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I am a technology consultant, contributor here at Techdirt, and an author. I hope to someday get enough people reading the books I sell to garner a scathing review.




Posted on Techdirt - 15 April 2014 @ 3:50pm

Video Games Do Cause Aggression... If They Suck Out Loud

from the garbage-in-garbage-out dept

I think I've come to the realization that the debate over whether violent video games cause real-life violence is probably never going to end. Centuries from now, some new race of alien beings will be picking over humanity's remains like some kind of alien-Indiana Jones and think to themselves, "What the hell is this bullshit?" They'll look over fossilized papers about crazy video game hardliners who were running guns on the side, or studies that stated that violent games will breed violent children despite the relative lack of violent children present. Oh, the laughs they will have at our expense.

But, it turns out, there is a way you can cause aggression in children through games. You just have to make really crappy games.

Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Rochester took Half-Life 2, one of the most satisfyingly intuitive games ever made (in my opinion), and modified it, turning it into a game of tag rather than a first person shooter. Some users were given a tutorial, and others were simply thrown into the game. Those that did not get the tutorial were much more aggressive after playing. Andrew Przybylski from the Oxford Internet Institute:

"This need to master the game was far more significant than whether the game contained violent material. Players of games without any violent content were still feeling pretty aggressive if they hadn't been able to master the controls or progress through the levels at the end of the session."
So, all you have to do to make folks aggressive with a game is make it very difficult, counter-intuitive, and annoying. You know, like Battle Toads, Myst, or any game produced by Derek Smart. This explains why I used to go over to a friend's house, find him playing Bulls Vs. Blazers on his Sega, and would know for sure that the gaming session would eventually end with him ripping the cartridge out of the machine and chucking it at a wall (true story).

The real question is: if we were going to tax violent games because we thought that's what made some kids violent, are we similarly going to tax shitty games for the same reason? It would make just as much sense, which is to say none, but it might be a good buttress against the ruination of the next ending to a Mass Effect game, amirite?

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 April 2014 @ 11:27am

Intuit Does Subterfuge To Combat Free-Filing Tax Returns

from the sneaky-sneaky dept

It's tax time again, when we all turn just a bit more Republican for a month or so, curse out the inept government that asks us to pay for all that they do, and emote a general grumbling attitude throughout the days. Fun, right? Part of what makes this time of year such a royal pain in the ass is that many of us pay to pay our taxes, using any number of accounting and tax prep services just to keep Uncle Sam off our backs. Last year, we wrote about how Intuit, the company behind TurboTax, was actively waging a campaign against the government free-filing program, in which the IRS offers to fill out much of the paperwork and allow citizens to e-file their taxes with minimal input. The program is entirely voluntary, but that didn't stop Intuit from raging against the machine, suggesting that the IRS would overcharge the poor and that the program would, like, really hurt their business (honesty!).

It turns out that trying to stifle people's ability to simplify their own lives and file their taxes for free wasn't all that great for the old public relations department, however, so Intuit has instead decided to go the sneaky route and get a bunch of unwitting mouthpieces to do it for them.

Over the last year, a rabbi, a state NAACP official, a small town mayor and other community leaders wrote op-eds and letters to Congress with remarkably similar language on a remarkably obscure topic. Each railed against a long-standing proposal that would give taxpayers the option to use pre-filled tax returns. They warned that the program would be a conflict of interest for the IRS and would especially hurt low-income people, who wouldn't have the resources to fight inaccurate returns. Rabbi Elliot Dorff wrote in a Jewish Journal op-ed that he "shudder[s] at the impact this program will have on the most vulnerable people in American society."
So you're wondering where the problem in all of this is? Well, it turns out these folks didn't just independently decide to write the same op-eds. It would appear that they were approached by groups affiliated with Intuit and asked to write them. The folks targeted weren't informed of the connection, either.
Rabbi Dorff says he was approached by a former student, Emily Pflaster, who sent him details and asked him to write an op-ed alerting the Jewish community to the threat. What Pflaster did not tell him is that she works for a PR and lobbying firm with connections to Intuit, the maker of best-selling tax software TurboTax.

"I wish she would have told me that," Dorff told ProPublica.
You think? What once appeared to be some kind of grassroots campaign by the concerned public towards what might be a real issue suddenly has devolved into a public relations blitz undertaken through dishonest means by corporate interests. In other words, it's the same message we got last year, and from the same source, but that source is hiding behind unwitting accomplices. The underhanded deeds weren't over, however.
The website of Pflaster's firm, JCI Worldwide, had listed Intuit among its clients, but removed it after ProPublica contacted them. Pflaster said Intuit had been listed by mistake....
That's quite an error to make and quite a coincidental time for that error to be "corrected." And, while Intuit's only comment on the matter was some general mumblings about how they use multiple avenues to improve "tax empowerment" of the public, it's a special kind of shady that refers to demonizing an entirely optional and free government service as empowerment of the public. Meanwhile, of course, Intuit has lobbied heavily on bills related to free-filing.

In the end, there may indeed be flaws in the government's free-filing program and process. Actually, it'd be a bit of a shock if there weren't flaws. But it's voluntary, and the solution to those flaws is most certainly not subterfuge and dishonest attempts to coerce a public through their religious leaders.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 April 2014 @ 4:12pm

There Are No Good Guys In A Battle Between (Likely) UFC And Ultimate Gay Fighter

from the can-they-both-lose? dept

As the times continue to change, the past few years have seen a notable increase in LGBT characters appearing in video games. Not that this is any kind of major victory, of course, but it is probably an imperfect barometer for public tolerance of our fellow human beings. There's obviously still a long way to go, and not everyone is embracing tolerance as much as I would personally prefer, but that's okay. These things take time and it's important that we listen to all sides and engage in the debate with integrity, honesty, and respect.

What can make this difficult and challenging is when the worlds of two different, but important, issues you have collide. Such is the case with an upcoming mobile game called Ultimate Gay Fighter, which is finding itself forced to change that name due to legal pressure, likely over a trademark.

According to Handsome Woman Productions, the company in question "believes the UGF brand and related mobile gaming product threatens one of their reality TV series/fighting competition brand." As a result, the developer is unable to defend the game's current name against what founder Michael P. Venker calls a billion-dollar company.

"We have a trademark pending, but the prospect of a potential lawsuit is very intimidating," Venker said. "We don't have the funds to compete with their take-no-prisoners approach. We offered them solutions, but this company remains firm in believing our Ultimate Gay Fighter brand threatens their brand, despite vast differences in our customer base and product."
You don't need to be a master at reading between the thinly-veiled lines to understand that Venker is almost certainly referring to the UFC, or Ultimate Fighting Championship, and their reality TV show, The Ultimate Fighter. They're really the only ones that fit the parameters here. And, while UGF is going ahead and caving to the name change, and looking to crowdsource a new name from their fanbase, it seems likely that they'd at least have a case in challenging the threat in court. Trademark, after all, was built to prevent customer confusion, and it's unlikely that any UFC fan is going to think that UGF is affiliated with the fighting company. In addition, the whole concept behind the game appears to be one of parody, which would be protected as fair use.

