A few home truths about online pornography

I read this curious article this morning.

It’s got a strong whiff of “being seen to do something”, while shying away from some of the more serious realities.

I am not an expert on this topic, but neither am I that coy about it.

So here are a few comments that might be informative, as none of the principal players involved seem that keen on actually getting to grips with the reality of the subject matter.

Back in the 1970s, when many of our policymakers and politicians were growing up, porn was generally found in skips and hedgerows. Ripped-up, soggy copies of Playboy and Penthouse formed our mental models of the genre. The women (there were no men) were beautiful, semi-naked, and generally decorous. There was stuff about fast cars. There were made-up letters about unlikely liaisons on aeroplanes.

{Health warning for the sensitive: if you don’t want to read some frank words about what things are really like, don’t continue. Perhaps try and get some people to vote for you to make laws and stuff instead. Get some misinformed articles published in the mainstream press. Pretend you have no idea about any of this, and hum la-la-la when anyone raises the subject. That sort of thing.}

The more gynaecological poses were the province of darker stuff, imported from Scandinavia or Holland and sold in plastic bags in dark little shops in city back streets.

But we didn’t like to admit we knew phrases like “Color Climax” so we stuck with the safer, top-shelf, tee-hee-hee Playboy as our model. (I actually saw a tweet yesterday where the word “penthouse” in an unrelated context was used as a cue for a joke about smut. It’s become part of our vocabulary).

So roll forwards to 2011 and we’re having a bit of a fret about this thing called online porn, and how it might be corrupting the young and how it might be dealt with.

And the example that’s being dragged out from the (unavailable) Ofcom report is playboy.tv.


So that’s what we’ve got to watch out for? Have you looked at it? Look at it. It’s pretty harmless. Almost slightly silly.

Online, it’s much like the magazine, glossy, playing out fantasies of gorgeous hostesses, fast-car lifestyles, Malibu and other such bollocks. Lots of splashing around in bikinis, but not as far as I could see, a hint of a vulva in front of the paywall. Soft porn. For anything else, you need to pay. I didn’t. And why would I?

Because the world of the shiny member sites (sorry) and their sort-of-soft-and-not-that-corrupting-really “pornography” isn’t the world of online porn.

Google the word “porn”. Seriously. Be brave. Your mum won’t find out. I promise. (Unless you use her computer. In which case, don’t.) You won’t see playboy.tv, or anything like it, on the first few pages of results. I got bored scrolling through the screens and didn’t find it.

You will find YouPorn, PornHub, RedTube and numerous clones. All free to view, no registration required, all hardcore, and with content of quite mixed provenance.

Some of it looks like straight lifting of content from other sites–I’m generalising here, and not referring specifically to the sites named above–and not alleging any criminality (so please don’t sue my ass).

Some appears to be user-generated content, submitted by “amateurs” with a bottle of lube, a webcam, a glazed expression and a cheap rug.

And the rest is the last screech of the old blue movie industry, giving away its back catalogue in a desperate attempt to drive a bit of traffic to its members’ site, where it hopes to lure a tiny percentage of truly stupid visitors into signing up to a never-ending subscription, using all the tricks in the book.

Fancy regulating that sort of environment? Interchangeable, come-and-go (or indeed go-and-come) sites, all peddling identical material? Asking them politely if they’ll implement a PIN number coding system on their front doors? Good luck with that.

These sites, generically, are known as tubes. Want to find something particularly “specialist”? Google your desired search term along with the word “tubes”. You’ll find it. Remember Rule 34 of the Internet.

The Internet is full of free, unrestricted, unregulatable hardcore porn. There. I’ve let the cat out of the bag. And told you how to find it. And playboy.tv has nothing to do with it. Who knew?

So the interesting story then becomes: why not be more honest about this in articles like that Guardian piece? Why pretend that targetting (or trying to target) a few well-known names will reshape society into a better place?

Is it because we can’t break our habit of associating the word Playboy with porn? Can we not move on from what we found on the school gym roof in 1981?

