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Posted on Techdirt - 20 May 2016 @ 12:48pm

Chile's New Copyright Legislation Would Make Creative Commons Licensing Impossible For Audiovisual Works

from the no-freedom-to-make-it-free dept

Techdirt has written many times about the way in which copyright only ever seems to get stronger, and how different jurisdictions point to other examples of excessive copyright to justify making their own just as bad. In Chile, there's an interesting example of that kind of copyright ratchet being applied in the same country but to different domains. It concerns audiovisual works, and aims to give directors, screenwriters and others new rights to "match" those that others enjoy. Techdirt has already written about this bad idea in the context of the Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances. But it turns out that Chile's proposed copyright legislation adds an extra twist that makes it even worse, because these rights will be unwaivable -- an approach we've seen before in Portugal. Here's what that will mean in practice, as explained on infojustice.org by Luis Villarroel, from the Chilean organization Innovarte:

the music composer of a work embedded in any audiovisual work, the writer of the drama, the Director, the camera man, etc, will not be able to waive their rights or license for free through a creative commons license or any other open licenses, or give works to the public domain.

To make it worse, because of the national treatment obligations this bill will also apply to foreign audiovisual works.
According to Villarroel, the legislation is being promoted by the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers -- and by Chilean collecting societies. By an amazing coincidence, the new licensing fees will all be administered by the latter. Villarroel first wrote about this move last year, when the legislation was approved in Chile's House of Representatives. Despite the delay, it is apparently back on the agenda, and will be considered by the Senate, the country's upper house, soon.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 May 2016 @ 11:41pm

New Leak Reveals Proposal To Extend Corporate Sovereignty Massively To Include Intra-EU Investments

from the most-toxic-acronym-in-Europe dept

As Techdirt has reported, the public backlash against corporate sovereignty in TAFTA/TTIP was so strong in the EU that the European Commission was forced to come up with Plan B. It now wants to replace what has been called "the most toxic acronym in Europe" -- ISDS, which stands for "investor-state dispute settlement" -- with ICS: the investment court system. That was little more than a re-branding exercise, since most of the key flaws remained, but at least it suggested that the European Commission recognized that corporate sovereignty had become a serious problem that needed to be addressed. However, it seems that others didn't get that memo -- or, more likely, just don't care what the EU public thinks. A new leak reveals that a group of EU governments want to extend the use of ISDS, and to embed corporate sovereignty even more deeply in the fabric of the European economy.

The plan by the five countries -- Austria, Finland, France, Germany and The Netherlands -- is to give corporate sovereignty rights for all cross-border investments made within the EU. That would allow EU companies to challenge EU governments over things like local health and safety laws, or environmental regulations, with the public paying for any losses in the ISDS tribunals. The original rationale for corporate sovereignty was to protect only foreign investors when they put money into a country; this has been turned on its head in a so-called "non-paper", now leaked, which calls for domestic investors to enjoy the same special extra-judicial rights (pdf). The background to this extraordinary idea is a move last year by the European Commission to terminate some old bilateral investment treaties (BITs) between European Union members:

Many of these intra-EU BITs were agreed in the 1990s, before the EU enlargements of 2004, 2007 and 2013. They were mainly struck between existing members of the EU and those who would become the "EU 13". They were aimed at reassuring investors who wanted to invest in the future "EU 13" at a time when private investors -- sometimes for historical political reasons -- might have felt wary about investing in those countries. The BITs were thus aimed at strengthening investor protection, for example by means of compensation for expropriation and arbitration procedures for the settlement of investment disputes.

Since enlargement, such 'extra' reassurances should not be necessary, as all Member States are subject to the same EU rules in the single market, including those on cross-border investments (in particular the freedom of establishment and the free movement of capital). All EU investors also benefit from the same protection thanks to EU rules (e.g. non-discrimination on grounds of nationality). By contrast, intra-EU BITs confer rights on a bilateral basis to investors from some Member States only: in accordance with consistent case law from the European Court of Justice, such discrimination based on nationality is incompatible with EU law.
As the European Commission rightly points out, one of the key points about the EU is that it offers the same protection to all EU investors, wherever they are based, and wherever they put their money in the European Union. And yet, rather than complying with that call from the Commission, the five countries involved in this new plan want to go in precisely the opposite direction. The leaked "non-paper" even has the gall to use the biased nature of ISDS as a reason to extend it yet further:
modern guarantees on investment protection are necessary to the level playing field for EU-investors vis-à-vis their foreign competitors, to ensure the continued availability of competitive financing terms for EU-investors and to promote intra-EU investments. The dismantling of intra-EU BITs will be perceived by investors, banks and creditors alike as an overall decrease in the legal protection for EU investors and create a competitive advantage for foreign investors who can rely on clearly defined and uniform protection standards under the forthcoming EU agreements or on Member States’ BITs. If EU investors are not afforded comparable protection as their foreign competitors, incentives for EU investors to locate their foreign investments outside the EU will be created and the functioning of the internal market will be compromised.
By an amazing coincidence, in February the Business Europe lobby group sent a letter to the European Commission calling for corporate sovereignty to be extended to intra-EU investments. It's not hard to guess why there is this sudden push from countries and companies. As Techdirt has reported, the corporate sovereignty provisions are without doubt the most contentious part of the proposed TAFTA/TTIP agreement, and many are demanding that they be dropped completely. The introduction of corporate sovereignty for all intra-EU investments would allow supporters of ISDS in the EU-US trade agreement to argue that the same protection must be offered to US companies investing in the EU -- the perfect circular argument.

The reverse is also true, as the leaked document itself recognizes:

If one postulates that such provisions are not required within the EU due to the very nature of the internal market or to the level of development of EU Member States, it would then be even more difficult to argue in favour of investment chapters within the TTIP or other FTAs with developed countries.
But the European Commission is indeed arguing that such provisions are not needed in the European Union. Awkward.

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Posted on Techdirt - 18 May 2016 @ 11:51am

IBM Wants To Patent A Printer That Won't Let You Output Unauthorized Copies

from the I'm-sorry-Dave,--I'm-afraid-I-can't-print-that dept

Stories about copying turn up a lot on Techdirt. That's largely as a consequence of two factors. First, because the Internet is a copying machine -- it works by repeatedly copying bits as they move around the globe -- and the more it permeates today's world, the more it places copying at the heart of modern life. Secondly, it's because the copyright industries hate unauthorized copies of material -- which explains why they have come to hate the Internet. It also explains why they spend so much of their time lobbying for ever-more punitive laws to stop that copying. And even though they have been successful in bringing in highly-damaging laws -- of which the DMCA is probably the most pernicious -- they have failed to stop the unauthorized copies.

