EU passes telecoms reform – how the new regulations will affect you

Château de Villandry Gardens
Creative Commons License photo: geoftheref

The European Parliament passed into law a new set of telecoms regulations today. This creates a few new consumer rights and as such we could be seeing some changes in the mobile industry in the months to come.

What’s going to change for consumers?

  • Switching networks: Currently you can switch between networks and take your number by requesting a PAC code. It can currently take up to two days for the request to be processed; this has been cut to just one day.
  • Contract length: We’ve seen the move towards longer mobile contracts. First we had 18 month contracts which rapidly became the norm and now we’re seeing a lot of 24 month contracts. We’ve even seen 36 month contracts in the market. The new regulations mean that customers must have the option of choosing a 12 month contract and contracts cannot be longer than 24 months.
  • Various personal data & privacy changes.

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Britons say broadband is an essential utility

The worlds network
Creative Commons License photo: saschaaa

BBC News reported yesterday on research carried out by the Communications Consumer Panel showing that UK consumers are increasingly considering broadband to be an essential utility.

The chair of the Communications Consumer Panel Anna Bradley said: “The key message is that people think broadband is at a tipping point.

“It’s fantastically useful for everyone, essential for some now, but will be essential for everyone in the near future.

“It is being compared by consumers to gas and electricity – things which they think we all ought to have access to, almost as a right.”

Those questioned in the survey said people who did not have broadband would be at a disadvantage, missing out on services such as shopping, banking and public services as they were increasingly being delivered online.

DSCN0131.JPG
Creative Commons License photo: James Laurence Stewart

I’ve argued before on this blog, several times, that I believe internet access should be a fundamental right. Internet access is becoming a pre-requisite for being able to participate in society: being able to manage your bank account and finances, apply for a driving license and passport, keep in touch with friends via social networking sites and email, accessing entertainment via iPlayer and YouTube and shopping online at Amazon or eBay.

I’ve argued that it is disproportionate for somebody to lose their internet access for copyright theft, like in a draft law in France. It would seem like the British public agree with me on this one and our MEPs are backing us. Let’s hope that our digital rights continue to be protected.

MEPs support surfer's rights

European flag flying; Budapest Parliament
Creative Commons License photo: soylentgreen23

Congratulations to Members of the European Parliament for backing an amendment which respects and strengthens the rights of internet users:

The agreement therefore builds citizens’ rights under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms into EU telecoms legislation. Binding provisions state that any actions taken by Member States which have an impact on users’ access to, or use of, electronic communications services and applications must respect their fundamental rights and freedoms, especially their right to privacy, freedom of expression and access to information and their right to a judgment by an independent and impartial tribunal.

This amendment contradicts a draft French law which can ban people from the internet for downloading pirated material.

As much as I dislike piracy, I feel the French law is very dangerous and is a very disproportionate response to the problem of piracy. With so many services moving online (banking, government, communications & email, university applications and enrolment, e-learning, access to news and information), I’d argue that internet access is beginning to enter the realm where it should be considered a fundamental right of every person. A ban from the internet would fundamentally affect citizen’s ability to participate in their society. So whilst the state should be able to reserve the ability to take away that right when it is in the public interest (e.g. preventing crime, terrorism), it is very hard to argue that someone should lose their ability to participate in society for downloading pirated materials.

Let’s hope that this is accepted by EU telecoms ministers and passed into law.

It’d be interesting to see whether any countries presently have any charters for fundamental citizens rights with regards to the internet… anybody know?

Getting an informed, balanced political debate about science

What can be done to ensure an informed and balanced public and political debate of Science and Technology?

We're at the tipping point for climate change (bonus: face in the clouds)
Creative Commons License photo: kevindooley

The Oxford English Dictionary describes science as “…the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”1 But science is much more than that: most scientists enter the profession, and most scientific research is funded, because they believe science can greatly improve society. Usually, these goals of learning more about the world and improving society are coupled. However, new and cutting-edge research has been raising ever-increasing concerns about whether the research is benefitting or destroying society.

Scientists occasionally argue that their work should be judged on a purely scientific basis without consideration for the ethics and consequences of the research; but this neglects science’s responsibility to the community at large. As issues that affect all of us, it is important that a public debate is held about these topics and that scientists properly engage in it.

