Dismantling the Government’s Arguments in favour of the Investigatory Powers Bill

In my last post, I argued that if campaigners (including myself) are going to take on the Government over its plans for online surveillance and win, we need to dismantle the claims they are making about these powers being necessary for security and crime fighting.

Since then, I’ve done some further online research and had some interesting conversations on Twitter and at last night’s well-attended Open Rights Group Birmingham meetup. This has helped me to develop my thinking on how to frame the argument in a way that convinces politicians and the general public to sit-up and take notice of what’s at stake with the Investigatory Powers Bill.

Winning the argument over the Investigatory Powers Bill – key lines

Security risks created by the Investigatory Powers Bill

  • The new requirement for tech firms to provide  unencrypted communications to the police or security services if requested through a warrant has been widely interpreted as an attempt to weaken encryption.
  • Tim Cook, Apple’s Chief Executive, noted in a recent interview with The Telegraph : “If you halt or weaken encryption, the people that you hurt are not the folks that want to do bad things. It’s the good people. The other people know where to go.
  • As Tim Cook explains, “Any backdoor is a backdoor for everyone. Everybody wants to crack down on terrorists. Everybody wants to be secure. The question is how. Opening a backdoor can have very dire consequences.”
  • Criminals and other bad people will still be able to access widely available open source encryption tools, while regular people who are less technically sophisticated will be left more vulnerable to data thefts and identity crime, notes security researcher. Paul Bernal, Internet privacy law researcher at the University of East Anglia, notes: “Savvy criminals already use encryption and software like Tor to hide their online activities, so storing web records won’t help combat this.
  • In addition to the weakening of encryption, the bill will create more opportunities for cybercrime. Requiring ISPs to store everyone’s Internet connection records for 12 months will create huge amounts of personal data, which will be highly attractive to criminals. How much more personal data could criminals could have stolen from TalkTalk, had the new collection system been in place? Timothy Brown, Executive Director of Security with Dell Software Group noted: “this only creates larger and more attractive targets for hackers and leaks.
  • The bill proposes granting the security services broad powers to hack computer systems. Doing so will leave critical infrastructure at risk, as the same vulnerabilities used by security services will be exploited by criminals. As Tim Cook  noted: “Any backdoor is a backdoor for everyone.”

Questionable security gains from expansion of surveillance powers

Damage to the UK economy


  • Internet service providers (ISP) have called into question the cost of implementing a key element of the Investigatory Powers Bill, the mandatory collection and retention of every citizen’s Internet Connection Records.
  • The Home Office has budgeted for £175 million but this is only intended to cover the initial up-front equipments costs, not the ongoing cost of running the system.
  • Matthew Hare, Chief Executive of ISP GigaClear said “the indiscriminate collection of mass data is going to have a massive cost
  • Asked about the feasibility of implementing a system of mass data collection, James Blessing, the chair of the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA),  said ISPs would find it “very feasible – with an infinite budget”.

Human rights and international reputation


Amnesty International UK, Mass Surveillance by another name, 6 November 2015 (accessed 12 November 2015)

Ars Technica UK, Snooper’s Charter: UK gov’t can demand backdoors, give prison sentences for disclosing them, 6 November 2015 (accessed 12 November 2015)

BoingBoing, UK law will allow secret backdoor orders for software, imprison you for disclosing them, 10 November 2015 (accessed 12 November 2015)

Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Mass Surveillance Report, 26 January 2015 (accessed 12 November 2015)

EDRi, European Court overturns EU mass surveillance law, 8 April 2014 (accessed 12 November 2015)

IT Pro, Snooper’s Charter puts data at risk even with encryption, 4 November 2015 (accessed 13 November 2015)

Liberty, Investigatory Powers Bill: Spoiler Alert – this is terrifying, 4 November 2015 (accessed 12 November 2015

New Scientist, UK spying rules may drive criminals to use stronger encryption, 11 November 2015 (accessed 13 November 2015)

Schneier on Security, Data Mining for Terrorists, 9 March 2006 (accessed 12 November 2015)

The Guardian, Obama must finally end NSA phone record collection, says privacy board, 29 January 2015 (accessed 12 November 2015)

The Guardian, Broadband bills will have to increase to pay for snooper’s charter, MPs are warned, 11 November 2015 (accessed 12 November 2015)

The Telegraph, Apple’s Tim Cook declares the end of the PC and hints at new medical product, 10 November 2015 (accessed 12 Nov 2015)

To stop the Investigatory Powers Bill, campaigners will need to make a strong case for targeted, not mass surveillance

On Wednesday, after months of speculation and a flurry of off-the-record ministerial briefings and some pretty cringeworthy attempts at PR by GCHQ, the UK Government finally published its surveillance bill, which has been given the more innocuous title of the Investigatory Powers Bill.

