Friday, 18 January 2008

Sarko Sows Intercultural Confusion

I was amused to learn from the BBC that the Indian establishment has been thrown into protocol confusion by President Sarkozy's upcoming visit with girlfriend Carla Bruni since unmarried couples are controversial rarities in this conservative country . As she is not technically the First Lady - unless rumours of a secret whirlwind marriage are to be believed - they can't decide whether to treat her as his partner, with all the usual fanfare, or try and cover her up (a seat in the corner perhaps).

Intercultural dialogue in action...

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

East Meets West

Two monologues do not a dialogue make. And I am afraid that Europe's Year of Intercultural Dialogue is going to founder on this rather crucial distinction. I just sat through a protocol meeting with the Grand Mufti of Syria and his entourage in which the 'conversation' went something like this.

Us: "We are delighted to welcome you here to the European Parliament. Intercultural Dialogue is very important"

Them: "We are delighted to come to the European Parliament. Intercultural Dialogue is very important"

Us: "We hope we can promote unity and discourage extremism through this dialogue"

Them: "We also hope we can promote unity and discourage extremism through this dialogue"

Us: "Religion and politics must be separated"

Them: "Indeed they should. Diversity is God's will. That's why the Jews should never have moved to the holy land from Sanaa or Aleppo or anywhere else in the Middle East. By applying a policy of ethnic exclusivity to an area sacred to all three monotheistic religions and desecrating human dignity they have shown that their state is an historical aberration. Wasn't life better when for thousands of years they lived in peaceful coexistence with their Muslim rulers?" (OK, I'm paraphrasing here, the Mufti actually employed rather conciliatory language which, when analysed afterwards, actually contains this message).

Us: "Time is running short, we are glad you are committed to discussing diversity and secularism. We'll talk about this another time".

Constructive, no?

Having said that, the Grand Mufti (who I assumed to be a fully paid up doyen of the religious establishment but is also a fully paid up member of the political establishment since he is appointed by the government) also said a number of things that merit a mention. He is clearly quite an eloquent chap.
  • A blinkered focus on Sacred Texts stops Jews and Arabs finding a peaceful solution to the problem, whether it be insistence on a Jewish Homeland or the Muslim's exclusive 'right' to rule all territory previously belonged to the Ottoman Caliph.

  • Any solution must be negotiated politically. Blood begets blood. Syria will negotiate a peaceful return of the Golan Heights and is ready to extend the hand of friendship to Israel

  • Europe must not close the door to any side which desires dialogue, including Hamas. Respect for diversity can only come from respecting each other which in turn means respecting the importance of free expression.

  • All states should be secular. Religion is not a matter for politics. It is based on the personal relationship between men and God. As such, the state should not, inter alia, enforce things like prayer - signifying that the all-encompassing Shari'a practiced in some Muslim states oversteps the boundaries of good governance.

It may not be dialogue. But it's always good to see someone else's point of view. Too often in Europe we speak amongst ourselves and then claim to have mastered the problem. More exposure to other perspectives is definitely welcome.

EU Should Stop Being A Schoolyard Bully

Subsidiarity - the principle that government power ought to reside at the lowest possible level - is a concept beloved of Liberal Democrats. However, too many of our elected members are a little vague on what that means in practice.

You see subsidiarity should mean it's the council which handles your bin collection; regional and national government which organises matters like education policy and road building; and the EU which does things countries can't handle alone like combat climate change.

So far, so good. But the problem with power - and the backbone of traditional liberal thinking - is that, if their remit is unchecked, law-makers will attempt to intrude ever further into the realm of the personal. Sunsidiarity should be accompanied by a healthy respect for the limits of the law and the need for smaller government.

Now the EU is a byword for big government and I am more than a trifle bemused by its endless efforts to overstep the mark. When not making laws for the sake of making laws, or making policy on a lowest common denominator basis, it is busy issuing resolutions on areas over which it has no competence, from Foreign Policy to - bizarrely - school uniforms.

The issue? Banning hijab for Muslim school girls across the EU. You see, in a report on Children's Rights to be voted tomorrow at the European Parliament's plenary session paragraph 127 "Urges Member States to ban headscarves and hijab at least at primary school, in order to anchor more firmly the right to be a child and to ensure genuine and unenforced freedom of choice at a later age" which passed in committee with a considerable majority.

Now think what you like about the issue of hijab, especially for under 16's. I personally agree with the logic behind this paragraph, which, according to Committee members, is to ensure young girls get to participate fully in things like swimming and gymnastics without having their parents' preferences thrust upon them - especially important in primary schools where none but the most fundamentalist of zealots could consider a girl to have attained puberty. I'm not sure I like the 'at least' qualification, as it smacks a little of cultural hegemony, but at least it's only a suggestion.

