posted 6 days ago on techdirt
Poor dears. A bunch of law enforcement associations are worried that they won't be able to keep all that sweet, sweet ALPR (automatic license plate reader) data for as long as they want to. In fact, they're so worried, they've issued a letter in response to a nonexistent legislative threat. Despite the fact that no federal license plate legislation has been proposed, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has sent a pre-emptive letter to top Congressional lawmakers, warning them against any future restrictions of automated license plate readers. The IACP claims to be the "world's oldest and largest association of law enforcement executives." The letter is stained with the tears of law enforcement entities whose thirst for bulk collections is only rivaled by national security agencies. We are deeply concerned about efforts to portray automated license plate recognition (ALPR) technology as a national real-time tracking capability for law enforcement. The fact is that this technology and the data it generates is not used to track people in real time. ALPR is used every day to generate investigative leads that help law enforcement solve murders, rapes, and serial property crimes, recover abducted children, detect drug and human trafficking rings, find stolen vehicles, apprehend violent criminal alien fugitives, and support terrorism investigations. The "efforts to portray" ALPRs as ad hoc tracking devices aren't limited to imaginative conspiracy theorists. Millions of plate scans are added to private companies' databases every day. The total number of records retained by Vigilant, the most prominent manufacturer of ALPRs, totals in the billions. That amount of data can easily be used to track nearly anyone's day-to-day movements. And the database is accessible by law enforcement agencies around the nation. There's no geofencing keeping the data compartmentalized to what's "relevant" to local agencies. As for the rest of the paragraph, those claims have yet to be backed up by arrest statistics. The amount of plate data collected far outweighs the results. There is a misconception of continuous government tracking of individuals using ALPR information. This has led to attempts to curtail law enforcement’s use of the technology without a proper and fair effort to truly understand the anonymous nature of the data, how it is used, and how it is protected. Note how the "misconception" is nothing privacy advocates are actually saying. No one's mistaking plate scans for a GPS tracking device. They've just noted that the end result is nearly identical. Gather enough data and you don't need a more "intrusive" method. We are seeing harmful proposals – appropriations amendments and legislation – to restrict or completely ban law enforcement’s use of ALPR technology and data without any effort to truly understand the issue. Yet, any review would make clear that the value of this technology is beyond question, and that protections against mis-use of the data by law enforcement are already in place. That is one of the reasons why critics are hard-pressed to identify any actual instances of mis-use. Translation: no one understands this high-tech device but us cops. Also: "value" is "beyond question?" If so, why is it so hard to get any law enforcement agency to produce some evidence to back up this claim? It's high tech, but it's also fallible tech. And it's tech that is being deployed with little to nothing in the way of privacy protections or oversight. That's what legislators (non-federal) are seeking. Some sort of limits and accountability. Virginia just passed one of the most restrictive pieces of legislation pertaining to ALPRs -- one that installs limits on collection and retention. Virginia has become the first state in America to impose a very short data retention limit on the use of automated license plate readers (LPRs, or ALPRs). VA cops will now only be able to keep such data for seven days unless there is an active, ongoing criminal investigation. Only a few states have imposed any legislative limits on the technology. For most US law enforcement agencies, the data is gathered en masse (and sometimes in inappropriate places) and held forever. The LAPD argued that every one of the thousands of plate scans it had gathered is somehow "relevant" to ongoing investigations. When you're faced with claims like that, it's hard to argue with legislative limits being introduced. The police won't police themselves. Someone usually has to force them into applying even the most minimal of restrictions on ALPR use. We call on Congress to foster a reasonable and transparent discussion about ALPR. That's rich. "Transparent discussion." The hell does that even mean in a law enforcement context? Agencies don't want to talk about ALPRs, drones, Stingray devices, their officers' misconduct, etc. The prevailing law enforcement mentality is almost completely opposed to transparency. These police associations aren't interested in Congress or anyone else having a "transparent discussion." What they want is a guided discussion that results in more data-hauling business as usual for the agencies these associations represent. But this sentence is the best thing about this overwrought letter: If legislative efforts to curtail ALPR use are successful, federal, state, and local law enforcement’s ability to investigate crimes will be significantly impacted given the extensive use of the technology today. Shorter police: "We like our shiny tech tools so much, we've forgotten how to perform police work." If they can't get as much as they can, as often as they can and access it at their leisure, the streets will run red with the blood of the innocent. This sort of thinking goes all the way to the top, where the FBI's James Comey has promised death, molestation and Colombia 2.0 if the government isn't allowed to build itself backdoors in cellphone encryption. How a device that delivers a 0.2% hit rate has become something the cops lean on so heavily they simply can't go on without it is a question that deserves a "transparent" answer, rather than the hitch-in-the-throat talking points delivered here. All anyone wants is something telling cops they can't keep everything for as long as they want. They want privacy impact assessments and honest answers to worrying questions. All we've received so far is unproven claims of the tech's "effectiveness" and the constant pimping of dead children and human trafficking victims, with the existential threat of suppliers delivering product to a receptive market thrown in for good measure. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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When toy company Hasbro was looking to launch its super fan store for lovers of My Little Pony (tag line: "Super Art for Super Fans"), they decided to do something different. They teamed up with 3D printing startup and marketplace Shapeways and had six designers put their spin on this revered childhood toy. While the commercial sector watched nervously to see if this was the start of brands-gone-wild, what transpired was clear: the 3D printing world took one step closer to the mainstream and one design closer to a major brand. The result of this strange-bedfellows relationship, thus far, has been some interesting brand improvisation for My Little Pony. Take Can Can Pinkie, a modified version of Pinkie Pie pony designed by Nikita Krutov now available for sale on the Shapeways site. The figurine is dressed in fishnets and ready to can-can right into the history books as some of the first super fan art supported by the brand it's altering. Although the technology for 3D printing has existed for more than 30 years, it's only recently become part of the popular consciousness -- as companies like MakerBot and Pirate3D made national news first for creating low-cost 3D printers and then for blasting through their Kickstarter campaigns. And designers today are taking full advantage of these lower cost technologies to personalize or in some cases remix existing designs into something never before imagined. Now designers and remixers are prototyping and often making new iPhone cases, jewelry, ceramic vases, and toy cars that are going from concept to creation faster than ever before. Among big companies, though, Hasbro is still virtually unique in its willingness to partner with Shapeways. Most brand managers -- the people whose job it is to keep you aware that an iPhone is an iPhone and that M&Ms are M&Ms -- still do not want fans altering their product. It's marketing 101 that control of a brand is the best way to ensure its success. Altering that basic business tenet is an uphill battle, but Hasbro's willingness to experiment could be the beginning of a hopeful trend that builds bridges to fans through the use of technology, and that allows the 3D printing industry to blossom. So where is this technology headed? Straight to Imaginationville. 3D printing allows us to imagine a future where our children will be able to learn about their neighborhoods and then actually print a 3D model of their neighborhood. They may even be able to create something that embodies the changes they imagine would improve where they live. It's given us a world where fan art, instead of being relegated to the back of notebooks, can be made into real figures. Part of the reason that 3D printing is so captivating is that it can be applied to such a vast array of products, concepts, and problems. Right now you can 3D print human tissue, fighter jet parts, concept cars, and your very own likeness. Scientists even see printing complete human organs in the not-too-distant future. With such potential on the horizon, it's no wonder people can't stop talking about the future of 3D printing. At a session on 3D printing that the Copia Institute hosted this month, a cluster of tech lawyers, advocates, and developers sat around a table at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California brainstorming ways to fast-forward the 3D printing industry through the tumult the music industry faced in the '90s when it was rocked by online music sharing. That tortured pathway involved three steps: music labels suing people for pirating, trying unsuccessfully to implement digital rights management, and finally a move to the current system of allowing consumers to buy only the music they want. (When was the last time it occurred to you that you had to buy a whole album?) As Natalia Krasnodebska, Shapeways' community manager, put it at the Copia Institute roundtable, many in 3D printing want the industry to skip straight to the third step, eliminating years of fitfully struggling to find the right way to get products to consumers who want them and making money doing it. With seemingly limitless possibility, however, comes the concern about how to keep the technology viable as it advances so quickly. 