posted 4 days ago on techdirt
Earlier this year, we discussed Australia's Department of Communications asking for feedback on the effectiveness of its site-blocking policy after it had been in place for several years. The copyright industries both local and foreign leapt at the chance, making two divergent claims. Claim one: site-blocking is working really, really well and should be continued. Claim two: site-blocking is being vastly undermined by, you guessed it, Google, and the government should extend site-blocking into search-blocking as a result. We made the point at the time that this type of thing occurs like clockwork: you open the door to some censorship and those cheering it on will attempt to expand it further. Well, after collecting its feedback, the Australian Department of Communications has come out with proposed amendments to Australian copyright law that would, you guessed it again, force search engines to censor links to so-called "pirate sites." The aims of the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2018 are fairly straightforward. Where existing legislation compels ISPs to prevent access to sites listed in an injunction, the amendments attempt to deal with sites that “have started to provide access to the online location after the injunction is made”, meaning that subsequently appearing mirrors and proxies can be dealt with much more quickly. Turning to the perceived problems with search engines, the amendments will allow rightsholders to apply for injunctions that will not only target infringing ‘online locations’ but also their appearance in search results. Again, this is plainly stupid. Search engines have one goal if they want to be successful: return the most relevant search results to a user's query. That's it. The problem in all of this is that the Australian public searches for infringing content. For a company like Google to kneecap its own usefulness in this manner makes no sense and, again, opens the door to force search engines to behave in all kinds of ways that governments may desire. And, yes, that's a slippery slope argument, except we're already inching down this particular slippery slope, making it a question of just how far down Australia will slide. And, because of course, the requirements placed on search companies are both vague and onerous. Companies including Google will be required to “take such steps as the Court considers reasonable so as not to provide a search result that refers users to the online location.” Search providers will also be compelled to deal with the subsequent appearance of mirrors and proxies by ensuring that these don’t appear in search results either. In a statement published this morning, the Department of Communications offered the following summary. “The Copyright Amendment Bill will ensure a broader range of overseas websites and file-hosting services widely used for sharing music and movies are within the scope of the scheme, and provide a means for proxy and mirror pirate sites to be blocked quickly,” the statement reads. Let's be clear about what this is. This new legislation is a national government requiring a useful internet tool to be less useful to the average Australian citizen that is searching the internet, simply as a favor to a few big content players in both Australia and, what will be more common, abroad. That's a clear disservice by the Australian government to its own people. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 5 days ago on techdirt
The whole saga of the trademark dispute between the famous San Diego Comic-Con comics convention and the smaller Salt Lake Comic Con has been a long and stupid one. Despite everyone with a working brain knowing that the term "comic-con" is both generic and descriptive, SDCC has a trademark on the term that it managed to wield like a legal sword attempting to slay SLCC. While a jury trial returned only a $20k judgement, the court then awarded $4 million in legal fees in favor of SDCC, arguing that SLCC's legal team attempted to jam up the trial process and timeline with its tactics. After all of this, SLCC changed its name to FanX, a whole bunch of other conventions proactively changed their own names, and FanX promised to appeal everything. But it was an open question if SLCC/FanX would survive long enough for the appeal to take place. A $4 million dollar payout to SDCC, according to SLCC, would simply have crippled it and put it out of business altogether. This was the argument made to the appeals court, in which SLCC/FanX asked for a stay on the payments pending the appeal process. Fortunately, the court agreed to delay the attorney's fees payments. With the judgment set to come due Oct. 22, FanX organizers sought a stay from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week, arguing paying the bill in full now would "destroy" the business, hurt Utah's economy and prevent them from continuing with their appeal. However, organizers argued that if they were allowed to wait to pay, FanX would be able to continue operating and, if they ultimately lose their appeal, they could pay the judgment in full. In FanX wins the appeal, the judgment could be invalidated. And not just that, but FanX is also seeking to have the entire verdict that resulted in this award appealed as well, arguing that its lawyers were prevented from making sound arguments that "comic-con" is a generic term, which it absolutely is. But two things should be immediately obvious. First, this stay is perfectly just. A legal fees award that would cripple a party from defending itself on appeal is the sort of thing that seems purely outside the realm of how the legal process is supposed to work. The second is that this attorney's fees award is absolutely just as bonkers as I claimed it was when it was announced. To have that kind of number in fees awarded attached to a judgement that was in the five figures breaks all barriers of simple common sense. At least this way, we'll get to see FanX take this to appeal. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 5 days ago on techdirt
Ignorance of the law is no excuse, us lowly peons of the American justice system are told. The same does not apply to law enforcement, whose business it is to enforce laws. I mean, it's right there in the name. And yet… Mississippi police agencies have been seizing cash, guns and vehicles without legal authority for months after a state law changed and police didn't notice. An Associated Press review of a Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics database shows more than 60 civil asset forfeitures with nearly $200,000 in property taken by state and local agencies under a law that lapsed on June 30. "Didn't notice." Try using that excuse the next time you, I don't know, hand someone a straw or... um... offer underweight ice cream to consumers. That's the AP's phrasing of the official excuse for law enforcement's inexplicable inability to stay abreast of laws affecting their work. Here's what officials actually said, which uses more words, but doesn't sound any better. Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director John Dowdy said he didn't know the law had expired until September, when a Rankin County prosecutor notified him. "Honestly, we were unaware of the sunset provision," he said. "We thought that had been fixed in the legislative session." Now, this could be a legitimate excuse. But not for a narcotics director who probably had plenty to say about the impending demise of the most profitable part of the state's asset forfeiture program. He could not have been completely "unaware." After all, here he is announcing the roll out of a website listing state forfeiture actions as mandated by the same law Dowdy now claims he didn't know much about. It might be a legitimate excuse for a federal official who may not know the legislature included a sunset provision that gave legislators a chance to kill the passed law before it went into effect. Some efforts were mounted to roll back the reforms, but they both died without moving forward. Because law enforcement can't follow the law, lots of people will be getting their stuff back. The Tampa Bay Times article says the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics is offering to return $42,000 worth of property it illegally seized -- a phrase that makes its effort sound far more magnanimous than the reality: relinquishing stolen property. But this screw up isn't going to keep it from seizing what it can, no matter how petty the amount. The thirty-day window on seizures under $20,000 is still open on a few cases, so law enforcement is still moving ahead with a few small-ball forfeitures. Dowdy said agencies that seized property could still sue, seeking a judicially-sanctioned forfeiture, if less than 30 days elapsed. In Harrison County, for example, officials filed suit to seize $939 from Danielle Laquay Smith on Sept. 26, exactly 30 days after seizure. The new law requires all forfeitures to be handled in court. The old law only required that on seizures above $20,000. There's more than $200,000 in illegal seizures on the books, and the potential return of $42,000-worth still leaves a lot unaccounted for. And much of that appears to be held by another person who can't keep track of legislative developments despite his position as a government official. In northern Mississippi, District Attorney John Champion said, "I wasn't aware of that," when asked about the change. Police agencies in his five-county district, particularly in DeSoto County, have the majority of questionable seizures listed statewide. Officers are Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to perceived violations by citizens, but blissfully unaware of legal changes directly affecting their daily work. This is absurd. And it is the status quo. Prosecutors -- who directly benefit from forfeitures -- aren't aware either, most likely because knowing the law would adversely affect a valuable revenue stream. This is inexcusable, but it's also likely to go unpunished. The law is clear on the matter: negative effects of legislation shall be borne by the general public. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 5 days ago on techdirt
Almost exactly a decade ago, for reasons I still don't quite understand, Microsoft invited me to sit down one-on-one with their then Deputy General Counsel for intellectual property, Horacio Gutierrez (who is now General Counsel at Spotify). It was, to say the least, a bizarre conversation in which he repeatedly tried to justify Microsoft's position on software patents, with us getting into a spirited debate over Microsoft's ridiculous FUD campaign about Linux. Suffice it to say, while the conversation was fun, we agreed on almost nothing. For a few years, Microsoft had been trotting out claims that Linux violated over 200 of its patents, and kept making these vague threats about it. It never named the patents in question. It never sued. It just kept obliquely warning that those who used Linux might somehow eventually face some patent infringement suits from Microsoft. Some might call this a patent chilling effect. Or FUD. Or a shakedown. No matter what you call it, I stand by the claim that it was despicable. Partly in response to all this nonsense saber rattling by Microsoft, in 2005 a group of companies who relied heavily on Linux got together to create the Open Invention Network (OIN), which was designed as a giant patent pool, mainly to protect Linux. Basically, all the companies who join agree to license their patents freely for use in Linux (and Linux offshoots) to other members of the network. A large part of the reason for this was to allow various companies working on Linux to freely share patents among each other and protect them from Microsoft-style shakedowns. In 2009, OIN ended up buying a bunch of Microsoft patents for itself to help with its mission -- but here's part of what was amazing about that: Microsoft tried to block the sale, refusing to let OIN be a part of the bidding on those patents. Instead, OIN had to use a third party as a shell bidder so that Microsoft didn't know that OIN was trying to get those patents. That's why the news last week that Microsoft had joined OIN and agreed to freely license all of its patents to every other member in the pool is so shocking. Microsoft's Erich Andersen, who now holds the role that Gutierrez held a decade ago, admitted quite frankly in his blog post about this decision that many will be surprised, but it represents a real "evolution" in the way Microsoft thinks about Linux. I would say that's an understatement. We know Microsoft’s decision to join OIN may be viewed as surprising to some; it is no secret that there has been friction in the past between Microsoft and the open source community over the issue of patents. For others who have followed our evolution, we hope this announcement will be viewed as the next logical step for a company that is listening to customers and developers and is firmly committed to Linux and other open source programs. Andersen notes that Microsoft has been making a number of moves along these lines lately, which is really good to see: Joining OIN reflects Microsoft’s patent practice evolving in lock-step with the company’s views on Linux and open source more generally. We began this journey over two years ago through programs like Azure IP Advantage, which extended Microsoft’s indemnification pledge to open source software powering Azure services. We doubled down on this new approach when we stood with Red Hat and others to apply GPL v. 3 “cure” principles to GPL v. 2 code, and when we recently joined the LOT Network, an organization dedicated to addressing patent abuse by companies in the business of assertion. I had missed that Microsoft also joined the LOT Network -- which is another creative attempt at stopping operating company patents from ending up with patent trolls (by enabling an automatic "license" should those patents be "transferred" to companies outside the network). This is another good step by Microsoft in rehabilitating some of the FUD and trolling activities that it had done in the past. Obviously, much of this is driven by the business realities of the the cloud market and Microsoft's relative position in these markets these days -- rather than some grand enlightenment about how abusive the company was with its patents in the past. However, it should be recognized and applauded for what it is, which is an absolute step in the right direction. Maybe in another decade we'll be talking about how Microsoft is going even further and doing an Elon Musk style announcement that all its patents are available to anyone. Wouldn't that be something? Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 5 days ago on techdirt
When Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify earlier this year, the world was shocked by Congress’s evident lack of basic technological literacy. For many, this performance illustrates the institution’s incompetence. After all, if our elected representatives have trouble understanding how Facebook works, how capable are they of understanding the complexities of the federal government, or crafting legislation across a range of technical subjects? For those of us who live and work in the “swamp,” the Zuckerberg hearings were no great surprise. Just this year, we’ve seen Congress struggle with technology issues such as quantum computing, cryptocurrencies, and the governance of online platforms. Indeed, it seems effectively incapable of tackling major technology policy issues such as the debate over online privacy, election cybersecurity, or artificial intelligence. This state of affairs is the product of decades of institutional deterioration, sometimes referred to as the “big lobotomy.” While scholars of American government may offer various books or white papers chronicling this decline, the pattern is evident from a few trends that this post will highlight. The decline of congressional support agencies Members of Congress typically come from professional backgrounds in business, law or finance rather than science or technology (for instance, there are currently twice as many talk radio hosts as scientists). To help them understand technical policy issues, Members of Congress and their staff rely on expert advisors in legislative branch support agencies such as the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and formerly the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Of the congressional support agencies, CRS is the primary analytical workhorse that supports day-to-day operations, producing digestible reports and timely memos at the request of congressional offices. Unfortunately, the capacity of CRS has declined precipitously in recent decades. From 1979 to 2015, CRS’ staff has shrunk by 28% – a loss of 238 positions. Source: Original chart based on data from the Brookings Institution, Vital Statistics on Congress, Table 5-8. While CRS serves Congress with responsive memos and digestible reports, it also used to have an agency that conducted deep authoritative technical research. This agency was the Office of Technology Assessment, which for over two decades helped Congress understand the nuances of complex science and technology issues. In 1995, Congress eliminated funding for OTA, creating a gap that has not since been filled. Source: Original chart based on data from the Brookings Institution, Vital Statistics on Congress, Table 5-8, and Future Congress Wiki. In addition to needing analysis related to the nuances and tradeoffs of particular regulatory policies, Congress also needs help understanding its $4 trillion in annual federal spending and the sprawling administrative state. To help rein in waste, fraud and abuse, Congress relies on the Government Accountability Office – which is empowered to conduct audits and investigations in the federal government. GAO boasts a savings of “$112 for every dollar invested.” Yet, from 1979 to 2015, its staff has been cut by 44% – a loss of 2,314 positions. Source: Original chart based on data from the Brookings Institution, Vital Statistics on Congress, Table 5-8. The decline of congressional committees A critical source of policy expertise in Congress lies within congressional committees. Yet, like support agencies, committee staffing levels have declined significantly over time. From 1979 to 2015, the number of full-time standing committee staff has shrunk by 38% – a loss of 1,361 positions. Source: Original chart based on data from the Brookings Institution, Vital Statistics on Congress, Table 5-1. Key committees for technology policy reflect a similar trend. For instance, from 1981 to 2015 (note: 1979 data for House committees was unavailable), the House Energy and Commerce Committee went from 151 to 83 full-time staff. From 1979 to 2015, its Senate counterpart, the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, went from 96 to 64 staff. Similarly, from 1981 to 2015, the House Judiciary Committee went from 75 to 61 full-time staff. From 1979 to 2015, its Senate counterpart went from 223 to 91 staff. With the decline in staffing, committees and subcommittees have also spent much less time conducting hearings, deliberating on policy, and developing legislation. From the 96th Congress (1979-1980) to the 114th Congress (2015-2016), the aggregate number of committee and subcommittee meetings across both chambers decreased by 66%. Source: Original chart based on data from the Brookings Institution, Vital Statistics on Congress, Table 6-1 and 6-2. Additionally, as shown by Casey Burgat and Charles Hunt, committees are also increasingly shifting resources to communications positions over policy roles. Personal office staff resources are shifting to constituent services With the rise of new digital tools and a growing population, Congress has been bombarded with a torrent of new communications from constituents and advocacy groups. Per a Congressional Management Foundation study, Congress received four times as many communications in 2004 than in 1995. Responding to this influx, more staff have shifted from policy to constituent relations and communications roles. Legislative staff may also be called more often to assist with constituent work. This trend can be seen in the percentage of personal office staff based in district and state offices. From 1979 to 2016, the percentage of personal office staff based in district offices in the House of Representatives went from 35% to 47%. Source: Original chart based on data from the Brookings Institution, Vital Statistics on Congress, Table 5-3. In the same period in the Senate, the percentage of personal office staff based in state offices has gone from 24% to 43%. Since overall legislative branch staffing and budgets have declined over this period, this trend means fewer resources for retaining policy experts. Source: Original chart based on data from the Brookings Institution, Vital Statistics on Congress, Table 5-4. From 1979 to 2015, the total number of personal office staff has gone from 10,660 to 9,947. Senate numbers have remained relatively stable, since Senate office budgets are tied to population and distance. In the House of representatives, the total number of personal office staff has declined by 15% – a loss of 1,037 positions. Source: Original chart based on data from the Brookings Institution, Vital Statistics on Congress, Table 5-1. The decline of legislative branch compensation In congressional offices, legislative analysis and other policy work falls on a variety of different staff positions. While titles and roles vary by office, these include “legislative correspondent,” “legislative assistant,” “legislative director,” and “chief of staff.” To varying extents, these roles are involved in other activities, such as constituent services, administrative work, and communications. While cost of living in DC has gone up in recent decades (making it one of the most expensive cities in the country), the overall inflation-adjusted compensation for congressional policy staff has declined. Source: Original chart based on data from the Congressional Research Service. The median salary for a lawyer in the House of Representatives in 2015 was $56,000. In the private sector in DC, lawyers can easily earn several times that (an attractive exit for many congressional staff). Congressional salaries also fall significantly short of their executive branch counterparts, contributing to an expanding compensation gap. In short, compensation for working in Congress is far below the level needed to attract top talent. Congressional staff do not believe they have access to sufficient resources or expertise In a Congressional Management Foundation survey, a group of senior congressional staff were asked about their perspectives on institutional capacity issues. Therein, they rated a range of different areas as either “very important”/”very satisfied” or “somewhat important”/”somewhat satisfied.” In one question, 81 percent said that access to policy expertise was “very important,” but only 24 percent said they were “very satisfied” with the status quo – a gap of 57 percentage points. Source: Original chart based on survey data from the Congressional Management Foundation. In another question, 67 percent said having adequate time and resources for Members of Congress to consider and deliberate on policy was “very important.” However, only 6% reported that they were “very satisfied” with the status quo. While congressional capacity has declined, the need for it has increased The Constitution sets up Congress as the first among three equal branches of government, intending it to lead on policy and provide a check on the executive branch’s potential for waste, fraud and abuse. Unfortunately, Congress has ceded much of its policymaking power and oversight responsibility to the administrative state. As Congress has shrunk over the past few decades, the size and scope of the federal government overall has expanded significantly. For instance, between 1979 and 2014, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations grew from 98,032 pages to 175,268. Over the same period, inflation-adjusted federal discretionary spending grew from $810 billion to $1,220 billion (in 2017 dollars). When most of our timeline data begins in 1979, it was just a year after the first computers were installed in the White House. It would still be several years before the introduction of 3 ½-inch floppy disks – which people today only know through the save icon. And it would still be over a decade before the launch of the World Wide Web. Needless to say, since the late 20th century, the number and complexity of science and technology policy challenges have increased at an accelerating rate. These include issues such as infrastructure cybersecurity, election hacking, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, CRISPR, data privacy, and more. If we’re to maintain America’s lead in innovation and meet the policy challenges of the 21st century, we’ll need to rebuild a capable and expert legislature. If you’re interested in working on the solution, check out the Future Congress project. This is a new coalition and resource hub working to improve science and technology expertise in the legislative branch. Zach Graves is head of policy at Lincoln Network. Daniel Schuman is policy director at Demand Progress. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 5 days ago on techdirt
Another government employee has been charged with leaking sensitive info. This time it's a Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) official -- one who apparently handed dozens of suspicious activity reports (SARs) to Buzzfeed. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who was picked by Trump to replace Preet Bharara’s deputy Joon Kim, denounced BuzzFeed’s accused source. “Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a senior-level FinCEN employee, betrayed her position of trust by repeatedly disclosing highly sensitive information contained in Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) to an individual not authorized to receive them,” Berman said in a statement Wednesday announcing the charges. The leaked SARs dealt with alleged money laundering by Russian diplomats, as well as transactions possibly related to the purchase of hacked Hillary Clinton emails by a GOP figure. These were supposedly the basis for nine Buzzfeed articles over the last year, with the most recent article cited in the complaint appearing only a few days ago (October 15). The complaint [PDF] itself is an interesting read. It makes it clear investigators don't necessarily need to see the content of a person's messages to draw inferences about their behavior. 18. Based upon my training, experience, my conversations with other law enforcement agents with training and experience in cyber technology, and my conversations with law enforcement agents who have reviewed records received in response to a judicially-authorized pen register and trap and trace order for the EDWARDS Cellphone (the "EDWARDS Pen"), I have learned, among other things, that: a.The EDWARDS Cellphone utilized a mobile messaging service that utilizes end-to-end encryption (the "Encrypted Application"), that is, a method of secure communication that prevents third-parties from accessing data, including the companies that host the end-to-end services, and law enforcement. b. On or about August 1, 2018, within approximately six hours of the EDWARDS Pen becoming operative--and the day after the July 2018 Article was published--the EDWARDS Cellphone exchanged approximately 70 messages via the Encrypted Application with the Reporter-1 Cellphone during an approximately 20-minute time span between 12:33 a.m. and 12:54 a.m. c.Between on or about July 31, 2018 and August 2, 2018, the EDWARDS Cellphone and the personal cellphone of CC-1 exchanged dozens of messages via the Encrypted Application. d. On or about August 2, 2018, approximately one week prior to the publication of the First August 2018 Article, the EDWARDS Cellphone exchanged approximately 541 messages with the Reporter-1 Cellphone via the Encrypted Application. e. On or about August 10, 2018, the day of the publication of the First August 2018 Article, the EDWARDS Cellphone and the Reporter-1 Cellphone exchanged approximately 11 messages via the Encrypted Application. It doesn't appear investigators were able to access the content of the messages until they examined Edwards' phone. Throughout the course of 2018, EDWARDS engaged in hundreds of electronic communications with Reporter-1, many via an encrypted application. A review to date, pursuant to a judicially-authorized search warrant executed today, of EDWARDS's personal cellphone has revealed that that cellphone contains the substance of many of these communications, including, as described in greater detail below, communications in which EDWARDS transmitted or described SARs or other protected information to Reporter-1. So much for going dark. Presumably the information obtained with the pen register order was enough to secure a warrant to search a cellphone and flash drive owned by Edwards. "Reporter-1" is likely Jason Leopold, who wrote or co-wrote every article named in the DOJ complaint. This also means the DOJ likely has a whole bunch of conversations between a journalist and his source, although obtaining them from the source makes it far less of a First Amendment issue. The other interesting part of the complaint is this: Edwards viewed her leaks as whistleblowing and had pursued a whistleblower complaint in the past. During the interview described herein, EDWARDS told the Interviewing Agents, in sum and substance, that she is a "whistleblower" who provided the SARs to Reporter-1 for "record keeping." Based on my participation in this investigation and my conversations with other law enforcement agents, I am aware that, prior to the SARs Disclosures, EDWARDS had previously filed a whistleblower complaint unrelated to the SARs Disclosures, and that EDWARDS had also reached out to congressional staffers regarding, among other things, her unrelated whistleblower complaint. These leaked SARS may have been one of the "other things" she spoke to staffers about. It appears she felt these SARs would just be buried by the administration. Or she felt these were of enough public interest they should be publicly-disclosed. Or it just may be the excuse she gave investigators during the interview. Whatever the case, one thing remains clear: the Trump Administration is definitely interested in punishing whistleblowers, self-described or otherwise. As Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation points out, this is the fifth time journalists' sources have been charged with felonies since Trump took office. If he keeps it up, Obama's record-setting persecution of whistleblowers will be viewed with fond remembrance usually reserved for misremembering America's halcyon days of segregation and post-war baby making. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 5 days ago on techdirt
Skip the technical jargon and get right to taking amazing, professional-quality photos with this complete training. The Hollywood Art Institute Photography Course includes 22 modules filled with tutorials on how to take better photos. It's on sale for $19. Note: The Techdirt Deals Store is powered and curated by StackCommerce. A portion of all sales from Techdirt Deals helps support Techdirt. The products featured do not reflect endorsements by our editorial team. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 5 days ago on techdirt
