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It's tax time again, when we all turn just a bit more Republican for a month or so, curse out the inept government that asks us to pay for all that they do, and emote a general grumbling attitude throughout the days. Fun, right? Part of what makes this time of year such a royal pain in the ass is that many of us pay to pay our taxes, using any number of accounting and tax prep services just to keep Uncle Sam off our backs. Last year, we wrote about how Intuit, the company behind TurboTax, was actively waging a campaign against the government free-filing program, in which the IRS offers to fill out much of the paperwork and allow citizens to e-file their taxes with minimal input. The program is entirely voluntary, but that didn't stop Intuit from raging against the machine, suggesting that the IRS would overcharge the poor and that the program would, like, really hurt their business (honesty!). It turns out that trying to stifle people's ability to simplify their own lives and file their taxes for free wasn't all that great for the old public relations department, however, so Intuit has instead decided to go the sneaky route and get a bunch of unwitting mouthpieces to do it for them. Over the last year, a rabbi, a state NAACP official, a small town mayor and other community leaders wrote op-eds and letters to Congress with remarkably similar language on a remarkably obscure topic. Each railed against a long-standing proposal that would give taxpayers the option to use pre-filled tax returns. They warned that the program would be a conflict of interest for the IRS and would especially hurt low-income people, who wouldn't have the resources to fight inaccurate returns. Rabbi Elliot Dorff wrote in a Jewish Journal op-ed that he "shudder[s] at the impact this program will have on the most vulnerable people in American society." So you're wondering where the problem in all of this is? Well, it turns out these folks didn't just independently decide to write the same op-eds. It would appear that they were approached by groups affiliated with Intuit and asked to write them. The folks targeted weren't informed of the connection, either. Rabbi Dorff says he was approached by a former student, Emily Pflaster, who sent him details and asked him to write an op-ed alerting the Jewish community to the threat. What Pflaster did not tell him is that she works for a PR and lobbying firm with connections to Intuit, the maker of best-selling tax software TurboTax. "I wish she would have told me that," Dorff told ProPublica. You think? What once appeared to be some kind of grassroots campaign by the concerned public towards what might be a real issue suddenly has devolved into a public relations blitz undertaken through dishonest means by corporate interests. In other words, it's the same message we got last year, and from the same source, but that source is hiding behind unwitting accomplices. The underhanded deeds weren't over, however. The website of Pflaster's firm, JCI Worldwide, had listed Intuit among its clients, but removed it after ProPublica contacted them. Pflaster said Intuit had been listed by mistake.... That's quite an error to make and quite a coincidental time for that error to be "corrected." And, while Intuit's only comment on the matter was some general mumblings about how they use multiple avenues to improve "tax empowerment" of the public, it's a special kind of shady that refers to demonizing an entirely optional and free government service as empowerment of the public. Meanwhile, of course, Intuit has lobbied heavily on bills related to free-filing. In the end, there may indeed be flaws in the government's free-filing program and process. Actually, it'd be a bit of a shock if there weren't flaws. But it's voluntary, and the solution to those flaws is most certainly not subterfuge and dishonest attempts to coerce a public through their religious leaders.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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So, the Guardian and the Washington Post won the Pulitzer for "public service" for their coverage of the NSA's surveillance activities. We mentioned how this should really end the debate over whether or not Ed Snowden was a whistleblower or not, but knew that would never happen. We'd already covered Rep. Peter King's incensed response, but an even more amusing response has to be the one from John Yoo. You may recall Yoo as the guy in the George W. Bush administration who basically shredded the Constitution in "authorizing" the CIA's torture program. He's weighed in a few times about the NSA stuff, arguing that the NSA shouldn't have to obey the Constitution because it takes too long and insists that the courts have no role in determining if something violates the 4th Amendment. For reasons that are beyond comprehension, the political color commentary sportscasters at Politico decided to ask Yoo if the Pulitzer vindicated Snowden, and he (of course) answered with an emphatic no, though in a way that suggests he still has no clue what this story is about: John Yoo, a former deputy assistant attorney general and author of the 2002 memos advising the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, said the Pulitzer committee’s decision did not vindicate Snowden. “I’m not surprised the Pulitzer committee gave The Washington Post a prize for pursuing a sensationalist story, even when the story is a disaster for its own country,” he said. “I don’t think we need automatically read the prize as a vindication for Snowden’s crimes. Awarding a prize to a newspaper that covered a hurricane does not somehow vindicate the hurricane, [and] awarding a Pulitzer for a photo of a murder does not somehow vindicate the crime.” Except, of course, the award was not for their coverage of Snowden's actions (mislabled "crimes") by Yoo, but rather the NSA's actions. So if we replace "Snowden's crimes" in the quote above with "the NSA's crimes" the quote actually makes some sense. The reporting certainly was no vindication of the NSA -- quite the opposite. The award itself was always for the reporting on the NSA, and the reason it vindicates Snowden (and which Yoo seems unable to comprehend) is because without Snowden, there would be no reporting on the NSA's unconstitutional and illegal behavior. There would be no "national debate" on the surveillance state, and there would be no ongoing effort in all three branches of government to change how the intelligence community spies on people. The award wasn't for reporting on Snowden. It was on the NSA. And it's that reporting that vindicates Snowden. It's simply crazy that folks like Yoo are so focused on hating Snowden that they still don't seem to realize that.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Sen. Feinstein seemed incredibly outraged that her office was spied on by the CIA in its efforts to keep a torture report under wraps. This was noted with some attendant irony, given Feinstein's boisterous support of the NSA's surveillance efforts. Now, she's stepped into irony again, opening an investigation of McClatchy News for leaking a condensed, bullet-points-only summation of the findings hidden within the still-unreleased 6,600-page "torture report." The Senate Intelligence Committee has opened an investigation into how McClatchy obtained the classified conclusions of a report into the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics, the panel’s chairwoman said Friday. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she was also referring the case to the Justice Department for investigation. “If someone distributed any part of this classified report, they broke the law and should be prosecuted,” Feinstein said in a prepared statement. “The committee is investigating this unauthorized disclosure and I intend to refer the matter to the Department of Justice.” Unauthorized disclosure, maybe. But it's looking more and more like the only way Americans are ever going to see the inside of the infamous report is via unauthorized channels, what with the CIA asking for redaction privileges. This is the same Senator who fought the CIA over control of this report, only now she wants to control how the information is fed to the public. The investigation of the CIA wasn't performed just because Washington had money to waste. Supposedly this was done in the public interest, even if almost everyone involved has done as much as they can to keep the information out of the public's hands. It's the kind of government no one wants: one that internalizes its investigative efforts and withholds the findings. The public is frequently treated like an unwanted side effect of governing. "Shut up," Feinstein explained, "or we'll make you regret ever speaking up." Disappointing, yes. But worse, it's predictable. McClatchy isn't happy. “We are disappointed that Sen. Feinstein plans to seek a Justice Department investigation of our journalism,” said James Asher, McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief. “We believe that Americans need to know what the CIA might have done to detainees and who is responsible for any questionable practices, which is why we have vigorously covered this story.” Asher is right about the public knowing, which is ostensibly the endpoint of investigations like these. But now that it's all been compiled, representatives are (somewhat inadvertently) joining forces with the same agency they decried and throwing as much dirt as they can over any exposure. There's a slim chance that much of the 480-page "executive summary" will survive the rounds of redactions headed its way. For McClatchy to release a 2-page summary is a drop in bucket compared to the voluminous whole. The DOJ will now (possibly) start searching for yet another whistleblower, one who felt the refusal to discuss the contents beyond vague generalities was an intellectually dishonest move by those heading the investigation. But it's even more wrongheaded for Feinstein to request an investigation into this leaked document, only a few months removed from the CIA asking the DOJ to investigate Feinstein's staffers for their "unauthorized removal" of documents. It's apparently OK to take "unauthorized" documents if you're a Senator, but not so much if you're a journalist. