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Monday, May 18, 2015

Dartford River Crossing charges motorists double

Some drivers using the Dartford Crossing between Kent and Essex are being charged twice due to glitches with the online payment system which was introduced in November when toll booths were scrapped.

The Automobile Association in Britain has said that early teething problems had persisted and complaints from drivers paying online were not being resolved quickly enough.

Poor customer service

However Highways England said the vast majority of payments were being processed accurately. "The vast majority of the 100,000 chargeable crossings at Dartford made each day are processed accurately and smoothly," the agency said. "Given the scale of transactions from time to time errors will be made for which we apologise unreservedly."

According to the AA, one customer had two payments taken for the same crossing in February and motorists have experienced poor customer service [BBC / BT].

Congestion reduced

While there were hopes that the new charging system would ease congestion problems and while problems still exist at the Dartford River Crossing for the most part delays have reduced. AA president Edmund King said that "the new scheme has undoubtedly eased the congestion at busy times but, for some, there is a new concern regarding the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy that accompanies this supposedly high-tech, non-stop tolling."

Difficulties registering

At its introduction there were also worries expressed by some motorists who said they had difficulty registering on the Dartford Crossing website [tvnewswatch: All change for Dartford River Crossing tolls]. Others said the new system assumed all motorists have Internet access. Indeed, whilst there are other ways to pay the toll, finding information without Internet access remains difficult.

15% fail to pay

Around a month after the introduction of automatic tolls it was reported that nearly 15% of motorists failed to pay the charge and risked fines of £105. Those not pre-paying have until midnight the following day to pay after making a crossing. The penalty for not doing so is £70, reduced to £35 if payment is made within 14 days but rising to £105 if payment is not received within 28 days [This Is Money].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What if there were no BBC?

It is an argument that is continually raised, that the licence fee be abolished and the BBC should be self funded.

Many people feel aggrieved at forking out nearly £150 a year which primarily funds the BBC, and which they claim they do not watch. But at at less than £12 a month the BBC offers far greater value than many might think.

Audience share

It may be true that a significant number of individuals do not watch BBC television, listen to BBC radio or use its online web services. Nonetheless despite a drop in viewers, the BBC still pulls in an audience share of more than 30%.

Furthermore abolishing the licence fee might have a far more dramatic effect than critics foresee.

The TV licence fee also funds other services and activities such as local and national radio, online services, the World Service and S4C. And should there be no BBC television and no licence fee, these other services would probably need to be cut or alternative funding be found.

That might not be an issue to some individuals who claim they never use BBC iPlayer, check out news content on the BBC website, or ever listen to BBC World Service.

This is a valid claim. But the effect of removing the BBC from the equation would likely change the whole nature of broadcasting, not only in the UK, but around the world.

Effects of a BBC shut down

One independent report [What if there were no BBC TV - Reuters Institute], published in early 2014, concludes that if there were no BBC Television the total TV industry revenue would most likely be lower, although there is a wide range of uncertainty about how much. The report points to a significant reduction in content investment of between 5% and 25%. Investment in first-run UK content would also be 25% to 50% lower. And the net impact on viewers would vary, but most would suffer a reduction in both choice and value for money.

Even where many people opt for alternatives to the BBC, such as ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and subscription services on the Sky broadcast platform, quality content might well take a dive.

Power & influence

Indeed, the BBC has often set standards and influenced independent programme makers. The BBC has taken chances and pioneered programmes which no commercial broadcaster would risk making.

It is almost unimaginable that such classics as Monty Python's Flying Circus, Not the Nine O'Clock News and Fawlty Towers would have been made by ITV, which was the only alternative at the time.

Growing choice

Of course it is no longer the 1970's, when the only choice was to watch BBC One, BBC Two or ITV.

Now there are countless television channels. And even if one is not prepared to pay additional subscriptions on top of the BBC licence fee, there is a much greater choice.

But what kind of choice really exists in terms of quality broadcasting?

Pioneers in documentary

The BBC still churns out high quality documentaries that are the envy of broadcasters around the world. These are indeed sold overseas, but without such sales the licence fee would be significantly higher than it is.

Yes, there are specialist documentary channels and independent documentary filmmakers. Certainly the Discovery Channel and National Geographic both have relatively high reputations. But does their content really stand above that made by the BBC, funded almost entirely by the licence fee and overseas sales?

From the World About Us to The Planets, Walking With Dinosaurs and The Blue Planet, the BBC excels itself again and again.

