Monday, 30 April 2012

The end of free speech on the Internet?

The eyes of anyone concerned about protecting our right to use the Internet privately have been on the Government's latest plan to allow spooks access - without a warrant - to all our emails and web browsing history in the name of security.

But we ought to be watching what lawmakers are up to on the other side of the pond too.

The US came a step closer to legitimising corporate snooping on all Internet activity in the name of stamping out cyber-crime (a pretty meaningless term) last week when the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Bill – CISPA – passed through the House of Representatives.

Next, it needs to pass a vote of the US Senate – and then it will pass to US President Barack Obama to be signed into law.

CISPA would, if it becomes law, allow the Government to tell any company of any perceived threat to their legitimate business activities from any on-line activity – and since Cyber-Crime is so loosely defined that could include any alleged copyright infringement – and, worse, allow any company to share such information – even down to the contents of emails – with any other, and with any branch of the US Government.

Basically, it would mean the end of free speech on the Internet – and due to the international nature of the Internet, the threat applies to all of us, whether we live in the US or not.

No wonder it has attracted the condemnation of human rights organisations – like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation – and ‘hacktivist’ groups like Anonymous.

Internet-based social change organisation (with 14m members!) is campaigning against CISPA, as is US Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul – and US president Barack Obama has threated to veto the bill if it passes the US Senate.

But that isn’t the end of CISPA by any means.

Last year Presidenrt Obama threatened to veto another piece of legislation, the National Defence Authorization Act: but when push came to shove he caved in to corporate interests and signed it into law anyway.

Exactly the same thing could happen with CISPA – the corporate world is, after all, in favour of CISPA, with high-profile supporters including Microsoft, facebook and IBM.

Of course some could argue that the real threat to free speech on the INternet is the punishment meted out by the court of public opinion when people do or say careless things on the INternet - but that's another issue for another day!

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The onward march of land enclosure in Brighton and Hove

While the Green Party has clear philosophical principles, the wider 'green movement' means many different things to different people - but for me it is primarily about working towards a sustainable environment, a fairer and more equal society, and the promotion of the public at the expense of the private: of society rather than the individual.

By that I mean, of course, resisting privatisation of public services, and celebrating anti-capitalist approaches to the distrubution of goods and services (that's why I love open source software - do check out this great video of Stephen 'Freedom' Fry explaining why he does too) - but also promoting the idea of common ownership of public space and resisting land enclosures wherever possible.

The history of inequality is the world can be told in various ways: one way is through the history of land enclosures, the process by which land that once belonged to everyone is seized, usually legally, by a private owner, who then either charges 'commoners' a rent to do something they had previously done for free, or, even worse, prevents them from doing it at all.

Much of this enclosure of public space in England happened in the Middle Ages - today the process is mainly going on in desert and forest areas in the developing world and the impact is mainly being felt by tribal peoples who are losing their homes and lands to the process.

But it hasn't completely finished here in England. Just last week, for example, I was astonished to see that the area of concrete by the beach near Brighton's West Pier was fenced off - enclosed, effectively. What had previously been a piece of freely accessible public land - used mainly by skateboarders, walkers and (and here I declare an interest) runners enjoying a spell of free, sunshine-drenched exercise - is now a circuit for people to ride rented 'Segways' - for a tenner a pop.

Now I'm all for innovative ways of having fun, and getting about - and for new entrepreneurs to make a few bob long the way - but, personally, I don't think this should ever happen at the expense of free access to public land.

It's not as if no-one ever used it! The piece of land in question was always busy - both times I've walked (or run) past the site since it has been enclosed no-one has been using it at all.

And that, I'm afraid, is the real tragedy: that once a site has become enclosed, usually everyone loses an amenity - and it doesn't always even benefit the person or company that has done the enclosing.

With stresses on household budgets, increasing personal debt levels, rising unemployment and this week's news that the UK economy has gone back into recession, I think the time has come to accept some of capitalism's failings as a means of managing land use, and to work in exactly the opposite direction: to see what abandoned, privately-owned spaces and buildings can be brought back into free, commonly-owned, use for all of us.

That's why we I support the right of squatters to use empty buildings - especially when they are doing things like providing free vegetables for those who just can't afford to buy them - and why I think we need to stop enclosing any more public space.

New 'leadership team' for Brighton and Hove City Council announced

The group of Green Party councillors in Brighton and Hove has announced its new leadership team for the 2012/13 municipal year.

Last week a unanimous vote by Brighton and Hove City Council agreed to move to a more democratic system of decision-making that will see the current cabinet system replaced with a series of seven 'policy' and two 'regulatory' committees.

