Monthly Archives: January 2012

[Elsewhere] ACTA, Parliament, and the true democratic deficit

Earlier this month, the Internet went on strike. Thousands of websites, including high-profile ones like Wikipedia, blacked out for 12 hours on January 18th to protest US Congress attempts to severely limit civil liberties on the Internet in order to protect the vested interests of the content industry. Two days later, Congress shelved SOPA and PIPA, the two contentious bills. Yet barely two weeks later, we face a bigger challenge.
Read more at ORGZine.

[Elsewhere] Copyright by the book – a step-by-step guide to killing the economy

I recently gave a talk on the economics of copyright, and why content is a public good. I’m not big on seven-level nested bullet points but I did want some visual aids for my audience so I set out to create a slide deck. Let me be perfectly, crystal clear here: I’m talking about a one-hour talk on a topic that I was intimately familiar with, not writing new material from scratch; I’m talking about 16 slides, 13 of which had any actual content. This should not have taken more than two hours. 12 working hours later…
Read more at ORGZine.

#sopastrike will be offline for around 12 hours on January 18th, 2012. I am joining a global protest against the US SOPA and PIPA Acts aimed at limiting Internet freedom and civil liberties in order to protect the vested interests of a small number of corporations in the content industry.
It has been argued that this issue does not concern me – that this is single-issue politics in a foreign country. There are no geographical or political boundaries and nothing “single issue” about the Internet. The Acts target non-US sites specifically – sites like They have global implications for private citizens and businesses alike. They propose to limit freedom of expression which can in turn affect any number of other political issues. Nor is the undue influence of the content industry on governments limited to the United States: this is also the week which saw EMI suing the government of the Republic of Ireland for failure to block pirate sites. The Great Firewall of America must not be allowed to be built. Nor must the content industry be allowed to threaten our rights and civil liberties, to undermine our democracies.
If you are in the US, use the information on this site to contact your representatives and let them know that sacrificing civil liberties on the altar of the content industry’s obsolete business models is not acceptable. If you are elsewhere, I strongly urge you to take an interest in digital rights issues if you don’t already. For the UK, the Open Rights Group is a good place to start. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has and international issues section. In Germany, the Chaos Computer Club is a good starting point, and in France I would point you to La Quadrature du Net.
Digital rights matter – to us all.

Valuing diversity the corporate way – some case studies

I am currently absolutely obsessed with Dragon Age. At this rate, I’m going to have to ask people to pry me off the PS3. The reason this is remarkable is that I am Not A Gamer. I am Not A Gamer to the extent that when I played Devil May Cry, I got two levels in and the game offered me the “You seem to suck at this, here’s the extra special easy version for you” option. With an extremely small number of notable exceptions, I never really got past Tetris. So how did I get to the point where you have to pry the PS3 controller from my cold dead hands?
The story starts with No More Lost, an LGBT rights blog I occasionally read. Some time last year, they covered a story about a role-playing game which – *gasp* – allowed same-sex relationships within the game setting. Not only that, but when challenged over this by a self-identified “Straight Male Gamer”, BioWare, the company behind the game, took an extremely principled stand in favour of equality, even in gaming. That was the first time I ever heard of Dragon Age. That was all the marketing I ever needed for it. I wanted to give BioWare my money. After checking with Paul that he was interested in playing it (I believe the words were something like “You’ll do the fighting and I’ll do the gay”), I bought both Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 for Christmas.
What we’ve found since then is that Dragon Age is that once-in-a-decade game that actually really appeals to me. There is a strong overarching plot, characters you can truly care about, a combat system I can cope with, as well as some truly unique features like the player’s choices making a significant difference to the overall plot. Yet, had BioWare not shown that great principled stand on equality issues, I would probably never have found out about their game and certainly never bought it. I am willing to bet that this is the case for a significant number LGB gamers and allies out there. Market research shows that the LGB community is considerably more loyal to brands and companies who take the time to acknowledge we exist than your average consumer. And why not? All things being equal, if I have a choice between two otherwise superb products, of course I’m going to go with the one made by people who care about me.
There is, however, a fine line between engaging with a community and showing them you care and, frankly, taking the piss. Case in point, yet another Facebook privacy controversy. In this particular one, Privacy International alleged that Facebook’s targeted advertising had “destroyed” a young man’s life. Despite not openly revealing his sexual orientation on the social network, “David” started seeing a lot of adverts targeted at gay men until one day his parents spotted these and kicked him out of the house. Facebook in their eternal wisdom call this a case of “appalling discrimination and unauthorized access to a person’s account, not advertising”.
Yet here is why this is very much an issue of advertising, and an issue of how Facebook treats its users. (Remember, for Facebook we are not customers – we are the product. Nevertheless some minimum amount of decency and dignity should be expected even in this business model.) There was a time after I told Facebook I was bisexual and before I discovered the wonders of Adblock Plus when I used to see adverts on the site. Pretty much the only thing Facebook ever advertised to me were “lesbian cruises”. Which makes me wonder – if Facebook’s algorithms can figure out my sexual orientation even without me disclosing it, why can’t they figure out that there is more to me as a human being than just my sexual orientation? Why am I reduced to that one characteristic and then mercilessly targeted for it regardless of any other aspect of my life?
Here’s what BioWare did right: They created an awesome product and in the process thoughtfully included some options targeted at the LGB community. It’s important that Dragon Age isn’t about gay characters. It’s about characters who have adventures, who just happen to to be gay if the player so chooses. To top it all off, BioWare then stood by that product in the face of criticism, showing they had backbone to go with their amazing creativity. What Facebook does repeatedly wrong, on the other hand, is reducing us to a single characteristic they think they can turn into money and then disavowing responsibility the minute something goes wrong.
Thus ends today’s “Marketing to the LGB community” lesson.

