posted 25 days ago on techdirt
Police accountability remains a major concern. Lawsuits alleging improper police conduct are filed seemingly nonstop. The Department of Justice continues to investigate police department after police department for a variety of civil rights violations. More and more police departments are equipping body cameras on their officers in hopes of trimming down the number of complaints and lawsuits filed against them. Meanwhile, the public has taken police accountability into its own hands, thanks to the steady march of technology -- which has put a portable phone in almost every person's hands, and put a camera inside most of those phones. So, we have two entities viewing accountability from seemingly opposite directions. Over the years, many officers have made it clear through their actions that being filmed isn't something they're comfortable with. This has resulted in additional misconduct and abuse of existing laws to shut down recordings. But what are these officers going to do when a city council -- or worse, a Memorandum of Understanding with the Justice Department -- directs them to start generating their own recordings? One answer has already been presented by the Denver Police Department. They simply won't activate the cameras. During a six-month trial run for body cameras in the Denver Police Department, only about one out of every four use-of-force incidents involving officers was recorded. Cases where officers punched people, used pepper spray or Tasers, or struck people with batons were not recorded because officers failed to turn on cameras, technical malfunctions occurred or because the cameras were not distributed to enough people, according to a report released Tuesday by Denver's independent monitor Nick Mitchell. This is a case-by-case "solution," self-applied as needed by certain officers. For other departments, it appears the imposition of recording devices will be greeted by legislation. Legislators cite "privacy concerns" but their bills do little more than hand law enforcement agencies full control over body camera recordings. Lawmakers in at least 15 states have introduced bills to exempt video recordings of police encounters with citizens from state public records laws, or to limit what can be made public. Their stated motive: preserving the privacy of people being videotaped, and saving considerable time and money that would need to be spent on public information requests as the technology quickly becomes widely used. A small amount of redaction (face-blurring, etc.) would address the privacy concerns. After all, reality TV pioneer COPS has run for years with minimal privacy complaints and that's all it's ever used. As for the latter concern -- expenses related to open records requests -- there are ways to address this that won't cede complete control to law enforcement agencies. Seattle's Police Department worked with a local activist to find a solution that would provide footage, protect privacy and stay ahead of voluminous public records requests. Unfortunately, the result of these efforts has produced nothing more than extremely blurry footage in which everything is "redacted" by default. Justifications offered by legislators try desperately to skew law enforcement's total control of body camera footage as some sort of win for the general public. "Public safety trumps transparency," said Kansas state Sen. Greg Smith, a Republican. "It's not trying to hide something. It's making sure we're not releasing information that's going to get other people hurt." The problem is that if it's the public being abused in these videos, there are very few options available to obtain recordings of misconduct. The Kansas Senate voted 40-0 last month to exempt the recordings from the state's open records act. Police would only have to release them to people who are the subject of the recordings and their representatives, and could charge them a viewing fee. Kansas police also would be able to release videos at their own discretion. The "fix" for possibly overbroad public records requests includes a) making acquiring a recording unaffordable, even for the person on the receiving end of alleged abuse and b) allowing the Kansas police to push out a steady stream of exculpatory video. The latter of the two is perfectly acceptable, but only if it's balanced by the public's ability to obtain less-than-flattering video of interactions with police officers. Nothing about this bill makes the public any "safer," no matter what Sen. Greg Smith says. The potential for abuse of laws like these is so obvious even the cops can see it. "I think it's a fair concern and a fair criticism that people might cherry pick and release only the ones that show them in a favorable light," said former Charlotte, North Carolina, police chief Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Arizona's legislation goes even further than its Midwestern counterpart. The bill declares that body camera recordings are not public records, and as such can be released only if the public interest "outweighs the interests of privacy or confidentiality or the best interests of the state." Not even the subject of the footage can demand a copy of the recording without somehow talking a judge into issuing an order for its release. Washington's proposed legislation similarly exempts all body camera video from public examination and routes footage requests through the courts. In both cases, bill sponsors claim publicly-released video could be used for "criminal purposes," but have yet to explain how a properly-redacted video would become a tool for "extortion" by "unscrupulous website owners." The attendant irony hypocrisy, of course, is that law enforcement agencies and local governments have declared arrest mugshots to be public records and have allowed "unscrupulous website owners" to post the shots and demand payment for their removal. But mugshots only involve members of the public, making them of lesser concern than footage that will also contain police officers. This sort of legislation is nothing more than the codification of a double standard, if that's the motivation behind it. On the other hand, some states are at least moving to ensure the general public can continue their unpaid police accountability efforts. The Colorado bill, which you can read here, states that if a cop seizes a camera from a citizen without permission or a warrant or deliberately interferes with a citizen’s right to record by intimidation or destruction of the camera, the citizen is entitled to $15,000 in civil fees in addition to attorney fees. This bill will help ensure at least one recording of an officer-involved incident remains intact, seeing as Denver police officers aren't all that into capturing their end of these interactions. Another bill in Texas which has not gotten nearly as much publicity comes from democratic representative Eric Johnson, which seeks to protect citizens from bullying officers as well as criminalize cops who confiscate cameras, only to destroy footage. This pushes back against Texas Congressman Jason Villalba's recently-introduced bill, which hopes to add a 25-foot no-recording "halo" around police officers at all times -- stretching to 100 feet if the camera operator happens to be armed. Villalba has openly stated that "officer safety" is a greater concern than violated First Amendment rights, which would actually be criminalized if his bill passes. California has also introduced a bill involving citizen recordings -- one that will make an incredibly obvious statement into law… presumably because that's the only way the state will get law enforcement to respect it. In California, Senate Bill 411 would amend the state's penal code to say that simply filming or taking a photograph of an officer performing his duty in a public place does not automatically amount to interference. "Filming isn't interference" would seem to be something that shouldn't need to be inserted as an amendment to criminal statutes. As would the following, which is perhaps even more infuriatingly obvious than the sentence above: Supporters say it protects the First Amendment and clarifies that filming alone does not give police officers probable cause to search or confiscate an individual's property. Undoubtedly, there will be law enforcement pushback against the proposed legislation, which should be referenced in the future as the "We Shouldn't Even Need to Be Telling You This" Act, with "SMDH" as the short title. Both sets of cameras will help increase law enforcement accountability, but one set is receiving the majority of proposed legislative protections. Shielding body camera recordings from the public eye limits their effectiveness as misconduct deterrents -- the very reason they've been instituted. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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As Techdirt has reported, in the US, software patents are getting harder to obtain as the US Patent Office applies the important Alice v. CLS Bank ruling from the Supreme Court. In Europe, "programs for computers" are explicitly excluded from patentability according to Article 52 of the European Patent Convention -- but "only to the extent to which a European patent application or European patent relates to such subject-matter or activities as such." That cunningly opaque distinction between "programs for computers" and "programs for computers as such" has allowed thousands of patents for the former to be granted, even though they differ very little from the latter. That trick worked so well, it seems that the European Patent Office (EPO) has decided to apply it to another area: plants. Once more, the European Patent Convention states quite clearly: European patents shall not be granted in respect of: ... plant or animal varieties or essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals; this provision does not apply to microbiological processes or the products thereof. Despite that, we have the following news reported by Intellectual Property Watch: The highest court of the European Patent Office has declared that plants or seeds obtained through conventional breeding methods are patentable. ... The Board of Appeal found that the exclusion of essentially biological processes for the production of plants does not extent to a patent claim for a product that is directly obtained from or defined by such a breeding process, the EPO said. That's pretty close to the "as such" trick. Of course, it's not so surprising that a specialist patent court at the EPO should hand down a judgment in favor of granting more patents, just as has occurred in the US. What's troubling is that if and when the completely independent Unified Patent Court system is introduced in Europe, there will be no way to rein in the patent courts as has finally started to happen in the US. Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+ Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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To live in the US is to live in a nation of fears -- most of them, irrational. The Department of Homeland Security -- the eerily nationalistic-sounding phoenix that rose from the ashes of the World Trade Center -- has done all it can to turn Americans into government informants, where they're encouraged to turn in complete strangers for suspicious activities like not packing enough clothes or purchasing cookware. The DHS fears nothing more than a person armed with a camera. If any citizen aims a lens at public transportation, infrastructure, certain manufacturing plants or government buildings, they're assumed to be practicing the dark art of terrorism. Terrorism is only one of the nation's collective fears: one so seldom realized that the amount of attention paid to it by a vast number of government bodies is almost laughable. Another fear that is almost inversely proportional to the amount of attention paid to it is child victimization, especially kidnapping and pedophilia. From a young age, parents and educators drill into kids' heads that all strangers are inherently dangerous. This is somehow supposed to protect children from abusers despite the fact that nearly 90% of abuse is committed by someone the child knows and trusts -- family members, child care providers, neighbors, close relatives, family friends, etc. This hysteria over child sexual abuse has reached the point that being an unaccompanied adult (especially male) in an area frequented by children is considered inherently suspicious. Toronto's Legoland exhibit turned away a 63-year-old Lego fan simply because he wasn't accompanied by a child. The stated reason for this bizarre policy? To "protect the children." Likewise UK's Puxton Park, which turned away a 53-year-old man for the same reason. The explanation given by the park's director for its stupid policy is equally stupid: He added: ‘There is a lot in the headlines about paedophiles and things that are going on with children.’ Perfect. The media says child molestation is happening pretty much nonstop and so it must be. Therefore, no single adults allowed. The perception is the reality. But as Dan Le Sac and Scroobius Pip pointed out in "Thou Shalt Always Kill:" Thou shalt not think any male over the age of 30 that plays with a child that is not their own is a paedophile/Some people are just nice. Combine cameras, overwrought pedophile fears, insular communities and former homeless MTV VJ Jesse Camp, stir vigorously and you end up with the sort of mob "justice" rarely seen outside of horror movies set in remote, backwoodsy locations. (via PetaPixel) "I received a call that there was a suspicious vehicle, a light brown Volvo station wagon, Massachusetts plate, and there was a male and female in the Raysal area taking pictures of some children," says Chief Deputy, Roger Deel. Jennifer Adkins, the mother of three kids, and a resident of Raysal, is the one who contacted Chief Deputy Deel. She also confronted the photographers, with a group of others. Audio recording captured the encounter. You hear a McDowell resident say, "And there are no pictures of any children on there?” “No. And you can check it, not of your kids. I can show you. Jesus Christ. We didn't stop and approach like, yeah; you guys are making us out to be like crazy pedophiles. You guys are making us out to be people that we are not,” says Marisha and Jesse Camp. “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror? You all don't look like upstanding citizens," says Jennifer Adkins. The audio recording of the confrontation can be heard at WVVA's website. According to Marisha, another person threatened to "beat them and their cameras into the ground." Whatever violence might have resulted from this confrontation was prevented when a state trooper arrived and escorted the couple out of town. But the angry crowd already had all the justification it needed for harassing, threatening and detaining the couple -- and it's every bit as eloquent as the Puxton Park director's defense of his "no single adults allowed" policy. A man says, “There's just too much going on with kids getting hurt and Y'all might be cool, I'm not saying you're not.” That's what irrational fear gets us: irrational behavior. Not every adult with a camera is a security threat or a pedophile. Strangers may be unknown quantities, but they are not inherently dangerous simply because they're unknown. No combination of these factors should be considered untrustworthy by default. But that's where we're at. And these irrational fears are stoked by some of the most trusted members of the community: law enforcement officials, educators and the media. Two of those three directly profit from permanently-heightened fears. The other -- educators -- parrot the skewed information delivered by the other two. The perception becomes the reality. And that "reality" manifests itself as the ugliness detailed above. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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At this point you should know that surfing the web on a shared access point is not particularly safe. You're basically broadcasting out many of the details of your surfing habits. You read Techdirt, right? You know this. So you need a VPN -- and you don't have to pay a crazy amount either. Get the VPN Unlimited Lifetime Subscription for 70% off and surf more securely anywhere in the world on most of your devices (Windows phone owners are out of luck -- because, hey, you've already made that choice). For $39, you get a lifetime of secured and encrypted high-speed connections with unlimited traffic bandwidth. There's only one day left to take advantage of this deal and to help secure your data from prying eyes. Note: We earn a portion of all sales from Techdirt Deals. The products featured do not reflect endorsements by our editorial team.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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During the first round of the FCC's net neutrality comment period, the agency was absolutely swamped by public input (including ours), the vast majority of it supporting net neutrality. After the agency released a database of the comments, analysis of the comments showed that while around half were generated via "outrage-o-matic" forms from various consumer advocacy groups, once you got into the other half of the comments -- almost all were in support of net neutrality. After the volume of pro-neutrality comments received ample media coverage, anti-neutrality organizations -- like the Phil Kerpen's Koch-Funded "American Commitment" -- dramatically ramped up their automated form comment efforts to try and balance the comment scales. As we noted at the time, Kerpen and American Commitment's efforts were jam packed with some absurd, alarmist dreck. Similarly, claims that net neutrality opponents then "won" the comment period because they purchased some wingnut e-mail lists to pad the petition were misleading as well. Perusing the FCC comments and analysis of the data, there's really no way to conclude anything other than the fact the FCC's efforts have broad, bipartisan public support. Like countless similar groups, American Commitment obscures its funding sources, making its ties to the broadband industry impossible to prove. That brings us to this week, when American Commitment proudly crowed it had managed to urge 540,538 citizens to send 1,621,614 letters to Congress opposing net neutrality and basically asking for the FCC to be defunded. Except some new analysis of the latest wave of comments suggests there was some serious skulduggery afoot. As in, some of the constituent names used to sign these letters -- either don't exist or never sent letters opposing net neutrality:"The flood of traffic seemed to raise some lawmakers’ eyebrows, including Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California, whose office soon determined some of the messages had come from constituents who didn’t recall sending them. Her aides pointed to a memo sent to members’ staff last week by Lockheed Martin, which manages the technology behind some lawmakers’ “contact me” Web pages. Lockheed initially said it had “some concerns regarding the messages,” including the fact that “a vast majority of the emails do not appear to have a valid in-district address.” In some cases, Lockheed also questioned the “legitimacy of the email address contact associated with the incoming message[s]."When asked about this, Kerpen suggested that the actions are that of unspecified third party rogue agents, and that his organization knew nothing about they ploy:"Asked about the matter, Kerpen told POLITICO that American Commitment hadn’t impersonated members’ constituents. But he said that other groups had mounted similar campaigns, and borrowed the pre-written text available on his website. "We’re aware that other groups used identical language in their campaigns and we cannot speak to those efforts,” Kerpen said. “We verified our data through postal address verification and follow up phone calls. We stand by our campaign and Congress should work to stop President [Barack] Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet at the request of these constituents."Whoever is to blame (and I'd imagine this entire affair is quickly forgotten in the annals of muddy neutrality lore), it certainly speaks to the quality of your argument when you need to either buy -- or just outright fabricate -- your support.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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A few years ago, we wrote about a terrible Georgia state court ruling against Matt Chan, the operator of Extortion Letter Info (ELI), a website/forum that has tracked copyright trolling for many years. There had been a number of discussions on the site about Linda Ellis, who is somewhat notorious for her trolling effort. Ellis wrote a poem called "The Dash" that gets reposted a lot online. Ellis and her lawyers then send threat letters, emphasizing the possible $150,000 in statutory damages (yet another example of how statutory damages aid in copyright trolling), before suggesting much lower (but still crazy high) dollar amounts to "settle." While some of the discussions on ELI were overly aggressive towards Ellis, it still seemed ridiculous that the court ordered Chan to remove all content relating to Ellis and to block any future mentions of her. It seemed rather obvious that this was a pretty clear First Amendment violation, but the court felt that it was okay under Georgia's anti-stalking law. Georgia's Supreme Court has now unanimously reversed the lower court decision, saying that posting mean stuff about someone on a public website is not the same as stalking. The court focuses on the fact that the content posted to ELI wasn't sent directly to Ellis, but rather posted publicly in a place where she could (and, in fact, did) see it. It doesn't even get to the First Amendment issues, focusing just on whether or not this is stalking under Georgia's law: The limited evidence in the record shows that Chan and others posted a lot of commentary to his website about Ellis, but it fails for the most part to show that the commentary was directed specifically to Ellis as opposed to the public. As written, most of the posts appear to speak to the public, not to Ellis in particular, even if they are about Ellis. And there is no evidence that Chan did anything to cause these posts to be delivered to Ellis or otherwise brought to her attention, notwithstanding that he may have reasonably anticipated that Ellis might come across the posts, just as any member of the Internet-using public might. The publication of commentary directed only to the public generally does not amount to “contact,” as that term is used in OCGA § 16-5-90 (a) (1), and most of