Saturday, December 03, 2005


ippr Paper on Intellectual Property

The ippr think-tank has published a paper "Markets in the online public sphere" on Intellectual Property issues. (Author William Davies).

The paper is an attempt to identify the questions involved, rather than answer them, and as such is worthwhile but not particularly exciting. The main new idea is to classify information transfers in the digital realm according to temporality, classifying information as:
These categories leak into each other, but are probably a useful tool in thinking about the issues.

The leakiness is what the author appears to see as the root of the problems - how one can protect commerce in Content without unacceptable impact on Deliberation or Heritage, or conversely how can one protect the freedom to Deliberate without destroying the business of Content.

While those questions are real, to me they are not the sticking point. I believe that compromise can be reached on what forms of information transfer should be restricted and what shouldn't. Not a perfect compromise, to be sure, but some kind of widely acceptable outcome.

What I see as the most vital issue is not what should be subject to restriction by law, but who should bear the cost of enforcement. That might sound like a minor detail, but it is in fact the fundamental problem, with far-reaching consequences.

The costs of enforcing a law can be divided into two categories. There are the direct costs of detecting and pursuing infringers, and the indirect costs of requirements and prohibitions put on various parties to facilitate the prevention, detection, or pursuit of infringers.

There is no easy appeal to precedent from other realms of law. The choice between direct and indirect methods of enforcement, and the allocation of the costs, vary widely from one area to another. To make concrete what I am talking about, here are some examples.

The laws of theft covering ordinary physical chattels are enforced directly by state-funded police. They will investigate infringements and pursue infringers. Relatively little effort is normally made by the state to directly prevent infringement - if he wants his property guarded (e.g. against shoplifters) it is up to the property-owner to supply locks, security guards or CCTV cameras at his own expense. The indirect enforcement is lighter but does exist - in general you are prohibited from carrying certain tools (under the offence of "going equipped"), and when buying goods you have a certain responsibility to ensure they are not stolen (under the offence of receiving stolen goods). These activities are prohibited not because they are directly harmful, but because prohibiting them makes it easier to enforce the laws of theft - they are indirect costs of enforcement.

The ordinary laws of contract put the bulk of the costs of enforcement on the contracting parties - in the case of a dispute they are required to investigate breaches and bring legal actions at their own expense.

The laws governing public corporations put very heavy indirect enforcement costs on all corporations to prevent fraud. Corporations are required to have audits, to publish accounts, and to refrain from many kinds of activity which are not harmful in themselves, in order to facilitate detection of fraud.

The laws on driving cars likewise put direct and indirect costs onto all drivers, requiring registration of vehicles and drivers and regular mechanical tests by state-certified mechanics in order to enable effective enforcement of safe driving.

Back in the sphere of IP, I think the questions of what harmless activities are to be prohibited and what requirements will be put on consumers and producers, in facilitation of regulation of activities considered to be harmful, and also of the question of to what extent the state itself will take responsibility for enforcing regulations covering transmission of digital information, are more crucial in their effects than precisely what is to be allowed or restricted.

The other significant questions, which are quite separate in motiviation from the commercial and IP issues that the paper addresses, but which cannot be ignored because of the overlap in enforcement methods, are the restrictions to be made on digital information for the purposes of protecting personal privacy (regulations such as the Data Protection Act), for the purposes of "public decency" (obscenity law) and for the purposes of national security (e.g. the current EU discussions over data retention).

That these questions cannot be isolated is demonstrated by the suggestion by representatives of copyright holders that data retained for the purposes of national security should be made available for enforcement of copyright law.

The paper is published as part of the ippr's project 'Intellectual Property and the Public Sphere: Balancing Competing Priorities', so perhaps there will be further publications addressing the issues above.

Monday, November 28, 2005


Is the Internet a Place?

I've been struck by this question a few times, lately.

First there was this article, which I already praised, insisting that the internet is not a separate place, and that activities carried on using the internet are still subject to (in this instance) the tax laws of an actual geographical place.

