I feel another letter to a minister coming on.

People are probably aware of the Sonia/Nina case, which I’ve blogged about previously but to summarise, a Trans woman was inexplicably put in a male prison. Following that incident, I submitted a Freedom of Information request asking about Prison Service Policy on the matter.

This isn’t the first time the issue of Trans prisoners in the UK has come up. Work by Press for Change on the issue with the Prison Service dates back at least fourteen years. More recently, it came up in September 2009, when a Trans woman won in court against the Prison Service, who had refused to move her to a women’s prison. That resulted in a question in parliament, along with a followup question which between them revealed the existence of a draft Prison Service Order which, it was implied, was close to being finalised.

Over a year on from that case and there isn’t anything published yet. The Ministry of Justice are delaying their response to my request for “a copy of draft PSO 3300 [Guidelines on the Management, Treatment and Care of Prisoners who have or have had Gender Dysphoria] or any other related draft or current PSOs, PSIs or similar guidelines” because they need to consider if it’s in the public interest to release it. To do this, they’re relying on an exception that it’s related to “Formulation of government policy”.

I guess that answers the first part of my question then, relating to the status of the guidelines. It’s still being formulated, over a year later.

I’ve just sent the following to the Secretary of State of Education, expressing concern about the education white paper and today’s reports that the DfE will work with Stonewall on tackling bullying. (Dr Julian Huppert MP is CCed on this as he is my local MP as well as having had some involvement with successfully debating trans issues in the House of Commons over the ID Cards Bill)

Now I’ve put that here, I’m sure people will point out some huge gaff I’ve made in the letter!

Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State of Education
By EMail

25th November 2010

Dear Mr Gove,

I welcome the commitment towards tacking homophobia in schools announced in the Education White Paper as I’m sure the rest of the LGBT community does. However, although the words “homophobia” and “homophobic” appear seven times in the paper, there is no mention of transphobia and other transgender-related issues. As a result, some members of the trans community such as myself are concerned that this area may be being overlooked. Although there is some similarity in that both homophobia
and transphobia are targeted against perceived differences from “normal” behaviour for a given gender, the Trans community also faces very different challenges and inequalities to the wider LGB community which
can often be overlooked when dealing with only LGBT organisations.

I am particularly troubled bytoday’s news (http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2010/11/25/gove-we-will-work-with-stonewall-to-tackle-growing-anti-gay-bullying/) that you will be working with Stonewall in this area. Whilst Stonewall undoubtedly perform some very worthwhile work, they are very
specifically an LGB charity and there have been significant differences between Stonewall and the trans community over recent years. This announcement, taken on it’s own, would seem to suggest that trans issues may indeed not be being addressed.

I would therefore urge you to also ensure that some Trans-specific organisations are involved in the work you are doing. Although I do not represent them, I can recommend both GIRES (Gender Identity Research and Education Society, http://www.gires.org.uk/) and Mermaids UK (http://www.mermaidsuk.org.uk/) as useful organisations to contact for information in the area of trans youth and education.

Some other useful organisations to contact would include: (Again, I do not represent or work for any of these organisations in any way)
Trans Media Watch – http://www.transmediawatch.org.uk/
A:Gender – http://www.agender.org.uk/ (A support organisation for trans members of the Civil Service)
Queer Youth Network – http://www.queeryouth.org.uk/

I would be grateful if you could confirm your departments commitment to tackling transphobia alongside homophobia and that you will engage appropriate Trans organisations in tackling inequality in schools.
Although I am not a member of that community and can not speak for them in any way, the Intersex community also faces similar issues and I would hope similar consideration is given to any areas of concern they may have.

Yours Sincerely,

Zoe O’Connell

CC: Lynne Featherstone MP, Minister for Equalities
CC: Dr Julian Huppert MP, Cambridge

Some MPs are like newspapers. You have this vague impression that things they say might actually have some research behind them, but end up screaming “No! It doesn’t work like that!” when they talk about a topic you know about.