From a personal perspective, the post I currently hold, Cabinet Member for Communities, Equalities and Public Protection, will be abolished. If the Greens' choices are ratified, as expected, at the city's annual council meeting on May 17th, I will instead by named chair of the city's Licensing Committee. Current chair Lizzie Deane willl serve as deputy chair. I will probably remain responsible for community resilience policy, deputising for the leader of the council, Jason Kitcat - though this arrangement isn't yet finalised - and I will take a seat on the new Housing Committee.

The other regulatory committee, which deals with planning, will be chaired by Christopher Hawtree. His deputy will be Christina Summers.

As for the 'policy' committees, there will be seven:

The overarching Policy and Resources Committee, will be chaired by new council leader Jason Kitcat. He will be deputised by Leo Littman.

Adult Care and Health will be chaired by Rob Jarrett, who will be deputised by Mike Jones.

The Children and Young people Committee will be chaired by Sue Shanks; her deputy will be Ruth Buckley.

The Economic Development and Culture Committee will be chaired by Geoffrey Bowden. His deputy will be Phelim MacCafferty.

The Transport brief will be held by Ian Davey, who will be deputised by Matt Follett. Housing Committee will be chaired by Liz Wakefield, deputised by Stephanie Powell, and the Environment and Sustainability Committee will be chaired by Pete West; his deputy will be Ollie Sykes.

Good luck to them all - I'm sure a team like this will do the city proud!

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Is it time for Brighton, the liberal, tolerant, tourist capital of Europe, to legalise the cannabis cafe?

Well it finally seems all over for the Dutch 'coffee shop'. A judge has ruled that a proposed ban on non-Dutch tourists smoking cannabis in coffee shops is not discriminatory against foreigners - so the ban will come into effect across the country by the end of the year.

Some coffee shop owners in Amsterdam are already warning that the ban will cost them up to 90% of their takings - and could force them to close their doors for good.

It means that the third of tourists visiting Amsterdam to smoke cannabis legally will almost certainly stay away - and tourist numbers visiting the city will fall dramatically. Other attractions, as well as bars, restaurants and hotels, will see reduced visitor numbers as a result.

It's not just the tourist industry that will be affected - the move will also mean that Dutch residents wishing to buy cannabis will be forced to buy their 'weed' from less regulated suppliers, leading to a likely upsurge in hard drug use.

That in turn is likely to lead to increased health and policing costs for everyone - and taxes will have to rise foot the bill.

These arguments have been hashed (sorry) about both in the law courts and, perhaps more importantly, the 'courts' of public opinion.

The mayor of Amsterdam Eberhard van der Laan is opposed to the law, which is the brainchild of the national Conservative-led Government. Some have even suggested it's part of a bigger political plot designed to bankrupt Amsterdam and force residents to vote Conservative to 'save the city'.

That seems a little far-fetched to me, but it does create a great opportunity for a tourist city like Brighton and Hove to replace Amsterdam as the liberal tourist's destination of choice: think of all the millions our shops and hotels would make if all those tourists being turned away from Amsterdam by the Dutch Tories came here to spend their holiday cash instead!

Of course, in Brighton and Hove, we know only too well the damage that the current drug policy of complete criminalisation of drug use is causing rather than seeing it as a health issue. Recently Caroline Lucas MP and the city’s top cop, Graham Bartlett called for decriminalisation of drug use and for good reasons. We frequently have the unwelcome title of the drug death capital of England with the highest drug death rate per capita of any city. Most of these deaths are from abuse of hard addictive drugs such as heroin.  Interestingly, pioneering trials of giving heroin addicts injectable heroin rather than methadone are already taking place in Brighton and Hove: they are already reducing deaths and other negative health impacts from heroin use in the city.

Perhaps it's time to extend this sort of lateral thinking to the use of soft drugs too? Cannabis use can be harmful, but all analysis shows that it's much less likely to harm you than, say, driving a car, or crossing a road. The effects, like those from taking any drug, vary from personal to person - but most ill-effects are as a result of the tobacco it's usually consumed with.

NHS analysis has showed that there has never been  single death caused by the ill-effects of smoking cannabis alone - compared to thousands on our roads.

While there are cases of less serious ill health caused by cannabis these are best dealt with, professionals say, by bringing the use of cannabis 'into the open'.

So what about it? Brighton, the liberal, tolerant, tourist capital of Europe?

I think these questions are worth asking - and urgently: for the sake of our tourist industry and the health and wellbeing of those living in and visiting our city. Nonetheless I expect to be misunderstood so I predict the following headline soon: Green Councilllor calls for Brighton to be the Pot Capital of Europe'.

20 mph speed limits for Brighton and Hove

Friday's Argus reports that the Green council plans to introduce a maximum speed limit of 20 mph in all residential areas of the city.

This is accurate - but hardly news! The local election manifesto, published before the last local election and setting out the Greens' programme for the city should we be elected, was quite clear that we would follow the lead of Portsmouth, Leicester and other cities by introducing the 20 mph limit.