Then there was this piece from Eric Raymond, insisting that the internet is a place.

Now there is this article by Doc Searls, "How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net down the Tubes". He points out:

To the carriers and their regulators, the Net isn't a world, a frontier, a marketplace or a commons. To them, the Net is a collection of pipes.

(in fact, these two are backwards: The esr piece is a reply to the Searls piece. I read them in reverse order).

In the background, there is Lawrence Lessig's deep and subtle reasoning about the relationships between "cyberspace" and the real world, which I have referred to before.

Now, I think it is fairly obvious that the internet isn't literally a place. So the question is whether the metaphor is useful. But useful how? It could be useful as an aid to understanding, or it could be useful (to someone) as a way of persuading people to a particular viewpoint.

I'll get back to that. First, let's leave metaphor aside and look at what the internet really is.

The internet is not a place, nor is it the pipes. The internet is an activity performed by humans, like football, or government.

It requires certain tools - computers (general-purpose or special-purpose), and those pipes. Because it is a group activity, it requires co-operation among the participants.

There is an open question as to whether the activity (or set of activities) which is the internet actually includes things like using web pages or sending email, or whether these are activities which use the internet. As a matter of definition, I am going to say that those are uses of the internet. That will make my discussion much clearer.

The root of the conflict which the Searls and Raymond articles address is that the internet as practiced, currently and historically, has been open-ended: it isn't particularly designed for any specific use, and can be used for new things without making any changes to it. The core activity of internet is the same, whatever it is being used for.

There are two problems caused by this feature:

Problem 1) Because the core activity of the internet can be used for anything, it is difficult to prevent it being used for any specific thing - distributing child porn, libels, copyrighted materials, and criticisms of the government.

Problem 2) Because the people facilitating the activity don't know, at any particular point, what it is being used for, they can't extract revenue from it commensurate with the value to the users.

The first problem is a problem for everyone, although how big a problem you consider it to be depends to a large extent on your view of freedom generally.

The second is put by the CEO of SBC, quoted in the Searls article:

How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google (GOOG), MSN, Vonage, and others?

How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! (YHOO) or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

Whiteacre is being dishonest here, because Google, Vonage, etc. aren't getting anything for free. They're paying for their pipes, and I would be very surprised if they weren't paying SBC for some of them.

The issue for Whiteacre isn't that Google, MSN and Vonage aren't paying SBC for the pipes, it's that they aren't paying extra for the particularly lucrative use they are making of the pipes.

And of course, the real issue for Whiteacre isn't just that Google, MSN and Vonage are making lucrative use of the pipes (for one thing, that has yet to come about), it is that their use of the pipes is in direct competition with SBC's other business - telephone calls.

So how are SBC to deal with this problem? Here are their options:

Strategy 1) Restrict what their pipes can be used for. This is technically tricky, and doing it effectively would probably mean that the pipes could only be used for an enumerated list of activities specified in advance. This is what we (Searls, esr, Lessig, me, etc. etc.) are so afraid of: Once you need permission from SBC to introduce a new use of the internet, the rate of innovation, and of the increase in value of the internet, will be slashed.

Strategy 2) Get government to regulate away the uses of the internet they don't like. Whiteacre makes what looks to me like a fair point:

If you want us to get a franchise agreement for TV, then let's make the cable companies get a franchise for telephony.

Given the range of different businesses with different regulatory histories now finding themselves in competition, there are blatant inconsistencies. Someone can always ask that their competitors be more stringently regulated to level the playing field.

Strategy 3) Accept a small slice of a large pie, and work to make the pie bigger. As I understand it, there's no regulation limiting what SBC can charge for internet access - there's no reason they shouldn't be able to earn a return on their investment in their pipes just charging by the megabyte. The uneven regulation problem still exists, but in this strategy it would make more sense to call for their regulation to be reduced to the level of their competitors.

Because SBC and its pipes are real, and not a metaphor, what happens to them is really the most important question here. There are three ways it can go: Internet controlled by the telcos via technology, internet controlled by the government via regulation, or open internet.