However that is beside the point.

This is a clear cut case of Europe overstepping its mandate and interfering, in a nanny state sort of way, with decisions that can be dealt with perfectly adequately at the level of the school board, let alone local or national government. Surely these are issues which communitites should deal with on their own, in full consultation with local parents, if we are serious about 'integrating diversity', as the jargon goes.

The top down approach of a bunch of privileged, mostly middle aged, white people - however well intentioned - runs entirely against the grain of what is feted as Europe's Year of Intercultural Dialogue. Of all people, Europe's Liberals and Democrats should agree with this. But we're supporting the report anyway, despite murmurings of opposition from the likes of Sarah Ludford MEP. It is definitely time for a policy rethink.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Letting the Surveillance State in by the Backdoor?

One of my best friends has long refused to join Facebook. I found his hardline stance rather peculiar in the past because, well, everyone's on there, aren't they, and it's such a quick and easy way of seeing what old friends are up to - not to mention people you've barely met, or haven't seen for decades - without actually having to contact them personally. Not to mention checking out other people's holiday snaps and advertising your own 'fabulous' existence - or airbrushed internet approximation thereof - and organising your social life. Opting out of facebook, it seemed to me, was like voluntarily opting out of your own social circle. It's the modern equivalent of living without a mobile phone - the preserve of the elderly, the eccentric, and the socially crippled.

Well it turns out he may have had a point. The reason we should think twice before joining Facebook, let alone posting our most intimate details there, is precisely because it makes it so easy for anyone to see them. "Not so!" you might protest. "It's for friends only".

Now I know that Facebook technically has a privacy policy but I wonder how many of you have actually read the smallprint? Well me neither, as it turned out, because the smallprint is always long, boring, and, well, small, and we office hamsters are always so busy chasing deadlines or hiding our skiving tendencies from our bosses that we tend not to bother with yet more bureaucracy and simply click 'accept'. Wrong decision.

I first got concerned about a lack of privacy when a variety of freak strangers - 'networkers' I guess you' call them - started asking me to be their friend. Now this is in a completely different league from pesky peeps from the past who don't get that you weren't in contact for a reason and won't take no for an answer. These were people I had never met and never heard about. So how had they found me?

I figured that we must share some friends in common or I was some kind of deranged amnesiac. In some cases this was true. Yet in others I could see no real connection between me and the names I thought I ought to know. Until it twigged- it's due to the networks you join where, as I was to learn, everyone can see who else is on it. That's also the reason adverts for EU Studies Masters and Brussels Job Fairs are perpetually popping up on my screen.

Not so bad, you might think. That's what a virtual community is all about. But it doesn't stop there.

More and more bosses are monitoring employees pages and taking action against behaviour outside the workplace that doesn't correspond to their professional standards. Witness the case of Stacy Snyder who was sacked from her teaching placement and denied her degree because a photo captioned 'drunken pirate' appeared on her My Space page. The university claimed it promoted underage and irresponsible drinking amongst her students. And now her career is in ruins before it even began.

Nor is such psycho surveillance consigned to the risk-averse side of the Atlantic. Here in Europe everyone, from potential employers to university tutors, is checking up on our personal preferences before we even step through the door for an interview. One too many photos of drunken nights out, one too many revelations on your wall, and you can kiss goodbye to your future prospects.

What's worse, though, is that the corporations and civil servants who track down information to use against us are not abusing the system at all. Quite the contrary. They are using it exactly as its founders intended. There's a reason Facebook is now worth $15 billion and that's because it's the most detailed and up-to-date database that exists on earth.

Who wouldn't want to buy into a programme which provides particularised profiles of 60 million human beings from Afghanistan to America - a figure set to rise to 200 million by this time next year? It's an advertisers wet-dream for heaven's sake. It's the government's holy grail.

So what do Facebook's founders do? Thanks to Tom Hodgkinson from the Guardian for this analysis. "The creators of the site need do very little bar fiddle with the programme. In the main, they simply sit back and watch as millions of Facebook addicts voluntarily upload their ID details, photographs and lists of their favourite consumer objects. Once in receipt of this vast database of human beings, Facebook then simply has to sell the information back to advertisers, or, as Zuckerberg puts it in a recent blog post, "to try to help people share information with their friends about things they do on the web". And indeed, this is precisely what's happening. On November 6 last year, Facebook announced that 12 global brands had climbed on board. They included Coca-Cola, Blockbuster, Verizon, Sony Pictures and Condé Nast. All trained in marketing bullshit of the highest order".

So there we are. The people most interested in the unique, individual, 'I am' of liberal discourse is not old school friends jealous of your desperately attractive boyfriend or wonderful career, not loved ones who live far away and rarely see your life except through shared photographs and messages - no, it's precisely the people we spend most of our time protecting our information from. Our government and our boss.

