Robert Hampton

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20th December 2013

Net: A Filter

BT and Sky have joined TalkTalk in installing nanny-state filters on their broadband connections, under the guise of protecting children from porn (in other words, doing what should be a parent’s job).

Worryingly, a Newsnight investigation revealed that, while some porn sites were not caught by the filter, legitimate sites offering information on sexual health, relationships and other issues important to teens were being censored.

BT even offer a tool to increase the level of filtering, allowing over-zealous parents to censor all sex education sites, even age-appropriate ones. One of the blocked web site categories is “respect for a partner” – because why would kids need access to information about that?

This is not a hypothetical situation for me. Back in 1999 or thereabouts, when I was first becoming aware of, and struggling to come to terms with, my sexuality, the web sites available on the nascent web were vital for me. Had they been filtered, there’s no way I would have felt able to go to my parents to ask for permission to unblock them.

The filters do seem to be disproportionately affecting gay and lesbian web sites, including the LGBT Liberal Democrats and London Friend, one of the capital’s oldest LGBT charities providing support services. The whole thing smacks of anti-gay prejudice from the people who drew up the filter list – children, apparently, must be protected from anything LGBT-related, even when it is completely non-sexual in nature.

I could have told the powers-that-be that this would happen (in fact, I did, six months ago). I can speak from experience at the office where I work. We tried to put in a filter which would only allow work-related sites to be accessed. For months we tweaked it so that it would not block sites that people needed for work purposes. Almost every day, without fail, we would have to add another load of sites to the whitelist. Eventually, we gave up and turned the filters off. Not sure how our workplace survived with unfettered access to the internet, but somehow… we managed.

So, in summary, we’re preventing vulnerable children and teenagers from accessing vital information they might need while giving parents a false sense of security? Nice one, Cameron: you’ve probably broken the Internet for ever. Twat. (filter that!)

For more on this you might want to check out the Open Rights Group blog on the subject of over-blocking.

29th August 2013

Parliamental
Posted by at 11.27pm | In the News, Politics | No responses

Shock news tonight as the Government’s motion on Syria was defeated in the House of Commons. The vote was expected to be a token gesture – the Prime Minister does not even have to consult Parliament on launching military action. Even so, the motion was expected to pass. However, the figures can’t be disputed – 285 against, 272 in favour. The only sign of the military tonight is an appearance from Major Miscalculation.

Nobody could deny that what is happening in Syria – with chemical weapons being used – is an act of barbarity almost beyond comprehension. I can’t understand, however, why chemical weapons are the “red line” that musn’t be crossed, when over 100,000 people have already died.

As The Guardian explains, Ed Miliband deserves credit for standing firm and successfully forcing this retreat, even when Tory sources are briefing that he is a “copper-bottomed shit” and a Number 10 spokesman accuses him of giving “succour” to the Syrian regime.

Labour is not opposed to military action; I think the party’s position can be characterised as “sitting on the fence”, but it’s good to see they’ve learned some lessons from the Iraq debacle. We should be very careful before getting involved in any conflicts anywhere. That’s not to say that not getting involved is definitely the right decision – only time will tell – but I’m pleased that Cameron’s gung-ho attitude has been rebuffed.

Despite the seriousness of the issues being discussed, BBC Parliament’s microphones still captured all the usual booing and catcalling, with one MP yelling “resign!” at the Prime Minister. The SNP MP Angus Roberts has just been on Sky News, saying that Michael Gove has been shouting “Disgrace!” at rebel MPs. It is not a brilliant advertisement for our democracy.

In tomorrow’s papers, expect a lot of point-missing political pundits arguing about the outcome of the vote and what it means for the careers of Ed Miliband and David Cameron. The important thing to remember is that public opinion is against military action, and tonight Parliament respected that.

Amidst all the partisan bickering, we must keep in mind the reason for this debate tonight: the situation in Syria. Send a few quid the way of the Disasters Emergency Committee.

22nd July 2013

Attack the Block

David Cameron has announced that ISPs will block online pornography by default. The “big four” ISPs (BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin) have all signed up voluntarily to the plan, which will see users asked to tick a box to confirm that they want the “Torrent of Filth” (© Daily Mail) to continue to flow freely.

A lot of people are unhappy at this – Virgin Media’s Twitter feed is already overrun with people demanding continued unfettered access to porn.