It seems the Conservative MP Claire Perry (who surprisingly does have a Twitter account, which I didn’t expect to find) has fallen into this trap today, with her calls to create some sort of magic “opt-in” system for pornography. Here’s what she said:

Ms Perry, who represents Devizes, in Wiltshire, said: “As a mother with three children I know how difficult it is to keep children from seeing inappropriate material on the internet.

It’s not that hard. For younger children, try putting the computer somewhere public, such as the lounge or dining room – this is what I do with my kids. For older kids, if they have a computer in their room then it’s a trust thing and there are programs out there that will filter, if you’re worried. (Although they’re relatively easy to bypass with even a small amount of technical knowledge) Besides, do you really think they don’t have a copy of Playboy doing the rounds at school that someone’s older brother purchased?

“We already successfully regulate British TV channels, cinema screens, high street hoardings and newsagent shelves to stop children seeing inappropriate images and mobile phone companies are able to restrict access to adult material so why should the internet be any different?”

The key here is “British TV”. It’s broadcast in this country. The internet is more akin to everyone having a really big satellite dish in their back garden as one used to see many years ago and picking up TV stations from Scandinavia, just a really big dish that can get Australian TV too.

As she notes, mobile networks just about manage this except for the problem that a lot of sites that shouldn’t be are accidentally tagged: Most LGBT support sites are inaccessible for example. I could not, myself, support any system that cut people off from online avenues of support. It is likely that an opt-in system would cause issues for vulnerable adults too, where the internet account might be controlled by someone else who would become suspicious if they ask for the restriction to be removed.

Scaling such a solution to the kind of bandwidth levels we see on broadband could also be problematic, as we’ve already seen with failures in the Cleenfeed system – a system which isn’t perfect anyway, as it is incapable of filtering encrypted (HTTPS) sites. The more blocked sites you add to the system, the higher the load, the higher the cost (Thus the higher your broadband bill) and the greater the chance of it going wrong.

And finally it works better on mobiles because they generally don’t have the processing power to run proxy software to bypass ISP-based filters. You might give parents a safety net, but it’s a false one that’s easy for a teenager to bypass – as with any filters you put on the PC itself. It comes back to educating your kids and having some degree of trust that they’re not getting up to no good or, if you can’t trust them, putting the computer somewhere public.

Ms Perry added: “British internet service providers should share the responsibility to keep our children safe so I am calling for ISPs to offer an ‘opt-in’ system that uses age verification to access pornographic material.”

I have no idea how she intends to verify someone’s age online. Magic internet pixie dust, I suspect.

Yes, technology can seem like magic sometimes. But we’re not that good!

Long term readers may remember that I have a passing interest in firearms legislation. It thus quite surprise me to come across this little piece from Tuesday’s Home Affairs Select Committee, following questioning on the Cumbria shooting and firearms licensing. It’s worth noting this is an “uncorrected” transcript, but I have reviewed the video recording and it is accurate for general content – this exchange starts at about 11:55.

Chair: What Dr Huppert is asking is …what is the age that we should allow people to apply [for a firearms certificate]? You are the ACPO lead on firearms, [Specifically, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers Firearms and Licensing Working Group] so presumably you have a view on this.

Adrian Whiting: I have a view that, because children as young as 10 have been able to shoot perfectly safely with a shotgun certificate, there is no reason to interrupt that, and I suppose the difficulty is that the corollary follows that if there is no evidence to suggest that children of that age, properly supervised in appropriate conditions, can shoot safely, why would you not apply that to the firearms certificate? What I would say there is that the nature of the shooting-the environment in which it takes place-is different.

Chair: Of course, but if you were looking at consolidating this and making it one age, so it is not confusing to members of this Committee and the public when they don’t know at what age they can apply, what age would the ACPO lead on firearms suggest would be appropriate?

