Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Word of the day

Today's word is ruddslide ("did you mean mudslide?"), presumably from landslide, and refers to the Australian political events of 24 November. This recent coinage (three days old) has astonishingly achieved 55,000 results in a Google search today. There is a much less common synonym ruddbath (mudbath or bloodbath, I wonder?), but this term has virtually no results, despite being equally clever.

Why so many, so quick? The answer is blogs: everyone has a blog nowadays. The term was possibly coined by the Sydney Morning Herald on the 3rd of November, but even so, it had barely stirred until the 24th. Then the bloggers began . . .

Of course, references to the ruddslide are well and truly outnumbered by references to Natalie Gauci. Just check it out, if you need some real life perspective on what preoccupied Australians over the weekend.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Censorship in a National Emergency

New Australian legislation has recently been passed to implement the government response to the national emergency in Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory. This is the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 (Act No.129). The Act deals with sale of alcohol and a wide range of other matters which have been extensively publicised.

The legislation applies to certain communities in the Northern Territory, and sections 26-30 apply to publicly-funded computers. We understand these to include all computers which have been paid for by local, territory or Commonwealth governments; there is no definition of what is meant by "computer." The legislation would certainly apply to computers in government libraries and schools. What obligations exist for the "responsible person for a publicly funded computer"? This is what must be done.
  • A filter must be installed, maintained and updated on the computer. This must be a filter accredited by the Minister, and there are 19 such filters accredited (s 26).
  • Records of use must be kept, including a record of each person who uses the computer, and the date and times on which it was used, to be retained for three years. This record keeping, according to the explanatory memorandum, "is designed to provide for the audit of computers to ensure illegal material accessed by the computer is identified." (s 27)
  • The responsible person must develop an acceptable use policy relating to the kinds of use of the computer that are acceptable, and this policy must include matters specified by the Minister, if she chooses to do so. The Act specifies a number of things which the acceptable use policy must include (s 28).
  • The publicly funded computers must be audited on 31 May and 30 November each year. The nature of an audit is not clear, and the term is not defined in the Act, but it appears to include information on users and and their times and dates of use of the computer. Given that the Minister may determine the form of the audit, it seems likely that what is required in the content of an audit is yet to be determined. For example, it is possible that the audit may include an entire record of use over six months, or a sample, or something else, depending on the Minister's determination (s 29)
  • If these things are not done, the responsible person is liable, and there is a fine of either 5 or 10 penalty units (currently $550 or $1100). Several of the offences are strict liability offences, which are criminal offences which do not require a fault element (especially knowledge or intent) to be proven (s 30).
These sections of the Act came into effect on 18 August 2007. The new legislation introduces a new dimension to online content regulation, a very worrying dimension. Does it represent a new agenda on the part of government?

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Information, Freedom and Censorship

The issue of censorship is not a major one this election, but it should be. So much is happening, and none of the recent developments are rolling back censorship - on the contrary.

I'm promoting this forum because (apart from the fact that I am chairing it) the issue is an extraordinarily important one. Most information produced today attracts some form of censorship. The session presents key professionals discussing the role censorship plays in their work. This is the final event in the Outside the Box series presented by the State Library of Victoria in partnership with ALIA.

The forum is on Tuesday 4 December at Experimedia in the State Library of Victoria, from 6.30 to 8.30 pm. You can book on 03 8664 7555 or learning@slv.vic.gov.au. It is free.

The other speakers are:
  • Professor Jenny Hocking, from the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash, is the author of Terror laws: ASIO, counter-terrorism and the threat to democracy, among other things.
  • Professor Julian Thomas is director of the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne, and his research interests involve new media, information policy and the history of communications technologies.
  • A/Professor Andrew Kenyon is Director of the Centre for Media and Communications Law at the University of Melbourne, and has been involved with the recent Independent Audit of the state of free speech in Australia.
I will say a few things about online content regulation, including the recent developments in the Northern Territory, and other recent approaches by the government and ACMA. I have been on the Board of NetAlert, Australia's internet safety organisation, from its beginning in 1999 until 2007.

ALIA also has a group dealing with Online Content and Regulation, and you can find out about it from its website. ALIA aims to work with other organisations interested in censorship and related issues, and maintains a strong position on the issue, in view of its commitment to the free flow of information. Why not come along and have your say, too?

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Word of the day

Risk management is defined in the Wikipedia as "the human activity which integrates recognition of risk, risk assessment, developing strategies to manage it, and mitigation of risk using managerial resources.The strategies include transferring the risk to another party, avoiding the risk, reducing the negative effect of the risk, and accepting some or all of the consequences of a particular risk."

