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November 27, 2009

Women and children first

The Irish author Tim Pat Coogan has commented that Ireland was colonized twice: once by the British, and once by the Catholic church. I was reminded of that yesterday when reading that the leader of the Irish Catholic church, Cardinal Sean Brady, the Irish government, and the commissioner of the Irish police have all apologized for decades of systematically covering up child abuse by Catholic priests, uncovered in the damning report of a three-year inquiry into the Archdiocese of Dublin from 1975 to 2004. It seems that the cover-up went, like Watergate, all the way to the top.

When I was living in Ireland in the late 1980s few people talked about abuse by priests. One who did was Frank Crummey, whom I interviewed for one of my first-ever published pieces, for the Guardian's women's page about the prosecution of the Irish Family Planning Association for giving away condoms at Virgin's Dublin Megastore. (Richard Branson funded the IFPA's defense, and flew in for the court hearing.) The chain of contacts led to Margaret Gaj, a veteran of contraceptive campaigns, and she sent me to Crummey.

He told me that his interest in contraception began as a campaign to redress the imbalance in subsidies between the Gaeltacht - Irish-language - and English-speaking agricultural areas. Working on that got him into the schools, where he saw that children were being abused - he mentioned in particular the Christian Brothers. But trying to engage their mothers on the issue failed: they were too poor and too dependent on their priests for help and charity to risk confrontation. Often, he told me, the priests would divulge even to abusive husbands what their wives said in the supposedly safe confessional. As the Irish writer Seán Mac Mathúna asked in one of his short stories, "Who'd be a woman in Ireland?" The situation with respect to child abuse seems not to have been much different: clergy and police cooperated to protect the guilty.

Unable to interest the authorities in the problems he was finding in the schools - a problem he encountered again, reportedly, in Ireland's industrial schools - Crummey concluded that the underlying problem was that too many children consigned them to poverty and powerlessness. That's when he began smuggling contraceptives into Ireland and, with his family's help, distributing them by post. The letters he got from desperate women telling their stories to beg for help, he said, were heart-rending.

It is hard to convey to anyone who didn't live in Ireland in or before the 1980s how deeply embedded the Church was. It owned 90 percent of the primary schools and most of the hospitals. The Irish Constitution, although it includes a US-like clause guaranteeing the separation of church and state clearly intended "freedom of religion" to mean "freedom to be Catholic". The late Leslie Shepard, editor of The Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology and an early supporter of The Skeptic frequently talked about the unique position of priests in rural villages in earlier times. Often, he noted, they were the only people who could read and write.

In fact, the village priest figured heavily in one of the topics covered in the early issues of The Skeptic (and revisited in the soon-to-be forthcoming Why Statues Weep: the Best of The Skeptic from Philosophy Press). The Trinity College Dublin professor David Berman had discovered new documents showing that the local priest was behind the Knock Apparitions. (Shepard always vehemently disputed that any village priest could be so deceptive.) I'm not sure a similar strategy will work now.

Noticeable change had begun while I was living there, often attributed to economic improvement that meant that many of Ireland's emigrants could afford to return, bringing with them experiences of life in other countries. A few of these founded the Campaign to Separate Church and State; others banded together to build non-denominational charter schools for their kids. In the 1990s, of course, then along came the technology boom which, at least for a time, charged the economy.

The Church was already in trouble before the scandals broke. Writing in Disillusioned Decades: Ireland 1966-1987 (Gill and Macmillan, 1987), Coogan noted that, "...though the presence of the church is all-pervasive there has been a diminution of the grip which it is able to maintain on an increasingly well-educated society. Increasing affluence (of a sort) and mobility mean that people can move in and out of the purview of the church without permitting it to have any great influence on their conduct (unless, of course, they want an abortion or a divorce)." From 1970 to 1985, the numbers entering the priesthood dropped by a quarter.