The three aren't totally disjoint, but positive-feedback mechanisms are likely to mean whichever way it goes, it will be pushed further in the same direction. In detail:

The open internet tends to go all the way, because small attempts to control the content via regulation or technology are likely to be ineffective: if you ban activities, they can hide from government using the anonymity of the open internet, and they can hide from technology by moving protocols and connection points. To effectively ban stuff means allowing only approved users or only approved uses.

Regulation of internet, like all regulation, is self-accelerating because that is in the interests of the regulators. The big players like regulation because it falls disproportionately on their smaller rivals, and political influence is the biggest economy of scale.

And the telco-run internet will tend to go all the way in order to prevent runaway to the other two poles. Any openness will be used to tunnel all the things the telcos don't want, all openness must be sealed up.

So there's the map: We have three possible outcomes, and a number of different groups with different preferences.

There are us good guys, who want the internet, and dread the telco-run internet. There's a division here, however: some are willing to accept the regulated internet as a compromise, or a way of ensuring we don't get the telco-run internet. The division is more or less on political lines, with the libertarian stream of thought (like esr and me) more hostile to regulation and more optimistic of the open internet surviving in the marketplace, and the more leftist elements (Lessig, Seth Finkelstein, etc.) more confident in democracy to produce a healthy government-regulated internet regime.

I should emphasize at this point that nobody has written as deeply about these issues as Lessig, and, particularly as I disagree with his conclusions, one shouldn't accept my version of his viewpoint without reading his stuff.

I call us the "good guys" because I think what we want is what is best for everyone in the long run, and not just our sectional interest. The bulk of the future benefits of internet are yet to be invented, and won't be if it is closed up now.

Close to us are the anarchists. They want an open internet because they see what I listed as "problem 1" as an opportunity - an opportunity to do things that most people want to stop them doing.

In fact, the anarchists blend into the good guys. Many good guys want at least some of what the anarchists want - some want freedom of speech greater than is available even in Western democracies, some question whether copyright should exist, some want to see businesses existing outside the reach of government taxation and regulation.

While some of the anarchists believe they want the best for everyone, in order to persuade the population they would need to persuade them of propositions well beyond the technical effects of internet - their political views are currently minority.

I described the "good guys" as divided between libertarians and leftists, implying there aren't many conservatives. Conservatives are likely to see "problem 1" as more severe. They are likely to be turned away from open internet unless they can be convinced that the benefits outweigh problem 1. They are also likely to be resistant to this argument if they believe it is coming from anarchists who want the open internet for what they see as ulterior motives.

Now we have the various interest groups. The telcos want to control their pipes to extract monopoly rent. Even they might be mistaken. There is an idea around that the worst thing that can happen to a company is for its business to be "commodified", which is strange given that many of the biggest companies in the world are in commodity businesses. There's plenty of money in a commodity that everybody uses every day.

Among those adversely affected by "problem 1", the biggest are the movie studios and record companies. They have been given certain rights by copyright law, and those are being taken from them by open internet. They would like to see it closed one way or the other.

Another important interested party is the technology industry. They need open internet, but many of them don't realise it. Some of them are in a position where they could prosper with telco-run internet through close relations with the telcos, or with any closed internet through close relations with the studios, but in the long run all the power in their relationship will be on the other side.

Finally there are governments. Whatever party, they are likely to be instinctively conservative in their attitude to internet: after all, if they want more free speech or less copyright, they are in a position to have it without needing open internet to produce it through the back door. They are also subject to influence from powerful interests, whether telcos or studios. But they are also subject to influence from voters, so if the argument for open internet is won in public, governments should go along.

So where does this leave the "place" metaphor? I'm not sure it's all that relevant. It may be intended to imply that things are possible using open internet that wouldn't be possible otherwise, but that's not really clear. It might be meant to give the impression that it's extraterritorial and intrinsically out of anyone's control, but that's not only untrue, it's obviously untrue, and if it were true there wouldn't be anything to be arguing about. I think it obscures what is really at issue.

