Wednesday 20 October 2010

Response to FoIA request for costs of Paul Chambers prosecution

This post is an archive. The live version can be found on a new blog called Arsehole Justice (no offence).

At the end of yesterday I received from the CPS Information Management Unit a response to a Freedom of Information Act request that I placed a couple weeks ago. This is well inside the deadline of 20 working days. Here is the text of the response:

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Our ref: 2484

Dear Mr Flaherty


I refer to your Freedom of Information request which was received on 27 September 2010 regarding the cost of the prosecution against Paul Chambers

Section 1 of the Freedom of Information Act creates a statutory right of access to recorded information held by public authorities i.e. the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). This right is to be informed whether the information requested is held by the public authority or not, and if the information exists, for it to be communicated. A public authority must reply to such a request promptly and in any event, not later than twenty working days after receipt.

I can confirm the case is still an on-going matter and is due to be listed for the part-heard appeal on 11 November 2010; as yet we are unable to confirm the total costs recorded in this case. May I advise that you contact our office once the case has concluded and your request will be considered afresh.

If you are unhappy with the decisions made in relation to your request from the Crown Prosecution Service you may ask for an internal review. You should contact the Information Management Unit (Freedom of Information Appeals), Rose Court, 2 Southwark Bridge, London, SE1 9HS.

If you are not content with the outcome of the internal review, you have the right to complain directly to the Information Commissioner, who can be contacted at:
Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF.

Yours sincerely

S Kadir
Information Management Unit
Tel:  020 3357 0899
Fax: 020 3357 0229

I will be requesting an internal review today by return. I asked only for the total costs to date in my request and I fully expect that this information should be available. I also believe that the costs are not sensitive information to an ongoing case. The CPS will have 20 working days to conduct a review and respond.

Saturday 16 October 2010

A Brave Heart in the Dragon's Den

This is an account of another silly, throw-away remark made on Twitter that had unintended negative consequences. This seems to be happening more and more as the medium matures. Perhaps the most famous example is the case of Paul Chambers, who was arrested in January and convicted in May of sending a menacing electronic communication, which was nothing more than a joke suggesting an airport bombing. This is the case that moulded me into a free speech fundamentalist and all around civil libertarian.

The latest example to illustrate how Twitter (it seems to be this medium more than any other) is so misunderstood by both its writers and its readers involves Dragon's Den star and self-made multi-millionaire entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne and a young woman who made a silly joke.

Sharon Gooner (I think that's her real name this is not her real surname) never expected that she would become the focus of Duncan Bannatyne's ire when she tweeted the following: 
Duncan Bannatyne's wife is having an affair. He
bellowed at reporters: "You may take my wife but YOU'LL NEVER TAKE MY MEADEN"
Those who know of the Dragon's Den will be aware that Deborah Meaden is Bannatyne's co-star and fellow tycoon. Those over the age of 20 should also immediately see that this is a pun referencing a famous line from the film Braveheart. A funny joke? That's a matter of opinion. A bad pun? Also a matter of opinion. A put on? Yes, that's perfectly clear. The literal implication is that Bannatyne is simultaneously having an affair with his co-star, but the pun aspect makes it is clear this is delivered as the punchline of a joke. That she did not anticipate how this would be received (even that this would be received) is I think not in dispute. So what happened?

Somehow Duncan Bannatyne got wind of this tweet and he challenged its author, saying "Just so you know. If anyone believes your silly tweet & if it hurts my family I will sue you for as much as I can". This was the first communication from Bannatyne to Gooner. It's not clear whether he was searching for his own name or whether he happened to see a retweet; however, we know he did not receive the tweet directly as he was not a follower of Sharon Gooner and the tweet did not mention his twitter handle. It seems like a very strong initial response, a not very subtle threat of litigation. Further correspondence reveals that Bannatyne's primary concern was that people might believe the first sentence, the setup to the pun. This could have the effect of damaging his wife's reputation and subjecting his young son to needless abuse and torment. Well, I have to say that seems reasonable. Threatening to sue was a massive overreaction though. That was not reasonable, but I suppose he was upset and on the defensive for his family.