The Guardian has produced a clear summary of the main points here. You can also check out BBC News for a less opinionated assessment.

Here’s a round-up (pun intended) of reaction to the Investigatory Powers Bill and how campaigners can  build a coalition to oppose the bill, but only if they take on the Government directly on the claims it makes on security and crime prevention.

An extended itemised phone bill or another step towards mass surveillance?

Not surprisingly, the Government’s assessment of the Investigatory Powers Bil was markedly different to that of privacy activists and human rights campaigners.

While Theresa May wants us  to  “try to think of the new powers [the requirement for all companies to keep a record of every citizen’s internet history for a year] as just an extended itemised phone bill”, Amnesty International UK were warning that the bill “would effectively legalise mass surveillance, which by definition inherently fails the test of proportionality required by international human rights laws that the UK government must adhere to.”

Liberty also performed strongly, promoting its 8 point Safe and Sound plan for targeted surveillance, which they say would keep us safe while respecting our privacy.

At Open Rights Group we punched above our weight, with Executive Director Jim Killock featured television and radio news programmes, including Radio 4’s World at One (jump to 15 min, 35 secs).

Where was Labour?

More surprisingly (and particularly disappointingly for me as a Labour member), there hasn’t been much evidence of the much talked-about ‘a new kind of politics’ from the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. I cringed as I read Andy Burnham’s response to May’s proposals, wishing Labour had at least chosen to express caution and reserve judgement:

“From what the Home Secretary has said today, it is clear to me that she and the Government have listened carefully to the concerns that were expressed about the draft Bill that was presented in the last Parliament … It would help the future conduct of this important public debate if the House sent out the unified message today that this is neither a snooper’s charter, nor a plan for mass surveillance.”

After Burnham’s initial comments on the bill in the House of Commons, Labour has seemingly made no effort to communicate to the public its position on the Government’s plans for new surveillance powers. In echoes of Nineteen  Eight-Four, there is no comment whatsoever on Labour’s Twitter account of the Investigatory Powers Bill. Given the serious nature of the comments  by Amnesty and Liberty, it’s disappointing Labour doesn’t feel the need to engage on the issue, at least not in public view.

Presenting a detailed operational case for targeted, not mass surveillance

As a member and activist with the Open Rights Group, you’d expect me to be suspicious of the Government’s plans for surveillance and to be instinctively sympathetic to the arguments Amnesty and Liberty have made about the risks the Investigatory Powers Bill poses to our individual rights and civil society. But I am not so naive as to believe that a majority of the public share my outlook. I voted for Ed Miliband to become Labour leader, after all.

From talking  to friends, family  and strangers about the work of the Open Rights Group, I know how easily arguments about the need for security, mixed in with frightening examples of horrible criminal activities, more often than not crush appeals to protect privacy and other human rights. If campaigners such as myself are to convince others to oppose the Government’s plans, we need to go beyond principled appeals to protect human rights.

In particular, campaigners need to show that a ‘collect it all’ approach, which puts all of us under surveillance, is not just legally and morally unacceptable, it does not actually keep us any safer.

So far the only person I’ve seen take on this argument is Peter Ludlow, former Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University in the United States. Here’s a clip of him refuting the effectiveness of the NSA’s bulk data collection / mass surveillance approach. While Ludlow is talking about the United States, surely it is possible to do something similar here in the UK?

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWjLQiTFarU]

This clip comes from the excellent documentary, Killswitch: The Battle to Control the Internet, which I highly recommend you support.

While Ludlow is a passionate speaker, it’s a shame he doesn’t back up his point of view with hard evidence, at least not on the documentary itself.

Fortunately, campaigners do have evidence which they can draw on to help them make the case for targeted and not blanket surveillance. Back in  2013, for example, The Guardian reported on a Senate hearing in the United States which suggested the NSA had been systematically overstating the effectiveness of bulk collection of metadata.

More recently, in January 2014, the United States Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB – great acronym, by the way) ruled that that the bulk phone records collection had not stopped terrorist attacks and had “limited value” in combatting terrorism more broadly. The board also ruled the programme as illegal but, as an unnamed ministerial source said to The Sun last week, “It would be totally irresponsible of government to allow the legal system to dictate to us on matters as important as terrorism. (link goes to The Register, not The Sun)”.

