Tag Archives: Freedom of speech

It is reassuring that the UK’s Telegraph (see for instance the Telegraph) is maintaining in its pages the stories that Google is removing from seach.

What a right to be forgotten looks like.

What a right to be forgotten looks like.

The European Court of Justice’s illiberal ruling has reminded us that the digital media are in the end ephemeral, easily deleted and perhaps unreliable. The hard copy newspapers are proving themselves what we had forgotten they were — a way of archiving history. If digital storage becomes so corrupted by selective amnesia caused by deletion of links to stories, it will prove unreliable in the end, and undermine the whole point of search.

In that respect, the ECJ’s ruling is regretfully Luddite. It assumes that a right to be forgotten really makes sense. We can instead still hunt through back copies of hard copy journals, newspapers and pamphlets and see both the good, the bad and the ugly of history. Efforts to redraft the historical record by authoritarian regimes now appear to pale when compared to the ECJ’s ruling.

Clearly, there really is no right to be forgotten, otherwise editors and librarians would be far too busy with their physical scissors cutting out references to people and events from their collections. And we all know what history looks like when regimes do that.

There is a view called ‘internet exceptionalism’, that the internet changes everything, and in many respects it has, but we cannot define our fundamental rights solely on the contingent features of a particular technology. I have experience with this in terms of public access to health information over the internet. There have been efforts to censor false and misleading information on the internet, without also noting that much of that same information is available in hard copy in libraries, and bookstores. The spread of ill-informed medical opinions on internet chat rooms is hardly a reason to censor content any more than the state should eavesdrop on private conversations in case someone gives inaccurate medical advice. The world just doesn’t work like that and freedom won’t permit it.

There is another view, ‘technological agnosticism’, that says that we should not construct laws in such a way that they depend on a particular technology which can change, rendering the law meaningless or hard to enforce.  In terms of access to health information, since patients can buy books in bookstores that are just as unreliable as information on the internet, why pick on the internet when the problem lies elsewhere.  The key is to focus not on what the technology does but whether what is perceived to be the problem can be solved without specific reference to the technology. This cannot be done ‘forgetting’, hence there can be no right to enforce it without crossing the line into censorship — and there is no way to square the circle when it comes to censorship.

Unfortunately, we now have a silly ruling that seeks to treat the internet exceptionally, and in an uninformed way.  Indexed library holdings or the table of contents of a newspaper archive not subject to that ruling since putting the index online should not cause that information suddenly to be censorable and in and of itself create a right to be forgotten. But, that appears to be the consequences of the ECJ’s illogic.

So, thank goodness there still exists hard copies of things and that the legitimate press are working to protect access to these stories. As they say, what goes around comes around. If people find that digital archives are being selectively censored, they will lose their value, and with that will come the loss of confidence in the new media, itself. The snake devours itself.

Time to pick up my copy of today’s paper.

Ann Glover, as reported on Euractiv (here):

But it appears she also found it difficult to disentangle the Commission’s evidence gathering processes from what she calls the “political imperative” that’s behind them. …

To back its policy proposals, the Commission often outsources the evidence-gathering part of the job to external consulting firms, which provide ‘impact assessment studies’ or ‘research’ that are often branded as ‘independent’. However, Glover says such consultancies have little incentive to produce evidence that contradicts the Commission’s political agenda. “If they want repeat business, [they] are not going to go out and find the evidence to show that this is a crazy idea,” she says.

Disturbing stuff. In my role as an advisor and having taught policy development to civil servants, I have emphasised their responsibility to “speak truth to power”. If, as Glover says, this isn’t happening within the European policy-making machinery, then that may explain much policy creep at the Commission level.

Giant Squid, Glover's Harbour

The policy process: Not what Ann Glover has in mind? Source: Giant Squid, Glover's Harbour (Photo credit: Product of Newfoundland)

Her characterisation of European civil servants wind-up toys, that just run off and do what they are told suggests there could be some danger to good governance from hyperactive civil servants who unthinkingly do what they’re told with dossiers that should be binned. This suggest two things problems: the first is the quality of guidance on developing policy options itself, how to work with external advisors (carefully by the way) and the second is that the interface between the most senior level and Commissioners lacks candour and the failure of the most senior to truth to power. This is evidence of cowardice. at least, and incompetence at most.

