Thursday, 22 March 2012

Pastoral letter from an average lesbian to the leaders of the Catholic church

Matron initially wrote the text below as a comment on one of the many blogposts by faithful Catholics that are currently promoting the "pastoral letter" written by Archbishop Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Peter Smith on ‘gay marriage'.

As Matron has already said many a time in various fora, she is no great fan of gay marriage herself because she is no great fan of marriage. As an indoctrinated 80s feminist who grew up on a steady diet of philosophical and legal critique of the institution, she has never quite managed to overcome her resistance to a concept whose sole purpose it seems to be to privilege one way of arranging one's life over another. To her, marriage itself already always seemed to be the epitome of something that creates inequality in a society and she still wonders if gay people who want to be part of it might not maybe be selling those of us who don't down the river to some extent.

For this reason gay marriage is something that Matron has consistently refused to campaign on all her gay, adult life, preferring instead to argue for a society and a legal system where people's life choices in all their rainbow coloured variety are recognised and protected by law. She stands by that even in the face of pressure from her own community because, quite frankly, it seems a bit silly to be for something just because the Catholic church is against it.

However, it cannot be denied that:

(a) there is of course a ludicrous element of inequality in the denial of marriage to one part of society solely on the basis of the gender of the person they love,

(b) the conflation of romantic notions of love, societal objectives, religious dogma, and the law has created a myriad of messy beliefs and understandings of what marriage is and should be about, and

(c) - as the Catholic church has done - the throwing into this unholy mess of argument the imperative of marriage being solely there to enable procreation and the raising of children adds a level of irrationality and - lets face it - entertainment value to the debate that deserves its entirely separate blog post, seeing as it also seems to deny the right to marry to those straight couples who cannot have children or who definitely and freely decide not to have them.

Much has been said and argued on that latter part in particular and many examples have been cited for loving gay relationships where children are nourished, loved and cared for, versus incapable single mothers, despicable rogues of fathers, broken homes and, not least, the Catholic church's abysmal reaction to the fact of child abuse by members of its own ranks. Indeed, Matron, like almost everyone of her ilk, now has gay and lesbian friends who raise children, including a lesbian couple who is providing that loving home for a group of three siblings given up for adoption by social services after suffering physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their heterosexual parents.

But equally, Matron knows of gay and lesbian relationship breakdowns, with or without children, where the partners had to deal with exactly the same social, emotional and legal issues as their straight counterparts. The bottom line is that we are no better and no worse at this relationship and raising children thing than straights have been for millennia. Nor should we be expected to be and Matron does not believe that a "holier than though" attitude is going to help anyone even one iota.

But what she does believe is that the discourse that is currently being had openly on the letters pages of our national newspapers, blogs and social networks is deeply offensive and hurtful, showing as it does to those of us who might just have thought that this society is changing for the better and might be becoming more tolerant, what a morass of hate and prejudice still lurks beneath the surface. To this extent it is not only damaging to individuals' mental health and self esteem but it is damaging to the very fabric of our society.

And for a church that professes to have as its major tenet the commandment to "love thy neighbour" there is remarkably little of that love shown to any neighbour who doesn't play by its own restrictive, narrow-minded and, yes, openly discriminatory rules. So even if Matron could bring herself to have faith in some spiritual superior being for whose existence there is not a shred of scientific evidence, she would never be able to believe in a god this spiteful and a church this hellbent (pardon the pun) on the exclusion and damnation of significant parts of his creation. That sort of god is not a loving god, no matter what his minions preach from their pulpits of a Sunday morning.

"Sticks and stones", one could of course argue and, on the plus side, Matron has also received many messages of support from straight friends, family and acquaintences that make it clear that things are not all bad. But the sticks and stones argument never really works very well for those of us with thinner skins and for Matron this week there was the added complication that she was actually required to attend a full Catholic mass at a time when the only reason why she would ever want to go near a Catholic church would be to picket it.

