22 August 2005

Government Criminality

I haven't commented at all on the de Menezes affair. From the very beginning, I felt it wasn't worth discussing it, because 50% of what we read about it would turn out not to be true. It now looks as if that was a massive underestimate, but that just makes it all the more sensible to wait until the whole thing hits the courts and we can start to separate the facts from rumour and misinformation.

I am raising it now, because of the philosophical link with my earlier post on the activities of Neil Herron. What is at issue in Sunderland is the attitude of government to the law. When I read on Neil's blog today:

Sunderland Council had had a meeting with NCP regarding the fact that there were no traffic orders in place for the city's taxi ranks. This meant that issued tickets were unlawful, but rather than admitting this, they covered it up. They knew in October 2003.

It just sounded so much like the Evening Standard's account of the cover-up of the CCTV footage from Stockwell station:

The row over the death of Jean Charles de Menezes took a dramatic turn today.

Senior tube sources have challenged police claims that there was no video footage of his final moments on the platform at Stockwell station.

They told the Evening Standard that three CCTV cameras trained on the platform were in full working order. ...

The Tube sources spoke out after it emerged that police had returned tapes taken from the cameras saying: "These are no good to us. They are blank."

The attitude that tries to cover up illegal issuing of parking tickets is the same attitude that tries to cover up murder. That's why the parking tickets matter.

18 August 2005

Copyright, Property and Theft

"Property Rights - Property Rights - Property Rights!", reads a slide in a presentation by the CEO of the RIAA to the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (via BoingBoing)

Intellectual Property is not actual property — legally there are differences, and practically there are huge differences. If someone uses my intellectual property, they do not interfere with my use of it.

But there is a closer analogy to IP in the realm of property law than the one the RIAA (and other copyright radicals*) use.

If I own the land, I have the right to exclude trespassers.

Trespass, like copyright infringement, is not (usually) a crime. It is a tort - I can proceed against trespassers in civil court.

The right to exclude trespassers is limited. Public rights of way can exist, or can come into being, across my land, and the public hs a right to make use of them. If I sell or rent part of my land, the necessary rights of access might be implied. (this can get legally very complex).

There is an obvious, though inexact, analogy between public rights of way across private land and "fair use" of copyrighted material.

So, the next time someone talks about "copyright theft", interrupt them and say "I think you mean 'copyright trespass'".

* The actual practical political debate over IP is over whether copyright law should be extended in scope. In this debate, I am a conservative — indeed a reactionary, since I want recent extensions to be reversed — and the RIAA etc. are the radicals with a new vision of copyright.

17 August 2005

Neil Herron

Neil Herron describes himself as "a new-born political anorak". The issues he has involved himself with seem, at first glance, unbelievably petty: defending use of non-metric measures, and questioning the legality of parking fines in Sunderland.

There is more than meets the eye however. A feature of the "new politics" is the brushing aside of annoying legal details. The EU is the worst offender in this regard, with New Labour sprinting in its shadow. Mr Herron is saying "Wait a minute, do you actually have the legal authority to do what you are doing?" In a number of cases, they don't.

Upholding the ban on non-metric measurements required the Law Lords to announce a startling new constitutional doctrine. A partial success has already been achieved in the parking dispute. And Herron's third hobby horse, more obviously significant than the others, is the quiet setting up of unelected "regional assemblies" without any statutory basis.

I think the common attitude, that government has a totally free hand in the mechanisms it uses to govern, and that getting laws through parliament is a piddling technicality except in cases of great controversy, is hugely dangerous, in that it reduces the influence of voters, and increases the power of "undamped" variables such as activists and the media, which can produce huge overreactions to events. I think that however large or small the issues, in insisting on legal justification for government activity, Mr Herron is performing a valuable service. I don't know if he's right or wrong in any particular case, but the question has to be asked, and he's asking it. I would say, conservatively, we need about twenty more people like him.


This kind of thing is what really drives me nuts.