3D printing is dramatically reducing the cost of prototyping, which in turn is reducing manufacturing costs. It's helping everyone from big business to doctors designing prosthetic limbs work faster and work cheaper. For that reason, not to mention the creativity it's unleashed in the average Joe, 3D printing is worth keeping viable. Here are a few ways we can make that happen: Develop a model revenue sharing agreement. This could be done by a group made up of both company representatives and designers facilitated by a third party like the Copia Institute, and would give 3D printing designers and brands a clear way to work together, eliminating potential legal battles. Tell the stories of when designers who use 3D printers and companies partner successfully. The two groups don't have to be at odds, and real world examples, like the Hasbro/Shapeways partnership, will help companies feel more comfortable experimenting with having fans wax creative with their brands. Legal issues can kill innovation before it starts. We should expand the capacity of legal service groups, like New Media Rights, that are already helping makers and entrepreneurs using 3D printers navigate challenges from brands, and connecting them with companies that may want to work with them. Work with schools to get printers into the classroom. To enlarge the 3D printing community, and to expand access to the technology, 3D printing companies should work with schools to get printers in the classroom. Companies like Autodesk are already partnering with schools to provide free design software. 3D printers could be coupled with that effort and others like it. The Hasbro/Shapeways partnership is a model that more companies and designers should use, but it's only a starting place. Generating models that companies can use and test will let us continue to expand on creative uses for 3D printing. Megan Garcia is a Senior Fellow for New America. This post was originally appeared in a slightly different form on Medium, and was written after attending our Copia Institute inaugural summit.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Poor Comcast. Despite throwing millions of dollars at think tanks, consultants, PR reps, editorial writers, various front groups and a myriad of other policy tendrils, genuine, meaningful support for the company's $45 billion Time Warner Cable acquisition is still apparently hard to come by. You might recall that last year top Comcast lobbyist "Chief Diversity Officer" David Cohen proudly crowed that support for the company's merger was "pouring in" -- though he failed to mention that Comcast was paying people for that support, and that said support largely consisted of regurgitated form letters. Despite the money spent however, it appears that actual support in Congress for the deal is tepid to non-existent. Comcast's hometown paper the Philadelphia Inquirer points out that whereas the NBC deal saw major support efforts by members of Congress, politicians appear to want nothing to do with this latest merger attempt:"When Comcast made its move to buy NBCUniversal, more than two dozen letters from Congress - including one from 22 Republicans - landed at the Federal Communication Commission early in its review. Dozens more, from key chairmen and rank-and-file members of both parties, arrived before that deal was approved in 2011. The vast majority supported the merger, including one signed by 97 House members and several from minority lawmakers who hailed Comcast's commitment to diversity. But as the Philadelphia giant now pushes a merger with Time Warner Cable, Comcast has had little congressional support, and almost none outside its home state."While politicians are happy to take Comcast's money, it appears that few actually want to be publicly associated with a company with the lowest consumer approval rating in any industry. Even Comcast's sleazy tactic of paying minority groups to parrot support (to create the illusion of diversity in Comcast policy support) isn't working very well anymore:"Meanwhile, more than 50 black, Hispanic, and Asian members of Congress have expressed concerns about the impact of this deal and others, warning in a letter to the FCC that recent media "mega-mergers" show that "even the most reasonable conditions and diversity pledges" have proved difficult to enforce."Most analysts meanwhile see the chance of the DOJ and FCC merger getting approval dropping by the week. The FCC has been on an uncharacteristic consumer-friendly tear of late, whether that's raising the definition of broadband to 25 Mbps, crafting new net neutrality rules or fighting for municipal broadband. As such, approving the Comcast deal without some tougher-than-usual conditions just doesn't seem likely. I personally think the deal will be approved, it will just be saddled with conditions heavily focused on keeping Comcast's bad ideas far away from internet video. Whether those conditions actually work or are enforced will be another issue entirely. Meanwhile, it's kind of amusing to see telecom companies failing to recognize their own hubris isn't helping their case. As we saw when the DOJ rejected AT&T's attempted acquisition of T-Mobile, there really is a limit to the amount of bullshit you can push before you reach the point of diminishing returns. Using astroturf, claiming that killing competitors creates competition and lowers prices -- or that everyone who opposes your deal is ignorant or irrational -- clearly crosses that particular Rubicon. If you're already one of the most hated companies in the country, that only adds insult to injury. It remains frequently uttered because it's true: money just can't buy you love.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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For more than a decade and a half here on Techdirt, one of the common themes we've discussed are business models for musicians in the internet era. On this week's podcast, we have composer Adam Fong on to discuss his thoughts, both as a composer and as the founder and director of the Center for New Music in San Francisco (which is also where we record many of our podcasts). Fong provides a different perspective — especially discussing those who are classically trained, and not looking to be rock stars, noting the different challenges and opportunities for such musicians. The music on this week's episode is Adam's own composition, Five Times Remembered. Follow the Techdirt Podcast on Soundcloud, subscribe via iTunes, or grab the RSS feed. You can also keep up with all the latest episodes right here on Techdirt. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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We're excited to announce the new Techdirt Deals store. We've partnered with StackCommerce to bring you some great deals on web services, gear and gadgets, freebies and more. Right now there's 70% off of a Lifetime Subscription from VPN Umlimited, 50% off a Lepow ADD Detachable Battery Pack for power on the go or pay what you want for a Back-End Developer Course Bundle with 95+ hours of lessons on Ruby, Python and PHP. The deals have limited lifetimes and there will be new ones announced daily. To help kick things off, we're giving an additional 10% off on your first purchase with the code TECHDIRT10 now through April 7 at 11:59pm PDT. We hope you enjoy these offerings! Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Back in 2012, Techdirt reported on a poor Twitter user who was arrested after tweeting to his 16 followers something vaguely unflattering about a politician. The law invoked in this case, Section 66A of India's Information Technology (IT) Act, has been used on other occasions against many quite harmless online comments, particularly if they embarrassed the powerful. Now India's Supreme Court has struck it down, as the Times of India reports: The court said such a law hit at the root of liberty and freedom of expression, the two cardinal pillars of democracy. The court said the section has to be erased from the law books as it has gone much beyond the reasonable restrictions put by the Constitution on freedom of speech. The Supreme Court said section 66A was vaguely worded and allowed its misuse by police. But the judges did not eliminate another controversial power granted by the IT Act: The court, however, upheld the validity of section 69B and the 2011 guidelines for the implementation of the I-T Act that allowed the government to block websites if their content had the potential to create communal disturbance, social disorder or affect India's relationship with other countries. Those are pretty vague criteria, and it's easy to see them being abused, just as Section 66A was. Nonetheless, this is an important ruling (pdf), not least for the Indian Supreme Court's robust defense of free speech. Let's hope future Indian laws attempting to control online activities take note of its wisdom. Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+ Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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As we've noted many times in the past, the entertainment industry likes to take a multi-pronged approach to its quixotic efforts to "stop piracy" (which could be much better dealt with by simply giving the public more of what they want). Working on federal copyright law to continually expand it is one main strategy, but there are a lot of others as well, including pressuring private companies to voluntarily censor content, getting international trade agreements to force laws to change and... getting random state laws to force through big changes quietly. This last strategy has come into focus lately, especially with the rise of so-called "true origin" bills, that are almost certainly unconstitutional, but are rapidly popping up in a variety of states. This is actually a replay of an old strategy. I remember similar "true origin" efforts being pushed about a decade ago, and I'd thought they'd completely died out... but they're back. The way they work is pretty simple: they outlaw anonymity on the internet if your website distributes any kind of audiovisual work. The point of this is twofold: one, for those who "register" and reveal their name and address, it makes it easier for the RIAAs and MPAAs of the world to sue a site for copyright infringement. And, for those who don't reveal their names, the RIAA and MPAA can ask the states to prosecute the site owners for failing to reveal their names. A few weeks ago, we wrote about Florida's proposed law, which would require any website that hosts audio or video to reveal their name