Throw your emails in the air like you just don’t care

I received my first batch of template emails from 38 Degrees recently.

As a general rule, most of their mail-bombing campaigns are aimed at MPs, rather than councillors, so they tend not to come our way. But the recent announcement by the Prime Minister that the UK will take several thousand Syrian refugees and then distribute them across local councils has made it a local issue, and many people are, understandably, keen to let their own councillors know their opinions.

That much I don’t have any problem with. It’s a genuine local issue, and I welcome emails from local residents on any matter which directly affects them, or may potentially do so. What I am less happy with, though, is the use of identikit mass emails as a tool.

There are all sorts of reasons why using a pre-filled email template is a bad idea. I won’t go into all of them in detail, as there’s already an extremely good explanation of why you shouldn’t use them on the WriteToThem.com website. However, having not received any personally until a few days ago, I couldn’t speak from personal experience. So, having now got a bunch in my inbox, these are my thoughts.

The couch activist’s digital cop-out

Like most councillors, I get a fair number of emails from constituents. They cover a wide range of issues, although the two most common are planning applications and dog poo. They also vary a lot in content; some are lengthy screeds and come complete with attachments of supporting documentation, others are brief “I’ve got a problem with X, can you help?” type messages.

One thing all these emails have in common, though, is that they are in the sender’s own words. And another is that they are almost always the start of a conversation rather than a one-off message.

The 38 Degrees emails, though, have neither of these characteristics. All of them have had campaign-ese wording which clearly isn’t that of the sender, and mostly doesn’t even relate to my role as a councillor or to the specific wards that I represent and the councils that I sit on – it’s just generic boilerplate. And, although I’ve replied to all of them, none of the senders has made any further contact.

When someone takes the time to look up my email address, and then compose an email about whatever is bothering them, I know it’s something they care about. They have put effort into it, or at least are planning to – even if all they want me to do is phone them, they’re willing to spend the time talking to me. I also get a feel for the personality of the sender and how strongly they feel about something.

With the 38 Degrees emails, I get none of that. Sending a campaign email via 38 Degrees is trivially easy, and requires no knowledge about either the subject matter, the person the email is being sent to or the public authority that they represent. All you need to do is go to a website, enter your name and postcode and click a button. It’s a throwaway, inconsequential act that treats serious subjects, such as the Syria crisis, in the same way as expressing an opinion on which boy-band is better or which chocolate tastes nicer.

Participating in a 38 Degrees mail-bomb doesn’t show that you care about the subject. On the contrary, it shows that you really don’t care at all. Because if you really did care, you would take the time and make the effort to get in touch directly, in your own words.

Veruca Salt’s campaign class

As it happens, I do actually support the government’s plans to resettle Syrian refugees in the UK, and I’m confident that my local authority will be capable of doing whatever is necessary locally. To that extent, I agree with the emails I’ve received. But the details are all still to be finalised, as things stand, and in any case I’m just one of many councillors and have no ability to set council policy or dictate what will be done. So an email demanding that I “ensure” that the council takes in refugees and gives “immediate” sanctuary to them is heading towards moon on a stick territory.

Asking for something that I, personally, cannot deliver is pointless. By all means, ask for my support in your campaign to get the council to do something. You may or may not get my support, but you’re perfectly entitled to ask for it. Or ask what my position is on a policy, and I’ll usually be happy to tell you. But simply demanding that I do something is just plain daft. Even if I agree with what you want to happen, I can’t do that.

This is where it gets even more silly. I’d be a lot more tolerant of seemingly unreasonable emails if they were directly from a constituent and written in their own words. I don’t expect everyone in the ward to know how local government works and what my responsibilities are. But, of course, these emails aren’t written by the people whose name appears on them. They’re written by some faceless and unaccountable activist at 38 Degrees.

Given that their style makes them instantly recognisable as being from 38 Degrees (even though the email itself does its best to hide the true origin), they’re almost certainly being written either by the same person, or a small group of people. In which case, these people ought to know how government, including local government, works. They are, after all, trying to persuade us to do something. You’d have thought they’d at least make the effort to find out what form of persuasion is most effective.

So, what we have is a mass-mail campaign being run by people who don’t really care whether their emails are persuasive – they just want to make sure we have the inconvenience of having to read them – and sent by people who can’t be bothered to do anything more constructive. If anyone really thinks this is a helpful way to engage in the democratic process, then they are sadly mistaken.

Killing the golden goose

I installed Adblock on my computer the other week. I’m well aware that this opens me up to charges of hypocrisy, given that online advertising is an essential part of how I earn a living – both in my day job, where we use advertising to get customers, and in my spare time business where I make money from adverts on my own websites. If everybody installed Adblock and used it in full, both of those would suffer considerably.

For that reason, I’ve made a point of setting Adblock to be disabled by default, and only enable it for specific websites. The websites that I enable it for (and it is still only a small proportion of those I visit regularly) are those which have egregiously intrusive advertising.