Adrian Whiting: The minimum age would be 10, I would suggest, Sir.

This drew a nervous laugh from the Chair, my impression is that he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the response. I’m hoping there is some misunderstanding here and the law is very complicated which is what prompted the questioning in the first place. A look at the Metropolitan Police page on Firearms Age restrictions suggests it’s quite legal for a 15 year old to have a certificate for and own a shotgun. The idea that the ACPO might think it reasonable to lower that age limit to just ten is bizarre – I do not let my eldest daughter who is just a few months shy of her 10th birthday anywhere near my air rifle unsupervised and that’s a firearm that’s weak enough that it does not require any firearms certificate. The law, reasonably to my mind, says that she will have to be 14 before she is allowed to use it unsupervised.

As with many issues, Net Neutrality is one where I’m somewhere in the middle. Or at least, I was, until Ed Vaizey spoke on the topic yesterday. Prior to that, I would have said I was not a fan of the more extreme “you must never prioritise or block traffic” arguments, simply because in the real world they are not practical.

For example, if my network is subject to a denial of service attack, clearly that traffic is going to get pushed into a black hole. Along similar lines, if I find a zombie machine on my network taking part in an attack or spreading viruses, I might cut that machine off or limit it’s traffic. Even better, as occasionally happens, we hit paydirt and find one of the bad guy’s command and control nodes and take it down, usually after some forensics to get a list of infected machines.

Those are clear-cut cases, but it gets more subtle. During times of peak demand, particularly unexpected demand such as 9/11, networks can become overloaded. Whilst it’s entirely possible to just ignore this and give everyone bad service to all destinations, it’s sensible to try to limit some of the less urgent traffic. So, anything that looks like it might be a routine overnight backup of a PC or Peer-to-peer file sharing traffic such as BitTorrent is going to be lower priority than someone checking out the BBC News web site for example. (Some providers do this all the time, and tend to get in trouble for it)

Even outside of network engineering, we already have a significant amount of “Quality of Service”, run by DSL providers such as BT. Depending on the type of line you order – “Business”, “Office”, “Premium” or similar names are often applied – it’s likely that your traffic will be prioritised over a simple Home user. That’s quite reasonable, given that office users pay more. In fact, it can keep down the price of your home DSL because providers can make their money on business users during the day. With some providers, home users, who will use the network more at night, are just using up capacity that’s already been paid for.

So you’d I’d have thought I’d be on Vaizey’s side, but his excessively market liberal tone has just pushed me further towards thinking we need some kind of regulation. There is clearly an increasing commercial pressure to turn the tools we use to keep the internet running into a source of profit, but not the kind of commercial pressure that helps consumers and keeps prices down and choice up.

He’s proposing no regulation, besides forcing ISPs to publish their policies. I see this as a failure on two counts. Firstly, I do not want to have to publish steps I take against botnets and other sources of evil traffic, even in outline, because it makes their lives easier. They already have some idea what we do, but there is no reason to confirm it. There’s also various underground “good guy” groups where we share information on what’s going on. If we’re forced to reveal what we get up to, those groups in other countries are going to be less willing to share data with us.

Secondly, I doubt people are going to base their buying decisions on published data on how ISPs prioritise data. Instead, they’ll base it on adverts on the TV and cost. The big ISPs, such as Virgin and BT, can quite happily go to the BBC and say “Stand and deliver! Give us some money, or your internet data gets it!”. If the BBC, or any other large organisation they think is good for some money, refuse to pay up then the BBC web site slows down compared to other sites or iPlayer stops working properly. Because the user’s mate down the street has the same problem, it looks like it’s a BBC problem, not their ISP being Evil.

But smaller service providers can’t do that – if a small player such as myself with a user count measured not in millions but tens or low hundreds of thousands tries it on, the content providers will tell us where we can stick it. Because only a small number of users have a problem, and they’re all on our services, the problem appears to the end users to be with us. (Which really is where it is, as we’d be the ones doing the traffic shaping!)