Have we just got such a taboo about the subject that anyone with any standing who writes with any kind of informed knowledge about the subject risks a chorus of “nyah nyah nyah and how would you know, eh, eh?” that will effectively tarnish their public profile for ever. (Deep breath in seeing how this blog post goes down then…)

Is it because we’re trying to hide these terrible truths from susceptible young people who might otherwise never think of putting the word “porn” into Google?

Or is it because we’re trying to look like we’re doing something, rather than actually doing something? And going after well-known names is the most acceptable and easiest way to do that?

And when we can’t really control how they behave, or close them down (which we can’t, as they’re most likely not within our jurisdiction) then it’s just that bit easier to start the push for stronger filters of sites which aren’t approved by our establishment, and finally bring this bloody Internet thing under some control. Because we’ve shown we tried all the other approaches, first, haven’t we?

I genuinely don’t know. But I’m a bit tired of a pretence that the world is one way, when very many people know it isn’t but can’t easily speak about it.

This is going to be a long old social and political battle; keep your eyes open for the next skirmish. It’s going to get very interesting.

Broken journey

I’ve seen an awful lot of online government, of one form or another. Consultations, information, tools, maps, communities…and transactions. Transactions really are the very bugger to get right, aren’t they? You wouldn’t think it was that hard to do the basic capture and interchange of information, would you? That there could be so many places to trip up: from daft processes, to forms-turned-into-websites, to mismatched authentication in relation to actual risk, to dreadful, dreadful interaction design.

But there are. And today’s was a gem. Not so much for what it showed about the actual online transaction (which had its issues). But for staggering failures of design around that little thing called a “customer journey”.

It may be a bit of jargon, but the “journey” concept is important. And it’s not just the bit from “land on the right webpage” to “transaction completed”. It’s way broader than that. Or it should be. From the first awareness that something has to be done (or even including general awareness before that point) right the way through the transaction, and on beyond the point of confirmation and into the territory of follow-up action and support. The whole thing. Across all the channels that might play a part (de-jargoning: channels are the types of communication that people can use: typically web, post, telephone, face-to-face and through an intermediary).

So let’s look at how badly this one failed.

A form landed through the post a couple of weeks ago. I need to update the photo on my driving licence. Fair enough. What’s in my wallet has diverged from reality a fair bit in nearly ten years (and I used a five-year-old passport pic even back then).

The form was interesting: I had a couple of options to update the photo. In person in a post office (where they’d even be able to take my picture for me), or by post. There was a covering letter on the form that even went to the trouble of telling me where my two nearest post offices were that could do the photo service bit. Nice, I thought. Very nice. A personalised touch on a standard form. Liking this.

But I griped when I read more closely. The photo replacement would cost £20. Fair enough, I supposed there’s some admin involved, and £2 a year doesn’t seem outrageous (though I guess a fair few people would find £20 hard to find out of the blue). And that photo service at the post office? Well, that would cost something too. But it was just left as “An additional fee…”–weird, I thought. Why not just print the amount? Was it £5, or £50? How was I supposed to make a sensible decision about posting or post-officing without knowing the facts? The £20 fee was printed: how very strange just to leave the other one to be a surprise when arriving at the counter?

Another little glitch: the form (see pictures) suggests you go online, or pick up the phone, to find out the nearest branch offering the service, yet the covering letter that’s physically attached to the form tells you the two nearest, as I said. Little discontinuities like that are part of the customer journey. They’re causing me to read again, to look between the two documents at the discrepancy, to wonder if I’ve misread something. To make a phone call–a contact that could otherwise be avoided. Details, details, all very important.

The pictures are scruffy because the form stayed in my bag for two weeks, as I never quite found time during the day to go into a post office (and I was still unsighted on how much I’d actually have to pay). As I take photos, I decided today to just shoot one to the required spec and get the damn thing done.

