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Articles by Adam Price

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Adam Bychawski

Adam Bychawski is an editorial assistant at openDemocracy.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Making hope possible in Wales: interview with Plaid Cymru leadership candidates

openDemocracy interviews the three candidates for leader of Plaid Cymru about the future of Wales and the UK.

Self-Satire in the Surveillance Society

 

Eye of Providence

 

As Tom Lehrer recognised in the 70s, the line between satire and reality is constantly in danger of being blurred these days. Guy has already mentioned the absurdity of certain proposals for individuals monitoring CCTV over the internet that tax even our limits to despair of them. Guaranteed to have you asking yourself if it’s all just a hoax, or perhaps a bad dream, the website for Internet Eyes -complete with the logo of an eye reminiscent of Big Brother, or the all-seeing Eye of Providence – can only add to the sense of unease already generated by this disturbing scheme.

The FAQs page explains how the new crime-stopping system will work. You receive feedback from the people whose cameras you notified, and they rate your alert according to whether it was right, wrong but in good faith, or just plain silly, which gets you points. The person with the highest points each month receives £1000 GBP. But what about the potential for abuse, and naughty internet pranksters? Well, the good people at Internet Eyes have a solution for that too. You only get 3 free alerts each month, and if you want more you have to pay for the added alerts. Plus, as soon as you alert you’ll be moved on and will view the feed from a different camera.

Blair For President Raises European Hackles

With all the speculation in the UK press at the moment about Tony Blair’s potential ascendency to the presidency of the E.U., one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s all in the bag. This despite the fact that Blair is not even officially up for the post yet, and he remains wildly unpopular in much of the E.U. for his role in the Iraq war and his perceived loyalty to American interests over European.

This latter sentiment has led to the reactivation of the Stop Blair! petition with thousands of new signatures coming in to demonstrate the popular opposition to Blair becoming the E.U. President. There are currently around thirty-six thousand signatures attached to the petition, which points out Tony Blair’s profound unsuitability for the role as the divisive, hawkish former leader of a country which he consistently kept at a distance from Europe, evidenced by acts such as securing an exemption for Britain from the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

It is not entirely surprising to see such a reaction to the idea of Blair as E.U. President, but it will be interesting to see whether the antipathy shown by so many E.U. citizens will be reflected in the attitudes of the administrations that run their countries. There have been mutterings from the French Presidents’s party about Blair’s unsuitability for the role, but so far neither Sarkozy or German Chancellor Angela Merkel have openly declared whether they would support a campaign by Blair for the post. Many of the smaller countries of the E.U. would no doubt be lukewarm about a President from one of the major countries, but whether this will translate into strong opposition remains to be seen. It would seem likely, however, that the more popular opposition to the notion is seen and felt by the governments involved, the more pressure there will be to oppose Blair for the role, and campaigns and petitions such as this will play a vital role in establishing depth of public feeling on the issue and in convincing European leaders to take a stand in line with their citizens.

Conservatives Embrace Change

A new site, MyConservatives.com, was launched on Friday to help keen Conservative supporters become busy Conservative activists. The site allows people to find issues or local candidates they care about and get stuck into activities such as leafleting or contacting voters by phone.

Being able to provide a way for campaigners to connect and organise has proven to be a powerful force in American politics, with Barack Obama’s initiatives providing a blueprint for this new kind of campaigning which embraces the rapid technological change we’ve seen in western societies. Despite initial problems – the site went down within hours of launching – the site is now working as it should be, and it could prove to be a useful tool for Conservatives who wish to get involved in election or single issue campaigning but couldn’t see where to start. I’m not sure whether it’s a good sign or bad when the political party in this country that is best embracing technological change in innovative ways is the conservative one, but the Conservative party certainly seems to put the other parties to shame with respect to grasping the potential for web-based organisation and activism.

Nonetheless, though this is clearly an impressive step forwards for breaking down barriers for involvement campaigns, it would be going too far to claim, as David Cameron does, that ‘[a]t a time when the British people have lost so much faith in their political system, this is the kind of politics we need’. It is an intriguing development in unlocking latent support among the internet-savvy, but one should be wary of seeing it as a commitment towards greater democracy in decision-making in a wider sense; the real test lies in demonstrating political innovation of this kind when it doesn’t so clearly suit the interests of the Conservative political leadership.

Small Robot in Parliament, Not Very Interesting

Voicebox is a project from v, the National Young Volunteers Service, that aims to “curate the views of 16-25s, visualise the results in creative ways, and then set that data free”. The Voicebox website is a bright, imaginative portal for the data they’ve gathered, and that imagination has also been applied to the problem of political disengagement among the age group concerned. The solution proposed is a robot created for v by sidekick studios, called ‘Voicebot’, that will be installed in Parliament on the 12th of October. If you submit what you care about on the website, the Voicebot will write it out, allowing messages to go straight from young people to Members of Parliament.

This is no doubt that this Voicebot is a compelling symbol of the gap between many young people and a political system that doesn’t appear to offer them what they want. However, I'm not sure how much the writing robot can do to help their project of exciting young people in general about democratic participation, and proving that young people want to get involved - beyond the relatively small number of people that will be involved in sending messages to the robot on the website. It seems to me that it's more an interesting display of the kind of innovations we could be thinking about with current technology than something that would be useful to implement as it is.

A Lesson In Democratising Government

An exciting, innovative and efficient approach to transparency in Government; it sounds a little too good to be true, but the District of Columbia seems to have managed it, being declared winner of the 2009 Innovations in American Government Award in Urban Policy. Offering up all district government operational data in its raw (unedited) form for the first time is important as a means of demonstrating commitment to openness, but on its own would have been a mere gesture – a lot can be hidden in raw data, and if there’s not the means of making sense of it, and a way to find what you’re looking for, such a measure is all but irrelevant for anyone other than the most determined of investigators.

