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Archive for February, 2009

Feb 12,2009

My debate on social networking has just ended. 

In my opening speech, I set the context by citing the OFCOM research that found that virtually all (99%) of children and young people aged 8 to 17 use the internet.  In 2005 the average time spent on line by children was 7.1 hours per week.  By 2007, this had almost doubled to 13.8 hours per week.  And virtually half (49%) of those aged 8 to 17 have set up their own profile on a social networking site.


My thesis was that social networking and video sharing sites, online games, iPods and internet-enabled mobile phones are now an integral part of youth culture.  While many adults worry that their offspring are wasting precious hours online, children and young people themselves see online media as the means to extend friendships, explore interests, experiment with self-expression and develop their knowledge and skills.


However, in the same way that young children are taught how to cross the road and at the same time safety features are built into cars and traffic laws regulate unsafe driving, we need to make sure that our children and young people are protected when they make their way on the internet.


As we know, there are real perils for the unwary.  Children and young people have been the victims of sexual predators as a result of the information they have revealed about themselves on social networking sites; there are increasing problems of cyber-bullying; security weaknesses on sites have led to serious privacy infringements; and young people have discovered the hard way that the permanence of information posted in public cyber-space may not only be embarrassing in later life but may also mean that employment offers (or university places) are not forthcoming.


I went on to argue that:


·     Children throughout their education should be taught digital citizenship so that they can both make the most of the internet but also recognise and deal with any dangers they may encounter.  As most parents acknowledge that their children are more internet literate than they are, there should also be a serious effort in parallel to help parents (and indeed all adults) to keep up with the rapid development of the internet and social digital media.


·     At the same time, privacy laws ought to be strengthened with an age-related component, specifically giving enhanced protection to the data relating to or provided by children and young people.  The US Children Online Privacy Protection Act, whilst not perfect, provides a model that has required a number of US-based companies operating on the internet to improve their standards significantly.


·     There should also be higher expectations on those responsible for social networking sites – particularly those aimed at children or where there are a significant number of users who are children and young people.  These higher expectations should include:

o        Prominent and clear safety information, warning about potential dangers;

o        Simple systems for reporting abuse or inappropriate/threatening behaviour with appropriate links to the police and law enforcement;

o        Increased numbers of suitably-vetted moderators patrolling areas of sites frequented by young people;

o        User-friendly systems enabling people to ignore and erase unwanted comments and to erase permanently their own profiles; and

o    Increased server security to prevent hacking and unauthorised access to personal information.


·     Finally, there should be urgent work undertaken by internet and technology companies to find and agree a simple, efficient and cost-effective means of achieving age-verification on the internet, so as to prevent under-age people accessing inappropriate sites and older people passing themselves off as under-18.


In addition, other peers made a range of interesting points. 

There was a notable contribution from Baroness Susan Greenfield approaching the topic from the stand-point of neuro-physiology. 

Baroness Doreen Massey told the House about the Bill she is introducing on internet age verification and the Minister replying, Lord Bill Brett, almost gave a commitment on behalf of the Government to support it – although when I pressed him on it he entered the most enormous health warning about what he had said.  Nevertheless, it was clear that there was a lot of support in the House for the principle of such legislation.

Feb 12,2009

The debate I have initiated on social networking is this afternoon and I have received a number of briefing/lobbying papers from different companies and organisations about the subject. Nothing improper in that. Some of the material has been helpful and interesting. Some of it less so.

One company – I won’t name them (they know who they are) – had the cack-brained idea to send their submission by registered post to me both at the House of Lords and at home. I got the Lords copy yesterday and read it – moderately interesting. I get home last night to find one of those ‘Sorry you were out’ cards from the Royal Mail saying they had a letter that needed signing for at the Sorting Office. So this morning I made a 45 minute detour to pick it up only to find it was another copy of the letter I read yesterday.
Question: is this more or less likely to make me favourably disposed to what they’re saying?

Feb 12,2009

A friend sent me something that gets to the essence of the present economic situation in a way that even George Osborne should be able to understand.
‘There’s a group of us – parents with young children. We decided to
start up a babysitting club, whereby each couple would babysit for the other. To ensure the system was fair, we used a system of IOU paper slips to encourage each couple to take their turn.
The system worked well to begin with each couple doing their turn and trading IOU slips instead of cash for babysitting services. The system was designed so that over time, each couple would automatically do as much baby-sitting as they received in return.

What could go wrong?

During periods when they had few occasions to go out, couples tried to build up reserves-then run that reserve down when occasions arose.

There should have been an averaging out of these demands. One couple would be going out whilst others were staying at home.

But since most of us would be holding onto reserves of IOU slips at any given time, we needed to have a fairly large amount of slips in circulation. Our naturally cautious tendency to build up reserves meant that the number of IOUs in circulation became quite low.

As a result, most couples were anxious to add to their reserves by baby-sitting, reluctant to run them down by going out. But one couple’s decision to go out was another’s chance to baby-sit; so it became difficult to earn IOU slips. Knowing this, we all became even more reluctant to use our reserves except on special occasions, reducing baby-sitting opportunities still further.

In short, our baby-sitting club had fallen into a recession.

We tried to legislate for a recovery-passing a rule requiring each couple to go out at least twice a month. But eventually, more IOU slips were issued, couples became more willing to go out,
opportunities to baby-sit multiplied, and everyone was happy.’

Feb 11,2009

Overheard in a New Scotland Yard lift between two officers emerging from a briefing on the fifth floor:
Officer One: ‘It was colder than an Eskimo’s whatsit in there …..’
Officer Two: ‘Haven’t you heard it’s the new Commissioner’s Northern Workhouse ethic – turn the heating down.’

