Tag Archives: information

If Terence Brown is a terrorist, so am I

Well, this is… weird. It’s the first time in my life I get to see the guy in the paper awaiting sentencing and go “hey, wait, I used to work with that guy!” This link points at a Daily Hate article, and hence has been deliberately broken so as to avoid giving the bastards any pagerank; just add the two missing letters, and you’re good to go. now points to a masking proxy that makes things more convenient; cheers, Ad.

But the gist is this: Terence Brown was making money from selling CD-ROM anthologies of articles from the internet, billed as a more up-to-date version of the notorious (but perfectly legal at the time) Anarchist’s Cookbook: bombmaking, lockpicking, all that sort of stuff. Y’know, the sort of stuff that most of you reading this could probably locate within ten minutes of trying it, given a working computer with an internet connection.

Welcome to the wonders of British anti-terror legislation! Terence Brown was “convicted of seven counts of collecting information that could have been used to prepare or commit acts of terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2000, two counts of selling and distributing the information under the Terrorism Act 2006 and a further count under the Proceeds of Crime Act.”

Let’s just look again at that highlighted crime, there:

“… collecting information that could have been used to prepare or commit acts of terrorism… “

That’s a staggeringly vague thing. A good lawyer – heck, just a skint lawyer – could probably look through my hard drive and bookshelves and get me on the same charge, right now: I have books on organic chemistry, electronics and practical nuclear fission*, for instance. But Terence probably didn’t even need to buy books to do it, either. Even the Daily Fail itself says the discs “contained a vast collection of material downloaded from the internet”. So stuff that people could have just got for free, in other words, if they’d taken maybe five minutes longer than they took looking up “anarchist’s cookbook” on Google.

Is it perhaps the selling of that freely available information, for profit, that elevates Terence to the loft heights of terrorist? Daily Fail again:

“The law is clear that it is a crime to gather this information without a reasonable excuse or to disseminate material which is clearly intended to be of use to terrorists. A person’s intentions or motivation for doing this is irrelevant.

So, selling free-to-read information that might be useful in planning a terrorist event to people who could have been terrorists, and making money from it, is a crime, regardless of the ideological reasons for doing so.

I’m assuming, then, given the legendary proportion and scale of British justice, that people who sold physical weapons and substances made for no other purpose than war or terrorism to people who were definitely terrorists, for profit, would be guilty of a far greater crime than Terence there, regardless of their reasons for doing it?

Well, of course it is.

For anyone other than the government that passed the law in question, that is.

I worked with Terence Brown for nearly three years; he was a doorman at The Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth where I used to do box office and other FOH stuff. He’s no thug (yeah, I know, you’re thinking of the doorman stereotype; not a thug, nor even a “hard man”), he’s no terrorist, and he’s no callous nihilist either. The most he’s guilty of here is possibly some copyright infringement, along with making a fast and easy buck selling publicly-available information to lazy idiots – and if the latter’s a crime, the Daily Fail should probably unsaddle the high horse.

His is exactly the sort of theoretical case that we were repeatedly assured the Terrorism Act would never be used for. And I’ll say it again, publicly and for the record: you could search my flat right now and pin the “collecting information” charges on me, just because of stuff lying around on my bookshelves and hard drives… not to mention the library shelves in almost every decent-sized city in Britain, and the multitudinous servers of the internet.

The Terrorism Act, used in this way, is not about terrorism. It’s about freedom of speech, and the silencing of voices that dissent, or even ones saying things you just don’t like or want heard. If you value your voice, use it today and talk to someone about the Terence Brown case.

Yes, speaking out marks me as complicit in some of the same crimes as Terence Brown. Staying silent, however, would make me complicit in the crimes of the state.

Easy choice.

Books in libraries, books in shops

Some folk don’t like the Dewey Decimal system*. It doesn’t work well with the more casual library user, so the argument goes, because the granularity of information it provides isn’t intuitive to people who don’t have that sort of mind-set.

Hence the decision of a public library in Arizona to do away with Dewey and replace it with a broader topic-based cataloguing system, more akin to that of bookshops. And cue debate by bookworms and library types over the rights and wrongs of the decision.**

What this highlights is that we have access to too much information for any single linear cataloguing system to handle sufficiently. Neither Dewey nor  subject sections can handle both topical cross-referencing and precise atomised location of knowledge. for example.

Which, as far as I’m concerned, is another argument in favour of the Google Books project. Once books are detached from their physicality, the inherent problems of finding something on a shelf becomes irrelevant. With a decent search engine, you can locate exactly what you want, or browse more broadly – whichever suits you best.