I believe there are three main barriers to a reasoned public debate.

Emotional responses blinding a scientific debate

In recent years, there has been an exponential increase in the number of scientific controversies involving ethical issues of “playing God”. These include stem cell research, cloning and genetically modified “Frankenstein” foods. For many people, the initial emotional response is that of disgust2 – something dubbed the “yuk response”. In order to have the more productive debate about the science, consequences and ethics behind the work, we must get past this initial emotional response.

Surgeons at work
Creative Commons License photo: salimfadhley

In one study, psychologist Philip Tetlock asked people to comment on the proposal to set up regulated markets to trade organs3. For most people, the response was that of moral outrage at treating sacred body parts as secular commodities to be traded. However, when the debate was reframed to neutralise the moral outrage (e.g. by exploring how organ trading would lead to a greater number of scarce organs being available to save more sacred lives), 40% of people toned down their opposition. Neutralising the moral outrage encouraged people to critically analyse the arguments in the debate and come to a more reasoned decision.

On many scientific issues, the “yuk response” is preventing a reasoned scientific debate from happening in the first place. As scientists, we should not ignore our moral guidance, but we must not allow the debate to be blinded by it.

Ensuring the media covers the debate accurately

The media plays an important role in informing society about issues which may affect them7. However, two factors lead to poor and inaccurate coverage of scientific issues:

1.       To maximise readership, the press likes to present scientific issues as a series of horror stories. We’re told that cloning will lead to designer armies of obedient soldiers and that nanotechnology-robots will turn the entire world into a blob of “grey goo”45. These poignant scenarios lead people to make their mind up before considering the scientific uncertainties, risks and benefits to the detriment of a good debate.

2.       To provide “balanced” coverage, journalists will try to cover both sides of the story. In a political or social dispute, such as whether the UK should join the Euro, it is reasonable that both sides should be treated equally and receive equal press coverage. However, it is inappropriate to treat the arguments of both sides in a “scientific-fact” controversy as equal. For example, the weight of evidence in favour of climate change is much greater than that against. Attempts by journalists to be “balanced” and present both sides equally give an inaccurate impression that there is still a great deal of scientific controversy about climate change6.

The Louvre
Creative Commons License photo: L.Brumm Photography

Scientists should be aware of the importance of the media in shaping debate and public opinions and that communicating the science can be as important as the science itself.

Engaging the people: Capturing the popular imagination

Because of cultural differences8 between science and art (e.g. science being concerned with truth; art about opinions), scientists tend to avoid the arts. However, given debate is all about opinions, scientists should not be afraid to utilise the arts to catalyse debate about issues of scientific importance.

For example, Dan Brown’s book “The Da Vinci Code” inspired a large amount of “real world” interest, television documentaries9 and archaeological research about the Holy Grail in Christian theology. In the same way, the arts can provoke discussion about important scientific issues10.

The arts will, of course, never replace the rigour of peer-reviewed papers and the scientific process; but as a complement can outline the major issues to the public in an interesting and engaging way without undermining the practice of science itself.

Conclusions

As science affects the whole of society, scientists have a moral obligation to inform, involve and engage the public in a debate about science. This should be achieved by focusing the debate on the important issues, ensuring they are portrayed accurately and inspiring discussion about them.

References

1.       Concise Oxford English Dictionary: Science
Online edition. Available from: http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/science?view=uk. (Retrieved 1 March 2009)

2.       New Scientist: Immoral advances: Is science out of control?
Jones, D. New Scientist, issue 2690, pp. 22-33. Available from: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126905.100-immoral-advances-is-science-out-of-control.html?full=true

3.       Trends in Cognitive Sciences: Thinking the unthinkable: sacred values and taboo cognitions
Tetlock, Philip E. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 7 issue 7, pp. 320-324. Available from:
http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/tetlock/Vita/Philip%20Tetlock/Phil%20Tetlock/2001-2003/2003%20Thinking%20the%20unthinkable….pdf