Her remarks suggest that perhaps Glover hasn’t also been particularly effective elevating the evidence base of policy-making itself.  Her solution, though, is seriously flawed. She seems to believe that it is possible to create a definitive evidence base around which all can agree and that it is indeed possible in policy processes to factor out the political dimension. The ‘symmetry of ignorance’ [see NOTES below] explains why a room full of experts don’t usually agree and why it is relatively easy for ‘my’ experts to challenge ‘your’ experts. Policy problems are complex, sometimes called wicked, problems, and that means that one single course of action is unlikely, that interventions may create new problems, and unlike (scientific) problems, you may not know when you’ve solved the problem (called ‘the stopping’ problem).

What science dislikes is absence of agreement (e.g. science is about proof, not consensus), whereas policy is about consensus and disagreement: the result is one of the following: do nothing, act from the precautionary principle (i.e. do something just in case, but knowing there isn’t really any good evidence), guess, compromise or satisficing [see NOTES below].  Scientists often believe that evidence leads unequivocally to specific policy actions, but this is just one view of the world. While Glover has claimed to provide independent advice, she has actualy provided ‘her’ advice, reflecting how she weighs the balance of evidence against her understanding and framing of the problems and choices on offer from what she has read, and the people she has spoken to. One could legitimately ask whether her academic roots and scientific preferences as a biologist have preconditioned her towards thinking about policy problems and evidence in a particular way.That does not detract from her alarm at the policy machinery, but does inform our assessment of her proposed solution.

Hasn’t anyone read Feyerabend?

Therefore, purely technocratic policy governance, as I think Glover is advocating, is flawed and likely dangerous as it replaces the messiness of the real world of policy problems and choice-making with tidy authoritarianism.

Equally worrying is her comment on the quality of advice from paid consultants. I once put a dossier to a DG to be be an advisor, but haven’t been called (we’re up to almost 3 years, so I guess I shouldn’t expect the phone to ring!)  It is the job of advisors to advise, and that means also saying when something is not a good idea. That the European Commission has constructed a giant out-sourced advisory industry is not surprising as it is actually a tactic to cement the European project by creating an advisory system that works in harmony with the Commission’s objectives. That so many consultancies have fallen for this trick and taken the bait is disappointing but not surprising.

Many of the Commission-funded consultancy reports I have read have started and ended with the merits of the proposed Commission actions. I can’t recall a report that said something shouldn’t be done. It is also a tactic in assessing policy options (what Glover refers to as risk assessment) to write the most about the favoured option and less about the least favoured option.I blogged here on a Commission consultancy meeting, the cost of which was no doubt staggering; the Commissioner spoke on what she wanted, everyone agreed, the presentations showed how Europe would be a better place if this were done and everyone agreed with everyone, had a nice lunch and the many unpaid interns took notes for their CVs to PR firms or consultancies so they could get more work. And so the system feeds itself by indoctrinating people into the world of uncritical agreement.

Now, for disclosure, I have been ticked off by Commission civil servants for things I’ve said that were not European Commission

doctrine. Perhaps that explains why my dossier is in a box on the bottom shelf.


Symmetry of Ignorance: The expertise and ignorance is distributed over all participants in a wicked problem. There is a symmetry of ignorance among those who participate because nobody knows better by virtue of his degrees or his status. There are no experts (which is irritating for experts), and if experts there are, they are only experts in guiding the process of dealing with a wicked problem, but not for the subject matter of the problem. Source: Horst Rittel, 1972 “On the planning crisis”.

Satisficing is a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution.

Sticker advocating dissent: "dissent deve...