It’s a simple form. It asks for a few bits of information, as well as the photo (which it says must be taken within the last month). Or does it? Please put your date of birth and driver number “if you know it” in the boxes below. (Don’t I just HATE that “if you know it”–it’s a little clue to a bit of poor design…)

Let’s think again about the journey. The way the form has to be used within a wider context. In other words: this form has to be sent back (according to section 1) either with both driving licence parts, or with a declaration that you don’t have them any more. In the first case, they’ve got your date of birth and driver number plastered all over them, so why ask for them again? In the second case, you’re not that likely to know your driver number, are you? And we’re absolutely certain that submission of date of birth is critical here for “security” purposes, or whatever? Really? So those information requests may as well disappear from the form, no?

And before leaping to the conclusion that they must be there as a failsafe in case the envelope’s contents are broken up and dispersed, remember that the form is preprinted with my name and address. Not that tricky to match up with all the stray pink cards lying around on the floor in the post-room in Swansea, now is it?

A couple more check-boxes, a section on organ donation, stick on the photo, and off we go.

Hang on–that organ donation bit: is that section compulsory? It doesn’t say. I can choose between giving my entire usable remains or a selection of organs. Will the form be rejected if I leave them all blank? Stuff like this will cause some forms to be thrust to one side rather than be further completed, perhaps permanently. Never, ever, leave room for doubt.

On the back there’s a whole load of A-F guidance notes. Nothing to fill in. Well, if you actually stop to read (how many will?) B is a quite important section on declaration of health conditions. But nothing to fill in, so I guess it just gets left. Somebody’s box has no doubt been ticked in Swansea. So that’s ok then. There’s some nudging towards Directgov to get further info (oh look, the journey now has an online component–that’s nice).

And so I think: I just spent a while doing a form to send a photo (which doesn’t have to be countersigned–I guess they have a visual inspection in Swansea to check I haven’t suddenly changed race, sex or grown horns) to an agency who are expecting it, and who know full well who I am. Why the hell isn’t this online? And I moaned and tweeted a bit. As I do.

And the shocking answer came back that there was an online service available. At Directgov. Oh, the irony: I worked there for a couple of years and thought I knew most of the available transactions in some detail.

This is the real journey failure. That the form has been sent through my door with no mention whatsoever of the online service. Wait, look back at the very top: that Directgov URL (no, I hadn’t seen it until this point). That starts me off towards an online transaction, though for some inexplicable reason it’s been coded as “For more information…”. Admittedly, it’s the usual “before you apply…” rigmarole (we have to just suck this up, apparently…) but it’s there!

Ah, wait, the handy …/photorenewal URL actually takes me to a whole bunch of other driving licence services (most of which have sod all to do with photo renewal) rather than this one which looks more like it. And yes, even here, I have to do another click to actually get me to the transaction. Because there’s some other information on the page: oh look–there’s the mystery post office service charge–£4.50. Why hide it away there?! And loads of stuff about how to go to a post office and do it…hang on, are we trying to promote the online channel or what? This is getting very confusing. I can now see I’d need a form D798 if I did. But MY form (check those pics) is a D798 U. Now that might be the same form. But it’s another bit of uncertainty. Details, details, again. Another reason to shove it in a drawer, or a bin.

Let me spell this out. Money has been spent creating an online service that (in theory at least) will save the public time, and the taxpayer money. And the people who send out the forms (which is how you know about the service) don’t even mention that it exists as an option. Has anybody actually tested this as a journey? (It was at this point of realisation that I went, as they say, a bit ape.)

And then, the coup de grâce. I hit that “Apply Online” button. It tells me the prerequisites. I need a passport issued within the last five years. Ah, I get it now. If they can verify who I am (they ask for previous addresses, and presumably run an Experian or similar check; in combination with a presented passport number that will probably suffice) they will drag my passport photo between systems and bingo, my driving licence will have a new photo. Presumably there is relatively little risk doing it like this: it’s not as if I can slip an entirely bogus photo into the systems this way–which seems like the main fraud risk within this whole process. (I have skipped over the “role” of the Government Gateway for brevity. More on that can be found here. Though it does at least appear to offer me access to a DVLA dashboard of my information, including my old photo! Which is quite cool. Though what would happen if I connected a second Gateway relationship to my DVLA info is anybody’s guess…)

That’s a “new” photo as in “up to five years old” of course–or possibly even older…is it just me? Is this all sounding both wonderfully joined-up and strangely discontinuous all at the same time? The photo has to be no older than a month by post or post office, but up to five years is ok if you do it online. Riiiiight.