So we could end up promoting monopolistic behaviour in the market. Large providers will be able to cut their prices as they’ve discovered a new revenue stream from the content providers. For those end-users not wanting to be subject to this, they’ll find themselves paying increasing prices as small providers will shrink and lose economies of scale.

It’s interesting to note how the press is running this. Today’s Metro has an anti-Vaizey, pro-Neutrality article in it and the BBC also takes a similar line as there does not seem to be an appetite amongst the content producers to pay to prioritise their traffic over their competitors. It’s the really big providers that want this because they see a source of revenue for no additional cost.

I fail to see, as Vaizey postulates, how this will increase innovation in the market.

P.S. For those of you in the UK, there’s an Early Day Motion tabled by Tom Watson you can encourage your MP to sign.

I guess this is a warning about where you choose to host your web site if someone – anyone – might object to it.

There’s been some talk about abuse of police power with the ill-advised “Fitwatch” website takedown. For those unaware, the site hosted some useful guidelines on how to get rid of any evidence if you’d been anywhere near Millbank tower last weekend. I may disagree with the opinions in the article and with the occupation but given the “arrest first, find an excuse to charge someone later after digging through their stuff” approach taken by many police, I don’t personally think there is anything particularly objectionable in having that content available. Any regular viewer of the multitude of American crime dramas such as Dexter or CSI probably figured it out for themselves anyway.

It was pretty obvious it was going to backfire. If you want to get the public’s attention, ban something.

Publicity-by-banning works if it’s either playing a single on Radio 1 single or a web site. Unsurprisingly, it’s now pretty hard to use Twitter or any other social networking medium without stumbling across links to copies of the FITwatch content and the web site has been put back up with new hosts barely 24 hours after it was taken down.

But the police had no more power in this case than your average UK citizen. The web site was hosted in the United States, not in this country. (It looks like it was hosted by a company called “Hostclear” who have UK pricing but from what I can tell, no UK presence, not even a sales office) In my day job, I often have to tell US solicitors that their beloved laws to not apply in this country so terribly sorry, but we can’t help you. I’ve even on occasion had to tell US District Courts the same thing, because they somehow think their court orders have magic powers over here too.

Strangely, Americans tend not to take the opposite view: They recognise that our laws do not apply to them.

So why was it taken down? It seems the police used a very nefarious tactic. They asked nicely, pointing out details that meant it probably violated the hosting companies Acceptable Use Policy, wrapped up in a bit of official-looking talk. There may have been aggressive use of police headed paper involved as well, although one assumes unleashing the headed paper requires authorisation from a senior officer.

The hosts, in their Acceptible Use Policy list a number of items that the FITwatch web site might have fallen under, but most likely seems their restriction of “sites promoting illegal activities”. Typically, one would expect that the police would need to have at least some sort of proof that they were promoting illegal activities beyond their say so, but a good starting point to consider when thinking about how US web site hosts will respond is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In the case of copyright material, it gets taken down the moment someone alleges copyright violation, regardless of merit. It’s then up to the user to object if they want it back up, and this mentality does tend to spill over to other non-copyright aspects of handling complaints of abuse.

It’s also a complete pain having to defend against legal action and a web host in a highly competitive market typically can’t afford to start hiring solicitors, so they’ll likely have wanted to dump the site as soon as possible to save hassle.

The new hosting provider is also in the United States. I assume, given the publicity surrounding this case, that there is a good chance the hosting provider already knows what they’re getting themselves in to so a simple letter from the Metropolitan Police will not be sufficient to get the site taken down. I notice the site is still using it’s .org.uk domain name – that’s the real weak point the police could go after now, if they haven’t learnt their lesson and are silly enough to try to pursue it. It would not at all surprise me if FITwatch go off and register – and publicise – alternate domain names in territories that might be less amenable to taking down content such as this.

