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Posted on Techdirt - 12 February 2016 @ 3:26am

How The Dark Net Is Making Drug Purchases Safer By Eliminating Associated Violence And Improving Quality

from the hidden-virtues dept

Despite a few daring experiments in the space, the dark net (or dark web, if you prefer) is generally seen as a dangerous, frightening place inhabited by terrorists, pornographers and general ne'er-do-wells. That makes a report in The Guardian about drug dealers moving online unusual, because it shows how the dark net can also be beneficial to society:

Research into internet drug markets by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) suggested the self-regulation of online markets such as Silk Road provide a safer environment for users and dealers of illicit substances.

Feedback mechanisms similar to eBay mean customers are able to hold dealers to account for the service they provide, the report said, while remote access to the market almost eliminates the risk of violence that has long been an integral part of the black economy.
Moving online not only safeguards drug users from violence and theft when they buy drugs in the physical world, it provides a natural way for customers to provide feedback on the quality of the drugs provided. Just as with traditional e-commerce companies, drug dealers who go digital can no longer risk bad customer reviews by providing inferior or dangerous products, since their future sales are likely to suffer. As a result:
Drugs available through darknet markets tend to be of a higher purity than those available on the streets.
The new report comes from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which is funded by the European Union, and, as usual, is accompanied by an official comment from the relevant EU commissioner. Unfortunately, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, trots out the usual unthinking reaction to drug sales that has made the long-running and totally futile "war on drugs" one of the most destructive and counterproductive policies ever devised:
We should stop the abuse of the internet by those wanting to turn it into a drug market. Technology is offering fresh opportunities for law enforcement to tackle online drug markets and reduce threats to public health. Let us seize these opportunities to attack the problem head-on and reduce drug supply online.
That blinkered attitude ignores the important advantages moving drug sales from the physical world to the digital one brings not just for for users and dealers, but also for society as a whole, which does not have to deal with the social and economic consequences of violence on the streets, or with the long-term damage caused by poor-quality products. Along the way, his remarks inevitably and unhelpfully reinforce the view that the dark net is evil, and thus is something to be destroyed.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 February 2016 @ 3:21am

First Report From Inside Germany's New TAFTA/TTIP Reading Room Reveals Text's Dirty Secret

from the 24-seconds-a-page dept

Last week we wrote about the only place that German politicians are currently allowed to view the latest texts of TAFTA/TTIP: a tiny room, guarded at all times, and involving all kinds of humiliating restrictions for visitors. Katja Kipping was one of the first to enter, and she has written up her experiences for lesser mortals like you and me, who are not permitted to besmirch this sacred place with our unworthy presence. Even though she is -- of course -- forbidden from speaking about what she read there, a translation of her account, made by War on Want, nonetheless contains some interesting new details:

Once I'd registered, I was sent the instructions on how to use the room. The first thing that I noticed was that the terms and conditions had already been the subject of negotiations between the European Commission and the USA. Get your head round that: TTIP isn't even signed yet, and already individual countries have lost the right to decide who gets to read the texts, and on what terms.
Here's how the actual visit went:
A guard took me in through security and asked me to lock away my jacket and my bag. He checked that I wasn't taking any camera or mobile phone into the reading room, and then knocked on a door. The heightened level of secrecy made me all the more excited as to what I was going to find, but the room itself was nothing special. There were eight computer work stations, and I was only allowed to sit at the one designated for me. A friendly woman sat in the room. She got me to sign the visitor rules -- if you don't sign, you don’t get in, so I signed. There was a thermos of coffee and a plate of biscuits in the corner. Yet no amount of caffeine or blood sugar would have made it possible to get through the 300 or so pages of text in the two hours I had available to me.
Even though this reading room for German politicians has finally been opened -- two and a half years after the TAFTA/TTIP negotiations began -- numerous obstacles are placed in their way to make that opportunity as inconvenient as possible. First, the texts are only available in English -- imagine if US politicians were only allowed to read the French version of the negotiating texts. Moreover, the German visitors to the room are completely on their own: they cannot take even security-cleared specialists with them in order to decode the highly-abstruse wording of the documents. Finally, as Kipping notes above, she had just two hours to get through 300 pages -- roughly 24 seconds per page.

Even racing through the pages made available to her, Kipping says that she was unable to find anything that allayed her concerns about the proposed agreement. And despite the blanket prohibition on giving things away, she does reveal one dirty secret about the TAFTA/TTIP texts:

the documents are simply crawling with typos. The word 'and' is regularly written 'andd' and 'the' often appears as 'teh'. Either the negotiators are really shoddy workers or this is one of those famous security measures we've heard about.
She is doubtless right that these errors are fairly unsubtle attempts to create unique copies so that any leaks can be traced back to their source, since visitors to the reading room are directed to a particular computer when reading the text. And she is also correct in her conclusion:
Anyone who was going into these negotiations to enhance environmental protection, consumer protection and labour standards would have nothing to fear from transparency. Anyone who's engaged in selling out democracy, on the other hand, is obviously going to want to avoid public scrutiny. If [Germany's Minister for Economic Affairs] Sigmar Gabriel and the negotiators are really so convinced of the benefits of TTIP, why don't they just make the text available to everyone online?
It will be interesting to see what other snippets of information escape from the little room as the negotiations proceed, and as more German politicians visit it -- and whether they, too, still encounter texts that are crawling with highly-suspicious typos.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 February 2016 @ 2:01pm

Australia's Arrogant, Irresponsible Trade Minister Rejects Calls For Cost-Benefit Analysis Of TPP

from the would-anyone-run-a-business-like-this? dept

Mike has just written about the way the US public is being short-changed over the promised "debate" that would follow the completion of the TPP negotiations. That broken promise is just part of the general dishonesty surrounding the whole deal. For example, the public was told that it was not possible for it to make its views known during the negotiations, because they had to be secret -- even though many other trade deals aren't -- but that once everything was agreed there would be ample time for a truly democratic debate. Of course, at that point nothing could be changed, so the debate was little more than a token gesture, but now it seems the US public won't even get that.

It will be cold comfort to learn that US citizens are not the only ones being denied the opportunity to engage in a serious discussion with politicians about the merits or otherwise of TPP. Here's what's happening in Australia, as reported by the Guardian:

The trade minister, Andrew Robb, has rejected calls for an independent cost-benefit analysis of the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the World Bank estimated it could lift Australia’s economic output by just 0.7% by 2030.

Robb, who signed the regional trade pact with counterparts from 11 other nations in New Zealand on Thursday, dismissed opponents of the deal as "the usual suspects" who would not be persuaded by a new inquiry.
To dismiss those who want to weigh up the evidence for and against TPP as "the usual suspects" is insulting not just to them, but also to the Australian public, who are effectively being told that if they dare to question the value of TPP, they are just "the usual suspects." This is pretty rich, too:
There’s nothing that they’ve said that convinces me that they’re genuine about this ... I think the community accepts that we've got 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth in Australia, we've got millions of jobs which have come off the back of Australia opening up and participating in these sorts of major agreements around the world with all of our trading partners.
So Robb is saying that those who want a mature debate about TPP must convince him, rather than the other way around. And claiming that Australia's growth is due to trade agreements -- without providing any evidence -- expects people to be naive enough to fall for the old 'correlation implies causation' trick. In any case, it's the details of the deal that are being questioned, many of which are quite antithetical to genuine free trade -- enhanced monopoly protections for copyright and biologics being two examples.

