OwnCloud, an open source alternative to DropBox

My previous two posts were about the angst of privileged middle classes. I wrote first about the middle class habit of moving into the catchment area for good schools. Then I excused our tendency to maintain a less-than ethical existence. Untrained eyes could be forgiven for mistaking my motives in writing these posts. Am I not simply trying to assuage my own guilt at doing precisely those things?

Not so. I feel far less guilty about my complicity in all those middle-class clichés than perhaps I should. Rather, both posts were digressions of this one, in which I shall briefly discuss the ethics of Internet apps.

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Let them eat cake

In my quick post yesterday I touched on the trade-offs between self-interest and ethical living, and the middle-class pull to buy the best environment for one’s family. The modern Western lifestyle throws up anxieties like this all the time, because it turns out that pretty much everything we do is (on some level) unethical or hypocritical.  Travelling to the shop in a car certainly harms the enivronment.  Buying food when you get there will create landfill.  Organic food is not Fair Trade, and vice-versa. Continue reading

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Invincible

Over the weekend I went to see Invincble at the Orange Tree in Richmond, a new play by Torben Betts.  Its the kind of theatre I prefer: intimiate scenes in-the-round, teasing apart something relevant about contemporary life.

This one centres on an upper middle-class couple, Oliver and Emily, with a tragedy in their past and an warped sense of social responsibility.  They have chosen to live among ‘ordinary’ people in the North of England.  Rather than live in a middle-class ghetto and contribute to the extortionate London housing bubble, they profess a desire to improve this community.  Emily plans to become a school governor and says she is setting up an Amnesty group and an artists’ collective.

But its all a facade.  Their neighbour Alan has a cat, which they hate and eventually murder.  Thry cringe at Alan’s love of beer and football.  They are at first patronising, and then incredibly snide about his attempts to paint.  Quickly, they alienate themselves from the community they hoped to improve.

The couple eventually come into an inheritance, and immediately make the selfish choice to leave.  Even Emily, the righteous, organic fair trade Amnesty arts collective school governor daughter of Quakers, needs barely any persuasion to abandon her communitarian principles and move to Highgate, where the schools are better.  Alan and his wife Dawn are abandoned to their preordained fate: spiralling credit card debt, monotony at work.  For their son in the army, death awaits on the streets of Kabul.

The question Torben Bett’s puts to the audience is whether we would do any different.  Probably not.  What parent would choose to risk their kids’ education on a failing school.  What mother would approve of her son being sent to die in Afghanistan?  Like the rest of us, neither Alan or Emily are inclined to abandon their culture or their comfort for an ideal that the political system will not support.  Ultimately, its an argument for socialism—some things we support in principle we’re just too selfish (or perhaps, self-interested) to do in practice, so we need the collective power of the state to create a better environment for us.

The savvy religious of Britain

Fraser Nelson has written a much celebrated article for the Daily Telegraph about British Muslims, and how they have integrated into British life.

British Muslims don’t really feel a sense of otherness. In fact, polls show they’re much more likely to identify with Britishness than the general population. The Citizenship Survey found that most Muslims agree with two propositions: that Islam is the most important thing in their life, and that their primary loyalty lies with the British state. Most are baffled by the idea of a tension between the two.

Too often, Islam is in the news because of some sort of culture clash (for example, the row over the Mohammed cartoons or veils).  But Nelson points out that this is often a media cliche and unrepresentative of most British Muslims.  He lists several examples where Muslims have collaborated with Jewish groups and churches to ensure that diversity of faith is maintained. Continue reading

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Free speech will suffer if politicians get tough on offensive tweets

I’ve had another article published on Comment is Free—this time about social media prosecutions and the tougher prison sentences that MPs want to introduce to punish those who send threatening messages via Twitter.

Social media is supposed to be the great enabler of free speech, but in fact it’s full of paradoxes. Posting on Twitter or Facebook is sometimes the quickest way to get censored. Governments like China and Vietnam closely monitor the online space for any sign of dissent, and a recent law passed in Saudi Arabia means a simple retweet could land you in prison for a decade.

Life is better in the UK, but the contradictions persist. Caroline Criado-Perez received misogynistic threats when she launched a campaign to keep a woman on the £10 note. Jane Goldman felt compelled to leave Twitter after receiving a torrent of abuse – ironically because her husband Jonathan Ross was perceived as sexist. Rape threats, hate speech and racism are common on social media. Women and minority voices are being forced off the platform: precisely the people who we need to hear more from in our political and cultural discussions.

These contradictions are a challenge to anyone who values free expression and open rights online. If we do not act to fix this problem – with either social or technological solutions – then those in parliament who are less concerned with protecting human rights will simply introduce tougher legislation to fix the problem for us.

You can read the whole thing on the Guardian website.

Discussing Privacy on AsianCorrespondent.com

Do you remember the so-called scandal earlier this month, when it was revealed that UCAS (the charitable company that administers university applications and admissions) was selling on students’ contact details to advertisers?  Charlotte Sexauer of AsianCorrespondent.com delved deeper into the story, and found that there may be less to the controversy than we first assumed:

Essentially, therefore, it would appear as though what UCAS is doing is the same as any other online business – namely, asking students’ permission to send them emails for products that are likely to appeal to them.

I spoke to Charlotte about the issue and my comments were included in her article.  Here I am, riffing on the conceptual difference between the personal information we choose to share on Facebook, and the data that companies hold on us:

The fact that people post reams of data to Facebook is often given as an excuse for companies trading in our personal data, our online activity and our commercial activity,” he says. “But there’s a huge conceptual difference between data we can control and delete, and data stored in a computer record we do not have access to.  Opting out of Facebook may be socially difficult, but anyone can do it in a matter of moments.  Likewise, opting out of the Nectar Card programme is as simple as cutting the purple card in half.  But opting out of a database that you do not even know you are on is a much harder proposition.