The judges behind the award seem to have recognised this, however, and the District of Columbia’s ‘Data Feeds’ goes a lot further. There’s the creation of a virtual town hall offering up to date government information along with how to get involved through social networks, the opportunity to subscribe to real time feeds on a variety of subjects of interest (including, intriguingly, government employee credit card transactions), and – perhaps cleverest of all – an ‘Apps for Democracy’ contest for the best applications using the data feeds. This last produced an eclectic range of applications such as ways of locating parking meters, demographics and crime rates in your area and a guide to biking in D.C., saving an estimated $2.6 million in development costs.

Nor is D.C. alone in this. Similar schemes are being developed in New YorkSan FranciscoNanaimo and Vancouver. The idea is clearly not the result of a one-off fortuitous congruence of factors that allows the scheme to work, but a model that can, and should, be adopted across the developed world.

With examples like this on offer, it’s clear that our own Government could go a lot further than its own highly trumpeted, but under-resourced Freedom of Information measures, which, in the Department of Health, for example, don't merit anything like the resources devoted to press and marketing. Is it too much to ask for a little government innovation on this side of the Atlantic?

(Hat tip Steven Clift)

Tasers set to stun: Bad jokes from the Home Office

On Monday the Home Office released new figures on the use of Tasers by British police officers, and I doubt I was the only one previously unaware that use of Tasers by the police force was as common as the figures suggest. As the Guardian pointed out though, the most worrying aspect of the Home Office press release is the stress on the use of Tasers by non-firearms officers, an idea that, in the wake of recent criticisms of policing in this country, seems like a bad joke.

Clearly a non-lethal option is a good idea for those police dealing with armed and dangerous situations, where the officers involved are trained in the use of firearms and who know that their deployments will be heavily scrutinised. But the wider authorisation of Taser usage granted to all police forces from 1st December 2008 - albeit by 'specially trained units' - is a disturbing direction for British policing to take. Data on the exact circumstances in which Tasers are used is not currently collected, which should alarm us in the aftermath of the G20 protests and other demonstrations, where the police's definition of "reasonable force" is greatly at odds with our own. If the police cannot be trusted to keep their number IDs visible or their response proportionate at an event receiving a great deal of media coverage, still less should we trust them with looser controls on an incredibly painful devices that carries a risk of death.

If we are not to run the risk of Tasers being used casually as an alternative, not simply to shooting violent criminals, but to using conventional policing methods or even politely asking noisy music clubs to be quieter (as we find in Houston), we should insist on tighter controls and more information on the use of Tasers by police officers. Indeed, given the need for police, post-G20, to regain public trust, we should ask ourselves whether it would not be a better idea for the police to do without.

Freedom Not Fear 2009 - Stopping the Surveillance Society

Freedom Not Fear are organizing a second International Action Day, to be held in as many capital cities across the world, to protest against the “security craze” that is leading to the erosion of civil liberties in so many supposedly liberal states worldwide. Their day of action last year lead to protests held in more than a dozen countries and it is hoped that more will come together this year to express their opposition to the creep of surveillance and controls implemented by their governments.

Whether it’s huge new databases to collect our data, worryingly unsafe ID cards, a great deal of intercepted emails and phone calls, or just the continuing spread of CCTV cameras all around us, the trends in our own green and pleasant land are extremely worrying, as the Convention on Modern Liberty highlighted earlier this year. Even for those who do think that security concerns should influence our decisions on information and privacy restrictions, worries over the efficiency of such measures (only 9% of the 500,000 requests for interception of data helps with convictions, for example) as well as the enormous potential for abuse created by these new schemes should encourage us to take a good look at the direction we in the UK are heading and what we should be doing about it. Those who want to get involved can take a look at the Freedom Not Fear website for the protest to be held in London here.

(hat-tip NO2ID)

Whether Mandelson is in the UK or not is irrelevant

We’ve been hearing a lot about Peter Mandelson recently, but despite the amount of copy I think there’s a more important issue behind what we’ve been hearing. Newspapers from the Independent to the Telegraph have weighed in on the Whitehall mix-up that had Lord Mandelson “running Britain” from Corfu in Gordon Brown’s absence. In response Mandelson called these reports of him “absolute nonsense”, insisting that Gordon Brown remains the man in charge. The criticisms largely addressed the worry that someone in charge couldn’t do an adequate job from a Greek island, while Mandelson and Downing Street’s reassurances were designed to assure us that he wasn’t actually ‘in charge’ during the Prime Minister’s holiday. The assumption behind it all seems to be that, like an errant child, our country will simply cease to function if left to it's own devices.

The Government's Vetting database is unnecessary and counter-productive

The Vetting database that will be required when the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act comes into force this October has already attracted opprobrium. Most notably, perhaps from writers like Philip Pullman and Anne Fine who work regularly in schools, as well as Henry Porter in the Observer Now the Manifesto Club has started a petition calling for the database to be reconsidered. It is a welcome response to what looks to be a piece of legislation both damaging – because it creates fear and deters people from becoming volunteers - and excessive – the Independent estimates 11 million may have to register. It will also add to the great mass of over-regulation already in place.

As the petition puts it, the database “damage[s] adult-child relations and undermine[s] the capacity of adults to contribute to children’s welfare”. It is all too likely to prove another step towards a society where adults are unwilling to volunteer to help children or other vulnerable groups. Any attempt to assist distressed or endangered people seems now to be viewed by the government with suspicion, as its legislation turns all those engaged with helping others into potential predators.

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