Net Neutrality-Are we headed for a ‘two-speed’ internet?

29 11 2010

“My first and overriding priority is an open internet where consumers have access to all legal content”. These were the words of Ed Vaizey to the Telegraph last Friday defending his position on net neutrality laid out in his speech on 17 November.

But does this really constitute a free internet as laid out by Tim Berners-Lee in 2006: “freedom of connection, with any application, to any party, (as) the fundamental social basis of the internet and the society based on it.”

Ed Vaizey stated in his speech that: “We have got to continue to encourage the market to innovate and experiment with different business models and ways of providing consumers with what they want. This could include the evolution of a two sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service.”

It is this ‘two-speed’ internet that raises the concerns. By allowing ISPs to differentiate between content on the basis of payment the internet will cease to be the level playing field that has defined it so far, and in many ways framed its success.

The effects of this would be twofold: The proposals would damage innovation (by unfairly disadvantaging start-ups) and also freedom of speech (by making capital a factor in publication and promulgation of views). ORG director Jim Killock blasts this approach, highlighting that “money and commercial interest can easily over-ride public interest if we do not assert it.”

In reply, it has been argued that the greater choice of ISP in the UK would allow market competition to regulate any abuses of the proposal, while Ofcom provides a regulatory check.  Indeed, the BBC is already considering one market mechanism to such effect – a traffic light system for rating how your ISP is handling its iPlayer traffic. That is a good idea in principle – if, that is, consumers are willing to shop around to get a better service. The reality, though, is that not everybody can be bothered – which is why letting net neutrality go by the board is such a troubling idea.

Moreover, picking through Vaizey’s words, he does still appear open to the idea of priority access for websites who pay ISPs for the privilege, though he’s not happy with the idea of blocking out competitors’ services altogether. This will still constitute a non-neutral internet.

Although it is clearly important to generate new revenue for ISP investment in the internet infrastructure that is so important to business and social interaction today, the government has to seriously consider how this impacts its long-term goals of a digital economy and the accompanying promotion of technological innovation.

Sean Kirwan





Government Business Plans

29 11 2010

On 8 November the government published business plans that set out in detail the work of Government for the next four years. The plans include information on department vision, how this fits with coalition priorities, structural reform plans, department expenditure and information on transparency. Taken together these lie at the very heart of the coalition’s radical agenda for accountability and transparency.

In launching the plans David Cameron spoke both of a ‘horizon shift’ and a ‘power shift’ that would “change the way that government works”.

“Instead of bureaucratic accountability to the government machine, these business plans bring in a new system of democratic accountability – accountability to the people.” This means a horizon shift to long-term government planning for the people rather than short-term political goals.

The Prime Minister also lauded the plans as a move towards greater transparency in Whitehall, part of a “power shift” giving people enough information to hold government to account.

Under the new initiative each department will have to produce a monthly progress report – and the secretary of state will have to account to the prime minister if they are not on track.

The most significant development that differentiates these from the previous government’s public service agreements is that the departments’ business plans show when they are due to start, due to end and what progress has been made.

In an example of how they can work, and create a “rod for (the governments) back”, they  also shows that three projects are already overdue – two at the Cabinet Office relating to publishing details of big IT projects and guidance about the cost of IT projects, and a Ministry of Justice strategy to reduce re-offending and improve rehabilitation – which was due in October.

The potential provided by the business plans for improved accountability and continued increases in transparency is considerable. It will be interesting to see how civic society makes use of these opportunities.

Sean Kirwan





As Government data releases continue apace potential hurdles need to be addressed

2 11 2010

Two recent government releases signal that the drive from the top for transparency and data publication remains strong and healthy. On 28 October the Government published details of hospitality and gifts received by ministers and special advisers, ministerial meetings with external organisations and all overseas trips by ministers across government. The Prime Minister has also published an updated quarterly list of special advisers and the salaries of those earning above £58,200. Francis Maude, in commending these latest moves, stated that: “The data published today is yet another step-change as we strive to make transparency an integral part of government business.”

Furthermore on 29 October the government published the latest round of Structural Reform Plans (SRPs), continuing its commitment to promote accountability and transparency across all government departments and to allow people to check that departments are meeting their commitments in turn. The Prime Minister first launched the draft SRP’s in June with departments setting out their reform priorities and the actions they will take to achieve them, within a specified timetable and alongside measureable milestones.

