July 2010 Archives

The Digital Economy Act is a truly soul-destroying piece of legislation, and OFCOM has not exactly been on the ball in meeting its obligations under the sections of the act designed to safeguard some small figleaf of consumer rights. Having read the entire consultation and parts of the Act itself, below is the response I have just submitted to OFCOM's consultation on the Initial Obligations Code.

The deadline to respond to the consultation is Friday July 30th, 5pm. You can find the full consultation and details on how to respond here.

You can find more details on what the DEAct and Initial Obligations Code mean for you here.

You can join the Open Rights Group, which campaigns for your digital rights and against draconian legislations such as the DEAct, here.

Question 3.1: Do you agree that Copyright Owners should only be able to take advantage of the online copyright infringement procedures set out in the DEA and the Code where they have met their obligations under the Secretary of State's Order under section 124 of the 2003 Act? Please provide supporting arguments.

Yes. In addition I would propose that an annual review is undertaken, comparing Copyright Owners' initial estimates of CIRs with the actual number they have submitted throughout the year. The results of this review should be used for cost-sharing, as well as to help Copyright Holders improve the estimates they provide to ISPs.

Question 3.5: Do you agree with Ofcom's approach to the application of the 2003 Act to ISPs outside the initial definition of Qualifying ISP? If you favour an alternative approach, can you provide detail and supporting evidence for that approach?

I am strongly concerned about section 2.23 ("Where a Wi-Fi network is provided in conjunction with other goods or services to a customer, such as a coffee shop or a hotel, our presumption is that the provider is within the definition of internet service provider."). While I understand that initially such providers will fall outside of the framework of Qualifying ISPs, I believe it sets a dangerous precedent for the future. Open WiFi access points really help small businesses thrive. They also enrich the UK's digital and physical economy. Increasingly, open WiFi access is expected as standard by customers of most coffee shops and hotels as well as other small business, and certainly is rapidly becoming standard in other countries.

The above quoted section is likely to strongly discourage proprietors of small business to provide open WiFi access as a feature to their customers. This is in turn likely to damage those businesses by driving customers away, and to have a significant negative impact on quality of life in Britain.

Question 3.6: Do you agree with Ofcom's approach to the application of the Act to subscribers and communications providers? If you favour alternative approaches, can you provide detail and supporting evidence for those approaches?

I believe section 3.30 of the consultation document ("We consider that a person or an undertaking receiving an internet access service for its own purposes is a subscriber, even if they also make access available to third parties.") potentially directly contradicts section ("Where a Wi-Fi network is provided in conjunction with other goods or services to a customer, such as a coffee shop or a hotel, our presumption is that the provider is within the definition of internet service provider.").

Question 4.1: Do you agree with the proposed content of CIRs? If not, what do you think should be included or excluded, providing supporting evidence in each case?

I am concerned about the invasion of privacy which collecting this kind and amount of information about subscribers' communication represents. I do, however, believe that if this kind of information is collected it should be made available to subscribers accused of infringement in its entirety to facilitate the appeals process.

Question 4.2: Do you agree with our proposal to use a quality assurance approach to address the accuracy and robustness of evidence gathering? If you believe that an alternative approach would be more appropriate please explain, providing supporting evidence.

This proposal does not meet the obligations explicitly put on OFCOM by the Digital Economy Act in Sections 7.2.a and 7.2.b with regards to the Initial Obligations Code, namely that "The required provision about copyright infringement reports is provision that specifies (a) requirements as to the means of obtaining evidence of infringement of copyright for inclusion in a report; (b) the standard of evidence that must be included".

Allowing industry self-regulation on this matter risks breaching privacy legislation and does not live up to standards of openness and transparency one would expect in a modern democracy. I believe it is vital for OFCOM to review this section and set out detailed provisions as required by the Digital Economy Act.

Question 5.2: Do you agree with our proposal to use a quality assurance approach to address the accuracy and robustness of subscriber identification? If not, please give reasons. If you believe that an alternative approach would be more appropriate please explain, providing supporting evidence.

Similarly to question 4.2, I do not believe that OFCOM's current proposals are meeting OFCOM's obligations under the Digital Economy Act Section 7.3.a, namely "The required provision about the notification of subscribers is provision that specifies, in relation to a subscriber in relation to whom an internet service provider receives one or more copyright infringement reports (a) requirements as to the means by which the provider identifies the subscriber".

Allowing industry self-regulation on this matter risks breaching privacy legislation and does not live up to standards of openness and transparency one would expect in a modern democracy. I believe it is vital for OFCOM to review this section and set out detailed provisions as required by the Digital Economy Act.

