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?


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


The Penal and Criminal Codes of various European Union countries – in English

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, International, Uncategorized

Very occasionally it’s useful to be able to reference accurate English translations of the penal codes of European countries, so you can see what the law says for yourself. From across the internet these are the translations I’ve managed to find, so far. I’ve attempted to verify each translation using the few sections of the law I know, which means they should be partly accurate at least.


The French government has helpfully translated whole sections of its legal code in English including the Civil Code (2006), the Commercial Code (2004), the Consumer Code (2005), the Intellectual Property Code (2006), the Penal Code (2006) and the Monetary and Financial Code (2010).


In 2009, Prof. Michael Bohlander provided an English translation of the German Criminal Code. A 1998 version is also available online here for comparison.


Selected elements of the Criminal Code of Greece have been translated into English. Many of the elements of the Criminal Code relating to defamation are available separately here.


The 1997 Penal Code of Poland has been translated into English here.


In 2011, The Ministry of Justice published an English translation of the Spanish Criminal Code. You can also buy an Android application with the Spanish version of the criminal code.

Why is the UK so silent on Burma’s human rights abuses?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Free expression, International

Without increased pressure from the US and UK, the apparatus of Burma’s military dictatorship will continue to exist

This article was first published at the Daily Telegraph

If you want to know how much has changed in Burma since the much-vaulted transition, try and put on a punk gig in the capital, Rangoon. It’ll take two months and require the signatures of eight bureaucrats from varying levels of government. You may never get permission. But to punks in Burma, the idea they may even be able to play publicly at all is progress.

This is transition Burma, a country full of contradictions where the military no longer hold captive Aung San Suu Kyi and have released some of the thousands of her fellow political prisoners — yet the full apparatus of the military state still exists. The worry is, while the UK and US drop sanctions and William Hague took the time to congratulate President Thein Sein in London for the progress made, little is being done to keep this progress on track. With the army implicit in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims and the country on the verge of widespread unrest, Burma is merely a few steps away from a full blown military dictatorship.

The transition to civilian rule is supposed to be making steady progress, yet power lies in the same place — with the military. As one journalist told us, “the generals have only changed their suits.” The sight of Aung San Suu Kyi alongside 43 of her National League for Democracy compatriots elected to Parliament in 2012 was hugely symbolic. But it is no more than symbolism for the League to hold an eleventh of the seats in the lower house.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a front for the old military junta, still controls all the main institutions of state. The USDP controls the presidency, nearly half the seats in the lower house and over half the seats in the upper house of the Burmese parliament. When the seats directly appointed by the military are included, the USDP has an overwhelming majority in both chambers. The majority of these USDP parliamentarians are former army officers or government officials with strong military connections. The lifting of economic sanctions will prompt new trade with Burma, but the West will be dealing directly with these generals who control both the state and many of the major economic interests.

While we were still watched by the secret police when we returned in 2013, we could operate openly. People came over freely to speak to us. Burma is now a country where comedian Zarganar (released from jail in October 2011) performs satirical skits on corruption with the President apparently watching on TV. Artists are pushing the boundaries of political art, Burmese producers mock the government with films such as “Ban that scene” that parodies the mean-spirit and laziness of bureaucratic censors and — for the first time — horror films are being made inside the country legally.

Politics is vibrant too. Cafe88 in Mandalay hosts political discussions that were illegal just a few years ago by former political prisoners, TV celebrities and journalists. The media is more free as well. Daily newspapers are back on sale and the infamous censorship boards that ruined courageous journalism by painting physically over articles with black ink have been abolished.

This new freedom, months old, is perilously fragile. As Index’s report on Burma found, the transition is not underpinned by essential legal and political reform. The current atmosphere of freedom stems from the police and security services not using their powers to curtail free speech. The full apparatus of the military state exists — it just isn’t being employed to the same extent — at the moment.