However, the freeing of data has not been all plain sailing. On 18 October the API (datafeed) that many third party developers rely on to produce transport planning apps for London went down, leading to a clash between TfL, third party producers and London’s Datastore/Government policy. While TfL claims the API was not switched off intentionally, but was interrupted following a routine security update; the truth seems more elusive. Malcolm Barclay, the developer of London Travel Deluxe which relies on the API, believes the move is a deliberate one and is about control, citing the fact that many other similar APIs have remained operational and that he was in not informed of the change. Meanwhile Jonathan Raper, CEO of Placr, a member of the mayor’s digital advisory board and a consultant to the London Datastore, pins the blame on TfL’s middle management. While the senior executives at TfL support the move, he says, there’s an institutionalised fear of developers lower down — where coders are thought of as hackers, and there’s a fear that public data will be misrepresented.

These issues of control and institutional reticence to release data are likely to be ongoing within TfL for some time and are indicative of a broader concern for the future of the the transparency agenda. High level support for the process has been strong and visible: witness the Coalition programme for government and the speech made by Boris Johnson launching the London Datastore. However, it will require sustained pressure,  commitment and political will for the final goal to be achieved: to fundamentally change institutional perceptions of the nature of public data (open, not owned) and the ways it is used. TfL may be the precursor of difficult time ahead.

Sean Kirwan





Government releases new department structure charts

20 10 2010

On the 15 October, in what the Cabinet Office terms a ‘huge stride forward for government openness’, the government published new details about civil servants working at the heart of government. Along with a fresh wave of information detailing civil servant salaries over £82,900, government departments have released detailed ‘organograms’ showing how departments are structured.

These charts set out details of the number and grade of staff working in different departments. They include the names, job titles and salaries for all senior civil servants at director level or above, as well as the job title of all senior civil servants at deputy director level, along with the number of staff in their team and the breakdown of their grades.

The professed aim is to build on the government’s drive for transparency and accountability. Where before the public could only access a breakdown of total civil servants by department (through the Office for National Statistics), now they can discover which areas they work in. In theory this provides unprecedented insight into the structure, focus and size of government departments and does throw up some interesting findings. For example, education has over twice as many people working in its press and marketing operations (427) as in the section dealing with academies (211), while it emerges from data on HMRC department that Corporation tax and VAT accounts for only 755 people, compared to 6,295 on benefits.

In reality the information is not yet complete and presented mainly in pdf format rather then csv, making third party use of the data more difficult. However, its publication is in line with the government’s transparency agenda setting the release of data, not its quality, as the main priority, and represents another welcome step towards public scrutiny and engagement in the processes of government departments which are accountable to them.

Sean Kirwan





New Open Government License

6 10 2010

On 30 September the government launched the new Open Government License (OGL), opening up public information for reuse by all – businesses, individuals, charities or community groups – without the need to pay or get permission. This is a crucial step in the rolling out of the Prime Minister’s Transparency Agenda, providing a simple way in which everyone can benefit from the amount of government information currently being published.

Based on the world-leading Creative Commons family of licenses, it will replace the existing Click-use license on central government (‘Crown’) works and will cover an extensive range of information, including Crown Copyright, databases and source codes. Furthermore, this is heralded as only the start with the Local Data Panel recommending to Local Authorities that they use the OGL when publishing all their data, spearheading the drive to place the UK ‘at the forefront’ of the world’s open data revolution.

Two rationales drive this project. An emphasis on transparency and accountability as a crucial part of the government commitment in the coalitions ‘Big Society’, and on the enabling of innovative new uses of data as part of the parallel commitment for greatly extended civic involvement  within society.

Cabinet Minister Francis Maude encapsulates this ambition: “Greater transparency is at the heart of this government’s program. We believe it is the best way for the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account, encourage innovation and deliver better value for money in public spending”.

The OGL forms the vital enabling legislation to provide the environment in which this can happen and is encouraging evidence that this government has recognised that free and open data maximises both the social and economic value of information.

Sean Kirwan





100 days of the Coalition: Milestones so far

18 08 2010

As the Coalition passes its first 100 days, here are some of the key milestones reached in the agenda for transparency and open government.

31st May: kick-starting the drive for greater transparency, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude oversaw the publication of the salaries of the 172 highest-paid civil servants earning over £150,000.

