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June 27, 2011 / David Woodford

How should we consider content “published” on the internet

Many of the so called “problems” with the internet are derived from the fact that people have different views on how to consider the content on it. In particular the law seems to consider all content on the internet as being  edited content of the same class as a newspaper and hence seeks to regulate it as such. In contrast the people who actually use the internet recognise that there are different types of content and use them as such. Instant messagining and twitter are used without thinking for realtime conversations just like normal speech whereas blogs generally require more effort and are closer to newspaper publications.

The old view is that when something is put in writing it somehow becomes more official and meaningful. You can say what you like verbally but if you write it down it must be correct. It seems to me that this is became accepted because of the high costs of writing and publishing something. Handwriting something takes time and sending a letter could take days. IF you were to go as far as to publish something like a newspaper so that it could be read by anyone you would need to invest in a printing press. This meant that people would take time to ensure that what they wrote was correct. It also meant that most of the time things that were published were published by organisations rather than individuals. The result of this is we came to expect things written down to carry more weight and hence were quicker to take action against those wrote things down which were incorrect.

The “problem” with the internet is that it broke this assumption. Firstly most people can type faster than they can speak (and think) so they are more likely to make mistakes or phrase things in a way which distorts there meaning than in a verabal conversation. For example I pay less attention to what someone says to me in an Instant messaging conversation than what they say to me face to face.

Secondly it is now incredibly cheap to make information available to the world online. Once you have an internet connection you don’t need to pay anything to write a message on twitter or facebook or on a blog. This means people don’t need to worry about making a mistake since they haven’t wasted any money in making it (just like the quality of most of the photos people take has dropped since the invention of digital cameras).

So the old ways of determining which forms of communication carry the most weight have broken down. This doesn’t mean however that the internet has something wrong with it. Just that it’s different which is kind of the point of improvements.

How we tend to now consider how much weight to attach to a message is to what extent it has been edited since this is when errors have been removed or thought has be put into creating a convincing lie. Integral to the process of “editing” is the ability to save a draft.

It is because of this that instant messaging conversations or tweets carry very little weight whereas a blog post carries a lot. When instant messaging I have often hit enter before I have really considered what I have typed (sometimes before I have finished typing it). This is almost as real time as a conversation. However when I write a blog post I usually save the draft and go away for a while so that I can come back a read it fresh before I publish it. This means that what I type here I have put a lot more thought into and hence I should be held more to account for what I write.

Services like twitter are somewhere in between. You can’t draft tweets but I generally spend a bit longer  thinking about them than I do an IM conversation. Additionally you have to click tweet (pressing enter just creates a new line whereas on most IM clients pressing enter with a twitch of your little finger will send the message).

In reality there is a continuous scale of how much we weight we should attach to different types of content and hence how much we should hold the person who created it to account. However, we can broadly create three categories based on the way in which the content is produced.

The least weight should be attached to short content types using a keyboard and published by pressing enter. Slightly longer content published by clicking a button should still carry little weight but slightly more. The content that the author should be held to account for is content created in an editor with the facility to save drafts since this content can be considered to have been edited.

June 12, 2011 / David Woodford

My objections to Facebook’s facial recognition

My instinctive reaction to the facial recognition feature recently released internationally by Facebook was that it was bad and an invasion of privacy. However, it was only after thinking about it that I realised what it was I was uncomfortable with and the realisation that no privacy settings on the site could ever protect me from it.

There is a privacy issue but, it is more subtle than Facebook telling your friends what you look like. It seems odd that people consider the tagging suggestions as a privacy issue. I don’t really have a problem with my friends knowing what I look like.

The problem is that Facebook now has the power to determine what you look like. The software was been developed and it seems to work so there is no going back as you cant undo the development. Of course, facial recognition software has been developed and used before but the problem with Facebook is that the vast majority of people in the developed world have several photos of themselves on the site and hence, there is a good chance that if you have a photo of someone Facebook would be able to tell you who that person is.