I have gone through phases when considering this incident. At first I jumped on the Duncan-bashing bandwagon. He's a bully. He doesn't understand Twitter. People are abusing Gooner, calling her "scum" and "attention seeking". This is like Cat-Bin-Lady outrage. I thought the joke sounded like the sort of thing Jay Leno might crack in a Tonight Show monologue. Perfectly acceptable. Twitter lets anybody be Jay Leno for 15 minutes. Then I began to see that Bannatyne had a point (though his abusive supporters did not). The context of the joke did not seem to make clear that the setup was a false statement. Why would Jay Leno crack a joke like that unless the first statement was true? In that scenario there would be some sort of current event that is then tied to an absurdity, which is the punchline. I consulted with a friend who is a linguistics expert and previously gave an insightful analysis of the #TwitterJokeTrial tweet. He agreed with me. The first statement sounds as though it is a truthful observation. Some other people I spoke to also admitted that they had assumed the first statement was grounded in truth. I didn't think Sharon's tweet amounted to libel, but I thought it was poorly executed and easily misinterpreted. This would not have been her fault as she did not expect any part of her tweet to be taken literally. However, I could see the potential for damage.

Then later in the evening Sharon began to repost some of her earlier punning efforts. I then became aware that there was an extended context that I hadn't previously seen. Here are some examples:
Sade has given up music to open an organic fruit drink bar in town. She is a Smoothy Operator.
Julie & Cal next door have split up. But he did break her white appliances a lot. At least her washing machine will live longer with Cal gone
A man got stuck up a ladder today by a crate of deodrant that refused to budge. Sure. It won't let you down.
A ferry company were so impressed with Lionel Ritchie's new advert they offered him a job. He is now dancing on the Sealink.
My mate tried to steal some of my treasured music magazines. Keep your friends close, but keep your NME's closer.
In each of these examples we clearly see that the setup to the pun is as much a put on as the pun itself. In the wider context of this string of punning, it becomes clearer that the reader is meant to dismiss the remark about Duncan Bannatyne's wife. This fascinates me, because I'd assumed I had the full context previously where I now know that I did not. These things are not always as simple as they seem. This makes me wonder whether Paul Chambers' tweet really could have appeared menacing to some reasonable person, though he clearly did not intend for it to be. How much responsibility should we assign to people who make remarks that are taken out of context? Do we all in fact need to be much more careful about what we say in a public medium with enormous potential for the masking of context? I just don't know. Let me think about it some more...

Friday 1 October 2010

Why Jack Straw is arguably an illiberal ass

This post is an archive. The live version can be found on a new blog called Arsehole Justice (no offence).

Jack Straw: A pompous and arguably illiberal ass
Jack Straw. Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack Straw. What can I say about Jack Straw? My distaste for the man has deepened lately. This article really cheesed me off when I read it: ( | Jack Straw waves goodbye with civil liberty attack).

The article refers to Straw's final keynote speech to the Labour conference as he prepares to make his exit from front line politics. Jack Straw would like you to believe that the party that dubbed itself New Labour and governed for 13 years until May 2010 has a "great legacy on equal rights and public safety." I could talk about the Ian Tomlinson police brutality / wrongful death case and equal treatment under the law, but I won't go there. I could discuss the hardships facing professional and amateur photographers simply going about their business in public, but that seems rather trite in comparison. I could even delve into the legislation that ushered in the suspension of habeus corpus for terror suspects. Key word is "suspects." That's the 28 day pre-charge detention which ministers like Straw repeatedly pushed to extend to 48 and even 90 days. I won't go there. There are so many things I could talk about, but I'll focus on a couple of key points that are of particular relevance to the man himself. First of all, what did he actually say in his farewell speech that's got me so worked up. From the article:
"Our great legacy on equal rights and public safety is at risk," he said.

