OpenTech 2011 talk

Here's a rough transcript of the talk we gave at OpenTech today, and a PDF copy of our slides.

Thank you to everyone who spoke to us there - it was good to meet several of our Twitter followers as well as lots of new people - and particular thanks to Sam for organising the event and inviting us to talk.

Update: OpenTech have just given us a recording of our talk too.

Hi! We're Helen Lambert and Denny de la Haye, and together we fight crime!

Okay, not really - we're the co-founders of Police State UK, which is a news and opinion website built on open source software, with an open door policy for contributors, and we track civil liberties, politics and policing in the UK.

In 2006 Privacy International published a map showing which governments were best and worst for respecting or violating the privacy of their citizens. The map had five countries marked in black, indicating that they were 'endemic surveillance societies' - these were Russia, China, Malaysia, Singapore... and the UK.

Denny thought this was a pretty good indicator of how bad things had got here, and he wanted to make sure as many people as possible heard about it - so, he rushed out and um, bought a domain name ("Hi, my name is Denny and I'm a geek - my first solution to any problem is to buy an appropriate domain name"). He bought, and put a copy of the map up on it while he tried to figure out what other content should go on there to attract and inform people. Which, in the end, took a couple of years and a co-editor to get right...

In fact it took until the start of April 2009 - which you may remember was when the G20 conference took place in London, along with some big anti-capitalist and environmental protests, only a short walk from Denny's flat.

A lot of our friends were there and we were shocked to hear of the heavy handed policing they experienced, particularly the violent clearance of the Bishopsgate Climate Camp on the evening of the 1st, and hearing that one man - Ian Tomlinson - had died after an altercation with police.

So in the wake of all that we decided it was time to re-launch Police State UK.

In the late 90s Denny had written a CMS called YAWNS, which was designed for running a moderated multi-author news site - so he threw a copy of that up on his server, Helen did us a nice website design, and we went live late in April 2009.

We and our friends wrote a few articles, and in the wake of the G20 we started going to the public meetings of the MPA - that's the Metropolitan Police Authority - at which we learned a lot about public order policing, and the issues surrounding it, and the limitations of police authorities. It turns out they don't actually have that much power, which prompts the age old question "Who watches the watchmen?"

Later that year Helen started a Police State UK Twitter account, which we've maintained jointly ever since - although in general Helen tends to write more long articles and Denny tends to write more tweets, because he's better at being succinct. We've both got a lot going on, so it's good to have someone else to pick up the baton, as it were, when the other one of us is busy.

Actually the Twitter account has gone from strength to strength - it's just hit over 5000 followers, and still gaining at a steady pace. This surprised us because when New Labour were voted out, and there was lots of talk about the coalition's great Freedom Bill, we were hopeful that civil liberties would improve and there'd be less need for people like us.

In fact Henry Porter, a well-known civil liberties author, wrote an article saying that he was going to stop writing about the subject ...

"With the new government promising to respect our civil liberties, I think now is a good time for me to bow out"

... but with the ongoing backlash against the Tories' economic policies causing a number of high-profile protests, the coalition seem to have decided not to repeal most of New Labour's anti-protest legislation after all.

We have a graph showing how many Twitter followers we gained each day - the really spiky bit that catches the eye is the end of last year, when the tuition fee protests were happening, and everyone suddenly got very interested in the policing of political protests.

We also have a Facebook account, which for some strange reason has turned out to be much less popular than the Twitter account - although perhaps that's not that strange to civil liberties campaigners, we all know about Facebook's reputation when it comes to privacy.

Twitter has probably been more successful than the Facebook account and even the website for a few reasons, not least of which is that it's quick and easy to update, much faster than writing an article for the website. On Twitter we're mostly collating and curating existing content from the various blogs we read, from mainstream news articles, and from a variety of other Twitter accounts with areas of interest that overlap ours. We basically function as a sort of redistribution hub - and this ties neatly into the original awareness-raising goal Denny had when he put that map up back in 2006.

This goal was still very much in our minds when we launched the current site in 2009. The Convention of Modern Liberty had taken place a couple of months previously, and Philip Pullman who'd given a keynote speech wrote an article in the Times which we think made both of us cheer when we read it.

"It is inconceivable to me that a waking nation in the full consciousness of its freedom would have allowed its government to pass such laws as the Protection from Harassment Act (1997), the Crime and Disorder Act (1998), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), the Terrorism Act (2000), the Criminal Justice and Police Act (2001), the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Extension Act (2002), the Criminal Justice Act (2003), the Extradition Act (2003), the Anti-Social Behaviour Act (2003), the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004), the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2005), the Inquiries Act (2005), the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005), not to mention a host of pending legislation such as the Identity Cards Bill, the Coroners and Justice Bill, and the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill."

The thing with civil liberties is that each issue can seen trivial in isolation, but when you put them all together they create a picture which is much more significant and sinister. We wanted to build a platform which facilitated discussion of all these disparate, but related, issues, such as:

  • privacy
  • surveillance
  • police and government databases
  • political policing
  • right to protest
  • freedom of speech and censorship
  • freedom of information and open data
  • the legislative process ...

And looking at how legislation gets proposed and passed led Denny into looking at how Parliament and our representative democracy works (and doesn't work), and the ways in which it doesn't work led him swiftly on to an interest in political reform. As a result he actually ran in the 2010 general election as an independent candidate, on a platform of 'direct digital democracy' - the idea that we should be able to vote on issues rather than voting for politicians - and that campaign is continuing under the name of Demoex. You can read more about Demoex and Demoex UK online.