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Monday was the deadline for amici briefs over whether or not the 9th Circuit should rehear, en banc, the Garcia v. Google debacle, in which Alex Kozinski made a bunch of highly questionable decisions in ruling that actress Cindy Lee Garcia deserves a copyright in her 5-second performance shown in the controversial 13-minute "trailer" known as Innocence of Muslims. The 9th Circuit made it clear that it would welcome briefs from anyone who wanted to file them, and a bunch of organizations and companies have been lining up to do so. You can see the full list of briefs here, though at the time I write this, it's still being updated. If I get the chance I'll try to review some of the other briefs soon. However, I wanted to write about one such brief first: ours. After some consideration, we teamed up with the Organization for Transformative Works to file our own brief concerning "intermediary liability." While the 9th Circuit noted it would accept briefs from all interested parties, it also said those briefs had to be shorter than 2,500 words, which is not a lot of space to make complex legal arguments. We fully expected many others to focus in on all of the (many, many) troubling copyright aspects in Kozinski's ruling, but wanted to raise a separate (and, in some ways, larger) issue that was almost entirely ignored by the ruling: that third parties should not be blamed for the actions of their users -- and that Judge Kozinski's broad injunction did just that. Lawyer Cathy Gellis wrote up an amicus brief on our behalf, highlighting Congress's clear intent in both Sections 230 of the CDA and 512 of the DMCA in providing safe harbors from liability for third parties, in order to encourage them to support free and open dialogue and discourse online, without fear of legal repercussions. As our brief argues, while many have ignored Section 230 (which excludes intellectual property), it should be quite clear that Garcia's case was really nothing more than an attempt to misuse copyright law in order to get around Section 230 and to hold a third party liable. Furthermore, as we've noted in the past, Judge Kozinski's injunction appears to go well beyond what the law says is appropriate in responding to copyright claims. There is a reason why Congress was so intent on providing safe harbors, recognizing the incentives for broad censorship when you blame service providers for the actions of their users. Judge Kozinski appears to have ignored nearly all of Congress' intent in his ruling, and we're hopeful that (among the many other reasons why his ruling should be reviewed), the rest of the 9th Circuit will recognize that the original ruling has serious First Amendment implications, beyond just the basic copyright questions.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Somewhat late to the game (by about a week), after the Heartbleed vulnerability was publicly revealed, and a few days after it was reported and denied that the NSA was already well aware of Heartbleed and exploiting it, the NSA has put out a one page PDF about Heartbleed. This seems like something of a too little, too late effort by the NSA to live up to its semi-promise of a "bias" towards revealing vulnerabilities over exploiting them. However, that leads to the simple question that plenty of people should be asking: given everything you've learned about the NSA recently (or, well, for years), would you trust the NSA's advice on how to deal with Heartbleed? Not that I think the NSA would publicly suggest anything bad, but at this point, the NSA has a serious trust problem in convincing anyone engaged in computer security that they have their best interests in mind.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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While AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon have argued -- with incredible message discipline -- that network neutrality is "a solution in search of a problem," that's simply not true. There are many concrete examples of network neutrality violations around the world. These network neutrality violations include ISPs blocking websites and applications, ISPs discriminating in favor of some applications and against others, and ISPs charging arbitrary tolls on technology companies. We have seen network neutrality violations all over the world. Even in the U.S., there have been some major violations by small and large ISPs. These include: The largest ISP, Comcast, secretly interfering with peer-to-peer technologies, including some of the most popular basic technologies used to distribute online TV and music (2005-2008); A small telephone ISP called Madison River blocking Vonage, a company providing competing telephone service online (2005); Apple blocking Skype on the iPhone, subject to a secret contract with AT&T, a company that competes with Skype in providing telephone service (2008-2009); Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile blocking the functionality of Google Wallet on Nexus devices, while all three of those ISPs are part of a competing mobile payments joint venture called Isis (late 2011- +today); and Comcast's disputes with Level 3 and Netflix over termination fees, and the appearance that Comcast is deliberately congesting its network connections to force Netflix to pay Comcast for an acceptable connection (2010- +today). In other countries, including democracies, there are numerous violations. In Canada, rather than seeking a judicial injunction, a telephone ISP used its control of the wires to block the website of a union member during a strike against that very company in July 2005. In the Netherlands, in 2011, the dominant ISP expressed interest in blocking against U.S.-based Whatsapp and Skype. In the European Union, widespread violations affect at least 1 in 5 users. That is the conclusion of a report issued in June of 2012 by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), a body composed of the regulatory agencies of each EU country. Most of these restrictions were on online phone services, peer-to-peer technologies (which are used not only by copyright pirates, but also in a variety of well-known technologies, including Skype and several Amazon cloud services), as well as other specific applications "such as gaming, streaming, e-mail or instant messaging service." ISPs block and discriminate against applications and websites even in countries that require disclosure of the violations and even in countries with far more competition among ISPs than the U.S. A recent Oxford dissertation on the topic explores the wide-scale blocking and discrimination in the United Kingdom, a market with both considerable competition among ISPs and robust disclosure laws. Essentially, a specific rule that would be upheld in court is necessary protect network neutrality and address a major, global problem. * Footnote: Thanks to Stanford professor Barbara van Schewick, whose recent letter to the FCC inspired my thinking in this post.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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At long last, there finally seems to be a recognition by members of the judicial branch that they are, in fact, there to provide checks and balances against government overreach. We've already covered the recent orders by Magistrate Judge John Facciola, who has twice sent the government back to fix its overly broad warrant requests seeking access to email accounts and cell phone content. (This is tempered somewhat by another Facciola decision, which declared the law enforcement agency in question didn't need a search warrant for a supposedly "abandoned" phone.) Facciola isn't the only judge pushing back against the government's vague warrant requests, however. In the past year, U.S. magistrate judges John Facciola in Washington, D.C., and David Waxse in Kansas City, Kan., have rejected or modified a number of applications for warrants to search people's emails and other electronic communications at Internet firms such as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. The rulings go against the grain of a federal judiciary that has generally approved them, according to current and former law-enforcement officials. They also come against the backdrop of a legal and political debate over the scope of government surveillance that has raged since the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records was revealed last summer. At issue is the Justice Department's two-step process of obtaining all emails and other electronic information in the accounts of a person under investigation, and then using names and keywords to sift through it in hopes of finding evidence of wrongdoing. The judges have ruled the government needs to refine its requests to comply with the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches. This has been the government's process for years: obtain everything and keep whatever is deemed "relevant" to the case. Both of these judges appear to realize that they are the last line of Fourth Amendment defense between the government and the public. Presumably, the Snowden leaks have played a part in this altered mindset. As both judges have pointed out in their orders, what the government has routinely sought is unbounded access to communications via unconstitutional warrants. These two have suggested an alternate route, if the government can't manage to operate within the constraints of the Constitution. Both judges have suggested Internet service providers and other Web firms could do their own searches based on specific guidance from the Justice Department, and turn over only the information that appears relevant to an investigation. They have also proposed systems in which a court-appointed official or others could perform the initial search, providing a buffer between investigators and bulk data. Of course, the government thinks these are terrible ideas. "I don't think ISPs or email providers have the institutional competence to conduct the searches of their customers for evidence of crimes," said Neil MacBride, a former U.S. attorney in Virginia who described the magistrate judges' rulings as "outliers." Maybe. Maybe not. But it's clear the government is no better than the private sector at performing targeted searches. Instead, it simply demands everything and expects to be trusted to only take a look at what is pertinent. Despite the fact that the government routinely asks (or rather, expects) the judicial branch, along with those defending the accused, to simply trust it with petabytes of someone's personal data, it seems completely unwilling to trust a private company with fulfilling searches for relevant data on its behalf. The days of the government simply saying "it's complicated" and running broad warrant requests past technically-incompetent judges might finally be numbered. Judge Waxse said he believed more people would come around to his view if they better understood recent technological advances and how service providers operate. "What Facciola and I are saying is, use what is now developed, and you can comply with the Fourth Amendment," he said. "There are too many lawyers and judges who don't have a clear grasp of how it all works." This is also part of the problem. Far too often, technically-ignorant judges have credulously accepted the government's arguments because they don't have the knowledge to challenge these assertions. They could seek the input of those who can parse the technological demands, but rather than do so, this crucial part of the system of checks and balances has simply allowed the government to portray its circumvention of the Fourth Amendment as unavoidable. Following the revelations of the last several months, including documents showing the NSA misrepresented its bulk records collections for nearly three years straight, the government has been shown it cannot be trusted with unlimited access to people's data and content. Hopefully, this pushback from the judicial branch will become the new standard. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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The web is a dangerous place these days. Akamai, which many large companies rely on for hosting as a CDN, has admitted that its Heartbleed patch was faulty, meaning that it was possible that the SSL keys "could have been exposed to an adversary exploiting the Heartbleed vulnerability." Akamai had already noted that it was more protected against Heartbleed than others, because of custom code it had used for its own OpenSSL deployment. However, as researchers looked through that custom code, they found some significant defects in it. Some people have been arguing that the Heartbleed bug highlights a weakness in open source software -- but that's not necessarily true. Pretty much all software has vulnerabilities. And, sometimes, by open sourcing stuff you can find those vulnerabilities faster.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Digital cameras are almost everywhere, and they're getting smaller and smarter. Whole new categories of cameras are being developed that don't need lenses or don't need large sensors. Instead, algorithms are being used to manipulate digitized light rays to create impressive images without traditional camera components. Here are just a few examples. Rambus is developing a super tiny camera that could be embedded in almost anything. The imaging from this lensless sensor is pretty low resolution, but it's good enough for many situations, and it could even record video. [url] Capturing 3D images with a single lens camera can be done without moving the camera. The trick is done by taking a picture of the same object but focused at different depths. The technique is called "light field moment imaging" and uses an algorithm to create the stereoscopic images. [url] Bell Labs is working on single pixel, lensless cameras. The technique used here is called "compressive sensing" and relies on a randomized array of apertures to collect multiple snapshots that can re-create a high-resolution image. The applications aren't exactly obvious, but perhaps astronomers or photographers of slow-moving subjects would be interested. [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 the times continue to change, the past few years have seen a notable increase in LGBT characters appearing in video games. Not that this is any kind of major victory, of course, but it is probably an imperfect barometer for public tolerance of our fellow human beings. There's obviously still a long way to go, and not everyone is embracing tolerance as much as I would personally prefer, but that's okay. These things take time and it's important that we listen to all sides and engage in the debate with integrity, honesty, and respect. What can make this difficult and challenging is when the worlds of two different, but important, issues you have collide. Such is the case with an upcoming mobile game called Ultimate Gay Fighter, which is finding itself forced to change that name due to legal pressure, likely over a trademark. According to Handsome Woman Productions, the company in question "believes the UGF brand and related mobile gaming product threatens one of their reality TV series/fighting competition brand." As a result, the developer is unable to defend the game's current name against what founder Michael P. Venker calls a billion-dollar company. "We have a trademark pending, but the prospect of a potential lawsuit is very intimidating," Venker said. "We don't have the funds to compete with their take-no-prisoners approach. We offered them solutions, but this company remains firm in believing our Ultimate Gay Fighter brand threatens their brand, despite vast differences in our customer base and product." You don't need to be a master at reading between the thinly-veiled lines to understand that Venker is almost certainly referring to the UFC, or Ultimate Fighting Championship, and their reality TV show, The Ultimate Fighter. They're really the only ones that fit the parameter here. And, while UGF is going ahead and caving to the name change, and looking to crowdsource a new name from their fanbase, it seems likely that they'd at least have a case in challenging the threat in court. Trademark, after all, was built to prevent customer confusion, and it's unlikely that any UFC fan is going to think that UGF is affiliated with the fighting company. In addition, the whole concept behind the game appears to be one of parody, which would be protected as fair use. Where this all gets tricky is that there's a whole lot to hate in Ultimate Gay Fighter. In Ultimate Gay Fighter, a forthcoming brawler for iOS and Android, players take on the role of a variety of iconic gay caricatures, including a drag queen, a butch lesbian, an Asian 'twink', a gym bunny, a golden-chain wearing African-American rapper and a drunken bisexual woman. Each character wields a comedic 'gaytality' move that makes reference to common LGBT jokes. The caricatures are crude at best and, in my opinion, not particularly funny. That said, my opinion means eff-all when it comes to free speech and my sense of allowing speech to rule the day outweighs my offense: UFC shouldn't be bullying this game out of their name. And no, before everyone gets started on my regular attacks on the Washington Redskins organization, this isn't even close to being the same thing. There's nothing inherently offensive in the name Ultimate Gay Fighter, "gay" isn't recognized as having a detrimental definition, and in this case we're talking about taking away speech rights, not opening them up to everyone. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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We've already been discussing how President Obama has told the NSA it can continue exploiting computer security flaws, rather than fixing them, and also how the NSA's offensive and defensive roles are incompatible with each other. However, I wanted to highlight a more concerning point raised by Julian Sanchez about the NSA and Heartbleed in the article about the NSA's dual role: and it's that, even granting the fact that the NSA might not have known about Heartbleed until it became public, the NSA could still use it to their advantage, in part because it has so much old encrypted data stored up: Here, however, is the really crucial point to recognize: NSA doesn't need to have known about Heartbleed all along to take advantage of it. The agency's recently-disclosed minimization procedures permit "retention of all communications that are enciphered." In other words, when NSA encounters encryption it can't crack, it's allowed to – and apparently does – vacuum up all that scrambled traffic and store it indefinitely, in hopes of finding a way to break into it months or years in the future. As security experts recently confirmed, Heartbleed can be used to steal a site's master encryption keys – keys that would suddenly enable anyone with a huge database of encrypted traffic to unlock it, at least for the vast majority of sites that don't generate new keys as a safeguard against retroactive exposure. If NSA moved quickly enough – as dedicated spies are supposed to – the agency could have exploited the bug to steal those keys before most sites got around to fixing the bug, gaining access to a vast treasure trove of stored traffic. As Sanchez notes, this creates a dilemma for those who discover such flaws. Normally, they should want to reveal such things to the NSA to help with protecting networks. But doing so now might expose more risk. And, in fact, it seems likely that the NSA was aware of the bug prior to its revelation to the public. Note that in its denial of the Bloomberg story, it just says it wasn't aware prior to "April 2014," but not on which date in April it found out about it. Thus, it's likely the NSA had a heads up, and could collect a bunch of private keys to use against its encrypted data store for a few days before everyone else was informed to fix the vulnerability.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Rep. Peter King has made it clear that he will stop at nothing to attack anyone who thinks Ed Snowden did something useful. He was one of the first to call for the reporters who revealed the NSA's surveillance to be prosecuted and has no qualms about lying to get his way. He's even gone so far as to argue that anyone who claims the NSA is "spying" or "snooping" is committing slander. His main beef is his supposed belief that Snowden and anyone reporting on the facts he revealed are somehow "appeasing" terrorists. Of course, that's quite ironic, given King's history as a major terrorist appeaser in supporting the IRA decades ago, even as they were blowing up buildings that resulted in death and injury to many. However, it's long been clear that King has no self-awareness and no understanding of his own hypocrisy. Within minutes of the Pulitzers announcing that one of its prizes was being given to the publications that reported on the Ed Snowden documents, King angrily tweeted his disgust: Awarding the Pulitzer to Snowden enablers is a disgrace — Rep. Pete King (@RepPeteKing) April 14, 2014 Notice that King refers to two respected news publications and countless journalists as "enablers" rather than journalists. There's only one person who's a disgrace in this situation and it's Rep. Peter King. Someone might want to send him a copy of the First Amendment, and its parts about freedom of the press. King seems to have forgotten his oath to uphold that part of the Constitution.