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This Week In Techdirt History: April 12th - 18th (Techdirt)

by Leigh Beadon

from the copying-is-not-theft-or-strangulation dept on Saturday, April 18th, 2015 @ 12:00PM

Five Years Ago

This week in 2010, the move to a new type of mass media was accelerating across the board: more people were giving up TV across the board and smart artists were trying smart business models like the classical orchestras using CwF+RtB. The old guard, as usual, was having trouble catching up: Fox and Universal both wrangled release delay deals out of Netflix; copyright threatened the best thing to come out of the second Star Wars trilogy; broadcasters were still futilely trying to push mobile TV; a book publisher was threatening US fans for ordering from overseas instead of waiting for a local copy; and the RIAA was insisting that musicians can't make money without it (while an Australian recording industry group was trying to claim copyright on a photo of a piece of paper). All the while, we were noting that protection of content has to come from the business model, not the law or technology.

Also in 2010: the Library of Congress announced that it would begin archiving tweets; we noted that the real problem with internet comments isn't anonymity; we wondered whether intellectual property is a violation of real property; and, even if it's not, we certainly agreed with Nina Paley's video underlining the fact that copying is not theft:

Ten Years Ago

This week in 2005, we proposed a code of conduct for the recording industry (which they immediately took to heart, obviously). Perhaps we should have suggested one for Comcast too, since it was sued for handing subscriber info over to the RIAA. And ones for Microsoft and AOL, who were trying (and failing) to make the internet work more like television. Meanwhile, in these pre-YouTube-acquisition days, Google quietly launched its own video upload feature (remember Google Video?)

Video games entered a new phase of maturity in 2005 as people began to realize they could have bigger aspirations: the UN made one to educate people about world hunger, others were building games geared at teaching kids, and still others were building games to teach literacy and cultural sensitivity. Amidst all this, some were discovering the zen of button mashing.

Fifteen Years Ago

Well, this is when it happened — this week in 2000, Metallica sued Napster. At the time we considered it "silly" and "ridiculous" — little did we know just how historic a case it would become. At the same time, people were realizing that MP3s were good for a lot more than just music.

Broadcasters were much more optimistic back then, claiming they weren't scared by the internet. The big device showdown at the time was between BlackBerry and Palm. Ireland was turning itself into a tech hub, while some people were worrying that earthquakes could knock out Silicon Valley. We discussed the future of RealNetworks (it still appeared to have one, as did OS/2) and of the wireless world (realizing it might not be based on WAP). Of course, some people were still just convinced that the internet is evil.

Thirty-Three Years Ago

You've all heard the quote, here on Techdirt and likely elsewhere as well. It was this week in 1982 at a congressional hearing about the home recording of copyrighted works that Jack Valenti, then-head of the MPAA, served up his infamously absurd analogy:

I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.

This statement might have held true if over the next few years the Boston Strangler became the number one source of revenue for the entire woman-home-alone industry. Alas, this was not the case.

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Awesome Stuff: Smartphone Proximity Locks For Your Car (Innovation)

by Leigh Beadon

from the a-little-different dept on Saturday, April 18th, 2015 @ 9:00AM

For this week's awesome stuff, we're trying out a slightly different format. Instead of gathering three new crowdfunded products, we're going to focus on just one and take a slightly closer look at its progress and prospects. Please let us know in the comments if you like this approach, or if you prefer the old format.

This week, we're looking at Loxet: a smartphone-controlled proximity lock for your car.

The Loxet is a device that installs in any car with a central locking system and, along with an accompanying iOS or Android app, allows you to lock and unlock the doors and control ignition access with your proximity to the car. It also bills itself as an advanced sharing system, allowing you to grant time-limited access to the car to other people.

The Good

For one thing, it's new. There are already plenty of proximity locks on the market, but they generally require a specialized fob on your keychain; there are already smartphone-controlled locks too, but they operate by button-press. Loxet appears to be the first smartphone-controlled proximity lock, or at least the first one that works with both iOS and Android (they make this latter claim on the Kickstarter page). The price also looks good — though all the super-cheap early bird deals are sold out, the standard Kickstarter price of $69 is still below the price of existing non-smartphone proximity lock systems, which tend to sit in the $80-200 range.

The Bad

The way Loxet operates seems like it might come with some inherent issues. The device uses Bluetooth Low Energy, and in order to achieve full proximity operation on both iOS and Android, they have to use apps that repeatedly scan for connected Bluetooth devices at a time interval you set. To realize the full hands-off, out-of-mind potential of the system, that time interval will have to be pretty short — and I suspect it will have a noticeable impact on your phone's battery life and performance, though just how noticeable remains to be seen. For the time being, there aren't any obvious alternatives to this approach, at least not without sacrificing some capabilities.

The Questionable

With any wireless locking system, there's always one big question: is it secure? The last thing we need is someone whipping up an app to hack into people's cars via Bluetooth. Loxet would surely claim, in good faith I don't doubt, that the system is secure — but I'd like to see them call in some independent security audits and put the software in the hands of some white hat hackers before telling people it's ready to keep their cars safe. In fact, there's actually a disturbing lack of security information and discussion on the Kickstarter page, especially for an app that claims it will allow car-sharing via e-mail, SMS and QR code. With just under a month left in the campaign, this is the biggest thing the Loxet team needs to address.

