A few days ago my father – a passionate amateur photographer – fell foul of Canary Wharf’s pretend police. His crime? Taking a photo of a shadow of a tree on a building.

Initially it was two fake police which challenged him, demanding that he show them what photos he took on his camera. This not even the real police are entitled to do, and fake police certainly can not (since they have no more rights than you or I).

He quite rightly refused, at which point the fake coppers prevented him from leaving, and so committed the first actual crime.

More fake police arrived and the situation became increasingly tense, the fake police demanded that he show them the photos citing “terrorism” and “9/11″ and “The current climate” and said that taking a photo of a shadow was “not what normal people did”.

They threatened him by their physical presence, preventing him from leaving, and threatened to call the police. To which my father requested that they do so since it was the private security agents who were breaking the law (they of course didn’t call them).

The intimidation continued for about 40 minutes becoming increasingly farcical until the supervisor turned up, who was much less confrontational and admitted that they had no right to demand to see his photos or to detain him. My father, who was not feeling very well and was getting tired, showed the photo and was finally permitted to leave.

To his credit, my father kept his cool throughout although he now wishes that he hadn’t capitulated. We are now investigating possible legal action against the private security firm responsible and their agents.

This sort of scenario appears to be happening more often, and it is happening thanks to the passive co-operation of the public. It is understandable that people do give in at times – especially in situations like this where 20 odd 6ft something men were sent to intimidate one gentlemen in his 60s carrying a camera, however it is the general climate of passive acceptance that lets governments and corporations think we can get away with it.

Fundamentally, you have the right to film, take photos, say, do or be anything and you don’t need permission to do so. This is the essence of freedom, and to let this right – which (if you excuse the hyperbole) was paid for with the blood of your ancestors – be lost is the only crime that really matters.

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” - John Gilmore, Time Magazine 6th December 1993

This quote – made almost 16 years ago – sums up in a nutshell why I love the internet sometimes.

As is obvious from the ongoing events this morning that the law firm Carter-Ruck didn’t really understand just how badly it was going to shoot itself in the foot when it gagged the Guardian newspaper in an attempt to prevent them reporting on open questions asked in parliament.

These questions referred to the Minton Report regarding illegal toxic waste dumping.

I guess we should really thank them, because had they not done I wouldn’t have this delicious feeling of schadenfreude as thousands of people find out about their client Trafigura illegally dumping toxic waste off the Ivory Coast, in possibly the largest toxic waste scandal of the 21st century.

The story broke this morning, and has been widely circulated around blogs and twitter, passed around like a note in a giant electronic classroom (Interestingly, at time of writing at least, the BBC have not picked up the story. Make of that what you will).

The internet is people (as my esteemed friend says so often), and when people are connected secrets become much harder to keep, and cover-ups much harder to orchestrate.

People power ftw.

Update: The gag order on the Guardian has been lifted shortly before they were due to appear in the high court.

Could the shitestorm generated could possibly have something to do with it..?

or maybe not.

Back in July I gave a talk at Oxford Geek Nights about the Digital Britain report entitled “#DigitalBritain fail” in which I discussed the Digital Britain report and some of it’s many shortcomings.

One of the potential courses of action I suggested that people could take was to essentially smile,  say “that’s nice dear” and continue innovating. To take the typically open source approach adopted by the guys at Open Streetmap (among others) and recreate proprietary datasets in the public domain.

I was therefore delighted when I came across the guys at Ernest Marples, who were attempting to provide a free version of the Postcode to location database.

As a bit of background; in the UK the state (via Royal mail holdings for which the state is the sole shareholder) has a monopoly on all postcode to location lookups. This monopoly is protected by crown copyright and a royal charter, which basically means that even though the dataset was produced using taxpayer’s money it is owned by the crown (in the case of crown copyright), and the charter means that nobody else is permitted to provide the same service.

This means that in order to do anything with postcodes you need to pay a licence fee to the post office, pricing the small players out of the game or limiting them to use a service provider such as Yahoo (which has it’s own terms of usage). A similar situation exists for geolocation in general, but in this instance you have to pay the Ordnance Survey.

This situation is archaic and was a hot topic at Barcamp Transparency. Data which are produced by taxpayer money should be freely available to all, and I had hoped that the dissolution of crown copyright would have been one of the first thing that the Digital Britain report recommended.

Yesterday, Ernest Marples announced in their blog that they were shutting down their service in the face of a legal challenge from Royal Mail, who pretty much accused them of stealing their database. Although the Ernest Marples guys were a little cagey about where they got their data (with hindsight this was probably a mistake) they did explicitly state that it was not using the Royal Mail database in any way.

Under the terms of the charter however, they are simply not permitted to provide this service and compete with Royal mail, and this is the basis of the legal challenge.

I am saddened to see this promising project go, and especially sorry to see that they don’t have the funds to get their day in court. A court case of this nature could provide a useful forum to hold a long overdue debate as to the relevance of the charter and crown copyright in general in the twenty-first century.

Crown copyright is a problem (as well as being morally dubious), and a monopoly is always bad (especially when state enforced). It is sad to see promising UK innovation stifled by entrenched interests, but it seems to be a reoccuring theme in modern Britain. As we have just seen it puts severe limits on just how far a project can go in opening up and recreating data sets, and this worries me.

I wish the project and it’s organisers all the best for the future.

Top image “postbox_20may2009_0830” by Patrick H. Lauke