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This Week In Techdirt History: May 17th - 23rd (Techdirt)

by Leigh Beadon

from the thou-infringeth-on-a-summer's-day dept on Saturday, May 23rd, 2015 @ 12:00PM

Five Years Ago

There was plenty of ridiculousness from Hollywood this week in 2010. For one thing, movie studies were decidedly not following through on their "promises" to offer lots of new content if they could only break your TV with selectable output control, while the MPAA was also bizarrely focused on getting soldiers to stop buying bootleg DVDs, and Hurt Locker producer Nicholas Chartier was angrily defending his crusade against downloaders. Of course, given Hollywood's remake culture, it was no surprise that the studios were starting to run into copyright problems of their own (and given its anti-piracy culture, it was no surprise to see different anti-piracy solutions suing each other over patents). Not to mention the irony of Time Warner Cable standing up against automated copyright filings, or actor Peter Serafinowicz explaining why he even pirates movies he's in.

The UK was still grappling with the realities of the Digital Economy Act. We wondered if it would interfere with London's ambition to offer free wi-fi, while one regulator said the act only applies to big wireline ISPs and several politicians started trying to repeal it altogether. Copyright shenanigans were all around on the music side of things too: ASCAP bullied another local coffee shop into no longer playing local bands while a massive performance royalty rate hike in Australia drove gyms to start ditching pop music, and it became increasingly clear just how much the RIAA had clogged up the court system with its lawsuits.

Ten Years Ago

Five years before all that, the US Copyright Office was busy showing off just how much it misunderstood copyright law. Spain's recording industry pressured a university lecturer into resigning after he explained how file-sharing could be legal and positive. People were shocked at a Star Wars leak, but ignored the fact that it probably wasn't a big deal at all. And the UK's Premier League was moaning about illegal streams but not acknowledging that it was creating the market for them by failing to offer anything in competition.

The BSA conducted its annual ritual of releasing bogus piracy numbers, followed by the inevitable backlash. One copy-protection firm was playing both sides of the piracy game by patenting a P2P system and the technology to stop it. The NY Times tried its ill-fated experiment to charge for opinion pieces, one university library was going all digital, and megaplex movie theaters were straining to recapture their former glory.

Fifteen Years Ago

Last week, we saw Volkswagen become the first auto manufacturer to start selling cars directly online. This week, Ford joined them (in Canada) followed closely by GM, and lo the floodgates were opened. Meanwhile, online retail giant Amazon was experimenting with dynamic pricing, and some were predicting that the next great digital frontier would be family businesses — but we were all hoping that the then-dominant trend of cartoon mascots on every website would die out, quickly.

Michael Eisner, on the other hand, was convinced that email was a great existential threat to companies and the country (perhaps he heard that Singapore arrested a man for "cyber rage" after he sent thousands of them) while most people stopped shorter, at "email marketing is getting annoying". Congress was, for some reason, worried about genealogy websites, and Napster was struggling to figure out its future (with 60% of college students saying they'd supposedly pay for it).

Oh, and, you know those topic icons over to the left of every post? This week in 2000 is when we debuted them.

Four-Hundred and Six Years Ago

Shakespeare's Sonnets: they are among the foundational texts of English culture, and on May 20th, 1609 they were first officially listed in the Stationer's Register (an early precursor to copyright — for publishers, not authors), and printed shortly thereafter. Nobody has been able to determine whether the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, had authorization from Shakespeare or was working from an illicit copy.


Awesome Stuff: Handwritten Input For Anything, Anywhere (Innovation)

by Leigh Beadon

from the by-hand dept on Saturday, May 23rd, 2015 @ 9:00AM

Freehand input is hardly a new idea. It was a fixture of the early Palms, a feature of the famous Newton, and of course our primary means of "input" before computers came along. With the ascendance of touchscreens today, the capability is everywhere — and yet it still hasn't really caught on. Why? The three big reasons seem to be that screen real-estate is a premium and freehand input requires a lot of it, many devices simply aren't responsive enough to make it feel natural, and it isn't actually that useful in most situations. For this week's awesome stuff, we're looking at a device that aims to solve at least two of those problems: Phree, a laser-based digital pen.

The Good

Let's look at those three key issues again. The screen real-estate problem is what Phree aims to solve by its very nature, moving all that freehand work off your device's screen itself and onto any nearby surface. That alone would likely just exacerbate the second issue — responsiveness — but this is where the team's technological innovation is focused. In the video, they claim to have built the world's smallest 3D laser interferometer with new algorithms to achieve this high degree of accuracy in the compact device, and though I can't speak to the truth of this, the video does indeed show a very-responsive-looking system in action. If the finished product really works that well on such a wide array of surfaces, it'll have cleared the two key viability hurdles for the technology.

The Bad

The big question for anyone who has looked into this kind of device before is: can it compete with Livescribe, the current household name in smart pens? There are, of course, some big differences: Livescribe pens are real, functioning pens that also record what you write digitally, while the Phree is just an input device. The Livescribe can work as a standalone unit to record notes during the day then retrieve them digitally later, which it appears the Phree cannot. And, despite these missing capabilities, the Phree costs a bit more than a Livescribe 3.