4.       The Guardian: Brave new world or miniature menace? Why Charles fears grey goo nightmare
Radford, Tim. The Guardian, 29 April 2003. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2003/apr/29/nanotechnology.science

5.       Institute of Physics Press Release: ‘Grey goo’ misconceptions could harm poor in developing world
Institute of Physics Press Release, 27 January 2004. Available from: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-01/iop-gm012704.php

6.       The Independent: Reporters feel the heat over climate change
Ward, B. The Independent, 10 March 2008. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/reporters-feel-the-heat-over-climate-change-793586.html

7.       Public Opinion Quarterly: The Agenda-Setting Role of the Mass Media in the Shaping of Public Opinion
McCombs, M. Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 36, pp. 176-187. Available from: http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/extra/McCombs.pdf

8.       The University Blog: Science vs. Art
Blog. 14 March 2008. Available from: http://theuniversityblog.co.uk/2008/03/14/science-vs-art/. (Retrieved 1 March 2009)

9.       Priory-of-sion.com: Da Vinci Code Documentaries
Website. Available from: http://priory-of-sion.com/dvc/documentaries.html. (Retrieved 1 March 2009)

10.   The Guardian: ‘Space flight can be as luminous as any novel’
Radford, Tim. The Guardian, 11 April 2008. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/apr/11/highereducation.comment

Notes

This essay was originally prepared for an essay writing competition at my college. I have decided to share it here as I feel it could be of interest to regular readers. Comments and thoughts very welcome.

Could Free Starbucks Win the Election for Obama?

barack obama
Creative Commons License photo: patrick dentler

The day of the US presidential election is approaching. There is an expected turnout of 80%. Both parties have worked very hard to register as many new voters as possible and companies such as MTV and Starbucks have been encouraging people to register to vote.

Starbucks is offering a free cup of coffee to those who vote on November 4th. How could this distort the results of the election?

Well, It seems pretty logical that the people who feel strongly about whether they are Republican or Democrat or have a strong preference for either Obama or McCain are the people who would vote anyway, regardless of incentives such as free coffee. So this promotion probably wouldn’t affect whether they would vote.

Swing and undecided voters, on the other hand, may not vote without an additional incentive such as free coffee. If, say, undecided voters mostly lean towards Obama – the incentive of free coffee at Starbucks would benefit Obama in the polls by encouraging the undecided voters to go to the polling station and to vote for him.

Two shots of espresso please!
Creative Commons License photo: aubrey arenas

It would certainly be an interesting research to see whether this promotion or other incentives may distort the results of the election. The “Starbucks Stores per Capita” differs immensely between each of the states. The District of Columbia for example has 1.18 Starbucks for every 10,000 people – nearly 22 times as many Starbucks stores per capita to Arkansas which has 0.054 Starbucks for 10,000 people. Swing state Virginia has the 11th highest “Starbucks per Capita” of the states. If the Starbucks promotion does have an effect on swing voter turnout, we would expect the biggest effects to be in a) the states with the highest concentration of Starbucks and b) cities (which are of course more liberal than small town America) where people are more likely to have a Starbucks nearby.

I’m exaggerating the effects of a free cup of coffee on the election results you say. Perhaps so. But research has shown it can be quite easy to “prime” people to affect who and what they vote for. For example, research found that people who used a church as their local polling station were less supportive of gay marriage.

Another piece of research looked at a 2000 ballot initiative in Arizona to increase spending on education:

The authors…divided the precincts between schools and non-schools, and found that voters who voted in a school had a marginal preference (3 points) for the initiative.

I am all yours...
Creative Commons License photo: HAMED MASOUMI

And when I spoke to some local activists for the Labour Party (UK) earlier this year, they suggested that the Gordon Brown calls an election before 2009. Not because they believe he is more likely to win: they believe that Gordon Brown losing the next general election is already a done deal. It’s because the local elections are also due to be held in 2009. And having the general election at the same time as the local one would mean Brown’s personal unpopularity would rub off onto the rest of the Labour party and their local councillors.

There are many subtle ways of affecting the results of an election. Could free Starbucks have a significant one?

Obama adds 11MB to everyone's Vista install

Superdelegate
Creative Commons License photo: jurvetson

It seems like Barack Obama has added 11MB to installs of Windows Vista across the world and is responsible for Microsoft pumping a 56MB download across the world.

