As you hopefully already know, we take a bit of a different view of ad blockers around here on Techdirt, recognizing that many people have very good reasons for using them, and we have no problem if you make use of them. In fact, we give you the option of turning off the ads on Techdirt separately, whether or not you use an ad blocker. And we try to make sure that the ads on Techdirt are not horrible, annoying or dangerous (and sometimes, hopefully, they're even useful). Most publications, however, continue to take a very antagonistic view towards their very own communities and readers, and have attacked ad blockers, sometimes blocking users from reading content if they have an ad blocker. Perhaps no publication has fought harder against ad blockers than German publishing giant Axel Springer, the same company that frequently blames Google for its own failure to adapt.
Axel Springer has been suing the makers of various ad blockers. So far, those cases have failed miserably, making Axel Springer look like a whiny, out-of-touch publication that refuses to get with the times. But, instead, it just keeps on suing. From TechCrunch:
German media giant Axel Springer, which operates top European newspapers like Bild and Die Welt, and who recently bought a controlling stake in Business Insider for $343 million, has a history of fighting back against ad-blocking software that threatens its publications’ business models. Now, it’s taking that fight to mobile ad blockers, too. According to the makers of the iOS content blocker dubbed “Blockr,” which is one of several new iOS 9 applications that allow users to block ads and other content that slows down web browsing, Axel Springer’s WELTN24 subsidiary took them to court in an attempt to stop the development and distribution of the Blockr software.
Specifically, explains the law firm representing Blockr, Axel Springer wanted to prohibit Blockr’s developers from being able to “offer, advertise, maintain and distribute the service” which can be used today to block ads on http://www.welt.de, including the website’s mobile version.
Isn't that nice. Rather than recognize that people don't like your ads, you try to sue the companies serving an actual consumer need so that you can continue to piss off your readers. It's the dinosaur strategy -- rather than innovate, you sue to try to stave off the inevitable decline.
For many years now, Western governments have been complaining about China's supposed lack of respect for intellectual monopolies, and constantly pushing the country's politicians to tighten the legal framework protecting them. To anyone not blinded by an unquestioning belief in the virtues of copyright and patent maximalism, it was pretty clear where this strategy would end. Indeed, over five years ago, Mike warned where this was leading: towards China repeatedly punishing foreign companies to protect domestic Chinese firms -- in other words, leveraging patents as a tool for protectionism. A post on the IAM blog about legal action taken by the Chinese company BYD, one of Apple's suppliers, shows that Techdirt's predictions are well on the way to being realized:
Apple says BYD filed a pair of patent infringement suits in the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court alleging that the antennae in the iPhone 6 plus and various other Apple products infringe BYD’s intellectual property.
Five other defendants working with Apple were also sued -- four Chinese suppliers, and one Chinese distributor.
BYD asked the [Chinese] bench to require "all six defendants to both cease allegedly infringing conduct and destroy allegedly infringing products".
In effect, this is a patent attack on Apple's supply chain in China, and one that would be devastating for the US company if successful. The IAM post points out:
Of the seven final assembly facilities for iPhones, only one is outside of China (a Foxconn facility in Sao Paolo, Brazil). That means any company with valid Chinese patents that it thinks reads on Apple products potentially has a lot of leverage.
There are two crucial elements that make Apple so vulnerable here. First, the fact that its assembly facilities are concentrated in China, and secondly, because there's a Chinese company with patents it thinks it can use against Apple in that country. A March 2014 press release from BYD boasted that it had already amassed more than 12,000 domestic patents and over 8,000 international ones; the figures today are doubtless much higher. Amongst those domestic patents there are probably many that could come in handy for future legal action against other Western companies that assemble their products in China.
Those in the West who pushed China to show more "respect" for patents must be feeling so proud of the progress that Chinese companies have made in this regard, and so pleased now to see Apple being sued in local courts using China's patent laws.
