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MY INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
ARTICLES IN 2012

Since 2003, I have written regular articles on information technology for Connect, which used to be a separate trade union and in January 2010 became a section of the larger union Prospect. Originally the magazine was called "The Review" and then in April 2004 it was renamed "Connected". The text of all these articles, with relevant hyperlinks, are filed on my web site and this page brings together all those from 2012. If you would like to comment on any of them e-mail me.

Feb/March 2012 Whose News Is It Anyway?
April/May 2012 Casting The Net Wider
June/July 2012 Big Moves On Small Payments
Oct/Nov 2012 Breathing New Life Into The Comms Review
December 2012 What Can't You Say on The Net?


How news is compiled, communicated and consumed is being utterly transformed by the Internet, explains our columnist Roger Darlington.

WHOSE NEWS IS IT ANYWAY?

News used to be the exclusive responsibility of professional journalists supervised by professional editors in the print, radio and television industries, but the Internet has changed all that.

Now web sites, blogs, YouTube, social networking sites, Twitter accounts and smartphones all enable anyone anywhere to create a version of news without any editorial supervision or political constraint, although totalitarian governments around the world are still struggling to contain and control this information tsunami.

This means that you can hear the voice and see the pictures of the protestor in Syria whatever the efforts of the dictator Bashar al-Assad to hide the truth of his brutality. But it also means that whole web sites can argue that 9/11 was perpetrated by the Jews or that Barack Obama is a Muslim non-American when there is no shred of evidence for such claims.

News used to be communicated at set times and in set formats: hourly radio slots, a couple of television slots, daily newspapers, weekly magazines, monthly journals. Now news is continuous and instant without printing delays or space constraints.

News is set to become more local with more digital radio stations and the development of local television. Simultaneously it is becoming more global, so that immigrants or travellers can track the news in their county or even their town of origin.

News used to be what the journalists and broadcasters – and crucially their editors – decided was what the general public should see in the case of serious outlets like the BBC or what they thought the specific audience wanted to see in populist media like the “Sun”. Now increasingly news is tailored to individuals and consciously or unconsciously we shape what we consume.

The consequences of these changes are massive for individuals, for companies, and for society as a whole.

Citizens can now access news anytime anywhere over a whole variety of digital devices – not just radios, televisions, and desktop computers but laptops, tablets like the iPad, e-readers like Kindle, and smartphone like the iPhone.

However, whereas in the past the reader could rely on the editorial process to ensure a degree of veracity and balance, now a racist or climate change denier can achieve similar prominence to saner voices and the source and authority of the news or opinion are often utterly opaque.

National newspapers no longer feel compelled to produce a print version every day. For the first time since 1912, last Christmas Day no national newspapers were printed. Conversely even daily newspapers have to maintain a web site where news is constantly up-dated.

National newspaper circulation is on a massive slide. Fifty years ago, the “Daily Mail” and the “Daily Express” each sold more than 4M copies a day; now the best-selling “Sun” only manages 2.6M.

Local newspaper sales have collapsed and dozens of titles have closed. The flight of advertising to online media such as Craigslist and Google is killing newspapers here and around the developed world. People are reluctant to pay or pay much for online content. In short, the newspaper industry is in an existential crisis.

Democracy itself is in flux. In the era of the 24/7 news cycle, politicians seem compelled to have a soundbite to hand for any development and jump from one short-term issue to another. Newspapers can no longer afford investigative journalism so that politicians are freer to act unaccountably and sometimes criminally.

Citizens do not necessarily see the range of news that they used to do, either in terms of subject matter or political perspective. When we can tailor our online news feeds, we select which blog and Twitter feeds we monitor, and even Google personalises our search results, we are in danger of entering what one write has dubbed ”the filter bubble”.

Then there are those who do not use these new technologies. A quarter of all homes in the UK do not have access to the Net, let alone the tablet computer or the smartphone. If your local newspaper has closed, your national newspaper has shrunk, the web is a foreign land and public services are going 'digital by default', you depend more than ever on services like the BBC which is being hit hard by cuts. This is a new version of the digital divide.


We're all using everything the Net has to offer, right? Our columnist Roger Darlington begs to differ.

CASTING THE NET WIDER

A lot of the hype around the Internet appears to assume that almost everyone is on the Net and they are all using the full range of services with ease and confidence.

Even those who know that this is not true - such as Government proponents of the 'digital by default' programme - underestimate the scale of the task in ensuring that the vast majority of citizens are brought onto the Net and are enabled to use all the public and private services that are or will be online.

Ofcom's Adult Media Literacy Report for 2012 gives the latest figures for take-up. Some 21% - one in five – of UK adults lives in a household with no Internet access. Among social groups D & E, 40% - two in five – are without the Net and, for adults aged 65 and over, the figure is 59% or three in five. These figures are changing only slowly.

The levelling off of Internet take-up here in the UK parallels the experience of many other industrialised countries. Outside the Scandinavian states where culture is different, near ubiquitous Internet take-up will not happen without significant targeted interventions. 

Ofcom's Adult Media Literacy Report also examines actual usage of the Internet.

