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Business Environment Science Series Technology

Experts, Regulation, and Food

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on the Bassetti Foundation website called The Innovation Principle.

The post was a review of a letter sent by some of Europe’s largest corporations to the European Commission. The letter claims that regulation in the EU risks damaging development and the economy, they want a series of things to be taken into account within the regulation process.

It is easy to read and short and I recommend a look, it is free to download through the link above, but I would like to take one of their suggestions and apply it to food regulation, as part of my food series.

The letter calls for the “Full inclusion of relevant expertise”, and this sounds perfectly reasonable. But what does it actually mean in practical terms?

If we take the example of GM food development that I raised last week, it means finding experts in the field and putting them on committees to determine if proposals are safe. Now this means that you have to look to industry, because most of the experts work within the industry.

Now I believe that in all likelihood an expert working for a nuclear energy company will tell you that nuclear energy production is 100% safe, a nanotechnology researcher will paint a glowing picture of how the future is bright thanks to nano developments, and a GM food expert will do the same.

In the USA, the Federal Drug Administration is responsible for regulating the safety of GM crops that are eaten by humans or animals. According to a policy established in 1992, FDA considers most GM crops as “substantially equivalent” to non-GM crops. In such cases, GM crops are designated as “Generally Recognized as Safe” under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) and do not require pre-market approval.

But here the waters start to murk and merge. As I said, experts in the field working or having worked for industries working with technology are likely to be positive about their products. And the FDA seems to contain several of these experts, and some of them may have helped to make the distinction above.

According to this IVN article, over the last decade at least 7 high ranking FDA officials have also held high positions in Monsanto, the largest producer of GM seeds in the world. This is generally accepted as true, and in fact Monsanto have several employees present or past that have held high ranking positions in other capacities in the US Government. This is known as the revolving door in the USA, and it is worthy of exploration.

Monsanto and US Government Employees
Monsanto and US Government Employees (click to enlarge)

The website states that “At the forefront of this controversy is Michael R. Taylor, currently the deputy commissioner of the Office of Foods. He was also the deputy commissioner for Policy within the FDA in the mid ’90s. However, between that position and his current FDA position, Mr. Taylor was employed by Monsanto as Vice President of Public Policy.

Other Monsanto alumni include Arthur Hayes, commissioner of the FDA from 1981 to 1983, and consultant to Searle’s public relations firm, which later merged with Monsanto. Michael A. Friedman, former acting commissioner of the FDA, later went on to become senior Vice President for Clinical Affairs at Searle, which is now a pharmaceutical division of Monsanto (Oh Donald Rumsfeld ex Secretary of Defense was also on the Board of Directors).  Virginia Weldon became a member of the FDA’s Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee, after retiring as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto”.

Another controversy surrounded the appointment of Margaret Miller. The following is taken from Red Ice Creations website:

“In order for the FDA to determine if Monsanto’s rBGH growth hormones were safe or not, Monsanto was required to submit a scientific report on that topic. Margaret Miller, one of Monsanto’s researchers put the report together. Shortly before the report submission, Miller left Monsanto and was hired by the FDA. Her first job for the FDA was to determine whether or not to approve the report she wrote for Monsanto. In short, Monsanto approved its own report. Assisting Miller was another former Monsanto researcher, Susan Sechen”.

Obviously I am not in a position to determine whether these allegations are true, but a look at this article that appeared originally in the Observer newspaper might lead one to believe that there is a fine line being walked here.

The article states that “Monsanto received copies of the position papers of the EC Director General for Agriculture and Fisheries prior to a February 1998 meeting that approved milk from cows treated with BST.

Notes jotted down by a Canadian government researcher during a November 1997 phone call from Monsanto’s regulatory chief indicate that the company ‘received the [documents] package from Dr Nick Weber’, a researcher with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Sources noted that Weber’s supervisor at the US FDA is Dr Margaret Mitchell who, before joining the agency, directed a Monsanto laboratory working on the hormone.”