Sadly my passport is a fraction over five years old, so it’s game over online, for me anyway. And why can’t I just email them the damn photo or upload it on a website? There’s nothing on that paper form that I’d be unhappy putting in an email, or a web form. And the picture wouldn’t need rescanning. And I could just certify that I’d destroyed the old licences (the paper process doesn’t fall apart if I mark that as having happened on the form anyway, now does it?)…I could go on, but I won’t. This post is way too long already.

This is an absolute, prime, simple, transactional government-to-citizen interaction. It is the sort of thing that could be reformed NOW. Without an elaborate authentication framework. Without a new website. Without changing more than a few fields and lines on paper and web (or at most, adding a simple image upload process if we really wanted to gold-plate things). The fact that we don’t, or can’t, change it is lamentable. There are no excuses. Really, there aren’t.


You’ll see in the comments below that I proudly maintained that my application would stay in its envelope, completed and unposted, until such time as I saw fit to, or was compelled to, submit it.

That smug stance was all well and good until I found myself at the Hire Car counter in Venice airport a couple of weeks ago. With an expired driving licence. No car for me. Game over.

While driving licence expiry doesn’t mean much in day-to-day life, when you need to hire a car, it suddenly acquires a new and terrible significance.

I could swear that on the breeze over the lagoon, I could hear a distant voice whispering to me all the way from Swansea:

“Who’s the c*** now, boyo?”

You wouldn’t do this to a dog…

Confession: I know rather more about online government transactions as a theoretician than a real user. I don’t actually need or use very many of them myself, in anger. Car tax, obviously. I renew passport and driving licence every few years when they need renewing. I self-assess my taxes annually. I pay quarterly VAT. But that’s about it, really. No benefits. No protracted health or disability transactions. Very ordinary.

I have kids, and I have dogs, though. They both need feeding. The dogs, all the bloody time—with the kids, let’s focus on school meals for the purposes of this post. Coincidentally, my online activities to manage both of these have a very similar frequency—about six times a year. Let’s compare them, and look at the online pet food store first.

How do I know when to pay? Well, when the food bucket looks a bit low. Who do I pay? I always use the same supplier, but strange as it may sound, I have no idea what they’re called. Seriously. I don’t need to. I just search my email for the brand name of the dog food, find any old order email, follow any old link within the email, and I’m there.

Once there, I click on the picture of the food bag, type ‘2’ for two bags, click on the cart, tell them to please use my usual credit card and address, and… that’s it. One minute. Information re-entry: virtually none. Risk of incorrect personal information: none. Time and effort for supplier in doing their bit: twice the square root of f*** all.

Now. Paying for school meals. How do I know when to pay? Oh, easy. I’ll find a small slip in one of the boys’ school bags telling me that the payments are overdue. Not due: overdue. Nice little slip, it is. Mostly handwritten, with their names and other details filled in for me. And two amounts: the “pay immediately” one that ensures they’ll be fed tomorrow, and the “pay rest of half-term” amount. All nicely hand-calculated. And then an invitation* to go online and settle up. [*see update below this post]

Do it online? This can’t be bad, surely? Oh yes it can.

There’s no URL on the slip, but experience tells me that Googling for “surrey school meals” does the job. And here we are at the site. There’s a box for me to fill in a school reference code. I vaguely remember when they introduced this system that they went to great trouble to send out letters with this code. Which we promptly lost. But no matter, because you can just pick the school from the drop-down menu. Well, you have to find the right menu first, of course. Different types of schools have different menus. And there’s no handy scripting that means typing the first letters of the school gets you there faster.

