One of the things that we keep learning in a connected, digital age, is that what you think you "bought" you often don't really own. Companies who sell you products seem to feel a certain freedom to unilaterally change the terms of your purchase, after the fact. I'm reminded of Sony removing key features on the PS3, though there are plenty of other examples. A new one is the story of Cisco, pushing out a firmware update to routers without customer approval and (even worse) having that firmware update block people from logging in directly to their own routers. Apparently, if you don't like it... er... too bad.
Cisco has started automatically pushing the company's new "Cloud Connect" firmware update to consumer routers -- without customer approval. Annoyed users note that the update won't let consumers directly log into their routers anymore -- they have to register for a new Cloud Connect account. The only way to revert to directly accessing the device you paid for? You have to unplug it from the Internet.
Oh, and registering for such an account means you have to agree to give up your data so that Cisco can sell it. As per the terms:
...we may keep track of certain information related to your use of the Service, including but not limited to the status and health of your network and networked products; which apps relating to the Service you are using; which features you are using within the Service infrastructure; network traffic (e.g., megabytes per hour); Internet history; how frequently you encounter errors on the Service system and other related information ("Other Information"). We use this Other Information to help us quickly and efficiently respond to inquiries and requests, and to enhance or administer our overall Service for our customers.
We may also use this Other Information for traffic analysis (for example, determining when the most customers are using the Service) and to determine which features within the Service are most or least effective or useful to you. In addition, we may periodically transmit system information to our servers in order to optimize your overall experience with the Service. We may share aggregated and anonymous user experience information with service providers, contractors or other third parties...
Seems like a good way to drive people into buying routers from other companies. I can see how a "cloud service" could have value, but it should be presented to users as a choice, where the actual benefit to them (if there is one) is clearly presented. Instead, this rollout seems designed solely to benefit Cisco and its partners, rather than the people who bought (or so they thought) their routers.
Over the past few years, as competition in the DVR market has become tougher, TiVo has become more and more reliant on using its patents to stop competition and innovation, rather than focusing on competing in the marketplace. its most famous case was the one against EchoStar, which even included TiVo buying a bull (literally) in Eastern Texas, where the district court case was heard. While it won at the district court level, during the appeals process, the Patent Office suddenly indicated that the patents might not be so solid. Not long after that, TiVo and EchoStar worked out a settlement.
TiVo found the process so enjoyable that it apparently started thinking about a second career as a patent troll -- and has already sued Verizon and Motorola. Not surprisingly, it's been pushing some others to license some patents... and at least one large player has had enough. Cisco, owners of Scientific Atlanta, a maker of settop boxes and DVRs, has filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate four TiVo patents -- or, if the patents are found valid, a declaratory judgment that it does not infringe.
Of course, by filing first, Cisco was also able to file the case in San Jose, rather than letting TiVo try to get the case into Texas (despite the fact that both Cisco and Tivo are located not far from each other in Northern California). As far as I know, TiVo has not purchased a bull in San Jose.
We've written, in great detail, about the research that shows that the ability for employees to switch jobs freely almost certainly contributed massively to the huge success of Silicon Valley. Multiple studies, looking at multiple different factors, have shown that a simple legal issue -- the fact that non-compete agreements are unenforceable in California -- was the key driving factor in Silicon Valley's success. Sure, other things were important: good universities, investors, etc. But other areas had that too. What set Silicon Valley apart was the fact that employees switch jobs much more frequently.
As for why that has such a massive impact on innovation and economic growth, it has to do with the sharing of ideas. While traditional economic theory might suggest companies are better off hoarding information on new products, that's not true in many cases. Take, for example, an emerging market where multiple players are on the verge of key breakthroughs -- but the market won't really emerge until that breakthrough is complete. What studies have found is that the more minds thinking about a problem and cross-pollinating ideas, the faster it is that the necessary breakthrough can happen. Now, companies may not work directly together on solving the challenge, but when employees shift regularly between companies they act to pollinate the ideas from one organization to another, helping those organizations reach the breakthrough point sooner, creating those large new markets. This isn't a bad thing. Speeding up the process of innovation and creating large new markets is a non-zero sum game, so the fact that an employee leaves can actually help spur a huge market that the employee's former company can take advantage of too. At the same time, it allows companies, who might be upset about losing certain employees, to similarly hire people away from other competitors.