Oh and the hormone treatment made the cows sick, but you can read Robert Cohen’s reported testimony before the FDA on the subject of rBGH including the disclosure that, while at the FDA and in response to increasing sickness in cows treated with the hormones, Margaret Miller increased the amount of antibiotics that farmers can legally give cows by 100 times. Once again I cannot verify the transcription but it is widely reported on the web and was apparently shown on C-Span Congress TV live.

I am not suggesting that there is any collusion here, and as Monsanto argue people move jobs, taking jobs that suit their qualifications. A look at these people’s profiles show that they have many different positions, many of which we would say were undoubtedly working for public good. But some suggest that some of their positions might lead to conflicts of interests. But if you need experts where are you going to get them from? Here though I might simply suggest that you don’t need so many experts.

Within my life’s work of trying to promote responsible innovation I have come to the conclusion that a broader public involvement within decision-making process must be a good for society. Closed sessions full of experts deciding what is or is not safe for us may be efficient in terms of getting things done, but the public’s voice is not heard, and maybe that voice could lead to more responsible choices, or at very least some reflexivity in the decision-making process.

On a closing note, arguments are currently raging in the US about the labelling of GM foods, as currently there is no need to label it, something pushed for by many organizations. There is a counter movement that is arguing that as the FDA state that there is no fundamental difference, GM products that do not contain additives should be allowed to be labelled as “natural”, in the way organic vegetables are. This Common Dreams article presents a critical view of current practices that although strongly worded offers an insight into how a section of US society thinks about the issue.

The question remains however, who do we want to regulate our food and the technology used in its production?

Categories
Computers Internet News Search Engines Software Technology

What is Shodan?

EDITOR NOTE: This is Jonny’s 75th post on Technology Bloggers! Jonny was a complete newbie to blogging when he wrote his first post (about prosthetic limbs) but he is now somewhat of an expert – although he probably wouldn’t agree! – note by Christopher

Recently a couple of articles have appeared on large US websites about a type of search engine called Shodan. This search engine has been about for about 3 years, but it is different from Google and its cohorts in many ways. I looked at it and could not understand it at all, so what is it then and why is it causing such concern?

A screenshot of the Shodan website
Expose online devices

I have seen Shodan described as “The scariest search engine on the Internet”. This CNN money article explains that Shodan navigates the Internet’s back channels. It’s a kind of “dark” Google, looking for the servers, webcams, printers, routers and all the other stuff that is connected to and makes up the Internet.

What interest could there be in such capability? Well a lot apparently. The system allows an individual to find security cameras, cooling systems and all types of home control systems that we have connected to the Internet. (See Christopher’s series about his British Gas system here).

One serious problem is that many of these systems have little or no security because they are not perceived as threatened. Shodan searchers have however found control systems for a water park, a gas station, a hotel wine cooler and a crematorium. Cybersecurity researchers have even located command and control systems for nuclear power plants and a particle-accelerating cyclotron by using Shodan.

Hacking apart it turns out that the world is full of systems that are attached via router to the office computer and web server, and on to the outside world. Access for anyone who can find them and might like to turn of the refrigeration at the local ice rink, shut down a city’s traffic lights or just turn off a hydroelectric plant.

The Shodan system was designed to help police forces and others who might have legitimate need for such a tool, but what when it gets into the wrong hands. Security is non existent, just get your free account and do a few searches and see what you find.

See this Tech News World article for a further look at the ethical and practical issues that such a freely available product might bring

Regular readers will be aware of my interest in these types of problems through my work at the Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation. I am not sure how the development and marketing of such a tool could be seen as responsible behaviour, but as I have been told on many occasions during interviews there are plenty of other ways of finding out such things. These types of systems are gathering already available information to make it usable, nothing more, so not doing anything wrong.

Do you agree?