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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While various arbitrary prizes and awards may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, it's still quite heartening to see that the Guardian and the Washington Post were awarded a Pulitzer for public service for their reporting on the NSA via the Ed Snowden documents. For a distinguished example of meritorious public service by a newspaper or news site through the use of its journalistic resources, including the use of stories, editorials, cartoons, photographs, graphics, videos, databases, multimedia or interactive presentations or other visual material, a gold medal. Awarded to The Washington Post for its revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, marked by authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security. and Awarded to The Guardian US for its revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, helping through aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy. Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Bart Gellman and Ewan McCaskill (among others at both publications) should be congratulated for the work they put into the original stories and for all of the followup in the face of ridiculous levels of criticism from those who were embarrassed by Snowden's whistleblowing. Separately, with the Pulitzers recognizing that such reporting was a public service, can we finally stop people from claiming that Snowden was a "traitor" and admit that what he did was clearly whistleblowing in the furtherance of the public interest?Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Here comes another story highlighting the danger of schools "outsourcing" their disciplinary problems to law enforcement. As we've stated before, this does nothing more than turn routine misconduct into criminal behavior, which is a great way to derail a student's future. A Pennsylvania teen, who claimed to have been bullied constantly (and ignored by school administration), made an audio recording of his tormentors using a school-supplied iPad. He brought this to the school's attention, which duly responded by calling the cops… to have him arrested for violating Pennsylvania's wiretapping law. (h/t to Techdirt reader btr1701) [The student's mother, Shea] Love says that upon fielding her complaint, Principal Scott Milburn called South Fayette Township police Lieutenant Robert Kurta to the school to interrogate her son in the presence of Associate Principal Aaron Skrbin and Dean of Students Joseph Silhanek. The defendant testified before Judge McGraw-Desmet that he was forced to play the audio for the group and then delete it. Love says by the time she arrived at the school, her son was surrounded by school officials and the police officer and was visibly distraught. She says Milburn defended the teacher's response to the classroom disturbance. The administration, rather than consider targeting the recorded bullies, instead called the cops believing (on advice from district lawyers, no less) that they had a felon in their office. Kurta testified before the magistrate that Milburn requested his presence at the school on February 12 at 8:20 a.m. The officer said, “He believed he had a wiretapping incident.” Upon his arrival, Kurta said Milburn advised him that Silhanek fielded a call that morning from Love notifying him “that she planted a recording device in her son’s backpack to record the activities in one of his classes.” According to Kurta’s testimony, after Milburn consulted with the school district’s attorney, he advised reporting the incident to the police and treating it as a crime. As Scott Greenfield points out, calling a cop in to handle a school disciplinary problem doesn't leave the officer with many choices. At that moment, it was certainly within Lt. Kurta’s ability to pull the principal aside and tell him, “hey, you scared the crap out of the kid, which should do the job. You realize that this isn’t a crime of any sort, and so I’m just going to back away slowly, not embarrass you for bringing me here to waste my time, and you can go back to doing whatever it is you do in this big building. Have a nice day.” That's one option. But as these things go, that's rarely, if ever, the option chosen. The officer, having been summoned, needed to find something to charge the bullied student with. Kurta said, “After I left the school, I wasn’t sure what charge to file so I contacted the district attorney’s office. This would fall under a wiretapping violation, which is a felony.” He later answered as to why he thought the disorderly conduct charge applied to this case by saying, “Because his (the student’s) actions — he engaged in actions which served no legitimate purpose.” He then read the statute as, “Creates a hazardous or physically offensive condition by acts which serve no legitimate purpose.” Because capturing evidence of bullying "serves no legitimate purpose," apparently. As Greenfield puts it, the officer was a hammer. Therefore, the bullied student must be a nail. This brought the student in front of yet another authority who could finally apply some common sense to the situation -- the magistrate judge. But that was not to be. The judge dragged in her own faith in the malfunctioning system as justification for nailing the student for disorderly conduct. In fact, Judge Maureen McGraw made her statement in defense of the school before the student could make his statement. “Normally, if there is — I certainly have a big problem with any kind of bullying at school. But normally, you know, I would expect a parent would let the school know about it, because it’s not tolerated. I know that, and that you guys [school administrators] would handle that, you know [...] Because it’s not tolerated, but you need to go through — let the school handle it. And I know from experience with South Fayette School that, you know, it always is. And if there is a problem and it continues, then it is usually brought in front of me.” Greenfield again, pointing out just how wrong the judge's statement is: While this may not be a unique reaction, whether with school officials or police, it is decidedly flagrant. Where a judge’s function is so fundamentally undermined from the outset, that an accuser is so virtuous that it cannot be wrong, the prejudice can neither be ignored nor excused. The die was cast by dint of the school having “brought [the student] in front of” the judge. The last part of the "unholy trinity" was the final hammer, coming down on the "nail" placed in front of it by school administrators (who can do no wrong) and a police officer (who is beyond fault). Guilty as charged. The judge's statement is particularly egregious, considering the situation in front of her. First off, the judge's faith in the school's ability to combat bullying is obviously misplaced. She saw no fault in her reasoning and, using that as her platform for the rest of her statement, she went on to act on her own information and beliefs. But further than appealing to her own authority, the judge stated how these things should be handled, apparently completely unaware (or unwilling to recognize) that following the prescribed steps is what resulted in a bullied child standing in front of her, facing a BS "disorderly conduct" charge. The judge said that bullying victims should first bring the problem to their parents -- which this student did. Next, she says the parents should let the school administrators know -- which she did. Finally, she says, let the school handle it -- which it did. And now, the student faces her -- having followed all the proper steps -- charged with disorderly conduct. And yet, despite this, she asserts that the system works and, indeed, has always worked in regards to this particular school. Logical fallacy piled on top of logical fallacy until a bullied kid is charged with a crime while his recorded tormentors remain unpunished. The judge refused to believe that any one these esteemed administrators could have screwed up, failing to believe that they, too, are human and as prone to failure as anyone else. If they've never screwed up in the fast, all future misdeeds are forgiven (and forgotten) in advance. This is the sort of rationale that should never be deployed by a supposedly impartial overseer like a judge, because it's just as wrong as assuming every authority figure involved here is an irredeemable monster. [P]eople are not so one-dimensional that they are horrible in every instance, to every person, under every circumstances. The cop who beats a man one day may have saved a kitten in a tree the day before. Maybe the school has had an admirable track record on curtailing bullying. Maybe Officer Kurta doesn't always seek to find something to charge a person with when put in this position. But everyone here came together to make a string of regrettable decisions that led to a bullied student being punished, rather than the aggressors. Maybe the future holds better outcomes, but for right now, everyone involved had a chance to stop this from reaching this illogical conclusion, but no one -- from the administrators to their legal team to local law enforcement to the presiding judge -- was interested in reining this in. In the end, it looks as though an innate desire to punish someone was satisfied every step of the way. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 7 days ago on techdirt