For instance, using an email account for “political purposes” carries a prison sentence of 15 years. If you use more than one account your sentence can be increased by 15 years per email address. Restrictions on public protest or performance are extremely strict, particularly outside Rangoon. At the start of this month, Time Magazine was banned under emergency legislation after it led with a front cover of nationalist monk U Wirathu and the title, “The Face of Buddhist Terror”. The ban criminalised the possession of even a single copy of Time. Meanwhile newspapers face the threat of a new press law that would bring in statutory regulation of the press.

President Thein Sein told Chatham House that in Burma “free speech exists … but of course more freedom can and will be granted when there is increased understanding of the duties and responsibilities that go with it.” This isn’t good enough. To protect free speech the government needs to put in place reform now. Pleasantries at Downing Street and congratulations at the Foreign Office can’t mask the fact that progress has stalled. The UK mustn’t allow President Thein Sein to get away with stalling reform until after the next election in 2015.

Unless the UK, EU and US are willing to put sanctions back on the table and in the meantime insist on a clear road map for reform, an incredible opportunity for a military dictatorship to become a civilian democracy will be lost.

Mike Harris is Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship. @mjrharris

My report: Burma – Freedom of expression in transition: Introduction | Politics and society | Media freedom | Artistic freedom of expression | Digital freedom of expression | Conclusion | Full report in PDF format

Fine words on open government don’t match actions

Written by Mike on . Posted in Free expression, International

From America to Azerbaijan, leaders have pledged themselves to a new era of openness and transparency. So why are whistleblowers and journalists still punished?

Is Barack Obama committed to transparency? (pic Gonçalo Silva/Demotix)

Is Barack Obama committed to transparency? (pic Gonçalo Silva/Demotix)

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government” -Barack Obama, 21 January 2009

Governments across the globe are making bold promises to embrace open government ushering in a new era of public service reform, undermining corruption and increasing citizen engagement — all underpinned by open data and transparency. In September 2011, the Open Government Partnership was launched when a number of founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom and the United States) endorsed an Open Government Declaration, and announced their country action plans. Since then an additional 47 governments have joined. The global G8 forum also made transparency a priority.

Open government should mean making government and public bodies more transparent, responsive and accountable so that citizens can hold these bodies to account, fight corruption and use technologies to make government more effective and accountable. In practice this requires government and public bodies to bring forward freedom of information legislation, let citizens get access to the huge data sets held by public bodies and make public bodies respond to questions from citizens and the media quicker and more thoroughly.

Unfortunately, it’s increasingly clear what governments feel open government isn’t about — it certainly isn’t about protecting whistleblowers, opening up the security services to scrutiny, or declassifying the huge amount of information marked as secret by governments.

The Open Government Declaration mention the watchdog role of the media and journalists in analysing information and exposing malfeasance and corruption.

Open government, while a noble aim, is overly focussed on opening up uncontroversial data sets and the method of distributing these data sets. As Evgeny Morozov points out in his recent book To Save Everything, Click Here, putting train timetables online, while useful, is not the same as giving citizens the data they can use to tackle corruption.

President Barack Obama made an early commitment to refound American government around openness and transparency. This in practice has meant very little. In February 2013, 49 NGOs and organisations wrote to the President calling for him to fulfill his Open Government obligations. Yet, the routine over-classification of information, demonstrated by the Wikileaks’ US embassy cable leak, shows a government unwilling to open itself up to scrutiny from the citizens who pay for its work. Obama’s record on freedom of information and state secrets is patchy at best. On whistleblowers, the Obama administration has been downright hostile. The attempted prosecution of Edward Snowden for whistleblowing shows the First Amendment protection for freedom of expression is being interpreted in a narrow manner. It’s depressing to see the official newspaper of China’s communist party take the moral high ground in an editorial noting all Snowden did was “blow the whistle on the US government’s violation of civil rights.”

Azerbaijan has endorsed the Open Government Declaration alongside the US. It has a law on the Right to Obtain Information which states that any person can submit a request for information (any facts, opinions, knowledge produced or acquired in fulfilling duties as specified by legislation or other legal act). Yet when journalists use this information they often come under attack.

Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova has used the Right to Obtain Information law to obtain documentation to expose corruption in Azerbaijan. In early 2012, shortly after Ismayilova published an expose of the business interests of the President Aliyev’s daughter, she received a threat telling her to stop her investigations. Ismayilova refused to back down. The next week a video of her having sex with a man was distributed on the internet. Ismayilova, who is unmarried, feared for her safety in Azerbaijan which remains a deeply conservative country.

Throughout Africa, Open Government is also a buzz phrase that has been endorsed by significant institutions. The African Development Bank has launched the “Open Data for Africa” initiative which aims to promote statistical development in Africa as a basis for creating effective development policies to reduce poverty. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have also prepared a “Model Law on Access to Information for Africa”. Nation states are also on paper embracing the Open Government concept with Rwanda and Kenya two examples of states bringing forward legislation to this end.

In March 2013, Rwanda became the 11th African country to adopt a freedom of information law. The law also applies to private organisations where there is a public interest and their main activities relate to human rights and freedom. The government claims its objective was to promote Open Governance and hold public authorities to greater scrutiny. However, the law includes broad exemptions where access to information may be restricted in relation to national security, the administration of justice and for trade secrets.

In Kenya, the government launched its Open Data Initiative (KODI) in July 2011. It makes government data such as national census data, government expenditure, parliamentary proceedings and public service locations, open and accessible to people in Kenya. While Kenya has publicly backed Open Government, the legal framework, in particular the Communications (Amendment) Act 2008, provides for heavy fines and prison sentences alongside granting the state the power to raid media houses and interfere in the content of television broadcasts. The Kenyan Union of Journalists condemned the Act claiming it would “emasculate” journalism.

The publication of US State Department cables by Wikileaks demonstrated how the urge to over-classify documents is present even in established democracies. Open Government will only be as good as the data that is released. If Open Government is little more than a public commitment to put train timetables or the location of hospitals online, then it will fail to achieve the aspirations of the Open Government Declaration to tackle corruption, bring citizens closer to decisions or make public services more responsive. Open Government also has to recognise the importance of the media in processing and digesting the data sets and information that governments publish. Without analysis open data sets are just lines of numbers and letters. If the media is not free to do the analysis, or risks reprisals for doing so, Open Government will continue to fail to live up to its promise.

Mike Harris is head of advocacy at Index on Censorship @mjrharris

Islam Channel: Do we need to sacrifice privacy for security?

Written by Mike on . Posted in International

With the revelations of the American PRISM surveillance programme, many people are starting to question the trustworthiness of the National Security Agency and the American state apparatus. Is the social contract between the people and government at risk of breaking when private digital communications can be easily accessed at the highest levels of power? Joining Jonathan Steele to discuss this are Michael Harris, head of advocacy at the Index on Censorship; Jamie Bartlett, head of violence and extremism programme at Demos; and Robert McCaw, Department manager of government affairs at the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

My conversation with a Chinese dissident

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, International

I started speaking to a Chinese man, in his forties, on the tram from the Albert Hall in Brussels to the Eurostar. He was one of the students who organised the protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He described to me what happened to his life in the years following the massacre. For seven years, he went in and out of jail, mainly due to minor technical offenses as he continued his friendship with fellow student activists. In 1996, he was placed under house arrest with his wife in a Southern province of China. Under house arrest, he was not allowed to great visitors. Three guards lived outside (and in) his house at all times. He lived constantly under the threat of re-arrest and imprisonment. Eventually, he persuaded the authorities that he should be allowed to work. First, he worked at a market stall selling fish. Soon, his boss sacked him, as the pressure from the local party was too great for him to continue to employ a ‘trouble-maker’. Afterwards, he worked in a supermarket, moving crates. The man told me any work was preferable to staying at home – after all, he had studied for a degree. It was during his long work shifts day-dreaming while moving boxes at the supermarket he decided he had to escape to China. The store had two entrances on different streets. He entered the store one morning as usual and worked his shift. At the end of the day, minutes before the end of his shift, he left via the second entrance onto the other street. At the other side of the crossroads, he could see his jailers patiently waiting for him in their car. He got in a taxi and drove across town to a nearby depot. He tried to stay calm to avoid suspicion. Afterwards, he sat in the back of a transit truck, surrounded by meat carcasses, heading south towards Hong Kong.