Categories
Media Technology

Robotic Warfare

Noel Sharkey is a Professor at Sheffield University in the UK, and he has just written an article for CNN. He is interested in robotics and artificial intelligence, and he is leading a call to ban the development of “autonomous” killing machines.

We might be thinking about a killer robot here, and as many will know there are already plenty of unmanned systems in operation. Drones are very much in the press, but they are flown by a pilot and the decision to kill someone is taken by a human, even if they might be several thousand miles from the action.

But Sharkey is concerned about the future development of systems that can be programmed for a task, but then autonomously make decisions during that task. He does not believe that a computer can make the types of decisions necessary in warfare, or at least not with morality and judgement.

BAE Spider Robot
BAE Spider Robot

There are 2 real sides to the argument about robotics in war. One states that mechanization of warfare would lead to less casualties, more precision, less danger for the troops and all in all a cleaner fight. There would be no more massacres of civilians because a soldier takes retribution for an unrelated attack, fewer accidental deaths etc.

But on the other side we are talking about machines making decisions that should incorporate humanity, such as how many deaths are justified for a particular objective? Is the death of an individual really of strategic advantage? What if the machines malfunction, or are taken over by hackers? Who can be held responsible for their actions? And aren’t we more likely to go to war if we can send machines and leave the boys at home?

All of these arguments are fought over within the robotics community, but we should remember that we have already travelled some way down the road of computerized and mechanized war. Anti aircraft and missile defence as is being deployed in Asia today is no longer a mechanical affair, they are computerized systems that all but fire themselves, and they certainly do not require a person to aim them like in the old films.

Bomb disposal robots, unmanned vehicles and the likes are already deployed, mechanical spider troops that really do bring the idea of cyber war to the modern scenario are under development as this article explains.

One problem is that of foresight, how can we make legislation today when we do not have any real idea of how and how much technology will advance in the foreseeable future. Also this type of robotics often comes from or aids other developments, such as the robot surgical machinery that I reviewed in a previous post. Infiltration and influence is everywhere.

If you would like to get an idea of how far we have come in terms of movement, take a look at this BBC video. A Boston company has produced a robot for military use (testing chemical suits) that moves remarkably like a human.

I have also written a couple of articles covering this issue on the Bassetti Foundation website. Read this article about recruiting robots for combat for an overview and follow the links.

Here you will also find an interview with robotics professor Ronald Arkin in which he describes how looking for funding lead him into designing robots that were paid for by the US military. They are of course the largest investor, a rather sobering thought given the current state of University funding.

Categories
Computers Internet News Software Technology

Governments using Spyare, but for What?

Last week the New York Times ran an article about some investigative work conducted by a researcher and student in the Toronto and Berkley universities. The two were investigating government use of surveillance software, and seem to have discovered evidence that many governments are using off the shelf software to spy on their own citizens.

And we are not talking about despot regimes here, the list of 25 countries includes Australia, Britain, Canada and the US. The chosen mode of dissemination is typical of virus or spyware spreading techniques, an email is sent to whoever is to be monitored, once opened the software is downloaded into the computer.

In Vietnam the system has been found running on Android phones, so I would say if they can do it in Vietnam they can do it elsewhere.

You are under survelliance poster
You are Under Surveillance

The alarm bells ring if you look at who is being targeted. In some cases political dissidents (as is the case in Ethiopia) receive the emails. Another worrying factor is where the spyware is sent from (IP addresses registered to Turkmenistan’s Ministry for Communication in one case).

The company manufacturing the program is British, and they state that they sell their product to governments to help them crack down on terrorism and organized crime, but the possibilities for abuse are obvious and also demonstrated.

One problem is that the sale of surveillance is largely unregulated. Commercially available software can remotely turn your webcam on and watch what you are doing, record Skype conversations, email exchanges, log keystrokes and look at images inside the machine, practically anything you would like to see you can. Useful maybe in a crime investigation, but a powerful tool in the wrong hands.

