» April 24th, 2013
This morning’s Telegraph carries a story about David Cameron’s latest venture into the realms of internet censorship. Responding to pressure from a coalition of probably well meaning, though certainly technologically challenged, children’s organisations, Cameron is floating the idea of a porn block on public WiFi services.
Update: Also covered on the BBC News site.
This is because, while their parents can control what they do at home, they might roam free and access filth in a café, shopping mall, or somewhere else that WiFi access is provided. So, lest any children unsuspectingly access filth – or perhaps peer over someone else’s shoulder and see them accessing filth – it should not be allowed on public wifi services.
Effectively, then, what Cameron is calling for is censorship of the internet access provided by some access points. He calls it “Good, clean WiFi” as opposed, presumably, to bad, dirty wifi, on which people can look at anything they like.
There will be exceptions, apparently, for WiFi in places that children don’t go, like casinos. They’re not sure about hotels; those might have to be censored too, but no one seems entirely clear – perhaps because, like most government proposals to do with technology, this one is another steaming pile of rubbish that hasn’t been thought through yet, a little like the stupid ‘benefits cash card idea’ I wrote about not so long ago.
What’s wrong with it?
I’m sure there are plenty of people saying “that seems like a sensible idea,” so let’s just see the many different ways in which it falls down, shall we?
First, yet again, it’s censorship; I don’t believe in that, and I also don’t believe that censoring what I look at is going to make any kids any safe. I’ve covered this angle before – in particular the potential consequences of any ‘opt in to porn’ system.
Next, do these people realise how WiFi works? Radio waves don’t just stop dead at the edge of a building; they leak out. I know corners of Soho where I can loiter, instead of having to actually go into an office and make smalltalk with clients, and use their wifi to check something quickly. If some venues, like casinos, aren’t restricted, guess what? People can hang around them and use the wifi outside. I’m sure all those keen on child protection will agree that encouraging kids to hang around outside gambling dens will be much better.
Of course, you could insist WiFi is installed in such a way as to make sure that it’s not accessible outside the building. Great. So who’s going to check that? Are you now suggesting that we also employ Public Inspectors of WiFi, whose job will be to ensure that when someone has been permitted (by the good grace of the government!) to operate an uncensored WiFi network, it is only available within the specified area of their premises?
Really? Do we really want, as a “free society” led by a man who claims the state shouldn’t interfere, to be licensing and verifying WiFi access points?
It seems that some people presumably think we do – because otherwise, what are the alternatives? You could automatically block porn on all connections when someone tells you they will be offering public WiFi; and for that to work, you’ll have to require that everyone is asked what they will be doing with their internet connection when they buy it, and check to make sure they don’t change their mind later.
Will there be penalties for not doing so? Will there be a phone line to ring up and shop the café owner round the corner, because you think you saw something bad and dirty via their WiFi? Congratulations on your reinvention of the Stasi, if you think that’s a good idea.
And, of course, who’s going to define what venues can and can’t have uncensored internet? Take a coffee shop on Old Compton Street, heart of London’s gay community. It’s not an adults only venue, but you probably don’t get many children in there. It’s possible, yes, of course – but does that mean that the patrons of a coffee shop there should be forbidden from accessing a gay dating service on their smartphone, or from looking up information about sexual health?
There are, at least, two ways in which this deeply unsavoury idea will suffer from mission creep. The first is that, given the various ways in which, short of an all encompassing licensing or reporting regime for internet use, it won’t actually work. It will remain easy to set up a wifi service that is not filtered, and those will have to be policed.
And so, inevitably, there is likely to be pressure. “We can’t stop these WiFi points from being set up” will cry the campaigners. And they’ll raise the pressure to do what they’ve wanted all along – mandatory internet filtering across the whole UK, whether public WiFi or not. They may graciously allow an opt-in for filthy perverts like me who want to be able to see whatever they like online. It’s wrong, stupid, and ill-conceived.
