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Science on Trial

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If you're quick, there's still a chance to hear last week's Radio 4 programme Science on Trial.

With enormous topicality, it examined some of the very concerning legal cases that have been brought in British courts surrounding use of libel laws to restrict scientific debate, and effectively silence some of those who otherwise promote remedies for which there are significant questions of efficacy.

This came to a head yesterday when Simon Singh appeared in the High Court in front of three of the most senior appeals judges in the country. He's fighting a libel action brought by the British Chiropractic Association, after he authored a piece in The Guardian nearly two years ago.

If you ever actually visit my site (and aren't just seeing it in an RSS reader), you'll have perhaps noticed the link to Sense About Science. This is an important freedom that we need to fight for.

If you haven't already, you really need to do a few things.

First of all - sign this petition for the reform of this country's unjust libel laws. Even today's Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report highlights the injustice of this.

Go on - do it now.

For more background on the Simon Singh case, you can do no worse than read the Jack of Kent blog. He has a nice summary of events to date here, and a report on yesterday's procedings here.

Simon Singh had penned a piece in the Daily Telegraph prior to yesterday's appearance, and there was also a good primer in The Times.

Or listen to the programme linked to above.

I'm A Photographer - Not A Terrorist

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I'm A Photographer Not A Terrorist-5

At midday today, I went to Trafalgar Square along with what must have been a couple of thousand of other photographers to protest that "I'm A Photographer, Not A Terrorist!"

This is an event that will surely have hundreds of photos coming out of it. There were no speeches per se, but lots of group photos (something that's quite hard to do with photographers since they all want to be taking the photo).

A few of my photos are here, with the rest over on Flickr. A BBC report of the event is here.

I'm A Photographer Not A Terrorist-13

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I'm A Photographer Not A Terrorist-10

CCTV Is Everywhere

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Last night BBC Two aired the first in a three part series - Who's Watching You. It examines the surveillance state that we've been walking headlong into over the last few years.

Despite a very annoying production technique of sending everything in and out of focus like a small child was operating the camera, it put together a fair - sometimes "too" fair - look at what's happening and how that data is being used.

I was thinking about a very similar subject when I stood atop Beacon Hill yesterday surveying the Chilterns and beyond. I took this photo:

25 May 2009

It's not in any way Photoshopped (beyond usual processing stuff).

It's only fair to add, that I later realised that my walk took me along the edge of the Chequers estate, and it's entirely possible that this very subtle CCTV camera is part of that estate's security system. Despite thinking that Gordon Brown doesn't use Chequers, it turns out that he does most weekends so I expect he was off somewhere behind where I took this photo.

Given the fact that I took about a dozen photos, and the propensity of our law enforcement officials to approach people taking pictures of the most innocent subjects, I should count myself lucky to continue my journey unscathed (or perhaps they missed me because I took photos of the back of the camera!).

The Convention on Modern Liberty

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28 February 2009

On Saturday I attended what I genuinely believe was an important event - The Convention on Modern Liberty in London. Satellite events were taking place all over the country, with the plenary sessions and keynote addresses.

It was a great day with a vast array of speakers. We had to pick and choose which sessions we went to over the course of the day, with the main sessions taking place in a room nearly large enough for everyone to squeeze in.

I suppose that if I'm going to highlight a few speeches, I must mention the keynotes from Philip Pullman and David Davis.

As soon as videos for both of these become available I'll embed them here.

Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, opened procedings with the day's first keynote, followed by the first plenary as The Guardian's Georgina Henry struggled to keep a very angry Helena Kennedy QC under control. When the long list of things that we're no longer allowed to do starts to get expressed, you begin to realise exactly what we're missing.

Phil Booth of NO2ID spoke to us to ensure that we write to our MPs immediately about Clause 152 of the Criminal and Justice Bill.

This little clause essentially allows the Government to pass any information about you to whoever it wants to.

There are full details here (PDF).

I then attended the Press Freedom session chaired by Joanne Cash QC (and prospective Conservative Party candidate).

The first panellist was Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who pointed out that libel in the UK costs roughly 140x more than anywhere else in Europe. He spoke about the recent case The Guardian had had with Tesco, where they did make some mistakes but tried to right them as quickly as possibly. Because it was in the elaborate area of company tax law, the end result was an £800,000 bill which included £350,000 for Tesco's accountants to explain to Tesco's lawyers what it was they were doing.