The Register reports.

That’s an awful lot of megs, to be sure – just how many words are we talking about here? Microsoft explains:

The words “Friendster,” “Klum,” “Nazr,” “Obama,” and “Racicot” are not recognized when you check the spelling in Windows Vista and in Windows Server 2008.

Oh, and it’s an important update. It means that you won’t get Osama suggested for when you type Obama into Microsoft Word Mozilla Firefox still suggests Osama as a correction for Obama.

Does your name trigger a red wavy underline or an interesting spelling suggestion in Microsoft Word?

Via Uneasy Silence.

£100,000 – the real cost of going to university

nature x2
Creative Commons License photo: B a m s h a d

As a student currently embarking on a university degree, I’m looking forward to the freedom university will offer and meeting a whole bunch of new people from across the world. But one major worry is the finance: the cost of going to university.

Many people only look at tuition fees when they think about going to university. In the UK, university tuition is roughly £3,000 a year. For a 4 year masters degree course, this adds up to £12,000.

Tuition Fees: £12,000

 

But there’s the cost of accommodation, which is typically at least as large as the tuition costs. The cost of accommodation varies. In some of the larger cities, a room will typically cost £120/week. In some smaller town universities, £80/week might be closer to the norm. A 40-week let on university accommodation will set you back £4,000 a year. However, in later years of university, most students will live outside of university halls and this will be more expensive. Assuming an average accommodation cost of £4,500 per year, this adds up to £18,000 over a 4 year degree course.

Accommodation Cost: £18,000

 

sheffield, hidden sunrise
Creative Commons License photo: paolo màrgari

There is a much bigger cost which most people don’t even think about. Because studying at university and getting a full-time job are mutually exclusive options, by choosing to go to university you are actually saying “I will not be going to work” as well as “I will be going to university”. Economists call this the opportunity cost.

By choosing to study at university, you are foregoing 4 years of salary which you would have earnt otherwise. The typical starting salary for somebody leaving school with A-Levels but no university degree is £15,000 a year. By working, you’d potentially have earnt £60,000.

Opportunity Cost: £60,000

 

The other significant cost which needs to be considered is housing. Over the last few years, house prices in the UK have been rising by about 10% a year. What this means is that a house which will cost £100,000 today will cost £110,000 this time next year. Leaving university with £30,000 of debt and without £60,000 of salary means that university graduates must wait even longer before they can put together a deposit and get a foot on the housing ladder. On top of that, graduates may have to take out a larger mortgage on their first home because they cannot make a large upfront payment. Obviously, the appreciation in housing value depends on market conditions, but I think £10,000 is a reasonable ballpark estimate.

Housing Appreciation Cost: £10,000

 

So to sum it all up, when we take in all the costs of university:

£3,000 a year for tuition X 4 years = £12,000
£4,500 a year for accommodation X 4 years = £18,000
Direct Financial Costs: £30,000

£15,000 a year could have earnt in basic non-graduate job X 4 years = £60,000
Opportunity Cost: £60,000

House price rise in the additional time you must wait before buying = £10,000 (obviously this depends on whether house prices are rising)
Housing Appreciation Cost: £10,000

Total Cost of going to university: £100,000

It’s pretty depressing reading. University is a very, very expensive enterprise. It’s easy to see from these calculations why so many lower income families find it very difficult to send their children to university.

Flying Caps
Creative Commons License photo: Thiru Murugan

But I think it also calls into question whether it’s worth going to university to study certain degrees. According to the government’s graduate prospects website, graduates in humanities earn £51,549 more in their lifetime and graduates in arts earn £34,949 more. Are the real costs of going to university greater than the benefits?

On average for all degree courses, those who graduate from university earn on average £160,000 more over their lifetime. This would still seem to indicate that going to university is good value for money. But the net benefit is probably less than people would think.

I really don’t want to put anybody off studying at university and I don’t think money should ever stop anybody from pursuing their dreams. But what is true is that going to university is an extremely expensive enterprise these days and students may be getting a bit of a raw deal.

