What is Legal Tender?

You often hear of someone declaring their money legal tender.

A bus driver going “Sorry, can’t take twenties” to which the person responds “but it’s legal tender!”

A person trying to pay in ASDA in England with a Scottish £20 note, the shopkeeper going “what’s this then?” “That’s legal tender that is, you gotta take it, it’s Sterling and everything”.

But Legal Tender has a very very specific meaning.

Firstly: None of the situations above were concerned in any way with legal tender. The following situation however is:

Someone at the end of a cab ride, trying to pay a £15 fare with a £20 note.

So, what’s the difference between that situation, and the bus fare situation presented above?

Debt. In the first three situations, you were paying for a service or goods in advance of receiving the service or goods. In the cab ride example however, you were paying for the service after having received it. In essence you were attempting to discharge the debt you had incurred.

This brings us to our first conclusion:

Legal Tender applies only when attempting to discharge a debt.

Now, To refine this a bit, Credit Cards are not legal tender. Vouchers are not legal tender. A Bank Transfer is not legal tender. If it was then cabs would have to accept a bank transfer. They (usually) don’t. In fact, Legal Tender applies only to cash – notes and coins.

Picking apart the term itself: To tender is “to offer or present formally”. A legal tender is a legal offer. Thus, Legal Tender is strictly:

An offer (of cash) to discharge a debt that cannot be refused.

Strictly this applies onto to paying money to a court to discharge a debt – it prevents you being sued for non-payment, but the end result is that effectively cash becomes a required way of accepting payment for a debt. There is an important caveat: There is no obligation for change under a Legal Tender situation, so you’d better pay with exact money!

Now, there’s a few restrictions here. So don’t try and pay off a £100 restaurant meal with 5 pence pieces. Because that offer wouldn’t actually be legal tender.

Why? Because there are restrictions on how much each denomination of currency is valid legal tender for.
50p – up to £10
20p – up to £10
10p – up to £5
5p – up to £5
2p – up to 20p
1p – up to 20p

Coins and notes higher than 50p are valid legal tender for any amount.

So far everything I’ve said has been true… For England.

When you consider Scotland (in particular) things get funky.

Firstly no Scottish Notes are legal tender in England. Only notes from the Bank of England are. Similarly no English notes are legal tender in Scotland – although this is for a different reason – Scotland has no concept of Legal Tender! Instead the creditor must accept any reasonable offer to discharge the debt, so if, for some reason, meters of bubble-wrap became a standard way to pay for things, then it could be construed as a reasonable offer, and thus the creditor would be obliged to accept it to pay off the debt!

There’s one aside I’m going to make here – technically, when I talk about “Scottish Notes” I’m conflating several different notes, because in Scotland  seven retail banks can print notes, that are backed by Bank of England funds. The system for this is that the Bank of England essentially says to the banks “You can print this much money”, with the amount carefully chosen to keep the values between Scottish notes and BoE notes on par.

And now, as a final aside, to that aside. I said that the Scottish Notes are “backed” by the Bank of England. This probably conjured up images of a huge gold vault somewhere underneath central London. Well….. I’m sorry to burst that bubble, but the BoE only has a fraction of gold to “back” the amount of money in circulation. Technically there is no currency on Earth that is backed by anything – all the money on Earth is “backed” by is the value that other people believe it has.  But the loopy idea of fiat money – money without any physical backing to its value, is something for another time. And that, reader, is a nice, comforting note to end the article on…. right?

On Pornography

Welp. Cameron’s done it. Bent over backwards to introduce unworkable, unrelated policies in a confused mess designed to appeal to comfort traditional Tory Middle-Class Daily Mail reading idiots I mean, voters.

So let’s look at the proposals he has outlined.

  1. A ‘crackdown’ on those accessing child pornography/ child abuse images.
  2. Internet Filters that will by default block access to all pornography on those using residential ISPs.
  3. The criminalisation of simulated rape pornography.

The crackdown.