For example since a government could force Facebook to lets it’s intelligence services use the software to track people. When you consider the number of CCTV cameras it would be easy for them to find out where everyone has been at any point in time. This is danger is increased because Facebook is based in the US which is not only a government I am unable to influence but also a government which has demonstrated a complete lack of respect for human rights.

However, this intentional tracking of everyone by a government isn’t the biggest immediate concern as it would be unlikely any government could afford to do so. The bigger danger is that the software could be used for advertising purposes. How easy would it be for advertisers to install cameras on their billboards which connect to Facebook to determine who you are so that they could show you “relevant” advertisements. Or maybe cafes will have a camera above the door so you can be “checked in” automatically when you enter.

The problem with this is that not only will these large (profit driven) organisations (often with offices outside the UK) be able to track you but the data will have been collected. Once the data has been collected  we know that government’s find the temptations to access it and use it in ways that people like me object to are extremely great. A government which can’t justify collecting the data itself will find it a lot easier to access the data that someone else has already collected and it would be much harder for members of the public to know whether or not the data collected about them has been accessed in this way.

The problem with the suggestions of friends to tag in photos is not that my friends might find out private information about me, such as what I look like. It is that Facebook has already developed software and has created a collection of photos (without the knowlage that they could be used in conjunction with such a piece of software) that allows it to identify if I am in any given photo. There are no privacy settings that Facebook could provide that would make me feel safe from abuse of this software because the software already exists and Facebook or a third party (including a Government) are capable of using it or forcing Facebook to use it on their behalf.

May 20, 2011 / David Woodford

The balance between privacy and freedom of speach

Privacy and freedom of speech are two things I strongly believe in. The problem is that they seem incompatible, hence the debate over injunctions and super injunctions.

If we place legal restrictions on what can be published then clearly we are on a slippery slop to censorship. In the case of injunctions we give someone (a judge) the power to decide what is and what isn’t allowed to be published. Once a person, or a group of people, has this power they can then censor attempts to report upon their failings, stopping them from being accountable.

[As an aside super injunctions are clearly wrong as they don’t allow us to even know that there is someone to be held to account. Without knowing that an action has even taken place how can judge whether or not it was to correct course of action or whether the person who created was abusing a position of power.]

On the other hand I believe strongly in the right to privacy. It would be hypocritical to complain about websites like facebook and gooogle collecting too much information on us and then allowing newspapers to run stories that invade that same privacy of celebrities. Of course you can argue that celebrities know this is what is going to happen when they choose to that life but, other people such as politicians are also subjected to the same treatment. I don’t want to live in a society where people can’t stand up for what they believe, my becoming a politician, without an unconstructive intrusion into their private life. This would damage democracy and greatly distort the representation of the public.

The easiest solution would be for people to stop buying newspapers when they run these sorts of stories, but it seems a large number of people do care more about a politicians or an athletes private life than their policies or sport. This means that we do need some form of compromise in the law.

The best solution would be some form of privacy law that doesn’t require a court order to be taken out. Ideally this privacy law would also apply to data collected by websites and the goverment as well as to what newspapers can publish. Instead of taking out an injunction, people who feel that they have been denied their privacy can take complain to the police and prosecute the person breaching their privacy. This would mean that everyone has access to privacy, not just those who can afford the lawyers to pay for an injunction.

The additional benefit is that we will be able to hold the use of the law to account as we would know precisely what has been restricted. Since cases will only go to court after the privacy has been breached the case can be freely reported upon. The decision as to whether or not someones privacy has been broken would be made by a jury so it would represent what the public think is fair rather than a single judge.

In a future post I might consider what is considered private and also the forms of communication it should apply to.

May 15, 2011 / David Woodford

Government Websites are doomed to fail

It seems to be a fundamental feature of the government that every thing they do must have a website and that these website must be impossible to navigate and break whenever you try and use them. The advantages of doing things online is that they are quick and simple to do, since there is no need to wait for the Royal Mail and you aren’t relying on a person at the other end to copy your forms into a database. When I try and use these websites this never seems to be the case. When I applied for my driving license online I still had to send a photo in the post and when I recently tried to reapply for my student loan it took over half an hour before I could even log into the system. Apparantly the password they email to you after you reset you password doesn’t work for some unknown amount of time; and so if you follow the instructions to try and log in with it you will end up locking your account requiring you to reset it again (I’m still unsure why someone having failed to login without your password three times means that you need to change your password).

