In the wake of the recent flop that was Valve's attempt to create a platform for paid game mods, you'd have thought that the company would be on its digital toes when it comes to being gamer-friendly. I have no interest in piling on Valve or the Steam platform, given what a great example of how game developers can make money in the digital age, but I was a bit surprised to learn that the company just announced it won't be in charge of banning gamers from games any longer. Instead, it's turning the keys to banning gamers over to the game developers themselves.
Because nobody likes playing with cheaters. Playing games should be fun. In order to ensure the best possible online multiplayer experience, Valve allows developers to implement their own systems that detect and permanently ban any disruptive players, such as those using cheats. Game developers inform Valve when a disruptive player has been detected in their game, and Valve applies the game ban to the account. The game developer is solely responsible for the decision to apply a game ban. Valve only enforces the game ban as instructed by the game developer. For more information about a game ban in a specific game, please contact the developer of that game.
Now, when anyone, including the Steam announcement above, talks about reasons to ban gamers from games, cheating is always brought up. And, indeed, nobody would be wrong to suggest that gamers cheating in online games reduce the fun-factor for the rest of the gaming community. Would it be better to exclude cheaters from games? Yes, no doubt. Is Valve's announced plans above to turn the responsibility for banning games from its platform make for a good way to go about this? Hell no.
Why? Well, because giving that kind of control over to the game developers shifts the balance of power when it comes to being banned from games and the reasons why a player might be banned. The nice thing about Steam is that it has two sets of customers: both the gamers themselves and the game developers on its service. Therefore, when Steam is the one administering the ban-button, it essentially serves as an arbiter. It might be an imperfect arbiter, sure, but having all the power to ban customers from games residing in the hands of developers takes us from imperfect to completely broken. Whatever the developers say goes.
And developers haven't always proven that they can be trusted with lesser forms of this power. Imagine Derek Smart in this scenario, no longer having the power to simply blanket-ban gamers from the Steam forums over negative reviews and comments, but now also being able to ban them from his games. Other developers have already attempted to ban players from their own single-player games over forum issues, so imagine what's going to happen now that there is no "trying", only "doing" when it comes to bans.
Steam made its mark by being fairly friendly to gamers in a myriad of ways. Giving this much power over bans to game developers is a step in the opposite direction. It would be a strange decision at any time, but now it seems particularly odd.
As the nuclear talks between America and Iran continue, perhaps one inevitability is going to be cross-cultural diffusion of a kind. After all, should the deal lead to improved relations, one would expect influence to be peddled by both sides. Since there are very real issues our two nations have to discuss, this should be an overall good thing. But there are some cultural changes that just aren't going to happen.
Take the suggestion from Iranian cleric Ayatollah Salman Safavi, for instance, that Americans combat Islamic extremism by making sure our movies and video games include only favorable representations of his religion lest they cause the very radicalization at the root of the "constantly" negative current portrayals of Muslims and Islam.
"In the Western media be it in films, games or news, Muslims and Islam are constantly associated with terrorism, violence and backwardness, they are constantly portrayed as the "other" to the white European or American and in constant conflict with it," Dr. Safavi tells the Telegraph. "This causes alienation and isolation particularly for young people, who dream of having success in life and being contributing members of society but see their way of life, their beliefs, and what they hold sacred being constantly attacked and degraded. Islamophobia in media be it films or games or news should be considered as promoting and aiding terrorism and also being [a] hate crime."
You can see the cultural differences clashing against each other here. Self-censorship isn't how America does things, after all. Which isn't to say that misrepresentation of the larger Muslim public isn't a real thing, or that action shouldn't be taken by those in the know to combat that portrayal. But those actions must operate within the framework of free and open speech. Take the work of Aasif Mandvi, for instance. The correspondent from The Daily Show has put out a new series called Halal in the Family. The show dissects and highlights anti-Muslim portrayals, using comedy as a vehicle for the discussion. That's how bad or unfair speech is combatted in America, with other, better speech. Asking us to self-censor is a non-starter.