I don’t think many people would disagree with child sexual abuse being absolutely disgusting. My mum was a Special Educational Needs teacher, and she has worked with children who have been abused. It is so wrong the damage it can do to them. That out of the way, let’s have a look at this

The way this is currently handled is you have CEOP, a branch of the police, who track down the people committing the abuse, rescue children, and find people who are viewing the content. You have the IWF, an independent charity who handle reports of child abuse images submitted by the public. They create the blacklist of URLs that is passed to search engines and ISPs to block access, and filter out those pages containing the content. They also forward information to CEOP and equivalent agencies worldwide after deeming content to be potentially illegal.

The proposals include getting search engines to redirect results, so someone searching for “child sex” for example, might get results for “child sex education”. There will also be pages displayed when someone tries to access a page blocked under this scheme that will warn them that looking for such material is a criminal offence. I imagine it would look similar to the ICE notice placed on seized domains by the US Government.

The thing here though, is that Google (and most other search engines) already remove results pointing to child abuse imagery. My thoughts on the IWF being the determiners for what gets blocked (which they already do)  are long enough for another blog post – but suffice it to say, I’m not sure that an independent, unaccountable charity should have “special permission” to view and classify the images without any form of oversight – especially as it’s generally hard to work out that something has been blocked – See the Wikipedia Blocking Fiasco. I have another point about the effectiveness of blocking content – but that will be the main thrust of the next section.

 

Blocking of Pornography

So, the second issue is the implementation of filters on Residential UK Broadband connections that will prohibit access to porn, should the account holder not opt-out of the blocks. This is a further example of how our internet use is getting more and more restricted over time. First they had CleanFeed, which blocked the IWFs list. Then they blocked The Pirate Bay and other similar sites. Now they want to block Pornography (albeit on an opt-out basis for the moment).

So, firstly what is pornography? Images of oral, anal or vaginal sex? How about “Kink” images of bondage, where no genitalia are visible? Pictures of female breasts? Cameron has already announced that Page 3 won’t be blocked.

mailWeb

How about the written word – many fan-fiction pieces get very steamy, not to mention the entire erotica bookcase at your local bookshop (or Sainsburys).

Of course, our mobile internet connections are already filtered by default – so we can look at those to see what will be blocked. “User-generated content sites”. Oh yes, I suppose they could contain pornography. Reddit in fact has many sub-reddits dedicated to such things. ISPs have even indicated that categories such as “anorexia”, “web forums:” and even “esoteric content” may be blocked. Of course, one natural side effect of that will be the (accidental) blocking of sexual education resources. No filter is 100% perfect, so it’s inevitable that sites will get blocked. We can look at what mobile operators have blocked “by mistake” in the past – a church website blocked as adult, a political opinion blog(!) and even eHow – a site that posts tutorials and educates on how to do everyday things.

This is to say nothing of the LGBT websites that might be blocked – vital resources for any person questioning their gender or sexuality – but especially for young people who may not feel comfortable talking with their parents about these things. This by itself will actively cause harm (if these proposals didn’t cause harm I wouldn’t be so strongly against them), but there is further harm to come from these – parental complacency.

There are bad parents. There are parents who don’t communicate with their children. We all know they exist. And any right minded parent would fear their children seeing something on the internet that they weren’t ready to see. But these filters will make parents think their kids are “safe”. That they don’t need to talk with their kids about sex, about things they might see on the internet, that they don’t need to use the internet with their children. So when children do stumble across adult content, they’ll be even less prepared to talk about it. And these filters suppose one thing – that the children are less tech-savvy than those writing the filters. Anyone who has worked with children, or works in Computer Software will know how fast kids adapt to new technology. Those older children who do want to seek out this material aren’t stupid. They’ll know how to get around these filters – unless you want to block searches for proxies (or VPNs for those more technically inclined). And all the time the parents will think their kids are safe, and wrapped securely in cotton wool. This is possibly one of the most damaging effects.

