What Shami Chakrabarti can teach us about valuing civil liberties and human rights

Photo Credit: oliver lamford via Compfight cc

As a member of the civil liberties organisation Liberty, it was with sadness that I read earlier this week week that

Chakrabarti has written a thoughtful piece for The Guardian to coincide with the announcment of her depature from Liberty. In it, she notes: “When fear stalks the land, blank cheques become all too easy and ever more dangerous.” This defintiely rings true of my recent experience campaigning against the Investigatory Powers Bill as part of the Open Rights Group. For me, the lowest point of the campaign (so far – it’s not over yet!) was when David Cameron sought to use the Paris Attacks to justify an attack on encryption, despite the fact that the terrorists had in fact coordinated the attacks using regular unencrypted text messages.

I was also struck by another of Chakrabarti’s observations:  “We all love our own rights and those of friends, family and people like us. Other people’s freedoms seem cheaper until it’s almost too late.” Again, I have encountered this in my campaigning for the Open Rights Group. The common response of “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” when privacy concerns are raised in relation to the Investigatory Powers Bill reflects many people’s belief that they (and by extension, their friends and family) will never be adversely affected by expanded online and so we need not worry ourselves about the balance of power between citizen and state.

While I will be sad to see her go I can understand her reasons for stepping down, given the pressure and responsibility she must have felt over the past 12 years. I would like to thank Shami Chakrabarti for everything she has done to defend civil liberties and human rights.

My Highs and Lows of 2015

I’ve missed the boat. As I sit down to write this post, the fourth day of 2016 is already drawing to a close.

If I were a better blogger/person, I would have already have written my 2015 round-up and published it in the sweet spot between Christmas and New Year when there’s a flurry of such posts.

Instead, I was caught up in a flurry of holiday hosting and socialising which has only just come to an end. As John Lennon might have said, life is what happens when you’re not busy making other plans.

While I was experiencing 2015, it often felt like the lows were getting the better of the highs but looking back I can see there were a few ‘champagne moments’ along the way.   So, without further ado, here’s a brief round-up of the key events from possibly the most eventful  year in my life.

The Highs

  1. Going freelance as a digital communications specialist and working with the lovely team at Helpful Technology  to deliver their digital confidence and skills programme across Whitehall.
  2. Launching Open Rights Group Birmingham and working with passionate and principled people to protect and promote human rights in the digital age and oppose the Government’s controversial Investigatory Powers Bill.
  3. Getting involved with my local Labour Party in Bournville, helping my local MP Steve McCabe more than double his majority at the General Election in May and creating the Cats of the Campaign Trail blog.
  4.  Photographing Birmingham Beer Bash for the third year in a row and having my photograph of Dismaland picked up by media outlets both here in the UK and abroad.
  5. Getting some much-needed good news towards the ends of the year about health issues which have affected my family throughout 2015.

The Lows

  1. Being made redundant from my role as Communications Manager for ARK Kings Academy in Birmingham, due to a funding shortfall.
  2. Worries over family health issues, which thankfully improved as 2015 drew to a close.
  3. The stomach-churning feeling so many of us got at 10.01 pm on 7 May, when the exit polls announced the Conservatives would get the seats they needed to form a government and I would have to retire my Hell Yeah, I’m Voting Labour T-shirt.
  4. Watching Labour’s Andy Burnham put up virtually no opposition to the Government’s proposed Investigatory Powers Bill, even when  Amnesty International (along with many other respected individuals and groups) have said the bill would effectively legalise mass surveillance put the UK government’s compliance with international law in disarray.
  5. Watching David Cameron use the fear, uncertainty and anger generated by the awful Paris attacks to secure parliamentary approval for bombing Syria and stooping to a new personal low by labelling opponents of bombing ‘terrorist sympathisers‘.

What I’ve learned from nearly three months of delivering digital confidence and skills training for Helpful Technology

I can’t believe it’s nearly three months since I started working as product lead for Helpful Technology’s Digital Action Plan.

Since joining Helpful, my work has been focused on how best to give people the confidence and skills to use digital at work. This has involved delivering face-to-face training, producing engaging online resources and offering ongoing support to participants.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far about how to approach improving people’s  confidence and skills with digital. While I am talking about digital, hopefully these lessons will also be helpful for anyone trying to bring change in other areas.

1. Never make assumptions about a person’s existing skills and confidence

It’s easy to assume a participant will have broadly similar digital skills and confidence as his or her peers. However, now that I have worked with several cohorts from across different organisations and levels of seniority, I have come to realise this is not the case.

For example, I discovered that one participant had started his career as a programmer at IBM before joining the civil service and had actively made the case for embracing digital. This person’s requirements from the Digital Action were very different from someone who had little experience or confidence in using digital at work.

2. Take a holistic approach to people’s learning

Although the Digital Action Plan is focused on giving people the skills and confidence to use digital at work, I’ve found people are more motivated to complete the training when we can link it to their needs and preferences beyond the workplace.

For example, after doing some initial research I discovered that one of our participants, Jonathan Aldridge, is a published author and has blogged about his experiences as a writer. By knowing this, we were able to tailor his learning goals so that he was able to both apply his existing skills to in-work projects and develop new skills that would benefit both his employer and his creative pursuits.

While not every participant will be a published author, by taking the time to talk to participants and regularly reviewing their learning goals with them , it is nearly always possible to link digital to both work and more personal objectives.

Another participant, for example, thought she didn’t really do much with digital but after talking to her, it turns out she has blogged about shoes in her. Knowing this, we were able to encourage her to use this outside interest to create a ‘safe space’ where she could experiment with new digital channels such as Pinterest, before applying them to a work project.

3. Connect training with real-life projects

While it can be very helpful to get participants to think about how they use digital outside of work, ultimately we want people to be using digital in their everyday job roles.

For every goal, participants are asked to apply what they are learning to a project or area of their work. For example, when learning how to use the Hootsuite dashboard to conduct a social listening exercise, policy officers are asked to ‘listen in’ on what people are saying about their policy officer.

Going forward, I am exploring ways of strengthening the connections between a participant’s learning plan and their work priorities.

Earlier this week, for example, Guy Poppy, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Food Standards Agency, explained to me his ambitions to develop a collaborative open data project to improve food safety.

We are now working together to ensure Guy’s learning plan reflects this ambition, for example relating a goal on developing blogging skills to the task of persuading stakeholders to support the open data project.

4. Always be nice (but not too nice)

Finding time for learning and development can be really difficult, particularly when many of the organisations we work with at Helpful are under pressure to ‘do more with less’. This means it’s important to strike the right balance between being supportive and firm when encouraging participants to complete their Digital Actions Plans.

I have found  that putting time in early on to build relationships with participants and course patrons makes it easier to get people through the course. By doing so I have been able to identify and take action to overcome potential barriers to learning, whether that be a participant’s workload, a lack of confidence or how useful a participant perceives their learning goals to be.

Putting in this initial effort means I am able to be firm where required. For example, having worked with a participant to tailor their learning goals or extend a deadline, I am in a strong position to hold them to account, should they not be making sufficient progress.

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

Expense

  • 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

Sources

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.