and address. This could have disastrous consequences for whistleblowers or anonymous critics. In the US, the Supreme Court has long recognized the importance of protecting anonymity as a part of the First Amendment, but this bill does away with that completely, just because the movie and music industries think it's necessary to stop piracy (even though it won't do that). Unfortunately, it appears that despite widespread criticism, the Florida bill is expected to move forward this week. If you happen to live in Florida, the EFF has set up a tool to help you alert your elected representatives to why such a bill is a terrible and unconstitutional idea. But... it's not just Florida. One year ago, Tennessee enacted a similar bill, called the "True Origin of Goods Act" which is nearly identical to the Florida bill. And just last month, here in California, Assemblymember Ian Calderon (who has positioned himself as friendly to technology) introduced a similar bill. The California bill is at least somewhat more limited than the others in that it appears to focus mostly on physical copies that are offered for "sale" or "rental" -- but it at least raises questions about anonymity rights, and opens the door to future adjustments to "match" this law to internet displays of content. The efforts here are all basically the same: quietly use state laws to undermine anonymity in an effort to help the RIAAs and MPAAs of the world try to track down the owners of websites they don't like. Whether or not you agree with that idea, the fact that to accomplish that (somewhat pointless) goal would undermine basic First Amendment concepts like anonymity and the ability to speak freely, doesn't seem to be of much concern to the supporters of these bills. It's the same old story we've seen before with SOPA and other bills: the copyright industry doesn't seem to care in the slightest about collateral damage from its quixotic effort to stop piracy, rather than to provide the public with better offerings. And, of course, copyright is supposed to be an issue for federal law, not state law, and these efforts are ways that the copyright industry is trying to backdoor in systems to undermine free speech in yet another weak attempt to accomplish a singular and pointless goal.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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The NSA's bulk phone metadata program is unstoppable. Despite being called out by legislators and the administration's civil liberties oversight board as unconstitutional and illegal -- and despite being targeted by several of the administration's surveillance reforms -- it continues uninterrupted and largely unchanged. Legislators who watched their Section 215-targeting bills die on the Congressional floor are now watching the clock. This part of the PATRIOT Act is set to expire June 1st (as is the latest bulk metadata order) and if Congress doesn't act to renew it, the program will grind to a halt. Or so you would think. But the FISA judge James Boasberg doesn't see why this provision's sunset should have any negative effect on the continued collection of phone metadata. On the last page of the court's most recent order, Boasberg says the following: If Congress, conversely, has not enacted legislation amending § 1861 or extending its sunset date established by Section 102(b) of Public Law 109-177, 120 Stat. 195, as most recently amended by Section 2(a) of Public Law 112-14, 125 Stat. 216, the government is directed to provide a legal memorandum pursuant to Rule 11(d) addressing the power of the Court to grant such authority beyond June 1, 2015. It's Public Law 109-177 that's aiding the effortless reauthorization. Charlie Savage of the New York Times noted this possibility last year. There's an exception in place that allows authorized surveillance programs to continue even after their authorizations have lapsed. (2) Exception.–With respect to any particular foreign intelligence investigation that began before the date on which the provisions referred to in paragraph (1) cease to have effect, or with respect to any particular offense or potential offense that began or occurred before the date on which such provisions cease to have effect, such provisions shall continue in effect. This could provide for endless bulk surveillance under Section 215, even without renewal of the program. Or it could just be the FISA judge signaling conversations the general public isn't privy to, as Marcy Wheeler points out. That basically says the Court is aware of this discussion, either because it reads the NYT or because the government has mentioned it. This order doesn’t tip a hand on how FISC would regard this claim, but it does make clear it considers it a distinct possibility. Note, unless I’m missing something, no language like this appears in any of the unredacted sections of previous dragnet orders, not even when Congress was giving the government straight renewals. We can’t be sure, but that certainly seems to suggest the Court has been having conversations — either by itself or with the government — about alternatives in a way Bob Litt and others are not having publicly. Even if the court chooses to read the PATRIOT Act as killing Section 215 when it sunsets, this likely won't end the collection of phone metadata. The government still has other options. Many privacy advocates believe the White House would have two routes available if it chose to continue the program, absent congressional action. Along with potentially being able to continue investigations that are ongoing despite an expiration, the administration could also rely on a "pen/trap" statute, which allows for phone tapping and has a loose standard of relevancy, akin to Section 215, and typically does not require probable cause. This option would require a bit more paperwork and slightly refined targeting of court-approved numbers. It would, at least temporarily, halt the incoming collection of everything and force the NSA to relinquish control of the database. A PR/TT order wouldn't allow for collection in bulk, but rather return records linked to certain numbers from telcos searching their own databases. So, it would be a step forward in terms of Section 215 reform (moving the database out of the NSA's control), however inadvertently. Others believe the language in the latest FISA order signifies nothing in particular. Stewart Baker, a former general counsel at the NSA, said it's possible the surveillance court could use the leeway to grant a "one-off measure" in May to keep the bulk-records program going only through June. He noted that Boasberg's order requests that a memorandum from the government be filed not by June 1 but by May 22, a notable deadline, given that "most observers expect that Congress will only act at the last minute." "The much harder question is whether it could issue any orders in June," Baker said. "There's an argument that it can, but I suspect that the administration won't be willing to make that argument." Section 215 might expire, but the door is open for the NSA to continue its collecting uninterrupted. Things may become much more interesting in late May as the clock winds down. Perhaps Congress will have the courage to just let this section of the PATRIOT Act die, but it will have to weather plenty of "terrorists... terrorists everywhere!" posturing from Section 215's defenderss. If nothing else, an expiration would force the reforms the NSA has shown little interest in implementing.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Imagine if a government put out a series of questions that the public could respond to, garnered responses from across a community, listened to them, and then actually enacted sensible tech policy. Sounds like a dream, right? Well that's exactly what the UK just did. Last week the UK announced the results of its extensive inquiry on bitcoin and digital currencies, and so far, the results seem both fair and reasonable. One major conclusion is that the UK will apply AML (anti money-laundering) regulation to digital currency exchanges, with the details to be determined by the Parliament in the forthcoming session. The US, by contrast, already imposes such requirements on exchanges plus other digital currency companies via FinCEN and the Bank Secrecy Act. The UK government will also work to ensure that law enforcement has the tools it needs to stamp out criminal uses of digital currencies. But the even bigger part is what's missing: no licensing regime for digital currencies.[1] No arduous process for startups and small businesses. No policies that give an advantage to big institutions over up-and-coming innovators. In fact, the British government decided that what is most appropriate is to work with the digital currency community to develop a set of best practices for consumer protection and create a voluntary, opt-in regime. This approach was chosen "in order to address the risks identified but without imposing a disproportionate regulatory burden on the industry." And because it recognizes the substantial promise that digital currency technology has to offer, the government will devote GBP 10 million (approximately US$15M) in an annual budget for research in the space, including the newly-formed Alan Turing Institute. The report reads like a breath of fresh air, with an honest assessment of the current low likelihood of use by major criminal enterprise, and acknowledgements of the risk of regulating too much, too soon. It even summarizes the belief that New York's proposed BitLicense is an overly restrictive approach that could damage the industry. The UK's approach differs from that of New York in several ways, including that the UK chose to analyze first and propose later. While NY did hold hearings in advance of releasing its regulations, it still to this date has failed to release a summary of its research and rationale for requiring strong digital currency regulation, despite its legal requirement to do so. And New York's regulations require permission to innovate via licensing, whereas the UK's proposal takes a different and far more innovation-friendly tack. The UK digital currencies report acknowledged that market participants are addressing some of the risks in the space, and singled out exchanges as a special category, instead of New York's overly broad "virtual currency business activity" that encompasses everything from microtipping services to launching a protocol for a new currency. (As an aside, New York has claimed it won't regulate "software developers," but what it actually means is it won't regulate software developers as long as they aren't developing the software covered by its proposed law.) Some London-based entrepreneurs I spoke to reacted with uncertainty about the effect that overly burdensome anti money-laundering regulations could have, and this is yet to be determined. But in the end, a regime in which one does not need permission to innovate, but instead has a reasonable set of rules to abide by, bodes far better for building the future of technology. Basically, the UK just became the anti-NY. And the innovation will flock to the places with smart, sensible policies that allow for permissionless innovation. [1] For companies that deal with consumer funds in GBP, Euro, or other "fiat" currencies, they'll likely still need to be registered with or authorized by the government.