When IT Meets Politics

January 14, 2014  7:20 PM

IPO Consults on Copyright on Orphan Works: a rather more important topic that it seems

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
BBC, BlackBerry, Brussels, copyright, Facebook, Instagram

in the 18th Century those who did not publish that for which they had copyright or manufacture that for which they had a patent were liable to lose their protection. There was no copyright protection for works that were out of print and no place for trolls, like those who broke Blackberry for breaching patents they had no intention of bringing to market.

Today the world has moved on even further. Last week the IPO launched its consultation on the secondary legislation (i.e. no debate in Parliament) that some allege will allow others to use the photos you post on Facebook or Instagram – because it is “too difficult” to check their copyright position. This is akin to the defence routine used in the US by those who copy intimate photos to put on public porn websites, whether for cash or for revenge.  

The Government’s orphan works scheme aims to better address the issue of reproducing works when rights holders cannot be found. The UK wide scheme provided under the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, allows for the commercial and non-commercial use of any type of orphan work, by any applicant, once they have undertaken a diligent search for missing rights holders and paid a licence fee.

Alongside the UK scheme, the Government is implementing the complementary EU orphan works Directive. This will allow publicly accessible archives to digitise certain works and to display them on their websites for access across the EU.

This technical consultation is seeking views on the legal effectiveness, structure and effect of the draft secondary legislation only. The overall policy is outside the scope of this consultation.

The closing date for comments is Friday, 28 February 2014.

This may only be a consultation on the details of legislation that has already been decided in Brussels (I cannot find UKIP‘s views on the topic) but it raises interesting questions such as:

  • What is “a diligent search” for the copyright of that which has been posted on a website?
  • How much is the license fee and to whom does it go?
  • What happens if you discover later that it is your photo that some-one else is publishing without informing, let alone paying, you?

Even more interesting is the small print of the routines for allowing “publicly accessible archives” (? the National Archive and British Library or the BBC and Google?) to digitise and display “certain works”.   

January 9, 2014  2:28 PM

The “rift” between Cabinet Office and DWP indicates that the new HMG IT Strategy is for real

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
cabinetoffice, dwp, HMRC, Technical support, Universal Credit

I have just compared the original story about the “rift” between Cabinet Office and DWP with the refutation as covered by the BBC, recent Cabinet Office recruitment advertising and also cover on the forward plans of DWP and the skills problems that it faces The result illustrates the pace of progress that is being made (or not made) with implementing the strategy of rebuilding the skills of Central Government as an intelligent (or at least less stupid) customer. It also shows the consequent realisation that outsourcing had gone far too far, that rather more has to be brought back in house and that that requires further effort on skills.

I will begin with a quick critique of some of the original story. The Cabinet Office did not have an elite team of IT experts to loan to DWP to help sort out the Universal Credit. The Major Projects Authority within Cabinet Office is a team of reviewers, not a team of trouble shooters. The Government Data Service has only just started to recruit those it needs to expand its project monitoring  capacity. Even when they are in post it will have too few of those with experience of planning and delivering major projects to provide serious support for the change programmes of the great “Silos of State”, as opposed to the “dashboard” monitoring of those programmes and assistance for smaller departments with less ambitious projects.

Meanwhile Gov.uk  is still best viewed as a set of design principles and some “lipstick on the face of a pig”, although hopefully it will contionue to make serious progress over the year ahead as it gathers momemtum. In parallel the GDS is trying to build the necessary in-house expertise in open source and cloud services to help make a reality of its aspirations for a brave new world of re-usable mix and match modules for common needs, using rationalised, resilient and secure data centres.

Meanwhile the  DWP needs very different skills to handle a massive change programme where the main investment is organisational change and staff training, including to handle co-operation and secure, accurate and reliable information exchange across silo boundaries (e.g. with the Border Agency, Local Government and HMRC). By comparison the techology requirements and even the data volumes are relatively trivial, compared to those at Vodafone, from which DWP has recruited its new of Head of Digital (who was undoubtedly dismayed by the lack of hand-over when had arrived). The problem lies in the complexity of the assessment of the individual cases by front line staff, before the data is put into the main delivery systems.

