ORGcon 2013

ORGcon 2013 logo So it was ORGcon 2013 a few weekends ago. There will be a couple of posts about the day, because there were some aspects of the day I need to comment on separately, without any hint of my ORG Board Member hat on, but this post I shall restrict to discussing the day itself.

The tone of the day was helpfully set by the revelations about the NSA’s Prism programme:

The opening keynote by Tim Wu suffered from being at 10am and before I’d consumed caffeine, but he was interesting in discussing the digital rights movement in general terms. Wu pointed out that transformational technologies have potential for both good and evil. He started with a potted history of such transformational technologies, beginning with broadcast radio in the US, which was initially two-way, rather than being from a broadcaster to a passive audience. We have long assumed that the Net has an inherent resistance to being used for oppression; the recent revelations should remind us that this assumption is wrong. Inventors need to learn how to protect their inventions and prevent them being used as tools for oppression:

Wu said there are four things we can do to protect — and reclaim — the Internet:

  1. Use our consumer power to seek out alternatives to bad actors.
  2. Define and defend our digital rights in legal form.
  3. Complain when our rights are being violated; bad things happen when people don’t complain. Digital intrusion doesn’t feel visceral — we don’t notice when a phone conversation is being listened to or our Internet packets are being intercepted and inspected in the same way that we would were our house to be raided by armed police.
  4. There may come a point where the Web becomes irredeemable. If that happens, we need to have the confidence to abandon it and create something new.

The second session I attended was a panel discussion on “Copyright and orphan works: the new law and what it means”, between Nick Munn, deputy director of copyright at the UKIPO, Emily Goodhand (@copyrightgirl), copyright and compliance officer at the University of Reading, barrister Francis Davey and Daniel Cuthbert, documentary photographer, chaired by tech journalist and folk musician Wendy Grossman. It was an interesting discussion about the new orphan works legislation (and why photographers shouldn’t panic about it!). There was an intriguing point about the administration of fees for the use of orphan works, in that it’s likely to be very difficult for any organisation of a reasonable size (such as a university) to administer; it might be useful for institutions to be able to pay an upfront annual fee instead, perhaps. At the moment, there is a “closed circle” of advisers (Nick Munn’s words) putting together the orphan works rules; the UKIPO’s intention is that they will come up with a first draft that will go out to public consultation.

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a separate orphan works measure (an exception, rather than compulsory licencing) coming up for cultural institutions and another consultation we should expect soon on the exceptions recommended in the Hargreaves Review (satire, parody and so on). By far and away the most interesting point from this session, though, to my mind, was that the Canadian orphan works compulsory licencing scheme handles around 12 (yes, twelve) works each year, of which only around one is a photograph. Sure, the new law isn’t going to solve the problem of the Daily Mail stealing people’s photographs and using them without acknowledgement, but it really isn’t going to make it any worse. Incidentally, deliberately removing EXIF metadata in order to deprive rightsholders of credit, is already illegal.

Next up was Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility in IT at the University of Plymouth: “Think of the children! Censorship and young people online”. This was a fascinating look at the evidence-base behind online child protection — or, more accurately, the evidence-base that should be behind child protection, were policymakers interested in actually achieving something, rather than appearing to be doing something.

'Saints' Row The Third' game cover, prominently labelled with an 18 PEGI certification

Saints’ Row The Third, prominently labelled with an 18 PEGI certification

There were some frightening statistics here, but also some comforting analyses. Whilst Claire Perry might no longer speak with Prof Phippen, I get the distinct impression that’s not something that upsets him. Whilst the Daily Mail froths about 10-year-olds becoming addicted to online porn (obviously bullshit), children mainly play games online. Whilst parents might complain that Something Must Be Done about violence in games, the gaming industry is, in fact, particularly good at policing itself, with the PEGI scheme meaning that games with more adult themes are clearly labelled as such.

