Do worry – but it’s not your fault

Did you build this? (I didn’t think so)

Image

I like to think that the people I consider friends are fairly representative of the wider world at large. If this is the case, than I can optimistically presume that the wider world, all be it nuanced and imperfect in many ways, is generally made up of decent people.

I also like to think that I am able to see past prejudices about other sections of society who I may not have so much in common with. I understand that circumstances and environment can radically distort a human view of the world, and it is hard to see that from within the distortion, so when I encounter prejudice or hatred – I do try and see the human at the other end of it. Especially when I bear in mind that I may have many of my own, hard to recognise from my point of view.

And if this is true, then it leads me to conclude that how I think about things that are happening in the world, on an instinctual level at least, must be similar to how many, many others think. We may not all express these feeling in the same way, we may not all be aware of them or pay them much heed – but I reckon we all feel them, somewhere, to some degree.

For example – take today’s headline:

 

‘POLLUTION TO SPREAD AROUND ENGLAND’

(http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26844425)

 

How does this make you feel? Like me, do you despair a little? Have you looked out of the window only to see the faint haze blocking the sun and thought to yourself, ‘well this is rubbish’? Have you imagined, even for a second, what it will be like if this becomes normal? If every day we have to don our carbon filter masks, scrape off the airborne grime from the car windscreen, and head out to contribute further pollutants to our communal air?

If so, have you felt a little guilty? Come on – group therapy here – have you? I did, for a moment. But then I decided, it’s not my fault. And you know what, it’s not your fault either.

Of course, we may be made to feel like it is our fault. Just as we were made to feel like the global economic crash was our fault, and that’s why we have to suffer for it. Just like we are made to feel that energy consumption in the way it is organised and distributed now is our fault, and that’s why we have to pay through the nose for it.

If this all sounds like a shirking of personal and social responsibility, let me put it another way – when I say not our fault, I mean those of us (the majority) who aren’t actually responsible for the organisation, design and distribution of these services, or the legislation that surrounds their usage or alternatives.

So yes, I drive a car. A car pollutes. I don’t drive all the cars though. I don’t decide who can drive a car and when, and where, and what type of fuel and engine is allowed to be used, or how much these cost. I don’t legislate for emissions. I don’t decide how extensive, or expensive, the public transport alternatives are, or should be, if we were serious about reducing pollution. I don’t come up with laws to allow massive companies to trade in pollutant quota’s and offset pollution against ‘development’ projects in the third world that are often doing more harm than good. I don’t decide how much we prioritise the development of ‘clean’ energy, or spend my time pandering to media inflated fears over subsidies and trivial aesthetic excuses. I don’t go over to China and shake hands and say ‘yes – this is more like it!’ and broker deals over nuclear power plants. I don’t lift and drop scientific advice at the whim of whatever business interest is sponsoring me or my party. I don’t have control or influence over the media. I do not make millions/billions/trillions from decisions that may not always be in the best interest of the majority of people, or the health of the planet. I do not conjure up money that doesn’t exist to give to none sovereign organisations who systematically remove wealth from the many and redistribute to the few. I don’t fill screens and billboards with adverts for things we don’t need. I don’t encourage a climate where consumer goods are made to be broken or outdated as quickly as possible in the name of profit and so-called ‘healthy’ economies. I don’t think that numbers going up and down are more important than people’s lives and well being, or obsess over them. I don’t have the option to use alternative sources of energy. I don’t have the option to use free/cheap and well connected public transport. I don’t decide to build a high speed railway that will create a two class transport system and is unnecessary, unpopular, expensive, and destroying homes and the countryside at the same time. I don’t decide who can and can’t work from home or in their communities so as to reduce commuters. I don’t run London. I don’t offer more debt to buy houses we can’t afford while always promising more, rather than letting prices fall, just in case it might upset my wealthy associates. I don’t declare that the world works better in competition and then step in when the outcome of that competition doesn’t suit my interests. I don’t charge people tens of thousands to better educate themselves and try to achieve a more fulfilled life. I don’t encourage debt while pretending that I don’t. I don’t profit from debt. I don’t have inherited wealth/status family connections and influence to exploit. I don’t control the resources. I don’t start wars. I don’t judge one country over another thanks to trade deals, energy reserves and arms contracts. I don’t think it’s okay that the top five families in this country have more wealth than the lowest 20%. I don’t think it’s okay that the money spent on defence could lift every child in the world out of poverty. I don’t have the power to change that. I don’t have an  alternative option who represent my concerns to vote for, or any remote chance of becoming that option myself (because I don’t have the inherited wealth/status family connections and influence to exploit).