So here is the comment that she posted on that other blog in which she describes just how that made her feel. It's a bit more private and personal that her usual ramblings and she will no doubt regret posting it later, but for the time being she thinks that there isn't enough out there yet about this aspect of the whole debate:

"Yesterday, I was glad enough to be there for my lesbian partner when we attended the catholic funeral mass for her grandmother, a woman who, aged 85 at the time, welcomed me into her heart and her family 17 years ago when my girlfriend and I first started going out. Walking behind the coffin into the church together with the rest of the family we had to go past a table with a neat pile of your “pastoral letters” and, next to it, a petition on the matter, signed no doubt by many of the parishioners who were sitting in the pews waiting for us to pass.

It made it clear to me once more that although everyone in my partner’s family treats me as a fully signed up member of their clan, the same way in fact, as they treat the spouses of my partner’s siblings, the church they belong to continues to see me as a second class citizen regardless of how much time, love and committment I share with their daughter, how much I get involved in their gatherings, the care for their children and their elderly. Whatever I do and however much love I show towards my partner and those she holds dear, in the eyes of their church I will never be good enough.

I am not sure, if any of those who are promoting this letter have the capacity to understand how much hurt and offence you are causing to those of us who, although we may not be religious, try to live a life in which we do the right things, love those dear to us without constraints and in return only want to get shown the same love and respect for these efforts as everybody else.

Whatever you think about marriage and the rationale for it, the public discourse church leaders are currently creating, the comparisons they are making between what, in my and most other cases, are supportive, loving and committed relationships between two (not three, four or five) people and things like bestiality and legalising slavery etc. are homophobic and show none of the love towards your fellow creature that your own church’s founder commands.

Given everything I read in the papers in recent weeks, it took all I’ve got for me to decide to even go near a Catholic church yesterday. I did it because the woman I love needed my support and because I know the woman we were burying would have wanted me to be there. Which part of that love that we share is so lacking in the necessary quality that it doesn’t make the grade in your book? If an 85 year old Irish catholic woman could accept my relationship with her granddaughter, why can’t her church?"

[Update: on the other blog, a nice Christian gentleman has now replied to my comment to tell me that my relationship "ontologically damages me". But fear not, Jesus loves all the gays and only has their happiness at heart. And according to an article to which I was kindly directed, it is my lifestyle itself, and not the discriminatory treatment by society, that makes me miserable because

"[t]he ultimate misery of homosexuality is, in fact, what every longitudinal study reveals. An active homosexual life most often results in shortened life span, prevalence of disease, drug and alcohol abuse, and relationships that are brief and emotionally hurtful, with little hope of fidelity, and a high occurrence of violent abuse. The chances of a person committing suicide are also greatly increased."

There's clearly no way of responding to this "Through the looking glass" logic" without making oneself even more miserable, so we shall leave it here.]

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Rating rape

And now for something completely different...

Over the last few days, Matron has watched the unfolding of What could become a new campaign on Twitter with an increasing sense of discomfort. Calling itself the 58% campaign, it is seemingly trying to encourage women not to be deterred from reporting a rape or other sexual assault to the police because of low conviction rates.

The figure bandied about in the popular press and various studies in this regard is 6%. That is the percentage of cases where a conviction for rape is secured compared to the total number of cases reported to the police. Not so, argues the campaign, pointing out that this figure misrepresents the situation because rape is the only crime where conviction rates are calculated in this way. In all other crimes, the term "conviction rate" refers to the rate of convictions compared to the number of cases brought to trial while the rate of comparison between reported cases and convictions is called "attrition rate". Using the former method, so the campaign argues, the rape conviction rate is actually 58%, much higher than in relation to many other types of offences.

As Matron said, the campaign seems to mean well, seeing as it is trying to encourage women to report rape cases by telling them that they are in no more danger of having their attacker go unpunished than are many other victims of crime. However, from a psychological point of view, this campaign misses a few major points.