Unfortunately, over the past two decades politicians, officials and public sector consultants have persisted in putting digital carts before “people process” horses.  This time, after the Minister put his foot down and called a halt, we saw squeals from technophiles, in cacophony with squawks from the Public Accounts Committee, neither trying to identify why and how the programme had got out of control, despite supposedly clear agreement at the start that the implementation of Universal Credit would follow a low risk, incremental strategy, based on identifying and testing claimant “pathways ” 

The best news is that Ian Duncan Smith has not called in yet more consultants. Instead the Department is trying to rebuild the in-house skills base to do that which cannot be sensibly contracted out, whether to an outsource provider or to Cabinet Office (even if it had the necessary skills available).

The successful use of agile methodology requires that the users are intimately involved, ideally trained to use the tools themselves, with the IT “experts” in support roles only, until such time as systems are ready to be scaled for live running. Then the IT experts often have a major role, “fine-tuning” the systems (o ensure rapid and reliable response for the volumes to be handled.  In the past that fine tuming has often required a complete re-write, while keeping the user interface and application definitions the same. That is less necessary today, using tools developed originally for automatically transitioning legacy systems to new operatiing systems.
Over the past two years we have heard much rhetoric about rebuilding the skills of Government to be an intelligent, or at least less stupid, customer.  Many of us feared it would prove to be hot air, botched and/or rushed – e.g. with inexperienced staff trying to run before they could walk. I am hopeful that I will soon be proved wrong. Both Ministers and officials appear to have come to appreciate that the efficient and flexible delivery of on-line services to meet changing needs requires giving power to front-line users to work direct with in-house IT support staff, not binding them with inefficient and inflexible outsourcing contracts and overseas call centres, whatever the nominal savings from centralisation and standardisation. That is also by far the best way of developing the skills on both sides. It is also usually easier to give the necessary IT skills for most of the roles in incremental project planning, development and implementation s to users than to teach IT staff how the organisation operates.It is the skills to organise the process that are in short supply and the Cabinet Offiep lans for work in this area are most welcome. 

It is interesting to see how some of the former outsourcing dinosaurs have seen where this leads. They are beginning to  look at how to provide scalable item of service, open source and cloud services to the SMEs and to the Third Sector providers to which HMG says it wants to devolve delivery to those who are hardest to reach.

Unfortunately, the Government Procurement  Service  still appears wedded to the idea that centralised procurement (as practiced by supermarket and clothing chains when screwing British farmers and exploiting Bangladeshi sweat shops) will give value for money. And we should not under-estimate the challenges of changing that approach, given Treasury accounting rules as well as EU Procurement law. In consequence those with innovative, joined up solutions, that really would deliver better service at lower cost, have simply walked away – to sell to those who appreciate what they have to offer.

The rebuilding of Central Government’s skills to be an intelligent customer may have begun it is a long long road.

We can, however, see the likely future. 

There will be a Government Data Service (akin to the old CCTA) that

–    helps smaller departments with their technology needs (including the use of open source, cloud based systems to meet common needs)

–     sets standards for inter-government  co-operation (including identity arbitrage and secure data exchange)


–    monitors progress (in co-operation with the National Audit Office).

In parallel the great silos of state, who collect and spend most of the money (HMRC, DWP and MoD) will rebuild their in-house expertise and run down their all-encompassing outsource contracts, replacing them with multiple sourced, item of service frameworks.

In a post Snowden world we can also expect to see increasing pressure for any outsourced UK public sector services to be supplied from locations or suppliers which do not fall under foreign jurisdictions which claim right of access to data or communications and/or meet all UK regulatory, security and resilience requirements. Given similar pressuress in other EU member states this may also mean that the Digital Single Market, particularly for public services, will remain a fiction for the foreseeable future.  

How long the process of change will take is much less easy to predict.

How many of the current dominant suppliers will fight to preserve the status quo and/or milk their legacy contracts for as long as possible? Perhaps in cahoots with a Government Procurement Service for whom such a change of approach represents an even greater re-education challenge?

How many will join those who have already walked away from UK central government as unprofitable (after sales costs, overheads and hassle) despite being over-priced?

How many will they join those looking at how to do business in the new world that is emerging?

Some are, of course,  trying to have their cake and eat it. They have set up innovation teams looking at new ways of doing profitable business (e.g. providing item of service support for flexible and selective outsourcing via a variety of channels) at arms length from the teams seeking to extend the life of their current “big” outsource and PFI contracts and win new ones.

Like so many other strategies, this is far easier said than done. I would, however, far rather have shares in those who follow such a twin track approach, are open about doing so, and allow their teams to compete head to head – including for the in-house resources to deliver that which they win. That is in no small part because I suspect that those who pick too soon will go down just as painfully, albeit perhaps faster, as those who move too late and that getting the timing right will be impossible.     