What's really at issue among the "good guys" is whether the government or the market is more likely to preserve open internet. I think it has to be one or the other, because any regulatory regime that could preserve "network neutrality" would, at the same time, put up barriers to entry that would stifle competition, and without competition the market would certainly allow the telcos to take control.

And what's really at issue between the "good guys" and the rest is the extent to which the benefits of internet depend on openness, and the extent to which the problems of openness are exaggerated by interested parties. There are a number of reasonable positions on copyright, but that internet needs to be strangled to preserve it isn't one of them. Terrorists and criminals can use open internet, but the rest of us need it more than they do.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Tree-stump shaped demand

Some points from the argument between Tim Worstall and Jesse Taylor over "price-gouging".
To recap: John Stossel made an argument, with a hypothetical example, to the effect that if you pay a high price for some essential, you should be glad that the price was set high, because had it been set low the vendor would have already sold out and you wouldn't have it at all.

Jesse Taylor attacked this argument as "odious".

Tim Worstall then nominated Jesse Taylor as an "Economic Idiot"

After that, things started to get unfriendly.

The sides are so far apart in their unstated assumptions that they appear quite unable to comprehend each other. After much pondering, however, I think I understand Taylor's claim that the seller is "artificially encouraging scarcity".

The model Taylor is using is that a buyer is going to buy a bottle of water over a two-day period. If he buys it on day one, he will be willing to pay p1 for it. If he is unable to buy it for p1 on day one, by day two he will be desperate, and willing to buy it for p2, where p2 > p1. The seller is only able to get p2 for the bottle by not selling it on day one. Therefore, he is "artificially encouraging scarcity" -- he isn't just profiting from the scarcity (the price of p2 on day 2), he's caused it by having withdrawn from the market on day 1.

The root error, as usual, is denying the law of demand - Taylor is (implicitly) claiming that the only people who will buy less water if the price increases are poor people who are not able to buy sufficient for their needs.

In what I call the "tree-stump" model of demand, the quantity demanded by an individual of a good is given by the formula

max( n, w / p )

Where p is the price, n is the amount the individual "needs", and w is the amount the individual can afford to spend.

[ I call it "tree-stump" for it's shape - it's a poor description, but I can't think of a better one. ]

Given this model of demand, the only reason total demand decreases when the price increases is that some people cannot afford as much as they need.

Another implication of this model is that there is no optimum price for the seller. As the price increases, revenue increases, until everyone in need is paying everything they can afford for whatever they can get.

I think Taylor and the critics of "gouging" are assuming that demand is approximated by this model, at least for some essential goods. Under this model, controlled prices would not restrict supply, but would redistribute some of it from richer buyers to poorer buyers.

The important way in which this model is in error, (apart from ignoring the effect of competition among sellers), is in the flat part. I might "need" two bottles of water a day to maintain reasonable health. Normally, however, I might drink eight. If the water is at "normal" price, I'll probably buy and drink those eight. If it is increased, I will buy less. Arnold Kling addressed this point recently in a very similar argument over pricing of health care.

Now it might be that Taylor sees this as just another form of gouging: that if I am greedily drinking water to keep comfortable, while others are suffering, that is just as bad as the high prices that would have dissuaded me from doing it. If that is the case, then what he is asking for is not simply for vendors to sell at the normal price to whoever turns up first, but for goods to be deliberately allocated, by sellers and potential buyers, to the needy. In an extreme emergency, that is a very desirable outcome, (as opposed to more stable situations, in which the issue of encouraging greater production comes to dominate) but denunciations of "gouging"are not nearly sufficient to achieve it - for every vendor selling the good there are probably many buyers who would willingly consume more than they need if the price were low enough.

This has got long, but I think it's necessary to try to understand the errors of these people, rather than just calling them idiots. Apart from anything else, they have shown in the comments at Tim's that they can at least equal our powers of vituperation: we're going to have to resort to rationality. Also, they're too plentiful to dismiss.