Anyone who uses Twitter at the moment has probably heard of the #twitterjoketrial, where Paul Chambers was found guilty of posting something to Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport that some judges didn’t think was funny. Similarly, Councillor Gareth Compton was arrested by the police for having a suspicious sense of humour when reacting to a Radio 5 Live interview with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, again as a result of a Twitter message.

The offence of having a bad sense of humour whilst in possession of a Twitter account is part of the Communications Act 2003, specifically section 127, which makes it illegal to send messages that are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” or “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network”.

The difficulty in both these cases is that the police and court service don’t seem to grasp that a single 140 character twitter message is unlikely to contain enough context to figure out of it’s “menacing” or not. Particularly with hash tags, as in the case of Gareth Compton the hash tag was indicating he was responding to the Radio 5 interview. Taken on their own, the majority of Twitter messages probably do not make any sense at all.

Yet in completely unrelated news yesterday, we hear that an anti-bullying charity is calling for better laws to tackle cyber-bullying. It seems there is currently some difficulty handling cases where kids are “being harassed through texts, emails and social networking sites.” Now, can anyone think of any laws that might be used to handle online harassment?

Looks like section 127 is OK to use when the police want to prosecute someone who makes a terrorism-related joke or poor-taste comments about a prominent figure, but they haven’t quite applied that much thought to protecting kids.

The below article originally appeared on LibDemVoice.

There is a rather American saying which runs along the lines of “We have four boxes with which to defend our freedom: the soap box, the ballot box, the jury box, and the ammo box. In that order”. It becomes a good way of putting Wednesday’s violence in context, particularly for those that are trying to argue some similarity between the suffragette movement and student fees. That movement had no choice but to resort to violent occupation because the very thing it’s members were campaigning for was access to the ballot box.

But rather than the entire NUS executive distancing themselves from the action and denouncing it as the work of a few extremists, one NUS National Executive member is calling for even more of the same and a letter is circulating, signed by various NUS and Student Union figures, claiming that the occupation was not just a small group of extremists. The letter tries to claim that it was a “good natured” occupation, but Laurie Penny was there and described it in the New Statesman blog as a riot.

Yes, there was anger at fees but the anger about “betrayal” of those that voted for the LibDems was manufactured by the National Union of Students and as LibDem canvassers will have realised quite quickly, an accusation of “betrayal” on the doorstep is code for “I voted Labour”. It was, as we know, the Unions that elevated Ed Milliband to the leadership of the Labour Party, someone whose policy is not to attack the Conservatives but rather make the LibDems extinct.

And yes, there was anger at fees but there was anger at Blair’s Wars too. Up to 2,000,000 people marched over Iraq, but there was no violent occupation and few arrests despite being over ten times larger than the NUS march.

Where was this anger when Labour introduced fees and then president of the NUS (future Labour Councillor, special advisor to Labour Deputy Mayor of London and Labour PPC for Milton Keynes North in 2010) called on the Labour government to conduct an independent review? Hardly strong stuff.

And where was the anger when Labour increased fees to £3,000? That time, the NUS President managed a little better, getting between 10,000 and 31,000 at a rally and calling on Labour ministers to “do the honourable thing”. She went on to become special advisor to Labour MP Tessa Jowell and perhaps the lack of appropriate humility in the face of a Labour government then cost her a shot at the parliamentary seat granted to 7 of her 8 labour predecessors.

Returning to the ballot box from our opening and to quote a line that’s starting to get a little tired: If you wanted Liberal Democrat policies, you should have voted Liberal Democrat and not, as your cries of “betrayal” reveal, for Labour. There may be debate within the party on the topic of fees and I, along with many, disagree with the current position of the parliamentary party leadership on this. But this only came about because we’re junior partner in a coalition. I have no doubt that if we were in power on our own, this would not be happening.

