Author Archive

My speech at the World Humanist Congress 2014 #whc2014

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

These are the notes from my speech on future challenges to the internet at the World Humanist Congress 2014.

EXCUSE FORMATTING

In considering the threat to internet freedom, we need to consider the opportunity – and the opportunity that will be lost.

The Internet is the most significant technological development since the invention of the steam engine and will retrospectively, be seen as the most important technological invention of human history.

Why do I say this?

The Internet – I’m going to use this term as short hand for the network(s), the World Wide Web, social media etc – has reduced the net cost of copying information to almost zero.

This has profound implications for the way we:

i. do government,
ii. challenge authority,
iii. view human rights
and iv. learn

So in my consideration of the challenge, I’d like to outline what is positive, and therefore what could be lost if we curtail internet freedom.

1. Do government

Everyone remember the book, Bowling Alone? [1]

It was based on a 1995 essay that forsaw a future where, and I quote:

“Robert D. Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues.”

The exact opposite has happened.

Who in the room signed a petition in the last 6 months?

Who is the room has attended a public event (gig, concert, a prostest, a political meeting) in the last six months?

And how many people learnt about that public event via the internet?

Last week in The Spectator, the magazine of the British right, had a piece by commentator Ross Clark entitled, “Individualism is Dead” [2], apparently we have now sucumbed to the lure of the crowd. Too many people are getting together, as many as 6 million lined the streets of Yorkshire to watch the Tour de France.

200,000 people now attend Glastonbury. Spurred on their friends showing how much fun they’re having on Facebook.

Sure we’re becoming more narcarsistic, but we’re also becoming more devoted to each other’s company.

We are not bowling alone.

This has profound implications for democracies.

In 1969, writer Norman Mailer ran to be the Democrat candidate for Mayor of New York.

He got crushed by the Democratic party machine candidates.

You can watch a highly entertaining BBC documentary about this [3].

Here was Mailer, a highly popular author. A hugely successful influencer backed by New York’s hipsters unable to break through into the political class.

It tells us something about the Internet:

1/ Politics used to be dominated by the block vote. Organised locally or in the workplace. 5,000 people working in a single dockyard. Strong union voices or even the factory bosses dominating how people voted, but able to leverage influence.

That died in the 1980s and wasn’t replaced by any collective forces.

Now, it’s creeping back. Thanks to petition sites and social media there are new movements enabled by technologies (as diverse as the Tea Party through to UK Uncut and the Occupy movement).

Suddenly politics is back and vibrant.

Change.org. Avaaz, new NGOs and new groups are revitalising politics and they are all enabled by new technologies and the power of social media.

Crowd-sourced election campaigns are with us now. Suddenly a candidate like Norman Mailer would have a serious chance.

We think of this as new, but it is a reversion to norm. Suddenly politics is about mobilising groups of people – not of elites, or dominant blocks.

It is a challenge to a generation of democratic politicians who grew up in the 1980s.

The challenge to autocracies is even greater still.

ii. The challenge to authority

It used to be very hard indeed to faciliate protests in autocratic states. This is mostly unknown, but the period 1964-66 was seen as an era of protest in Soviet Russia. There were a number of public protests, but no more than a dozen per year. This was seen as exceptional.

Now, even in autocratic China, protests are more commonplace.

Social media allows us to join a protest when we know it will reach a critical mass of participants. If I am a dissident in China I don’t want to protest alone, but if I protest with 1,000 people I am less likely personally to be arrested.

With social media, the impact can be most clearly seen with the Revolution Via Social Networks protest movement in Belarus. [4]

The movement originated on the Russian social network VKontakte and the group quickly grew to have over 27,000 members.

The group organised “clapping protests” through the streets of the capital Minsk, which quickly spread across the country.

Belarus had not seen significant political protests in nearly a decade.

Suddenly the group had 120,000 members (around 1.25% of the entire population of Belarus).

Eventually, the authorities fearing this new peaceful protest made a series of mass detentions.

A similar process can be seen when we look at the successful Maidan protests in the Ukraine where initial small protests quickly mushroomed into a successful revolution. The internet allowed protesters to organise and to share strategies. Ukrainians living abroad became part of the broader national conversation, thanks to the internet.

Part of why we are seeing so much political turbulence is also thanks to the internet:

We are in a new age of whistleblowers

Wikileaks & Snowden simply impossible just a decade before.

At the point where I was born a leak would have not been digital – but the photocopying of papers. [5]

NSA’s PRISM and GCHQ’s PRISM programmes we only know due to whistleblowers and their ability to distribute information – and contact journalists to help support this – securely and remotely.