For years, we followed the important iiNet case in Australia. Hollywood studios, which ran a group called AFACT in Australia, wanted to "set an example" of why ISPs should be liable for copyright infringement done on their networks, and deliberately chose iiNet to sue, believing the ISP was too small to mount a serious challenge. Instead, iiNet fought back strongly, making really strong points about how ridiculous it was to pin the blame on an ISP. The result was a complete victory for iiNet. It won at the district court, at the appeals court and finally at Australia's high court. Of course, Hollywood (AFACT is Australian-in-name-only -- a Wikileaks State Department cable revealed it to be an operation wholly controlled by the MPAA in Hollywood) continued to freak out, leading the Australian government to hold "stakeholder" meetings between the entertainment industry and the ISPs (note: no public representatives, even though they're the real stakeholders), to try to broker an agreement to make ISPs act as copyright cops. Of course, because Hollywood's position is inherently ridiculous, the ISPs noted that it was like negotiating with a brick wall, and talks soon broke down. The ISPs made it clear that it was silly to blame them when Hollywood itself was to blame by not making works available. But, of course, Hollywood never stops. AFACT rebranded as the Australian Screen Association, and apparently has been very busy pumping new Australian Attorney General George Brandis full of misleading information and pure propaganda. We recently noted that Brandis was supporting website blocking and three strikes like programs, despite them failing elsewhere. And, he's also come out against fair use, because, fuck the public, Hollywood is upset. Josh Taylor over at ZDnet used the Freedom of Information Act to get emails from between Neil Gane -- the "contractor" who ran AFACT and now the Australian Screen Association -- and Brandis, showing an ongoing campaign in which Gane continued to push Brandis with a series of one-sided misleading emails about how anti-consumer programs in other countries were the way forward: In nine emails from Gane to the Attorney-General's department secretary, Roger Wilkins, and first assistant secretary in the civil law division, Matt Minogue, sent between the election and this year, obtained by ZDNet under Freedom of Information, Gane appears to be providing education notices of his own to the department, offering insights into how copyright infringement is being dealt with in other countries. In one email pointing out Canada's moves, he notes that the Canadian government was not buying into the notion that ISPs should be compensated for having to warn customers for downloading infringing content. There are a number of other emails, including a few that regular Techdirt readers may find especially amusing, including one mocking the "vocal minority" who were complaining that draconian copyright enforcement on things like Game of Thrones downloading might have serious unintended consequences. Meanwhile, Brandis -- who has also been vehemently defending the NSA -- recently took a trip to the US, in part to explore issues around copyright. Did he meet with copyright scholars or other experts on these issues? Nope. Instead, he met with the director of the Center for Copyright Information, who runs the US's "six strikes" program. Brandis seems to have made up his mind, after being pushed on it by the MPAA, and with no respect at all to facts or reality. All in all, Brandis appears to be only listening to one exceptionally biased party, even as a very long and thorough review process by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) found that fair use was important, and that copyright reform needed to be modernized to pay attention to the important rights and uses of the public. But apparently, that all gets thrown out the window because a Hollywood spokesperson has a direct email line to the Attorney General.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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We've talked for a while how dangerous and ridiculous it is that the NSA has a dual role as both handling "offensive" attacks and (supposedly) stopping incoming attacks in a "defensive" role. While technically, the NSA is supposed to be handling the "defensive" side while the US Cyber Command handles the offensive, there is no real separation between the two. The US Cyber Command is headquartered within the NSA and is run by the same person. Despite multiple recommendations to split the roles, the White House refuses to do so. Meanwhile, the NSA itself has been doing more and more offensive work anyway. However, the claim late last week that the NSA knew about and exploited Heartbleed, followed by the quick denial by the NSA, really puts an exclamation point on how untenable this dual role is for the NSA. It's difficult to take the NSA seriously given the competing interests within it. Add to this, President Obama basically giving his broad approval for the NSA to exploit security flaws it finds, and you have a very dangerous setup for your average internet user. The NSA, despite its job, will have little interest in actually protecting internet users. Julian Sanchez summarizes the issue nicely by pointing out that the two roles are simply incompatible: But the denial itself serves as a reminder that NSA's two fundamental missions – one defensive, one offensive – are fundamentally incompatible, and that they can't both be handled credibly by the same government agency. The NSA's history of being less than forthright in the past, as well as many of the Snowden revelations, combined with its dual role, simply means that most people won't believe the NSA's denial about Heartbleed, even if it was much more strongly worded than earlier denials. If the NSA's role, however, were made much clearer, such that it was only focused on protecting systems, without the offensive elements, then it would be both a lot more believable, and a lot more trustworthy. However, the very fact that the administration (and the NSA) appear to have little interest in moving in this direction says a lot about how much they really prioritize protecting our computer systems.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 7 days ago on techdirt
Last week there was some confusion as Bloomberg published a story claiming that the NSA was well aware of the Heartbleed bug and had been exploiting it for "at least" two years. That seemed fairly incredible, given that the bug had only been around for slightly over two years. The NSA came out with a pretty strongly worded denial -- which left out much of the usual equivocation and tricky wording that the NSA normally uses in denying things. The general consensus seems to be that it is, in fact, unlikely that the NSA knew about Heartbleed (though that makes some wonder if some team at the NSA is now in trouble for not figuring it out). If anything, it seems likely that the Bloomberg reporters got confused by other programs that the NSA is known to have to break parts of SSL, something it's supposedly been able to do since around 2010. However, the NY Times had a story this weekend about how this move has forced the administration to clarify its position on zero day exploits. It's already known that the NSA buys lots of zero day exploits and makes the internet weaker as a result of it. Though, in the past, the NSA has indicated that it only makes use of the kinds of exploits that only it can use (i.e., exploits that need such immense computing power that anyone outside of the NSA is unlikely to be able to do anything). However, the NY Times article notes that, following the White House's intelligence review task force recommendation that the NSA stop weakening encryption and other technologies, President Obama put in place an official rule that the NSA should have a "bias" towards revealing the flaws and helping to fix them, but leaves open a massive loophole: But Mr. Obama carved a broad exception for “a clear national security or law enforcement need,” the officials said, a loophole that is likely to allow the N.S.A. to continue to exploit security flaws both to crack encryption on the Internet and to design cyberweapons. Amusingly, the NY Times initially had a title on its story saying that President Obama had decided that the NSA should "reveal, not exploit, internet security flaws," but the title then changed to the much more accurate: "Obama Lets N.S.A. Exploit Some Internet Flaws, Officials Say." Of course, the cold war analogy used by people in the article seems... wrong: “We don’t eliminate nuclear weapons until the Russians do,” one senior intelligence official said recently. “You are not going to see the Chinese give up on ‘zero days’ just because we do.” Except, it's meaningless that no one expects the Chinese (or the Russians or anyone else) to give up zero days. The simple fact is that if the NSA were helping to stop zero days that would better protect everyone against anyone else using those zero days. In fact, closing zero days is just like disarming both sides, because it takes the vulnerability out of service. It's not about us giving up our "weapons," it's about building a better defense for the world. And yet the NSA isn't willing to do that. Because they're not about protecting anyone -- other than themselves.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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The HBO series Game of Thrones always seems to be at the center of the piracy debate. The shows mass popularity certainly has something to do with that (popular content is almost always at the top of various infringement lists), but a big part of it is the fact that, even for people willing to pay for the show, the fact that the only way to do so is to get an expensive cable subscription is a big part of the problem. In fact, there's some reason to suggest that the vast amount of piracy around Game of Thrones has been a key part of its success -- something that many folks associated with the show will admit in candid moments before being told by corporate bosses to shut up. And while the legacy entertainment industry continues to take a "zero tolerance" approach to infringement, by pretending that their various (extremely limited) online services are good enough, the simple truth is that it's ridiculous expensive for folks who just want to watch Game of Thrones online. The good folks at TorrentFreak took a look at what it would cost in a bunch of different countries to watch the authorized version of the show if you were a cord cutter who wasn't interested in anything else in a cable subscription. The Australian result may be the most shocking: When we look at the packages offered on the website the cheapest option appears to be the movie and drama combo, which costs $74 AUD (~ 70 USD) per month. However, the minimum subscription term is six months, which with the added costs adds up to $520 AUD (~ 590 USD). Assuming that someone’s only interested in watching Game of Thrones, an Australian fan will have to pay $52 AUD (~ 49 USD) per episode, which is rather expensive That's a bit of an understatement. And this is especially interesting, given that the US ambassador and the MPAA have repeatedly pointed to Game of Thrones piracy as a top priority that the Australian government needs to "fix." Perhaps, instead, there should be a focus on making it so that each episode is actually reasonably affordable. The situation, of course, is equally ridiculous in most other countries that TorrentFreak explored. And, yes, as HBO has said over and over again, it has good business reasons for doing this (it makes a ton of money from cable and satellite companies for each subscriber -- likely more than they'd pay individually). But the end result is that it should hardly be surprising that plenty of people choose an alternative route -- and it shouldn't be something that has US ambassadors up in arms.