Robb's problem is that the traditional instruments of government persuasion -- econometric models that purport to demonstrate the benefits of signing up to trade agreements -- reveal that TPP is likely to bring Australia vanishingly small economic benefits. As we wrote recently, the World Bank predicts that the annual boost to Australia's GDP thanks to TPP will be around 0.07%. The country's trade minister tries to side-step that awkward fact as follows:

Robb told Sky News there was "a war by modelling" occurring. He pointed to a US Department of Agriculture study that showed Australia's agriculture sector would be the "biggest winner by a country mile".
In other words, don't look at that World Bank study, look at this US Department of Agriculture (USDA) study instead. Techdirt discussed that analysis over a year ago, noting one rather pertinent fact that Robb somehow forgot to mention: the USDA predicted that the total boost to the Australian economy from TPP would be precisely zero, zip, zilch, nada. If Australia's agricultural sector is a big winner from TPP, there must also be some big losers to balance things out.

Those facts probably explains in part why Robb refuses to ask the Australian government's own Productivity Commission for an analysis of TPP, even though its job is precisely to provide "independent research and advice to Government on economic, social and environmental issues affecting the welfare of Australians." The other reason why he won't want them giving an expert opinion is probably because of this comment in the Commission's Trade and Assistance Review 2013-14:

Preferential trade agreements add to the complexity and cost of international trade through substantially different sets of rules of origin, varying coverage of services and potentially costly intellectual property protections and investor-state dispute settlement provisions.

The emerging and growing potential for trade preferences to impose net costs on the community presents a compelling case for the final text of an agreement to be rigorously analysed before signing. Analysis undertaken for the Japan-Australia agreement reveals a wide and concerning gap compared to the Commission's view of rigorous assessment.
Robb's reluctance may be understandable, but it is also unforgivable. The benefits for Australia from TPP are routinely exaggerated, but no account is ever taken of the costs of signing up to the trade agreement -- a situation that is plainly absurd. Any manager that suggested closing an important business deal without carefully weighing up both the benefits and the costs would be rightly dismissed for gross negligence and incompetence. And yet Robb expects 23 million Australians to agree to TPP on precisely that basis, simply because he says it's a good deal. That's not just appallingly arrogant, but also profoundly irresponsible.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 February 2016 @ 3:26am

Top German Judges Tear To Shreds EU's Proposed TAFTA/TTIP Investment Court System

from the wrong-way-forward dept

As Techdirt has repeatedly pointed out, one of the most problematic aspects of the TAFTA/TTIP deal being negotiated between the US and the EU is the inclusion of a corporate sovereignty chapter -- officially known as "investor-state dispute settlement" (ISDS). Techdirt isn't the only one worried about it: no less a person than the EU's Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, said last year that she "shares" the concerns here. Her response was to draw up the new "ICS" -- "Investor Court System -- as an alternative. US interest in ICS is conspicuous by its absence, but Malmström keeps plugging away at the idea, evidently hoping to defuse European opposition to TTIP by getting rid of old-style corporate sovereignty.

That plan has just received a huge setback in the form of an "Opinion on the establishment of an investment tribunal in TTIP". It comes from the German Magistrates Association, which Wikipedia describes as "the largest professional organization of judges and public prosecutors in Germany." So these are not a bunch of know-nothing hippie activists, but serious establishment figures with a deep knowledge of the law. Here's their basic position on Malmström's ICS, translated from the original German by TNI:

The German Magistrates Association [DRB] rejects the proposal of the European Commission to establish an investment court within the framework of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The DRB sees neither a legal basis nor a need for such a court.

The clearly implied assumption in the proposal for an International Investment Court that the courts of the EU Member States fail to grant foreign investors effective judicial protection, lacks factual basis. Should the negotiating partners have identified weaknesses in this area in individual EU Member States, these should be taken up with the national legislature and clearly defined. It would then be up to the legislators and those responsible for the judiciary to provide remedy within the proven system of national and European legal protection. Only in this way can the full legal rights to which any law-seeking party in Germany and the European Union is entitled, be guaranteed. The creation of special courts for certain groups of litigants is the wrong way forward.
The judges then spell out in more detail what they see as the problems with the idea, and they are pretty damning. First, they point out that the ICS would have power over the entire European Union and its member states, and that its decisions would be binding:
The establishment of an ICS would oblige the European Union and the Member States, upon the conclusion of an agreement, to submit to the jurisdiction of an ICS and the application of certain international procedures chosen by the plaintiff.
Presumably, the same would be true of the US and its state governments, which may be why the USTR is not hugely keen on the idea. Not content with undermining the EU's political system, ICS would do the same to the EU's judiciary too:
an ICS would "deprive courts of Member States of their powers in relation to the interpretation and application of European Union law and the Court of its powers to reply, by preliminary ruling, to questions referred by those courts and, consequently, would alter the essential character of the powers which the Treaties confer on the institutions of the European Union and on the Member States and which are indispensable to the preservation of the very nature of European Union law"
The German judges go on to repeat a point many others have made: that there is simply no need for any kind of ISDS or ICS system. Here's why:
The Member States are all constitutional states, which provide and guarantee access to justice in all areas where the state has jurisdiction to all law-seeking parties. It is for the Member States to ensure access to justice for all and to ensure feasible access for foreign investors, by providing the courts with the relevant resources. Hence, the establishment of an ICS is the wrong way to guarantee legal certainty.
Finally, the judges note that one of the claimed advantages of the ICS system over the current corporate sovereignty approach, judicial independence, is illusory:
Neither the proposed procedure for the appointment of judges of the ICS nor their position meet the international requirements for the independence of courts. As such, the ICS emerges not as an international court, but rather as a permanent court of arbitration.
In other words, Malmström is simply re-branding ISDS, and trying to put lipstick on a pig.

This attack from a very unexpected quarter is a really devastating blow for the ICS idea. It will be hard for Malmström to claim with a straight face that, unlike the current corporate sovereignty system, ICS is a real court, with all the protections that ISDS lacks, because a large number of EU experts in this area have just stated unequivocally that it isn't. The judges' opinion makes it even more likely that the US will reject the ICS idea out of hand, not least because it can now simply point to the German Magistrates Association's analysis as proof that ICS doesn't do what Malmström says it does.

That leaves the really interesting question: where does the EU's Trade Commissioner go from here? She can hardly return to the old-style ISDS for TAFTA/TTIP, since she has been busy rubbishing it in order to promote her new ICS idea. Moreover, this latest rejection comes at just the wrong time, since it is widely expected that corporate sovereignty will be one of the main items on the agenda for the next round of TAFTA/TTIP negotiations. Awkward.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 February 2016 @ 11:23pm

Dismantling The Repair Monopoly Created By The DMCA's Anti-Circumvention Rules

from the tractor-liberation-front dept

One of the biggest victories of the copyright maximalists was the successful adoption of the 1996 WIPO Copyright Treaty, implemented by the DMCA in the US, and the Copyright Directive in the EU. Its key innovation was to criminalize the circumvention of copyright protection mechanisms. That strengthens copyright enormously by introducing yet another level of legal lockdown, and thus yet another powerful weapon for copyright holders to wield against their customers. But as Techdirt has reported, the anti-circumvention laws are now being used to prevent people from exploring or modifying physical objects that they own.