Whistleblowing is having a huge impact on public policy.

Tunileaks – helped spark the Tunisian revolution. [6]

Wikileaks cables were processed by a Tunisian NGO (Nawaat) – showed people in Azerbaijan how their leader had stolen their money and how well-funded European lobby groups (such as TEAS) may be funded.

But, we’re seeing the old command and control mentality of our political leaders.

Chelsea Manning has been given what is effectively a life sentence.

Edward Snowden remains in exile in Putin’s Russia – it is a little known fact he ended up in Russia after the US government threatened European states that they would be punished if they let the plane he was on to South America pass over European soil.

We need to protect whistleblowers or we will only get whistleblowers with a sharp agenda.

3. Freedom of expression for marginalised voices

Global Voices — Hisham

Reduction to zero of net cost of distribution and social media allows
the dissemination of previously marginalised voices: transgender,
marginalised ethnic voices, marginalised caste voices, gay people in
Saudi etc. Huge impact on freedom of expression.

4. A new age of knowledge

Here is a PC Pro magazine review of Encylopedia Britanicca from 1995. [8]

Encylopedia Britannica on CD Rom cost $799 in 1995.

It had no video. It had no sound clips. It had no images whatsoever.

It did however have 66,000 articles.

Anyone want to hazard a guess how many articles Wikipedia has?

4,576,424 [9]

It will soon be 100 times bigger than an esteemed enyclopedia (the encyclopedia of note) that was developed over the course of 300 years.

It is not owned by a corporation.

People on $5 a day who can accord a mobile phone with 2.5g can access Wikipedia.

It is a fundamental change in the access to knowledge.

The internet has faciliated a huge leap forward in the ability of people to
self-educate and expand their knowledge. New online universities will
bring knowledge to tens of millions.

Old institutions that train a narrow elite will need to adapt or die.

So the internet can change the way we do government, challenge power elites particularly in authoritarian states, make government more open (whether voluntarily, or through whistleblowers) and democratise our access to knowledge globally.

That’s what we have to lose.

Notes:

[1] Bowling Alone

[2] Individualism is Dead, The Spectator

[3] Norman Mailer for Mayor of New York!

[4] Revolution Via Social Networks, Belarus

[5] Mike Harris, Protect Whistleblowers or you open the door to people like Julian Assange, The Independent

[6] Tunileaks by Nawaat

[8] PC Magazine, review of Encylopedia Britannica (1995)

[9] Growth in Wikipedia articles

10% off FreeAgent business accounting (£30 off a year) with a single click!

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

10% off FreeAgent business accounting – and eventually get paid to use FreeAgent with this referral code

The first 30 days are free and you could save £30 a year – and even get the FreeAgent business accounting package for free – if you sign up using the referral link below. The link entitles you to 10% off FreeAgent every month, plus if you refer friends or other businesses to FreeAgent you will save a further 10% off the cost for every person you refer. I use FreeAgent for my business and it’s fantastically simple to use. Just click below on the banner (or here) for the 10% discount!

FreeAgent Small Business Online Accounting

The social network age means even the USA is falling in love with “soccer”

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, International

Ann Coulter hates it. Soccer is apparently for the weak, derides individual achievement in favour of collective endeavour and more strikingly:

Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.

But the USA is starting to love soccer (or football as it known in its home, England). The current World Cup has seen the largest US audience figures ever for international football. Over 20,000 turned up to Chicago’s Grant Park to watch the football with fellow Americans. Tonight’s match against Germany is expected to be the most watched football match in American history.

The domestic game is starting to heat up as well. It isn’t just minority groups (as Coulter semi-claims) who are football enthusiasts, as the New York Times reports, Hipsters form a major block of passionate football supporters:

There was a time not long ago when Americans — even worldly New Yorkers who regularly logged on to The Guardian website and claimed knowledge of the best little out-of-the-way pub in Shoreditch — could float along in a happy bubble of ignorance, pretending for all practical purposes that the world’s favorite sport, soccer, did not exist.

That time appears to be fading quickly.

America studiously avoided catching any form of football enthusiasm regardless of the waves of European migration in the first decades of the twentieth century (at the same time as football reached South America via Scotland). It held out even during the rise of televised global football from 1954 onwards and after hosting the World Cup in 1994.

Yet, the rise of social networks and our increasing connections with people from other countries, means Americans are more aware of what the rest of the world is interested in. The USA’s strong performance in this World Cup, plus the sheer exposure through social media of football to ordinary Americans is increasing both their appetite for football and their interest. The more you see what the rest of the world respects, the more doing well at a sport they care about is important.