Sunday, September 04, 2005



The media here in Britain seem to be a bit geographically challenged when it comes to assessing the relief efforts on the Gulf of Mexico. They seem to have, consciously or not, transposed the damage from a map of the USA to a map of Britain without taking note of those funny "scale" markings in the corner, and they imagine that what has happened is something like Bristol being destroyed by bad weather, and Britain having to respond, when the actual destruction is more like Scotland or Denmark being taken out by bad weather, in terms of area and population. The nearest big cities to New Orleans are Dallas and Atlanta, each about 500 miles away - that's further than London to Glasgow. How would you go about evacuating Scotland with 12 or 24 hours notice? How whould you supply it, with sea and air links taken out first of all, and roads impaired for the last hundred miles or so?

And the second implication of this scale, of course, is the perspective on the terrorism issue. When I wrote, back in 2003, half-heartedly defending the Iraq war, I felt the threat of terrorism could, in principle, be a sufficient reason for launching a fairly large war. Over time, the impression grew that the effort was out of proportion to the threat. Articles like this one reinforced the idea. July, and the negligible damage that terrorists were able to do to London, made the point even stronger still. It's unlikely that terrorists can repeat the impact of September 2001, but even if they did it every year or two, it would be among the least of our problems. The worst-case scenario, remote as it is, would be a fission bomb in a major city, but that would do much less damage than the USA has taken in the last 10 days. (Although in the longer term it would probably kill more people).

It would have been worth billions to have prevented Katrina (if it were possible), but would it have been worth a trillion? At some point the cost-benefit calculation has to be that it's worth taking the risk.

Of course, we're in now, and I'm discussing a decision long since made. The same calculus that makes me sceptical of the necessity of the Iraq war makes me optimistic as to its outcome: the massively-reported internal terrorism in Iraq is actually pretty minor, and is no great obstacle to the institution of a stable government. As I've said before, sunk costs aside, the job in Iraq needs to be finished. The costs of stopping now are greater than those of leaving Saddam in power in the first place.

Back to Katrina, the victims deserve sympathy, but not condescension. America is not a charity case, but neither does it deserve to be sneered at in the face of a natural catastrophe greater than anything Europe has ever seen in history.

Sunday, July 31, 2005


Humanitarian Intervention

Chrenkoff asks, since there are 250,000 Iraqis living in Britain, how come none of them are doing suicide bombings?

Separately, Judith Klinghoffer points out that two of the suspects are from Somalia, where the invasion by Westerners was carried out at the urging of the U.N., but was abandoned in the face of strong resistance.

At the same time, the anti-war Neil Craig reminds us of some of the uncomfortable facts about Western intervention in Yugoslavia.

Now my gut feeling has always been against sending armies overseas. It may come as a surprise to my (literally several) readers, and I tend to forget it myself, but if asked outright whether it was the right policy to invade Iraq in 2003, I would say I think it was probably wrong.

There are several reasons why, believing this, I still am generally much closer to the "Pro-war" side than the "Anti-war" side.
  1. I think the policy, mistaken as it may have been, was nevertheless an improvement on the policy it replaced, as I discussed here.
  2. I felt that the previous attack on Yugoslavia was so outrageous and unjustifiable, that to make a big fuss about the much more finely balanced question of Iraq was to show a lack of sense of proportion.
  3. I had expected the operation in Afghanistan to be a failure, and, seeing it now as largely a success, I entertain the possibility that George Bush knows something I don't.
  4. Whatever the right answer to the difficult question in 2003, I am convinced that to cut and run from Iraq now would be a catastrophe. It would reinforce the most damaging belief held by Islamist terrorists -- the illusion that they can beat us.
  5. And at least there was a plausible national interest proposed for intervening in Iraq, unlike Yugoslavia or Somalia, and Bush was clear and explicit about it. I didn't agree with Bush's conclusions, but I liked his style.
Why are "humanitarian" military interventions so much worse in their effects than self-interested ones? I think partly it is related to the tragedy of plentiful raw materials.