This week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal in a case called Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, which some are arguing could have a major impact on whether or not social media sites are barred from moderating content because they're quasi state actors and the 1st Amendment blocks them from moderating content. Let's be clear on this: while something could go completely wacky and sideways (it is 2018, after all) the chances of this ruling directly impacting social media platforms is very, very, very, very, very, very, very small. That does not mean whatever ruling won't be cited by various plaintiffs to make bizarre arguments -- as we've seen repeatedly with people misinterpreting the Packingham decision. However, given both the facts of this case, and the way the Supreme Court works, I would be shocked if this ruling has any significant impact at all. This case involves a public access channel, Manhattan Neighborhood Network, where two producers -- DeeDee Halleck and Jesus Melendez -- were apparently fired for making critical comments about the network. They sued, claiming their First Amendment rights were violated, because the city and the network -- as a state actor -- were punishing them based on the content of their speech. The city has been dismissed from the case as it has basically nothing to do with any of this. The question at issue is whether or not this public access channel is a "traditional public forum," in which even a private operator can be judged to be a de facto representative of the government and subject to the limits on the state -- such as the First Amendments ban on suppression of speech. While the lower court sided with the network, the 2nd Circuit reversed, deciding that this particular public access channel represented a public forum. MNN warns, in its petition for cert that if allowed to stand, this ruling could be used to go after social media sites as public forums. Courts are routinely faced with the state actor conundrum in new contexts. For example, a New York district court recently had to rule on whether part of President Trump’s Twitter account is a constitutional public forum. See Knight First Amendment Inst. at Columbia Univ. v. Trump, No. 17-cv-5205, 2018 WL 2327290, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. May 23, 2018). There, the court held that a portion of the President’s Twitter account— but not Twitter itself—was a constitutional public forum because the government controlled the content of the tweets sent from the President’s account. Id. at *15. See also Davison v. Plowman, 247 F. Supp. 3d 767, 776 (E.D. Va. 2017) (holding that a municipal county’s Facebook page was a “limited public forum”). Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram are all popular social media venues used for sharing political opinion. And, though they are all privately owned and operated, they are subject to numerous federal and state laws, exist because the government created the Internet, and are utilized by all levels of government. But applying the traditional state actor analysis should still lead to the conclusion that these entities and their employees are not state actors. See, e.g., Prager Univ. v. Google LLC, No. 17- cv-06064, 2018 WL 1471939, at *8 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 26, 2018) (dismissing First Amendment claims against YouTube and Google); Shulman v. Facebook.com, No. 17-cv-00764, 2017 WL 5129885, at *4 (D.N.J. Nov. 6, 2017) (Facebook not constitutional state actor). Under the new test announced by the Majority, it is not so clear that these entities are divorced from state action. While I'm not against the Supreme Court clarifying that this is not accurate, it would be a pretty amazing stretch for courts to read the 2nd Circuit's ruling in a way that leads to this result. As we discussed in our post about the ruling in the Knight 1st Amendment Center's case against Donald Trump for blocking people on his Twitter feed, there's a big difference in a general "public forum" and a "designated public forum" which is limited to just a specific area that the government itself has created and has control over. Just as that case was limited very specifically to followers of Trump (as opposed to Twitter users in general), the 2nd Circuit's ruling in this case appears pretty clearly limited to the facts of this case, where the government made it clear that it wanted this public access channel to be a general public forum. A key issue here, as laid out in the brief of the fired producers is that the NY government specifically created this particular forum: New York City created the public access channels: New York State obligates municipalities to compel the creation of public access channels, and New York City fulfilled that obligation in the requirements it has imposed on cable franchisees in New York. That is, quite clearly, not true of internet social networks. Indeed, the lawyers for the fired producers argued that the network and its lawyers appear to be a bit confused about the difference between a general public forum and a limited designated public forum: First, as we have already explained, petitioners are wrong to assert that the court of appeals established a per se rule that governs all public access stations. See pp. 13-20, supra. Petitioners’ analysis conflates the “traditional public forum” analysis (which often does establish bright-line rules) with the “designated public forum” doctrine (which does not). Because the decision below is specific to the particular “framework” (Pet. App. 13a) that governs New York City, it has no implications for localities that have made different choices. Second, petitioners lose sight of the fundamental principle that only the government may designate a non-traditional place as a public forum. That is, for “a place not traditionally open to assembly and debate,” it is a “public forum” only if “a government intended to designate” it as such. Walker, 135 S. Ct. at 2250 (quotation and alteration omitted). See also Arkansas Educ. Television, 523 U.S. at 677 (“Designated public fora * * * are created by purposeful governmental action.”). A place cannot be designated a public forum absent intentional government action. So, that really seems like it would limit the impact of any such ruling in this case to apply more broadly to the content moderation choices of internet platforms. I have no problem with the Supreme Court taking this case, and hope that they do clarify what counts as a state actor in public forums -- especially in limiting it to true state actors. But I would be absolutely shocked if the Court really rules in any way in this case that will impact social media platforms, because it's such a stretch to read the lower court ruling that way. My guess is that -- as it often does -- the Supreme Court will seek to rule narrowly and won't even address the issues regarding private social media platforms. One hopes that they will be careful enough not to leave a few stray sentences and arguments that might be spun around by various people to argue it means that internet platforms cannot moderate content at all. But, given the way so many people have been trying to turn the Packingham ruling into something it is not (ditto for the Pruneyard case about malls as public forums -- which is a very limited ruling, but is regularly cited by people who don't understand it). So, it would be nice if the Supreme Court makes a clear ruling that prevents such abusive claims outright, but I'm guessing the ruling will be much more narrow and will have no clear impact on social media platforms, which basically everyone recognizes are not "state actors" and have every right to moderate their own platforms however they would like. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 5 days ago on techdirt
Last year you might recall that the New York AG's office began investigating who was behind all of those bogus comments that flooded the FCC's website during the net neutrality repeal. As we noted then, "somebody" paid a proxy organization to flood the FCC comment period with a myriad of fake comments. Some of those comments hijacked the real identities of real people (like myself). Others utilized a bot to post a myriad of fake support for Ajit Pai using a hacked database of some kind. Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of Ajit Pai's policies were, interestingly enough, dead. When the AG's office reached out to the FCC for help getting to the bottom of who was behind the fake comments, the FCC completely stonewalled them, rejecting nine requests for data between June and November of last year. The FCC has subsequently stonewalled numerous FOIA requests regarding who used the necessary APIs to submit the fraudulent comments in bulk, resulting in a lawsuit by journalist Jason Prechtel. A court recently ruled in Prechtel's favor, demanding the FCC release at least some data (in a month or two) that could identify the culprits. Meanwhile, New York AG Barbara Underwood has expanded her investigation into the bogus comments, subpoenaing more than a dozen ISP-linked lobbying groups (and a few consumer advocacy firms) for additional data on the methodology used to submit the fake support for the FCC's plan. Subpoena targets including groups like the telecom-industry funding lobbying vessel Broadband for America, which we've pretty consistently highlighted for some fairly sleazy and disingenuous behavior. In her statement to me, Underwood stated that at this juncture they've found that 9.53 million of the 22 million net neutrality comments submitted to the FCC were fake: "The FCC’s public comment process was corrupted by millions of fake comments—and our investigation found that as many at 9.53 million of those comments stole the identities of real people,” Underwood said in a statement. “The law protects New Yorkers from deception and the misuse of their identities. And all Americans deserve a fair and transparent process for determining public policy that impacts their daily lives. My office will get to the bottom of what happened and hold accountable those responsible for using stolen identities to distort public opinion on net neutrality." It's worth noting that Prechtel's analysis and reporting so far has claimed that one of the key players in this whole shady affair may have been DC-based news website and lobbying and policy organization CQ Roll Call, which e-mailed the FCC last year looking for advice on how to submit millions of comments on behalf of an unnamed client. CQ Roll Call was indeed among those subpoenaed by the NY AG this week. Granted there's a universe of fairly shady organizations that routinely help all manner of companies submit fake comments to try and sway government policy during official proceedings. Again, it's fairly obvious who benefited from trying to downplay the massive public opposition to the FCC's plan by using cardboard cutouts. Getting a hold of all of the FCC API and other server-side data will certainly go a long way toward that end. The question really, as it has always been, is whether any of the proxy organizations involved were dumb enough to leave a paper trail leading to funders like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, or Charter. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 5 days ago on techdirt
Oh, the EU, will you ever learn? Over the last few years, the EU has been screaming about the awfulness of evil large tech companies in the name of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple (sometimes called "GAFA"), though in reality, their biggest concerns are focused almost entirely on Google and Facebook. The EU keeps popping up with ridiculous laws, all of which are designed to hit Google and Facebook. The GDPR was a big one, and the latest is the EU Copyright Directive. And there are more as well. Some of us keep pointing out to the EU that if these laws are designed to go after Google and Facebook, they're going to miss their target quite a bit, because they'll mostly serve to lock in those companies as the dominant providers. That's because they're big enough to manage the regulatory burden, whereas startups and smaller competitors will not be able to and will suffer. The first bit of data is in on the GDPR and of course it shows that the big winner under the GDPR is... Google. The biggest losers? Smaller competitors to Google. A bit surprisingly, Facebook did see its adtech marketshare decline (while Google's grew), but relative to everyone else, Facebook sill beat out all other competitors. Now, the report does note that there are fewer ad trackers for users in the EU -- which is certainly a win for users -- but the fact that this is further cementing the dominant position of Google and Facebook should be a massive concern to people who value competitive markets and innovation. This shouldn't be a surprising result at all. But if part of the goal of the EU is to reduce the reliance on Google and Facebook, the exact opposite is occurring. Just like lots of us predicted. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 6 days ago on techdirt
You will recall that over the past few years, we have been discussing how Iowa State University essentially did everything wrong concerning an alumni group running a pro-marijuana organization that made use of school symbols and iconography. After initially approving the group's use of school trademarks, several members of the state's conservative legislature got involved, leading to the school rescinding that authorization. NORML, the name of the group, sued the school, claiming all of this was a violation of their free speech rights. The courts agreed, eventually to the tune of a $600k judgement, meaning that school wasted over half a million dollars of taxpayer money to fail at trademark bullying. You might have expected that this would serve as a delightful education for the school as to the reasons why they don't want to be a trademark bully. You would be wrong, of course. Instead, the school's next step was to immediately rewrite its trademark use policy, making it laughably restrictive and essentially attempting to give the school broad oversight over all uses of its iconography by student groups. This, predictably, has led to a full on revolt both by many of the school's student organizations and its student government. To start with the student organizations, they are largely dropping ISU connections from their name and branding like a hot stone. A year ago, Iowa State University's student chess club was easily tied to the university through its name. Now, it’s the Ames Collegiate Chess Club. The student aviation group had been the Flying Cyclones. Now, they’re the Ames Flyers. And the student space club, which had had “Iowa State” in its name, is Ames Space Teaching and Recognition Association. Why the changes? University administrators over the summer tightened Iowa State’s trademark policy by limiting most student organizations' access to trademarked references to the institution. As noted elsewhere in the post, ISU has a habit of puffing its chest out over its large roster of student-led organizations and clubs. Yet, because of its heavy-handed new policy, those ties to the university are being severed, taking those bragging rights away. Where ISU once could be seen as having a rich tradition of clubs and organizations reveling in student participation, a separation line has now been drawn. All because the school wants to choose control over culture. And the students are pissed. The policy so riled student government members that they unanimously approved a resolution this week requesting the administration, at least temporarily, backpedal from the guidelines that were posted Aug. 1 on ISU’s Trademark Licensing Office website. "The administration went about this poorly," Michael Tupper, an ISU student government member, said at this week’s meeting. "They implemented the change in the middle of the summer, when there were no students on campus." In addition, Tupper said during the meeting, “We’ve been told multiple times that the change was not in direct result to the lawsuit. … That is not true.” A school spokesperson states that the school will review the resolution and then meet with the student government, but it's painfully obvious that it would rather have avoided student interaction altogether through sheer timing. Making such a policy change where the primary effect will be felt by student groups when students weren't even on campus isn't particularly subtle. Meeting with the student government now is CYA, not some kind of olive branch. And that's likely why the student government is not screwing around here. Some at this week’s student government meeting suggested that if university officials don’t follow through on any requests in the resolution, other actions could be taken, including votes of no confidence or censure. It's a problem entirely of ISU's own making. And, given the culture that is supposed to be fostered on college campuses, this is about as wholly unnecessary as it gets. As entertaining as it is watching an institution like ISU learn absolutely all the wrong lessons from a well-publicized trademark dispute, it has to be just as frustrating for the students on campus. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 6 days ago on techdirt