Timeless classics

It's not just documentary either. The BBC has brought timeless classics when it comes to comedy. While Channel Four has brought innovative content, there are few broadcasters which can rival the BBC when it comes to Sitcoms and satirical comedy shows.

Taste is of course subjective but here's a list of but a few. Steptoe and Son, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Some Mothers Do Have 'Em, Are You Being Served, Butterflies, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life, The Young Ones, Bottom, Red Dwarf, Only Fools And Horses, The Thick of It, Yes Minister, Yes Prime Minister, Absolutely Fabulous… the list is almost endless.

Catering for different audiences

OK, but there's a lot of dross on the BBC too, the critics might argue. This might very well be true. The BBC, being a public service broadcaster has to cater for everyone.

Thus there is a plethora of programmes which could be considered banale.

The BBC produces many shows which are certainly beneath the standards of many. But nonetheless soaps like Eastenders and the likes of Strictly Come Dancing are extremely popular.

Minority interests

But with the advent of BBC Three and BBC Four there is an outlet for more intellectually challenging programming or programmes that might only appeal to a minority audience.

In fact, minority audiences are rarely catered for at all on commercial television since it is simply not commercially viable. Can you imagine the Sky at Night running for as many years on ITV?

Leader in News and Current Affairs

Then there's News and Current Affairs. For many years there was just the BBC and ITN but with the advent of satellite television Sky News changed the game.

Sky News is certainly number one when it comes to breaking news, and it can push out the boat with many big stories. And while there are many other news stations - CNN, RT, Al Jazeera and France 24 to name but a few - the demise of the BBC would leave only Sky News covering UK news, and almost no-one covering regional news at all. Funding a news station is extremely expensive, and without decent funding the BBC News channel might disappear, as did the ITV News channel back in December 2005 [tvnewswatch: UK news broadcaster goes off air]

Less wireless

And what too of radio. Radio 4 and the BBC World Service still command a large audience, though it perhaps has to be conceded that Radio 1, 2 and 3 are rather niche stations.

One may not be a big radio fan, but when away from home, radio can be a life saver. What is noticeable however is that outside of London, or other big cities, radio stations rapidly disappear from the dial.

One might find a local independent station, but one is more likely to be reliant on national and local BBC stations. And when abroad the only English voice available will probably only come through the BBC World Service, though cutbacks have already reduced services abroad.

Calls for cutbacks

The likes of Nigel Farage have repeated accusations that the BBC is left wing and politically biased. He has also labelled the broadcaster an anachronism and would, should he have it his way, shut the broadcaster down or at least remove its public funding [BBC].

It is a question that may not go away. But should the licence fee be dropped, the BBC might become little more than one or two channels, reliant on advertising and programme sales. BBC radio would probably fade away into non-existence and web services would also see cutbacks.

This week the outgoing controller of drama commissioning, Ben Stephenson, said the broadcaster was at a "tipping point" and that cuts to the licence fee would mean "less drama and fewer jobs"  [BBC].

In the days following the election there has been much talk of the Tories going to war against the BBC [Telegraph].

The former Culture Secretary Sajid Javid has rejected the idea the government was really "going to war".

"No not at all. I think there's a bit of over excitement in those headlines," Javid was said on the BBC Radio 4 programme Today.

Nonetheless there are growing concerns that with negotiations for the BBC's charter renewal in 2016, the public broadcaster might face serious cutbacks.

Such concerns come particularly from outside the home counties. Indeed one former top TV executive has said any plan to drop the BBC licence fee would have enormous consequences for the North East.

Graeme Thompson, a former BBC news executive who also was managing director of Tyne Tees TV, recently said, "If the licence fee was abolished it would hit jobs" and leave a vacuum that the commercial sector would be unlikely to fill [Chronicle Live].

Funding is certain to change. In fact there is a possibility that funding may be taken directly as taxes as is seen in some European countries [Radio Times].

To end on a slightly comical note, here's a clip from Not The Nine O'Clock News which satirizes the BBC programme Points of View and features letters of viewers singing the praises of the BBC.

To quote but one fictitious letter writer in the sketch, he writes, "The testcard is quite magnificent. It justifies the licence fee on its own. Personally, I would willingly sell my house and all its contents to help the BBC."

The irony is that without the licence fee, that is just what one might be left with.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Election 2015: Resignations, riots & calls for electoral reform

David Cameron's return to Number 10  might have been celebrated amongst Conservatives, but for most of the other political parties there was disappointment, consternation and a need to re-evaluate their future strategy. There has also been anger on the streets and growing calls for electoral reform.

