Last week, we were among those who reported on a ridiculous attempt by regulators in Minnesota to enforce a regulation aimed at stopping degree mills, by telling various legitimate online learning providers like Coursera that Minnesota residents couldn't take courses from without state approval. Thankfully, all of the attention has caused Minnesota officials to admit that this was silly and back down. According to Larry Pogemiller, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education:
Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they’re free. No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera.
He also said that the obsolete regulations should be updated:
When the legislature convenes in January, my intent is to work with the Governor and Legislature to appropriately update the statute to meet modern-day circumstances. Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.
Every day, it seems, we hear of yet another story of silly out-of-date regulations, which may have had a reasonable purpose initially, getting in the way of perfectly legitimate innovation. For example, there's been a massive growth in "open courseware" or open education programs, that put various educational classes online for everyone to benefit. They're not designed to replace the degrees of college, but rather to just help people learn. One of the biggest ones, Coursera, recently told people in Minnesota that they could no longer take Coursera classes, due to ridiculously outdated Minnesota regulations:
Notice for Minnesota Users:
Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.
The key regulation here, 136A.6a is clearly about stopping questionable degree mills from being used in Minnesota. It specifically refers to "academic degrees":
The legislature has found and hereby declares that the availability of legitimate courses and programs leading to academic degrees offered by responsible private not-for-profit and for-profit institutions of postsecondary education and the existence of legitimate private colleges and universities are in the best interests of the people of this state. The legislature has found and declares that the state can provide assistance and protection for persons choosing private institutions and programs, by establishing policies and procedures to assure the authenticity and legitimacy of private postsecondary education institutions and programs. The legislature has also found and declares that this same policy applies to any private and public postsecondary educational institution located in another state or country which offers or makes available to a Minnesota resident any course, program or educational activity which does not require the leaving of the state for its completion.
The other law just says that the attorney general and the courts can shut down anyone who violates the law -- which is what they threatened to do with Coursera.
Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for the state’s Office of Higher Education, said letters had been sent to all postsecondary institutions known to be offering courses in Minnesota.
But that seems to be a willful misreading of the regulation (which seems silly in the first place). Coursera isn't a degree mill. It's not about earning the degree, it's about actually learning. Minnesota's interpretation of the law is fairly ridiculous. It basically means that anyone who wants to access online educational material in Minnesota is limited by the state determining what it considers okay.
In the case above, it involved Occupy protestors using video footage of police arresting journalists. However, the police's own footage put the situation in a bit more context, including showing the police clearly reading out warnings to the crowd that if they don't help police remove obstructions in the plaza, that they will need to take enforcement action. Does this absolve the actions of the police? Perhaps not, though it may depend on where you sit. However, it is a really interesting strategy, and one that I think actually reflects a very positive development. Rather than hiding from cameras, the police can (and should) use cameras to their own advantage as well.
Amusingly, however, in the story, the police chief notes that the film in question was done by crime scene videographers, who are a little too focused on closeup shots, not knowing quite how to take wide shots that might show the scene in a bit more detail to provide additional context.
Of course, the police chief, Janee Harteau, isn't fully enlightened. While she does say that officers should always assume they're being filmed (and mentions permanent cameras in the city, as well as squad car cameras), she still complains that people with mobile phone cameras sometimes "interfere with an officer's ability to do their job." She doesn't really elaborate, beyond saying that police have a job to do in protecting the public. She does say that "the officer's word doesn't mean as much as it used to" if there isn't a video. I'm not sure why that's a bad thing. If there isn't more evidence, isn't it only proper to give the testimony less weight? Either way, I do think the overall idea of police filming themselves (and releasing that video) is a definite step in the right direction, and one that I hope other police departments start using.
We've been waiting for US Copyright Group to refile some of its lawsuits in the proper jurisdictions, fully expecting that the operation (really DC law firm Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver) would file a few lawsuits here and there to prove that it really was suing some people, though we doubt it'll match the scale of the original, "shock and awe," 5,000 people at a time filings. Apparently US CG has now filed two lawsuits in Minnesota, outside of its home base in DC. I would expect more like this, though let's see how far the lawsuits really get. It's no secret that the only purpose of the lawsuits is to convince people to pay up to avoid a lawsuit.