The Government is keen that we should access public information and services but currently, in a typical week, only 15% of those on the Net do so. Per head of population, the UK is the world's biggest e-commerce market yet, again in a typical week, less than half of Net users (48%) conduct transactions online.

The point is that digital participation is not a one-step process but a journey and people need encouragement, support and confidence to make fuller and fuller use of the richness that the Net has to offer.

So what can we do about this?

In the last couple of years, the most significant intervention in this area has been Race Online led by the Government's Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox. We should be asking: how effective has this programme been? will it be independently audited or evaluated?

Then we need to ask: what comes after RaceOnline? will this be adequate to the challenge?

We should be highlighting and contrasting the amount of public money going into supply-side stimulation - such as the £530M that Broadband Delivery UK has for super fast broadband - compared to the paltry sums going into demand-side stimulation - such as support for RaceOnline and the Online Centres Foundation (declaration of interest: I recently became a director of OCF). 

We should be challenging Government to explain more fully how 'digital by default' is going to work and how Departments will provide the required Digital Assist support for those not online. We should particularly pick up on the challenges around making the new Universal Credit a digital-only benefit.

Other more specific suggestions are:

Finally we should avoid any notion that we think people should be forced to take up the Net or are silly or stupid if they do not do so. For the foreseeable future, there will be many who are not online and they are often making rational choices.

Having said that, they may well need or benefit from access to online services and we should be recommending easy and affordable access through trusted public access points like post offices and libraries. 

Links:
Ofcom Aduklt Literacy Report click here
Race Online 2012 click here


Whatever happened to the cashless society? Our columnist Roger Darlington assesses whether it is now coming to an e-wallet near you.

BIG MOVES ON SMALL PAYMENTS

When I first became involved in the communications industry in the late 1970s, I was convinced that the then new microelectronics revolution would soon eliminate a lot of the need for cash. At that time, it looked as if some kind of electronic card would be the approach.

In the 1980s, there was a trial in Swindon of a card called Mondex which was supposed to promote e-payments. It never happened and most of us still have as many notes in our wallet and coins in our pocket as ever.

Some three decades later, it does now look as if finally e-cash is set to happen big-time. A host of schemes are being launched and a plethora of players are involved and, at this stage, we cannot know which technology and which organisation will come out top.

A strong contender is a smartphone app called Pingit which was launched by Barclays Bank in the spring of 2012. This service allows anyone with a UK bank account and a mobile phone number to send and receive payments between £1 and £300.

Initially only Barclays' 12 million current account customers can use the app, but soon the service will be extended to all current account users, regardless of their bank or building society.

Subject to regulatory clearance, another approach to micro-payments is coming from UK mobile operators. Everything Everywhere (Orange and T-Mobile) plus Telefonica UK (O2) and Vodafone UK are forming a joint venture currently called Project Oscar.

Their service will use a technology called near field communications (NFC) which will put an e-wallet on your phone with deductions made by passing the mobile over a NFC-enabled reader at a till or check out. The popular name for this is 'wave and pay'.

A third initiative is a mobile payments platform called Mobile Money Network (MMN) which is being backed by Carphone Warehouse.

But Pingit, Oscar and MMN are merely three of the schemes under development. Just about any company in the money, mobile or Internet business is working on something.

Visa is preparing to introduce its own digital wallet service which will allow users to make speedier payments online and over mobile phones. PayPal is in negotiations with retailers to get them to accept payments from its mobile Internet service in stores.

Google Wallet has been designed to sit on an mobile phone and be linked to a credit card with payment made by near field technology. Apple is running a trial in its US stores to use iTunes as a virtual bank.

And, as well as the big names, there are all sorts of start-ups – tiny companies with grandiose plans - ranging from WePay in the USA to Blockchain in the UK.

For all these companies, providing the basic service is just the start. If their service achieves mass appeal or lucrative niche success, then they will have a wonderful treasure trove of data on who buys what, where and when. By using sophisticated data mining techniques, companies can then leverage this information to promote products and services in finely-targeted techniques.

For the consumer, there are many advantages from the new micro-payment services on offer: faster and easier transactions and the convenience of not having to carry around so much cash. But there are some serious challenges too: will the data be secure? how will the data be used? who is going to regulate such services?

Micro-payments have many of the characteristics of premium rate services (PRS), such as small payments, ease of payments, prevalence of experience goods, and lack of transparency as to the provider of the service or the nature of the value chain.

PRS is regulated by PhonepayPlus which operates under the ultimate control of the communications regulator Ofcom. Currently neither PhonepayPlus nor anyone else regulates micro-payments, but PhonepayPlus has asked the Government to consider the issue as part of the DCMS Communications Review which is supposed to lead to a new Communications Act by 2015.

By then, the Government will be playing catch up and, by 2015, we may not have a cashless society but we will certainly have a much less cash one.

Meanwhile the irony is that a country like Kenya is already ahead of us. It has been using a mobile money transfer system called M-Pesa since 2007.

Link: Phonepay Plus submission to DCMS on regulation of micropayments click here


Roger Darlington writes an open letter to the new Secretary of State for communications.