The concern is that we no longer investigate these kinds of things, because it's simply to expensive. Rusbridger went on to say that their recent week long series of reports on company tax had cost £100,000 "to legal." Most media organisations simply won't bother investigating in the first place. Tax avoidance schemes will simply go unreported.

Fatima Bhutto came from Pakistan to explain what media censorship laws meant there including details behind the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act there.

Andrew Gilligan is best known for his report on "the September Dossier" on The Today Programme in 2003. He now writes for the Evening Standard. He said that there were three areas that were of massive concern to journalists at the moment: the state's laws, the decisions of judges and the economic climate that media outlets are now finding themselves in.

He said that confidential sources would find it near to impossible to provide journalists with information with their cars followed via licence plates, and their phone and email records retained. He said that the Government was really cracking down on whistleblowers.

Some of the antics in the past of the red-top tabloids means that worrying about the freedom of the press is not a large concern amongst the public.

Nick Cohen writes himself about what he said at the session. He talked about libel tourism including the cases of Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz and Roman Polanski. It's clear that libel needs reform. Otherwise all over the world we must worry about Schillings, Carter-Ruck and Justice Eady.

And he though that the blogosphere couldn't fight this: the first sight of a legal letter will mean that either the blogger (or perhaps more likely, their host) will fold and take the offending item down.

There was then an ongoing discussion in the packed room about what needed to be done. We were told (well I didn't know about it anyway) the Reynolds defence, and the differences between paper publishing and internet publishing (1 year from printing for paper, 1 year from the date that the article is removed from the internet for libel cases!). The case of Indian artist M F Hussain was spoken about - an exhibition was cancelled following complaints from a small pressure group.

The next session I attended was The Database State. Guy Herbert from NO2ID chaired this and explained in some detail what was happening.

Sam Talbot Rice from the Centre for Policy Studies talked about the cost, and the data loss. I'll read their publication "Who Do They Think We Are" published last year.

He referred to Jack Straw, who has most recently been explaining to us that we don't live in a police state. He regularly puts forward the case that in the instance when someone dies, you have to inform various parts of government. But of course we can give explicit permission for that. We don't want to tell the government everything.

Tony Bunyan from Statewatch spoke from a European perspective. Discussions have to take place at a European level first. He talked about the worrying rise of hard right and even fascist elements across Europe.

He said that the forms of terrorism we've experienced in recent times will never destroy our way of life and liberty, but some of these new laws will! These would never have been introduced during the Cold War - because they're too similar to what took place behind the Iron Curtain (earlier, a Polish attendee drew excellent light on this comparison).

Simon Davies from Privacy International was furious and talked about naming names. He feels that there are specific individuals within the Civil Service who's power is too great as we slide into the Database State.

Finally Christina Zaba of the NUJ showed us her father's old post-WWII ID card and said that too many people thought that this was what we were talking about when we spoke of ID cards. It's not the card - it's the database. Airside workers will be the first to need ID cards later this year as part of their jobs: the river is starting to flow.

Convention on Modern Liberty - David Davis Keynote

I noticed on my way out of the Database State session that Neil Tennant had been sitting behind me. He wasn't alone - there were lots of members of the great and the good. Brian Eno was on the final panel, and Billy Bragg spoke in a session I didn't attend. David Elstein and Peter Bazalgette were there as was Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing. There were lots of writers around too, and I'm sure that there were many more in amongst the everyday members of the public like myself.

After the final panel session, we heard from David Davis who did give an excellent speech. He does believe in this stuff.

All in all a worthwhile day. I could probably have done without the poor England performance in the rugby afterwards, but that wasn't the convention's fault. Although there was the suspicion that it was just a large group of Guardian readers convening, in fact all of the major political parties were represented and not everyone's ideas were the same. What was and is clear is that we're slipping into something we really don't want, and we need to act now, because as Davis said, by the time we're actually in a police state, it's too late.

[More links and embeds to follow]

Photography Is Not A Crime

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Following on from Stephen Colbert's humourous take on public photography in the, there's slightly more distrurbing news in the British Journal of Photography (via Boing Boing).

There are far too many cases of law enforcement officials wrongly stopping members of the public from taking photographs. We don't yet live in a police state.