We already pointed to the rather questionable situation in Florida where Connected Nation was "chosen" to run the broadband mapping project (and get a bunch of stimulus cash) over a competitor, despite issuing a bid that was more than twice as high, and without any local endorsements (and... oh yeah... one of the voters, the one who voted on CN by the highest margin just happened to have worked at one of the telcos that now backs CN). It looks like something fishy is going on in Minnesota too. According to Broadband reports, Minnesota's governor, Tim Pawlenty has already signed a letter supporting Connected Nation for mapping broadband in Minnesota... totally pissing off a member of the state's Ultra High Speed Task Force, who the governor (at the demands of the legislature) appointed to look into this very matter. But, why wait for them to investigate the details and choose wisely, when you can just select who you want. Again, Connected Nation has done an amazing job getting politicians to sing its praises, despite serious questions about how its mapping process works.
Back in April, the state of Minnesota tried to force ISPs to block certain gambling websites. Similar attempts had been tried in a few other states, and quickly shot down by the courts -- and it didn't take long for a lawsuit to emerge in Minnesota. However, the good news is that the state has apparently agreed to back down rather than trying to fight a bogus and costly lawsuit. Basically, it sounds like enough lawyers explained to state officials that their likelihood of winning was pretty slim -- so the state just folded. At least they didn't keep trying to waste taxpayer money trying to fight for such censorship.
Earlier this month, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that defendants accused of drunk driving have the right to inspect the source code of the breathalyzers used in their arrest. This is the right decision for a number of reasons - not only have studies shown that breathalyzers are poorly coded, potentially leading to inaccurate results, but in a legal system with the right to confront one's accusers, being able to examine the source code for errors seems like a fair digital extension. Given that more and more law enforcement is being done through shoddy technical tools, assuring fair procedure in code is no different than doing so for police officer behavior.
The obvious answer was posited years ago by Eric S. Raymond - given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. The source code for breathalyzers, e-voting machines and other technical law enforcers should be open source to ensure that secrecy doesn't obscure important imperfections.
Meanwhile, online gambling's biggest friend in Congress, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, has again introduced legislation that would legalize and regulate online gambling in the US. It sounds pretty much the same as his earlier attempts, all of which have failed, and would take the eminently reasonable step of allowing Americans to gamble in a regulated environment where they're protected by rules and law, as opposed to the current situation where they're pushed into the gray market (or worse), and have no protection. Frank also says he'll introduce separate legislation that will stop the enforcement of the UIGEA, which says that banks must stop processing any transactions that fund online gambling. At least one big casino company seems to think Frank's got a good chance of finally getting his law through: Harrah's, which recently hired the former CEO of major online gambling company PartyGaming to head its online efforts ahead of legalization.
There have been a few attempts by state governments to force ISPs to block certain sites, and such attempts almost always end badly. Recently, for example, the state of Kentucky has been not just trying to block access to gambling-related websites, but to seize the domains in question. That failed when the courts pointed out how ridiculous it was. Perhaps the most famous such attempt was Pennsylvania's law to try to force ISPs to block "undesirable" sites from a list the gov't would put together. A federal court tossed the law, saying that it was unreasonable. You would think that other states would take notice before trekking down a similar path. But, apparently the news hasn't reached Minnesota.
Slashdot points out that Minnesota is trying to twist a law from half a century ago to mean that ISPs need to block gambling websites. Basically, the law says that common carriers need to comply with government requests to block gambling services. Of course, that assumes that ISPs are, in fact, common carriers -- a point that many would dispute. Also, the law was clearly intended for a very different purpose than someone using a broadband connection to access a gambling site. Still, gambling is another topic that politicians love to grandstand about, so expect this to keep moving forward, even if it makes no sense and has little chance of surviving a legal challenge.
We've had so many different stories about problems with e-voting machines and optical scan ballot counting machines, that it's at least worth acknowledging when those machines appear to have actually done their job reasonably well (though, not perfectly). Andrew Appel notes that the hand recount done in Minnesota for the Senatorial election there gave us a chance to look at how well some optical scan machines did, and he suggests they did extremely well, with a net accuracy at 99.99% and a gross accuracy of 99.91%. Of course... both of those numbers mean that the number of ballots incorrectly recorded could have swung the election in one way or another, given the minuscule margin between the two candidates.
Either way, the fact that the machines can be somewhat accurate is hardly up for debate. The issue is about whether or not we know they are accurate, and have mechanisms to easily go back and verify that they're accurate and secure. And, it's on those two issues that e-voting companies are way behind in fulfilling.