Feb 10,2009

Today’s evidence to the Home Affairs Committee by Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick about the processes surrounding the arrest of Damian Green MP by the Metropolitan Police as part of their investigation into Home Office leaks throws some interesting light on the whole saga.

Most importantly he was not subjected to a dawn arrest which would have been the norm for anyone who was not a member of the House of Commons.  According to Bob Quick, this was very much a “softer” option rather than the “customary, normal” option.

Moreover, the police went to “enormous lengths” to try to make the searches carried out at Mr Green’s home and offices in Kent and London “as discreet as possible”.  Again, this was the kid glove treatment.

A member of the public would also not have had two of his associates (in Damian Green’s case these two associates were David Cameron and Boris Johnson) contacted to alert them that his offices were about to be searched.  Nor would it have been customary to ask one of the associates (in this case David Cameron) to contact the individual concerned and invite him to contact the police.

According to Bob Quick, these efforts to soften the impact made the resulting investigatory process “more unwieldy”.

Feb 10,2009

So what was Ken Clarke MP doing coming away from Lord Peter Mandelson’s office in the House of Lords yesterday evening with a big smile on his face?

Feb 6,2009

I hear that Kensington and Chelsea Council have revoked the late trading licence of a take-away fried chicken establishment called “Chicken Cottage”.  It will now have to close by 11pm after police had to attend over seventy incidents there in the last year, involving gang-related attacks, intimidation, theft and criminal damage.

The Royal (as it prefers to be known) Borough’s spokesperson commented:

“This case sends a clear message to other late night establishments that
they can’t sit back and let their premises become a magnet for crime and

What I find amazing is that the gang who frequented the place liked to be known as “The Chicken Cottage Crew”. 

Dictionary definitions of chicken include: “A coward” and “A young gay male, especially as sought by an older man”.  As for cottage …..

Given how often gang members like to appear macho and are frequently overtly homophobic, this particular crew must have had an advanced sense of irony.

Feb 5,2009

I gave Mayor Johnson the benefit of the doubt over Monday’s chaos in snow-bound London.  However, if the expected snowfall promised for tomorrow/Saturday materialises AND there is chaos again, it will be harder for him to escape the blame this time.

Some suggested that Mayor Johnson had been too busy writing his Daily Telegraph article last Sunday to check that the London borough councils had the appropriate number of gritting lorries ready to roll and at least ensure that the major routes were open so that the bus network could operate.  Maybe he did or maybe he didn’t.  If he did, no doubt he was assured that it was all going to be alright.  Even if he didn’t, he might reasonably have assumed that with the amount of warning that had been given of the bad weather, the various councils would have got their act together.

This time, those excuses will not be sufficient.

There is ample evidence from last Monday that the London Boroughs hadn’t got proper plans in place and, if they gave Mayor Johnson assurances that they had (assuming he asked), he now knows that those assurances aren’t worth very much.

What is more we have been warned all week that a second wave of heavy snow is likely, if not certain.

London Councils have now said that they have sufficient grit supplies to last the next few days, and that grit supplies will continue to be replenished – but, given the record of last Monday, is that enough reassurance?

By Tuesday of this week, Mayor Johnson was so confident that the situation was under control that he turned up unexpectedly at the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee.  (He originally had been let off attending because he would be too busy keeping London functioning during the snow, but even after the Committee Chairman had announced at the beginning of the meeting that the Mayor would not be attending he showed up 90 minutes later.  It may be that his appearance was intended to deflect attention from what had been happening on the streets of London because he started a few other hares running …….)

So on the basis of all that can we assume it is all going to be OK, if the snow comes again in heavy quantities?

I hear, in fact, that the Councils are running short of grit and that it is at least possible that chaos will occur again.  If it does, the Mayor will look at best complacent and gullible and at worst incompetent.

Feb 4,2009

Only a few days after he was inaugurated as President, Barack Obama’s new administration has already published its new agenda on cyber-security as part of a wider policy statement on homeland security.  In particular, the President commits himself to:

  • Strengthen Federal Leadership on Cyber Security: Declare the cyber infrastructure a strategic asset and establish the position of national cyber advisor who will report directly to the president and will be responsible for coordinating federal agency efforts and development of national cyber policy.
  • Initiate a Safe Computing R&D Effort and Harden our Nation’s Cyber Infrastructure: Support an initiative to develop next-generation secure computers and networking for national security applications. Work with industry and academia to develop and deploy a new generation of secure hardware and software for our critical cyber infrastructure.
  • Protect the IT Infrastructure That Keeps America’s Economy Safe: Work with the private sector to establish tough new standards for cyber security and physical resilience.
  • Prevent Corporate Cyber-Espionage: Work with industry to develop the systems necessary to protect our nation’s trade secrets and our research and development. Innovations in software, engineering, pharmaceuticals and other fields are being stolen online from U.S. businesses at an alarming rate.
  • Develop a Cyber Crime Strategy to Minimize the Opportunities for Criminal Profit: Shut down the mechanisms used to transmit criminal profits by shutting down untraceable Internet payment schemes. Initiate a grant and training program to provide federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies the tools they need to detect and prosecute cyber crime.
  • Mandate Standards for Securing Personal Data and Require Companies to Disclose Personal Information Data Breaches: Partner with industry and our citizens to secure personal data stored on government and private systems. Institute a common standard for securing such data across industries and protect the rights of individuals in the information age.
  • I wish that there was a similarly clear and robust approach in the UK.

    Feb 4,2009

    I am grateful (sic) to Iain Dale for drawing attention to an article in the Daily Telegraph about a LibDem councillor in Cambridge who took it upon himself to use his bicycle to stop an ambulance going to the help of someone who had been taken ill because vehicles were not supposed to go on to a grassed area of common land.  It turns out I knew the said councillor – then a mere Liberal Party activist – over 35 years ago: it doesn’t sound as if he has changed much.