This isn't actually an ad. It's just a screenshot of one.
This isn’t actually an ad. It’s just a screenshot of one.

In particular, I enable Adblock on sites which have adverts that autoplay audio, that overlays the content of the page in any way, or that cause the content of the page to move, reflow or reformat after it has initially loaded.

I’m less bothered about autoplaying video, so long as it’s contained within a predefined border of an advert that doesn’t otherwise intrude into the rest of the page. But autoplay audio is a complete no-no. Do that, and it’s an immediate block. It’s also an immediate block if an advert causes the content of a page to shift or reflow after I’ve started reading it. Which is why I no longer see adverts on The Guardian’s website, for example.

One annoying form of advert in particular seems now to have become endemic on newspaper websites. It’s the one which doesn’t seem to be there to begin with, but then suddenly appears in the middle of the content as you scroll down. I’m sure you’ve all seen them. I’m equally sure that you all, like me, hate them. As it happens, they were mentioned in the Feedback section of The Times today:

I really don’t like the pop-up video adverts in the middle of articles on your website,” wrote AC Ruston. “There’s even one in the guidance on how to complain, for heaven’s sake. They’re an annoying distraction, and in some articles they are totally inappropriate.”

This complaint was followed by several others, and ended with an admission by the newspaper that using them was wrong:

We got the message and, as it happens, we agree. Advertisements shouldn’t interfere with the enjoyment of reading a newspaper or a website. We’ve asked the advertising department to remove this campaign.

Now, it’s easy to argue that The Times doesn’t need to use them, because, unlike most newspaper websites, it is subscription only. So advertising income is an add-on, and a fairly trivial one at that (since the paywall keeps most people out to begin with, and hence makes adverts far less valuable as the number of viewers is tiny by comparison with other national newspaper websites). Other newspapers, it can be argued, really need the advertising revenue.

The challenge of paying for free content has always been there. Research shows that up to 80% of users are unwilling even to consider paying for content. But even the 20% who are theoretically willing to pay rarely do, in practice. Traffic to The Times’ website now is less than a tenth of what it was before the paywall. News UK, owner of The Times, has backtracked on a similar “solid paywall” on the Sun’s website following an equally drastic drop in traffic. For news websites in particular, social media is an important driver of traffic – but there’s no point sharing a link to a story that most of your friends or followers can’t read.

The failure of pure subscription based models means that advertising is always going to be a key revenue source for the vast majority of websites. So maximising that revenue is important, and if another form of advert comes along which pays more – which these in-content video ads certainly do – then using them is very attractive.

If my experience, though, and that of the contributors to the Feedback column of the Times, is anything to go by, these adverts are almost universally disliked. And it isn’t a big step from disliking the adverts to finding a way of blocking them.

Unsurprisingly, use of adblockers has grown significantly over the past few years. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but some estimates suggest that usage increased by nearly 70% between 2013 and 2014, with anything from 5% to 50% of ads blocked, depending on the website.

That’s a problem. It’s a very real problem. And it isn’t just a problem for websites which have excessively intrusive ads. Because when people install adblocking systems, they are quite likely to just accept the default of blocking all adverts, everywhere. Which means is that sites which don’t have don’t have intrusive adverts – which don’t autoplay audio, or relocate/obscure content – get their adverts blocked as well.

If the trend towards more and more intrusive adverts continues, therefore, the websites which use them will end up killing the golden goose that they rely on. And in turn take down the advert-supported economy of millions upon millions of small-scale websites which don’t have the resources to find alternative income. If that happens, it won’t just be those of us who rely on the advertising economy who will suffer. It will be every web user.

American Idiots

I was an early adopter of Gmail, so I have a fairly short and simple Gmail address. Unfortunately, that means it’s only a typo away from plenty of other short Gmail addresses, so I get a fair amount of email intended for someone else because of misspellings.

I also get a lot of email intended for someone else because they wrongly believe that they own my email address. I have no idea why they think that, but it seems to happen a lot.

Anyway, one of the emails I got recently intended for someone else was this one:

eticket

That, as you can see, is an American Airlines e-ticket. Obviously, the fact that I got it means that the intended traveller didn’t, which means that unless he sorts it out he won’t be taking his flight.

He must have realised that himself, because about a week later I got the same e-ticket again. I presume he had phoned customer services and complained about not getting it, so they had helpfully re-sent it. Except, of course, they re-sent it to the same, wrong address, so he still didn’t get it.

Anyway, this time I decided that I’d try and be helpful, so I replied to the email and told them:

I have no idea why this has been sent to my email address, as I am not Gary Marks and I did not buy this ticket. Please can you amend your records.