While David Anderson, in his review of the UK’s existing investigatory powers, accepted the case for continued bulk data collection, he did at least say the Government would need to set out a ” detailed operational case” before any new surveillance powers could be introduced.

Given the lack of strong political opposition to the Government’s plans, coupled with the public’s valid concerns over security, it would be foolish to think at least a plausible will not be presented. If campaigners here in the UK are to successfully oppose the bill, they must take a similar approach and try, as far as possible, to present a detailed case for the kind of system Liberty presents in its Safe and Sound plan.

After TalkTalk hack, should the government think again on plans to expand personal data retention?

On Thursday, I blogged about why you should be concerned about the government’s plans to expand online surveillance as part of the forthcoming Investigatory Powers Bill, even if you subscribe to the “I’ve got nothing to hide” school of privacy.

By unhappy coincidence, on the same day I was writing about how obliging internet service providers and other communications providers to collect and retain more information about its customers will create golden opportunities for criminals, TalkTalk first announced it had been the victim of a cyber-attack and personal and banking details of current and past customers may have been accessed by hackers.

Impacts of personal data theft

In the days since TalkTalk went public with the news, more details of the attack have emerged and there have already been reports of money going missing from people’s banks as well as the all-too predictable scam phone calls. It’s also terrible but not exactly a great shock to read that TalkTalk may not have even taken steps to encrypt all its sensitive data. As I sat down to write this around Saturday tea time, I’ve just read that TalkTalk are now saying the hack may not have been as bad as initially feared, breaching their website but not their core system.

Investigatory powers bills: mo data, mo problems?

However bad the TalkTalk eventually hack turns out to be (and we may never know precisely how much personal data the criminals got away with), I hope this latest incident focuses the minds of MPs and the wider public on the wisdom of ever greater personal data collection and retention.

Should the Investigatory Powers Bill becomes, communications companies including TalkTalk will be required to store detailed customer records, covering everything from browsing history, email conversations, social media use and WhatsApp messages. If it turns out TalkTalk has not adequately secured the much more limited information information it collects on customers at present, can we realistically trust them and other companies to do a better job when faced with managing far larger amounts of personal data?

3 Reasons why you should be worried about the Investigatory Powers Bill

Last Wednesday I arranged for Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, to give a talk to Open Rights Group Birmingham about the threat mass surveillance poses to our human rights and democratic society.

I was spurred on to organise the talk because of the UK government’s plans to introduce new surveillance legislation this autumn, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, which will (amongst other things) give the government legal power to collect, analyse and retain in a gigantic database for 12 months everyone’s electronic communications interactions (phone, email, web history, text and WhatsApp messages, etc) regardless of whether you are suspected of committing a crime.

The surveillance debate – even boring by  C-SPAN standards?

Photo of old mattress left out on the street. Photo by colleen_elizabeth
Bulk data collection or bulk waste collection. Remind me what’s the difference again? Photo by colleen_elizabeth

Cleverly, the government has managed to couch the surveillance debate in language that is, to quote Jon Oliver, “even boring by C-Spann standards”. Talk of bulk data collection is more likely to evoke a service your local council might offer to help you get rid of an old mattress than a scene from The Lives of Others. And even if you can get your head around the opaque language being used, most of the attention in the debate focuses on the (rightly) emotive issues of terrorism and serious crime, leaving little time to consider the effect mass surveillance has on innocent citizens and the health of our democratic society.

In the interests of balancing out the surveillance debate ,  I’d like to borrow liberally from Jim’s talk to share with you 3 reasons why you should be worried about the government’s plans, especially if you think the Investigatory Powers Bill won’t affect you.

1. Mass surveillance undermines democratic accountability

An aerial image of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Photographer: GCHQ/Crown Copyright
Aerial photograph of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Are MPs in a position to hold GCHQ to account if they didn’t even know their communications were being eavesdropped? Photographer: GCHQ/Crown Copyright

Up until last week, MPs and members of the House of Lords believed their communications were protected by the so-called ‘Wilson Doctrine’ and so were not subject to the same eavesdropping as the rest of the general population.

Last week, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal announced these assurances had been:

“a political statement in a political context, encompassing the ambiguity that is sometimes to be found in political statements”

Furthermore, even if the statements of protection had been given in good faith, it is not technically possible to offer these assurances in an era of bulk data collection of the entire population’s electronic communications.

The tribunal’s ruling has, predictably, led to much soul searching by politicians of all stripes, with Labour’s Chris Bryant even managing to secure an emergency debate on the issue on Monday.

For me, the confusion caused by the ruling reveals the extent to which the surveillance agenda has managed to circumvent conventional democratic accountability.