The DMCA's anti-circumvention rules not only strengthen an old monopoly -- copyright -- they create a new one. Because it is forbidden to circumvent protection measures, only the original manufacturer or approved agents can legally repair a device that employs such technologies. Motherboard has an interesting profile of efforts by the wider repair industry to dismantle that new monopoly before it spreads further and becomes accepted as the norm:

Repair groups from across the industry announced that they have formed The Repair Coalition, a lobbying and advocacy group that will focus on reforming the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to preserve the “right to repair” anything from cell phones and computers to tractors, watches, refrigerators, and cars. It will also focus on passing state-level legislation that will require manufacturers to sell repair parts to independent repair shops and to consumers and will prevent them from artificially locking down their products to would-be repairers.
The advocacy group is not exactly new, more of a re-branding and re-launching of "The Digital Right to Repair Coalition", which was formed in 2013. Its aims are ambitious:
The Repair Coalition will primarily work at a federal level to repeal Section 1201 of the DMCA, which states that it's illegal to "circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under [the DMCA]." Thus far, activists have tried to gain "exemptions" to this section -- it's why you're allowed to repair a John Deere tractor or a smartphone that has software in it. But the exemption process is grueling and has to be done every three years.
Given the power of the industries that support Section 1201, it's hard to see it being repealed any time soon. However, the other part of the Repair Association's strategy looks more hopeful:
On a state level, the group will push for laws such as one being proposed in New York that would require manufacturers to provide repair manuals and sell parts to anyone -- not just licensed repair people -- for their products. The thought is that, if enough states pass similar legislation, it will become burdensome for manufacturers to continue along with the status quo. At some point, it will become easier to simply allow people to fix the things they own.
As software is routinely added to yet more categories of everyday physical objects, so the issue of the repair monopoly created as a by-product of the DMCA will become more pressing. It's good that there is now an advocacy group focussed on solving this problem. Let's hope it succeeds.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 February 2016 @ 11:23pm

Proposed Hungarian Law Would Allow Government To Suspend Key Human Rights Whenever There Is A 'Terror Threat Situation'

from the please-see-government-for-definition-of-'terror-threat-situation' dept

Techdirt has reported how many Western governments are playing on fears of vaguely-defined "terror" to push through laws limiting fundamental freedoms that would never otherwise have been discussed, much less approved. Amnesty International is warning that Hungary is aiming to join the club -- and go much, much further down this slippery slope:

A draft proposal to combat terrorism, apparently authored by the Hungarian government and leaked in mid-January, recommends amendments to the Constitution and to several laws to streamline the process to call a state of emergency in the country. If adopted in its current form, the proposal would have profoundly negative consequences for human rights in Hungary, including the freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and movement, and the rights to privacy and security of person. The current proposal, referred to as the "sixth amendment", devolves near absolute power on the executive in a so-called "terror threat situation," the result of which would be a full frontal assault on human rights and the rule of law.
As Amnesty International's more detailed analysis of the so-called "sixth amendment" to the country's constitution explains, the "emergency measures" available during a very vague "terror threat situation" would give the Hungarian authorities wide-ranging and almost unchallengeable powers (pdf), including:
Blanket permission to introduce undefined "special counter-terrorism measures"

Complete government control over procurement of goods and services, including over supply lines

Restrictions on the movement of foreign nationals, including refusal to enter the territory, despite Hungary's existing obligations under international law

Arbitrary restrictions on movement (including obligatory reporting requirements) for foreign nationals already lawfully present in the territory

Enhanced stop and search powers

Enhanced asset-freezing powers

Powers to seize and limit broadcasters' equipment, and to control the content and messaging of broadcasts

Powers to suspend or limit the use of postal, telecommunication and email services

Strict controls on internet usage and traffic

Limitations or prohibition on contact and communication with foreign nationals and foreign organizations

Prohibition of organized demonstrations and assemblies in public spaces

Curfews in designated areas

Restrictions on travel to and residence in certain areas of the country (including the possibility of forced relocation or evacuation, or restrictions on travel within the country)

Deployment of armed forces in the national territory

Suspension or limitation of the use of key transport and infrastructure
Amnesty notes that the proposed legislation would almost certainly fail the test of necessity and proportionality required to comply with Hungary’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. But something tells me that a government awarding itself near-totalitarian powers probably wouldn't be too worried by a slap on the wrist from a bunch of human rights judges in some distant court.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 February 2016 @ 3:20am

A Tiny Cell With An Omnipresent Guard, Visitors Just Twice A Day: TAFTA/TTIP's German Transparency Room

from the and-mind-you-behave,-children,-or-you-will-be-punished dept

One of the most problematic aspects of the TAFTA/TTIP negotiations is their lack of transparency. Although the European Commission, to its credit, has made available many of its initial offers and background papers, the key consolidated documents that show what's really happening in the negotiations -- and what deals are being cut -- are reserved for the inner circle. Even national politicians within the EU have been denied access to these, and that has really rankled, particularly in Germany. In an effort to defuse the anger there over this manifestly anti-democratic approach, a special reading room has finally been set up in the German Ministry of Economy. As this report from the non-profit investigative newsroom Correctiv.org makes clear, it's very special:

MPs have to schedule an appointment as the room opens only twice a day for two hours. Before entering the room, they have to leave their mobile phones and any electronic device in a secure locker.

They can read the documents only on a computer screen which is not connected to the Internet. They may take notes but are not allowed to copy any quotes from the consolidated texts.
And if any of the children -- uh, politicians -- are naughty, the US will be very, very cross, and may be forced to withdraw the privileges it has granted:
In the case of unauthorised disclosure of information, the US "may withdraw its consent to the placement of TTIP consolidated texts in any or all of the member states reading rooms”. This means if an MP leaks or quotes any sensitive information, the parliament may be denied access to the documents.
To keep an eye on things, a guard is present at all times in the room, which is very small -- just 35 square meters in all (about 370 square feet). The War on Want site has a picture:
It also provides a handy translation of the room's "features":
Starting in the top left corner and moving clockwise, the signs translate as follows: Lockers (for mobile phones etc) -- Reference library (reference works) -- Work stations (maximum 8 people) -- Digital documents (negotiating language: English) -- Supervisor (official of Ministry for Economic Affairs) -- Computer (not networked) -- Confidentiality agreement (must be signed before use).
These may be standard conditions for viewing negotiation documents in the US, but they are likely to be regarded as pretty insulting to German politicians -- not least because all the documents are in English, and it has taken two and half years to achieve even this miserable level of transparency.

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

The Incredible Corporate Sovereignty Saga Involving Ecuador And Chevron Continues

from the not-looking-good-for-the-poor-and-powerless dept

Techdirt has been trying hard to follow the twists and turns of one of the longest-running corporate sovereignty cases -- that involving Chevron and Ecuador -- for many years. Public Citizen's "Eyes on Trade" blog has a good, one-paragraph explanation of the key legal disputes:

In one of the Chevron v. Ecuador cases, a three-person tribunal last year ordered Ecuador's government to interfere in the operations of its independent court system on behalf of Chevron by suspending enforcement of a historic $18 billion judgment against the oil corporation for mass contamination of the Amazonian rain forest. The ruling against Chevron, rendered by Ecuador's courts, was the result of 18 years of litigation in both the U.S. and Ecuadorian legal systems. Ecuador had explained to the panel that compliance with any order to suspend enforcement of the ruling would violate the separation of powers enshrined in the country’s Constitution -- as in the United States, Ecuador's executive branch is constitutionally prohibited from interfering with the independent judiciary. Undeterred, the tribunal proceeded to order Ecuador "to take all measures at its disposal to suspend or cause to be suspended the enforcement or recognition within and without Ecuador of any judgment [against Chevron]."
However, that's only a bare summary of the amazing events in this case, which include a filmmaker being forced to hand over footage to Chevron, email companies supplying nine years of metadata to the oil company, and Chevron's star witness admitting he lied in his sworn testimony. Probably the best explanation of the complicated story is a long, well-written feature in The New Yorker. That appeared in 2013 and concluded by noting that Chevron was appealing once more to an international tribunal in an attempt to block Ecuador's lawsuit. The arbitration court in the Netherlands has now handed down its verdict, reported here by Telesur:
A panel from the District Court of the Hague rejected Ecuador's arguments, stating that the country was bound to the terms of the bilateral investment treaty.