We had just been talking about the awkward place the Washington Redskins most recent legal filing has left the government in, regarding the team's trademark. In that filing, the team pointed out the sheer hypocrisy of the government's stance that the term "Redskins" is too offensive to receive trademark registration status, yet the government has seen fit to award that status to all kinds of terms and phrases that are equally if not more offensive on any number of levels. But it isn't only for already-registered marks that the awkwardness exists. For new applications too, the courts now have to weigh whether offense applies to granting new trademarks. And, frankly, it's causing some in the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to employ some serious mental gymnastics when ruling.
On November 16, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board decided to allow a Georgia-based brewery to register their name as a trademark . Established about 30 years ago, “Left Nut Brewing Company” will finally be allowed to register after the reversal of an examiner’s decision that the brewery’s name was too vulgar for registration.
To get the appeal board to allow this, the brewery pointed to langauge on its own website about how the name was derived. The site claims that its name is not of the vernacular one might initially think, but is instead a vernacular use with, according to the site, a different meaning.
Instead, it is “built on a vernacular which epitomizes the willingness to give up something of extreme value to do something or create something unique.” In allowing the name to become a trademark, Judge Shaw used such meaning for the phrase to defend his ruling saying that the figure of speech can mean a multitude of things and only one was arguably vulgar.
Okay, let's not play around. The only meaning this refers to is indeed about a willingness to give up something of value: a man's left-leaning testicle. That's it. That's what left nut means. Now, I happen to love the brewery's name and think it should be adopted in every kind of industry, but the claims about the name having some other etherial meaning is laughable at best. But the judge's ruling claims to have bought the brewery's argument so as to grant it a trademark.
What's becoming clear is that even having to go through these mental gymnastics is dumb and nothing more than a waste of time. The easiest solution would be for the government to get out of the offense-measurement business entirely on trademark matters.
The visually impaired are a sizable group of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Some vision problems are easily corrected with glasses or contacts or various kinds of laser-based eye surgery. However, some retinal problems are much more difficult (or impossible) to treat. Retinal surgery isn't fun at all, but it can be the preferred option when given the choice between blindness and some amount of vision. Check out a few of these developments that could help people see a little bit more.
The DEA, being a federal agency, is supposed to be running its wiretap warrant applications past federal judges, rather than county judges, but has seemingly found itself a very willing participant in its southern California surveillance dragnet.
The DOJ isn't particularly thrilled with the DEA's warrant funneling. A handful of unnamed federal proecutors stated the agency had been previously warned that its use of a local court meant there was little chance the DOJ would offer its blessing for prosecution at the federal level. Notably, the DOJ legal staff wasn't concerned enough about the potential illegality of the DEA's actions to stop it from routing everything through Hernandez's courtroom. They were only irritated enough to tell the DEA to keep its tainted evidence out of federal courts.
Prosecutors in the Los Angeles suburb responsible for a huge share of the nation’s wiretaps almost certainly violated federal law when they authorized widespread eavesdropping that police used to make more than 300 arrests and seize millions of dollars in cash and drugs throughout the USA.
The violations could undermine the legality of as many as 738 wiretaps approved in Riverside County, Calif., since the middle of 2013, an investigation by USA TODAY and The Desert Sun, based on interviews and court records, has found. Prosecutors reported that those taps, often conducted by federal drug investigators, intercepted phone calls and text messages by more than 52,000 people.
This 4th Amendment-violating joint task force involved local cops, federal agents and a very complicit District Attorney's office. As Heath and Kelman explain, changes made to federal law in the 1960s (and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1974) as a response to the exposure of the FBI's secret surveillance of civil rights leaders require the government to obtain authorization from the presiding DA before heading to court with a wiretap warrant request.
However, in Riverside County, home to 20% of the nation's approved wiretap warrants, this approval process was frequently delegated to the DA's underlings. Former DA Paul Zellerbach -- who presided over the massive increase in Riverside County wiretap applications -- rarely performed this task himself.
Despite a federal court ruling that only the district attorney himself should usually approve wiretaps, Zellerbach said in two interviews over the past month that he could not recall having reviewed or personally authorized any of the county’s wiretap applications and said he was unaware of the details of the requests. Instead, he said, he delegated that job to one of his assistants.