Essentially, all of us, including the vast majority of elected politicians, are told to trust the authorities who tell us mass surveillance is necessary to protect national security and not to ask too many questions.

In this culture of secrecy, asking questions is deemed to be undermining the effectiveness of the authorities’ work and giving tacit cover or support for terrorists. Consequently, it becomes impossible to have an open, democratic debate about how we best go about balancing the security needs of our country with respect for our human rights.

We should be extremely wary of allowing the Investigatory Powers Bill to pass without having an open and democratic debate about the kind of country we want to live in and where the balance lies between the powers of the state and the rights of individual citizens.

2. The Investigatory Powers Bill will undermine the free press and civil society

3 police officers guarding Downing Street. Photo: Egghead06
3 police officers guarding Downing Street. Should the police have used surveillance legislation intended for anti-terrorism work to investigate the Plebgate scandal? Photo: Egghead06

While you may feel you don’t have much to worry about in terms of the authorities accessing your records, there are and will always be people who do need privacy protection.

Journalists need privacy protection. Imagine, for example, you are a journalist and you have received a tip off about Police wrongdoing. Would you be brave enough to investigate the allegation if you thought your communications could be accessed by the very same organisation?

This is precisely what happened in the case of the Plebgate scandal.The Metropolitan Police were able to use existing surveillance legislation known as Ripa, which was intended to be used in terrorism cases, to access the mobile phone records of The Sun’s political editor without first getting a warrant. By doing so, they were able to discover which officers inside the police had been talking to the journalist and take disciplinary action against them.

Whatever you think of The Sun and Rupert Murdoch’s News International operations, I hope you’ll agree that it’s not right that the UK’s surveillance legislation can be used to hamper the media. If that is what is possible under today’s legislation, we should think carefully before expanding the amount of data authorities can gather on all of us.

Even if you think that journalists by virtue of the job they do are fair game for the authorities, their sources still need to be protected. The Investigatory Powers Bill, by expanding data collection and giving the police and other authorities more rights of access, will make normal, everyday people more reluctant to come forward and report wrongdoing.

3. Mass surveillance is a golden opportunity for criminals

Illustration of a thief running away with a bag containing 0s and 1s of data. Photo: Perspecsys Photos
Will increased personal data collection and weakened encryption create more opportunities for criminals? Photo: Perspecsys Photos

Even if you are personally comfortable with the idea of the government passing more surveillance legislation without proper democratic debate and don’t care all that much about the rights of journalists and whistleblowers, chances are you wouldn’t be too keen about criminals getting hold of your personal information.

By obliging Internet Service Providers and other communications companies to collect greater amounts of personal data and store it for longer periods of time, the government risks creating more tempting opportunities for criminals to steal our data and use it to facilitate a range of crimes.

As well as increasing the total amount of personal information for criminals to target, government efforts to weaken encryption will make it easier for criminals to break into that data. While the government may wish to believe it can demand a special key or ‘backdoor’ to unlock encrypted that only it can use, the reality is criminals will discover this vulnerability and, in so doing, undermine the encryption that not only protects our privacy but is essential for online banking and secure e-commerce payments.

Day For Failure: What I Learned from ‘Deferred Success’ at Islington Council

Green direction signs giving directions to Success Lane and Failure Drive. Photo: Chris Potter / Stockmonkeys.com
Green direction signs giving directions to Success Lane and Failure Drive. Photo: Chris Potter / Stockmonkeys.com

So apparently today has been declared International Day For Failure (hashtag #DayForFailure), where we’re encouraged to share our tales of failure in order to challenge our collective reluctance as human beings to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes. To borrow a phrase from the tech start up world, we should all be aiming to ‘fail fast’, figure out what’s working and what’s not and then take steps to improve.

As a former local government officer, it’s taken me a while to come round to the idea of being comfortable acknowledging one’s failures. I certainly don’t remember this being covered as part of the National Graduate Development Programme. Still, if I’ve learned anything in the five and a bit years since I left the sector (and some days I do question whether I have), it’s the importance of being honest with yourself at least about how projects went, what my contribution was to the deferred success and what I would do differently (given the chance).

To celebrate Day of Fail, I would like to share with you with you the fail I think about the most. I’m not sure if it’s my biggest fail (after all, it’s never wise to rule out unconscious incompetence) but it’s the one I have learned from the most.

Can you relate to my fail? If so, I’d love to know what happened and what you’ve learned from the experience.

Do you think failure can ever be honestly acknowledged or is the tendency to airbrush our pasts too great?