There's been quite a lot of reasonable uproar over the leaked plans for Google to re-enter the Chinese market with a censored, locked down search engine. There's a lot of history there, but giving in to the authoritarian government's desire to block access to all sorts of content would seem to go very much against Google's stated focus on helping provide access to information around the globe. There have been numerous recent reports of Google employees protesting this decision internally, and even some employees have quit Google to put an exclamation point on just how against this idea they are. Recently an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post from a Chinese professor started making the rounds, arguing that "even a censored Google search engine would be better" for people in China than its current main search engine, Baidu. The argument from Bai Tongdong, a professor of philosophy at Fudan University, is pretty straightforward. More or less, it argues that Baidu is not a very good search engine. Google, even in a heavily censored fashion, is almost certainly going to be a lot better, and thus it will certainly aid in getting everyday people in China more access to information: As a college professor, I find Baidu’s search results on scholarly matters deeply frustrating, because they don’t lead me to the webpages I wish to find. In contrast, Google’s search results are far more useful. Thanks to my part-time employment at New York University’s law school, I can use its virtual private networks (VPN) to access Google, a benefit that I consider more valuable than the extra pay. And it is not just terrible search results, and the lack of access to useful tools such as Google Books. Baidu’s shameless commercialisation of its search engine has been the subject of controversy. For example, companies could – and maybe still can – bid for the top spots in Baidu’s search results, and users are not warned that these results are the outcome of commercial bidding and not sorted by relevance, as is the practice with Google. In one case that sparked a public outcry, a young man used Baidu to search for treatments and clinics for the rare form of the cancer he suffered from. The man’s family spent over 200,000 yuan (US$29,000) on an experimental treatment at one of the for-profit hospitals that topped his Baidu search, but the treatment was unsuccessful and he died. The search results could have caused him to miss potentially life-saving treatment. Undoubtedly this is true. It would certainly probably improve the search engine results and options for Chinese residents. But that's not really the point of why Google left China nearly a decade ago, nor the reason why people are concerned about its plans for a censored re-entry. I don't think anyone denies that it probably would be useful for Chinese residents and citizens. The question is at what cost does this come? Giving into an authoritarian government, hiding important and often useful information -- including information critical or mocking of the Chinese government -- is something that many people think is fundamentally wrong. Appeasing authoritarian governments never leads to good outcomes. The article suggests that since it would improve the lives of the average Chinese individual, and because Google could always pull out again if it felt pressured to go to far in the moderation of the search engine, that this shouldn't be a huge concern. But that ignores the idea that having the government censor the search engine results in the first place should already be seen as a bridge too far. Finally, he argues against the idea that Google staying out of China leads to China changing its policies, and thus, Google should re-enter the market: ...the simple fact is that, although it has been years since Google exited China, nothing much has changed or is expected to change for better in those areas. While the situation can’t worsen, there is a chance that Google might prompt an improvement. In a world in which the only choices available are between the purely good and the purely evil, that is, in a world that has never existed and will never exist, “do no evil” would be a good guiding principle. In the world we live in though, the practical motto should be “do the lesser evil”. For, after all, a morally compromised Google is still better than Baidu. That's really throwing in the towel entirely, though. The entire argument is based on the idea that Google hoped that leaving China would prompt some change in its unhealthy censorship policies. But, if true, that would entrust to Google a lot more power than I think even the biggest Google booster thinks the company has. It didn't pull out of China to try to force China's hand. It pulled out of China because it believed China's censorship and surveillance campaigns were simply wrong. That hasn't changed, and that's why Google shouldn't give in here. It's not about some big calculus about what's better for whom. It's about not censoring content at the behest of an authoritarian censorship-happy government. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 6 days ago on techdirt
It's troubling how little is needed to trigger a police investigation and some ancillary damage to the First Amendment. Thanks to flagging tools provided by social media platforms, almost anything can be sent to local law enforcement for additional inspection, which results in the following sort of thing, in equal parts absurd and horrifying. It all started Dec. 14, when local DJ and gay activist Matt Beierschmitt took to Facebook to chastise gays for patronizing a nightclub named ICandy at 254 S. 12th St. Its owner had made headlines in 2016 when he was recorded making disparaging remarks about black people. [Philadelphia journalist Ernest] Owens responded, echoing his sentiments and blasting both ICandy and the Mummers. "I say, 'F– em,' they will be shown better than told," Owens wrote. "I will just leave it at that. A great reckoning is coming." Four days later, Owens said, he got a phone call from Detective Lawrence Richardson Jr. of the Police Department's Dignitary Protection and Counter Terrorism Operations unit, informing him that he was being investigated because of his Facebook comment. "I said, 'What?'" he recalled. "I'm thinking: 'They're calling me about something on Facebook?' Police shouldn't be engaging me over a Facebook post." But they were. Philly police insisted on speaking personally to Owens about his post. He met them at the unit's headquarters the next day. Once there, the officers said stuff about "see something, say something" and proceeded to question Owens about gun ownership, bomb-making ability, and any plans he might have to harm anyone else. After answering these questions, the police told Owen he was "cleared" and free to go. The officers also told him this was standard procedure police follow when criminal activity is reported. Except there was no criminal activity. There was only a single Facebook post helpfully forwarded to the police by another Facebook user. During the interrogation, Owens said, he noticed paperwork listing the name of the man who had complained about his Facebook comment. That man, James DePre, a saxophone player and leader of the Quaker City String Band, said Wednesday that he emailed Owens' comment to the police after someone sent it to him and after he'd attended a parade-safety planning meeting of officers from the Third and Fourth Districts and community members, including Mummers. "At that meeting, the police said, 'If you see something, say something.' I don't even know who he is," DePre said of Owens. "'A day of reckoning is coming,'" that was the thing I reacted to. That's what prompted me to send it to the police. If you have a public event and you get a message like that, that stood out to me. So I said, 'Here it is, you can do whatever you want with it.'" Well, they did what they wanted to with it. This should be a cautionary lesson to social media users. If you send something to law enforcement, they may decide to take away someone's freedom. If something goes wrong during this process, they may also take away someone's life. "Better safe than sorry" is a shitty platitude to deploy after some "see something, say something" do-gooding ends a fellow citizen's life. I don't expect social media users to be experts in sussing out true threats, but they should definitely be more careful about dragging men with guns into the mix over ambiguous words posted during heated discussions. This doesn't necessarily mean the police are out of line. This is what we pay law enforcement to do: follow up on reported criminal activity. But everything about law enforcement is discretionary, which can result in rights violations or biased response rates. "See something, say something" very rarely results in actionable info, but police are just as invested in the "better safe than sorry" platitude and do what they can to encourage this unfortunate cycle of events. There's no good fix for this. All that can be offered is an abundance of caution. People making complaints need to recognize the potential severity of a law enforcement response. And law enforcement needs to realize it doesn't need to disrupt a citizen's life just because some internet rando sent them a Facebook screenshot. All in all, this could have gone worse. But even when it goes well, it still has an adverse effect on people who committed no crime but still find themselves surrounded by cops demanding to know about the weapons they own (gun ownership: still legal) and their level of antipathy towards their fellow humans. Non-custodial interviews are bullshit because they often require proving negatives to law enforcement satisfaction while requiring almost nothing from the law enforcement officers asking the questions. Ernest Owens has made more of this than is strictly necessary, but he's not completely wrong. He may be overstating the effect of this interaction with law enforcement, but he certainly will feel less free to post his thoughts in public forums, especially if those thoughts are critical of others. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 6 days ago on techdirt
Last week, the extreme Trump-supporting media sites went positively ballistic when Breitbart released a leaked internal presentation entitled "The Good Censor." According to Breitbart and the other Trumpkin media, this is somehow "proof" that Google is censoring conservatives, giving up on free speech and planning to silence people like themselves. To put this into a context those sites would understand, this is "fake news." I finally had the time to read through the 85 page presentation and, uh, it paints a wholly different picture than the one that Breitbart and such sites have been painting. Instead, it pretty clearly lays out why content moderation is impossible to do well at scale and that it will always result in decisions that upset a lot of people (no matter what they do). It also discusses how "bad actors" have effectively weaponized open platforms to silence people. It does not, as some sites have suggested, show a Google eager to censor anyone. Indeed, the report repeatedly highlights the difficult choices it faces, and repeatedly highlights how any move towards increased censorship can and will be abused by governments to stamp out dissent. It also is pretty self critical, highlighting how the tech companies themselves have mismanaged all of this to make things worse (here's just one example of a much more thorough analysis in the document): The presentation actually spends quite a lot of time talking about the problems of any censorship regime, but also noting that various governments basically are requiring censorship around the globe. It's also quite obviously not recommending a particular path, but explaining why companies have gotten more aggressive in moderating content of late (and, no, it's not because "Trump won"). It notes how bad behavior has driven away users, how governments have been increasingly using regulatory and other attacks against tech companies, and how advertisers were being pressured to drop platforms for allowing bad behavior. The final five slides are also absolutely worth reading. It notes that "The answer is not to 'find the right amount of censorship' and stick to it..." because that would never work. It acknowledges that there are no right answers, and then sets up nine principles -- in four categories -- which make an awful lot of sense. Be more consistent Don't take sides Police tone instead of content Be more transparent Justify global positions Enforce standards and policies clearly Explain the technology Be more responsive Improve communications Take problems seriously Be more empowering Positive guidelines Better signposts You can quibble about these, but they're mostly good general principles (though perhaps hard to put into practice). I also think there are some other ideas that are missing -- such as moving control out to the ends of the network, rather than continuing to handle everything at the company level or providing incentives for good behavior -- but this is hardly the list of a company saying it's actively going to censor political speech. Indeed, many of the complaints from people about the moderation is the lack of transparency and consistency in these actions. Though, I'd also argue that this presentation underplays why consistency is so difficult when you rely on thousands of people to make determinations on content with varying shades of gray and no clear answers as to what's "good" or "bad." So while this document is being used to attack Google, it actually is yet another useful tool in showing (1) just how impossible it is to do these things right and (2) how carefully companies are thinking about this issue (rather than just ignoring it, as many insist). I recognize that's not as "fun" a story as slagging the big bad tech giant for its plan to silence people, but... it's a more accurate story. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 6 days ago on techdirt
Lots of companies like gathering lots of data. Many do this without explicit permission from the people they're collecting from. They sell this info to others. They collect and collect and collect and it's not until there's a problem that many people seem to feel the collection itself is a problem. The Equifax breach is a perfectly illustrative case. Lenders wanted a service that could rate borrowers quickly to determine their trustworthiness. This required a massive amount of data to be collected from numerous creditors, along with personally-identifiable information to authenticate the gathered data. The database built by Equifax was a prime target for exploitation. That this information would ultimately end up in the hands of criminals was pretty much inevitable. But Equifax isn't the only credit reporting service collecting massive amounts of data but failing to properly secure it. TransUnion not only collects a lot of the same information, but it sells access to cops, lenders, private investigators, landlords… whoever might want to do one-stop shopping for personal and financial data. This includes criminals, because of course it does. From January to June 2018, seven members of [Tony] Da Boss’ gang pleaded guilty to various identity theft charges. In total they had caused about $1.2 million in damage, using stolen identities to buy luxury cars and iPhones and to lease apartments in Charlotte. Both they and their crimes would have been quickly forgotten as garden variety larceny were it not for the way they stole those identities. Cops alleged Da Boss and his co-conspirators had access to the Holy Grail for any Internet-age scam artist: a surveillance technology that police and debt collectors use to track most of the United States’ 325 million inhabitants via their Social Security numbers, license plates, address histories, names and dates of birth. The mass-monitoring tech, called TLO, is a product of the Chicago-based credit reporting giant TransUnion, which last year had revenues of nearly $1.9 billion. One brochure for the service promises access to a startling amount of personal data drawn from myriad sources: more than 350 million Social Security numbers of dead and living Americans, 225 million employment histories and four billion address records. Add to that billions of vehicle registrations and call records and you have one of the largest commercial surveillance databases in existence. The only thing surprising about this is that it only resulted in $1.2 million in damage. The database -- originally designed to help hunt down child predators -- promises users a "360-degree profile of virtually any person, business or location in the US." In addition to the wealth of personal and financial data, the database also includes surveillance cam photos and license plate numbers, which makes it even more attractive to government agencies and the occasional criminal. One of the charged suspects worked for a debt collection firm, selling off personal info to criminals for $100/victim. The rest of the gang's access relied on swiped credentials. TransUnion is making millions authenticating US residents who can't even opt out of its collection. But it's not doing much to ensure only authorized users are accessing its system. Live by the tech, die by the tech. In June last year, Postal Service investigator Berkland obtained a warrant ordering Google to hand over all the data related to [the gang's Nest] cameras. The company complied, shipping surveillance footage back, along with personal details of its owners. It’s the first known case in the United States in which a federal law enforcement agency has demanded information from a Nest provider, and it has obvious implications for anyone who has purchased a smart home appliance that contains a camera or a microphone. Unhappily, TransUnion told Forbes this wasn't the first time criminals have gained access to its TLO database. And it certainly won't be the last, either. The privacy and security of Americans is in the hands of companies who collect this information without their permission and which can seldom be bothered to treat this massive stash of personal info with the respect it deserves. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 6 days ago on techdirt