Resignations

Given the failures of the Labour Party, UKIP and particularly the Liberal Democrats, the day after polling was marked with resignations as their respective leaders announced their intention to stand down.

UKIP's leader expressed not only his disappointment that the party only secured a single seat in parliament also but anger. Farage declared the UK political system "bankrupt" given that his party obtained nearly 4 million votes but only one seat. He then went on to announce his resignation as leader but added that he wasn't "giving up on UKIP".

Only hours before Nick Clegg had also announced his intention to stand down as leader of the Liberal Democrats which had a disastrous night, losing some 50 seats across the UK. Clegg said he accepted "full responsibility"   for the party's poor performance but said he "expected this election to be difficult for the Liberal Democrats" [BBC / Sky News / Telegraph].

Labour's Ed Miliband also threw in the towel on Friday after the party's worst general election defeat since Margaret Thatcher's final victory in 1987. "This is not a speech I wanted to make," he said in a Westminster hall just after noon on Friday. "I take absolute and total responsibility for the result." [BBC / FT]

Far left reaction

The Tory win has raised concerns that austerity will increase, services will be cut and that Thatcherite authoritarianism will return.

Thus it was perhaps no surprise that fringe far left wing groups flocked to central London on Saturday [9th May] to vent their anger.

Various groups appeared to be behind the protests. The pseudo-anarchist group Class War sent out a tweet on Saturday morning calling for people to gather outside Tory HQ. There also calls for protests by other fringe groups through Facebook.

Some one thousand people marched from the Conservative Party headquarters along Whitehall to Downing Street where some protesters battled with police. At least 17 arrests were made and there were a handful of injuries reported amongst the ranks of police that were deployed to contain the situation.

Hundreds of anti-government protesters, some holding placards reading "I pledge to resist" and "Stop the cuts". Some placards were a little more colourful.

Chief Supt Gerry Campbell said the "vast majority" of protesters had taken part peacefully, but added that a "small minority" had been intent on causing disorder [BBC / Sky News / Metro / Daily Mail].

Amongst the more peaceful protesters was the celebrity singer Charlotte Church who was spotted holding a placard reading "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more" [Daily Mail].

Calls for electoral reform

The election result has highlighted the imbalance that exists in terms of how the electorate are represented, especially given Britain has entered an era of multi-party politics.

Even before polling day there had been some discussion concerning proportional representation [ITV News].

But following the results on 8th May, the calls for reform grew louder. With UKIP winning 12.6% of the vote and only managing to get one MP into parliament, and, by contrast, the SNP returning 56 MPs with only 4.7% of the vote, the argument for reform is certainly strong

The full results indicated that many parties would have done a great deal better under some form of PR.

Particularly poignant were the publication of maps showing second place results [Telegraph / Metro].

The maps are certainly interesting but what would parliament have looked like with proportional representation? It all depends on the type of PR employed, but should the UK adopt the D'hondt system that is used for selecting MEPs the Conservatives would still have won, but there would have been a significantly more members of parliament representing the likes of UKIP, the Green Party and Liberal Democrats.

The D'hondt system is widely used in parliamentary elections across Europe and elsewhere, though there are many other systems, like the Alternative Vote model which was rejected by British voters in the 2011 referendum [BBC / Channel Four News blog / i]

These would be the resulting number of seats under the D'hondt system of PR:

  • Conservative (36.9%): 243
  • Labour (30.4%): 201
  • UKIP (12.6%): 83
  • LibDem (7.9%): 51
  • SNP (4.7%): 31
  • Green (3.8%): 24
  • DUP (0.6%): 3
  • Plaid Cymru (0.6%): 3
  • Sinn Fein (0.6%): 3
  • Independent (0.5%): 3
  • UUP (0.4%): 2
  • SDLP (0.3%): 2
  • Alliance (0.2%): 1
  • TUSC (0.1%): None
  • NHA (0.1%): None
  • TUV (0.1%): None
  • Respect (0.0%): None
  • CISTA (0.0%): None
  • Yorkshire First (0.0%): None
  • English Dem (0.0%): None
  • MRLP (0.0%): None
  • Socialist Labour (0.0%): None
  • CPA (0.0%): None
  • Christian Party (0.0%): None
  • Workers Party (0.0%): None
  • BNP (0.0%): None
  • Class War (0.0%): None

As can be seen from the list above, proportional representation would have been good for UKIP and the Greens which under the present system have but a single voice each.

Many of Northern Ireland's parties would however lose out as would single person independent candidates. For example despite having been an MP since 2001 the independent candidate Sylvia Hermon would have lost her seat if PR were to be implemented.

