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Mike is the founder and CEO of Floor64 and editor of the Techdirt blog.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 February 2016 @ 7:39pm

UK Surveillance Oversight Board Says It's All Cool When GCHQ Hacks Basically Anyone

from the hack-away,-snoops dept

This isn't a huge surprise, but the UK's Investigatory Powers Tribunal -- which is a sort of extremely weak "oversight" board, charged with making sure that the GCHQ isn't violating the law, but with no real powers over GCHQ and a history of supporting its spying, has now said that the GCHQ's hacking of computers, networks and phones is perfectly fine.

This was in response to a challenge mounted by Privacy International. The IPT was not too concerned about GCHQ spying, and even said that it's fine even without naming specific targets:

As Privacy International has said in response, this appears to completely wipe out the idea that "general warrants" (i.e., not against named individuals/targets) are (and have been) unlawful:
“The IPT has decided that GCHQ can use ‘thematic warrants’, which means GCHQ can hack an entire class of property or persons, such as ‘all phones in Birmingham’.

“In doing so, it has upended a longstanding English common law principle that such general warrants are unlawful. Allowing governments to hack places the security and stability of the internet and the information we exchange on it at stake.”
This is an unfortunate decision, if not that surprising. But yet another reminder that perhaps the UK is a dangerous place for technology firms to do business these days.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 February 2016 @ 3:31pm

Congress Passes Permanent Internet Access Tax Ban... But May Enable More e-Commerce Sales Tax

from the the-taxes-shall-continue dept

In 1998, Congress passed the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA), which placed a ban on taxing internet access. The bill was temporary, and every few years had to be extended by Congress to stop attempts to add taxes to the cost of your internet access. For a long time, there's been a push to make the ITFA permanent, and Congress finally did that yesterday, when the Senate approved such a bill (the House approved its version last summer). As Senator Ron Wyden noted in response to this passing, this inevitably saves the public a lot of money on a vital service. He notes that mobile phone service is taxable, and average consumers pay a 17% tax on such service. The President still needs to sign the bill, but it would be a surprise if he vetoed it.

The reason it took the Senate so long to actually vote on this was because a bunch of brick-and-mortar retailers have been trying to sabotage it, by tying the approval of the permanent ban on access taxes to a totally unrelated bill that would force e-commerce providers to charge a sales tax. This is a fight that's been going on for years. Historically, mail order and e-commerce shops didn't have to pay sales tax unless they had a physical presence in a state. This made sense, as the taxes were supposed to be to support local services that those companies relied on. However, brick-and-mortar retailers have been claiming that this is some sort of evil "loophole" because it creates an excuse for why people like shopping online rather than in their stores. So they've been demanding that increasingly onerous tax regimes be placed on online retailers, and insisted that such a bill must be approved in conjunction with the permanent ITFA.

However, in the end, that strategy appears to have failed -- at least for now. The retailers could only get an agreement that Congress will take up the retail sales tax issue later this year, rather than tying the two directly together. Still, it will be worth watching what happens on that issue in the coming months. Expect a full court press of misleading stories about a horrible "loophole" in the coming months, as these stores look to increase the taxes on things you buy online.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 February 2016 @ 2:03pm

UK Court Tells Online Mapping Company It's Not Illegal For Google To Also Offer Online Maps

from the it's-called-competition dept

It's still somewhat strange to me to see how badly some companies react to basic competition. Yes, sometimes that means companies lose, but it doesn't automatically make any and all competition unfair. An online map company, StreetMap.Eu sued Google a few years ago, claiming that Google's entrance into the online mapping world, and specifically including maps in search results, was unfair competition. However, the UK High Court has now, rightfully, rejected such a claim. The basis of the ruling seemed rather straightforward:

But the judge ruled that the introduction by Google of the new-style Maps OneBox in 2007 was "not reasonably likely appreciably to affect competition in the market for online maps".

The judge added that, in any event, Google's conduct was " objectively justified".
StreetMap's director Kate Sutton, however, is insisting that the company will appeal and says the whole thing is "unfair."
"The decision is unfair for small businesses," Sutton said, and added that StreetMap would attempt to appeal against the judgment, which found that Google's search dominance had not directly harmed competition in the UK's online mapping market.
I'm kind of curious what Sutton thinks is the appropriate remedy here: that no larger company should ever be allowed to offer services useful to consumers, which might somehow be "unfair" to smaller competitors? I'm a huge supporter of more competition in innovative services, but that should be driven by what's best for consumers, not what's best for small companies. Besides, plenty of small companies figure out how to innovate and take on large companies. The fact that her company has chosen not to do so is not Google's fault. Hell, Google itself, when it showed up entered a very crowded market and was laughed at for being such a small player in a market dominated by established companies. And what happened there?

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 February 2016 @ 12:42pm

Wikimedia Takes Down Diary Of Anne Frank, Uses It To Highlight Idiocy Of DMCA Rules, Copyright Terms

from the what-a-mess dept

We've written a few times about the copyright status of the Diary of Anne Frank lately, mainly because it's pretty clear that the original work was supposed to enter the public domain in Europe on January 1st of this year, as it was 70 years after Frank's tragic death. However, the copyright holder, The Anne Frank Fonds organization in Switzerland has been trying to claim that the work is still under copyright, and that Anne's father, Otto Frank, is a co-author of the work. Either way, the work is not in the public domain in the US, because the US (ridiculously) grants copyrights for an even longer term than Europe.

The latest is that the Wikimedia Foundation has announced that it has removed a Dutch-language version of the text -- and used the removal as a chance to highlight some of the ridiculousness of the DMCA:

We took this action to comply with the United States' Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), as we believe the diary is still under US copyright protection under the law as it is currently written. Nevertheless, our removal serves as an excellent example of why the law should be changed to prevent repeated extensions of copyright terms, an issue that has plagued our communities for years.
Specifically, Wikimedia notes that, as a US company, it's under the jurisdiction of US law, and the DMCA includes a provision on "red flag" knowledge, that says if you are aware of infringing material, and you do not take it down, you may be liable. Thus, it removed it, even though it did not receive a specific DMCA takedown notice.

Based on email discussions sent to the Wikimedia Foundation at legal[at]wikimedia.org, we determined that the Wikimedia Foundation had either "actual knowledge" (i in the statute quoted below) or what is commonly called "red flag knowledge" (ii in the statute quoted below) that the Anne Frank text was hosted on Wikisource and was under copyright. The statute section states that a service provider is only protected by the DMCA when it:

(i) does not have actual knowledge that the material or an activity using the material on the system or network is infringing;

(ii) in the absence of such actual knowledge, is not aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent; or

(The rest applies when we get a proper DMCA takedown notice.)

Of particular concern, the US’ 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stated in their ruling for UMG Recordings, Inc. v. Shelter Capital Partners LLC that in circumstances where a hosting provider (like the Wikimedia Foundation) is informed by a third party (like an unrelated user) about infringing copyrighted content, that would likely constitute either actual or red flag knowledge under the DMCA.

We believe, based on the detail and specificity contained in the emails, that we received that we had actual knowledge sufficient for the DMCA to require us to perform a takedown even in the absence of a demand letter.

There is, admittedly, a fair bit of controversy over the whole "red flag knowledge" concept, with different courts ruling different ways. However, you can understand why Wikimedia might not want to take the risk when there's a very real chance a ruling could come down against them. Even if you disagree with the appropriateness of the whole "red flag knowledge" concept or its application here, you have to respect Wikimedia's decision not to set itself up to be a sacrificial lamb in a case that it could very well lose.

However, it does give Wikimedia a chance to rail against ridiculous copyright term extensions, especially those that are retroactively applied or which are used on foreign works that should be in the public domain:

However, in the United States, the Anne Frank original text will be under copyright until 2042. This is the result of several factors coming together, and the English-language Wikipedia has actually covered this issue with a multi-part test on its non-US copyrights content guideline.

In short, there are three major laws that together make the diary still copyrighted:

  1. In general, the U.S. copyright for works published before 1978 is 95 years from date of publication. This came about because copyrights in the U.S. were originally for 28 years, with the ability to then extend that for a second 28 years (making a total of 56). Starting with the 1976 Copyright Act and extending to several more acts, the renewal became automatic and was extended. Today, the total term of works published before 1978 is 95 years from date of publication.
  2. Foreign works of countries that are treaty partners to the United States are covered as if they were US works.
  3. Even if a country was not a treaty partner under copyright law at the time of a publication, the 1994 Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA) restored copyright to works that:
    • had been published in a foreign country
    • were still under copyright in that country in 1996
    • and would have had U.S. copyright but for the fact they were published abroad.