He did not say what had happened to his wife, though he told me he still communicates with his family via Skype – it’s the only way he gets to see his loved ones. Before the truck got to Hong Kong a friend set him up in a safe house, next to the border. It was May 1997, six weeks before the formal handover to China. This week, the right suffered a collective memory loss over Thatcher’s handover of Hong Kong, the last outpost of democracy surrounded by a sea of authoritarianism. All dissidents at the time knew there was one street that crossed the Hong Kong / China border, near the Lo Wu border crossing in Shenzhen. This street did not have a formal border crossing, instead a pair of guards walked from one side of the street to the other. At night, the man, fearing for his life waited until one of the guards went in to get a drink before he made a dash for freedom. The guards chased him into Hong Kong. Darting through the streets he made it into a police station and claimed asylum. Weeks later this would have been impossible. Now, he lives in London and helps connect Chinese dissidents. His story is not fantastical by Chinese standards, he told his account entirely in a measured tone. That such bravery is so commonplace in China is a measure of the degeneration of the state’s social contract with its people.

Attack on NGOs in Russia

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Free expression, International

My letter to the Guardian is available online here.

The Russian authorities have not only targeted foreign NGOs (Report, 28 March), but also domestic human rights groups, includingMemorial, which received the Index on Censorship 40th Anniversary award last year for its courageous research into the crimes of the Soviet regime. Other groups targeted include theMoscow Helsinki Group, the oldest Russian human rights NGO. Russia should comply with its international commitments and uphold freedom of expression, assembly and association – and stop these raids. The EU and its member states should take action in accordance with the EU commitment to support and protect civil society, and human rights activists. The situation in Russia is in decline. Index joins an appeal by our partners in the Civic Solidarity Platform, a coalition of 50 human rights NGOs from around the OSCE, that urgent action must be taken now to prevent the situation for human rights activists on the ground in Russia getting worse.

Mike Harris
Head of advocacy, Index on Censorship

China & Burma

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Free expression, International

Yesterday I wrote about the return of private daily newspaper to Burma on Index on Censorship:

1 April heralded the return of private daily newspaper to the streets of Burma. Since the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act the state has held highly restrictive powers to license newspapers and publishers creating one of the most hostile environments on earth for a free print media. Since the transition period, the new President Thein Sein has signalled that the government would liberalise restrictions on the media. Prior to the return of daily newspapers, privately-owned weekly journals had begun to flourish as demand for independent news markedly increased. On 1 February this year, the government launched the process to allow the independent media to bid for daily licenses.

Reaction in China to the relaxation of Burma’s highly restrictive media laws was pointed according to the Want China Times:

Some internet users have expressed their envy with coded comments such as “although we cannot eat it yet, at least we can smell it,” while others suggested such media freedom is not suited to China’s current circumstances. “Myanmar has stepped on the road toward democracy and freedom. Will China have its day? Let us wait and see,” an internet user said. And, “Myanmar’s achievement was earned by opposition forces led by Aung San Suu Kyi. China has not reached this stage,” another stated.

It’s a strange idea that China must earn her democracy.

Tony Blair in Burma

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, International

Tony Blair recently met with senior government officials in Burma with colleagues from his governance think tank Tony Blair Associates. At the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw, the new capital, Blair met the Vice President Nyan Tun (former Commander in Chief of the Navy) and Minister Soe Thein (another former Naval Commander in Chief). The exact reasons for Blair’s visit are unknown and the trip was not publicised. A spokesperson for Blair’s office told the independent Irrawaddy journal that: “At the present time we are simply having wide-ranging discussions with the [Burmese] government on the development of the country because Mr Blair is interested in it.” One government source said anonymously that the talks could pave the way for a “governance initiative” Blair is considering establishing in Burma. It wouldn’t be the only “governance initiative” that Blair is involved in. He is currently working with President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.

I have written before about how perilously fragile the political transition in Burma is. As my report on the situation in Burma found, the transition is not underpinned by essential legal and political reform. It will be interesting to see if Tony Blair believes he can help support such reforms.