It has often been observed that some of the richest countries are the ones with the least raw materials -- Japan, the Netherlands, etc. At the same time some of the countries with the richest raw materials -- much of Africa, Russia, South America, are among the poorest countries.

The most likely explanation is that, where things of value are easily available, either diamonds in Sierra Leone, or plentiful wild food crops, power will all go to those that can most easily dominate the available resources - bandits and warlords. Where survival requires actually making things, banditry will still exist, but there must be a structure in society that leaves some power to the people who make or grow stuff. It is that societal structure that enables further development.

Likewise, when a "humanitarian" force gets involved in a conflict the incentives for the factions change. It becomes most important to influence the "humanitarians" I remember a British officer on U.N. duty in Sarajevo, in a press conference, saying that he had proof that both sides had deliberately shelled their own civilians, in an attempt to win sympathy from the other end of the TV cameras. I thought this was one of the most astonishing and major pieces of newsof the whole conflict, but I have never heard any mention of it again from that day to this.

Influencing the humanitarians is, in general, easy, because those who sent them are mainly concerned with "doing something to help", and not with the nasty details of the situation. One of the reasons that I find Neil Craig's conspiracy theories about Yugoslavia far more believable than, for instance those of about the London bombs, is that fundamentally, nobody here really cared what was actually happening in Yugoslavia. We heard some sob stories, we said "something must be done", we did something, the details of context and consequence are of only idle or passing interest. Conversely, we care deeply about what happens on the Piccadilly Line and why, and it will be very difficult to pull the wool over our eyes for more than a very short time. (Another consequence of the "fire-and-forget" nature of humanitarian interventions is the opportunity of private exploitation of the situation by the personnel involved, as I discussed here.)

The unpredictability, from the point of view of the participants, of the "humanitarian" forces, means that otherwise lost causes are kept alive by the hope that the foreigners will intervene to support them.That is why, in my opinion, Western intervention in Yugoslavia and in immediate post-war Iraq in 1991, cost lives.

If the foreigners are acting on a clear statement of their own interests, then it is relatively obvious which groups can expect support and which can't. A foreign force which is pursuing its national interest is more likely to see through whatever it's doing, and less likely to fail to act at a critical moment, chicken out, or change sides. If the government behind the intervention gets a reputation for doing exactly what it says it's going to do, as Bush has done, then all the better. Carefully-judged hints about what a government might do create the uncertainty which perpetuates fighting. That's why I say I like Bush's style: style matters.

Saturday, July 30, 2005


Kinds of Privacy

Our ability to keep our private business private has been declining steadily for decades, but it's not often recognised that the decline takes two quite separate forms.

One is that information that was available to the public, but only easily available to a relatively small number, is now very easily available to anyone who wants it. That is a simple result of information technology that makes the communicating of all information easier. It ranges from simply inverting the index of a telephone directory to make it easy to identify a person from their telephone number, to businesses compiling and trading details of their customers' shopping habits.

The other, quite different phenomenon is that the government is demanding, with legal force, information that by previous standards would have been totally private. They demand to be informed of every transaction of various types, even if all parties would rather keep them private.

The distinction is often made harder to see, because the government is obtaining the information from the same source -- large businesses, as are responsible for spreading some of the non-private information of the first kind. But the difference between a supermarket selling a mailing list and a phone company handing a database of call records over to police is all the difference in the world, if the first is voluntary and the second is not.

It's true it can be difficult if you want to release much less "voluntary" information than most other people do, but that is to be expected, because it is always expensive (one way or another) to be out of step with the rest of society. At least there are limits on exposure of this sort, in that it has to be acceptable to most of society.

The most important right you need to keep your privacy was lost many years ago, without anyone noticing very much. It is the right to choose how you will be known. In Britain, only decades ago, your "real name" was whatever name people knew you by. It did not have to be on official record anywhere, and there was no offense of using a "false" name, unless you were pretending to be some other real person, for fraudulent purposes. Very few people availed themselves of the option of using another name, but mere fact that the option was open had large effect, because it made it pointless to casually collect and collate names, as some proportion of them could be made up.