Simulated Rape Pornography

The final measure announced in this slate of news was the criminalisation of simulated rape pornography – aiming to close a loophole in Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act – affectionately known as the “Extreme Porn Law”. To be clear this proposal is talking about the banning of consensual, fictional “rape-play” images. For context – studies from the late 70s and 80s have shown that the idea of forced sex is one of the most common fantasies. Somewhat amusingly this announcement came shortly after the Crown Prosecution Service had adjusted the prosecution guidelines for offences under this act.

To try and criminalise images of consensual, legal things is utter madness. My objections to this are very much the same as my objections to the original section of the act. It makes the assumption that we are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. It makes the assumption that there is evidence of harm by looking at consensual images. We’re happy to let people run around and kill simulated people, but to watch a consensual act is somehow damaging. To me this stems from our cultures attitude towards sex in general. Which is that it’s something to be done behind closed doors, without disturbing the neighbours, and without discussing it afterwards. To something so natural, that’s a very weird attitude. It, incidentally, is the same reason I believe the pornography-blocking proposals will cause harm.

Summary

Overall, these proposals are terrible. They won’t work, they’ll cause actual harm, and they’ll make people with common fantasies feel victimised.

You can sign the OpenRightsGroup petition here, and a DirectGov ePetition here – although neither address the criminalisation of simulated rape.

eBooks, Apple, Amazon and pricing

Given the recent US judgement against Apple in US courts for eBook price fixing, I figured my views would make a decent topic for another post here.

Firstly, some history.

When eBooks first started becoming mainstream (before iBooks was launched), eBooks were sold using the traditional “wholesale” pricing model. This model is the same as the one used to sell physical books everywhere. The publisher has a wholesale price they sell to retailers at, who are then free to determine their own pricing on their shelves – creating the situation where one retailer may have a book at $12.99, whilst another might have it at $11.99, with the wholesale cost being less than this cost (bookstores have storage, customer service etc overheads). It’s common for retailers to occasionally sell books as “loss leaders” – such things happen mostly with popular new releases – where the retailer chooses to sell the book below wholesale price (i.e. less than they paid) to encourage more people to visit the shop and spend more (due to feeling that they got a “good deal”).

The benefit of this pricing model is obvious – in theory market forces will lower the prices for the consumer by ensuring that there is competition between retailers, and new retailers can enter the ring to try and compete.

When Amazon first launched the Kindle the eBooks were sold with the wholesale model. However, Amazon sold every eBook as a “loss leader” in an attempt to sell more Kindles. They sold for $9.99, whilst being bought by Amazon for $13. Due to a combination of factors including Amazons (at the time) huge eBook market share – over 90% according to the WSJ; Publishers insistence on DRM causing consumer Lock-In; The possibility of Amazons pricing becoming ‘right’ (and thus a ‘loss for publishers); and the general tension between publishers and Amazon, Publishers wanted to raise eBook prices quickly. But with no major competitor their negotiation position was poor – at the time if they didn’t put eBooks on Amazon, their eBook sales would be decimated.

Enter Apple. Apple based its iBooks pricing on the model used in the iTunes Store – so called ‘Agency Pricing’. In this pricing model the publisher decides the retail price, and it has to be sold for that price – the retailer simply gets a percentage cut of that price (in Apples case, 30%). Suddenly the publishers could work with Apple to break Amazons stranglehold on the eBook market. Apple included a clause in the contract for the iBook Store that stated that eBooks must not be sold less elsewhere – i.e. if it was sold cheaper elsewhere then that price had to be used in the iBook Store as well. With these contracts in place the Publishers suddenly had a much stronger position to negotiate with Amazon.

For a short while Amazon held out – causing the infamous situation of an entire publishers catalogues becoming unavailable overnight. Eventually Amazon gave way and allowed publishers to use the Agency Pricing model on Kindle eBooks. Ebooks on Amazon now cost more than the old “wholesale” price due to collaboration between the major publishers and Apple. The seeds for the Price Fixing charge had been sown.

