A word on the future of Europe (without the United Kingdom)

It’s rare that I rant about politics but given the train wreck that we’ve woken up to here in Europe I thought I’d make the exception as this is important for all of us — both here in the 27 member European Union (technically while part of Europe, Switzerland’s not part of the European Union nor the 17 member Eurozone as it has its own currency, but we’re landlocked by it and affected by its instability) as well as abroad, including the United States.I’m no expert on European politics, but having been a resident of the region for almost a decade now and lived and/or worked in three member states (in addition to Switzerland) I have the unusual advantage of having seen it from many angles:

  • From Ireland, which has been (and is to this day) a benefactor of the union by way of support for its relatively small economy and its inexplicably generous 12.5% corporate tax rate.
  • From France, which along with Germany is one of the powerhouses of the European economy with the most to lose if things go awry.
  • From Switzerland, which is an independent, neutral country that happens to be in the center of Europe and only recently joined the Schengen Agreement (relaxing its borders with France, Germany, Austria and Italy).
  • From the United Kingdom, which is a member state outside of the Eurozone with its own currency (British Pounds) that is isolated from the mainland by sea and apparently sees this as a reason to get special treatment.

The United Kingdom is a large and important economy in the zone, but even down to the grassroots level they see themselves as independent and assess every single decision solely on the basis of what it will do for them — there are regularly mini scandals in the papers about their relationship with their fellow Europeans (who are typically seen to be somehow benefiting at their expense). This shortsighted tweet captures the sentiment nicely:

As a prime example, the Common Agricultural Policy which is designed “to provide farmers with a reasonable standard of living, consumers with quality food at fair prices and to preserve rural heritage“, tends to redistribute funds from more urbanised countries like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom to those where agriculture actually takes place. It’s an important (albeit changing) function and it commands almost half of the EU’s budget.

Another example of unnecessary friction is their [self-]exclusion from the Schengen Agreement, which creates a borderless area within Europe, thus facilitating transport and commerce. You still have to pass border control when you enter or leave the Schengen area, including when traveling to/from the Common Travel Area (consisting only of the United Kingdom and Ireland, which are connected on the island of Ireland by the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland), but you can travel freely within it once you’re there and there are visas which cover the entire region.

Cutting to the chase, it is of no surprise then that the brits would be stubborn when it came to changing the treaty by unanimous vote — indeed I’ve been predicting that for a while and was certain it would happen a few days ago. What is a surprise though is just how belligerent and childish they’ve been about it — as a frenchman said in reference to the following video from The Telegraph’s excellent article EU suffers worst split in history as David Cameron blocks treaty change:

Another user tweeted:

Others agreed:

And:

I think Simon Wardley sums it up nicely though:

From my point of view the brits are [allowing their representatives to get away with] acting like petulant children, benefiting from the European Union when it suits them, and taking their toys home when it doesn’t. Their argument that the very establishment that got us into this mess must absolutely be protected above all else is weak — and that it is in the interests of the city, let alone the entire country, deceptive.

They “very doggedly” (their words) sought “a ‘protocol’ giving the City of London protection from a wave of EU financial service regulations related to the eurozone crisis”. That’s right, they didn’t want to play by the same rules as everyone else, and exercised their veto when it became apparent that was the only option.

To add insult to injury, they “warned the new bloc that it would not be able to use the resources of the EU, raising real doubts as to whether the eurozone would be able to enforce fiscal rules in order to calm the markets”. So not only are they going to not participate in cleaning up the mess they played a key role in creating, but they’re going to do their best to make sure nobody else can either.

Fortunately there’s light at the end of the tunnel: “Cameron was clumsy in his manoeuvring,” a senior EU diplomat said. “It may be possible that Britain will shift its position in the days ahead if it discovers that isolation really is not a viable course of action.” Please take a moment today to express your discontent with this decision as sometimes in order to serve your own interests you also need to consider those of others — in much the same way as the tragedy of the commons (where in this case the commons is the European and global markets).

