Sunday, February 18, 2007

I did something that was, at least for me, very unusual this week. I signed an on-line petition. What was more surprising, however, was that the petition was against something that, in other circumstances, I would have supported. It was, of course, the petition on the Downing Street web site calling for the government to abandon its plans to introduce road pricing. So why did I sign it?
First, a few words about the site hosting the petition. Conscious of the growing tide of criticism that the government has been ignoring the voices of the British public, someone in Downing Street decided it would be a good idea to create a web site where those voices could be channelled, so that they could then be ignored while giving the impression that someone was paying attention. The idea was that anyone could post a petition for signature. It is fair to say that this idea was not greeted with universal enthusiasm in government, with one minister widely reported as having asked what “prat” thought it up. The problem was that what could have been a harmless diversion for a few people with too much time on their hands rapidly took on a life of its own. As I write this blog, over 1.5 million people have now signed the petition against road pricing, far outstripping the many others available for signature. Now it is important to point out that you can’t simply propose anything. The site is moderated, although it is possible to see the list of petitions rejected and the reasons for rejecting them. Actually, this list is more interesting than the list of petitions accepted. One submission calls for an enquiry into sales by a British company of booster rockets to increase the range of Iraqi scuds in the 1980s – clearly an interesting story behind that one. Others hold the promise of making British politics a little more interesting – such as the one calling on the Prime Minister to dance naked in the moonlight on midsummer’s day next. That one was rejected because “It was outside the remit or powers of the Prime Minister and Government”. Shame!
Anyway, back to road pricing. How have we come to a situation where I, as someone who rarely drives a car, who has no objection to paying road tolls in France, and who is totally convinced of the reality of global warming, would sign a petition against road pricing?
As always, the devil is in the detail. The solution that seems to be favoured by the government is a vastly expanded version of the London congestion charge. This involves positioning cameras equipped with automatic number recognition systems all over inner London. If a car that has failed to pay in advance passes one of the cameras, the registered owner is fined. This is, of course, entirely different from most other toll systems where you pay as you pass a barrier, either in cash or by deducting money from a pre-paid smart card on your windscreen. So what is the problem?
My first concern is the complexity. A nationwide system would be vastly more complicated than anything anywhere else in the world. Of course, the fact that a proposed computer system is more complex than anything ever attempted by anyone ever before is no barrier to our present government. Indeed, they view it as a challenge to be overcome. Unfortunately, they never manage to do so. One after another, major information technology procurement initiatives have run over time and budget or simply collapsed. The current National Health Service programme is just the latest example of a hugely over-ambitious programme that few expect ever to work as intended. The problem is that ministers seem to be entranced by IT companies offering a modern equivalent of the philosopher’s stone that, instead of turning lead into gold would turn raw data into meaningful information. Of course, the ease with which our ministers are entranced by glitzy sales packages promising the earth is not limited to IT schemes – think of how easy it was to convince them that super-casinos would be a good idea, totally ignoring the mounting evidence on the social cost of problem gambling (maybe I should see if they are interested in a bridge I have for sale in Brooklyn). Now even if the scheme ever did work, which I doubt, the sums payable to the company operating it would be so great that hardly any would be left over to support public transport, where investment is really needed if people are to get out of their cars. We should not forget that the reason so many people drive is because public transport in the UK is the most expensive in Europe.
My remaining concerns relate to the true motivation underlying the proposals. Clearly, a scheme of this complexity is not needed, so why propose it? It is intended that all cars will be tracked at all times, with their movements being fed into a giant computer system. The residents of the UK are already tracked more intensively than in any country in the world, with the possible exceptions of Myanmar and North Korea. The government’s Information Commissioner has warned that we are “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”. The UK now has more closed circuit television cameras than any country on earth, and more than half of all those in place in the entire European Union. At present, there is one camera for every 14 people in the country, and someone walking around London can expect to be filmed about 300 times in a single day. An increasing number of cameras have facial recognition software and some have microphones attached. And this is only the start, as the government is planning to introduce an incredibly complex system of identity cards, based on biometrics, that will track every encounter with any source of authority.
So what, you might say. If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear. Well, not exactly. The technology is far from proven. There are already a growing number of cases where entirely innocent people have had their lives ruined because the technology went wrong. Take the Oregon lawyer whose fingerprints were mistakenly thought to be on the Madrid bombs. Or the Scottish policewoman charged with lying because her fingerprints were misidentified at a crime scene that she denied having entered. The problem is that statistics such as “the match is one in a million” is fairly meaningless when your database holds 60 million fingerprints. And what if some future government decides that it will not uphold the human rights that are now in place? After all, almost uniquely in Europe, the present government has opted out of as many of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights as it can, justifying this by the “war on terror”. Das Leben der Anderen (The lives of others) is new film about the way in which, at the behest of the Stasi, tens of thousands of East Germans spied on their friends and neighbours. Think what it would have been like if the Stasi had the technology now available to the British government.
However, my final concern about motivation arises from a statement by the Treasury early this year. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, stated that he would increase the tax on flights departing from the UK. Airlines would have to collect between £10 and £80 on each departure, depending on distance and class of travel. There was the minor technical issue that the charges would be levied before parliament had a chance to pass the relevant law, but then, as the old Russian saying goes “the law is like a door in the middle of a field – you can use it if you want but you don’t have to”. A number of airlines (and their passengers) complained that this was unfair on those who had already booked and paid for their tickets. Here, the Treasury had a chance to show its real intentions. If, as it had implied, the tax was designed as a disincentive to individuals intending to travel, then it should say “sorry, the passengers simply have to pay it” – although even then there was a contradiction as it could not possibly act as a disincentive to a decision already taken (and irreversibly so, given that most tickets are non-refundable). Instead, it sought to shift the burden onto the airlines, saying that they should simply absorb it. In other words, this was simply viewed as a means of increasing government revenue, with no real intention of changing individuals’ behaviours.
So why did I sign this petition? First, it is unlikely to work. Second, if it does it will rotationally threaten my human rights. And third, because I simply don’t believe that the government is being honest about why it wants to do it.