The dark side of citizen empowerment (Part 2) – a cautionary tale

Johnny was a rebel. A real maverick of a man. Show him a system, and he’d find a way round it. All the little get-outs, he got out through. He opted out of all opt-in mailings, he had his number put on the list to avoid junk calls, he made sure as hell he wasn’t on that electoral roll that’s for sale. His email address was a miracle of concealment to fool the bots, and you’d be bloody lucky to get it. And almost nobody got anywhere near his ‘real’ online identity.

If he was a bit naughty in his car, he’d make a real song and dance about ’fessing up to who was actually driving. There had to be pictures. Of his face. If not, he’d write long letters inevitably quoting the Human Rights Act. Stopped by the coppers in Waterloo? Same thing, knowing all the right responses to give to stay just the right side of the law, and exactly what would press the frustration button of the guy in the yellow jacket.

Junk calls? He loved those – playing right into the hands of his call centre victim – baiting them further and further into revealing who they worked for, and where, while tapping away merrily on his 192.com account and his Google Maps (and other, darker sources). Until he could surprise them by telling them the name of their wife. And if really pissed off, that he was watching their house from across-Church-Street-right-at-this-minute-pal.

Always pushing things to the very edge to protect his data, and his rights. Because information was Johnny’s lifeblood. His belonged securely locked away. But others’? Especially ‘public’ information? Ah, that was a bit different. Everything had to be open. Without compromise. If the government had it (or he thought they had it) he wanted at it. If there was something out there about a corporation, he wanted it mashed-up, unpacked, aggregated, chopped every which way.

Consumer rights were a passion. He joined every pressure group he could. It was his duty to share with others, not about himself of course, but about his purchases, how he claimed his benefits, what he did to swing the right school place for his kids, and so on…

He delighted in sharing the things The Man didn’t really want you to find out. The uglier stories of corporate hell. The product reviews that told tales from inside the factory. The quicker routes to claiming from the state. Where the councillor lived, and what they got up to on the internet that they thought nobody could find out about…

He bloody loved saynoto0870.com.

He whiled away boring afternoons phoning companies to pester them into giving up geographical alternatives to those noxious money-making numbers. They hated it, he really knew they did, but he knew how to beat the scripts – where to find the weak spots. And when he struck gold, up on the site it went.

Johnny was liberating the system for the downtrodden: the people who actually lived in the same town as their bank and shouldn’t be paying national rate numbers. The bundled-mobile-minutes crowd, who were buggered if they were going to pay twice for the same call.

And so it went. Until the day the crushing pain gripped his chest. Late nights, junk food, way too much coffee – his heart was giving out. He reached for the phone. The local health practice’s 0870 number… nah, he had the ‘real’ one. – Sure, get here asap, they said. The ambulance came. On the trolley now, doctors coming and going. A bit blurry. Fading, fading. A machine – wires… something, something wrong. Shaking heads. Dark, dark, dark.

The back-up defibrillator had failed. Wouldn’t normally have been used, but the real one had gone away for repair. In the old days, when the budget allowed, they’d have got the engineer on site. But things were pared to the bone now, and there was a 24-hour turnaround contract.

Of course, the budget shortfall hadn’t been helped by the drop in all the little sources of income for the health centre. Those guys who’d found an inconsistency in the boundary records for the car park, and had clawed back all those parking charges. Oh, and the strange drop in the margin on the 08— numbers. Some clever arses had found out the local numbers and put them on the internet.

At the edge of every system, it’s the tiniest differences that swing things. Johnny had just slipped, irretrievably, over the edge. 

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9 Responses

  1. Robsteranium says:

    This is quite ridiculous. You can’t justify 0870 numbers & car park charges just because they might have been used to cross-subsidise hospitals.
    These revenue streams derive from monopoly power and are unjust in the first place.
    Citizen empowerment doesn’t undermine “little sources of income” it puts pressure on our corporations and institutions to add-value legitimately.

  2. paulclarke says:

    @Robsteranium – the intention wasn’t to justify the way in which charges like this might work (I’ll remain neutral on that one in the context of this post), merely to show that they *could* be connected to other effects that might not be immediately apparent.

  3. Robsteranium says:

    Sorry Paul, I guess I take interconnectedness for granted & I confess I’ve got a bee in my bonnet when it comes to 0870 numbers!

  4. Sarah says:

    Absurd as this tale is, I do think there’s a point to be made about trusting businesses to do what they have to do to make money so that they can employ people and provide services. Perhaps they aren’t *all* out to fleece the customers for the benefit of their greedy shareholders.

  5. paulclarke says:

    It is of course absurd, and intentionally so. But the serious point I’m making is that organisations, public and private, make a whole load of business decisions that are actually interconnected. And one hopes that market forces generally correct for greed and unjustified profit, though I recognise the externalities that exist in many public service systems.

    To single out any one business decision does risk missing a wider picture. Back when fuel prices were vastly higher in the UK than in Spain, I remember a conversation with someone complaining about it. So why don’t you move to Spain tomorrow, I asked? Embrace the lot: standard of living, transport, taxes, education, culture, etc. etc. Coz you can’t just cherry-pick the cheap petrol and have everything else the same, you know.

    Ah, they said.

  6. Sarah says:

    We agree.

  7. I’d not read this piece before Paul, really interesting point! Given that where possible I will try and bypass paying ridiculous rates from my mobile also eye opening – even if your example is framed that way on purpose.

    The problem with loopholes is, if they are there (and known)… and then not shut down… it seems to legitimise the loopholes to allow people like me to feel like they’ve won the system whilst actually it really means very little to the overall system.

    As you said in the first post there is perhaps a little bit of gittish-ness to it, but most people will do the right thing as they are pushed that way. I think that as soon as any of the loopholes hit a tipping point whereby too many people are taking advantage is when they will get shut down – when there is no longer a handful of cars jumping ahead – but when 30-40% start chancing it.

  8. prclarke says:

    Quite, Charlie. So I’m watching today’s disappearance of the saynoto0870 site (and app!) with great interest…

  9. anon says:

    Just a temporary outage. Happens a couple of times each year to almost every website.

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