In short: it’s not my fault, and it’s not yours either. Unless of course, you are one of the very few people significantly involved in the things mentioned above, and you can’t put your hand on your heart and honestly say ‘I am doing this for the good of the greatest number of people, and not for the narrow gain of a few’. If you can honestly say that – we’d love to hear from you – and your thoughts on why it’s not working.

 

Advertisements

Petitions!

Image

Today I want to ask some questions about e-petitions. I’m sure I don’t need to explain in detail, but e-petitions are calls for action or protest, circulated via the internet, that are able to be digitally signed by supporters.

The questions I want to ask are as follows:

  1. Why, given the official government e-petition site, are there now numerous groups running their own petitions? How are they funded?
  2. What does the potential over-population of this process mean? Does it water-down the message / impact?
  3. Why does it always ‘seem’ like engagement with these petitions is relatively low?

The reasons I am asking these questions is that I’ve noticed a change in my behaviour recently when it comes to internet petitions. I think it has been triggered by an increase in email I have started to receive, asking me to support various causes. Presumably this is because I have in the past, signed some petitions. However, my main concern is that I am getting to the point where I am deleting these emails before even reading the information, and as such, I am trying to examine why that is. Upon reflection, I think the above questions broadly represent my concerns. Hopefully in this blog, we can work through these together, and please feel free to post your views or further information to the comments if you think it will be informative.

Background

The UK has had an official e-petition system in place since around 2010-11. As I recall, it was heralded as being a step to more accountability and transparency (what isn’t?). The point was that any petition over 100,000 signatures can trigger a reading by a back-bench committee, and, if passed, then move onto a debate in the house of commons.

Of course, like most ‘accountable and transparent’ democratic powers, the caveats have a big impact. There is no requirement for the petition to be debated, a simple reason stated on the website can, and does, suffice in many cases (such as, ‘this issue is being looked at under another guise’, or simply ‘here are our reasons why we won’t look at this further’).

So, a once exciting sounding proposition, the power to set debate, very quickly diminished to the realms of ‘gimmick’ for a lot of people, I suspect. For a start it was flooded with badly written, misspelled calls for the death penalty to be reintroduced, and other quite extreme causes. Also, it seems from a quick inspection that many causes struggle to hit the threshold for debate anyway, and those that did/do, are often backed by newspaper campaigns, which to my mind, is much the same as what was happening before anyway (the media sets the agenda, the government responds).

NGO petition sites

More recently there has been a surge in none-government organisations offering the tools and services needed to start your own petition. Notable groups include 38 Degrees and the US based Change.org. A quick scan of funding methods for each reveal a big difference. 38 Degrees is a none profit organisation, funded by donations from members and charities. Change.org however, is a profit led business, paid by large NGOs like Amnesty International to run campaigns and also funded by advertising revenue. However, as a result of this funding model, it still offers a free service that anyone can use to run a campaign.

There are also other, less well known e-petition sites out there offering much the same. From a quick glance, I see the names ‘go petition’, ‘petition online’, ‘the petition site’, ‘i-petition’ etc..

So why so many?

It would seem to me that this is one sector where too much choice is potentially a very bad thing. Already I’ve listed seven sites, from a mere few minutes of research. So, take a message, have it represented seven times, in seven different ways, and distributed to seven different mailing lists and groups of users, and instead of one big resounding statement to deal with, you’ve got seven smaller none-unified voices to ignore.

Putting myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t really want to listen to the united voices of the electorate, this division seems most helpful. Added to that the fact that the government have already given us a site for logging petitions, and yet we are choosing not to use it, I would have further reason to ignore the pressure from the none official groups.