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Apparently the state of Tennessee really doesn't want its citizens to have good, competitive broadband. While the FCC's net neutrality rules keep getting all the attention, as we've discussed, in the long run it may be a bigger deal that the FCC (the same day it released the net neutrality rules) also started dismantling protectionist state laws that block municipal broadband. Those laws -- almost all of which were written directly by big broadband players afraid of competition -- make it close to impossible for local municipalities to decide that they're going to set up true competitors. The FCC pre-empted two such state laws, including in Tennessee, where one super successful municipal broadband project, in Chattanooga, wanted to expand to other nearby places. However, Tennessee's law blocked this. We already noted that Rep. Marsha Blackburn was trying to pass legislation that would block the FCC's efforts here, but the state of Tennessee has taken it up a notch and sued the FCC over the rules. You will notice that the arguments used by the state of Tennessee are almost verbatim identical to the lawsuits we wrote about yesterday challenging the FCC's net neutrality rules: The State of Tennessee, as a sovereign and a party to the proceeding below, is aggrieved and seeks relief on the grounds that the Order: (1) is contrary to the United States Constitution; (2) is in excess of the Commission's authority; (3) is arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion within the meaning of the Administrative Procedure Act; and (4) is otherwise contrary to law. Yes, this is almost word-for-word identical to the claims made about the net neutrality rules and is basically the standard language to challenge any FCC ruling. But here's the larger question: if you're a resident of Tennessee who likes having fast, affordable, competitive broadband, are you happy about your tax dollars being used to sue the FCC in an effort to uphold a law written by the big broadband players, focused on blocking such competition? It seems like the current Tennessee Attorney General, Herbert Slatery, has painted a giant target on his back for a challenger who actually wants to support the public in Tennessee.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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It appears that Amazon is very serious about walling off its garden. Late last year, it pushed out a firmware update for its Amazon Fire TV devices that not only made rooted devices unusable, but prevented Fire TV owners from rolling back firmware to previous, more root-friendly versions. Apparently, Kindle users were also included in this lockdown. A recent post at Good Reader notes that the latest firmware for Kindles is pretty much identical to its Fire TV firmware, right down to the destruction of functionality. The new firmware was pushed out to all modern Kindle devices in late November of last year. Anything after version 5.60 will not allow you to hack the firmware and do interesting things like change the screensaver system or install custom apps. And, like its firmware for the Fire TV, rollback to less hack-resistant firmware is nearly impossible. You can force it back, provided you have a soldering iron (and the willingness to apply it to your device) or you can follow a few not-so-simple steps to take your root access back from Amazon. But once again, it's the company removing functionality for the sole purpose of making devices perform the way Amazon wants them to, rather than leaving these sorts of decisions to those who have purchased the devices. And it's not as though Kindle owners are receiving any heads up from Amazon about the firmware's plans for their jailbroken devices. No mention of it is made in the firmware's specifications, which only tells you about the (supposedly) good things the update will bring: vague "bug fixes and improvements." Softpedia's hosting page for the latest version (5.6.1) goes into a little more detail, but it only contains a list of slightly-upgraded Amazon features, rather than the limitations the firmware will impose on paying customers. If you like Amazon's walled garden, the company is more than happy to ensure you never find the gate. If you don't, Amazon is more than happy to step in and brick over any openings. The latter does a huge disservice to paying customers who are looking to get the most out of something they purchased and own, but seems to still somehow "belong" to Amazon.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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However much the US government might hope otherwise, there is still widespread concern in Europe about the activities of the NSA and its Five Eyes friends. Here's the latest proof of that: a joint motion signed by all political parties in the Austrian parliament, against illegal surveillance (via Netzpolitik). The Parliament's own summary of what the motion contained reads as follows (original in German): The recent revelations of the US whistleblower Edward Snowden have now acted as a call to action for the six parliamentary groups. In a resolution introduced jointly, they express their support for tackling seriously the illegal spying by the US foreign intelligence NSA, its British counterpart GCHQ and other foreign intelligence services. In their opinion, the [Austrian] government should exhaust all available diplomatic options, and diligently pursue violations of the Austrian Criminal Code. In addition, the MPs urge taking steps at the European level to promote the technological independence of Europe in the field of information and communication technology. In the justification for the motion, reference was made to the recently-discovered "cyberbug", presumably attributable to the NSA. With this new malware, which cannot be detected by anti-virus software, and can even survive wiping the hard disk undamaged, it is possible for encryption to be circumvented, for example. The Members find equally worrying the theft of millions of electronic encryption keys from the Dutch SIM card producer Gemalto. Although the motion in itself is unlikely to achieve much, it's a clear indication of continuing anger among European politicians at the activities of the NSA and GCHQ in spying on innocent members of the public, and undermining key elements of telecommunications infrastructure. If nothing else, it's a timely reminder that there are plenty of unresolved issues here, and that they are likely to have serious ramifications on US-EU relations in the future, not least in areas like Safe Harbor and TAFTA/TTIP. Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Maybe, like me, you thought that the Bay Area Rapid Transit system was only good for illegally shutting down cell phone services in its stations to quiet protests that never actually existed. Well, it turns out we were all wrong about that. BART is also good for insanely stupid trademark oppositions. Take, for instance, the recent dispute between the transit group and FiftyFifty Brewing Company, in which the former is attempting to keep the latter from gaining a trademark on its Barrel Aged Really Tasty brew. According to FiftyFifty owner/CEO Andy Barr, the B.A.R.T. beer has been a regular offering for several years. It has been sold at the brewery and bottled in limited production for California distribution; he has legal label approval in the state. But FiftyFifty is now ready to expand its current production (~1200 barrels per year) and start shipping over state lines, so as Barr puts it, “it was a time for a trademark.” However, one party is not so keen on FiftyFifty’s trademark application for the B.A.R.T. label: Bay Area Rapid Transit, which obviously shares an acronym with the FiftyFifty beer in question. An opposition was filed. “We were very surprised to get opposition from Bay Area Rapid Transit,” says Barr, pointing out that trains and beer are very different things, unlikely to cause consumer confusion. “Trademarks are for specific categories. You trademark it for beer, ale, porter. The implication is that we came up with that acronym in order to monetize on the fame of Bay Area Rapid Transit — which is not true,” Barr says. No, it certainly isn't true. Barr further explains that the acronym was devised as an homage to a dead dog that, when alive, used to run around the brewery plant and entertain the workers within it. Now, I'm not saying that trying to co-opt the intention to name a product after a beloved pooch necessarily makes BART an entity very likely run by Satan himself, but it sure doesn't help to disavow the notion, does it? More important is Barr's correct explanation of how trademarks work and within what parameters they operate. One of the key aspects of a valid trademark is the narrow industry to which it applies. BART, for instance, has a trademark on "BART" for the industries of transit, prints, and publication. I would have to be very drunk to confuse a train with a beer, I think. One would think that this entire opposition must be some kind of mistake, except the BART officials commenting on it think they're barking up a perfectly valid tree. “Just as any agency or business does, BART routinely protects its name and registered trademarks,” notes Alicia Trost, Communications Department Manager for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District. “Use of the BART name by unauthorized parties for commercial gain, whether or not they are in the rapid transit business, is a violation of trademark law, and something BART must protect itself against.” Except, of course, that because we're talking about completely different industries, and because the source of the BART beer name had nothing to do with the BART transit group, none of the above is correct. No protection is necessary at all. Having a communications person publicly comment that the competitive industry doesn't factor into the validity of a trademark claim, which is absolutely false, seems like a huge misstep. Unfortunately, even though Barr knows he and FiftyFifty are in the right, he's facing the realities of our wonderful legal system. “It blows me away that it would degrade and demean anyone else’s brand value,” he continues, expressing concern about the next steps. “We’re not a deep-pocketed organization … So, the question is how do we stand up for ourselves?” Here's hoping David doesn't fall to Goliath. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Who doesn't like a fast broadband connection? The faster, the better! The only problem seems to be that there are some capacity limits with current technology. Details, details. But what if there were some technologies that could vastly increase those capacity limits? There might be some awkward situations where fiber-based internet service wasn't as fast as a wireless connection. Perhaps ingrained data cap pricing tiers would still stick around? Here are just a few developments that could bring much faster broadband (someday, maybe). Alcatel-Lucent's Bell Labs set a broadband record of 10 Gbps over traditional copper telephone lines in 2014. There are some practical limitation, such as the distance couldn't be too far and the copper line quality probably needs to be a bit better than the 100yo stuff running into some homes. Still, the work is pushing the limits of copper further, and there are some predictions that 40 Gbps speeds over copper are on the way. [url] Researchers at Columbia University have created full-duplex radio integrated circuits that could effectively double frequency spectrum resources. Devices made with this technology could transmit and receive data over the same frequency at the same time, but obviously this capability is going to take some time to get into commercial gadgets. [url] The orbital angular momentum (OAM) property of electromagnetic waves could provide nearly limitless data capacity. It might take a really, really long time to see this get out of the lab and into commercial products, but when/if it does, we might never hear about exoflood FUD again. [url] If you'd like to read more awesome and interesting stuff, check out this unrelated (but not entirely random!) Techdirt post via StumbleUpon.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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As we noted a week and a half ago when the FCC released its full net neutrality rules, it seemed like the legal challenges wouldn't start for a little while -- because the rules had to formally be published in the Federal Register, which would then set off the countdown clock for filing a lawsuit against the rules. However, some believe that parts of the new rules fall under a different legal regime, and thus there is a 10 day limit from the date the rules were released to file an appeal. And thus, we have USTelecom, a trade association of broadband providers and Alamo Broadband, a small Texas-based ISP, who have both filed legal challenges over the FCC's rules. Specifically, they're both asking appeals courts to "review" the rules. Alamo is asking the Fifth Circuit court of appeals, while USTelecom is focusing on the DC Circuit (which is where the last challenge to FCC rules happened). The reasoning in both is fairly similar. Here's USTelecom's argument: US Telecom seeks review of the Order on the grounds that it is arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion within the meaning of the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.; violates federal law, including, but not limited to, the Constitution, the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, and FCC regulations promulgated thereunder; conflicts with the notice-and-comment rulemaking requirements of 5 U.S.C. § 553; and is otherwise contrary to law. Meanwhile, the focus of Alamo's argument is: Alamo seeks relief on the grounds that the Order: (1) is in excess of the Commission's authority; (2) is arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion within the meaning of the Administrative Procedure Act; (3) is contrary to constitutional right; and (4) is otherwise contrary to law. You'll notice that they're both fairly similar. The focus, as in many lawsuits against FCC actions, is on that "arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion." This is what haters of Title II have been arguing all along, but that seems like it may be a difficult argument to win in court -- especially given what courts have said previously, including in the Brand X ruling (which basically kicked off the process for broadband players classified under Title I instead of Title II) where they more or less said that the FCC should be given deference in these kinds of decisions. It's difficult to see how the suing broadband providers are going to get past that ruling.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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I'm not a coupon person. I don't know why I'm not, but I don't find myself at the grocery store digging through a coupon wallet the way my mother did to ensure I get $.25 off on that discounted meat I like to buy for a little game I call "Will this kill me tonight?" When shopping online, however, it's a completely different story. Like many others, checking out of an online store isn't complete until I run the brand or retailer through a search engine to see if there are any online coupons I can use. One of the common sites that comes up is RetailMeNot, an aggregator of coupon codes. Sometimes the codes work, more often they don't, but it's all part of my buying process. And you have to imagine that, for the most part, retailers love sites like this. Coupons, after all, are designed to get buyers to try out a store or a brand. Making those coupons more widely available should naturally result in more first-tries, more purchases when there might otherwise be less. It's a promotional tool, if nothing else, likely a free advertising source for these stores and brands. Mary Kay Cosmetics, in its never-ending wisdom, has decided to sue RetailMeNot for fraud and trademark infringement, litigating against the hand that feeds them. Mary Kay Cosmetics is suing affiliate site Google Ventures-backed RetailMeNot in federal court for precisely for this reason. The company doesn’t sell directly to the public — though its corporate site makes it appear otherwise — and says it doesn’t offer deals or coupons. Therefore the company says that RetailMeNot’s presentation of Mary Kay coupons misleads consumers and harms the brand and its relationship with its sales reps (independent consultants) in several ways. Okay, a couple of things to note from that pull quote. First, Mary Kay absolutely does sell direct to customers on its website. Not its entire catalog, perhaps. For that, you probably have to deal with one of the low-on-the-pyramid "sales reps" that hasn't figured out the Mary Kay business model yet. As for whether Mary Kay offers coupons or deals, they absolutely do that, too. You can get free gifts with certain purchase amounts or free shipping on certain amounts, for instance. I played along at the Mary Kay website to find out, so you can see the screenshot below. Now, while these aren't the kinds of coupons that have a code, the kind that people will usually travel to a site like RetailMeNot to get, so what? RetailMeNot is a service for alerting consumers to sales, coupons, and deals. When there is no coupon code, the site drives traffic directly to the retailer's site for the deal instead. For instance: The Mary Kay site is displayed and consumers are directed there for their needs. I have no idea where the fraud is here and, if it's trademark infringement, it's the kind of infringement most businesses should be begging for. Driving traffic of interested consumers directly to your website? That deserves a "thank you", not a lawsuit. And, in truth, the higher ups at Mary Kay probably have no problem with any of this. Unfortunately, the Mary Kay business model means that consumers visiting the website really aren't Mary Kay's most important customers. It's lower level employees are. The folks at the bottom of the triangle have been complaining that their customers are referencing the deals on the Mary Kay site that RetailMeNot is pointing out and demanding the same deals from the local reps. And, because Mary Kay makes a fat percentage of its money directly from those reps, rather than from consumers, pissed off "Independant Beauty Consultants" are a problem. Hence the stupid lawsuit in which Mary Kay admits as much. RMN’s listing of these “sales,” “deals,” and “coupons” harms Mary Kay and its relationship with its customers (the IBCs). Mary Kay has received various complaints from IBCs and others, who have been pressured by customers to accept and/or honor the false or unauthorized “coupons” posted on RMN’s website. RetailMeNot's site is pointing back to Mary Kay's website. That's what makes all of this not only legal, but certainly not underhanded. Now, I still can't quite fathom why Mary Kay, even after admitting who its real customers are in a legal filing, can't immediately be disbanded as a pyramid scheme, but that's entirely besides the point. RMN is under no obligation to keep Mary Kay customers happy and driving traffic to a retailer's website isn't grounds for a lawsuit. And it appears the site is willing to fight, according to the statement it provided. RetailMeNot, Inc. takes concerns related to third party intellectual property very seriously. RetailMeNot, Inc. continues to believe that it operates in compliance with law and in the best interests of consumers and its retail partners by aggregating information to help shoppers save money using its websites and mobile apps. RetailMeNot, Inc. believes the allegations in this lawsuit are without merit and intends to vigorously contest this matter. Sigh. No good deed and all that.... Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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If you're a UK-based journalist who's reported on the Snowden leaks, it's safe to say you're under investigation. Not only are you being investigated, but that investigation itself is so secret, it can't be discussed. The Intercept's Ryan Gallagher sent a Freedom of Information request to London's Metropolitan Police (the Met) for more information about the investigation -- something twice publicly confirmed by Met representatives. But when asked specifically for information on the ongoing investigation, the agency had nothing to say. [T]he Metropolitan Police... says everything about the investigation’s existence is a secret and too dangerous to disclose. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from this reporter, the force has repeatedly refused to release any information about the status of the investigation, how many officers are working on it, or how much taxpayer money has been spent on it. The Met wrote in its response: "to confirm or deny whether we hold any information concerning any current or previous investigations into the alleged actions of Edward Snowden could potentially be misused proving detrimental to national security.' In this current environment, where there is a possibility of increased threat of terrorist activity, providing any details even to confirm or deny that any information exists could assist any group or persons who wish to cause harm to the people of the nation which would undermine the safeguarding of national security." The response is hardly a response. In fact, almost the entirety of the nine-page document Gallagher received is simply reasons WHY the Met won't be responding affirmatively or negatively to his inquiry. The only new information gleaned is that control of the investigation has changed hands. AC Mark Rowley has taken over as Head of Specialist Operations following the departure of Cressida Dick That's the one thing the "Counter Terrorism Command" can confirm. This would be the same department within the Met that was directly involved with the detainment and questioning of Glenn Greenwald's partner, David Miranda. Everything else falls under a variety of exemptions, including the oh-so-opaque "state secrets" designation. The Metropolitan Police Service can neither confirm nor deny whether it holds any of the information that you have requested, as the duty in S1(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not apply, by virtue of the following exemptions: Section 23(5) - Information supplied by, or concerning, certain security bodies Section 24(2) - National Security Section 30(3) Criminal Investigations Section 31(3) - Law Enforcement Section 40(5) - Personal information There's more detail later, when the response details the agency's decision to declare the request to be "not in the public interest." The security of the country is of paramount importance and the Police service will not divulge whether information is or is not held if to do so would undermine National Security or law enforcement. Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing operations and providing assurance that the police service is appropriately and effectively engaging with the threats posed by groups or individuals there is a very strong public interest in safeguarding the integrity of police investigations and operations in the highly sensitive area of extremism, crime prevention, public disorder and terrorism prevention. [...] After weighing up the competing interests I have determined that confirmation or denial of any information being held concerning whether the MPS has investigated the alleged actions of Edward Snowden or not would not be in the public interest. To confirm or deny that information is held regarding any individual or investigation that may or may not have taken place could be detrimental to any investigations that may be being conducted now or in the future. But, of course, all of this discussion about national security, public interest and possibly compromised investigations does not confirm that there's a twice-previously-confirmed investigation of UK journalists in progress. However, this should not be taken as necessarily indicating that any information that would meet your request exists or does not exist. This UK-style Glomar tosses the request back to The Intercept, which has tossed it to the nearest governing body.. The Intercept has filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office, the public body that enforces the U.K.’s freedom of information laws, about the Met’s refusal to release information about the current status of the investigation. The commissioner will now look at how the police handled the request and decide whether they should be ordered to hand over the relevant details. Even in the UK, information doesn't want to be free. It wants to be litigated. The Met continues to maintain its code of silence in the face of its earlier public statements about investigating those publishing the Snowden leaks. When asked how something the agency itself publicly discussed several months ago is now a "national security" issue, the Met offered a swift "no comment" -- a handy way to dodge the logic hole in its Freedom of Information request denial. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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A week and a half ago, we launched the Copia Institute, our new business network/think tank. The two day event was really quite amazing, and tons of great ideas came out of the discussions. We'll be sharing some videos and some ideas from all of those discussions as we go forward, but wanted to start out by sharing the presentation I gave at the kickoff, explaining just what we were trying to do, inspired by the Homebrew Computer Club forty years ago. You can see the opening presentation here: As mentioned in the presentation, one of the things that we're focused on is bringing together lots of smart people to think through creative approaches to big challenges, that don't require waiting for bureaucrats and policymakers to make some big decision -- and the number of great ideas that came out of the summit directly, and in a series of conversations since then, has been astounding. In fact, there are probably too many good ideas. However, in the coming days, weeks and months, we'll continue sharing with you the followup on some of these discussions, including additional gatherings, new research and new projects, all designed to help drive innovation forward. I know that many of you who were unable to make the inaugural summit have expressed interest in staying informed and helping out as we launch various initiatives. Please, stay tuned, as there will be plenty of opportunities to join in the discussions and to help accomplish some amazing things.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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For months now, AT&T has been telling anybody who'll listen that Title II-based net neutrality rules are "from a bygone era," will "diminish industry investment and competition," and are a draconian, devastating example of regulatory overreach. In protest over the FCC's new neutrality rules, the company even went so far as to "suspend" its largely phony 100-city fiber-to-the-home investments to "prove" Title II was an investment killer (though it ultimately had to walk back the bluff after the FCC decided to fact check the company's math). While publicly AT&T tries to argue that Title II is a menace of the highest order, privately, AT&T consistently defers to authority of Title II -- when it's in AT&T's best interests to do so. The company recently floated above, around and over Title II and common carrier definitions to skirt an FTC investigation into its throttling practices. You'll note that when AT&T benefits from some of the protections Title II can offer, suddenly, magically gone is all of the rhetoric about Title II being bad simply because it's based on the framework of an older law. The latest example of this involves a billing dispute between AT&T and several smaller telcos. Basically -- AT&T recently complained that Great Lakes Comnet and Westphalia Telephone Company over-billed the telco to the tune of $12 million, and were demanding AT&T pay another $4.3 million in errant charges for interstate connections. AT&T complained to the FCC, stating that Sections 201(b), 203 and 208 of the Communications Act (**cough** Title II) prohibit such charges when they are not "just and reasonable." The FCC agreed, and sided in AT&T's favor:"We agree with AT&T," the FCC wrote. "We find that GLC violated the Commission’s Rules governing competitive local exchange carrier tariffs for interstate access services, and that the tariff therefore is unlawful. We also grant AT&T’s claim in Count III that WTC unlawfully billed for services prior to May 2013 that GLC provided." Just in case it's not clear, AT&T's using Title II to defend itself from over-billing, but has thrown a series of increasingly hostile hissy fits at the very idea the same standards could be applied to defend consumers from AT&T. AT&T's of course not alone in simultaneously demonizing a "regulatory framework developed for Ma Bell in the 1930s" while benefiting from it. Verizon has enjoyed massive tax breaks for years when it comes to classifying portions of its FiOS network under Title II. The wireless industry also witnessed a decade of explosive growth and profit while wireless voice remained classified under Title II. That's because it's not really Title II the telcos are worried about. All they're worried about are the billions they stand to lose should a regulator be able to defend consumers from anti-competitive behavior. As such, it's never really been specifically about Title II -- it has simply been about government daring -- for probably the first time in fifteen years -- to stand up to broadband ISPs when it comes to seriously protecting consumers.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Patent trolls -- sometimes known more politely as "Non-Practising Entities" (NPEs) -- probably have few fans among Techdirt readers, but there are some who try to justify their activities. Here's how the argument usually goes: Defenders of patent trolls ... argue that they serve as business intermediaries between inventors and commercializers. While the traditional theory of the patent system is that patents encourage innovation by allowing inventors to exclude competitors from the market and therefore earn supracompetitive returns, a number of scholars have argued that the patent system can encourage commercialization of inventions once they are made by allowing the inventor to control who can develop the technology. That comes from an interesting new paper from Robin Feldman and Mark A. Lemley, which explores whether patent trolls really do fulfill this theoretical function in practice. It's long and detailed, but its results are pretty clear-cut: Based on our preliminary evidence, the theory that NPEs facilitate innovation either through the creation of new products or by delivering actual technical know-how from inventors to implementers doesn’t hold water. NPEs almost never actually provide any valuable information to their licensees, and they rarely, if ever, prompt the development of any new products. Licensees are paying for freedom to operate -- the right not to be sued for implementing technology they developed on their own but which someone has asserted will fit within their patent rights. Thus, the study does not support the efficient middleman hypothesis for characterizing the role of NPEs. That's a valuable contribution to the debate about patent trolls, but the paper offers other insights. For example, it finds that not only do patent trolls not bring about much technology transfer with their patent licensing, neither does anyone else, either: That doesn’t mean technology transfer doesn’t happen; it does. But it may mean that technology transfer happens early in the life of a technology, and that secrets, collaborations, and informal know-how, not patents, are the primary focus of real technology licensing agreements. That's an important point. The paper also provides yet more evidence that the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, designed to encourage the commercialization of research results through licensing, actually turns universities into patent trolls -- something that Techdirt has discussed before. Although the authors suggest that further research is needed to confirm their results, it already seems pretty clear that both patent trolls and Bayh-Dole need to go. Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+ Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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You don't hear much about FBI whistleblowers. Many other agencies have had wrongdoing exposed by employees (and the government has often seen fit to slap the whistles out of their mouths with harsh prosecution), but the FBI isn't one of them. Forty-three years ago, whistleblowers broke into the FBI and retrieved damning documents, but no one's really broken out of the FBI to do the same. In fact, the FBI would rather not talk about whistleblowing at all. An optimist might chalk this up to the FBI being a tightly-run organization that polices itself for malfeasance and wrongdoing. They'd be wrong, of course. Just within the past year, the FBI has twice thwarted its own oversight and may soon face budgetary constraints if it won't turn over the documents the DOJ's Inspector General is seeking. There's a reason no one blows the whistle at the FBI and this GAO report spells it out: unlike every other government agency, the DOJ's internal policies contain nothing to shield FBI whistleblowers from retaliation. Unlike employees of other executive branch agencies, FBI employees do not have a process to seek corrective action if they experience retaliation based on a disclosure of wrongdoing to their supervisors or others in their chain of command who are not designated officials. This difference is due, in part, to DOJ’s decisions about how to implement the statute governing FBI whistleblowers. When issuing its regulations in 1999, DOJ officials did not include supervisors in the list of entities designated to receive protected disclosures, stating that Congress intended DOJ to limit the universe of recipients of protected disclosures, in part because of the sensitive information to which FBI employees have access. To ostensibly protect means, methods and (presumably) the country itself, the DOJ eliminated several options whistleblowers could pursue when taking their complaints through official channels. A 2012 Presidential Policy Directive aimed at increasing whistleblower protections failed to move the needle. In response to this requirement, DOJ reviewed its regulations and in an April 2014 report recommended adding more senior officials in FBI field offices to the list of designated entities, but did not recommend adding all supervisors. DOJ cited a number of reasons for this, including concerns about striking the right balance between the benefits of an expanded list and the additional resources and time needed to handle a possible increase in complaints. By dismissing retaliation complaints based on a disclosure made to an employee’s supervisor or someone in that person’s chain of command, DOJ leaves some FBI whistleblowers—such as the 17 complainants we identified—without protection from retaliation. The DOJ is plainly disinterested in sheltering those who would point out FBI wrongdoing. It has set up a minefield most whistleblowers are unable to navigate. We concluded that, without clear information on how to make a protected disclosure, FBI whistleblowers may not be aware that, depending on how they report their allegation, they may not be able to seek corrective action if they experience retaliation. So, with no roadmap and extremely limited protections, whistleblowers who do manage to bring their complaints up through proper channels are often subjected to retaliatory actions for which they have no remedy. [I]n 2002, former FBI agent Jane Turner filed a whistleblower complaint with DOJ alleging that her colleagues had stolen items from Ground Zero after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She was then given a “does not meet expectations” rating, placed on leave, and notified of proposed removal. This retalitation was reported by Agent Turner to the DOJ, which then slowly ground its heavy wheels of so-called justice for more than a decade. [The] DOJ ultimately found in her favor in 2013—over 10 years later. Turner's case isn't an anomaly. The GAO found that, while the DOJ was often quick to dismiss retaliation complaints simply because the whistleblower failed to properly navigate its labyrinthine reporting restrictions, it was seldom interested in moving quickly on behalf of those who managed to luck into complete compliance. The 4 complaints we reviewed in our 2015 report that met threshold regulatory requirements and that DOJ ultimately adjudicated on the merits, took up to 10.6 years to resolve, and DOJ did not provide parties with expected time frames for its decisions throughout these cases. The DOJ blames this on "case complexity" and "staffing priorities." The latter excuse is likely the most honest. The DOJ is far more inclined to prosecute whistleblowers than protect whistleblowers. Blowing the whistle at the FBI means being subjected to vindictive actions with little to no recourse. The DOJ may decide to take a whistleblower's case, but will do little, if anything, to escalate its response. In the meantime, whistleblowers are apparently supposed to take a number and wait things out in a hostile environment. Will this GAO report result in better protections? Highly doubtful, considering a directive issued by the President's office itself failed to produce any significant change. Even the agency's inside oversight -- the Office of the Inspector General -- is finding the DOJ completely unresponsive to its complaints about FBI stonewalling and obfuscation. It's highly unlikely the DOJ will handle lower-level whistleblower complaints with more speed or openness. The DOJ, along with the FBI, has successfully neutralized most forms of accountability. The OIG is openly ignored. FOIA requests are frequently greeted with massive amounts of withheld documents and redactions. When pressed, the nation's top law enforcement agency tends to wrap itself in a patchwork of undeclared wars (drugs, terrorism) and claims accountability will lead to an unsafe and unsecured country. Meanwhile, its own underling agencies go rogue while tangled, useless policies keep whistleblowers from ever opening their mouths.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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In the wake of the Snowden leaks, more and more tech companies are providing their users with transparency reports that detail (to the extent they're allowed) government requests for user data. Amazon -- home to vast amounts of cloud storage -- isn't one of them. Amazon remains the only US internet giant in the Fortune 500 that has not yet released a report detailing how many demands for data it receives from the US government. Although people are starting to notice, the retail and cloud giant has no public plans to address these concerns. Word first spread last week when the ACLU's Christopher Soghoian, who's spent years publicly denouncing companies for poor privacy practices, told attendees at a Seattle town hall event that he's "hit a wall with Amazon," adding that it's "just really difficult to reach people there." Zack Whittaker and ZDNet ran into the same wall. Nearly thirty Amazon representatives were contacted but only one provided a response: an anonymous statement that the company was under "confidentiality obligations" not to discuss requests for data. There are several reasons why Amazon might be hesitant to share intel/law enforcement request data, perhaps none bigger than its $600 million/10-year contract with the US intelligence community. It might also be its multiple contracts with other federal agencies, including connecting the nation's law enforcement agencies through its AWS-hosted Criminal Justice Information Service. But that can't be the whole explanation. It's not as if other companies now providing transparency reports aren't similarly engaged with the government at some level. Microsoft has contracts with various governments to provide Windows and Office software. Google offers a range of open-source and cloud-based services to the government, and Apple provides iPhones and iPads to government and military users, thanks to earning various certifications. Even telephone service providers, which have historically been very proactive in accommodating government demands for data -- going so far as to give intelligence analysts guidance on how to skirt legal restrictions -- are producing bi-annual transparency reports. But Amazon simply refuses to do so, and then refuses to explain its refusal. This lack of transparency has gone past the point of being merely vexatious. Amazon isn't satisfied with simply selling and storing. It's gathering far more data than its more famous offerings would indicate. With its smartphone and tablet line-up, the company is taking on even more data -- including browsing history through its Silk browser, reading habits, and other data like IP addresses. The company is slated to be moving into the enterprise and work-based email provider space. Silence and secrecy aren't improving Amazon's reputation, at least not with those with privacy concerns. Unfortunately for them, it's been well-established that Amazon will do whatever it wants with little regard for public opinion. No one's going to "guilt" Amazon into doing anything. But the concerns are legitimate. Who wants to be housed "next door" to the CIA, knowing it has shown little respect for data barriers put in place to safeguard other government entities? I'm sure the answer is "hardly anybody," but Amazon's opacity prevents ordinary people from knowing even the slightest about the government's activities and demands. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 8 days ago on techdirt