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Throw the words "national security" around frequently enough and you might start to believe it actually means something. The EFF's battle against the government's use of National Security Letters (NSLs) is being fought mostly under seal (the EFF can't even reveal whom its clients are). To be sure, there is sensitive material being discussed, but the government's paranoia has extended so far as to seal documents written by entities with no access to classified or sensitive material. (h/t to Trevor Timm) The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press (RCFP) recently filed an amicus brief in this case on the EFF's behalf, arguing that the non-disclosure demands of NSLs are a form of prior restraint, something that is clearly unconstitutional. It also notes the chilling effect this has had on journalism. The information at issue is not just important for its own sake, but because, as recent reports have shown, fear of government surveillance has deterred confidential sources from speaking to journalists about a wide range of topics. The brief emphasizes that more knowledge about the NSL program can give sources and reporters confidence that their communications are confidential. The government's desire for secrecy extends even further than the NSLs' gag orders. This secrecy has now spilled over into what would normally be the public's domain. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s challenge involves three cases, all of which are under seal. The Reporters Committee was required to file its briefs under seal, but submitted a motion to the Ninth Circuit asking it to unseal its brief. Whatever the government's stated reasons for requiring the brief to be filed under seal, it's clearly wrong. “The Court cannot constitutionally seal this brief,” the Reporters Committee wrote in the motion. “Amici have had no access to confidential materials in the case; the brief only includes information that is already public; and there are clear public policy reasons for requiring that the materials be open.” The government doesn't know when to quit. It's sealed brief requirement makes about as much sense as government agencies' initial reactions to the first few leaked NSA documents -- instructing their employees to not look at publicly-available information because the documents were supposedly still "classified." As if that designation made any sense under the circumstances. This is the same sort of reasoning: NSLs are super-secret and therefore, anything related to these should be withheld from the public, even if the brief contains nothing more than publicly-available information. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 8 days ago on techdirt
It's a sad fact that a lot of big, important questions today are coming down to the government's word versus the word of whistleblowers and anonymous sources. And as silverscarcat points out in our most insightful comment of the week, it's obvious who deserves the benefit of the doubt: At this point... Snowden has more credibility than the entire U.S. government put together. Save for a few individuals, but they're few and far between. Meanwhile, when it comes to interpreting copyright law, the MPAA seems to think that its word trumps all others, even those found in statute and caselaw. An anonymous commenter won second place this week by reinforcing the point that, whatever you think of Megaupload, you can't just declare war on the whole internet: If you think Megaupload is bad and evil and infringing and criminals and should fry, try replacing all instances of Megaupload with your favorite cloud service of choice and see if the complaint is still valid. Of course, in the world of DMCA takedowns, the sad situation is that the rightsholder's word is law, at least as far as taking something offline until it's contested. That's how Sony was able to take a creative commons movie down, and as an anonymous commenter reminds us in our first editor's choice for insightful, the takedowns we hear about are almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg: When I see stories like this I always wonder how many videos with tiny audiences are taken down by mistake and never put back up because the author does not know how to contest the decision, or are simply scared that they may have infringed someones copyright by accident. Also how many people do not know their fair use rights, and so do not contest take-downs when they have a fair use claim, or cannot risk the cost of it going to court? For our second editor's choice, we have a thorough comment from Rich Kulawiec about the fact that even beyond the obvious moral issue, not torturing people is in everyone's best interest no matter how you slice it: Not only is it horrific to contemplate that Americans in positions of authority authorized and/or committed crimes against humanity and tortured helpless human beings to death, but this has serious negative repercussions for American troops in the field. First, American troops are sporadically engaged in combat with soldiers from other countries -- whether in a declared or undeclared war, or a so-called "police action", or something else. One of the things that has often brought those combat situations to a peaceful end is the surrender of those fighting against the Americans. And one of the reasons those surrenders occured is that Americans could and would promise those surrendering that they would not be killed or otherwise harmed: that they would be treated humanely. That was a promise that American commanders very often worked hard to keep, even over the objections of their own soldiers and their emotions, running high in the heat of battle. But no American soldier can promise that any more. And no opposing soldier can believe it. There is every possibility that a peacefully-surrendering individual will be "disappeared" into one of the CIA's gulags and repeatedly tortured, perhaps to death. So why should they surrender? Even if they're surrounded, outnumbered, and in a militarily hopless situation, why should they give up? Why not fight it out and try to take a few more Americans with them? The CIA's torture program has removed one of the primary reasons for considering surrender as a viable option and thus ensures that more American soldiers will die, fighting protracted battles that need not have been fought by anyone. Second, American soldiers are occasionally captured by adversaries. And while some of them have been treated brutally, many have been accorded the rights guaranteed to them under international law by countries who observed the Geneva Conventions because the United States did the same. In other words, those countries treated American prisoners of-war humanely because they wished the same for their own, and they had good reason to believe the United States would obey the law. But the CIA has broken that tenuous trust. They've tortured people to death. And as a result, there is now far less reason for adversaries to treat American prisoners properly: why should they? Which means that captured American soldiers in the field now face substantially higher personal risk than they did previously. This may not be fixable. I don't know. But if there is any possibility of fixing it, surely it lies along a path that includes the full disclosure of the entire report and every accompanying document. It will be ugly. It will be painful. It will be horrifying. But I think it's the only possible way and I think we, as a nation, owe it to the soldiers we put in harm's way. Over on the funny side, first place goes to a comment from ChurchHatesTucker, responding to the news that the EU Court of Justice ruled blanket data retention to be a violation of privacy: So that's where the Fourth Amendment wandered off to. In second place, we've got a callback comment. After Michael Hayden claimed that various cables and documents were just as good a source of information as the torture tapes that had been destroyed, an anonymous commenter took things a step further with help from a recent, but unrelated, ridiculous ruling: According to Indiana, Hayden's testimony is better than the tapes. As noted back at the beginning of this post, there are a lot of battles of "who's lying?" going on right now, and one of the biggest is between Snowden and Rep. Mike Rogers. Our first editor's choice goes to an anonymous commenter for anticipating the latter's response to the former's recent interview: In before Mike Rogers says that his talking to Vanity Fair is a cover for working with the Russians. Finally, we've got another anonymous comment that I think deserves to be elevated to Ironic Adage, because it perfectly sums up the mentality of every indiscriminate, overzealous incident of copyright enforcement: Hey, You can't make an omelet without breaking everybody's eggs 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 I was just a Techdirt reader. Ten years ago, I was starting journalism school and first discovering the site. Fifteen years ago, the main thing I used the internet for was playing Team Fortress Classic and a MUD called AfterShock. With that perspective in mind, let me take you on another of our weekly digs through Techdirt history: Five Years Ago: Today, Time Warner Cable and Comcast are working on getting their merger approved — five years ago, TWC was in the process of rolling out its metered/capped broadband services for the first time, while claiming it was what customers wanted. At the time, the response from other service providers offered a prime example of how broadband competition encourages lower prices and unlimited data. Unfortunately, when you get down to it, it's