That prompted an auto-response, which is what I’d expect. Unfortunately, what I didn’t expect was that the person dealing with the issue would entirely fail to understand what the problem was. Here’s the eventual response:

response

This, in full, is what it said:

Dear Mr. Goodge:

Thank you for contacting Customer Relations.

Based on the information you have requested, I have determined that our reservation personnel can better address your concerns. They can be reached via 1-800-433-7300 and are available to assist you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you are calling from outside the United States or Canada, please click on the URL below to determine the reservation center or General Sales Agent nearest you. Please have your flight details readily available to provide the representative.

www.aa.com/i18n/utility/internationalReservationsPhoneContact.jsp

Should you require similar assistance with reservations in the future, we recommend you call the above number for a more expeditious response. We have an around-the-clock dedicated staff of professionals eager to resolve concerns for customers holding open reservations. If you still have questions or concerns after your trip is completed, we’d be happy to hear from you in Customer Relations.

Mr. Goodge, thank you for bringing this to our attention.

Sincerely,

Lourdes Foyt

Customer Relations

American Airlines

This is the wrong response on so many levels that I don’t really know where to start. So I might as well end with this.

Fighting Yesterday’s Battles

Duty Calls

I recently got involved in an argument on the Internet with a small group of people who think that the web design standards of the 1990s are still valid today. In support of this, one of them pointed me at anybrowser.com – a site which, not unconcidentally, dates from the late 90s.

My antagonists’ argument was, basically, that if it works it’s good enough, and the use of tables for layout, font tags, etc are perfectly acceptable provided you follow the guidelines on that site (and others) not to target your site at a particular subset of browser users. As a corollary of that, they also argued that if a website doesn’t work perfectly with IE6, it’s the fault of the web designers who aren’t doing their job properly. One even went so far as to accuse me of “Nazi tendencies” for insisting on web design standards rather than pragmatically using what works.

I don’t think I need to tell anyone who works in the web design industry that that’s wrong. But it’s worth exploring a little bit why it’s wrong.

Firstly, of course, the Any Browser campaigns didn’t always agree with each other. Anybrowser.com is happy with tables for layout. Anybrowser.org cautions against them. Anybrowser.com doesn’t use CSS. Anybrowser.org recommends it, albeit with caveats. So even historically, there’s no consistency.

However, there are two main themes running through all the Any Browser campaigns of the 90s:

1. Websites should not be targetted at users of any specific browser.

2. All websites must be backwards compatible with all older browsers, and it’s unrealistic to expect users to upgrade.

As far as the first point is concerned, it’s worth noting that that argument has been won. Back in the late 90s, shortly after the introduction of Internet Explorer, there was a real danger that the web would become siloed into sites compatible with Netscape (remember that?) and sites compatible with IE, each using different proprietary extensions. The Any Browser campaigns argued fiercely against that, and rightly so.

These days, though, that simply isn’t an issue. I use all five of the major browsers – Chrome, Firefox, IE, Safari and Opera – and I can’t remember the time I last encountered a website which worked better in one of them than the others.

What matters these days isn’t browsers, it’s devices. “Any Browser” is no longer an issue. “Any Device” is very much so. Sites which work well on a desktop can fail miserably on a tablet or smartphone. And, of course, vice versa. The challenge for web designers these days isn’t to make sure that their sites work on two or more browsers, it’s to make them work on a multiplicity of desk based and mobile devices.

I have to admit that not all of my own websites meet that requirement. I’ve been working towards it, of course, and one by one I’ve been updating them to use responsive frameworks that will work on phones and desktops alike. But I’m not completely there yet. In my day job, cross-device compatibility is utterly crucial, and on my desk I have not only the PC that I do my work in but also a tablet and smartphone that I need to test any visual change in before signing it off to go live.

Making that work, though, means sticking to standards. And it means sticking to standards designed for modern technology, not the technology of 20 years ago. For example, using tables for layout breaks horribly on smartphones – it makes sites unreadable without horizontal scrolling, which is one of the bigger no-nos. These days, we have to be standards complaint, and we have to be both cross-browser and cross-device compatible. In short, we have to write websites, not just for any browser, but for any device.

Which leads on to the second major theme of the Any Browser campaigns: It’s unacceptable to expect users to upgrade their browsers.

Unlike the first theme, of cross-browser compatibility, this theme has been proven wrong. And there are two main reasons why it is wrong.

The first is that, like a lot of statements made about the Internet at the time, it was based on an entirely false assumption about the rate of technological change. When installing an updated browser meant, at the very least, a lengthy download over a dial-up connection, an often complex user-initiated installation routine and (in the case of Netscape), even paying for the upgrade, there were very many good reasons not to do it unless you really wanted to. And, equally, website operators needed to be aware that users had many good reasons not to upgrade. Backwards compatibility was, therefore, an essential part of the Any Browser principle.