January 7, 2014  8:26 AM

Inputs to January 6th House of Commons Debate on Rural Broadband

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Broadband, btgroup, Halifax, Hollingbourne, kent, rural, Shropshire

Julian Sturdy MP, himself a farmer, has secured a Westminster Hall Debate on Rural Broadband .

I do not think I could put the case for e-mailing your MP much better than Patrick Cosgrove, who copied me with his e-mail to Shropshire Broadband activists, as below, yesterday:

Dear Better Broadband Supporters

This  Wednesday the MP for North Yorkshire, Julian Sturdy, has secured a debate in the House of Commons to ask how Superfast Broadband can be made available for all his rural constituents. The issue applies as much to you as it does to people in North Yorkshire. Mr Sturdy hopes to persude the government to release money from the Superfast Extension Programme (SEP) sooner rather than later.  If that happens, it could also benefit this area.

More details can be found at this link

Please email your MP asking him to attend that meeting and to speak up on behalf of his digitally disenfranchised constituents. You might consider making the following points:

1.     Broadband in rural areas is starting to get slower with more people coming on line every day and households owning more than one piece of equipment

2.     A growing concern is that  BT will again grab all the government cash (as is currently happening with existing funding sources) and will continue to roll-out expensive ducted fibre, therefore still not reach everyone. Other methods need to be considered including overhead fibre-optic cable, high speed wireless broadband, 4G and, in some case, satellite. Alternative broadband providers need to be involved to provide the much required competion that will drive down costs, to improve service delivery and to encourage technical innovation.

3.     The issue could prove to be a vote winner/loser in forthcoming elections

Of course, personalising your email from an individual prespective is always more persuasive.

It would greatly help us on the campaign team to know if you have written. A reply to this email saying “Yes, I wrote to my MP” is all we require, but if you would care to copy it to us, we’d be very interested to know what you’ve said.

It may, however, be helpful to also quote from an e-mail sent out yesterday on behalf of the  Hollingbourne Parish Council petition:

In April 2013 Hollingbourne Parish Council initiated an e-petition to provide better broadband in rural areas including the village of Hollingbourne in Kent where download speeds are often less than .5MB. BT have stated that it is not “commercially viable” to improve the Hollingbourne service and this is the situation in most rural areas where they own the local broadband and telephone infrastructure.

Since April BT have launched BT Sport which is advertised as being free to BT subscribers but which needs a download speed of 10MB which is at 20 times the slowest speed recorded in Hollingbourne and many other villages. This means that most country dwellers who are BT subscribers cannot access BT Sport.

BT last year paid their outgoing Chairman some £10 million and have received money from the Government to improve the rural broadband access but it is simply not happening.

For further details about the e-petition please go to  

If you would like to support the e-petition and have not done so already please go to 

Please feel free to forward this e-mail to anybody who may be interested in improving broadband access in rural areas.

I should perhaps add that the Hollingbourne e-mail was sent to me by my sister, who lives in West Sussex, and just before Christmas I learned that one of the sometime architects of the ICL “New Range” is helping drive the broadband campaign in West Dorset. He tells me that his is local MP is being very helpful. I doubt, however, that protocol would allow a Cabinet Office Minister to participate in the debate on Wednesday.  

Those writing to their MP might also wish to refer to the effect of broadband availablity on property values and see if Broadband Choices or the Halifax can help them with local data. If not, the regional breakdown in the Halifax data may still be helpful. 


January 4, 2014  2:08 PM

Will the impending US Mobile price war expedite the switch from fixed to mobile?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
AT&T, Mobile, Ofcom, T-Mobile, US, Verizon, Vodafone

Clever Vodafone to sell its stake in Verizon just before the US mobile price war started.

When I chaired the Conservative Technology Forum round table in December to help plan a policy study on a Digital Infrastructures for the 21st Century I was surprised to learn that US mobile phone charges are three times those common in the UK. When, about the same time, I was able to e-mail but not text the smart phone of a US businessman visiting London, because of the terms and conditions of his mobile service, I began to wonder if I am a little harsh on the success of Ofcom as a regulator and rose-tinted about what we can learn from the US.

Will US mobile charges now collapse to parity with prices across the rest of the world?

If so, what will the knock on effect be? 