But if you can't stop people copying files, how about stopping them from doing anything useful with them? That seems to be the idea behind an IBM patent application spotted by TorrentFreak, which it summarizes as follows:

Simply titled "Copyright Infringement Prevention," the patent's main goal is to 'restrict' the functionality of printers, so they only process jobs when the person who’s printing them has permission to do so.

It works as follows. When a printer receives a print job, it parses the content for potential copyrighted material. If there is a match, it won't copy or print anything unless the person in question has authorization.
As with so many patents, the idea is simple to the point of triviality: only a company more concerned about the quantity of its patents, rather than their quality, would have bothered to file an application. Nonetheless, it's a troubling move, because it helps legitimize the idea that everything we do -- even printing a document -- has to be checked for possible infringements before it can be authorized and executed.

But why stop with printers? We've already seen Microsoft's Protected Media Path for video, a "feature" that was introduced with Windows Vista; it's easy to imagine something a little more active that matches the material you want to view or listen to against a database of permissions before displaying or playing it. And how about a keyboard that checks text as you type it for possible copyright infringements and for URLs that have been blocked by copyright holders?

There is a popular belief that the computer in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" was named "HAL" after IBM, by replacing each letter in the company name with its predecessor. That's apocryphal, but with this latest patent application IBM is certainly moving squarely into HAL territory.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 May 2016 @ 11:40am

Russia Provides Glimpse Of A Future Where Powerful Facial Recognition Technology Has Abolished Public Anonymity

from the are-we-really-ready-for-that? dept

As hardware and software advance, so facial recognition becomes more accurate and more attractive as a potential solution to various problems. Techdirt first wrote about this area back in 2012, when Facebook had just started experimenting with facial recognition (now we're at the inevitable lawsuit stage). Since then, we've reported on an increasing number of organizations exploring the use of facial recognition, including the FBI, the NSA, Boston police and even the church. But all of those pale in comparison to what is happening in Russia, reported here by the Guardian:

FindFace, launched two months ago and currently taking Russia by storm, allows users to photograph people in a crowd and work out their identities, with 70% reliability.

It works by comparing photographs to profile pictures on Vkontakte, a social network popular in Russia and the former Soviet Union, with more than 200 million accounts. In future, the designers imagine a world where people walking past you on the street could find your social network profile by sneaking a photograph of you, and shops, advertisers and the police could pick your face out of crowds and track you down via social networks.
One of FindFace's founders, Alexander Kabakov, points out the service could have a big impact on dating:
"If you see someone you like, you can photograph them, find their identity, and then send them a friend request." The interaction doesn't always have to involve the rather creepy opening gambit of clandestine street photography, he added: "It also looks for similar people. So you could just upload a photo of a movie star you like, or your ex, and then find 10 girls who look similar to her and send them messages."
Definitely not creepy at all.

Of course, a 70% hit rate isn't that good: perhaps FindFace isn't really such a threat to public anonymity. The trouble is, the Guardian article reports that the company has performed three million searches on its database of around a billion photographs using just four common-or-garden servers. It's easy to imagine what might be achieved with some serious hardware upgrades, along with tweaks to the software, or with access to even bigger, more complete databases. For example government ones: according to the Guardian, FindFace's founders think the big money will come from selling their system to "law enforcement and retail." Although they've not yet been contacted by Russia's FSB security agency, they say they'd be happy to listen to offers from them. Perhaps comforted by the thought of all that future business coming his way, Kabakov is philosophical about the social implications of his company's technology:

"In today’s world we are surrounded by gadgets. Our phones, televisions, fridges, everything around us is sending real-time information about us. Already we have full data on people's movements, their interests and so on. A person should understand that in the modern world he is under the spotlight of technology. You just have to live with that."
That may well be true. But the question is, are we ready to do so?

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 May 2016 @ 3:31am

German Publishers Whine Because They Must Pay To Authors Misappropriated Copyright Levies

from the no-wonder-authors-struggle-to-make-a-living dept

Techdirt has been writing for some years about the illogical mess that is the European copyright levy system -- effectively a tax on blank media that is supposed to compensate copyright holders for an alleged "loss" from copies made for personal use. Last November, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), Europe's highest court, issued an important judgment in this area. It said that Belgium's levies on multifunctional printer sales were incompatible with EU law because they failed to distinguish between private use and commercial use, and between legal and illegal copying. Along the way, the CJEU said that copyright levies must be paid to authors only, and not go to publishers.

As Boing Boing points out, the effects of that decision are now being felt in Germany. An organization set up in 1958, called Wort (literally "word" in German), receives a portion of the German copyright levies that are collected, which it has been sharing between both authors and publishers in roughly equal amounts. The CJEU's decision last November ruled that was illegal, and Germany's top court, the Bundesgerichtshof, has confirmed that position in a recent judgment (original in German). As a result, German publishers now find themselves obliged to pay their authors the copyright levies the industry received over the last few years -- more than €100 million according to the German site Übermedien.

That same article notes the cries of despair in the wake of this decision, as German publishers claim that they are doomed, and that the end is nigh for books in Germany, etc. etc. What's extraordinary is that there is no sense of regret that for years they have been depriving authors of considerable sums of money. That omission is made worse by the fact that publishers have been happy to use the difficulties that authors face in scraping together enough to live on as an excuse for demanding longer and stronger copyright. But as in the music and film industries, the problem is not that copyright is too weak or too short, but that many publishers -- like many recording companies and film studios -- have been only too happy to rip off authors while simultaneously claiming to have their best interests at heart.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 May 2016 @ 3:24am

At The Behest Of Big Pharma, US Threatens Colombia Over Compulsory Licensing Of Swiss Drug

from the destroying-lives,-destroying-peace dept

As Techdirt readers well know, Big Pharma really hates compulsory licensing of its patented drugs, where a country steps in and allows an expensive drug to be made more cheaply in order to provide wider access for its people. Such massive pressure is applied to nations contemplating this move, that even global giants like India quail. A new story is unfolding that reveals just how far companies are prepared to go in order to prevent it from happening. It concerns Colombia's possible use of a compulsory license for the drug imatinib, sold under the name Glivec, and used to treat leukemia. Despite the fact that the company holding patents on the drug, Novartis, is Swiss, the US has started to lean heavily on Colombia in order to persuade it not to go ahead with the move.