"Mobiles are believed to have been used by the 7/7 bombers as timers in their rucksack bombs" - well, if you want to use them as timers you can buy them second hand from a car boot sale, you don't need a network.

I would like to know what is being done about shoes. All the London terrorists wore shoes, and without shoes they would probably not have been anything like as effective. Yet one can walk into a shop in any town in Britain, and buy a pair of shoes, cash down; no ID, no questions. Don't these people realise we're AT WAR???

In the same way that stuff which appears in the newspapers a lot is stuff which is newsworthy, and therefore rare, human rights which get a lot of publicity are those which are argued about, and therefore marginal. The really really basic human rights, like the right to buy a pair of shoes or a telephone without being required by the government to register yourself as the owner, are so obvious that we don't even think about them as human rights, which is a shame, because we let government get away with taking them away far more readily than we do the marginal cases.

The other element here is a kind of "aquis communitaire" of police powers. As an implementation detail of the telecoms industry, there used to be a practical necessity to provide a name and address to get use of a telephone. With the technological innovation of call rating on the switch, pay as you go became possible and therefore anonymous access to telephones. (I recall with embarrassment that when I went to a meeting with Ericsson sales-people pushing this new technology, I didn't see what the big deal was). The police, having got used to the convenience of access to telephone records, feel that some obvious, essential police tool (which in fact would never have been given to them in the first place except by accident) has been taken away from them, and that the law must be changed to give it back. Again, because people are used to the idea that police can find out who made a phone call, they are more sympathetic to it than they would be out of the blue.

There is an obvious parallel to the attitude of copyright owners.

16 August 2005


I don't have much patience with those who spend a lot of time whining about the trains. I don't see obvious signs of gross stupidity or incompetence, and the regular problems - delays due to mechanical failures, weather, staff shortages, whatever, can only obviously be fixed by spending more money, which would have to come from me or from taxpayers.

So in the normal way of things, the fact that I was delayed by 40 minutes coming home on Friday would not be anything to make a fuss of.

On this occasion, the train reached Luton in good time. However, the door didn't open. Pointing this out to a nearby member of the catering staff, we were told there was a problem with the door but it would open in a minute. After a couple of minutes, an announcement came that passengers in the rear four coaches should move up to the first class area to exit the train. Five or six of us did so, but on reaching the first class area we were informed that we were too late, that the doors were closed and could not be re-opened.

The train at this point was still stationary at the platform.

Again, if it were true that it was impossible (or unsafe) to open the doors at that point, then the whole thing would have been a badly handled technical problem - basically business as usual. But I seriously doubt that. I suspect that, at the cost of some delay and inconvenience, the train could have been held and we could have been allowed to leave the train. The staff involved chose to avoid that inconvenience by taking several passengers ten miles out of their way.

I don't like whining - what am I going to do about this that is productive? First, advice. If you are on a Midland Mainline train and the doors don't open, immediately raise hell. Ignore what you are told, charge up and down the train looking for a working door, and make a lot of noise. If there is any suggestion that you will not be allowed to leave, pull the emergency alarm without hesitation.

This is the opposite of what I would previously have advised. For the sake of safety and smooth running, one should stay calm, follow instructions, and trust that you will be treated reasonably. My bitterness is due to that trust to have been proved to be misplaced.

The second step I am considering is going to the police. If a taxi driver, say, refused to let a passenger out at the destination, and abandoned them ten miles away, I'm sure criminal charges could be brought. Since, in this case, I believe that a deliberate decision was made not to let us off where they had agreed to do, the situation appears to be equivalent. I can't be bothered asking for compensation for what is, in effect, a fairly ordinary delay, but the member of the train staff that decided to keep us on a train against our will and against the prior agreement ought to be fined or imprisoned.

10 August 2005

Microsoft Bugs

A question at the end of an article on how the Microsoft X-Box security (designed to prevent unauthorised code being run) was broken:

512 bytes is a very small amount of code (it fits on a single sheet of paper!), compared to the megabytes of code contained in software like Windows, Internet Explorer or Internet Information Server. Three bugs within these 512 bytes compromised the security completely - a bunch of hackers found them within days after first looking at the code. Why hasn't Microsoft Corp. been able to do the same? Why?