“I didn’t have time to review all of those,” Zellerbach said. “No way.”
A 2013 Ninth Circuit Appeals Court decision says Zellerbach (and other DAs) can delegate this authority, but only when the District Attorney isn't physically available ("absent") and designates someone to act in their place. For Zellerbach, this exception was the rule. His delegation of the approval process often occurred while he was present in his office, as Heath and Kelman discovered.
[R]ecords show Riverside prosecutors routinely requested wiretaps on days when he was working. Federal court records show prosecutors applied for five wiretaps Feb. 18, 2014, for example, when Zellerbach appeared at a news conference to talk about metal thefts. The next week, prosecutors applied for nine more wiretaps on a day when Zellerbach’s office posted a photo on Twitter of him meeting with a delegation of Chinese officials in his office conference room. In each case, reports by the federal court administrative office list [Assistant DA Jeffrey] Van Wagenen, not Zellerbach, as the person who approved the surveillance.
Not only has the DEA been acquiring wiretap warrants in a way that makes the cases too toxic for the DOJ to pursue in federal court, but the apparently illegality of the District Attorney's actions should make the cases toxic anywhere. Any evidence obtained directly or indirectly from the wiretaps could easily be suppressed. The fact that so many warrants lead back to a single judge and a single DA's office means defendants shouldn't have too much trouble determining whether this apparently illegal surveillance helped build a case against them.
The DOJ may be unwilling to do anything more than publicly (but anonymously) express its disgruntlement, but at least the district attorney's office is in new hands. The new DA (Mike Hestrin) has aligned his officer's wiretap policy with the 9th Circuit Court's ruling. He has said, however, that he will defend his predecessor's wiretap orders if they are challenged in court.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, portions of Anonymous decided to "launch multiple operations" against the jackass collective that is ISIS/Daesh. Dubbed #OpISIS, the group's self-declared "biggest operation ever" has predominately involved posting what the group claims are ISIS affiliated Twitter accounts to Pastebin. These "ISIS affiliated" users are then reported to Twitter using a "Twatter Reporter" script being circulated among some members of the collective. In a video, Anonymous crows that the group has been responsible for bringing 20,000 ISIS-related social media accounts offline:
Except there's a major problem with the latest Anonymous campaign. A large number of the accounts they're suspending have absolutely nothing to do with ISIS. A review of the banned accounts by Ars Technica found that large number of the accounts were banned simply for using Arabic, with many ordinary Palestinian, Chechan and Kurdish users caught in the crossfire. Similarly, some of the banned accounts were trying to troll the religious cult. And there's indications that many in the group aren't even sure who they're supposed to be targeting:
"Meanwhile, some of the people coming to the IRC chat channel associated with the operation don't seem to really understand what's going on. One person logging into the channel asked, "Who's ISIS?" The people managing the channel also demanded that others only speak English in the chat and not "clutter up the channel with only mandarin or Spanish or something."
"A spokesperson for Twitter, who asked not to be quoted by name, told the Daily Dot that the lists generated by Anonymous are not being used by the company, saying research has found them to be “wildly inaccurate.”
“Users flag content for us through our standard reporting channels, we review their reports manually, and take action if the content violates our rules,” the spokesperson said, adding: “We don't review anonymous lists posted online, but third party reviews have found them to be wildly inaccurate and full of academics and journalists."
"It seems rather foolish to me to be aiding our mortal enemies, who lock up and even torture Anons — in a fight against an evil that they themselves actually created. If the USA and Europe were willing to release our Anon POW's, and agree to stop attacking us - in exchange for our rather ample assistance against ISIS, well - that might be different. Until then, I say let NATO and the USA fight their own monsters. At least the resources they will need to dedicated to hunting ISIS can not be used to hunt Anons."
So as usual, the headlessness that helps keep Anonymous alive as an ideal often winds up being its own worst enemy when it comes to coordination and quality control. That's not to say that Anonymous members can't contribute intel, disrupt some online ISIS capabilities, or act as an occasional propaganda counterweight. The group is, after all, helping things out by rick rolling pro ISIS hashtags:
Our upcoming action: spamming verified ISIS hashtags with rickrolls. Will release the list as soon as it's compiled.