KEI has obtained a copy of a letter from Andrés Floréz at the Embassy of Colombia in Washington, DC, to the Minister of Health in Colombia, reporting on a meeting between embassy officials and Everett Eissenstat. He's the Chief International Trade Counsel for the US Senate Committee on Finance, under Senator Orrin Hatch. Apparently, Eissenstat conveyed quite forcefully his views on the negative consequences for Colombia if it decided to issue a compulsory license on the cancer drug Glivec:

Eissenstat mentioned that although Novartis is not an American company, the US pharmaceutical industry was very worried about the possibility that the case would become a precedent that could be applied to any patent in any industry which, according to him, could lead to the reputation of our country's respect for intellectual property rights being viewed as impaired and Colombia becoming one among those countries that would have special treatment...

Einssenstat also mentioned that, if the Ministry of Health does not correct this situation, the US pharmaceutical industry and related interest groups could become very vocal and interfere with other interests that Colombia could have in the US.
Nice little country you have there -- be a shame if something happened to it. Stat News mentioned a couple of forms that "special treatment" might take:
A free-trade treaty between the two countries went into effect four years ago, which obligates Colombia to comply with various international trade laws. Florez also cautioned that issuing a compulsory license for the Novartis drug may "weaken support" for bringing Colombia into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact between 12 countries in the Asia and Pacific regions that must still be approved by Congress.
But the most extraordinary threat is the following, reported here by KEI:
Senator Hatch was so opposed to the idea of a compulsory license on the patent for a $40+ Billion cancer drug made by a Swiss company that he was willing to find an extremely sensitive area for the Colombian people and use it as leverage. The [Paz Colombia] peace process in question is the hopeful conclusion to decades of fighting in the country with guerrilla rebels that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The US is willing to jeopardize the entire "Paz Colombia" peace plan, all because Big Pharma is outraged a developing country might dare to use its international right to issue a compulsory license. As KEI Director James Love commented:
The use of these back channel methods of conveying threats and pressure is common, and the leak of these two letters provides insight into why governments that have the right to issue compulsory licenses rarely do. The fact that after meeting with Eissenstat, the Colombian Embassy connects the patent dispute to the funding of the Colombian peace process illustrates how the United States can link health and national security together in ways that a harmful to both.
It can surely only be a matter of time before Colombia obediently toes the line, and recognizes that Big Pharma's patents and profits are much more important than the health and lives of its people.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 May 2016 @ 3:33am

After Nine Years Of Censorship, Canada Finally Unmuzzles Its Scientists

from the justin-trudeau-strikes-again dept

Here's something we don't see enough of here on Techdirt: a long and dispiriting saga with a happy ending. Over the years, we've reported on how Canada's previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, tried to stifle dissenting voices among government scientists and librarians, all of whom were expected to self-censor, even outside their work. But as most people know by now, the new Canadian administration under Justin Trudeau has a rather different style, and fortunately that also applies to how it treats its scientists. As an article in Nature reports, things may be moving too slowly for some, but at least they are moving:

the [Canadian] government is loosening its grip on communications but the shift at some agencies has not been as swift and comprehensive as many had hoped. And with the newfound freedom to speak, the full impact of the former restrictions is finally becoming clear. Canadian scientists and government representatives are opening up about what it was like to work under the former policy and the kind of consequences it had. Some of the officials who imposed the rules are talking about how the restrictions affected the morale and careers of researchers.
As well as filling in the background to this welcome move, Nature explores some of the stories that are starting to emerge, like this one:
During the 1970s, [Ian Stirling, a prominent biologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada] had gone to meetings in Canada that were also attended by Soviet scientists. The visiting researchers would arrive, he says, "with a KGB guy, who would stand there with no smiles, a scowl on his face and arms crossed". Stirling still finds it unbelievable that the Canadian government used similar tactics at conferences. In 2012, for example, the Canadian news outlet CBC reported that media minders had shadowed scientists from Environment Canada at a meeting of the International Polar Year in Montreal.
It's important to remember that Canada is not alone in having these muzzling problems. The article notes that during the administration of President George W. Bush, US government scientists complained that inconvenient data was being altered or simply suppressed. More recently, the UK government unveiled plans to forbid its scientists from lobbying for changes in their own field. Although it has now introduced some exemptions from the controversial "gagging clause", these seem half-hearted and possibly temporary. It obviously needs to pay more attention to Justin.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 May 2016 @ 3:25am

India's Proposed 'Geospatial Information Regulation Bill' Would Shut Down Most Map-Based Services There

from the who-knew-geography-was-so-exciting? dept

It's obvious that technology changes our lives, but alongside the expected developments, there are some strange and unexpected ones, too. For example, half a century ago, who would have predicted that boring old copyright would have such a massive impact on everyday life, even to the extent of redefining what ownership means? Similarly, when mobile phones first appeared, few realized later iterations that included powerful computers would elevate another dry and dusty area -- cartography -- into a key aspect of modern technology. And just as copyright already has unavoidable implications for personal agency, so cartography is beginning to impact political power. That can be clearly seen in Indian proposals for a new law, summarized here by The Next Web:

The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill (PDF), which is currently only a draft and is open to feedback until June 4, will make it illegal to publish map-related information or even share location data without a license from a government vetting agency. Those found violating its rules will face a fine of at least Rs. 10 million (roughly $150,000), going up to Rs. 1 billion (about $15 million) along with imprisonment for up to seven years.
As an Indian government official told the Economic Times, the main impulse behind the new legislation is national security, especially when foreign mapping services are involved:
"Our plea to black out sensitive installations do not yield results. This Bill is now sending a strong message that US companies cannot be running roughshod over Indian security interests."
Another key concern for the Indian government is making sure that all maps conform to its view of "correct" international boundaries where there are territorial disputes, for example in Kashmir. Those kinds of issues are nothing new; the problem here is the extremely broad reach of the proposed law. Here's the definition of the kind of mapping data that will require a license to collect and publish:
"Geospatial Information" means geospatial imagery or data acquired through space or aerial platforms such as satellite, aircrafts, airships, balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles including value addition; or graphical or digital data depicting natural or man-made physical features, phenomenon or boundaries of the earth or any information related thereto including surveys, charts, maps, terrestrial photos referenced to a co-ordinate system and having attributes
At first glance that might seem to apply only to big companies using sophisticated mapping techniques. But elsewhere the Bill says that, without a license:
no person shall acquire geospatial imagery or data including value addition of any part of India either through any space or aerial platforms such as satellite, aircrafts, airships, balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles or terrestrial vehicles, or any other means whatsoever.
That would appear to rule out even non-commercial projects like OpenStreetMap, which builds maps from information gathered by thousands of volunteers as they move around locations. It gets worse: as a post on Medianama points out, the requirement for all geospatial mapping data to be vetted by a special government security agency means that it will be impossible to offer maps that use real-time information. That would therefore exclude all the most innovative mobile services that provide information that is constantly updated. In fact, the proposal is drafted so broadly it is hard to see how any useful service can be offered if it becomes law. Mishi Choudhary, legal director at Software Freedom Law Centre in India, is quoted by the Economic Times as saying:
"On the face of it, the Bill will kill any and every use of the maps. It is also unclear if you get a licence for maps, only you can use it or others can use it, too."
Throttling innovation in this way was surely not the Indian government's intention when it wrote this draft, and it seems almost certain that the text will undergo major refinements before it begins its journey through the legislative process. A site called savethemap.in has been set up to help people submit responses to the government consultation on the proposals. Whatever the final outcome, this episode illustrates well just how important and sensitive digital maps have become -- and just how hard it will be to regulate them sensibly.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 May 2016 @ 3:43pm