Another way to look at it would be that having an open-sector will encourage the best to rise up to the top and keep innovating in order to more efficiently influence and win supporters to their platforms. Regardless of whatever funding model they are using, presumably some of the money has to be supporting jobs and salaries (which is fair enough), and therefore, competition is a healthy stimulant.

But then, it is us who are setting the campaigns, isn’t it? It is us who are after a democratic influence of our own, isn’t it? After all, we don’t want to open up yet another level of mediation between us and our representatives, influenced by supporting organisations and individuals, either privately or publicly, do we?

Successes.

So what are we achieving with this relatively new democratic tool. Today (12/03/2014) – These are the top successes featured on change and 38 degrees:

Change.Org:

  1. Bank of England keeps woman on English banknotes. (36,000 signed petition. Jane Austen to appear on Banknotes from 2017)
  2. Glasgow city council protect place in special need’s school. (7000 signed petition to reinstate transport costs for a student who would have otherwise not been able to attend)

38 Degrees:

  1. Don’t limit our GP visits – campaign by 38 degrees to overturn proposed plans by Conservatives to cap the number of times we can visit GP. A position denied and rejected by the Tories, and claimed as a victory by 38 degree’s.
  2. Olympic Tax Dodging – Multinational corporations agreed not to use a tax break offered for sponsoring Olympics due to consumer pressure, as campaigned for by 38 Degree’s.

Now, the government e-petition site doesn’t list ‘successes’ as it is just a gateway, so let’s look at the two most popular (now closed) petitions and the outcome:

  1. Stop the Badger Cull – 304,211 signatures. Closed 07/09/2013. Response: Basically nothing. It states that it will be discussed in the weekly backbench meeting, and that a response will be published soon… ? Obviously the highly unsuccessful and unpopular cull has ended now, but the principle on what happens next surely needs an answer?
  2. Convicted London rioters should lose all benefits – 258,272 signatures. Closed 09/02/2012. Response: Well it’s rather lengthy actually. It details the benefits  you already lose if you are convicted, the ways in which you can lose housing if you are convicted, and leaves some room for further debate about further sanctions.

The above, for me, shows something clearly. Yeah, have your petitions, but we’ll only take them seriously if we were going to do something like that anyway. So, no guarantee of action or changing views, just a tool to reinforce their own mandate when it comes along.

Due to that, I can see why a none-government alternative is a healthy option, but looking at the achievements of the top two NGO petition sites, there seems to be a leaning towards local victories, and less-clear government back-downs or u-turns that may, or may not, have been influenced. (after all, we are quite used to seeing policies challenged and dropped in early stages anyway).

Ultimately though, the petition, in whatever form, either lands on the lap or in the inbox of someone who is in no real way obliged to do anything about it, or at least, do anything of any substance about it. That is just the way it is, but I don’t mean that as a discouragement.

A quick thought on numbers

Very briefly, let’s look at those two ‘top’ closed petitions on the Gov site. 300,000 people wanted to save the badgers. At the last count, that’s about 0.5% of the population (if I’ve got my maths right). Change.Org can boast slightly higher, with just shy of 500,000 people urging Iain Duncan Smith to live off £53 a week (which funnily enough, he never did). But this doesn’t tangibly shift the percentage. 38 degrees is harder to quantify, with their emphasis on ‘campaigns’, I can’t seem to find actual petition info, as they offer various routes (such as mass emailing of MPs), so I don’t think it would be fair to compare.

Still, why are less than 1% of us being engaged by these routes? It seems very small. I would be interested to hear more about the average demographics if anyone knows of this information, and thoughts from the leaders of these organisations about this.

Working conclusion

So, although it may not feel it(!), this is a very brief blog to examine this phenomenon and its impacts, but I have some initial thoughts from spending the afternoon looking into it.

The government e-petition site is only as good as the will of the government monitoring it. It offers us little chance of affecting change if they can simply choose not to debate the issue, or only respond if it’s on their political ‘radar’ anyway. Given the numbers using it, why would they? Even at an all time low, ‘The Sun’ readership is currently around 6 million people. No wonder the government are more likely to listen to anything they print, representing (indirectly) a good 10% of the population.