You can share your own fails (and what you learned from them) on Twitter using the hashtag #DayForFailure.

Failure to launch: Implementing a Disability Equality Scheme at Islington Council

Between 2007 and 2009 I worked as lead officer for disability equality at Islington Council. My overarching responsibility was to ensure the council took a pro-active approach to advancing equality for disabled people when delivering its functions.

Essentially, I was attempting to move the council’s approach to disability from one where staff would try to help individual disabled people who had difficulty accessing a library or leisure centre to one where the council worked with disabled people to design accessible services and identify barriers BEFORE an individual had to complain or ask for help.

So far, so simple. Unfortunately, for much of my time at Islington I found myself bogged down in the process of developing ambitious departmental action plans and getting these signed off. This took up energy and attention on both side – the time spent negotiating and renegotiating what actions would go into the action plans would have been much better spent actually getting out there and working with disabled people to make real world improvements to services.

Looking back on the episode with the benefit of hindsight, I can see both what I did wrong and the scale of the challenge I faced in trying to advance disability.

The way I approached the task contributed to the Disability Equality Scheme becoming bogged down. As a young(ish) and idealistic council officer, I sincerely believed in disability equality and was optimistic about the role the council could make to enabling disabled people to play a full and equal role in society. I naively assumed other officers would be on my wavelength or, at the very least, quickly come round to my way of thinking and make disability equality a priority.

I eventually realised that this was an unreasonably optimistic worldview. In the majority of cases, disability equality was but one of many priorities which departments were responding to. The more experienced senior managers I often found myself negotiating with got this and understood that whatever the letter of the law stated Islington Council should be doing on disability equality, local political priorities came first.

It also goes without saying that in any change process you should never under-estimate resistance that comes from fear of the new and possibly apathetic tendencies.

My passion for disability equality, together with my natural tendency to be a stickler for the letter of the law, led me to push for commitments from departments that were never going to fly. Were I to have my time again, I would like to think I would be more realistic about how much I could change the council and what tactics I would use to secure changes.

My top 3 lessons from my failure are:

  1. Be realistic about how much you can change and how much authority you have. 

Just because the law says an organisation should be doing 10 things, don’t hold out for complete implementation. Form a realistic assessment of how much change is possible right now. Have frank conversations with senior leaders (both political and managerial) and agree with them how far they are prepared to go, explaining to them the risks they will have to assume if they should be deemed to not meeting their legal requirements

2. Get some early  quick wins in early

This point is pretty obvious but when faced with a complex task, it’s easy to get bogged down in the more contentious aspects. I did partly achieve this at Islington, securing important improvements to the accessibility of public buildings and council information. I wish I had spent less time negotiating action plans and more time making sure staff were supported to spot and address the little barriers which collectively make a big difference.

3. Recognise and work with the grain of different personalities

I mentioned earlier how I assumed most people would be committed to disability equality. I was wrong about this. It’s not that people were hostile to equality, it was that it was not top of their list of priorities.

At Islington I got over my initial naivety and used a variety of carrots and sticks to secure change. With any change project it is necessary to use different tactics to bring on board supporters or neutralise blockers but looking back now I wish I had spent more time working with those people who were amenable to disability equality, rather than spending time and energy trying to persuade more reluctant departments and individuals.

Can you relate to my fail? If so, I’d love to know what happened and what you’ve learned from the experience.

Do you think failure can ever be honestly acknowledged or is the tendency to airbrush our pasts too great?

You can share your own fails (and what you learned from them) on Twitter using the hashtag #DayForFailure.

Digital Rights Management: not just a problem for Zune customers (all 3 of them)

Remember the Zune? Chances are you don’t. The Zune was Microsoft’s answer to the iPod. But unlike Apple’s iconic music player, the recent announcement by Microsoft that it is to close down its Zune music service this service is unlikely to result in a mass outpouring of nostalgic ‘I remember downloading my first song from the Zune store’ newspaper stories.

On the face of it, the Zune’s demise is just the latest in a long line of gadgets which never quite managed to capture the public’s imagination. However, thanks to the wonders of digital rights management (DRM) and copyright over-reach, the Zune’s demise carries with it a nasty sting in the tail which each of us should care about, whether or not we ever even came across a Zune in the real world.

From 15 November, it is not just the Zune Music Service that will close, Microsoft will also be closing down the computers which are required to authenticate any music customers purchased containing DRM. As a result of this move, DRM technology, which was always justified as a way of thwarting bad people who did not pay for music, will have the perverse effect of prevent paying customers from enjoying the music they purchased. Reassuringly, music files without DRM, irrespective of how a person obtained them, will continue to play just fine.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Zune music customers can easily convert their music files into a DRM free format using software freely available on the web. But customers won’t be offered this about this option, and not simply because (relatively) few people ever got on board with Zune.