hard to say there's been much progress in improving US broadband since then, at least not from the consumer perspective — and this new merger is certainly not going to help. Five years ago was also when a second circuit ruling opened Google up to trademark liability in AdWords — something that, we noted just this past November, may finally be coming to an end. The same can't be said for the Associated Press' aggressive interpretation of copyright law, which manifested as them targeting news aggregators for the first time in 2009. Nor can it be said for EA, which was fresh off the Spore DRM failure while Atari was following in its footsteps. Nor still can it be said about GEMA, which we were still identifying first as a "German Collections Society", for the name was in the early days of its notoriety. These were also the days just after the ProIP bill. We noted at the time that Hollywood was already brainstorming its next round of draconian copyright legislation and, well, we all know how that ended. Ten Years Ago: Well this is interesting: five years ago this week Google was beginning to face trademark issues over AdWords — and ten years ago this week they had just decided to allow purchasing trademarked terms in the first place. The company was also just launching localized ads (only weeks after first testing local search). In fact, location-based services in general were only just starting to appear. Gmail was brand new and causing a stir in California with one state senator seeking to ban it, and we were also still musing about the future Google IPO. Ten years ago this week, we also featured an innocent one-paragraph post about "the rise of patent hoarding houses" — the term "patent troll" hadn't even appeared yet. Little did we know just how bad things would get. Back in 2004, only one in six US users had gone online via WiFi. AOL was still sending CDs and DVDs by mail. California had just made its first arrest for recording movies under its new anti-camcording law — meanwhile, the state's first anti-violent-videogame bill was shot down. Some analysts were mocking the low resolution of what we still called "camera phones" while others were smartly realizing the potential of a camera that's connected. The still-unsettled question of smartphones on airplanes was just being raised, and the finally-starting-to-settle debate about blogs and journalism was firing up as well. This week in 2004 was also the first time that salespeople started popping up in chat boxes on websites. Fifteen Years Ago: Things were very different this week in 1999. Microsoft had just announced that it would enter the instant messaging game. I believe I was still on ICQ at the time (uh-oh!) Some folks were trademarking Y2K. PalmPilots were still a big deal, though some were beginning to talk about the mysterious "web phones" that the future held. Network Solutions was still clinging to its monopoly on domain registration — and there were still some dictionary word dot-coms available to be registered. Amazon.com was sued by Amazon Bookstore, and since I don't think I've ever heard of that latter one, I can guess how that ended. Folks were insisting that Mozilla was dead at the hands of IE 5.0, but even though Firefox was years away, we weren't ready to bury them yet — though we were less optimistic about web portals. Online bill payment existed in 1999, but it still usually cost money to use, and the first free services were just appearing. Linux also existed, but the first distribution with a graphical installer was still being finalized. 400 Years Ago: In 1614, John Napier devised logarithms and shared them with the world, paving the way for countless innovations, discoveries and advances in virtually every field of science, engineering and beyond. Techdirt did not cover this — but I like to think we would have. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Style and fashion constantly change in capricious, unpredictable and decidedly non-linear ways — but the underlying function of clothing and accessories follows the same path as any other technology: innovation, refinement and improvement. This week's Awesome Stuff takes a look at some practical innovations from the world of wearables. The ZipSeam A day comes in most men's lives, usually sometime late in or just after college, when we (a) realize that dress shirts have become the bulk of our wardrobe and (b) look closer and realize that absolutely none of them fit us particularly well. If we're lucky we may have found a few brands with off-the-rack sizes that fit as though tailored, but that's a rare thing indeed. Certain shirt alterations are "easy", but it's all relative (in this case relative to just putting on an ill-fitting shirt, so in other words: hard). But what if trimming baggy sleeves and waists was as simple as snapping an extra piece into place? That's what the ZipSeam aims to make possible: Innie Shoelace Locks Shoelaces are among those funny things that have been the same seemingly forever, and yet really feel as though they should have somehow been improved or replaced. The in-many-ways superior option of velcro has been arbitrarily stigmatized; zippers, having all but completely eliminated laces in the realm of shirts and pants, remain a distant second in the shoe game. For whatever reason, people just really like laces on their shoes, while simultaneously realizing that they are often a huge pain. Maybe the solution is the Innie, which does away with bows and excess length while preserving the timeless look of laces: Vinco Wallets The constant flood of "revolutionary" new wallets on Kickstarter still shows no sign of slowing down, and these days it's rarer and rarer to see an idea that actually stands out in any meaningful way. But the Vinco wallet is something a little different: instructions and supplies for making your own lifetime supply of temporary paper wallets. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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The Supreme Court may take up the question of whether or not communicated threats are still threats even if the person making the statement doesn't necessarily have the ability or the intent to carry them out. In short, at what point does it turn from protectable speech into something the First Amendment won't cover? The latest case involving the legal parameters of online speech before the justices concerns a Pennsylvania man sentenced to 50 months in prison after being convicted on four counts of the interstate communication of threats. Defendant Anthony Elonis' 2010 Facebook rant concerned attacks on an elementary school, his estranged wife, and even law enforcement. "That's it, I've had about enough/ I'm checking out and making a name for myself/ Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius/ to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined/ and hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a Kindergarten class/ the only question is … which one?" read one of Elonis' posts. This is a subject we've discussed several times previously. People (mainly teens) have made statements and comments via social media that have veered close to being threats, but once investigated, turn out to be nothing more than stupid kids being stupid. Prosecutors and law enforcement have made some questionable decisions in their attempts to portray youthful indiscretions as the words of would-be killers, such as withholding the surrounding context or willfully misreading the words themselves. Elonis' case is a bit more complicated. For one, Elonis is 30 years old. While growing older doesn't necessarily make you immune from stupidity, the expectations are a bit higher in terms of online discourse. It's a little harder to claim you're running on the same high-octane concoction of hormones and blood displacement that teenage boys are. Not that all youthful indiscretions are excusable, but given that age group's tendency towards disproportionate drama in all things, it does make it more understandable. In addition, Elonis' statements were directed at a variety of targets, any of which would seem to be a viable recipient for his anger. Not only did Elonis mention shooting up a school (specifically a kindergarten), but he also apparently had dire "plans" for his wife and local law enforcement. Again, the post-Sandy Hook law enforcement/judicial mentality further clouds the issue, raising the question that if Elonis had left out the part about the school shooting, would he still be facing 30 months in prison? (Of course, threatening law enforcement tends to create just as much of a legal mess, usually one far worse than simply threatening your estranged spouse does…) But the odds are fairly long that the Supreme Court will find the ability to carry out the threat matters as much as the perception of everyone else but the person making the statement. Only one federal appeals court has sided with Elonis' contention that the authorities must prove that the person who made the threat actually meant to carry it out. Eight other circuit courts of appeal, however, have ruled that the standard is whether a "reasonable person" would conclude the threat was real. This long shot is also reliant on another long shot: that the administration will support this appeal. A similar case involving an Iraq War vet was greeted by the White House with a written petition asking the Supreme Court to reject the case. These two obstacles make it unlikely that the judicial system will start treating so-called "threats" any differently than they have in the past. And it's a very long past. David Kravets at Ars Technica points out that the statute being applied to these cases originated in 1932. There are legitimate threats and these are rightly not treated as free speech. But there are others that are treated as legitimate threats even when there's no evidence the person uttering them has the ability, much less the intention to back up their unfortunate statements. Applying a 1932 statute to the wide open discourse platform that is the internet is doing little more than putting loudmouths and idiots in jail. Those who mean actual harm to others generally don't enlighten their future targets via Twitter, Facebook and forum posts. By all means, potential threats should be investigated, but the courts need to come to the realization that these statements cannot be entirely robbed of their context (including intent and ability) and presented "as is" to the hypothetical "reasonable person." Reasonable people are completely capable of understanding that not every hurtful word can actually hurt someone, nor do they believe every "threat" is the sign of impending danger. Not only should the statute be reconsidered, but so should the court's "reasonable person" ideal. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 9 days ago on techdirt
