Thursday 21 March 2013

Owen Paterson's cyber-swarm

Last week the Tory so-called Environment minister Owen Paterson refused to support a precautionary ban on neonicotinoid pesticides.There is a growing body of evidence that they are harmful to bee populations. Bees are very important because they are pollinators. Many plant species rely entirely upon insect pollination, and a large proportion of the food we eat is pollinated by bees.

Paterson's excuse for trashing the precautionary principle is that the study his department has been doing into the effects of neonicotinoids has not been completed. The reason it was not completed is that the control group got contaminated with neonicotinoids because they are so widely used!

One factor that Paterson failed to mention is that one of the main European producers of neonicotinoid pesticides is the British based company Syngenta, who would stand to lose a lot of business were one of their main products to be banned in the EU.

There is a great deal of public concern over the issue of pesticides and bee populations. A save the bees petition on the Aavaz site has over 2.5 million signatures. As part of their campaign they suggested that people write to Owen Paterson in order to explain their concerns. Subsequently 84,000 people sent him emails.

Owen Paterson's response was frankly astonishing. He decided to smear these emails as a "cyber-attack" and complain that these bee emails prevented him from doing his job.

I'll deal with his complaint that these emails prevented him from doing his job before I get to his abuse of language. Anyone that is incapable of filtering their emails for the word "bee" and then moving the selected emails to a separate folder is clearly not fit to be running a major government department. Even if he is not tech savvy, there should be someone in his constituency office or the department that he heads capable of explaining this simple function to him.

This public display of computer illiteracy detracts terribly from his use of the phrase "cyber-attack" to describe this email campaign. If he's incapable of doing a simple IT task like filtering his emails, he's a functional computer illiterate who clearly has no authority to use IT terminology like "cyber-attack".

For those that don't know the precise definition of "cyber-attack" here it is:
"A cyber-attack is deliberate exploitation of computer systems, technology-dependent enterprises and networks. Cyber-attacks use malicious code to alter computer code, logic or data, resulting in disruptive consequences that can compromise data and lead to cybercrimes, such as information and identity theft."
Tens of thousands of individual people taking their time to express their legitimate concerns to a relevant government official does not, in any way, constitute a cyber-attack. The only way it could remotely be construed as a deliberate "cyber-attack" is if the people that orchestrated the email campaign deliberately attempted to deny service to Paterson's email account by exceeding the size limit. However, the strategy of getting tens of thousands of individuals to send one email each is just about the most inefficient possible way to do this.

The thinking behind Paterson's complaint is obvious. He doesn't want to hear people's legitimate concerns, so he'd like the act of suggesting that someone write to their MP over a specific issue to be redefined as cyber-terrorism. This way, pesky petition sites and independent bloggers (like me) could be criminalised for suggesting that people exercise their democratic right to complain.

Given that all three establishment political parties have now embraced the concept of introducing retroactive laws, when they do bring in a legislation to criminalise "Inciting communication with elected representatives" they might as well backdate it to the beginning of the internet age so that they can shut down all these pesky petition sites and round up all the independent bloggers that have ever used the internet to that their followers exercise their right to write to their MP!

To describe an email campaign by tens of thousands of concerned citizens as a "cyber-attack" is not only a grotesque misrepresentation of what a cyber-attack actually is, it also displays a breathtaking contempt for the concept of open and accountable governance. Not only is Paterson refusing to even consider the concerns of the people who wrote to him, he's actually smearing them as cyber-terrorists.

If you feel that Owen Paterson has been misusing the phrase "cyber-terrorism" to smear people with legitimate concerns, could I suggest that you drop him an email to complain at

If you haven't already signed the Aavaz "save the bees" petition, you can do that here.

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