The panel also affirmed Chevron's claim that they could not be held accountable for the contamination since the Ecuadorean government certified the remediation work carried out by the oil company.

President Correa has questioned the legitimacy of that decision by the government of then president Jamil Mahuad.

"All of this is the product of corruption: having signed in 1998 that Chevron had cleaned 'everything'," said Correa Sunday via his official Facebook account.
As that makes clear, the tribunal seems to have based its decision in part on the fact that a previous Ecuadorean administration had agreed with the oil company that the contaminated land in question had been cleaned up sufficiently. The country's current president claims that was because of corruption at the time. So the tangled mess of this case now involves issues of the validity of that previous agreement, and what impact it has on the responsibility of Chevron.

The latest ruling by the international tribunal offers little hope that the Ecuadorean government affected communities will be collecting much, if any, of the final $9.5 billion awarded by the local courts -- Chevron prudently removed all its assets from the country many years ago. As Escobar is quoted as pointing out in the Telesur report:

Should Ecuador lose the final ruling by the investment tribunal, the price would ultimately be paid by the Ecuadorean people, as the state, in the face of international reprisals and without access to credit, would lose the ability to invest in social programs.
As usual, it's the poor and powerless that end up suffering -- and the lawyers involved in the corporate sovereignty tribunals who come out smiling.

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Posted on Techdirt - 1 February 2016 @ 11:23pm

Beyond Open Access And Open Data: Open Science -- And No Patents

from the accelerating-science,-not-making-money dept

Techdirt has been writing about open access and open data in the academic world for some years now. But beyond those important ways of sharing lies a more integrated approach, generally known as open science. Gabriella Coleman has passed on some interesting news from Canada in this field. McGill University's Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI), under the leadership of its director, Guy Rouleau, wants to speed up the translation of research into treatments, and thinks that opening up completely is the way to do that, as Science reports:

any work done [at the MNI] will conform to the principles of the "open-science" movement -- all results and data will be made freely available at the time of publication, for example, and the institute will not pursue patents on any of its discoveries. Although some large-scale initiatives like the government-funded Human Genome Project have made all data completely open, MNI will be the first scientific institute to follow that path, Rouleau says.
Forgoing patent licensing revenues is unusual, but Rouleau makes the important point that early-stage science results are not really worth protecting:
"There is a fair amount of patenting by people at the institute, but the outcomes have not been very useful," he says, adding that the institute would rather provide data that others could use to develop patentable medicines. "It comes down to what is the reason for our existence? It's to accelerate science, not to make money."
This obsession with patenting that bedevils research at many academic institutions, and the poor returns it produces, is something that Techdirt has written about before. Eschewing patents, and sharing results, data, software and algorithms is bold enough, but arguably even bolder is the requirement that collaborators from other institutions must do the same:
The insistence that any organization or institute that collaborates with MNI will also have to follow open-science principles for that project could help to spread the approach, says Dan Gezelter, a chemist and open-science advocate at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. "It's a little bit viral. I've never seen that before," he says.
Well, maybe not in a science context, but of course such reciprocity lies at the heart of Richard Stallman's GNU General Public License. The GNU GPL is also something that is often called "viral", but a better name might be evangelical. Let's hope that MNI's project is as successful in spreading the word about open science as the GPL has been in propagating free software.

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Posted on Techdirt - 28 January 2016 @ 3:29am

Yet More TPP Studies Predict Slim Economic Gains, Highlight Dubious Underlying Assumptions

from the another-reason-we-need-negotiating-texts-published-early dept

It's striking that from a situation where there were very few studies of the likely effects of the TPP agreement, we've moved to one where they are appearing almost every week. Recently Techdirt wrote about a World Bank study, and one from Tufts University; now we have one from the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which calls itself "a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy." Here's its summary of the results:

The new estimates suggest that the TPP will increase annual real incomes in the United States by $131 billion, or 0.5 percent of GDP, and annual exports by $357 billion, or 9.1 percent of exports, over baseline projections by 2030, when the agreement is nearly fully implemented. Annual income gains by 2030 will be $492 billion for the world. While the United States will be the largest beneficiary of the TPP in absolute terms, the agreement will generate substantial gains for Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam as well, and solid benefits for other members. The agreement will raise US wages but is not projected to change US employment levels; it will slightly increase "job churn" (movements of jobs between firms) and impose adjustment costs on some workers.
That figure of 0.5% cumulative GDP gain by 2030 is in line with the other studies discussed previously here on Techdirt. But there are various issues with both that figure and the study itself, which are highlighted by Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in a post on Medium. One of the most serious is something we've noted before: despite attempts to present them as otherwise, the predicted gains are extremely small. Baker explains this well:
The study's projection of a cumulative gain to GDP of 0.5 percent by 2030 implies an increase in the annual growth rate of 0.036 percentage points. This means that if the economy was projected to grow by 2.2 percent a year in a baseline scenario, it will instead grow at a 2.236 percent rate with the TPP, assuming the Peterson Institute projections prove correct.