So, it always strikes me as a bit strange when companies get so worked up about an employee leaving to join a competitor -- especially in California. However, Cisco General Counsel Mark Chandler is directly calling out HP for a series of lawsuits against employees who left HP (a company clearly in turmoil) to go to Cisco. Chandler highlights the fact that noncompetes are unenforceable in CA, but notes that (even though both companies are headquartered not far from each other in California), HP has used the fact that it has locations elsewhere to file lawsuits against former employees three times. And the stories suggest that HP is really going overboard in these efforts:
In the first of the three cases, HP was so persistent in the litigation and so threatening, that the individual, who had retired from HP months before even talking to Cisco, withdrew. There seemed to be little concern with the stress that a big company turning its legal guns on an individual can cause. In another case, an employee who worked in HP’s financial services group was sued to block her from working in Cisco’s customer finance group, even though there was no argument whatsoever that relevant intellectual property at stake. She persisted and HP relented. In the most recent case, just last week, the employee, who’d given HP over two decades of loyal service, had moved to California before starting work at Cisco. He asked a California court to declare that he was protected by California law and that HP could therefore not enforce its non-compete. A court hearing was scheduled in California, we notified HP and HP retained counsel. Cisco also reached out to senior legal staff at HP to try lay out some voluntary steps to avoid further litigation and to give further reassurance that the employee wouldn’t even inadvertently leverage any HP confidential information.
HP’s reply was to file an action in Texas against the employee and schedule an “emergency” hearing to try to enjoin the employ from working with Cisco, seeking to have a judge issue the injunction with no notice and no opportunity for the employee to be represented. Fortunately, an eagle-eyed Texas lawyer working for the employee saw the filing appear on line and showed up in court. Given that the matter was already in front of a California court, with HP fully represented, in a hearing scheduled for two hours later, the judge in Texas was not impressed by HP’s effort to get her to act without a hearing. She refused to proceed. And the California judge issued an order allowing the employee to begin his new career at Cisco.
There's no way to look at this and not wonder what is going on at HP. The company is flailing. It's been firing CEOs left and right -- and paying them ridiculous sums for failing in the process. Why not just spend some of the money that's being wasted in these silly and damaging lawsuits to actually innovate? In his post, Chandler also notes that HP has been on the other end of similar fights, which makes this even more bizarre. He closes with a pledge that, no matter where they are, Cisco will not use litigation to stop employees from working elsewhere, and challenges HP to do the same:
Cisco’s promise to those looking to work in the networking industry is that no matter which of the fifty states you live in and work for Cisco, if you come to work for us we will apply California’s rule in favor of employee mobility nationwide. We know that employee retention is a matter of fair compensation and career opportunity, not litigation. And we challenge HP, with new leadership deeply steeped in Silicon Valley’s environment of mobility and opportunity, to step up and support employee freedom and stop suing employees just for leaving.
Whenever we talk about the very serious risks and likely abuses of new laws favored by the entertainment industry -- such as PROTECT IP and the felony streaming bill, S.978, supporters of those bills insist that we're crazy for suggesting that the laws will be abused or that there will be any unintended consequences. We're told, over and over and over again that these laws are designed for and targeted only at the "worst of the worst." They're targeted at "rogue" actors, who must be stopped.
And yet, we've seen all too often how US officials have abused other such laws to attack and protect certain US companies from competition. A whole bunch of you have been sending over this incredibly frightening example of the Justice Department conspiring with Cisco to effectively try to destroy a former exec's life for daring to file an antitrust claim against Cisco, due to Cisco's desire to block competitors from servicing some of its products. Unfortunately, I actually found the version of the story at the Ars Technica link above a bit confusing (and it buries many of the key points). A much better way to understand just what Cisco and some federal prosecutors appear to have done is to read the ruling, embedded below, from a Canadian judge, who explains the whole thing clearly and bashes Cisco and the US Justice Department for its incredible overreach, for no reason other than to try to destroy the life of Peter Adekeye.
