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Union policy research in the 21st century

Archive for the ‘Social policy’ Category

UN launches Broadband Commission

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The International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the UN, has set up a Broadband Commission whose aims will be to define strategies for rolling out broadband networks worldwide and to examine the applications for the improvement in the delivery of a wide range of social services.

An impressive list of global private sector business leaders, UN agencies, regulatory bodies and politicians, including the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, are to sit on the Commission, which will present findings to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals review summit in September. The Commissioners are intended to provide ‘expert input’ alongside an analysis of the deployment of broadband at all stages of economic development, with the ultimate intention of providing ‘practical recommendations on the possible routes towards the goal of high-speed networks at affordable prices.’

Hamadoun Touré, Secretary-General of the ITU, commented that:

In the 21st century, affordable, ubiquitous broadband networks will be as critical to social and economic prosperity as networks like transport, water and power… Not only does broadband deliver benefits across every sector of society, but it also helps promote social and economic development, and will be key in helping us get the Millennium Development Goals back on track.

There’s nothing much wrong with that, and it helps to reinforce the notion that the developing world does – perhaps controversially – need modems and routers just as much as it needs other basic essentials as a means of delivering the social and economic benefits that will improve life expectancy and the social situation. So, the initiative is welcome, although it is important to emphasise that it needs indeed to look at the full range of ‘possible routes’. Whether decent debate about the range of ways of potentially achieving these goals is likely to ensue from the Commission’s appointments, and the short time-scale for its work to be concluded, is a moot point. Alternative visions than ones based on deregulation and the removal of barriers, and on a centre stage for competition, are both possible and need to be explored if the initiative is to achieve its aims.

Written by Calvin

13/05/2010 at 12:18 am

Britain’s digital future

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The Guardian‘s Tech Weekly podcast this week focuses on the parties’ views and attitudes towards Britain’s digital future, featuring discussion and comment from the three leading parties’ main representatives (Stephen Timms, Jeremy Hunt and Lord Razzall) on the following issues:

– curbing piracy and file sharing

– intellectual property copyright reforms

– how to fund rural broadband penetration

– dealing with the library of government data.

I haven’t yet listened to this in full but will be doing so with some interest, blogging any issues that arise. In the meantime, you can pick up the podcast, or listen online, here.

Written by Calvin

29/04/2010 at 11:55 am

COSMOS officially launched in UK

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COSMOS, a major five-country European study into the long-term effects of mobile phone usage, was launched in the UK yesterday. Over the course of the next two weeks, some 2.4m people in the UK will be invited to take part in the initial stages of the study, via an online questionnaire. The other participant countries are Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands.

The commencement of the research in the UK is the responsibility of the UK’s Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme, itself set up following the publication of the Stewart Report into mobile phone use in May 2000. The Stewart Report concluded that, while exposure to radiofrequency emissions from handsets and mobile base stations at levels below the existing guidelines do not cause adverse health effects to the general population, there was a need for a ‘substantial research programme’ into the isses.

The most recent MTHR report, published in 2007 (full report; press release), found no association between short-term mobile phone use and brain cancer, or evidence that brain function was affected either by mobile phone signals or by TETRA (high speed, high frequency communications networks used by the emergency services), and reported that there was no need for further research in this area. However, the report did acknowledge that there were ‘significant uncertainties’ as regards more long-term exposure, since available studies were based on very few people who had used their phones for ten years or more, and that these could ‘only be resolved by monitoring the health of a large cohort of phone users over a long period of time’. At the same time, cancers rarely show up as quickly as within ten years.

Consequently, the COSMOS research is a part of progressing this aim via a 20-30 year study of the mobile phone usage and health of 200,000 adults across Europe, 90,000 of which will be selected from network operator subscriber lists in the UK, for which funding has so far been made available for the first five years (£3.1m).  The study will focus on the risk of cancers, benign tumors and neurological and cerebro-vascular diseases, as well as changes in the occurrence of specific symptoms over time, such as headache and sleep disorders.