These days, none of those apply. All modern operating systems have an auto-update function for software, and all modern browsers either take advantage of it or use their own auto-update system. In some cases (Chrome being one), the auto-update takes place in the background and the user won’t necessarily even notice that it has happened. And people don’t connect to the Internet over dial-up any more. Even a slow ADSL connection is easly fast enough to download a browser update with no problems. With the exception of some PCs on locked-down corporate networks (which are an entirely different scenario, and one that isn’t really relevant here), the argument that upgrading a browser is difficult, complex or inconvenient simply no longer exists.

The second reason why it’s wrong to insist on backwards compatibility is, though, even more powerful. And it was competely unforeseen by the Any Browser campaigners back in the 90s. That reason is security.

The growth of the Internet has facilitated a lot of things, many of them entirely beneficial. But it has also facilitated a lot of bad things. When I started out in the IT industry, back in the 80s, hacking into a computer generally meant having physical access to it, or at least being part of the local network it was connected to. The Internet made it possible to hack into a computer anywhere in the world without going anywhere near it. And malicious software authors rapidly created programs to do just that. Viruses, trojans and other forms of malware are an everyday part of the 21st century Internet. And so is the need to defend against them.

But defending against the efforts of malware creators means keeping up to date with the necessary defensive measures. Which in turn means keeping Internet-connected software up to date and patched against any newly discovered vulnerability.

This might not be so bad if the only thing at risk was the user’s own PC. I used to have a friend who always left his car doors unlocked, because, as he put it, “there’s nothing in the car worth stealing, and I’d rather they didn’t smash the windows to discover that”. A lot of people have the same approach to their computers.

The problem with that approach is that it isn’t just the user’s own PC which is at risk. Once malware gets onto a PC, it can become part of a botnet which in turn is used to attack other computers, maybe sending spam, or acting as part of DDoS attack, or simply spreading the infection. Most spam comes from botnets these days.

If you have unpatched older software connected to the Internet, therefore, you are not merely a danger to yourself, but to other Internet users as well. If you are using a centrally managed computer at work then it isn’t your problem, it’s your IT department’s, and they can answer to their own management if they allow company PCs to become infected. But if you are a home user, or a small business running your own equipment, then not only is it basic common sense to keep up to date with software upgrades but there’s a very strong argument that it is a moral imperative. People who refuse to upgrade are contributing to the problems of spam and malware experienced by everyone else.

As far as website operators are concerned, that means they also have a moral obligation to encourage their users to keep their software up to date. And if that means deliberately refusing to cater for the small minority using broswers several generations behind, then, overall, that is a positive move.

The best way to encourage users to keep up to date is to stick with modern web standards. That doesn’t necessarily mean using all the bleeding-edge features of HTML5 and CSS3, but it does mean writing websites that comply with HTML5 standards rather than using outdated feature sets of older implementations. And, as a bonus, using HTML5 will also make it much easier to create websites that are truly cross-browser and cross-device compatible, which is the ultimate aim of the Any Browser campaigns.

The Any Browser campaigns of the late 20th century had two fronts. History shows that they’ve won one, and lost the other. There is no point now in revisiting either of them. What matters now is ensuring that the web remains an open, interoperable platform accessible to any user and any website developer on an equal basis. That outcome is still far from assured. Let’s not waste time fighting yesterday’s battles when we still have today’s to win.

Don’t spoil my enjoyment

I’ve just finished reading the script from the first episode in the new Doctor Who series. It’s pretty good, actually, apart from a rather large and pointless MacGuffin that initially threatens to derail the plot and a tendency (which, frankly, has been part of the show since the beginning) to rely a bit too much on Deus Ex Machina solutions to tight situations. But the primary plotline is well drawn, and we begin to get an indication of how the new Doctor’s character will develop. The ending is a particularly neat (and intriguing) twist that’s hinted at just enough in the preceding dialogue to make the savvy viewer (or, in my case, reader) grin when it happens.

A screenshot of the first page of the PDF

Apparently, though, letting me read the script is a bad thing. The BBC has issued a statement saying that

We deeply regret this and apologise to all the show’s fans, the BBC and the cast and crew who have worked tirelessly making the series.

While I appreciate the BBC’s concern, I have to say that, at least in my case, it’s entirely misplaced. I really don’t share the fear of spoilers when it comes to drama. And I think that the hysteria over leaks like this one (and the previous times that it’s happened) are driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of both visual drama and the people who consume it.

Let’s look at that BBC apology in a bit more detail. Why are they apologising to fans?

There seems to be an implied belief here that fans of the show a) are incapable of resisting spoilers if they’re available, and b) will have their enjoyment of it damaged by reading them if they do.

The first of those is clearly wrong, at least as far as the vast majority of readers are concerned. Everyone who has ever read a book has all the spoilers they need right in their hands. It only takes a moment to flip to the last chapter to see how it all turns out. Most people don’t do that, though. They don’t have to consciously resist the temptation to skip to the end, they just want to enjoy reading the book all the way through.