A couple of notes before moving in to my own opinions on the case. Some publishers are now experimenting with DRM-Free eBooks. The proliferation of alternative devices has meant that ePub is now the dominant standard for eBook formats – in all cases except Kindle which still uses the MobiPocket standard. Publishers also claim that physical production and transportation of a book is only a tiny fraction of a books cost.

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Right, my own thoughts on this. It’s clear that Apple and the Publishers did break the law. They collaborated as a cartel to raise consumer prices. One of the few kinds of behaviour that is ‘per-se illegal’ (illegal in and of itself) is horizontal price fixing, that is fixing the price across an entire market. There is no defence in law.

That said, morally I’m not sure it’s wrong. The market back when the Agency model was introduced was heavily skewed in Amazons favour (and the publishers position was incredibly weak). They were a monopoly, and charging all ebooks as loss leaders meant it would be very hard for another store to break into the market, unless they could offer something above Amazons offering (which being cloudy is very seamless). If Apple hadn’t managed to break Amazons pricing structure its possible that their own eBook store wouldn’t have been anywhere nearly as successful – especially given there is a Kindle app for iOS. Yes consumers ended up paying more for eBooks – but for the convenience of having them anywhere and having hundreds in my pocket I’d be willing to pay a premium. That premium was, in my opinion, needed as a means of breaking up the market. I’d also argue that Amazon was abusing its dominant position by selling as a blanket loss leader.

It should be said however, that now that Apple has been forbidden from using the Agency model, I have no idea what is going to happen to eBook prices now. The public has become used to the near-retail prices of eBooks, I doubt that a switch to wholesale would see any decrease in price from Apple.

Finally as a disclaimer: I don’t like Amazon as a bookstore. I say this whilst having Amazon Prime, and having ordered books from them recently, and many over the years. Their attempts to become fully integrated vertically by becoming a direct publisher, their questionable practises of remotely wiping books from Kindles, and their sheer advantage of economies of scale disturbs me. When possible I buy from brick and mortar stores, but I must hold my hands up and say that I do still order from Amazon – particularly if I don’t have plans to go to the nearest bookshop within 24 hours. I’m very weak willed when it comes to book purchasing. It’s entirely plausible that this has tainted my own opinions, although I hope they still make logical sense without them.

Jury Nullification

I saw this post on Tumblr today about Jury Nullification

An image promoting Jury Nullification

An image promoting Jury Nullification

The image had had some text added by a tumblr user as a comment

This is something that more people should be aware of, if only because (in many states, at least) defense attorneys are actually prohibited from mentioning it to jurors. The law allows a jury to return a “not guilty” verdict contrary to the facts of the case, but not for the defense to inform them of that power or to argue for its application in the current trial.

And I decided it would be a good idea to cross-post my response here, as legal issues are something I’m passionate about myself.

My Response

Jury Nullification is….. yeah.

I mean, I know it’s a thing, and it does, on the face of it, seem like an important thing. But the entire principle of the Jury is that they are Finders of Fact. That is, their entire role is to determine only whether a law has been broken. Don’t misunderstand me – it’s a vital and very important role – 12(ish) random men and women drawn from amongst the general population. To judge whether a particular fact has occurred.

The issue with Jury Nullification (for me) is that, although it sounds like it’s an amazing thing, and it brings to mind all kinds of nice images of “giving it to the man”, it’s not that simple.

There are the scenarios presented where for instance 12 jurors return not guilty for someone who is in court for light cannabis use – to pick a US example. Or copyright infringement.

But this ignores other potential situations. 12 is a tiny number. It could be easy to get 12 people who think “an eye for an eye” is perfectly fine, and so will vote Not Guilty for some crime done in retribution. Or 12 people who are racist and thus vote not guilty simply because the victim was black.