The other issue is what counts as not “good, clean WiFi”? What sort of material will be filtered? I made allusion earlier to gay dating sites, and sexual health. As pointed out on the excellent Law and Sexuality blog, where I first read about this lunatic proposal, things are far from clear. An app like Grindr is – in accordance with app store policies – only allowed to have ‘safe’ images on it. But people can privately send each other all the explicit photos they like. So should that be blocked? Should the HardCell site, which talks to those who enjoy some less main stream sexual activities in frank terms, to promote safety and awareness, not be available? What about other sexual health resources for young people? Advice on coming out as a teenager? Support forums for people who have been abused?
Internet filtering very often has side effects, and often just those sorts of resources are blocked, even though the ostensible reason for the filtering is to stop porn. One of my own sites, which has no explicit imagery at all on it, is blocked by many filters, because its description includes gay and leather, as far as I can tell. No matter that it’s member’s only, and has no nudity. It’s blocked.
Update: Jules Matteson’s Tumblr shows the sort of thing that’s already blocked by public WiFi; now imagine you’re a teen struggling with sexuality, or wanting advice about pregnancy, and your parents have blocked this material at home. You can’t unlock mobile data without being over 18, you can’t ask your parents to do it for you, and you can’t use public WiFi. It’s enough to remind me of Section 28 – in fact, let’s call it that, as a stark reminder of the sort of people that this will affect, and the nasty history of the party proposing it. This is a chilling proposal, and its almost inevitable side effects mean that this is a new media version of Section 28.
Censorship has side effects; and once it’s in place, it’s also very easy to add extra things – like copyright infringement, or unsuitable political views. We should resist it strongly – both because it is a deeply unsavoury idea in a free democracy and because these proposals – as with so many others involving governments and IT – are stupid, ill thought out, and pretty much unworkable.
» April 8th, 2013
Read some of the reports around the web, and you’d be forgiving for thinking that Facebook has decided to charge people to send messages to celebrities. And, you probably think, that doesn’t bother you because you’re not the sort of person who does that.
But what they’re really doing is charging for communications to people who aren’t in your friend lists, and that has rather wider reaching implications; I responded to a blog post on the Which? website, and this is an edited version of my comment there.
I believe this is a dangerous precedent, and one that can make Facebook – and especially its ‘groups’ functionality, a lot less useful for a lot of people, especially small clubs, groups and organisations.
I run a club, which is a free organisation, with no membership fees. As well as a forum on our own website, we also have a closed group on Facebook where our members can also discuss and share information.
To ensure that it’s not full of spam, we approve each member who wants to join the group, and the details of the group indicate that people should message an admin with their membership details. However, the way the facebook groups interface works means that’s not terribly visible, and many people don’t. So, we’re often left needing to contact them.
One reason for that is that, by the nature of the group, many people may not be using the same name or email address on Facebook as they do on our private site. And, with a few thousand people in our club, there will be many whom we don’t know personally.
It is, of course, possible to simply add people as Friends – though Facebook has limits on how many times you can do that, especially if people don’t respond. Just as I might not recognise some of those wanting to join the group, because of a different name, they may not necessarily recognise me when I send a friend request. After sufficient people have turned down what may seem to them to be random friend requests, you end up blocked from sending any more, which isn’t helpful if you’re trying to verify membership of a group.
Another reason why we don’t want to become friends with everyone just to message them about group membership is the inevitable cluttering up of timelines, which then necessitates setting what stuff you want to hear from each person, and dealing with the almost inevitable further requests that you play some annoying game that they’ve decided to share with everyone. In short, it would create a lot more work for people trying to simply control who can and can’t join the group that we have on Facebook.
So, a consequence of this new policy, spun as if it’s only going to affect those who want to message celebrities, is that more and more, we as admins of a group, will be expected to pay to send someone a message to verify their membership of our club; I’ve had this message pop up a couple of times already, and my reaction has been to ignore it, and with it the Facebook member’s request to join the group.
I’m sure I won’t be the only person in this situation. Talking of it as a fee to message celebrities may well get headlines, but in fact like many such stupid ideas, the biggest effect will likely be felt by small organisations who will be penalised a bit at a time for wanting to reach out and contact people, whether over things like group memberships in my case, or because they want to contact someone who may be knowledgeable and able to help with a problem.