'The Revolution Will Be Digitized': Panama Papers Leaker Speaks Out

from the another-voice-joins-the-conversation dept

We've just written about a call from the Greens in the European Parliament for new laws to protect whistleblowers. Given that people who leak confidential information currently enjoy very little protection, it's remarkable that we have any whistleblowers at all. One of the biggest recent leaks came in the form of the Panama Papers. Although we still don't know who the whistleblower might be, he or she has just released a very interesting statement entitled "The Revolution Will Be Digitized", which contains important new information. For example, we learn a little about who the whistleblower is -- or isn't:

For the record, I do not work for any government or intelligence agency, directly or as a contractor, and I never have.
We also learn that the leaked documents were offered to many media organizations -- and to Wikileaks -- most of whom turned them down:
in addition to Süddeutsche Zeitung and ICIJ, and despite explicit claims to the contrary, several major media outlets did have editors review documents from the Panama Papers. They chose not to cover them. The sad truth is that among the most prominent and capable media organizations in the world there was not a single one interested in reporting on the story. Even Wikileaks didn’t answer its tip line repeatedly.
Most of the document is a denunciation of a failure by governments, the media and the legal profession to tackle what the author calls "one of the defining issues of our time" -- income inequality. Frustrated by the lack of action by all those groups, he or she makes an interesting offer:
In the end, thousands of prosecutions could stem from the Panama Papers, if only law enforcement could access and evaluate the actual documents. ICIJ and its partner publications have rightly stated that they will not provide them to law enforcement agencies. I, however, would be willing to cooperate with law enforcement to the extent that I am able.
The Panama Papers whistleblower is well aware of the fate of his or her predecessors, particularly in the financial sector. Like Snowden, he or she seems to have studied and learnt from their experiences:
I have watched as one after another, whistleblowers and activists in the United States and Europe have had their lives destroyed by the circumstances they find themselves in after shining a light on obvious wrongdoing. Edward Snowden is stranded in Moscow, exiled due to the Obama administration’s decision to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. For his revelations about the NSA, he deserves a hero's welcome and a substantial prize, not banishment. Bradley Birkenfeld was awarded millions for his information concerning Swiss bank UBS -- and was still given a prison sentence by the Justice Department. Antoine Deltour is presently on trial for providing journalists with information about how Luxembourg granted secret "sweetheart" tax deals to multi-national corporations, effectively stealing billions in tax revenues from its neighbour countries. And there are plenty more examples.
No surprise, then, that the Panama Papers whistleblower would really like more legal protection for those who leak information in the public interest. What is more surprising is the anger that permeates this statement, and how well it is articulated. A striking recent development in the world of whistleblowing is the way in which Edward Snowden has become one of the most acute commentators on the digital sphere, as his extended essay "Whistleblowing Is Not Just Leaking -- It's an Act of Political Resistance" underlines. What's most remarkable -- and encouraging -- about the Panama Papers whistleblower's essay is that it indicates we may be about to gain another valuable voice in the same way. The conclusion of the statement gives a hint of the kind of impassioned writing we could enjoy in the future:
The collective impact of these failures has been a complete erosion of ethical standards, ultimately leading to a novel system we still call Capitalism, but which is tantamount to economic slavery. In this system -- our system -- the slaves are unaware both of their status and of their masters, who exist in a world apart where the intangible shackles are carefully hidden amongst reams of unreachable legalese. The horrific magnitude of detriment to the world should shock us all awake. But when it takes a whistleblower to sound the alarm, it is cause for even greater concern. It signals that democracy’s checks and balances have all failed, that the breakdown is systemic, and that severe instability could be just around the corner. So now is the time for real action, and that starts with asking questions.

Historians can easily recount how issues involving taxation and imbalances of power have led to revolutions in ages past. Then, military might was necessary to subjugate peoples, whereas now, curtailing information access is just as effective or more so, since the act is often invisible. Yet we live in a time of inexpensive, limitless digital storage and fast internet connections that transcend national boundaries. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots: from start to finish, inception to global media distribution, the next revolution will be digitized.

Or perhaps it has already begun.
Perhaps it has: the Panama Papers site has just launched a public search engine for its database of documents. Start connecting those dots...

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 May 2016 @ 7:39pm

European Greens Present Draft Law On Protecting Whistleblowers

from the pushing-back-against-trade-secrets dept

It's a sad commentary on the state of transparency these days that whistleblowers have come to play such an important role in revealing wrongdoing and abuse, as numerous stories on Techdirt attest. At the same time, whistleblowers enjoy very little protection around the world. Indeed, a countervailing trend to strengthen protection for so-called "trade secrets" makes it increasingly risky to be a whistleblower today. A case in point is the European Union's new law on trade secrets, which completed its passage through the EU legislative process last month. Although it contains some protections for whistleblowers, many feel they are insufficient. Here, for example is Julia Reda, the representative of the Pirate Party in the European Parliament:

The new law also created major uncertainties about the role of whistleblowers and investigative journalists. All information, including information about malpractice, can be protected as a trade secret. As a result, the burden of proof that the public interest outweighs the business interest will now always lie with the whistleblower.
To remedy those flaws, the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament has put together a draft law. As well as the detailed text, there is a FAQ and a useful two-page summary, which is probably the best place to start. The proposed EU Directive would introduce a uniform law protecting whistleblowers across the European Union. It would apply to both current and former employees and contractors, in all business sectors, both private and public."Protected Disclosures" in this context:
concern harms or threats to the public interest that have occurred, are occurring at the time of the disclosure, or are likely to occur. Protection is given also to whistle-blowers who disclose inaccurate information in honest error.
The intention behind the disclosure doesn't matter: what counts is whether it is in the public interest. Whistleblowers may use any channels, whether official or unofficial, and can be anonymous. One of the most important aspects of the proposal is the protection that would be offered:
exemptions from criminal proceedings related to the protected disclosure, including but not limited to prosecution for the disclosure of classified information, trade secrets or otherwise confidential information, exemptions from civil proceedings and disciplinary measures, and prohibitions of other forms of reprisal, including inter alia dismissal, demotion, withholding of promotion, coercion, intimidation, etc. Action taken against individuals other than the person who made the protected disclosure (for example colleagues or family members) may also constitute prohibited reprisal.
The situation regarding classified information and trade secrets is further clarified in the FAQ:
The Directive protects whistle-blowers who disclose trade secrets as well as confidential information related to national security, though a specific procedure is envisaged for the latter. In case of an overlap or clash between the whistle-blower protection directive and the trade secrets directive, the provisions to protect whistle-blowers must be complied with. The same is true where the information relates to national security issues. Thus, protection of trade secrets may not be invoked to the detriment of the whistle-blower concerned, even if the information revealed is not actually illegal in itself.
That approach is likely to be unpopular with many EU governments and businesses, which will make turning this whistleblower proposal into law a tough battle. Nonetheless, the Greens obviously hope that releasing this draft -- which has no formal legal status -- will help to raise awareness of the need to protect whistleblowers, and ultimately prod the European Commission into proposing its own solution to the problem.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 May 2016 @ 10:38am

Copyright Holders Try To Stop Ravel's 'Bolero' From Entering Public Domain Using Co-Author Trick

from the limitless-sense-of-entitlement dept

At the end of last year, Mike wrote about an attempt to keep the Diary of Anne Frank out of the public domain by adding her father's name as a co-author. As Techdirt wrote at the time, that seemed to be a pretty clear abuse of the copyright system. But it also offered a dangerous precedent, which has just turned up again in a complicated case involving the French composer Maurice Ravel, and his most famous composition, the hypnotically repetitive ballet score "Bolero."

Ravel died on December 28, 1937, so you might expect the score to have entered the public domain in 2008, since EU copyright generally lasts 70 years after the death of a creator. But by a quirk of French law, an extra eight years and 120 days is added for musical works published between January 1, 1921, and December 31, 1947 (on account of the Second World War, apparently). Ravel's Bolero first appeared in 1922 1928, and therefore receives the extra years of copyright, which means that according to French law, it entered the public domain on May 1 this year.

But Bolero has a big problem -- actually, a $57 million problem, which is the amount the work is estimated to have generated in royalties since 1960. Naturally, the owners of the copyright were keen to continue receiving that nice flow of money for doing precisely nothing. So they came up with an idea: add a co-author, which would, as with the Diary of Anne Frank case, conveniently extend the copyright, in this case by another 20 years (original in French.)

Fortunately, the French Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of Music (SACEM), which handles these matters, has decided that adding a co-author was not justified, and that Bolero should indeed enter the public domain (original in French). As a result, you can find the score and performances of Bolero freely available on Wikimedia Commons and elsewhere.

This episode is even more outrageous than it seems, because of who exactly was trying to get the copyright extended. As Yahoo News explains:

Ravel died unmarried and childless in 1937.

His only heir was his brother Edouard, who died in 1960, unleashing a bitter and complex legal battle over the rights which at times has involved Edouard's nurse and her husband, great-nephews and even a legal director of SACEM.
So the connection of the copyright holders with Ravel was in any case extremely tenuous. Credit to SACEM for rejecting -- unanimously -- the attempt to use the co-author trick. Sadly, this is unlikely to be the last time we see it deployed given the limitless sense of entitlement displayed by some copyright holders.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 May 2016 @ 3:26am

Why The Growing Unpredictability Of China's Censorship Is A Feature, Not A Bug

from the watch-your-step dept

Over the years, Techdirt has been trying to keep up with the deepening censorship in China, as more and more ways are found by the authorities to keep online users in check. Given the political situation there, that's hardly a surprise, but what is strange is the following, reported by Tech In Asia:

China's internet censors have been busy recently. Last week we saw the uptight folks at SAPPRFT [State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, China's main censorship body] take down Papi Jiang, a viral video comedian of sorts who had even attracted VC funding, over a few curse words. We also saw Apple’s online books and movies platforms get taken offline, reportedly thanks to SAPPRFT's sudden demands.

It's all very depressing, but it also highlights one of the most effective aspects of China's online censorship regime: it’s totally unpredictable.
Naïvely, you might think that the Chinese government would want to establish very clear lines in the sand that its citizens must not, under any circumstances, cross. But the Tech In Asia post perceptively points that unpredictability has a big advantage, using the following analogy:
Imagine being near a steep cliff. During the day, when you can see clearly, you might walk right up to the edge to take in the view. But at night or during a thick fog, you're probably going to steer well clear of the cliff's edge to ensure that you don’t accidentally misjudge where you are and tumble to your death.
Here's how that works out for censorship:
China's vaguely-defined web content rules and inconsistent censorship enforcement work the same way as the fog near a cliff: since people can't see exactly where the edge is, they're more likely to stay far away from it, just in case. There's no toeing the line, because nobody knows exactly where the line is. So instead of pushing the envelope, many people choose to censor themselves.
In order to ensure that margin of safety, people will tend to censor themselves more than is necessary according to the stated rules. If the line in the sand were well defined, they could step right up to it, fairly secure that they will be safe provided they don't cross. In effect, by introducing an unnerving element of uncertainty into its actions, China obtains a more stringent self-censorship on the part of its citizens than it would from formally applying well-defined rules through official channels.

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Posted on Techdirt - 2 May 2016 @ 11:23pm

If Open Sharing Of Data Is A Great Idea For Combatting A Dangerous Plant Disease, Why Not For All Human Diseases?

from the won't-somebody-think-of-the-wheat? dept

Wheat blast may not be uppermost in the minds of many Techdirt readers, but as the following explains, it's a serious plant disease that is spreading around the world:

Wheat blast is a fearsome fungal disease of wheat. It was first discovered in Paraná State of Brazil in 1985. It spread rapidly to other South American countries such as Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina, where it infects up to 3 million hectares and causes serious crop losses. Wheat blast was also detected in Kentucky, USA, in 2011.

Wheat blast is caused by a fungus known as Magnaporthe oryzae although scientists are still debating its exact identity. There is a risk that wheat blast could expand beyond South America and threaten food security in wheat growing areas in Asia and Africa.
That comes from an interesting site called Open Wheat Blast. It's been set up by a group of scientists who want to help combat the threat of wheat blast. And as their name suggests, they hope to do that by sharing data as widely as possible:
To rapidly respond to this emergency, our team is making genetic data for the wheat blast pathogen available via this website and we are inviting others to do the same. Our goal is that the OpenWheatBlast website will provide a hub for information, collaboration and comment. Collectively, we can better exploit the genetic sequences and answer important questions about the nature of the pathogen and disease.
That's such a self-evidently sensible thing to do, the obvious question to ask is: why isn't this done routinely -- and for human diseases too? In fact, a couple of months ago, 33 global health bodies signed a "Statement on data sharing in public health emergencies," with particular emphasis on sharing data about the Zika virus:
The arguments for sharing data, and the consequences of not doing so, have been thrown into stark relief by the Ebola and Zika outbreaks.

