Exclusive: ZeroPaid Interviews Open Rights Group

Many things have been happening surrounding your rights on the internet and a number of these things are occurring in Britain. We interviewed Open Rights Group to get a better idea of what things have been like and what things might be like in 2009.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

It’s been quite a year in 2008 for British citizens. There’s plenty of issues surrounding privacy and digital rights that have been either ongoing or starting up in 2008 that almost makes it a promise that people in 2009 will see interesting things happen. In the process, the Open Rights Group (ORG) is also getting a new executive director. So, in order to catch up on what’s going on, we interviewed ORG’s Becky Hogge and Jim Killock.

ZeroPaid: It’s a new year for the Open Rights Group (ORG) and there’s a new face, Jim Killock. For those who are less familiar with Jim, who is Jim, what are some of the past things Jim has done in the past and what does Jim bring to the table for Open Rights Group and, ultimately, the digital rights conscious?

Becky: When we put out the call for a new ED back in Autumn last year, I was astounded by the quality of the applications we received. Jim stood out because of his role at the Green Party. From the outside, I’d seen the Greens change significantly over the time Jim was with them – from taking the collective decision to elect a leader, to appointing a dedicated spokesperson on intellectual property issues (the first UK party to do this), to launching privacy-aware campaigns like “Census Alert”. When I realised Jim had, to a large extent, been behind a lot of that, I thought “hey, ORG needs some of that”.

ORG is at a stage now where its reputation is fairly established among the technical community, the media and policy makers. What I see Jim bringing to the table is the ability to broaden the base of support we enjoy among non-technical people here in the UK – to take the ORG mission to more people.

Jim: I’d like to thank Becky for all her hard work, which has brought ORG to the successful position it is in today. Whatever I do this year will be building on the very solid work she has done for ORG over the last two years..

Anyone who uses technology is affected by the changes that the new digital culture brings. There are choices that society can make, that will make our world better or worse for citizens.

I am certain that more and more people are realizing how much digital culture has changed their lives, much more in fact than governments and industry realize. However, people’s everyday perceptions that things have changed does not mean they are engaged in a dialogue with the people making our laws — they are not being talked to at all most of the time. ORG can help bridge that gap, and I’d like to see many more people who are technology users get involved in that debate through ORG.

ZeroPaid: It seems that as we enter 2009, there’s a number of issues being brought into the new year. In ORG’s latest news release, the first issue that is being brought up this “modernization” of communications interception brought on by the Home Office. What sort of things will ORG be looking for that would make them speak out and how will you respond?

Jim: Next month, Org will be looking closely at the Home Office’s plans to “modernise” the interception of communications in the UK. It’s been widely reported that this will include plans to centrally collect communications traffic data (who you contact, where and when) from ISPs and telcos and bring them under the control of a Government agency. This would create an archive of the communications activity of every UK citizen – a resource that would dramatically alter the relationship between the citizen and the state.

As we’ve seen with electronic elections, “modernisation” is a weasel word. Networked, digital technology changes the game, and can have a dramatic – and in this case unacceptable – effect on civil rights if implemented in a thoughtless way.

ZeroPaid: The issue of copyright term extension in Britain has been, throughout 2008, a major issue ORG followed closely. We’ve had the politician that objected to the legislation in the house to stop the legislation, we’ve had the Gower’s report and several other occurrences where it seemed to make sense for the government to reject copyright term extension. Strangely enough, here we are in 2009 with the British government seemingly leaning towards extending the term anyway. First of all, it must be frustrating to see this sort of thing happen, but is there any indication that points to how we got here in the first place in this debate and what will likely be the next step ORG plans on doing in all of this?

Becky: *sigh*. You’re right, it is frustrating. All the evidence points against extending term, but the sad fact is that the record industry have invested massive resources into lobbying for this change in the law, and we can’t match that investment. They have people who can go to Brussels every day, and they fly over rock stars too, which has a predictable effect on policy-makers (if you look at our Culture Secretary’s speech where he indicates the UK might reconsider its stance on term, he opens it saying how cool it was for him to play guitar with Feargal Sharkey).

One of the reasons ORG was formed was to counter record industry lobbying, but we’ll never have the same level of resources they have. What we do have, is the voice of the thousands of supporters of our campaign against term extension. If even half of the 14,000+ people who signed our petition against copyright term extension wrote to their MEP to let them know their concerns, we’d win the argument.

People don’t realise what a strong weapon their voice is.

ZeroPaid: There was quite an event with the Freedom, Not Fear campaign that really raised awareness of a general encroachment on the right to privacy in general through technology on an international level. Meanwhile, there’s new legislation in countries like Australia and India that increases surveillance on the general public. Do you see anything new happening in Britain later on in the year that raises even further questions about personal privacy online or even offline for that matter?

Jim: The Intercept “modernisation” programme is the big question here, but Government also have plans to fast-track data-sharing initiatives through Parliament, and the roll-out of the ID card will continue apace.

Plus we’re still waiting to hear from Government over whether they plan to act on illicit filesharers – almost all the proposals they had on the table last year were highly unfriendly to privacy, and frequently seem to take legal processes out of the courts and into automated company procedures.

In a sense I feel we need to create a positive agenda for privacy – digital technology has undoubtedly changed the game here and we need to ask how we want our dignity and security protected in a digital age. Privacy is a fundamental right — it’s about how we treat each other as human beings.

ZeroPaid: There’s been increasing pressure on ISPs throughout the world to either implement a so-called “three strike” policy (like what France is trying to implement in the European Union for instance) or to just generally filter the internet to try and disrupt file-sharing. Has there been any new developments that affects the British? If so, what does ORG plan on doing about this?

Becky: We sent a long submission to the Government (PDF) on this back in 2008, and we’re waiting for them to respond.

ZeroPaid: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jim: We’re moving to an era where governments are making deep decisions about the future legal and technical infrastructure of the net. They need to talk to the users. The net isn’t just an enormous shopping centre: nearly all of the UK’s top visited sites are about people talking to each other and sharing their own content, like Facebook and Youtube.

But governments are prone to react to agendas that their civil servants, lobbyists and business put to them. That’s why ORG and people like you, reading this, need to help shape the net for citizens.

Over the next year, we intend to make ORG’s website more of a campaigning tool, to let you make your own voice heard. If you live in the UK, you should think about talking to your MP or MEP face to face about issues like copyright and internet privacy. Politicians need to know that there will be votes lost if they don’t wake up to the agenda the digital age brings.

We would like to thank ORG’s Becky Hogge and Jim Killock for taking time out of their busy schedules to do this interview with us.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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