Thursday, January 30, 2014

The NSA spied on Copenhagen

Today's NSALeak: the NSA spied on the Copenhagen climate change talk, and the US used the information to undermine them:

The National Security Agency monitored the communications of other governments ahead of and during the 2009 United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, according to the latest document from whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The document, with portions marked "top secret," indicates that the NSA was monitoring the communications of other countries ahead of the conference, and intended to continue doing so throughout the meeting. Posted on an internal NSA website on Dec. 7, 2009, the first day of the Copenhagen summit, it states that "analysts here at NSA, as well as our Second Party partners [that means us - I/S], will continue to provide policymakers with unique, timely, and valuable insights into key countries' preparations and goals for the conference, as well as the deliberations within countries on climate change policies and negotiation strategies."


The Danes did share the text [of their proposed draft agreement] with the U.S. and other key nations ahead of the meeting. But the NSA document noting this as "advance details" indicates that the U.S. may have already intercepted it. The paragraph referring to the Danish text is marked "SI" in the Snowden document -- which most likely means "signals intelligence," indicating that it came from electronic information intercepted by the NSA rather than provided to the U.S. negotiators.

That could be why U.S. negotiators took the positions they did going into the conference, a Danish official told Information. "They simply sat back, just as we had feared they would if they knew about our document," the official said. "They made no constructive statements. Obviously, if they had known about our plans since the fall of 2009, it was in their interest to simply wait for our draft proposal to be brought to the table at the summit."

US behaviour at Copenhagen has since totally undermined global climate change talks. Meanwhile, US industry continues to pollute the atmosphere and destroy the global environment. That's what NSA spying is supporting - and its another reason we need to get rid of the entire spy network.

Challenging the "Pacific solution"

Since 2012, refugees seeking asylum in Australia have instead been dumped on Nauru and Papua New Guinea in appalling and inhumane conditions. But for some of them, that may be about to change: Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court has ruled that asylum seekers detained there may challenge their detention under PNG's constitution:

Asylum seekers detained at the Australian-funded Manus processing centre have equal rights like any citizen to challenge their detention.

That was the view of the Supreme Court Wednesday after it queried whether asylum seekers flown in from Australia know that they have a right under the PNG Constitution to apply to the courts for alleged human rights abuses.

A five-man bench comprising Deputy Chief Justice Gibbs Salika and Justices Bernard Sakora, Ambeng Kandakasi, David Cannings and Goodwin Poole said this when deliberating on an application by Opposition Leader Belden Namah, which found that he had standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Manus processing centre.

The Supreme Court said the asylum seekers could make a complaint to the National Court under section 42(5) or file a human rights enforcement application under section 57 to enforce their rights, including rights under section 42 of the PNG Constitution.

The actual case is about whether a PNG MP can challenge the constitutionality of their detention (and of the entire refugee detention deal) on their behalf, but in the process it has made it clear that PNG's constitution applies to everyone. So it looks like the Australian government's quest for a legal black hole to unlawfully dump its unwanted refugees in has failed. Sadly, I expect their response will be to wash their hands of the problem, and dump them in Papua New Guinea (using aid funding as a weapon to coerce the PNG government into accepting it), rather than accept their legal responsibilities under the Refugee Convention to properly process them and grant them asylum if it is found that they have a well-founded fear of persecution.

UK police are corporate mercenaries

As agents of the state, the police are supposed to act as neutral enforcers of the law. Unfortunately, in the UK they are now acting as the paid mercenaries of big corporations:

The lord chief justice has warned police that they risk damaging their image of independence after Scotland Yard acted on behalf of big business in a private prosecution during which they received a promise of money.

Virgin Media offered the Metropolitan police a 25% share of compensation recovered from fraudsters the company had targeted in a private prosecution, in which the Met used its powers of arrest and search as part of the private prosecution.

Lord Thomas said it was essential that ministers, police chiefs and those supposed to hold them to account gave "very urgent consideration" to the practice.

So, do you think strikers or protesters will receive justice and fair treatment from police next time they're involved in a dispute with Virgin Media? Yeah, right. The British police work for those who pay them. And then they wonder why people have no respect for them...

(And now I'm curious. Does this happen here? Do NZ businesses pay the NZ police for services rendered? If so, how much, what for, and how does this possibly fit with their legal role?)

Our unhealthy political landscape

Yesterday the Libertarianz, one of our longer-lasting and more active minor parties, was deregistered at its own request, presumably because it no longer meets the requirement of having 500 members. It is unclear at this stage whether this is temporary, a-la United Future, or permanent - but its worth noting that their website hasn't been active for almost a year. While an unregistered party can still stand electorate candidates, it cannot contest the all-important party list, and its usually a quick path to oblivion. While I don't like the Libertarianz or what they stand for, the number of minor parties outside Parliament is a sign of the health of our democracy, of how involved and willing to participate people are. That number has shrunk significantly since the introduction of MMP, so that we are now down to a handful. And it will probably shrink - the NZ Democrats got a similar number of votes to the Libertarianz last election, and the Alliance (remember them?) got fewer, so they're both probably out the door soon.

Still, its not as bad as it seems: because at the same time the Electoral Commission was deregistering the Libertarianz, it was registering Focus NZ. Formally known as the NZ Rural Party, this is basically a party for farmers and country hicks, promoting a mix of absolute propertarianism and NZ First-style economic nationalism. While it has no real media profile yet, it will be interesting to see how it does in those National-dominated rural seats.

So, the number of registered parties has at least stayed constant - for now. And we've got the Internet Party on the horizon, and possibly some sort of racist or ACT reborn vehicle as well (oh. And The Civilian, of course). Still, our political landscape is far from healthy, and you really have to wonder how much MMP's undemocratic 5% threshold is contributing to the problem.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A referendum on the flag?

John Key is thinking of holding a referendum on the flag this election:

Prime Minister John Key says he will consider changing the national flag at this year's election if there is a public appetite for it.

Mr Key said this morning that he would consult with senior ministers about a new flag, and would not rule out a referendum on the issue as part of the general election.

He believed a change was unlikely but he wanted to test the waters to see if the public wanted a change.

Good - its long past time we ditched the Union Jack and its colonial baggage. At the same time, its hard not to be cynical: in the past when people have raised issues of our constitution or fundamental human rights, Key has said "we must focus on the economy" (because he apparently can't walk and chew gum at the same time). Now with an election coming up and people needing to be distracted from growing problems of inequality, its suddenly time to have a big patriotic wankfest about the flag. Convenient.

And OTOH, there's this bit:
[Key] wished New Zealand's national day was similar to Australia Day, with shows of patriotism such as flag-waving.

And riots and racist bashings, not to mention the erasure of Australia's indigenous people from its history. I think we should leave that sort of toxic patriotism to the Australians and Americans.

School religious education goes to the HRC

New Zealand has a fairly good approach towards religious education in schools: education must be secular, but schools can hold voluntary religious education classes outside school hours (or "close" for the purpose). This respects both the freedom of religion of religious parents to choose that they want their kids to be educated in this way, and the freedom from religion of non-religious parents. But there's a problem: children who do not participate in such classes are often made to feel excluded, or even punished for not doing so. Now that issue is the subject of a complaint to the Human Rights Commission:

Christian education in state schools is in the spotlight after a parent laid a complaint with the Human Rights Commission about bible lessons at an East Auckland primary.

Roy Warren, whose 5-year-old son goes to St Heliers School, says he complained to the principal about the 30-minute sessions but the school refused to cease the classes.

Families can opt out of the programme but Warren did not want to isolate his son.

"I thought it was very unfair to take him away from his classmates and get him sitting by himself colouring in and making him feel ostracised," he says.

"And then have to explain to him he hasn't been bad or naughty, but it's just against what we believe in as a family."