And through real, honest, and open speech, progress can be made. If the Islamic world is being unfairly portrayed, its denizens should feel welcome, if not obligated, to step into the ring of speech and ideas, and put up a fight. They get the same rights as everyone else, after all. Engaging in that way will push the discussion onto a higher platform. It's not like the media keeps its boogeymen around forever. Just ask the Communists. These things have a shelf-life.
The ideal of free speech, on the other hand, does not.
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Like many people, video games have been an integral part of my life for about as long as I can remember. From my days visiting Wildcat! BBS systems where I'd play Trade Wars 2000 -- to obsessing over the Apple IIe, IIc and IIgs -- video games were not only an integral part of my childhood, they actually helped forge an adult career path. Swapping out graphics cards and building new PCs to play Quake 2 led to a job in Manhattan legal IT, which in turn resulted in a life focused on writing about technology. Aside from a few tics, I like to believe I wound up relatively normal, and video games have made my life immeasurably more rewarding.
That background usually forces me into the role of video game evangelist when surrounded by folks that, all too frequently, are engaged in hand wringing over the diabolical moral dangers games purportedly present. At a party recently, some friends expressed muted shock because a colleague's kid was, instead of being social, playing a game in which he was "herding human beings and keeping them in a barn to eat." I had to explain (skipping the part about how you'd need a mod to actually eat them) how this behavior wasn't indicative of a Jeffrey Dahmer in training, he was simply engaged in normal problem solving behavior on the new frontier:
Despite the fact that Minecraft is simply an amazing evolution of the Lego concept for the modern age, the moral panic surrounding the game never quite seems to abate. The latest case in point is over at the BBC, where the outlet implies it has heard all of the pro-Minecraft arguments before, it's just choosing to ignore them in order to portray the game as an unpoliced virtual-reality hellscape that's rotting the brains of children everywhere. While there are some good points embedded within, there are notably more bad ones, like the argument that kids should instead be reading, because reading engages imagination and builds character:
"I concede the point but say that it's two-dimensional, and that children should be exercising more than their mouse fingers. The other side asks why it's any worse than reading for hours at a time. Because, I say, reading allows you to imaginatively inhabit other minds. The opposition implies that this is just the latest moral panic, and that Stone Age elders probably thought the world was going to the dogs when people stopped just staring at the fire and started telling each other stories."
The author pretty clearly sees the lips of "the opposition" moving, he just can't apparently be bothered to actually hear what they're saying. Of course it makes sense to encourage kids to read as well as play games but to dismiss Minecraft as unimaginative shows a total misunderstanding of the massive, cooperative world-building that occurs in the game. Instead of actually playing the game and trying to understand it, the entire article is doused in fear over whether Minecraft is negatively influencing kids. The only concessions toward admitting the game's benefits come via gems like this:
"For some autistic children who have trouble with complex social interactions, Minecraft is clearly a good fit with its lack of intricate social cues and simple environment. But for many parents, the absence of that complexity, in a world where their children spend so much time, might be a reason to be wary."
Whether it's Minecraft, apps or the internet at large, there is such a thing as parenting -- or paying attention to and understanding what your children are up to. Even then, in 1987 my parents certainly had absolutely no understanding of the world I was experiencing via the local Wildcat! BBS, yet those experiences opened an entire world of social interaction with like-minded individuals I never would have experienced otherwise as an awkward, socially anxious tot with painful new braces. That world taught me many things my parents never could have, but parenting in the brick and mortar world still helped me understand where social lines in this new frontier were drawn (with the exception of that time a 35-year-old BBS member called my folks to complain about their son's occasionally-barbed tongue).
"...here’s a simpler way for parents who don’t feel they understand Minecraft to build their knowledge: sit down next to your child and watch them. Ask questions. See if they’ll teach you how to play it with them. This doesn’t mean you’ll avoid having to make decisions about the amount of time your child spends in Minecraft’s beguiling “hyper-reality” rather than the unblocky real world, but it does mean you’ll have a better idea – with less worries – about what they’re up to, and how it can fit into their life.
Like so many things, actually bothering to understand something before you waste energy fearing it makes all the difference in the world. There are millions of kids for whom Minecraft is opening an entire world of enjoyable problem solving and social interaction, the benefits of which may extend into and across their entire lives. Stagnating this potential with fear because you couldn't be bothered to try and understand what your children are experiencing wastes more than just your time.