Adekeye, born in Nigeria, but a UK citizen, had apparently been a quite successful Cisco exec in both the UK and the US for many years. In 2005, he left Cisco and started a couple of companies himself, including one, Multiven, that offered to help provide maintenance services for various Cisco equipment. Apparently, Cisco tried to force customers into purchasing maintenance contracts only from them by denying third parties, such as Multiven, access to various bug reports and fixes. Because of this, Multiven sued Cisco, claiming antitrust violations. Cisco then countersued, including suing Adekeye directly, claiming that Adekeye had accessed Cisco's internal network illegally over 90 times. Adekeye does not appear to deny accessing Cisco's internal systems, but notes that he was given the login information from a Cisco employee, which he believed meant he was now authorized to use the system. It sounds like he used this access to get some of the info that Cisco had been denying Multiven. As part of its "hardball" litigation strategy, Cisco also sought to get the federal government to file criminal charges against Adekeye based on the exact same issue.
Separate from all of this, Adekeye had been dealing with attempts to get a work visa to be in the US for Multiven. The court ruling documents the incredibly ridiculous bureaucratic nightmare that Adekeye went through over the period of a few years in an attempt to seek proper visas to work in the US. At no time does it appear that Adekeye violated the various visas he did have. In fact, it sounds as though Adekeye bent over backwards (and then some) to always comply with US immigration and visa rules, even when it resulted in absolutely ridiculous circumstances, such as when he wasn't allowed back into the US, even though he'd been granted his H-1B visa. That story is crazy, but tangential to the point here -- though I suggest reading the ruling to get a sense of the ridiculousness of US immigration and visa policy.
In part because he was unable to get back into the US, Adekeye moved to Switzerland where a new Multiven office was opened, and continued his efforts to get his immigration status cleared up. As part of the ongoing legal dispute, Cisco wanted to depose Adekeye. Adekeye applied for permission to enter the US to do that... but was denied, and he was told if he went anyway, it could harm his chances of getting his visa status fixed. And Cisco used this to their advantage:
Notwithstanding this entirely reasonable explanation for his inability to attend a U.S. deposition, Cisco had the unmitigated gall to commence contempt proceedings for the applicant's "failure" to attend a U.S. deposition. It was, of course, unsuccessful, but it speaks volumes for Cisco's duplicity.
Eventually, all of the parties agreed to handle the deposition in Vancouver. It was outside the US, but close to Cisco's offices here in Silicon Valley. There was a separate (again tangential) issue involving the belief (which may not have been accurate, apparently) that a US deposition could happen in Canada without having to alert Canadian officials. It was at this deposition hearing in Vancouver on May 19th of last year that things got crazy. Cisco, knowing full well where Adekeye was and why he was in Vancouver -- and that he had tried and failed to get to the US -- apparently told the US Attorneys, who they'd been pushing to file criminal charges, about Adekeye's presence in Vancouver. The Justice Department then filed its criminal charges -- once again totally abusing the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act (CFAA) to make Adekeye's actions sound much worse than they actually were, and had a warrant issued for Adekeye's arrest.
They then sought rather extraordinary efforts from the Canadian government to arrest Adekeye immediately. Part of that, according to the Canadian judge who issued this ruling, appeared to involve a US Attorney leaving out key information, making blatantly false insinuations about other facts, and in some cases, what appears to just be lying:
The affidavit made no mention of the fact that United States immigration authorities had refused the applicant entry to the United States. No mention was made that the applicant had no criminal record. No mention was made that the United States Federal Court had ordered a deposition in Vancouver, presided over by a "special master" at which six or more United States lawyers would be present. No mention was made that the criminal complaint "mirrored" a counterclaim brought by Cisco in the main action in which the applicant was seeking large damages in an antitrust suit.