It's a good question. There are a few plausible explanations:

  1. The design team were aware that the task of making it secure was an impossible one, and put just enough effort in to show willing, or to qualify as an "access control system" for legal purposes.
  2. The design was done in an insane rush, due to last-minute architectural compromises or general managerial incompetence.
  3. One or more of the designers secretly felt that the more the customer could do with the device, the better it would be, and in effect sabotaged a feature which had the purpose of limiting what the customer could do with it.
But my favourite theory is quality control. The biggest obstacle I face as a programmer to producing high quality software is the system of controls intended to make sure the software I produce is of high quality.

The major mechanism is obtaining approvals from people who have a vague idea of what the software is supposed to do, no idea at all of how it is supposed to do it, and little interest in the whole process. Other mechanisms involve using, or avoiding, particular tools or techniques.

What they all have in common is that they require me to subordinate my own engineering choice for some one else's, quite likely someone who not only has less knowledge of the specific question, but of the relevant general principles. This extends even to questions of who else to involve: if the bureaucracy says I have to get sign-off from person A, then person A gets to check the product ahead of person B, even if, left to myself, I would choose to ask person B to check it in preference, due to person B's greater expertise or interest.

The bureaucrats would say it is a question of trust - the checks are in place so that management can take direct responsibility for the quality of the product, rather than just taking my word for it. I do not find this at all offensive; it is a perfectly reasonable thing for them to want. The problem is that it doesn't work. It is always possible to "go through the motions" of doing the procedures, but there is almost no value in it. Getting it right always takes a mental effort, a positive commitment. I don't blame them for not trusting me to do it, but they don't have any choice.

The general ineffectiveness of quality control policy is masked by the usefulness of systematic testing. It is possible for a less-involved person to ask for, and check, tests - particularly regression tests on a new version of a product - and achieve significant quality benefits from doing so. As testing of this kind is generally part of the general battery of ceremonial procedures, the uselessness of all the others is less obvious than it would otherwise be. But there are many failures that this kind of testing doesn't catch (and, therefore, which over-emphasis on this kind of testing will increase the occurence of), and practically all security issues are in this category.

I have no knowledge of the quality-control regime at Microsoft: I'm just speculating based on my observation that a ceremony-heavy process can produce bad code of a kind that would be almost inexplicable otherwise. In this case, there are other reasonably plausible explanations, which I already listed.

(via Bruce Schneier)

(See also LowCeremonyMethods)

07 August 2005


Yasin Omar will be forgotten. Al-Zawahiri will be a footnote. The July bombings will be a detail of history, but people will still talk about the 2005 Edgbaston Ashes Test.

When my children are grown up, the names of Flintoff and Warne will trip off the tongues of commentators like those of Laker or Sobers. The last-wicket heroics of Simon Jones, Lee and Kasprowicz will be flashed up as benchmarks when unlikely batsmen struggle on. Warne's unbelievable leg-break to Strauss, Flintoff's first-ball perfect yorker to Kasprovicz, and Harmison's ingenious disposal of Clarke deserve to be held up as exemplars of bowling's arts, while Flintoff's nine sixes will inspire a generation. And the two-run margin of victory, after twenty hours of unique cricket, will be remembered by all of us that sat through those nail-biting final minutes (I actually threw up) for the rest of our lives.

All that, and there are still three matches to go in the series.

04 August 2005

The War on Housing

Today sees the 50th anniversary of Britain's biggest problem - the Green Belt.

Almost everything that is deeply wrong with Britain - the low birth rate, transport, even the poor Test performance - can be traced at least in part back to this piece of authoritarian stupidity. Whereas for centuries the bulk of the population suffered in inadequate housing because of the cost of building, now technology has made building cheaper than ever, and the cost of housing is higher than ever because an alliance of the powerful and the environmental primitivists cannot tolerate the thought of the plebs having comfortable and spacious accomodation. Remember
the report that showed that more than two-thirds of those Americans officialy in poverty had more than two rooms per person?