The obvious solution here is to make these classes opt-in rather than opt-out. This removes the social stigma, and makes it clear religion is voluntary rather than the default. Hopefully the HRC will recommend this solution.

Mass-surveillance is illegal II

Is GCHQ's mass surveillance legal? No, according to legal advice provided to the UK Parliament's all-party parliamentary group on drones:

The advice warns that Britain's principal surveillance law is too vague and is almost certainly being interpreted to allow the agency to conduct surveillance that flouts privacy safeguards set out in the European convention on human rights (ECHR).

The inadequacies, it says, have created a situation where GCHQ staff are potentially able to rely "on the gaps in the current statutory framework to commit serious crime with impunity".

At its most extreme, the advice raises issues about the possible vulnerability of staff at GCHQ if it could be proved that intelligence used for US drone strikes against "non-combatants" had been passed on or supplied by the British before being used in a missile attack.

"An individual involved in passing that information is likely to be an accessory to murder. It is well arguable, on a variety of different bases, that the government is obliged to take reasonable steps to investigate that possibility," the advice says.

There's more, and its pretty damning. But this being the UK, the government will no doubt announce a whitewash "inquiry" then demand that the public "move on", while government lawbreaking continues unabated.

Meanwhile, that final point about passing on information used in drone strikes also potentially applies to New Zealand. We have a right to life in New Zealand, which all branches of our government must respect. Passing information to a foreign power which will be used to kill non-combatants breaches that right, and cannot be claimed to be a "justified limitation". And we know its happened - Nicky Hager's Other People's Wars reported that GCSB staff were posted to Afghanistan and walked into positions in the US headquarters, plotting targets for US drones to kill. That makes them accessories to those killings. Those drone strikes BTW are increasingly being regarded as war crimes for their indiscriminate targeting of civilians; GCSB co-operation with the NSA has exposed our government to complicity in those crimes.

A total witch-hunt

Over the last two years, the government wasted $510,000 on Paula Rebstock's witch-hunt to find leakers within MFAT. In the end, that witch-hunt found nothing - but it liberally smeared senior public servants anyway. Now it turns out that Rebstock ignored evidence:

A former top diplomat, Derek Leask, has released documents showing Rebstock ignored evidence from the former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Maarten Wevers, which appears to call into question some of her findings.

Rebstock’s report into leaks from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade accused Leask and another former diplomat, Nigel Fyfe, of improperly briefing ministers and Beehive staff on restructuring at the agency.

But evidence to the inquiry by Sir Maarten stated that it was normal practice for senior diplomats to keep the Beehive in the loop on issues of national interest. The restructuring was seen in that light because of their concern about the potential impact of the proposals on the reputation of the ministry overseas.

That evidence didn't fit Rebstock's pre-determined conclusion of disloyalty, so it was ignored. And as a result the entire report is an exercise in defamation which has chilled the exchange of free and frank advice within the public sector.

Money well spent? You be the judge.

Charter schools are funded at triple the rate of state schools

When National established its charter schools, it promised that the funding for them would be "broadly similar" to that of state schools. As usual, they were lying. According to information uncovered by the PPTA, they're funded at nearly triple the average rate of state schools:


(Average per student funding in the state school system in 2011 was $6,978).

I guess this is how they plan to make their charter schools as "success": by massively overfunding them. Meanwhile, the state schools ordinary people send their kids to a struggling for cash. And that's what National stands for: screwing you, to give money to its corporate cronies.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Not a credible solution

New Zealand has a problem: multinational corporations like FaceBook are cheating on their taxes. But Labour's David Clark has a solution: ban them:

The Labour Party has put forward a possible solution to force multi-national corporations to pay more tax – ban them from the internet.

It says the Government should first talk with companies like Facebook, but if that doesn't work it is important to have a backup, something Labour is describing as a credible threat.

Facebook is the world's largest social network by far, but pays little tax here in New Zealand.

"The Government should always have in its back pocket the ability to ban websites," says Labour revenue spokesman David Clark.


"Paedophile websites are banned the world around," says Mr Clark.

I am no fan of tax cheats, but comparing them to peaedophiles is a bit over the top. As for the "solution", firstly, we have this little thing called the Bill of Rights Act here, which protects freedom of expression. While that's subject to "such reasonable limits... as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society", I don't think punishing someone for tax evasion justifies the digital equivalent of tearing out their tongue. And secondly, the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. People still access those paedophile websites, despite them being banned; how does Clark think it will work with one of the world's most popular websites, which according to his own press releases has 2.2 million users in New Zealand? And does he think that people will vote for a party which threatens to turn off their web-crack?

OTOH, if Clark does get elected and follows through with this insanity, it'll mean half of New Zealand suddenly gets a strong reason to learn basic anti-surveillance techniques. And in the current digital environment, that's probably a good thing.

NZ's Universal Periodic Review

Last night New Zealand appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council for its Universal Periodic Review of human rights. The UPR process examines our performance under all international human rights instruments. While New Zealand's is generally good, it identified a few areas where we can do better:

Member states of the United Nations have commended improvements to New Zealand's human rights record, but have expressed concern over levels of violence against women and children.

Some states recommended the Government develop a national strategy to prevent violence and abuse against children.


Some states also recommended New Zealand do more to minimise discrimination against Maori and other ethnic groups.

Meanwhile, its worth noting: in response to the 2009 UPR, the National government accepted recommendations to sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and accept the individual complaints mechanism of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. We haven't. They agreed to several recommendations to protect the economic and social rights of Maori and Pacific Peoples, and to reduce institutional bias resulting in their over-representation in the criminal justice system - but they did nothing about either (and arguably, their employment relations and "tough on crime' policies have made things worse in both cases). National doesn't take this process seriously, and never has; the Minister they sent to represent us, Judith Collins, is the biggest eroder of human rights in recent memory. And this won't go unnoticed. Every time we break our word like this, the mana on which our foreign policy depends is eroded and undermined. And eventually, that is going to have consequences. After all, no-one likes dealing with a cheat - on human rights, or on trade.

We need to change this. Our government should have respect for human rights, not contempt for them. The present government doesn't, so its time to vote it out and replace it with one which properly represents our values.

Maybe we should just ask the NSA what they're not spying on

Today's NSALeaks: every time you play "Angry Birds" or use Google Maps, you're telling the NSA everything:

The National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have been developing capabilities to take advantage of "leaky" smartphone apps, such as the wildly popular Angry Birds game, that transmit users' private information across the internet, according to top secret documents.

The data pouring onto communication networks from the new generation of iPhone and Android apps ranges from phone model and screen size to personal details such as age, gender and location. Some apps, the documents state, can share users' most sensitive information such as sexual orientation – and one app recorded in the material even sends specific sexual preferences such as whether or not the user may be a swinger.


A more sophisticated effort, though, relied on intercepting Google Maps queries made on smartphones, and using them to collect large volumes of location information.

So successful was this effort that one 2008 document noted that "[i]t effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system."

Meanwhile, GCHQ is spying on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and blogs:
The British government can tap into the cables carrying the world’s web traffic at will and spy on what people are doing on some of the world’s most popular social media sites, including YouTube, all without the knowledge or consent of the companies.

Documents taken from the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden and obtained by NBC News detail how British cyber spies demonstrated a pilot program to their U.S. partners in 2012 in which they were able to monitor YouTube in real time and collect addresses from the billions of videos watched daily, as well as some user information, for analysis. At the time the documents were printed, they were also able to spy on Facebook and Twitter.

Called “Psychology A New Kind of SIGDEV" (Signals Development), the presentation includes a section that spells out “Broad real-time monitoring of online activity” of YouTube videos, URLs “liked” on Facebook, and Blogspot/Blogger visits. The monitoring program is called “Squeaky Dolphin.”