Something autocratic leaders don't understand

Another day, another perspective. The Guardian reports that another member of the select few advising the PM, Cameron, on health reform has been a bit off-message. It just goes to show that the people who held positions of power and authority in and around the NHS, when removed from that public duty, may just hold somewhat different views from they professed to hold. Did Mark Britnell think this way when we worked in the public sector? If so, why so silent?

Of course, part of the problem is the general lack of alternative perspectives within the NHS and the Department of Health, driven by the need to maintain a tight control on dissent (bad for decision-making). There is a somewhat natural and regretable tendency that when governments get into trouble, they behave like authoritarians, meaning they move to suppress dissent. Of course, the result is that they also legislate, or act in haste, and then repent at leisure, often courtesy of the courts, as decisions are progressively unpicked.

Britnell said things to please his audience, hardly unguarded, but certainly counched in language familar to Americans. Having chaired a conference on how to export American healthcare expertise to Europe, it is easy to get drawn into thinking that all things are possible when talking with Americans, something that folks familiar with the NHS would find seductive for its novelty.

Let’s look at what Britnell might have meant. There is nothing strange for the NHS to be a state insurer, since that is what it in effect is. Why were the premiums called ‘National Insurance’ anyway. The term insurance is also more easily understood in the US, and it more familar to those within the EU, as well. Perhaps the problem lies more in these shores, at not understanding the need to ‘translate’ language so people in fact can understand you. But then fog in channel, England cut off.

The NHS is highly politically polarising in the US; it is associated with rationing, queuing, and at least to many on one health discussion group, poor clinical outcomes. So the evidence, from the US side, is the NHS is not something to copy. The Canadian system is also highly politically polarising. Neither system particularly fascinates Amercians anymore, they are much more interested in the Netherlands. So it is with some courage that Britnell talked about the NHS in the first place — into the lion’s den and all that.

Would it be such a bad thing for the health system to thought more like an insurance system? Probably not. There is some evidence, controversial to some, that Bismarckian systems (i.e. insurance-based health systems), are more productive, easier to incentivise and provide better care than Beveridgean (i.e. the NHS, tax funded) systems, which are seen as better at managing costs. When Bismarckian systems get into financial trouble, they adopt centralised or other control systems familar to tax funded systems (cue recent reforms in France or Germany), while tax funded systems when they need to improve outcomes, shift toward insurance-type approaches, cue managed care, co-payments, clinical carve-outs (disease or medicines management) and so on.

The one big issue, hospital autonomy, or state ownership, is largely a non-starter if you really think about it. There is really no need for the public sector to own the means of production (i.e. the organisations that delivery health services), unless one is an unreformed Marxist. The NHS is probably better thought of as a guarantor of quality, access, and the purchaser of the care itself, something more akin to what proactive insurers should be doing. What appears to be interesting results from the last decades of reform is that public ownership of hospitals apparently concealed poor management, weak financial controls, convoluted clinical workflow, all of which led to poor productivity and value-for-money. These types of problems are not fixed by simply throwing more public money at them, but by changing the way they operate, the incentives that drive organisational behaviour. If you want to reduce emergency 7-day readmission rates (where most of the problems really lie, not at 30 days), some disincentives are appropriate, otherwise people don’t pay attention. A type of tough love.

One good thing is there is some possibility that this closet advisory group may not be breathing each other’s air, and that some original thinking may actually be taking place. However, I remain doubtful, since the people involved built their reputations within the very system they are now being asked to reflect upon. If they were that good at thinking this way, why weren’t they doing it before? Perhaps they were too obediant and on-message.

Regretfully, this mantra appears to be more important than the problem of NHS reform.

Freedom of Speech (painting)

"Freedom of Speech" (a painting)

Why target WikiLeaks in the first place? Central to thinking this is acceptable lies in the notion of ‘digital (or internet) exceptionalism’, which means in effect that there is a fundamental difference between a digital something and a hard object something — one might say that digital objects don’t exist in the real world so aren’t subject to the checks and balances of real world protections.

I wrote in an earlier post asking what if WikiLeaks were a book. Believing in digital exceptionalism I suggest makes some people feel they can take more liberties in the internet or digital world with fundamental freedoms.