So what makes Facebookplc so profitable and beloved of the enemies of our privacy? Well...

1 - It will advertise at you: "When you use Facebook, you may set up your personal profile, form relationships, send messages, perform searches and queries, form groups, set up events, add applications, and transmit information through various channels. We collect this information so that we can provide you the service and offer personalised features."
2 - You can't delete anything: "When you update information, we usually keep a backup copy of the prior version for a reasonable period of time to enable reversion to the prior version of that information."
3 - Anyone can glance at your intimate confessions: "we cannot and do not guarantee that user content you post on the site will not be viewed by unauthorised persons. We are not responsible for circumvention of any privacy settings or security measures contained on the site. You understand and acknowledge that, even after removal, copies of user content may remain viewable in cached and archived pages or if other users have copied or stored your user content."
4 - Our marketing profile of you will be unbeatable: "Facebook may also collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the Facebook service through the operation of the service (eg, photo tags) in order to provide you with more useful information and a more personalised experience."
5 - Opting out doesn't mean opting out: "Facebook reserves the right to send you notices about your account even if you opt out of all voluntary email notifications."
Finally, and most worryingly,
6 - The CIA may look at the stuff when they feel like it: "By using Facebook, you are consenting to have your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States ... We may be required to disclose user information pursuant to lawful requests, such as subpoenas or court orders, or in compliance with applicable laws. We do not reveal information until we have a good faith belief that an information request by law enforcement or private litigants meets applicable legal standards. Additionally, we may share account or other information when we believe it is necessary to comply with law, to protect our interests or property, to prevent fraud or other illegal activity perpetrated through the Facebook service or using the Facebook name, or to prevent imminent bodily harm. This may include sharing information with other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies."

So delete it all now! But wait, there's no point leaving Facebook once you're in the system. Because even if you delete it the information's stored in an archive 'just in case'. And to think I even signed the 'NO2ID" petition.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

No Stars for Eurostar

Eurostar promises you all kinds of good things about its futuristic new terminal at St Pancras - the only railway station in Britain to boast a champagne bar instead of the obligatory stale sandwiches and cardboard coffee. But while the 'extras' delight, one aspect of the service is noticeably missing.

One of the worst things about the old terminal at Waterloo was the crazoid xray machines you had to lift your bag one metre off the ground to reach. These were normally manned by strapping security-guard types who would refuse, on grounds of 'health and safety', to help you lift your suitcase.

Their unequivocal stance created quite a few problems for me on one occasion when, due to a mystery illness contracted on holiday, I was too weak to manage feats of weight-lifting. The guy in question, I recall, told me rudely to get a move on and put my bag through and, when I asked for assistance, started shouting I wasn't his personal slave.

On insisting, as best I could, that lifting the thing was IMPOSSIBLE for me at that time one of his colleagues took pity on me (by now in the midst of a crying fit) and did the necessary. I was then forced to pay £18 for the privilege of a porter to take my things the rest of the way to the train. Not the way to treat a customer who had just paid for a first class ticket, you might think.

I wasn't the only one suffering the same problem either. Having travelled more often on Eurostar in the last year than is sensible, enough to have earned the right to a season ticket with my own dedicated chair, I witnessed a long line of little old ladies, over-burdened mothers and sick and suffering travellers fall foul of this bizarre system.

Surely, I reasoned, this glittery new terminal would resolve the problem? But no. Just the other day my friend (perfectly young and healthy by the way) was travelling through St Pancras with no more than a heavy suitcase. Quite sensibly she had decided to avoid Ryanscare's 15k baggage limit when coming home from the holidays with her Christmas pressies and take the train instead.

Yet when she arrived at security, the same evil machines were in place and she had to ask for assitance with her bag since she couldn't lift it. Staff refused at first then some kind hearted soul helped her. He was reprimanded by the supervisor in front of her and she was then called aside to be treated to a lengthy lecture on why she shouldn't travel with heavy bags.


If operators want to embrace the kind of capitalist ethic that means they make a fortune in profits while service deteriorates and ticket prices rise they should not enjoy the right to treat passengers - as happened routinely in the days of state-sponsored British rail - as criminals.

If the sick, the elderly, or the plain over-burdened wish to travel, at vast personal expense, they should not be hampered or harrassed by rules that diverge so far from the ethic of consumer protection as to beggar belief. Eurostar, we expect more from you. Please try putting customers first.

I'm semi-tempted to put up some kind of petition or standard letter, at the risk of acting like a stand-in for WHICH, to try and get them to reconsider the kind of scanning machines they use. If enough of us complained we might get the kind of service which we pay so dearly for.