the posts about Ellis quite clearly cannot form the basis for a finding that Chan contacted Ellis. To the extent that a few of the posts may come closer to “contact” — including, for instance, the open letter to Ellis, which Chan may actually have intended as a communication to Ellis — their publication still does not amount to stalking. Even assuming for the sake of argument that Chan “contacted” Ellis by the publication of any posts, the evidence fails to show that such contact was “without [her] consent.” OCGA § 16-5-90 (a) (1). This is not a case in which Chan sent a message to Ellis by electronic mail, linked commentary to her social media account, or posted commentary on her website. To the contrary, the commentary about which Ellis complains was posted on Chan’s website, and Ellis learned of that commentary — that is, it arguably was communicated to her — only as a result of her choice to discover the content of the website. The evidence shows that Ellis visited the website herself — it appears, in fact, that she registered herself as an authorized commentator on the website — and that she had others visit the website and report back to her about the commentary published there. Generally speaking, our stalking law forbids speech only to the extent that it is directed to an unwilling listener, and even if Ellis did not like what she heard, she cannot be fairly characterized as an unwilling listener. Ellis failed to prove that Chan “contacted” her without her consent, and the trial court erred when it concluded that Chan had stalked Ellis. The only mention of the First Amendment comes in a footnote, in response to the part of the paragraph above, where the court notes that Ellis was not an "unwilling listener" as required under the law, noting that even so, if the speech is protected by the First Amendment, the stalking law wouldn't apply: Even then, if the speech is protected by the First Amendment, it is excluded from the scope of our stalking law. See OCGA § 16-5-92 (“The provisions of Code Sections 16-5-90 and 16-5-91 shall not apply to persons engaged in activities protected by the Constitution of the United States or of this state . . . .”). But, by determining that the blog posts are not even stalking, the court avoided that question altogether. Either way, another important victory for free speech online, overturning a bad ruling that would have resulted in serious chilling effects for online speech.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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There's been no shortage of Comcast horror stories in the media of late, the company promising time and time again that it has made customer service a top priority under the careful watch of a new "Customer Experience" VP. Except despite ten years of these promises and what seems like an endless parade of horrible PR, the customer satisfaction rankings for companies like Comcast are actually getting worse. That's because with no serious competition forcing their hand and regulatory capture ensuring nobody tries to fix things, there's simply no organic penalty for being historically awful at what they do. While these kinds of stories are a dime a dozen, the Consumerist recently posted what I think is the near perfect encapsulation of what's wrong with the U.S. broadband market. The website tells the story of a Washington State resident named Seth, who purchased a new house after being told by Comcast (several times, according to a FAQ the user is maintaining) that the house was ready for broadband service. Of course once he moved in he was told that neither Comcast or regional telco CenturyLink could provide him service. On it's face that's not necessarily a big deal -- broadband coverage gaps are common, as are inaccurate service databases. It's the experience the customer has with customer service after the fact that perfectly illustrates the utterly abysmal state of the U.S. broadband industry, and the way carriers' left hand (or right hand, or left foot, or brain) usually doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Seth notes it actually takes months and more than three Comcast technician visits for the company to realize the house has never been serviced before:"He just appeared out of nowhere and asked us where our cable box was,” writes Seth. “We explained that we didn’t have one, but that we did have a Drop Bury Request in place. He looked perplexed. He told us that there was no way a Drop Bury Request could possibly get us hooked up, we were too far away from the cable infrastructure. We asked him to contact someone at Comcast to get things resolved, and he left." Then on Feb. 9 another tech showed up — at least this one was on schedule — but just like his predecessors, this guy had not been given the memo that the house was not yet connected to the Comcast network. He was just there to hook up a modem and some cable boxes. Several days later — and again without an appointment — yet another Comcast tech showed up to do an install that simply couldn’t be done."From there, Seth has to stumble through layer upon layer of what can only be described as total, relentless absurdism, including countless conversations with Comcast support personnel, on site engineering visits, phantom appointment cancellations and claims by Comcast that he'd had a successful install when no work had actually been done. From there it goes beyond "horror story" and well into Terry Gilliam "Brazil" territory, with Comcast at several points being totally unaware of his work order status, whether his house has service, whether the house could get service, and frankly, what planet Seth lives on. After initially being told he could pay part of the $50,000 to $60,000 needed to do a coax and hardware run to his house (pretty common for rural cable customers just out of range), Seth ultimately has to give up months later, after the company finally concludes the ROI on the work isn't worth Comcast's time, even with Seth and his neighbors footing the lion's share of the bill. Seth then turns to regional telco CenturyLink in the hopes it could offer something vaguely resembling a sane business transaction, since their website claims he can get service. Yet somehow, his experience actually manages to get worse:"But then the next day he got a call informing him that his area was in “Permanent Exhaust” and that CenturyLink wouldn’t be adding new customers. Of course, that didn’t stop CenturyLink from billing Seth more than $100 for service he never received and will never be able to receive. Seth then had to convince someone with CenturyLink’s billing department to zero out the account that should have never been opened."At one point, The Consumerist tries to lend Seth a hand and contacts CenturyLink on his behalf, only to be told by the support rep they can't help because they're leaving the company. Said rep then decides to forward on the complaint to a manager -- who winds up being on a multi-week vacation. Ultimately, CenturyLink has to admit that their website has inaccurate data regarding its coverage area (data that hasn't been corrected to date). CenturyLink, it should be noted, has played a starring role in protectionist state level legislation preventing neighborhoods like Seth's from building their own networks, even in cases where CenturyLink refuses to service them. With telecommuting to do and the daily usage caps of satellite broadband not an option, Seth's currently stuck on a capped and very expensive Verizon LTE plan until he can figure out what to do with the house. As we've been discussing, AT&T and Verizon have been backing away from DSL in the hopes of shoveling customers just like Seth on to capped, very expensive LTE plans -- in the process actually making already dismal fixed-line competition actually worse. Ultimately, this lack of competition means these companies don't have to care whether you like their service -- or their Kafka-esque support. You will, whether you like it or not, take exactly what they're willing to give you.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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On Monday, Andy Greenberg over at Wired published a story about how a Homeland Security ICE agent, based in Baltimore, had sent a subpoena to Reddit, demanding info on five users who had been posting to the subreddit r/darkmarkets, which (you guessed it!) is where lots of people discuss dark markets like Silk Road and the recently shut down (and all money taken) Evolution. It appears that the subpoenas were trying to track down more information about who was behind Evolution: Earlier this month, a Baltimore Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent sent a subpoena to Reddit demanding that the site turn over a collection of personal data about five users of the r/darknetmarkets forum. The subpoena appears to be the first hint of a federal investigation of the recently defunct massive online market known as Evolution, which sold drugs, weapons, and stolen financial details. All five targets of the subpoena were involved, to varying degrees, in the Reddit discussion of that black market’s abrupt disappearance two weeks ago, in which two top administrators apparently absconded with millions of dollars worth of bitcoin belonging to Evolution’s buyers and sellers. According to a copy of the subpoena shared with WIRED by one of the forum’s moderators who was named in the document, the DHS seeks information that includes the names, IP addresses, dates and times of site visits as well as other data that Reddit likely doesn’t possess, including the users’ phone numbers and financial data. (Reddit doesn’t even require an email address to sign up.) For what it's worth, Reddit's privacy policy notes that it does collect IP addresses and holds them and other info for 90 days -- meaning that if any of the users weren't careful, they may have revealed some information about themselves. Though, seriously, if you're deeply involved in a dark market doing illegal things, and then posting publicly to a subreddit without covering your tracks, you're basically asking to be caught. That said, what struck me most was the fact that this request came from Baltimore. Because right about the same time that Greenberg's story came out, the Justice Department was revealing its criminal complaint against two of the key federal agents involved in the investigation of Silk Road, who (according to the complaint) stole a bunch of money from Silk Road, extorted Silk Road's administrator and also engaged in a bunch of other nefarious actions, including issuing a fake subpoena to Venmo, engaging in civil asset forfeiture against Mt. Gox accounts and discussing other similar activities. And both of those guys were... based in Baltimore. It's not entirely clear if the two allegedly corrupt federal agents -- Carl Force of the DEA and Shaun Bridges of the Secret Service -- were part of this same Homeland Security investigations team, but it wouldn't be entirely surprising to find out that it was the same team. One hopes that whoever is involved in that investigations team now, isn't doing similar corrupt activities as mentioned in the criminal complaint against Force and Bridges. However, given how those two appeared to abuse their position, and given that there's a high likelihood of the subpoena coming from the same team, it certainly raises some additional questions. And that's not even mentioning the concerns about other corrupt individuals in these investigations, including a Homeland Security agent who went by the name "mr. wonderful." That's not to say that the subpoena to Reddit is problematic. It may be perfectly legit (though it does appear that at least one of the people that the subpoena was digging into is just Gwern Branwen, a well-known security researcher who insists he has never sold any illegal products on dark market sites). Still, the criminal complaint from earlier this week certainly raises serious questions about any of these fishing expeditions, especially by a team coming out of Baltimore.