The number of mobile phones has increased dramatically in the decade since the Stewart report: then, there were 25m phones in operation (a market penetration rate of about 40%) while currently, according to Ofcom, there are 76.8m mobile phone subscriptions (a total of 1.26 connections per UK inhabitant) (Figure 4.42). Despite the increasing use of smartphones and mobile handsets in general as devices for a range of uses other than talking to people, mobile volume call minutes continue to grow sharply, as the following figure shows:

Source: Ofcom Communications Market Report 2009, Figure 4.71

At current levels of usage, we spend one day per year (24 hours), for each connection that exists, calling someone on a mobile phone. Given the penetration rate in the UK, each one of us actually spends more than 30 hours a year talking on the mobile. These levels of usage are unlikely to drop – smartphones add functionality without replacing the existing, and evidently expanding, need to call people on the hoof.

The study will thus make an essential contribution to filling important gaps in our knowledge about the effects of mobile phone usage in the long-term. As the COSMOS researchers say, there is no evidence that mobiles present any dangers to health – but we don’t know that they don’t. An initial report is expected in 2020 – perhaps an auspicious date for generating a vision as to what the overall conclusions at the end of the project might conceivably look like.

Written by Calvin

23/04/2010 at 2:06 pm

Europe’s sticky iron curtain

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The European Commission’s annual report on the social situation in the EU has just been published, revealing not only striking differences between EU member states but also divergent trends between them in the period since the EU was expanded to cover the new member states in central and eastern Europe. For the majority of them (i.e. all of them except Romania and Bulgaria), 2009 saw the fifth anniversary of their accession – time enough, you would have thought, for views to be less, not more, divergent.

The report is supported by a Eurobarometer attitude survey on the social climate, based on the views of around 1,000 adults in each of the 27 EU member states, plus in the three candidate countries of Croatia, (Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia and Turkey, conducted in May/June 2009 and intended to be the first in a series of such surveys. It is striking that people in EU member states in northern and western Europe – regardless of the social measure used, be it within their personal situation, the general situation or in the area of social protection and inclusion – tend to report the highest levels of satisfaction with their current situation and prospects, while people in states to the central and eastern half of the continent (i.e. the new member states) reported the most dissatisfaction.

The reasons why the transition in former communist countries – even those untouched by war – has been so difficult are many, and the tough economic recession, with fragile economies in central and eastern Europe remaining particularly vulnerable, has clearly not helped. Social change, including large-scale population movements, has presented particular challenges. Nevertheless, it is equally true that, twenty years on from the start of the transition, with a whole generation of people not knowing what life was like in the former times, people living in those countries remain much less satisfied with their situation and prospects than is the rule across the rest of the continent. Life remains tough and the potential for disillusion is clear.

In this context, the words of Vladimír Špidla, the outgoing EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities are important:

Today’s report shows once again the importance of our efforts to promote jobs and growth in Europe so as to guarantee people’s social well-being in the future. We must continue these efforts as part of our future 2020 strategy to make the EU a smarter and greener social market economy.

Trade unionists, or European socialists more generally, are unlikely to find much to disagree with there.

What is required, however, is a greater sense of the need to do something more positive on behalf of people in countries in ‘the other half’. In this direction, it is interesting that the new Commissioner, taking the place of Vladimír Špidla, is to be László Andor, a Hungarian whose appointment, therefore, is likely to continue the perspective on the needs in this direction of what were formerly known as transition countries (and which perhaps might still need to be thought of in such a way); Špidla is Czech and, thus, also with a perspective informed by transition. Andor is an economist without much of an evident political background, although his past does appear to have some colour in it, and his appearance in the European Parliament hearings of the new Commissioners have been differently reported (see here and here). At the very least, however, he looks to be a safe pair of hands – and he does appear to be on board with issues on the EU’s social agenda. His tenure at the Commission needs to see greater, and specifically practical, attention paid to the social problems of countries from central and eastern Europe.

Written by Calvin

04/02/2010 at 1:26 pm

A copyright nut

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No, not me.

A story in today’s The Scotsman reports that a 16-year-old schoolboy is facing a £5,000 royalties charge for breach of copyright for filming, editing and posting on YouTube 10-minute highlights of games involving his favourite football team. (Of course, it’s his local team and good quality clips they are, too.)