Where this all gets tricky is that there's a whole lot to hate in Ultimate Gay Fighter.
In Ultimate Gay Fighter, a forthcoming brawler for iOS and Android, players take on the role of a variety of iconic gay caricatures, including a drag queen, a butch lesbian, an Asian 'twink', a gym bunny, a golden-chain wearing African-American rapper and a drunken bisexual woman. Each character wields a comedic 'gaytality' move that makes reference to common LGBT jokes.
The caricatures are crude at best and, in my opinion, not particularly funny. That said, my opinion means eff-all when it comes to free speech and my sense of allowing speech to rule the day outweighs my offense: UFC shouldn't be bullying this game out of their name. And no, before everyone gets started on my regular attacks on the Washington Redskins organization, this isn't even close to being the same thing. There's nothing inherently offensive in the name Ultimate Gay Fighter, "gay" isn't recognized as having a detrimental definition, and in this case we're talking about taking away speech rights, not opening them up to everyone.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 April 2014 @ 6:36pm

That Time A Star Trek Captain And A Physicist Got Tricked Into Doing A Documentary On Geocentrism

from the all-hail-the-earth dept

What with the democratization of filmmaking technology, we've seen a relative explosion in films, as production has been opened to a whole population that would otherwise be unable to produce their wares. This, by and large, is a good thing. The barriers to entry have been lowered, streaming sites like YouTube provide an avenue for distribution, and we all get as many cute puppy videos as we can possibly handle. The flipside is that there are some jackasses out there who put out terrible crap. The whole Innocence Of Muslims fiasco is but one example, with actors reportedly being duped, controversial producers who remained in the shadows, and a finished product that would be most at home in the nearest dumpster. The technology is a great thing, but that doesn't mean there aren't pitfalls, and those lending their names to films and shows need to be careful about what they're getting into.

Like Kate Mulgrew, for instance. The former Star Trek captain apparently did some voiceover work for a film that pushes the theory of geocentrism (Earth as the center of the universe).

Kate Mulgrew—best known as that show’s Captain Janeway—has lent her familiar voice to The Principle, an upcoming documentary about the belief that the Earth is the center of the universe. The film has been in the works for a while, though it’s mostly been as ignored as those who have propagated the theory of Geocentrism past the 17th century. In a post on her Facebook page, the actress addressed that discussion, denying any involvement beyond being a hired gun who maybe should have asked a few more questions:

"I understand there has been some controversy about my participation in a documentary called THE PRINCIPLE. Let me assure everyone that I completely agree with the eminent physicist Lawrence Krauss, who was himself misrepresented in the film, and who has written a succinct rebuttal in SLATE. I am not a geocentrist, nor am I in any way a proponent of geocentrism. More importantly, I do not subscribe to anything Robert Sungenis has written regarding science and history and, had I known of his involvement, would most certainly have avoided this documentary. I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that. I apologize for any confusion that my voice on this trailer may have caused."
Lawrence Krauss, should you not know, is a famous physicist that would push the idea of geocentrism as much as he'd claim the moon was made of cheese (it's not by the way...). He published an article in Slate stating that he's unaware of how he ended up in the film, but it probably resulted from filmmakers pulling clips of him from around the internet and editing them in such a way as to make it sound like he supported the theory. Krauss, being smart, refuses to dignify the film with any legal action.

The man behind the film is Robert Sungenis, who has dedicated his life to arguing for geocentrism, among other crackpot nonsense.
Sungenis—who has a Ph.D. in religious studies from “a private distance-learning institution in Republic of Vanuatu”—has used those credentials to establish a career as a leading proponent of Geocentrism, based on an understanding of astrophysics drawn from that most esteemed of scientific manuals, the Bible. In addition to denying anyone can prove the Earth revolves around the sun, he’s also well known for denying anyone can prove 6 million Jews died during the Holocaust. He’s also claimed that Jews are in league with Satan to take over the planet.
Delightful. In any case, it would be very easy and understandable for Mulgrew and Krauss to be royally pissed over this and pursue legal action. In fact, in light of the recent ruling in favor of Cindy Garcia, Mulgrew may even have a copyright claim to make, as ridiculous as that is. What a wonderful world of litigation Judge Kozinski has opened for us all, despite his proclamation on how rarely his ruling could be enforced. We're mere weeks away, yet here's another situation in which an actress who should have done her homework can point to Cindy Garcia's victory and claim copyright. Fortunately, Mulgrew seems to understand what Kozinski did not: that she was a "voice for hire" and that a good deal of the responsibility for knowing what she was lending her voice (and thus credibility) to is her own.

I'd argue that a little public refuting without any legal action, which would only serve to put The Principle in the headlines, and a more proactive approach to vetting the material before committing to a project is all that's required. After all, it's not like any substantial number of people will take this film seriously. As long as the public knows some of those involved were duped, that should be the end of it.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 April 2014 @ 8:02pm

WWE Attorney Tries To Sneak Address Of Wrestling Streaming Site By Offering A Gift Bag

from the foreign-object-in-the-ring dept

Professional wrestling league, the WWE, is truly a lesson in paradoxes. A theatrical production presented as an athletic competition sets the stage for a business that at times can't quite seem to figure out exactly how it wants to behave. On the one hand, you have their plan to embrace a streaming product that leaves much of the rest of the "sporting" world to shame. On the other hand, WWE executives have been known to protect their intellectual property on a level bordering insanity.

In this latest story, executives for WWE seem to be channeling one of their in-the-ring evil personas, in which they pretend to offer up an apology to a streaming site operator all in an attempt to sneak his identity and contact information from him. It all starts with battling a website designed to bring wrestling fans the streaming they wanted (note: this was before WWE offered its own streaming service):

During March 2013, Facebook said that WWE Intellectual Property Director Matthew Winterroth was behind the closure of a page operated by Wrestling-Network, a site offering links to WWE streams and shows. Wrestling-Network operator ‘BeBe’ was told by the social network that he would need to contact the lawyer directly to solve the dispute. BeBe decided to quit Facebook and moved to Twitter instead, but by the summer WWE had raised its head again, this time after PayPal disabled an account used for the site’s finances. BeBe says that in October WWE sent a takedown notice to Cloudflare, who handed over the details of the site’s actual host. For a few months things went calm, but last week all that changed. PayPal closed the site’s new account which had been opened by a third-party, and Facebook shutdown Wrestling-Network’s new page and BeBe’s personal page while they were at it.
It's a story that feels as old as the bible these days. Guy runs sites pointing to links of illegitimate streams, content producer works to take the site down, cat-and-mouse game commences. Now, we could have a long discussion about how links aren't themselves infringement, about how WWE could (and it appears eventually did) offer a competing legitimate service, and all the rest. This isn't that post, however, because it was around this time that things got a bit strange. BeBe did as he was asked and reached out to the WWE to resolve the issue. In his communique, he offered up only his handle and his email address.