To rehash an earlier posting, the great illusion that the Green Belt policy was based on is that a large proportion of Britain is already built up. If you examine the land use statistics, something like 90-95% of the land area is undeveloped. While countries like the USA or Australia have, on paper, much lower average population density, that in practice includes vast useless deserts or grazing land - the presence or absence of such are not really relevant to the urban or suburban masses.

There are obvious reasons why the War on Housing has been so much more successful than, say, the War on Some Drugs, but the contrast is striking. Articles about record low street prices for recreational drugs are almost as common as articles about record high prices for houses. Meanwhile, Prescott struts around, appointing one spot or another as the site for a few new houses - mostly, the vast tracts of land being industrially and unprofitably farmed to produce unwanted food being too valuable, unvalued sites such as school playing fields or inner-city "brownfield" meadows which are the only bits of greenery some inner-city children ever see.

03 August 2005

War on Squirrels

Two views from my blogroll: Eric Raymond says
The choice between "support the war" and "allow the pressure off of enemies who want to kill us all" is not a difficult one. As a libertarian, I’m deeply sorry we live in a world where governments are doing the fighting for us, and I fear the consequences of the power they will amass while doing so. But I don’t see an alternative.

While Nick Seddon says
... it is wrong to treat this as a war. Or rather, it is possible to prevent this becoming a war. Much as evangelicals (the kind who read the metaphor of the armour of God at the end of Ephesians in literal terms) and neocons (Mark Steyn’s article in The Spectator this week concludes, "If it’s a war, you can win it. Anything less is unlikely to end in victory.") are keen on their gung-ho adrenaline, it will only make things worse to react as if this is a war of simple opposites, a clash of civilisations ...

I set out to agree with Nick Seddon. But whenever I tried to form an argument of the form, "it's wrong to say this is a war, because if it was a war then ...." I had nothing to complete the sentence with. Not "nothing that supported my argument", nothing at all. To me, deciding whether the situation is or is not a war leads to no policy conclusions at all. No measure I can think of would automatically be appropriate "because we are in a war". Wars come in all shapes and sizes, even leaving aside questionable entrants like the "War on Drugs" or the "Cold War".

It's like the the old story of the squirrel, the hunter and the tree.

Now here's an odd thing. Having written the above, I thought I'd show off my erudition, or "ability to use google", by giving a better reference to the squirrel. In fact it's from William James. But check out the page that came up when I looked it up. Maybe one day I'll come up with something original.

Filesharing cases

The BPI (British Phonographic Institute) is suing five users of filesharing software for unauthorised distribution of copyrighted music. (The Register)

I support them in this action. A case can be made for abolishing or severely curtailing traditional copyright protections, and I am sympathetic to some of the arguments, but I do not see the issue as nearly clear-cut enough to justify ignoring or defying the law as it stands.

The copyright industries have made a lot of enemies by seeking (with considerable success) to vastly expand the scope and power of copyright law (and, in the case of software patent law). I am proud to count myself among those enemies. I strongly oppose:

  1. Legal restriction on the production, distribution or use of tools or techniques that can be used to infringe copyrights.
  2. Special police powers for investigating copyright infringements, over and above those that apply to other kinds of civil-law actions.
  3. Expansion of the scope of intellectual property, for example extension of terms or application of patent law to computer software.
  4. Ignoring or brushing aside the moral, legal and practical differences between "Intellectual Property" and actual property.

The suits under discussion involve of none of those - they are an entirely legitimate application of traditional copyright principles. It is by no means certain that traditional copyright law will be sufficient to preserve the plaintiffs' business model in the face of technological and economic change, but that is their problem, and they are fully entitled to try.

Related posts:

IP Confusion
Software Patents
Pharmaceutical future