Court challenges to the URAA have all failed, with the most notable (Golan v. Holder) resulting in a Supreme Court ruling that upheld the URAA.

What that means for Anne Frank’s diary is unfortunately simple: no matter how it wound up in the United States and regardless of what formal copyright notices they used, the US grants it copyright until the year 2042, or 95 years after its original publication in 1947.

Under current copyright law, this remains true regardless of its copyright status anywhere else in the world and regardless of whether it may have been in the public domain in the United States in the past.

It's unfortunate that this is what the law is and that the chilling effects this has is hiding away an important piece of cultural history. But, at the very least, let it be yet another reminder that copyright reform requires a major change to copyright terms, and retroactive expansion of copyright terms is a concept that should never have been allowed.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 February 2016 @ 10:36am

Our Response To Yet Another Bogus Legal Threat From Australia: Go Learn Some Law

from the not-how-it-works dept

So... you may recall that, back in December, we received and responded to a ridiculous and bogus legal threat sent by one Milorad "Michael" Trkulja from Australia. Mr. Trkulja had sent the almost incomprehensible letter to us and to Google, making a bunch of claims, many of which made absolutely no sense at all. The crux of the issue, however, was that, back in November of 2012, we had an article about a legal victory by Mr. Trkulja against Google. The issue was that when you searched on things like "sydney underworld criminal mafia" in Google's Image search, sometimes a picture of Trkulja would show up. His argument was that this was Google defaming him, because its algorithms included him in the results of such a search and he was not, in fact, a part of the "underworld criminal mafia."

Either way, back in 2012 we wrote about that case, and Trkulja was upset that a comment on that story jokingly referred to him as a "gangster." Because of that, Trkulja demanded that we pay him lots of money, that we delete the story and the comments and that Google delist all of Techdirt entirely. Immediately, we pointed out in our response: the comment is not defamatory, the statute of limitations had long since passed if it was defamatory, as an American company we're protected by Section 230 of the CDA, and even if he took us to court in Australia, we're still protected by the SPEECH Act. Finally, we suggested that perhaps he chill out and not care so much about what an anonymous person said in the comments of an internet blog over three years ago -- especially when many people consider it a compliment to be called "a gangster."

Either way, it seemed fairly clear that there was no actual "harm" to Mr. Trkulja, given that he didn't even seem to care about it for over three years.

We had hoped that this would be the end of it, but apparently it is not. A few weeks back, we received the following, absolutely bogus legal threat from an Australian lawyer by the name of Stuart Gibson, who appears to work for an actual law firm called Mills Oakley. The original threat from Mr. Trkulja could, perhaps, be forgiven, seeing as he almost certainly wrote it himself (again, it was incomprehensible in parts, and full of grammatical and typographical errors). Our response was an attempt to educate Mr. Trkulja against making bogus threats.

However, now that he's apparently wasting money on a real lawyer like Gibson, we will address the rest of our response to Gibson: Your letter is ridiculous, censorious and not even remotely applicable. Going to court over this will make you and your client look extremely foolish. But let's dig in, because Mr. Gibson seems to think that blustery bullshit will scare us off. He's woefully misinformed on this.

First off, if you send a legal threat and say "NOT FOR PUBLICATION" at the top, it's tough to take you seriously, because such a statement is meaningless. We have no contractual agreement not to publish such information, and if you send us a bogus legal threat, we are damn well going to publish it:
And now on to the crux of Gibson's argument: we said mean things about his client and somebody's feelings may have been hurt.
If you can't read that, it says:
The matter that you have published conveys false and defamatory meanings including (but not limited to) the following:
  1. Our client is a gangster;
  2. That our client by virtue of his legal claims is incompetent and unfit to be a litigant;
  3. That our client by virtue of his legal claims is a ridiculous litigant;
  4. That our client is a criminal and a participant in organised crime;
  5. That our client is unfit to be a litigant
None of these meanings is defensible. Our client is not a criminal and has never been a gangster nor associated with such persons. Accordingly there is no factual basis for the imputations published.
Let's go through these one by one. First off, we never said that Mr. Trkulja is a gangster. In fact, in both of our previous stories about him, we noted that his concern was over being called a gangster when he was not one. To claim otherwise is Mr. Gibson lying in his threat to us. As a suggestion, lying in your legal threat letter is not a very good idea.

Second, at no point did we state that Mr. Trkulja was incompetent or unfit to be a litigant. We merely published his own words -- admittedly including his misspellings, grammatical errors and general confusion -- and our responses to them. If Mr. Gibson thinks this implies that his client is unfit to be a litigant, perhaps he should check his own biases.

Third, again, Mr. Gibson seems to be assuming the claim. We did say that the threat against us was ridiculous -- an opinion we stand by. But we did not say he was a "ridiculous litigant." Also, "ridiculous" is a statement of opinion and even in nutty Australia, "honest opinion" is not defamation. And it is our "honest opinion" that the threat is ridiculous.

Fourth, this is a repeat of the first claim. It was false the first time, and it's still false. Repeating a false claim may allow Mr. Gibson to add to his billable hours, but doesn't seem like particularly good lawyering.

Fifth, this is a repeat of the second claim. See point four above. And point two above.

So let's be clear: we did not say that Mr. Trkulja was a gangster. We said, in our honest opinion, that he won a lawsuit the results of which we disagree with, and that his legal threat to us was ridiculous. This is all perfectly reasonable and protected free speech. Second, we posted Mr. Trkulja's own words which, again in our honest opinions, do show the "ridiculousness" of his threat to us in that it was filled with grammar and spelling errors and was, at points, (again, in our honest opinion) incomprehensible gibberish.

Mr. Gibson, then suggests that arrogance is somehow defamatory:
If you can't see that, it says:
Moreover your commentary that still resides on your website is an arrogant, false and poorly researched piece for the following reasons:
  • The reference to "gangster" is not "totally innocuous". The reference is grossly defamatory and indefensible. One could not conceive a more defamatory reference than that. It may be a throwaway line in the United States but it is certainly not in this jurisdiction.
  • Judgments against US companies especially those resident in California are enforceable particularly monetary judgments.
  • You are not protected by the Speech Act.
  • This firm has enforced numerous judgments against corporations in your jurisdiction.
  • Your reference to "free speech" is absolute nonsense. Speech may be free but it is also actionable.
  • You did publish the comment. Under Australian defamation law, you have a duty as a moderator to moderate third party comments. If you do not and refuse to take action when given notice, you are liable.
First off, I may not be an expert on Australian defamation law, but I can tell you I find it difficult to believe that "arrogance" or "poorly researched" information is defamatory there. It certainly is not defamatory in the US, and, furthermore, Mr. Gibson, you are wrong that it was poorly researched. It was well researched and backed up with a great amount of detail -- details I will note your own threat letter to us appears to be lacking. And I'm sorry if we come off as arrogant to you, but we're allowed to speak our minds.

Next, Mr. Gibson, you "could not conceive a more defamatory reference" than calling someone a gangster? Really, now? Because I'm at least moderately familiar with some Australian insults and many of them seem way, way worse than "gangster" -- which, again I will remind, you we never called your client (and, in fact, correctly noted that he was upset at someone calling him a gangster). And, yes, it is innocuous. No one cares that someone anonymously in a blog comment jokingly called your client a gangster. It was harmless as is fairly clearly evidenced by the fact that your client didn't even notice it for over three years.

Next, I'll note that for all your talk of enforcing Australian monetary judgments in California, you don't name a single one. And, you're wrong, because the SPEECH Act absolutely does apply, and you'd be exceptionally foolish to test this, though of course that is your decision to make. The text of the SPEECH Act is pretty explicit, first about when defamation rulings are enforceable in the US and (clue time!) it doesn't count if the statements wouldn't be defamatory in the US:
a domestic court shall not recognize or enforce a foreign judgment for defamation unless the domestic court determines that the exercise of personal jurisdiction by the foreign court comported with the due process requirements that are imposed on domestic courts by the Constitution of the United States.
Second, the law is also explicit that a service provider, such as us (in reference to comments published by readers on our site), if protected by CDA 230 in the US, would be similarly protected from foreign judgment:
a domestic court shall not recognize or enforce a foreign judgment for defamation against the provider of an interactive computer service, as defined in section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 230) unless the domestic court determines that the judgment would be consistent with section 230 if the information that is the subject of such judgment had been provided in the United States.
I recognize that you're an Australian lawyer, not a US one, but I would suggest doing at least a tiny bit of research into the caselaw on Section 230 in the US. You will quickly learn that we do qualify as a service provider and that, no, we are not liable for statements in the comments. And, hell, even if we were, and even if the comments were defamatory under US law (which they're not), the statute of limitations on those original comments is long past anyway.