So, they know what you're watching, what you're reading, what you're liking. Reading the documents [PDF], they're looking at who influences who, presumably with a view to control or remove them depending on the agenda. Again, this isn't about "foreign intelligence" or "national security" - it is about total social control. And the only way to end it is to shut these agencies down and throw their equipment into a volcano.

The winds of change

Yesterday, Labour's plans to extend paid parental leave were unaffordable, an example of their fiscal profligacy (you know, the "big spending" which saw them run surpluses for year after year when they were in office). Today, it's all different:

Prime Minister John Key this morning hinted that National is working on its own legislation to extend paid parental leave but for a shorter period than the 26 weeks Labour is pushing for.

Late last year Finance Minister Bill English indicated National was reconsidering its position on Labour MP Sue Moroney's members bill to extend paid parental leave to 26 weeks.

Previously he had said the Government would use its financial veto to stymie the bill which looked like it had the numbers to pass.

This morning however, while Mr Key said an extension to 26 weeks was more than National was willing to support, he said his party may extend beyond the current 14 weeks.

So what's changed, Mr Key? Could it be the polls?

(I like my politicians to be responsive to public opinion like this. What I don't like is them trying to pretend that they're not, and that nothing at all has changed. MPs, this is one of the ways you earn that reputation. If you respond to public pressure, or change your mind on something, please be honest enough to admit it, rather than treating us like morons who won't notice your hypocrisy and deceit).

Monday, January 27, 2014

Spying and perjury in the UK

Two years ago, we learned that the British police had engaged in extensive infiltration and undercover spying on peaceful protest groups. The fallout from this is still going on. Last week, the convictions of 29 environmental protesters were overturned after a court ruled that the prosecution had withheld evidence. And there's another case in court today which promises to do the same:

Prosecutors are due on Monday to defend their decision to keep secret the cause of a miscarriage of justice involving an undercover police officer who allegedly used his fictitious identity in a criminal trial to conceal his covert work.

The conviction of an environmental campaigner, John Jordan, for assaulting a police officer is to be overturned after it was revealed that one of his co-defendants was an undercover policeman who allegedly gave false evidence on oath during his prosecution.

The undercover spy, whose real name is Jim Boyling, was pretending to be an ardent environmental campaigner when he was prosecuted, alongside Jordan, following disorder at a protest.

Legal documents suggest that Boyling maintained his fake persona of an east London cleaner throughout the prosecution from the moment he was arrested, even when he gave evidence on oath in court.


He and other protesters were represented by the same civil liberties law firm, Bindmans, as they held confidential legal discussions on how to defend themselves, leading to accusations that the police have broken the defendants' fundamental right to hold legally protected consultations with their lawyers.

So basically a police spy perjured himself to secure a conviction, while continuing to spy on legally privileged conversations. No wonder the conviction is being overturned. But beyond that: isn't perjury against the law? Shouldn't those who do so (particularly from a position of trust) be prosecuted for it? Or does the law only apply to protesters, not police?

The panopticon isn't about terrorism

When politicians defend mass-spying by intelligence agencies, they pretend its all about fighting terrorism. According to them, the panopticon allows us to track down "bad guys" and keeps us safe.


The National Security Agency is involved in industrial espionage and will take intelligence regardless of its value to national security, the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has told a German television network.

In text released ahead of a lengthy interview to be broadcast on Sunday, the public broadcaster ARD TV quoted Snowden saying the NSA does not limit its espionage to issues of national security and citing the German engineering firm Siemens as one target.

“If there's information at Siemens that's beneficial to US national interests – even if it doesn't have anything to do with national security – then they'll take that information nevertheless,” Snowden said, according to ARD, which recorded the interview in Russia, where Snowden has claimed asylum.

So they're spying on everyone in order to help select, chosen businesses unfairly compete with their rivals. Not only is this grossly intrusive, it is also inherently corrupt, an exercise of political patronage to assist some market actors but not others. The interesting question is whether political donations flow the other way in exchange...

This is the society the US and UK have built: one where we are all spied on for the benefit of a tiny handful of uber-rich. This isn't in our interests, and its time we use dour votes to force our politicians to shut the entire corrupt, intrusive machine down.

A good start

David Cunliffe gave his "state of the nation" speech today, opening election year with an anti-child poverty package consisting of broad (but still targeted) payments to new parents, more free ECE, an extension of paid parental leave, and free antenatal classes. The core of the package is a "best start" payment - basically a baby bonus - described as " universal for all families earning under $150,000 per year" (i.e. not universal at all). The high threshold is already coming under attack from National and its proxies, and it seems to have given them the worst of both worlds: all the bad PR of universality with none of the benefits. And its probably questionable whether the cost of administering that threshold (which apparently excludes less than 5% of parents) is worth the ~$9 million a year it would save. In the second and third year, payments are targeted, falling off from a household income of $50,000 and ending somewhere between $80 and $100 thousand depending on the number of children. The median gross household income was about $75,000 in 2011, so basicly these payments are targeted at the bottom 50%.

The second strand of the policy is an extension of 20 hours free ECE to 25 hours. What's surprising is how cheap this is - a mere $60 million a year. At that price, you really have to wonder why they didn't just go all the way and make the entire system free.

The extension of paid parental leave isn't a surprise, and it looks like it may happen anyway.

The ante-natal classes and healthcare stuff is pocket change. Welcome, worth doing, and will make a difference. But not a huge policy.

The policies are all costed, and easily affordable within the $1.5 billion Labour has given itself by ditching its GST policies. And it doesn't look like a terrible trade so far. I would have preferred a more universal scheme (because they build social solidarity - something the NeoLiberals want to destroy), but it can be built into one, and we can always hope Labour will salami that as they did on healthcare. Overall, its a good start.

New Fisk

Confessions beaten out of ‘suspects’, executions by the hundreds... How different is justice in today’s Iraq from the era of Saddam?
A tale from Ireland that will stir the blood – even make it boil

Sensible, achievable, and cheap

Yesterday, the Greens launched their education policy, promising to reduce inequality in education through free school lunches, dedicated school nurses, onsite ECE, and free afterschool and holiday care, all targeted at decile 1 - 4 schools. The latter in particular is a game-changer, and will remove a significant cost from the back of the working poor, as well as a significant barrier to participating in the workforce for those outside it.

(I'm ignoring the "community hub" idea here because a change in the method of provision isn't as significant IMHO as the changes in what is being provided. That's just admin, not policy).

These are sensible policies, which will ensure that every child gets a fair go regardless of their parents' wealth. They'll make a real difference to inequality in New Zealand. But what's surprising is that all of this is so cheap. $100 million a year isn't pocket change, but in policy terms, its at the low end of significant policy. Which just makes the absence of these policies, and the resulting inequality and suffering all the worse: we could fix it, cheaply - but our government chooses not to.

Its also worth remembering here: reducing child poverty is an investment, not a cost. It pays off later in lower spending on health, welfare, remedial education, police and prisons. But that doesn't immediately cut taxes for the rich, so National ignores it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Mass-surveillance is illegal

That's the view of the US government's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board:

The US government’s privacy board has sharply rebuked President Barack Obama over the National Security Agency’s mass collection of American phone data, saying the program defended by Obama last week was illegal and ought to be shut down.

A divided Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent and long-troubled liberties advocate in the executive branch, issued a report on Thursday that concludes the NSA’s collection of every US phone record on a daily basis violates the legal restrictions of the statute cited to authorize it, section 215 of the Patriot Act.

“This program should be ended, allowing for a transition period,” board member James Dempsey said Thursday.