So, the team: Celtic? Rangers? St Johnstone? And whose copyright is infringed: the BBC? STV? None of these: but the mighty Buckie Thistle, in the first place; and, in the second, well – that’s a bit confused. It’s not his club which is threatening the charge – he has the full support of the Buckie Jags – but the Highland League, whose official – John Grant – maintains that it has copyright on games involving League teams and that the League’s permission to film had never been sought.

When it comes to matters of principle,  this site absolutely defends the rights of copyright holders – except that this (as the lawyer in The Scotsman indicates) is not actually a copyright issue: the rights holder here is actually likely to be the lad himself. Most football clubs have some sort of ground regulations prohibiting the filming of events (usually because they want to sell the rights on and amateur filming inhibits their ability to do so) and quite often these will stem from generic regulations applied within the appropriate football association. I have no idea whether this is the case within the Highland League or at Buckie Thistle – though the Jags’s support for his activities indicates the club are at least prepared to waive these in his case. But, neither of these appears to have been the ‘offence’ with which he is charged. And no-one this season appears to be broadcasting highlights of Highland League games.

John Grant isn’t, perhaps, the guilty party: officious, yes; wrong: absolutely. An amateur himself, he can’t be blamed for not knowing the ins and outs of the law. But, sometimes, a blind eye needs to be turned, you know? A League Committee meets to discuss the issue in January and it’s to be hoped that the common sense solution – permission to film games is first sought and then given (without a charge for royalties) – is the one that then prevails. In the meantime, you can sign a petition in support of ‘Buckie Jags Man’ – David Smith – here.

Written by Calvin

17/12/2009 at 11:02 am

Posted in Social policy

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Net filtering: Australian government decision provokes furore

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The Australian government has confirmed plans to introduce a mandatory filter for a list of internet websites publishing illegal material. The announcement follows pilot testing of ISP-level filters which, according to Stephen Conroy, Australia’s Communications Minister, demonstrates that the blocking of banned material can be done ‘with 100 per cent accuracy and negligible impact on internet speed’. Blacklisted sites find their way there by a combination of a public complaints mechanism, government censors and URLs provided by international agencies.

The aim of the policy is to protect children from accessing sites by accident, although it seems to have slipped somewhat towards a blacklist of content aimed largely at adults, and is founded on the basis that some internet material is not acceptable in a civilised society. So far – so good. But, as always, the difficulty is in deciding what to do about it, in the context of material being easily accessible with just a few clicks in the ‘privacy of your own home’. If an opinion poll on the Sydney Morning Herald is anything to go by, Australians are up in arms: currently, 96% out of more than 18,500 responses is against the idea. Interestingly, Conroy cites ‘about 15’ western governments which have encouraged or enforced filtering; these appear to include Denmark and Norway while Italy and Germany [registration required; limited viewing time] have also already passed the necessary legislation. [edit: 17 December to add new link]

Citing fairly emotive phrases like ‘censorship of the internet’ and ‘denial of free speech’ is unhelpful here: censorship exists in any society – for example, the use of boards of censors to view films before being released – and the question thus seems to be one of what censorship would allow; and where, in a liberal democracy, it must stop. Judgments are always going to be subjective and these are subject to change in line with shifting social mores (the British Board of Film Censors has over recent years adopted a much more relaxed view of what films can be shown here, for example). Few would argue that the ‘right’ to view child pornography, for example, is a ‘human right’ (and what about the rights of those exploited in the production of that activity?) and neither is this a free speech issue (except in extremely libertarian constructs which most of us do not share).

A completely different, and much more provocative, example would be the issue of copyright theft – clearly, far from the issue of pornography and one which opponents might argue as being beyond the scope for action of governments seeking to define what is ‘acceptable in a civilised society’. On the other hand, I can see an argument that a blanket, nationwide ban on access to sites which infringe the copyrights of actors and musicians is a more preferable outcome to close, DPI-based examination of individuals’ internet traffic (it’s also likely to be cheaper for ISPs, too – but I’ll leave that aside).