Swings and roundabouts

There has been much commentary on why the Liberal Democrats lost so badly. Where did all those supporters go, and why did they abandon Nick Clegg and the party of the centre right. Some have suggested there was a shift because of the Lib Dem's failure to deliver on some of its promises or simply due to anger that the party had got into bed with the Conservative party and formed a coalition.

Failing on promises may be an issue, however a weaker part of a coalition obviously has less clout that the dominant force. In fact the Lib Dems actually helped deliver several of its 2010 pledges [Guardian].

Many of the party's high-profile pledges, such as scrapping tuition fees and opposing nuclear power, have been ditched but perhaps more have been adopted than might have been expected for the smaller party in a coalition.

The party had called for the first £10,000 people earn to be tax-free, something that was delivered under the coalition. A pledge to increase funding for the most disadvantaged pupils by £2.5 billion was also met as was a call for the introduction for compulsory language and competence tests for doctors working in UK.

Of course there were many things the party failed to deliver, but for a party in coalition the Liberal Democrats did far better that they might have done, and infinitely better than if they had not joined forces with the Conservative party.

By becoming a part of a coalition the Lib Dems also helped reign in the more extreme right wing tendencies of the Tory right. Indeed there were some core Tory policies that the Lib Dems prevented the Conservative from implementing [i]. Now the Lib Dems have been all but wiped out there is already talk of reviving policies such as the so-called 'snoopers charter' that was scuppered by the coalition [Guardian].

Nonetheless there are still many core Lib Dem supporters who feel that they were betrayed by their party.

There may another reason why there was a large drop in Lib Dem support.

With the rise in UKIP, and the risk of a Labour SNP coalition, many Lib Dem voters may have felt compelled to vote for the Conservatives. To have done otherwise would have resulted in an almost certain Labour win and a far greater number of seats falling to the United Kingdom Independence Party.

UKIP support had certainly swelled and its core support probably took votes away from the Conservative party. But there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that it gained supporters from the more extreme right.

The British National Party for example saw a massive drop from 2010 when it took 563,743 votes. Five years on the party only achieved a paltry 1,667 votes across the entire country. The question is where did those half a million votes go?

With such extremes in politics, there will be many that might reject proportional representation for fear of allowing far right groups achieving their voice in parliament.

Some also argue that PR leads to weak government run by committee since there would rarely be an overall majority. The counterargument might be that by attaining majority rule, the first past the post system establishes a form of dictatorship under a guise of democracy - given of course that every member of the ruling party is whipped into line.  

But given the imbalance of power and lack of representation for much of the electorate that the first past the post system offers, the argument for PR is certainly going to grow. A poll conducted for the i newspaper just days before the election indicated that 61% of the electorate believe the voting system should be changed to better represent smaller parties in parliament.

Getting the system to change may prove difficult since any party that wins in the future would not see any advantage in changing the system which benefited in its success and introduce another that might reduce its future chances.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, May 08, 2015

A “brighter future for everyone” Cameron declares as he heads to No 10

And so after what many have called the dullest election campaign in living memory, the British electorate have returned David Cameron to parliament as Prime Minister.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats faced a humiliating response from the public, losing seats all over the country.

With 543 of 650 seats declared by 7 a.m. the Conservatives had 248 against Labour's 212. The SNP surged taking the nearly 58 seats predicted in the exit poll which was published soon after the polling stations closed on Thursday. By 8 a.m. with 603 of the 650 seats declared a Conservative victory looked certain with the Tories taking 297 against Labor's 219.

But the night was a bigger victory for the SNP. And with 55 seats in parliament it was perhaps more than the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon could have dreamed of.

For other parties it was more a nightmare. The Liberal Democrats had taken on 7 seats by early morning, less even than exit polls had predicted.

Even UKIP failed to reach its goal of double figures and while there were still some undeclared results to come the party had only 1 seat in parliament as this article was published.

So all in all, a terrible night for Labour, a worse night for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, and a disappointing result for UKIP, though Farage will no doubt claim victory in terms of the number of votes his party took and criticise the first past the post election system.

At the time of publication only Cameron and Miliband had aired their feelings concerning the result. And there was certainly no word from former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown who said he would "publicly eat his hat" if predictions about the Lib Dems taking as little as 10 seats were right. "If this exit poll is right, Andrew, I will publically eat my hat," Lord Ashdown said [BBC].

"This has clearly been a very disappointing and difficult night for the Labour party," Ed Miliband posted on Twitter, "To every member and supporter, I want to say thank you."