You find the school, and now you enter the children’s names on a blank form. They don’t remember the names from the last transaction. In fact they don’t remember ANYTHING. Then the payment bit. (It’s up to me to put in the amounts myself, by the way, and transcribe them correctly from the slip. And to divide the total on the slip by the number of children to get the right amount per line. Dear Lord Almighty, give me strength.)

Oh dear. It’s the loosest, shabbiest, experience imaginable. It’s like time-travel. Suddenly it’s 1998 all over again and we’re over to RBS WorldPay to “handle the transaction”. That’s it: hands washed. You and your business are nothing to do with us now. Off you go. Tell WorldPay everything about yourself again, from scratch.

And six times a year, I faithfully type out my full credit card details and address, having already repeated the names and school of my children. This is utter rubbish. A classic example of a government transaction that nobody seems to care about. Where even the rational benefits of reducing error and saving someone in the school the trouble of filling in all those little handwritten slips seem to count for absolutely nothing.

Why is it so bad? It’s bad at at least three levels: interaction design, information management, and use of readily-available convenience tools.

Let’s pick these off: the site design is, to my semi-tutored eye, shoddy. It’s packed with text, trying desperately to explain what it’s about, instead of just getting to the money shot: doing the bloody transaction. Note how links like this bend over backwards to tell you the service is there to make life easier and explain in hideous, painful (and unnecessary) detail how every little bit works, but note also what link isn’t on the page–that’s right: the transaction itself. Instead, you’ve got a Contact Centre link where you might expect to see the actual transaction, cueing you to get on the phone and talk to someone. Bonkers! (And drop that school reference code thingy while you’re at it. Unless you know that people have been remembering them, and using them as a matter of course.)

On the information management bit, there’s some strange stuff going on. I can see that someone somewhere is no doubt wary of holding personal data about me on a Council system. That would mean it could be left on a memory stick or CD, to subsequent shame all round. But they must be keeping some kind of personal record: the school are being told that these particular children have been paid for, so to go to these baroque lengths to pretend each time that they’ve never heard of me before is just insane.

I stress that I DO NOT WANT a MyCouncil-type personal online account just to pay for school meals (which is all I do with Surrey online). You don’t have to jump to some vastly over-engineered general solution just to make one particular interaction easier. Really, you don’t. Go back and look at the dogfood store experience again if you don’t believe me. I don’t think I’m also registered with them to receive handy hints on how to compost the resulting dogshit, now am I?

But there are a bunch of opportunities where a bit more intelligent information management design could have been used to make this one easier, less error-prone, more automated and just better.

And lastly, there are simple tools available to do this. Do I really need to enter all that information afresh each time? Do you, Surrey, really need to bang on about how crafty you are in avoiding holding any of my credit card details yourself? (Not that I particularly mind you doing so. Remember, I let some company I don’t even know the name of do this. Out there in the real world.) Have you heard of PayPal, for example? Or Direct Debits? Strangely enough, people who rely on online commerce to make a living have thought of some of these problems before, and built ways around them.

I’m being harsh, I know. Fixing these things would cost money. Not much, but some. And the money to fix them wouldn’t be connected by any easily-identifiable lever to the savings made in the school office. Even trying to define that sort of connection via an internal business case would cost more in consultancy fees than actually implementing a simple site refresh and the addition of better payment functions, I suspect.

So it stays up there—yet another orphaned bastard child of an e-government movement that stubbornly refuses to stop looking utterly crap.


Update: 24 October 2012
Scene: The School Office

Yet another slip arrived, this time asking for four quid to be taken in tomorrow morning [yesterday’s underlined message].

So I took it in. And said…

PC: Here’s four quid for you. I got your slip yesterday.

School Sec: Thanks

PC: The slip doesn’t mention an online payment option any more.

SS: It hasn’t changed.

PC: Well, it has. It used to say “you can pay online”. Now it doesn’t. We seem to be going backwards.

SS: It hasn’t changed. Anyway, lots of people pay online.