That sounds pretty grim, but there are some factors running in the opposite direction: Livescribe pens only good for storing notes, not active live input of handwriting, and require you to actually be writing on paper at the same time; they operate through the cloud rather than being directly linked to your device by BlueTooth; and they have considerably fewer compatibility options, leaning heavily on a partnership with Evernote. The Phree is a far more versatile device.

In a way it's an unfair comparison, since the two are trying to accomplish different things, but I suspect it's the first comparison many people will make — and it's not entirely clear that Phree comes out on top.

The Useful?

We've established that the Phree aims to solve two of the three big issues with handwriting input, but what about the third? Freehand input has been possible for a long time — even longer than the multi-touch input we all use every day — but it's never really caught on. Part of this might be because the technology wasn't good enough, but there's a big question as to just how useful and desirable such input really is. Speaking for myself, I rarely find myself wishing for freehand when typing on my phone; on the occasions when I do want to jot and sketch more freely, I grab an actual pen and paper; and on the occasions when something I jot turns out to be important, I snap a photo of it. Obviously this process leaves a lot to be desired but, critically, it doesn't come up all that often.

On the other hand, I imagine there are many people with a different story to tell, who would love the ability to quickly and easily switch back and forth between typing and handwriting. The Phree could provide this with unprecedented responsiveness, and much more convenient workflow integration than existing smart pens — and that could definitely be a winner.


Senate Fails To Pass Both USA Freedom And PATRIOT Act Extension, Setting Up Possible Expiration Of Section 215 (Politics)

by Mike Masnick

from the the-drama-rises dept on Saturday, May 23rd, 2015 @ 6:55AM
Well, well. Here's a quick (rare) Saturday post just to get folks up to speed on what happened late last night. After going back and forth for a while, the Senate voted on... and failed to approve both a version of the USA Freedom Act and a short "clean extension" of the clauses of the PATRIOT Act that were set to expire -- mainly Section 215 which some (falsely) believe enables the NSA to collect bulk metadata from telcos (and potentially others). What this means is that it is much more likely that Section 215 expires entirely. The Senate has since left town, though it plans to come back next Sunday, May 31st to see if it can hammer out some sort of agreement. Though, beware of false compromises, such as those being pushed by Senate Intelligence Committee (and big time NSA supporter), Richard Burr. His "hastily introduced" bill pretends to try to "bridge the gap" but in actuality is much worse than basically anything else on the table.

Oftentimes when things like this happen, it's all political theater -- with Senators appearing to "take stands" on key issues to please constituents. This time, however, there does seem to be genuine confusion as to where this is all going to end up. Next week ought to be fairly interesting...

Paper Says Public Doesn't Know How To Keep Score In Privacy Discussion While Glossing Over Government Surveillance (Privacy)

by Tim Cushing

from the noting-the-obvious-while-ignoring-the-elephant-bugging-the-room dept on Friday, May 22nd, 2015 @ 7:39PM

Lawfare -- a blog primarily devoted defending the practices of spy agencies -- has released a paper authored by Benjamin Wittes and Jodie Liu that theorizes that the public's concern over privacy encroachments are -- if not overblown -- then failing to properly factor in the privacy "gains" they've obtained over the past several years.

The theory is solid, but the paper fails to differentiate between what sort of privacy losses people find acceptable and which ones they don't -- mainly by leaving privacy invasions by government entities almost completely undiscussed. It opens by quoting a scene from an old Woody Allen film in which the protagonist attempts to "hide" his purchase of porn at a magazine stand by purchasing several unrelated (and presumably uninteresting) magazines at the same time. This leads to the conclusion that people's ability to enjoy porn in private has risen with the advent of the internet, while simultaneously opening them up to data harvesters and internet companies less interested in personal privacy than selling users to advertisers.

True enough, but there's a big difference between exposing that information to the Googles of the world, rather than the surveillance agencies of the world. On one hand, Google and its competitors provide something in exchange for the privacy loss -- tailored ads, relevant search results, email, document creation platforms, etc. And there are still those -- a steadily-growing minority -- that realize Google's privacy invasions are often inseparable from the government's privacy invasions (via court orders, subpoenas and NSLs) and work hard to keep their personal information away from both. What the government offers in exchange for access to much of the same info is intangible: "security." While one might recognize the value of the first exchange, it's harder to sell the latter tradeoff, especially since intelligence agencies are much, much better at scooping up information than they are at disseminating it.

A huge amount of technological development follows this basic pattern. Google and Microsoft and Yahoo! enable you to search for information privately—with data collection by the companies and possible retrieval by other actors as a consequence. Amazon lets you buy all sorts of products with nobody the wiser—but with your purchase history stored and mined for patterns.

Your smartphone lets you put all this capability in your pocket and take it with you— and thus also lets you use it more and record your location along the way. That information too is then subject to retrieval. Facebook allows you to identify discrete groups of people with whom you want to share material—yet it stores your actions for processing and retrieval as you go. In our mental tabulation of gain and loss, we tend to count only one side of the ledger, pocketing what we have won as though it were of no privacy value while bemoaning what we have given up.