Meanwhile, David Cameron, spoke of a "brighter future for everyone"

"One nation, one United Kingdom - that is how I hope to govern if I am fortunate enough to continue as Prime Minister," he proclaimed.

Full results: BBC

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

A dull election campaign comes to an end

With less than 24 hours until polls open there are many people that have been entirely turned off by the UK election campaign. In fact some have dubbed the 2015 general election campaign the dullest in living memory.

Tiresome squabbling

Even before the race begun the campaign had become rather tiresome with squabbling over how the election debates might be run.

Such infighting and school boyish behaviour is a turn off for many voters. And even when a format was agreed, the debates themselves were dull and uninformative.

While there were some engaging moments, there were almost flippant and puerile moments such as a focus on whether David Cameron had ever eaten three Shredded Wheat and Ed Miliband's ability to eat a bacon sandwich properly.

The seven way debate had its moments but given the amount of time available and the number of issues on the table there was really no way that public concerns and questions could be properly addressed.

Domestic vs foreign policies

The main focus by all the parties were domestic issues. Jobs, housing, immigration and the deficit were all continually debated.

These are certainly important but there was almost no mention of Britain's place in the world, foreign policy, international trade, defence and the growing threats of cyberwar and terrorism.

A few manifestos touched on such issues but how many people even bother to buy or download them, let alone read through the often rambling texts.

Foreign trade & cyber risks

The Tories mention China all but five times in their manifesto. "Our trade with emerging economies is up, with exports to China more than doubled since 2009, but overall we are still too dependent on slow-growing European markets. Business investment is rising, but we still underinvest compared to other countries," the manifesto states, adding that the Conservative party would build on this as well as "championing an EU-China trade deal."

For all its importance China is mentioned but once in the Labour manifesto. "Labour will set up an Asia Step-Change Taskforce to ensure a more strategic and effective dialogue with regional partners, including China, both in the commerical [sic] realm, and in other areas, from cultural exchange to human rights." [Yes, that spelling mistake IS in the published document].

As for the LibDems, China is again only worthy of a single mention, tied again to Europe and trade. "Britain's membership of the EU is essential for creating a stronger economy and for projecting influence in the world," the manifesto claims. "Millions of British jobs are linked to our trade with the EU, and being in Europe puts us on a more equal footing when negotiating trade deals with global players like the USA and China and in countering security threats. A modernised EU is crucial to responding to the global challenges Britain faces, whether they are climate change, cross-border crime and terrorism, or conflict."

Nigel Farage has made his views clear concerning Britain's place in Europe and called for a referendum with the hope that the UK might pull out of the EU. But despite all of Farage's experience in the world of business he appears to have little understanding of the global economic situation where countries are interdependent on each other.

Farage: China and Japan "have their own democracies"

In a debate on Europe in April 2014 Farage seemed to be entirely ignorant of world politics as he put forward the argument that an independent country could still have a strong economy. He cited Iceland as an example of an independent state that could still hold its own.

"If it is good enough for Iceland to do it," Nigel Farage remarked in the first of his two televised debates with Nick Clegg, "I'm damned certain the British with 64 million can do even better." The UKIP leader was referring to a free trade agreement that the Icelandic government signed with China in April 2013, despite the tiny Nordic country not being a member of the EU [New Statesman].

But then he went on to show his apparent misunderstanding of the politics beyond Europe's borders. "Canada lives next door to America, Japan lives next door to China, they do massive amounts of business with each other but they have their own democracies and their own rights of self government,"  Farage declared [Video - YouTube]. China a democracy! Hardly. Maybe this was a slip. But beyond that even trade between Japan and China is fraught with problems due to territorial and nationalist issues.

In terms of its manifesto, the claim that strong trade can still be maintained for a non-EU member is repeated. "Six of the top ten countries that export to the EU do not have a trade agreement with the EU at all: China, Russia, the USA, Japan, India and Brazil," the UKIP manifesto states. "Being in the EU is no guarantee of greater financial rewards than being out in terms of trade: non-EU Switzerland, with an economy one-quarter the size of ours, exports four and a half times more to the EU, per capita, than the UK does."

Cyber threats

All the manifestos do raise the issue of cyberattacks and other online threats, but there is little substance other than to say there would be a strengthening of defence in these areas. Certainly there is no finger pointing. Indeed, despite China being repeatedly accused of launching attacks on the West, engaging in industrial espionage - as well as reneging on trade deals and ignoring WTO rules - there is almost no mention how any of the major parties might deal with such issues which have a profound effect on the British economy.

In the final hours before the polls open much of the electorate are probably only focused on the issues the politicians have themselves made centre stage.