I’m certain the problem isn’t me. If successfully managed to set a password and use it to log in on many websites before. On some I have even been able to use the password reset feature to get a new password emailed to me and then managed to copy it into the log in form. I have even managed to create several of my own websites, some with crude log in systems I designed, that people have been able to log into. But it doesn’t seem to matter what I’m trying to do, provided its on a government website it won’t work.

One of the reasons why web based technology has improved so quickly is that the costs of doing developing it are very low. If someone thinks they can create a better website than those already existing they can relatively cheaply create that better site and there is usually little cost to the people using the old site of switching (perhaps with the notable exception of social  networks since you need to be on the network that your friends are on). However, with government (and some large business) websites this competition isn’t their. I can only get my driving lisencse or apply for a student loan though the offical sites since they are the only people with the authority to fulfill my requests.

The problem is made worse by the fact that these government departments don’t have to make a profit so it doesn’t seem to matter to them that the failure of their website means they need an office of people to deal with the requests over the phone or by post. In fact they can claim that the website is working because this office is slightly smaller than it was before.

Government sites also have a tendency to try to prove how secure they are be requiring more and more layers of authentication which eventually result in the site being unusable. However the large  number of glitches in the way the website handles input data and the amount of javascript used on the pages means it is unlikely much testing has been done and so other vulnerabilities may exist which don’t require an attacker to log in. Since most of these sites only need the user to fill in a form they should be created in a way which doesn’t require the browser to be running javascript so that people can try an improve their security. Most of the current sites will simply stop working if you disable it.

These websites are one of the most visible signs of waste created simply because a service is being operated by the government. However, their are many other less visible examples of this problem within the public sector that should be considered whenever we are deciding whether or not a particular service should be provided by the government rather than the private sector.

April 11, 2011 / David Woodford

The need for the NHS points out the major problem with markets

The theory of markets is very convincing that markets will maximise utility, ie) ensure the people who could make the best possible use of things get them. For example, the company that is the most efficient at producing something will be able to pay the highest for the equipment and labour needed so it will be the company that gets these resources.

However, when you consider markets where consumers buy goods and services an apparent problem quickly becomes visible. The problem we have is that if a person is seriously ill it is likely they would be willing to spend all of the money they have to get treatment. However, it is not necessarily the person who has the most money that will gain the greatest utility from being alive (a cold way of putting it but the purpose of money is to quantify things).

This problem seems to exist in all markets. The purpose of highlighting health care is that is where it is indisputable and has led to the creation of the NHS. For example how do we know that someone richer than you enjoys living in their house more than you would or enjoys driving their car more than you or even simply enjoys higher quality food more than you.

Of course some people are richer than others for different reasons some of which are taken into account by markets. IF you make yourself richer by doing a more unpleasant or dangerous job or if you work longer hours then the maket is right to enable you to outbid other people because you have demonstrated your greater desire for those goods and services by earning the money to buy them. IF you are simply richer because you are in a position that enables you to earn more through luck (by being clever or having well placed connections) then the extra money you have earnt hasn’t demonstrated your a greater desire for the goods and serivecs you buy so it is inefficent that you are able to out bid people.

This is an area that I would like to gain a deeper understanding of. It seems that markets might seek to maximise the derivative of utility with respect to time rather than maximise utility itself as this would encourage people to choose work over leisure even when they both provide equal utility in the short run.

March 9, 2011 / David Woodford

Should Cigarettes be Legal

With the new ban on displaying tobacco in shops I thought about whether tobacco and cigarettes should be legal. There are two standards when it comes to these sort of products, most drugs are illegal whilst tobacco and alcohol aren’t. This inconsistency is noticed and acted upon without being acknowledged. There is some sort of unspoken rule that alcohol and tobacco can’t be banned but that we need to do everything we can to deter people from using them.