Social media is normalising a sport once considered overtly foreign. As Americans become more exposed to football through social media and through NBC Universal’s $250 million contract to televise English Premier League matches, could the US fall in love with the world’s global game?

 

Lewisham 2014: what does Labour dominance mean for local politics?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Labour, Lewisham Council

Labour have taken 53 out of 54 seats on Lewisham Council in the party’s best result in the borough for 50 years (since 1964). Mayor Steve Bullock has been returned for a fourth term with his share of the vote rising from 35% in 2002 to a staggering 51% in this election. The big story has been the decline of opposition political parties locally. It’s easy to look over the strange death of the inner City Tories amidst the media excitement over the rise of UKIP. In 1968, the Conservatives took a staggering 59.6% of the vote in Lewisham. They now fail to break a share of the vote that averages in the low teens. Even in 2002, the Tories took 21% of the Mayoral vote, this time they took just over 1 in 10 votes.

The Liberal Democrats have been decimated too. While on a personal level I feel sympathy for the often conscientious Liberal Democrat councillors who lost their seats last night, they misjudged the mood of the electorate. From 2010, the Liberal Democrats tried to portray themselves as a sensible force behind the tidying up of the public finances. In the Council chamber they portrayed Labour as swivel-eyed leftie loons, who couldn’t be trusted with either the Council’s or the nation’s wallet. Fortunately for Labour, the public don’t buy this and their collusion with the destruction of urban local government deserved punishment.

Labour’s super-majority, bad for Lewisham’s politics?

Without any significant opposition, some have raised concerns that Labour’s super-majority will be bad for local politics. I’m (predictably) less concerned. The Mayoral system is a useful break on arbitrary decision making. It’s a similar relationship, albeit on a very different scale, between the President Obama and Democrat Members of Congress. Knowing they have different elections to win, Members of Congress are more likely to speak out on local issues in their patch. I think we’ll see a similar relationship between backbench councillors and Sir Steve. Local Labour politics could become quite noisy and robust. The spectre of the 2006 local elections where Labour lost many councillors will continue to haunt the local party and keep the fresh new faces of 2014 on their toes.

The biggest challenge for Labour will be the scale of the cuts to come. Setting a balanced budget in my first year as a Councillor in 2010, with tough decisions on local libraries, street cleaning and redundancies, was a fractious process with a riot outside the town hall. New councillors, yearning to protect their communities, will find cuts in their wards hard to stomach. Lewisham is in the process of losing 30% of its budget leading to the closure of services on a scale unseen in post-war history and greater than during the Great Depression. The cuts will continue to be the big local story for the year ahead. With a significant Labour majority there will be the political space to take a long-term view while we prepare for a Labour government from 2015 that takes a less masochistic attitude towards councils (here’s hoping).

Lewisham’s bloggers: the new opposition?

One interesting trend will be the role of local bloggers as a form of “unofficial opposition”. With only a single opposition councillor, outside the process of scrutiny undertaken by Labour councillors (which is an important break on the decisions of managers), a major source of push-back will be from the local blogosphere. Luckily, in Lewisham we’re well served with an increasing number of bloggers writing about the local elections (I’m looking at you @alternativeSE4 @blackheathbugle @bobfrombrockley @brockleycentral @catfordcentral @clogsilk @DeptfordDame @EastLondonLines @Transpontine). They will be increasingly important players, alongside the traditional printed press, in Lewisham politics in the coming years. It will be interesting to see how their role is facilitated by the council – will they join the press table during council meetings?

As of midnight, I will no longer be a Lewisham councillor. It’s been a challenging 4 years, but a role I’ve really enjoyed. One lesson I’ve learnt, people have a negative view of politicians, until they actually meet them. Hardly anyone I spoke to in person was rude, while most people had a lot of time to challenge me and engage in political conversation. We’ve not hit the tipping point yet where people are dissuaded from entering politics because the environment is too hostile – I hope we don’t get there – but keeping politics civil, in an era of cuts, is going to be a big challenge.

Don’t Spy On Us: Day of Action

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Free expression

 

One year on since whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the scale of the NSA and GCHQ’s mass surveillance, the Don’t Spy On Us campaign will host the biggest event on privacy in the UK this year.

Speakers include: Cory Doctorow, Helena Kennedy, Jimmy Wales, Alan Rusbridger, Shami Chakrabarti, Bruce Schneier, Tim Duffy and Stephen Fry.