Setting agendas

For those who struggle to find work or living on benefits, the issues concerning what each of the major parties might do in the age of austerity is of great importance. But few of the politicians talks of the effect that global economics have on these issues. While immigrants taking British jobs might be a problem, so too can the farming out of the manufacturing industry to the Far East have a knock on effect on the UK economy. Chinese imports might be cheap but it comes at a cost to Britain and Europe when there are fewer manufacturing industries left in the West.

UKIP of course have capitalised on the fears of immigration. There is a problem concerning some migrants. But there is much scaremongering rather than a rational and reasoned debate.

Dull campaign

The 2015 election has seen few of the pantomime moments seen in previous campaigns. There have been no eggs thrown, punches thrown by politicians, and few if any heckling contests.

Talking to people on the streets and there is a general feeling of disillusionment. Indeed, given the nature of the first past the post politics of British democracy, there is a stronger feeling than ever that people's votes matter little. A vote for UKIP, the Greens or the LibDems may send a message to the main two parties but without some form of proportional representation a vote for anyone other than Labour or Conservative is essentially a waste of ink on the ballot paper.

Time for electoral reform?

With some 462 minor parties also vying for votes, few of which will ever hear their voice heard in parliament, the argument for proportional representation is greater than ever.

The British political system is far from perfect, and people may feel less engaged than ever before. But to quote Winston Churchill it might be a lot worse. "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

As for the result of Thursday's poll most pundits are still undecided. Our prediction is for a Conservative win, but with no overall majority and a likely coalition with the LibDems once again. UKIP may take a handful of seats - which Farage will no doubt claim to be a mandate of dissatisfaction expressed by the British electorate - but the party will have only a minor voice in parliament. Thus the status quo will continue for another five years.

Party manifestos

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, April 03, 2015

Google, Mozilla slam door on China’s root certificate authority

Ouch, that hurt. But the decision could be more than a slap in the face for China.

Core elements of Internet security

Root certificates are one of the most important core elements of safe browsing. Indeed they are integral to how a browser "knows" it has reached Barclay's Bank or American Express or not.

Indeed SSL [security socket layer] is the foundation of the modern Internet, and without 100% trusted CAs [certificate authorities] it all falls apart.

Alarm bells

So when Google discovered in March that unauthorised security certificates were issued to several of its own domains more than a few alarms went off [ArsTechnica].

An investigation began conducted with the help of the CNNIC [China Internet Network Information Center], and it became clear that there was a problem with MCS Holdings, a Cairo-based firm contracted by the CNNIC to provide certificates.

And while Google has acknowledged the CNNIC's help in the investigation, it sees no option other than to revoke acceptance of certificates issued by the CNNIC.

The CNNIC have responded angrily saying Google's decision was "unacceptable and unintelligible" [BBC].

Losing trust

However, the issue is one of trust. A certificate authority MUST be 100% reliable. Verisign, for example, in their role as a certificate authority, must make 100% sure that this kind of thing doesn't happen. That is the only justification for their existence, and the reason why they can run a business and make money. If they messed up, as the CNNIC appears to have done, it is clear evidence that they can't be trusted. And, given the breach of trust, they should then be removed as a root certificate from all operating systems.

There is a concern that while Google and Mozilla are rolling out updates to their browsers which will removed the trusted certificates, some browsers may not be updated and potentially leave users open to malware risks.

For updated browsers, users will be presented with a warning screen before being asked if they want to proceed to the "unsecure" site.

Long term issues

However, there will be some exceptions. Google has offered a grace period to some major CNNIC-approved sites, such as banks, so they can obtain certificates from a different issuing authority.

Since the CNNIC is responsible for providing certificates for websites with a .cn or China domain name, millions of sites would likely be affected. For those accessing Chinese sites from abroad being presented with a warning could lead to quite a bit of concern. Indeed it could significantly affect traffic flows if Internet users navigate away.

The only solution for many websites would be to obtain a new certificate from another CA. However, since the state owned CNNIC is the only body issuing such certificates in China many administrators may well encounter problems.

Past issues

The concerns surrounding CNNIC root certificates are far from new. In 2010 there were a few voices that suggested CNNIC certificate approvals which might allow the Chinese government to pry into secure browsing sessions, something which fuelled existing concerns of companies and individuals operating in China at the time.

Ironically this was at a time when Google found itself in a war of words with Chinese authorities over hacking and censorship [tvnewswatch: Chinese officials talk out of their hat].