And, yes, in case you still have not read the SPEECH Act, the legal burden will be on you here:
The party seeking recognition or enforcement of the foreign judgment shall bear the burden of establishing that the judgment is consistent with section 230.
Good luck with that.

In case you still decide to ignore the actual text of the law, you can also go digging through the legislative record on the SPEECH Act, in which it was made explicit that the law was designed to protect against such forms of "libel tourism."
The purpose of this provision is to ensure that libel tourists do not attempt to chill speech by suing a third-party interactive computer service, rather than the actual author of the offending statement.
You can claim the law doesn't apply, but you are wrong. The text is clear. You can claim that you have won judgments or monetary awards in the past. And perhaps you have, but if you try to move against us, you will be facing the SPEECH Act and you will lose.

So, given all of the above, we will not be undertaking any of your demands. We will not apologize as we have nothing to apologize for. We will not retract anything, as we did not make any false or defamatory publications. We will not remove anything from our website. We will not pay your client anything, whether "reasonable costs" nor "a sum of money in lieu of damages."

Instead, we will tell you, as we did originally, to go pound sand and to maybe think twice before making bogus legal threats that you cannot back up.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 February 2016 @ 9:33am

If The CIA Apologizes For Lying About Torture, But Doesn't Tell Anyone About The Apology, Does It Really Count?

from the 14-months-later... dept

Remember the Senate Intelligence Committee's massive CIA torture report, that details how the CIA conducted a vast program of torturing people, which had no actual benefit, and then lied to Congress (repeatedly) about it? The same report that, when the heavily redacted executive summary was released, ex-CIA officials insisted would result in attacks on America that never actually happened?

This was also the same CIA torture report that the CIA vehemently disagreed with. Even prior to the (again, heavily redacted) executive summary being released, CIA Director John Brennan had responded to the report, insisting that it was full of lies and misleading claims. That initial response, which happened in the summer of 2013 took issue with many of the claims in the report. When the redacted executive summary of the report was finally released, the CIA apparently publicly posted a "correction" about its claims concerning the report, in which it noted that many of the statements the CIA had made in attacking the torture report were actually... not true.

And here's the real kicker: while the CIA "released" this "correction" on its website as a "note to readers" it didn't actually tell anyone about it. Instead, just as everyone was talking about the release of the executive summary of the terror report, and claiming that the CIA was contesting a bunch of key findings in the report, the CIA had actually posted a document on its own website detailing how its own denials were basically wrong. And some of them were big denials -- including about the effectiveness of the torture program on Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KSM). A key part of the Senate's report was that KSM was repeatedly tortured, but didn't cough up anything particularly useful. The CIA vehemently denied this and insisted that what KSM gave them was useful. But in this "note to readers" (again, which was never revealed to anyone), the CIA admits that it clearly overstated the value of KSM:

Rather than "the individual managing the plot," we should have written "the individual who was in a position to advance the plot." This terrorist had raised Canary Wharf as a potential target and was tasked by KSM to conduct surveillance of Heathrow Airport's security, but the plot was shelved after KSM's arrest....

... Instead of "KSM provided information on an ai-Qa'ida operative named Zubair. .. ," we should have written that "KSM provided information that led us to understand the significance of a Jemaah lslamiya operative named Zubair." We acknowledge that in various representations, including President Bush's 2006 speech, CIA introduced a sequencing error regarding Majid Khan's arrest/debriefings, and KSM's arrest/debriefings. We repeated that error here and on page 26 of Tab C (see next erratum). However, despite that error, our description of the impact of the information acquired from KSM in the Hambali case remains accurate. It was the combination of information from both terrorists that caused us to focus on Zubair as an inroad to Hambali....

... In our review of this case, we correctly acknowledged that CIA allowed a mistaken claim that KSM played a role in Majid Khan's capture to appear in the Inspector General's 2004 Special Review, and we correctly wrote that this claim was a one-time error. However, our effort to provide an example of a more accurate "typical representation" of the relationship between KSM's information and Khan ran afoul of the sequencing error noted in the previous erratum. Although information from KSM was used to elicit further details from Khan, by then Khan already had provided the information that, together with what we learned from KSM, enabled us to advance our search for Hambali....

...We incorrectly stated that KSM's information preceded Majid Khan's information. We stand by our overall conclusion regarding the value of KSM's information.
In other words, a bunch of things the CIA insisted were inaccurate in the Senates Torture Report were actually quite accurate, and it was the CIA that was being inaccurate. And, sure, the CIA "admitted" this in its "note to readers" but then failed to actually tell anyone about this "note to readers." In fact, while the document was available on the CIA website no one even seemed to notice it until a few days ago. And that includes the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The document, entitled “Note to Readers,” was not formally provided or flagged separately for the Senate Intelligence Committee, which only became aware of its existence in the last week — more than a year since the document was publicly posted.

The “Note” was also noticeably absent from the CIA website’s swath of December 2014 releases related to the Intelligence Committee study, and was not mentioned in either of the agency’s archived press releases on the subject.

Not surprisingly, Senator Ron Wyden, who has been one of the leading voices in getting this report out to the public, was not at all pleased to find out about all of this:
“The CIA justified this program by claiming that it produced otherwise unobtainable information. CIA officials have now admitted their go-to example was wrong,” Sen. Ron Wyden, a prominent Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told BuzzFeed News.

“These are significant admissions by the CIA that should not have been hidden in an obscure endnote,” Wyden said. “Director Brennan has tried to insist that the CIA did not provide policymakers with false information about torture, but these corrections seem to be an admission that they did so, and did so repeatedly.”
It still seems worth asking why President Obama continues to allow CIA Director John Brennan to retain that role. He appears to have no problem letting him get away with lying and purposeful obfuscation over activities of the CIA to the Senate Committee that is in charge of overseeing the CIA.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 February 2016 @ 8:28am

Google Partially Caves To French Demands For More Global Censorship Of 'Forgotten' Links

from the disappointing dept

For a while now we've been highlighting the problems of Europe's "Right to be Forgotten" concept as it applies to search results. The idea is that, rather than a search engine, Europe thinks of companies like Google as creating something of a "dossier" on individuals, over which they should be able to delete old or irrelevant "data." This means that, in the EU, people can apply to Google to "de-link" certain stories that they consider to no longer be relevant, even if those stories are 100% accurate and true. Not surprisingly, given a chance to "delink" yourself from truthful information has resulted in lots and lots of people demanding Google "forget" links about them. Google now has a process to go through these, and certainly has rejected many requests, but it still appears to accept many requests that appear to be obviously bogus attempts to hide information someone just dislikes.

Last summer, French regulators decided that Google wasn't doing enough, and that Google needed to not just censor links on Google's EU domains, but globally. Google responded, noting that this was highly problematic, given that the EU did not have jurisdiction over the globe, and France basically responded with a "shut up, do it anyway."

And now it appears that Google has gone back to the French regulators with a partial solution. While some have said it means that Google will, in fact, start "forgetting" links globally, that does not appear to be the case from looking at the details. Instead, it looks like Google will now try to block based on where Google thinks users are coming from, rather than which Google domain they're using. This is a subtle difference which, in most cases, may not be different at all. That is, when you visit Google from a variety of countries, Google already tries to geolocate you, and will often redirect you to the "local" version of the search engine -- such as Google.fr in France.

Under the current RTBF system, Google removes those links on the specific searches if you're on such an EU domain. However, if you're in France and you force your browser to visit Google.com, the same links would not be missing. So the "compromise" is that now Google will remove the links based on where it thinks you physically are, even if you force your browser to visit a non-local domain name. This will not really impact that many people -- just those who force Google to visit a different domain than their local domain. But, still, it's a further compromise and a move towards greater censorship of accurate link results. Of course, what's stupid is that basically anyone who knows enough to force Google to not use a local domain probably also knows how to use a VPN or proxy to appear to be coming from outside Europe.