By joining us you will have the opportunity to:

  • Work with influential parliamentarians to create a bill to protect our civil liberties at a session led by Lord Richard Allan, director of policy for Facebook in Europe, the Middle East and Africa
  • Create an advertising campaign at a session led by Tim Duffy, UK Group Chairman and CEO of M&C Saatchi
  • Secure your privacy online at our crypto-party led by world-leading tech experts

Whatever you do, whatever your skills, join us on 7 June to take a stand for real surveillance reform.

Tickets cost just £5 (£3 early bird discount) but are strictly limited and we expect a lot of interest so please do book as soon as possible.

Azerbaijan’s dictator joins the “selfie craze”

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

See, dictators can join the fun and do selfies to! Here is Azerbaijan’s dictator Illham Aliyev, a man who imprisons journalists, civil society activists and opposition MPs, while using a mafia like clique to run the country, taking a hilarious selfie alongside Western ambassadors.

This really is the jump the shark moment.

[Tweet https://twitter.com/ElshanYenisey/status/453505781971681280]

Event: London Book Fair, Luke Harding in Conversation with Mike Harris

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Free expression

09 Apr 2014, 10:00 – 10:30; English PEN Literary Salon, EC2

At London Book Fair, I’ll be interviewing Luke Harding on his new book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man.

Luke Harding is an award-winning foreign correspondent with the Guardian. He has reported from Delhi, Berlin and Moscow and has also covered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is the author of Mafia State and co-author of WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (2011) and The Liar: The Fall of Jonathan Aitken (1997), nominated for the Orwell Prize.

Happy 25 Birthday World Wide Web – Let’s Not Destroy It

Written by Mike on . Posted in Free expression, International

It was British ingenuity that led to the development of the World Wide Wide 25 years ago today, and unfortunately it appears British guile will be responsible for its possible demise. The hopeful beginnings of the Web have turned sour. Our experience of free encylopedias, free global communications, free content, free universities, a knowledge explosion – is tempered by the knowledge that governments including our own are hoovering up our most personal data. Every day GCHQ has the capacity to process 21 petabytes of data a day, that’s 39 billion pieces of information. The state can pry into our video calls with our family; feels free to collect metadata that tells us if we’re visiting a cancer clinic (and to see whom), if we frequent gay clubs, or who our friends or associates are. The openness of the Web, where we share information to better humanity, is under seige. If we don’t act, the Web we have come to trust, will become ever more sinister.

25 years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee drafted a not immodest proposal for hyperlinked content that would become the Web. Written in biro, on his draft, a superior had noted ‘Vague but exciting’. Berners-Lee’s insight would revolutionise the way we shop, the way we interact and the way we think about information. In part, the genius of the Web was to see the links between different pieces of content and make it easy to distribute. Another often overlooked reason why the Web succeeded is that it is based on open standards that were free for everyone to use. Anyone can produce a website and no one has to pay Tim Berners-Lee a penny. This gift to the world faciliated an information revolution that has made it harder for the media moguls but given us mere mortals a real chance to learn as much as our brains can store. Simultaneously, as the Web became a greater part of our lives, connection speeds rose exponentially (I find it hard to explain just how slow a 14.4k modem is to anyone under 20), and so did the amount of data it was possible to transmit. It also made us liable to spill our private data across the Web. This, we have now learnt thanks to Edward Snowden, was an open invitation to GCHQ.

Much has changed since 12 March 1989. Our mortal enemy, the Soviet Union, has collapsed. The rise of post-War Communism did not end liberal democracy (rather the opposite). Our fear that enemy would trigger a thermnonuclear war to end all human civilisation did not materialise. Yet the endless rise of intelligence agencies’ budgets continues unabated. This is not to downplay the very real threats we face, but the challenges from the age that the Web was inspired in, seem rather more pressing. We need to rethink the balance between digital rights and the powers of the state. This is why Tim Berners-Lee has called for a Digital Magna Carta, a digital bill of rights in every country that is a compact between government, corporations and individuals. Berners-Lee said today that threats to the internet such as mass state surveillance are threats to democracy:

“Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it.”

How is that spirit of openness possible in a world where we say the state can invade the privacy of everyone – regardless of their innocence or guilt? The founders of the Web are also concerned over another possibility: that the open Web they have created will be eroded as more and more people go offline to protect their privacy. Increasing numbers of activists are using high-tech tools such as TOR or TAILS to encrpyt their internet browsing and email (there was a huge Cryptoparty in London organised by English PEN and Open Rights Group just a few weeks ago). If the state continues to invade our privacy, it is a real possibility that the Web could fragment into a series of highly encrpyted parallel networks. Or, as we see from sabre-rattling from Brazil, nations could “force data to come home”, meaning the global Web as we know it could be replaced by national Web(s).