BREATHING NEW LIFE INTO THE COMMS REVIEW

Dear Maria Miller,

Congratulations on your elevation to lead the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Now that the Olympics are over, it is time for your ministry to refocus on the promotion of the UK's creative industries.

In May 2011, the DCMS launched its Communications Review [for details click here] which is intended to lead to a new Communications Act by 2015. Almost a year and a half later, we are very little further forward and a real opportunity has been missed, but there is still time for you to make the review a meaningful and useful exercise.

Your predecessor Jeremy Hunt launched the review with an open letter which was very short and very open-ended [for text click here] . The letter posed 13 questions and invited submissions of no more than five pages within six weeks – a tough task and a tight timetable. In spite of the apparent rush to receive submissions, it took your Department more than five months before, in December 2011, it finally published the 168 submissions including my own on the regulation  of convergence.

At the time the open letter was published, we were promised a Green Paper by the end of 2011. Month after month, publication was rumoured to be imminent. Then, in May, we learned that there would be no Green Paper after all, but instead the summer would be used to hold five invitation-only seminars.

Those seminars have covered respectively the consumer perspective, competition in content markets, maximising the value of spectrum, the television content industries, and the radio sector. I attended the first and the fifth of these seminars.

Each seminar was the subject of a background paper posing further questions and submissions were invited on these papers and questions. Sadly these seminars have made the agenda of the Comms Review even wider and even loser.

While the DCMS has been excellent in making the proceedings of the seminars available in both text and visual form [for details click here], it does not look as if the resulting submissions will be published and there is no clarity over the next stages of the review, so that the process has become even more opaque.

The review now needs to concentrate on a limited number of major themes where the Government is prepared to act either through policy or legislation. Five big topics that need addressing for a forward-looking communications policy are as follows:

You do not have to wait for a new Bill in 2015; there is much that you can be doing now to promote the UK communications sector. And, if Leveson does require legislation, a new Communications Bill should not wait until 2015.


The law is beginning to bite on British users of social media, but the picture is confusing and unsustainable, claims our columnist Roger Darlington.

WHAT CAN'T YOU SAY ON THE NET?

There are many misconceptions about what you can and can’t say on the Internet, including web sites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

One view is that the Internet is a free space and you can – or at least should – be able to say anything. Another view is that what is illegal offline should simply be illegal online, except that most people do not know what exactly is illegal offline and it is much harder to enforce the law online. A third view is that electronic communications networks are different from print media and should be subject to their own laws, except that they already are and people are disturbed to find just how broadly drawn are those laws.

There are several pieces of legislation that make certain types of communication on the Net a criminal offence, but all of these these predate the arrival of the Internet and more importantly the proliferation of social media.

The most used piece of legislation is Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 [for full text click here] which is buried within the 600 pages of the Act best known for creating the regulator Ofcom.

Section 127 makes it a criminal offence to send “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.

Although an offence of this kind has been on the statute books since 1935, the reach and the sheer volume of communications over social networks means that it is increasingly being used to arrest people. In 2007, 498 people were convicted under Section 127. In 2011, the figure had more than doubled to 1,286.

Some of these prosecutions were undoubtedly warranted, but consider the case of the unfortunate Paul Chambers who, frustrated that snow had closed the airport from which he wished to fly out to his girlfriend, tweeted: ”You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!!’.

The poor man was successfully prosecuted for his joke and only won an appeal after a massive public campaign.

As well as various pieces of criminal law, the civil law applies, as became very evident when Lord McAlpine brought actions not just against the BBC and ITV but apparently no less than 10,000 Twitter users including 9,000 who had retweeted false and libellous assertions.

But damage to Lord McAlpine's reputation had already been done. And what about the teacher falsely accused of child abuse who does not have the resources of the multi-millionaire peer?

Sometimes problems occur even before any involvement of the law. Take the case of Adrian Smith who was demoted by his employer Trafford Housing Trust for posting on his Facebook page, visible only to his friends, his opposition to gay marriage. He had to go to court to overturn his employer's breach of contract.

So the current situation is a mess.

On the one hand, free speech can be stifled because Net users have no clear idea of what they can and can't say and prosecutions are brought in very variable circumstances.

On the other hand, users of the Net can insult and offend, make racist, sexist and homophobic statements, troll, stalk and bully, libel and defame, seemingly with impunity.

What is to be done?

The immediate need, which the Director of Public Prosecutions is addressing, is to produce guidelines on when and under what legislation prosecutions should be brought in the public interest [for details of the consultation on such guidelines click here].

Then we need a full review of current legislation which might be applied to Internet content to bring it up to date and make it relevant in an age when social media has utterly transformed the nature of public discourse.

Meanwhile the various Net intermediaries – Internet service providers, web hosters, and social media networks – need to consider what more they can do to bring some more civility to cyber space.

The reality is that the volumes of material involved make pre-checking and even post-checking by companies themselves impossible, but they can provide tools and mechanisms to enable their users to police content for them and notify inappropriate content for rapid and consistent adjudication.

And users themselves need to exercise more sense and civility. If peer pressure cannot achieve this, some of them are going to finish up in prison.


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