Wednesday, November 15, 2006

European Treaty on Access to Information

For some years now, since 1998 in fact, the Council of Europe has been talking about agreeing a treaty or other international document on freedom of information - the right of every person to have access to information held by or on behalf of the state. This is an important issue for two reasons: first, because access to information is crucial to democracy and key to enforcing other human rights, and second, because unlike the other major global and regional human rights treaties, the European Convention on Human Rights does not confer a right of access to information.

The early efforts culminated in a Recommendation on Access to Official Documents, adopted in 2002, which is pretty good in terms of substance but which is unfortunately not binding in law. The Council's "Group of Specialists on Access to Official Information", or DH-S-AC in bureacracy-speak, has therefore continued work on putting a treaty together and they are now in fact pretty close to agreeing something. Unfortunately it looks like it'll be a watered-down version of the 2002 Recommendation, which is a shame, and the provisional draft so far has been much criticised by the three civil society groups that have observer status on the Group of Specialists. Criticism of the latest draft of the treaty - which itself has not been made public, as far as I can ascertain - by ARTICLE 19 and others can be found here; an earlier civil society letter criticising the draft treaty can be found here.

No word yet on when the treaty might be ready for consideration by States - the draft is now at the 'expert group' level, and needs to go through at least one further layer of bureaucracy before it'd be ready for signature - but it does feel as though they have some momentum going right now. Mid-2007 perhaps?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

UK press freedom watchdog rings alarm bell

Sir Christopher Meyer, the chairman of the PRess Complaints Commission, reckons that things are moving in the wrong direction in the UK - what with proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act, inconsistent application of the Data Protection Act and their general dislike of the press. The Guardian reports the story here; with some luck, the full text of his lecture at the LSE's POLIS institute - and perhaps even a podcast - will appear somewhere here.

He is reported to have said that government has become less open since his days at No. 10 in the mid 1990s, and that part of the problem is that politicians now actually overestimate the power of the press: "politicians believe that if they don't get a favourable write-up, it is the end of the world." Isn't that true though - once the media have it in for you, that's it (Prescott being the exception to the rule, I'd say)...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Death threat reporter's plea for security refused

This story was reported in last Sunday's Observer. It is a shame to see that the UK government fails to recognise that journalists are under threat as much as civil servants - particularly in the wake of Anna Polotkovskaya's recent murder in Moscow. And it's not as if Nortern Irish paramilitary groups are known for their kindness or their general sloppiness in pursuing people who are on their hitlist...

I'll quote a bit from the story to give you the gist of things:

Henry McDonald, Ireland editor

Sunday November 12, 2006


Human rights organisations have accused the British government of being as indifferent as the Kremlin to death threats against journalists from terrorists and criminals.

Index on Censorship and Article 19 - two groups that defend freedom of speech around the world - have criticised the decision to deny a colleague of the murdered Northern Ireland reporter Martin O'Hagan admission to the Key Persons Protection Scheme.

Paul Goggins, the Northern Ireland Office Security Minister, has written to the Sunday World journalist, who has received his third death threat in four years. The latest is understood to come from republican dissidents.

The minister's letter says the reporter is not entitled to government support to fortify his home. This normally includes putting in bulletproof windows, hidden CCTV cameras and panic buttons linked to the nearest police station. Instead the minister suggests that the Belfast-based reporter move home.

In his correspondence, Goggins admits that the journalist, whose identity The Observer is not revealing for fear of further threats to his life, is in danger. 'The Chief Constable has indicated that the threat pertaining to your is "Substantial - Level 3",' he writes.

However, he continues: 'In this context I must balance the application against the other criteria... You are not employed in one of the occupations normally covered by the Scheme, and therefore have failed to meet the requirements of this criterion. I have also concluded that you are not occupying a wider public role which is contributing to the objectives of the scheme.'

Click here for the rest.

I can only hope that the journalist will be able to overturn this decision on judicial review. All told, it doesn't bode well for other journalists who find themselves in the same situation, or for the British government's general awareness of the important role journalists play in a dmeocratic society...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Spanish court rules free music downloads are legal for own use

image from

Let's see if this one survives appeal (it does come across as slightly nutty):


Giles Tremlett in Madrid
Friday November 3, 2006

A Spanish judge has dealt a blow to the global music industry after ruling that there is nothing illegal about downloading music for free from the internet as long as it is for personal use.

The decision, the first of its kind in Europe, opens the way for Spain's estimated 16 million internet users to swap music through online sites. "This is extremely unusual," said a spokesman for the international recording industry body IFPI, as the judgment was announced yesterday.

Judge Paz Aldecoa threw out a case against an unnamed 48-year-old man who offered and downloaded digital versions of music on the internet, according to Spanish press reports. He also sent selections of music recorded on CDs out to people in the post, prosecutors claimed.

The judge ruled that, under Spanish law, a person who downloaded music for personal use could not be punished or branded a criminal. "That would imply criminalising socially admitted and widely practised behaviour where the aim is not to gain wealth illegally but to obtain private copies," she said in her judgment.

"If the purpose of the copy is not to gain wealth there is no way that it can be considered illegal," Victor Domíngo, head of Spanish internet user's association Internautas, told the Abc newspaper yesterday. "It would be a lot different if someone downloaded in order to sell on."