Update: Another great [opinion] piece from The Telegraph: Cameron: the bulldog has no teeth:

Cameron (and Britain) are now in a no-win situation. If the eurozone countries start to rally, then we shall be isolated from the new bloc and stuck in the slow lane of Europe. Should the euro problems deepen, then we shall bear the consequences in full. As George Osborne has indicated, a disorderly collapse of the euro would drag a voiceless Britain into depression.

In France and Germany, Cameron will be blamed for exacerbating a crisis by leaders who will brand him the pariah of Europe. Overnight, Britain has changed from a major player to an isolated outpost which, if this goes on, will become about as significant on the global stage as the Isle of Mull. Churchill would be turning in his grave.

Related:

A word on the Australian Internet censorship scandal


I’ve had a quick scan over Senator Stephen Conroy‘s infamous, long-awaited report on the efficacy of current Internet filtering technology and find it to be nothing short of scandalous. Without getting into the nitty gritty details (for example, how a filtering solution can achieve the impossible by improving rather than degrading the performance of encrypted, random transfers), it reads like it’s a whitepaper for one of the various purveyors of censorship technology.

The cynic in me insisted I take a quick look at who these Enex Pty Ltd jabbers are anyway – who knows, they could be an industry lobby group for all we know. Sure enough, a quick look at their corporate client list reveals (based on some quick Google searching) over a dozen companies who make a living selling commercial censorship technology:

  • Anthology Solutions
  • Content Keeper Technologies
  • Content Watch
  • F-Secure Corporation
  • Internet Sheriff Technology
  • Manaccom
  • MessageLabs
  • NetBox Blue
  • Netgear
  • Netsweeper
  • PC Tools Software
  • Raritan (?)
  • Secure Computing Corporation (McAfee)
  • Symantec
  • Trend Micro

To put things in perspective, this represents around a quarter of their published client list, and that’s not including half a dozen or so service providers that could arguably be thrown in with this bunch. Who in their right mind would risk upsetting one in four of their paying customers by writing a report critical of their products? And does anyone really believe that these vendors resisted the urge to apply pressure? Or that there were not personal relationships involved? I don’t, not for a second. In my opinion this report was rigged from the outset to succeed, and in doing so deprive Australians of essential civil liberties.

The report itself is fatally flawed; the error margins are significant (e.g. “a conservative +/-10 percent”), critical controls were missing (e.g. “as much as 40 percent of an internet service performance could be lost [due to factors outside of our control]”), outrageous assumptions were used (e.g. “performance impact is considered minimal if between 10 and 20 percent”) and perhaps most importantly of all, it’s creator has an obvious conflict of interest. I don’t consider it to be worth the paper it’s [not] printed on.

Another deeply concerning development is government grants that would encourage ISPs to go beyond the mandatory filters, despite all censorship systems tested reporting 2.5-3.5% false positive rates (that is, where innocuous/legitimate content is filtered). To put that in perspective, the best part of a billion legitimate pages would be improperly filtered (according to Wikipedia stats), or around 1 page in 30.

Speaking of Wikipedia, many of the systems are hybrid which means that hosts known to be clean would be ignored by IP (which is much more efficient). If, however, even a single page were problematic then the entire site (and all others sharing its’ IPs) would be forced through a filtering proxy. This would affect some of the most popular sites on the Internet (such as Wikipedia and YouTube), not to mention other increasingly useful services like WikiLeaks (no doubt silencing such services is seen as a fringe benefit to our self-appointed censors). Need I remind you that similar filters in Britain caused severe problems for Wikipedia over a single CD cover only last year.

Another consideration that has not been covered anywhere near enough is the performance impact on cloud computing services. Web interfaces like Facebook, Twitter and Gmail are extremely sensitive to latency introduced by proxies and raw computing services like Amazon’s S3 are sensitive to bandwidth limitations. Then you have the problem of platforms like Google App Engine, Google Sites & Microsoft Web Office which are both difficult to identify (they have many IPs which are not disclosed and difficult if not impossible to enumerate) and which host content for a massive number of customers. If even one person shares a document deemed obnoxious to their sensibilities then the performance will be reduced to unacceptable levels for everyone until it is removed (and then some).