Perhaps accurate AND timely is too much to expect from any media organisation.


There are loads of reasons why a 20 mph speed limit is a good idea: it will (ironically) speed up traffic flows, by reducing the need for so many stops and starts, it will improve safety (there will be fewer accidents, and those that still occur will be far less likely to be fatal), it will improve air quality (already at dangerously poor levels in many areas of the city - and this, in turn, is likely to save money in fines payable if EU safety limits are breached), and it will reduce the constant noise of traffic many of us endure almost 24 hours a day. I'll stop there - you get the point.

But what seems remarkable to me is that most people who are against the idea seem to be concentrating on two completely different arguments: whether such a limit would be enforceable, and whether it would be popular.

Whether or not it seems popular in advance is surely irrelevant. The Green Party has a clear electoral mandate to introduce the limits, and, if voters don't like the impact of Green policies they will, I imagine, vote for someone else next time. Personally, I don't see that happening though: most people I have spoken to are delighted at the proposal. Indeed, our 20 mph speed limit policy was one of the most popular with voters I canvassed ahead of last year's elections.

And as for its enforceability - well that's all about police priorities. Of course the police COULD enforce the limit, everywhere, if it wanted. It would mean diverting resources away from their efforts to tackle other crimes of course (they could, for example, stop wasting cash pursuing users and suppliers of soft drugs) - but that's a matter for them. Picking and choosing which laws of the land to enforce is happening all the time - that's why we're only now seeing the first prosecution in Sussex for a breach of the Hunting Act - eight years after it entered the statute books, and despite countless reported breaches.

If it really was impossible to enforce a 20 mph speed limit, why have them at all? And they already exist in many areas.

I look forward to their implenentation: it will make our city a safer, cleaner, quieter, place for everyone.

Friday, 27 April 2012

The increasing bitterness of former Brighton council leader Mary Mears

Sometimes I think the Brighton Tories really can't stand the reality that they've lost control of the council - and that the Greens' attitude is  far more representative of the city's mood and feel than theirs.

Yesterday's meeting of the city council was a case in point.

During a discussion of whether to give teenagers leaving local council care priority when allocating council housing, former Tory council leader Mary Mears she said that no Green Party member except council leader Bill Randall had any knowledge at all about housing policy - a barbed insult directed at all Green councillors with an interest in housing, but particularly Cabinet Member for housing Liz Wakefield.

This was typical. As a member of the council's Housing Management Consultative Committee I've spent most of the last year watching Mary become increasingly bitchy towards Liz.

Personally, I think it has little to do with housing, but is really about the bitterness she feels as a result of rejection when, last May, her administration was thrown out on its ear by the city's electorate.

But perhaps worse for her, the infighting within the Tory group that followed saw her ousted as local leader, to be replaced by Geoffrey Theobald - and her right-hand-woman Maria Caulfield (and Tory housing spokesperson, let's remember) lost her seat.

Not only had the voters had enough of Mary's Tories, they had had enough of her chum and housing spokesperson - and even the local Tories had had enough of her. No wonder she's bitter.

But throwing insults around the council chamber is hardly going to help. If it did she'd probably have got over it by now, judging from her performances over the last 11 months.

I really think she should apologise to Liz - not just for yesterday's outburst but for all her slights over the last year - accept democracy in action, and move on.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Brighton Green councillor asks: is it time to ban voting?

Yesterday's Brighton Argus asked a slightly chilling and provocative but completely practical question: 'Is it time to ban protests?'

It made the point that most participants are merely acting out their favoured hobbies (be they marching, baiting the police, or whatever), that hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent by the police dealing with the marches, they disrupt the local economy and that they don't change anything anyway.

Well I think if we go down this road we should go one further: ban voting.

Most participants are just serial politicians (who have never done a decent days work in their lives) - whatever their chosen party - acting out their favoured hobbies: talking about themselves, and how they've got all the answers, wearing rosettes, delivering pointless leaflets and sitting outside polling stations with clipboards feeling self-important.

They cost a packet too. More than protests. Hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent by the police and other agencies to make sure they pass off peacefully and properly.

Anyone, like me, who has had to take time off to look after children whose schools are closed on election days will know that they cause massive disruption to the economy.

And finally, they don't change anything anyway. Whoever wins, it's just another set of politicians in charge. The Greens, admittedly, are doing things differently - but you've only got to open a local rag in Brighton to see how quickly they are trashing the city with their mad ideas.

So yes, we should ban protests, but we must ban voting at the same time.

They don't tolerate either in North Korea - and that's why Pyongyang is thriving while Brighton is such a crappy place to live.

Remember kids: Christianity is stupid. Communism is good. Shop as usual, and avoid panic buying.