The full report is here, but the short version is that in addition to being illegal, they found that the NSA's mass surveillance had never discovered or disrupted a single terrorist plot. While the board itself has no power to overturn the policy, it should strengthen Congressional efforts to do so.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, the European Court of Human Rights has demanded that the British government justify GCHQ spying, and in particular explain why it does not violate the ECHR's right to privacy:
In a series of questions, the court has asked British ministers to explain why they think Britain's intelligence services have the right to solicit, receive, search, analyse, disseminate and store data intercepted by themselves, or by foreign spy agencies. The court says the UK needs to show this activity is "within the law" and "necessary in a democratic society".

The case refers specifically to two surveillance programmes, Prism and Tempora. Between them, they allow GCHQ and its US counterpart, the National Security Agency to harvest, store and analyse data from millions of phone calls, emails and search engine queries.

In the complaint to the court, the groups argued much of this activity is not underpinned by British law. They said there was no "effective, independent authorisation and oversight" of the programmes. The claim states: "The interception of external communications by GCHQ is an inherently disproportionate interference with the private lives of thousands, perhaps millions of people."

The UK's answers will be interesting. And if they don't give them, they'll lose by default (creating a binding obligation on the UK government to stop the programs). But the Tories would probably try and use that as another example of why they should ditch the ECHR altogether: because it protects the rights of their citizens against government intrusion and tyranny.

The 2014 Treaty debate

For the past nine years, Te Papa and the New Zealand Centre for Public Law have held an annual "Treaty debate" on some aspect of the Treaty of Waitangi. This year's one take place next week, and is on the subject of water:

This year’s Treaty Debate at Te Papa is a lively discussion of water rights in Aotearoa New Zealand. Who ‘owns’ the water? Māori or the Crown?

The panel features Jacinta Ruru (University of Otago, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Maniapoto), Donald Couch (Environment Canterbury), Clive Howard-Williams (NIWA), and Ian McKenzie (Federated Farmers).

The event is introduced by Te Papa’s Treaty of Waitangi scholar, Claudia Orange, and is chaired by Radio New Zealand’s Susie Ferguson.

When: 18:30 - 20:00, Thursday 30 January 2014
Where: Soundings Theatre, Te Papa, Wellington
How much: Free!

if you can't make it, you'll be able to listen online via Radio New Zealand. Past debates are available here.

(This BTW is a perfect example of Radio New Zealand's role as a public broadcaster. Can you imagine any commercial broadcaster giving time for this? No, neither can I)


Village life in India: if you pursue a relationship with the "wrong" man, your village elders will have you gang-raped and call it "justice":

A 20-year-old woman has been raped in public by as many as 12 men on the orders of tribal elders in a village in eastern India, according to local police.

The attack, in Birbhum district about 120 miles from Kolkata, was a punishment for an “unauthorised” relationship with a man from another village and the woman's subsequent failure to pay a 50,000 rupee (£490) fine, local media reports said.

“According to the woman, the [village head] summoned her and her [lover] on Monday and detained them through the day and night. After her family said they could not pay the fine, the [head] allegedly ordered the mass rape on Tuesday,” police superintendant C Sudhakar told The Hindustan Times newspaper.

For once, I have no words. Actually, no, I have a few: this misogynistic, semi-feudal rural culture which treats women as property, seeks to dictate intensely personal matters to them, and enforces its will with barbaric punishments is fundamentally incompatible with basic human rights and freedoms. It needs to be destroyed.

Niue rejects the "Pacific solution"

Back in December, Niue's premier Toke Talagi offered to become part of Australia's "Pacific solution" and become a dumping ground for Australia's refugees. But the offer was not popular, and yesterday Niue's parliament rejected the idea:

But in a pre-emptive strike by opposition MPs, a motion that Mr Talagi's proposal "not be considered" was overwhelmingly passed 10-3 on Wednesday, with a number of MPs and cabinet ministers abstaining in the 20-member parliament.

Niue Star editor Michael Jackson said MPs opposed to housing refugees told him they cast their vote "according to the will of the people in the village meetings".

I guess they didn't want to end up like Nauru, whose hosting of an Australian concentration camp is rapidly corrupting its entire political system.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Something to go to in Wellington

Oil Free Wellington is holding a march against offshore drilling tomorrow:

When: 12:30pm, Friday January 24
Where: Midland park, 155 Lambton Quay, Wellington

More police / GCSB bullying

Not content with illegal raids and unlawful spying, the New Zealand police are now attempting to turn journalists into informers by seizing their work product:

Lawyers acting for the police and the Government Communications Security Bureau have requested recordings and transcripts made by the author of a book about Kim Dotcom.

Herald journalist David Fisher received the legal letter from Crown Law this week and has been given until Friday to respond.


The request for information relates to the $6 million civil case Dotcom is taking against the GCSB and police over the unlawful raid and illegal spying carried out on him and others.

He wants compensation for those actions and alleges police used an "excessively aggressive and invasive approach", while the claim says the spy agency should have known the Dotcoms were not to be spied on.

The letter, from Crown lawyer Aedeen Boadita-Cormican, said matters referred to in the book "lead us to believe that email communications with the plaintiffs ... contain information relating to the events which are the subject of these proceedings".

The full letter is here. It seems to be unprecedented in New Zealand for police to seek journalistic materials from a writer, and journalists will refuse in order to ensure that they can continue to effectively gather the news. The question is whether this is more than a try-on - will the police and spies take it to court, and if so, will the courts uphold the public interest in people being able to talk to journalists without fear that the reporter will later be press-ganged into serving as a police spy?

Not reassuring

Back in December, John Key said that the GCSB is not engaged in the "wholesale collection" of metadata. Someone clearly didn't believe him, and so used FYI, the public OIA request site, to get the GCSB to confirm this. The response [PDF] appeared on FYI, and it is not reassuring.

Firstly, the GCSB denies "wholesale collection". But they do admit to some collection of metadata before September 2013, when it was illegal. Naturally they refuse to give details of exactly who and what, citing national security - a convenient cover when you're committing a crime.

Secondly, the GCSB admit to collecting metadata "as requested by customers" before September 2013 as part of its "cybersecurity" function. And this is where it gets interesting, because they refuse to either confirm or deny whether that information (or the information they illegally collected while gathering intelligence) was shared with their foreign partners. To point out the obvious: if they weren't doing it, they would simply deny it, and our minds would be at rest. The fact that they refuse to do so makes it clear that they are sharing this information. In English, this means that if you ask the GCSB (or their subgroup, the National Cyber Security Centre, to help you with hackers, they will give all your customer information to the NSA. So don't do that, okay?

Thirdly, there has been an explosion of surveillance since the passage of John Key's GCSB Amendment Act. According to their 2012/13 annual report, there were a total of 7 interception warrants and 14 computer access authorisations in force over the 2012/13 year. According to the OIA response above, there are now 33. So the GCSB's new powers have resulted in an immediate 50% jump in intrusive surveillance. Who are the targets? As usual, it's all secret. But there's been no public threat to justify such a massive increase in spying, and its hard to escape the conclusion that they're using their new powers just because they can.

Hosing away democracy in the UK

The British government has been implementing a vicious austerity program for the past four years, cutting the NHS, benefits, and (of course) taxes for the rich. The result has been protests and riots. But now the British police - still mired in the C19th mindset that any protest against the status quo is a revolution in progress which must be put down by sabre-wielding cavalry - have a new tactic: water-cannon:

Chief constables are to press the home secretary, Theresa May, to authorise the use of water cannon by any police force across England and Wales to deal with anticipated street protests.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) says that the need to control continued protests "from ongoing and potential future austerity measures" justifies the introduction of water cannon in Britain for the first time.

The London mayor, Boris Johnson, has already announced a consultation on the introduction of water cannon on to the streets of London ready for use by this summer.

So, the British police's answer to democracy is simply to hose it away. Voila! Clean, ordered streets! But hosing away protesters doesn't make the fundamental problems with British society go away, any more than beating and kettling them does. Instead, it will just mean a greater erosion of consent, and a further transformation of the UK from a democracy to a state where a tiny elite rule over the people for terror and brute force.