It is my contention that censorship is completely incompatible with cloud computing, and that this alone is reason enough to scuttle it. In the mean time Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) has just landed themselves a new life member and I encourage anyone who cares about their future and that of their children to join as well (my friends in the USA may want to take a look at the EFF and Europeans the FFII).

Thanks to Gizmodo Australia for the image above, used without permission but with thanks. No thanks to Gizmodo for breaking the link.

How lobbyists are denying you a voice and destroying democracy

I came across an unsurprising but nonetheless disconcerting revelation today that is gives a very good example of what most of us knew all along: that “public comment” process are routinely subverted by commercial interests, generally at the public’s expense. It comes in the form of a smoking gun courtesy DSL Reports: Who Knew Senior Citizens Hated Net Neutrality?

There is currently an extremely important battle underway over securing Net Neutrality regulations and another where big media are actively attacking (by way of three-strikes policies like HADOPI in France) what is fast becoming a legal right: broadband access (thanks to Finland for getting the ball rolling: Fast Internet access becomes a legal right in Finland).

Us (US?) consumers recently had a big win with the FCC getting on board the Open Internet bandwagon but not afraid to flog a dead horse, industry lobbyists have rolled out an army of puppets parroting their position; that Net Neutrality is somehow opposed to broadband adoption (which could not be further from the truth). In this case it’s the Arkansas Retired Seniors Coalition, purporting to represent (surprise, surprise) retired seniors in Arkansas, ignoring the fact that your average senior quite probably doesn’t know what net neutrality is, let alone care about it!

They do care about Internet access though and as the slowest state in the south all it would take would be a seemingly suitable scapegoat and you’d have pitchforks in the streets. My guess is they don’t even know the position taken by their representatives which makes this letter sent on their behalf at least deceitful:

The problem which such astroturfing is that it makes public opinion both harder to reliably collect and easier to dismiss. Such shenanigans appear far more prevalent in the US than other countries I’ve lived in, but regulations there (e.g. DMCA) tend to flow on to the rest of us eventually so it’s in everyone’s interest to have their say.

There really should be something done about the issue, however most solutions are relatively difficult to enforce. Examples include requiring a statutory declaration component such that egregious abuses can be punished (and to make people think twice about misrepresenting others), or requiring the individuals represented to make an overt act such as signing a petition. Rejecting messages that are too similar, and therefore obviously templates, raises the bar somewhat but does not stop determined attackers.

The long term solution likely comes in the form of digital identity, whereby each individual can be reliably authenticated and the cost of involving them in decisions trends towards zero. As referendums are extremely expensive and inefficient (despite the availability of technology that could put them within reach for routine decision-making) we appoint representatives who we hope will accurately reflect our views on each of the topics. Obviously this is rare – for example your representative might share your views on fiscal policy but reject gay marriage in which case you have to choose what is more important to you.

An arguably better solution is where individuals can take part in all decisions they care about, which is called a direct democracy (or pure democracy), and the use of technology to achieve better representation is a separate but related concept known as e-democracy. We should be paying more attention to both as it’s like we only got half way there by establishing representative democracies in most of the western world.

Australian Internet censorship trial participant feedback

I forwarded my last post to the six trial participant ISPs and promptly received the first comprehensive response from one Andrew Robson, Managing Director of TECH 2U, which is no surprise given the terse explanation I included:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I write to register my disapproval of your participation in the Internet Service Provider (ISP) Filtering Live Pilot which I consider to be a full frontal assault on the rights of all Australians as well as a potentially serious inhibitor for the next generation of cloud computing solutions. I have written about this important issue on my popular blog and called for a boycott of your services due to your participation in this pilot.