The idea that people are incapable of resisting spoilers is deeply insulting to their inteligence. The fact that the Doctor Who scripts have been leaked isn’t going to make anyone read them who doesn’t want to read them.

It’s also not true that knowing how a story unfolds in advance spoils the enjoyment of it. If that were the case, then there would be no point making a movie or TV adaptation of a book, or one based on a well known real life event. But it didn’t hurt the box office takings that everyone knows the Titanic sinks. JK Rowling managed to keep us wondering precisely which side Snape is on throughout the series (at least until the last book, when anyone who wanted to know could just take a peek at the end), but nearly everyone watching the last movie already knew. And even movies and TV series based on original scripts can still be enjoyed the second or third time around, despite having already lost every possible element of surprise.

So there are two big falsehoods here: the idea that the fans are incapable of avoiding spoilers, and that their enjoyment of the programme will be damaged as a result. Neither of these stands up to anything more than cursory consideration.

There’s more in the BBC apology, though. After the fans, it mentions the cast and crew. Here’s a bit more of the statement:

We would like to make a plea to anyone who might have any of this material and spoilers associated with it not to share it with a wider audience so that everyone can enjoy the show as it should be seen on 23 August.

Apart from the reiterated implication that people won’t enjoy the show if they read the scripts in advance, there’s another little bit of weasel wording there in the phrase “as it should be seen”.

Now, I fully accept that it’s up to the show’s makers to decide how it looks when it’s on the screen. That’s what we pay them for; their skill as writers, set-makers, actors, producers and all the other roles that crop up on the end credits. In that sense, I do want to see the show as it should be seen. But it’s a big, and entirely unsupported, leap from there to suggest that “as it should be seen” includes the absence of any knowledge about the content. My reading of the script in advance will not change the show. It will be exactly the same programme for me as it is for everyone else who watches it.

So why shouldn’t I read the script before watching the programme? In what way is this different to reading a Harry Potter book before watching the film of the book? Who, precisely, is being harmed by this?

I’ll just throw in a couple of side comments here. The first is that reading the script is very different to seeing the programme in advance. There are cases where TV programmes and films have leaked to the Internet – not the script, but the video itself – prior to the release date, and it’s fairly easy to see how that could harm the makers. It may not harm them as much as they think (and this is the “sharing isn’t stealing” argument again, but that’s a different issue that I’m not going to go into here), but the potential for at least some quantifiable harm is obvious. In the BBC’s case, they make a lot of money by selling Doctor Who around the world, and if the show was readily available online prior to the transmission date then some broadcasters may be less inclined to pay for it. But the script doesn’t fall into this category.

The other point is that there is a sense in which reading the script in advance is definitely wrong: it involves a clear breach of copyright. But, oddly enough, this isn’t even hinted at in any of the comments either by the BBC as a whole or from Steven Moffat, the writer. Of course, there is the argument that an unpublished script has no commercial value and hence the infringement causes no financial loss. So there would be no point in the BBC trying to sue me, or anyone else with a copy, as it wouldn’t be worth anything in damages (although that argument disregards the possibility that the BBC may want to publish the scripts at some stage in the future, which is by no means implausible). Even so, I do think it’s telling that the BBC doesn’t seem to think that copyright law is a useful angle in this case.

Anyway, back to the question. Why shouldn’t I read the script before I watch the programme? It is’t hurting me to read it. It isn’t hurting anybody else if I read it. It isn’t hurting the BBC if I read it. And the one legal reason that the BBC could utilise to prohibit me reading it is not, in fact, being used.

There are actually two possible answers to this. The first is that this is just another example of corporate arrogance, of the provider forgetting who is the customer and who, ultimately, pays the provider’s salary. After all, if it isn’t doing any real harm, then why get so worked up about the leak of a few scripts? If people gain enjoyment (as I have) from reading them, then why try to stop them? It’s only an issue in the minds of those small-minded enough to make it an issue, and those small minds don’t control my mind.

That’s certainly a plausible hypothesis. It fits in with Steven Moffat’s own comments on previous leaks, where he expresses contempt for people who share them and makes it clear that, as far as he is concerned, a story has no value unless it is secret (so it’s a good job that he works on original drama, then, and not on adaptations). And his belief that “stories depend on shocking people” possibly explains why for me, and, seemingly, quite a lot of people, the revived series went downhill a bit after Moffat took over from Russell T Davies as lead writer. It’s fashionable to blame that on the departure of David Tennant, but it seems to me that the real problem with the Matt Smith era wasn’t Smith, but the material he was given to work with. It will be interesting to see if Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is more three dimensional. And it’s definitely believable that Steven Moffat really is so far up his own posterior that he genuinely feels deeply hurt by the leak of a script.

But still, why does it matter? There is, as the saying goes, no such thing as bad publicity. It has to be said that this story has given the new series plenty of publicity. And it’s not like it’s never happened before, either.