Will it help expedite the switch from fixed to mobile across the US

If so, will traffic soar and profits (whose profits) rise?

Will US operators decide to invest in other parts of the world – and will the rest of the world trust them in a post Snowden world?

Or will the US mobile (and Internet) industries go the way of their car industry as consumers, led by their children, opt for simpler, cheaper, easier to use products and services and thier industry dinosaurs fail to respond?

And what will the impact be on the UK?

We are potentially the worlds’ most competitive and trusted location for on-line services, but we are also in danger of overkill – as policy makers and regulators seek to protect the past from future by planning for the unpredictable.

January 2, 2014  9:02 AM

Would you trust members of “Reform Government Surveillance Group” more or less than NSA/GCHQ

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
AOL, Apple, Broadband, Crapband, Facebook, Google, Linkedin, Microsoft, twitter, Yahoo

Over Christmas I was struck by how interested my younger relatives were (or rather were not) in whether the NSA or GCHQ might be monitoring their smartphones. They were far more interested in how to gauge whether an app was trustworthy or not: the main concern appeared to be whether it would lead to hidden charges or gobble up their free download allowance without telling them. That linked to discussion on how to control whether the phone was running over wifi or the mobile network, particularly when it was being used to watch TV. If “it” decided the wifi was too weak or slow, then their precious free download allowance could vanish without them knowing.

This led me to do a quick sizing exercise on the volume of bloatware (e.g. the videos ads and tracking software that degrades response when you visit many media sites) downloaded to my machine in the course of December, as opposed that which I had consciously downloaded (e.g. government reports and conference presentations). At that point the gulf between the sizing data from the Broadband Stakeholder Group, Analysis Mason and others, (used to “inform” broadband debate), and the data volumes consumed by the average consumer, let alone teenager, became apparent.  The teenagers even speculated whether the slow roll-out of BT Infinity (their defnition of “slow” not mine) was a plot to get them to buy 4G to get round the problems of “crapband” (a term that apparently originated among university students living off campus). I may also have to eat my adverse comments on BT’s invasion of the sports market. There was a gap in discussion when they trooped upstairs to watch Tottenham beat Manchester United on my desk top (running at 74 mbps).

The gulf between what is happening in the market place and the assumptions on which public policy is based appears to be widening rapidly. The lobbying of the Dinosaurs of the “Global Social Media” age (e.g. members of the “Reform Government Surveillance Group“) and the obsessions of the technology obsessives (e.g. the Big, Open and Cloud lobbies) is getting in the way of evidence based policy. We need to look at what is actually happening in the market place as the world goes mobile, but much of that (how much?) actually over wifi.

We also need user groups who will lobby for their Smart Phone Operators, as well as Internet service and content providers to adopt similar principles to those which they wish governments to adopt.

These might include:

1) Tell customers what data they collect, how is it used, to whom is it provided (under what circumstances) and what choice, if any, they have in the matter.

2) Tell customers to whom they should complain and what action they are likely to take, in the event that their data is abused.

3) Give customers clear information on the privacy settings available to help them control who has access to what data on them and provide advance notice of any changes to these, especially those which include any automated changes.

4) Provide clear information on what is “free” (i.e. paid for by advertisers or sales of their data), what is included in any subscription and what may incurr additional charges – and require those whose adverts they carry to do likewise, including which jurisdictions under which they are doing business [as per the e-Commerce Directive].              

5) I look forward to readers comments as to what the fifth principle should be – if there is one: bearing in mind that that the “Reform Government Surveillance” group is US-Centric (AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIN, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo) and the teenagers of today are increasingly familiar with their Chinese and Russian Competitors, some to avoid the attentions of the Californian copyright enforcement agencies but others because they are simpler and faster to use (less bloatware). We also need to bear in mind that the US is slower in going mobile because their charges are three times (yes three times) those in the UK.

December 31, 2013  12:33 PM

Is Mike Bracken’s CBE a mark of support or a consolation prize?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
cabinetoffice, CCTA, DVLA, dwp, Goethe, HMG, HMRC, Home Office, privacy, treasury

One of my regular sources for this blog is a seasoned Whitehall warrior who has been keeping me abreast of the progress (or otherwise) of the Cabinet Office’s attempts to create an operation akin to the old Central Communications and Telecommunications Agency.