Yes, it is, so far, a small fee, but if I have to pay to message just one in six of our members, to verify they should be allowed access to our closed Facebook group, that would cost the same as several months of the hosting fees for our main web site.
This is, for many small groups, likely to be an annoyance, and drain on their funds or time, that goes one little step further towards making Facebook less useful as a way of keeping in touch with people, rather than more.
» March 18th, 2013
When I visit other people’s homes, one of the things that often amazes me is how badly their TV is set up. To be fair, it’s often not their fault – they simply use the settings it arrived with, selecting ‘Home’ rather than ‘Shop’ if they’re prompted, and perhaps tweaking the brightness, and nothing more.
But modern TVs have loads of options to set things up properly, and if you don’t tweak settings like sharpness, contrast and saturation, you can end up with images that don’t do justice to the screen, and make some of the channels look a long way from HD.
I’ve written here before about how to set up your TV using test patterns, and if you do want a test card then this weekend is more or less your last chance to grab one of the most iconic ever. The BBC HD channel is closing soon, and the space will become BBC2 HD. You may well wonder what that has to do with anything. Well, because BBC HD doesn’t broadcast 24 hours a day, there’s a loop of preview material shown, and that loop includes both a testcard and some audio signals that can be used to help set up your surround sound system.
According to BroadbandTV News, When BBC HD shuts down at around 0130 on March 26th – that’s next Tuesday – the test sequence will be shown in a loop until BBC 2 HD launches at 0630. So, I’d strongly advise anyone with an HD recorder to record at least part of the sequence to ensure that they have a readily available test pattern and audio signals, to enable their TV to be set up for a better picture and correct surround sound sync.
The BBC’s Andy Quested has more details over on their blog; the test loop is ten minutes long and will include some old historic test cards too. He recommends that you set your PVR for a thirty minute recording any time between the end of the last BBC HD programme and the 0600.
» March 5th, 2013
Off topic for the main part of the blog, but I’ve posted about this before, and I’ve been given an old album with some newspaper clippings, which I thought worth sharing for posterity, as it were. Also, looking back at these I notice – which I didn’t at the time – that some of the basic details are wrong in quite a few. My brother was 23, not 24 when he died. He died on the Tuesday, March 5th, not Wednesday the 6th, and he was a language student, not a law student.
I’m honestly not sure we even noticed these things at the time, as we had so much on our minds, and that makes me wonder how many other small errors simply pass unnoticed because people are too distressed to notice or complain about them at the time.
The Daily Mirror, 13th March 1991:
Cambridge Evening News, 9th March 1991:
Cambridge Evening News, 14th March 1991:
Hampshire Chronicle, 15th March 1991:
» February 6th, 2013
On the Ofcom website today is a set of documents about award of the 600MHz spectrum, with a request that stakeholders notify Ofcom of their intention to apply. The headline news from this, which you’ll probably see elsewhere, is that the proposals will provide two more HD multiplexes on Freeview, with coverage of up to 66% of the population.
Think of it as doing something a bit like the original HD trials and early roll-out, using additional bits of spectrum where available, to give some more channels to people in certain parts of the country.
All well and good, and lots more HD will be appreciated by many people. But don’t get too excited, because a read through the document reveals that this is very likely about something else entirely – a ‘secondary switchover’ that will leave many people with equipment that won’t be much use at all.
Picking apart the proposal
The summary of the proposal makes it clear that this is an interim use of the space – which may be needed for existing services from as early as the end of 2018. Licences will run at least until the end of 2018, but that could still mean only five years of a service, if it were to start at the beginning of next year.
It’s mentioned in the proposal that there could be up to ten HD channels provided in the space, if DVB-T2 and MPEG4 (the technologies currently used on Freeview HD) were used, using two multiplexes – though the space will be awarded as a single lot. At least one stream will be visible to consumers within 12 months of the award of a licence, reaching 10% coverage, with 50% within two years.
That could be superficially appealing to, say, Sky; space to offer ten HD channels, covering a big chunk of the population. But in fact, with only a five year guarantee, it’s likely not enough for anyone to make a good return, especially when with NOW TV they have another way of getting paid for content in front of people, without expensive transmitters.