Copyright vs transparency in Germany

Like most civilised states, Germany has a freedom of information law. But its now hit on a new tactic to limit transparency around sensitive or embarrassing information: abusing copyright:

The German Federal Ministry of the Interior has sent a cease and desist order to the Freedom of Information (FOI) portal [the German equivalent of FYI - I/S] for publishing a document received under the German federal FOI law. The document – a five page study written by government staff – analyses a ruling by the German constitutional court in November 2011 which declared the 5% party quota for the European Parliament elections as unconstitutional. The study concludes that setting any such quota would be unconstitutional according to the ruling. Despite this a recent change in election law set the party quota to 3%.

When the study in question was received from the Ministry of the Interior through an FOI request on, the ministry prohibited publication of the document by claiming copyright.

Naturally, they're refusing to comply. Government information is public information; they should not be able to subsequently invoke copyright to thwart the operation of their freedom of information law.

(Technically the government can do this here as well, though I've never heard of it happening, and as the Germans are about to find out, it would be pointless and result in a political defeat).

The internet knows how to beat this bullshit: trying to suppress something simply results in it being shared wider - something known as the Streisand effect. So, here are the documents; they're in German, so you can't read them, but by mirroring them you'll be helping to defend the right to freedom of information and giving the finger to the German government.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Secret law in the US

"Secret law" is considered one of the hallmarks of tyranny. So naturally, the US national security state is using it to defend its illegal, unaccountable drone program from public scrutiny:

Congress has moved to block President Obama’s plan to shift control of the U.S. drone campaign from the CIA to the Defense Department, inserting a secret provision in the massive government spending bill introduced this week that would preserve the spy agency’s role in lethal counterterrorism operations, U.S. officials said.

The measure, included in a classified annex to the $1.1 trillion federal budget plan, would restrict the use of any funding to transfer unmanned aircraft or the authority to carry out drone strikes from the CIA to the Pentagon, officials said.

The provision represents an unusually direct intervention by lawmakers into the way covert operations are run, impeding an administration plan aimed at returning the CIA’s focus to traditional intelligence gathering and possibly bringing more transparency to drone strikes.

The clause was inserted by the Appropriations Committee; most of Congress never read it, or even had any idea it existed until they read about it in the newspapers. But they voted for it anyway - in the process voting for secret laws to protect an unaccountable executive's covert murder program. America's founders must be rolling in their graves!

[Hat-tip: Secrecy News]


That's the only way to describe the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists' data-dump on the Chinese "Communist" elite's use of offshore tax-havens:

Close relatives of China’s top leaders have held secretive offshore companies in tax havens that helped shroud the Communist elite’s wealth, a leaked cache of documents reveals.

The confidential files include details of a real estate company co-owned by current President Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law and British Virgin Islands companies set up by former Premier Wen Jiabao’s son and also by his son-in-law.

Nearly 22,000 offshore clients with addresses in mainland China and Hong Kong appear in the files obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Among them are some of China’s most powerful men and women — including at least 15 of China’s richest, members of the National People’s Congress and executives from state-owned companies entangled in corruption scandals.

The Chinese elite is estimated to have stolen between 1 and 4 trillion US dollars from their people over the past decade, and much of it seems to be ending up in the British Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, 300 million Chinese live on less than US$2 a day. That's not a recipe for political stability; instead its more like ancien regime France. And if China doesn't crack down on corruption and restore some measure of equality, its "red nobility" may suffer the same fate.

Time to ban farm animals from our rivers

On Monday the Otago Regional Council began errecting warning signs at swimming spots along the Taieri River after tests showed faecal contamination at almost three times the safe limit. The source of the contamination? Farm animals. In response, the Greens are arguing that it is time to ban them from our rivers:

Green Party water spokesperson Eugenie Sage said it was unacceptable that parts of the river next to the Central Otago Rail Trail were unfit for swimming.

"Good farmers make sure stock are excluded from waterways. Where you've got this faecal contamination, it may be because some farmers are allowing their stock access to the river," she said.

"It's fundamental that we have rivers and streams which are free of stock but we don't have any national rules that require that. We need them."

Its a good idea, and long past time. Voluntary measures to get farmers to behave responsibly have failed (in part because farmers lie about their level of compliance); time for stronger measures.

Of course, if farming was treated like any other polluting activity and required resource consent under the RMA, rather than having a special exception, then the fencing of waterways could simply be imposed as a standard condition of consent (and non-compliance dealt with under an established legal regime of fines, abatement notices, and ultimately cancellation).

New Fisk

Syria report: One is reminded of Nazi Germany

"Clearing the decks"

David Cunliffe will start the election campaign next week with a speech on labour's economic direction. But beforehand, he's decided to "clear the decks", dumping the GST off fruit and vegetables and $5,000 tax-free policies:

“We will be removing the previously proposed $5000 tax-free zone and the GST exemption on fresh fruit and vegetables.

“This decision frees up around $1.5 billion per annum.

“While these were worthwhile policies, we believe there are better ways to help struggling Kiwi families.

It will be interesting to see what those policies will be - the GST plan in particular was a policy which convinced me on its merits; OTOH, it may be the case that that money is better spent on housing and basic public health. We'll have to see what he's proposing before we can judge whether this was a good decision or not.

Meanwhile, remember how last year the Labour membership voted against raising the superannuation age and instead demanded the caucus consider other options? Cunliffe has just fucked them, saying that he still plans to raise it to 67. So what does Labour stand for again? Degraded social services and a life worse than the one your greedy, grasping parents enjoyed (oh, and toadying to business by proposing yet more NeoLiberal austerity). Why would anyone want to vote for that?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Global inequality is a threat to democracy

Today's shock statistic: the 85 richest people in the world control as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion of us:

The extent to which so much global wealth has become corralled by a virtual handful of the so-called 'global elite' is exposed in a new report from Oxfam on Monday. It warned that those richest 85 people across the globe share a combined wealth of £1tn, as much as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world's population.

The wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110tn (£60.88tn), or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world, added the development charity, which fears this concentration of economic resources is threatening political stability and driving up social tensions.

As for how this has happened, the report is pretty clear: the total capture and subversion of our political systems by the rich:
The Oxfam report found that over the past few decades, the rich have successfully wielded political influence to skew policies in their favour on issues ranging from financial deregulation, tax havens, anti-competitive business practices to lower tax rates on high incomes and cuts in public services for the majority. Since the late 1970s, tax rates for the richest have fallen in 29 out of 30 countries for which data are available, said the report.

To point out the obvious, this is highly undemocratic. And if we want to solve the problem of inequality, we need to start by taking back our democracy and removing the influence of wealth from our political system. We've outlawed direct bribes, but that hasn't been enough; we now need to outlaw large donations and replace them with public funding instead. No-one likes politicians, but if we want them to listen to us rather than the rich, then we need to be the ones paying them. Its that simple.

Stitching up Italy's democracy

Back in December, Italy's constitutional court ruled that the country's 2005 "porcellum" electoral law - a regionalised party-list system with complicated thresholds and a national "top-up" to provide the biggest party with an automatic absolute majority - was unconstitutional. The reason? The winner's bonus was unfair, while the party-lists gave power to parties rather than voters. Italy's government has promised to reform the law, and now the Democratic Party has got together with former Prime Minister and convicted tax fraudster Silvio Berlusconi for a joint proposal. The details? A winner's bonus, and party lists, of course. Oh, and a higher threshold to eliminate their competition from Parliament. "A total stitch-up" doesn't even come close...

The good news is that any proposal will have to pass through the Parliamentary process, and the small parties are threatening to roll the government if they are excluded. And of course there will likely be another court challenge if the undemocratic features of the porcellum law are simply replicated. Politics in Italy might be about to get very interesting again...