Even with the rising popularity of Google Drive and other online productivity apps, Microsoft Office is still king in the corporate world (probably due to inertia more than any other reason). You can brush up on your skills with the $29 Microsoft Office Mastery Bundle. They're offering courses in Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Outlook and SharePoint Access (note that you need to have these programs in order to complete the instruction). You will gain access to hundreds of hours of material via this unlimited subscription so you can learn at your own speed. Note: The Techdirt Deals Store is powered and curated by StackCommerce. A portion of all sales from Techdirt Deals helps support Techdirt. The products featured do not reflect endorsements by our editorial team. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 6 days ago on techdirt
PEN America, the well known human rights group that focuses on protecting freedom of expression for writers has now sued President Trump for a bunch of different attacks on the First Amendment -- using Trump's repeated tweets and threats as the key evidence in making these claims. The complaint lists out a bunch of different statements and actions by the President that PEN America argues all violate the 1st Amendment. There are four separate actions by the President described in the lawsuit, and let's go through them one by one. First up is the President issuing an executive order about raising postal rates in retaliation against Jeff Bezos and Amazon, because Bezos (not Amazon) owns the Washington Post, and the Washington Post has been doing pretty strong reporting in revealing all sorts of Presidential misdeeds. Defendant Trump has repeatedly threatened to use the U.S. Postal Service (“Postal Service”) and its rate structure to retaliate against Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post (also referred to as “the Post”), whose coverage he dislikes. On April 12, 2018, he followed through on his threats by signing an Executive Order directing the Postal Service to review its rates. This Order, on information and belief, was aimed at Bezos’s company, Amazon, and was motivated by Defendant Trump’s displeasure at the reporting of Bezos’s other company, the Washington Post. From the beginning of his campaign for President, Defendant Trump has repeatedly attacked the Post for its coverage of him, calling it biased, fictitious, and “a disgrace to journalism.” In a 2016 interview, he called the Post “a political instrument” that was writing “bad” and “wrong” stories “with no proper information,” and accused its reporters of writing a “false” book about him. He has routinely called the Washington Post “fake news” and personally attacked its writers. During his presidency, when the Washington Post published unflattering stories about the inner workings of his Administration, Defendant Trump frequently responded with pointed denunciations of the accuracy of the Post’s work. On April 8, 2018, for example, after the Post ran a story about John Kelly’s frustrations as Chief of Staff, Defendant Trump tweeted: “The Washington Post is far more fiction than fact. Story after story is made up garbage - more like a poorly written novel than good reporting. Always quoting sources (not names), many of which do not exist. Story on John Kelly isn’t true, just another hit job!” Defendant Trump has turned his ire over the Washington Post’s coverage into a vendetta against its owner Bezos, targeting Bezos’s main asset, Amazon, by issuing a series of threats to take governmental action that would harm Bezos and Amazon, and which were eventually acted upon. During his campaign, Defendant Trump repeatedly threatened future action against Amazon, regularly tied to objections over the Post’s coverage. On information and belief, he did this to signal to Bezos and Amazon shareholders that he could – and would – use his official powers to adversely impact Amazon’s tax status and subject it to antitrust enforcement. As candidate Trump put it at a rally on February 26, 2016, while referring to Bezos and Amazon: “If I become president, oh do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.” There's a lot more along those lines... and then it talks about Trump's threats concerning the postal rates: On December 29, 2017, following a Washington Post story on the Administration’s internal deliberations on how to handle “worries of a tough year ahead,” and a satirical end-of-year piece entitled “Was 2017 the end of something or just the beginning,” Defendant Trump tweeted that the Postal Service should be charging more to deliver Amazon’s packages: “Why is the United States Post Office [sic], which is losing many billions of dollars a year, while charging Amazon and others so little to deliver their packages, making Amazon richer and the Post Office dumber and poorer? Should be charging MUCH MORE!” On information and belief, Defendant Trump has since repeatedly been told by his staff that his assertions about Amazon’s harmful impact on the Postal Service are incorrect, but he continues to repeat them. Defendant Trump recently renewed and escalated his threats of action against Amazon following unflattering reporting in the Washington Post detailing the damage done to Trump’s family businesses by allegations involving adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election. Defendant Trump repeated his false claims about costs to the Postal Service and his threats to raise Amazon’s shipping rates. Once again, he left no doubt that his motivation was animus against the Post, again calling it a “lobbyist” and “weapon” for Bezos. In a series of tweets from March 29, 2018 to April 3, 2018, Defendant Trump made repeated false statements about Amazon and issued repeated threats to raise its postal shipping rates. Over the course of these threats from President Trump, Amazon sustained a $60 billion dip in market value. On information and belief, Defendant Trump’s attacks on Amazon were motivated by animus toward Bezos and the Washington Post on account of its coverage of him and his Administration. For example, in an April 13, 2018 article by Maya Kosoff, Vanity Fair quoted White House sources as saying that President Trump “has zero respect” for the Washington Post and wants to “[f--k] with” Bezos as a result. On April 12, 2018, Defendant Trump followed through on his retaliatory threats, issuing an Executive Order directing a review of the Postal Service’s “unsustainable financial path.” The order included several provisions directed at Amazon, including an order to review the “expansion and pricing of the package delivery market.” On information and belief, President Trump had by this time repeatedly and personally directed the Postmaster General to raise Amazon’s rates. Even during the pendency of the review, Defendant Trump continued to threaten further action against Bezos and Amazon and linked his motivation clearly to the Washington Post’s coverage. On July 23, 2018, immediately following reports in the Post that President Trump was unhappy with the progress of talks with North Korea, the President tweeted that “[t]he Amazon Washington Post has gone crazy against me ever since they lost the Internet Tax Case in the U.S. Supreme Court,” i.e. South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. He then renewed his threats to take antitrust action against Amazon and to raise its postal delivery rates. President Trump tweeted “Next up is the U.S. Post Office [sic] which they use, at a fraction of real cost, as their ‘delivery boy’ for a BIG percentage of their packages. . . In my opinion the Washington Post is nothing more than an expensive (the paper loses a fortune) lobbyist for Amazon. Is it used as protection against antitrust claims which many feel should be brought?” On October 11, 2018, the Postal Service announced proposed rate hikes for its services, to include rate increases of up to 12 percent for the Parcel Select service used by Amazon. On information and belief, this action by the Postal Service would not have been taken but for the President’s clearly expressed desire to punish Amazon for the reporting of the Washington Post. This really seems like a case where Trump's own words and tweets could potentially sink him. Normally, it would be pretty difficult to directly link something like raising postal rates on Amazon to direct retaliation for coverage in the Washington Post, but as the complaint lays out, because Trump himself has directly (incorrectly) argued that Amazon and the Washington Post are the same, and that the effort to raise rates was to punish Bezos and the Post, it seems like there's a stronger argument here. The larger issue may be standing. There appear to be strong arguments here for the Washington Post and possibly Bezos himself and/or Amazon to have better standing, but PEN America is a tougher one. The organization tries to get around this by arguing that its members write for the Washington Post and that this has the potential to harm them. That seems like the key point that will be challenged in court. If they can get over the standing question, then it seems like they have a strong argument, mainly because Trump can't keep his mouth shut. The second issue seems like more of a long shot to me. It's about the DOJ's effort to block the AT&T takeover of Time Warner (that effort has mostly failed). PEN America's suit argues that the DOJ's antitrust enforcement here was really about Trump's well-known animus towards CNN. And he did sometimes mention the merger, as detailed in the complaint: Defendant Trump has done far more than exercise the right to make known his dislike of CNN’s reporting. At a rally during the 2016 campaign, Defendant Trump threatened to block a proposed merger between Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, and AT&T, once he gained control of the DOJ, and made clear his retaliatory motive for doing so. On October 22, 2016 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he denounced the AT&T–Time Warner merger, telling his audience that CNN was part of the media “power structure” trying to suppress his votes. “AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN,” Defendant Trump said, declaring it “a deal we will not approve in my administration.” Once in office, Defendant Trump followed through on this threat. On information and belief, during the pendency of the AT&T–Time Warner merger review process, advisers to President Trump discussed using the merger approval application as “a potential point of leverage over [CNN].” On information and belief, DOJ demanded the sale of CNN as a condition of its approval of the merger, leading a source close to the merger process to opine that “[t]his has become political . . . It’s all about CNN.” This claim seems much weaker than the first. To be clear, it has the same standing issues as the first, but even if we get past those, vague threats to use antitrust action here doesn't mean that's actually what happened. Obviously, the discovery process here would be a big deal, and perhaps they can turn up a smoking gun. But there were plenty of legitimate antitrust reasons to block this merger, so the direct causal line here does seem tough to prove. Separate from that, however, are threats to use DOJ enforcement powers against Google and other social media companies over the (made up) claim of political bias in search and recommendations. Here, as we've argued, the DOJ appears to be directly positioning the First Amendment-protected moderation and ranking decisions of internet companies as some sort of anti-trust violation. That's clearly in violation of the First Amendment, and the PEN America complaint highlights this as well: Defendant Trump’s threats to use the DOJ to influence the flow of information to the public is not limited to CNN. On August 28, 2018, he complained, via Twitter, that: Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake News Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of . . . results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed! Hours later, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow, standing outside the White House, threatened that the Trump Administration is “taking a look” at imposing regulations on Google. On September 5, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his intention to convene a meeting of Republican state attorneys general to discuss a possible federal investigation of whether Google, Facebook, and other social media companies are violating antitrust and free speech laws. On September 22, 2018, the White House leaked a draft Executive Order that would instruct federal law enforcement and antitrust agencies to open investigations into social media companies. This leak was intended to, and did, have a negative market impact on these companies. The intent of leaking this information was to show these companies and other speakers the President dislikes that his White House has the power to significantly injure them with a simple leak if it dislikes their content. The intent of leaking this information was also to incentivize investors to pressure these companies to modify their content to be more to the liking of the President in order to avoid retaliatory actions that could impact the investors’ bottom line. Once again, the standing issue is a big one here that may be difficult for PEN America to get past. But this kind of activity has clear First Amendment problems. We detailed out a bunch of cases that highlighted how the courts have ruled against politicians and government officials who use the power of their office to intimidate companies into publishing (or not publishing) protected speech. Next up is Trump's semi-regular threats to "pull" the licenses from major TV networks over negative coverage of his Presidency. He does this every so often even though there aren't any such licenses to pull. Even networks like NBC, ABC and CBS have local licenses for their affiliates, but not a general license for their parent companies -- and Trump can't "pull" those non-existent licenses anyway. Minutes later, Defendant Trump followed that tweet with another threatening NBC’s broadcast license. “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” Later the same day, Defendant Trump broadened his threat to more outlets: “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” Beyond the standing question (again), the issue here will be the lack of action. It's just Trump venting stupidly on Twitter, and again such licenses don't even exist. Obviously, PEN's argument here is that the local affiliate licenses do exist, and these threats to pull general licenses may be interpreted by them as a threat to pull the local licenses -- and that could impact and influence coverage at the local level. But... that seems like much more of a stretch than the other claims. Next up are attempts to limit the access of White House reporters to information in the White House. Defendant Trump’s behavior in denying journalist critics access to information from the White House and about his Administration is a pattern dating back to his campaign. Prior to the election, on August 25, 2015, Defendant Trump had Jorge Ramos, Univision’s lead anchor, removed from a press conference after Ramos tried to ask Defendant Trump a question about immigration policy. While on the campaign trail, Defendant Trump barred reporters from several news organizations, including the Washington Post, from obtaining press credentials at his rallies, news conferences, and other events. As President, Defendant Trump has continued to threaten journalists whose coverage or questioning he found unfavorable to him or his Administration with revoking their access to official Administration and White House events. On information and belief, Defendant Trump has repeatedly directed White House staff to ban reporters critical of his Administration from covering official events or to take away their press credentials. This included reporters from the Washington Post, CNN, and NBC News, and Defendant has specifically told his staff to consider blacklisting Jim Acosta of CNN and April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Networks in retaliation for their coverage, of which he disapproves. Again, there's a standing issue here, and I'm a bit surprised PEN America didn't find a journalist to be a co-plaintiff at least on this claim, as that would make it stronger. Beyond that, there are some questions about what standards the White House uses in favoring some journalists over others, that could potentially raise some First Amendment issues. If the decisions are specifically based on their coverage and if it's positive or negative, then there's a stronger case there. The White House, of course, will likely suggest there are other reasons for limiting access to certain journalists. In the end, this should be an interesting First Amendment case to follow, though I do think the standing question will be a tough hurdle for PEN America, without specifically naming individuals or organizations directly harmed by these actions (some of which do appear to raise big First Amendment questions). Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 6 days ago on techdirt
