18 May 2009

Parliamentary Expenses Scandal - The Way Forward

Scandals involving abuse of the parliamentary expenses by MPs have been hitting the news this last week, and frankly I am horrified and disgusted by what are blatant cases of abusing the system for personal gain. In any other organisation, making expense claims like what we have heard about would likely get you sacked, and certainly they would not be paid by any conscientious accounts department. Some MPs have come up with excuses like "But the expenses body was willing to pay it" which to me sounds like "I was able to game the system as they didn't stop me".

The scandal has hit all the political parties to some extent, so the question arises as to how we can move forward from where we are. It's likely that minority parties will do well out of this in the forthcoming european elections, but this doesn't seem like a good enough punishment to those who have abused the system. After all, it is not MEPs but MPs who are at the centre of this scandal. Here is what I propose should happen, as a bare minimum, to enable a line to be drawn under this and the UK government to be able to pick itself up and move forward.

1. Full details of expense claims for all MPs should be published immediately, so the public can make their own informed judgements about their own MP. The Telegraph should not have a monopoly on this information, although it's understandable why they should want to keep that monopoly.

2. A short period of time should be allowed to elapse, so that the public have time to digest this information and the details can be sorted through (I would suggest 2 weeks).

3. A general election should then be called immediately, to allow voters to remove those MPs from office who are deemed to have acted inappropriately.

4. A system should be set up by an independent body on what is and is not allowable as a parliamentary expense. The MPs should not be able to make these decisions themselves as at present, as they very have a very clear conflict of interests. As part of this, all future expense claims should be published for public scrutiny.

5. MPs who have clearly abused the system should be prosecuted for fraud. Whilst any claims that the parliamentary expenses office essentially condoned this abuse by failing to stop it might be taken into account during the ensuing investigation, this excuse does not remove personal responsibility when submitting expense accounts to abide by the rules.

The rest of us, whilst going about our business, have to abide by a set of rules when it comes to expense claims and those from whom we claim our expenses (usually our employers) need to know what we are claiming and that the claims are justified. In the same way MPs are claiming their expenses from us, the taxpayers, so we need to know what they are claiming and that they are justified. There should be no 'one rule for them, another rule for us'.

It seems that some MPs forget (as indeed do some taxpayers) they we are their employers, we have collectively employed them to oversee our interests as a nation. Some people seem to have a view of the 'state' as an organisation that interferes with our lives, makes up arbitrary rules that take away our freedom and generally interferes in a way that is often short-sighted and ultimately counter-productive. Whilst I believe that all of these are accurate assessments of the way things are currently, it is not what we pay them for we should remind ourselves that the members of government are our paid servants, not our rulers. I'm sure many MPs (probably even the majority) are very honourable in the way they go about their business, but we need to take radical action to remove those who are not and make sure that this systemic abuse is stopped.

18 April 2009

Free Culture, The Law and The Corporations - Part II

Well it's now 14 months since I wrote Part I of this entry, so the impatient among you will have to wait no longer. I am prompted the write Part II by the legal judgement in the Pirate Bay case, which was announced earlier today.

For the background to the Pirate Bay case, I suggest the Guardian's FAQ on the issue as a starting point. More details can be found on Wikipedia. In a nutshell, the four founders of the Pirate Bay were charged with "assisting the distribution of illegal content online and the more serious charge of illegal distribution of copyrighted content" (quoted from the linked Guardian page). Fairly quickly the latter charged was dropped - as the Pirate Bay have never hosted any copyrighted content against the copyright holder's wishes, this was alway a silly claim and bound to fail. I shall therefore talk about the first one of these, the claim that they assisted the distribution of illegal content.

Firstly, the Pirate Bay is essentially a search engine for torrent files, much as Google is a search engine for a wide variety of things. If I search for "Ubuntu", I will get a large number of hits, one of which is "Ubuntu 9.04 Desktop Release Candidate (i386)". It allows me to download a torrent file for this, which is in fact an installation CD image which I am interested in. The torrent file doesn't contain the CD image, but essentially tells me how I can find it on the internet. I can perform searches for films I am interested in, or music, or indeed other computer software. If helping me find these torrent files is illegal, then Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and many others are also guilty of the same crimes.

Secondly, Having obtained a torrent file, it is my responsibility to ascertain whether or not I have a right to download the data it points to. This is not actually an easy problem to solve generically, and certainly not one the Pirate Bay is in any position to determine. Maybe the licence says I can only download it if I live in the UK. Or only if I'm black. Or after patting my tummy three times. Every country has its own set of laws, which vary quite widely, and in some cases are different depending on the nature of the data I am contemplating downloading. Very often, illegality is dependent upon the purpose for which I download it, not on the downloading itself. For example if I buy a CD and one of my offspring stands on it and breaks it, is it illegal for me to download a copy and burn it to a blank CD? What if someone claims to be the copyright holder and says on a website that it's OK, can I believe them? (see Nine Inch Nails as an example). If I burn many copies of the Ubuntu installation CD and sell them for £10 each, am I breaking the law? I would not expect the general public to really understand this at any level of detail. After all most people, like me, have no legal training whatsoever and most, unlike me, have no interest in the nitty-gritty details of the law.