In the context of a public health emergency of international concern, there is an imperative on all parties to make any information available that might have value in combatting the crisis.

We are committed to working in partnership to ensure that the global response to public health emergencies is informed by the best available research evidence and data
That declaration built on a "consensus statement" that came out of World Health Organization consultation on "Developing global norms for sharing data and results during public health emergencies" in September 2015. One of the summary points spells out the key issue holding back open sharing of key information:
WHO seeks a paradigm shift in the approach to information sharing in emergencies, from one limited by embargoes set for publication timelines, to open sharing using modern fit-for-purpose pre-publication platforms. Researchers, journals and funders will need to engage fully for this paradigm shift to occur.
As that makes clear, a big problem is the way that results are published, with researchers and publishers more interested in keeping their results under wraps for a while than spreading them widely and quickly. And there's another issue too:
Patents on natural genome sequences could be inhibitory for further research and product development. Research entities should exercise discretion in patenting and licensing genome-related inventions so as not to inhibit product development and to ensure appropriate benefit sharing.
It's a rather sad state of affairs when publishing concerns and patents are getting in the way of producing treatments and cures for serious human diseases that could improve the lives of millions of people. Protecting crops from wheat blast is, of course, welcome, but is it really the best we can do?

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Posted on Techdirt - 28 April 2016 @ 11:23pm

Chevron Lobbied For Corporate Sovereignty Rights In TAFTA/TTIP To Act As 'Environmental Deterrent'

from the they're-not-even-trying-to-hide-it-anymore dept

Back in 2014, Techdirt noted that arguably the most serious problem with corporate sovereignty was not the huge awards that could be imposed on countries, but the chilling effect the mere threat of those awards could have on national sovereignty. In that post, we quoted from a remarkable 2001 article in The Nation. A former Canadian government official in Ottawa revealed that numerous proposals for new environmental regulations had been dropped in the face of threats that NAFTA's investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) framework would be used against Canada if it brought in new laws. The Techdirt post also mentioned a case in Indonesia, where a mining company dropped a corporate sovereignty case when it was offered "special exemptions" from a new mining law.

More recently, we've seen New Zealand put on hold its plans to require plain packaging for cigarettes, as a result of Philip Morris bringing an ISDS claim against the Australian government for doing the same. The New Zealand government was concerned it too might get hit, and so decided to wait. Now that the Australian case has been thrown out, New Zealand is pressing ahead with its plain packs legislation.

The chilling effects of corporate sovereignty are now so well established that companies are even beginning to cite them as a reason for including it in trade deals. The minutes of a meeting that took place between European Commission officials, and Chevron executives, obtained by The Guardian, make that plain:

"ISDS has only been used once by Chevron, in its litigation against Ecuador," say the minutes of a meeting in April 2014 between unnamed Chevron executives and European commission officials, which the Guardian obtained under access to documents laws. "Yet, Chevron argues that the mere existence of ISDS is important as it acts as a deterrent."
Chevron is talking about the multi-billion dollar award made against Ecuador in one of the longest-running and most complex disputes involving corporate sovereignty. When contacted by The Guardian, Chevron repeated its claim that ISDS was a really great weapon to wield against countries, although naturally it expressed that view in somewhat different language:
ISDS serves a useful function of encouraging investors and host states to negotiate in good faith in order to avoid escalation of disagreements that occasionally arise.
Aside from confirming people's worst fears about the chilling effects of corporate sovereignty, Chevron's candid admission that it wants ISDS in TAFTA/TTIP as a "deterrent" reveals something else. It shows that corporations not only demand a unique privilege to circumvent national legal systems using secret tribunals composed of corporate lawyers, but are now trying to craft yet another "right": to deploy routinely the mere threat of ISDS as a "deterrent" to government action. Or, as you and I would put it, the right to engage in raw, brutal bullying on a global scale.

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Posted on Techdirt - 26 April 2016 @ 11:23pm

Monster Corporate Sovereignty Ruling Against Russia Overturned By Dutch Court, But It's Hard To Tell Whether It's Over Yet

from the plus-or-minus-$50-billion dept

By now, the theoretical risks of including corporate sovereignty chapters in TPP and TAFTA/TPP are becoming more widely known. But as Techdirt wrote back in 2014, there's already a good example of just how bad the reality can be, in the form of the monster-sized case involving Russia. An investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) tribunal ruled that Vladimir Putin really ought to pay $50 billion to people who were majority shareholders in the Yukos Oil Company. The Russian government didn't agree, and so naturally took further legal action to get the ruling overturned. As The New York Times reports, it seems to have succeeded:

In a major victory for the Russian government, a Dutch court on Wednesday overturned an award of more than $50 billion to former shareholders of the defunct oil company Yukos that Moscow was ordered to pay in 2014.
The award was thrown out because of something mentioned in the earlier Techdirt article: the fact that the claim was brought under the Energy Charter Treaty, which Russia signed, but never ratified. Because the ISDS arbitration panel had met in The Hague, in the Netherlands, Russia took its case before Dutch judges, who agreed that Vlad need not pay in these circumstances.

But the ruling is unlikely to signal the end of this case -- after all, some pretty serious sums of money are involved. According to The New York Times, the international arbitration practice representing the Yukos shareholders intends to make an appeal to higher courts in the Netherlands against the decision. And even if it fails to get the latest court ruling overturned, it's still quite possible that GML, the company that controlled a majority of the Yukos shares, will be able to collect its $50 billion elsewhere. As the NYT says:

GML is pursuing legal efforts to collect the Russian money in a half-dozen other countries: Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, India and the United States. There have not yet been rulings in those cases, and it was not immediately clear on Wednesday how the decision in The Hague might affect them.
That lack of legal clarity underlines one of the worst aspects of ISDS: the fact that it does not sit neatly within traditional legal systems, but in many ways lies outside them. Far from helping to uphold the law, as supporters of corporate sovereignty like to claim, it makes it arbitrary and unpredictable. When you're talking plus or minus $50 billion, that's a pretty serious flaw.