AT&T recently defeated the DOJ's challenge to their $86 billion merger with Time Warner thanks to a comically narrow reading of the markets by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon. At no point in his 172-page ruling (which approved the deal without a single condition) did Leon show the faintest understanding that AT&T intends to use vertical integration synergistically with the death of net neutrality to dominate smaller competitors. In fact, net neutrality was never even mentioned by the DOJ at the multi-week trial. Likely in part because the DOJ didn't want to highlight how the Trump FCC was screwing everybody over with one hand, while the Trump DOJ was allegedly suing AT&T to "protect consumers" with the other (some argue that Trump's disdain for CNN and adoration of Rupert Murdoch were the more likely motivators). But if you ignore the fact that AT&T plans to use its monopoly over many broadband markets (from residential to cellular tower backhaul) combined with the death of net neutrality to make life difficult for consumers and competitors alike, you're not paying any attention to history or to AT&T's repeated nods in that general direction. During the first trial, you'll recall the DOJ and its hired economists repeatedly pointed out how AT&T's vertical integration and ownership of "must have" content (like HBO) would provide the Dallas-based giant every incentive to raise TV rates. AT&T lawyers laughed those findings off, then immediately proceeded to...raise rates and hammer users with bogus new fees as it attempted to deal with the massive debt incurred from the merger. Those rate hikes were a major reason the DOJ decided it should try and appeal Leon's initial ruling. As the DOJ works on its appeal of Leon's ruling, the government continues to point out in filings (pdf) that all of its economic models show that AT&T's ownership of Time Warner and DirecTV will provide the company with endless opportunities to raise rates on competitors and consumers: "The bargaining model is an accepted and reliable predictor of competitive effects in the pay-television industry, and Professor Shapiro used reasonable inputs to quantify the magnitude of cost increases that AT&T would impose on rivals through negotiations—and the consequent higher prices for consumers—separate and apart from the non-quantifiable harms of the merger, such as reduced choice and stymied innovation...Given the district court’s illogical conclusion that the merger will lead to no change in bargaining leverage, and its erroneous finding of no consumer harm, a remand is necessary." One of the major problems here is that lobbying has weakened antitrust enforcement so severely, government lawyers are now trapped within very narrow confines of economic theory to prove a point that should be common sense (especially if you've watched AT&T do business for more than five seconds): AT&T has a long history of behaving anti-competitively, and being even larger is going to make that even easier. And again, that's before you even get to the fact that AT&T lobbyists just effectively convinced the FCC to neuter itself and net neutrality on AT&T's demand. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 6 days ago on techdirt
Another case attempting to define the contours of the Fifth Amendment as it pertains to cellphones and passwords has arrived in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The case involves sex trafficking allegations and a phone seized from the defendant at the time of his arrest. Testimony from a person who said she was trafficked suggested the phone seized belonged to the defendant Dennis Lee Jones. The state sought to compel Jones to unlock the seized phone, but this motion was denied by the trial court, resulting in the state's appeal. While the lower court did express some concern that unlocking devices can result in the production of evidence to be used against the person unlocking it, the standard for compelled password production has nothing to do with the eventual recovery of evidence. All the state* needs to reach is a reasonable certainty the defendant knows the password to the seized device. This is called a "foregone conclusion" -- the defendant "telling" the state what it already "knows:" that the phone belongs to him and he can unlock it. The potential evidence held inside the phone may eventually be used against the defendant, but the Fifth Amendment question isn't about this evidence, but rather the simple act of producing a password, which isn't considered testimonial if the government can tie the phone to the accused. *Yes, I realize Massachusetts is technically a commonwealth. There's no need to point this out in the comments. In this case, it appears the state failed to meet that standard. The opinion being appealed says the government hasn't been able to conclusively show the phone belongs to Jones or that he knows the password. It may have shown evidence relevant to the case resides on the device, but that's not enough to move forward with compelled decryption. In this case, the Commonwealth has established with reasonable particularity that information relevant to the charges against Mr. Jones exists on the LG Phone, and that it is authentic, satisfying two of the three elements of the “foregone conclusion” analysis. For example, the 7119 Number is linked to the LG Phone; online listings for alleged prostitution reference the 7119 Number; and police have possession of text messages from the 7119 Number related to commercial sex acts. In short, the Commonwealth has established independently that information connected to the charged sex trafficking activity is on the LG Phone. The Commonwealth, however, has not demonstrated with reasonable particularity that Mr. Jones possesses the PIN number for the LG Phone or has access to what that phone contains. [...] The phone is not registered to Mr. Jones or to his address. A female voice (McNeill’s) answers voice calls to the 7119 Number. The Commonwealth has provided no evidence of Mr. Jones accessing or entering the PIN number into the LG Phone. The Commonwealth does not suggest that any law enforcement officer called the LG Phone and heard Mr. Jones answer the phone. In addition, Mr. Jones has not admitted to owning or controlling the phone. In short, the Commonwealth has offered no evidence akin to the strong evidence offered in Gelfgatt, where the defendant admitted to encrypting (and being able to decrypt) the computers at his home office. The Commonwealth relies mainly on statements from Ms. Fortin, who lists the 7119 Number in her phone’s contact list as “Dennis,” and claims the 7119 Number belongs to Mr. Jones. I have not seen a statement from Ms. Fortin that shows she witnessed Mr. Jones using the LG Phone, nor did she describe the physical characteristics of the phone (such as model, color, or general appearance) in a way to suggest she has seen Mr. Jones physically use or enter a PIN into the phone. Defendant challenges Ms. Fortin’s credibility. The Commonwealth seems tacitly to acknowledge Ms. Fortin’s credibility issues, indicating in its search warrant affidavit that it seeks access to the contents of the LG Phone to “corroborate or fail to corroborate” the “key aspects of Ms. Fortin’s statement.” Because it hasn't reached the "foregone conclusion" standard, the state's demand for a password makes this act testimonial. In seeking to compel Mr. Jones to provide the PIN for the LG Phone, the Commonwealth is asking Mr. Jones to admit that he owns and/or controls the LG Phone, a fact the Commonwealth believes to be true, but does not know, and has been unable to establish independently. Law prof Orin Kerr, who has written volumes on Fourth and Fifth Amendment issues, has filed an amicus brief [PDF] in this case. Citing his own draft paper [PDF] on the Fifth Amendment and compelled decryption, Kerr's argument mainly focuses on setting the confines of the "foregone conclusion" standard. His brief rejects both the stricter standard suggested by the defendant and lower standard asked for by the government. (h/t ReleasetheKraken) The defendant argued for "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" he knew the password to the phone. But Kerr points out that's a standard for convictions, not accessing potential evidence. Due process requires that the government must prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt because an individual’s freedom is at stake. Assigning such a high burden acts as “a prime instrument for reducing the risk of convictions resting on factual error.” In contrast, “the basic purposes that lie behind the privilege against self-incrimination do not relate to protecting the innocent from conviction, but rather to preserving the integrity of a judicial system[.]” The individual must plead the Fifth and have a court assess the privilege before (often long before) any trial might occur. Although the individual must show that an answer would be incriminating, the individual may not even be a criminal suspect at that time. The Commonwealth could reasonably know only a small part of the evidence that it would later learn before deciding to bring a criminal case against the individual. For these reasons, the trial standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard is not well-suited for the foregone conclusion doctrine. According to Kerr, obtaining a password only ties the accused to the unlocked device. Whatever is on the phone may help the government prove its case, but it would not be able to use the suspect's compelled cooperation against him in court. It's not much of a protection, but it's something. It would prevent the government from making inferences about the phone's ownership and instead have to rely solely on the evidence found on the phone. The evidence must make the connection on its own without the government's help. The government argued for a lower standard, one that would allow it to get its motion to compel granted. It wants a "preponderance of evidence" standard applied to "subsidiary facts." With this, the government could use the evidence provided by the victim to meet the standard needed to compel password production without having to prove on its own that Jones owned the phone it's seeking to unlock. Kerr rejects this as well, saying it introduces an evidentiary standard not needed when evidence is still being sought. Identifying a standard for “subsidiary facts” arises when a trial court must determine what facts to consider to assess whether evidence is admissible at trial. But as explained above, Gelfgatt motions do not involve trial evidence. The only question is whether the Commonwealth can show by clear and convincing evidence that the subject of the order knows the passcode needed to unlock the device. There are no subsidiary facts to consider. [...] Adopting the Commonwealth’s preponderance standard for “subsidiary facts” would only water down the clear and convincing evidence standard. To see why, imagine a reliable informant previously told an officer that a criminal suspect regularly used one of two phones found in an abandoned car. But there’s a catch: The officer’s memory is hazy about which phone the informant identified. Based on the officer’s uncertain testimony, the trial court concludes that there is a 51% chance that the informant identified a particular phone as the one the suspect regularly used. Now imagine the Commonwealth obtains a Gelfgatt order, the suspect pleads the Fifth, and the reviewing judge must determine if the Commonwealth has proven the suspect’s knowledge of that phone’s password by clear and convincing evidence. How should the court treat the officer’s uncertain testimony? Under the Commonwealth’s approach, the judge must treat as 100% certain that the informant identified that particular phone as the one regularly used by the suspect. Because the Commonwealth established the identification of that phone by a preponderance of the evidence, the judge would have to assume it as a true “subsidiary fact” and consider whether the identification showed by clear and convincing evidence that the suspect knew the phone’s password. That would make little sense. Doubt about the existence of subsidiary facts should not be ignored simply because the existence of those facts is more likely than not. Here's what Kerr believes the standard should be for compelled decryption: A clear and convincing evidence standard strikes me as a fair approximation of a burden needed to eliminate that advantage. When the government can show by clear and convincing evidence that it already knows the facts implicit in the suspect’s testimonial acts, it is highly unlikely that the government will obtain any trial advantage from the testimony implicit in that act. The clear and convincing standard is sufficient to be confident that the government need not and will not rely on the testimonial act at trial to prove its case. If that's the standard, it's unlikely the government has met it. It is lacking several establishing facts tying Jones to the phone seized from him during his arrest. If so, it cannot compel decryption. The standard for compelled decryption is continually shifting. There's no on-point precedent from the US Supreme Court standardizing this across federal courts and every state has its own Constitution to consider as well during state-level prosecutions. This will have to be taken up by the Supreme Court at some point, because producing passwords may not be technically testimonial if the government can meet the "foregone conclusion" standard, but it does lead to the production of evidence the government would have had access to otherwise. Analogies about wall safes and combinations only go so far when phones contain far more potential evidence than could possibly fit into a physical hole in the wall. Then again, the Fifth Amendment only guards against self-incrimination. What's on locked devices may be incriminating, but unlocking a device only proves you can unlock it. If this element can't be used against a person in court, the government must still link evidence found to the criminal charges sought without drawing inferences from the compelled decryption itself. In many cases, this act won't prove essential to the government's case, even if the wealth of information unveiled ultimately helps secure a conviction. Since the lines are still muddy, it may be in law enforcement's best interest to seek outside help cracking cellphones, rather than relying on something some courts may find testimonial, or otherwise determine the government hasn't met its burden to compel decryption. The future is going to filled with cases like these, and there's a good chance courts will need to spend more time discussing the implications of other security measures -- like fingerprints and facial recognition -- in terms of Fifth Amendment protections. For now, though, there's a poorly-defined standard making life more difficult for everyone involved in the judicial process to determine what can or can't be done without violating rights. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 7 days ago on techdirt