No, the reason why Zune customers will find themselves locked out of their own music collection stems from copyright law, specifically a controversial provision of the United States’ Digital Copyright Millennium Act or DCMA for short. The legislation contains what is known as an ‘anti-circumvention’ provision, which makes it a crime for anyone to attempt to circumvent ‘digital locks’ built into software, such as the DRM found in digital media. While individual Zune customers (they must exist, surely!) are unlikely to ever be prosecuted for converting their music, the existence of the legislation generates a chilling effect such that a corporation such as Microsoft would be extremely unlikely to give customers the option of converting their music to a DRM free format.

If after reading this post you’re thinking, what’s the big deal? It’s worth noting that DRM and the restrictions it imposes on customers is not limited to Zune music files. DRM is found in all areas of our life and is increasingly making the leap from the virtual to the physical world.

While I am personally vexed that the Kindle ebooks I purchase from Amazon which cannot by read on rivals to the Kindle ereader, I am reliably informed that there are more important things to worry about in life.

Today’s revelations that VW was able to use in-built software to get around environmental regulations in the United States may see unrelated to the Zune story but in both cases, DRM plays a crucial role.The anti-circumvention provision applies to the software contained in VW vehicles in the same way it does the DRM contained in the Zune music files. In the VW case, it appears the law prevented researchers from accessing the software, thus reducing their ability to spot the problem with emissions testing. And if it took five years to spot a problem with emissions, there is the very real possibility that access barriers imposed by the DCMA may be preventing safety problems from coming to light. 

Whatever your views on the necessity of DRM to protect software and media, I hope this post has illustrated the problems it can cause legitimate customers and wider society.

Kneel To The Queen: Jeremy Corbyn’s First Week Highlights The Importance of Open Innovation

After voting for Jeremy Corybyn in the Labour Party leadership election, I’ve been watching with interest and no small amount of anxiety to see how he has fared in his first week as leader.

Jeremy’s first week has been significant in many ways but for me the most significant thing has been the way his leadership has revealed the continued influence of deference in our political system and wider society. For evidence of this, take a look at the media reaction to Corbyn choosing not to sing the national anthem at the memorial service for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain or querying the necessity of ‘kneeling to the Queen’ as a member of the Privy Council.

Whatever your views on the monarchy, this week’s developments highlight how at a foundational level Britain’s political system is far from neutral. As a result of its traditions and customs, it favours established political actors over those who would challenge the status quo. Within such a system, politicians who are comfortable singing God Save The Queen and kneeling before the Queen are conferred with respect while those who take issue with deferential customs  come across as peculiar at best or, at worst, a threat to the system and thus deemed not fit to exercise political power.

The biases exposed by Corbyn’s leadership confirm to me the importance of maintaining the internet as an open and neutral platform upon which innovation can flourish. Unlike politicians under the British political system, innovators are not required to ‘kneel to the Queen’ in order to effect change on the Internet. At its best, the internet provides a commons which everyone has equal access rights over and where innovators can try out new ideas without having to ask anyone’s permission before hand.

Sadly, there are signs that the internet is changing and becoming a less open and neutral platform. While the FCC’s Open Internet Order may protect the foundational principle of net neutrality in the short term at least, the move towards a ‘mobile first’ presents a serious challenge to the open internet.

Instead of freely building web services, developers are increasingly focused on building apps for iOS and Android. Both iOS and Android are, to differing degrees, closed platforms. As such, developers need approval from platform owners before they can innovate, in contrast to the open internet, where no such ‘permission to innovate’ is required. Given the plethora of apps available on both iOS and Android, it would be easy to dismiss the issue of permission as being nothing but a dry, theoretical concern. However, if you look carefully, you can see the detrimental effect permission culture is having on innovation.

Permission culture is evident in the area of adblocking technology. With iOS 9, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system, Apple announced it would allow for the first time the development of extensions for its Safari web browser which are capable of blocking content. Up until this point, users were free to install extensions on their desktop computers but not their smartphones. Similarly, earlier this month, Adblock Plus announced it has received permission from Google for the popular adblocking software to be me made available via the Play Store, having previously been banned.