Now, according to the Independent, the abuse scandals have not only dramatically accelerated the already notable decline in numbers applying to enter the priesthood but is emptying the churches. For a country that only a little over 20 years ago could be persuaded through the power of the pulpit to vote down a constitutional amendment allowing divorce, it's staggering. The change may be less of a hard road for Ireland than it appears: one of the key messages the CSCS tried to impart in the late 1980s and early 1990s was that the church paid for less than people thought, since the religious-owned schools and hospitals had and have considerable State funding.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

November 20, 2009

Thou shalt not steal

As we're so fond of saying, technology moves fast, and law moves slowly. What we say far less often is that law should move slowly. It is not a sign of weakness to deliberate carefully about laws that affect millions of people's lives and will stay on the books for a long, long time. It's always seemed to me that the Founding Fathers very deliberately devised the US system to slow things down - and to ensure that the further-reaching the change the more difficult it is to enact.

Cut to today's Britain. The Internet may perceive censorship as damage and route around it, but politicians seem increasingly to view due and accountable legal process as an unnecessary waste of time and try to avoid it. Preventing this is, of course, what we have constitutions for; democracy is a relatively mature technology.

Today's Digital Economy bill is loaded with provisions for enough statutory instruments to satisfy the most frustrated politician's desire to avoid all that fuss and bother of public debate and research. Where legislation requires draft bills, public consultations, and committee work, a statutory instrument can pass both houses of Parliament on the nod. For minor regulatory changes - such as, for example, the way money is paid to pensioners (1987) - limiting the process to expert discussion and a quick vote makes sense. But when it comes to allowing the Secretary of State to change something as profound and far-reaching in impact as copyright law with a minimum of public scrutiny, it's an outrageous hijack of the democratic process.

Here is the relevant quote from the bill, talking about the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988:

The Secretary of State may by order amend Part 1 or this Part for the purpose of preventing or reducing the infringement of copyright by means of the internet, if it appears to the Secretary of State appropriate to do so having regard to technological developments that have occurred or are likely to occur.

Lower down, the bill does add that:

Before making any order under this section the Secretary of State must consult such persons who the Secretary of State thinks likely to be affected by the order, or who represent any of those persons, as the Secretary of State thinks fit.

Does that say he (usually) has to consult the public? I don't think so; until very recently it was widely held that the only people affected by copyright law were creators and rights holders - these days rarely the same people even though rights holders like, for public consumption, to pretend otherwise (come contract time, it's a whole different story). We would say that everyone now has a stake in copyright law, given the enormously expanded access to the means to create and distribute all sorts of media, but it isn't at all clear that the Secretary of State would agree or what means would be available to force him to do so. What we do know is that the copyright policies being pushed in this bill come directly from the rights holders.

Stephen Timms, talking to the Guardian, attempted to defend this provision this way:

The way that this clause is formed there would be a clear requirement for full public consultation [before any change] followed by a vote in favour by both houses of Parliament."

This is, put politely, disingenuous: this government has, especially lately - see also ID cards - a terrible record of flatly ignoring what public consultations are telling them, even when the testimony submitted in response to such consultations comes from internationally recognized experts.

Timms' comments are a very bad joke to anyone who's followed the consultations on this particular bill's provisions on file-sharing and copyright, given that everyone from Gowers to Dutch economists are finding that loosening copyright restrictions has society-wide benefits, while Finland has made 1Mb broadband access a legal right and even France's courts see Internet access as a fundamental human right (especially ironic given that France was the first place three strikes actually made it into law).

In creating the Digital Economy bill, not only did this government ignore consultation testimony from everyone but rights holders, it even changed its own consultation mid-stream, bringing back such pernicious provisions as three-strikes-and-you're-disconnected even after agreeing they were gone. This government is, in fact, a perfect advertisement for the principle that laws that are enacted should be reviewed with an eye toward what their effect will be should a government hostile to its citizenry come to power.

Here is some relevant outrage from an appropriately native British lawyer specializing in Net issues, Lilian Edwards:

So clearly every time things happen fast and the law might struggle to keep up with them, in future, well we should just junk ordinary democratic safeguards before anyone notices, and bow instead to the partisan interests who pay lobbyists the most to shout the loudest?