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Is a public school classroom a private space? That seems to be the assertion of school administrators after an 11-year-old student recorded a teacher bullying a student. A St. Lucie County teacher has been fired after a student used her cellphone to record a teacher bullying another student. The Samuel Gaines Academy student, 11-year-old- Brianna Cooper, is being praised by her peers. But, she's still facing punishment from school leaders for recording the audio illegally. WPTV legal expert Michelle Suskauer says it is illegal in Florida to record anyone without them knowing. Florida's two-party consent/wiretapping law is outdated and likely unconstitutional, but for now it stands. It also provides an exception for recording oral communications where the person speaking would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. A classroom, in a public school, would seem to be a place where no one would have an expectation of privacy. Administrators certainly go to lengths to assure their students that nothing they do while at the school is afforded any sort of expectation of privacy, what with random locker/vehicle/cell phone searches and monitoring of computer use. So, why would a teacher be granted an expectation of privacy for something said in a classroom? Well, it's not so much Florida's law implicated here as much as it is the district's policy on personal devices, even though the school allegedly referred to the recording as "illegal." According to the policy, "wireless communication devices" may not be used to record anything on school grounds. Inappropriate use includes, but is not limited to: (1) activation, display, manipulation, or inappropriate storage during prohibited times; (2) texting, phoning, or web browsing during prohibited times; (3) taping conversations, music, or other audio at any time; (4) photography or videography of any kind; and (5) any activity that could in any manner infringe upon the rights of other individuals, including but not limited to students, teachers, and staff members. Now, using this policy to suspend a student who exposed teacher misconduct is just pure tone-deafness, which explains the district's decision to quickly reverse the suspension. Not only that, but this "violation" doesn't even carry with it the penalty of suspension. Any disruptive, harassing, or other inappropriate use of a wireless communications device while under the School Board’s jurisdiction, shall be cause for disciplinary action under this heading, including confiscation of the device as contraband and, in the event of repeated or serious misuse, loss of the privilege to possess such a device on school property or while attending a school function. So, the suspension makes even less sense than it would otherwise, given the school's actual policy on cell phone use -- something it seems to have (briefly) ignored in favor of deterring a student from exposing staff misconduct. But there's still a link to Florida's outdated wiretapping law contained in the school policies. This sentence wraps up the paragraph on inappropriate use of cell phones. The use of a wireless communications device shall be cause for disciplinary action and/or criminal penalties if the device is used in a criminal act. At which point, we're back to the question of privacy expectations. Certainly, most schools are quick to cite privacy laws when dealing with the release of student information. Anything to do with minors is inherently more sensitive than that of adults. Not that privacy concerns prevent schools from being as invasive as possible when dealing with their students, requiring signatures on policies that allow administrators to search students' devices, lockers and vehicles for nearly any reason, as well as the offering of waivers to use photos and student information in news stories and school-produced materials. But this school also forbids the recording of anything while on campus, even with a personal cell phone, granting an expectation of privacy that doesn't actually exist under Florida law. Public schools are public and words uttered by educators and administrators in classrooms and assemblies (any place where it's not "one-on-one") are very much "public" by definition. Florida's wiretapping law shouldn't apply. Unfortunately, school policies take precedent in situations like these, and this district has pretty much assured that the bullying that schools seem so concerned about will only be handled with hearsay, as any recording evidence to back up allegations is forbidden. Kudos to the school for quickly realizing suspending the student was the wrong way to handle this, but the policies it forces students to follow are just going to make it harder for administrators to deal with misbehaving students and teachers.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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Techdirt has been following for a while Canada's moves to stop scientists from speaking out about areas where the facts of the situation don't sit well with the Canadian government's dogma-based policies. Sadly, it looks like the UK is taking the same route. It concerns a new code for the country's civil servants, which will also apply to thousands of publicly-funded scientists. As the Guardian reports: Under the new code, scientists and engineers employed at government expense must get ministerial approval before they can talk to the media about any of their research, whether it involves GM crops, flu vaccines, the impact of pesticides on bees, or the famously obscure Higgs boson. The fear -- quite naturally -- is that ministers could take days before replying to requests, by which time news outlets will probably have lost interest. As a result of this change, science organizations have sent a letter to the UK government, expressing their "deep concern" about the code. A well-known British neurobiologist, Sir Colin Blakemore, told the Guardian: "The real losers here are the public and the government. The public lose access to what they consider to be an important source of scientific evidence, and the government loses the trust of the public," Blakemore said. Not only that, by following Canada's example, the British government also makes it more likely that other countries will do the same, which will weaken science's ability to participate in policy discussions around the world -- just when we need to hear its voice most. Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 25 days ago on techdirt
As we had noted in our story about Elon Musk declaring all SpaceX photos public domain, Flickr (where most of those photos were hosted) did not allow an official public domain dedication. And while it offered Creative Commons licenses, the CC0 public domain dedication was not among the options. Flickr is not the only site like that -- many sites that offer CC licensing don't include a CC0 option. Last week, there was an interesting piece by Jessamyn West exploring why it was that Flickr chose not to offer a public domain option. She found an old forum post by Flickr founder (and now Slack founder/CEO) Stewart Butterfield, where he explained the reasoning as such: The reasons we don’t have a PD option: (i) Unlike CC licenses, you can’t take PD back — once it is done, it is done. I spec’d out a three stage confirmation (including typing out that you understand what it means) but this was seemed like too much and we didn’t want the support hassle. People are free to use the description field to specify their PD desires. (ii) There are liabilities that we don’t want to take on if we allow people to claim something is public domain without actual checking the chain of title — if they don’t own it in the first place, we can get in trouble. (This is also true of CC images, but at least that can be changed after the fact and there is less of a chance of the image just “escaping” in the wild.) Of course, those reasons really don't make that much sense in reality. You can't really take back CC licenses either. The very first thing that Creative Commons tells potential licensors is that the licenses are not revocable. Once you grant a CC license, it stays that way. Thankfully, the Yahoo folks who are currently running Flickr realized that this was an opportunity -- and have now announced that it has added both "public domain" listings and a CC0 dedication as options when uploading images: We’ve been proud to support Creative Commons licenses since 2004, and we’ve become an important repository of U.S. Government works and historic images from galleries, libraries, archives, and museums around the world (check out The Flickr Commons for examples). But we’ve heard from our community that we’re missing two important designations: Public Domain and Creative Commons 0 (CC0). Many members of our community want to be able to upload images that are no longer protected by copyright and correctly tag them as being in the Public Domain, or they want to release their copyright entirely under CC0. So, starting today we’re happy to support these two new options. One of the first accounts on Flickr to change its designation was SpaceX, which has uploaded more than a hundred gorgeous images of its launches. These extraordinary photos are now available for others to freely use, enhance, and promulgate without restriction under copyright law. This is a great move -- and we're thrilled to see Flickr take such a stand (even if it should have happened years ago). Hopefully other platforms will follow suit.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 26 days ago on techdirt
Going to college used to be a reliable education path to a well-paying career -- as well as a way to create a society of engaged and informed citizens. The workforce has changed a bit over the last few decades, and college degrees aren't necessarily the best indicators of employee performance anymore. Sure, everyone still needs an education, but being able to learn on your own and pick up skills years after you've been handed a diploma are far more important than where that diploma was printed. Considering that student loans are rarely ever forgiven, people might want to choose their institution of higher learning with a bit more deliberation. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker almost removed the Wisconsin Idea from the mission of the University of Wisconsin system. Instead of a statement that commanded the university to "search for truth" and "improve the human condition" -- a draft of the budget proposal for the university system would have required an education that "meets the state's workforce needs." [url] State universities don't actually need to change their mission or mottos in order to fundamentally shift their philosophies. Ohio State University hasn't changed its motto, but the way it's doing business is more modern now -- selling off anything it can for short term cash, e.g., getting millions for its campus soft drink rights to Coca-Cola and leasing its parking lots to an Australian investment firm for 50 years. [url] Universities in Australia have several strategic options available to them in the future. However, the "old model" of broad-based teaching and research might not be a viable direction. [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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posted 26 days ago on techdirt