The problem we have with banning tobacco is that people have “always” been able to smoke and so they feel it has become their “right”. However we don’t apply the same rules to illegal drugs because most people (in particular most people in the media, government or who take an active interest in politics) don’t take drugs and so don’t worry about the negative effects of a ban. We feel that we should be free to drink alcohol and smoke because a lot of people already do but we don’t worry about our freedom to take drugs because it isn’t a freedom we have.

However, the freedom argument should be applied to most drugs but not tobacco. Most drugs only affect the people who take them or those they know (we have to remember that many of the negative effects on society of drugs are due to the fact that they are illegal and not due to the drugs themselves) however drugs that are smoked, such as tobacco, do affect other people because of the smoke.

Since I feel people should be free to drink I feel people should also be free to take other drugs which don’t directly affect other people. However, tobacco is one of those drugs that does directly affect other people by forcing them to breath in poisonous smoke and as such people should at least be prevented from smoking in public places whether those places are indoors or out. The Government should recognise that they really believe that smoking should be banned since they are doing everything they can to stop it and make the move to actually ban it. However they should also recognise that other drugs don’t need to be illegal.

February 15, 2011 / David Woodford

Using taxes to support charity without the need for government involvement

Following from my post about the problems of the government giving to charity I’ve decided to think about a way in which giving to charity could be managed. Whilst I clearly belive it is wrong for the government to take your money and give it to a charity  on your behalf, because it denies you the choice of where you put your money, it is clear that there is a lack of donations to charities.

As I have mentioned before, charity can be considered a service which we buy by donating. The service being a society in which we everyone is provided with a minimum standard of living (this may be provided by the state or the voluntary sector). However, charity is a perfect example of a public good as it meets all three criteria:

  1. Non-exclusive: If your neighbour gives to charity they can’t stop you enjoying the benefits. You can enjoy knowing you give in a society where people don’t suffer without having to make a donation yourself.
  2. Non-rejectable: I don’t think any normal person would not want to live in a society where other people have given to charity but if they don’t it’s tough because they can’t enjoy the benefits.
  3. Non-rival: The fact that one person enjoys living in a society in which there is charity doesn’t reduce the ability of another person. This is because we are concerned with the people giving to charity not the people receiving it where it clearly is rival.

So this means that if we rely on voluntary donations to charity there will be a lower level of charity than we want. Like defense, charities will suffer from the free-rider problem where people who would be willing to give don’t because other people are already giving and it is impossible to withdraw the service from only them if they don’t donate.

The most obvious solution is for the government to provide the “charity” as it can ensure that everyone pays through taxes and because, it is elected, it should provide the level of charity (and taxes) that meets the wants of the most people. However, this causes other problems. There is market failure in the level of donations but, for a given amount of donations there is no reason why the market can’t decide which charities it is given to. If you had to donate £10 to charity you would be better able to choose where you want it to go than the government as the government has to try to please everyone.  People want to give to different causes and this is part of the problem with government control. They have to make a decision on behalf of everyone whereas if you let individuals make the donations they will give to the charities they think are the best. This will also increase “competition” between charities as it means that the charities would have to prove that they are offering the best value for money to attract donations.

So what we really want is a system whereby the level of money you “donate” is controlled through some democratic means such as the government but which charities the money goes to is controlled by the individual.  The simplest way I can think of for doing this would be to allow you offset your charity donations against your tax bill. To avoid confusion, this isn’t like the current system where charities can claim the tax back on donations but one where when you pay your tax bill you reduce it by the amount you gave to charity during the year. This would mean that the level of donations depends upon the level of taxes which are controlled by the government but which charities receive the donations is controlled by individuals. Since making a donation wouldn’t cost you anything it wouldn’t suffer from the free rider problem.