Question 5.3: Do you agree with our proposals for the notification process? If not, please give reasons. If you favour an alternative approach, please provide supporting arguments.

OFCOM has chosen a time-based approach for escalating copyright infringement notifications. In principle I agree with this, however, as I understand the current provisions, they do not foresee an expiry date for any notifications. I believe it is vital for notifications and CIRs to be time-bounded and to be deleted from a subscriber's record after no more than 12 months, and that this should be made very clear and explicit in the Initial Obligations Code.

Question 5.4: Do you believe we should add any additional requirements into the draft code for the content of the notifications? If so, can you provide evidence as to the benefits of adding those proposed additional requirements? Do you have any comments on the draft illustrative notification (cover letters and information sheet) in Annex 6?

Any notification should, in addition to the proposed content, include a detailed explanation of how the evidence of copyright infringement was gathered and the subscriber's IP address matched to them; a copy of the detailed evidence from both the Copyright Owner and the ISP; any other data the Copyright Owner and the ISP hold in relation to the incident in question; information on how long this notification will be held on the subscriber's record before it is deleted.

This will help subscribers understand the process better as well as give them some of the data they will require to lodge an appeal if appropriate.

Question 7.1: Do you agree with Ofcom's approach to subscriber appeals in the Code? If not, please provide reasons. If you would like to propose an alternative approach, please provide supporting evidence on the benefits of that approach.

To enable subscribers to lodge an effective appeal, they will need access to the detailed evidence (see also my response to question 5.4). Additionally, there is a significant information asymmetry between the subscriber on the one hand and the Copyright Owner and ISP on the other as the latter have significantly more technical expertise at their disposal. It is therefore extremely difficult for subscribers to lodge effective appeals as they may not be able to understand the technical details of the evidence against them and how this information was obtained. This is a very serious concern.

The deadline to respond to the consultation is Friday July 30th, 5pm. You can find the full consultation and details on how to respond here.

ORGcon 2010

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I'm going to confess to being the kind of geek who booked tickets to ORGcon the day it as announced, about 6 weeks ago, and who's been looking forward to it for the last two weeks. And now I'm on the train home, utterly exhausted, having had a fab day and with my brain exploding with ideas. I think this post will mostly be an account of the event itself, though I wouldn't be surprised if there were a couple of follow-up posts sparked by some of the conversations I had.

The opening keynote was a panel titled "Thriving in the digital economy", with Cory Doctorow, David Rowntree (of Blur and ORG Advisory Council Fame), Jeff Lynn from Coadec, John Buckman from Magnatune and the EFF, and Obhi Chatterjee of Shyama fame. The panel covered a wide variety of areas, from why the current implementation of copyright, with all the DRM, litigation, etc. that comes with it, is bad both for content consumers and for most content creators, to looking at alternative business models and all the benefits that the real digital economy can bring.

One of my favourite quotes from the session was Cory Doctorow explaining how "it's absolutely impossible to monetise obscurity." On the flip side, he held up the example of Amanda Palmer's recent pay-what-you-want album release accompanied by special edition merchandise: the merch sold out within 3 minutes, bringing in $15,000. Cory also spoke about how a side effect of the copyright hysteria is that we are increasingly designing our devices in a way that gives the user less and less control over them, and gives third parties (content distributors, rights holders, etc.) more and more control. Think of what Apple tell you that you can and can't do with your iPhone and iPad, think of Amazon deleting paid-for ebooks from their customers' devices, think of the closed, unstandardised nightmare that is your games console or set top box.

Dave Rowntree then spoke of the concept of an original of a work of art, and how in the digital age more and more artworks cannot really be said to have an original anymore. Faithful copies are cheap and easy to make, so to make money, he argued, artists need to create something that feels like an original, be that a box set, a special edition, or a performance.

Jeff Lynn spoke about how the legal framework of copyright should encourage creativity, not protect vested interests from technological change. John Buckman pointed out that digital rights are a global issue due to legislation harmonisation - even before ACTA there has been a significant convergence trend in this area. He also spoke at length about how DRM was protecting big companies' interests from smaller competitors, and quoted Apple and Amazon as examples of this.

The Q&A at the end of the session included a really interesting question about the games industry. Cory Doctorow explained how the games industry has both suffered and benefited from the fact that legislators treat it mostly as a corrupting influence. The net result, however, has been that in the absence of DMCA-style enforcement in that area, the industry has had to think on its feet and re-invent itself as a service industry to beat "piracy". I managed to get a comment in to the effect that content is a public good, and Cory Doctorow, riffing on Dave Rowntree's theme of creating an original, pimped the forthcoming special edition of his short story collection which, frankly, gave the 400 or so assembled geeks a geekgasm. I am incredibly tempted to raid the savings account.