And of course, there’s the other side – where the Jury vote Guilty even when the evidence is slip-shoddy, because the defendant was black, or (and this is a serious actual problem) they believe anyone who the police have arrested must be guilty.

The reason why Jury Nullification is awkward is because these are 12 individual people, answerable to no-one (In the UK speaking about Jury Deliberations can lead to a charge of Contempt of Court for the Juror), whilst the law-makers who actually make the law are elected by the entire population, answerable to them, and thus (in theory) create laws based on the overall will of the people. Therefore Jury Nullification is (in theory) the minority overriding the majority. (Which, while not always bad, is definitely a warning sign in any justice system claiming to be by the people)

Jury Nullification isn’t as awesome as it’s made out to be – it is very problematic due to the reasons outlined above. It’s not even really an actual thing. There’s no law that states “Juries may return a verdict of Not Guilty if their conscience disagrees with the law” – technically Juries don’t even create the punishment; sentencing is purely in the judges domain. Instead Jury Nullification is an unpreventable thing arising from the fact that Jury Verdicts are meant to be simple findings of fact, with no moral judgements made by the Jury. It is an innate part of a justice system where the defendants peers are responsible for deciding whether a law has been broken.

So it exists, but it is also a dangerous thing, as it undermines the entire principle of Juries being simple Finders of Fact – hence why in some jurisdictions it is not allowed to be mentioned to jurors.

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As something I’ll add just to this blog entry, I’d say that Jury Nullification is a simple principle that can lead to a whole mess of chaos – especially for the uncertainty it can create should either side appeal the verdict. In certain, limited cases it can prove useful, and is potentially a last line of defence against unjust laws. The problem is that different people have vastly different opinions about whether a law is just or unjust – and this is why it is such a dangerous thing to publicise directly to jurors.

Some ramblings on data silos and online identity

I have a problem with Google.

Google know far too much about me, and they also hold far too much of my data. Their policy of ‘don’t be evil’ isn’t comforting, especially with their recent increased product-cull rate and their lack of support among other things. All it would take is their login process to be compromised and anyone could have access to my data. If you think that’s unlikely, you should read about how their two-factor authentication lead to full account access without the second factor, nor the accounts master password.

There’s also the issue of US law enforcement having essentially carte-blanche access to the data Google owns. As someone who takes privacy seriously this sort of thing worries me.

So, what services do I use that belong to Google?

  • Email
  • Calendar
  • Contacts
  • Browsing History, Chrome extensions, bookmarks etc. (through Chrome Sync)
  • Search History
  • YouTube History
  • Old Blogger accounts
  • Google+ account
  • RSS feeds that I followed back when Google Reader was a thing.
  • Old Google Wave postings
  • Purchases through Google Checkout
  • Documents/Files in Google Docs (including University work)
  • Location information – through Google Maps searches, journey planning etc.
  • Information about websites I own through Google Analytics – even this blog.

Given Google’s lack of support for anything (even their paid Google Apps accounts aren’t much better), if I should loose access to my Google account overnight, the effect would be immediate and devastating. I’d loose access to my email until I could get a mail server online (or a different provider) and redirect the DNS. I’d have to hope that my IMAP backups worked. My Calendar and Contacts would become unsynced – Calendar is something I use quite a lot, often updating it on different devices relatively frequently. Loss of other information wouldn’t be quite as devastating, although Google Docs/Drive access would inconvenience me a lot.

My other worry, given my privacy, is how complete a picture could be drawn up should someone go through all this. They’d be able to find me on multiple services through sign-up/notification emails. They’d find all my blog postings from previous blogs.

All of this has been percolating inside me for a long time. As someone who really doesn’t like this kind of data correlation to be easy, or to be going on without me knowing, it bugs me. I’m a paid supporter of the ORG (it’s the UK’s version of the EFF); I use, advocate and run a relay for Tor. I take my privacy seriously. It’s somewhat ironic given how public I can be on sites like Twitter, and Tumblr. Notice how I didn’t link to my Tumblr? That’s because I don’t want to publicly link the content there to here, or to my real life identity.