There was also talk at the time that suggested Google's decision to up sticks might have been something to do with Adwords, through which it makes much of its money. According to one article published at the time, Google might have been experiencing click fraud on a massive scale. There was, the author suggests a campaign in China which has seen clicks on advertisements despite people staying on a particular site for less than 0.0 seconds. Google earns money from an advertiser every time someone clicks an Adwords link. If the report is to be believed then Google could have potentially lost millions of dollars should it have been made public, since it would be forced to reimburse advertisers. In addition, revealing that it was suffering click fraud on a massive scale in China might have undermined confidence in other markets.

Malware attacks

More recently China was blamed for orchestrating DDoS attacks on GitHub by exploiting a javascript exploit. According to the New York Times the attacks appeared to hijack advertising and analytics traffic intended for Baidu, China's largest search company, and then send that traffic to smaller websites in what is known as a distributed denial of service or DDoS attack [BBCNetresec].  

None of this is good news for Internet users, both inside and outside China. With organisations such as GreatFire.org highlighting these risks some time ago and with continued Man-in-the-Middle hacking attacks, something was eventually going to snap.

"We've been calling for this action for more than a year," said Charlie Smith of Greatfire.org, which monitors Chinese internet censorship. "The Chinese authorities have maliciously been using their power as a certificate authority to launch dangerous attacks that compromise sensitive user information across many foreign media platforms,"

Building walls

And so now two major browser manufacturers have finally called time on the CNNIC's credibility as a CA.

China may back down and allow web administrators to obtain certificates from Verisign or other CA. But what is just as likely is a raising of the wall.

Bit by bit the Great Firewall of China is being built higher still, but the walls are now being built on the outside too.


tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Poor information & costs leaves kids at risk from childhood diseases

Parents are understandably protective when it comes to their children but the issue of childhood vaccinations still raises concerns and worries.

But as well as concerns over safety, other factors such as cost and poor information are also having an impact on the introduction and take up of vaccinations.

Meningitis vaccine proposals

Recently there have been further delays in introducing a vaccine that protects against a deadly form of meningitis that campaigners say are putting the lives of children at risk.

In 2014 expert advisers for the government recommended the meningitis B vaccine be given to babies from two months old across the UK on the NHS. But an ongoing debate concerning a cost-effective price has held back the vaccination programme

There are about 1,870 cases of meningitis B each year in the UK with around one in 10 cases proving fatal whilst about a quarter suffering long-term problems, such as amputation, deafness, epilepsy and learning difficulties [BBC].

But while the Department of Health says it wants to see the vaccine introduced as soon as possible the list price of £75 for the Glaxosmithkline made Bexsero vaccine has been deemed too high.

This week the Meningitis B vaccine was finally approved [BBC]. But the NHS may still have difficulties in persuading all parents to take up the offer.

Restoring confidence

The MMR [Measles, Mumps, Rubella] scare some years back did nothing to boost confidence. And some parents are still wary about the jab despite all evidence showing the original claims that claimed a link to the vaccination and autism were "fraudulent".

Andrew Wakefield, the scientist behind the study, published his findings in 1998 but is was not until nearly a decade late that his research was found by the General Medical Council to have been "dishonest". The medical journal The Lancet fully retracted the original paper and the research was declared fraudulent in 2011 by the British Medical Journal [BMJ].

But the damage had already been done. Confidence amongst many parents had been severely compromised and many children were not immunised against potentially deadly viruses.

In fact in the UK alone take-up for the MMR vaccine dropped so significantly it became a serious medical concern. Before publication of Wakefield's report, the inoculation rate for MMR in the UK was 92%. However after publication, the rate dropped to below 80%. In 1998, there were 56 measles cases in the UK and by 2008, there were 1,348 cases, with 2 confirmed deaths.

Rise in measles

The situation in the US has worsened to such a degree that there was widespread publicity and an urgent advisory from the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention [CDC] that parents get their children inoculated.

In 2014, the US experienced a major outbreak of measles that totaled 383 cases. While relatively small there was the potential that such outbreaks could spread and become thousands.

In fact the situation only worsened. Between 1st January and 20th February 2015 more than 150 cases in 17 different states were reported to the CDC [Time].

But while two doses of the MMR vaccine is nearly 100% effective at preventing the disease, which is highly contagious, some parents are still leaving their children exposed to the risk.

This despite Wakefield's work having been debunked and several subsequent peer-reviewed studies which have failed to show any association between the vaccine and autism.

Playing chicken with Chickenpox vaccine

The MMR controversy has not only created issues with MMR uptake. The continued concerns have held back some countries from introducing a safe and reliable Chickenpox vaccination.