Cuba the only sustainable developed country in the world

P9062903
Creative Commons License photo: Topyti

The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet report (full report as PDF) is an interesting read. Page 19 of the report contains an interesting observation. The graph plots Human Development Index against Ecological Footprint.

The Human Development Index is the UN’s measure for standard of living and development. “Human Development Index (HDI) is an index combining normalized measures of life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment, and GDP per capita for countries worldwide.” The threshold for acceptable human development is defined as a HDI of 0.8.

The Ecological Footprint measures the use of natural resources and effects on the ecosystem.

It compares human consumption of natural resources with planet Earth’s ecological capacity to regenerate them. It is an estimate of the amount of biologically productive land and sea area needed to regenerate (if possible) the resources a human population consumes and to absorb and render harmless the corresponding waste, given prevailing technology and current understanding.

An ecological footprint of 1 means that if everybody in the world made use of resources in the same way as the citizens in this country, the Earth could just sustain it. An ecological footprint of 2 means two planet Earths would be needed to sustain this lifestyle if everybody in the world lived like this. Of course, if the ecological footprint is more than one planet Earth, this lifestyle is not sustainable.

The Car in front is a Desoto
Creative Commons License photo: Drown

As you’d expect, the two are correlated. The higher the standard of living, the greater the ecological footprint.

It’s interesting to note that the only country which is sustainably developed is Cuba. If everybody on Earth was to adopt the Cuban lifestyle, everybody would have an acceptable standard of living and we would be operating at 80% of our planet’s ecological capacity.

What this suggests is that if everybody in the world adopted the lifestyle of US citizens, we would need more than 5 planet Earths to sustain it. The USA is obviously appropriating well more than it’s fair share of natural resources.

Of course, I’m not seriously suggesting we all adopt Cuban laws and lifestyles but I think it’s a good way of visualising how sustainable the lifestyles of different countries are. Perhaps there are a few ideas we could adopt from Cuba though.

The Problem with Fuel Taxes and Road Pricing

8th Ave .....Midtown Manhattan
Creative Commons License photo: 708718

Congestion and pollution are two “external costs to society” which are associated with driving. When you take your car out of the garage and take a trip down to the local supermarket or pick up the kids from school, you are imposing costs on other people: exhaust fumes which others must breathe and you take up space on the road contributing to traffic jams.

To correct for social costs, governments use taxes to make sure the individual pays for the costs they impose on society or to “internalise the external costs”. There are three taxes which are used to try and discourage driving:

  • VAT on Buying a Car
  • Road Tax
  • Fuel Tax

People hate taxes. People remark that death and taxes are the only two certain things in life and I think that fuel tax is one of the most hated (in the UK, fuel tax is 64p for every litre). The government argue that this fuel tax is to correct for “external costs” but I will argue that the fuel taxes is unfair and are targeting the wrong people.

The Costs of Driving

Comings & Goings
Creative Commons License photo: Pro-Zak

Urban motorists impose greater external costs on society. City roads are full to their capacity and that means traffic jams everywhere. An extra car on the road is only going to make it worse. Congestion wastes everybody’s time. Secondly, population density is so much higher in cities meaning that the exhaust fumes produced will affect a lot more people. And not to mention noise pollution…

In contrast, rural roads are much quieter and less congested. Because there is so much spare capacity on the roads, an extra car on a rural road isn’t really going to add to congestion or effect anybody else. And although exhaust fumes are still emitted and noise pollution is still produced, it effects a lot less people: there are less people for it to affect.

So the external costs imposed by drivers in cities are greater than the external costs imposed by drivers in the country.

The effects of taxes

Beijing smog
Creative Commons License photo: kevindooley

When you buy a car, you pay value added tax on the vehicle. To keep the car on the road, you must also pay road tax. Both of these taxes will discourage people to own a car because they increase the cost of owning one. But once you own a car and it’s licensed to drive on the road, these taxes will play no part in your decision about whether to use the car to drive to work or not: whether you use it or not you’ve already paid the tax. And whether you live in the city or the country you pay the same amount of VAT and road tax.