I had asked him for his thoughts on the current state of Cabinet Office attempts to produce coherant policies regarding the identities we are allowed to use when dealing with  government. This morning he sent me a brain dump of thoughts. inspired in part, by the news that Mike Bracken had received an CBE.

He supports some of what Cabinet Office office is trying to do, particularly with regard to rebuilding in-house professional skills, but is of the view that improved programme management will do nothing to address the underlying incompatibility of the Cabinet Office approach to systems development with the Treasury rules for spending public money. Nor will it address the need to find effective ways of persuading the Silos of State to spend the ring-fenced, target-linked budgets, for which they are responsible to the Public Accounts Commitee, in support of others.

I agree with him that attacking civil servants for myopia is not the answer: because that is not the problem.

The problem arises from incompatible initiatives.

The examples he gave included:

  • Privacy versus making money from selling personal data
  • Agile procurement versus fixed priced-contracts
  • Expecting private investment in “special versions” for HMG without commitment to purchase.

He does not believe that appointing 50 team leaders and policy advisors will succeed either, because “the belt and braces are useless when the emperor has no clothes.” [His words not mine]. He was recently pleased that “the digital-by-default zealotry motivated by imagined cost-savings has been toned down to the laudable aim of making online services so good that most people prefer them.” However: “DWP has made it clear that the system they were being told to use was insecure; the Home Office didn’t go into details as to why they were dropping out, but the public position of HMRC and Electoral Registration appears to favour hope over experience, not least because the people needed to work on the level needed for criminal evidence (and that includes everything where fraud is a concern) are only now being recruited. DVLA’s exemplar is a new service, so hasn’t the transition challenges, but also cannot demonstrate savings.”

He then goes into detail on one example of the contradictions which Cabinet Office appears unable to reconcile: the never ending round of studies on ID policy, when what is needed is workable authentication policies – for which Common Law has provided frameworks for nearly 150 years (the first test case for a Cable Signature going all the way to a Supreme Court was in 1867).

“One small but critical area is knowing that the person who is online is an appropriate person for the transaction. In the same way as digital has been confused with online, this has been over-simplified to be assumed to always need identity of some form, despite HMG’s own published guidance to keep a clear distinction between registering, enrolling and authenticating.

“In most European countries identification is conceptually easy: there’s an existing, government-controlled population register that must be kept up-to-date, upon which can be built systems with various balances of convenience and privacy, using assorted technology. But this is not the case in the UK (nor the US). The UK position is, however, complicated by what was agreed during the last UK Presidency regarding cross-border on-line public services as part of an attractive but ambitious agenda: “No citizen left behind – inclusion by design“.

“In May 2011 the system was going to go live in Aug 2012. No delays have been acknowledged or explained, but the spring 2013 date became October 2013 and is now March 2014. Openness was brandished, yet there’s still no published architecture or protocol for academic scrutiny and peer review.

“There were some studies, but the order of events has been most surprising: the team working on the user experience started in January 2013, the privacy principles for the basic design went out for consultation in June 2013, and there is now recruitment for the team to work on the levels that have been used in regulated industries for years.

“There is strong political pressure for the emergence early in 2014 of a two-pronged European Regulation (on electronic identification and trust services). One aspect of that is the way that users can tell which website they are connected to, an aspect that .gov.uk remains silent about. (Click on the little lock and you’ll see that the certificate for .gov.uk was issued to Fastly Inc in California.) Any form of UK representative in Brussels will face digressions on Snowden before the struggle to explain why parts of the proposed regulation don’t match the common law system and mindset. Having Google lobbying can be counterproductive, even when what they are saying is right (and based on experience). A lot rests on efforts of groups such as the DPA, but bigger issues with Data Protection initiatives may drain energy.

“Those aspects which only matter for civil codes can expect less effort from UK, yet matter for UK international business, much as they do for US business. Studies such as STORK which have identified cross-border issues, and performed trials in certain sectors, are being relied upon as panaceas that they do not purport to be.

“It is possible to finesse the European position, avoiding dangers of using Brussels as an excuse just before a European Election: it was the previous government that got other Europeans to sign up (in 2005 with target of 2010), and, since the regulation and UK architecture remain hidden, it should be simple to find an incompatibility.

“At that stage we notice that it wasn’t ID we wanted after all, just e-Authentication, which isn’t mentioned in that part of the regulation which can and will work on the continent. And we then turn from the brash only-good-news stories from the East (and the interesting developments in Tallinn, Seoul, and Redmond) and learn from the quiet, privacy-friendly successes in Dublin and Ottawa.”