Won't someone think of the children?!

A typical pro-censorship campaigner

It’s incredibly difficult to argue against this plan, as pro-blocking advocates invariably start shrieking “think of the children!” as soon as anyone dares to question them. So let me say right now that no, children should not be looking at porn. I would argue, though, that is chiefly the parents’ responsibility to prevent this, by supervising their internet access and computer use. Judging by the number of “my 6-year-old ran up a £9,632 bill on an iPhone game!” stories in the press recently, some are not doing so.

I would also argue that adults’ freedom to fap is just as important – and when pictures of naked women are available across the newsagent’s counter courtesy of the Sun and the Daily Star, it’s hard to take seriously any claims that children need to be protected.

Telegraph blogger Mic Wright thinks that the plan is technologically illiterate. He’s absolutely right, but this point has reportedly already been made to Cameron by the ISPs, Google and others – see Rory Cellan-Jones’s reports on the subject. It seems that Cameron simply won’t listen.

If you want more, Paul Bernal, Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the University of East Anglia Law School has written a useful post: 10 questions about Cameron’s ‘new’ porn-blocking. I have some questions of my own, reproduced below.

Read the rest of this post »

18th July 2013

La Reyne le veult
Posted by at 11.27pm | Gay, In the News | No responses

Rainbow flag fluttering in sunlight50 years ago, homosexuality was illegal. In an amazing turnaround, by the middle of next year, gay relationships will be on an (almost) equal footing to heterosexual ones, as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2013 is now the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, after Royal Assent was received on Wednesday afternoon.

I’ll be honest – there were times when I didn’t think it would happen. From the minute the plans were announced back in 2011, a formidable campaign against same-sex marriage was launched, unleashing old-school attitudes and opinions that I naively thought had disappeared from public discourse. Certain sections of society are not nearly as tolerant and accepting as we thought they were.

The leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland (or, as he is now known, the disgraced former leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland), Cardinal Keith O’Brien, launched an astonishing diatribe, describing same-sex marriage as a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”. The Telegraph and the Daily Mail were vociferous in their opposition.

The Coalition for Marriage – which described itself as a “grass roots” campaign despite being launched by luminaries such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, and reality TV star Anne Widdecombe – set up a petition which, at the time of writing, has a rather pleasing 666,493 signatures. The Government’s own consultation ignored the organised petitions and form letter campaigns, but still revealed widespread opposition.

The cynical view was that this bill was David Cameron’s attempt to “modernise” the Tory party image. If that was his goal, it failed – more Conservative MPs voted against the bill than for it, and Tory MPs have been the most vociferous in their criticism of the bill. Political commentators talked of divisions in the Tory party and rumours swirled of leadership challenges to the Prime Minister. The very real lives and loves of LGBT people were rather lost amongst all the punditry.

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8th January 2013

Net Disbenefit
Posted by at 10.08pm | Politics | 1 response

When your own Government department admits that proposed benefit cuts will hit the poor hardest, maybe it’s time for a rethink.

Britain’s poorest households will be hit hardest by government plans to limit rises in working-age benefits to 1% in a bid to save £3.1bn by 2016, according to a Whitehall assessment rushed out shortly before MPs debated a controversial welfare bill.

There’s little doubt in my mind that the coalition government is making Britain a colder, more cruel place to live. I try to console myself with the thought that this will be a one-term government and 2015 will bring some semblance of sanity. I’m concerned, however, that by then the damage to the welfare state will be irreperable. I’m also worried that the electorate may actually be fooled by Cameron and Co’s soundbites and support their “strivers v skivers” nonsense.

I hate that particular soundbite, which seeks to portray anyone claiming any sort of state benefit as a scrounger who needs to be given a kick up the arse and stand on their own two feet (unless their legs have been amputated, but they’ve probably still been passed as fit for work by ATOS anyway). This “lazy dolescum” argument seems based entirely on the tabloid stories which surface every so often, about families on benefits who go on expensive holidays and have plasma screen TVs in their living rooms. Undoubtedly there are people who are playing the system, but they are very much the exception rather than the rule. Most people use state benefits for their intended purpose: as a safety net, to ensure a minimum standard of living.