GPS technology has been around for a while. Wikipedia puts the start of development at 1973. But it wasn't until the 1990s that it became available for consumer use. And even then, it took some time before the government removed restrictions on accuracy that it had on its use by civilians. (The government had added an intentional error to the signal that made GPS variably inaccurate up to 50 meters.) With the loosening of restrictions on GPS came furious development in consumer applications—and a flurry of patents. Which brings us to this month's Stupid Patent of the Month. The dubious honor goes to U.S. Patent No. 6,442,485, "Method and apparatus for an automatic vehicle location, collision notification, and synthetic voice," filed in 1999. The "Background of the Invention" talks about a need for an automatic voice system that could speak for a driver involved in a collision and transmit location details to 911. For example, the patent says that "[i]t would be desirable to have an automatic vehicle location and collision notification system that would ascertain if a vehicular collision had occurred and communicate directly with an emergency facility." But after this background, the patent devolves into a wilderness of made-up words and technobabble. The patent includes fabricated phrases such as "Location Comparator-Indicator Module" and "Automatic Speed Controlled Location Detection Module." (Google searches of these phrases turns up nothing other than results related to the patent.) Reading the patent to try to figure out what it means becomes an exercise in cross-referencing and guesswork. Even worse, key terms in the claims (this is the part of the patent that is supposed to clearly explain what that patent covers) don't even appear in the description of the purported invention. This means  that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to understand what the claims mean and to guess how a court might interpret them. This sort of made-up gobbledygook is likely what has allowed NovelPoint Tracking LLP, the owner of this month's Stupid Patent, to sue over 90 companies for infringement. The latest round of lawsuits, filed on March 27, 2015, includes companies such as Subway (the sandwich artists, not a company related to transportation), McDonald's, and Burger King. And what do these fast food franchises have to do with vehicle location, collisions, and synthetic voices? With respect to Subway, NovelPoint claims that Subway's Windows phone mobile application infringes NovelPoint's patent. Here's the description of Subway's app from Microsoft's website: Don't know where to find a local Subway? We're here to help. This app will display a list of local Subway locations along with the ability to get directions and let your friends know where to meet you. We don't know what, exactly, NovelPoint thinks it owns, but it looks like it is accusing Subway of infringing because it has an app that shows a map with directions. And given the incomprehensibility of its patent, it can get away with this, at least enough to secure a quick settlement and get out before a court rules that no, in fact, it doesn't own a map with directions. And indeed that is what appears to have happened. Of the almost 100 cases NovelPoint has filed, exactly none of the cases has had a decision on the merits of NovelPoint's claims. From what we can see, all of the cases have settled very quickly, most likely for small nuisance sums. Patent owners shouldn't be able to get away with this. Patents should be clear and understandable. If new words are used, they should be defined. And if words already exist in the relevant art, they should be used. NovelPoint's patent is a great example of how using fake terms can be used to obfuscate what the patent actually claims, and then used to claim infringement by something no one would have considered the patent owner to have invented. We have laws that should prevent this sort of gaming. The Patent Office and courts need to start actually enforcing them.  Reposted from the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Deeplinks blog Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 26 days ago on techdirt
The DOJ's most infamous drone deployments involve justifications for extrajudicial killings. But its agencies also have fleets of (nonlethal) drones, something these agencies tend to avoid discussing until sued into doing so. The Office of the Inspector General has taken another look at the drones deployed by DOJ agencies and found that, while plenty of money has been spent acquiring and maintaining drones/operators, very little deployment is actually occurring. Our September 2013 interim report found that between 2004 and 2013, the FBI spent approximately $3 million to acquire small UAS it deployed to support its investigations. As of August 2014, the FBI had acquired 34 UAS vehicles and associated control stations, of which it considered 17 vehicles and a smaller number of control stations to be operational. $3 million spent on drones, with only half currently considered "operational." In eight years (2006-2014), the drones have only been deployed to assist in 13 investigations, with nine of those occurring in the last four years. This may be good news for those concerned about extensive domestic surveillance, but it's not good news for those interested in how their tax dollars are being spent. The FBI may have the desire for more unchecked surveillance and the drones needed to do the job, but it apparently lacks the manpower… During the time of our review, the FBI maintained its UAS at one location in the United States and had only one team composed of two pilots on staff who were adequately trained to operate its UAS. ...or Fourth Amendment concerns… The FBI told us that that it determined it did not need to obtain search warrants for any of its UAS operations. That's the nice thing about making your own in-house "determinations": they'll rarely be challenged. As for the half-functional 34-drone fleet "manned" by the FBI's two pilots, it couldn't be more unlike the agency's earlier assertions. This approach differs from the decentralized deployment approach that FBI officials told us they employ for the FBI’s manned aircraft. If you're wondering where more of your tax dollars are being misspent, it's right there in the following paragraphs. Because the FBI has only two drone pilots, these operators are driven or flown to locations where the drones are needed, sometimes arriving more than a day after the request for assistance was made. The FBI, despite being a national law enforcement agency, houses both its pilots and its drones at the same location. Considering the FBI claims the drones have been used in potentially life-threatening situations (search-and-rescue efforts, suspected kidnappings), spending a day shipping drones and pilots where needed seems like the sort of thing that would result in unnecessary deaths/injuries. In response, the OIG has asked the FBI to handle its drone fleet less stupidly. The ATF also has a few drones of its own. (The US Marshals Service and DEA were queried by the OIG, but both claimed to have no drones in their possession, which is true, but misleading. [More on that below.]) And, like the FBI, the drones are expensive, underutilized and, far too often, not worth the money that's been spent on them. One UAS program manager told us ATF found that one of its smaller UAS models, which cost nearly $90,000, was too difficult to use reliably in operations. Furthermore, the TOB discovered that a gas-powered UAS model, which cost approximately $315,000 and was specified to fly for up to 2 hours, was never operable due to multiple technical defects. The lack of functioning flying eyeballs resulted in the Special Operations Division shutting down the ATF's drone fleet in June 2014. Those drones were transferred to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service "at no cost" -- a fair price for non-functioning drones. With its drones and drone program dead, the ATF did the logical thing: bought more drones. Less than a week after ATF’s Special Operations Division suspended its UAS program, ATF’s National Response Team (NRT) purchased five small, commercially available UAS at a total cost of about $15,000. These new drones were deployed exactly once. At that point, the ATF determined it would need to permission from the FAA before deploying its drones in the future. With that, the ATF's drone program returned to its briefly interrupted hibernation. For those agencies claiming they have no drones (US Marshals Service, DEA), that's only true if limited to direct ownership. Every major DOJ agency has availed itself to the DHS's fleet of drones, a majority of which belong to the CBP. Specifically, four DOJ law enforcement components – the FBI, ATF, DEA, and USMS – have received UAS support from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which operates a fleet of Predator-B UAS. In response to our request, the CBP provided to us evidence indicating it operated UAS at least 95 times on missions that involved DOJ components in some way. Of these flights, the CBP identified that DEA was involved in 73, the FBI in 13, ATF in 4, the USMS in 3, and 2 for multiple DOJ components. So, when the DEA says it has no drones, it's technically correct. But the drones it doesn't own have flown more times than the 34 drones the FBI actually owns. The CBP's drone fleet seems to have enough drones for everyone, and this division of labor (so to speak) allows the DEA and other DOJ agencies to minimize their drone paper trails. But more drones doesn't mean useful drones. The CBP's drone fleet may perform well in other agencies' hands, but it's next to useless when deployed by Customs itself. While the investigation generally points to limited drone usage -- which is a good thing -- the discovery that the DOJ's drone fleets are expensive, mismanaged and almost completely worthless isn't. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 26 days ago on techdirt