So maybe, just maybe, someone in the BBC’s publicity department, either with or without the approval of the show’s makers (almost certainly without, if Moffat’s comments are to be taken at face value, or even half face value), has orchestrated the leaks deliberately. If so, I have to hand it to them. There’s nothing like a good dose of viral publicity.

Meltwater and the copyright right – a brief update

Back in 2011, I blogged on the disturbing case of Meltwater and the Newspaper Licensing Agency. If you’ve got time, go and read the original article before coming back to this one. But, if you want the TL:DR version here it is: The appeal court decided that following a link to material on the web could be an infringement of copyright if you didn’t have permission, because doing so would inevitably create a local copy of that material in your browser, and, unless authorised, that’s an infringement. As I said at the time,

Copyright law does have explicit exceptions for temporary or transient copies which exist merely to facilitate the transmission or lawful use of a work. The basis behind the Meltwater judgment is that such a permission only applies to lawful use, so if a particular use is not lawful then even a temporary copy is a breach of copyright.

I ended that post by hoping that Meltwater would appeal and that common sense would prevail. But I wasn’t holding my breath.

Now, nearly three years later, we have an update. And, fortunately, common sense has prevailed. Meltwater did appeal to the Supreme Court, and they won. And the Supreme Court itself then referred the question to the European Court Of Justice to get an EU-wide ruling. The ECJ, in turn, upheld the Supreme Court’s verdict. So the original appeal court’s ruling that, as I put it at the time, “a use can be unlawful just because the publisher says so” has been overturned. On the contrary, as the Supreme Court put it, “a use of the material is lawful, whether or not the copyright owner has authorised it, if it is consistent with EU legislation governing the reproduction right”.

The judgment is quite complex, and goes into a lot of detail, but the gist of it is that the exemption to copyright for transient copies is a lawful use in and of itself, and does not rely on any other right in order to be lawful. There may be other rights being infringed, of course, and the judgment refers to a case where they were. But, crucially, it makes the important declaration that even if other rights are being infringed, the exemption for transient copies is absolute and cannot be nullified by the publisher’s lack of consent. Which means that if the transient copies were the only possible infringement, then no infringement at all has taken place.

This has a lot of ramifications beyond the case in question. The Guardian has headlined the story, “Internet users cannot be sued for browsing the web“, which is certainly true, but there are other aspects as well. One of them is that this also settles once and for all the question of whether simply linking to publicly available material can be an infringement of copyright.

This has been addressed in the past, in other cases, but there hasn’t until now, been a definitive answer from a senior court. But this decision makes it clear that a link alone cannot be an infringement of copyright, because the link itself is not a copy of anything and the transient copies made by someone following the link are not an infringement either. (There are other, more tenuous rights, such as a “making available right”, which can, theoretically, be infringed by links in some circumstances. But if the material linked to is already public then that cannot be the case).

It also means that someone viewing or listening to a live stream online is not infringing copyright, even if the source of the stream is doing so. Because the person viewing the stream is only making transient copies, no infringement is taking place. It would be, of course, if they were making a permanent download, as well as if they were also communicating that material to the public. But both of those are an entirely different scenario. Private viewing of an illicit stream is not infringement, even when broadcasting the stream is.

So, overall, this is a sensible decision. And it’s nice to know that the courts don’t always follow a copyright maximalist agenda.

How Facebook is killing language

Lots of things are accused of killing language. Texting, for example. Or, to give its more common name, txtng. It’s quite easy to find articles in the popular media complaining that schoolchildren are using abbreviations such as ‘ur’, ‘gr8’ and ‘b4’ in their essays.

Twitter gets a bashing, too. Its 140 character limit means that it’s all too common to find yourself in the position of composing a witty and intelligent tweet, only to find yourself with -1 characters left and having to choose which spelling or grammar solecism to commit.

But no. Text and Twitter are not the worst offenders against language. Txtspk arises from the sheer awkwardness of using a phone keyboard as much as anything else. In many ways, Twitter’s limit forces you to think carefully about what you are writing. Neither of those are bad, even if they can sometimes accidentally give rise to bad habits in other contexts. The worst offender is different. The worst offender is Facebook.

That may seem a strange assertion. After all, Facebook imposes no overly-restrictive limit on message length. You don’t find yourself having to cut out words or abbreviate others. And, if you’re using it on a real computer, it doesn’t have the awkward keyboard problem of SMS. So what’s the problem?

The problem, quite simply, was Facebook’s decision to remove the “post” button and make the Enter key post instead. That may seem innocuous, but what it also did was remove the ability to insert newlines and paragraph breaks the way you normally do – by pressing the Enter key.

Facebook does still allow you to insert newlines by pressing Shift-Enter. But that’s non-intuitive and it isn’t well documented, and I’d hazard a guess that most people aren’t aware of it. It’s certainly true that most people don’t use it.