His conclusion was that “Cabinet Office should sort out the beam in their own eye before attending to the moats of others.”

Civil Servants are, of course, not supposed to think politically – but we should never forget that they often have a much wider perspective than young policy wonks, even though their careers may be broken when they express public views. One of my Christmas present was “Empress Dowager Cixi”  Senior Civil Servants are not called “Mandarins” for no reason. The latest biography of one of the most remarkable women in history gives me more sympathy for both the Cabinet Office reformers and those running the great Silos of State.

We need more public and constructive debate in 2014 on how to improve public service delivery at affordable cost but real progress is unlikely until:

– we can agree the objectives and priorities: including – are they “Digital by Default”, “Quality of Service” or “No Citizen left behind – inclusion by design”?.


– we can work out how to motivate those who sacrifice their own budgets/targets to help achieve the common good: including – how do we reward this in actual delivery contracts?     
Only then is it really worth the effort of working out what the current hotch potch of heterogeneous pan-European initiatives has to do with either a single digital market or “inclusion by design”.

As point man, trying to make sense of what is happening and lead us to the promised land, perhaps Mike Bracken deserves rather more than a CBE. [My thoughts after re-reading the agenda to which the UK was signed up in Manchester, nearly a decade ago.]  

I chaired a round table of 16th December to begin the process of trying to formulate a vision for a globally competitive and socially inclusive 21st Century Digital Infrastructure. To summarise the comments of one of the more waspish participants: “There is nothing quite so dangerous as a vision without a coherant and practical action plan. it is Goethe’s ignorance in motion.”

Have a paranoid New Year.

December 31, 2013  11:21 AM

God, not just the Chancellor, was on the side of Amazon. Did Christmas see death of the High Street?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Amazon, Christmas, Debenham, London, On-line, Sales, VAT

I expect the warning from Debenhams as to the impact of poor Christmas sales to be repeated by others as it becomes apparent that this was the not only first time that more consumers planned to go on-line on Christmas Day than went to the Boxing Day sales – but that their intentions were reinforced by the weather and transport problems. 

Last year my wife and I went up to Oxford Street before Christmas and I bought her a hand bag from Debenhams. This year the weather forecast was so bad we shopped on line. To my surprise John Lewis did indeed deliver her latest handbag the next day. We bought almost everything else within a two mile radius of home – but our local electrical store closed this year so a replacement electric kettle had to be bought on-line instead of round the corner.

I expect that the poor off-line sales this Christmas will increase the pressure on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to level the playing field between retailers who pay VAT, Business Rates and Corporation Tax within the UK and those who do not.

He needs the money.

His party needs the votes.

Politics meets IT with a vengeance.       

December 24, 2013  1:06 PM

Edward Snowden says “Mission Accomplished”: have an off-line Christmas and a paranoid New Year .

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Edward Snowden, Russia, Snowden

Just before I powered down for my own off-line Christmas I received the headlines from the Washington Post and clicked through to what is perhaps the best, and also the most worrying, article on the Snowden affair that I have yet read.

It is written by the man to whom he supposedly gave first refusal on what he had to offer and begins with Edward Snowden’s statement that he has acheived his objective.

Do read and ponder – I think it is a well balanced article – with good juxtapositions, bringing out the arguments on all sides.

I would only add that I too knew how to set the world to rights when I was 29.

Perhaps you did too. 

Thinking back ……


December 23, 2013  11:26 AM

A Christmas Message for those waiting for a broadband connection: Matthew 13:12

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
BDUK, btgroup, Cornwall, Defra, social inclusion, Suffolk

“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” Matthew 13:12.

The recent Thinkbroadband article on progress with the roll-out of Fibre to the Cabinet in Suffolk   illustrates how current BDUK policy, focussed on a deficit funding model to subsidiser the extension of BT’s fibre to the cabinet service, is helping increase the digital divide. BT does indeed appear to be delivering significantly better connectivity, faster than it has contracted. But, except in Cornwall, where the contract includes wireless and satellite to the outlying areas, the result is to significantly increase political pressure to make better use of the Rural Community Broadband Fund as a whole, not just the £10 million that has been allocated for “innovation projects” , so as to serve the digitally excluded.  

