported option is not necessarily the best way.

Facebook are far from perfect in the way that they treat their users; I think all of us who use the site would have our own grumbles about privacy and the attitude of Facebook as a whole towards individual users now that they’ve got big.  But to be honest I think I would rather central Government stayed out of issues like this – especially New Labour, who seem to have spent the last decade dismantling our civil liberties bit by bit.  For a previous broader comment on this issue, I direct you to this item from a year ago, in which author Phillip Pullman commented on the behaviour of New Labour.

Since then we’ve had the Digital Economy Bill – even without the Lib Dem Peers’ Amendments it was a pretty poor piece of legislation.  With the amendments it offers a wonderful means of stifling debate by simply shutting down access to any site that breaches copyright.  Under the Bill, as it stands, and if it were strictly applied, YouTube could be blocked to UK ISPs because of material that breaches copyright. 

Part of the problem with New Labour is their amazing ability to put together piss-poor legislation on a ‘knee jerk’ basis.  A lone gun nut leads to a total handgun ban – which doesn’t affect criminals as they tend to disobey the law anyway.   Despite massive increases in the legislation aimed at child protection, the very basic laws that were there all along fail to be implemented and children keep getting killed.  And there are many more examples.  One interpretation of this repeated series of cock-ups is that they’re just incompetent; my own interpretation is that New Labour are just incredibly keen on reducing our civil liberties as much as they can to have a nicely compliant and obedient citizenry.

The issue for me here is not just the Facebook reporting mechanism; I’m afraid I regard that as something of a ‘thin end of the wedge’, by which Government could influence and impact the policies of web sites not even based in Britain.  It’s not far from that sort of thing to the  censorship policies adopted by China and, more recently, but to a lesser degree, Australia.  Protesting about this sort of Government activity, which initially starts with child protection, is a little bit like trying to answer the question ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ in a way that doesn’t make you guilty.  But given this Governments record on civil liberties I’m afraid I do not and cannot trust them. 

As  Rousseau said “Free people, remember this maxim: we may acquire liberty, but it is never recovered if it is once lost.

And we’re losing it bit by bit.

ACTA – Why is the Government not informing MPs about this Agreement?

TopSecretHave you heard of ACTA?  How about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement?  No?  Well, you’re probably not alone.  After all, here in the UK the Government won’t even put documents regarding the Agreement in to the House of Commons Library.   Of course, our New Labour defenders of freedom have lots of reasons for not doing this, most of them playing the ‘National Interest’ card, but one has to wonder whether that’s all there is to it.

To give you a little background, take a look at this brief outline of the provisions and process of ACTA.  Like most things that trans-national bodies come up with, they sound bland and almost useful to start with but the Devil is, as always, buried in the details.  And not buried deeply here.  The Horns and the tip of Old Nick’s tail are definitely visible!  Nominally, ACTA was put together to prevent counterfeiting and piracy of branded goods; immediately you can see that it’s beneficiaries are likely to be big corporations.  Whilst you might immediately think of dodgy Guffi handbags on the flea-market, or pirated DVDs, it also extends to less obvious things like machine parts, electronic components, drugs, etc.  In fact any copyrighted goods.  So far, sort of so good – but it also throws in sections dealing with piracy across the Internet and other aspects related to what might loosely be described as ‘means of piracy’, which is where the fun starts.

This BBC item from last yearindicates some of the concerns.  Some of the aggressive policies put forward last year against Internet pirates (or suspected pirates) here in the UK were almost certainly a product of ACTA, and the current Deep Packet Inspection trial by Virgin (whilst hitting a few legal issues) would no doubt warm the cockles of ACTA’s stony heart.  ACTA will allow for a great deal more intrusive observation by ISPs, Governmental bodies and other interested parties of our Internet traffic, will support fairly swinging penalties and because it’s a very broad-based, international agreement will have the stench of globalisation about it.  And it’s not just your Internet connection that’s of interest.  If you take your computer across international borders – in principle, ANY form of digital storage – then ACTA would permit it to be searched.  And this might easily include the SD cards in your camera, your Blackberry, your iPod.

Concerned yet?  Lots of fuss has been made about the ‘three strikes and you’re off the Net’ laws being developed in a number of countries that are likely to be signatory to ACTA when it’s finally agreed and ratified.  But that’s just the end of the process.  ACTA is the issue of concern as it legalises nothing more than wholesale invasion of privacy by private companies in to our personal lives.

It’s not just the UK Government keeping this business sub-rosa.  Here’s a Canadian take.  Fortunately, some British MPs (bless ’em) are attempting to get an Early Day motion in place to raise the issue

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised; ACTA will benefit global business first and foremost – the acolytes of massive globalisation will love it.  And such agreements are often used to bring in laws that individual Governments would probably lose power over if they tried to do it themselves.  National sovereignty and local governance once more yields to the faceless centre.

Perhaps it’s time to act up on ACTA?