More comments here.

The Chain of Life

In the Daily Telegraph, Tom Chivers lovingly traces his son’s family tree, back through grandparents, to distant ancestors, to the origins of life. Its a nice, secular take on the beauty of creation.

Happy four billionth birthday, son.

The piece puts me in the mind of the opening to W. Somerset Maugham’s short story ‘Virtue‘, which traces the origins of a good cigar, a plate of oysters, a cut of lamb.

For these are animals and there is something that inspires awe in the thought that since the surface of the earth became capable of supporting life from generation to generation for millions upon millions of years creatures have come into existence to end at last upon a plate of crushed ice or silver grill. It may be that a sluggish fancy cannot grasp the dreadful solemnity of eating an oyster and evolution has taught us that the bivalve has through the ages kept itself to itself in a manner that inevitably alienates sympathy. There is an aloofness in it that is offensive to the aspiring spirit of man and a self complacency that is obnoxious to its vanity. But I do not know how anyone can look upon a lamb cutlet without thoughts too deep for tears : here man himself has taken a hand and the history of the race is bound up with the tender morsel on your plate.

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Quoted in the Guardian on banning Darwish in Saudia Arabia

Last week, the works of the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish were removed from the Riyadh International Book Fair because they were ‘blasphemous’.  A spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture and Information said the books “violated the kingdom’s laws”.  This theological position comes about because in some of his work Darwish treats Judaism, Christianity and Islam as equivalents, which obviously upsets the fundamentalists.

I spoke to the Guardian about the ban and was quoted in their report:

But the writers’ group English PEN issued a stinging rebuttal to the move. “It is bizarre and disappointing that the government of Saudi Arabia has allowed a small group of people to censor one of the Islamic world’s most important modern poets. The Riyadh international book fair is supposed to promote culture and commerce in Saudi Arabia, but this incident has had precisely the opposite effect,” said its head of campaigns, Robert Sharp. He also pointed to the case of newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari, who was imprisoned without trial in Saudi Arabia for two years after he posted a short series of tweets in which he imagined a dialogue with the Prophet Muhammad.

“Blasphemy laws stunt cultural development,” said Sharp. “If the government truly wishes Islamic art and culture to flourish in the Kingdom, it must urgently repeal these outdated laws.”

 

 

Why do our leaders dismiss our fears over civil liberties?

It seems to be a cast iron rule of politics that our leaders will become more authoritarian when they take office.  The standard explanation for this is that they simply become drunk on power.  But at the Time for A Digital Bill of Rights? parliamentary meeting yesterday, Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron gave a more nuanced explanation:

No-one will assent to rules that imply that they may abuse their power.

There is a tendency in the debate around mass surveillance to attribute malign motives to everyone in government and the security services.  This in turn alienates those in power, and promotes the belief that civil liberties campaigners are shrill, paranoid exaggerators! So this alternative formulation, which avoids the cod-psychological explanations about power, corruption, and malign motives, is very welcome.

Farron went on to point out that this does not absolve those polticians of blame for neglecting civil liberties.  What they forget, he said, is that our laws need to be constructed so as to protect citizens from future corrupt governments.  This rather obvious point is often lost on Ministers who are concerned with the here-and-now.

 

Discrediting Assange

Andrew O’Hagan’s London Review of Books essay on the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is quite something. Hired to ghostwrite Assange’s autobiography, O’Hagan spent many months with the hacker while he was on bail and living in a country house in Norfolk. The essay describes Julian Assange’s erratic, selfish and sometimes delusional personality that caused the book project to wither.

I’ve heard some people call the essay ‘a hatchet job’ but it is more subtle than that. The piece seethes and scathes, but I don’t detect a sneer or anything to suggest that it seeks to pull Julian Assange down a peg.

Rather, its a literary catharsis. O’Hagan is a man squeezed between the exasperating Assange and the bolshy publisher Jamie Byng, a position he clearly finds deeply uncomfortable. The story reads as incredibly sincere, which also makes it credible and compelling.

There’s no doubt that O’Hagan’s essay zips up the body bag on Assange’s already brutalised reputation. His protagonist (for, by the end, Assange has become a character, a ‘cipher’) is unquestionably the author of his own downfall. Nevertheless, there remains a certain unease in the fact that this essay has been published in the same week as some more damning revelations about the practices of GCHQ.

Writing on First Look Media’s Interceptor blog, Glenn Greenwald (the journalist who took receipt of Edward Snowden’s cache of NSA documents) exposes the paychological techniques deployed by our the security services. His article is titled ‘How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations’ and presents leaked GCHQ slides that describe the techniques used by JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). The group allegedly deploys techniques developed by behavioural scientists to break up political groups that they perceive to be a threat to national security. They use agents provocateurs, False Flag operations, and even ruin business and personal relationships through the hacking of social media and e-mail accounts. ‘Honey Traps’ are also mentioned.

Its impossible to know which, if any, of these techniques have been used against Wikileaks and Julian Assange, but I don’t think it would be particularly outlandish or paranoid to imagine that the group have been the target of this sort of action. I don’t know how the public, and targets of such covert government attacks, can counter the misinformation… But I do know that Assange’s chaotic response, and his decision to avoid the chance to clear his name, is not the way to go about it.

Protect whistleblowers to protect the leaks

If O’Hagan’s account is to be believed (and the hours of tape recordings lends weight to his account) then Julian Assange is actually quite careless with the sensitive data he handles. In an op-ed in the Independent, my colleague Mile Harris points out that this is a reason to protect and encourage whistleblowers. Far better that those who handle leaked information treat it with care. By aggressively prosecuting the act of whistleblowing, we ensure that future leakers are likely to be in the Assange mould—unreliable and careless.