The only winners from the march are those planning on going on to future political careers. Many students stand to gain anyway, as the proposals will actually reduce fees for many. But for those who really wanted to campaign for fees, the partisan rhetoric that was such a major part of the march will just have served to alienate wavering MPs from the one party that might have done something about it: the LibDems.

To add a personal note to the text below, I’d point out that even in my relatively small corner of the Internet, both as a blogger/LGBT activist and working for an ISP, I’ve seen how the current laws don’t work. Every time I’ve seen it in action, current Libel law has been not about the truth but about who has the most money. It ends up being a huge game of chicken – who blinks, or runs out of money, first.

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at http://www.libelreform.org/sign.

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at

Many Liberal Democrats today are expressing surprise at the anti-Liberal Democrat line being taken by the NUS in today’s demo. Although I was never hugely involved in the political side of running a Student Union, I did have some involvement whilst at university. I have fond memories of counting STV votes, and watching at some stupid hour of the morning – and it must have been pretty late to have seemed stupid as a student – as the returning officer stared at a single scrap of paper and tried to transfer a fraction of a vote half a dozen times to figure out the result of one of the elections. Still, those years were a good example of why FPTP can fail badly, due to the controversy as the Islamic Society wanted to ban itself. They couldn’t overcome constant block voting by extremists trying to take over the society, but were capable of passing an overwhelming motion questioning their own existence as a society.

Enough with the Yes2AV arguments and back to the NUS. I remember the NUS as being a very left-wing organisation, so let’s have a look at past and current presidents of the NUS. There has only been one president in the last 35 years that has not been standing as Labour, a Labour coalition (“Broad Left”) or as an “Independent” who also happens to be a Labour party member. Here’s a list of jobs, taken from Wikipedia, that NUS presidents have gone on to perform: (Information prior to 1984 is more vague)

  • Jack Straw – NUS President 1969-71. Current Shadow Cabinet member, former Labour Foreign and Home Secretary.
  • Charles Clarke – NUS President 1975-77. Former Labour MP and Home Secretary.
  • Phil Woolas – NUS President 1984-86. Ex-Labour MP and former immigration minister, You may have seen him in the news recently…
  • Vicky Philips – NUS President 1986-88. Labour but unusually, no political career. She’s now a lawyer.
  • Maeve Sherlock – NUS President 1988-90, became special advisor to then chancellor Gordon Brown. Now a member of the House of Lords.
  • Stephen Twigg – NUS President 1990-92, Labour MP 1997-05 and Minister of State for Schools 2004-05. Re-elected 2010, Currently Shadow Foreign Office Minister.
  • Lorna Fitzsimons – NUS President 1992-94, Labour MP 1997-05
  • Jim Murphy – NUS President 1994-96, Labour MP since 1997. Minister of State for Europe and later Secretary of State of Scotland under Gordon Brown, currently Shadow Secretary of State for Defence
  • Douglas Trainer – NUS President 1996-98, special adviser for the Labour Scottish Executive 2006-07
  • Andrew Pakes – NUS President 1998-00, former Labour Councillor, special advisor to Labour Deputy Mayor of London, Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Milton Keynes North in 2010.
  • Owain James – NUS President 2000-02, the only recent non-Labour holder of the post.
  • Mandy Telford – NUS President 2002-04, became Special Adviser to Tessa Jowell MP
  • Kat Fletcher – NUS President 2004-06. Another person standing as non-Labour, but went on to volunteer for Ed Miliband’s Labour Leadership Campaign
  • Gemma Tumelty – NUS President 2006-08. “Independent”, but still a Labour party member even then.
  • Wes Streeting – NUS President 2008-10. Labour
  • Aaron Porter – Current President. “Independent”, but Labour party member.

So if you’re wondering why the NUS was relatively quiet about Labour introducing fees and commissioning the report that has lead to a proposed increase in fees but are now baying for blood, consider what those within the NUS power structure will be hoping to go on to do with their later lives.