The next session I attended was a workshop on how to talk to MPs, in which Tom Watson gave an insider's view into the life of an MP and gave us some invaluable tips for lobbying our elected representatives. I took a few key learnings from this: MPs are busy generalists and digital rights are an extremely complex topic; you have to take your MP on a journey, tell them a story to help them understand why the issues you are talking to them about are important; going to your MP's surgery and talking to them in person can be the thing that makes the difference between them considering the issue or not; and making best friends with your MP's case worker is a worthwhile investment. We did a brief role play to practise some of what we'd learned, and I was extremely fortunate to talk to an actual MP - Jane Ellison, Con., Battersea. She seemed genuinely interested in the subject as well as giving me some good input, which I really appreciate. Ultimately, digital rights is not a party-political issue, and chances are that you can find support from either side of the House - but you need to be prepared to take the time to educate your MP.

The next keynote was by Prof. James Boyle (@thepublicdomain), titled "The Incredible Shrinking Public Domain: A Paradox". There was some great food for thought in that. Prof. Boyle pointed out how we are the first generation in history who are cut off from their own culture. The extension of copyright terms that we've seen in that past few decades from as little as 14 years to a retrospective extension to 70 years after the creator's death has the effect that, barring a deliberate choice from the creator, our culture is not accessible to be built on by others within the same generation - or even several generations on. Yet, by far the majority of works exhaust their commercial viability after only five years, and most works which copyright term extensions have put beyond our reach are actually orphan works. In addition to this, because copyright law is inconsistent, impractical and only benefits a very small number of people, an entire generation is growing up with the idea that breaking the law isn't actually wrong; and while this may be relatively harmless in the case of copyright law, it significantly undermines the foundations of our society. There was a good discussion in the Q&A on the subject of civil disobedience. I believe all the sessions were being recorded and hope that they will be made available on the internet. If you only have time to see one, make it this one - it was a very good talk indeed.

After lunch (which was spent with pfy, ewtikins and Simon and Julia Indelicate, talking about making art for everyone), Tom Watson, Julian Huppert, John Grogan, Anita Coles and Richard Allan (Eric Joyce having been "detained in Colombia") gave us an eye-opening insight into the Digital Economy Act - both how it came into existence and what we can do from here to fight some of the more unpleasant parts of it. My key take-outs from the session: the DEAct was the result of the biggest lobbying operation Tom Watson has seen in his political life, with MPs being outnumbered 4:1 by lobbyists at some meetings; copyright is not actually something most politicians care or know much about - though some of that is changing and the ORG, Liberty and Consumer Focus campaigns are beginning to have an effect; a lot of the future of the Act will depend on two men in particular: Vince Cable and Jeremy Hunt; and while Cable is broadly supportive of the digital rights agenda, Hunt has so far been hard to read on this and some of the panellists were very pessimistic on that front. There was a general consensus among the panel that the DEAct was unlikely to be repealed in its entirety (and that that wasn't necessarily desirable), but that "laser surgery" was possible and something worth fighting for.

Following this I attended a workshop on the future of the DEAct campaign, with different sub-sessions, including one on reclaiming public attention for digital rights issues. There might even be a video of me speaking at that (eek!), and I do owe Florian some notes which I will send through when I'm slightly less braindead. Incidentally, the immediate next step on fighting the DEAct is to respond to the Ofcom consultation by this Friday (30/07). You should do that.

I must admit I was ever so slightly out of my depth in the session on reforming privacy laws, but there were some very good speakers there, and I do have a fair amount of things to read up on as a result. Jennifer Jenkins' talk "Theft! A History of Music" was both informative and entertaining. She pointed out that ever since Plato we have been terrified of remixing music; that technology is unruly and creates havoc with music; what used to be creativity is now considered theft; and that copyright extensions for the work of dead musicians seemed to be confusing composing with decomposing. Possibly my favourite quote of the day was from a Pirate Party member in the Q&A of the session, along the following lines: "Up until the 10th century you only needed musical talent to be a musician; from the 10th to the 19th century you needed to be literate as well; in the 20th century you needed expertise in recording technology, and in the 21st century you need a law degree." I have to point out that I was ever so well-behaved in that session, as Cory Doctorow was sat behind me and two seats across (retweeting me on a couple of occasions) and I did not turn into my "crazed fangirl" alter ego at all. ;-)