Clearly there are a number of different ways of implementing this. It may be chosen that only a certain amount of your tax bill can be offset as the government would want to ensure that it still receives its taxes to pay for other goods but this wouldn’t necessarily need to  be the case. Since you can consider much of what government does as charity work (NHS, welfare state, eduction, libraries, etc) as they are services which do not necessarily need to be provided by that state allowing people to choose to give their money to other charities would force the government to prove it is using public money effectively. Things like the redistribution of income would still occur because we could still have a progressive tax system where the rich are contributing more to society than the poor but these contributions don’t need to be to the government, they could be to charities instead.

February 7, 2011 / David Woodford

There should be no government sponsored charity

It came as a surprise to me to find that the government would be making cuts which may affect the funding that is received by charities. Not because I think it is terrible that charities may lose their funding but because I didn’t think the Government would be giving money to charities in the first place.

The problem isn’t with charities, nor with the Government helping people, but with mixing the two. Although charities are there to help people rather than make a profit I still consider them private organisations as they can, within the boundaries of the law, do what they like with the money which they collect, since people give the money voluntarily. The Government is the opposite, it must be accountable to the public and it is required to be elected because it forces people to give it money in the form of taxes. Mixing the two mixes up private charity with compulsory donations (taxes).

The government donating to charity means that politicians can take money off you against your will and give it to a charity which you wouldn’t otherwise support. If you wanted to give to that charity you could perfectly well make a donation yourself and if you wanted to give money to a different charity you could choose to do that. It’s your money so you should be the one to choose where it goes. Also, though this isn’t my main point, there will inevitably be bureaucracy involved in the Government giving money to charity and the fact that the Government has to guess which charities we want money to be given to.

When there is market failure or a need for a monopoly in the voluntary sector of course the Government should get involved as it does in other markets such as defence but, it shouldn’t do this by giving our money to private organisations over which we have no control. Instead it should provide the services itself as it currently does with the NHS, education and the welfare so that the public retains control by being able to vote for the leaders. When the Government does use private organisations it should require a contract specifying what services will be provided for the money being given. However this will makes these “charities” indistinguishable from business.

We must remember that charity involves voluntary giving without the expectation of something in return. Taxes aren’t voluntary so the money the government gives isn’t given voluntarily. Whilst the individual doesn’t get anything in return for their money clearly society does (since this is the point of the charity) and the government is a representation of society. So we are really looking at the compulsory purchase of services which we may or may not want, in which this ceases to be charity.

January 15, 2011 / David Woodford

Making society fairer is only an approximation for making it better

Politicians, the media and the public are constantly concerned about how fair society is (without any real definition of what they mean by fair) when this is really missing the point. Making things fair is broadly about making sure that some people don’t have vastly more than others, which seems like a good aim, but, isn’t it better to make everyone better off, even if that widens the gap between rich and poor.

I don’t think that it is desirable to make everyone poorer in order that we can all be the same. In fact we know this isn’t what people want because it could easily be arranged by raising taxes to 100%. What people want is to have more stuff and when they see other people who have a lot more stuff than them it seems like a simple solution take some of it off that person to give it to themselves. This would be considered jealousy, which is really what it is, if it were not for the fact that not only are most people in society in this situation but, also, in many cases it would raise the total “utility”.

If we think as utility as a kind of happiness, being the objective of people’s lives. For example if you enter into any trade it is because you think that it will increase your utility because you want the thing that you are giving less than what you are receiving for it. When people see a rich person with a lot more stuff than them they think they should get some of that stuff because, they believe the utility they would gain from it would be much greater than the loss of utility of the rich person, since the rich person has a lot of other stuff to enjoy.

So raising utility should be the main aim of economic policy because it means that everyone is better off and more able to enjoy their lives, irrespective of what other people have. Whilst it may be true that people are happier in a fairer society there is no reason why they should be other than because of jealousy, and satisfying jealousy shouldn’t be the aim of government.

