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)