While I am no great fan of adblocking technology, I am concerned that the developers behind the innovation had to seek permission from platform owners in order to reach a mass audience. Just as the biases of the the British political system make it more difficult for unconventional politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn to effect change, the move away from a neutral and open internet towards closed mobile platforms may make it harder for new innovations to emerge which threaten to disrupt the interests of established players. Whatever your views on Jeremy Corbyn and Britain’s constitutional settlement, I hope his brushes with the political establishment encourage others to continue to fight for an open and neutral internet where people are not required to seek permission to innovate.

Is there a case for a Land Value Tax?

On Wednesday evening, I hopped on a train and headed into the city centre to attend my first meeting of the Birmingham Fabians, a local group of the Fabian Society, Britain’s oldest political think tank. I’ve been a Fabian member for years and even did a summer internship with them way back in 2003 but for some reason I’d just never got round to attending a meeting since moving to Birmingham three years ago.

What motivated me to get off the sofa was the subject of yesterday’s meeting, which was titled “The Case for a Land Value Tax”.

Jerry Jones, Chair of the Labour Land Movement, giving a talk on the Land Value Tax at Birmingham Fabians, 9 September 2015
Jerry Jones, Chair of the Labour Land Movement, giving a talk on the Land Value Tax at Birmingham Fabians, 9 September 2015

As someone who has been occasionally been mistaken for a deep thinker, I’ve always been curious about land and the process by which we arrived at our current system of land ownership and taxation. I’ve also been surprised by the strong feelings that can arise when I have questioned the fairness of the current system, in which something like 0.6 percent of the British people own 69 per cent of the land on which we live – and they are mostly the same families who owned it in the 19th century. All too often, the issue of land and and how wealth arising from its ownership is taxed, is something which is off limits.

For this reason, I was more than a little excited to get the chance to learn more about the Land Value Tax from Jerry Jones, Chair of the Labour Land Campaign and author of A Strategy For Replacing Council Tax and Business Rates With a Land Value Tax, a First Step Towards a More Equitable Tax System.

So what is a Land Value Tax then?

As its name suggests, a Land Value Tax (or LVT for short) is a tax on the value of land.

Under an LVT system, all landowners would pay an annual tax or charge,based on the rated value of the land in question. Under such a system, landowners would pay a higher charge when the value of their land rises. For proponents of LVT such as Jerry Jones, LVT is a way of ensuring the whole community benefits when the value of land rises, not just the individual landowner.

Why should landowners be taxed when the value of their land rises?

Fans of LVT justify taxing increases in land values due to their belief in what determines land value. In short, they believe landowners do not contribute to rising land values and are instead, merely the lucky recipients of a windfall generated by others.

Obviously, this is quite a controversial point of view, especially given the primacy of neoliberal economics in our daily lives but it’s worth taking the time to understand how supporters of LVT at this position.

The LVT model identifies two factors which determine land value:

1) The natural characteristics of the land. There will be more demand for land which is particularly fertile or situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty and this will push up its value. LVT calculations purposely exclude effort and investment a landowner may have made to improve the land. The landowner has not done anything to bring about this demand and so should not be able to capture all the rewards.

 2) The desirability of the area in which the land is situated. Demand for land (and there land value) is high in places where more people want to live or work. Factors affecting this demand include being near markets,  transportation routes,  public services, and sources of employment. According to the LVT argument, land value is generated by the social and economic activities of the community as a whole and not the efforts of individual landowners.

While the LVT’s point about land values seems quite ‘out there’ at first, it starts to make more sense when you are presented with examples from real life. The strongest example Jerry gave was what happened when the Jubilee London Underground line was extended in the late 1990s. As you might expect, properties situated close to the line shot up in value without the property owners having to do anything. Owners privately benefited from public investment driving up land value. Conversely, renters who had also contributed to the Jubilee extension through taxation were penalised when the cost of renting rose due to the increased desirability of the area.

The benefits of LVT

In addition to addressing the unfairness associated with landowners benefiting from unearned lad value windfalls, Jerry Jones argued that an LVT system would deliver the following benefits:

  • Discourage land speculation. Under an LVT system, landowners would be taxed on the land they hold, irrespective of whether they are using it. This would create a cost to landowners who choose to hold on to land for years on end, waiting for the price to rise, making land banking a less attractive prospect.
  • Encourage capital investment in land. Because sites would be rated according to their optimum permitted planning use, whether or not they are currently being used in this way, landowners would have an incentive to develop sites to their full potential.
  • Curb house price rises. According to Jones, land value has played a significant role in the steady rise of house prices over the past 30 years. It is argued that LVT would serve to dampen the rise in land value, thus stabilising house prices.

My thoughts on the Land Value Tax

I went into the talk on Wednesday wanting to like the Land Value Tax (if you can ever truly like a tax). Unfortunately, however, I came away unconvinced about whether it is a policy whose time has come.