Thirdly, is downloading actually illegal, or merely something the copyright holder would rather you not do? In the example of the broken CD the copyright holder would clearly rather you went out and bought a replacement, thus earning more money from you. However, many jurisdictions recognise 'fair use', the same legal concept under which I quote directly from the Guardian earlier in this article. Other jurisdictions do not have this concept, or interpret it in subtly different ways. Some countries have laws that were last updated well before the internet was created, and therefore don't really address the issue. Vested interests will try and claim that other laws apply to the internet by extension, but whose interpretation is correct?

Fourthly, coming back to the case itself the prosecution completely failed to prove that any crime was committed, which the founders of the Pirate Bay were guilty of assisting in. This is explained by the King Kong defence, a term that was created during the trial. It's a bit like convicting someone of murder when there are no witnesses and no body has been found - the person may indeed have committed murder, or the person may simply have vanished. Without strong evidence such a conviction would be unsound.

Fifthly, if I illegally download content over the internet, is my Internet Service Provider (ISP) guilty of aiding and abetting in this crime? Or if I use the telephone to sell illegal drugs, is my telephone provider guilty? Actually in these cases there are strong legal precedents which say that the providers of these services are not guilty. Just because a service can be used for illegal purposes doesn't mean those providing it are guilty. I am not aware of any sound legal basis for believing the Pirate Bay is any different, as they provide a service - which others can use for both legal and illegal purposes.

Clearly there are a whole raft of questions raised by new technologies such as the internet, which haven't yet been adequately addressed in the multitude of legal jurisdictions that exist around the world. Just as it was clear to lawyers when the aeroplane was first invented that flying over someone's land was a form of trespass, it was equally clear that the law was outdated and needed changing, as this situation hadn't been thought about when the laws were drafted. I believe we are in a very similar situation now. Some cases of downloading copyrighted content are indeed illegal in many jurisdictions, no doubt about that. But what we are witnessing is essentially a very long, expensive, global bun-fight between vested interests who have for decades had a very profitable business creating artificial scarcity of their wares and selling them at inflated prices, and a newer generation, armed with newer technology and new ways of doing things, who just aren't interested in the outdated business model and ultimately want the laws changed to suit their needs. If we had let the status quo win these battles in the past we would not have airlines, cars would have to have a man with a flag walking in front of them all the time, factories would not be automated, agriculture would not be able to use modern machinery and we would not be allowed printed books. All of these battles were fought long ago and the vested interests eventually lost, usually not without a similarly long fight. Many jobs were lost in the process, but people reaped the benefits and many different jobs were created in their place. I don't know how this particular round of battles will play out around the world, but one thing I am sure about - it's very early days yet. The Pirate Bay may well ultimately be forced off the internet, but many other organisations will spring up in its place.

27 January 2009

United States of America - All Change

I'm in a state of shock and awe. I had a good feeling about Barack Obama almost from the first time I heard of him (which was about a couple of months before he was elected). Now that he's started to make his mark, I have to say I'm somewhat envious. Why? Because I wish we had someone like him in charge of my country too.

Firstly, he announced the closing of Guantànamo bay. As well as being the right thing to do, it seems to me that Barack Obama really has the interests of the American people at heart. It's a fact that the holding of foreign prisoners, without trial and over long periods of time, is one of the prime reasons the USA as a nation has become hated over the course of the Bush administration in many quarters. Guantànamo bay has come to symbolise this injustice in the eyes of many, and while things are never as simple as they are portrayed to be in the media, this single act will probably do more than any other to bring the USA fully back into the international fold. For sure, there will be complications along the way and it will take time to resolve, but he has shown very clearly by this act what his priorities are. Despite whatever difficulties he faces along the way this single act speaks volumes which will be heard around the world, not only in the 'west' but also around the middle-east and Asia where the reputation of the USA has been severely compromised in recent years.

Secondly, he has announced an intention to make the USA energy independent. I have privately argued for some years that the USA's biggest problem stems from its dependence on foreign nations for energy, primarily oil. It is this which motivates a lot of intervention in the affairs of other nations, as it seeks to defend the sources of oil. It is for this reason that countries like Venezuela have been a thorn in the side of the USA in recent years. However, a successfully implemented set of policies to reduce or even totally remove the dependence of the USA on energy from foreign nations will not only increase its level of autonomy but is likely to have immense benefits for the environment at the same time. Barack Obama is starting to unwind the foolhardy policies of the Bush administration and replace them with something much more forward-thinking. Allowing individual states to set stricter car emissions standards? Good for the environment, good for the motor industry, good for the US economy as a whole. Accelerating the implementation of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency of buildings? Good for the environment, a good way of creating jobs, good for the US economy as a whole.

Now of course, I realise that it is early days, and only time will tell whether he is successful at implementing the things he has outlined in his first few days of office. But this is a very good start at least, and I wish him all the best at achieving the aims he has outlined.

If you had asked me even just 2 months ago whether the USA stood a chance of transforming itself from the environmental pariah of the world into an example for other nations to follow, I would never have believed it. I think I can say with all honesty that this is something I not only hope for but can realistically see coming about over the coming years. It won't happen over night, and probably can't be achieved within 8 years even if Barack Obama stays in power for this long, but he can at least steer the ship on a new course. Let's just hope it comes about. Congratulations to the American people for making the right choice in this election.