Still, the big question now is whether or not French regulators will find this an "acceptable" compromise, or if they will continue to insist on global censorship over accurate information in an effort to suppress truthful information.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 February 2016 @ 2:04pm

Law Students Line Up Behind 'Baby Blue' -- Will Harvard Law Review Sue?

from the law-student-on-law-student-legal-action dept

Back in 2014, we wrote about a crazy story, where the Harvard Law Review was claiming copyright over legal citation standards. It's true that the Harvard Law Review Association has published the famous "Bluebook" of legal citation standards for many years, but the idea that such citations are copyrightable is crazy. In response to this, law professor Chris Sprigman and open records guru Carl Malamud alerted the world of their intention to publish "Baby Blue" -- a competing legal citations publication. They noted that the 10th edition of the Bluebook, which as published in 1958, had clearly fallen into the public domain, and they were going to use that as the starting point for their competing product. Late in December, we pointed out that Harvard Law Review freaked out after its expensive Ropes & Gray lawyers saw a few tweets from Malamud suggesting Baby Blue was almost ready for publication. On Christmas Eve, a pricey lawyer sent off a nastygram, threatening a copyright infringement lawsuit if Baby Blue were published.

It took another month and a half or so, but Baby Blue is now available -- and it appears that law students are lining up behind it, rather than the Bluebook. A bunch of folks at Yale Law School and NYU Law School have come out in support of Baby Blue. It appears other law schools are jumping on board as well -- including Harvard Law School, Stanford and more.

Meanwhile, law professor David Post has provided a bit of free legal advice for the Harvard Law Review:

Here’s a bit of free legal advice: If you want to assert copyright protection over something, don’t call it “A Uniform System of Citation” —  because systems are, by definition, unprotected by copyright. Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act couldn’t be clearer:

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, [or] method of operation, … regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

And now... everyone gets to wait and see what the Harvard Law Review Association decides to do.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 February 2016 @ 12:44pm

Techdirt Reading List: From Counterculture To Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Network, And The Rise Of Digital Utopianism

from the internet-culture dept

We're back again with another in our weekly reading list posts of books we think our community will find interesting and thought provoking. Once again, buying the book via the Amazon links in this story also helps support Techdirt.

If you haven't spent much time deep within Silicon Valley, it's often difficult to understand the culture here. People often try -- and they frequently get it wrong, often by resorting to weak stereotypes. Some people focus on the supposedly hippy dippy idealism of making the world a better place and improving access to information. Others focus on the massive businesses, huge monetary rewards and disruptive competition to argue that it's all about the money. And then people frequently talk about the very "libertarian" focus of Silicon Valley, often not realizing it's quite different than the political libertarianism most people think about. And then there are others who focus on the massive quest for data, and worry about the potential authoritarian possibilities associated with it. And, in a weird way, the reality of Silicon Valley is a hard-to-grasp-until-you've-lived-it mix of all of that. And focusing solely on just one almost always misses the real story and the real motivations behind what happens here.

That's why this week's recommendation on the Techdirt Reading List is From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, which really does a great job illustrating just how Silicon Valley culture turned into what it is today. The book is a few years old, and I was only just reminded of it during an AMA by John Perry Barlow.

There are some other books that delve into the culture of Silicon Valley, but I still go back to this one as being the closest I've seen to really getting the overall mix right, and actually showing how these different concepts aren't as contradictory as many people naturally assume. It shows how a technology that was originally focused on and designed for military uses, was quickly turned into a tool for freedom, liberation and expression. And, yes, with that came money and power as well. But the combination makes a lot more sense than most people think, and this book does a great job explaining how all of that came about.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 February 2016 @ 11:38am

Years Later, White House Sends Two Copyright Treaties To Senate For Ratification: One Good, One Bad

from the let's-see-how-this-goes dept

It's not clear why it's taken this long, but late Wednesday, the White House sent two WIPO treaties over to the Senate for ratification: The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled -- usually just called "The Marrakesh Treaty" or "The Marrakesh Treaty for the Blind" -- and the Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances, usually just called "The Beijing Treaty." The Beijing Treaty was completed in 2012. The Marrakesh Treaty in 2013. It's not clear why it took the White House until 2016 to move on them, but such is life.

We covered both treaties while they were being negotiated. The Marrakesh Treaty is a good one -- creating a system that carves out a place in copyright laws to make it easier for the blind and visually impaired to be able to get access to books that they might not otherwise be able to access due to copyright laws. For absolutely insane reasons, this treaty, which should have been an easy one for everyone to get behind, took basically forever. The big problem? Big copyright legacy players, such as the MPAA, are scared to death of anything that moves copyright in a direction away from more control by copyright holders. They literally flipped out at the idea of any movement towards making copyright work for the public, even blind people, so that they put on a full court lobbying press that almost worked. Thankfully, it did not. Now, we'll see if they're able to do the same and block the Senate from ratifying it. But, seriously, voting against the Marrakesh Treaty is basically spitting in the face of the blind. The MPAA has done some shameful stuff for many years, but if they block this, it'll be a new low.

On the flip side, there's the awful, stupid and unnecessary Beijing Treaty. This one creates an entirely new form of intellectual property, a sort of special copyright for performers. Remember that awful 9th Circuit ruling saying an actress had a copyright interest in her performance in a movie -- the one that later (thankfully) got overturned? Part of Judge Kozinski's reasoning in his decision was the Beijing Treaty -- which, obviously, hadn't even been ratified yet. Kozinski pointing to the Beijing Treaty was ridiculous for a whole variety of reasons, but with the White House now supporting ratification, things may get even more ridiculous.

Under this treaty, Hollywood, and Hollywood actors in particular, will likely be getting their very own form of copyright, which almost certainly means that ratifying the treaty will lead to new copyright laws that are even more restrictive. It will allow performers to deny the ability to make use of any sort of performance they were in, even if they don't (as they usually don't) hold a copyright in that work. It also expands certain definitions in ways that are incompatible with US copyright law, including an explicit "making available" right (something Hollywood has wanted for ages) and broadening the concept of "moral rights" for actors. While many other countries recognize moral rights (which let copyright holders deny uses they disagree with), the US has rejected them in all but a few limited areas (mainly visual artists). And, finally, the agreement includes anti-circumvention provisions, basically expanding that already ridiculously problematic concept, so that someone breaking DRM in a way that violates someone's "performance rights," even if for otherwise legal purposes, such as commentary and criticism, may be breaking the law.

You may be wondering why Hollywood is such a big supporter of this, since it actually will hand more monopoly rights to performers -- people Hollywood has a history of screwing over. Well, it's because the agreement does allow (of course it does!) the transfer of such rights from performers to producers. So, guess what will go into every Hollywood movie and TV contract? The performers will fork over their rights, and the big Hollywood studios will end up with yet another form of monopoly control to silence people. And, with it will come all these neat little presents that Hollywood has always wanted in regular copyright law, that it might now be able to force through via the ratification of this treaty.

Both of these agreements are big deals -- but in different ways. I'm guessing the reason they're moving forward together is that it's something of a tradeoff for the MPAA. They "allow" the blind to get a few more rights, while secretly chuckling all the way to the bank as they get a massive expansion in copyright via the audiovisual treaty. Hopefully, there will actually be a big public discussion about both of these, and the Senate realizes that the Marrakesh Treaty is necessary, while the Beijing Treaty is dangerous and should not be supported.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 February 2016 @ 10:41am

Judge Changes Mind, Says James Woods Can Likely Unmask Guy Who Made Fun Of Him On Twitter

from the clownboy dept

Last summer, we noted a crazy case in which the famous Hollywood actor James Woods sued a random Twitter troll who had been making fun of Woods. The anonymous troll, who went by the name Abe List, mocked some of Woods' own nonsensical tweets about Caitlyn Jenner and Planned Parenthood by saying:

"@RealJamesWoods @benshapiro cocaine addict James Woods still sniffing and spouting."

-- Abe List (@abelist) July 15, 2015
As the lawsuit noted, Abe List had also mocked Woods in the past, such as calling him a "clown-boy." Of course "clown-boy" is not something than a statement of fact and thus can't be defamation. The real issue is whether or not saying "cocaine addict James Woods" is a statement of fact that is defamatory. Of course, considering that Woods is a public figure, this seemed like a really high bar to cross. With a public figure, the statements need to be made "with actual malice" or a "reckless disregard for the truth." In other words, it needs to be a case where Abe List knew those things weren't true, but said them anyway. That seems unlikely here. Oh yeah, and also, hyperbolic statements that are obviously hyperbole are not considered defamation, and this one seemed to qualify.