But beyond that, given the lack of any centralized jihadhist mainframe to be DDoS'd, #OpISIS is limited in what it can actually accomplish. Effective international espionage requires a lot more tactical coordination than the leaderless, mythological meme appears capable of, and the kind of societal problems that are driving angry, disenfranchised young people to join the cult of ISIS go much deeper than the hacktivist amoeba's tendrils reach.
Did you hear that story about how ISIS is so sophisticated with encryption that they have a special "opsec" manual on computer security protocols? You might have, because last week it was all over the internet. Yahoo kicked it off with a story, claiming it was the secret manual ISIS "uses to teach its soldiers about encryption." Wired followed up with its own story, as did The Telegraph. The "manual" was "discovered" by analysts at the Combating Terrorism Center, based out of the US Military Academy at West Point. Thankfully, Buzzfeed has the details, noting that the guide, created by a cybersecurity firm in Kuwait, named Cyberkov, is actually a guide for journalists and activists to protect their communications from oppressive governments. And there's nothing particularly secret about it, as apparently it's basically just repurposed stuff from the EFF's website:
“Our guide is based on publicly available tools, instructions and best practices. The guidelines in our manual are sourced from the EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation] and other sources of privacy organizations,” wrote CyberKov CEO Abdullah AlAli to BuzzFeed News in an email. He said his organization had no idea its guide had been repurposed by ISIS. He was surprised to see it cited in articles, many of which have been updated since they were originally posted to note the document’s origin, and “even more shocked to see the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point simply Google-Translated it and claimed it as ISIS’s.”
Now, it does appear that some folks in ISIS may have sent around versions of the guide, but it sort of undermines the idea that they had created their own special set of guidelines to avoid being tracked, when all they're doing is picking up publicly available information on security best practices.
Likeness and publicity rights have become a popular tool for censorship these days, often with a focus on someone whining about something they don't think is fair, despite it being perfectly legal. What's been allowed to occur has been the expansion of a permission culture that is squarely at odds with First Amendment principles in almost every respect. The depiction of public figures in art and entertainment, particularly when serving as some kind of commentary or comedy, should so obviously be protected as speech that I wonder how we even got to a point where our culture is now entertaining court cases over such things. And yet the cases keep coming,
Such as the recent lawsuit filed by famous arcade-playing star Billy Mitchell, most famous for holding the world record in the classic arcade game Donkey Kong. He recently sued the Cartoon Network over a parody depiction of him in the show "Regular Show." You see, Mitchell brought this suit because the show includes a disembodied floating head of a character named Garrett Bobby Ferguson, whose main attributes appear to be his being incredibly annoying and flamboyantly self-promoting, and his being a world record holder of an arcade game. Mitchell's filing describes his problems with this head-character thusly:
Defendants, CN and CNS, have developed a television show entitled Regular Show which utilizes a character named Garrett Bobby Ferguson (GBF), which character is clearly based exclusively on the likeness, appearance, mannerism and persona of Billy Mitchell.
Just so that's clear, Mitchell saw a cartoon character that's a floating, annoying head and decided that it was of sufficient likeness to himself to sue over it. And, to be fair, the character is admittedly based on Mitchell and his reputation. But so what? The depiction of the character within the show, in addition to having a completely different name, is so cartoonishly skewed and exaggerated for comedic effect as to be clear parody. If any depiction loosely based on someone's likeness deserves First Amendment protection, it's this one.