Yesterday, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing over this whole stupid kerfuffle about mobile encryption. If you don't recall, back in the fall, both Apple and Google said they would start encrypting data on mobile devices by default, leading to an immediate freakout by law enforcement types, launching a near exact replica of the cryptowars of the 1990s.
While many who lived through the first round had hoped this would die a quick death, every week or so, we see someone else in law enforcement demonizing encryption, without seeming to recognize how ridiculous they sound. There was quite a bit of that in the hearing yesterday, which you can sit and watch in its entirety if you'd like:
Thankfully, there were folks like cryptographer Matt Blaze and cybersecurity policy expert Kevin Bankston on hand to make it clear how ridiculous all of this is -- but it didn't stop law enforcement from making their usual claims. The most ridiculous, without a doubt, was Daniel Conley, the District Attorney from Suffolk County, Massachusetts, whose opening remarks were so ridiculous that it's tough to read them without loudly guffawing. It's full of the usual "but bad guys -- terrorists, kidnappers, child porn people -- use this" arguments, along with the usual "law enforcement needs access" stuff. And he blames Apple and Google for using a "hypothetical" situation as reason to encrypt:
Apple and Google are using an unreasonable, hypothetical narrative of government intrusion as the rationale for the new encryption software, ignoring altogether the facts as I’ve just explained them. And taking it to a dangerous extreme in these new operating systems, they’ve made legitimate evidence stored on handheld devices inaccessible to anyone, even with a warrant issued by an impartial judge. For over 200 years, American jurisprudence has refined the balancing test that weighs the individual’s rights against those of society, and with one fell swoop Apple and Google has upended it. They have created spaces not merely beyond the reach of law enforcement agencies, but beyond the reach of our courts and our laws, and therefore our society.
The idea that anything in mobile encryption "upends" anything is ridiculous. First, we've had encryption tools for both computers and mobile devices for quite some time. Apple and Google making them more explicit hardly upends anything. Second, note the implicit (and totally incorrect) assumption that historically law enforcement has always had access to all your communications. That's not true. People have always been able to talk in person, or they've been able to communicate in code. Or destroy communications after making them. There have always been "spaces" that are "beyond the reach of law enforcement."
But to someone so blind as to be unaware of all of this, Conley thinks this is somehow "new":
I can think of no other example of a tool or technology that is specifically designed and allowed to exist completely beyond the legitimate reach of law enforcement, our courts, our Congress, and thus, the people. Not safe deposit boxes, not telephones, not automobiles, not homes. Even if the technology existed, would we allow architects to design buildings that would keep police and firefighters out under any and all circumstances? The inherent risk of such a thing is obvious so the answer is no. So too are the inherent risks of what Apple and Google have devised with these operating systems that will provide no means of access to anyone, anywhere, anytime, under any circumstance.
As Chris Soghoian pointed out, just because Conley can't think of any such technology, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Take the shredder for example. Or fire.
During the hearing, Conley continued to show just how far out of his depth he was. Rep. Blake Farenthold (right after quizzing the FBI on why it removed its recommendation on mobile encryption from its website -- using the screenshot and highlighting I made), asked the entire panel:
Is there anybody on the panel believes we can build a technically secure backdoor with a golden key -- raise your hand?
No one did -- neither DA Conley nor the FBI's Amy Hess:
But, just a few minutes later, Conley underscored his near absolute cluelessness by effectively arguing "if we can put a man on the moon, we can make backdoor encryption that doesn't put people at risk." Farenthold catalogs a variety of reasons why backdoor encryption is ridiculously stupid -- and even highlights how every other country is going to demand their own backdoors as well -- and asks if anyone on the panel has any solutions. Conley then raises his hand and volunteers the following bit of insanity:
I'm no expert. I'm probably the least technologically savvy guy in this room, maybe. But, there are a lot of great minds in the United States. I'm trying to figure out a way to balance the interests here. It's not an either/or situation. Dr. Blaze said he's a computer scientist. I'm sure he's brilliant. But, geeze, I hate to hear talk like 'that cannot be done.' I mean, think about if Jack Kennedy said 'we can't go to the moon. That cannot be done.' [smirks] He said something else. 'We're gonna get there in the next decade.' So I would say to the computer science community, let's get the best minds in the United States on this. We can balance the interests here.