While that election campaign was going on we actually saw a perfect example of the sort of abuse of the legislative process we're talking about - the Digital Economy Bill, now the Digital Economy Act. This was rushed through Parliament in wash-up, which is supposed to be used to pass non-controversial legislation, but which both parties used this time as a way around the usual parliamentary process. This sort of party political game-playing to bypass proper Parliamentary scrutiny is how a lot of dodgy legislation gets passed.

So all these issues are relevant to anyone who's ever written to their MP on an issue and been ignored - anyone affected by the current public funding cuts - anyone who's ever been stopped by police - not just people who go on protests.

The very first article Helen wrote on the site was called Connecting the Dots, and dealt with the way in which all these issues are interrelated, and when you put them all together and look at them in context, suddenly the big picture starts to seem like a much bigger deal.

Originally, we were both single issue campaigners for stuff that directly affected us - not civil liberties. The first issue Denny campaigned on was motorcycle legislation, over 15 years ago, and Helen is an equalities and environmental activist. As we became more active we quickly realised that it was impossible to campaign effectively for the issues you care about without a background of basic civil liberties, and a government which is listening and responsive.

Instead of that, what we've currently got are restrictions on protesting near Parliament (passed into law in 2005); kettling, which seems to be a new sport our police have taken up; overt surveillance of protestors by Forward Intelligence teams, who record everyone who turns up to a protest; the categorisation of protestors as 'Domestic Extremists' which allows police to use anti-terrorism legislation against them; and pre-emptive arrests such as we saw in the couple of days before the royal wedding. Taken in combination it does start to look like the state would prefer it if we didn't exercise our right to protest - especially if we want to do it where anyone might see us.

It's not all been doom and gloom, there have been some fun bits too! Such as: how unexpectedly easy it's been for us to get invited to Westminster policy seminars.

Not only that, but we've asked for - and received - free entry rather than the £200-300 they charge commercial delegates. So you know, these things seem a bit elitist and cut off from the general public but actually it turns out all you need to do to get invited is start a troublemaking politics website, write some articles criticising government policy and police conduct, and then you might just get an email inviting you to come and make a nuisance of yourself at their next meeting'. Which says one good thing about our country at least. (They won't LISTEN to you - but you can go.)

It is weird though how largely bizarre and disconnected they are from the street point of view - e.g. contrast between self-congratulatory attitude seen at Future of Policing and Social Media seminar with activists' experience of communicating with the police.

When it comes to social media the Met are still quite poor - in fact their account @C011MetPolice is explicitly broadcast only - they won't reply to anyone or engage in any conversations. As anyone who knows anything about social media will tell you, they've just failed at the first hurdle.

But other forces have risen to the challenge - such as West Midlands who even have a sniffer dog with a Twitter account - so it is an area in which we've seen improvement during the time that we've been campaigning.

We've managed to make some interesting connections between our own social media presence and our website, because we do actually talk to the people who follow us; for example, in January Denny was reading about some changes in the law about protest in Parliament Square - that 2005 law we mentioned earlier is being repealed, which brings back into force an earlier, slightly vaguely worded law. So Denny asked "Any lawyers reading want to define the word 'serious' in section 14 1a [of the Public Order Act 1986]?" on Twitter. We got a swift reply from @JudgeDewie, who's not a judge, but he is a senior lawyer at a large criminal defence practise. Within 24 hours he'd submitted an article for our site which gave an in-depth answer to the question, and we published that following day. (His answer, btw: there is no legal definition of the term, so you're basically at the mercy of the the judge on the day.)

Another nice join-the-dots exercise happened on the website around the DayX3 protest last December, which was the third tuition fees protest. Denny was at that protest, and afterwards he wrote an article - "Lies, Damned Lies, and Crowd Control" - about police lying to protestors in Parliament Square about the availability of routes to leave the area. And again, this links back to the Met's social media usage, because on Twitter they were claiming repeatedly throughout the afternoon that it was possible to leave the kettled area - that was a blatant lie.

Helen spent the day reading the hashtag and real time updates from people on the ground, and based on talking to Denny and a lot of other eye witness accounts she wrote a critical analysis of the police claim (repeated by mainstream media including the BBC), that the protest deviated from the "agreed route" and this was the reason it all kicked off.

Our next article on the site was by London Assembly Member and Metropolitan Police Authority member Jenny Jones, an open letter to the Met on the policing of the tuition fee protests, in which she referenced the points made in both our articles. It was great to see someone from the MPA reading our analysis - this remains the only contribution to the site by a politician, but we hope it won't be the last...

In general it's been interesting over the last couple of years to see how much more common and more respected citizen journalism has become, and we think that's largely grown out of the Ian Tomlinson case. It was phone camera footage from an American passer-by that exposed the early police statements in that case as lies, and led to the matter being properly investigated at all - eventually leading to the recent inquest verdict of "unlawful killing". We're a small part of that citizen journalism movement, but it's exciting to be involved and hopefully we'll continue to build on our success so far and reach out to a wider audience - the challenge is always trying to reach outside of our bubble

If you'd be interested in writing for us on any of the range of issues we're interested in, please talk to either of us here today, or you can email us or contact us on Twitter or via the website itself.