The real clue is in the phrase
the new services in the 600 MHz band using DVB-T2 and MPEG4 could encourage consumer take-up of receiver equipment which makes use of these more efficient technologies
And that’s what this is really all about. The longer term sell off of the UHF bands to satisfy the needs of mobile operators means that the space available for Freeview will be squeezed tremendously as time goes on; and some experts believe that there simply won’t be the space to provide all the existing services in the amount of spectrum that’s available, when things are shifted to 600MHz.
T2 to the rescue
One way of conserving spectrum is by using what’s called a ‘Single Frequency Network’, where all the transmitters in an area use the same channel, rather than the situation now where to provide coverage across the south of England, for example, there are transmitters on the Isle of Wight, Midhurst that both send out the same programmes, but need different frequencies to do so. Digital TV is supposed to make it possible to just use the same frequency, and leave the receiver to sort it all out, but for very technical reasons, that simply won’t work well in the UK using the first generation of terrestrial receivers, or DVB-T.
That problem is largely fixed in DVB-T2, which is used by the Freeview HD mux in the UK, and allows for very large areas with a single frequency network, which can be much more efficient. Add in the fact that T2 is more efficient anyway – about 50% more capacity than the older version – and you’re some way to solving the bandwidth squeeze.
When Freeview HD launched, it used T2, and also the more efficient MPEG4/AVC (H.264) video codec. The two don’t have to be used together, but it made sense to switch to both at the same time, for even greater efficiency. And while at the moment, the combination is used exclusively for high definition channels in the UK, it doesn’t have to be. You can transmit an SD channel using T2 and H.264 if you want – but no one does that right now, because older SD only receivers won’t be able to pick it up (though of course, some of the IP TV channels on Freeview do use it in SD, just not via broadcast).
Long term, the only way to keep the level of service we have on Freeview, with the decreasing amount of spectrum, is likely to be to move all the channels to T2 and H.264, and to use more single frequency networks (which, of course, will mean some more aerial readjustments for many).
But before that can happen, there need to be many more homes with equipment that will be able to receive it. While the current bundle of HD channels is nice to have, it doesn’t really represent a startling reason for everyone to decide to upgrade their set top box or buy a new TV set.
Make more HD content available, even if only for a short while, and perhaps you can create the conditions where people will decide it’s worth investing in equipment to watch whatever it is.
On that topic, my suspicion is HD versions of more of the main channels, frankly; very likely a pair of muxes operated by the BBC, with space given to other PSBs. Who’s got the money to launch an expensive temporary commercial operation that will only last five years, just at the start of another recession?
So, I think we can expect to see a BBC-backed mux providing HD versions of existing channels, with perhaps a bit of new stuff in the mix, but not much. And the real reason this is happening is not just about bringing more HD into your home. It’s about making sure your technology is up to date, so that a wholesale switch to DVB-T2 and H.264 can happen in time to ensure that most people don’t have their Freeview service drastically reduced when mobile phone networks take up the freed parts of the spectrum.
» January 25th, 2013
My article on this has just been published over on The Register. I hope it’s an interesting read. One nugget I’d like to pull out of it is regarding Acetrax, the pay per view service found on quite a few smart TV sets.
The Acetrax website proudly proclaims them to be an “independent pan-European VOD operator” and that’s true to an extent. Buy in fact, since last spring they’ve been owned by Sky. So Sky now has the ‘Sky Go’ service for their subscribers, NOW TV for those who want movies (and soon, sport and entertainment) without a dish, and also Acetrax, for pay per view stuff.
There is, of course, a certain type of person who doesn’t like the thought of paying Mr Murdoch for anything; I wonder how they’ll feel about Acetrax now?
Also worth wondering about is the extent to which the Acetrax service may be affected by this. At the moment, NOW TV is a flat rate ‘all you can eat’ affair, but they tell me that pay per view will be coming back to the service soon; it will be interesting to see if the availability of films on NOW TV follows through to Acetrax. And, indeed, whether or not the Acetrax app found in some smart sets can be updated to provide access to some of the NOW TV material.