Winterroth responded to BeBe, suggesting the takedown of his site may have been a mistake. It seems unlikely Winterroth was being honest about this, since he was the one named in the takedowns. Stranger, a follow-up email from Winterroth requested BeBe's real name and address, promising a WWE giftbag and an apology for taking down the sites. BeBe wasn't taking.
“I mean, I heard a long time ago about a case where in order to arrest them on US territory, some guys were attracted to the USA by undercover FBI agents who promised them money and girls, but a gift bag from WWE? Really? He could at least given me some WrestleMania tickets.”

BeBe says he politely declined the offer.
Winterroth's response had, shall we say, a slightly different tone. He tells BeBe he's tracked him down to Romania and promises to send the blackshirts over for a visit.
“Should you not shut down the website and agree not to infringe WWE intellectual property in the future in an immediate fashion, WWE will continue to work with our counsel in Romania, as well as the relevant legal authorities, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs/Bucharest City Police and Romanian National Audiovisual Council on our ongoing criminal complaint against you.”

What followed were demands for BeBe to hand over his domain but with tempers beginning to fray, that seemed unlikely.
From there, the exchanges devolved, on both sides, into threats from the WWE and BeBe's sophomoric attempts to remind Winterroth that Romania is actually a country outside of the United States, where US copyright law is as applicable as federal payroll taxes. Nobody comes out clean in the exchange, with both sides behaving like children.

Which is the entire point: if I can't tell the difference between a guy running a streaming-links site and the counsel for a multi-milliion dollar entertainment business, we have a problem. Also, false apologies and underhanded attempts to sneak contact information out of a guy who is just running a site linking to what might be legitimate targets for corporate counsel make everyone look oily. Finally, this seems like an awful lot of energy to spend on this situation, particularly when the release of a real damned streaming product to compete with the "pirates" was just around the corner. So, for all that work, Winterroth likely gets nothing other than a single link site taken down, while the folks putting together the streaming site actually work to make the company more money. It makes one wonder which side is getting the higher pay in this equation.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 April 2014 @ 11:50am

Katherine Heigl Wants Six Mil-Do After Drugstore Tweets Picture Of Her Shopping There

from the publicity-bytes dept

When I become king of America, I can assure you that anything resembling publicity rights will be stricken from the legal record. We've seen entirely too much craziness recently over these laws that appear to create something of a VIP class citizenry. But while even the typical ownership culture insanity usually has an inkling of logic to it, Katherine Heigl suing a drugstore for six million dollars simply for tweeting a photo of the actress shopping there is a whole new level of protectionism.

It's a form of publicity rights gone insane yet again, after Duane Reade tweeted and Facebook-ed a paparazzi photo of Heigl walking out of a Duane Reade, carrying some bags of whatever she had just purchased.

Heigl, the star of the films "The Ugly Truth" and "Life as We Know It" and a best supporting actress Emmy winner for "Grey's Anatomy," filed the lawsuit on Wednesday in New York federal court. The complaint said she was photographed in March near a Duane Reade store in New York while filming a new television series. Duane Reade posted the photo on its Twitter and Facebook account with captions advertising the store without her approval, the complaint said.

The 15-page lawsuit cited a tweet that Heigl claimed Duane Reade posted last month. "Love a quick #DuaneReade run? Even @KatieHeigl can't resist shopping #NYC's favorite drugstore," it said.
Now, we should all know by now that New York's publicity rights laws resemble something a dictator might have put together, strictly governing what the little people can do with images of the important folks. That said, Duane Reade may have a pretty strong defense in that the photo was an accurate representation of a thing that happened. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and all this picture is saying is "Heigl shopped at our drugstore and, hey, here's some photo evidence to prove it."

In fact, Duane Reade seems confident enough in its position that, as of writing this, the tweet is still up.

This is unlike some other publicity cases we've seen, such as when local grocery stores in Chicago congratulated Michael Jordan with an ad campaign, or the misinterpreted representation of celebrities in video games. This is a picture of something that happened represented over social media. At some point, it has to raise certain First Amendment issues about the broadness of various state publicity rights laws, when such laws can be used to prevent someone from accurately describing factual information. Yes, the point of publicity rights laws is to prevent companies from creating a false endorsement of a product, but is accurately describing the fact that someone shops at a store really a false endorsement?

On top of the publicity rights claim, Heigl claims that this is a form of "false advertising," but one could reasonably argue that (a) it's not false and (b) it's not advertising. The latter claim may be a little trickier, but where is the line between an advertisement, and some social media jockey at Duane Reade just tweeting out a photo. That line may become... very important to the outcome of this particular lawsuit.

But Heigl wants you to know she's not some kind of greedy monster:

The complaint said Heigl intends to donate all proceeds from the lawsuit to The Jason Debus Heigl Foundation, which was established in 2008 after her brother was killed in a car accident.
You're not fooling anyone. This is an ego-driven abuse of the legal system. Or, it would be, if publicity rights weren't opening the door to a whole new level of ownership culture insanity, where merely tweeting a picture of a thing that happened suddenly became actionable.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 April 2014 @ 4:05pm

Bracket Watch: EA Upset Early, Comcast Beats Monsanto For 'Worst Company' Award

from the cinderella-story dept

It's the time of year, when victories are had or not, dreams are realized or dashed along the playing surface, and champions are either born or unseated. Being from Chicago, I've been through this before. I've seen my heroes fall and experienced the heartbreak of having victory snatched from my guys in heartbreaking fashion. Still, even with that experience, it never gets easier.

Which is why we should all be standing up and doing a slow-clap for Electronic Arts, whose "Worst Company" championship string has finally come to an end. And it's all thanks to Comcast, who narrowly defeated cartoonishly evil megacorporation Monsanto in the final showdown. The road to not-glory, however, was not without its controversy.

Comcast’s road to the Poo started out without a speedbump, as the company powered through the first three rounds without ever giving up more than 30% of the vote. And with two-time reigning champ EA eliminated in Round One by Comcast’s merger partner Time Warner Cable, followed by three-time consecutive runner-up Bank of America’s surprise defeat at the hands of Walmart, Comcast seemed destined for the Final Death Match.