The final session I attended before running for the train was titled "Music Industry Reformists", with the panel consisting of Simon Indelicate, Steve Lawson, Dan Bull and John Buckman. (Simon was scandalised that the four of them were "the best they could come up with" on the subject of music industry reform.) There were interesting discussions on music industry business models old and new and what it's like being a signed artist, and going from signed, to unsigned, to unsignable (both Simon and Dan were very proud of their unsignable status). John Buckman made some interesting points about the process of shopping for music being neither fun nor cool, and finding new music being a social activity; he also thought (and his business results seem to confirm) that MP3 downloads aren't the be-all and end-all of music distribution these days and there is room for a wide variety of streaming, downloading and other distribution options. Steve Lawson said that 90% of the time he talks about other people's music, because what's good for music is good for him. He also made a very good point about the "P" word - piracy is very far from being an appropriate word to describe copyright infringement, and the copyright debate has been hijacked by language.

Overall, I had a great time. My one piece of constructive feedback would be that there wasn't quite enough time for networking in the agenda - there were quite a few people I wanted to meet or chat with and it just wasn't possible, especially as I had to escape to catch a train and couldn't head to the pub with everyone at the end. I do very much hope that this will be the first of a series of annual events, and that I'll be able to wear my "Step outside analogue boy" t-shirt with pride next year. A huge thank-you goes to the organisers and the speakers for a great event.

The Big Society leaves a lot to be desired

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So, David Cameron is really passionate about the Big Society. He tells us so in his greatly hyped speech today.

The Big Society is about a huge culture change... ...where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace... ...don't always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face ... ...but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.

I think it's a remarkable feat of rhetoric to propose largely the same idea Margaret Thatcher was talking about when she said there was no such thing as society and call it the "Big Society". Compare and contrast:

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation." (Margaret Thatcher)

I could quite happily write 6000 words about how those two statements are identical; but really, I don't need to. I do rather think they speak for themselves. I must admit, though, that a small part of me admires the rhetorical skill it takes to pull this off.

At the very beginning of his speech, the Prime Minister tells us how there are two parts to his job: the bits that he does because it is his duty, like cutting the deficit, and the bits he is really passionate about, like the Big Society. And yet, not 500 words later, right in the middle of being told what the Big Society is all about, we are back on the deficit and how it's a demonstration of the fact that "micromanagement from Westminster" doesn't work. So maybe these are not separate parts of Mr. Cameron's job after all. Which begs the question: is the Big Society a chore he is doing because it is his duty, or is he really passionate about cutting the size of the state and using the Big Society as a vehicle for that?

I must admit I was delighted to see a return of George Osborne's catchphrase: "We're in this together." I thought it had gone out of fashion. Certainly for every "We're in this together" I hear or read from Conservative politicians or commentators, there seem to be ten calls for this, that or the other (the NHS, the BBC, or any other public sector evil du jour) to "feel the pain of cuts".

All good speech writers know that concepts come in threes, and David Cameron's are no exception. First we have the three big strands of the Big Society: social action, public service reform, community empowerment. These are followed by the three key methods: decentralisation, transparency and providing finance. Let's take them in turn.

"Social action" is looking for millions of people - every single one of us - to give time, effort and money to causes around us. I take issue with this on a couple of levels. Firstly, while there may be people out there who do have the time, I suspect anyone trying to hold down a full-time job won't. You just need to take a look at unpaid overtime statistics to see that we as a country already give our employers £27.4 billion's worth of free overtime per year (Source: TUC). Now our government is demanding the same. Secondly, I am not convinced that this kind of social action is necessarily the best possible use of resources, skills and talents. I may one day become a pushy middle-class parent. This does not make me in any way qualified to run a school. David Cameron himself has said in the News of the World that he is terrified about finding a good local school for his children. Would it be the best use of the PM's time to go off and start a free school? Hardly.

Public service reform appears to be all about getting rid "bureaucracy" and getting organisations such as charities, social enterprises and private companies to provide public services. I'm probably not alone in suspecting that the operative word here is "private companies". I've already talked on this blog about the Tories' ideologically motivated desire to reduce the size of the state, to hand out large chunks of it to the private sector. This is largely based on the economic theory that free markets generate the most efficient outcomes (for a very specific and narrow definition of efficiency). There are two issues with this: firstly, markets only generate efficient outcomes under very specific conditions which don't apply to most of the real world and definitely don't apply to public services, and secondly I believe there is a strong case to be made for valuing things such a social justice over efficiency.

I am tempted to say that the only thing that needs saying about empowering communities is that David Cameron wants to create "communities with oomph". Not sure which focus group they ran this one by, but it hardly sounds prime-ministerial to me. More to the point though, Cameron's vision of "neighbourhoods who are in charge of their own destiny, who feel if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them" has something of the 1950s about it. As with his marriage policy, there is something nostalgic about this, almost as if he's in denial of modern life.