I don't want to waste any space with a long introduction, other than to say it's always incredibly frustrating when artists come up with inventive new ways to produce artwork, only to have those efforts met with stupid intellectual property issues. Experimentation is key to the artistic world and we've begun to see how artists are incorporating technology into what they produce. This should be exciting, but all too often that excitement is plagued by legal issues. A case in point of this would be Canadian artist Adam Basanta, who has come up with a bonkers and very cool method for both producing machine-generated art and then validating that art for human consumption by comparing it to real-world artwork made by us lowly apes. Let's start with his setup. Broadly, Basanta’s machine has two stages: creation and validation. Creation happens with a hardware setup that Basanta likens to a Rube Goldberg machine: two computer scanners tipped on their sides and pointed face to face, endlessly scanning each other, and the results – influenced by shifts in the room’s lighting, randomized settings and an automatically moving mouse – are interpreted by a computer and turned into colourful abstract pictures. The second stage is validation. Another computer running a custom-built program automatically checks each image against an online database of real art made by human hands. If the machine-made image is similar to one that has been human-made, the computer dubs it a success and keeps it; if there is no match, the image is deleted forever. If that doesn't get your heart beating a little faster, you simply don't care about art. This setup is, at the very least, incredibly interesting, and Basanta's method for validating whether the art produced by the machines is good enough for human consumption or not kicks the interest level into overdrive. His setup generates something like a thousand images a day, with a tiny fraction of that being deemed worthy of retention. The whole thing was good enough to warrant an art exhibit in Canada and Basanta has featured many of the images on his website as well. And that's where the trouble started. Artist Amel Chamandy has alleged that Basanta violated her copyright on a piece she created called "A World Without Trees", as well as the trademark rights she has on her own name. Both claims stem from one of the pieces Basanta's machine setup used to validate its own artwork against and the naming convention it used to denote the new pieces it created. In June, someone – it’s not clear if it was Chamandy herself or someone who works with her – did a Google search for her name and the name of a 2009 wall installation she made called Your World Without Paper. The first result in the Google search, according to documents filed in court, was Chamandy’s website. But the second and third results pointed to Basanta’s website, because his machine had named one of its own pictures after one of hers. The offending image, some magenta lines on a field of indigo, is called: 85.81%_match: Amel Chamandy “Your World Without Paper”, 2009. The trademark claim rests solely on the name of the file including Chamandy's full name. It's a silly argument for trademark infringement as the whole point of including the name is to weigh the new art piece against her specific work, which necessarily involves anyone viewing these pieces being informed that they are not the work of the original author. The whole purpose of the validation process is to show what differentiation remains between the new piece and the human-made example. That's not trademark infringement. It's not really even close. As for the copyright portion of this, it's important that you not be fooled by the percentage the machine setup notes in the validation process. You might think that an 85% match would mean the two images are very similar and would share a ton of features that would link the two in the viewer's mind. That's not even close to being the case, as you can see just how different the two images are below. If that looks like copyright infringement to you, you need your head examined. Indeed, the entire setup here is defined by the fact that this is a totally independent creation -- and the "validation" process only serves to highlight that there is no copying. Indeed, the idea that independent creation is a defense against copyright goes back ages, and this is quite obviously an independent creation. The only reason the other artwork is mentioned at all, because it's the literal coincidence that the computer judged these images similar that leads to the name being mentioned. Judge Learned Hand famously wrote: ... if by some magic a man who had never known it were to compose anew Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn, he would be an "author," and, if he copyrighted it, others might not copy that poem, though they might of course copy Keats's... This is a case where "some magic" took place, and one artist "composed anew" something that a computer (but no human eye) judged to have a decent level of similarity to another's work. Were her name and the name of her work never mentioned on Basanta's site, she simply never would have noticed. Nor would anyone else. Ever. And, yet, because Basanta's entire project centers around pointing out the kind of quality his machine setup can produce in artwork by comparing it to real-world creations made by humans, suddenly Basanta is mired in intellectual property claims. And that's what sucks more than anything. One artist suing another, on incredibly specious grounds, is a betrayal of how art is created in the first place. If anything, Basanta was crediting Chamandy and pointing people toward her wider works by doing things the way he did. And this is the thanks he gets, because copyright. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 7 days ago on techdirt
The FBI's impersonation of journalists raised questions about its investigative activities, none of which the FBI felt like addressing. An Inspector General's investigation of FBI investigations using this tactic found that it was generally a bad idea, but not an illegal or unconstitutional one. Prior to the investigation, the FBI apparently had no clear policies governing this form of impersonation, which it used to snare a school-bombing suspect. Following the report, a policy was put in place that added some additional layers of oversight but didn't indicate the obvious downside of impersonating journalists: that the people the FBI wants to investigate are going to do a lot less talking to anyone they don't know, which includes journalists attempting to document newsworthy events that might contain criminal activity. The FBI blew it with one of its other impersonation efforts. As Camille Fassett reports for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a more recent effort may have put a serious damper on its fake news(person) efforts. In an even more disturbing incident in 2015, FBI posed as a documentary filmmaker crew in order to gain the trust of a group of ranchers engaged in an armed standoff with the government. The fake crew recorded hundreds of hours of video and audio and spent months with the ranchers pretending to make a documentary. The FBI tacitly acknowledged these efforts are great for the short-term, but ultimately harmful to the FBI in the long-term. Notably, it's not because they have a chilling effect on press freedoms, but rather because they undermine trust in the entities the FBI wants to impersonate. The FBI’s own arguments in the case acknowledge the chilling effect on journalism presented by this tactic. In a motion of summary judgment obtained by Freedom of the Press Foundation, the agency argued that it should not be required to disclose details about other instances of media impersonation, on the grounds that “it would allow criminals to judge whether they should completely avoid any contacts with documentary film crews, rendering the investigative technique ineffective.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has obtained the FBI's guidelines [PDF] for undercover efforts that involve impersonating journalists. They indicate there are several levels of approval needed, but don't contain details about what's considered by those making these determinations. The relevant FBI field office must submit an application to the Undercover Review Committee at FBI headquarters and it must be approved by the FBI Deputy Director after consultation with the Deputy Attorney General. The guidelines do not provide any criteria the FBI Deputy Director and/or the Deputy Attorney General must consider when approving these undercover activities. All well and good, but one wonders how high the potential impact on civil liberties rates on the scale of 0-Impersonation, or whether it's more important the agency doesn't undermine future investigations by setting fire to the reputation of the impersonated entities by opening the Adventurous Reporter dress-up kit once too often. I don't believe the FBI doesn't care at all about the collateral damage. I'm just reasonably certain it's far more concerned about how often -- and how successfully -- it will be sued. Adding more layers of oversight won't necessarily steer agents away from questionable tactics, but it will make it more difficult for plaintiffs to show the FBI carelessly caused damage to their livelihoods by pretending to be the press. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 7 days ago on techdirt
Yesterday we published the first part of an analysis by copyright lawyer Rick Sanders who wrote up a thorough analysis of the recent 9th Circuit decision to overturn the jury verdict in a case involving whether or not the Led Zeppelin song "Stairway to Heaven" infringed on another song. The first part described how the 9th Circuit might correct a problematic "test" for infringement, and this part analyzes the problems with the jury instructions. Last time, I explained why I thought the Ninth Circuit's recent vacating and remanding of the jury verdict in Led Zeppelin's favor was, long-term, a good thing for copyright law (even if I kind of liked the verdict and am genuinely sorry for Led Zeppelin). The reason is that the reversal gave one panel of the Ninth Circuit an opportunity to try to fix the Ninth Circuit's unhelpful legal framework for determining copyright infringement. But that isn't why the panel reversed. While the panel did make some suggestions about how to present the "inverse-ratio" rule to the jury, the way it was presented to the original jury isn't what merited reversal. What merited reversal was the lack of another jury instruction about a basic and uncontroversial principle of copyright law that the parties agreed should have been there in some form. In short, the case is being reversed — and the Ninth Circuit is getting a chance to fix its own weird copyright law — because of what appears to have been a brain fart. Jury Instructions: An Introduction We all gasped when we heard about the reversal. Jury verdicts are hardly ever reversed. One of the few ways a jury verdict can be thrown out is if the jury was badly instructed in the law. Juries, naturally, don't bring any knowledge about the law with them when they serve. That's not their job, really. Their job is to weigh evidence, make credibility determinations, and so forth. But at some point, they need to be told what the law is, so they can take all that evidence they weighed and apply it to the law and render a verdict. How this is accomplished might surprise you. There are several ways for jury instructions to be prepared and delivered to a jury, but the main way is this. First, the parties' attorneys confer about what jury instructions they can agree on and jointly submit those instructions to the court. In this, they are aided by pattern jury instructions prepared at the circuit court's direction. But pattern jury instructions don't cover every aspect of every area of the law. You'd need ever-updating volumes to do that. Also, the pattern jury instructions aren't unassailable: a party might disagree with one and explain how it should be and why. For all other jury instructions, the parties submit their own versions of instructions they think address all of the legal issues being raised at trial, together with a short explanation of the legal authorities for their versions. The judge decides which version to use, or the judge might even craft his or her own version based on their own research. Are the instructions then typed up, collated and distributed to the jurors in a neat binder? No! The judge reads them to the jurors, at the very end of the case, during what is called the "jury charge." The jurors have to memorize the instructions (though they can ask to re-hear specific ones later during their deliberations). "Selection and Arrangement": An Introduction In this case, the parties agreed that they needed an instruction about what to do with a work that is made up of unprotectable elements. Just because your work is made up of lots of unprotectable elements, that doesn't mean your work as a whole can't be protected by copyright. If you put those unprotectable elements together in an original way, then the way you put those elements together is protectable, though not the individual elements themselves. After all, you can theoretically dissect any creative work down into non-protectable elements: individual notes, individual words and phrases, individual brushstrokes, etc. It's what you do with those non-protectable elements that counts. Courts call this "selection and arrangement," which makes it seem more abstract than it is. In this case, the plaintiffs hold the copyright in the song "Taurus," which has for years been rumored as the inspiration for Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." (But inspiration isn't infringement! Well, at least, not necessarily.) When the plaintiffs finally got around to suing, Led Zeppelin argued (among other things) that any similarities between the songs were only for non-protectable elements, like the use of the chromatic scale. Plaintiffs argued that, even if that were true, the "selection and arrangement" of those elements were original (and, by implication, that "Stairway to Heaven" took that selection and arrangement). Both parties recognized the need for an instruction on this issue. They disagreed on what it should say. They submitted competing instructions for the judge to consider. Then came the jury charge, at the very end of the case, just before the jury began deliberations. The judge began to read the instructions. Now, normally, a party would have an opportunity to object on the record to an instruction. This is a prerequisite to complaining about it on appeal. But the judge here didn't want to hear any objections. He reasoned that, if the parties disagreed about an instruction in their submissions, it was reasonable to assume that they would object to an instruction that didn't match what they'd submitted. The parties waited for the instruction about what to do with works made up of unprotectable elements. It never came. This was good for Led Zeppelin, though not ideal. On the one hand, since Led Zeppelin had presented evidence that all they'd taken (if anything) from "Taurus" was not protectable, such an instruction couldn't help their argument, no matter how it was crafted. On the other hand, it was foreseeable at the time that the missing jury instruction could imperil a jury verdict in Led Zeppelin's favor (assuming they could focus on it with 500 other things going on at that moment. On appeal, the strongest argument — that trial court was correct not to give the instruction — wasn't really available to Led Zeppelin because even it had suggested an instruction. (Led Zeppelin tried anyway.) Instead, it had to argue that the missing instruction made no difference to the jury's deliberations. That's where another major goof with the jury instructions came in. Copyright's Broad Scope Nearly all copyright cases will need an instruction about originality. Without "originality," there is no copyright. Originality, however, is pretty easy to achieve. All that's really required is that the work be expressive (i.e., not just ideas) and the product of a human mind. This last requirement not only excludes things like the "monkey selfie," but also things like underlying facts, which exist independent of human thought; and stock "tools of the trade" commonly available to everyone in the creative field, like stock characters, computer code that everyone uses, certain three chord progressions, and so forth (what lawyers call "scènes à faire"). It also excludes material the author copied from other works (including those in the public domain), but only if the author actually copied them. Originality doesn't mean novelty, just that it's the author's independent expression. Originality is so basic to copyright law that there's actually one of those "pattern jury instructions" about it. Pattern jury instructions aren't law and aren't always appropriate in every instance, but departure from them demands explanation. The court took the model instruction and added the stuff in bold and took out the stuff that's been struck through: An original work may include or incorporate elements taken from works owned by others, with the owner's permission. However, any elements from prior works or the public domain are not considered original parts and not protected by copyright. Instead, [t]he original parts of the plaintiff's work are the parts created: 1. independently by the work's author, that is, the author did not copy it from another work; and 2. by use of at least some minimal creativity. In copyright law, the "original" part of a work need not be new or novel. You might detect a pattern here (as it were). The instruction about how to treat works consisting of non-protectable elements was left out. Now the instruction about originality includes a new sentence that emphasizes how non-protectable elements aren't protectable, without telling the jury that those non-protectable elements can be selected and arranged in a protectable way. What it Means to Create I don't know if copyright has a single "heart." Perhaps, like an octopus, it has several hearts. But surely one of copyright law's hearts is that creativity can and often does build on the work of others. This idea is echoed in fair use. And it is echoed in the non-controversial idea that not every element of a work must be protectable for the work to be entitled to copyright protection. "Selection and arrangement" is just a stilted and abstract way of saying: if you give 100 kids the same collection of 100 lego bricks, you will have 100 different original works in about 30 minutes, even though no single lego brick is protectable and even though the 100 different original works will naturally share certain techniques in common. These two errors in the jury instructions aren't just about technicalities of a highly technical law. Goodness knows there's a lot of those in copyright law. No, they go to one of the basic tenets of copyright law: what it means to create. My charitable interpretation of all this is that the court had a major brain fart that Led Zeppelin's lawyers didn't see coming or didn't fully understand how perilous the consequences would be. The other interpretation is that this was a legal strategy that worked too well and backfired badly. It's too bad. I strongly suspect that a correctly instructed jury would have come to the same verdict, but the scale of this mistake is such that we can't safely assume that. I also strongly suspect Led Zeppelin will prevail on remand—after incurring more expense, lost time and anxiety. Rick Sanders is a trademark, trade secrets and copyright litigator and a founding partner of Aaron & Sanders, PLLC. From 2012 to 2014, he was an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, where he was teaching Copyright Law. He blogs at IPBreakdown and tweets at @RickSandersLaw. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 7 days ago on techdirt