Sinister inferences were suggested, leading to an inference that the applicant would be a flight risk. The affidavit stated that the applicant "is a Nigerian citizen who claims to have citizenship from the United Kingdom", and that he possibly had British citizenship, and that he was in Canada on a Nigerian passport. The latter reference invited an inference he might flee to Nigeria, a country from which extradition was highly unlikely. In fact, U.S. authorities well knew and had a duty to disclose to the issuing judge that the applicant was a citizen of the United Kingdom and possessed a British passport, on which passport he had entered Canada. They also knew and had a duty to disclose that he had been a resident of England, but was currently residing with his wife and child in Switzerland, and that he had travelled from Switzerland to Canada for purposes of the deposition.
What happened then was somewhat astounding. In the middle of the deposition, RCMP officials walked into the room, interrupted the deposition in progress and arrested Adekeye in the middle of the proceedings. The beginning of this is on videotape. Adekeye, his lawyers, and the "special master" clearly have no idea what's going on, but what's notable is that, while people repeatedly ask for the recording to be turned off, Cisco's lawyers immediately say that the recording should be left on. It appears they knew exactly what was going on and wanted the humiliating arrest on the deposition tape. You can see the video below. As the judge in this ruling notes, the police's actions "could be compared to entering a courtroom and arresting a person during the course of his or her testimony. It is simply not done in a civilized jurisdiction that is bound by the rule of law."
Believe it or not, the situation then gets even worse and even more egregious. Adekeye was, in fact, arrested -- and the charges could have resulted in almost 500 years in jail, all for accessing a Cisco network with a password given to him by a Cisco employee. As you can see, he was removed from the deposition, much to the confusion of the special master appointed by the US court. After being arrested, he asked for bail, and Richard Cheng, an Assistant US Attorney for the Justice Department, sent a letter that was chock full of false and misleading information, which the judge in this case goes through step by step. It falsely implies that Adekeye did not really have British citizenship and that he did not really live in Switzerland. It stated that he used his Nigerian passport to enter the US under an E visa, which was not true. It claimed that the US had denied all of Adekeye's attempts to obtain a visa to visit the US since 2007, which as the ruling now notes "is simply not true." It also falsely stated that Adekeye had fled from law enforcement in the past. Again, the ruling noted "this statement was completely untrue."
And yet, federal officials continued to seek extradition. Even then, months after the arrest, the civil suit between Cisco and Multiven were settled, in a manner that everyone agrees was a "win" for Multiven, with Cisco changing its policy. So the key matter over which this highly questionable criminal charge was brought was settled. And yet, the feds continued to push forward. It was only in May of this year, a year after his arrest, that this new ruling came out and freed Adekeye to leave Canada and go back home.
Honestly, the whole story is really terrifying and makes me depressed to think that my government would do something like this. However, it should seriously call into question whether or not new laws like S.978 and the PROTECT IP Act should be allowed. It seems clear that the Justice Department has no problem using very questionable means to act as the private bullies of certain large companies. It should also call into question some of the recent efforts by other US Attorneys from the Justice Department, such as the efforts in coordination with Homeland Security/ICE to seize domains on questionable evidence, the attempt to extradite Richard O'Dwyer from the UK over very questionable charges and, of course, the recent charges against Aaron Swartz.
All of these cases have key factors in common. They involve what at best should be minor civil issues between private parties in court -- but in which, due to the presence of certain large industry interests, the Justice Department steps in and starts throwing its considerable weight around, including insane possible punishment, all because of dubious and often extremely misleading claims from these private interests. It's possible that the Justice Department officials here are simply incompetent (and honestly, that's an only slightly more comforting idea than the alternative) and unable to realize they're being manipulated by companies seeking to stamp out competition. But it's certainly demonstrating a really horrifying pattern of questionable behavior by the Justice Department and US Attorneys not to focus on real criminal behavior, but to abuse the criminal justice system to take vindictive action against potential competitors for big US industry players.
The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that Golden Shield--described in Cisco marketing materials as Policenet--resulted in the arrest of as many as 5,000 Falun Gong members. Cisco "competed aggressively" for the contracts to design the Golden Shield system "with full knowledge that it was to be used for the suppression of the Falun Gong religion," according to the lawsuit.
