Reuben Binns

Researching Personal Data

ORGcon2012

I’ve been a fan of the Open Rights Group – the UK’s foremost digital rights organisation – for a few years now, but yesterday was my first time attending ORGcon, their annual gathering. The turnout was impressive; upon arrival I was pleasantly surprised to see a huge queue stretching out of Westminster University and down Regent’s Street.

The day kicked off with a rousing keynote from Cory Doctorow on ‘The Coming War On General-Purpose Computing’ (a version of the talk he gave at the last Chaos Communication Camp, [video]). In his typical sardonic style, Doctorow argued that in an age when computers are everywhere – in household objects, medical implants, cars – we must defend our right to break into them and examine exactly what they are doing.  Manufacturers don’t want their gadgets to be general-purpose computers, because this enables users to do things that scare them. They will disable computers that could be programmed to do anything, lock them down and turn them into appliances which operate outside of our control and obscured from our oversight.

Doctorow mocked the naive attempts of the copyright industries to achieve this using digital locks – but warned of the coming legal and technological measures which are likely to be campaigned for by industries with much greater lobbying power. In the post-talk Q&A session, an audience member linked the topic to the teaching of IT in schools; the need for children to understand from an early age how to look inside gadgets, understand how they work and that they may be operating against the users best interests.

As is always the way with parallel sessions, throughout the day I found myself wanting to be in multiple places at once. I opted to hear Wendy Seltzer give a nice summary of the current state of digital rights activism. She likened the grassroots response to SOPA and PIPA to an immune system fighting a virus. She warned that, like an overactive immune system, we run the risk of attacking the innocuous. If we cry wolf too often, legislators may cease to listen. She went on to imply that the current anti-ACTA movement is guilty of this. Personally, I think that as long as such protest is well informed, it cannot do any harm and hopefully will do some good. Legislators are only just beginning to recognise how serious these issues are to the ‘net generation’, and the more we can do to make that clear, the better.

The next hour was spent in a crowded and stuffy room, watching my Southampton colleague Tim Davies grill Chris Taggart (OpenCorporates), Rufus Pollock (OKFN), and Heather Brooke (journalist and author) about ‘Raw, Big, Linked, Open: is all this data doing us any good?’ The discussion was interesting and good to see this topic, which has until recently been confined to a relatively niche community, brought to an ORG audience.

After discussing university campus-based ORG actions over lunch, I went along to a discussion of the future of copyright reform in the UK in the wake of the Hargreaves report. Peter Bradwell went through ORG’s submission to the government’s consultation on the Hargreave’s measures. Saskia Wazkel from Consumer Focus gave a comprehensive talk and had some interesting things to say about the role of consumers and artists themselves in copyright reform. Emily Goodhand (more commonly known as @copyrightgirl on twitter) spoke about the University of Reading’s submission, and her perspective of as Copyright and Compliance officer there. Finally Professor Charlotte Waelde, head of Exeter Law School, took the common call for more evidence-based copyright policy and urged us to ask ‘What would evidence-based copyright policy actually look like?’. Particularly interesting for me, as both an interdisciplinary researcher and believer in evidence-based policy, was her question about what mixture of disciplines are needed to create conclusions to inform policy. It was also encouraging to see an almost entirely female panel and chair in what is too often a male-dominated community.

I spent the next session attending an open space discussion proposed by Steve Lawson, a musician, about the future of music in the digital age. It was great to hear the range of opinions – from data miners, web developers and a representative from the UK Pirate Party – and hear about some the innovations in this space. I hope to talk to Steve in more detail soon in lieu of a book I’m working on about consumer ethics/activism for the pirate generation.

Finally, we were sent off with a talk from Larry Lessig, on ‘recognising the fight we’re in’. His speech took in a bunch of different issues: open access to scholarly literature; the economics of the radio spectrum (featuring a hypothetical three way battle between economist Robert Coase, dictator Joseph Stalin and singer Hetty Lamar [whom I’d never heard of but apparently co-invented ‘frequency hopping’ which paved the way for modern day wireless communication]); and corruption in the US political system, the topic of his latest book.

In the Q+A I asked his opinion on academic piracy (the time honoured practice of swapping PDFs to get around lack of institutional access, which has now evolved into the twitter hashtag phenomenon #icanhazPDF), and whether he prefers the ‘green’ or ‘gold’ routes to open access. He seemed to generally endorse PDF-swapping. He came down on the side of ‘gold’ open access (where publishers become open-access), rather than ‘green’ (where academic departments self-archive), citing the importance of being able to do data-mining. I’m not convinced that data-mining isn’t possible under green OA; so long as self-archiving repositories are set up right (for example, Southampton’s eprints software is designed to enable this kind of thing).

After Lessig’s talk, about a hundred sweaty, thirsty digital rights activists descended on a nearby pub, then pizza, then said our goodbyes until next time. All round it was a great conference; roll on ORGcon2013.

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