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Posted on Techdirt - 26 April 2016 @ 3:25am

Constitutional Court Throws Out Surveillance Law In Georgia (The Country)

from the setting-a-good-example dept

Techdirt has naturally been following closely the battles over government attempts to bring in ever-more intrusive surveillance laws, particularly in the US, UK, and China, which are some of the worst culprits in this regard. But it's important to remember that this is a struggle that is taking place all around the world, even in the smaller countries that often get overlooked by mainstream media. For example, Georgia -- the country, not the state -- is witnessing exactly the same tussle between the politicians and the courts that we find elsewhere, as reported here on the civil.ge site:

Georgia's Constitutional Court ruled on April 14 that legislation allowing security agency to have direct, unrestricted access to telecom operators' networks to monitor communications is unconstitutional.
As the article explains, the key issue is over the use of "black boxes" sitting on communication service providers' networks. In 2014, efforts were made to address concerns that the system would be abused, by adopting the following approach:
Legislation gave the office of personal data protection inspector the right to electronically authorize law enforcement agencies' lawful interception of communications once there was a relevant court warrant -- this system, involving security agency having direct access to telecom operators servers and personal data inspector having power to authorize monitoring is informally called "two-key" model.
The passage of the the two-key legislation was fraught: it was adopted by the Georgian Parliament, vetoed by the Georgian President and then reinstated by the Parliament. As a result, complaints were lodged with the country's Constitutional Court, which has just handed down its judgment against the two-key system. One of the problems, the judges said, was the following:
The State Security Service possesses technical capabilities for eavesdropping and monitoring online communications, which allow mass (actually unrestricted) collection of personal information in real time.
The court was also unhappy with the metadata retention allowed by the legislation:
The court said that retention of metadata for 2 years represents "unreasonably lengthy period of time, which results into disproportionate interference into [constitutional] rights."
After making both of those reasonable comments, the judges went on to give the Georgian politicians a reasonable amount of time to sort things out:
The Constitutional Court said that it understands "fundamental legislative amendments, as well as institutional and technical application of the new system", stemming from this verdict, requires time and for that reason it set March 31, 2017 as the deadline for implementing this decision of the court.
All in all, Georgia emerges rather well from this episode, with democratic processes working as they should, and constitutional judges doing a good job. If only the same could be said for all the other countries going through the same painful experience.

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Posted on Techdirt - 25 April 2016 @ 12:40pm

Internet Protections Enshrined In Brazil's Marco Civil Framework Under Threat From New Laws

from the this-is-why-we-can't-have-nice-things dept

A couple of years ago, Techdirt wrote about Brazil's Marco Civil -- variously called a "constitution for the Internet," and a "Magna Carta for the Web." Whatever you want to call it, the Marco Civil was a heartening example of the rights of Internet users being strengthened for a change. In June 2015, one year after it passed, an article on the Council on Foreign Relations site noted its wide-ranging impact:

The Marco Civil has been instrumental in curbing the power of the Brazilian government from having undue influence over the net and its content. The law prevents the government from taking down or regulating content, or exercising any pressure on online platforms (e.g. the Twitters and YouTubes of the world) or Internet service providers. Only the courts, by means of due process, and limited by clear legal thresholds, can actually take action regarding online content when it infringes on other rights.
Of course, this was too good to last. As Andrew McLaughlin explains on Medium, the Marco Civil is in danger:
Amid the tumult and chaos of Brazil's current (and colossal) political crisis, the moment of counter-attack has arrived. Under the guise of fighting "cybercrime", a group of Brazilian legislators, acting via a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, has introduced 8 bills that, to state it directly, would give the Brazilian government sweeping powers to censor and control the Internet.
The EFF has a summary of what those bills propose:
Allowing police warrantless access to IP addresses;

Requiring sites and apps to monitor content to prevent new sharing of materials already deemed offensive by court decision;

Criminalizing improper computer system access that presents a "risk of misuse or disclosure" of data, even if no actual misuse or disclosure occurs -- broad and vague terms that also apply to actions with no criminal intent, jeopardizing legitimate security research that might never be done if obtaining prior permission were a legal requirement;

Allowing judges, in direct violation of net neutrality rules, to block sites and applications that are used for criminal purposes or that don’t comply with demands for user information.
Clearly, if these bills pass in their present form, they will nullify many of the safeguards found in the Marco Civil. The key vote is expected to take place on April 27, and the EFF has a page where you can ask Brazilian lawmakers to reject the proposals. There is also a joint statement to the Brazilian congress, which companies active in the country are invited to sign.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 April 2016 @ 3:28am

New Zealand Government Trying To Streamroller TPP Through Ratification Without Proper Scrutiny Or Public Input

from the so-much-for-that-'don't-worry,-you-can-debate-it-when-it's-finished& dept

Back in February, we noted that the TPP has been officially signed, and that the focus now moves on to ratification by each of the 12 participating countries. On this score, there's been plenty of sound and fury in the US, including bizarre demands to re-negotiate TPP, but less coverage of what is happening elsewhere. As we noted, Canada's ratification has ground to a halt as the new government there launches "widespread consultations." Japan, too, won't be ratifying TPP for a while, for reasons explained by The Mainichi site:

The government and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-Komeito coalition decided to put off attempting to ratify the treaty and enact related bills as they determined that a combination of opposition party resistance and the Kyushu earthquake disaster response leaves insufficient time to deliberate the legislation. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not planning to extend the current Diet session, which is scheduled to end on June 1. The government will instead carry the ratification and bills over to an extraordinary Diet session to be convened this autumn, to discuss them again in the House of Representatives for final approval and enactment.
The government in New Zealand, by contrast, seems to be doing everything in its power to ram through TPP as quickly as possible, with little time being given for that full public debate so frequently promised. Even the country's MPs are being stampeded, as Radio New Zealand News reports:
MPs have been given just five days to consider hundreds of submissions on the controversial TPP trade deal after the timeframe was drastically cut from four weeks.

The select committee was originally give a month to write its report and present it back to Parliament.
According to the news item, the committee was due to hear from hundreds of people who were keen finally to make their voices heard. But the government has apparently decided that it just doesn't care what the public thinks:
The tight deadline meant the [MPs'] draft report would be written before the committee had finished hearing all the submissions.
Apparently, the New Zealand government isn't interested in democracy, only timetables:
Opposition members on the committee say they were told yesterday the government wanted to cut down the time they had to analyse the submissions, so the legislation could get through by the end of the year.
Nor are MPs and the public the only ones being treated in a shabby way. So is the Waitangi Tribunal, which is an important commission charged with investigating and making recommendations on claims brought by the indigenous Māori people relating to actions by the New Zealand government. Because the select committee of MPs examining TPP will produce its report earlier than expected, the Waitangi Tribunal also finds itself with little time to consider the issue properly. An article on the Scoop site suggests that might be intentional:
"Why the government suddenly announced it is fast-tracking the report date for the select committee considering the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) from the end of May to 4 May is now clear.