The projections imply that, as a result of the TPP, the country will be as rich on January 1, 2030 as it would otherwise be on April 1, 2030.
Then there's the matter of the econometric modelling technique adopted. The Computable General Equilibrium (CGE) analysis employed by the Peterson Institute makes some very big assumptions:
The model assumes that the TPP will affect neither total employment nor the national savings (or equivalently trade balances) of countries. This "macroeconomic closure" assumption allows modern trade models to focus on the goals of trade policy -- namely sustained productivity and wage increases through changes in trade patterns and industry output levels. With minor variations, the assumption is used in most applied models of trade agreements.
That means -- by definition -- these CGE models can tell us nothing about the effects of TPP on employment, and assume that no jobs are lost or gained overall. Baker points out another major consequence of this approach:
by design the model assumes that trade balance for the United States is not changed as a result of the TPP. This means that whatever changes we see in exports, according to the model, will be matched by an equal change in imports.
As a result, the predicted boost of $357 billion to US exports thanks to TPP is matched by a balancing boost of $357 billion to imports as well. Baker also offers an explanation of why the CGE model makes its rather surprising view on employment:
In prior decades most economists were comfortable with this sort of full employment assumption since it was widely believed that economies quickly bounced back from recessions or periods of less than full employment. In this view, if a trade agreement led to a larger trade deficit it would soon be offset by lower interest rates, which would provide a boost to investment and consumption.
However:
in the wake of the 2008 crash, fewer economists now believe that the economy has a natural tendency back to full employment. Many of the world's most prominent economists (e.g. Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, Olivier Blanchard) now accept the idea of "secular stagnation." This means that economies really can suffer from long periods of inadequate demand.
That risk is one key reason why the lack of currency controls in TPP is a big problem:
if one or more of the countries in the TPP began running larger trade surpluses with the United States, and then bought up large amounts of dollars to prevent an adjustment of their currency, there is nothing the United States could do within the terms of the agreement.
Another analysis of TPP comes from a very different quarter: the New Zealand government, as part of the formal process of ratifying the treaty. Even though the document runs to 279 pages (pdf), relatively few of them are devoted to how the modelling results were obtained, and how plausible they might be. The independent team behind a new "expert paper", part of a series exploring many aspects of TPP from a New Zealand viewpoint, was not impressed by what it found there (pdf):
[The writers in the expert group] found that the standard of documentation of the modelling is dreadfully inadequate -- just 20 pages of text in the published report. The authors [of the New Zealand government report] should have chosen, or been asked to present, a much weightier and more detailed account of every facet of the data, assumptions, modelling and results.
Not only is the methodology poorly explained, but the results are underwhelming too. The official predictions of economic gains for New Zealand are summarized as follows by the team of economists:
The government has used modelling to derive estimates of the economic benefit for New Zealand and estimated an increase in real GDP of 0.9% by 2030 or $2.7 billion annually. The increase is modest. A continuation of currently forecast levels of growth would mean that NZ GDP would be 47% higher by 2030 without TPPA, versus 47.9% with TPPA.
The expert group are even more scathing about the way in which the supposed benefits of removing "non-tariff barriers" (NTBs) have been included:
The government's analysis estimated that reducing NTBs would account for $1.7 billion of the $2.7 billion estimate for gains from the TPPA. The modelling is not specific about the types of NTBs that exist amongst the TPPA countries, aside from the definition that they are 'measures that are discriminatory and are for the purposes of restricting trade'. There is no adequate explanation about which countries maintain these barriers, how they are distinguished from legitimate NonTariff Measures (that are not for the purposes of restricting trade), what proportion of NTBs would be removed, what provisions in the TPPA would remove them or what the risks would be to societies as a result of their removal.
That lack of specificity is a serious problem, because most of the gains from TPP are supposed to come from removing NTBs. Without the details, there's no way of knowing how plausible the assumptions are. In any case, as the economists go on to note rather acidly:
This approach implies that societies maintaining higher levels of protection for social, environmental and health reasons, and a more developed system of business regulation, will generate benefits by removing their regulations. This may be a view held by some neoliberal economists but it is not the view of many other economists, and not supported by evidence.
The appearance of these new studies, together with those that were published before, underlines the fact that, whatever the source, it seems impossible to find any compelling economic justification for signing up to the agreement, since the gains are so pitiful -- and that's without including possible costs, which are never discussed. That this is only now becoming incontrovertible, in the wake of the publication of the TPP text last year, also shows why all the key documents should have been released as they were written in order to allow this kind of in-depth analysis to be conducted and debated as the talks proceeded. Not, as is happening currently, just a few days before the official signing ceremony on February 4 when it's a bit late to do much about it.

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 January 2016 @ 6:32am

Kuwait Creating Mandatory DNA Database Of All Citizens, Residents -- And Visitors

from the makes-you-want-to-spit dept

A growing number of articles on Techdirt attests to the fact that the use of DNA is becoming commonplace in many fields, thanks to the continuing drop in the costs of gathering and analyzing genetic material. As those costs fall, of course, so the temptation to roll out the use of DNA more widely increases. It looks like Kuwait has the dubious honor of being the first nation to require everyone's DNA -- including that of visitors to the country. The Kuwait Times has a frighteningly matter-of-fact article about the plan, which is currently being put into operation. Here's how the DNA will be gathered:

Collecting samples from citizens will be done by various mobile centers that will be moved according to a special plan amongst government establishments and bodies to collect samples from citizens in the offices they work in. In addition, fixed centers will be established at the interior ministry and citizen services centers to allow citizens give samples while doing various transactions.
Those who are not citizens of Kuwait will be sampled when they apply for residence permits:
Collection will done on issuing or renewing residency visas through medical examinations done by the health ministry for new residency visas and through the criminal evidence department on renewing them.
As for common-or-garden visitors to the country:
Collection will be done at a special center at Kuwait International Airport, where in collaboration with the Civil Aviation Department, airlines and embassies, visitors will be advised on their rights and duties towards the DNA law.
"Rights and duties" basically means: "no DNA, no way Kuwait", since the article says elsewhere:
the test will be mandatory for visitors
The DNA will not be used for medical purposes, such as checking for genetic markers of disease, which will avoid issues of whether people should be told about their predisposition to possibly serious illnesses. Nor will the DNA database be used for "lineage or genealogical reasons." That's an important point: a complete nation's DNA would throw up many unexpected paternity and maternity results, which could have massive negative effects on the families concerned. It's precisely those kinds of practical and ethical issues that advocates of wider DNA sampling and testing need to address, but rarely do.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 January 2016 @ 7:39pm

Direct Democracy: Successful Petition Gives Swiss Citizens Chance To Vote Against New Surveillance Law

from the time-to-watch-Switzerland dept

A common lament these days is that people have no real political power. Yes, elections take place, but after that, politicians just seem to do what they want, with little concern for what the public really thinks about the laws that they push through, as many stories here on Techdirt indicate. In particular, there is generally no mechanism to cancel a new law except by waiting for the next elections, and voting for a party that might repeal it. Often that's not an option, which means the public has no way to stop harmful legislation from going into effect.

Most assume that's just the way things are, but the example of Switzerland shows that's not the case. Citizens there have a number of options if they want to influence politicians directly. For example, when new laws are passed, they can collect signatures in support of a formal referendum on the measure:

if 50,000 signatures are collected from Swiss voters or eight cantons [Swiss states] demand a referendum within 100 days, then a popular vote is held.
That's precisely what has been done in reaction to a new surveillance law that was passed last September, as this post from the Swiss email company, ProtonMail, explains:
the Swiss parliament passed a new surveillance law known as the Nachrichtendienstgesetzt (NDG) or la Loi sur le renseignement (Lrens). The law would have severely curtained privacy rights in Switzerland. Due to our use of end-to-end encryption, the ProtonMail secure email service would not be negatively impacted by the new law. However, we strongly believe in protecting privacy rights, so together with other opposition groups, we decided to mount a challenge against the new law. Due to Switzerland's unique system of direct democracy, any law can be challenged by collecting 50,000 signatures within a period of 3 months after the passage of the law.

Today, we are happy to announce that this effort has succeeded and this afternoon at 13:30h, the referendum will be officially presented to the Swiss government in Bern. This means at the next election, the Swiss surveillance law will be put to a public vote by the entire country, and for once, the people and not politicians will decide the future of privacy in Switzerland.
That's a pretty amazing result, not least because signatures had to be physical ones on pieces of paper, which then had to be verified before they could be counted towards the threshold figure of 50,000. In the end, over 70,000 signatures were sent in, 64,500 were processed, and 55,000 were certified. The success of this exercise in direct democracy contrasts painfully with how things are proceeding elsewhere around the world. In too many countries, new surveillance laws are being rushed through with little scrutiny from politicians, and no input from the public.

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Posted on Techdirt - 20 January 2016 @ 3:23am

What's The Difference Between 'Mass Surveillance' And 'Bulk Collection'? Does It Matter?

from the words,-words,-words dept

As numerous Techdirt stories make clear, the particular words used to describe something can make a big difference in how it is perceived. For example, intelligence agencies like to avoid the use of the bad-sounding "mass surveillance," with its Orwellian overtones, and prefer to talk about "bulk collection," which can be presented as some kind of cool big data project. No one is more vociferous in insisting that they are not engaged in mass surveillance, but merely bulk collection, than the UK's Home Secretary, Theresa May. She was pushing that line again last week, during a grilling by a UK Parliamentary committee about her proposed Snooper's Charter. As BBC News reported:

She said the security minister, John Hayes, had written to the committee of MPs and peers scrutinising the draft bill to give the reasons why the government did not want to reveal the kinds of data investigators were accessing.