4th June: under a week later, the government arguably took its boldest step yet and published the entire contents of the Combined Online Information System (COINS) of government expenditure for the previous two financial years. This has now been extended so the data from every financial year from 2005/06 to 2009/10 is available.

10th June: the government published a list of the names and salaries of all special advisers and civil servants earning over £58,000.

24th June: PM David Cameron held the first meeting of the Public Sector Transparency Board and agreed a set of public data principles.

1st July: the government released details of everyone currently employed by a Non Departmental Public Bodies (or ‘Quango’) on a salary in excess of £150,000. On the same day, Deputy PM Nick Clegg launched the ‘Your Freedom’ website , calling for the public to contribute their ideas on ‘restoring liberties that have been lost, repealing unnecessary laws and stripping away excessive regulation on businesses’.

5th August: Making good on their previous commitment, the UK government’s energy use was made available to view in real time online, with half-hourly updates of the energy consumption of all 18 departments.

Charlotte Jee        (@charlottejee)





Government response to comments on the Coalition Programme

2 08 2010

On Friday 30th July, the government published responses, by department, to the public opinions expressed on ‘The Coalition: our programme for government’ website. In the past three weeks, the website published over 9,500 comments from the public on the Coalition programme on subjects as wide-ranging as defence, civil liberties and banking. In a video posted to the Number 10 website, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, hailed the latest developments thus:

‘The response has been fantastic and I’m pleased to see people have really engaged with this process. I hope people will see that this is different, it’s a permanent change to the way we run government, and that it is worthwhile engaging in this kind of process in the future. It’s important for us in government to remember we don’t have all the answers.’

His comments were echoed by Oliver Letwin, Minister of State for the Cabinet Office:

‘At last, government has realised that there are 60 million citizens who really do have ideas. Through processes like this, we can give real power to the people and make things open.’

In a statement on the Cabinet Office website, the government thanked those who chose to comment on the programme for government and reiterated its commitment to the use of open standards and transparency. Furthermore, the government hailed the opportunity for open source software to drive down procurement prices and avoid dependence on inefficient vendors. The government also announced that ‘Guidance for Procurers’ will be published in September 2010. The aim of this guidance is to ensure that new IT procurements for government offer the best value for money possible.

Charlotte Jee       (@charlottejee)





Race Online 2012 launched today: future challenges and ideas

12 07 2010

Today Martha Lane Fox, the UK’s Digital Champion, launched the ‘Race Online 2012’ manifesto, the aim of which is to get millions online by the end of 2012. 10 million UK citizens (the combined population of our five largest cities) have never used the internet, and with this in mind, the manifesto aims to get everyone of working age online by the end of this parliament, to ensure that all may enjoy the benefits of the web upon retirement.

This recent development raises some pertinent questions- for example, should internet access be a human right? According to a BBC World Service poll of more than 27,000 adults in over 26 countries, almost four in five people around the world believe that access to the internet should be a fundamental right. Access has already been ruled as a human right in Estonia and Finland, and according to the aforementioned BBC research, 75% of Britons would like to see internet access as a fundamental right, perhaps indicating that steps to enshrine access as a right in law would be welcomed by the majority. This would furthermore send a strong signal from the top that internet access is no longer viewed as a luxury but as a necessity for citizens to fully participate in modern UK society.

In addition, these developments raise further possibilities for the Coalition government’s drive to cut costs and improve efficiency- there is a plethora of evidence that by, where possible, moving government functions online, a huge amount of money could be saved. The manifesto launched today, the full version of which is here, estimates that ‘if all currently offline adults began using the internet and made just one online contact each month with government instead of a telephone or face-to-face contact it would save an estimated £900m per annum’.

Questions have been raised over whether these pledges can be supported by the current broadband infrastructure, and although roughly 90% of homes can readily get a broadband connection at 2Mbps or higher and UK prices are now among the lowest in the world, questions remain about how much the government can do, beyond supporting commitments to ensure a universal service level of 2Mbps as the very minimum that should be available. While it is true that it is impossible (and indeed, undesirable) to force people to go online, the focus of Race Online 2012 is far more on positively encouraging this group to explore the huge benefits that the internet can bring- for example, ‘older women who have family overseas’ or ‘men over 45 who like football’. One of the key challenges, as raised by the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones, is how these pledges can be fulfilled without government money.