On top of all that, once Abe List got some lawyers (including Ken "Popehat" White), they pointed out that Woods himself had a rather long history of making similarly hyperbolic statements about people on Twitter. In fact, nearly identical ones:
Twitter also stepped in and refused to comply with the subpoena to identify Abe List, agreeing that we have a First Amendment right to speak anonymously, and that it did not think that Woods had a legitimate defamation case to unmask Abe List.

Abe List made an anti-SLAPP claim in California, which should stop all discovery and hopefully get the case tossed -- and things seemed to be going his way. Back in November, Woods' lawyers tried to move forward in discovering Abe List's identity but the judge rejected that plan.

Then, earlier this month, there was a hearing, and LA Superior Court judge Mel Recana, appeared to side with Abe List, issuing a 10-page tentative ruling dismissing the case. In that tentative ruling, Judge Recana noted:
The court finds that as a matter of law, in consideration of the totality of the circumstances, the tweet at issue is not a statement of fact but rather "rhetorical hyperbole, vigorous epithets, lusty and imaginative expressions of contempt and language used in a loose figurative sense" that does not support a defamation action.... The tweet cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating actual facts about James Woods. Both tweets were in the context of expressing inflammatory opinions. There was no indicia of reliability as to defendant's tweets.
That was February 2nd. So, you can imagine basically everyone's surprise, when less than a week later, Judge Recana released a 1-page final order that says the exact opposite:
As contended by plaintiff: Applying the totality of circumstances test, and examining the plain language of the Tweet, it is clear that any reader of the AL False Statement could and indeed must view it as a statement of fact. As described by Professor Finegan, AL's use of a prenomial characterization (i.e., "cocaine addict") followed by a proper noun (i.e., "James Woods") is a well-established linguistic structure widely used to characterize people with shorthand factual information. Prof. Finegan's opinion that "many if not all readers of the 'cocaine addict' Tweet will understand and interpret Abe List to be making a factual claim about James Woods -- namely that he is a cocaine addict' is on an issue of fact. His opinion is sufficiently beyond common experience and assists the trier of fact.
It's hard to underscore how surprising and ridiculous this ruling is. Yes, putting a descriptive term in front of a name can be viewed as a factual statement, but the law requires you to put them into context, and here the judge is completely ignoring that, and bizarrely claiming that people literally "must view it as a statement of fact" even though basically no one would do so. It's also bizarre given the original tentative ruling that a judge would so completely flip positions within a matter of days.

One of Abe List's lawyers, Lisa Bloom, has put out a statement saying that they will be appealing this ruling:
On Twitter, Mr. Woods enjoys calling strangers "clown," "rat," "scum," and other epithets. Mr. Woods insults gay Americans and immigrants. he brags that he could murder a man whose shirt offends him. He claims a prominent publisher "whacks off" to a picture of a terrorist. When Twitter users challenge him, he tells them to "put down your crack pipe." He's mockingly accused at least three other Twitter users of using crack cociane.

Mr. Woods dishes it out, but he can't take it. When not-famous, not-wealthy John Doe responded to a James Woods slur on Caitlyn Jenner and Planned Parenthood in kind, calling him a cocaine addict, Mr. Woods sued. Mr. Doe's suggestion that Mr. Woods was on drugs was not meant to be taken literally, just as Mr. Woods' "put down your crack pipe" and other mocking language was not serious. This is his simple defense.

Twitter is a wide open forum where wisecracks are the norm. It exists not only for the rich and powerful to lambast others, but for all users to express themselves, often colorfully, without fear of being dragged into expensive, stressful litigation. It is frightening to be sued for $10 million by Mr. Woods, but Mr. Doe is fighting back.

Today the Court rejected our request to dismiss the case. We strongly disagree with the denial of the motion, and agree with the Court's tentative ruling that granted the motion. We look forward to presenting the issues to the Court of appeal. Mr. Doe is resolved to fight this case for as many months or years as it takes.
The statement also notes that Abe List filed some sort of "formal complaint" with Twitter, though the details there are not entirely clear. Either way, what should have been a simple case with a simple dismissal has now gotten a lot more complicated. It may be tempting to mock the judge, but be careful what you say, because apparently he believes that obvious hyperbole must be interpreted as fact if you put the statement in front of someone's name.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 February 2016 @ 9:39am

CIA Director Freaks Out After Senator Wyden Points Out How The CIA Spied On The Senate

from the not-so-cool-under-fire dept

If you're a CIA Director, one would assume that you know how to be cool under fire, right? Apparently that's not the case for current CIA Director John Brennan who seemed to completely freak out when Senator Ron Wyden started asking questions about the CIA's infamous decision to spy on the network and computers of Senate Intelligence Committee staffers who were compiling a report on the CIA's torture program. The details are a bit complex, but the short version is that the Intelligence Committee, which has oversight powers over the CIA, had been set up in a CIA building, with special access to CIA documents, and a special search tool. Apparently, at some point, that search tool returned a document which the CIA had never intended to share with the intelligence committee staffers. That document, called "the Panetta Review" was a draft document that then-CIA chief Leon Panetta had tasked people internal at the CIA to prepare on what the Senate Intelligence Committee staffers were likely to find as they went through the documents.

Yes, this is fairly meta. You had Senate staffers reviewing CIA documents, and at the same time, the CIA reviewing those same documents to try to get out ahead of any controversy -- and to make matters confusing, the Senate staffers then got access to that CIA review document as part of their regular searches. When the CIA was questioned about this Panetta review, they freaked out, wondering how the Senate staffers got their hands on the document, and did what the CIA does: they spied on the Senate staffers' computers and network to try to determine how they got the document in the first place. This was despite a promise from the CIA that the Senate staffers' computers and network were considered off-limits (due to an even earlier incident). That resulted in Senator Dianne Feinstein accusing the CIA of illegally spying on the Senate (its overseers). In response, Brennan first denied the spying altogether, and then insisted that it was the Senate staffers who broke the law, saying they illegally mishandled classified CIA documents in how they handled the Panetta Review.

Eventually, the DOJ decided that there wasn't enough evidence that either side broke the law, and refused to make any criminal charges either way. While both the CIA's Inspector General and a special review board Brennan himself set up found that the CIA did, in fact, spy on the Senate staffers' network and computers, and that this was inappropriate, neither seemed to say that it rose to a truly controversial level. Not surprisingly, the review board Brennan set up himself cleared him of wrongdoing.

Mixed in with all of this are remaining questions about how involved Brennan himself actually was in all of this (he refuses to say) and an ongoing request for an apology. While the CIA's Inspector General claimed that Brennan apologized for the breach, later reporting by Jason Leopold at Vice showed that Brennan had drafted an apology, but never sent it. Instead, he apparently provided a very narrow apology solely to Feinstein and then vice chair Saxby Chambliss, basically of the "I'm sorry if what did upset you" manner.

Given this, during a rare open Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Wyden decided to quiz Brennan about all of this, leading to a rather sarcastic and testy exchange that needs to be watched to be believed:

Immediately, Brennan gets snarky, noting that "This is the annual threat assessment, is it not? Yes?" implying that he doesn't think it's appropriate for Wyden to be bringing up this "other" topic in such a hearing. And it only gets worse from there. He immediately jumps to the argument, again, that it was the Senate staffers' fault for getting access to a document he didn't want them to see. He then says the CIA therefore had an "obligation" to find out how that happened. And then he, somewhat insultingly, suggests that Senator Wyden had not actually read the IG's account, or the report of the review panel that Brennan himself set up.

Wyden cuts him off, quoting directly from the report and notes that other agencies have all said it would be inappropriate to review Senate oversight computer systems, and asks Brennan if he disagrees. Brennan is clearly pissed off:
Brennan: Yes, I think you mischaracterize both their comments as well as what's in those reports. And I apologized to the Chairman and the Vice Chairman about the de minimis access and inappropriate access that CIA officers made to five emails or so of Senate staffers during that investigation. And I apologized to them for that very specific inappropriate action that was taken as part of a very reasonable investigative action. But do not say that we spied on Senate computers or files. We did not do that. We were fulfilling our responsibilities.

