Monthly Archives: May 2014

The new right to be forgotten

The European Court of Justice recently ruled that Google has to remove links to specific articles on (proper) request where the damage to the individual outweighs the public right to know.

It has generated a lot of reaction. Lots of people have done things, or have been accused of doing things, and would prefer that the records of that don’t appear when people do a search for them. If a pedophile or a corrupt politician wants to erase something from their past, then many of us would object. If it is someone who once had a bad debt and long since paid it off, that seems more reasonable. So is there any general principle that would be useful? I think so.

When someone is convicted of a crime, sometimes they are set to prison. When their sentence terminates, they are considered to have suffered enough punishment and are free to live a normal life. However, they keep a criminal record, and if they apply for a job, the potential employer can find out that they have done something. So they don’t get a clean record. Even that is being challenged now and the right to start again with a clean slate is being considered. In trials, usually the prosecution is not allowed to mention previous crimes lest they prejudice the jury – the accused is being tried for this crime, not for previous ones and their guilt should be assessed on the evidence, not prejudice.

The idea that after a suitable period of punishment you can have the record wiped clean is appealing. Or if not the formal record, then at least easy casual access to it. It has a feel of natural justice to it. Everyone should have the right to start again once they’ve made amends, paid their debt to society. Punishment should not last for ever, even long after the person has reformed.

This general principle could be applied online. For crimes, when a judge sentences the guilty, they could include in their punishment a statement of the longevity of internet records, the duration of public shame. Our lawmakers should decide the fit and proper duration of that for all kinds of crime just as they do the removal of liberty. When that terminates, those records should no longer turn up in searches within that jurisdiction. For non-criminal but embarrassing life events, there should be an agreed tariff too and it could be implemented by Information Commissioners or similar authorities, who would maintain a search exemption list to be checked against search results before display. Society may well decide that for certain things that are in public interest. If someone took drugs at college, or got drunk and went rather too far at a party, or was late paying a debt, or had an affair, or any of a million other things, then the impact on their future life would have a time limit, which hopefully would be the same for everyone. My understanding of this ECJ ruling is that is broadly what is intended. The precise implementation details can now be worked out. If so, I don’t really have any big objection, though I may well be missing something.

It is indisputably censorship and some people will try to use their power or circumstances to get into the clear earlier than seems right. However, so far the ECJ ruling only covers the appearance in search engines, i.e casual research. It will stop you easily finding out about something in your neighbor’s or a colleague’s distant past. It won’t prevent journalists finding things out, because a proper journalist will do their research thoroughly and not just type a couple of words into Google. In its current form, this ruling will not amount to full censorship, more of a nosey neighbour gossip filter. The rules will need to be worked out and to be applied. We should hope that the rules are made fair and the same for all, with no exceptions for the rich and powerful.


Crippled by connectivity?

Total interconnection

The android OS inside my Google Nexus tablet terrifies me. I can work it to a point, but it seems to be designed by people who think in a very different way from me and that makes me feel very unsafe when using it. The result is that I only use my tablet for simple browsing of unimportant things such as news, but I don’t use it for anything important. I don’t even have my Google account logged in to it normally and that prevents me from doing quite a lot that otherwise I could.

You may think I am being overly concerned and maybe I am. Cyber-crime is high but not so high that hackers are sitting watching all your computers all day every day for the moment you drop your guard. On the other hand, automation allows computers to try very many computers frequently to see if one is open for attack and I’d rather they attacked someone else’s than mine. I also don’t leave house windows open when I go on holiday just because it is unlikely that burglars will visit my street during that time.

The problem is that there are too many apps that want you to have an account logged in before you can use them. That account often has multiple strands that allow you to buy stuff. Google’s account lets me buy apps and games or magazines on my tablet and I can’t watch youtube or access my email or go on Google+ without logging in to Google and that opens all the doors. Amazon lets me buy all sorts of things, ebay too. If you stay logged in, you can often buy stuff just by clicking a few times, you don’t have to re-enter lots of security stuff each time. That’s great except that there are links to those things in other web pages, lots of different directions by which I may approach that buying potential. Every time you install a new app, it gives you a list of 100 things it wants total authority to do for evermore. How can you possibly keep track of all those? On the good side, that streamlines life, making it easier to do anything, reducing the numbers of hoops you need to jump through to get access to something or buy something. On the bad side, it means there are far more windows and doors to check before you go out. It means you have an open window and all your money lying on the window ledge. It means there is always a suspicion that if you get a trojan or virus, it might be able to use those open logins to steal or spend your cash or your details.

When apps are standalone and you only have a couple that have spending capability, it is manageable, but when everything is interconnected so much, there are too many routes to access your cash. You cant close the main account session because so many things you want to do are linked to it and if you log out, you lose all the dependent apps. Also, without a proper keyboard, typing your fully alphanumeric passwords takes ages. Yes, you can use password managers, but that’s just another layer of security to worry about. Because I don’t ever feel confident on a highly unintuitive OS or even worse-designed apps that I know what I am doing, I want a blanket block on any spend from my tablet even while I am logged into accounts to access other stuff. I only want my tablet to be able to spend after it has warned me that it wants to, why, how much, where to, for what, and what extras there might be. Ever. I never want it to be able to spend just by me clicking on something or a friend’s kid clicking a next level button on a game.

It isn’t at all easy to navigate a lot of apps when they are written by programmers from Mars, whose idea of intuitive interface is to hide everything in the most obscure places behind the most obscure links. On a full PC, usually it’s obvious where the menus all are and what they contain. On a tablet, it is clearly a mark of programmer status to be able to hide them from anyone who hasn’t been on a user course. This is further evidenced by the number of apps that come with complaints about previous users leaving negative feedback, telling you not to moan until you’ve done this and that and another thing and basically accusing the users of being idiots. It really is quite simple. If an app is well-designed, it will be easy to use, and you won’t need to go on a user course first because it will be obvious how to work it at every menu, so there won’t be loads of customer moaning about how hard it is to do things on it. If you’re getting loads of bad user feedback, it isn’t your customers that are the idiots, it’s you.

Anyway, on my tablet, I am usually very far from sure where the menus might be that allow me to access account details or preferences or access authorizations, and when I do stumble across them, often it tells me that an account or an authorization is open, but doesn’t let me close it via that same page, leaving me to wander for ages looking elsewhere for the account details pages.

In short, obscure interfaces that give partial data and are interconnected far too much to other apps and services and preference pages and user accounts and utilities make it impossible for me to feel safe while I use a tablet logged in to any account with spending capability. If you use apps all the time you get used to them, but if you’re like me, and have zero patience, you tend to just abandon it when you find one that isn’t intuitive.

The endless pursuit of making all things connected has made all things unusable. It doesn’t take long for a pile of string to become tangled. We need to learn to do it right, and soon.

Really we aren’t there yet.