» December 19th, 2012
All too often, it seems, politicians believe technology will solve whatever problem is bugging them. And so they make proposals, and in some cases throw money at the problem, with the intent of creating a wonderful technological solution to the problem. Sometimes, of course, it’s not even a real problem; just a pet issue of theirs. But almost always, because they don’t really understand technology, or exactly how it’s applied in the real world, things go horribly wrong.
Like the NHS IT program, for example, which cost a ton of money and had various contractors walk away from it. Or the more recent proposals to censor every internet connection in the UK, which thankfully seem to have been squashed for now.
The latest purveyor of a technical solution to a problem is Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke, who believes that by paying benefits via a ‘Welfare cash card’ it will be possible to stop claimants from buying things that are considered unnecessary. It will, according to the quotes in the Daily Mirror, even promote social good.
I’m going to leave the politics of this idea to one side for now, other than to say that I think it stinks, and I don’t quite see why some people on benefits should be told what they can spend money on, while others can, say, spend the child benefit they don’t really need on piano lessons for little Jocasta.
But, even if you think this is a good idea now, I hope that by the end of this, you’ll realise that it’s yet another example of someone putting a blind faith in technology to do something, without really thinking it through. And that’s pretty much what has caused so much public money to be wasted on ill-conceived technology projects through the years.
The big idea
The idea is that a ‘welfare cash card’ would stop people spending benefit money on ‘unnecessary’ things, a category which includes alcohol, tobacco, and even pay television. So, the logical conclusion of that is that this is a card which will only allow people to buy the ‘necessary’ things.
Because, presumably, it’s got a chip in it like a debit card, that means that our good friend “Technology” can spot what’s being bought, and prevent it, ensuring that benefits don’t get wasted on luxuries.
Whether you believe this is a good idea or not, that’s pretty much the concept. So now let’s examine it further.
Where does the money come from?
We have to presume that this card will be topped up somehow, either by being linked to a basic bank account into which benefit payments are made, or by being directly topped up using some as yet undefined mechanism, say topping up at a cash machine.
But that won’t work – because then you’d be topping it up from a bank account anyway, so why not just take cash out and spend it on what you want? I think we’ll have to assume that the card is linked to the account into which benefits are paid.
If that’s the case, we have to arrange that these accounts cannot have an ordinary cash card or debit card – otherwise, what’s the point? Money could be taken out and spent on anything.
More than that, they have to be special accounts that will reject some direct debits and standing orders, otherwise someone could just sign up to, say, Sky Television, that way. But what if a recipient wants to pay their rent, or their TV licence, or some other ‘allowed’ expense by standing order (even a fine!)?
We’ve now got a bank account that’s linked to a specific sort of card, and which has special rules about what standing orders or direct debits can be accepted. And that means that the bank has to have a special sort of account to handle this. So, which lucky bank wants to set up the systems to manage the accounts and issue the card? And how much is all that going to cost?
Going to the shops
All that – and perhaps there’s an easy way of magically getting money onto welfare cash cards that I’ve not thought of, and which still lets them appear like an ordinary card to every electronic till in the country – is before we’ve even got to the shops.
That, I’m afraid, is where Mr Shelbrooke’s idea dives even further into the deep dark pit associated with those who have a naïve belief in technology as a solution to problems. It also suggests to me that he’s not actually someone who does his own shopping.
What happens when you go to a shop? Just about any shop these days works like this:
- You put your items in a basket or trolley. Whatever items you like – with the exception of tobacco, you can put just about anything straight in a trolley.
- You go to the till. The assistant scans everything, and the till computer system works out the total.
- You decide how you’re going to pay.
- You put your card in the machine, or hand over the cash to complete the transaction.
- You take your goods and go.
Crucially, it is only at the penultimate stage that the cashier has any idea how you propose to pay for your goods. And so, consequently, it’s only then that the technology will be able to step in and say “Hang on, you’re paying by Welfare Cash Card. You can’t have that bottle of vodka”
What happens then? An embarrassed checkout assistant has to challenge the shopper, the shopping has to be unpacked to remove the prohibited items, and someone has to take time restocking them on the shelves.
Moritfication all round, I should imagine, not to mention plenty of tutting from the people being held up in the queue. And possibly some rather ugly situations.
