People seem quite interested in how the trip went. Since I’m too sleepy to have anything qualifying as a coherent, synthesized opinion, FAQ format seems like the strongest play.
How Did It Go?
I think it went quite well. Of course, it’s hard to nail down short term success criteria for conversations with parliamentarians. A meeting like that is not going to end with a legislator standing up and saying “I agree. Let’s go pass a law.” Things like this are an exercise in advocacy: “Here is my opinion of the situation and the options under discussion for its remedy,” followed by others giving their versions of the same thing.
I do feel, though, that my opinion was listened to, understood, and amplified by others. The room included, in addition to invited experts and press, at least half a dozen Lords, and 3 or 4 MPs, so I am also confident that I was heard by people in a position to act on what they hear.
What Did You Say?
A couple of things. I said that this kind of data collection is not something users can be expected to understand and, if they did understand it, not something they have much ability to avoid.
I said that in many markets, even developed ones like Canada and Britain, there isn’t enough choice in ISPs to make “voting with your wallet” a realistic option for people who find this kind of surveillance invasive.
I said that the technological mechanisms for preventing this are prohibitively expensive (in the case of things like “universal SSL deployment”), largely ineffective (since traffic analysis would still be possible), and brittle (opt-out cookies assume you never switch computers or browsers, that you never reinstall or move houses, that you won’t be worn down to the point of surrender by the Nth attempt to opt out).
I said that, historically, anonymized data isn’t. The AOL data was blown wide open, for instance, and that was just search terms, not browsing history. I said that however ironclad Phorm’s current processes may be, this kind of data collection being done by multiple companies over any interesting period of time will almost certainly result in anonymity failures.
I said that the collection of this information is insidious, that however noble and scoped the initial goals, it tends towards exploitation because it is too valuable not to.
After saying a chunk of that in a single burst, I got some applause from some of the people in attendance which felt odd, but certainly seemed to suggest that I had struck a chord.
What are the Lords Like?
Parliamentarians, really, since there were MPs there, but in any event I was impressed, particularly by Baroness Miller, who organized the event. She was exceptionally good at running a room – at ensuring that legislators’ questions were answered, at bringing digressions back around to the central themes, and ensuring that multiple voices were heard. As a group, they were forthright but unapologetic about their lack of technical knowledge (that’s not their job), and asked clear questions aimed at understanding the legislative implications of various details.
Were there Swords? Powdered Wigs? Snuff Boxes?
People from the UK know that their legislators are basically like other legislators, albeit with more exciting titles. To the rest of us though, the whole thing sounds very romantic, and we entertain positively ridiculous notions like this. No swords, no wigs, no “Yes, your exalted worshipfulness.” The houses of parliament are guarded by perfectly normal police officers with perfectly normal frowns and perfectly normal assault rifles, but very little pomp.
What about the Building?
Imagine that your great great great grandparents and their friends had all the money in the country, and decided to build a place to hang out. Imagine that since then, it’s where everyone decided to put their cool stuff. Imagine walking through rooms, separated by wooden doors older than calculus. Imagine those rooms are alternately filled with statues, murals, statues in front of murals, framed masterworks, and leather bound books about anything that could matter. Imagine that there are entirely different paths, staircases and elevators for peers of the realm than for everyone else. Imagine that you could fit your current house inside the Queen’s entrance and have room to fly a kite from the roof.
It is a nice building.
Would you do it again?
Yes. Yes I would.
I still think that legislating technology is fraught with peril. The way to mitigate that peril is not to run away from it, though, but to be a voice for the kind of change we want, and against the kind of change we don’t.
Is the Bowmore 17 you brought back tasty?