The GBF character resembles Plaintiff because both have long black hair and a beard. GBF also has a similar backstory to Plaintiff’s portrayal in The King of Kong, in that both held records at video games, and both are portrayed as arrogant yet successful, beloved by fans, and willing to go to great lengths to maintain their titles. But while GBF may be a less-than-subtle evocation of Plaintiff, GBF is not a literal representation of him. The television character does not match the Plaintiff in appearance: GBF appears as a non-human creature, a giant floating head with no body from outer space, while Plaintiff is a human being. Nor does GBF’s story exactly track Plaintiff’s biographical details. GBF holds the universe record at Broken Bonez; Plaintiff held the world record at Donkey Kong. GBF attempts to maintain his universe record through crying and lying about his backstory; Plaintiff maintained his world record by questioning his opponent’s equipment and the authenticity of his submission of a filmed high score. Plaintiff himself acknowledges that GBF is not a literal representation of him when he states that “[t]he actions of this character . . . make me look like some sort of monster, or creature, with no heart or decency. This is simply not me.”
Yes, as it turns out, basing a character off of a real-life self-promoting arcade-game champion and then bending the character by making it a floating head with cartoonishly evil character traits such that it is an obvious parody for humor purposes qualifies as transformative and, therefore, worthy of First Amendment protections. Mitchell is left in the unenviable position of claiming that the character is violating his rights by being evil and obnoxious, while at the same time arguing that he's not evil and obnoxious.
Also, his head doesn't explode, as the court rightly notes:
than merely being recognizable by his hair and beard, GBF appears as only hair and a beard.
Rather than holding the world record at a well-known game, GBF holds the record for the entire
universe. Rather than questioning his opponents’ honesty, GBF simply begs his opponents to let
him keep his high score. And when GBF loses his title, the character literally explodes, unlike
The ruling really only points out the obvious, but it's still nice to see the courts get a likeness rights case right when we see too many go the other direction.
Dell this week found itself under fire for embedding a certificate in some PCs that makes it relatively easy for attackers to cryptographically impersonate HTTPS-protected websites. First discovered by a programmer named Joe Nord, Dell's eDellRoot certificate appears to have been preinstalled as a root certificate on several Dell laptop and desktop models. As Nord notes, it's relatively simple to extract the locally-stored key, sign fraudulent TLS certificates for any HTTPS-protected website on the Internet, and trick user browsers to accept these encrypted Web sessions with no security warnings whatsoever.
This is, of course, reminiscent of the Superfish fiasco that plagued Lenovo earlier this year. But in that case the culprit was third-party adware, while Dell's eDellRoot is the company's own abomination. Duo Labs Security says it discovered the same problem, noting that it had even found evidence of the root certificate on some SCADA systems, typically used in places like factories, dams and power stations. Like Nord, Duo's researchers note that it's rather incredible that Dell wouldn't have discovered and fixed this problem after what happened to Lenovo:
"This highlights a disturbing trend among original equipment manufacturer (OEM) hardware vendors. Tampering with certificate stores exposes users to unnecessary, increased risk. Tampering with the certificate store is a questionable practice, and OEM’s need to be careful when adding new trusted certificates, especially root certificates. Sadly, OEM manufacturers seem to not be learning from historical mistakes and keep making them over and over."
However Dell did appear to learn something in terms of their PR response to the vulnerability. Unlike Lenovo, which originally tried to deny any security problem whatsoever, Dell has issued a relatively straight forward blog post addressing the issue. In it, Dell does something downright kooky: it admits that the vulnerability is a vulnerability, and publicly thanks the security researchers that discovered it. According to Dell, the certificate was implemented as part of a support tool "intended to make it faster and easier" for users to service their system.
Dell's quick to remind readers that at least it wasn't adware, and unlike Lenovo's snoopvertising, it won't stealthily hide in the BiOS to reinstall itself at a later date:
"The certificate is not malware or adware. Rather, it was intended to provide the system service tag to Dell online support allowing us to quickly identify the computer model, making it easier and faster to service our customers. This certificate is not being used to collect personal customer information. It’s also important to note that the certificate will not reinstall itself once it is properly removed using the recommended Dell process."
Dell's also posted a word document outlining how to spot and remove the certificate here for those interested. It remains unclear just how many computers are at risk, but given that Dell is expected to ship 10 million computers worldwide in the third quarter of 2015, the footprint likely isn't modest. And while Dell managed the problem better on the PR front than their predecessors, the fact that this keeps happening is no less disturbing.
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