In early February, we put out an open letter to Elon Musk, asking him to put SpaceX's photos into the public domain, noting that it was a shame that those photos would be locked up until long after we were all dead. NASA's photos are all in the public domain. While I'm extremely excited about the things that private spaceflight can accomplish -- it would be unfortunate if part of the deal was that we lost a great source of public domain imagery. Last week, the company started releasing its photos under a Creative Commons license, which was definitely a big step forward. However, we noted that we were still disappointed that it wasn't a pure public domain dedication, and in fact had a "non-commercial" restriction. So we once again asked if Musk might consider going that one step further to the public domain. Over the weekend, he did just that: Extra kudos to Elon Musk for recognizing the issue and making the decision so quickly. Of course, the above is not entirely accurate. For reasons that are beyond me, Flickr does not offer a CC0 Public Domain dedication as an option on photos, so it looks like SpaceX has switched the photos to CC BY 2.0, basically removing the non-commercial restriction, but still requiring attribution. Still, given Musk's public statement, it seems likely that the company has no intention to enforce even that restriction. One separate note: I was a bit surprised by the number of comments on our last story that seemed to indicate that it was absolutely crazy of me to dare suggest that a private company put photographic works into the public domain. This is unfortunate. It is depressing how much the myth that everything needs to be "owned" has become pervasive in society, often due to the false claims made by legacy industries. Freeing up works so that the public can benefit them has tremendous global benefits, even for the private interests who put those works into the public domain. Elon Musk recognized this with Tesla's patents and he appears to be doing the same with SpaceX's photos as well. And, yes, freeing these photos likely will come back to benefit SpaceX as well. It will enable others to take those works and build off of them, perhaps doing research or publications that will increase the demand for SpaceX's services in launching things (and, eventually, people) into space. And those benefits are likely to be much more valuable than whatever SpaceX might have gotten in a "license" deal for a few photos to some commercial source. It's astounding to me the short-term, narrow-visioned view of the world some people have, in which they think licensing is the answer to everything, not recognizing just how much innovation and freedom it naturally suppresses. Oh, and since I can now do this without any worry, here are a couple of great SpaceX photos, that Musk says are in the public domain. Enjoy! Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 8 days ago on techdirt
After Portland police arrested a homeless woman for charging her phone at a public outlet, we wondered what purpose that could possibly serve. Of course, the sad truth is it's not about purpose at all, as one anonymous commenter spelled out in this week's most insightful comment: This is far more common that you might think Having been homeless, I've seen a lot of this. Police and security guards routinely bully the homeless because they can: who's going to defend them? They're perfect targets for sadistic behavior, and believe me, there's no shortage of that. I've seen cops/guards steal coats ("that's too nice for you, you must have shoplifted it"), kick food away ("you can't eat here"), drag people out of bathrooms ("you can't wash your face here"), refuse transport to the ER ("you didn't get beat up, you just got drunk and fell"), steal money ("you can't beg here, give me all your cash"), demand sex ("blow me and I won't run you in"), and worse. Much worse. Nobody sees. Nobody knows. Nobody cares. Next, we've got a response to the baffling ongoing complaints about Netflix not being the same as traditional television with its release schedules, ruining watercooler chats and causing spoiler tension. Violynne pointed out that the whole point of Netflix is that it changed things profoundly: Two things Netflix did to change the world when it comes to watching a TV show: -It removed 22 minutes of ads despite being a paid service. Hulu + and cable television can't even come close to doing the same thing. -It put the power of viewing in my control, allowing me to actually enjoy watching shows again. Remember NBC's "Thursday Night Must See TV"? Yeah, so do I, and it was HORRIBLE. Unless you had an accompanying guide (most had TV guide), you had absolutely no control what episode aired that evening. Repeat? Pushed back because of a long-running football game? Then there was the idiocy of the "break", where weeks would go by without any new show, allowing the very few people who didn't own a VCR/DVR to "catch up". The entire television industry was broken since the 50s. It's thanks to technology it finally fixed itself so a show can be enjoyed, not aired based on when advertisers wanted eyeballs to their products. There are plenty in this industry who should take notes from Netflix. Right, Hulu? For editor's choice on the insightful side, we'll start out with one more response to the story from Portland. This time it's another anonymous commenter who proposed a radical solution to the concerns of businesses about homeless people: There's a very good productive way for the businesses to get rid of the homeless people. Hire them. Next, we've got a reaction to the latest instance of what I once called copylaundering — the practice whereby big media companies license or otherwise use material they don't own, then later feed it into YouTube's ContentID or other automated screening systems, which then accuse the original creators and rightsholders of that material with infringement. As Mason Wheeler points out, the irony hurts: ...and they call piracy "theft"?!? Over on the funny side, first place comes from the post about Cisco shipping hardware to bogus addresses in order to throw off the NSA's intercept efforts. It's a valiant move, but as Michael pointed out, certain aspects of the strategy sounded very familiar: "We ship [boxes] to an address that's has nothing to do with the customer, and then you have no idea who ultimately it is going to," In a related story, DHL sues Cisco for copyright infringement. In second place, we've got a response to the news that the government will be paying $18,000 to a photographer whose cameras it improperly seized outside a tank plant in Lima, Ohio. Vidiot suggested a continued effort to drive the message home: Throwing it open to all... Announcing... The Lima, OH Tank Plant Photo Contest! First Tuesday of every month, we all meet outside the plant at noon, and start snapping away. Runners-up (which is everybody else) get a free ride in a government vehicle. But one lucky winner takes home the $18,000 jackpot! For editor's choice on the funny side, we start out with a comment from AricTheRed responding to the insane comparison of Google Fiber to... ebola: Man if this is true, I sure hope I catch Google Fiber, as there is no apparent effetive treatment for that either... Finally, we circle back to the complaints about Netflix's new model for TV viewing, where DannyB pointed out that the solution is easy, and would surely be super popular: Look Netflix, here is a simple fix. Introduce an option where a customer can pay an extra fee to their local cable company and Netflix will not allow playing each episode of a series until at least one week after you have watched the previous episode. For an additional fee, Netflix could add a fixed time window option where you must watch the episode in a fixed time, such as 7 PM Thursday Evenings. Failure to watch it at that time means you miss it and will not have another opportunity to watch it for one year. For people who really want the premium experience, Netflix could charge customers an additional fee that enables them to experience commercials conveniently inserted by Netflix at points in time where something exciting has happened or some major plot twist has just occurred. For an additional fee, Netflix could remove your ability to pause the internet stream so that you must watch it live. None of these ideas are technically infeasible to implement. Those of us who want a superior experience from Netflix should send them feedback to implement these features at once. This would allow us to blame someone other than Google for a change. (Of course, we still could look for some reason to blame Google for Netflix's lack of the above features.) Sign me up! That's all for this week, folks. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 9 days ago on techdirt
Five Years Ago This week in 2010, the Viacom/YouTube lawsuit started in earnest with the motions for summary judgement from both sides, most of which appeared to be a lot of he-said-she-said. As the week wore on, though, the cracks started to show: Viacom couldn't figure out which clips were actually infringing (despite insisting that Google should be able to do so), and people realized that a lot of YouTube quotes in Viacom's filing were taken completely out of context. YouTube's motions, on the other hand, highlighted how industry lawsuits may have slowed innovation, and we wondered if the whole case might lead to an FTC investigation. Over in the UK, Simon Singh stopped writing his Guardian column to fight the British Chiropractic Association's libel lawsuit against him for calling them out on their many pseudoscientific claims. A commission was calling for a tax on Google to prop up newspapers (while Google was telling newspapers to experiment), and the Times Online was blocking aggregators after a ruling that the latter didn't have to pay a license fee. But perhaps the biggest news was the passage of the Digital Economy Bill through the House of Lords, which had only one positive outcome: it garnered another hilarious message song from Dan Bull. Ten Years Ago This week in 2005, Kevin Martin took over as FCC chair following Michael Powell; INDUCE Act author Orrin Hatch was put in charge of the Senate's copyright panel; bad stats were misleading people about reactions to copy protection; and we were wondering about the balance between privacy and anti-piracy efforts (while AOL was actively sacrificing the privacy of AIM users). Internet jurisdiction questions were still heated and unsettled, and strange legal ideas were popping up all over the world such as an attempt by an Indian newspaper to claim that ongoing criticism was a criminal conspiracy. Meanwhile, the MPAA was searching for the legal theory that would make BitTorrent trackers illegal. France was beating up Google on trademark issues while embarking on

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