Wyden: I read the exact words of the Inspector General and the Review Board. You appointed the Review Board! They said nobody ought to be punished, but they said there was improper access. And my point is, in our system of government, we have responsibilities to do vigorous oversight. And we can't do vigorous oversight if there are improper procedures used to access our files.
Wyden then admits his time is up... but Brennan's so angry that he won't give up. He breaks all proper Senate hearing protocol and jumps back in, asking Wyden to say, again, that it was the Senate staffers' fault for accessing the Panetta Review:
Do you not agree there was improper access that senate staffers had to CIA internal deliberative documents? Was that not inappropriate or unauthorized?
Wyden angrily points out that everything the Senate staffers did was appropriate, and anyway, he's now asking about the CIA's activities, and points to the Inspector General review and the other review board... all the while with Brennan angrily shaking his head at Wyden. When Wyden finishes, Brennan goes back to being snarky, saying:
And I'm still awaiting the review that was done by the Senate to take a look at what the staffers actions were.
And then there's this:
Separation of powers between the executive, legislative branches, Senator, goes both ways.
In short: even if you have oversight over us, don't mess with the CIA, Senator. That's quite a statement.

He then goes on to again claim that Wyden is mischaracterizing everything, and that what the CIA did was entirely appropriate. Wyden concludes:
It's pretty hard to mischaracterize word for word quotes that use the words "improper access."

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 February 2016 @ 8:26am

Senator John McCain Weighs In On 'Going Dark' Debate -- Insists That He Understands Cryptography Better Than Cryptographers

from the maverick dept

Who knew that Senator John McCain understood encryption better than actual cryptographers? Late last week, he wrote an op-ed for Bloomberg View, in which he trots out all the usual talking points on how Silicon Valley just needs to nerd harder to solve the "Going Dark" problem. There's lots of cluelessness in the piece, but let's focus on the big one:

Top cryptologists have reasonably cautioned that “new law enforcement requirements are likely to introduce unanticipated, hard to detect security flaws,” but this is not the end of the analysis. We recognize there may be risks to requiring such access, but we know there are risks to doing nothing.
Actually, it kind of is "the end of the analysis" because the core element of that analysis is the fact that any attempt to backdoor encryption doesn't just make security weaker, it puts basically everyone at much greater risk. It introduces cataclysmic problems for any system that stores information that needs to be kept secure and private.

The following sentence is equally inane, in which he tries to place the "risks" of backdooring encryption on the same plane as the risk of ISIS using encryption. Let's be clear here: the risk of backdooring encryption isn't just significantly larger than the risk of ISIS using encryption, they're not even in the same universe. Even worse, by backdooring encryption, you are almost certainly increasing the risk of ISIS as well, by giving them a massive vulnerability to attack and exploit. Trying to suggest that this is an "on the one hand, on the other hand" situation is so ridiculously ignorant, one wonders who the hell is advising Senator McCain on this topic.

The fact is that there are always some risks. Tens of thousand of people die in car accidents in the US every year, yet you don't hear Senator McCain weighing the risks of driving versus the risks of banning cars. And that's a much more reasonable position to stake out, because banning cars would actually reduce automobile deaths — but it would also cripple the economy. But here's the thing: backdooring encryption has the potential to do much more damage to the economy than banning automobiles, because it would create vulnerabilities that could really completely shut down our economy. So, for McCain to pretend that there are somewhat equal risks on either side isn't just ignorant and meaningless, it's dangerous.
Some technologists and Silicon Valley executives argue that any efforts by the government to ensure law-enforcement access to encrypted information will undermine users’ privacy and make them less secure. This position is ideologically motivated and profit-driven, though not without merit. But, by speaking in absolute terms about privacy rights, they bring the discussion to a halt, while the security threat evolves.
Honestly, this is not true. I know that Comey's favorite line these days is that using strong encryption is a "business model decision," but Silicon Valley's interest in strong encryption doesn't appear to be driven by their own bottom lines, frankly. If it was, they would have adopted it much earlier. Strong encryption actually undermines some companies' business models, in that it makes it more difficult for them to collect the data that many of them rely on. The move towards stronger encryption has mostly been the result of a few things: (1) the fact that the NSA broke into their data centers and put their legitimate users at risk, (2) a better understanding of the wider risks from malicious attackers of what happens when you have weak encryption and (3) user demands for privacy. The last one may have indirect business model benefits in that it keeps users happier, but to argue that keeping users happy is somehow a purely money-driven decision, and frame it as somehow a bad thing, is pretty damn ridiculous.

And, honestly, while there are some activists who speak in absolute terms about "privacy rights," you rarely hear that from Silicon Valley companies. In fact, those who have absolute views on privacy tend to be the most critical of Silicon Valley companies for taking a much less principled view on "privacy rights." McCain pretending that this is driven by some sort of "privacy rights" advocacy suggests he's (again) woefully misinformed on this issue.
To be clear, encryption is often a very good thing. It increases the security of our online activities, provides the confidence necessary for economic growth through the Internet, and protects our privacy by securing some of our most important personal information, such as financial data and health records. Yet as with many technological tools, terrorist organizations are using encryption with alarming success.
Actually, they're not using encryption with "alarming success." There are very, very, very, very few examples of terrorists using encryption successfully. The Paris attackers? Unencrypted SMS. San Bernardino? Unencrypted social media communication.
The jihadists' followers and adherents use encryption to hide their communications within the U.S. FBI Director James Comey recently testified that the attackers in last year's Garland, Texas, shootings exchanged more than 100 text messages with an overseas terrorist, but law enforcement is still blinded to the content of those texts because they were encrypted.
Notice that this is the only example that comes up in these discussions. That's because it's the only example. And it's not even a very good one. Because, as with most encrypted communication, the metadata was still perfectly accessible. That's why they know that the attackers exchanged messages with a terrorist. Sure, they may not be able to understand the direct contents of the message, but the same thing would have been true if the attacker and the people he communicated with had worked out a code before hand. Or, you know, if they had met and talked in person. Is McCain going to ban talking in person too?

Finally, McCain's "solution" to all of this is to make a law telling Silicon Valley to nerd harder and solve the problem... or else:
As part of this effort, Congress should consider legislation that would require U.S. telecommunications companies to adopt technological alternatives that allow them to comply with lawful requests for access to content, but that would not prescribe what those systems should look like. This would allow companies to retain flexibility to design their technologies to meet both their business needs and our national security interests.
In other words, despite the fact that all of the best cryptographers in the world have said that what you're asking for is basically impossible and would make everyone less safe, just do it anyway -- and do it in a way that when it falls apart and everyone is made more vulnerable, Congressional leaders like John McCain can spin around and blame the companies rather than themselves.
We have to encourage companies and individuals who rely on encryption to recognize that our security is threatened, not encouraged, by technologies that place vital information outside the reach of law enforcement. Developing technologies that aid terrorists like Islamic State is not only harmful to our security, but it is ultimately an unwise business model.
Does John McCain seriously not employ a single knowledgeable staffer who could point out to him that basically every encrypted technology that ISIS uses is not made by an American company? Seriously, look at the list of ISIS's preferred encryption technologies:
So who, exactly, is developing technologies that "aid terrorists like Islamic State" and need their encryption undermined?

Meanwhile, we haven't even touched on the biggest issue, as was highlighted in that big paper from Harvard last week. And it's this: the whole Going Dark thing is a total myth, because for the tiny, tiny, tiny bit of information that is now blocked out by strong encryption, there's a mountain of other data that is now accessible to law enforcement and the intelligence community. Things have been getting lighter and lighter and lighter for decades.

Shouldn't a sitting Senator understand these basic facts?

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 February 2016 @ 12:48pm

Also Turning 20 Years Old Today: John Perry Barlow's Declaration Of The Independence Of Cyberspace

from the still-a-work-in-progress dept

Earlier today, we wrote about how 20 years ago today, the Communications Decency Act became law (most importantly, Section 230, rather than the rest of it, which was dropped as unconstitutional). Of course, at the time, everyone was mostly focused on the unconstitutional parts trying to outlaw lots of smut online. It was partly that signing (which itself was a part of the larger Telecommunications Reform Act that inspired an apparently fairly drunk John Perry Barlow to pen his now quite famous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace -- which is now regularly quoted. A snippet:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.
Of course, many have attacked its words, and these days, it -- like Stewart Brand's famed "information wants to be free" quote (which is much longer and more nuanced than most people think) -- is more often referenced by people who hold it up for the sake of mockery, and to talk about how times have changed, or need to change.

And yet, there are (and remain) some very important concepts in that "dashed off" statement, and Barlow still stands by them today, even as think tanks laugh factories like ITIF (who brought you brilliant ideas like "SOPA") pretend he no longer supports it.