Even more mischievously, when we do acknowledge the gains, we tend to redefine them as gains in something other than privacy. We define them, most commonly, as mere convenience or efficiency gains—a dismissive description that implies we have won something inconsequential or time-saving while giving up something profound. But the construction leaves us with a distorted and altogether-too-bleak outlook on technology’s impact on our lives. Yes, technology involves gains in convenience and efficiency, but those are not the only gains.

To reiterate, we do not argue here that technology is necessarily privacy-enhancing in the aggregate, or that technology does not erode privacy. Rather, our general point is that the interaction between technology and privacy is less clear-cut than the debate commonly acknowledges, that we don’t keep score well, and that the actual privacy scorecard is a murky one.
The paper does make the solid argument that technology has resulted in greater individual privacy -- provided it's measured on the scale the paper's authors present. In one example, the authors point to a teen's desire to discuss a sexual or health issue as being more "private" because of access to medical websites and forums where information can be obtained with relative anonymity -- something a doctor's office can't completely provide.

But medical records are private information, governed by a specific set of laws. If anything, the online search is less private because these websites are not subject to patient privacy laws. Someone inquiring about a teen's visit to a health clinic would be frozen out, but any number of entities can access web-related information without facing similar statutory roadblocks.

While there are some good points made, the paper is undermined by the authors' insistence that Americans just don't know how to properly balance their privacy concerns. The implication -- given author Benjamin Wittes' frequent defense of government surveillance -- is that if the public can't weigh privacy gains and losses correctly in the context of private corporations, it certainly can't be expected to make informed decisions when it comes to government surveillance. And it's true that most citizens aren't likely to rigorously examine their fears of privacy erosion.

The paper does very little to compare privacy "violations" by internet entities to government surveillance programs, choosing instead to focus almost entirely on the tradeoffs made by people who hand over a certain amount of personal info for the privilege of watching porn or googling STD symptoms without having to involve another living, breathing person. It's presented as being in favor of a "more rigorous balance sheet" when it comes to personal privacy, but then fails to closely examine government surveillance concerns. There's another tradeoff being performed here -- without the input of those surveilled and who receive almost nothing tangible in exchange for the privacy erosion. Because of this, there's little comparison between the Googles and the NSAs of the world.

You don't hand a government the tools of totalitarianism and a long leash and simply assume it will end well. Google, et al may be similarly close-fisted when it comes to producing specifics on the use of personal data, but they also don't bear the same obligation to the American public that the US government does. Even if Google is more intrusive than the NSA, it still is only one of many platform providers and there are options (admittedly not many and not easily achieved) for avoiding its data-gathering efforts. The government provides no such options, other than forgoing the use of phones, the internet, etc.

I think the paper does add to the discussion of privacy gains and losses, but the authors' unwillingness to honestly approach government surveillance efforts in the same context blunts its impact. It quotes privacy advocates like the ACLU and EFF on the subject of data harvesting by private companies, but doesn't address the similar concerns they've raised about the erosion of privacy by government actions.

There's an attempt being made here to paint the government as no worse (and possibly even better) than private companies' data harvesting efforts, albeit by way of omission rather than by comparison. It's disingenuous to depict the public as ignorant of their privacy "gains" against the domestic surveillance backdrop, while omitting any mention of similar privacy erosions at the hand government intelligence agencies. Wittes opens his post on the paper by claiming American and European privacy debates "keep score very badly" and then points to a paper that leaves key parties in the privacy debate almost wholly unmentioned. I'm all for an open discussion about privacy gains and losses, but a paper that focuses solely on interactions with private companies -- while claiming the public can't keep score -- isn't much of an addition to the debate.

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TPP Moves Forward In Senate With Fast Track; On To The House (Politics)

by Mike Masnick

from the but-of-course dept on Friday, May 22nd, 2015 @ 6:16PM
As was widely expected after last week's vote, the Senate has now voted in favor of fast track for trade agreements (officially "Trade Promotion Authority") after Republican Senators convinced enough of their Democratic counterparts to give up their Constitutional authority in regulating international commerce (yes, you read that right: Republicans who keep complaining about the President taking too much power and not obeying the Constitution, just voted explicitly to give up Constitutional authority to the President of the other party, while most Democrats declined to do so).

Also as expected, all attempts to add amendments to the TPP -- including Elizabeth Warrens' plan to strip corporate sovereignty ISDS provisions -- failed. Any of the amendments almost certainly would have sunk the fast track bill in the House, so they were all basically poison pills designed to kill fast track. Still, it's disappointing that Congress is favoring corporate sovereignty, when it's pretty clear that it's a provision that is going to come back and bite us badly.

Either way, the fight will now move on to the House, where it's not yet clear if there are enough votes. But, don't be surprised to see a full court press to convince another dozen or so Democrats to join with Republicans in coughing up Congress' Constitutional authority over international trade.

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