No, really. Watch it here:
As Julian Sanchez notes, this response is "all the technical experts are wrong because AMERICA FUCK YEAH."
This is why it's kind of ridiculous that we continue to let technologically clueless people lead these debates. There are things that are difficult (getting to the moon) and things that are impossible (arguing we only let "good people" go to the moon.) There are reasons for that. This isn't about technologists not working hard enough on this problem. This is a fundamental reality in that creating backdoors weakens the infrastructure absolutely. That's a fact. Not a condition of poor engineering practices.
And, really, this idea of "getting the best minds" in the computer science community to work on this, I say please don't. That's like asking the best minds in increasing food production to stop all their work and spend months trying to research how to make it rain apples from clouds in the sky. It's not just counterproductive and impossible, but it takes away from the very real and important work they are doing on a daily basis, including protecting us from people who actually are trying to do us harm. That a law enforcement official is actively asking for computer scientists and cybersecurity experts to stop focusing on protecting people and, instead, to help undermine the safety of the public, is quite incredible. How does someone like Conley stay in his job while publicly advocating for putting the American people in more danger like that?
Sometimes it feels like these copyright collections groups are in some kind of insane competition in which the winner is whoever can make the dumbest claim about something being a public performance in order to collect royalties for themselves artists no, seriously, the artists barely get anything. From stereos in rental vehicles, to any kind of cloud-music-streaming, to freaking ringtones, it's all been tried and most of it has failed.
The latest entry to this tournament of greed comes from licensing group Sesac, which has been targeting homeowners associations that have stereos and speakers at communal areas for homeowners, such as swimming pools and barbecues.
A neighborhood in Matthews got a letter from Sesac, which is one of the big three music licensing companies in this country, and the tone of the letter unnerved them. It wasn't the first letter from them suggesting they may want to get a music license to play music at their pool or at the clubhouse during holiday gatherings, or any gathering for that matter. The letter also pointed out that violating copyright law is expensive and, "under the law, damages up to $150,000 may be awarded for each copyright infringed."
What they're saying is, if you are playing music in a public venue, like a pool or a community club house, and you don't have the license to do it, you have to pay the royalties to the artist who wrote and performed the song originally.
The problem with all of this is that, of course, a communal swimming pool or clubhouse within a neighborhood under a homeowners association isn't a public venue. Put another way, there's an obvious difference between a public swimming pool and a communal pool to be used by a specific neighborhood or gated community. It's not...you know...open to the public. These are private gatherings among neighbors, more akin to a block party than a concert setting or a swimming pool open to the public.
At the link, Sesac claims they were just reaching out to "make an offer", an offer which just happened to come along with the helpful information that thousands of dollars might be coming in fines should its "offer" not be accepted.
We talked to John Nipp who is a patent and copyright attorney with Additon, Higgins, and Pendleton, P.A. in south Charlotte.
"What those groups are using to their advantage is the complexity of the copyright law. They're using that to their benefit by putting things in there like you could be liable for $150,000 in damages".
They're scammers, in other words, using threats and the complexity of the law to extract money from the innocent. It's damned time victims of these tactics had some kind of recourse for having to endure these threats.
Famed NY Times columnist Tom Friedman is pretty widely mocked for his ridiculous platitudes that are designed to sound smart (or, more directly, to make readers think that Tom Friedman is smarter than you). But, outside of corporate boardrooms and elite politicians, it seems plenty of people recognize that Friedman's musings don't make much sense. There's even a Thomas Friedman OpEd Generator that does a pretty good job, showing how formulaic his articles are.
The key element in a Tom Friedman piece is to take some basic, simplified conventional wisdom, and try to gussy it up so that it sounds really profound. Often, this means ignoring all of the nuances and complexity behind the simple idea. A decade ago, he turned this into a whole book, The World is Flat, about globalization and how it was changing the world. He wasn't wrong, but his insights weren't particularly insightful or useful. Furthermore, he's so wedded to his thesis, that he still fails to realize that he was focused on a very exaggerated view of things, without understanding all of the related forces and consequences of what he was selling.