If you would like to ponder the matter of ethics in technological development and marketing more, I recently interviewed Chris Howard, CEO of online publisher LIBBOO. They have devised and patented a system of measuring how much influence an individual has upon a group, and which stimuli create and use that influence. In the interview I asked him about the responsibility he holds when his invention gets into the wrong hands, and you can read his response here on the Bassetti Foundation website.

I also have another post about other spyware and monitoring systems that are freely available on the Internet here, although they are toys in comparison to the system described above.

I have deliberately omitted all names above, but the New York Times article contains them all.

Categories
Business Computers Media

Hackathon Season is Upon Us

The use of the term hacker used to be derogatory, conjuring up images of someone cackling like a Witch, hunched over a computer as they steal some poor unsuspecting fool’s bank details. This is changing though, and the present use of the word is much broader and less critical.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about Aaron Swartz, and many see him as “a hacker for good”. He was greatly revered and respected in the Internet world and considered a programming genius by many.

Also today many Internet companies offer prizes to hackers who can break their security systems, so that they can then repair the weaknesses, all done more or less in secrecy obviously.

Here last week in Cambridge Massachusetts MIT held a Hackathon. The prize for the best “hack” was $1500 dollars, with plenty of runner’s up prizes too. And it is sponsored by Techfair, who organize a large business fair.

People from tech companies are invited to the hackathon to meet the ‘contestants’. It is in fact a job fair too, but as the website says don’t bring a CV, we just watch to see what you can do. There are tech talks and mini lectures, all above board as you can see from the website here.

A Hackathon
Inside a Hackathon

And this 20 hour marathon is neither the only nor the biggest hackathon in the USA. In January the Foursquare hackathon took place in New York City. The website has a link to all of the submitted hacks, and they are possibly nothing like you imagine. They are websites that can tell you how long you might have to wait in a certain restaurant, tell you NASDAQ values or help you influence the choice in music played around you, and that is to name just a few.

All this is organized with the help of Hacker League, as they say on the website you can “trust Hacker League to handle hackathon planning and organization” because they “power Hackathons”.

The biggest is in Pensylvania and is called PennApps (presumably after the University). Their January event attracted more than 450 students from 40 universities from all over the world, their prize being $4000 and a visit to Google HQ to demonstrate their work.

So the use of the word “hack” has clearly taken on a different meaning.

As many of you might know my work at the Bassetti Foundation is all about responsible innovation.  If we take case 1, writing code to steal bank details or destroy somebody’s reputation by getting into their email account, we might see this as irresponsible. But case 2, improving security, breeding entrepreneurs and innovation using the same skills and through the same actions by the same people, might be seen as much more responsible and in fact is promoted by organizations, businesses and universities.

It doesn’t look much like hacking to me though.

Categories
Internet News Social Media

Mistaken Identity

A couple of months ago I wanted to buy a new sofa. I found something that looked great in my local online sales paper, so I had to decide whether to go and see it. This involves hiring a car or taking a train and bus, because it was not close to my house and I don’t have a car of my own here in the US. Another possibility was just to hire a van, go and see it and buy it on the spot, a slightly riskier option.

So I did what many do, I looked up the seller via Google to see who he was. He turned out to be the CEO of a local business, so I made my decision. I hired a van and drove out, bought it on the spot, a lovely piece. I based the decision on the seller’s Linkedin profile, presuming that I had the right person from the name, and all went well.

The BBC recently broadcast a program on the World Service Outlook program along the same lines, but with a different outcome. It is available on Podcast here, but I would like to outline the story for you all.

In 2009 Iran saw street protests following the disputed presidential elections. Violence flared and a young woman was shot dead. Her name was Neda Agha-Soltan. Journalists from the international press soon picked up on the story, and rather like me searched Facebook and other sites for a photo of the victim. They found one and published it.

The next day Neda Soltan, a university professor saw her photos in the press. They had the wrong person. Obviously this may have caused some distress for her friends and family, so she contacted the press institutions and told them of their mistakes. They however continued to use her photo, and soon it was appearing on leaflets and became the face that distinguished the protests.