I’m not really sure why Facebook did this. Comments from elsewhere on the web suggest that Facebook were trying to encourage short posts, in order to make the news feed more Twitter-like. If so, it hasn’t really worked.

To be sure, a lot of posts are simple one-liners or single sentences. But they always have been. There doesn’t seem to have been any noticeable reduction in average post length since the change.

What has happened is that most people no longer craft lengthier comments, possibly going back over them and checking for typos and maybe reformatting them, before posting them. Instead, Facebook’s newsfeed and comments under a post often read more like a stream of consciousness. Instead of well-formatted text with paragraphs where appropriate, people just keep on typing until they’ve finished and then just hit Enter.

I don’t know about you, but I find this really irritating. It makes it a lot harder to read longer posts and comments. Facebook’s rather small and closely spaced regular font size (a fixed 12 pixels) doesn’t help here, either – both Twitter and Google Plus have larger, easier to read text.

The reason why this is particularly bad, though, is that unlike Twitter and SMS, Facebook’s lack of a short text limit means that habits learned on Facebook do transfer to other situations far more easily. People who write 140 character comments on Twitter don’t restrict themselves to 140 characters elsewhere. But people who write long screeds of unformatted text on Facebook do write long screeds of unformatted text elsewhere.

I’ve been on the Internet a long time – nearly twenty years, now – and I’ve been involved in a lot of online discussion forums, including mailing lists, Usenet newsgroups, web forums and now social media, in that time. I’m not a net-Luddite; I don’t think that everything was necessarily better back in the early days and I’m very much a fan of social media in general. But, over the past few years, I have noticed a distinct decline in the quality of writing on many of the online discussion forums I inhabit. And, in most of those cases, the decline is specifically into the type of unformatted, un-crafted text encouraged by Facebook.

So, what can be done about this? I don’t really know. I do make a point of using paragraphs in any longer content that I post on Facebook, in the (possibly vain) hope that it might encourage others to do the same. But what I’d really like is for Facebook to reverse this particular change. Maybe I should start a Facebook page about it.

If it aint broke…

Remember the Apple Maps fiasco? Google clearly didn’t.

I’ve previously blogged about how Google has managed to get the colour scheme horribly wrong in the latest redesign, but the latest change plumbs yet new depths of inanity.

You may have seen media reports of how Google managed to rename Basingstoke, but when my Maps were suddenly “upgraded” to the new version I noticed an equally glaring error right here in Evesham. Or, as Google now calls Evesham, “Raphaels”. Here’s a before and after screenshot:

Old Google Maps

New Google Maps

Actually, Evesham itself hasn’t been misnamed (unlike Basingstoke, which really was). What’s happened here is that a local business, Raphael’s Restaurant at Hampton Ferry, has, for some inexplicable reason, been given more prominence than the name of the town. If you zoom further in, or back out, then “Evesham” reappears on the map.

But why do this? I initially thought it might be a bodged attempt at personalisation, as I happen to know the owners of Raphael’s and eat there often. It’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility that, somehow, I’ve created enough of a digital footprint via social media that Google knows that, and is therefore highlighting it to me. But then again, neighbouring Pershore also shows up as “Holy Redeemer RC Primary School”, and I have no connection with that institution at all. In fact, until earlier today, I didn’t even know it existed.

So, what is the connection? My next thought was that it’s because Raphael’s Restaurant has a Google+ page, and a couple of generally positive reviews (currently rated 4/5, which is pretty good, really). But no, the Holy Redeemer RC Primary School doesn’t appear to have a Google+ page of its own yet. (It has an auto-generated Google one, but not a “real” one, if you know what I mean).

So I’m still none the wiser. And, while I’m not going to say anything negative about Raphael’s Restaurant (you should try the Sunday carvery, it’s excellent), I can imagine that other business owners in Evesham are somewhat less than chuffed about this. Why should Raphael’s be the first food outlet to appear on the map as you zoom in to Evesham? And why should the Evesham Pizza and Kebab House, in Port Street, be the second? (Other than the fact that I am a regular customer of theirs as well!). Why do St Richards First School and St Mary’s Catholic Primary School show up on the map of Evesham before the considerably larger Prince Henry’s High School? Why does the Vale of Evesham Christian Centre show up before Evesham Methodist Church? Why is Bonk the first shop to show up in the High Street (which is wrong now, anyway, as Bonk is moving to Port Street), and Phones 4U the first to be visible on Bridge Street?

I could go on. The entire selection of businesses on the new Google maps seems utterly random, and bears very little relationship to what people are likely to be looking for. If you want a primary school, a riverside cafe and a skate shop then it’s not a bad selection. But, realistically, how many people are going to care about these things?