We already wrote about Monday's unsealed criminal complaint against two government agents who were key players in investigating Silk Road -- but who used that position to steal Bitcoins and a lot of other questionable behavior. Now it comes out that the Justice Department revealed the existence of this investigation to Ross Ulbricht's lawyers five weeks before Ulbricht's trial -- but then blocked Ulbricht's legal team from using that information, even as the Justice Department continued to rely on evidence from both of the apparently corrupt federal agents. Ulbricht's lawyer, Joshua Dratel, has put out a statement pointing out some of the problems here: In addition to keeping any information about the investigation from the defense for nearly nine months, then revealing it only five weeks prior to trial, and then moving to keep sealed and secret the general underlying information so that Mr. Ulbricht could not use it in his defense at trial, and then stymying the defense at every turn during trial when the defense tried to introduce favorable evidence, the government had also refused to agree to the defense’s request to adjourn the trial until after the indictment was returned and made public – a modest adjournment of a couple of months, since it was apparent that the investigation was nearing a conclusion. Throughout Mr. Ulbricht’s trial the government repeatedly used the secret nature of the grand jury investigation as an excuse to preclude valuable defense evidence that was not only produced in discovery, independent of the investigation of Mr. Force, but also which was only at best tenuously related to that investigation. In that manner the government deprived the jury of essential facts, and Mr. Ulbricht of due process. In addition, the government failed to disclose previously much of what is in the Complaint, including that two federal law enforcement agents involved in the Silk Road investigation were corrupt. It is clear from this Complaint that fundamentally the government’s investigation of Mr. Ulbricht lacked any integrity, and was wholly and fatally compromised from the inside. Dratel suggests that the corrupt behavior of Force and Bridges raises questions about nearly all aspects of the Ulbricht case, especially since they have already showed that they abused their access to the Silk Road platform in a way that could change the site and account information. Additional information shows that Force not only acted as "Chief Compliance Officer" for CoinMKT while still employed as a DEA agent (and abusing his ability to use government databases for the job), but as a report from Sarah Jeong at Forbes shows, he also reached out to Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles: And then even asked about working with Mt. Gox as well, with this bizarre "American government and economy will crash in the next five years" statement: Just about a month later, when Bridges was the affiant on helping the government seize millions of dollars from Mt. Gox (just days after withdrawing the money he himself allegedly stole from Silk Road), Force emailed Karpeles again, saying "told you should have partnered with me!" And that doesn't even get into the fact that the whole "murder plot" that was such a headline grabber in the original criminal complaint only happened after Bridges apparently took the money and Ulbricht reached out to Force to get him to put out a hit on the guy he thought had stolen the money (who had actually been cooperating with the government, which allowed Bridges to get the info to steal the money in the first place). As we noted in our earlier piece, the criminal complaint shows that Force himself abused his power as a DEA agent to fake a subpoena against Venmo trying to get his own account unfrozen -- and it appears that when that didn't work, Force tried to further abuse his power to seize Venmo's bank account in response. A snippet from an email he sent to a colleague: Venmo has since registered with FinCEN, but I want to know if they have state money license remitting licenses in California and New York. Can you check? If not, I want to seize their bank accounts (need to identify them) a la BRIDGES and [M.M.’s] seizure warrants for Mt. Gox. And here's the big question: were Bridges and Force really just two "bad apples" in the investigation? Or could it have gone much deeper? As Jeong notes in her report: During the trial, the defense kept trying to introduce the character of “mr. wonderful,” a Baltimore DHS agent who coerced a Silk Road moderator into giving her account over to law enforcement. Although many of Force’s aliases are listed in the criminal complaint against him, none of them are “mr. wonderful.” (In any case, Force is a DEA agent, and “mr. wonderful” is DHS). Who is mr. wonderful? What exactly did he do? In other words, whether or not you believe that Ulbricht was DPR, the investigation and trial against him was a complete and utter mess, and these new charges raise an awful lot of questions about the fairness of that trial.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 26 days ago on techdirt
People (especially those in the news media) love to talk about Anonymous, often making bold, sweeping and generally inaccurate proclamations about the group's nature and goals. Gabriella Coleman, on the other hand, has spent years closely studying and engaging with Anonymous in the real world, and developing a nuanced understanding of the nebulous phenomenon. Her new book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous provides insider details about Anonymous that you won't find anywhere else, and she joins us to discuss it on this week's episode. 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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posted 26 days ago on techdirt
People (especially those in the news media) love to talk about Anonymous, often making bold, sweeping and generally inaccurate proclamations about the group's nature and goals. Gabriella Coleman, on the other hand, has spent years closely studying and engaging with Anonymous in the real world, and developing a nuanced understanding of the nebulous phenomenon. Her new book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous provides insider details about Anonymous that you won't find anywhere else, and she joins us to discuss it on this week's episode. 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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posted 26 days ago on techdirt
Today's Daily Deal features 26% off of the KeySmart 2.0 Compact Key Organizer. Sure, some might have you believe that once the Internet of Things takes over you'll never need to carry any keys -- as they'll all be stored deep within your mobile phone. But chances are you've still got keys jangling around on a key chain, and that's not going to change any time soon. So get them a bit more organized. This former Kickstarter project holds up to 10 of your keys folded neatly in line and keeps them from clanging and jangling about in your pockets or purses. You have to hurry as this deal only lasts through the end of today (9:00 pm PDT). You can still use TECHDIRT10 for 10% off of your first purchase through the Techdirt Deals store. Note: We earn a portion of all sales from Techdirt Deals. The products featured do not reflect endorsements by our editorial team.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 26 days ago on techdirt
If you pay attention to Github (and you should), you know that late last week the site started experiencing some problems staying online, thanks to a massive and frequently changing DDoS attack. Over the past few days a lot more details have come out, making it pretty clear that the attack is coming via China with what is likely direct support from the Chinese government. While it's messing with all of Github, it's sending traffic to two specific Github pages: https://github.com/greatfire and https://github.com/cn-nytimes. Those both provide tools to help people in China access Greatfire and the NY Times. Notably, Greatfire itself notes that prior to the DDoS on Github, its own site was hit with a very similar DDoS attack. If you want the technical details, Netresec explains how the DDoS works, noting that it's a "man-on-the-side" attack, injecting certain packets alongside code loaded by Chinese search engine Baidu (including both its ad platform and analytics platform), but is unlikely to be coming directly from Baidu itself. But the much more interesting part is why China is using a DDoS attack, rather than its standard approach of just blocking access in China, as it has historically done. The key is that, two years ago, China tried to block Github entirely... and Chinese programmers flipped out, pointing out that they couldn't do their jobs without Github. The Chinese censors were forced to back down, leading to a sort of loophole in the Great Firewall. That leads to the next question of why China doesn't just block access to the URLs of the two repositories it doesn't like? And the answer there: HTTPS. Because all Github traffic is encrypted via HTTPS, China can't just block access to those URLs, because it doesn't know specifically what's being accessed. And thus, we get the decision to turn its firewall around, launching a rather obvious DDoS attack on the two sites it doesn't like, with the rather clear message being sent to Github: if you stop hosting these projects, the DDoS will stop. Of course, so far Github is taking a stand and refusing to take down those projects (which is great and exactly what it should be doing). However, this does suggest an interesting escalation in questions about the increasing attempts to fragment the internet. You see various countries demanding (or forcing) certain websites get blocked. But those solutions are truly only temporary. Because the overall internet is too important to block, and because some sites are necessary (like Github) there are always holes in the system. Add in a useful dose of encryption (yay!) and the ability to control everything that's read in one particular country becomes increasingly difficult. You might hope the response would be to give up attempts to censor, but China isn't likely to give up just like that. So, instead, it's basically trying to censor the global internet, by launching a high powered attack on the site that is the problem, while basically saying "get rid of these projects and we'll stop the attack." It seems likely that this sort of escalation is only going to continue -- but in some ways it's actually a good sign. It shows that there are real cracks in China's attempts to censor the internet. We're basically realizing the limits of the Great Firewall of China, and useful services like Github have allowed a way to tunnel through. China is responding by trying to make life difficult for Github, but as long as Github and others can figure out ways to resist, censorship attempts like the Great Firewall will increasingly be useless. In the early days of the internet, people talked about how it was resistant to censorship. Over the past decade or so, China has challenged that idea, showing that it could basically wall off large parts of the internet, and actually keep things semi-functional. Yes, there were always cracks in the wall, but for the most part, China showed that you could censor large parts of the internet. This latest move suggests that we may be moving back towards a world where the internet really is resistant to censorship -- and China is freaking out about it and responding by trying to increase the censorship globally. It's a battle that is going to be important to follow if you believe in supporting free expression online.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 26 days ago on techdirt