How do we solve this?
There aren’t any obvious easy ways that I can think of. You could require every shopper to identify how they’ll be paying before any items are scanned, and then the till could automatically reject any prohibited items.
Is every single shopper in the country going to be happy to do that, just to make sure that those on benefits never buy anything inappropriate? Are the supermarkets going to be happy to make their staff ask those questions?
Or perhaps you could have special “Welfare only” tills? Again, that’s a pretty big investment by the shops, for tills that in many places will be empty a lot of the time – no one else is going to use them, fearing the stigma.
A question of scale
You’ll notice I’ve been talking about supermarkets here – because I also think that if such a system is introduced, it will almost inevitably cover only supermarkets. There are a couple of reasons for that.
First, you’re going to need a list of what’s acceptable for people on benefits to buy, and what isn’t, unless you leave it open to the individual person on the till to make a judgement, and trust that they’re not having a bad day and going to say to someone with a Welfare card “no, you can’t have that extra-soft toilet roll, that’s my money you’re spending.”
So, every item that’s going to be sold will need to be classified as to whether or not it’s allowable. That’s a lot of database work – and it’s a database that’s going to need to be updated when new products are launched. It’s also, like many of these things, very likely to suffer mission creep. If health is a concern, for example, where do you draw the balance between cheap mince with lots of fat, or slightly more expensive stuff with less? If getting value for taxpayers is the aim of the game, will people be able to buy branded drugs like Nurofen, or will they have to get generic Ibuprofen instead?
Every till at which one of these cards will be used will need to have its software updated, to allow it to check products against the lists.
That’s a lot of work, and for a small corner shop, it’s likely they’ll not be happy investing in the system upgrades required to support something like this. But without doing so, they won’t be able to take the cash card at all, for politicians will fear that they’ll turn a blind eye and let their local customers buy what they want, driving a coach and horses through the whole system.
Meanwhile, for the large chains, it’s going to be expensive. Tesco alone has just under 3000 stores in the UK. Some are bigger than others, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one with fewer than four tills. Let’s take a ballpark guess at an average of just ten tills per store across the whole of Tesco, which makes 30,000 tills to upgrade. I can’t imagine that’s going to be cheap.
And unless you restrict the use of the Welfare Cash Card to just one chain – which would seriously disadvantage those who may have to travel some distance to get there, using their limited money on transport instead of food – the cost to the UK retail sector would be considerable, especially when you consider staff training as well.
Either the supermarkets have to pay for that – and why should they? – or central government has to meet the costs, and given their track record, I don’t think it’s going to save much, if anything, overall.
It just won’t work
Besides the technical problems in upgrading point of sale systems, and the necessary changes to the sales process, the other glaring flaw is that this just won’t work, unless you’re going to have an army of inspectors checking everything that people buy, either in store, or by analysing their receipts.
For example, someone who’s in receipt of benefits and smokes, but has no children, could buy something useful for a friend, like Pampers. And if their friend has unfettered access to cash, they could buy cigarettes and swap.
If your solution to this problem is to say that people without children shouldn’t be able to buy Pampers with their Welfare cash card, then think what you’re asking for.
You now want a card that not only appears like an ordinary cash card to tills, but links to a database that’s even more specific about what that person can buy. You want to trust that if someone’s pregnant, someone in whatever department manages benefit payments will remember to update the records linked to that card at an appropriate time to allow them to buy certain things when the child is due that they couldn’t buy before.
Since a standard debit card doesn’t hold all that extra information, you probably also need the tills in the supermarkets to query a database in real time – it won’t be enough now to know that a card beginning ‘1234’ can only buy essentials; the whole number will need to be looked up to find out if this is someone who can buy things for the baby they might be expecting. Which means now you’ve added links from supermarket checkouts to benefits databases into the system, at even greater cost, and with potential loss of privacy too.
None of this takes long to figure out. And as with other politically led IT systems, it doesn’t take masses of intelligence too. But as I know from when I once gave evidence to a Select Committee on computer pornography, when it comes to their pet projects, politicians seldom let a grasp of the technology get in the way of what they want to do.
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