But Antonio Guisasola, from Spain's Promusicae recording industry federation, said the judge had got it wrong. "We have already appealed against the decision," he said. "Peer-to-peer [P2P] sharing is not legal in Spain."

full story on the website

MTV / EBU Conference on Public Service Broadcasting

Was at a conference on public service broadcasting (over time perhaps only here) on Friday, organised by MTV (no, not that one, this one, the Hungarian public broadcaster) and the European Broadcasting Union, sharing the platform with such luminaries as Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for the Media, and Miklos Haraszti, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Mind you - 'sharing' is probably too grand a word - they got a twenty minute presentation whereas I was just part of a twenty minute panel and was asked 1 (one) question.

Interesting titbit: Reding announced that a Commission Communication on Mobile TV would be published in January 2007, and that in December, the world can expect a new Commission Communication on on-line content, covering net neutrality, digital rights management, interoperability and intellectual property rights.

Rest of the conference concerned a mix of the 'crisis' of public service broadcasting in Europe generally, and the particular problems facing the Hungarian public broadcaster (no money, no audience, poor programming and, apparently, very soon, no headquarters as the lease on their current premises is about to run out).

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Amnesty calls on Bloggers to Stand Up

In a press release last week, Amnesty calls on bloggers to stand up and protest restrictions on internet freedom. Something to support. It's never to late to stand up and be counted. They also draw attention to their Urgent Action request regarding the Iranian blogger Kianoosh Sanjari, who has been arrested (again). It is feared he is being tortured. Please write.

Internet Governance Forum - Highs and Lows

Today is wrap-up day at the Internet Governance Forum. I've been following and trying to participate in the forum via the official and IGF community websites, with mixed results (as I blogged yesterday, the site has been up and down, and I only got a few questions to the floor). The chair is summing up the results right now, so why don't I take this opportunity to highlight a few memorable events and moments.

First things first: any international forum at which a senior Microsoft executive admits that perhaps it is time to pack up and leave China must be considered successful. Fred Tipson is quoted on the BBC website as saying that "[t]hings are getting bad ... and perhaps we have to look again at our presence there ... We have to decide if the persecuting of bloggers reaches a point that it's unacceptable to do business there ... We try to define those levels and the trends are not good there at the moment ... It's a moving target." This on the heels of a highly critical Human Rights Watch report - which however distinguished between the apparently relatively considerate efforts of Microsoft and Google on the one hand, and the 'complete sell-out' of Yahoo! on the other - and governmental efforts in the west to outlaw corporate involvement in censorship abroad.

And, credit where credit's due, the Forum has successfully brought together a truly disparate group of business, government and civil society representatives in an on-going forum for discussion on a huge range of issues relevant to internet governance. So the objective of creating 'dynamic coalitions' may well have been achieved. I hope some of the momentum created in Athens will be carried forward and implemented through concrete action, for example by Microsoft and co. taking their responsibilities a bit more seriously and staying out of the business of censorship.

But did it achieve enough? Well, yes and no. No because it didn't actually do anything. And no because many of the sessions (workshops and main) rehashed old themes of access and content restrictions, how bad China is (although the governmental rep saying "we do not have restriction at all" was pretty hilarious - more discussion of that here and here), that corporates should not get involved in censorship and how much child porn and porn generally there is on the net. No new themes came up, no new approaches to break the eternal deadlock appeared. Pessimists might say that it was all a big role play: civil society played its part by criticising censorship, the corporates played theirs by denying any really serious complicity in human rights abuses, and China said that any restrictions imposed were to protect the tourists (okay, so I hadn't heard that one before!). But the IGF does not actually have the power to make any binding decisions (other than deciding that their next meeting will be at Copacabana beach) and it is probably unfair to expect it to solve anything overnight. So to criticise it for not 'doing' anything would be unfair. I'm an optimist and I declare that something has been achieved. People were brought together and ideas were shared. Microsoft and Cisco sat around the table with Amnesty and ARTICLE 19. A commitment to carry forward this discussion over the next couple of years was made. And - as I said at the start of this post - the corporates moved a step closer to admitting that perhaps they need to look at their involvement in internet censorship again. Now that's actually fairly important.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

IGF - Internetforum Gone Fishing?

I've been following the proceedings at the Internet Governance Forum for the last few days. Unfortunately the site's not too reliable - it's been down twice over the last few days. Does this sum up the state of the Forum...? These very silly people have claimed responsibility for bringing the site down.

Scroogle Scraper

Wikipedia describe Scroogle (.org, not to be confused with the .com porn site) as "a screen-scraping proxy for the Google search engine that circumvents Google's tracking of user activity via cookies and/or IP address. The site also allows users to perform Google searches without receiving Google advertisements. A Yahoo scraper is included. There is support for 28 languages, and Mozilla offers a Scroogle plugin for the Firefox search bar. Scroogle is operated by Google critic Daniel Brandt, who also runs the Google Watch website. Google tried to block the site, but the creator found methods to get around the block."

The service has apparently been around for years, and there seems to have been intermittent warfare with Google, but as of today, it works. There's even a Firefox 2 plugin for it. I've been trying it for a few days now and it seems to work fine. No access to the Google cache, but that makes sense (I think).

Why use it? Me, on the principle that it ain't none of Google's business what I search for - they've got it enough of my private data as it is (what with my Gmail account and now this blog...). Imagine Google committing the same mistake as AOL and releasing a whole bunch of identifiable user data to the world. My Muppet Show fixation would be immediately obvious, alongside my obsessive compulsive monthly urge to Google myself (when oh when will I finally manage to knock my blasted namesakes off the top spot in Google...).

First posting

Just testing the system.