The other large and old breach of privacy is in vehicle and driver registration. As soon as you set foot in a car, you lose most of the rights of privacy that people have held for centuries. Not only are you required to identify yourself on demand, you are required to advertise your identity to everyone via the registration plates on the car. When the argument came up a few years ago about drivers licenses carrying photographs, my position was that it was only reasonable for a drivers license to have a photograph on it, so that you could prove that you were licensed to drive, and it was a doubly good thing because then the name and address would no longer be necessary and could be removed - a valid license with your picture on it proved that you were licensed, whatever your name was.

Obviously, the name and address were not removed - the government finds that information far too valuable to give up. The only direct driving-related issue would be that you couldn't easily enforce driving bans as punishment, as the banned person could get a new license under a new name, but if enforcement became too difficult then other punishments could be used instead. London transport travelcards work that way - if buying a monthly or longer ticket you need to get a photocard, to prevent people sharing season tickets, but the name on the travelcard doesn't need to be your real name, and they ask for no evidence that it is.

The "bad" effect (compulsory government identification) increases the bad consequences of the "inevitable" effect (wide publication of public information). Most of what you do on-line, for instance, is traceable back to you only because at the end of a chain you've paid for it through a bank account, and bank accounts, as of around 1990, have to be in your "one true name". I opened a bank account in 1989, and was not asked for any evidence of identity -- as they had no reason to care, since they were not giving me credit. Shortly afterwards, however, that fundamental, basic freedom for me and the bank to do business according to our own convenience, was taken away in the name of combating laundering of drug-dealing profits.

After that, the ID cards that are on their way are a relatively small imposition - the completion of a process of loss of freedom that is mostly done already. I will oppose it, and I hope as many as possible do the same, but it is too little, much too late.

The lesser loss of privacy, the wide publication of public information, has bad consequences sometimes - there is much debate of the dog-poo girl - but it is inevitable because to prevent it would involve a greater loss of privacy than to allow it. If government agents have the right to inspect your ISP's records, to make sure that they are complying with "data protection" law, is your privacy enhanced or reduced? For me, it is much reduced. Communication is essentially a private activity, and it cannot be restricted in the name of privacy.

There is no inevitability to the greater loss of privacy, the compulsory disclosure and compulsory identification. The benefits are minor, and the costs enormous. It is done in the cause of very minor benefits, such as making it possible to catch "criminals" - such as drug sellers or "insider traders" - whose crimes are so popular with their "victims" that it is impossible to actually catch them doing the crimes. It is part of the general expansion of state power, into every aspect of life, which is reversible and which should indeed be reversed.

(this article is expanded from a comment on slashdot two years ago).

Update: DH makes a good point in the comment below, that in examining the matters of principle involved in ID cards above, I am not addressing the practicalities of how effective and efficient the scheme is likely to be -- and indeed, while the anti-money-laundering measures came in quietly and have not been noticed by many, ID cards will be a far more visible breach of principles of good government. If the implementation goes as badly and as expensively as I expect, it will be a disaster for the country and the Government.

Sunday, July 17, 2005


Death Throes

The conclusion I previously drew from the London bombings is that the terrorists are weakening.

I will go further than that: the whole of modern Islamist terror is a sign of the weakness, and indeed of the death throes, of what could be called "primitive" Islam.

I leave aside the nationalist struggles that have produced terror - the Algerian conflict, for example, had nothing to do with "primitive" Islam; it was essentially a western-style nationalist movement, and the Palestinian movement also had that character through the 1970s. Today, however there is a mixture of western-style nationalism and primitive Islam involved, and that may be the reason it is proving so intractable.

The truly Islamist terrorist movement, however, that of the Muslim Brotherhood and Osama bin Laden, is, as the leftists tell us, driven by anger.

And the root cause of that anger is that wherever their culture comes into contact with ours, it loses. From Turkey under Kemal Ataturk to modern Pakistan, traditional Islamic society is giving way to an imitation of the West.