I am not down on LVT because I disagree with what its proponents think about land and how it is valued. I still struggle with the concept of private ownership of natural resources such as land and can see all too clearly the negative social consequences of rising land and property prices.

Probably the main reason I am feeling down about the LVT because I felt its proponents, or at least the ones I met on Wednesday, appear to place so much faith in one tax to address complex socioeconomic problems. This was most apparent when Jerry was talking about how LVT would have substantially curbed house price rises. I would love to believe that an LVT would have achieved this and other socially worthwhile objectives but it doesn’t seem credible to me.

The other reason I am feeling less optimistic about the LVT is because I feel it will be extremely difficult to persuade the public to support the tax. While I am ambivalent about land ownership and am concerned about the effect of rising land values on social cohesion, I am not so naive to believe everyone else shares my outlook. Rightly or wrongly, property and home ownership arouse strong feelings in the UK. Introducing an LVT would be a challenge to the status quo and, as such, be subject to fierce resistance. When the less than watertight arguments made by proponents  of LVT meet with this natural in-built resistance to change, I fear the tax will not find its way onto the statute book.

Welcome to Your New Job

I am writing this post at the end of an eventful week in my life.

On Tuesday, the first day of autumn, I got up early and caught a train to London to start a new job working as a Product Lead for Helpful Technology, a company which specialises in digital communications and engagement. The company was set up by former civil servant Steph Gray, who I first met back in 2010-11, when I was working for FutureGov. As well as helping Whitehall departments become more confident with digital, Helpful Technology also works with charity and not-for-profit organisations.

Like anyone starting a new job, I was filled with a mixture of nerves and excitement. To make matters worse, I couldn’t get The Futureheads’ First Day out of my head.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9XSMF1ymBk]

Fortunately, I somehow managed to shake-off The Futureheads by the time I arrived at Helpful’s offices in Clerkenwell to meet my new manager. And even if I didn’t quite manage to project an image of calm, easygoing intelligence I think I did okay. I’m pleased to report everyone at Helpful has been very friendly and, yes, helpful. As the week has moved on I have found myself becoming more relaxed and settling into life at Helpful.

At the moment I am working for Helpful as a contractor for three days a week, combining a day commuting to London with working from home on the other two days. As someone who first started his career in local government, I still find it a bit strange to be working in such a flexible way. For now, though, I am going with the flow and trying to enjoy the benefits that come with the flexibility, such as being able to organise last night’s great Open Rights Group Birmingham meetup.

It’s been a great first week and I feel I am learning a lot from working alongside the team at Helpful, which I will aim to share in future posts. But for now, I am heading off to relax and recover. Enjoy your weekend.

Mind the Gap: Labour Values and the Leadership Election

Over the past couple of months I’ve found myself becoming increasingly interested in the Labour Party leadership contest. As a Labour Party member and someone who studied Politics at university and chose to specialise in Labour politics from the 1970s, you’d think this state of affairs would be a source of interest and enjoyment during the summer silly season. However, as is my wont, I’ve allowed myself to get too enthusiastic about the prospects for change and now my enthusiasm is turning into pessimism.

The reason I am feeling downbeat about the leadership contest is because of the gap between the Labour Party’s stated values and the policies the candidates are offering. With the exception of Jeremy Corbyn, each of the leadership candidates have stressed (to varying degrees) the need for Labour to learn the lessons from the recent general election defeat and adopt policies which more closely reflect current public opinion, whether that’s establishing economic credibility through support for spending cuts, supporting reductions in welfare spending (including using this term rather than social security) and tough action against migrants. While adopting these policies might get Labour elected (although personally I have my doubts), in my view they would appear to go against what Labour stands for.

I suspect like a lot of members, I’d never really paid much attention to the words printed on the back of my membership card, which are intended to summarise the Labour Party’s values. However, after reading the criticism levelled at Corbyn from Labour Party grandees for being too left wing, I decided to take a fresh look at what as a party member I have actually signed up for.

The back of my membership card reads:

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us as a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.

Even if we put aside the thorny issue of defining what we mean by democratic socialism (a gigantic tin of worms), it is hard to see how by broadly accepting the policy framework established by Cameron the ‘credible’ leadership contestants will be able to halt rising inequality, never mind make meaningful inroads to creating a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the the few.

While I still have reservations over Jeremy Corbyn, I do at least believe he has a distinctive vision for the future of the country which could, in time, be developed into a genuine alternative to austerity narrative the Conservatives have so successfully created.