As you may have heard, Jay-Z bought himself a music streaming service, called Tidal, which is now being relaunched with lots of high profile musicians onboard -- in fact as partial equity owners: The plan was unveiled on Monday at a brief but highly choreographed news conference in Manhattan, where Jay Z stood alongside more than a dozen musicians identified as Tidal’s owners. They included Rihanna, Kanye West, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Jack White, Alicia Keys, the country singer Jason Aldean, the French dance duo Daft Punk (in signature robot costumes), members of Arcade Fire, and Beyonce, Jay Z’s wife. So, we have all of these artists, taking on Dr. Dre and Trent Reznor who were the keys to Beats Music, which Apple is getting set to relaunch. Jay-Z is positioning Tidal as more friendly to artists -- though that was also the marketing claim behind Beats, and then it failed to attract too many users, in large part because there was no free, ad-supported tier. Of course, it's one thing if you're one of those megastars listed above, who get some equity stake in Tidal, but what about every other musician? Is it really going to be that good of a deal for them? Jay-Z and crew insist they'll be paying better rates than competitors, but considering competitors still can't get anywhere near profitability, it seems reasonable to question if Tidal can actually make any money at all. It's one thing to say you're going to pay artists more. It's another to defy basic economics. Tidal also has no free, ad-supported tier, but does have a more expensive $20 tier for higher quality sound, which may attract random audiophiles, but not much more than that. Indeed, the recording industry (and many artists) have been pushing back against the free tiers that already exist. Universal Music has been demanding Spotify cut back on its free tier. And Universal's CEO Lucian Grange has been using every opportunity to complain about "freemium" music plans. Now owned by Apple, Beats wanted to offer service cheaper than the standard $10/month and the record labels said no. And, of course, now Jay-Z is bashing free music tiers as well: “The challenge is to get everyone to respect music again, to recognize its value,” said Jay Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter. “Water is free. Music is $6 but no one wants to pay for music. You should drink free water from the tap — it’s a beautiful thing. And if you want to hear the most beautiful song, then support the artist.” That's kind of nonsensical in a variety of ways. Every time we've heard people talking about getting people to "respect music again" or "recognize its value," the projects have failed (often miserably), because they're not at all focused on what music fans actually want. Rather they're focused on trying to change the behavior of music fans and that's really, really, really difficult -- especially when you're not really offering that much that's different. But Jay-Z has a plan to get around that: exclusive deals. Over the weekend, the Swedish blog Breakit reported — citing sources close to the deal — that Tidal’s plan of attack will be to ink first-window deals with the artists, where Tidal would get first releases of tracks from big-name artists ahead of any other digital streaming services. This would be exclusive, but only for a period: Spotify, Deezer and others would eventually also get these tracks, but only later. At least they'll go up on other services later, but this seems like a dangerous path to go down. Again, rather than focusing on providing more value the focus seems to be on taking away value from other services: ending free streaming deals and doing exclusives to fragment the market and make it harder for fans to actually listen to what they want, when they want it and how they want it. That's the wrong lesson to get at this stage of the game. We've gone through nearly two decades of the recording industry fighting the internet at every turn, and now that we're finally starting to see some services that actually cater to what people want, the old industry players are jumping in and trying to kill the golden goose yet again. Any time any service shows that it can attract a lot of users, the recording industry tries to figure out a way to bleed it dry as quickly as possible, rather than helping it grow and building out more value for users. More competition in the online music space is a great thing. But the trend towards locking stuff up, and taking away the value to music fans, while similarly jacking up the prices, doesn't seem like a productive path. It seems like one that is just going to annoy fans and push them back towards unauthorized alternatives.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 26 days ago on techdirt
Do you remember the last time your tweets made a corporation cry? Or when you Facebooked a multinational into deleting its home page? Or that one time when police were called in to investigate threats to withhold future purchases? In an article far less overwrought than its title would suggest, some analysts are comparing social media backlash to "cyberbullying." Cyberbullying isn't something normally associated with large corporations. However, in the last week alone social networking played a big role in humbling two culturally influential institutions: Starbucks and DC Comics. Both companies beat a hasty retreat from planned campaigns, and in the process learned a painful lesson in frontier Internet justice. They join a gallery of big companies that have learned the hard way that hell hath no fury like a Twitter user scorned. So has social media ushered in the age of cyberbullying of big companies? According to experts, the answer is yes … and no. By and large, the Internet is seen by many as a way to hold companies accountable for their business practices, and give consumers a measure of leverage. Yet it also means big firms no longer totally control their own narratives, and companies can quickly become helpless bystanders in their own story. Since the average social media user's market cap is far below that of the "bullied," this would seem to be be more evidence that the internet levels the playing field like nothing that has come before it. Sure, pre-internet backlash was possible, but it involved letter-writing campaigns that worked only for those who enjoyed delayed gratification, boycotts that generally had more effect on local media coverage than the bottom lines of the companies targeted, and petitions with actual handwritten signatures very few people in the upper management levels ever saw. Now, the backlash is not only immediate, but it's massively multiplied. The word "firestorm" is thrown around, but despite its causal ubiquity, it's actually a rather apt metaphor. When a company (and there's so many to choose from) screws up -- especially if its first reaction is to quell/ignore criticism -- the complaints of the few become the movement of the masses. An entity's reputation can go up in flames in a matter of hours, especially if its responses are combative or defensive. Memory-holing offending content or killing off social media pages is completely suicidal. And complaints about the "unfairness" of the criticism (even when the criticism isn't legitimate) isn't going to turn the tide, because no one really wants to hear a multi-million dollar corporation indulging in self-pity. Of course, the same platforms that are decried as being tools of bandwagon-jumping haters can be used proactively by companies. Too many companies believe a fire can be extinguished by waiting for it to burn itself out. Engagement means more than blasting out corporate site links and discount codes. It means listening. It also means publicly dealing with screw-ups in real time. Some companies can't handle this, having outsourced their social media presence to random employees or interaction-free bots. The internet can be "won," but most companies apparently aren't in the position to do so, despite years of social media unrest clearly indicating the importance of agility and responsiveness. No matter what it feels like to be the target of the well-oiled internet hate machine, it's a stretch to call this sort of thing "bullying." Wrong or right, internet backlash usually involves "punching up." Sure, the number of people involved can give this a "bullying" appearance, but the same tools being used to criticize can be used to connect. Far too many companies either can't or won't perform this essential part of maintaining an "online presence." And when they don't, they lose. Unlike most other bullying, the power still remains in the hands of the "bullied." It's up to them to use it effectively. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 26 days ago on techdirt
You might recall that former Sanford Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett made a bit of a career by mocking cord cutters as poor, irrelevant basement dwellers, when he wasn't denying their existence entirely. Now at his own firm, Moffett has taken a complete 180 in recent years, unable to deny that cord cutting is a very real phenomenon that's only growing as the pay TV industry refuses to offer more flexible pricing options. And, contrary to Moffett's original analysis, most data shows that cord cutters tend to be young, gainfully employed, and well educated. No worries though -- someone at Sanford Bernstein appears to have picked up the cord cutting denial mantle. Bernstein research analyst Todd Juenger this week has been making headlines for a research note that not only claims all of the new cord cutting options arriving in 2015 will fail (whether it's Sony's Playstation Vue, SlingTV or looming services from Apple and Verizon), but that cord cutting quite simply isn't happening. To prove it, he cites a non-specific "body of evidence" that he claims proves few people really want these services:"A strong body of evidence is emerging that suggests to us that none of these services are likely to gain much traction," he said. "Simply put, for existing pay-TV subscribers, the content is too limited (relative to the cost savings); and for cord-nevers, the price is too high (relative to the appeal of the content)."There's a bit of an ongoing media narrative afoot that new streaming options just aren't any good because users have to subscribe to every one of them just to get the same volume of content they get from traditional cable. But these narratives usually ignore piracy entirely in their analysis for whatever reason, which seems absurd when you're trying to take a bird's eye view of where the TV market sits. Still, Juenger proceeds to insist that meaningful cord cutting "isn't likely to happen," and so the cable TV industry should do its very best to protect the "status quo":"Cord-cutting, in large numbers, isn't likely to happen," Juenger said. "It's one of those ideas that sounds great in the abstract but crumbles when faced with the reality. OTT services seem poised to garner few subscribers, which is more good news than bad. We believe it's better for the pay-TV ecosystem to remain in the status quo than to add millions of OTT subscribers at the cost of blowing the whole system apart."One, cord cutting is already happening in meaningful volume. Craig Moffett, the guy that used to deny cord cutting like Juenger, recently noted that he believes the pay TV sector lost 1.4 million total subscribers last year, largely thanks to cord cutters or "cord nevers." Two, most of the news outlets reporting on Juenger's comments didn't mention the fact that the "focus group" his statements were based on consisted of a whopping 18 people, nowhere near enough to actually make the kind of pronouncements he's making (he cautions people from making too much of the findings for this reason -- right before he himself apparently makes too much of the findings). It's not clear why Bernstein analysts always seem intent on being at the forefront of cord cutting denial -- you'd hate to think they're trying to somehow influence stock holdings or performance by intentionally giving bad advice. But cord cutting is very much real, it's very much growing, and there's finally a flood of over-the-top streaming options arriving later this year now that broadcasters have started easing up on licensing restrictions. Advising the industry to hold tight to the "status quo" in the face of Internet video in 2015 is akin to telling residents in the path of a tsunami to stop worrying and have a cocktail.Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 26 days ago on techdirt