She insisted the practice -- and the sweeping up by the security services of large quantities of internet traffic passing through the UK -- did not amount to "mass surveillance" as civil liberties campaigners claim.

"The UK does not undertake mass surveillance," she told the committee.
Given what we know that GCHQ is already doing, and adding in what the UK government says it wants to do, that seems an absurd thing to say. But Paul Bernal, Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the UK's University of East Anglia, thinks that there is more to this than meets the eye:
Precisely what constitutes surveillance is far from agreed. In the context of the internet (and other digital data surveillance) there are, very broadly speaking, three stages: the gathering or collecting of data, the automated analysis of the data (including algorithmic filtering), and then the 'human' examination of the results of that analysis of filtering. This is where the difference lies: privacy advocates and others might argue that the 'surveillance' happens at the first stage -- when the data is gathered or collected -- while Theresa May, [former GCHQ director] David Omand and those who work for them would be more likely to argue that it happens at the third stage -- when human beings are involved.
If surveillance occurs through the act of gathering personal data on a large scale, then clearly what the UK government does (and wants to do more of) is mass surveillance. But if surveillance only takes place once a human operator looks at some of the gathered data, then Theresa May can plausibly argue that what the UK government is engaged in is not mass surveillance, because relatively little personal data is scrutinized in this way. So the question then becomes: at what point is it most appropriate to say that surveillance has occurred? Bernal offers a helpful analogy. What the UK government wants to do with the Snooper's Charter would be like:
installing a camera in every room of every house in the UK, turning that camera on, having the footage recorded and stored for a year -- but having police officers only look at limited amounts of the footage and only when they feel they really need to.

Does the surveillance happen when the cameras are installed? When they’re turned on? When the footage is stored? When it’s filtered? Or when the police officers actually look at it.
Most people would probably find the automated video recording of everything they did in the privacy of their own home intrusive, and clearly a form of surveillance, even if it was unlikely the footage would ever be seen by a human being. And in Europe, the question has already been settled by the courts:
Privacy invasion occurs when the camera is installed and the capability of looking at the footage is enabled. That’s been consistently shown by recent rulings at both the Court of Justice of the European Union and of the European Court of Human Rights. Whether it is called ‘surveillance’ or something else, it invades privacy -- which is a fundamental right. That doesn’t mean that it is automatically wrong -- but that the balancing act between the rights of privacy (and freedom of expression, of assembly and association etc that are protected by that privacy) and the need for 'security' needs to be considered at the gathering stage, and not just at the stage when people look at the data.
That's important, because it is precisely this issue that the courts will have to consider when the inevitable legal challenges are brought against the UK's Snooper's Charter once some version of it becomes law. In the end, whether the Home Secretary thinks what she is doing is mass surveillance or merely bulk collection is irrelevant -- the UK and EU courts will be the ones that decide whether it's allowed.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 January 2016 @ 11:23pm

'More Realistic' Modelling Of TPP's Effects Predicts 450,000 US Jobs Lost, Contraction Of Economy

from the accelerating-the-global-race-to-the-bottom dept

Last week we wrote about a World Bank report that predicted that TPP would produce negligible boosts to the economies of the US, Australia and Canada. Of course, that's just one study, and it could be argued that it might be unrepresentative, or unduly pessimistic. That makes the publication of yet more econometric modelling of what could happen particularly welcome. It comes from Jerome Capaldo and Alex Izurieta at Tufts University, and starts off by making an important point that is too often overlooked when considering other TPP predictions:

The standard model assumes full employment and invariant income distribution, ruling out the main risks of trade and financial liberalization. Subject to these assumptions, it finds positive effects on growth. An important question, therefore, is how this conclusion changes if those assumptions are dropped.
Assuming that TPP won't change employment levels in any of the participating nations seems a stretch, not least because previous trade liberalization has caused sizable job losses, as the new study notes. At the very least, it means that those using these models to argue in favor of TPP shouldn't be making any claims about its effects on employment, since these don't exist by definition. Capaldo and Izurieta are able to look at how jobs are affected because they use a different model, which they claim is superior to the one found in most other studies:
In this paper, we review existing projections of the TPP and propose alternative ones based on more realistic assumptions about economic adjustment and income distribution. We start from the trade projections put forward in the main existing study and explore their macroeconomic consequences using the United Nations Global Policy Model.
Most of the paper is spent taking a rather critical look at previous results, and will probably be mostly of interest to economists, especially academic ones. But the final results of the new calculation are certainly worth noting:
Given the small changes in net exports, the resulting changes in GDP growth are mostly projected to be negligible. We present two sets of growth figures: ten-year totals, which measure the overall effect of the TPP on growth rates compared to the baseline, and annual averages, which measure the average changes in growth rates due to the TPP.
That underlines another point often missed: that the GDP growth figures quoted by politicians and TPP supporters reflect the overall effect after ten years. Here's what Capaldo and Izurieta found:
Total ten-year changes in growth rates are projected to be below one percent, by 2025, in all regions but two. In East Asia and Latin America, GDP growth is projected to increase by 2.18 percent and 2.84 percent respectively under the TPP. By comparison, during 2005-2015, GDP in the two regions is estimated to have grown by 50 percent and 47 percent respectively.

The US and Japan are projected to suffer net losses of GDP of 0.54 percent and 0.12 percent respectively compared to the baseline
Although those growth figures are worse than previous predictions, they confirm that TPP's impact on GDPs will be small. What's new in this paper is an estimation of the agreement's effect on jobs:
While projected employment losses are small compared to the labor force, they clearly signal an adverse effect of liberalization not taken into account in full-employment models. In TPP countries, the largest effect will occur in the US, with approximately 450,000 jobs lost by 2025. Japan and Canada follow, with approximately 75,000 and 58,000 jobs lost respectively. The smallest loss -- approximately 5,000 jobs -- is projected to occur in New Zealand, where the increase in net exports is projected to be the largest. Overall, projected job losses in TPP countries amount to 771,000 jobs.
Also novel is the report's comments about the global effects of TPP:
when analyzed with a model that recognizes the risks of trade liberalization, the TPP appears to only marginally change competitiveness among participating countries. Most gains are therefore obtained at the expense of non-TPP countries.

Globally, the TPP favors competition on labor costs and remuneration of capital. Depending on the policy choices in non-TPP countries, this may accelerate the global race to the bottom, increasing downward pressure on labor incomes in a quest for ever more elusive trade gains.
Although this is just one (more) study, it does seem to confirm the more gloomy predictions for TPP. It inevitably poses a key question with yet more force: why exactly are politicians in TPP nations pushing so hard to ratify a controversial agreement that seems have few quantifiable benefits, and very considerable costs?