Given the premise of that book (and he's apparently working on a followup), it's little surprise that he's now stepped up to defend the TPP in his NY Times column space. Of course, he's going to do that, because he has a kneejerk reaction to defend "free trade deals" based on his book -- and he doesn't even seem to recognize that the TPP isn't really about free trade, other than at the margins. At least his colleague, Paul Krugman, seemed to immediately recognize that the TPP couldn't possibly help much on trade (because most trade barriers are already gone), and after talking to lots of folks realized that the TPP was likely dangerous.
Friedman, on the other hand, insists it's necessary, because without it... ISIS wins. Or something like that. Honestly, it's hard to parse out what he's actually saying because the broad meaningless platitudes just take over:
Because these deals are not just about who sets the rules. They’re about whether we’ll have a rule-based world at all. We’re at a very plastic moment in global affairs — much like after World War II. China is trying to unilaterally rewrite the rules. Russia is trying to unilaterally break the rules and parts of both the Arab world and Africa have lost all their rules and are disintegrating into states of nature. The globe is increasingly dividing between the World of Order and the World of Disorder.
When you look at it from Europe — I’ve been in Germany and Britain the past week — you see a situation developing to the south of here that is terrifying. It is not only a refugee crisis. It’s a civilizational meltdown: Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq — the core of the Arab world — have all collapsed into tribal and sectarian civil wars, amplified by water crises and other environmental stresses.
From there, he wanders through random musings about the collapse of civilization in the Middle East that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with a trade agreement concerning countries in the Pacific Rim. Then he magically brings it back around to the TPP by arguing "something something New World Order World of Order."
What does all this have to do with trade deals? With rising disorder in the Middle East and Africa — and with China and Russia trying to tug the world their way — there has never been a more important time for the coalition of free-market democracies and democratizing states that are the core of the World of Order to come together and establish the best rules for global integration for the 21st century, including appropriate trade, labor and environmental standards. These agreements would both strengthen and more closely integrate the market-based, rule-of-law-based democratic and democratizing nations that form the backbone of the World of Order.
What's amusing is that just paragraphs above, Friedman talks about the importance of "bottom-up communities" -- and yet here he seems to be saying that the big countries have to do the exact opposite and create top down order. And what kind of "order" is this? As far as I now, Tom Friedman doesn't have access to the text of the TPP because President Obama refuses to make it public.
So, as far as I can summarize, Friedman's argument is that "The Middle East is turning to anarchy, so the rest of the world needs to create strict authoritarian rules." Why? Because if we don't, China will. Because....
As Obama told his liberal critics Friday: If we abandon this effort to expand trade on our terms, “China, the 800-pound gorilla in Asia will create its own set of rules,” signing bilateral trade agreements one by one across Asia “that advantage Chinese companies and Chinese workers and ... reduce our access ... in the fastest-growing, most dynamic economic part of the world.” But if we get the Pacific trade deal done, “China is going to have to adapt to this set of trade rules that we’ve established.” If we fail to do that, he added, 20 years from now we’ll “look back and regret it.”
So, wait, now it won't be ISIS and anarchy we need to be afraid of, but China and its own rules? This entire piece makes no sense at all.
Meanwhile, actual experts in trade, like Simon Lester at Cato (who obviously is also a big supporter of free trade, but actually understands these issues), note that the whole "if we don't make the rules, China will" argument makes no sense in the real world.
And here we see yet another reason why the negotiators have made sure to keep the TPP a secret. This way, people who only vaguely think they know what "trade agreements" are about can project whatever they want on to them. And thus, magically, a "trade agreement" concerning countries in the Pacific Rim that the public can't see magically saves the world from an ISIS takeover and Chinese-made rules that aren't likely to actually show up.