While the trademark litigation landscape is littered with lame filings, lamentable rulings, and a litany of liberal interpretations of the law (alliteration!), it's worth noting when we also see sane rulings on trademark lawsuits. So allow me to bring you the news of a federal ruling that acknowledges the fringe and controversial understanding of Florida and New Jersey being very separate and not two entities likely to be confused. It all started, as most great things, with pizza. Two Florida residents, originally from New Jersey, decided to open up some pizza restaurants. With tastes harkening back to their Northeast roots, Jersey Boardwalk Pizza in Florida decided to play off the logo of the Garden State Parkway logo, as you can see below. As you can see, the pizza place's logo is a clear homage to that of the Garden State Parkway, the group that runs the New Jersey Turnpike. There's simply no disputing it. And, if you had only a minimal understanding of how trademark law works, you might not be surprised that the Turnpike filed a trademark suit against the pizza-slingers over the similarities. The authority’s suit, filed last week, alleges service mark infringement, unfair competition and other claims against Jersey Boardwalk Pizza. The restaurant’s logo has the same green-and-yellow color scheme, including an outline of the state, as the Parkway sign. But on on the restaurant logo, “Garden State Parkway” has been replaced by "Jersey Boardwalk Pizza Co.” with the words “Subs. Cheesesteaks. Pasta" below that. The suit claims the restaurant’s logo is so similar to the Parkway sign as to give the impression that the two are linked, the Journal said. Regular readers here are probably already either laughing or shaking their heads. The New Jersey Turnpike is many things, and not all of them bad, but I'm having trouble thinking of a scenario in which someone thought it sold pizzas. Couple that with the fact that these pizza spots are located solely in Florida, which is demonstrably a different location and market than New Jersey, and the whole thing gets sillier. Fortunately, the judge presiding over the federal case agrees, having recently dismissed the case completely. Judge William Martini dismissed the suit filed by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority against Jersey Boardwalk Pizza, saying the Florida business had "minimum contacts" with state residents aside from online sales of branded merchandise. "Although Plaintiff may have felt the brunt of harm in New Jersey, it could not be said that New Jersey is the focal point of the offending activity," Martini wrote in his decision. "The defendants are a Florida company that doesn't do any business in New Jersey," said Justin Klein, the attorney who represents Jersey Boardwalk Pizza. "We're happy with the outcome and hopefully we can put this behind us and focus on our business." This would normally be the end of the matter, an end where one would hope the folks a the Turnpike Authority had learned their lesson, and perhaps a bit about how trademark law works. Not so, unfortunately, what with a spokesman for the Turnpike indicating that they would pursue the matter further and look for legal options outside of the Trademark Appeal Board. Keep digging, I guess, but I'm still certain Florida and New Jersey ain't the same place. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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posted 27 days ago on techdirt
The time to debate the merits and risks of genetically engineering our children is nearly over-ripe. The technology to select physical traits for animals exists for breeding custom single-celled organisms, laboratory rats and desirable farm animals. It wouldn't be a technological feat to apply gene editing techniques to humans, but it certainly raises some serious ethical questions over whether such activities should be allowed or under what circumstances they would be permitted. Biologists who have developed various gene editing processes (eg. Crispr, zinc fingers, TAL effectors) are calling for a moratorium on altering human genes that would be passed on to future generations. We could prevent certain genetic diseases or make more kids with blond hair and blue eyes... but before we start creating designer babies, we might want to think about some of the ramifications first. [url] Getting the child you always wanted is never guaranteed -- even when you go to a sperm bank and specifically request a certain kind of donor. Mistakes will be made. We haven't decided how to handle some of the simplest errors yet, but the courts will work it all out. [url] A dozen countries (not the US) already ban human germline engineering. Research is currently being done on primates in many labs, so human gene editing could be a practical procedure in a few decades or less. [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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posted 27 days ago on techdirt
Two things remain certain in life: death... and law enforcement agencies using license plate readers obtained with Homeland Security grants for purposes not even remotely related to securing the homeland. Here's how Newport News, Virginia's police department obtained its automatic license plate readers: Grant money from a terrorism prevention program of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management provided the funding for automatic license plate readers for several Hampton Roads agencies, including Newport News, Suffolk, Norfolk, Williamsburg, James City County, York-Poquoson and Isle of Wight, said Laura Southard, public outreach coordinator for the state's emergency management department. Hampton Roads law enforcement departments received $869,000 in 2009, $357,000 in 2010 and $143,000 in 2011 for license plate readers, Southard said. And here's what it's doing with them: Delinquent taxpayers in Newport News could have their vehicles impounded if new cameras snap a photo of their license plates around town. In an attempt to claim the nearly $4 million in delinquent personal property taxes owed, the city will soon begin using license plate scanners to find vehicles on which more than $200 in personal property taxes are owed. The cameras will be mounted to the backs of six sheriff's department cruisers to automatically read license plate numbers. Those numbers will be cross-searched with a database updated daily of all the license plates in the city with more than $200 in personal property taxes owed, Treasurer Marty Eubank said. The terms "terrorism" and "drug enforcement" were likely thrown around during the application process, but the end result is the city viewing law enforcement technology as just another revenue generator. A "hit" from the ALPR will result in the vehicle being towed within three days if the delinquent taxes aren't paid off or a payment plan set up. While the city has every right to pursue delinquent taxes, it has no business re-purposing federally-purchased law enforcement technology to do so. Citizens concerned about ALPR databases housing millions of non-hit records have always been assured that this technology will be used to fight the baddest of the bad: drug dealers, terrorists, auto thieves, kidnappers, etc. But now it's being used to collect back taxes -- hardly the sort of thing Homeland Security funds should be used for. Things get even more petty a little down the road in Hampton, Virginia. While Newport News' enforcement efforts don't kick in unless more than $200 is owed, Hampton is all about the Lincolns. Hampton has one camera mounted to a city minivan, not a police vehicle, which is driven around town every week day, said Dave Ellis, field compliance supervisor in the Hampton Treasurer's Office. When field investigators find a vehicle with a license plate for which more than $5 in property taxes is owed, they first place a warning sticker on the vehicle telling the owner to make contact with the city. If there is no response from the owner after about a week, the investigators go back and remove the license plates or put on a wheel lock, Ellis said. Hampton's tax-collecting ALPRs were first deployed in 2008. It's left unclear how the usually "law enforcement-only" technology ended up in the city's hands, but most likely a Memorandum of Understanding allowed the transfer of the plate readers. To date, $1.4 million in federal funds have been dispersed to pay for law enforcement's ALPRs -- and now some of them are being used to track down $5 property tax deadbeats. Isle of Wight doesn't even bother doing its own tax collection efforts. According to the article, this is outsourced to a private company with its own plate readers, meaning there's next to zero accountability. Turning a city job private keeps records related to tax collection efforts a little further away from curious constituents and their Freedom of Information requests. Not that the Hampton Roads law enforcement network is too concerned about overstepping its bounds or potentially violating constitutional rights. As was covered here late last year, these same law enforcement agencies have built their own phone record database -- filled with data obtained from subpoenas, warrants and court orders -- which is shared between the multiple agencies with no apparent oversight. Once you get past the re-purposing of federal funds for local tax collection, you arrive at the question of cost effectiveness. Hampton sends its city vehicle out every weekday to troll for plates. On top of the paycheck handed out to the driver(s), there's fuel and vehicle wear-and-tear costs to be considered, along with whatever's being paid to maintain the technology and its database. And yet, it seems satisfied to have collected $60,000 in unpaid taxes last year -- seemingly "break even" at best. The bottom line is this: if you want to use ALPRs to catch delinquent taxpayers, then be upfront about this and use local funds to purchase the equipment. Don't simply use the technology because it's there. Using federally-funded plate readers is basically asking the rest of the US to fund your local tax collection efforts. And just like when law enforcement deploys these readers, there should be explicit, public information about how the data is collected, retained and destroyed. Sure, law enforcement agencies have been less than open about these factors, but at least they have the (poor) excuse that there are means and methods to protect. The cities doing this don't have anything to protect -- at least nothing that would (supposedly) threaten public safety if it were made known. Permalink | Comments | Email This Story

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