Some countries such as the UK have held back primarily due to the increased costs involved but there are claims that rolling out a vaccination scheme would increase cases of shingles in the older population.

The varicella vaccine is available privately, but the UK's immunisation body decided in 2009 against the universal vaccination of children fearing it could increase shingles, a reactivation of the virus, in older people. The theory is that by the virus remaining in circulation, older people would receive an occasional boost to their immune system.

Indeed the NHS freely state that "introducing chickenpox vaccinations for all children could increase the risk of chickenpox and shingles in older people."  

However, since the the US introduced the vaccination in the form of MMRV, the V standing for Varicella, there has been no significant increase in shingles in the adult population.

It is also perhaps questionable why sick children should be exploited as living vaccines for older people when there is a perfectly serviceable vaccination on the market. And one that has been proved to be safe [NHS].

Pros & Cons

In fact in there are more advantages than there are disadvantages to rolling out a Chickenpox vaccination scheme.

Should everyone receive the vaccine, then shingles itself would also be eradicated since it is merely a return of Chickenpox in a different form. Chickenpox, like all herpes viruses, such as the one that causes cold sores, never truly goes away. Instead it lies dormant in the nervous system until some future reactivation event, often decades in the future.

Those who have been vaccinated against Chickenpox would in all likelihood never have the risk of experiencing the debilitating condition.

Chicken Pox has often been considered a "right of passage". One of those diseases one has as a kid. For most children it an extremely uncomfortable couple of weeks off school. But there are risks.

A small number can develop encephalitis, a swelling of the brain, which can be fatal.  The biggest risk is to the unborn. In pregnancy, chickenpox can spell disaster for the unborn or neonatal infant. Chickenpox can, in extreme cases, lead to foetal deformities. Thus there are warnings in maternity wards for the infected to stay away. And even for otherwise healthy individuals the disease can be fatal with the BMJ saying that there are on average, around 25 deaths in the annually.

Economics

There is also an economic burden. Banned from childcare during the long course of the contagious window of chickenpox, a parent may have to take up to a week or more off work to look after their afflicted children at home.

Of course, such issues are not a direct cost to the state, but given the vast numbers of children - around 60,000 in Britain alone - suffering from chickenpox annually, the cost to the economy is significant.

Germany saw the advantages and a 2004 study concluded that paying for vaccination out of the public purse would be more than compensated by fewer sickness payments to absent parents in the longer term.

Japan and the US were among the first nations to introduce universal vaccination programmes back in the 1980s and 1990s. But citing costs and dubious medical reasons, other countries have shied away from the vaccination.

One reason may also be because a wary public might be unduly concerned about the extra letter V tagged onto the controversial MMR vaccine.

But the advantages of a chickenpox vaccine are clear, at least from observations of the US where it is now mandatory for school attendance. Before the vaccine was available, about 4 million people got chickenpox each year in the US with more than 10,000 hospitalizations. And about 100 to 150 of those infected died each year, according to the CDC.

Some parents, even in the US, have argued against the vaccine saying that the disease is not generally serious and that complications occur in only a minority of cases. However, a chickenpox vaccine in not just about the protection of a single child, but the population as a whole.

Indeed the vaccine helps protect others in the community, more particularly those who cannot get vaccinated, such as people with weakened immune systems or pregnant women.

Information war

The long shadow of Andrew Wakefield misinformation about the safety of MMR still looms large in the public consciousness. How can parents be convinced to subject their children to a fourth addition to MMR when some appear not to be interested in protecting their children against something deadly like measles?

It appears that the health authorities have simply thrown up their collective hands and proclaimed it to be too difficult.

Informed parents can of course go private and give their children the varicella jab from the age of 12 months. But there are a great many parents who either can't afford the £120 fee for the two required injections, or simply aren't aware that a vaccination even exists.

Most parents simply take what vaccinations are offered by health authorities, and may often be unaware of other vaccines available to better protect their children. Better information needs to be made available so that parents can make a choice.

Some NHS GPs seem unaware of the facts surrounding the risks of not vaccinating against chickenpox. One London GP said she had "never heard about it" when asked about the chickenpox vaccine. "Do you mean shingles?" she asked, adding confusion into the mix.

For an ill informed parent parent, many might walk away, perhaps feeling belittled for even raising the question. Other parents have opted to do their own research and approached private clinics in order to get their children protected.

More and more parents are now paying for their children to be vaccinated against chickenpox, although exact figures are not published. But there are huge numbers who might pay for it if only they even knew it existed [BBC / Guardian].

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