PC: That’s great. But people who are new to the process won’t know about the option. And people like me, who are a bit literal about things, will think you’ve stopped offering the service and that continuing to pay online may end up with their money going into a black hole somewhere. You’ll end up getting more people turning up at this window with four quid, and lots of avoidable checking.

SS: Thank you. [Window starts to slide shut]

PC: You will change the slip then to reinstate the stuff about paying online?

SS: [Thin smile of resistance to change]

[The window closes, firmly]


Update: 15 March 2013

Yet another hand-completed slip arrives. Like all the recent ones, it omits any reference to an online payment option. In goes my formal letter of complaint, asking for a written explanation of this strange stance.

Watch this space.

Who are you again?

This online identity stuff is very difficult—as I’ve written here before: much harder to truly grasp than it should be, in a peculiar way. I think that one of the reasons is that there are really two, logically separate things going on. Unless one puts a bit of mental legwork into understanding them—well, almost philosophically—all that follows in terms of technical solutions and so on can be irrelevant, at best.

So, those two parts: 1. how do you “prove” you are who you say you are? and 2. (the bit that’s perhaps harder to encapsulate) what is the relationship model that’s constructed when such a “proof” transaction takes place?

Let me try it another way: (1) what are you trying to prove and how do you go about that? and (2) what are the consequences of you having done that “proving”?

I hope to make some progress in illustrating why they’re quite different, but both very, very important. The first of those two parts—the “what and how you prove” bit—is the subject of this post. Probably because it’s the easier of the two. Though still complicated.

You never really prove anything, of course. If we are going to get into the business of cutting people open to extract a bit of DNA from their very bones and analysing it against some sort of uber-register of genome sequences…yeah, yeah, yeah. But we’re not. So stop being silly. (And they might have implanted somebody else’s bones, anyway. Ok, that’s silly. Or is it? Let’s move on. You see the point: every obstacle is just another challenge.)

What we do instead is use a number of arbitrary proxies for identity: tokens that either alone or in combination give a certain sense of assurance that their presenter is who they claim to be. The passport is a common (and relatively strong) example. There’s the photoID (with a government issued driving licence being rather more trusted than a cheaply-laminated snooker club membership card). There’s the infamous utility bill—which has the benefit of also fixing the presenter to a physical location of residence. You get the picture. Sometimes the detail is checked against something else, sometimes it’s recorded, and sometimes it’s not checked in any meaningful way, but the request itself is enough to dissuade naughtiness.

Because, for most of the transactions one carries out with government (central, local, police, whatever) checks like this are pretty damn important. (At least they are perceived to be, anyway, certainly in comparison to some private sector transactions. Compare the following headlines: “x% of cardholder-not-present credit card transactions are fraudulent, costing £Ybn per year” with “x% of online benefits claims are fraudulent, costing £Ybn per year”. Which one will have the nation frothing that Something Must Be Done? But that’s for another post…)

The guys at the gate of Caterham tip ask for a utility bill to confirm that you’re allowed to dump there. (Well, only when it’s busy, it seems.) To them, a location is the only important fact that’s been asserted—who I am, or indeed whether that utility bill matches anything else about me or my car, are unimportant. At the supermarket checkout, the young-looking booze buyer will only be troubled for something featuring a date of birth, and so on.

The tokens we use to give that degree of proof don’t have to be physical bits of paper, of course. We can memorise PIN numbers, or be asked for known facts about our previous transactions which only we’d be likely to know the answers to. We can set up “shared secrets” in advance so that only we will know the answer when challenged by our remote interlocutor.

We can have combinations of things used together—to see my bank statements online I now have to put my bank card into a reader the bank have sent me, pass a challenge, and then enter a result online. Sure, if you have my card, my reader, know my PIN and at the same time can open a session of my online banking you are me, at least as far as my bank is concerned. But that’s a lot of hardware and effort, and reasonably proportionate to the stakes involved, I’d say. We talk of “something you have and something you know” as a basic type of multi-factor authentication, or “something you have, something you know and something you are” if we add in a biometric component.