Tell me to "go home if you don't like it here" because I wasn't born in the UK if you want to, but she's a native. And it's the natives who feel betrayed that you've got to watch out for.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on , or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

November 13, 2009

Cookie cutters

Sometimes laws sneak up on you while you're looking the other way. One of the best examples was the American Telecommunications Act of 1996: we were so busy obsessing about the freedom of speech-suppressing Communications Decency Act amendment that we failed to pay attention to the implications of the bill itself, which allowed the regional Baby Bells to enter the long distance market and changed a number of other rules regarding competition.

We now have a shiny, new example: we have spent so much time and electrons over the nasty three-strikes-and-you're offline provisions that we, along with almost everyone else, utterly failed to notice that the package contains a cookie-killing provision last seen menacing online advertisers in 2001 (our very second net.wars).

The gist: Web sites cannot place cookies on users' computers unless said users have agreed to receive them unless the cookies are strictly necessary - as, for example, when you select something to buy and then head for the shopping cart to check out.

As the Out-Law blog points out this proposal - now to become law unless the whole package is thrown out - is absurd. We said it was in 2001 - and made the stupid assumption that because nothing more had been heard about it the idea had been nixed by an outbreak of sanity at the EU level.

Apparently not. Apparently MEPs and others at EU level spend no more time on the Web than they did eight years ago. Apparently none of them have any idea what such a proposal would mean. Well, I've turned off cookies in my browser, and I know: without cookies, browsing the Web is as non-functional as a psychic being tested by James Randi.

But it's worse than that. Imagine browsing with every site asking you to opt in every - pop-up - time - pop-up - it - pop-up - wants - pop-up - to - pop-up - send - pop-up - you - a - cookie - pop-up. Now imagine the same thing, only you're blind and using the screen reader JAWS.

This soon-to-be-law is not just absurd, it's evil.

Here are some of the likely consequences.

As already noted, it will make Web use nearly impossible for the blind and visually impaired.

It will, because such is the human response to barriers, direct ever more traffic toward those sites - aggregators, ecommerce, Web bulletin boards, and social networks - that, like Facebook, can write a single privacy policy for the entire service to which users consent when they join (and later at scattered intervals when the policy changes) that includes consent to accepting cookies.

According to Out-Law, the law will trap everyone who uses Google Analytics, visitor counters, and the like. I assume it will also kill AdSense at a stroke: how many small DIY Web site owners would have any idea how to implement an opt-in form? Both econsultancy.com and BigMouthMedia think affiliate networks generally will bear the brunt of this legislation. BigMouthMedia goes on to note a couple of efforts - HTTP.ETags and Flash cookies - intended to give affiliate networks more reliable tracking that may also fall afoul of the legislation. These, as those sources note, are difficult or impossible for users to delete.

It will presumably also disproportionately catch EU businesses compared to non-EU sites. Most users probably won't understand why particular sites are so annoying; they will simply shift to sites that aren't annoying. The net effect will be to divert Web browsing to sites outside the EU - surely the exact opposite of what MEPs would like to see happen.

And, I suppose, inevitably, someone will write plug-ins for the popular browsers that can be set to respond automatically to cookie opt-in requests and that include provisions for users to include or exclude specific sites. Whether that will offer sites a safe harbour remains to be seen.

The people it will hurt most, of course, are the sites - like newspapers and other publications - that depend on online advertising to stay afloat. It's hard to understand how the publishers missed it; but one presumes they, too, were distracted by the need to defend music and video from evil pirates.

The sad thing is that the goal behind this masterfully stupid piece of legislation is a reasonably noble one: to protect Internet users from monitoring and behavioural targeting to which they have not consented. But regulating cookies is precisely the wrong way to go about achieving this goal, not just because it disables Web browsing but because technology is continuing to evolve. The EU would be better to regulate by specifying allowable actions and consequences rather than specifying technology. Cookies are not in and of themselves inherently evil; it's how they're used.

Eight years ago, when the cookie proposals first surfaced, they, logically enough, formed part of a consumer privacy bill. That they're now part of the telecoms package suggests they've been banging around inside Parliament looking for something to attach themselves to ever since.

I probably exaggerate slightly, since Out-Law also notes that in fact the EU did pass a law regarding cookies that required sites to offer visitors a way to opt out. This law is little-known, largely ignored, and unenforced. At this point the Net's best hope looks to be that the new version is treated the same way.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk).