Every few months, it seems, President Trump trots out some nonsense about how our current defamation laws are unfair and he promises to open them up. It keeps happening. And it's not surprising because Trump himself has threatened defamation lawsuits many times, and even occasionally filed an actual defamation lawsuit, such as the one against Tim O'Brien, which Trump lost completely -- though, tellingly he later admitted that he felt like he succeeded in forcing O'Brien to spend money in court: "I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.'" Of course it's this kind of thinking that is the reason why we support stronger anti-SLAPP laws and, in particular, a federal anti-SLAPP law to protect people from having to deal with potentially life-ruining defamation lawsuits from those better positioned to handle them. Of course, this is also why we figure that any movement on a federal anti-SLAPP law is dead in the water while Trump is still President. Given his comments on moving libel laws in the other direction, it seems unlikely he'd ever sign such a bill. But... Trump just won a defamation lawsuit filed by Stormy Daniels, and it was because of a strong anti-SLAPP law in Texas, that might now allow him to go after legal fees as well. Of course, there have been moments when Trump has recognized that "opening up our libel laws" might come back to bite him. As he said in a NY Times interview, when asked about opening up libel laws: Actually, somebody said to me on that, they said, ‘You know, it’s a great idea, softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more.’ I said, ‘You know, you’re right, I never thought about that.’ I said, ‘You know, I have to start thinking about that.’ And now that Trump has successfully used an anti-SLAPP law to get out of a lawsuit, perhaps he'll be a bit more open to the idea of anti-SLAPP laws as well. This particular lawsuit, brought by Stormy Daniels, represented by Michael Avenatti, was always an incredibly stupid lawsuit that Trump was obviously going to win. There are a bunch of legal disputes and arguments among these two, but just to clarify, back when Daniels was on 60 Minutes, she claimed that she had agreed to tell her story of her affair with Trump back in 2011, but was allegedly threatened in a Las Vegas parking lot: Then in 2011, after she had agreed to tell her story to In Touch magazine for $15,000, Daniels said she was threatened by a man in a Las Vegas parking lot who warned her to "Leave Trump alone. Forget the story." Sometime after this, Stormy Daniels had a sketch artist sketch the man she said approached her in Las Vegas. Some Trump supporters noted what they believed to be an uncanny similarity between the eventual sketch and Daniels' ex-husband, and tweeted this. Trump then retweeted one such tweet along with the following text: "A sketch years later about a nonexistent man. A total con job, playing the Fake News Media for Fools (but they know it)!" And it's that tweet that Daniels/Avenatti sued over. Again, this was clearly going nowhere. That tweet is not at all defamatory under the 1st Amendment. In his defense, Trump, who was represented by Charles Harder*, filed an anti-SLAPP motion, arguing that Trump was protected under Texas' anti-SLAPP law, that the case should be dismissed, and that Trump should be awarded attorneys' fees. And the court easily agreed. * Big disclaimer here: Harder is at this moment representing a plaintiff in a still ongoing lawsuit against me personally (as well as Techdirt), claiming defamation, and in which we made a motion using California's anti-SLAPP law. In the Trump case, however, it is Harder/Trump making use of anti-SLAPP laws (in this case, Texas') and I agree with Harder and Trump that this claim was a SLAPP suit and am glad the case was dismissed. In their motion for the anti-SLAPP dismissal, Harder argued that Trump's tweet was clearly protected by the First Amendment, and thus the anti-SLAPP law should lead to the dismissal of the case. Frankly, I think Harder makes a very strong argument here: Here, the Comment nowhere implies that President Trump has any special information or insight as to what did or did not happen in a Las Vegas parking lot in 2011. Rather, he gives an opinion that he does not find Plaintiff’s account credible. This is constitutionally-protected and therefore nonactionable, especially because the Comment arose from a public dispute between a major politician and one of his adversaries. It does not matter that the President used strident language (“nonexistent,” “con job,” and “fake news”) in expressing his opinion doubting the veracity of Plaintiff’s allegation rather than using more genteel terminology. Rhetorical hyperbole is not actionable as defamation. Neely v. Wilson, 418 S.W.3d 52, 83-84 (Tex. 2013). Courts throughout the United States have routinely held that terminology similar to that used by the President is constitutionally protected opinion and non-actionable. See e.g., McCabe v. Rattiner, 814 F.2d 839, 843 (1st Cir. 1987) (“scam” not defamatory); Oilman v. Evans, 750 F.2d 970, 987 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (en banc) (political columnist labeling a political figure a “Marxist” not defamatory); Letter Carriers v. Austin, 418 U.S. 264, 282-83 (1974) (use of term “scab” in labor dispute not defamatory); Buckley v. Littell, 539 F.2d 882, 893-94 (2d Cir. 1976) (labeling political writer a “fascist” not defamatory); Greene v. State, 21 So.3d 348, 352 (La. App. 2009) (labeling state employee “pathological liar” not actionable). Any finding by the Court that the Comment has a defamatory meaning and is not protected opinion could have a chilling effect on political debate throughout the United States forever. Politicians frequently express their opinions about their political adversaries, often in strident and blunt terms. In 1964, for instance, Lyndon Johnson ran an advertisement that implied his opponent, Barry Goldwater, would start a nuclear war. John Kennedy campaigned against incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960 based on claims of a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union that turned out to be grossly misleading. Bill Clinton allegedly misstated the budget deficit in his 1992 campaign against George H.W. Bush. None of these statements were anything more than opinions, and none could or should form the basis of a defamation suit. Indeed, since the founding of our republic, politicians have often expressed their opinions by branding their opponents as “liars.” Doing so does not subject every such politician to a defamation claim. President Trump himself has expressed his opinions regarding multiple adversaries, sometimes referring to his opponents by colorful names such as “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary.” A defamation standard that turns typical political rhetoric into actionable defamation would chill expression that is central to the First Amendment and political speech. It's a strong argument. And the judge easily agreed, noting that the tweet was clearly rhetorical hyperbole: The Court agrees with Mr. Trump's argument because the tweet in question constitutes "rhetorical hyperbole" normally associated with politics and public discourse in the United States. The First Amendment protects this type of rhetorical statement. "It is well settled that 'the meaning of a publication, and thus whether it is false and defamatory, depends on a reasonable person's perception of the entirety of a publication and not merely on individual statements." See Bentley v. Bunton, 94 S.W.3d 561, 579 (Tex. 2002) (quoting Turner v. KTROK Television, Inc., 38 S.W. 3d 103, 115 (Tex. 2000)). To assess whether a statement is "rhetorical hyperbole," this Court looks to the statement "as a whole in light of the surrounding circumstances and based upon how a person of ordinary intelligence would perceive it." Furthermore: The instant case is similar to Rehak in that Mr. Trump, as President, made a hyperbolic statement against a person who has sought to publicly present herself as a political adversary to him. In filings before this Court, Ms. Clifford has challenged the legitimacy of Mr. Trump's victory in the 2016 Presidential election. Mr. Trump's tweet served as a public rejoinder to allegations made by Plaintiff. If this Court were to prevent Mr. Trump from engaging in this type of "rhetorical hyperbole" against a political adversary, it would significantly hamper the office of the President. Any strongly-worded response by a president to another politician or public figure could constitute an action for defamation. This would deprive this country of the "discourse" common to the political process. In short, should Plaintiff publicly voice her opinions about Mr. Trump, Mr. Trump is entitled to publicly voice non-actionable opinions about Plaintiff. To allow Plaintiff to proceed with her defamation action would, in effect, permit Plaintiff to make public allegations against the President without giving him the opportunity to respond. Such a holding would violate the First Amendment. And thus, in the end, Trump wins his anti-SLAPP ruling and can now move to seek legal fees if he so chooses. Of course, Avenatti -- in a now deleted tweet -- called the ruling "limited": It is not, in any way, limited. It is the proper application of Texas' anti-SLAPP law to a bogus defamation claim which Avenatti himself admits is part of an effort to cost Trump more money through the other lawsuits Avenatti has going against Trump. Soon afterwards Avenatti posted that he had already appealed the ruling to the 9th Circuit appeals court: Here is the Notice of Appeal we just filed with the Ninth Circuit relating to the defamation claim against Trump. His record before the Ninth Circuit has been anything but good. #Basta pic.twitter.com/SK8QdycoUW — Michael Avenatti (@MichaelAvenatti) October 16, 2018 He and Daniels will almost certainly lose this appeal and Trump will almost certainly win. But the real question is whether or not this helps Trump recognize the value of strong anti-SLAPP laws. It seems like now would be a good time for Congress to finally move on the federal anti-SLAPP law, while reminding Trump that it may have just saved him a bunch of money... Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 7 days ago on techdirt
Moderating at scale is a nightmare. Anything you do will be wrong. This doesn't mean you shouldn't try. This doesn't mean you shouldn't listen to criticism. Just be aware every move you make will cause unintended collateral damage. Making everyone happy is impossible. Making everyone angry is inevitable. Mike Masnick's long, thoughtful post -- springing from multiple platforms' booting of Alex Jones -- pointed out two things that seem to get forgotten when discussing social media moderation: 1. Platforms can remove users with impunity without raising legal or ethical issues. 2. This shouldn't prevent us from expressing our concern about how these moderation issues are handled. This is raising its head again because Facebook's efforts to eradicate fake news and untrustworthy news sources has removed several pages belonging to controversial news sources. For whatever reason, most of these sites are strongly associated with police accountability efforts. Radley Balko listed these sites on Twitter: As part of its purge, Facebook has removed the pages of several police accountability/watchdog/critic groups, including Cop Block, the Free Thought Project, and Police the Police. They've also apparently severely restricted activity for the Photography Is Not a Crime page. — Radley Balko (@radleybalko) October 12, 2018 If you can't read/see the tweet, it says: As part of its purge, Facebook has removed the pages of several police accountability/watchdog/critic groups, including Cop Block, the Free Thought Project, and Police the Police. They've also apparently severely restricted activity for the Photography Is Not a Crime page. To critics of cop critics, this tweet seemed like hypocrisy. Several quoted an earlier tweet by Balko about platform moderation. That one said: Private companies like FB and Google have every right to remove content they find objectionable. No one owes Alex Jones a platform. This is where critics of Balko and others stopped reading. This was the supposed hypocrisy of the anti-Jones, anti-Trump, anti-cop, anti-whatever on full display. But that wasn't the end of the tweet. Here's the rest: But when politicians demand removal with implied threats, I start to worry. Senators shouldn't be deciding what's offensive. That's the real issue. When the government starts guiding moderation efforts of private companies, the First Amendment comes under fire. But it seems politicians on both sides would rather see speech they don't like disappear than uphold the Constitution. Case in point, Senator Mark Warner, who took to Twitter to applaud Facebook's purge. Good step by Facebook. Now that Russia’s playbook is out in the open, more bad actors are going to take advantage. Social media companies are going to have to continue being proactive in identifying and responding to bad actors using their platforms. https://t.co/uu6C8IbbsP — Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) October 11, 2018 If you can't read/see the tweet, it says: Good step by Facebook. Now that Russia's playbook is out in the open, more bad actors are going to take advantage. Social media companies are going to have to continue being proactive in identifying and responding to bad actors using their platforms. Maybe so, but the vanishing of a handful of cop accountability-focused pages isn't exactly what comes to mind when someone's talking about Russian interference. Encouraging platforms to engage in further moderation may seem innocuous, but the reality of the situation is there is constant pressure -- applied by people like Senator Warner -- for platforms to do more, more, more because some speech they don't care for can still be found on the internet. The more politicians push for action, the more collateral damage they will cause. They may feel there's no Constitutional problem since they're not directly mandating moderation efforts. But they are harming free speech, if only indirectly at this point. Certainly Facebook is free to nuke accounts it finds questionable, but each moderation move expands the definition of untrustworthy to encompass entities who present newsworthy items with biased reporting. Anyone using the platform is free to find more balanced reporting. Senators standing back and applauding bad moderation moves helps no one. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...
posted 7 days ago on techdirt
The $90 Complete Arduino Starter Kit and Course Bundle comes with a complete Arduino starter kit and courses designed to help you master the skills needed to create your own robotics projects. The starter kit includes an Uno R3 board, wires, lights, sensors, a handy instruction manual, and more. The courses include a 3 part workshop which will take you from beginner to creating your own web-based data logger. Other courses cover creating your own robot, weather station, IR motion sensor, phone, and more. Note: The Techdirt Deals Store is powered and curated by StackCommerce. A portion of all sales from Techdirt Deals helps support Techdirt. The products featured do not reflect endorsements by our editorial team. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

Read More...