As for the NGO petition sites, they seem more encouraging, though my quick research already shows that MPs have taken to debunking them as being ‘left’ affiliated instead of independent organisations. And for the profit based, anywhere where major advertising revenue is required for funding leaves open the possibility of corporate demands and intervention (and a quick search on the Change.Org advertising model does seem to throw up some controversies over this).

Personally, when I see an issue I am passionate about represented by one of these groups, or even a government e-petition, I shall continue to support them (though I may change my email settings to stop getting told about every campaign going!) – but more broadly, I think the debate about the effectiveness and future of this approach needs to continue (or start?), with more fundamental changes being sought to bring more power back to people and away from private interests. I would hate to see these organisations become protective over their new found powers, and hope to see more cooperation and focus on progressive, core issues. (Such as giving us the no suitable candidate box, for example? Or right to recall MPs?).

Anyway, while I have been writing this, I have received two emails from two different petition sites, one about secret courts, and one about food-banks. I would like to think that the few seconds it will take me to sign these (if I agree with them), will help change the world, but maybe we’ve got a little more work to do just yet. No harm in trying though, eh?

Some sources for you! (not exhaustive):

http://www.38degrees.org.uk/

http://www.change.org/

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/22/changeorg-corporate-gop-campaigns-internal-documents_n_1987985.html

http://www.mediauk.com/newspapers/13707/the-sun/readership-figures

(supplemented by google and wikipedia searches/results for ‘change.org’, ’38 degrees’, ‘e-petitions’ and ‘British population’)

The slippery slopes of privacy and data.

“If you haven’t done something wrong, then there’s nothing to worry about.”

We’ve all heard that right? When there’s a debate or a scandal happening about privacy or identity, like the emerging saga of the ‘Prism’ systems in the USA that have been harvesting our private data and allegedly been giving access to our intelligence services, thereby circumnavigating the legal process we have in this country for access to private data.

It seems like such a straightforward rebuke, a simple piece of logic. If you haven’t done anything wrong, or are not planning to do something wrong, then why should you be worried about the idea of the state accessing your private communications? At the end of the day, all they are going to find is that your ‘data’ is innocuous, innocent interactions about your daily life, of no consequence to national security.

The problem, for the unthinking who take this view, is that what we decided is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to the state, and whether we are subject to the authority of each and every law, is one of the oldest and most highly debated topics of philosophy, because it is one of the oldest and most highly debated issues that exists in humanity as we know it. Questions like, “why should we obey the state?”, “Who gave them authority over us (and when)?”, “When did I agree to these conditions and give my consent?” are as old as Plato and beyond.

And they are very important questions that lead to very interesting, if not clear, answers. In the example of ‘Prism’ and its fight against terrorism by harvesting our data, a few imaginary scenarios should start to highlight the problem.

The first one I will call ‘The Extreme Inheritor’ problem. Simply put, at some point at a future election, an extreme party manages to secure power. By extreme, I mean a party that has hard-line views. They may have only been voted in on one issue, but now they are in control of the whole state functions. And what do they inherit? An infrastructure that allows them to gather, filter and view all our correspondences on all our various online interactions. How will they use this data? Even if we believe the current administration to be a fair and just custodian of this information, only using it for the kind of threats we agree with, how can we be sure the new keepers will do the same? They may want to search out sympathisers who stand against their extreme view (which by matter of degree, given their position, is highly likely), and bring sanctions against them. They may have a very different concept of justice than you do, and what you thought was right and wrong before, has become inverted or has significantly shifted.

The next ramification could be a ‘Temptation Shift in the Custodians’. In this scenario, the existing administration discover, naturally, the new powers available to them, the scope and possibilities that it brings. Now that they can conceive of and examine the new options that arise from the powers granted to them, they are at least aware of the possibilities. To find a suitable analogy, suspend your beliefs, or lack of, and think of it as a ‘road to paradise’ that we discover, but we also find that it runs through all the temptations of hell. Do we trust the current leaders to not give into the temptations, now they travel so close to them and are in touching distance? How long can they travel down the long road with the whispering demons promising spoils and temptations in such close proximity? Would it not have been better to find a road that does not run this way at all, or if unavoidable, only runs past hell on the least occasions? Even if this road is shorter, is it worth the risk?