[Elsewhere] Teaching our kids to code

Could it be that the Teach our kids to code e-petition is the smallest successful e-petition in UK politics? It would certainly seem so, after this week’s news that Michael Gove wants to replace the current ICT school curriculum with a Computer Science programme. I do not often (ever?) agree with the Education Secretary, but today’s announcement is definitely a step in the right direction.
Read more at ORGZine.

Shareholders, executive pay and other fairy stories

So the word of the weekend appears to have been “shareholder”. David Cameron and Danny Alexander have been out in force, explaining to us how shareholders should be given a say on executive pay. Here are just three reasons why this is a red herring if I’ve ever seen one.
The uninvolved shareholder
I happen to be a shareholder. I own shares in two distinct ways. Firstly, I’m a shareholder in companies I have a significant involvement with – my full-time employer and a small start-up I helped out over the summer. The start-up hasn’t had an AGM yet, so I can’t tell you how I would vote at that, but when it comes to my full-time employer, I get a letter from the share management company with some vague explanations of what we are voting on (and links to more details), a recommendation on which way to vote, and some boxes to tick. Most years I tick the boxes, some years I even remember to send the form back. This is, frankly, what an involved shareholder looks like.
The other way in which I own shares is rather more removed. I have a stocks and shares ISA which puts my money into an investment fund which is managed by my bank and currently seems to be eating my money. I also have a company pension which too puts my money into one kind of investment fund or another, managed by one bank or another. I don’t even know which companies I own shares in through these vehicles. To be more precise, I don’t own shares this way – I own chunks of an investment fund, which in turn owns shares.
So when the Prime Minister says that “shareholders” should have a say in executive pay, what he actually means is pension funds, investment banks and insurance companies. Those are the largest blocks of shareholders around, and the only ones with enough clout to make a difference. Their interests are not always for the company in question to be productive, stable and long-term sustainable, as long as they can make a quick buck.
The sprawling multinational
The reach of any legislation on shareholder involvement in executive pay is likely to be limited. It will hit small and medium-sized domestic businesses, as well as the “C” level of larger companies incorporated in the UK. Yet if you just happen to be a “Director” or “Vice President” running the UK operations of a sprawling multinational incorporated in the Cayman Islands, well then you’re not an executive, are you? Nevermind that the level of responsibility and the salary to go with it are probably quite similar to those of a “C” level exec of a UK company.
At this point, it’s worth asking ourselves whose pay we’re limiting and why. This is where the answer you are likely to get from the coalition is something along the lines of “not paying for failure”, whereas someone like Deborah Hargreaves from the High Pay Commission will tell you that it’s all about addressing inequality and social injustice. It does somewhat depend on your motivation as to whether the shareholder argument makes sense.
The old-fashioned Marxist analysis
Finally, let me indulge in a piece of good, old-fashioned Marxist analysis. If we look at this through the lens of the capital/labour dichotomy, we quickly see that any move to give shareholders more say in executive compensation retains the power on the side of capital. Employees continue to be disenfranchised in this process. There are of course exceptions in the form of employees who may own a small number of shares in the company – but for those cases I shall simply refer you to the problem of the uninvolved shareholder above.
So if a fig leaf is what we want, then giving shareholders a say in executive pay is the way forward. If we actually want to address both the widening social inequality we are experiencing and the market failure caused by interests of major shareholders being less than compatible with the long-term interests of the company, then we need to look for other solutions.