It gives the Waitangi Tribunal three rather than seven weeks to produce its urgent report on the claim brought by prominent Maori that the Agreement violates the Crown's obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi", says Professor Jane Kelsey who has been advising the claimants.
What makes the situation even more worrying for New Zealanders is something Techdirt wrote about a couple of months ago: the fact that even if TPP fails, it seems that laws brought in to comply with the terms of the treaty would not be rolled back by the New Zealand government. That's an extremely good reason to take things slowly and carefully -- not to rush ahead recklessly as is currently happening.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 April 2016 @ 11:38pm

Australian Case Shows Why Corporate Sovereignty Isn't Needed In TPP -- Or In Any Trade Agreement

from the running-out-of-arguments dept

One of central claims made by supporters of corporate sovereignty chapters in trade deals is that companies "need" this ability to sue the government in special tribunals. The argument is that if the extra-judicial investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) framework is not available to a company, it will be defenseless when confronted with a bullying government. A new case in Australia shows why that's not true. A column in The Sydney Morning Herald provides the background, which concerns a US company called Nucoal:

In 2013, the NSW [New South Wales] Independent Commission against Corruption found that there had been corrupt conduct relating to the granting of mining licences to Nucoal and other mining companies and the NSW government cancelled the licences.
Naturally, Nucoal unleashed its lawyers:
[Nucoal] demanded compensation of more than $900 million in Australia's High Court, claiming the decision to cancel its licence without compensation was unconstitutional and had reduced the value of the company. The High Court found in April 2015 that under Australian law Nucoal was not entitled to compensation.
Now Nucoal had a problem. Normally, a company in this situation would invoke the corporate sovereignty chapter in a relevant trade deal, and move the case to secret ISDS tribunals, which were likely to be more favorable to its cause than the independent national courts. But with unusual foresight, Australia refused to accept ISDS in the 2004 AUSFTA trade agreement between the US and Australia -- which makes its decision to acquiesce to ISDS in TPP doubly foolish. Despite what fans of corporate sovereignty claim, Nucoal still has another option at this point:
Nucoal is pressuring the US government to put a case to the Australian government that the denial of compensation has violated the general investment terms of the [AUSFTA] agreement. This could result in a formal complaint from the US government demanding trade sanctions against the Australian government.

Last week The Australian reported that the CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce in Australia has announced that the US government will raise the issue in a closed-door review of the AUSFTA to be held in May.
That is, unable to avail itself of the investor-state dispute mechanism, Nucoal now wants to take advantage of the state-state dispute settlement process (pdf) whereby the US government formally complains to the other government concerned. Now, whether the US government should really be taking up a case involving corruption is another question. The key point is that it is not absolutely necessary to include corporate sovereignty provisions in a trade deal to protect companies, because there is always the state-to-state mechanism that can be invoked if necessary.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 April 2016 @ 6:31am

China Considers Cutting Itself Off From The Global Internet, As Three Home-Grown Browsers Are Found Leaking Personal Data

from the probably-just-a-coincidence dept

Techdirt readers know that the Chinese authorities have been steadily tightening their grip on most aspects of online life in the country, but there's one area that hasn't been mentioned much: the Web browser. Recently, a new report from the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab identified security and privacy issues in QQ Browser, a mobile browser produced by the China-based Internet giant Tencent. Here's a summary:

The Android version of the browser transmits personally identifiable data, including a user's search terms, the URLs of visited websites, nearby WiFi access points, and the user's IMSI [International Mobile Subscriber Identification] and IMEI [International Mobile Equipment Identifier] identifiers, without encryption or with easily decrypted encryption. Similarly, the Windows version sends personally identifiable data, including the URL of all pages visited in the browser, a user's hard drive serial number, MAC address, Windows hostname, and Windows user security identifier, also without encryption or with easily decrypted decryption.
Now, this could just be the result of some supremely sloppy coding combined with lax privacy practice -- in theory, at least. But that generous interpretation becomes rather harder to sustain when you bear in mind that this is not the first time Citizen Lab has found this behavior. To be precise, this is the third time. Last month, it discovered that Baidu Browser, a free Web browser for the Windows and Android platforms produced by Baidu, one of China’s biggest tech companies, has strikingly similar problems to QQ Browser:
The report identifies security concerns in both the Windows and Android versions of the browser that may expose personal user data, including a user’s geolocation, hardware identifiers, nearby wireless networks, web browsing data and search terms. Such user data is transmitted, in both the Windows and Android versions, unencrypted or with easily decryptable encryption, which means that any in-path actor could acquire this data by collecting the traffic and performing any necessary decryption. In addition, neither version of the application secures its software update process with a digital signature, which means that a malicious in-path actor could cause the browser to download and execute arbitrary code.
And before that, back in May last year, the same researchers found unauthorized transmission of personal data by another widely-used browser:
UC Browser is among the most popular mobile apps in the Chinese Internet space. UC Browser claims to have more than 500 million registered users, and is reported to be the most popular mobile browser in China and India. Overall, the application is the fourth most popular mobile browser globally, and is behind only pre-installed Chrome, Android, and Safari browsers.
Putting these three browsers together, you have a serious chunk of not just the Chinese online population, but across the whole of Asia. As the Citizen Lab researchers point out:
That the three China-based browser applications we have examined all evince strikingly similar data gathering and insecure data handling problems raises an obvious question of whether there is some underlying cause for the similarities.
The post runs through all the options, including the most likely explanation: that the companies were ordered by the Chinese authorities to build in these highly-useful vulnerabilities. Not surprisingly:
The questions we asked the companies about government directives or influence have not been directly answered.
But if anyone still doubts that the Chinese government wants to control every aspect of the Internet, they may like to consider the following recent report in The New York Times:
A draft law posted by one of China’s technology regulators said that websites in the country would have to register domain names with local service providers and with the authorities.
It's not entirely clear what that means, but there is one possibility that would be very problematic for Chinese Internet users -- and for every Western company operating in the country:
If the rule applies to all websites, it will have major implications and will effectively cut China out of the global Internet. By creating a domestic registry for websites, the rule would create a system of censorship in which only websites that have specifically registered with the Chinese government would be reachable from within the country.
China's technology regulator has rejected that interpretation, and said that there is a "misunderstanding." But if past experience teaches us anything, it is that there really are no limits to what the present Chinese leadership is willing to do in order to bring the online world under control. And that doubtless even includes cutting China off from the rest of the Internet, if need be.

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