But the nation’s largest cable and Internet provider (which is trying to become even larger), almost got stopped in its track by first-time contender SeaWorld, riding high on waves of negative publicity tied to the documentary Blackfish. Comcast pulled off a buzzer-beater to hold off SeaWorld and earn its place in the Final Death Match. From the onset of the day-long bout, lawsuit-lovin’, herbicide-makin’ Monsanto was within striking distance of the Philly Kid, but Comcast gained a hair-thin edge early on and never ceded the lead.
It's been a good run for EA these past two years, in which they deftly ran the treat-customers-like-criminals offense and the delete-yo-crap defense. That kind of strategy led to their distinction for being the only two-time winning and repeat "Worst Company" champion. But if Michael Jordan retired (multiple times), Muhammed Ali fell, and the Lakers turned into whatever you call whatever they are now, then it was only a matter of time before a new, more youthfully horrible champion arose to unseat EA. And that example of awful is Comcast, who appears to think that Mr. Potter from It's A Wondeful Life was a template for how to do things.

And, just so we're all clear here, they beat Monsanto, a company that is attempting to put a corporate and IP stranglehold on food. Food. You know, that thing you need every day in order to live. That means that if you sat the average voter down and asked them which was worse, a big company getting bigger so they can control how you get your television, or the same scenario but with the thing that lets you live, people will choose the former.

I'm not sure that makes a whole lot of sense, but I'll refrain from taking away any of Comcast's glory today. Congrats, you terrible congress-bribing megalith you!

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 April 2014 @ 5:37am

YouTube Video Taken Down Because Of Background Street Performer Impersonating Michael Jackson

from the beat-it dept

I imagine in some room somewhere, a whole bunch of people in well-tailored suits came up with the idea of DMCA takedowns and thought it'd be just peaches. The practical application of that policy, however, has been something of a performance art piece on how intellectual property is a canard better left on the cutting room floor. YouTube in particular exemplifies this, what with their attempts to comply with rightsholders juxtaposed to a service model that just begs for case studies in inadvertent violations and strong arm attempts by confused non-rightsholders.

Peter writes in with the latest such example, concerning an uploader who put up his trek across the Brooklyn Bridge. The video was taken down for the silliest of reasons.

ANYWAY, I went through all of the trouble of uploading and editing both of these boring-ass videos to a popular Internet video hosting website, only to have the aforementioned website totally mute the Brooklyn Bridge video because there's a Michael Jackson impersonator at the foot of the bridge and he's performing to the song "Beat It," which you can hear in the background.
So, someone crossing a bridge has a video of the experience that includes the decades-old song of a deceased performer being reenacted by a street performer... and down the video goes. I imagine the originators of copyright are rolling over in their graves at this point, never imagining that automated systems would trip the flag on this kind of takedown. Even imagining for a moment that this wouldn't or shouldn't be considered fair use, can someone explain to me what the point of all this is?
I'm pretty sure incidental capture of a portion of a song being played by a street performer falls under "fair use," and I've disputed it because I have nothing better to do with my life, but in the meantime I'm inspired by the knowledge that our publicly-traded companies go to such great lengths to protect the copyrights of great Americans like Michael Jackson.
The reality of course is that the rights to the song are held by a third party label and this was just the automated system accidentally capturing a video that the label probably wouldn't even bother taking down itself and blah, blah, blah. All I know is this is really stupid and a hindrance to the simple sharing culture that humanity has always enjoyed. Thanks copyright.

54 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 8 April 2014 @ 12:07am

Progress: An Honest Criminal Turns Himself In After Learning He's Wanted Via Vanity Google Search

from the baby-steps dept

You know, we talk a great deal at Techdirt about dumb criminals and how often they are nabbed by the intersection of their own stupidity and technology. It is, frankly, enough to make you wonder about the future of our species, watching these would-be criminal masterminds fumble about social media, YouTube, and the like. I remember the days when criminals had a certain sense of honor. Sure, they did wrong, but they had a certain something to them.

Well, perhaps that breed of criminal isn't dead yet, judging by Christopher Viatafa, the Palo Alto man who did a vanity Google search for his own name, saw that he was a wanted man, and promptly turned himself in.

Google Christopher Viatafa and with no digging at all you'll find he's wanted by San Leandro police. That's exactly what the 27-year-old Palo Alto man discovered this month. The first result of his search led to the Northern California's Most Wanted website, where his picture appeared along with the charges he's facing, authorities said Friday. Accused of doing wrong, authorities said Viatafa then did what was right: He turned himself in to police.
In a world filled with criminals who brazenly use technology to act like jackasses, this is apparently what passes for a breath of fresh air. Viatafa appears to be no saint, having allegedly peeled off a couple of caps after an argument at a party (no injuries/deaths reported), but at least he went to face his charges after finding out just how badly the state wanted him.

So fear not for our future, because some bad guys who shoot guns will apparently use the internet to turn themselves in. Or something. Actually, I'm not sure any of this is really making me feel much better.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 April 2014 @ 2:38pm

Governin': Sen. Dan Coats Questions The Wrong Witness At The Wrong Hearing

from the thank-god-for-video-cameras dept

Let's all admit something: being in government ain't easy. Between all the lies you have to keep straight, counting all that bribe lobbying money, and constantly looking over your shoulder to see if the CIA is having you followed back to your office, being a representative of the people is one hell of an undertaking. Maybe that's why that revolving door of government and lobbying keeps spitting folks out of our congressional buildings.

Take Senator Dan Coats, for instance. Coats is a serious guy with serious thoughts, such as "Hey, why can't the damned public trust us to spy on them?" and "That guy looks like he has no friends, so he's probably a terrorist!" His most recent thoughts, however, appear to be something along the lines of, "Holy crap, where the hell am I?" Here's your senator at work, Indiana.

Should you be unable to see the video, that's Senator Coats sitting down and questioning the wrong witness at the wrong hearing that he wasn't even supposed to be attending. He rambles on a bit and you can almost see the hamsters spinning up in that noggin as he looks at the witness: "Wait a minute, something isn't right." But he powers through his mistake like a champion until a helpful aide passes him a note that I imagine read something close to: "The home called and they want you to go back to your room and take your pills."

Look, it's a mistake, I get that. Hell, I've shown up at some really awkward places due to a scheduling mishap (big shout out to all my girls from the Saint Benedict's Nunnery bathroom, yo!), but to not only show up in the wrong place at the wrong time, but actually start questioning the wrong damned witness makes me wonder if Coats has anyone around him helping him out. He's not...a loner, is he?

16 Comments | Leave a Comment..

Posted on Techdirt - 4 April 2014 @ 9:29am

Everything Old Is Unavailable Again: How Copyright Has Ebooks Operating In The 1800s

from the one-step-forward,-two-steps-back dept

Nothing sucks more than a great new technology with old-world thinking attached to it. Such has been the case with ebooks, unfortunately, with antiquated views on DRM, pricing, and storefront protectionism resulting in pissed off customers and libraries hollering from the nearest rooftop. What we're left with is a platform that could do much to spread knowledge and the practice of reading among entire populations being stifled by those that still think the world should operate based on analog philosophies.