My archetypical risk management experience is a sign on entering the small coastal town where I have a house. The sign warns against drinking the groundwater, because it is unsafe. It isn't unsafe, but the shire has two choices - put up warning signs which exaggerate the risk and warn against it, or do nothing. It is easy to see why the council chooses to take the safest course of action.

In the introduction to a new risk management policy, there was a quotation from the Australian Risk Management Standard (AS 4360) which says "Risk management is as much about identifying opportunities as avoiding or mitigating losses." This is a great principle but, alas, not reflected in the policy beyond its initial mention.

Australia has its very own risk management site, and for afficionados of risk management (more likely to be in the public sector than the private sector) its all there. The main focus of the site is selling various risk management products, including the standard and the handbook, and a series of risk management manuals for different kinds of risk. There is also a Risk Management Association of Australasia, which offers Certified Practising Risk Manager accreditation. And government, as one of the most risk averse entities, has proliferated advice on managing risk through sites such as the NSW Risk Management Guide for Small Business
with 70 pages of advice. A Google search identified 2.4 million rereferences to risk management in Australia alone. Enjoy!

It is quite clear that there is more to risk management than the definition conveys, and very little in conventional risk management about identifying opportunities. It is more often than not about reducing the possibility that the manager will be blamed if something goes wrong.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Word of the Day

I used the word ostensibly in an email exchange with Julie, and she suggested that it was a particularly appropriate word, especially in a pre-election environment. I wonder why she said that?

The Free Dictionary
defines ostensible as "represented or appearing as such" and provides as an example "His ostensible purpose was charity, but his real goal was popularity." And here is another nice example of the use of the word, from David Flint on the Crikey website ". . . measures against fraud at general elections . . . were significantly eased in the 80s, ostensibly to make voting easier. (Few voters at the time were aware that voting was difficult.)"

And from a cornucopia of usage examples, mainly in political contexts, in Webster's Online Dictionary:
"Although citizens ostensibly vote for the President and Members of Parliament, they do not have the right to change their government."

Quite right, Julie!

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Word of the day

Todays word is panopticonic, and thank you to The Economist for this recent coinage. In an article on 1 November about the views of the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, on the role of the state, the journal refers to "Britain's near-panopticonic system of surveillance and daunting DNA database." To this it is proposed to add a system of national identity cards.

The word is the adjectival form of panopticon, defined in the Wikipedia as deriving from a type of prison building proposed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. In it, prisoners could be observed without being able to tell whether they were being observed, thus conveying "a sentiment of invisible omniscience." Our own more modest version, to be applied in this institution (and in a growing number of other public places) has no such aspiration; unfortunately, we lack the resources for real omniscience.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Word of the day

Rebecca suggests mission creep as the word of the day. She refers us to an article in the Tampa Tribune which uses the term to discuss the changing role of libraries. The Tampa Tribune was against mission creep on fiscal grounds, but there is also a view that it is the hope of libraries. The newspaper refers to a wide range of new functions and suggests that "it becomes clear that the role of libraries has evolved." In fact, libraries have always taken on new roles which have synergies with existing roles - "... computer centers, neighbourhood meeting spots, art galleries, tutoring sites and even homeless centers", the Tampa Tribune suggests.

A related term is scope creep, used to refer to a project rather than an institution. The Wikipedia article suggests that "it is generally considered a negative occurrence to be avoided."

My role as a library manager is to meet the needs of the university. If that means mission creep - or even mission gallop - then that is something we can handle too. I guess if I ask for suggestions for appropriate mission creep for libraries, people may see this as a negative, but I call it thinking about our future. Any ideas?

Thursday, 8 November 2007

The Well-Equipped Student

What technology does the average student possess? Many things, but according to the fourth ECAR study (2007) the short answer is that pretty much everyone has a computer and a mobile phone and most have an iPod.

ECAR is the Education Center for Applied Research, and over the past three years it has conducted a series of studies entitled The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology. The 2007 study found, in simple terms, that
  • 98.1% owned a mobile (cell) phone
  • 98.4% owned a computer (75.8% a laptop, 58.1% a desktop, 35.7% both)
  • 74.7% (and growing fast) owned an electronic music/video device
The main trends were a large increase in laptop ownership over the previous two years (up from 52.8%), a small decline in desktop ownership, and a very large increase in ownership of iPods and the like (up from 37.0%).

What do students with their devices? Daily activities were email, instant messaging, social networking. And alas, although 94.7% say they use the library or its website, they don't do this very often.