And despite childish pseudo-protests from publishers who seem to have misunderstood the entire issue, more institutions are opening up to the idea. The Big Ten US universities (which are actually twelve in number, for some reason) will be letting the Google people get their mitts on significant chunks of their library collections, with the intent of creating “a shared digital repository that faculty, students and the public can access quickly.”

As I’ve said before, I don’t think the death of the physical book is incredibly close, but it can be seen on the horizon. The problem isn’t dead-tree technology, it’s the distribution mechanism. We’re now very accustomed to getting the information we want as soon as we need it, and libraries cannot always meet those demands.

Nor can bookstores, for various reasons – many of them profit based, which has led to the pseudo-monoculture of big-chain bookstore shelves. It’s a situation that has encouraged the MD of Edinburgh’s Birlinn Press to buy up a series of indie bookstores in an attempt to revive the industry, a quixotic move that (much as I’d love to see it work) doesn’t seem likely to succeed.

The future of books is in digital catalogues and print-on-demand technology. There’ll still be a need for libraries with good stock, and for shops with full shelves to browse. But until libraries and shops can cater to every possible customer’s every possible request – quickly, cheaply and efficiently – they’re going to lose users to services like Amazon and Abe. Sad, perhaps, but also true.

[* Not me – I love Dewey, being a natural born sucker for taxonomic systems. The proprietary nature of it frustrates me, though, and is a major source of its bugs and inability to move with the times … but that’s a whole different rant.]

[** Much of the debate seems to miss the point that the really important function of Dewey is to allow the library staff to quickly locate a book on the customer’s behalf – a task that becomes exponentially harder with loose-category shelving. But that is yet another different rant.]

Fan-fic and profit; Google and the public domain

Those who were interested by the conversation between myself and A. R. Yngve on fan-fic may want to take a look at a post on Scalzi’s Whatever that shares some data from an exhaustive trawl through the licence terms of FanLib, a new start-up that has some very bizarre (and potentially exploitative) attitudes to ‘fan-created content’:

“…the company pitches the FanLib fanfic experience to content creators, and in doing so reveals that they don’t actually understand how fan fiction works in the slightest, they’re under the mistaken impression that they’re going to be able to control how stories get written, and that most fanfic writers will be pleased to have their work subsequently hijacked by others.

For example, on page 3 of the .pdf file, in the “Managed and Moderated to the Max” heading, FanLib touts to media folks “a customized environment YOU control,” in which “players must ‘stay within the lines'” with “restrictive terms-of-service,” a “profanity filter” and “full monitoring & management of submissions.” And here’s the kicker: “Completed work is just 1st draft to be polished by the pros.” “

With that sort of situation, I can totally understand (and indeed support) authors being against fan-fic – and I expect the fan-ficcers themselves won’t be too keen either. With the amount of negative attention FanLib has accrued in the last week or so, I can’t see it being a project that gets very far without collapsing into nothingness … or being sued into a radioactive puddle of legalese.


Related to that is the news that Google have responded to accusations that they have set up exclusivity deals with the institutions whose book collections they have scanned by allowing the public to see the contracts they use – now that is transparency.

Cory Doctorow isn’t entirely satisfied, however, and points out that Google are still betting on a different kind of exclusivity – i. e. themselves as the exclusive gateway to material that is meant to be public domain:

“I’m still disappointed that Google puts restrictive notices on their public domain works (these aren’t licenses, just “polite notices”) that tell what you’re not allowed to do with these books. I know they’re worried about their competitors getting ahold of those documents, but that’s the deal with the public domain: it doesn’t belong to you, period, it belongs to all of us. Just because you scan a public domain book, it doesn’t confer the right to control it to you.”

I can’t see Google holding a virtual monopoly on that material forever – if only because some hacktivist type is bound to find a way to scrape the content and set it free. But this does highlight one of the thornier issues around public domain materials, in that the delivery system may not be as free as the material it contains. This particular debate is going to be around for a good few years yet, methinks.

The Real World Web – envisioning a future of ubiquitous information

After a week of flim-flam over a real non-story (Pluto will not change shape or size, no matter what it gets labelled as), it’s a real relief to find something in the RSS feeds that really gets your motor running. MIT’s eLens project is just such a thing. Continue reading The Real World Web – envisioning a future of ubiquitous information

Do you hate DRM?

I sure do. If I pay for a song, and album, a game or other software, I want my fair use rights as provided by law. Thing is, the media industry doesn’t want to give me those rights. Thanks to the internet and it’s cornucopia of tools for distibution of data and content, the lazy old-fashioned business models of the music film and games industries are failing. Rather than pull their fingers out and move with the times, they’d rather take the easy option of treating their customers like criminals. Continue reading Do you hate DRM?