Johnny Hankins, is it me?
Johnny Hankins, American Footballer.

A few days later government secret service officers turned up at the professor’s house. They wanted to prove that the rumours of the death were all false, a CIA or EU plot to discredit the government, and they had proof that Neda was still alive. They wanted her to come forward and display to the world that she was still with us.

When she refused she was arrested. Upon her temporary release her friends managed to smuggle her out of the country, into Turkey and on to Germany where she claimed political asylum. She is currently in the US but has not seen her family and cannot return to Iran.

Jonny hankins again

The Internet has given journalists incredible tools and access to information, but here a mistake has ruined somebody’s life. The first thing people do when they want to learn about a person is type their name into their favourite search engine. Facebook is like a CV, but contains far more intimate and possibly compromising information, but users seem not to take this into consideration.

Another Johnny hankins
Another Johnny hankins

In the case above there seems to be no recourse to the law, and anyway it would not help. A bit of responsibility wouldn’t go amiss  on both sides though!

Categories
Media News Technology

Print Your Own Gun

Last week I went to a street fair in Boston. It was an interesting event to say the least, it was a celebration of local inventors and craftspeople. We made trans-music with a home built computerized digital orchestra, rode on electric motorbikes, played with robots and a large wooden catapult. Have a look at some of the photos here.

The robot collection was extraordinary, but one object really made me think. Someone had built there own 3D printer and was making objects as we watched.

3D printing has come up on this site before, but the fact that somebody could build one themselves at home had escaped me. And these types of printers have recently been in the news here in the USA for a very serious reason, somebody has claimed that they could produce a gun using only 3d printing.

Cody Wilson, 3D weapon advocate
Cody Wilson, 3D weapon advocate

Defense Distributed, a group of gun advocates, recently posted a YouTube video trying to raise money to make a printable gun.  The concept is to use fast-improving 3D printer technology to create gun parts that could be assembled into a fully-workable firearm.

“As the printing press revolutionized literacy, 3D printing is in its moment,” Cody Wilson, 24, founder of Defense Distributed, said in the video clip.

Three-dimensional printers have been used industrially for years to produce plastic or metal objects, but as the prices for entry level machines have fallen as low as $500, the printers have become more prevalent among hobbyists and educational institutions.

Users can create or download a data file, then simply click “Print” and the machines will create the three-dimensional prototype.

Now this organization would like to distribute a data file for a workable gun, something that may well not even be illegal over here, the law remains fuzzy in the face of such technology.

Fortunately the printer company have taken their machine back from Mr. Wilson as it is illegal to manufacture guns without a license, but he has raised over $20 000 for his project so far so may well soon be able to buy another.

Another hobbyist has actually produced some parts for a gun, assembled it and fired it more than 200 times so this is certainly not science fiction. Have a look at this article in Gizmag.

Is this just a crazy idea? Or could it undermine any gun controls put in place and put weapons into everybody’s hands? The second is Mr. Wilson’s goal unfortunately.

This kind of unforeseen use for an otherwise interesting new technology reminds me of why I keep on battling for ethics and responsibility in innovation through my work.

Categories
Apps Media Smartphones

Citizens connect!

This week I would like to take a look at a couple of technological and social systems that use Apps and are designed to improve urban living in cities. If you have ever asked yourself how technology can improve our lives then the following might be of interest to you.

The first thing I would like to look at is called Citizens Connect, a system that operates in Boston in the USA (where I currently live). According to the website “Citizens Connect enables real-time collaboration with citizens, “deputizing” mobile users to become the city’s eyes and ears. Citizens report potholes, graffiti, and other issues from anywhere in the city using their mobile phone”

And this is how it works, and it is a simple system if you have a reasonably good mobile phone. While walking or driving through the city you see something that you feel should be reported to the City Council, an abandoned car, vomit on the pavement, water gushing from a hole in the road, cat stuck up a tree, that kind of thing. You take a photo of it, upload it on the City of Boston website, they show it on a public map and (hopefully) send somebody out to fix the problem.