The Declaration was not a statement of inevitability, but rather a notice that things are different online. And they are. We've seen this over and over again -- from back then and continuously up through today. So many of the disputes that we run into are about this very different nature of the internet from the physical world. Borders are not easily marked online, though people have tried. Artificial property restrictions are make much less sense when there is no physical scarcity, but digital abundance allows for anyone to simply make their own copy. Questions about jurisdiction and power remain. Self-organizing communities continue to show up. Some work better than others. Some work for a time and fail. Other experiments show up to replace it.

And, yes, of course, there have been many attempts to either move existing laws into the internet world, or to craft new ones for that purpose. At the same time, many big corporations have stepped in as well, where their own terms of service often act as a type of constitution. Some of these work better than others. The little tiny good law tucked deep into the horrible law of the CDA, has actually been a key element in protecting much of what Barlow spoke about.

But, as Barlow notes today, it takes a lot of work to keep the system moving in the right direction, and it's something we cannot and should not take for granted:
Barlow admits that what he describes as the “immune system” of the Internet isn’t exactly automatic. It requires effort on the part of activists like himself. “It wasn’t a slam dunk and it isn’t now. I wouldn’t have started the EFF and the Freedom of the Press Foundation” if it were, he says. But he nonetheless believes that there is a kind of inexorable direction of the Internet’s political influence toward individual liberty.
The technology and innovation continues to make things possible, but what happens next, depends on what people do with it.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 February 2016 @ 10:37am

Moral Panics: Twitter Feels Compelled To Tell You It's Deleted Over 125,000 Terrorist Twitter Accounts

from the what-good-has-that-really-done? dept

It seems we've entered the next big moral panic: the fact that terrorists like ISIS use social media. It's a point of contention that keeps coming up, leading Presidential candidates to talk about stopping terrorists from using the internet. There was a whole big "summit" between White House officials and tech execs in which questions were raised about blocking ISIS from using social media. And, then, of course, you've even had some tech company execs support the idea.

And now, the inevitable followup on this is tech companies feeling the need to show just how "tough on terrorism" they are by highlighting how many people they've kicked off their service. Up first, Twitter. The company was just recently sued by a woman who lost her husband to an ISIS attack, in which she claims that Twitter is guilty of material support for terrorism, because it allowed ISIS to use Twitter to grow. And so now, Twitter feels the need to proudly highlight the removal of 125,000 terrorist accounts:

e condemn the use of Twitter to promote terrorism and the Twitter Rules make it clear that this type of behavior, or any violent threat, is not permitted on our service. As the nature of the terrorist threat has changed, so has our ongoing work in this area. Since the middle of 2015 alone, we’ve suspended over 125,000 accounts for threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS.

Our efforts have not stopped there. We have increased the size of the teams that review reports, reducing our response time significantly. We also look into other accounts similar to those reported and leverage proprietary spam-fighting tools to surface other potentially violating accounts for review by our agents. We have already seen results, including an increase in account suspensions and this type of activity shifting off of Twitter.
Every company, of course, has the right to determine who can and who cannot use their service, but is this really the best response? Hell, just recently there was a situation in which an ISIS leader used Twitter and other social media platforms to try to urge more Muslims to join ISIS, and it turned into a ton of Muslims totally mocking ISIS.
When you start deleting accounts, you lose out on those kinds of interactions, which I would imagine are ridiculously more powerful than shutting down accounts of terrorists who will simply open up a new one hours later.

On top of that, merely deleting those Twitter accounts actually hides some information that can be used to track down ISIS members and see what they're doing. Obviously no one wants to be seen "supporting" ISIS, but building a moral panic over the fact that they happen to use social media to spread idiotic ideas hardly seems helpful. If anything, it suggests that their messages are a lot more powerful than they really are. Shutting them down makes them think that what they're saying is having an impact. Mocking them and laughing at them (or even ignoring them) shows that it's having the opposite effect.

But, of course, for much of the media and many politicians, such nuance is not allowed. Instead the focus needs to be on shutting such accounts down. And that leads you to silly announcements like Twitter's from last week.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 February 2016 @ 8:27am

20 Years Ago Today: The Most Important Law On The Internet Was Signed, Almost By Accident

from the give-thanks dept

The internet as we know it would be a very, very different place if 20 years ago today, President Clinton hadn't signed the Communications Decency Act. To be fair, nearly all of the CDA was a horrible mess that was actually a terrible idea for the internet. A key part of the bill was about "cleaning up" pornography on the internet. However, to "balance" that out, the bill included Section 230 -- added by two Congressmen in the House of Representatives: Ron Wyden and Chris Cox. They had pushed this clause as a separate bill, the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act, but it didn't get enough traction. It was only when they attached it to the Communications Decency Act (which had passed the Senate without it), that it was able to move forward. And thus, 20 years ago today, when President Clinton signed the CDA, most of the attention was on the "stopping indecency" part, and very little on the "throw in" of Section 230. And yet, there's a strong argument that Section 230 may be one of the most important laws -- perhaps the most important -- passed in the past few decades.

As you hopefully already know, a year later, in Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court tossed out basically all of the CDA as unconstitutional. The only tidbit of the law that remained valid? You guessed it: Section 230. And, of course, it became the key law in enabling the internet to grow the way it did. It's been said in the past, fairly accurately, that no law contributed more to the growth of the internet than CDA 230, and that's because of a fairly simple and straightforward principle. CDA 230 simply said that an internet service is not liable for actions of its users. This meant that new websites and internet services didn't need to carefully monitor and track everything that every user did to make sure it wasn't violating a law. That meant the legal risks and liability for creating services that allowed the public to create all kinds of content went way down.

Without a robust Section 230, it's difficult to see many of the most popular platforms today existing. It's no surprise that soon after CDA 230 we saw the rise of blogging and social media -- and almost always coming from American companies. Both would be significantly more difficult without Section 230's protections. In fact, much of the push for Section 230 came in response to a horrible court case, Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy, in which an internet bulletin board commenter attacked financial firm Stratton Oakmont, and its president, for apparently being involved in criminal and fraudulent activity. Stratton Oakmont -- now perhaps well known as the firm portrayed as doing all sorts of criminal and fraudulent things in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street -- sued Prodigy for the comment and won. The liability from such a ruling scared numerous online platforms, in particular because a key part of the ruling was that because Prodigy posted "guidelines" and removed posts with offensive language, it suddenly became a "publisher" of the content, and was liable for that content.

A key, and often overlooked, part of Section 230, is that it actually does encourage sites to take proactive measures to filter content, by noting that any kind of moderation or guidelines absolutely does not remove the protections of Section 230. As such, sites get to decide for themselves whether or not to moderate their content in any way, without facing the legal risk of suddenly being declared the publisher. Other countries have no such protections, leading to some dangerous rulings, and creating something akin to a "right to be forgotten" in some instances.

There have been numerous cases testing Section 230 over the years -- and the law has remained strong and in place -- though it is still being challenged to this day. The biggest and most important case was Zeran v. AOL, the first case testing Section 230, in which the court found that Section 230 was a powerful tool that kept sites from being held responsible for content posted by users.

Section 230 has been powerful in so many ways. It has both enabled and protected free speech online by letting companies set up platforms where people can speak openly. Without it, the internet would be much more limited as a platform for communicating to the public. As the 4th Circuit noted in its ruling in the Zeran case:

The amount of information communicated via interactive computer services is therefore staggering. The specter of tort liability in an area of such prolific speech would have an obvious chilling effect. It would be impossible for service providers to screen each of their millions of postings for possible problems. Faced with potential liability for each message republished by their services, interactive computer service providers might choose to severely restrict the number and type of messages posted.
It has protected privacy, by making it clear that there was no duty for websites to monitor and track their users, to avoid any kind of liability. It has created incentives to create tremendous economic value, by making it clear that companies could be formed to enable public communications, such as blogging, forums and social media -- without being sued into bankruptcy over misuse. And it has actually enabled better moderation of platforms in not making them give up protections, if they choose how to moderate certain content.

It is difficult to express just how important Section 230 has been over the past 20 years other than to say that, without it, it's unlikely that you would be able to comment on Techdirt today. It's also unlikely that you'd have tools like Twitter or Facebook or Yelp or AirBnb. Any service that relies on public input owes a huge debt to Section 230, and it's quite incredible that it was basically included as an "add-on" that very few noticed when it was signed.

So, as we're hanging out here on the internet today, in a place that is alive only because of Section 230, please thank (now Senator) Ron Wyden in particular for his role in creating Section 230, and pay attention, because there are very powerful forces working right now to undermine Section 230 entirely. It's been a key driver of free expression and economic growth for the past 20 years, and it would be a shame to undermine that now.