Your support of this ill-conceived program is inexcusable and I hope that the Australian public will exact a heavy toll on your business as a result.

Sam

I figured it only fair that he be given the right of reply here, though not without a response from me. I did consider the possibility that (like larger ISPs iiNet, Internode and Telstra) they were not ‘supporting’ the filtering as such, rather gathering data and possibly even preparing a case against it, but at least one of them prides themselves as being “Australia’s first content filtered ISP”. It’s also not at all clear what financial support/incentives were provided (it doesn’t help that they “are not contractually able to discuss” the details either) and times are tough in this cutthroat industry so it wouldn’t take much to convince a smaller ISP to participate. So without further ado:

Mr Johnston

Thank you for your email outlining your concerns regarding the particpation of TECH 2U Pty Limited in the upcoming government internet filtering trial.

We note from our files that before writing to us in such a tone you have not actually asked if we are in favour or against internet filtering. Nor have you asked why we are particpating in the trial in the first place.

Over the last six months we have read with real interest the debate over internet filtering and have noted the lack of any hard evidence either way of its operation in a real world enviroment. We like everyone else have firm views on what is possible and what is not.

This of course puts aside the very real question of whether or not the internet should be filtered at all. Nor whether parents should take responsibility for their own children.

In this case we see this trial as the first real test of a real world scenario and the first real chance for people to either prove or disprove the various theories. Provided with a golden once in a life time opportunity to be part of this process we found it hard to decline. It was better to be part of the test team than to be on the sidelines yelling (or emailing) while someone else determined our destiny.

We spoke to our customers who agreed. Better to be part of it than not.

We will of course conceed that not many of our customers are “cloud computing” application users and supporters such as yourself. (In fact many would never have heard of it). It therefore follows that in our test base no impact will be seen on “cloud computing” at all. Mathematically and technically correct but in fact perhaps a skewed test result. As you would agree. When the test results are colated they will show no impact on “cloud computing”. More likely they will not even mention it.

My suggestion is that you would be better to actually join one of the ISPs particpating in the trial than not. Once you join ensure you are part of the test trial and then be part of the proof that it does not work. Have your say and make it count. Fill out the customer surveys, answer the questions. Demonstrate why it caused a problem and not just state an opinion. Governments want hard facts to back their case either way (read here cover arse) and sometimes emotion alone while admired does not do it.

We joined this trial to obtain the facts.

The real problem we now face is that the very people who should be in the trial with their expertise have turned their back on it. Worse still they are now “calling for a boycott of your services”. If this really does occur it may distort the test results in a way that we will all regret later on. Watch this space as they say.

For your information we are not contractually able to discuss the specific tests involved but it would take about 500 -1000 users to have any impact on the test results for any individual ISP. The tests will actually vary from ISP to ISP but most will occur in the March to May 09 time period.

Kindest regards

Andrew Robson
General Manager
TECH 2U Pty Limited

What I took from this was that they don’t take a firm stance either way on Internet censorship, but they are aware of its limitations and they preferred to be involved than a spectator. I’ve said before that I don’t think the trials will be representative as without significant load performance may well be adequate, without extended duration outages may be avoided and without those of us having the requisite expertise (like myself and many of you) the feedback will be largely useless.

Andrew claims that “not many of [their] customers are ‘cloud computing’ application users” but he probably didn’t realise that cloud computing includes Facebook, Google Apps (including Gmail), Hotmail and many of the web applications that your average Internet user uses every day. These applications will all suffer to varying degrees with Internet filtering – it is simply not possible that their performance could improve (as may have previously been the case with caching proxy servers) as each request is dynamic and needs to be processed by the servers as quickly as possible. With more ‘moving parts’ reliability will also suffer – again it is not possible that inserting complex (relatively) unreliable systems into the data flow will help.