November 6, 2009


The received wisdom in tennis has always been that drugs are a non-issue. There is, the argument goes, no drug that can supply the particular mix of talents and skills that are needed to win you tennis matches. In her 1985 book, Passing Shots on Tour, Pam Shriver noted another reason for the women, courtesy of former player JoAnne Russell: they're too cheap to buy their own drugs.

The situation with respect to recreational drugs has been a little less shrouded in mystery. The 1970s top ten player and 1977 Australian Open winner Vitas Gerulaitis, for example, admitted to cocaine use, and in his 1995 autobiography, I Never Played the Game, US veteran sports commentator Howard Cosell speculated on the unlikelihood that at least some of tennis's dozens of young, rich, successful people who traveled in jet-setting circles hadn't at least dabbled in such things. Other revelations have surfaced from time to time, most notoriously Jennifer Capriati's 1993 marijuana drug bust. Now, Andre Agassi has admitted to using crystal meth in 1997, the year his ranking plunged to a low of 141.

As advertisements for drug use go, this is a pretty good one for the ill-effects: one of the most talented players in the history of the game couldn't even keep himself in the top 100 while using.

Still, Agassi's admission - and still more, the ATP's acceptance of the lies he told to avoid exposure and a three-month suspension - has set off a predictable firestorm between the self-righteous and the forgiving. McEnroe's admission in his 2004 autobiography that he had (unknowingly, he said) taken steroids during his playing career, caused much less outcry.

It has long been my belief that players should not be tested, certainly not disqualified, for recreational drug use. Agassi's case seems to suggest otherwise, as the ATP's notification of his failed test frightened him into rehabilitating himself, his game, and his life, turning him from an underachiever to a tennis great. But if the tours are going to behave as rescuers in this way they should also direct their energies to finding ways to lower the injury rate, a much more visibly widespread and career-damaging problem.

In any event, it was always clear that in today's corporate sports exposing drug use on the part of tennis's top stars would benefit no one. Neither tours nor tournament promoters nor sponsors can tolerate scandal concerning their top box office draws. Even competitors do not benefit as much as you might think if a top star is taken out. Yes, their opportunities to rise in the rankings or win a particular tournament may be enhanced. But the star players like Agassi and McEnroe pull in the money and fans that enable everyone else to make a living.

It certainly seems as though today things would be handled differently. Take, for example, the case of the young, up-and-coming Belgian player Yanina Wickmayer, a semifinalist at the recent US Open, who has just been suspended for a year, potentially permanently wrecking her career, for failing to notify the drug testing authorities of her daily whereabouts (reportedly her appeal will rest on being unable to log onto the WADA Web site for two weeks). The whereabouts rule was the subject of much criticism by the players when it was introduced at the beginning of the year. They thought of the difficulties of leaving town hastily after losses; they thought of the logistical problems of sudden schedule changes. No one mentioned Internet failures, but it's an oh-so-credible explanation.

A lot of things have changed since 1997 to satisfy critics. The tours are no longer responsible for their own drug testing, removing both the obvious conflict of interest (good) and the best source of help for the players (bad). The retired Spanish player Sergi Bruguera (Spanish), who lost to Agassi in the 1996 Olympic final in Atlanta, is complaining that Agassi should now be relieved of his gold medal. His logic is unclear given the reported dates, but it's easy to understand the betrayal a player would feel on learning that another got special protection. WADA has said both that it would like the case investigated and that now, past the eight years' statute of limitations, there's nothing that can be done to punish Agassi.

But the people who should be most upset are those innocent athletes who are wrongfully accused. WADA's preferred zero-tolerance view seems to be that contrary to the presumption of innocence in a democratic society there is no such thing as an innocent explanation. Even so, there have certainly been cases of contaminated supplements and medically necessary ingestion, and confusion over which substances should be on the banned list (PDF).

Agassi's telling the truth about himself was certainly not a bad thing for him or his publishers; it is not even a bad thing for the game, since rational policy-making depends on the availability of factual evidence. But it will still make it harder for any athlete who is actually innocent to be believed, no matter what the exculpating evidence. As unintended consequences go, that's a real shame.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.