To understand why increasing fairness is a good approximation to increasing the total utility of a nation is to consider the “diminishing returns” we get with goods and services in terms of utility. If you are starving being given £10 to buy food will dramatically increase your utility, but as you have more money the value of that additional £10 will decrease until you wont even notice it. The result of this is that spreading money (or the goods and services that can bought with it) more evenly will generally increase utility as what you take off a rich person means less to them than the value it has to a poor person. In fact, if everyone was identical in their wants the most “efficient” (in the sense that it maximises utility) society would be one where income is spread completely equally.

However, real life is, as always, a bit more complicated. In this case it is because we do not all want the same things. Some people do value money or their time or some good or service more than others. This is the basis of trade: because our wants are different, we can swap the things we do want for the things we don’t want by finding someone who’s wants are the other way round. If we all wanted to have more bread then no one would sell bread. And so because some people gain more utility from money (and the goods and services it buys) than others, we will maximise utility by giving them more money compare to everyone else. This is demonstrated by the fact that some people are prepared to work much longer hours than others, meaning they value their time less than the money it earns.

So whilst increasing fairness is a good way of increasing utility at the moment (because of just how large the inequalities are) it doesn’t always increase utility and should not be the ultimate goal of economic policy.

However the problem is further complicated by the fact that redistributing wealth can reduce the total amount of wealth. If you tax someone in order to increase equality now it is likely that in the future they won’t work as hard, and so won’t produce as much wealth (since if they are to made equal whatever their effort why bother making more). Then, in the future, there may be equality but, that won’t have been by raising the incomes of the poor but by reducing the incomes of the rich, which doesn’t benefit anyone. A good example is the Victorian era: whilst there was a large and increasing amount of inequality, in the long run it improved the lives of everyone by raising the incomes of a few which then brought up the incomes of everyone else. If we had stopped them earning such large incomes at the time it is likely we would be much poorer now as a result.

So not only is equality or fairness only an approximation of what we want to achieve but, if we delude ourselves into thinking that it is our goal we could even end up damaging our true goal, of maximising utility. That is not to say that fairness should not be a goal, as it is much easier to measure than total utility, but it should be remembered than it’s purpose as a goal is only as a way of increasing utility, and we need to judge our methods of seeking it by their impact on utility as well.

January 10, 2011 / David Woodford

Airlines not paying BAA is a better solution than introducing government fines

After the talk about the Government introducing fines for airlines that don’t deal well with poor weather conditions it is good to see that Virgin is choosing not to pay its fees. Government fines are just additional regulation whereas if airlines don’t pay BAA and possibly even seek damages from them the money paid will be as close as we can get to the actual costs of the disruption and will to those affected.

The ministers talking about fines intended to focus it on the passenger. However the Government fining airlines doesn’t do this as it doesn’t allow the customer to make their case for the exact amount of damage they received. The idea that some official can decide how much the fact you missed your holiday means to you is ridiculous.

What is better is that when anyone enters into an agreement they have to be in a position to do what they agreed and if they aren’t should have to pay the costs of this to the other person. In the case of the snow disruption (we assume) the airlines were promised a functioning airport and were then able to agree to fly passengers.

When the airports closed the airport was breaking its agreement. In doing so it meant that the airlines broke their agreements because they should have been able to rely upon the airports being open. This then means that the airlines incurred damages as their passengers didn’t get the flights so they should be able to claim these damages back of BAA. So the amount BAA pays will be the amount the passengers lost.

In fact it works even better than this because the decision of how much to invest in “snow technology” is actually based on the benefits to society of it being in place. Since under fines it is assumed that the best outcome is for as much as possible to be invested so there is no risk of the airport closing. This, of course, doesn’t make sense as the benefit of the airport being open is limited.

However, under the current system the ability to pass on these costs is reduced mainly because it is very difficult for passengers to get compensated for all the damages they incur. IF the Government wants to help passengers it should make it easier for them to claim larger sums from the airlines and easier for the airlines to then claim these sums from the airport operator. It is the airport operator that should take the risk of the weather as they decide the levels of investment, but the cost they have to pay should be equal to the costs incurred and the “market” is the best way of doing this.