Online Content and Plans for Censorship in 2008

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) issued a press release on 26 October outlining new plans for Internet content regulation, with responses to be made by 16 November.

As I read it, the intention is to prohibit on the open internet all content which is classified as MA15+ or R18+, including material which is likely to be classified as MA15 or R18+. There would be a requirement relating to "providers of hosting services, live content services, link services and commercial content services ..." However, if these entities have access restrictions (which limit access to adults, or people over 15, as appropriate) in place, they would be allowed to host restricted material. They also intend that there will be a take down procedure so that access can be removed to content that is subject to complaint.

The scope and impact of these plans appears to depend on how much material is classified, what it means that material is "likely to be classified", and the extent to which people complain. It also depends on what is hosted in Australia, and what is hosted overseas - only the former is affected.

One problematical issue is just what would be prohibited. For example, if an imaginary Australian YouTube-style site included material which was likely to be classified as MA15 or R18+, as it does, would any prohibition apply to the whole site, or just to the offending part. It seems most likely that a take down notice would apply to the site rather than individual videos, which has major ramifications for the Internet in Australia.

This was all announced in a press release dated 26 October, with comments due by 16 November - three weeks, in the middle of an election. The announcement received very little publicity.

Another angle. In response to ALIA questions, the ALP has a plan to provide a so-called clean-feed, or requirement for ISPs to provide filtered access for domestic users of the Internet, with the possibility for the user to opt out of the filtered access.
The ALP said "ISP filtering under a Rudd Labor government will be applied to all households (unless they choose to opt-out), schools and public internet points accessible by children, such as libraries."

But it is not at all clear what ISPs would be required to filter out. Would they just have to filter out material which is banned in Australia (RC or X18+) or would they also have to filter out material which is classified as unsuitable for minors or for children under 15, or which is likely to be so classified? (MA15 and R18+). It does appear from Kim Beazley's original statement in March 2006 that ISPs may be obliged to filter out some material which it is legal to view, and it appears that they will take instructions on what to filter from ACMA (the Australian Communications and Media Authority). There are other problems with the policy, too, and many are highlighted in the interesting 36-page critique by EFA (Electronic Frontiers Australia).

What does the Coalition say on these issues? In response to the ALIA questionnaire, they pointed to the Prime Minister's announcement on
20 August 2007 of the $189 million Protecting Australian Families Online initiative. The statement on filtering in libraries was much more nuanced. At this stage the Coalition is not in favour of ISP-level filtering, and it is suggested that "The use of filters in libraries needs to be tailored to the circumstances and client profiles of different libraries . . ." Moreover, while libraries are encouraged to work with the Government to install PC-based filters, it is recognised that "legislating the use of content filters by librarians would be a blunt approach that would not be effective, particularly as the regulation of public libraries is generally a matter for state, territory and local governments."

There is a lot to be concerned about here, and no great evidence of having thought through the issues. What do you think?

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Flow of Information Blocked by Government Secrecy

That was the headline in The Australian on Tuesday. Librarians should be delighted that the mainstream press (other newspapers covered the story) are taking up something which librarians have been banging on about for many years.

The story was about the release of the the report of the Right to Know coalition. The report is a compilation of the hundreds of restrictions on the right of Australians to know things, that exist now. The Australian had an extensive feature on the report and the issues on Tuesday, and the report itself is available on the web. The report is 336 pages long, and is the work of the Independent Audit into the State of Free Speech in Australia, chaired by Irene Moss.

Australia's Right to Know, the coalition which commissioned this report, represents all of Australia's major media organisations, print, radio and TV, public and private. It is also supported by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) which represents people working in the media.

It is interesting in the election context that on 26 October the ALP made what appears to be a very strong commitment to open government. As reported in The Australian under the heading "Free Speech", Labor has promised to
  • abolish conclusive cerificates (by which a minister may avoid release of information by declaring that it is not in the public interest)
  • appoint an Information Commissioner, which would be an independent statutory office
  • provide better protection to journalists who refuse to name their sources
  • abolish the fee for appealing a decision of government
  • reform whistleblowers' legislation
  • work with the states to prevent court suppression orders being abused
This policy was praised by the Right to Know coalition, which commissioned the report referred to above. It called on the Liberal/National coalition to present its agenda for change. We understand that there will be a statement from the Government on these issues during the campaign.

We await a formal statement from the Coalition. There was an interesting piece in Crikey.com on the topic, pointing out some indications of reforms which may be proposed by the Coalition as the election campaign unfolds. Or not, as the case may be.