Reader zip writes in about a nice write up detailing how cyclical this has made reading, with protectionist policies regarding ebooks cutting the benefit of the technology right out from underneath it.

Today, the situation has come full circle. If a student in Freiburg wants to read the hard-copy version of a book from the university library in Basel, he or she can simply order it via an interlibrary loan. But if only an electronic version is available, interlibrary loans are generally not an option. The student has no choice but to climb into a train and head to Switzerland to read the book on a university computer.

It is a paradox: Books that traveled around the world via interlibrary loan in the 20th century paper era are safeguarded locally in the Internet age. Indeed, it is the sheer ease with which electronic publications can be sent around the world that is now resulting in their being locked up behind digital bars. The book doesn't go to the reader, the reader comes to the book -- just like in the 19th century.
If that doesn't strike you as absurd, you're likely missing some significant sections of your brain. The very benefit the entire digital experience has brought most other marketplaces and forms of communication and learning in the past thirty years is being blocked by a trumped-up policy born out of fear. Just think about that for a moment: the same book I can get on loan from a far-off library is unavailable to me in ebook format, even though the transfer of that ebook is easier, cheaper, and quicker. That, friends, is the dumbest thing I've ever heard.

But it gets more stupid. This doesn't simply apply to fictional entertainment, but to true knowledge platforms as well, and the willingness to be wasteful is astounding.
The issue is the core of the knowledge economy: essays, articles and books from researchers. "We have thousands of e-books that we could make available to our users via the Internet," says Harald Müller, head librarian at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg. "Be we often aren't allowed to because licenses are so restrictive."

Copyright laws often lead to "delightful absurdities," says Müller. If, for example, he wants to read an essay from an American library via interlibrary loan, "they will print it out on paper and send it over by fax -- and I will then scan it into our computers here." Sending it as an email attachement is forbidden.
In other words, everyone ends up in the exact same place they would if ebook lending was opened up, except it's slower, less efficient, costlier, and requires physical resources that nobody is actually interested in using. This is the epitome of inefficiency, and it's the answer to whether or not the originators of copyright law would support this kind of application: no they damn well wouldn't. Imagine Thomas Jefferson being showed how copyright was being used to limit knowledge and that imagining had better end with Jefferson punching everyone involved.

So, who's fault is it? The answer is the combination of governments unwilling to consider change and, of course, publishers. Most egregious are the academic publishers.
In many cases, it is the readers themselves who, through their taxes, pay the university authors whose studies they are then unable to access. It is also likely that many professors themselves cannot even afford a subscription to the journal in which their work is published. Subscription rates of up to €15,000 ($20,633) per year are hardly a rarity. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, for example, comes with a price tag of more than €20,000 annually. Authors who publish their works in such a journal usually don't see a single cent for their labors. Publishing companies such as Reed Elsevier, by contrast, regularly achieve pre-tax profit margins of over 25 percent.

"Publishers of scientific journals make so much money because they collect their product for free from taxpayers and then sell it back at inflated prices," says Günter M. Ziegler, a distinguished mathematician at Berlin's Free University.
And the suppression of knowledge is the result of all this protectionist nonsense. When we've reached the point where the researchers aren't being paid and the public can't access their papers, things need to change.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 April 2014 @ 5:12am

Chilling Effects: Climate Change Deniers Have Scientific Paper Disappeared

from the now-you-see-it dept

Let me let you in on a little fantasy of mine: every once in a while, I like to imagine finding myself meeting the person who came up with the term "global warming." Why? So I can punish that person. Severely. See, what a term like "global warming" does is allow the guy in the cubicle next to me to point out of the window in Chicago and say, "If global warming is true, why is it snowing out again?" And that, friends, is something nobody should have to deal with.

Climate change is the better term, of course, and the majority of the scientific community firmly believes that there is such a thing as man-made climate change. From there, we could have a discussion about how profound the effects of climate change are, whether they're actually better or worse, what other contributing factors might be in play in impacting climate, and all the rest, and those would be worthy conversations to have. What we shouldn't do is try to use the law to silence dissenting opinions, particularly if those opinions come in the form of scientific research. Yet, that is exactly what one scientific journal has allowed to happen after publishing an article on the link between those who deny climate change and those who believe in a more wide-ranging array of conspiracy theories. Frontiers originally published the piece last year, but took it down once the legal threats started rolling in. After an internal investigation found the peer-reviewed study to be sound, you'd have thought they'd re-publish it. You'd be wrong. Here's the statement about the retraction from the journal itself.

In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.
In other words, a study that was judged by peers to be scientifically sound, has been disappeared over the murky threats of possible legal action. Let that sink in for a moment: science is undone because some people didn't like it. The author of the study resided at the time in the UK, where libel laws used to be of a construction specifically designed to fill the courthouses with all manner of craziness. Just recently, the UK has improved its libel laws to lessen the chilling effect of lawsuits from harming the progression of science. On top of that, the internal review at the journal found no issues with the study after making some minor alterations to appease the angry. Frontiers didn't see fit to re-publish, however.
It is hard to imagine a set of outcomes that would have better remedied each issue flagged by Frontiers as a matter of concern. So it came as quite a shock to hear that the journal had decided to retract the paper ostensibly because “the legal context is insufficiently clear”.
Look, if you're a climate change denier, that's cool. I don't agree with you, but feel free to write up your own research, publish any compelling information you can come up with, and all the rest. Consensus is never something I've been much interested in; I'd rather have multiple ideas to choose from and study. And, hey, if you think we never landed on the moon, Hitler was actually fighting the lizard-people now running world government, and 9/11 was all a holographic light-show designed to allow George Bush to fulfill his childhood dream of landing on an aircraft carrier in a flightsuit, have at it. I want you to let me know you believe in that stuff, because that's how I'll know to keep my future children away from you.

But the other side of the coin is that we shouldn't be allowing your side to silence science, either. Fair is fair, after all.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 3 April 2014 @ 3:27am

Mobile Spyware Use In Domestic Violence Ramps Up

from the following-the-nsa's-example dept

We recently wrote about the emergence of NSA-like spying platforms for mobile devices. Ostensibly designed and marketed for worried mothers and/or employers to monitor their children and/or employees, reports instead indicate a more nefarious use employed by jealous men and women looking to spy on their would-be significant others. In other words, technology somewhat similar to what the NSA employs generally is being used quite specifically by the unhinged, who appear to have taken our spy agencies' example to heart.

If some recent reports are to be believed, most of us have probably underestimated the problem instead of blowing it out of proportion.