While I find the Chinese government's actions in suppressing dissident reprehensible, I'm not at all sure how there's a legitimate case against Cisco here. It may have made a bad decision to do business with the Chinese government, but is that illegal? While News.com doesn't supply a copy of the lawsuit (and why not?), I can't see what legitimate charges there can be here. This seems like yet another case of misapplied liability. Obviously, these people feel they can't go after the Chinese government, but using Cisco as a legal proxy doesn't make much sense. I could see protesting Cisco's actions, but suing the company seems like a stretch.
A few weeks back, we noted how some were freaking out over the fact that patent applications were down, without bothering to look behind the numbers at why. Instead, they jumped to the conclusion that innovation in the US was dropping. johnjac points us to an article where folks at Cisco suggests that it might just be tech companies realizing that patenting everything is a waste of time and money. In fact, the story states that Cisco recently changed its patent strategy from trying to patent everything to trying to focus on things that it believes is really innovative, rather than everything it can possibly get a patent on.
I can already hear the usual crowd of patent holders in our comments. They hate Cisco and pretty much any big company. They'll interpret this statement as meaning that Cisco has become less inventive and is more focused on "stealing" inventions. Of course, what's amusing is that they'll never present any evidence for those accusations (though, I'm sure they'll accuse me of being on the take for Cisco even though we've never done any business with Cisco in any way whatsoever).
That said, I do find some of the comments from Cisco odd and somewhat unsupportable:
"The arms race approach doesn't pay off," he says. "It doesn't do you a lot of good to have a lot of patents."
Why? The patent landscape has changed dramatically. Patents often land companies in court as they fight over who invented the idea first. Lawsuits still might involve competitors, but increasingly Cisco finds it is battling what Chandler calls "non-practicing entities." These are companies that exist only to acquire patents and then seek to extract money from big companies for infringing on them. The more patents you hold, the more likely one of these companies will sue you.
The first part is true. Lots of companies find themselves being sued by non-practicing entities, but it's not because of the number of patents they hold. The NPEs (patent trolls, patent hoarders, whatever you want to call them) aren't suing those who have the most patents. They're suing whoever has (1) products on the market and (2) a large bank account. Cisco could have no patents at all, and it would still be getting sued just as much by NPEs. So, frankly, I don't buy the claim that the more patents you have, the more likely you are to get sued. Instead, my guess, is that Cisco has realized that getting patents (especially in such large numbers) is an expensive process, for little benefit. It may help in some lawsuits against competitors (when Cisco can threaten to counter sue over other patents), but you only need so many patents for that. So, it looks like Cisco is building up a stable of defensive patents, and has realized that you don't need the largest number. That's a good thing, but the claim that more patents makes you more of a target just doesn't make sense.
We'd already noted that it seemed like an uphill battle for the lawyers in Eastern Texas to prove defamation claims against the "Patent Troll Tracker" Rick Frenkel, and last night the judge chose the high bar of an "actual malice" standard to determine if Frenkel was guilty of defamation. With such a high standard, it seemed exceedingly unlikely that the plaintiffs could win a case, so perhaps it's no surprise that the two sides agreed to settle the case before it went to the jury. While no one knows the details of the settlement, Frenkel and Cisco issued an "apology," and I'd guess not much more, if anything.
But, really, all that's besides the point. The real question is whether or not this means Frenkel will start blogging again. Some of his statements in the past (and having to go through this entire ridiculous process) suggest that he may not blog again. However, I'm hopeful that he'll get back to it, though obviously not anonymously any more. His work in highlighting some of the more nefarious actions of patent system abusers is still sorely missed.