Having written about the FCC for most of my adult life, I've grown cynically accustomed to an agency that pays empty lip service to things like consumer welfare and the painful lack of broadband competition. It doesn't matter which party is in power; the FCC has, by and large, spent the lion's share of an entire generation ignoring last mile competitive problems and the resulting symptoms of that greater disease. When the agency could be bothered to actually address these issues, the policies were so tainted by the fear of upsetting campaign contributors (read: regulatory capture) they were often worse than doing nothing at all (see our $300 million broadband map that hallucinates speeds and ignores prices or 2010's loophole-filled net neutrality rules co-crafted by Verizon and Google).
Whether it was former FCC boss turned cable lobbyist Michael Powell's claims that massively deregulating the sector would magically result in telecom Utopia (tip: that didn't happen) or Julius Genachowski being utterly terrified of taking any meaningful stand whatsoever, the broadband industry has spent decades governed by an agency that, at its best, is too timid to do its job, and, at its worst, is an obvious revolving-door lap dog to an industry it's supposed to regulate.
So in 2013 when it was announced that a former lobbyist for both the wireless and cable industries would be the next FCC boss, the collective, audible sighs of disgust unsurprisingly rattled the Internet. I, like many others, believed we were bearing witness to a twisted culmination of decades of regulatory capture, a giant, living, breathing middle finger to a public hungry for a more consumer and innovator-friendly FCC. John Oliver even put Wheeler's name in lights when he infamously compared hiring the former cable lobbyist to employing a dingo as a babysitter:
Most people (with a few notable industry exceptions) believed Wheeler was the final nail in a grotesque, campaign-cash stuffed telecom coffin long under construction. We were painfully, ridiculously wrong.
In fact, if you read profiles on Wheeler, he's turned out to be a complete 180 from the thinking of a traditional revolving-door regulator, basing his decisions on all available information -- even if that data conflicts with previously-held beliefs (a unique alien indeed in 2015). And while it's true that massive grass roots advocacy helped shift Wheeler's thinking on issues like Title II, his embrace of issues like municipal broadband required little to no shoving, since the lion's share of the public had no idea the issue existed. One of the biggest reasons Wheeler's willing to stand up to the broadband industry? He's 69, and no longer biting his tongue and biding his time for the next cushy lobbyist or think tank gig. Perhaps we should make a rule that all future FCC bosses must be on the brink of retirement to avoid what we'll henceforth call Michael Powell syndrome.
Still, watching Wheeler fills me with cognitive dissonance, as if my frequently-disappointed brain isn't quite sure what to do with an FCC Commissioner capable of objective thought free of AT&T, Comcast and Verizon lobbyist detritus. As a sure sign of the looming apocalypse, last week I watched an FCC Commissioner issue a statement about protecting competition -- and actually mean it:
"Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s decision to end Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable is in the best interests of consumers. The proposed transaction would have created a company with the most broadband and video subscribers in the nation alongside the ownership of significant programming interests. Today, an online video market is emerging that offers new business models and greater consumer choice. The proposed merger would have posed an unacceptable risk to competition and innovation especially given the growing importance of high-speed broadband to online video and innovative new services."
Though his tenure's unfinished, it may not be a stretch to say that a man most of us believed would be the epitome of revolving door dysfunction has proven to be one of the most consumer- and startup-friendly FCC Commissioners in the agency's history. Granted that may not be saying much; caring more about consumers than Martin, Powell and Genachowski is like getting an award for beating a handful of lobotomized ducklings at a hundred yard dash. And none of this is to classify Wheeler as a saint -- the agency's net neutrality rules have some very concerning loopholes and the FCC still refuses to talk much about pricing, whether that's the problems inherent in usage caps, unreliable meters, or sneaky below the line fees.
Still, it's a lesson learned in letting your mind run on cynicism autopilot, and it's a reminder that even our very broken, campaign-cashed soaked government can still occasionally manage to give birth to consumer-friendly policies. So in short, the tl;dr version is this: I apologize to you, Tom Wheeler, for believing you were a mindless cable shill. I was wrong.
from the unlawful,-unnecessary-and-disproportionate dept
A couple of months ago, we reported on a surprising admission by the UK government that GCHQ has been carrying out illegal surveillance by monitoring privileged conversations between lawyers and their clients. As we noted at the time, the reason for this sudden access of conscience was simply that it knew it was going to lose an imminent case before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the body that considers complaints about UK government surveillance. And that, indeed, is what has just happened. As the human rights organization Reprieve, which helped bring the legal action, explains, not only has GCHQ been found guilty of illegal spying, it has also been ordered to destroy the materials it collected as a result:
Today's decision marks the first time in the IPT's fifteen-year history that it has upheld a complaint against the security services. It is also thought to be the first time the secretive tribunal has ordered an intelligence agency to give up surveillance material.