As for the methods, I have already talked elsewhere on this blog about "decentralisation". Cameron wants to devolve power from central to local government, and even further down to what he calls the 'nano' level. (Anyone playing buzzword bingo here?) I find it interesting how this plays out in real life, for instance with Michael Gove's flgaship academies and free schools policy, where the local level is going to be bypassed completely and control put into the hands of whoever fancies a go at running a school. Despite all the rhetoric, there is a very strong legitimacy issue here. Wasteful bureaucracy or not, the local authority does consist of my elected representatives and thus has a mandate to make choices about the delivery of public services on my behalf. Charities, social enterprises and private companies, on the other hand, hardly have such a mandate from anyone except the people directly involved in them.

Under transparency, the PM appears to be strongly advocating vigilantism:

"So, for example, by releasing the data about precisely when and where crimes have taken place on the streets...
...we can give people the power not just to hold the police to account...
...but to go even further, and take action themselves(...)"

Colour me worried.

Under providing finance, a lot of the emphasis again seems to be on getting private capital into the public sector. One thing bears pointing out here: While bureaucracy may be wasteful and inefficient (and that is not something I am particularly convinced of either way), the private sector demands its own tribute in the form of profit and shareholder returns. I have yet to see someone crunch the numbers on how public sector inefficiency compares to private sector profit seeking when it comes to the total cost of operation and taxpayers' value for money of public services.

As an aside, I am also amused by the PM's assertion that he believes in paying public service providers by results, about 1000 words after he has dismissed targets as ineffective.

So apart from the buzzword bingo, apart from the flashy rhetoric then, what are we left with?

I for one am left unconvinced. To me, the Big Society looks like a sustained effort to privatise the state, to privatise public space, and ultimately to abdicate responsibility, and I do not subscribe to the small-state ideology. Apart from ideology, though, I see three key issues with the Big Society. (See what I did there? All concepts come in threes.)

I think there is a real danger of ending up with pick-and-mix public services. David Cameron calls for communities to come forward and tell him what they are passionate about, what services they want to run. So my question here is what happens to those bits of the state that no part of the Big Society wants? This is, allegedly, not a "pilot" that will be "rolled out" - so if no one comes forward, what then?

I think the PM's vision, geographically focused on neighbourhoods and streets as it is, is extremely limited and limiting. This is the 21st century. Yes, some of the issues I care about might be local, but the vast majority aren't. I don't share that many common interests with the people in my street, beyond seeing to it that our bins get collected. The people I have things in common with are elsewhere, and townhall meetings are not how we organise. Where is the scope for that kind of activism in the Big Society?

On a related note, the big trick that the Big Society, with its emphasis on decentralisation, misses is scale. Again, there are many local issues, but there are at least as many issues that require a certain scale - or to use Mr. Cameron's word, a certain amount of oomph - to be tackled. If I passionately wanted to do something about violence against women, I could talk to my Neighbourhood Watch about it; but given the scale of the problem itself, this is hardly the right level to tackle it at. It needs to be addressed in healthcare, in education, in policing, in social services, and above all, it needs to be addressed on a national level.

Finally, for anyone who really passionately believes in the Big Society, I have this one question left: Which public service will you personally commit to delivering from tomorrow, through your own effort, in your own time, with your own money? If you can't give me an immediate answer to that, and if our collective answers don't match up to the public services actually needed out there, then this project is a non-starter.

On vision, values and ideology

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The Conservative vision for our society is driven by an ideology that is outdated, philosophically unsound, and lacks basic human compassion.

I wasn't in Britain during the Thatcher years, and even if I had been, I would have been too young to really understand and remember the political landscape. I came to this country in 1999, when New Labour had been in power for two years but was still shiny and new, when things still "could only get better". My political consciousness when it comes to Britain therefore was shaped by a landscape where for a long time the Conservative party was beyond the pale, where they and their ideas were hardly even taken seriously. A procession of failed Tory leaders filed past, consigned to history, with me hardly noticing. The most remarkable thing about Michael Howard was that there was "something of the (k)night about him", and in my memory Iain Duncan Smith's leadership has no distinguishing features whatsoever.

And then along came David. I remember the Davis/Cameron leadership contest, and I remember finding it distinctly disturbing that the latter was - occasionally - making points I could agree with. This was clearly the man who was going to make the Tories electable again, and that gave me a vague sense of unease, though beyond pointing at specific policies I disagreed with I couldn't have told you why. It has taken the Tories getting into power for me to realise where my real fundamental disagreements with them are, and I think it's worth writing about - to make it crystal clear for all those of us who, for one reason or another, don't remember the Thatcher years.