Interestingly the problem may also be at the European Level, giving 12 mb satellite links to those who currently have little or no connectivity does not count against pan-European targets for 30 mb services. However, a time-limited voucher scheme, akin to that for Wales, for those in the current “White Areas” (not expected to be eerved under current BDUK contracts) might avoid the need to hand back the unspent balance of the £20 million in March 2014. The impending European elections and the threat of UKIP landslide make EU approval, if needed, almost a formality. In fact an extension of the “innovation” programme to use ALL the unspent balance may be all that is needed. Of course BT should be able to bid for the vouchers, but only for services that are available to all comers. If that were to result in a sudden extension of the areas covered by its existing contracts and in the wireless and satelllite connections being provided in Cornwall being made available nationwide, that might help narrow the currently growing digital divide at a stroke. I would, however, also hope to see a sudden rush of funding approvals for those fibre-based community broadband projects currently “stuck in the treacle”.

I should perhaps add that one of the reasons for this Christmas message is that on Boxing Day I expect to receive an earful from relatives trying to access government services (e.g. DEFRA, Charities Commission, Disability Living assistance etc.), let alone shop, on-line. “Digital by default” is still a hollow joke for those living outside the leafy suburbs as it is for small firms in Farringdon Within (alias Smithfield) or on the wrong side the road in Shoreditch.

Given the expected bloodbath in the 2014 European and Council elections I expect to see political minds concentrated in the New Year on ensuring rapid follow through on what has been announced in the past month. Last Monday I chaired a Conservative Technology Round  Table on Communications Policy. After the Christmas break, I will be digesting what was said – including the need to base policy on what we can see happening now and on what we want to see happen in the future, not on ten year old mythology and business models (costs, technologies, demand etc.). Perhaps we can then make serious progress towards globally competitive but also socially inclusive and fully inter-operable communications networks that are fit for the 21st century.  

In the mean time I suggest you read the whole of Matthew 13 and have an off-line Christmas.

December 20, 2013  1:00 PM

Is Edward snowden the Soviet Unions greatest intelligence asset since Richard Sorge?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Edward Snowden, EdwardSnowden, Snowden

This morning I read Walter Pincus in the Washington Post on the material copied by Edward Snowden that has not yet been published in the West. Whatever his claimed motives, it is now apparent that Snowden may well be the Soviet Union’s greatest intelligence asset since Richard Sorge . Sorge changed the course of history by enabling Stalin to use the Siberian Army against Hitler in the depths of winter 1941, secure in the knowledge that Japan had no plans to attack until Moscow had actually fallen.  

Snowden, like Sorge, may have changed the course of history: not just crippling future US counter-intelligence but ending the US dominance of the computing and communications industries as a whole and not “just” the Internet.

I personally am more concerned about we not only extricate the UK from the wreckage, but turn the Snowden affair to advantage – reinforcing the position of the City of London (as proxy for four million jobs across the UK, from Chatham to Carlisle) as the world’s trusted on-line intermediary, akin to its position in fnancial services, shipping and freight forwarding.

Given that Chinese “due dilligence” (alias their “penetration testing” exercises) has shown that the UK financial services security infrastructures are rather more robust than those of the NSA, I am quite hopeful. 

That raises the question of why they are.

Some years ago a major fraud in New York used a trap door thought to be known only to the NSA. The experience was a major wake up call to both the US and UK financial services. Either the Russians had also found the weaknesses and gone “to the dark side” or former ex-NSA employees had done so. Either way “patriotism was not enough” and former “patriots” might well have “life-style aspirations”.

During the RIPA debate I was told by some of those in the City that they were concerned that GCHQ’s expertise had been hollowed out by their raids for the talent to keep their systems secure from all-comers. They had therefore agreed a self-denying ordinance, including joint funding for collaborative exercises “contracted” to CESG, to ensure that half a dozen key individuals stayed in Cheltenham.

Whether or not those stories are true, most of what has been publicised to date was already known or rumoured across the security communities and those financial services operations who handle the affairs of the world’s sovereign wealth funds and high net worth individuals have long taken great care to avoid having these spied upon by their supposed “friends” as well as their known “foes” (but also perhaps future customers. Hence their use of multiple layers of supposedly redundant and inefficient security technology and their resistance to well-intentioned regulatory initiatives which would, in practice, weaken rather than strengthen, their security and resiliance.

Perhaps Bill Maslin is right (see his comments in response to my blog on Carlos Solari’s book) and Snowden has done us all a favour. But I doubt it will be seen that way by those who will be made redundant by the US high tech industries as their business shrink.

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