Charlotte Jee                (@charlottejee)





Recent news on transparency

5 07 2010

On 1st July the Cabinet Office released details of everyone currently working for Non Departmental Public Bodies (known as ‘Quangos’) on a salary in excess of £150,000. This data will be added to the list published last month setting out the highest earning civil servants and special advisers. Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and chair of the newly created Public Sector Transparency Board, hailed the recent developments:

‘Yet again we have shown we are absolutely committed to acting quickly on pledges in our Coalition Agreement to release information that will allow everyone to hold their politicians and public bodies to account. Today’s release, along with previous publications listing high earning civil servants and salaries of special advisers, shows that transparency is fast becoming an integral part of everything we do.  I believe this will not only increase accountability, but will lead to more efficient public service organisations.’

On the same day Deputy PM Nick Clegg called for the public to contribute their ideas on ‘restoring liberties that have been lost, repealing unnecessary laws and stripping away excessive regulation on businesses’. This is part of a consultative process where the government will try to ascertain which laws the public wish to see repealed, and try to ‘redress the balance between the citizen and the state’. The three key questions for consideration, as set out by Mr Clegg in his speech at the launch of the Your Freedom website, are as follows:

  • Restoring civil liberties: which current laws would you like to remove or change because they restrict your civil liberties?
  • Cutting business and charity regulations: which regulations do you think should be removed or changed to make running your business or organisation as simple as possible?
  • Repealing unnecessary laws: which offences do you think we should remove or change and why?

In his speech Mr Clegg praised the initiative thus: ‘What I find especially exciting about this project is that, now we have got the ball rolling, the debate is totally out of government’s control. Real democracy is unspun -it is the raucous, unscripted debates that always throw up the best ideas. So be demanding about your liberty, be insistent about your rights. This is about your freedom, and this is your chance to have your say.’

Charlotte Jee                    (@charlottejee)





Government transparency update

28 06 2010

On 24th June the PM David Cameron held the first meeting of the Public Sector Transparency Board, established with a view to push the government’s transparency agenda. Members include Sir Tim-Berners Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web), Professor Nigel Shadbolt, an expert on open data from Southampton University, Tom Steinberg (founder of mysociety) and Dr Rufus Pollock, a Cambridge University economist who co-founded the Open Knowledge Foundation.

At the first meeting the board set up some new Public Data Transparency principles, which were, briefly:

  • Public data policy and practice will be clearly driven by the public and businesses who want and use the data, including what data is released when and in what form;
  • Public data will be published in reusable, machine-readable form;
  • Public data will be released under the same open licence which enables free reuse, including commercial reuse;
  • Public data will be available and easy to find through a single easy to use online access point (http://www.data.gov.uk)
  • Public data will be published using open standards and following the recommendations of the World Wide Web Consortium;
  • Public data underlying the Government’s own websites will be published in reusable form for others to use;
  • Public data will be timely and fine grained;
  • Release data quickly, and then republish it in linked data form;
  • Public data will be freely available to use in any lawful way;
  • Public bodies should actively encourage the re-use of their public data; and
  • Public bodies should maintain and publish inventories of their data holdings.

The full list of draft principles is available here.

On the same day, the PM and Deputy PM Nick Clegg wrote a letter to public sector workers asking for their ideas on how the government can do more for less, in conjunction with the Spending Review announced in the budget. The proposal is being dubbed the ‘Spending Challenge’ and it aims to engage the public in considering how public services can be provided as effectively as possible.

In the letter, the full version of which is here, Cameron and Clegg said “We want you to help us find those savings, so we can cut public spending in a way that is fair and responsible. You work on the frontline of public services. You know where things are working well, where the waste is, and where we can re-think things so that we get better services for less money.”

In a statement on 25th June Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, announced that the public would be welcomed to comment on the recent developments in the government drive for transparency and open data and put forward their own ideas on how to make government more cost-effective.

He commented on the recent developments: “In just a few weeks this Government has published a whole range of data sets that have never been available to the public before.  But we don’t want this to be about a few releases, we want transparency to become an absolutely core part of every bit of government business.   That is why we have asked some of the country’s and the world’s greatest experts in this field to help us take this work forward quickly here in central government and across the whole of the public sector.

“And in the spirit of transparency we are asking everyone to comment on our ideas and help us to define these important principles.  Anyone who wants to will be able to put forward their suggestions for what the principles should be by logging on to data.gov.uk.”

Charlotte Jee                   (@charlottejee)