It is very rare in politics these days to speak of visions. The end of Communism, the fall of the Iron Curtain, heralded an end of ideology, and it is a lot more fashionable these days to discuss specific policies than grand visions. And yet, the vision is still there behind all the the detail, shaping that detail all the time, even if we can't see the wood for the trees. Once the Conservatives were in power - and let's face it, coalition or not, these are mostly Conservative policies that are being pushed through Parliament right now - their actions began to reveal the vision that drives them.

One of the first things to note is the Tory obsession with cuts. Ostensibly, this is to do with reducing the deficit. And yet, both the extent of the cuts and how they are being implemented goes well beyond that. Take, for instance, education and schools where the previous government's Building Schools for the Future programme has now been thoroughly dismantled by Michael Gove, while parents, teachers and private companies are urged to apply for government funding to build new "free schools". There is no argument on earth that can convince me that this is being done simply to reduce the budget deficit. Rather, it is driven by entrenched Tory ideology - the ideology of the small state, where the public sector must be dismantled and handed over to private enterprise. There is a blind belief here that "the market" does everything better and more efficiently than the state and that therefore as much as possible should be taken out of state control and handed over to the private sector.

The vision of the small state at any cost is highlighted further by calls from the Tory backbench and well-known Tory commentators like Tim Montgomerie for even the ring-fenced parts of public spending (foreign aid and the NHS) or the BBC to "feel the pain". Such language makes me think not so much of reducing the deficit in order to ensure economic stability (and whether that works remains to be seen anyway) but of an almost childish, vindictive and willful destruction of the state.

Along with the small state, another key pillar of the Tory vision for our future is the family. David Cameron declared back in January that he wanted to lead the most family-friendly government in UK history. And yet, his government's actions betray a sadly and shockingly narrow definition of family. The emergency budget hits women disproportionately harder than men, and single mothers even more so. Child benefit, housing benefit and a number of other benefits, allowances and services suffering the most severe cuts are disproportionately used by women. The proposed tax breaks for marriage - and I have no doubt that they will be back on the agenda soon enough - would only have applied to married couples where one partner didn't work. This sends one message loud and clear: If you are a woman, get yourself married and preferably stay at home. No matter how many times David Cameron declares that when he says marriage he also means civil partnership, his vision of families is narrow, restrictive, and in the 21st century unrealistic. We are unlikely to return to the 1950s, regardless of the punishing cuts burdening single mothers or the "carrot" of a tax break for marriage.

And thus the twin visions of the small state and the nuclear family as the core unit of society are being rammed down our throats at any cost and by any means available. Learned-sounding men are telling us how it's all about numbers and the deficit, how if we don't do this we will end up like Greece, how it's all about economics and there is only one way. What is important to realise is that there is more than one way.

Economics barely qualifies as a science. I can say this - I have a degree in it. Economics tells us that certain monetary and fiscal policies are likely - but by no means guaranteed - to produce particular outcomes. Economics does not tell us which of these outcomes are preferable. It can't - it has no way of making that judgement. We as people make that judgement based on our values; our leaders make that judgement for us based on their values. It is very important to realise that any political debate at its core is not about outcomes - those are secondary. It is about values.

I am not going to try to second-guess Conservative values at this point. I can make some educated guesses on the subject, but ultimately those values are alien to me if they lead us to the small state and the nuclear family at any cost - which they clearly do. My values are different. Like many Conservatives I do value individualism and achievement - but only to an extent. Unlike most Conservatives, I realise that no one ever achieves anything entirely by themselves: There is a whole structure and society around us, a whole lot of factors like who our parents are or whether we were born black or white, male or female, straight or gay, that either limit or enhance our opportunities and choices in life. I believe that we as a society should counter-act those accidents of birth and should strive to create structures where their influence on choices and opportunities is minimised. I also believe that the more fortunate among us have a duty to support the less well-off. I firmly believe that the welfare state and progressive taxation are good things (and I say this as a higher-rate tax payer). I believe that while the market can create efficient outcomes in some situations, it is worth sacrificing some efficiency in order to gain social justice. Additionally, as an economist I recognise that in most real-life circumstances the market isn't as efficient as economic theory would have it, and that there is a very good case for public provision of a significant number of goods and services.

And this is where any flirtation I might have ever considered with David Cameron's Conservative party must end. Their vision, their fundamental values, are irreconcilable with mine. Their economic ideology is based on flawed assumptions as well as lacking the basic human quality of compassion; their social vision, too, is flawed and outdated.