The Reprieve post has more details about the case, which involves Sami al-Saadi, a former opponent of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. al-Saadi and his family were kidnapped in a joint MI6-CIA operation and 'rendered' to Libya in 2004, as was his colleague, the Libyan politician Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and his pregnant wife:
Both families have brought civil claims against the then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, former MI6 counter-terror head Sir Mark Allen, and the UK Government for their kidnap. The al-Saadi family settled their civil claim in December 2012 for 2.2 million pounds; the Belhaj claim comes before the [UK] Supreme Court this year. A Metropolitan Police investigation into both kidnappings, Operation Lydd, is thought to be near conclusion
Whatever happens with those cases, the latest IPT judgment is another important step in forcing the UK government to acknowledge that its mass surveillance programs broke the law in numerous ways. Moreover, as Richard Stein, the lawyer who represented the families before the Tribunal, pointed out:
Today marks the end of GCHQ's standard boilerplate response that its activities are lawful, necessary and proportionate. GCHQ unlawfully spied on privileged legal communications for years, and the secret oversight mechanisms failed to stop it.
That alone would be reason enough to celebrate this decision. But the IPT's ruling is unsatisfactory in other respects:
The IPT made 'no determination' in favor of Mr Belhaj and his wife. The IPT can make 'no determination' either if there was no spying, or if the IPT finds that spying did take place but was lawful. But the couple may never know the precise reasons for the decision.
That's an indication that still more must be done to bring greater transparency and accountability to the UK's surveillance programs. Fortunately, as the UK government continues to lose the fight against legal challenges to its activities, it is being forced to move in that direction, albeit very slowly.
Although it rarely makes it into the Western media these days, the bloody conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues to smoulder along a vague and shifting front. The lack of direct support from the West means that the Ukrainians have had to come up with other approaches to counter Russia's massive superiority in both technology and resources. According to a fascinating article in the Guardian, one way they are doing this is by using lost-cost drones, paid for by crowdfunding. One of Ukraine’s top IT outsourcing companies, Eleks, has been helping with the technical side:
Eleks, which is a private company based in both Ukraine and Nevada, pays healthy salaries. It allows staff to work on software and drone hardware projects that receive no government support or funding during work hours. They are doing this because, as their project manager, Ivan Dmytrasevych, told us, "We know we have to invest in the defence of our country. If our research works, and we can show the people that it works, then we will turn to crowdfunding to realise it."
Eleks is working on a number of drone projects. One is to help Ukrainian drones return to base automatically if signals are jammed by the Russians:
Ivan says that the Russian forces have highly advanced systems to jam and intercept Ukrainian drones, which can easily send them off course and into enemy hands. "They have $7m systems to jam drones that cost thousands of dollars,” he explains. "We just can’t match their resources." However, if they can slow down these types of losses, they can build up a useful force.
Another is to use drones to map Russian forces on the ground to provide coordinates for shelling:
"Just imagine that you take a map of some territory from Google Maps, and then your drone flies over the territory to take a picture. Artillery teams need exact coordinates from enemy positions shown on those images. Our software will help them get it instantly."
That's an indication that these crowdfunded drones are not just digital toys for the combatants, but designed to cause serious casualties in the real world. Indeed, they already have -- on the Ukrainian side, during attempts to construct drones that could drop bombs on the Russians. According to the Guardian report, some of the engineers were killed as they worked on this project:
Firstly, these were essentially homemade and potentially faulty bombs. Secondly, the fact that they were launching drones multiple times from the same position quickly exposed their location. From what I'd been told, a mortar or sniper attack was guaranteed at this point.
Those risks are unlikely to dissuade engineers from using these up-to-the-minute means to counter the huge disparity between the opposing forces, since the Ukrainians don't really have many other options.