As you hopefully recall, back in late 2007, a wonderful, informative and useful blog suddenly popped up on the scene, highlighting some of the worst abuses of the patent system by shell corporations suing companies that were actually innovating. This side of the patent dispute had never really received too much of a spotlight. While there were certainly complaints about "patent trolls" and about the fact that so many patent lawsuits were all being filed in eastern Texas, there was little attention actually being paid to who was behind these lawsuits and some of the sneakier tactics they used (such as a variety of shell companies to hide the true identity of who was behind the lawsuits). The anonymous Patent Troll Tracker blog did a really nice job turning a nice spotlight on some of these practices -- and that, of course, upset those who had made a nice little (actually, a huge multi-million dollar) business for themselves being involved in such lawsuits. They went crazy trying to dig up any and all information on who the anonymous blogger was, and eventually got him to reveal himself as Rick Frenkel, a Cisco lawyer, by filing a defamation lawsuit against him (Update: To clarify, Frenkel revealed himself prior to the actual defamation lawsuit being filed, but one of the lawyers had been trying to get Google to reveal the name, claiming that the posts were defamatory). The issue was a blog post where he noted that a lawsuit had been filed on October 15th, 2007, even though the patent in question had not been issued until October 16th. Yet, even though the original documents showed an October 15th date, the date later changed to the 16th, raising reasonable questions about what happened, how the original date showed up and how it was changed.
The East Texas patent lawyers are trying to paint a picture of some conspiracy theory to make them look bad, but it's difficult to see how that's supported. So far, it appears that the factual points that Frenkel noted were accurate. The filing did originally have the earlier date on it, and the court clerk was later convinced to change it. That, alone, is pretty suspicious -- and a point worth raising, as Frenkel did. No one seems to be disputing that. Instead, they're making it out to be a big conspiracy theory against them, and are claiming all sorts of emotional damage and that they were accused of being criminals (which Frenkel did not do), but haven't shown how there was any real harm. Instead, in the lawyers' testimony, they admit that when they saw the blog post, their first thought was "Let's get this shut down." In other words, on the stand, they admit that their lawsuit wasn't about defamation or harm, but about them trying to stifle free speech.
Who knows how the trial will end up, but from the testimony so far, it certainly looks like the lawyers are admitting that the case was really about exposing and silencing Frenkel, rather than about any real "harm" done to them or their reputation.
For many, many years, there's been talk about how business travel was living on borrowed time, because it was going to be replaced by things like videoconferencing that offered the same benefits at a cheaper price and with less hassle. But every time this sort of boom is predicted, it fails to materialize. After 9/11, video and web conferencing took off for about three months when travel dropped, but then use fell right back down. Several months ago, more such predictions were made with oil prices driving the cost of business travel through the roof, and now, the motivation is apparently the drive to cut costs. For instance, Cisco's CEO John Chambers says that by using the company's own communications technology, it's been able to slice its per-employee travel spending by more than half, and that it won't increase again, even after the recession. Of course, as the NYT notes, Chambers is making a look-how-we-eat-our-own-dog-food sales pitch. But it's worth wondering if a prolonged recession could finally give these travel-replacement technologies the boost they've long been looking for, and supplant business travel, rather than just add to it, as they have largely done thus far.
There's lots of talk in tech circles about the fact that the Free Software Foundation is now suing Cisco for copyright infringement, over Cisco's misuse of GPL'd code in its Linksys routers. What seems odd is that this got as far as it did. The issue with Linksys and its use of GPL'd code has been talked about for years, and it seems like there should have been a simple solution from the very beginning: Cisco/Linksys should have made the code available, as per the terms of the license. So why didn't they? Well, the details from the case suggest that, while Cisco did drag its feet in releasing the code, FSF then came back with additional demands, specifically:
Cisco needed to appoint a "free software compliance officer."
Cisco needed to try to inform all past customers of its failed compliance
Cisco needed to pay FSF a chunk of money
It appears that it's these issues over which the two parties disagree and the lawsuit was filed. While I'm sympathetic to the FSF's position, this might be going a bit too far. Nothing in the GPL requires someone to set up a "compliance officer." Yes, due to Cisco's foot-dragging, you can see why FSF would ask for such a thing, but it's difficult to see how it should be required, or eventually involve a lawsuit. Also, it's unclear why Cisco should need to inform people. The folks who actually care are likely to hear about this anyway. Yes, Cisco violated the GPL, and yes, it was slow to get itself in compliance, but FSF seems to be demanding an awful lot in response.