Reframing the Narrative

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(This was written a couple of weeks ago and has been sitting on my hard drive waiting for me to be back in the UK before it hit the Internet.)

If anyone had told me three weeks ago that I'd be sitting here writing this, and considering publishing it, I'd probably have had a nervous breakdown at them. As it happens, I pretty much did have a nervous breakdown in the meantime, and now it's time to write this. This post may contain triggers. It is also not intended to speak for anyone else who may have had similar experiences to mine - it's my own personal take on getting past a history of sexual abuse. I am writing this for a number of reasons:


  1. Writing helps me process things, and stops random thoughts popping up in my head at 3 o'clock in the morning. It helps structure and codify the reframed narrative I will be talking about below.

  2. I hope that in some small way I can help people out there on an individual level. I know that one of the most helpful things for me has been to understand that I am not the only one who has gone through this and that my own reactions to it are far from abnormal. If this helps you, then it would be great if you could let me know - either in the comments or via email. But you don't have to - we all deal with these things in our own way, and it may not be the right thing to do for you at this time. Either way, you are not alone.

  3. Finally, this post is part of what is rapidly becoming a personal mission to raise awareness of violence against women in our society. When I first started talking about this in public not that long ago, it struck me how many people simply didn't know not only the extent of the issue but even that violence against women was happening. By making it personal, I am hoping to move this beyond the realm of abstract statistics. The personal is political. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude on this front to RoadkillGerbil for speaking out about her own experience. The more of us do it, the more powerful the message becomes.


And this is as much preamble as this needs...

About seven years ago I wrote about being the victim of sexual abuse when I was in my teens. That post, at the time aimed mostly at my friends in an effort to break the silence and hopefully help me move on a little further, was full of justifications. It was written to answer the question which I expected from everyone: "Why did you let it happen?" As it happens, my friends are a lot less harsh than I have been with myself over the last 15 years, and that question never came. But at the back of my mind it has always been there.

Here's what the world looked like in my head for 15 years, the narrative that I had created for myself: I was abused by an uncle when I was, as best I can tell now, 14 or 15 years old. In my head, I was grown-up enough at that point that it was reasonable to expect of me not to let this happen to myself. In my head, the responsibility was all mine, the pain was all mine, the guilt and the shame were all mine. And out of those, the worst were the guilt and the shame. I closed off a part of myself, and I didn't speak about it for 5 years.

That narrative was incredibly damaging. It kept the guilt and the shame well fed, to the extent that even when I did eventually talk and write about my experience, it was in the framework of that narrative, expecting the challenge: "Why did you let it happen?" Whenever I considered telling my family, what stopped me was the fear of that challenge - the fear that they would blame me. And yet, very slowly and unconsciously to start with, and very rapidly and deliberately over the last few weeks, I have been reframing that narrative. Because there is more than one side to every story, and because sometimes what you always thought was your side isn't quite right.

The first realisation which contributed to this reframing, ten years ago, was the monumental extent of the breach of trust which that person had committed. This was the person I had been closest to for my entire childhood. He lived in the flat below us. When I was upset or had fought with my parents, he was the person I ran to. When the abuse happened, I was too shell-shocked by that breach of trust to do anything about it.

Here's another one: When a woman - or a child - says no, that means no. It should only need to be said once. There should be no conditions attached. This sounds obvious - it should be obvious; and if someone else came to me told me of a similar experience, that is exactly what I would say. And yet, in my head it somehow didn't apply to me. Because saying no was clearly not enough to stop the abuse, clearly I should have done something else, something different. 15 years is a long time to carry that burden before you realise that no, you did everything right; it was the other party involved who was wrong.

And finally, there was the realisation that no matter how much I saw my 15-year-old self as an adult, I was a child. That was a blinding flash of insight I had while curled up in a ball on the floor in the corner of my bedroom, trying to talk to Paul about all this last weekend. The thing that finally helped me see it was that my cousin is now the same age I was when I was abused - and I see my cousin as a kid, and everyone else in my family does too; not a pre-teen sort of kid, and well on his way towards being an adult, but a kid who needs guidance and care and protection nonetheless. No one in my family - not even I - would expect my cousin to be able to protect himself from the kind of abuse I suffered entirely by himself. I have no words to describe the liberating power of this insight. Suddenly I felt free. I knew that whatever I chose to do from that point on was not going to be easy, but I also for the first time really, genuinely believed that, actually, this was not my fault. They weren't just words I kept repeating to myself anymore.