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 January 2016 @ 3:26am

NZ Newspaper: An 'Honor' To Welcome Small Pacific Rim Countries As They Sign Away Much Of Their Sovereignty

from the most-comprehensive-and-far-sighted-economic-agreement-of-all-time dept

As we've written recently, a report from the World Bank suggests that the economic benefits from TPP will be slight for the US, Australia and Canada. New Zealand is predicted to do better, but not much: the econometric modelling predicts a 3.1% boost to its GDP by 2030 -- roughly 0.3% extra GDP per year. That's a pretty poor payback given the price participant countries will have to pay in terms of copyright, biologics and corporate sovereignty. Such details have not prevented one of the main newspapers in the country, the New Zealand Herald, from banging the drum for TPP's signing ceremony, which is probably going to take place quite soon:

New Zealand is about to have the honour of hosting the formal signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement by trade ministers from 12 nations of the Pacific rim. And it is an honour. This is the most comprehensive and far-sighted economic agreement the world has seen in our lifetime, possibly of all time.
Rather bizarrely, the editorial goes on to list TPP's many problems:
The TPP's intellectual property discussions raised the risk that US patent law and copyright protection of pharmaceuticals and other products of investment in science and research could be strengthened at considerable cost to public purchasing agencies, such as Pharmac, and innovation in digital technology in other countries. Medical professionals and IT developers have been among those fearful of the TPP during the course of its negotiation. So were environmentalists and public health promoters. They feared the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement procedures could stop governments taking action in the interests of public health or the environment that would reduce the value of commercial investments.
At this point, you might expect a refutation from the editorial, and a compelling explanation why all those concerns proved misguided. Instead, it notes that many of these fears were stoked by the insane secrecy surrounding the negotiations, and suggests that since the text was released two months ago, everything's OK now. The editorial has to admit that yes, there are 6000 pages that need to be read, but points out that the final text has provided great summer holiday reading for those in the Southern Hemisphere. It then makes the following claim:
The precise terms seem to have survived scrutiny so far.
In fact, the release of the TPP text has amply confirmed the main worries regarding just about every aspect of the deal. For anyone wanting a quick catch-up on the major problems there, Michael Geist is running a helpful series with the self-explanatory title "The Trouble with the TPP":
[I] wanted to expand on the trouble with the TPP in more detail. With that goal in mind, I plan to post each weekday until February 4th on problems associated with the TPP. The series will include posts on copyright, privacy, Internet governance, and many other issues.
Maybe the editors at the New Zealand Herald should read the series before the TPP signing ceremony, so that at least they understand why the following is not going to happen:
It is too much to hope any fears now assuaged [sic] will reduce the scale of protest at the signing. But it should not be too much to ask that those philosophically opposed to free trade respect the views of those who disagree with them, and let this country host the occasion with dignity and pride.
Dignity, maybe. But pride? That's hardly appropriate given what is really happening here.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 January 2016 @ 3:28am

World Bank Report: TPP Will Bring Negligible Economic Benefit To US, Canada And Australia

from the well,-that's-awkward dept

Supporters of TPP generally insist it's absolutely worth doing, despite any infelicities it might contain, because of the huge overall economic benefit it will bring to participants. But when challenged, they are unable to cite any credible evidence for that claim. That's because there isn't any: despite the impact that TPP's measures will have on how the US and other countries do business, there are astonishingly few studies on whether it will indeed have a positive impact overall. Just over a year ago, we wrote about one of the rare attempts to model TPP, commissioned by the US Department of Agriculture, which came up with the following result for countries like the US and Australia:

TPP is projected to have no measurable impacts on real GDP
However, that particular study only looked at the effect of removing traditional tariffs; as it pointed out, TPP includes other elements that might also boost GDP. Fortunately, we now have a new report from the World Bank, no less, which took into account all aspects of the proposed deal. Here's the summary of what it found (pdf):
The model simulations suggest that, by 2030, the TPP will raise member country GDP by 0.4-10 percent, and by 1.1 percent, on a GDP-weighted average basis.
That's a little vague: 10% GDP increase is very different from only 0.4%, so it really matters who gets what. The detailed figures are as follows:
Vietnam -- 10%
Malaysia -- 8%
Brunei -- 5%
New Zealand -- 3.1%
Singapore -- 3%
Japan -- 2.7%
Peru -- 2.1%
Mexico -- 1.4%
Canada -- 1.2%
Chile -- 1%
Australia -- 0.7%
US -- 0.4%
But those figures too are misleading, because they refer to the cumulative GDP gain from TPP by 2030. It's not clear when the World Bank econometric model assumes TPP will come into effect, but by 2030 it's clearly been running for at least ten years, and maybe even 12. That means all of the figures above need to be divided by at least a factor of 10 in order to arrive at the annual boost to growth, which provides a better measure of TPP's impact than the overall figure.

So according to the World Bank's figures, the US will gain an extra 0.04% GDP per year on average, as a result of TPP; Australia an extra 0.07% annually, and Canada a boost of 0.12% per year. In other words, they differ from the USDA's earlier projection of "no measurable impacts on real GDP" by amounts that are so small they will be swamped by the general imprecision of the model -- trying to predict what will happen to a big chunk of the global economy out in 2030 is hard, and that's putting it mildly.

The fact that two econometric models of TPP's effects, both from highly-respected institutions, predict that TPP will produce vanishingly-small economic benefits for key countries, including the US, could explain why there are so few such studies. A cynic might suggest that others were started but generated such inconveniently-awful outcomes that they were quietly dropped and never published.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 January 2016 @ 3:25am

Patents On Presentation Of Information Excluded In EU, But Germany Has Just Granted A Patent On A Graphical User Interface

from the not-promoting-innovation-as-such dept

Software patents are contentious, and nowhere more so than in Europe. Patenting there is governed by the European Patent Convention (EPC). Article 52 of the EPC reads as follows:

(1) European patents shall be granted for any inventions, in all fields of technology, provided that they are new, involve an inventive step and are susceptible of industrial application.

(2) The following in particular shall not be regarded as inventions within the meaning of paragraph 1:

(a) discoveries, scientific theories and mathematical methods;

(b) aesthetic creations;

(c) schemes, rules and methods for performing mental acts, playing games or doing business, and programs for computers;

(d) presentations of information.
Although the exclusion of software seems crystal clear there, the same Article adds the following regrettable rider:
(3) The provisions of paragraph 2 shall exclude patentability of the subject-matter or activities referred to in that provision only to the extent to which a European patent application or European patent relates to such subject-matter or activities as such.
What exactly those two words "as such" mean in this context has been argued over for years. In practical terms, it has led to thousands of software patents being issued thanks to clever framing by lawyers that takes advantage of the "as such" loophole. According to this post on a blog that is called unashamedly "European Software Patents," it seems that German judges have now gone even further, and granted a patent for a graphical user interface. That's surprising, because the same EPC Article 52 explicitly excludes "presentations of information" from patentability. So how did the lawyers get around that? By using the "as such" loophole again. As the blog post explains:
the Federal Court of Justice (FCJ) held that the [EPC's] exclusion is overcome when the presentation of information serves the solution of a technical problem with technical means
Just in case that legalese isn't crystal-clear, here are details of the case considered by the German court. The patent dealt with the display of visual information captured by a swallowable capsule equipped with a camera. Apparently, these cameras produce information too rapidly to be useful for ready examination by the human eye. That problem was solved by showing only a subset of transmitted frames in one window, and different subsets in other windows. The idea is that an expert can scan several of these windows at once, since the images in each are changing relatively slowly.

Germany's Federal Patent Court held this to be a pretty obvious idea (which it is), but the country's Federal Court of Justice reversed that finding, and decided that the idea of breaking up a stream of images into subsets was terribly clever, and definitely eligible for patent protection. It also made a more general statement about the patentability of graphical user interfaces:

Instructions relating to the (visual) presentation of information which do not primarily focus on the conveyance of particular content or its conveyance in a particular layout but on the presentation of image content in a manner that takes into account the physical characteristics of human perception and reception of information and are directed towards making possible, improving or making practical the human perception of the displayed information serve the solution of a technical problem with technical means.
It's one of those how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin distinctions beloved by patent lawyers, but which actually makes no sense. After all, it could be argued that any intelligible, well-designed presentation of information "takes into account the physical characteristics of human perception and reception of information," and therefore is eligible for a patent. The latest decision by the German courts will doubtless lead to the granting of further, similarly-trivial patents, and to companies increasingly nervous about the use of even the simplest graphical user interface in their products for Germany. So how is that encouraging innovation or benefiting the public?