I said in my previous post that Google seems to have stopped considering Google Maps to be first and foremost a map, and instead sees it primarily as a kind of geo-located business directory. That in itself is a bad move, of course. But it’s compounded by the fact that Google Maps is an absolutely atrocious business directory. It’s missing 90% of the businesses and organisations that people actually use, and of those it does include, it ranks them in an entirely arbitrary order of priority.

Anyway, enough ranting. There are three important things you need to know:

1. To opt out of the new Google Maps, click on the question mark icon at the bottom of the screen, and select “Return to classic Google Maps”.

2. Raphael’s Restaurant is definitely worth a visit if you’ve never been there before, particularly the Sunday carvery.

3. Buy your skate stuff from Bonk. Kim does a lot for the town, and needs all the business she can get.

Best practice for online web forms

As part of an online discussion about best practice for online web forms which collect personal information, I contributed an extract of a document that I wrote a while ago for internal purposes. Someone asked me if it was online anywhere, which it wasn’t. So it is now!

This is just a brief summary, there are situations it doesn’t cover and there may well be good reasons where some of my recommendations are incorrect for certain circumstances. It’s also aimed at an English speaking audience writing websites for primarily English speaking (although worldwide) users; other languages and cultures have different conventions, and the comment about the PAF is specific to the UK.


Best practice for online forms is to make only the absolute minimum required information compulsory, and give as much flexibility as is reasonably possible for everything.

Some specific points:

“Title” (Mr, Mrs, etc), if present, MUST either a) be a single free-form text field, or b) have a free-form “other” option in addition to a preset list of the most common, and MUST NOT be a required field. If you do have a preset list of common options, the absolute minimum set is “Mr”, “Dr”, “Mrs”, “Miss” and “Ms”.

“Name” MUST be a single free-form field. DO NOT split names into first and last, or Christian and surname. (And do not assume that the first word in the name is the name that people wish to be addressed as when emailing them). If you do not have a separate title field, be aware that some people will include their title as part of their name.

“Telephone number”, if present, MUST NOT be an all-numeric field (consider people with extension numbers), and MUST NOT be a required field unless the purpose of the form is for the person completing it to explicitly request a telephone call or SMS message.

“Address”, if present, MAY include a separate field for postcode/zip code, but SHOULD NOT include a drop-down for county/state/country/whatever unless all possible legal options are included. A field for postcode/zip code MUST NOT be required unless necessary for delivery/billing purposes.

“Age” or “Date of Birth”, if present, MUST NOT be a required field. If necessary to validate age for legal purposes, a single checkbox for “I confirm that I am over 18” (or wording as appropriate) may be a required field.

“Sex” or “Gender”, if present, MUST NOT be a required field.

Data which has a canonical format (eg, postcodes, telephone numbers, credit card numbers) should be accepted in any format (eg, with or without spaces, with or without brackets) and post-processed into the canonical format. DO NOT reject form submissions for not using the correct format.

If validating postal addresses against the PAF, always allow for manual address entry as an alternative to selecting from the PAF options for the postcode.

Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-O2

It’s Christmas day and I’m blogging about porn and censorship on the Internet. How sad is that? Anyway, there have been a lot of comments on social media about how various websites have been blocked by O2, including those by prominent campaigners in favour of filters.

Now, I’m not in favour of compulsory filtering either, for all sorts of reasons, as I’ve made abundantly clear in the past. But O2 is not the villain here, and the supposed over-blocking is nothing of the sort.

All the blocks that I’ve seen reported are blocked under O2’s “Parental Controls” setting. That is a whitelist-only setting, with all but a handful of specially selected sites blocked by default. Customers who use it have to explicitly add all other sites that they want to be able to access. The fact that a site is blocked by this setting does not in any way imply that it has been judged unsuitable for children, and in particular it does not imply at all that it contains porn or other unsavoury material. All it means is that it hasn’t been added to the whitelist.

As far as O2’s system is concerned, the setting which matters is “Default Safety”. That’s what you get if you enable filters and allow O2 to make the choice for you of what’s accessible. And the sites which are blocked by that are mostly the ones you’d expect: porn, gambling, alcohol, etc. I’m sure there are some sites which have been wrongly classified in that setting, but so far nobody has reported any.

O2 are also doing one important thing absolutely correctly, and I applaud them for it. Their unfiltered option is labelled “Open Access”. It’s not “Adult”, or “Explicit Material”, or anything which gives the impression that the only reason you’d choose it is because you want to look at dodgy stuff on the Internet. Instead, it’s labelled precisely as it is: “open”. Which is the normal state of the Internet, and what a large number of customers will prefer even if they have no desire to look at porn.

So, by all means, campaign against compulsory filtering. But don’t blame O2 for doing their best to meet customer demand at both ends of the scale, by offering a whitelist setting for those who want it, a basic filtered option for others and a properly labelled unfiltered option for everyone else.

Anyway, I’m off to watch Doctor Who. Happy Christmas, everyone!