MobiStealth, the product that received such rave reviews online, was used by convicted murderer Simon Gittany to read his girlfriend Lisa Harnum's text messages, one of several forms of control and surveillance he subjected her to. The product's website encourages potential buyers to ''get the answers you deserve''. When Gittany learned of Ms Harnum's plan to escape the abusive relationship in July 2011, he threw her off the balcony of their 15th-floor Sydney apartment.
Down Under, at least, it would appear this wasn't an isolated incident.
In a Victorian study last year, 97 per cent of domestic violence workers reported that perpetrators were using mobile technologies to monitor and harass women in domestic situations. Two-thirds of the 46 victims interviewed said they were made to feel like they were being watched or tracked, yet less than half told somebody about it.
While that first number is certainly shocking, I'm actually far more intrigued by the second set of statistics. Less than half of domestic violence victims who felt like they were being tracked on their mobile devices didn't say anything to anyone? This reeks of resignation when what might be needed most is a good dose of recalcitrance. While it may be difficult to directly point the blame for these domestic violence perps at intrusively spying government agencies, I wonder if the same could be said for the victims' reluctance to do anything about being spied on. If we have to accept a world in which our own governments, or foreign governments, are going to spy on us, perhaps it makes us less likely to push back against spying that is of a domestic nature?

I'm not sure, but the way this technology is progressing and the price at which it is offered likely means that stories for this kind of thing are in their infancy stages.
Mobile phone spyware costs as little as $6 a month and needs to be installed physically on a phone once for it to operate without the owner's knowledge. Shane Johnson, a spokesman for Sydney company Spousebusters, said it sold ''hundreds'' of GPS trackers, hidden cameras, listening bugs and spyware programs a year. The company asks no questions of purchasers and takes no responsibility for people using legal products to commit illegal acts.
And the perps can claim all along they're only following the NSA's example? Oh, this should work out well...

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Posted on Techdirt - 31 March 2014 @ 8:07pm

Baseball Is Back! Too Bad I Still Can't Watch My Local Team On My MLB.TV Subscription...

from the root,-root-root-for-someone-out-of-market dept

Can you smell it yet? The freshly cut grass, the muffled sound of thousands of fans, the wonderous gasps of young people? Baseball is back. I'm generally an avid fan of professional sports and, as I've written about before, a strong promoter of the idea that the pro sports leagues I love so much could benefit greatly from a wider, more open embrace for streaming their games online. Particularly for leagues on the lower end of the popularity and revenue spectrums, I would think that building a wider audience through internet streaming would be a boon to otherwise mediocre broadcasting partnerships. The NHL in particular is known to have absolutely brutal broadcast contracts that aren't supporting teams as well as they could if the league were to attempt to multiply their viewership through streaming.

But with Major League Baseball, it's a whole different animal. Teams in Major League Baseball are insanely profitable, in largest part because of the broadcasting revenue. With that in mind, it might seem silly to suggest that MLB should be looking at ways to free up their streaming product. But that's wrong and here's why.

First, let's start with a little background and some compliments. Nobody in pro sports leagues does streaming as well as MLB in terms of quality and quantity. For $130/year, you get almost all the games for the entire season in full HD, with options for the radio or television broadcasts offered by either of the teams playing. The stream is reliable and of good quality, with a pop-out media player that's simple. For the games they stream, it works beautifully.

You've probably already guessed the problem, haven't you? It's region locked, with the arbitrary borders of a team's fan-base blacked out from their team's streams, both for home games and away games. The idea, of course, is that MLB doesn't want to offend their local broadcast partners by offering their broadcast over streaming as a charged service. Their thought is essentially that the broadcast is TV's product and local advertising is what pays the television stations, who in turn pay MLB for the rights to the games. Let's turn this on its head, though, and see the insane kind of money MLB could make if they stopped seeing themselves as only being in the baseball business and also offered up their established streaming infrastructure to their broadcasting partners.

MLB, today, could go to TV stations, cable or otherwise, and offer up their robust streaming platform. MLB would make its money charging more for broadcast rights under that kind of agreement. TV stations in turn could claim a higher viewership than they have today through TV only, allowing them to generate increased revenue in advertising sales and rates. Keep in mind that MLB.TV is using those station broadcasts anyway (for instance, the MLB.TV Chicago Cubs stream is just the WGN/CSN broadcast streamed over MLB.COM). Between internet streaming and mobile devices, viewership numbers would skyrocket. I say this because of how often we're told about the horrific danger of all the sports streaming sites already out there offering the exact thing MLB.TV could be getting paid for. In other words, anyone with an internet connection can already do all this, while MLB.TV could offer the same thing as part of their package with infrastructure they already have in place.

In summary, baseball could today, without having to invest in any infrastructure, work with broadcast partners to free up streaming to local fans who can already get those streams through illegitimate services. It would benefit the league, the broadcast partners, the advertisers, and the fans. There is literally no loser in this equation. All it would take is some forward-thinking folks in the league and TV to get over their protectionist traditions and make it happen.

In the meantime, my MLB.TV subscription means I can't watch my team play for no logical reason.

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Posted on Techdirt - 28 March 2014 @ 5:37pm

Left Hand Brewery Attempts To Trademark 'Nitro' For Its Beer Line

from the gassy-brew-ha-ha dept

Here we go again. Beer-makers and trademark seem to be becoming something of an item these days. Previously, we've noted trademarks and battles over last names, common sports phrases, and (sigh) whether a six looks too much like a nine. Seriously. These applications and battles tend to revolve around some common term or name being used in association with a beer brand. Where trademark was chiefly developed as a resource for consumers to keep from being duped, it has evolved into a language-grab for companies looking to knee-cap the competition.

Such is the latest case, in which Left Hand Brewing out of Colorado wants to trademark the term "nitro" for their beer brands. Unfortunately, this presents a problem.

Colorado's Left Hand Brewing is attempting to trademark the term "nitro"—as in, nitrogen. The Longmont company is thus far the only US brewer to bottle with nitrogen as opposed to carbon dioxide, something it says it achieved at a steep cost: years of effort, and hundreds of thousands of dollars. "We have a bottle that is pretty unique," president Eric Wallace tells the Denver Post. But here's what's not unique: Plenty of breweries pour nitro beer on draft, and others have announced or implied plans for nitro beer in bottles or cans. If the trademark is granted, Left Hand could send cease-and-desist letters to those breweries, a lawyer explains.
I'm not sure how accurate that last bit is. Instead, C&D letters would go out to other breweries using the label of nitro to denote a nitrogen infused beer, not breweries that simply partake in the process. Still, we see the problem of this evolution in trademark usage. What is likely to become an industry standard process, and one that is already done in other parts of the industry, is going to be locked up in terms of branding. Denoting a nitrogen-infused bottle isn't terribly different from denoting a beer as 'lite/light', yet other breweries would be deprived the ability to do inform their customers of what they're drinking if this mark goes through. That wasn't the purpose of the law at the outset.