"The Liberal Democrats have conspired to put the Human Rights Act under review. The Conservatives, meanwhile, are going to cut the use of DNA technology and CCTV, and restrict the ability of the police and local communities to fight the scourge of anti-social behaviour. And who will benefit from this madness?

"There'll be greater freedom for the criminal, less liberty for the law abiding. It's crazy," he added.

It seems to me that Jack Straw really hasn't got a clue when it comes to civil liberties. In England and Wales, legislation allows DNA samples to be taken from anyone arrested on suspicion of involvement in a recordable offence and stored indefinitely in what is known as the National DNA Database, whether or not they are subsequently convicted or even charged. This amounts to invasion of privacy and excessive data collection. CCTV cameras are arguably useful in preventing and fighting crime, but may amount to excessive surveillance. Ironically, CCTV footage was used to convict a police officer in Manchester of assault causing actual bodily harm in a widely publicised case last month. But I digress.

Jack Straw believes that the coalition government will give greater freedom for the criminal. The trouble is that many of these questionable laws introduced by Labour serve to treat the law abiding citizen as though he were a criminal. A good example of this is Paul Chambers. You all know Paul Chambers by now. He is currently in the middle of an appeal to overturn his conviction relating to a Twitter update where he joked about blowing up an airport. At the moment, Paul is a convicted criminal. Frankly, if this type of "criminal" has greater freedom under the coalition then that's fine by me.

Here is Jack Straw in Sepember 2001 talking about the new Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) when he was Home Secretary. Please read the full article from page 1. It is quite interesting. Part III of RIPA makes it a crime to fail to turn over encryption keys and passphrases or otherwise allow law enforcement to decrypt target data within a specified time limit. The offence carries a sentence of up to two years imprisonment, and up to five years imprisonment in an investigation concerning national security. This legislation has been widely panned by critics as an assault on liberty, as it overrides the basic right to silence that all suspected criminals are afforded. According to Jack and taken from the aforementioned article:
"It was government trying to put in place increased powers so that we could preserve and sustain our democracy against this new kind of threat," he said in a Radio 4 interview.

"We needed to take powers so that we could de-encrypt commercially encrypted e-mails and other communications. Why? Because we knew that terrorists were going to use this."

Well, that's really no excuse for overriding the right to silence. On page 2 of that article, we read about how CTC officers suggest to a supect during an interrogation that failure to comply with RIPA III would "lead to suspicion he was a terrorist or paedophile."
"There could be child pornography, there could be bomb-making recipes," said one detective.

"Unless you tell us we're never gonna know... What is anybody gonna think?"

Whatever anybody's gonna think is irrelevant. This is not Stalin's Soviet Union. There is a presumption of innocence in our justice system. There are many reasons a person may wish to keep data on a hard drive encrypted. Some teenagers broke into my house a few months ago and stole my laptop, among other things. Had I encrypted my files I wouldn't have to worry about personal information falling into the wrong hands. I wouldn't have to worry so much about indentity theft, for example. This is only one of a number of non-sinister reasons to encrypt data. Others include the protection of trade secrets or intellectual property and the hiding of potentially embarrassing but otherwise legal material.

Basically the physical parallel of RIPA III is that if I am suspected of storing information relevant to my criminal investigation in an impenatrable safe, I must hand over the combination or face a jail sentence. What if I've lost the combination? The obvious comeback against RIPA III is to claim to have either lost the encryption keys or forgotten the passphrases. I have personally lost two PGP private keys and thus rendered the encrypted data useless. I doubt I am alone. Would the police believe a suspect who made such a claim? Probably not. Where does that leave you as a suspect in such a case? Answer me that, Mr Straw. Then feel free to bugger off from public life.

Unfortunately I think the true legacy of Jack Straw and his Blairite buddies is best summarised by Tony Blair himself in his memoirs. Of all the business of Blair's government, the one thing that he regrets the most is... what do you think? The illegal invasion of Iraq? Nope. Draconian terror legislation? Try again. The Freedom of Information Act? Bingo.

Flayman on LiveJournal (old)