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[FYI] (Fwd) Sunday Times 23/7/2000: "Fixing the bugs in our democrac
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Subject: Sunday Times 23/7/2000: "Fixing the bugs in our democracy"
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.html Fixing the bugs in our democracy
There are moments when it's not easy being British in the US of A. My
American hosts have been watching Mel Gibson fight King George's
tyrannous redcoats in The Patriot, which I gather has just opened in
Britain, and they hold me personally responsible. My only defence has
been to sneak off to the search engines and try to dig up a few
counterbarbs. My favourite is from our great man of letters Samuel
Johnson, who thought it very odd at the time that the greatest "yelps
for liberty" came from American slave drivers.
Be that as it may, one has to accord a grudging respect to the
founding fathers: in many ways, they represent the finest tradition of
the British gentleman amateur. The Declaration of Independence was
written in an evening by a young man, Thomas Jefferson, in a small
parlour rented from a bricklayer. The constitution was largely the
work of Ben Franklin, a printer by trade - not at all the right sort
to start hacking representative democracy into a parliament composed
of nobility and gentry. One can only imagine what the experts at
Westminster thought of this unprofessional refactoring of their grand
Cope of Berkeley: led the protest against the RIP bill
I got some idea, though, watching the reactions of their descendants,
when the hackers of the internet set about the Blair government's
Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. Plenty has now been written
about this horrendous bill; enough, one would think, to give pause to
even the self-referential juggernaut of Labour. But no: despite the
loud protests of practically anyone who uses the net, they assumed
that, once the government declared its intent, its vast bureaucracy
would steamroller over the squeaking objections of a bunch of nerds.
Of course, the net users didn't know that. With no parliamentary
experience to speak of, computer scientists are peculiarly
unthreatened by our labyrinthine legislative process. After all,
they're used to ploughing through pages of obscure computer code, and
what else is a bill but a program for citizens to follow? Within a
couple of days of the bill being published, Charles Lindsey, a retired
computer scientist, had digested its gist and, as programmers do to
help simplify the obscure, constructed a graphic flow chart
illustrating the procedure that the police would follow in order to
demand the private communications of a British citizen.
Computer scientists are good at finding bugs too: within a few weeks,
Lindsey had uncovered a fistful of scenarios where the law would fail
those it sought to protect, and where the judicial overview that Jack
Straw had promised vanished.
Lindsey, naturally, e-mailed these bug reports - together with a
series of patches - to the Home Office. One civil servant, in an
accidental slip-of-the-click we all make, pressed Reply instead of
forwarding the message. His mail went out to a mailing list of
concerned net users, together with his own commentary at the top. "A
bit sad, really," it said.
No matter how sad the source, the problems remained, and now they were
published on the net for everyone to see. A thousand or so net users,
many of whom had read Lindsey's analysis, faxed their MPs with their
concern. The MPs, as a whole, were useless. Despite a great deal of
noise in the Commons, few of them seemed to feel that time spent
fighting the RIP was time well spent. Their chance to fix the bill
quickly slipped away.
Instead, it was a strange alliance between the net activists and the
House of Lords that brought the problems to the attention of the Home
Office. There's something very 21st century about listening to earls
and lords lecture the government on packet-switching, datagrams and
hard-drive clusters. But, unlike the Commons and unlike, it seems, the
civil service, our peers took the time to understand the technology
they were legislating against - and turned to the net experts to learn
about it. The bill set the gentleman amateurs of the world against the
sleekest of career politicos, and in so doing woke up the government.
Faced with this unusually informed Lords rebellion, the government
quickly introduced a stack of amendments that covered the most obvious
flaws in the bill, even as they filled the remaining parliamentary
time for fixing the rest. While you'll have a hard time persuading the
Home Office to admit it, those amendments look very close to those
that the sad "amateurs" of the net had proposed all along.
They don't fix all the bill's failings, not by a long chalk. The bill,
if it passes, will remain one of the most invasive and antibusiness
pieces of internet legislation in the world - but it could well have
been much, much worse.
The RIP Bill has just received its final reading in the House of
Lords. Barring any further Boston-style rebellions by our peers, it
will receive royal assent soon. Blair and his executive talk a great
deal about open government and the power of the internet, but now they
may slowly be realising how those platitudes really work. The net is
not some great semi-automatic democratic leveller; but if it's a
question of publicising the truth, and pushing it in the face of those
who pull the levers, it's unmatched.
For those who know a truth, the real work, to quote those American
rebels, lies in making it self-evident. And when you make it so
self-evident that even a British peer can understand it, then you're
doing very well indeed.
Danny O'Brien is joint editor of Need to Know (www.ntk.net), an
irreverent weekly e-mail newsletter
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