Colbert Report on the Evil that is Photography

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Via Thomas Hawk / Jack Schofield on the Twitters / and, er, watching The Colbert Report on FX in the UK.

To Publish Or Not To Publish?

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A simple one first of all. It seems that the names of the people allegedly responsible for the death of Baby P are being passed around quite freely via electronic media. But for legal reasons, they've not been named publicly in the mainstream media.

It can obviously lead to a lynch-mob mentality that says that we should all go around their houses and... well... probably nothing, since they've been found guilty and will be sentenced accordingly. That's a fairly cut and dried case. At this point, the law of the land will take its course.

But then there's the case of the BNP membership list. As everyone knows, a version of it has been leaked, and the details contained are pretty full with names, complete addresses with postcodes, phone numbers, email addresses and even additional notes accompanying these details. The fallout has begun with a stand-in talkSPORT DJ no longer being employed by the station and at least one policeman facing possible sanctions (the police force made it illegal to be a member of the BNP because it's at odds with their race relations) [UPDATE - The DJ concerned says he joined for research purposes]. Others are likely to suffer repercussions following this publication.

The leak is clearly a breach of data protection, and although our otherwise dreadful Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is fair in asking "I wonder why it is that BNP members are rather more ashamed of their membership [than I am]?" those individuals are entitled to their privacy while the BNP remains a legal political party.

At this point I should probably make clear that I find the BNP utterly abhorent and their beliefs are completely at odds with my own. But we live in a democracy, so the BNP is allowed to exist.

Yet I still feel uncomfortable about it all. Various mashup Google maps have appeared (and disappeared) plotting the data so that you too can see if there's a racist in your street, and I'll freely admit that I've checked out my neighbourhood, but that doesn't mean it's right.

In the US there are sex-offenders' registers, and that's been mooted over here - a parent wants to know if a convicted paedophile lives near them or their child's school. The argument against it is that once News of the World readers have been around to smash all their windows and set fire to their house, they go "off the radar" and nobody is able to keep track of them - least of all the authorities.

Perhaps there's something to be said for all political party affiliations to be made public? But I'm not so sure. It feels at odds with the civil liberties we've been handed down since Magna Carta (More on this soon in another entry).

So while it all seems a fun game to 'out the local racists,' does it really help in the long term?

And would I be happy if someone published a similar list of gay, Jewish or disabled people? (I'm in no way likening them to BNP members, but they're lists that, if they existed, could easily be misused).

So no, I wouldn't be happy. And frankly, I don't want the Government doing it either with their ID card (or big database as it really is).

CCTV Cameras OK - Microphones a Step Too Far

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Oh the irony. Earlier this week Henry Porter presented a fine programme on More 4 (should have been on Channel 4) called Suspect Nation, examining not just ID cards, but the rash of CCTV cameras and other monitoring that's going on. In particular, there's the "function creep" where data's captured and used more and more without anyone asking the questions.

So now when you use your Oyster Card on the tube or enter London, your journey details are captured.

Today we hear that the logical next step of CCTV is to add a microphone to the cameras and record the sounds, at the Olympics in particular, but you can bet your bottom dollar, it'll be everywhere else.

The irony comes when the former Home Secretary came onto Five Live this evening to say that this was a step too far and "simply unacceptable". David Blunkett thinks it's fair enough to follow me around on the streets via camera, but it's a step too far to hear what I'm saying.

Actually, it is wrong for "them" to monitor my conversations in the street, but then I don't particularly want to be tracked around as I walk. I don't have an Oyster Card (and if I did, I wouldn't give accurate ownership data for it). I don't have a car, although that's more a lifestyle choice. I know I can be tracked with my phone even when I'm not using it. But I can at least buy an unregistered pay as you go phone, or not carry one at all. Similarly, my local shops might prefer me to use debit or credit cards now (cheques seem to be seriously on the way out now), but cash still works.

Blunkett is the man who introduced ID Card legislation to Parliament, so his concern now about civil liberties is amusing. Or it would be, if it weren't so truly disturbing. Of course, his private life has featured significantly in the press in the past. Imagine how much worse it might have been if additional data was kicking around on databases for journalists or muck-rakers to dig through (they'd get access - they always do) looking for background on a dallying politician's private life?

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