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Posted on Techdirt - 5 February 2016 @ 7:39pm

NFL Edging Towards Claiming A Trademark On 'The Big Game' Again

from the yup,-again dept

We all know that the NFL doesn't want anyone to use the term "Super Bowl" without having paid the NFL first (and paid lots and lots of money). As we've pointed out in the past, most of this is pure bullshit. In most cases, people and companies totally can use the term "Super Bowl" but few people want to deal with any sort of legal fight, so they just don't.

What's even crazier though is how the NFL has tried to crack down on euphemisms as well. The most popular term that companies use instead of the Super Bowl is "The Big Game." And going back to 2007, we noted that the NFL wanted to trademark that too, even though it's not the one who came up with the term, nor does it really use it. A bunch of companies opposed the NFL's attempt, but over at the Pirated Thoughts blog, Michael Lee notes that the NFL is doing a few things that suggest it may want to trademark "The Big Game" again. At the very least, it's trying to block anyone else from trademarking it:

In late 2014, an individual in California filed a trademark registration for the BIG GAME DAME mark to cover athletic gear such as shirts, pants and jackets. The applicant claims that the mark is already in use and filed the “in use” specimen that can be seen below. The specimen is nothing more than a ratty plain white t-shirt that someone stuck a homemade label on from their old Brother P-Touch. Alright, this all seems a bit shady but we will put the skepticism to the side.

More germane than the earnestness of this trademark application, in December 2015 the mark was published for opposition. On January 26th, the NFL requested and was granted an extension of time to oppose issuance of the trademark. This is the usual first step that allows the parties time to try to work out a settlement, allows the opposer additional time to draft the opposition or even allows the opposer time to reevaluate its position and not even file an opposition in the first place.

This potential opposition is not an isolated incident. On the same day, the NFL was also granted an extension of time to oppose an entirely different mark by another clothing company, BIG GAME DAY ARE YOU READY! A month earlier, the NFL also requested an extension of time to oppose this same clothing company’s BIG GAME mark. Three potential trademark oppositions over the use of BIG GAME in a month’s time, where there is smoke there could be some fire.

In other words, the NFL is at least suggesting that it may have a right to "The Big Game" as well. It's not clear if the NFL thinks there will be less opposition this time, or that people won't notice. Or maybe it just doesn't care (which seems to be the standard operating procedure of the NFL these days). But, once again, such a move would be crazy. And, of course, it wouldn't even be necessary if the NFL hadn't been such a trademark extremist in the first place.

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Posted on Techdirt - 5 February 2016 @ 6:18pm

PayPal Continues To Drive People To Bitcoin And Other Solutions As It Starts Cutting Off VPNs & Open Internet Solutions

from the because-of-course-it-is dept

There's a fairly long history of Paypal being completely obnoxious in shutting down the accounts of basically anyone challenging the status quo in any way. Nearly all of our stories about Paypal follow a similar pattern:

See a pattern yet? So, given all that, it's hardly a surprise to find out that Paypal has cut off a VPN service, arguing that because it might possibly maybe be used for copyright infringement, Paypal won't be a part of it. No, this doesn't make any sense, but as you can see from the list above, it seems pretty clear that if there's even a whiff of concern or challenging legacy businesses and beliefs, Paypal will cut you off. Because it can.

And, yes, there now are many other solutions out there, but Paypal still remains one of the easiest and most popular payment systems, even as many other companies try to take that crown away. Still, increasingly shutting off services that help protect users and enable an open internet seems like a piss poor way for Paypal to thank the open internet that made it possible in the first place. It seems likely that the more Paypal cuts these kinds of services off, the more likely it is that alternative payment systems will be deployed. Paypal may not care. After all, it's been doing this for years, but sooner or later, it's going to realize that it's just been opening up a big opportunity for others.

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Posted on Techdirt - 5 February 2016 @ 2:06pm

Former USTR Comes Out Against TPP -- Though Not Necessarily For The Best Reasons

from the the-tpp-fight-continues dept

People who have worked for the USTR tend to pretty religiously support any and all new trade agreements, so it seems somewhat noteworthy that the former USTR, and now Senator, Rob Portman, has come out against the TPP agreement, saying that he doesn't think that it's a good deal. There are, of course, a number of caveats here that potentially make this at least slightly less of a big deal than it might otherwise be. Specifically:

  1. There's a pretty good chance he's doing this purely for political reasons. He's in a tight re-election campaign for the Senate, and his opponent has been quite opposed to basically any trade deal including the TPP -- and many Ohio residents (i.e. voters) believe (rightly or wrongly) that trade deals mean fewer manufacturing jobs. Portman was also a big proponent of pushing through "Trade Promotion Authority" or fast track, which was seen as a sort of proxy vote on TPP, because it would bind Congress's hands to just an up/down vote on the TPP, without any ability to push back on particular aspects of the agreement. And, Portman also made it clear he could change his mind if the TPP was "improved."
  2. Some of the reasons he's given seem to track with those of Senator Orrin Hatch, in complaining that the TPP doesn't go far enough in expanding intellectual property rights, mainly for big pharmaceutical companies (specifically data exclusivity rules around "biologics.")
So, it could certainly be argued that his speaking out against the TPP are for suspect reasons (and of suspect authenticity). Still, it is rather incredible that a former USTR would proactively say that they don't support such a major trade agreement, and highlights (at the very least) just how toxic the TPP has become with the voting public. And of course, that should raise some pretty serious questions. If the voting public doesn't support the TPP at all, why are we continuing to pursue it?

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Posted on Techdirt - 5 February 2016 @ 8:29am

It's 2016 And The EU Is Just Now Getting Ready To Decide If Hyperlinking Is Legal

from the because-wtf dept

Earlier this week, we wrote about a legislative attempt in France to outlaw hyperlinking without a license (really), but would you believe that whether or not you can link without a license is still an unsettled matter of law in the EU? As is described in great detail over at the Disruptive Competition Project blog, just this week the Court of Justice of the EU heard a case concerning whether or not linking is legal. We wrote about this case last year, but the court has finally heard the case, with an Advocate General recommendation in early April, and a final ruling in the summer. There was a similar earlier case, the Svensson case, which the EU Court of Justice got right, but there's some concern about this new case.

In Svensson, the CJEU concluded that a link is a communication within the meaning of “communication to the public.” But it let the defendant off the hook on the theory that the communication was not “to the public,” because the hyperlinks provided by Retriever Sverige did not communicate the articles to a “new public.” Simply put, the court reasoned that once the copyright holder makes the work available on the web without technical restrictions (i.e., no paywall), then posting a link to the material doesn’t communicate it to any audience that wasn’t already intended by the copyright holder. Thus, it’s fine to link to something publicly posted online, provided it was posted with the copyright holder’s authorization. No further licensing is required. So, common sense prevailed and crisis averted, right? Not so fast.

Svensson left a crucial question unanswered, and perhaps that question is already clear: What about a link to something that the copyright holder didn’t authorize? For example, what if you post a link on social media to a Buzzfeed article where one of the images that appears in the story wasn’t properly licensed from a photographer, or you link to a leaked document? And where does that leave search engines and other information location tools, which can’t very well determine whether every image, video clip, or article on the websites to which they link has been authorized by the relevant copyright holders before providing you a search result?

This is the question that is before the CJEU in tomorrow’s GS Media case. The defendant is a popular Dutch blog that posted links to photos meant for publication in the Dutch version of Playboy magazine, but which were leaked on an Australian server. No one knows who posted the photos to the Australian server, but everyone agrees that the blog only posted links to them.

But, of course, if the ruling says that such links are infringing, it could create a huge mess. Any link to unauthorized work could be deemed, by itself, to be infringing. And, the rule would apply to any link accessible in Europe, meaning it would impact people around the globe.
If the CJEU rules that every web user, in Europe and beyond, is expected to verify the copyright status of every item on a page before linking to that page, it could effectively destroy the web as we know it today. Would you have to repeatedly check back on the sites you link to, in case the content on the site you linked to has changed? Would you need to confirm that their licenses are all paid in full? Would you also have to verify the copyright status of links on the pages that you’re linking to? If any of this were the case, social media, search, blogs, comment sections, online journalism could be faced with unmanageable legal liability.
Hopefully, the EU Court of Justice recognizes the ridiculousness that would result from such a ruling, but until this summer, we just won't know.

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