First and foremost, most women will probably agree that when it comes to evaluating whether the prospect of putting oneself through the ordeal of reporting a sexual assault (and for most victims it will be an ordeal) is worth the potential outcome, they will not really care at what stage in the proceedings their case fails. One of the most recent studies on attrition in rape cases (dated from 2005) identifies no fewer than 6 attrition points between reporting a crime and eventual conviction:
  1. The victim's decision whether or not to report in the first place
  2. The police's decision whether or not there is any evidence of assault or whether they are faced with a false allegation
  3. The police's decision whether or not the evidence is sufficient for charges to be brought
  4. The victim's decision to withdraw the accusation for whatever reason (which includes becoming aware of the practical consequences for them of seeing the case through to trial)
  5. The CPS' decision of whether or not to bring the case to court
  6. The court's decision whether or not to convict
If we disregard the first attrition point, that is five separate instances during which a victim will be faced with the prospect of "it all having been in vain". Five separate occasions for regret. Five separate opportunities for having additional psychological damage inflicted upon you on top of the trauma of the original offence.

Even more interestingly, all the studies that have been carried out in this area confirm "that the highest proportion of cases is lost at the earliest stages, with between half and two-thirds dropping out before referral to prosecutors". Now that is undoubtedly true for almost all criminal offences, but nonetheless Matron would be interested to see how those figures compare to rates of attrition between the reporting and the prosecution stage in relation to other crimes. If the percentage of "lost cases" is substantially higher with regard to rape and sexual assault than in respect of other crimes, this might actually also explain a slightly higher conviction rate for rape (ie, many of the main hurdles might already have been jumped in the pre-trial stages).

Given those circumstances, however, victims (and Matron includes all genders in this argument) might be forgiven if, in the case of rape, they are looking at the attrition rate rather than the actual conviction rate. In fact, encouraging women to report on the basis of an assumption that they have a good chance to have their attacker convicted might be paramount to gross misrepresentation given the 6% figure. And yes, it might be fact that the conviction rate for rape is higher than, say, for burglary. But no victim of burglary will be required to expose themselves to quite such as extent in the context of holding the offender to account, so we would be comparing the proverbial apples and pears, if we relied on that argument.

Make no mistake, Matron is all for encouraging women to report. Not ever having been a victim of any form of sexual assault, she sincerely hopes a) that it will stay that way and b) that she would have the courage to do that if it ever happened to her. But she does not kid herself that she would definitely report it, if it ever happened. You just can't know how you would react until you are in that situation yourself. Of course, increasing reporting rates is important. Until we have the real figures, the question of rape and sexual assault will never get the attention it deserves and the public perception that women are doing it in droves "to get one over a man they have some beef with with" will remain in place. But there are other ways to achieve this, most importantly by improving the way in which victims are treated by the police and the justice system. That's what people have focused on for the last decade or so and, in Matron's view, rightly so.

This campaign, on the other hand, runs the risk of doing more damage that good, not only because it may depict the actual reality of trying prosecute a rape case (and particularly what this means for the victim) in an unrealistically favourable light, but also because it suggests to the general public that our criminal justice system "works just fine" with regard to rape or at least no worse than in relation to any other crime. That's not the case yet for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that in order to reflect the additional trauma victims go through by virtue of the prosecution process alone, we should really be aiming for pre-trial attrition rates that are way below those of other crimes. Only then would the majority of victims be reassured that they and their case will be taken seriously and that they are not putting themselves through all this for nothing.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. So please, honourable campaigners, do your homework. Read a few studies, crunch a few numbers and speak to a few rape victims before you embark on this crusade and, above all, don't diss the use of the attrition rate without understanding what it stands for in these cases.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

To Google-bash or not to Google-bash?

After months of work-induced hiatus, Matron has recently started tentatively to participate in life outside the ivory tower again. Among other things, this means that she has started to follow some of the discussions that are currently going on various "conspiracy-lists" of which she is a member. On one of those list, a very interesting question has just arisen with regard to Google's recent move to unify the privacy policy of its various services.

As many of Matron's readers will know, the EU's Article 29 Working Party has called on Google to agree to a "pause" with regard to the introduction of the new policy to give regulators across Europe the chance to review whether the new policy complies with EU data protection law. Google has so far rejected this request, pointing out that it has run the new policy by some (though admittedly not all) of the EU regulators already and that it sees no reason for further delay. It also seems convinced that the new policy does in fact comply with the law.