The other tax is fuel tax. This affects people’s decision on whether to drive to work or school. If it costs £2 to drive to work you might choose to do it every day but if it cost £8 you’d probably only drive if it was raining or for some reason the trains weren’t operating.

As I’ve mentioned, the external costs of urban driving are greater. So a fair tax which “internalises external costs” should penalise urban drivers more. But the taxes on urban driving are actually lower than taxes on rural driving. Places in the city are situated much closer to each another and so less fuel is needed to drive between them. As the amount of tax paid is directly linked to the amount of petrol used, this means urban motorists are paying less tax than rural motorists. This is unfair.

Is it essential to drive?

Il terzo occhio
Creative Commons License photo: fabbio

Another factor that economists must consider is “how necessary is it to drive?”

In the city, there are a huge range of alternatives to driving. In London, there is a flat rate 90p charge on all bus journeys, where ever in London you go. Buses are also very frequent: you shouldn’t have to wait any more than 10 minutes. I’ve found that I rarely have to wait more than a few minutes.

When I’m in the country, it often costs £3 for a single bus journey and the bus only comes once an hour or sometimes even every 2 hours. And there is about a 20 minute window for the time that the bus arrives.

In the city, everything is also much closer to each another. That makes cycling or walking a much more viable option.

So in the country there is often no choice except from to drive because everything is so far away from each another and there are no viable public transport options. In these areas, motorists must pay extortionate amount of taxes. Meanwhile urban city drivers, with the luxury of viable alternatives such as the bus, escape with lower amounts of tax. I think this is the fundamental unfairness of fuel tax.

Solving the problem

Sam Houston Tollway
Creative Commons License photo: billjacobus1

The problem is that fuel tax penalises the wrong people. The solution is to tax urban drivers more to account for the greater amount of “external costs” they impose by driving.

In London we also have the congestion charge zone (£8 to enter Central London per day) and the low emission zone (£200 per day for heavy polluting vehicles to enter London). I think this somewhat solves the issue but it’s only restricted to London.

A few years ago the Labour government floated plans for a national road charging scheme.

Motorists will receive regular bills, possibly monthly, charged at variable rates by time and geography: rural country lanes would likely be charged at the bottom of the range, around 2p a mile, with inner city rush hour roads attracting the top £1.30 rate. The government hopes motorists will change their driving habits – by staggering journeys, sharing cars or switching to public transport – to the extent that there could be a 50% cut in congestion.

From a point of view of an economist, I feel that this is the perfect solution to the problem. It would reduce congestion which would lead to time savings for everybody and stop country motorists from being unfairly penalised.

In 2007, 1.7 million people signed a petition against the national road charging scheme. The idea seems to have fallen from the agenda. Because of the inherent unfairness in fuel taxation, I hope the government will reconsider a national road charging scheme.

Gordon Brown wants Apprentice-style TV reality show

Gordon Brown - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2007
Creative Commons License photo: World Economic Forum

In what must be the strangest news I’ve heard in a while, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wants to star in his own Apprentice-style TV reality show

The email from producer Margaret McCabe pitched the show, which would feature aspiring politicians as contestants, as being targeted for the “Apprentice meets Maria/Strictly Come Dancing audience”.

The memo added that the show was “not stunt TV” and as a judge, Brown could become “more popular than Alan Sugar”.

A spokesman for Blears confirmed that a reality show was in the works: “It is a very worthy programme idea. These young people would engage and have some kind of competition, and then there would be a way of electing a young prime minister for a day.

“The idea is to get more young people interested in politics. But it hasn’t been commissioned yet. It is very early days.”

It has been documented before that Gordon Brown is a big fan of the X Factor.

I think it’s interesting how Gordon Brown is such an unpopular prime minister that he now feels like he needs to be a judge in a television reality show. There will of course be worries that this show could cheapen politics. I can’t remember whether it was just an idea which was floated or an idea which actually happened in some country, but people talked about having a reality show to determine a candidate who would stand for Member of Parliament. Of course, the problem is the winner of the show has had an unfair amount of publicity and would probably easily win election based on the fact they were once on TV, regardless of whether their politics were actually any good.

Anyway, the “Junior PM” project is still in the very early days so it’ll be interesting to see whether it gets any further.