Now, the Tories and their Lib Dem enablers seek to remove that safety net. Get out there and work (even if it’s for free in Poundland). Never mind that there are no jobs – we’ve just arranged free bus travel for the jobless (of course, since last year’s cut in bus subsidy there may not be a bus any more)!

Look across the pond to America, which has long championed self-reliance and small government. The extreme example came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where some truly vicious pundits said that anyone stranded in lawless New Orleans only had themselves to blame. Those left behind were mostly poor, went the logic. If they had been well-off, they could have transported themselves away easily. The lesson? You should never rely on Government to help you, ever, and if you’re in poverty – for whatever reason – tough.

At the time I laughed and felt grateful that rhetoric like that would be completely out of place here. Now, however, I worry that we might be heading in that direction. Are we going back to Dickensian days of workhouses and the poor living on the streets? Maybe not to that extreme, but a similar attitude towards the poor seems to be taking hold.

I still have misgivings about Labour – I’d like to see a full apology for the Iraq mess, and the authoritarian streak that brought us ID cards and DNA databases is still there, I think. I also worry that they may go for the populist approach in the next general election by adopting similar “tough on scroungers” rhetoric. But they can’t possibly be worse than the Tories – many of whom have no understanding of what it is like to be poor and struggling to make ends meet.

16th July 2012

Bright spark
Posted by at 11.06pm | Trains | No responses

A rather gruesome Cameron-Clegg press conference framed the announcement that a vast swathe of railway schemes are to go ahead between now and 2019.

The options outlined by the Department for Transport are “illustrative” – in other words, they’re more of a shopping list than actual finalised plans, but still they’re quite extensive.

Electrification is the big news: there are now plans to electrify the Midland Main Line and the main line to Swansea, as well as commuter lines around Cardiff. The Northern Hub scheme will go ahead with big capacity improvements around Manchester, with knock-on benefits for Liverpool, Leeds and the smaller towns in-between.

Locally, there is a welcome boost for the Transpennine Express service from Liverpool, which could be doubled in frequency and operated with electric trains, running to Newcastle rather than Scarborough as they do now. Liverpool could also get a direct link to Buxton and an improved service to Sheffield as part of the Northern Hub scheme. Generally, there will be more trains running in and out of Lime Street, which will be welcomed by commuters currently shoehorned into overcrowded Pacers.

You would think I would be happy about all this investment. I am, but I worry about where the money is coming from. These schemes will cost over £9 billion, and the promised efficiency savings at the railway (which, so far, seem to amount to London Midland closing a load of ticket offices and not much else) are being very slow in coming.

This means that the passenger will be paying, through increased fares. We already have at least two years of ticket price rises of inflation+3% coming up, at a time when many people already consider train fares to be uncomfortably expensive.

Unless you’re well-organised and plan your journey sufficiently far ahead to get an Advance ticket (or opt for the slower London Midland service), it now costs nearly 80 quid return to go from Liverpool to London. That’s the off-peak fare. If you need to travel during “peak” times (which now, thanks to Virgin tightening the restrictions, means any train arriving at Euston before 11.30am!) you could end up paying £277 – a fare already out of reach of many people.

The proposals outlined today could be a big step towards a better railway network. It would be a shame if those benefits were to be only available to the well-off.

16th March 2012

Power of 2
Posted by at 9.24pm | Gay, In the News | 2 responses

When David Cameron told the Tory Conference in October 2011 that he supported marriage rights for same-sex couples, I wonder if he expected the reaction to be as vociferous as it has been? He didn’t just open a can of worms; he put the can in a microwave, programmed it for full power, and watched the sparks fly.

I will admit that – while I wasn’t surprised by the reaction of certain religious leaders – I was surprised that their views were allowed to dominate the debate, especially on TV and radio (that politically correct liberal media at work again, I guess). I was also surprised – shocked, in fact – at how vicious some of the anti-marriage commentary has been. Some comments have been reminiscent of the nonsense that comes out of the mouths of the religious right in America. I naively hoped that Britain would be above this kind of thing.

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31st January 2012

Marrying Hate, Repent at Leisure
Posted by at 11.01pm | In the News | No responses

Some good old fashioned anti-gay opinions were spouted at the weekend from a senior figure in the Church of England, because there is apparently no more pressing social issue in the world today than two men kissing. This time it was the Archbishop of York, who said in a newspaper interview that, while civil partnerships were OK, gay marriage should not be introduced in the UK:-

“I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

“We’ve seen dictators do it in different contexts, and I don’t want to redefine very clear social structures that have been in existence for a long time and then overnight the state believes it could go in a particular way.”