The Working Party is not so sure and the French data protection authority CNIL has now sent a second letter to Google on behalf of the Working Party in which it sets out its particular issues. A US-EU consumer rights organisation, the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), has sided with the Working Party and written its own letter to Google CEO, Larry Page.

At the heart of the matter are concerns about

  1. a lack of transparency of the new policy and

  2. the allegation that Google may has given itself a right to combine personal data collected across all of its services that it did not have before. In particular, CNIL's preliminary investigations seem to show that it is difficult to know exactly which data is being combined between which services and for which purposes.
Never one to rely on the allegations made by others, Matron thought she might have a look and compare the new privacy policy with the last version before that (from October 2011). And indeed, there are some things that the average privacy advocate could take umbrage with.

Combination of data across services

Back in October 2011, Google's policy said:

"We may combine the information that you submit under your account with information from other Google services or third parties in order to provide you with a better experience and to improve the quality of our services. For certain services, we may give you the opportunity to opt out of combining such information."

The new policy reads:

"We may combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services – for example, to make it easier to share things with people you know."

To Matron the main two differences seem to be that:

  • under the older version combining data across service was allowed for the specific purpose of "providing you with a better experience and to improve service quality".

  • under the old policy, users were given the opportunity to opt out of having their data combined for certain services. That opt-out right now seems to have been removed across the board.
As far as the right to combine data is concerned, Matron has used this kind of wording herself many a time when drafting privacy policies for her clients. It is specifically designed to cover a wide range of processing activities, and in Google's case one could probably think of anything from improvements to the search algorithm to targeted advertising and personalisation. It was therefore a pretty wide-ranging right already and maybe we shouldn't get our knickers in a twist about this given that no one seems to have complained so far.

However, the old policy did at least tie the right to combine data to some kind of specified purpose, albeit a big and expansive one. Under the new policy, Google seems to have removed any purpose restriction whatsoever and just given itself the right to combine whatever data it holds about us as it sees fit. As a data protection lawyer, Matron would have to agree with CNIL, that that is at least questionable under EU data protection law which only allows for personal data to be processed (and combining is an act of processing) for specified purposes.

Also, in practical terms it would certainly suggest that Google is now doing something (or planning to do, or at the very least give themselves the option to do, something in the near future) that it wasn't doing before. Why else go to this length? As always, we could of course blame incompetence before looking for bad intent, but Google must be able to afford some of the best data protection lawyers in Europe, so maybe we can rule that out.

As for removing the users' right to object to the combining of their data, this is quite an important change and one whose repercussions we cannot yet really assess. For Matron personally, this means, for example, that Google may now technically be permitted to combine the data it collects about her via this blog (which one of it's subsidiaries hosts) with her search history. Because when registering with Blogger, Matron used an e-mail address that includes her real name (more fool her, many of her techie friends will say, but probably something that many other average users would have done as well) and given that this is the same e-mail address she used when opening a Google account, Google as a group of companies (not just as one or two of its subsidiaries) now knows the real name of the person who writes a formerly relatively pseudonymous blog (for Matron's feelings about this sort of thing, see here).

The question is, of course, how long it may now take until Google finds a creative use for all this combined data? For example, how long until a Google search for Matron's real name brings up this blog in the search results? Google may say that it has no plans to do this and be quite right at this point in time. But stranger things have happened at sea and on Facebook than an online provider changing its mind, business model or algorithm. They point is that it now can.


Also, and this seems to be the main point of CNIL/WP29 criticism, it could justifiably be said that the new policy has indeed become a lot less transparent for the average user. This is because Google has now basically put up two big buckets:

  • In bucket A are all the types of data Google may collect from users of any of its services.

  • In bucket B are all the purposes for which Google may process personal data.
The new policy is basically construed in a way that allows Google to process any type of data from bucket A for any purpose from bucket B.