Other publications, and companies, appear to agree.
The Week sees nitro as a "descriptor"—"imagine if, say, Budweiser tried to trademark 'refreshing,'" it quips. But Wallace says the trademark seeks to protect the name of its "Nitro Series" of beers, "not the style—not nitrogenated beers." But a rep for Anheuser-Busch—which has until June to decide if it will oppose the application—notes, "As a brewer, we have produced our own nitrogenated beers and, like many other brewers, large and small, we need to maintain the ability to identify them to consumers."
We'll have to see if the trademark is granted, but it sure shouldn't be if the intent of trademark law is followed.

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Posted on Techdirt - 28 March 2014 @ 5:20am

A Lesson in Stupid Moral Panics: The History Of Dungeons And Dragons Bans

from the hail-satan dept

We talk a lot about the backlash that inevitably occurs against video games, usually whenever a tragedy takes place, or a new envelope-pushing game comes out. This goes on, despite all the evidence and expert opinion stating that such backlash is completely misguided. For those of us who choose to think with reason rather than emotion, it only adds to the frustration that some of the loudest voices against violence in video games will occasionally turn out to be alleged criminals themselves, yet the next grandstanding politician or advocate faces no carryover scrutiny. It can seem enough to weigh down even the most patient person's faith that eventually sense will prevail and reason will be invoked.

So if you're one of the disheartened, gather around, because I want to tell you again the story of how moral panics occur in every generation and are almost always defeated. That link will take you through a brief history of all the things society has crapped its tighty-whities about, including the waltz, comic books, rock and roll, romance novels, the telephone, and movies. What folks my age may remember, however, is when it seemed like half the country was insisting that Dungeons & Dragons was a satanic cult ritual causing children to off themselves in record numbers. Annalee Newitz has a fascinating article about the moral panic that existed around the dice-rolling role-playing game and how its history is now curated by the very people that endured its idiocy.

It sounds crazy in our world today, where there are Dungeons & Dragons movies and a rich game industry full of titles inspired by those old paper-and-dice games we played back in the twentieth century. One of the most popular shows on television, Game of Thrones, features plots that my friends and I might have cooked up back on that playground at lunch. Somehow, the popularity of epic fantasy and role playing overcame America's fear of young people making up stories about monsters and gods. Meanwhile, the literature of the anti-D&D crusaders has become so obscure that it's memorialized on websites like The Escapist, where scanned-in pages of heartfelt nonsense are heavily footnoted to remind us of the historical context.

As the article says, looking back from the vantage point of a world where entertainment is strewn with the fantasy genre, it's stunning to see the propaganda that had been unleashed. Unsurprisingly, said propaganda has since been eviscerated, with all the common tales of kids killing themselves being shown to be completely unrelated to anything having to do with children's games. Still, this kind of thing propagated like hell-fire. For all the normal, non-Satan-worshipping kids out there that were just trying to have a little fun, it must have seemed like insanity would rule the day. Fortunately, it didn't.

And yet the half-elf thieves and evil clerics and dorky kids with dice won at least one melee in this particular culture war. That's abundantly obvious when you consider that the media is dominated by D&D-influenced stories. Meanwhile, the anti-D&D campaigns today have been reduced to items like this shabby little pamphlet, digitized by a gamer who wanted to memorialize a hard time in geek history. It's a clear example of history being written by the winners.
Winners who are now all grown up and who have moved on to their next moral panic, be it violent video games, drill gangster rap, or any number of the next thing the younger generations will come up with. The cycle repeats. Every generation was young, became old, and feared the new young again. That's too bad, but for those of us still reveling in our youth, real or imagined, it's nice to know that the moral panic over video games, like all those before it, will eventually subside.

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 March 2014 @ 4:01pm

USPTO: Again, Redskin Can't Be Trademarked Because It's A Racist Term

from the no-kidding dept

In the ongoing maelstrom known as the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins NFL team name, we've covered before how the trademark they've obtained may soon be under siege. Trademark law has a provision that prohibits marks on disparaging and/or racist terminology, of which the term "redskin" is most assuredly included. This provision is a huge pain in the ass of Daniel Snyder, owner of the Redskins, who, on one hand, insists the team retain their racist name while on the other hand throws around accusations of antisemetism willy-nilly. Building on that worry is the recent case of the USPTO coming out and rejecting another trademark attempt on the word "Redskin" for those very reasons.

Well, unfortunately for Snyder, that case isn't a lone example. The USPTO has rejected another such trademark, this for "Washington Redskins Potatoes", in part of the same reason.

"Registration is refused because the applied-for mark includes matter which may disparage or bring into contempt or disrepute persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols," the decision, handed down on March 17, says. It concludes: "Given that "REDSKIN" in the mark is a derogatory slang term that refers to, and is considered offensive by, American Indians, registration of the applied-for mark must be refused" under the Trademark Act, a 1946 law that prohibits the trademarking of offensive or derogatory terms. The examining attorney's decision cites dictionary definitions of the word "Redskins" that say it is "usually offensive" or "offensive slang," and it also notes that groups like the National Congress of American Indians and the Oneida Indian Nation regard the word as a disparaging slur.
Now, I know all you staunch libertarians out there are going to get your boxers in a twist over this, issuing all the same proclamations about how it isn't your responsibility to not offend people, how this is an infringement of speech, or how this is a sign of our increasingly politically correct society. Look, I get you. A large portion of the time on this type of question, I agree with you. But in this case, the law is pretty clear, as is the accepted definition of the term "redskin." And if the NFL team's mark was removed, it wouldn't mean Snyder had to change the name of the team, it would just mean that anyone else, were they so inclined, would be able to use the term in football commerce at that point (although, not the logo, or other trademarked identifiers for the team). The point, as it has been since day one, is that the United States government should not be in the business of sanctifying racist language via grants of trademarks.

It should be noted that the offensiveness of the term was only partly to blame for the denial of the mark. The USPTO also thought there might be some confusion between the team's existing mark and the potatoes (which might not be entirely crazy given the combination of both "washington" and "redskin" for the potato).

Meanwhile, the appeal on the NFL Redskins mark has been heard, and we're all just awaiting their ruling. If the USPTO is anything to go by, Snyder may want to look for a new name -- or at least recognize that the name won't be trademarked any more.

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 March 2014 @ 11:04am

School Coughs Up $70k In Damages For Invading 13 Year Old's Social Media Space

from the everwhere-is-the-campus? dept

A couple of years ago, Tim Cushing wrote up the story of a Minnesota student who was forced to give her social media passwords to a school so they could snoop through her off-campus life and develop a couple of life-lessons for her. Those life lessons appeared to have essentially amounted to recognizing that school administrators too often see themselves as parents and they think students' free speech rights end where an administrator's interest in his/her students' lives begin. Fortunately, a judge disabused them of their misconceptions, stating in no uncertain terms that forcing a student to give up their social media passwords is a violation of the First Amendment. Common sense, how little we see of ye.