A map showing reported problems on Citizens Connect

I personally believe that a person is much more likely to report something if they can take a photo and send it off in real time than if they have to go home, look up a phone number and make a call. Could this be a fist step in making the citizen and the state more communicative and more responsible?

The City of Boston also offers another App called Street Bump. This is even simpler to use, you download it into your phone and it monitors your movement as you drive round the city. When you near a hole in the road you slow down, as does everyone else passing that spot, and this information is used to determine the quality of the road surface.

If you think your local council should try such a scheme, you can direct them towards Click Fix, a commercial system that is currently on sale and operated by several cities and other organizations. This is not a recommendation however, but their work does look very interesting.

Next week I will continue this theme with a look at an interesting university course all about “Urban Cybernetics” that is run at Harvard University. Some of the projects may offer great things for the future.

Categories
Blogging

Jonny’s 7 Links Challenge Response

Well first a big thanks to Christopher for nominating me for this 7 links challenge post, and I will get straight into it. I should say that a couple of my choices are more like web articles than blog posts because there is no way of commenting, but as this is how I got into blogging and because the vast majority of my posts have historically been in this format I include them nevertheless (apologies if this is bending the rules). Now at last anyone can comment upon them here and I am all ears.

The Lucky 7 strikes again

Most beautiful

My most beautiful post involved an interview with a member of the US Congress, Michael Capuano. Congressman Capuano represents Boston and Cambridge, home of MIT, Harvard University, Boston University and 30 other research institutions, and the ward once held by President Kennedy. I was interested in the politics that lie behind technological development, and as he represents more scientists and global research organizations than anyone else on the planet I wanted to speak to him.

My wife thought I had lost the plot as I started sending e mails to Congress, but as you can see I did get in touch with him, he granted me an interview and I posted the transcription in its entirety and wholly unedited on the Bassetti Foundation website (with his clearance).

Most popular

Without doubt my most popular posts are within the series I wrote here on Technology Bloggers about the environment. Some of the posts created a lot of discussion and all in all the series got more than 50 comments. Within the series I would have to say that ‘Engineering a Solution to Global Warming’ was the most popular, and it certainly stirred some debate.

Most controversial

Although it passed by relatively unnoticed (a bit off target for Technology Bloggers but posted anyway) I would say that my most controversial post was that about US immigration. The post talked about the fact that technology has allowed US borders to move overseas and many travelers now enter US jurisdiction in a foreign airport before even boarding the aircraft. The ethical and political implications seem to have gone unnoticed however by the general public.

Helpful

The most helpful post is about buying spyware on the net, again on the Bassetti Foundation website. I did not buy anything I might add, but used the post lots of times to provoke debate in the various Italian secondary schools I worked in as an English teacher. Among other more obvious products the post is about mobile phone technology that allows a person to listen in to another person’s conversation and receive copies of their texts. All you need is the box or serial number from your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband’s or anyone else’s phone.  You order the software over the Internet and it is downloaded directly into the phone (any smart phone will do) without the owner’s knowledge when they go online, and you spy. Some even allow you to listen to the surrounding area when the target phone is turned off using the inbuilt microphone. Not legal to use in most countries but legal to buy.

Surprisingly successful

My most surprisingly successful post involves an interview with Marta Milani, one of my ex students, also on the Bassetti Foundation site. Marta took up athletics while at school, and after leaving she became a member of the Italian Army athletics squad. I followed her career until one day I saw that she was competing in an international meeting where Oscar Pistorius (a South African athlete who races with 2 carbon fibre legs) was competing. I have an interest in prosthetics as one of my other posts here shows, one day having a new body part might seem a good idea, harder wearing, does not burn, stronger etc, it’s only like having a crown on a tooth or a new hip or knee after all. I tracked Marta down and interviewed her about the place of technology in sports. A couple of years later Marta managed to qualify for the World Championships and in an incredible result got to the semi-final. She will also be competing in the Olympics this year as current Italian champion over 400mtrs, and as a result my post gets a lot more readers than I ever imagined. Unfortunately the interview was conducted in Italian although the introduction and summary of the conversation is in English.