Given that in the EU data controllers are under an obligation to tell data subjects specifically in each case what type of data they are processing for what purpose, Google's approach is probably not enough to fulfil its obligation to provide data subjects with the required "fair processing information" as it's know in the trade.

Given also, that Google is likely to justify its processing activities on the basis of the user consent that it implies through the new privacy policy, users must be able to understand properly what it is that they are consenting to for the consent to be valid. And therein, as they say, lies the rub.

The "conspiracy list" on which this discussion arose consists of around 25 people, learned men and woman all, with backgrounds and tertiary degrees in law, IT, politics and many other cognate areas. After several rounds in the ring, members seemed to be unable to agree on what the new policy actually means. If it is ambiguous enough so that this type of user can't figure it out, the "normal" Internet user (as in most of Matron's examples consisting of a sample n=2, being Matron's and Pangloss' mothers) stand no chance. So, Matron can't help agreeing with CNIL that on the facts, at the very least, the latest development in Googleland warrants closer inspection and maybe the requested "pause".

To Google bash?

However, for Matron the most interesting and most frustrating aspect of the discussion on her list was not whether or not Google's latest peccadillo was of sufficient quality to finally taint the "don't be evil" image, but whether or not we, as a group of critical individuals, should be drawn into this affair (and a number of other affairs which involve Google, like, for example, the issues with the security gap in the Safari browser's cookie preferences) in the first place.

The reasons given for "not jumping on the Google-fear bandwagon" went along the following lines:

  • We shouldn't get caught up in a campaign to "take down Google", that was effectively organised and financed by a group of competitors.

  • There are other organisations who do the same or worse and so we need to be even-handed in our criticism.

  • We should focus on the principles and not on individual companies and single cases.

  • We should stick to our work and avoid chasing headlines.
None of this is easy to argue against, and yet the fact that we had this discussion in the first place and that we had it (it felt like) because this concerned one of the tech community's beloved darlings, left a bad taste in Matron's mouth.

That very same group of people has in the past both co-operated with and criticised companies, institutions and organisations like BT, Microsoft, Virgin Media, Phorm, the Information Commissioner's Office, the Home Office, the European Commission, O2, the UK security services, several rightsholders and their associations and even Apple (until recently another "Untouchable") without having had similar discussions about whether or not we should "single them out" for their transgressions. So why was this different?

And even if in this case Google's approach is specifically selected for criticism and comment, is this really so unjustified? If a country like, say, the US were to start violating certain human rights - lets assume for a moment that one day they may decide to detain certain undesirable individuals in prisons without a fair trial for an indefinite period of time - would we really bellyache about whether or not we can criticise the US for that just because any number of tin pot dictators all over the world have done the same for decades without us making a big deal about it?

Contrary to all the constant affirmation given to men by women all around the globe, size does matter. Reach matters. And relative and absolute power matters. If a big and powerful country like the US does something that flies in the face of a general feeling of what is right or wrong, this does two things:

  • its actions alone are likely to affect a massively larger number of people than the actions of smaller, less powerful countries.

  • its actions set a standard that other, smaller and less powerful players will adopt as soon as they get the chance.
It used to be said that if the US sneezes, the world catches a cold. On the internet, it seems - to Matron at least - that the same now applies to Google and a handful of other players. Those are the companies with the money, know how and lobbying power to shape both the technology we will be using in the future and to influence the way in which that technology will be regulated. Those are the companies that - everyday - test the boundaries of what users, competitors and regulators will allow them to get away with (see also Facebook for the "two steps ahead, one step back" approach to user conditioning). And once these companies have established the new "normal" and made it part of their established business model, others will follow.

The only way to counteract this, is for those of us with the relevant skills to pick them up on any transgressions as and when they happen. We must do this by analysing their actions; by bringing any unlawfulness to the public's and the regulators' attention; by working with regulators and other stakeholders in relation to enforcement and by trying to shape policy designed to address and/or prevent future transgressions.

And at no point in this process should we ever ask ourselves, "Should we be doing this because it could be construed as Google (or Apple, or Microsoft) bashing?"

Just saying...