I am protected if I write a letter to the editor that is critical of the government as the newspaper is part of the pantheon of institutions that we associate with freedom of speech. I put the same comment on Twitter or Facebook, and I may find myself censored through loss of my account (something to do with a fair use policy).  These internet companies have emerged not for the purposes of advancing our freedoms, but for specific commercial goals by exploiting the social dimension of the internet. What the newspapers and television know, but these firms don’t, is that a central plank of social interaction is not just freedom of association (or not to associate), but also freedom to speak freely without censorship. (Why do you think they locked up photocopiers in communist states? Why do some countries try to lock up the internet in a similar way?) Perhaps the only firm that really understands the maxim that information wants to be free are search engines such as Google.

The digital world is not exceptional. It is just another place where our freedoms are explored and developed, and need protecting.

I have first hand experience with digital exceptionalism form work on patient access to health information over the internet, where some people wanted to vet and control health information — some people still think health information over the internet should be government approved! (Why else would the UK’s National Health Service see itself as the only authoritative source of health information?) What is disturbing about this attitude is that most of that information is freely and readily available in a decent sized bookstore. In fact, a freely available book from a bookstore published freely without censorship (and probably full of errors like the Oxford Encyclopedia of Medicine), would become subject to government control when available digitally.

Because the ditial environment changes most if not all the rules of access to information, people think that somehow it is fundamentally different and therefore should be seen as exceptional.

We are at a new hinge-point in the evolution of the internet, where we are now having to really deal with digital exceptionalism and freedom of speech (and perhaps the extent to which censorship has been privatised through PayPal, Mastercard, and one suspects others to come). My view is that the internet is not a different place, with different rules, but the same place subject to the same rules we have spent centuries developing into the open societies of today. I know patients are much better off for having easier and less mediated access to health information that used to be the sole gift of doctors and nurses. The same can be said of other information.

Efforts to censor, control, and channel digital content are just as nasty and illiberal as they would be were they directed at a television channel, newspaper or a publisher.  If we decide otherwise, I fear for our freedoms.

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Freedom going up in digital flames

Freedom going up in digital flames

What if WikiLeaks were a book? Would governments be sending in their bully-boys to trash the bookstore? Would they try to put the publisher out of business?

And what sort of democratic government would idly stand by while others did such things? Indeed, wouldn’t such a government act to protect the bookstore, protect the publisher — something to do with freedom of speech I think.  I would have thought so until I see the difficulty WikiLeaks is having.

The persecution of WikiLeaks is tantamount to book-burning, and instead of bully-boys, we have hackers. What is worse is the complicity in what appears to be at least state-sanctioned actions by firms like Amazon (aren’t they in the freedom to read anything business?), PayPal (so much for open borders and free movement of money). Who is protecting hosting sites from cyber-attacks? I thought governments were worried about cyber-terrorism — I guess not when it is in their interests.

While we may have a variety of views on what the substance of the WikiLeaks stash of diplomatic cables (nice industrial era word), there are fundamental freedoms at work here. Yes governments need their secrets, but secrets and lies are one thing, believing we live in an open society (as Popper wrote about) brings with its risks. I had thought that democracies felt that it were better to risk the transparency of a democracy than the tyranny of a closed society. But of course, when you are subject to your own rules, that is when you discover how committed you are their protection. And therein lies the rub. Our democratic governments want openness and transparency for others, but when they are tested against these standards they are often found to be failing.

WikiLeaks is a phenomenon that will in time pass. But the evolution of open societies has been given a boost in the internet age, by enabling greater citizen empowerment, access to information, and what we are finding in many cases is the emperor has no clothes.

Enter the information-age book burners, whose intolerance is clear and their clandestine ability to subvert freedom of information has little restraint.

In the end, I worry more about how reactions against WikiLeaks will undermine the freedoms the internet brings than the embarrassing revelations of some civil servants sending messages home.

Want to know more?

Wikipedia has a good summary of book burnings over the years here.

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