The third and final possibility is the ‘bribery, threats and collusion problem’. I have seen defenders of this invasion of privacy making comments like “If the government look into my online communications, they will probably knock on my door and tell me to get a life!”. Basically saying that the majority of us live such dull and uninteresting lives that there can be no value in any data gathered. Who would care that you were visiting your elderly relative that day? Or that you have a new partner? Or that you work for a cheese factory? On the face of it, this data may seem innocuous enough, supposing that you believe your life will forever not be of worth, that the world may never change around you, and that you will never be in a position to be bribed or threatened. Say however, something does change (heaven forbid), and you become aware of some corporate negligence that had led to the deaths of your colleagues, and you wish to report this. If there was an interested party who would prefer you not to, they now know your family arrangements, your loved ones who you hold dear, and the extent to which you would go to protect them. This is a small example, and you may think, not very likely. But as we don’t know the future, as terrible things happen naturally and by design, to think ‘it will never happen to me’ is just ignorance. It may never happen to you, but I warrant that anyone can be in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ regardless of how boring a life they aspire to lead.

The objections I imagine, will be made along the lines of ‘checks and balances’. Some agents, above moral corruption, will conceive and enforce measures in order to prevent the powers being abused. Yes, we may sail close to the rocks, but a ‘reliable navigator’ will make sure we never stray too far. This objection has at least two faults.

In the case of the ‘Extreme Inheritor’, remaining with the nautical theme, we would have to rely on the mutineers who have now taken over the ship, maintaining the ‘reliable navigator’. The likelihood of this is as unclear as the agenda of any group we can imagine taking power in the future. Most, if not all, administrations usually start their terms in power by making any constitutional shifts to the frameworks they operate within, usually in order to favour themselves and their causes. Often these changes, concerning as they do a host of specific and convoluted legal and bureaucratic decree’s, go unnoticed by the general electorate, and like most decisions, are not passed by referendum. It is easy to imagine the extreme inheritor blatantly or subtlety removing the checks and balances that were designed to prevent them abusing powers.

The second objection to the ‘reliable navigator’ in the case of the ‘Temptation shift of the custodians’ practically runs along the same lines as the first, though may be less dynamic and as a result more subtle as the temptation shifts towards the new position. I would argue that this is the most likely and most worrying scenario, as unlike the ‘extreme inheritor’, a shift of this sort would necessarily be made gradually and secretly, so as to maintain custody of the powers without protest. The aim would be to almost imperceptibly degrade or transform the role of the ‘reliable navigator’ over time, until it is now only reliably navigating us down a route we didn’t originally want to follow.

A further objection would be the case of ‘statutory underpinning’ or something similar, that aims to ensure that no succeeding government can tinker or change the operations and positions of the ‘reliable navigator’. To make them ‘locked out’ like black-box technology, a kind of immovable and unchangeable moral foundation to wit all future humanity must adhere to. To this I would say that we are over-reaching our temporal influence. To imagine we can set dictates now for the future of humanity, that will last as truth beyond such a time as our own generations have long since perished, is an absurd notion. To put in motion a boulder down a mountain because we live at the top and our villages are well clear of it, when we have no knowledge of the life in the slopes below, is irresponsible, presuming you have any concern for the future of our race.

To briefly bring this back to the real world examples, we also have questions of security versus commercial interests. The material gathered about our lives will undoubtedly be of great commercial value to private enterprise. You may not be concerned about receiving tailor made adverts to your desktop based on your browsing habits (as happens already), but even so, what if this data sheds enough light on our group habits as to allow price-fixing models and the distortion of the market beyond what we already endure now? This is more a case for political science that philosophy, but it is worth mentioning here as another example of unforeseen consequences.

I hope here to have shown the folly of adopting the ‘greater security means less liberty’ argument by highlighting what high risks such a statement, at least in this case, could lead to – namely a reduction both in security and liberty. It has too great a capacity to be ultimately self-defeating and we should not set such a risky precedent. If it has already began, as it seems to have been, it should be reversed immediately before these risks can be manifest.