Furthermore it should not be too difficult to mount a (deliberate or inadvertent) denial of service attack against these devices. It is well within the realm of possibility that one of the many viruses in the wild today could generate enough requests to take down even the largest filtering system, and that’s just in the course of their ‘work’ spamming blogs, wikis and websites – let alone a malicious attack consisting of many small, random requests. Indeed it is likely that someone able to control even a relatively minor botnet could ‘take down the Internet’ for a large portion of the Australian population, leaving the ISPs essentially powerless to stop it without running afoul of the law.

Anyway I appreciate the time that Andrew took to respond and encourage people to take up the matter with their ISPs even if only so as to give them the right of response.

Cloud Computing Doghouse Updates (Incoming): Australia’s Clean Feed

Today was a sad day for all Australians (and not just becuase of the horrific bushfires) – Senator Stephen Conroy (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, above) announced the start of the Internet Service Provider (ISP) Filtering Live Pilot. I’m not going to go into the myriad reasons as to why this is a full frontal assault on our rights, nor explain all the reasons why it can never work and why a limited opt-in trial is not representative of reality, talk about collateral damage or even point out the many ways that a tool like this could (and almost certainly will) be repurposed to invade our privacy and monitor our every (online) move – Wikipedia’s Internet censorship in Australia article does a great job of covering the main issues.

I will however point out that such systems can only have a detrimental affect on cloud computing which is heavily reliant on low latency, high bandwidth connections. I’m surprised that others have not focused on this before, but with consumers and business alike moving en-masse to cloud computing solutions like Google Apps, who in their right mind would interfere with the pipes that make it all work? Filtering systems are complex, orders of magnitude slower than dedicated network equipment, largely ineffective, easily circumvented and perhaps most importantly, prone to catastrophic failure.

Google’s recent high profile outage which rendered the Internet unusable for the majority of Internet users for almost an hour was due to a SINGLE ‘/’ CHARACTER misplaced in a filtering system. For many businesses, Internet connectivity is getting to be as important as other utilities like water, gas and electricity – without it they are completely paralysed. Even spikes in latency which affect functions like address auto-complete and interactive interfaces (think Gmail) can render cloud computing applications unusable. Forget the children (who could be filtered selectively anyway), think of the cloud! Besides, education is a better strategy.

For those of you who (like me) take offense to this latest attack on our liberties, here’s what you can do:

If you need a starting point, here’s what I sent to my old local member, Malcolm Turnbull (who happens also to be the leader of the opposition) back in October last year:

Dear Sir,

I write to register my strong objection to the “clean feed” proposal which is already once again already making Australia the “global village idiot“. A certified security professional I assure you that you are trying to achieve the impossible and as an Australian citizen I am concerned that this measure, sold as protection for society, will actually erode its very core. The scope for abuse of such technology is virtually unlimited and though today’s objective may be a noble (if unattainable) goal, inevitible future repurposing is a very serious risk that far outweighs any percieved benefit; it is indeed a slippery slope and short step from here to the systemic abuse of the most oppressive of regimes.

Furthermore, as an active proponent of the next generation of technology known as cloud computing I can assure you that any such system will impair both performance and security while being easily bypassed, damaging the country’s competitive edge and forcing business and personal consumers to pay more for already extortionate Internet access (in France for example a complete, unrestricted telephone/television/internet package costing hundreds in Australia is only €29.99).

Please reconsider this misguided proposal and divert funding to countermeasures such as education which will certainly be far more effective, in the same way that funds diverted to first responders would be a far more beneficial response to the threat of terrorism.

Kind regards,

Sam Johnston

And here’s what I heard back a few days later:

Thanks Sam for your email. There are many concerns about the manner in which a blanket arbitrary determination about web content will be imposed by the Government.

The coalition fully supports guarding our children from being exposed to inappropriate internet content and is of the firm belief that parental and adult supervision and guidance should be front and centre of all efforts.

We will continue to monitor the progress of this trial with great interest and make a considered assessment based on its outcomes. This will include analysis of the specifications and performance of the filtering methods tested.