That’s why we’re about to launch the Don’t Spy On Us campaign, a coalition of the leading human rights, privacy and freedom of expression organisations. You can sign up to the campaign here. In the spirit of the Web’s birthday, we’re calling for real openness about the scale of surveillance and the reforms to the law required to put surveillance on a clear legal footing. We want a proper independent inquiry, to report before the next general election. Then we want to see our MPs commit to reform. It’s time British politicians acted to get GCHQ under control. It’s taken 25 years to get the Web we want, it may not take much time at all to wreck it.

Mike Harris is Campaign Director of Don’t Spy On Us @mjrharris

 

Why is free speech not good enough for Northern Ireland?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Free expression

Very few know why the Defamation Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland, an outrageous decision that has created a gaping loophole in the government’s attempts to reform the UK’s libel laws. It took endless humiliation before parliament got the message and decided to reform the law of libel: the UN Human Rights Council said our libel law chilled free speech across the entire globe, American academics faced our courts for writing about the funding of Al Qaeda, Barack Obama signed into law an Act to protect Americans from our libel law and decent scientists such as Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre and NHS cardiologist Pete Wilsmhurst faced ruin thanks to the law.

These humilations led the three major political parties to make a commitment to libel reform in their general election manifestos in 2010. They didn’t qualify this bold commitment with “except in Northern Ireland”. Why would they? The law in Northern Ireland has always been substantially the same as the law in England and Wales, that is until the government reformed it. At no point in the parliamentary debate did the government signal the Defamation Bill would not apply to the citizens of Northern Ireland. But that’s what happened. In the name of devolution, a DUP Minister was able to block (single-handedly) the law from applying to the province.

The law was blocked in a less than democratic manner that is still clouded in secrecy. The former Minister of Finance and Personnel, the combustible Sammy Wilson MLA, withdrew a paper on adoption of the new Defamation Bill without scrutiny by either the Assembly or the Executive. Wilson’s Department refuses to comment, even to a political committee in Stormont, on why consents for the Defamation Bill weren’t sought in the required timescale. What is known is that just days after the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr MP made no less than 10 interventions casting doubt on the Defamation Bill in its second reading debate in the House of Commons, Wilson withdrew the paper relating to adoption of the Defamation Act.

First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson has said it is “absurd” to claim that the libel law “restricts in some way the media from doing their job”. Yet, Northern Ireland’s media seem under siege. As Sam McBride, the political correspondent of the News Letter tweeted:

“The volume of solicitors’ letters from DUP to BBC over one Spotlight episode gives a pretty clear hint as to why DUP blocked libel reform”.

Other journalists agree. Viscount Colville (himself a respected BBC journalist) relayed to the House of Lords testimony he had been given by the editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Mike Gilson:

“In a small country without official opposition the media’s scrutinising role of government and institutions is even more crucial. I have edited newspapers in every country of the United Kingdom and the time and money now needed to fight off vexatious legal claims against us here is the highest I have ever experienced”.”

The DUP have been very clear in stating their opposition to reform. Worse still, due to the cross-community provisions in the Good Friday Agreement, as the largest Unionist party the DUP can effectively block any Bill they don’t like – even though they only control 38 of the Assembly’s 108 seats. With a majority in the Assembly sympathetic towards the prospect of libel reform and a consultation showing 90% of people in Northern Ireland back reform of the law, this is hardly democratic.

A Private Member’s Bill launched by Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the UUP, attracted support in the Assembly. But now it has been put on ice after the new DUP Finance Minister set the Northern Ireland Law Commission off to run a consultation on the law of libel. While the Law Commission is an esteemed institution, many politicians feel this is an attempt to kick the matter into the long grass. No date has been set for the Commission to launch their consultation, it may not happen for a year. Worse still, evidence submitted to the Law Commission will not be protected by privilege, leaving NGOs reporting on the libel threats dished out by politicians themselves open to libel actions.

Next week in Parliament, an attempt will be made by Peers to amend the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to extent the Defamation Act to Northern Ireland. Seeing the impact on freedom of expression and the opaque manner in which this issue has been handled, respected parliamentarians are backing the amendment. It is a direct challenge to the DUP who felt they alone could decide on libel reform. The question now is whether the Labour party and Liberal Democrats will back this amendment. Both parties, in particular Labour as the midwife of the Good Friday Agreement, feel fealty towards devolution. Yet, they did also tell the UK at the last election if elected they would reform the law of libel – with no exception. Parliament should send a clear message to the DUP – you alone cannot decide on whether free speech is good enough for the citizens of Northern Ireland.

This article was posted on 21 February 2014 on mjrharris.co.uk