Underrated

Probably my first foray into blogging was and remains the most underrated post. Posted on the Bassetti Foundation website it did not receive any comments. The post is entitled ‘Drugs for People, Not for Profit’ and is a report on changes in how drugs companies conduct their business, the ethics and marketing involved in the production of new medicines and the falling rates of new patents.  It was is a complex post and took a lot of research (and reading) so I was rather disappointed, but I learnt from the process.

Excellent

Well I would have to say that I think my most excellent article appeared on the Innovation Excellence website in their blog entitled ‘Responsibility in the Processes of Innovation’. Although it didn’t receive any comments it was widely circulated, and I think that it is my best written to date. The article really looks like it could be published anywhere, it doesn’t look like a blog or even an online publication but resembles old school academia, and in fact I took the base from an entry in the Dictionary of Social Sciences about Responsible Innovation that refers to the foundation that employs me. I cannot take all the credit though as the piece is very much a joint effort, I translated the base article from Italian and expanded upon it.

Writing about your own work creates a strange sensation, particularly if you want to talk about it in glowing terms as required by some of the categories above, but it makes you think about your public voice. As I don’t know 5 other bloggers I am open to volunteers for nomination on my part, applications below.

Categories
Blogging News

Is The Right To Anonymous Blogging Under Threat?

The UK government has just published a draft Joint Parliamentary Committee report that may well effect bloggers like you and me. The bill is about defamation of character, but it includes some interesting points about blogging, and in particular anonymous posts. Although their aim is to lift the burden of policing blog comment from the service providers, it may have a knock on quasi censorship effect upon freedom of speech.

The ISP Review website contains all the links you need to read the proposal, and I should state that the draft is open for comment and contains specific questions that we should all maybe take time to think about and answer.

Big Brother is Watching You - PosterThe government want to protect people from slanderous remarks on blogs, as many people uses anonymity as a cover, feeling that they can say whatever they want without fear of reprise. The proposal is that any anonymous post that receives a complaint from any party must be removed immediately, or the name of the author made public, otherwise the blog owner will be held responsible and face the consequences of any libel case.

All well and good if we are just talking about a few snide remarks or even a good and possibly unjustified slagging off, but what about other uses of anonymity? People use blogs to anonymously blow the whistle on malpractice in all types of situation. In this case anyone can make a complaint about an anonymous post and it must be removed. An arbitrator looks at the complaint, but as already noted, any libel remains the responsibility of the blog owner unless they are willing and able to provide the author’s name. The effect will be that any organization or individual will be able to block the comment in an instant, by making a complaint that we could read as a direct threat to the blog owners survival.

The new draft on libel is a prime example of the manipulation of responsibility. Do you make the providers responsible and threaten them with a law suit because they put something online that someone takes exception to? They are big organizations, faceless and have money.  The blog owners do not however, and have a lot to lose.

So what about allowing your contributors to post anonymously? There is a need for anonymity in certain cases, people are much more likely to talk about sensitive issues if they do not have to reveal their names. There have been many cases brought to light that have turned out to be true examples of poor standards through anonymous posts.

How many blog owners will take the risk of going through a lengthy and expensive court case to defend the contents of an anonymous post? This is an option that in most cases I would think is not even feasible to contemplate.

To add just another thought, on occasion I have created a ‘false’ e mail account in order to register for a site that I did not want to have my real e mail address. I could have then used it to register with a website to get access to commenting, so it may well also be very difficult to determine who a named author actually is, further adding complications to already murky waters.