It’s kind of funny in a way. I have posted links to my Tumblr on my Facebook and Twitter before, but despite that I still like to think that it’s semi-private. It’s not linked via a common username like some of my other accounts are. This (unintentionally) brings me nicely to the second half of this post. My online identities.

I use so many servies, and social networking sites. I have a Twitter, a Facebook, a Tumblr, a reddit account, a LibraryThing, a YouTube account, a HackerNews account, a Dragonmount account. I even have a DeviantArt account (which I occasionally log in to), a MySpace account and a Bebo account – both of which were receiving my Twitter updates last time I looked several years ago. For someone who is determined to find all of my accounts, and is nifty with Google it wouldn’t be that hard. And yet, that also has me conflicted. I often claim that I don’t filter my Twitter feed as if someone is interested in me personally then they get me personally, not a filtered me. If someone isn’t interested in the law and legal process, but they are interested in Wheel of Time then they can either get their Wheel of Time fix elsewhere, or follow all of me and get to know me better. In other words, I want people to follow me because they’re interested in me, not because they’re interested in a small subset of my interests.

And yet, there are some things I’m not comfortable with both groups knowing. For instance, I ‘came out’ on reddit before I posted on my Facebook or even my tumblr. And now I’m feeling that I want to ‘re-invent’ myself online. It’s too easy to link my profiles to me, there’s also too much content going too far back. The picture someone could construct of me if they had the time and motivation to do so is something that creeps me out – not in a bad way, but in a “this sort of thing shouldn’t be possible” way. It’s a thing with our generation, that we seem to live more and more of our lives online and in public. And yet I want the pseudonymity  that a more.. disconnected set of online profiles would provide.

I guess what I’m saying is that I want to start fresh. A total disconnect would be impractical and likely impossible. And certain things, such as HackerNews, and Facebook I want tied to my real identity. But other identities such as my reddit profile, or my various forum accounts don’t need to be. And I feel like I should embrace that they don’t.

Someday soon I shall break up my online identities, in every sense of the phrase. InnerLambada shall die. In my place shall rise….. well now, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? ;)

FAQ on #Assange

So it seems like there’s a lot of FUD out there on Assange, and his situation with the UK, Sweden and the US. So let’s get some things straight:

#1 He is wanted for questionning on two alleged rapes.

I’ve seen it claimed that he is wanted for “sex without a condom” which is such a twisting of the facts it’s beyond belief.

Two two complainants claim that they made it clear that consent was only given if Assange used a condom. They then claim that whilst they were asleep he had sexual intercourse with them without a condom. So, putting the condom aside (so to speak), they claim he had sex with them WHILE THEY WERE ASLEEP. This clearly meets the definitions of sexual assault under both UK and Sweedish law.

#2 Sweish law requires the second round of questionning to happen on Swedish soil.

This is why they have refused to question him in the UK. The Swedish legal system has a very different structure from the UK/US one, in that when you are charged with something you will see court very quickly and are unlikely to be released for lack of evidence. (this is also a reason why the EAW is valid).

#3 He cannot face the death penalty in the US.

Under EU law (specifically the ECHR) someone cannot be extradited to a country where they will face the death penalty. Both the UK and Sweden are bound by this law.

#4 He cannot be extradited to the US until he is charged with something in the US.

He has not been charged, thus any extradition cannot yet happen. If the charge carries a possibility of death, then he cannot be extradited (See #2).

#5 The UK->US extradition process is far easier than Sweden->US.

The swedish system has a very long and complex extradition process, compare that with the simple process in the UK that people such as Gary McKinnon have faced.

#6 Any secret extraction could easily have happened when he was stuck in Suffolk.

He was stuck in  a remote place for MONTHS. In terms of secret operations it would have been a perfect chance for the CIA to strike. Once he’s in the Swedish legal system though, a quiet extraction is hardly likely.