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 January 2016 @ 8:19am

Former NSA Whistleblower Bill Binney Warns UK Lawmakers Mass Surveillance Will 'Cost Lives In Britain'

from the analysis-paralysis dept

Shortly after the first Snowden documents were leaked, Techdirt wrote about former NSA whistleblower Bill Binney providing some context and history to the newly-revealed information. The central point he made was that trying to collect "haystacks" of data -- mass surveillance -- doesn't work, because intelligence agencies have insufficient resources to search through vast digital stores for the "needles" hidden there. It's a theme Techdirt has returned to a number of times, as has Binney. This week, he was trying to convince a committee of MPs and peers who are scrutinizing the UK's Snooper's Charter Bill that too much data leads to "analysis paralysis," and that targeted surveillance was the way to go. The Guardian reported:

William Binney, a former technical director of the US National Security Agency (NSA), told parliamentarians that the plans for bulk collection of communications data tracking everyone’s internet and phone use are "99% useless" because they would swamp intelligence analysts with too much data.
He said:
This approach costs lives, and has cost lives in Britain because it inundates analysts with too much data. It is 99% useless. Who wants to know everyone who has ever [been] at Google or the BBC? We have known for decades that that swamps analysts.
He claimed that the attacks carried out on September 11 could have been thwarted if the NSA had adopted the more targeted approach he and his colleagues were advocating:
Sixteen months before the attacks on America, our organisation (Sigint Automation Research Center -- Sarc) was running a new method of finding terrorist networks that worked on focusing on 'smart collection'. Their plan was rejected in favour of a much more expensive plan to collect all communications from everyone.

The US large-scale surveillance plan failed. It had to be abandoned in 2005. Checks afterwards showed that communications from the terrorists had been collected, but not looked at in time.
Binney pointed out that in addition to improving the operational efficiency of intelligence agencies, a targeted approach brought with it other important advantages:
It reduces the privacy burden affecting the large number of innocent and suspicion-free persons whose communications are accessible to our systems.
And as a bonus:
Legally protected groups such as MPs, lawyers and journalists could have their communications screened out and excluded from bulk collection and analysis unless a designated and targeted authorisation is in place.
Alongside the facts about the failure of mass surveillance laid before them by Binney and other expert witnesses giving evidence to the committee, let's hope the MPs and peers also took on board that point about the personal advantages of targeted surveillance for them as a group.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 January 2016 @ 11:27pm

Fingerprints For Food: Venezuela Shows How Not To Use Biometrics

from the I've-got-a-little-list dept

Biometric scanners are hardly a novelty these days, but how the data they generate can be used is still controversial. Here's a good example from Venezuela of how function creep there has turned fingerprint readers into instruments of pervasive surveillance:

In Caracas or Maracaibo' supermarkets and drugstores, buying a kilogram of grain or a pack of cookies has become a complex procedure: it's required for you to deliver an ID, full name, phone number, address, date of birth and to slide both thumbs in a device: the emblematic "fingerprint scanner"; a device which usage by stores was originally voluntary, but which evolution, months afterwards, is one of omnipresent machinery, kind of a necessary toll for the acquisition of a simple pack of gum in any chain store.
As a post on the Digital Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean blog explains, the Food Safety Biometric System was supposed to be a boon for citizens, ending Venezuela's food and medicine shortage. Not only has it failed to do that, it has helped create one of the world's most complete and intrusive population profile databases:
Along with biometric and personal data requested to the customers at the moment of the purchase, stores are obliged to preserve a great deal of information regarding the transaction, demanded by the government's tax collector. The extend [sic] of the databases that the Venezuelan government possesses regarding their citizens would be heaven for any big data analyst. With enough computer skills, it wouldn't be difficult to establish a detailed profile of every Venezuelan citizen, starting from data such as address, the places where he shops, how much money he expends and the products he acquires. Nevertheless, no one outside of the government possesses the capability to know if ... systems are intertwined, or where this huge quantity of information is stored, much less what's the policy for its retention and storage.
That would be worrying anywhere; in Venezuela, it's doubly so, because of the country's experience with something called the Tascón List:
a list of millions of signatures of Venezuelans who petitioned in 2003 and 2004 for the recall of the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, a petition which ultimately led to the Venezuelan recall referendum, 2004, in which the recall was defeated. The list, published online by National Assembly member Luis Tascón, is used by the Venezuelan government to discriminate against those who have signed against Chávez. The government also claimed some private firms were using the list to discriminate in favour of petitioners.
According to the Digital Rights post, because of the Tascón list, some Venezuelans found themselves shut out from things like mortgage loans, scholarships and job opportunities. The fingerprint scanners of the Food Safety Biometric System are already being used to deny people access to even more essential items -- food and medicine:
those marked by the system shopping in quantities superior to those of their established quotas, go to a blacklist, and are blocked completely from the system. This makes them use the (illegal) black market in order to purchase food, medicines and basic products.
Venezuela is clearly the country to watch if you want to see how not to use biometrics.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 January 2016 @ 6:35am

UK Government Spends Three Years And Large Sums Of Money To Avoid Revealing The Number '13'

from the pollutant-of-publicity dept

As we pointed out last month, the UK government is hoping to hamstring the country's Freedom of Information laws to make it much harder to dig out facts and thus hold politicians to account. In the meantime, it is going to absurd lengths in order to avoid responding to even the most harmless of requests, as this story from the BBC's Social Affairs Correspondent, Michael Buchanan, makes plain. Here's the background:

Back in 2010, the [UK's] coalition government were trumpeting a new red tape-busting cabinet panel, the Reducing Regulation Committee. I suspected that it was all froth and no action, so in 2012 I asked how often they had met since the committee's creation.
Nothing very threatening there, you might think, but the UK government refused on the basis that disclosing this magic number would "impinge on cabinet collective decision-making". So Buchanan appealed -- first, to the Cabinet Office, the department he had made the request to, where he was turned down, and then to the UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which oversees this whole area of government transparency. Here's what happened:
Merry hell ensued. The ICO found in my favour, the Cabinet Office appealed, lost, appealed again, won, the ICO appealed for me, won, etc. Back and forth it went for three years. At one point, the government called in the fearsome-sounding "Treasury Devil", the so-called Star of the Bar, James Eadie QC [Queen's Counsel], to argue their case.
The "Treasury Devil" may or may not be fearsome-sounding, but he is certainly fearsomely expensive -- think top-class corporate lawyer expensive. In other words, the UK government was willing to spend many, many thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money in order to keep the number of meetings of an obscure committee secret. An earlier post by Buchanan reveals one of Eadie's devilish attempts to fend off the FOI request. The government's lawyer argued that:
publicly revealing how often a cabinet committee meets would harm the workings of government by introducing the "pollutant of publicity".
But in the end, the UK's Information Rights Tribunal was undaunted by the Treasury Devil and his artful alliterations, and it rejected the government's final appeal, going so far as to issue:
a strongly worded judgment which described the Cabinet Office's approach as "irresponsible", its key witness as "evasive and disingenuous", and her evidence as "of no value whatsoever".
And so, a mere three years and five months after he submitted his FOI request, Buchanan could finally write:
I'm now in a position to exclusively reveal to you, dear reader, that between 2010 and 2012, the Reducing Regulation Committee met on a total of 13 occasions.
And he adds:
Ministers are currently pondering whether to put restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act. In the meantime, how much it cost in legal fees to refuse my request for three years will be the subject of my next FOI request.
Well played, sir.

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