New Fisk

Yarmouk: A camp without hope for a people without a land
Britain feared civil war in Ireland more than it feared war in Europe 100 years ago
Egyptians – or 98.1% of them – carry on a proud tradition

How it works in Nauru

Over the weekend, the Nauruan government issued deportation orders against two Australian businessmen. The potential deportees understandably exercised their legal right to have the orders reviewed, and secured an injunction from the country's only resident magistrate preventing the deportation pending a court hearing. In response, the Nauruan government purportedly sacked and forcibly deported the magistrate. When the country's (non-resident) Chief Justice issued an injunction against this, they cancelled his visa and prevented him from entering the country - leaving the country effectively without a legal system. This is a gross affront to the rule of law.

As for why, while the immediate cause seems to be the deportation injunctions, there had been growing tension between the government and the judiciary over the handling of the refugees Australia has been dumping there. The Nauruan government wanted trials against refugees to be held in secret, to reduce political pressure on the Australian government. The judiciary saw this as a violation of open justice. And now the Nauruan government's desire to toady to its Australian masters has fundamentally undermined its constitutional order.

And remember: John Key thinks we should dump our refugees in Nauru as well. Someone should ask him whether he still thinks that, and how he feels about the rule of law. The resulting squirming should be interesting.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Places to go, people to be

Nothing more from me today - I'm off down to Wellington to participate in our annual roleplaying convention. Normal bloggage will resume Tuesday.

New Fisk

Rafiq Hariri murder trial: Proceedings begin - but the dock is empty

All your TXTs are belong to them

The latest NSA leak: they're stealing our text messages:

The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks and credit card details, according to top-secret documents.

The untargeted collection and storage of SMS messages – including their contacts – is revealed in a joint investigation between the Guardian and the UK’s Channel 4 News based on material provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The documents also reveal the UK spy agency GCHQ has made use of the NSA database to search the metadata of “untargeted and unwarranted” communications belonging to people in the UK.

The NSA program, codenamed Dishfire, collects “pretty much everything it can”, according to GCHQ documents, rather than merely storing the communications of existing surveillance targets.

The NSA has made extensive use of its vast text message database to extract information on people’s travel plans, contact books, financial transactions and more – including of individuals under no suspicion of illegal activity.

The fact that they're using this to spy on people who have no suspicion of illegal activity (let alone bullshit "national security" threats) is a perfect example of what is wrong with these agencies: we gave them powers, and they now spy on us basically because they can. And the solution to that problem is obvious: strip them of those powers, slash their budgets, shut them down.

And again, we have to ask: are the GCSB doing this? Or are they "merely" accessing the databases (which is still legally "interception" under New Zealand law, and thus illegal if the target is a New Zealander). Either way, if we are to feel safe from them, we need to cut their links with the NSA and shut them down.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Dirty dairying and moral culpability

Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons have a piece on dirty dairying in the Herald today. The first of two parts, it looks at the economic reasons why farmers are destroying our rivers. And this boils down to two things: no taxation on capital gains, which encourages dairy conversions so farmers can profit from the increase in land prices, and a whopping externality around pollution, which sees farmers able to pump shit into our rivers without paying a cent. Combined, these mean massive effective subsidies for environmental destruction. So much for our "subsidy-free" dairy industry.

But then there's this bit:

Let's be clear up front; we aren't blaming the farmers. Like the bankers in the GFC they are just responding to the incentives the market presents them.

Sorry, but "responding to market incentives" is not a moral free pass. If I offer you $100 to kill someone, you're still a murderer if you take it, no matter how much you plead about "market incentives'. And the same is true of bankers and farmers. Obviously we should fix the incentive structure, so that it discourages selfish, immoral behaviour - but that doesn't make people who follow the incentives any less selfish or immoral. If farmers get rich by taking taxpayer subsidies to pollute our rivers and destroy our environment, they fully deserve our moral opprobrium and condemnation.

New parties

Kim Dotcom has revealed the name of his new political party: not "Mega", but "Internet". Which should make it very clear what they're standing for. Meanwhile, an early strategy document for the party from Bomber Bradbury has been leaked online, suggesting a focus on only two or three electorates, and free wifi in Auckland Central as an advertising gimmick. While I Am Not A Lawyer, the latter looks like it could be treating; if that's the sort of advice Bomber gives, then its no wonder he hasn't been officially hired.

The sewer is also frothing about the involvement of Graeme Edgeler. To point out the obvious: setting up a political party is a complex business. You need rules, you need to register, and you need to understand electoral law (especially when your party is being established and funded by a non-citizen). Edgeler has previously worked for the Electoral Commission and is one of this country's best experts on electoral law. If I was setting up a political party, he's exactly who I'd hire.

And meanwhile, exiled NZ First MP Brendan Horan is planning on startign a party of "independent" MPs now that he has been cleared of stealing from his dead mother's estate. Its a bit of a contradiction in terms, and others have tried the party-with-no-policies "strategy" before and sunk without a trace. I expect Horan to suffer the same fate.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why the tobacco industry hates plain packaging

Because it works:

Australia's world-leading introduction of plain cigarette packaging appears to have triggered a significant spike in callers to Quitline.

Researchers from the University of Sydney and Cancer Institute NSW studied calls to Quitline in NSW over nine years to see how plain packaging had changed the volume of calls when taking into account other factors that may influence calls, such as anti-tobacco advertising campaigns, the changing price of tobacco, the number of smokers in the community and seasonal peaks observed in the New Year period.

Statistical modelling to screen out the impact of these factors found plain packaging triggered a 78 per cent jump in weekly calls to Quitline NSW from 363 in the week before plain packaging began on October 1, 2012, to 651 four weeks later. The effect lasted for about 10 months, during which calls gradually decreased to roughly the same levels before the new packs hit the market.

A tobacco flack says that there's no evidence that people have actually stopped smoking. but actions speak louder than words - and the fact that they're fighting tooth and nail to reverse the law and prevent other countries from adopting similar laws tells us everything we need to know. Plain packaging is bad for the tobacco industry. Therefore, it is good for us. We should be enacting our own law as quickly as possible.

More blowback

Another example of a US business losing a lucrative foreign contract because of NSA spying:

The Commission Election of India (CEI) has decided not to select Google as a partner to create an online voter registration tool that would also provide information about voting locations and card numbers.


Citing unnamed CEI officials, Reuters reported that Google was dropped because the company had not offered any major improvements. Also, the company's services were declined given strained relations between India and the US over a new diplomatic spat and previous concerns of surveillance and spying in the wake of the Snowden disclosures.

I guess they didn't want the US to be able to use their voter registration database for "targeting" drone strikes.

An affront to justice

Collective punishment is the idea of punishing third parties for crimes in which they had no part. In times of war, it is recognised as a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention. However, here is no prohibition against it in international law in times of peace, because it is so patently unjust as to be unthinkable in any justice system worthy of the name.

National wants to introduce it to our legal system:

The parents or guardians of young people before the courts could have bail conditions imposed on them as well as their children, such as not drinking alcohol and having to reside at a particular address, under a private members' bill in the name of Northland MP Mike Sabin.


The Children, Young Persons and Their Families (Parent's and Guardian's Responsibility) Amendment Bill would allow the Youth Court to set bail conditions for parents and guardians in a bid to prevent re-offending.

Mr Sabin believed at least half of the responsibility for youth offending was down to adults making sure their children were being properly supervised.

Mr Sabin's bills have been approved by the National Party caucus for support at first reading should any be drawn from the ballot.