And now, to bring some closure to this story, the school is coughing up $70,000 in damages and rewriting their policies to prevent further abuse.

Minnewaska Area Schools agreed to pay $70,000 in damages and rewrite its policies to limit how intrusive the school can be when searching a student’s e-mails and social media accounts created off school grounds. The federal court settlement comes just after Rogers High School senior Reid Sagehorn, a 17-year-old honor student and football captain, was suspended for seven weeks for a two-word Internet posting in a case that created a community uproar.

“A lot of schools, like the folks at Minnewaska, think that just because it’s easier to know what kids are saying off campus through social media somehow means the rules have changed, and you can punish them for what they say off campus,” said attorney Wallace Hilke, who helped lead Riley’s case from the Minnesota branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
While it would be quite easy to see the restitution as an "all good" ending to this story, the article unfortunately then goes on to quote Minnewaska school district administrators who still can't seem to wrap their heads around the idea that it isn't their job to police students' off-campus behavior. Chief amongst them is Greg Schmidt, Superintendent, who wasn't in that position when the snooping occurred but did work on the settlement.
“Some people think schools go too far and I get that,” Schmidt said. “But we want to make kids aware that their actions outside school can be detrimental.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Schmidt, the general public doesn't much care that he wants to teach kids all kinds of lessons about their personal lives. That isn't a public school's role, never has been, and never should be. Parents parent and schools...er, school? Regardless, getting involved in students' private lives is a gross misstep. The student's mother agrees.
“They never once told me they were going to bring her into the room and demand her Facebook password,” Sandra said. “I’m hoping schools kind of leave these things alone so parents can punish their own kids for things that happen off school grounds.”.
Hope? Hope!?! How about demand? While the new rules crafted by the district limit school's from looking into social media exchanges unless there's a "reasonable suspicion" they will find actions or speech that violates school rules, how quickly do you think we'll hear a story about that leeway being abused? It's high time for parents to insist that they be allowed to parent their own children and for schools to focus on teaching academics, rather than life lessons.

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Posted on Techdirt - 25 March 2014 @ 8:16pm

PSA: Don't Kill Yourself, Literally, Over BS Ransomware

from the tragic-lies dept

We've talked about ransomware in the past, the process by which criminals pose as either rights holders or law enforcement to convince people that they must pay large sums of money for transgressions in order to avoid serious jail time. Copyright infringers have frequently been targets of these kinds of lies and, more recently, NSA-themed ransomware has begun to appear. While the more savvy internet user may realize that these threats are great big steaming piles of crap that can be cleansed with an antivirus program, more naive folks can understandably have the hell scared out of them and find themselves devulging credit card information.

But we've reached a new level of tragedy when it comes to this kind of criminal endeavor, with one Romanian man reacting to ransomware in the extreme, killing himself and his young son as a result of his machine's infection.

The report of the tragic incident comes from the small Romanian commune of Movila Miresii which is made up of three small villages and located in Brăila County in the east of the country. Local paper Braila24 reports that Marcel Datcu, 36, hanged himself in the living room of his home along with his four-year-old son Nicusor. The report claims a suicide note left to his wife explained that the reason for taking his own life was:

"I received a warning [on my computer] that said I have to pay 70.000 lei [£13,000] or go to prison for 11 years."
Just so we're clear, there is obviously something else going on with this man other than his simply receiving a ransomware infection. To kill yourself is horrific enough, but to take the life of a young child over any amount of money or years in jail is tragic on a level that defies scale. I imagine there is likely a serious mental health issue at hand here, otherwise I'm completely at a loss.

With that said, nobody should pretend for a moment that the acts of malware distributors should be completely absolved in this case. The impersonation of law enforcement and threats of jail time deserve reprecussions on their own, but to have contributed to the mental breakdown of this man, which tangentially contributed to a suicide and a murder, must not go unnoticed. Many of us wave these kinds of attacks off as the cost of doing business when it comes to internet browsing. That isn't enough.

Instead, serious educational efforts should be taken on to inform the public of these kinds of threats. The silence from those that "legitimately" engage in these threats (law enforcement, copyright trolls, etc.) is deafening. Were they smart, they'd be out in front of this story, letting everyone know that they would never engage in such malware infection as a threat tactic. Unfortunately for them, so many stories of their underhanded actions have come out that I'm not entirely sure how many people would trust them.

Still, people need to know the farce that this kind of malware is, lest we let similar tragedies like this one continue to occur.

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Posted on Techdirt - 25 March 2014 @ 2:33pm

Illinois Supreme Court Overturns Insane Recording Laws

from the i-hear-you dept

When it comes to insane bans on recording police and public officials, the granddaddy of them all has always been Illinois' eavesdropping law, which made it a federal crime to surreptitiously record any public official, even if they were amongst the public while performing their duties. The law was abused with such disregard for the Bill of Rights that court after court ruled the law unconstitutional. Those cases primarily dealt with the recording of law enforcement while performing their duties, something which ought to be a national right, given the ubiquity of cameras that are recording public citizens.

But now the Illinois Supreme Court has gone further, extending the overturning of the law such that it's no longer just law enforcement that is free to be recorded.

Today's decision(PDF) extends that analysis to other public officials as well as private citizens when they do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The justices note that the eavesdropping ban "criminalizes a wide range of innocent conduct," including "the recording of conversations that cannot be deemed private: a loud argument on the street, a political debate on a college quad, yelling fans at an athletic event, or any conversation loud enough that the speakers should expect to be heard by others. None of these examples implicate privacy interests, yet the statute makes it a felony to audio record each one. Judged in terms of the legislative purpose of protecting conversational privacy, the statute's scope is simply too broad."
It's an immensely satisfying decision that turns the country's most draconian anti-recording law on its head. Illinois politics being what they are, there may be no place in the country that needs recordings of public officials more than this state I call home. Attempts to criminalize such recordings in a way that went so far beyond privacy concerns were clearly an attempt to keep the local population at bay while corruption and illegality raged on. More impressively, the court specifically weighed the public's free speech rights against any concerns by public officials and found for the common citizen.
Because the eavesdropping ban "burdens substantially more speech than is necessary to serve a legitimate state interest in protecting conversational privacy," the court concludes, "it does not survive intermediate scrutiny. We hold that the recording provision is unconstitutional on its face because a substantial number of its applications violate the first amendment."
And so you can now record interactions with the folks whose salary you pay via taxes in the Land of Lincoln. Frankly, for a state known for corrupt public "servants", this has been a long time coming.

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