What with the democratization of filmmaking technology, we've seen a relative explosion in films, as production has been opened to a whole population that would otherwise be unable to produce their wares. This, by and large, is a good thing. The barriers to entry have been lowered, streaming sites like YouTube provide an avenue for distribution, and we all get as many cute puppy videos as we can possibly handle. The flipside is that there are some jackasses out there who put out terrible crap. The whole Innocence Of Muslims fiasco is but one example, with actors reportedly being duped, controversial producers who remained in the shadows, and a finished product that would be most at home in the nearest dumpster. The technology is a great thing, but that doesn't mean there aren't pitfalls, and those lending their names to films and shows need to be careful about what they're getting into. Like Kate Mulgrew, for instance. The former Star Trek captain apparently did some voiceover work for a film that pushes the theory of geocentrism (Earth as the center of the universe). Kate Mulgrew—best known as that show’s Captain Janeway—has lent her familiar voice to The Principle, an upcoming documentary about the belief that the Earth is the center of the universe. The film has been in the works for a while, though it’s mostly been as ignored as those who have propagated the theory of Geocentrism past the 17th century. In a post on her Facebook page, the actress addressed that discussion, denying any involvement beyond being a hired gun who maybe should have asked a few more questions: "I understand there has been some controversy about my participation in a documentary called THE PRINCIPLE. Let me assure everyone that I completely agree with the eminent physicist Lawrence Krauss, who was himself misrepresented in the film, and who has written a succinct rebuttal in SLATE. I am not a geocentrist, nor am I in any way a proponent of geocentrism. More importantly, I do not subscribe to anything Robert Sungenis has written regarding science and history and, had I known of his involvement, would most certainly have avoided this documentary. I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that. I apologize for any confusion that my voice on this trailer may have caused." Lawrence Krauss, should you not know, is a famous physicist that would push the idea of geocentrism as much as he'd claim the moon was made of cheese (it's not by the way...). He published an article in Slate stating that he's unaware of how he ended up in the film, but it probably resulted from filmmakers pulling clips of him from around the internet and editing them in such a way as to make it sound like he supported the theory. Krauss, being smart, refuses to dignify the film with any legal action. The man behind the film is Robert Sungenis, who has dedicated his life to arguing for geocentrism, among other crackpot nonsense. Sungenis—who has a Ph.D. in religious studies from “a private distance-learning institution in Republic of Vanuatu”—has used those credentials to establish a career as a leading proponent of Geocentrism, based on an understanding of astrophysics drawn from that most esteemed of scientific manuals, the Bible. In addition to denying anyone can prove the Earth revolves around the sun, he’s also well known for denying anyone can prove 6 million Jews died during the Holocaust. He’s also claimed that Jews are in league with Satan to take over the planet. Delightful. In any case, it would be very easy and understandable for Mulgrew and Krauss to be royally pissed over this and pursue legal action. In fact, in light of the recent ruling in favor of Cindy Garcia, Mulgrew may even have a copyright claim to make, as ridiculous as that is. What a wonderful world of litigation Judge Kozinski has opened for us all, despite his proclamation on how rarely his ruling could be enforced. We're mere weeks away, yet here's another situation in which an actress who should have done her homework can point to Cindy Garcia's victory and claim copyright. Fortunately, Mulgrew seems to understand what Kozinski did not: that she was a "voice for hire" and that a good deal of the responsibility for knowing what she was lending her voice (and thus credibility) to is her own. I'd argue that a little public refuting without any legal action, which would only serve to put The Principle in the headlines, and a more proactive approach to vetting the material before committing to a project is all that's required. After all, it's not like any substantial number of people will take this film seriously. As long as the public knows some of those involved were duped, that should be the end of it. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 9 days ago on techdirt
Who watches the watchers? Well, when you're the Los Angeles Police Department, you watch yourself. And when that kind of watching seems to be inhibiting, you just screw with the "watching" equipment. (via Ars Technica) Los Angeles police officers tampered with voice recording equipment in dozens of patrol cars in an effort to avoid being monitored while on duty, according to records and interviews. An inspection by Los Angeles Police Department investigators found about half of the estimated 80 cars in one South L.A. patrol division were missing antennas, which help capture what officers say in the field. The antennas in at least 10 more cars in nearby divisions had also been removed. These antennas, linked to both in-car camera systems and officers' body mics, helped increase the recording range. Removing the antennas didn't completely prevent recordings, but it did make it harder to pick up officers' voices once they entered buildings or ventured further away from the receivers located in the vehicles. According to the manufacturer, the antenna boosts the effective range of the body-worn transmitters by roughly a third. When you're watching yourself (something prompted by a decade-long DOJ investigation of the LAPD), you have this luxury. No cop's going to turn in another cop who removes an antenna or otherwise tampers with the department-imposed oversight measures. A whole lot of time elapsed between when the tampering was discovered and when it was finally brought to the attention of those charged with monitoring the monitoring. Members of the Police Commission, which oversees the department, were not briefed about the problem until months later. In interviews with The Times, some commissioners said they were alarmed by the officers' attempts to conceal what occurred in the field, as well as the failure of department officials to come forward when the problem first came to light. "On an issue like this, we need to be brought in right away," commission President Steve Soboroff said. "This equipment is for the protection of the public and of the officers. To have people who don't like the rules to take it upon themselves to do something like this is very troubling." This is very troubling, and while it's nice of the Police Commission to admit that fact, this tampering points to the officers' underlying resentment of nearly any method of monitoring or control. Many police officers don't like being recorded in public by citizens, so it stands to reason they don't much care for being recorded by the department itself. Hence, antennas go missing. Those who are supposed to be making sure the police officers aren't becoming a law unto themselves seem to have little interest in attacking the mindset that leads to this sort of behavior. "We took the situation very seriously. But because the chances of determining who was responsible was so low we elected to … move on," [LAPD Commander Andrew] Smith said, adding that it cost the department about $1,500 to replace all the antennas. Too hard, won't try. That's the standard being applied to the LAPD. Instead of making an effort, band aids are being applied. Officers are now supposed to sign off that the antennas are in place at the beginning and end of their shift. This leaves a gaping hole in coverage (otherwise known as the shift itself) should officers decide they'd rather not be recorded. This hole has received its own band aid. To guard against officers removing the antennas during their shifts, Tingirides said he requires patrol supervisors to make unannounced checks on cars. Great, but considering there are many more officers than supervisors, and considering the fact that it took months before the missing antennas were brought to the attention of the Police Commission, who really believes this is going to stop officers from disabling antennas during work hours? Oh, Commander Smith believes. Since the new protocols went into place, only one antenna has been found missing, Smith said. Well, that's the sort of result you can expect from self-reporting. Sure, a few cops may get a verbal handslap from a supervisor if they happen to come across a missing antenna, but it's a safe bet these supervisors aren't any happier about their men and women being recorded while on duty. Because if they did care, it never would have gotten to the point where nearly half of the antennas in a single division went missing. With these cops being charged with keeping department-issued antennas present and accounted for, some have opted to go a different route to avoid being recorded. Last month, the department conducted a follow-up audit and found that dozens of the transmitters worn by officers in Southeast Division were missing or damaged. This time there's actually an investigation being opened, months after the original antenna abuse was uncovered by an internal audit (but hidden from the Police Commission). Judging from what's happened previously, there's very little reason to believe this will lead to the ouster of bad cops who don't like accountability. A few scapegoats may be offered up to calm both the public and department oversight, but if a ten-year investigation by the DOJ failed to bring about the sort of systemic change needed, it's highly unlikely an internal investigation will result in anything better. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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