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SEC Boss Can't Keep Her Story Straight On Whether Or Not SEC Snoops Through Your Emails Without A Warrant (Email)

by Mike Masnick

from the let's-get-this-straight-now... dept on Friday, April 17th, 2015 @ 7:39PM
For many years now, we've been writing about the need for ECPA reform. ECPA is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, written in the mid-1980s, which has some frankly bizarre definitions and rules concerning the privacy of electronic information. There are a lot of weird ones but the one we talk about most is that ECPA defines electronic communications that have been on a server for 180 days or more as "abandoned," allowing them to be examined without a warrant and without probable cause as required under the 4th Amendment. That may have made sense in the 1980s when electronic communications tended to be downloaded to local machines (and deleted), but make little sense in an era of cloud computing when the majority of people store their email forever on servers. For the past few years, Congress has proposed reforming ECPA to require an actual warrant for such emails, and there's tremendous Congressional support for this.

And yet... it never seems to pass. The story that we keep hearing is that two government agencies in particular really like ECPA's outdated system: the IRS and the SEC. Since both only have administrative subpoena power, and not the ability to issue warrants like law enforcement, the lower standards of ECPA make it much easier for them to snoop through your emails without having to show probable cause. Last year, in a Congressional hearing, the SEC's boss, Mary Jo White, was questioned about this by Congressman Kevin Yoder, who has been leading the charge on ECPA reform. As we reported at the time, in the conversation, White clearly said that the SEC needed this ability or it would lose "critical" information in its investigations. You can see the conversation from 2014 below, where White (starting around 2:30) explains how vital this process is to the SEC:
Here's the key line:
"What concerns me, as the head of a... law enforcement agency, is that we not put out of reach of lawful process... what is often, sometimes the only, but critical evidence of a serious securities fraud.... And we use that authority quite judiciously, but it's extremely important to law enforcement."
What struck us as interesting last year was White admitting that the SEC appeared to regularly use this process, since she noted that it was "extremely important" and provided "critical evidence."

Fast forward to this week, and the same two players were involved in yet another Congressional hearing. You can see that conversation here as well, with the critical point being made after about four and a half minutes, where White says some of the same stuff, about the privacy protections, and how even if the SEC used this process it still notifies the subscribers to give them a due process right to protest the subpoena... but also, oddly, seems to claim that the SEC never actually makes use of this process:
Here's the key line this time (the full response is a jumble of half sentences and unfinished thoughts, so it's a bit of a mess):
"While these discussions have been going on, to try to sufficiently balance the privacy and the law enforcement interests, we've not to date to my knowledge proceeded to subpoena the ISPs. But that, I think, is critical authority to be able to maintain -- done in the right way and with sufficient solicitousness and it's very important to the privacy interests which I do think can be balanced.
As I said, if you watch her entire response, it's a complete mess of half-finished thoughts, which seems rather typical of someone trying to sound like they're answering a question but not actually doing so. Later in the same answer, she insists that taking away this authority might take away an important tool.

So, we know that the SEC really wants to keep this tool. But last year it said it was "extremely important" and provided "critical evidence." This year, she's saying that the SEC isn't even using the tool. So, uh, which is it? Is this tool absolutely necessary for critical evidence, or is it not even being used by the SEC?

And, through all of this, the SEC still has not answered the most basic question: why can't it treat email the same way it has to treat paper documents under the 4th Amendment? That is, if it wants the document it can subpoena the end user for those documents. It does not get to route around the end user and subpoena a third party for those documents. So why can't it treat email in the same way?
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Bill Introduced To Fix Broken DMCA Anti-Circumvention Rules (Copyright)

by Mike Masnick

from the but-will-it-get-anywhere dept on Friday, April 17th, 2015 @ 6:24PM
It's no secret that the DMCA's section 1201 is extremely problematic. It's the "anti-circumvention" part of the law, that makes it illegal to circumvent "technological protection measures" even if it's for non-infringing purposes. This is a mess -- especially in an age of DRM trying to lock up everything. Try to get around it, and it's a violation of the law -- even if you're not trying to infringe on the underlying material. This is why Cory Doctorow is running a new effort to eradicate DRM with a target placed firmly on Section 1201.

So it's great to see Senator Ron Wyden and Rep. Jared Polis team up to introduce a bill to try to reform Section 1201. The full text of the bill (called the "Breaking Down Barriers to Innovation Act of 2015") has a lot of good things in it. It says that circumventing DRM or other technology protection measures for non-infringing reasons should no longer be considered against the law. It also expands other exemptions for things like security research and testing and reverse engineering. It also would automatically renew the exemptions the Librarian of Congress issues every few years so we don't have a repeat of the mess from a few years ago where the Librarian of Congress used the "triennial review" process to first grant an exemption to 1201 for unlocking mobile phones... and then to take that exemption away six years later.

Overall it's a good bill -- and I'm curious to understand how anyone could possibly push back on it, though Hollywood absolutely refuses to consider any changes to Section 1201. Unfortunately, it also seems unlikely that the bill has enough support to actually go anywhere. It seems a bit telling that Wyden released this bill the same day as the fast track bill, suggesting that it's a signal of some sort to people that he's not giving up on fixing copyright law. It's unlikely, however, that this gesture will mollify the folks who are upset that Wyden allowed the fast track bill to move forward in its current form.

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DailyDirt: Water, Water, Not Quite Everywhere... (Failures)

by Michael Ho

from the urls-we-dig-up dept on Friday, April 17th, 2015 @ 5:00PM
California hasn't seen much rain over the past few years, and this drought is really serious now. Culprits of high water usage are popping up in various news stories: almond growers, farmers in general, swimming pools, golf courses, fracking, green lawns, car washes, wineries, etc, etc... Multiple billion-dollar infrastructure plans are underway to try to distribute water more efficiently or make more water available to major cities and key locations. However, the environmental impact studies for some of these huge water projects aren't complete -- and the requirements for them are being relaxed. Will Californians regret spending billions on some giant water tunnels? After you've finished checking out those links, take a look at our Daily Deals for cool gadgets and other awesome stuff.
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