What is the issue for me, therefore, is how we define those sites which get on the list; how open and public that list is; who makes the decisions about what sites are included on it; and what avenues of appeal there are. International comparisons on this issue are important – what is acceptable in one country may well not be acceptable in, for example, China or Iran – but these comparisons can not currently play any part in what one country does (and neither does a green light in one country for filtering give a generic green light to filtering in any other). We need to be careful to avoid making relativist associations between what happens in two countries with quite different approaches to democracy.

Part of the furore in Australia is that the banned list is not publicly available (actually, for quite sensible reasons currently since publishing it simply advertises where access to such material can be found) – and that sites have been found on it which are far from what most people would define as being ‘unacceptable in a civilised society’. This is clearly key. The openness and transparency of such lists, in the context of their content being made inaccessible, should prevent democratic governments from banning access to sites where it is not objectively justifiable to do so – for example on political grounds – and where challenges to inclusion on the list can be made. By itself, some examples of unreasonable inclusions on such lists does not obviate the principle of maintaining a list for these purposes.

In a society which is apparently happy to accept warnings before even late night television programmes, made on the grounds of the litigious society which we have become, concerning often rather minor considerations of taste and decency, the outrage concerning what internet sites to which we ought to block access and the implications of our actions in doing so provides an interesting commentary on the state of social attitudes.

Written by Calvin

16/12/2009 at 5:13 pm

The recession and middle Britain’s shrinking wages

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The TUC has published a ToUChstone pamphlet – the first in a new series – exploring the role of the declining share of wages in national wealth and the much less well-known role this has played in the recession (see TUC press release).

The author on behalf of ToUChstone – Stewart Lansley – also wrote the earlier work on middle income Britain (blogged here) which documented the rise of an onion-shaped distribution of wealth in the UK and the rising divide between an affluent 40% and the bottom 60%. In this new report, he focuses in more detail on why middle- and lower-income Britain has been left ‘in the slow-lane of rising prosperity’ (a theme also picked up in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free pages today, although seemingly rather obliviously to Lansley’s work).

In his blog post for ToUChstone introducing the pamphlet, Lansley highlights that wages held steady at around 60% of national output for much of the twenty five years after 1945, before rising to 65% in 1975. Now, however, they account for 53% – a fall mirrored elsewhere: more steeply in the US, more shallowly in continental Europe – as a result of the erosion of employment rights [here Lansley is kind to his hosts: trade union weakness in general terms is also a factor], as well as reduced demand for unskilled labour and the transfer of jobs triggered by globalisation. All of this has contributed to boosting the bargaining power of employers which has had the effect of wages falling behind productivity growth – the wage squeeze.

The effect is that families borrow more to maintain living standards – staggeringly, households borrowed an average of 45% of their income in 1980 but 157% in 2007.  Of course, individual choice is an aspect here, but the wage squeeze implies that, formerly, such a level of living standards were financeable from wages whereas this is currently not the case. At the same time, rising company profitability – the counterpart to wages falling behind productivity – flowed into justifying record dividend payments and an explosion in executive remuneration, while higher rates of return in financial engineering led to the replacement of funding for long-term success with money being moved around specifically to chase the quickest return. This, in turn, lays behind the other, more well-known, factors in the current crisis.

The policy conclusions are not only that cuts would end a recovery before it has properly begun – since wages fuel spending – but that, in the long-term, the share of wages in national output needs to rise again.

Clearly, this latter is much easier said than done. Essentially, we need to confront and overturn a thirty-year orthodoxy which, albeit incorrect, has led to a major weakening of, and support for, the institutions capable of delivering that level of confrontation. It means essentially that people need to adopt a much greater degree of solidarity with and for each other, and reducing the importance of self (and self-interest) in doing so. Twelve years of Labour government, despite some important initiatives and an awful lot of warm words, has done little to change the increasing individualisation which lays behind the policy initiatives of the previous twenty. Challenging that orthodoxy clearly needs to take its place in a proper consideration of economic alternatives and Lansley’s pamphlet certainly helps to inform the debate here. Nevertheless, we should recognise not only that this sets out a specific challenge for trade unions (and, indeed, their members) but also that the scale of that challenge is significant.

Written by Calvin

12/11/2009 at 7:16 pm