[Emphasis added. If the caucus approves it, they don't get to hide behind it being a Member's Bill]

Of course, in practice, this will only apply to poor parents. Rich parents will be able to afford lawyers able to argue the fundamental injustice of punishing them for the actions of another. And they'll know to game the system by refusing to sign bail authorisations which attempt to impose such conditions on them - thus presenting the court with the choice of removing the odious conditions, or unlawfully imprisoning a child (faced with such a decision, a court would be forced to apply the UNCROC principle that the best interests of the child are paramount, and vary the conditions so as to enable their release). Not that a court ever would attempt to impose such conditions on wealthy parents - because Everyone Knows that when their kids commit crimes, its an "aberration", rather than a reflection of bad parenting which must be corrected with state force.

Naturally, the "Sensible" Sentencing Trust approves - which tells you all you need to know.

This is a fundamentally unjust bill. But National doesn't care about justice - all they care about is grubbing "tough on crime" votes by kicking people. And the more defenceless, the better.

Monday, January 13, 2014

No freedom of speech in Samoa II

What happens if you mock the Prime Minister of Samoa? Last week, it was forced apologies and fines from an authoritarian village council. Now its escalated to criminal charges and imprisonment:

A teenage boy who took part in a video ridiculing Samoa's prime minister has been arrested and is being held in custody accused of using insulting words.

The video, which was widely circulated by phone in Samoa and posted on Facebook, mocked Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele.


The Samoa Observer says police held the boy in custody over the weekend.

"The charges will be reviewed on Monday," acting police commissioner Misa Tala'imanu Keti said.

The boy has not been before a court and it was a police decision to hold him in custody.

The idea of denying bail for a bullshit charge like this is abhorrent. But that's what happens in authoritarian societies. I guess that mockery must have hit home.

Being thrown in jail for mocking those in power is one of the hallmarks of tyranny. Samoa simply is not a free country. New Zealand should reassess its foreign policy and diplomatic relationships accordingly.

New Fisk

The ‘flowers’ of the Arab Spring are so distracting that Ariel Sharon’s death has barely raised a whimper
Ariel Sharon: Peacemaker, hero... and butcher

Missing the obvious

The big political news of the weekend was that Kim Dotcom will be launching his new political party later this month. This has naturally led to speculation about exactly what this party will stand for, with the suggestion that it will be a largely personal vehicle which promote social libertarianism, but lean right. But all this speculation has missed something very obvious. Kim Dotcom's natural issues are state surveillance, civil rights and intellectual property reform. There is already an international model for a party based on these issues, with a local instance: the Pirate Party.

Pretty obviously, Dotcom wants to avoid that word - its poor branding when you're fighting extradition for enabling piracy, plus he has his own "Mega" brand he can leverage off as well. But the Pirate platform is a natural fit. So my expectation is that the Mega Party will largely be a pirated Pirate Party, perhaps with a dose of opposition to extradition treaties with the US thrown in.

(This will obviously be bad for Pirate Party New Zealand. Tough. They've tried and failed to win votes in that space for years. If Dotcom can do better, then good on him).

But while I'll be pleased to see a party pushing internet issues with greater visibility, it is a very narrow platform. In Germany, where the Piratenpartei Deutschland has successfully won seats in several state elections, they've discovered that its not enough, and that they have to take sides on other issues too. Which led to damaging infighting amongst a party which previously hadn't had to care where people stood on areas beyond their common digital ground. In Iceland (where they have 3 MPs in the 63 seat Althing) they've avoided that so far, largely by being willing to horse-trade and support other parties' policies in exchange for their own. while the undemocratic 5% threshold makes it unlikely that the Mega party will win seats, it will still be interesting to see what path it goes down.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Mass surveillance is illegal

At least, that's the view of the civil liberties committee of the European Parliament:

Mass surveillance programmes used by the US and Britain to spy on people in Europe have been condemned in the "strongest possible terms" by the first parliamentary inquiry into the disclosures, which has demanded an end to the vast, systematic and indiscriminate collection of personal data by intelligence agencies.

The inquiry by the European parliament's civil liberties committee says the activities of America's National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, GCHQ, appear to be illegal and that their operations have "profoundly shaken" the trust between countries that considered themselves allies.

The 51-page draft report, obtained by the Guardian, was discussed by the committee on Thursday. Claude Moraes, the rapporteur asked to assess the impact of revelations made by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, [also] condemns the "chilling" way journalists working on the stories have been intimidated by state authorities.

They're demanding a prohibition on mass-surveillance and the bulk-processing of personal data, and that EU countries collaborating with the US (including the UK, Germany, France, Sweden and the Netherlands) ensure that their intelligence laws are consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights. Meanwhile, the European Parliament is revising the "safe harbour" law, which will basically outlaw information transfers to the US.

But what's missing from this is demands for prosecution. US spies and their UK collaborators have violated human rights on a massive scale. In doing so, they have undoubtedly violated the anti-wiretapping and data protection laws of numerous countries. And they should be jailed for it.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

No freedom of speech in Samoa

The right to mock our elected officials is a fundamental of our democracy, something we take for granted. However, things are a little different in Samoa:

The family of a boy who made a video ridiculing Samoa's prime minister has been ordered to pay a fine of WST$10,000 (NZ$5200), 30 cartons of tinned fish and two cows.

The video, which was widely circulated by phone in Samoa and posted on Facebook, mocked Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele.

The chiefs of the village of Sili in Savai'i have made a traditional apology to the prime minister which included abasing themselves under mats before him.

The Ali'i ma Faipule - the high chiefs and orators of the village - brought the boy's family before their council this week and fined them, the Samoa Observer reported.

Anyone who spoke to the media would face an identical fine and if another video was made the family would be banished from the village, it said.

The Samoan Constitution affirms the right to freedom of expression. In practice, its a dead letter.

Use for the OIA: Uncovering piss-poor policy

Back in 2012, the government announced new rules requiring beneficiaries to pass pre-employment drug-tests. The rules came into force in July last year, and have been in force for six months now. But have they been effective? Someone used FYI, the public OIA requests site, in an effort to find out, asking the sort of basic questions you'd use to assess the effectiveness of the policy: how much has it cost? many tests have been passed? How many failed? How many of the failures were deemed to be addicts (and thus not subject to sanctions), and how many "recreational users" (who were)? Above all, how much money has the policy saved?

The answer? WINZ doesn't know. They have referred 8,100 beneficiaries to jobs requiring pre-employment drug screening, but have no idea how many of them passed their tests. They do know that 22 of them have "failed" (11 actual failures, and 11 refusals to piss into a cup so the Minister can get "tough on poor" votes), but they don't know how many of them have were addicts (and won't bother looking, even for such a small number). As for the amount saved, that part of the request is "refused under section 18(e) of the Official Information Act as this information does not exist". Estimates of the amount saved are also refused, but under s9(2)(g)(i), protecting free and frank expressions of opinion between officials - meaning that it would make the Minister look bad (which should not be any sort of reason for refusal).

So basicly WINZ isn't bothering to track information used to assess the effectiveness of the policy because they know its a showboat which will be assessed not on its merits in helping beneficiaries get jobs, but on how it makes the government look to voters. Which is a piss-poor way to make policy. Still, there's some useful information in there, in that 8,100 beneficiaries were referred to jobs requiring testing, while only 22 failed. If those "required" tests were actually demanded, then that implies a failure rate of 0.27%, so low as to be negligible. Whether we should be spending millions of dollars targeting this non-problem is left as an exercise for the reader.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Climate change: Four degrees

One of the foundations of international climate change policy has been that an increase in average global mean temperature of more than two degrees Celsius is dangerous, and so climate change must be limited to below this level. But as the years have gone by and governments have done nothing, that target has been looking increasingly out of reach. And now a new paper published in Nature has confirmed the bad news: absent a radical change in policy, we're heading for four degrees:

Temperature rises resulting from unchecked climate change will be at the severe end of those projected, according to a new scientific study.

The scientist leading the research said that unless emissions of greenhouse gases were cut, the planet would heat up by a minimum of 4C by 2100, twice the level the world's governments deem dangerous.