Dr Sentamu fled Uganda during the rule of Idi Amin, so you’d think he’d be a bit more careful about comparing people to dictators. If the Church wants to stick to its narrow definition of marriage, I think it is wrong, but in a free society it should be free to do so. However, it cannot enforce these rules against the wider population who are not bound by the Bible (or specifically, Dr Sentamu’s interpretation of it). They should be free to marry whomever they want.

I agree with David Cameron on very little, but I hope he pushes forward with the gay marriage consultation in the face of a backbench revolt. Or should that read “revolting backbenchers”?

10th December 2011

Euro-n your own
Posted by at 10.15am | Politics | No responses

So a new EU accord has been reached and the only member not interested in supporting it is, er.. us. Thanks to Dave, Britain has been left isolated. As the Guardian succinctly puts it: The two-speed Europe is here, with UK alone in the slow lane.

Cameron says the deal wasn’t in “Britain’s best interests”. It certainly wasn’t in the best interests of Dave’s political career – his decision appears to be squarely about pandering to the Tory right and the Daily Mail.

There’s a debate to be had on Europe and Britain’s role in it. There are plenty of ways in which the EU could and should be reformed. Unfortunately it’s quite impossible to have a sensible discussion when the country is run by a party of little Englanders and the popular press is full of exaggerated and just plain made-up scare stories about “Barmy Brussels Bureaucrats”. Any debate would be strangled at birth by daft comments about straight bananas and butter mountains.

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg (remember him?) — a leader of a supposedly pro-Europe party, continues to back the Prime Minister. Is there anything I can do, even as a meaningless symbolic gesture, to retract my LibDem vote in the May 2010 elections?

3rd December 2011

Cone off the Mersey Tunnels
Posted by at 11.24pm | In the News | 1 response

So, November 30th. It was, we were told, a national day of action by public sector workers, when the evil/heroic unions (depending on which newspaper you read) would succeed/fail in bringing Britain to a standstill (again, depending on which newspaper you read).

Merseyside, with quite a generous allocation of civil service workers, was poised to be badly hit, with dire warnings in the local press of CHAOS.

Did it come to pass? Well, the Mersey Tunnels were closed.

Photo of closed Queensway Tunnel entrance

For me it was a normal day, apart from Liverpool city centre being super-busy as strike-affected schoolchildren and their harrassed-looking parents descended for some retail therapy. As I watched the crowds in the shops, I found it hard to swallow the Government’s line that this strike was damaging to the economy.

The Sun (spit) and Daily Mail (urgh) have delighted in demonising the unions. They portray them as militant, 70s throwbacks, not living in the real world. In a masterpiece of tabloid doublespeak, they tried to portray the strike as massively disruptive to the general public, while at the same time downplaying it as a “damp squib”. The right-wing press conveniently ignored a BBC poll showing 61% of adults supported the strike. Jeremy Clarkson was definitely with the other 39%.

David Cameron meanwhile, seems to be trying to turn the term “leftwing” into an insult, similar to the way “liberal” has become a dirty word in America. The Guardian carried an interesting article on this phenomenon.

As I understand it, the government have decided that the public sector pension plan is going to be unilaterally changed, so workers will pay in more and get less at the end of it. They’re not being greedy, they’re not asking for more – they simply want to keep what they already have. Some private sector workers complained that they don’t get such a generous pension. Well, that may be true, but why should public sector workers sink to the lowest common denominator? Instead, private sector workers should be lobbying their employers for better pension provision (maybe they should form a union).

No-one should be completely immune to the effects of the financial woes we find ourselves in. But why are public sector workers being singled out when the bankers who got us into this mess are still paying themselves massive bonuses? “We’re all in this together,” after all.

My favourite quote came, as so many of my favourite quotes do these days, from Twitter:

"Parents, if it wasn't for unions, your kids wouldn't be off school today. They'd be at work."

It’s an excellent point. Rules about child labour, health and safety at work, anti-discrimination legislation and countless other laws, have all come about thanks in no small part to union intervention. If you want to go back to a country where 12-year-olds were sent down coal mines, then by all means abolish the unions, but that’s not a country I want to live in.