All of the recent developments in my thinking have been prompted by some family drama we've been having. We've had a couple of deaths in the family recently, and my mother had expressed a desire to catch up with some more removed family members she's not seen in a while - including the man who abused me. That was the first time I got an inkling that something had changed inside me. It was the first time I had a genuinely physical reaction to the thought of my experiences. My heart started pounding. I felt sick. I collapsed on the kitchen floor and sat there in a ball for a bit. I made it clear to my mother that I was not going to be part of this family reunion, told her not to ask why, changed the subject, finished the phone call and then just sat there feeling sick. And I decided this was progress. I wasn't burying things inside anymore. It hurt like hell, but it felt good to actually feel something.

A couple of other family incidents, iterated with the thought precesses above, and eventually I told my mother. I am incredibly sorry for what it's done to her, but it's actually been incredibly helpful to me. Before that, my brain was trying to push me down one of two routes, neither very productive: keep suppressing things and live on like it never happened, or go see my abuser by myself for some sort of ... fuck knows what, frankly. The thought of telling my mother, the thought of ever seeing him while she was in the same room, produced in my head a mental image of me as a very small child hiding behind my mother's skirt. That of course played nicely into the whole "but you were grown up, you should have been able to stop it" narrative. Way to go, brain.

My first reaction to telling my mother was physical and violent. I hung up the phone, and I started not so much crying as howling. I couldn't stop shaking. My teeth were chattering. I curled up in a ball on the sofa, Paul put a blanket around me and eventually, when I let him, held my hand, and I just sat there for a good 15 minutes. Even though my mother had believed me instantly, had not questioned a thing, had confirmed some of my new narrative in her reaction ("You were a child!"), the profound sense of shame that washed over me was soul-shattering. I thought, for those 15 minutes, that I would never be able to look my mother in the eye again. Eventually, it passed. Though the memory of the moment when I told her, of the words, made me physically whince and twitch for a few days afterwards - I'm slowly getting over that. I talked to Paul again later that evening and the entire time he held me and every so often I would just shake.

One of the many worst things about all this is having to deal with everyone else's helplessness. There is no right way of reacting to someone you love telling you they've been hurt like this, but the most common reaction I have encountered is helplessness. That then translates into all sorts of things - deflection, denial, anger, self-blame; all those things that I've been going through myself, but from a slightly different, twisted angle. And because I have been through all of these myself, I have to help. When I tell people, I have to plan ahead for their reactions. One of the reasons I haven't told my father is that I don't think I can physically restrain him for long enough to reason him out of doing something monumentally stupid. With my mother, I suspect it will take me years to convince her that there is only one guilty party in all of this and it's not her. So at a time when I'm feeling fragile and in need of support, I have to carry everyone else.

Another worst thing is that - while I'm beginning to accept that the guilt and the shame are not mine to carry - the power to hurt a lot of innocent people lies entirely with me. The choice of who to tell - and thus whose world to destroy utterly - is with me. Telling my mother has, miraculously, turned out to be the best thing for myself that I could ever have done. Whether she can cope with it in the long run remains to be seen. Do I tell my father? My abuser's sister whose son is the age I was when I was abused? His mother, who has recently been widowed? Where is the balance between preventing him from doing further harm, getting the closure I need, and dragging more innocent people into this? That decision, that responsibility, lies with me. But it has been important for me to realise that the guilt is not mine, that regardless of what I do and who I tell now, I did not cause this.

I have had a number of friendly offers of violence on my behalf from friends since I started talking about this. I'm not going to deny that I've thought about it. There are ways and means. I have always shied away from it, and only realised recently why. Physical pain doesn't even get close to what I've been through, and thus retribution in terms of physical pain is inadequate. The thing, I think, that would help me get closure is to know that my abuser feels the same shame and guilt I have been feeling for the last fifteen years - to get some sort of acknowledgement of guilt from him, to have him admit that he knows, and knew, that what he did was wrong. In my mind, there's almost a zero-sum game of feelings here, and if he takes on the guilt, I don't have to carry it anymore. And no, it's not in any way rational, but that's how I feel about it.

What telling my mother appears to have done for me is to short-circuit at least some of this zero-sum game. Maybe one day I will confront my abuser; maybe I will get that admission of guilt. But actually just knowing that my mother knows and she's on my side - she's got my back, she does not blame me - is enough for the moment. Not only have I reframed my own narrative to the point where I genuinely believe it wasn't my fault, but I now have external validation from someone in the family. I had not realised until a couple of days ago how much that mattered, how liberating it is.

Suddenly the image in my head of encountering my abuser with my mother at my side is of me as I am now - truly grown-up, strong, a survivor, proud and with my head held high. The guilt is not mine. The shame is not mine.

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