"4C would likely be catastrophic rather than simply dangerous," Sherwood told the Guardian. "For example, it would make life difficult, if not impossible, in much of the tropics, and would guarantee the eventual melting of the Greenland ice sheet and some of the Antarctic ice sheet", with sea levels rising by many metres as a result.

Not to mention drought, famine, and the spread of tropical diseases.

What would it mean for New Zealand? Just before the holidays, the Ministry for Primary Industries published a report on Four Degrees of Global Warming: Effects on the New Zealand Primary Sector (downloadable here). The short version: live is going to get a lot harder for farmers, with more droughts and more floods (yes, they do go together). Much lower average rainfall in the east (with the models disagreeing on whether Canterbury or Hawke's Bay gets it worse), but with a general increase in extreme rainfalls (so, it rains less on average, and more of it comes in torrential downpours). River flows are expected to increase slightly (because of more rain in the west to feed them), but have a similar pattern of greater extremes (so lower low flows and bigger floods). This is expected to lead to a "pronounced decline" in pasture growth, and to lower availability of water for irrigation during growing seasons.

And our government, by refusing to act and taking an adversarial position in global climate change talks, is just letting this happen.

If we want to stop this, we need to demand action from our governments. And in many cases, that will mean changing them - because we're not going to get action from the current lot.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Uses for the OIA: Uncovering the Bible in schools

David Hines has a remarkable OIA project on religious education in state primary schools. Over the past year he has requested information from every state primary school in New Zealand - over 1800 of them - seeking information on whether they run religious education classes (and if so what), when they run them etc. While 260 schools have simply (and unlawfully) refused to answer, its a tremendous dataset. And the core finding is that

[the] survey has identified 578 schools which have religious instruction classes, run in school hours, outside the NZ Curriculum. I believe there are about 260 more still to be identified.

Its unclear at this stage whether "school hours" includes temporary closures under s78 of the Education Act 1964. If it does not - that is, if these schools are running their religious instruction classes in actual school hours, not lunchtimes or when the school is "temporarily closed" for Christians but not atheists, then that would be unlawful.

Hines also has a review of three main syllabuses on offer.

Meanwhile, there's the other implicit finding: over 1000 of 1800 schools - over half the total - were "reluctant" to answer the OIA request and had to be persuaded to do so by the Ombudsman. 260 are still defying the Ombudsman. The level of contempt for the law by school administrators is appalling. And we trust these people to educate our future citizens?

A "rock star" economy?

So, some bank economist thinks that New Zealand will be the "rock star" economy of 2014. They're very excited about the economic "growth" from the long-delayed Christchurch rebuild, and of course the housing bubble. You can argue about whether either of those are in fact Good Things (and I think the evidence is strong that they're not). But more importantly, look at what they're not talking about: jobs. in this "rock star" year, Treasury is projecting unemployment of 5.9%, and is projecting it to remain above 5% until 2018.

National economies should be judged not on their abstract statistics like GDP, but on whether they deliver jobs and higher living standards to their ordinary citizens. And on that measure, ours is a failure. It delivers wealth and growth to the uber-rich, and nothing to anyone else.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Today's must read

Why we should give free money to everyone by Rutger Bregman: Short version: the empirical evidence shows its more effective and cheaper than current methods of making assistance contingent on intrusive supervision. if you give homeless people a pile of cash, they don't spend it (as the right would have you imagine) on booze and drugs, but instead spend it on finding long-term solutions to their problems. If you give money direct to villagers in poor countries, they use it to improve their situation far more efficiently than top-down aid does. And if you give everyone a Universal Basic Income, they don't stop working, but do take time off when they get sick, and invest more in education, resulting in a healthier, more educated and more economically productive community.

Left wing policy: not just more moral, but also empirically more effective!

Surely this is illegal?

Just before the holidays, Immigration released its Year at the Border 2012/13 report [PDF], a compilation of statistics and stories designed to persuade us that they're doing a good job of keeping the Teeming Foreign Hordes (that's sarcasm, for morons) at bay. One of the statistics to make the news was that 135 New Zealanders had been denied permission to fly to New Zealand because they did not have a valid passport.

This seems to be unlawful. Section 13 of the Immigration Act 2009 is pretty clear: "New Zealand citizens may enter and be in New Zealand at any time". While they must prove their citizenship and establish their identity by complying with border requirements",

Nothing in this Act (other than subsection (2)) abrogates the right [of NZ citizens to enter New Zealand], and... no provision of this Act that is inconsistent with that right applies to a New Zealand citizen
Immigration is clearly satisfied that these people are New Zealand citizens, otherwise they would not report them as such (most are likely to be people whose NZ passports expired while travelling). While they are not denying them entry at the border (which would clearly be illegal), the refusal of permission to fly amounts to the same thing in practice and therefore seems to contravene s13(3)(a).

So what's the legal cover? Parliament clearly did not intend travel permission to be denied to New Zealanders, and reiterated that in the relevant clause (Section 97). But in doing so, they didn't contemplate that New Zealanders would seek to return home without passports. Immigration seems to be relying on this lacuna to deny them their practical right to enter. And that is simply wrong.

(At this stage its worth noting that while the Act enumerates various classes of travel documents for New Zealand citizens, it doesn't do that for permanent residents, who can never be refused permission to board an aircraft to New Zealand regardless of what documentation they hold, if any. Surely New Zealand citizens should enjoy the same right?)

Meanwhile, I'm wondering: is this how the government intends to "block" its supposed kiwis fighting in Syria? By cancelling their passports for "national security" reasons and then using that fact to effectively exile them from home? I think some MPs need to ask some questions about this.

New Fisk

Now it's Middle Eastern regimes fighting al-Qa'ida, while the US ties itself up in knots
Time to remember Nelson Mandela’s soft touch with the IRA
By branding the entire Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists, General Sisi is adopting a well-tested tactic of past Egyptian dictators
Mohamad Chatah - Lebanon's man of dialogue - is murdered in Beirut

The NSA spies on its own government

Since Edward Snowden leaked proof of widespread NSA spying on US citizens, people have been wondering who exactly they're spying on. Are they spying on their own government? Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wanted to know, so he asked them directly. The response was not reassuring:

"Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other elected officials?"

That's the question Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) put to the National Security Agency's chief in a bluntly worded letter Friday. It seems, however, that the agency cannot categorically say no.

Sanders didn't use the word "spy" lightly. He was careful to define his terms, indicating he meant the collection of phone records from personal as well as official telephones, "content from Web sites visited or e-mails sent," and data that companies collect but don't release to the public.

When asked by The Washington Post, an NSA spokesman said that the agency's privacy safeguards are effective at covering all Americans.

"Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons," the spokesman said.

Which means "none". But think about this for a moment: Congress is meant to oversee the NSA, setting its budgets, regulating its powers, and holding its management accountable to the people. And the NSA is basically trawling them for blackmail material on their movements, relationships, and web-surfing habits. Even if they never use it (something we'll never be able to prove), the potential is there. Which is a strong disincentive to effective oversight.

Or we can look at it another way: spies are supposed to protect their governments against enemies. The NSA clearly thinks Congress 9and by extension, elected representatives in general) are an enemy of the US.

Meanwhile, its worth asking: is this happening here? John Key has said that the GCSB is not engaged in the "wholesale" collection of metadata. But even if you believe him, there's another problem: the NSA is using the data-exchange agreements that make global roaming work to
track everyone's cellphones (which can reveal all sorts of interesting secrets). New Zealand data is almost certainly included, and almost certainly includes MPs. And it all goes into the same spy-cloud, to which the GCSB has access... Even if they're not abusing it, their mere ability to access this data is a danger to our democracy. If MPs want to be safe from spying and spy-blackmail, they need to shut down the GCSB or sever its links to the American panopticon.