There has been a low-level moral panic about sexting lately, the practice of sending explicit messages (usually accompanied by naked photographs) by text message or BBM. This is not a tech issue, but a social issue. Kids are aware of the practice but it is not widespread; boys are more likely to ask girls for explicit imagery than vice versa (“it’s worth a try”), but girls are aware that this doesn’t mean they have to comply. One of the problems here is that sex education in this country is abysmal.

One of the themes that came up repeatedly in the Q&A session here was that parents avoid taking responsibility for parenting. Prof Phippen mentioned that porn blocking by ISPs is just another excuse for parents to think that someone else should do something, when there are good technologies on how to set filters on your home Internet connection or on your child’s mobile phone, and there are a few good guides on how to do so.

In the afternoon, the first session I went to was an excellent panel discussion between media lawyer David Allen Green, Lord Richard Allen, director of policy at Facebook, Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and comms at English PEN, and media lawyer Victoria McEvedy, chaired by Dr Alison Powell of the LSE. The title was “The right to be offensive: Free speech online in the UK” and it covered “how our laws are undermining free speech”. It was an awesome session and I recommend you look it up once we get the video online. One of the several topics it touched upon was how hate speech directed at minority groups is an effective means of silencing those groups; David mentioned the email sent to Louise Mensch, threatening her children, for example.

The only downside of this session was it meant I missed Caspar Bowden‘s excellent talk. Entitled How to wiretap the Cloud (without anyone noticing), the Prism revelations were particularly timely for this (and I was very pleased to see how quickly we got the whole video online, with the slides clearly presented).

The next session was a set of rapid-fire talks, which I was chairing. I’ve never before chaired anything like this before, despite having been asked several times in the past, because the idea has always made me very anxious. Having finally faced up to my fear, I found it surprisingly easy (though I forgot to introduce who I am!). It was kind of curious, having never in my life attended a session like this that didn’t overrun, we ran short and had time for a Q&A, which was good.

The three talks I chaired were:

  • Mili Popova, my friend and fellow ORG board-member, with a talk entitled When worlds collide, about “the grey areas, where we can see both sides of the argument” between digital rights and anti-censorship, in particular talking about online harassment and violence against women.
  • John Fuller, with Extreme Pornography Legislation: are we all sex offenders now?
  • William Heath, chairman of Mydex, with “Is it now safe to say YES2ID?”

The last session was the closing keynote from one of the founding fathers of the digital rights movement, John Perry Barlow. His talk was “fireside chat”-style. With the audience initially unwilling to engage, despite all the seats in the lecture theatre at the IET having a microphone in the armrest, it started quite rambly and in broad terms.

Caspar Bowden (formerly director of FIPR and Chief Privacy Adviser to Microsoft EMEA) asked some pointed questions about Prism and the applicability of Fourth Amendment privacy rights to non-US citizens. Some key tweets:

The discussion then moved on to Bitcoin, with another couple of beautiful soundbites:

Then an audience member asked Barlow what he thought about the Assange case and, rather than doing what a more sensible person might do — dodge the damn question —, he expressed some opinions. This led to some controversy that I’ll cover in a separate post, without my ORG Board member hat on.

Glossing over that controversy for the moment, I had an excellent day, listening to plenty of very clever people talking about very interesting subjects. The IET is a rather shiny venue — the microphones in every seat of the main hall are pretty damn awesome, though going up and down the stairs all day was somewhat tiring. It was great to catch up with a handful of people I only see at events like this, though I’m conscious there were people I missed at OpenTech who I still managed to miss over the weekend. It’s just a shame that every event like this ends up with me feeling like there were so many more sessions I also wanted to go to! 🙂

Post edited 2013-06-20 to add links to the two keynote videos and the following copyright statement. ORGcon logo copyright © Open Rights Group and used under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licence. Saints’ Row The Third cover image originally copyright © THQ and is used without permission, ostensibly for the purpose of criticism and review under section 30(1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.


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