You see the point?—there isn’t really any proving going on. Just an exchange of information that gives a certain level of assurance, upon which trust can then be built. Sometimes it’s done well. And sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the requests for “proof” information are proportionate to the task being undertaken. And sometimes they’re not. But the request/risk relationship is likely to be quite specific to the task being attempted.

You’ll notice that I freely used offline examples above, when normally I bang on about how hard all this is in the online world. Well, the concepts are the same. It’s just that there are some characteristics of online channels that tilt the tables of risk. The lack of a face-to-face element removes some of the visual cues we might use to strengthen trust in a claimed identity. But this applies to the phone as well (how many times have I assumed the guise of “Mrs-C-with-a-cold” to try and sort out a minor squabble with a utility company?).

No, what makes things really very different in the online channel are those two old favourites: accessibility and recordability. The friction of having to find a benefits office, queue up, and try it on with the clerk by wearing a false moustache all disappears. You can be fast, anonymous and massively multi-tasked, using tools to try thousands of entry points and potential tokens simultaneously.

And what you do undertake, successfully or unsuccessfully, creates a record—leading to all sorts of other consequences—something that doesn’t happen when a guy in a fluorescent jacket glances at your water bill. Nobody writes anything down in lots of offline transactions—that’s important. Or captures and indexes it, for example, on video. (The indexing bit matters, by the way…but that’s taking us into the next area: the Nature of the Relationship.)

Oh, and I fear there’s one other powerful reason why this is so challenging for those who “think digitally”—a digital relationship is generally conceived as one of certainty—the bits match the requirement, ergo the door is unlocked; whereas everything above is an assembly of probabilities, seeing people less as people but as a collection of analogue risks, in a context where “good intent” and “assurance” are just shades of grey. No wonder we experience some cognitive dissonance in this area.

If you’re now drowning in a sea of uncertainty and looking lovingly back at that idea of sawing people open and extracting an inarguable(?) DNA sequence—congratulations. This is a highly normal response. Rushing back to a “unique identifier” to solve everything is pretty common. Engadget managed to do that neatly in their headline yesterday on the latest moves in US federal identity assurance—even though the source material talks about something rather different—a distributed identity framework. I’ll cover this, and the fallacy of the “unique ID” as a solution, in the next post: this dark business of the relationship that’s created as a result of digital transactions.

I might need my Greek hero and his friendly chelonian to help with that one. This stuff is not easy.

But what helps me sometimes, when thinking about this topic, is that this is a game you can play at home. Sort of. Every time you exchange anything about you (whether that involves your facial features, your money, or information about you) with anyone, anyone at all, online or offline, think about what’s actually being exchanged, why, and what the consequences could be. Try witholding everything except what turns out to be absolutely essential. Lie, subvert, play (within reason). It’s going to be useful to hone this awareness and these skills, I suspect.

Now read on…

Observe – feedback – fix

Congratulations Camden Council.

I’m in the process of fighting a case on behalf of #tweetbike about a little parking matter. That’s another story.

But at two stages in the appeal process so far I’ve been pointed to the online appeal process: http://www.camden.gov.uk/pcnobjections. Rather considerate design, one might think, offering a link straight to the objection page. Time-saving. User-centric. All that stuff.

However, if you’d used this link yesterday, you would have been redirected to a top level Penalty Charge Notices page. Which says at the top: “Make a Payment”, closely followed by “How do I avoid a penalty charge notice?” It’s hard to say which of these two are more annoying to someone who is specifically trying not to pay, and is clearly a bit past ‘avoidance’ help. Not a major crime (I suspect the link used to work, but after a bit of rejigging had become misdirected) but enough to cause a fair few people a bit of easily avoidable grrrr.

So I tweeted. Although I know some of the Camden guys, I deliberately didn’t point it at them, to see what would happen.

It got picked up.

And now it’s fixed. In less than 24 hours.

So, if you see something that’s easily fixable, do at least have a go at feeding back. It can work.