This does not mean that Islam is dying out, just that, like Christianity, it is evolving into a form that makes less conflict with the practicalities of living in a developed society. I expect that in a hundred years Moslems will continue to recite the Koran and observe Ramadan, but what I am calling the "primitive" elements -- intolerance of Western practices of commerce, sexual behaviour, freedom of expression, whatever -- will have died out.

Among Moslems in the West, as well as the more Westernised Moslem countries like Turkey, this is already the case for the majority. And this is why the "primitives" are angry.

Given that this decline has been evident for a hundred years, why have they only been fighting for the last ten? I think that several trends conspired to give them a false idea of their own strength.

The first of these was the cold war. The bifurcation of western civilisation, and the surrogate battles between the two halves on lands around the globe, both presented western civilisation at its worst (in the form of the tyrants supported by one side or the other across Arabia), and gave opportunity to primitivists to be supported by either side, most obviously in Afghanistan.

The next is the same thing on a smaller scale, as the current political battles between left and right within the West have again involved Islamists as pawns and given them an exaggerated idea of their power. This is what I addressed in my first article on Islam in Europe
- "there are many political battles in various European countries which appear to be between 'native' Europeans and Muslim immigrants. In fact, these political issues are argued between left and right within the native political community, with the immigrants themselves as interested but largely powerless bystanders."

The third is that as Westerners have sought to come to terms with their unchallenged global dominance, they have become tolerant of Islam to an unprecedented and sometimes illogical degree. While this is essentially a symptom of Western strength, it can easily look like weakness.

This illusory strengthening of primitive Islam, and weakening of Western society, encouraged the primitivists to think that their decline was reversible, and that if they started to fight back, divine intervention would close the cultural "missile gap". The PR coup of September 2001 gave them added momentum, and they were able to take over what were originally western-style nationalist movements in Palestine and Chechnya (much to the disadvantage of the Palestinians and Chechens).

That momentum is now running out.

The key image of the conflict for me, I saw in the aftermath of September 2001. A TV news crew was in rural Pakistan, showing a stall selling T-shirts emblazoned with bin Laden's face. What struck me was that alongside the bin Laden T-shirts were the logos of U.S. sports teams. I have no doubt that from the North-West Frontier to the streets of Luton, the New York Yankees, the
LA Raiders and Barcelona FC are outselling bin Laden and al-Zarqawi, both on T-shirts and in every other way that matters.

The owners of a fish and chip shop in Beeston were "shattered" that their son decided to blow himself up on the Circle Line. How do you think the owners of my local fish and chip show will feel if their sons start to spend a lot more time at Mosque? Compared with a fortnight ago, will they be glad that their children are keeping in touch with their traditional culture, or
will they be worried and suspicious? I'm tempted to ask them, but I would feel a bit rude.

The challenge for the West, in order to end this conflict with the minimum of casualties, is to persuade the primitivists that God has not chosen this generation to restore the Caliphate. The way to do that is to show confidence, to show unity to the degree that democracy allows, and to make sure that where we come into direct conflict with Islam, (which should be as rarely as possible), we win. The war in Iraq has been expensive and dangerous, and it is arguable whether it was necessary in the first place, but the most important thing now is that it be won. If a stable, independent government can be set up there, that is Moslem but not primitive, the
demoralising effect could make Al-Quaeda and the primitivist terrorist movement history.

The recent omens are good:

USA Today:
Terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi criticized his spiritual mentor for urging militants in Iraq to rein in attacks on civilians and warned that the sheik's comments could split Islamic fighters, according to a purported statement posted on an Islamic Web site Tuesday.

Winds of Change:
Support for Osama bin Laden and suicide bombings are plummeting throughout the Muslim world.

Washington Post:
Several senior clerics of Iraq's disaffected Sunni Muslim minority will soon issue a decree calling on followers of the faith to vote in upcoming elections and help write a new constitution, a prominent Sunni leader said Monday. The step could draw Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency and into a political process they have steadfastly rejected.

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