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Posted on Techdirt - 16 August 2016 @ 11:37pm

Who Should Get The Benefits When You Donate Your DNA For Research?

from the tales-from-the-Blue-Zone dept

A few weeks back, we wrote about researchers calling for up to five years' exclusivity for clinical trial data derived from volunteers. That kind of information, typically derived from trials of a new drug, tends to be highly specific. But there's another kind which can potentially contain millions of valuable data points. In fact, the genetic information contained within every strand of DNA can not only provide important insights into countless diseases and medical conditions, but is the closest thing that exists to a digital summary of the person it comes from.

Because of that unique ability to store key data about people, collections of DNA have become a hugely important scientific resource. And because DNA is so intimately bound up with a single, identifiable individual, they naturally feel a very strong connection to that digital string and how it is used. Both of those traits are evident in this fascinating story from the Guardian about Sardinia's "Blue Zone" with its unexpectedly long-lived inhabitants:

The story starts nearly 20 years ago when Gianni Pes, a Sardinian scientist at Sassari University, visited nearly all of Sardinia’s 377 municipalities to try to prove that certain areas had an unusually large number of people who lived extremely long lives. When they found a town that met their criteria, they marked it on their map with a blue marker. When they were done, the Sardinian Blue Zone was established.
Naturally, scientists are keen to understand whether there is some genetic characteristic shared by these exceptional individuals:
In all, four databases of DNA samples have been collected over the years, with some researchers refusing to collaborate with others.
That hints at the deepening bitterness that has engulfed this area of research, as two groups claim the right to investigate one of the region's DNA databases:
One of them was Shardna, created by a scientist called Mario Pirastu. Another entity, a partly publicly funded group called Parco Genetico, was established at the same time to facilitate the data collection and act as an intermediary between Shardna and the Blue Zone towns. Now the two groups both claim rights to the database.
It's a complicated tale, with many murky corners, and it's worth reading the whole Guardian feature to follow its twists and turns as various companies go bankrupt, and the precious database containing blood samples from 13,000 Blue Zone inhabitants keeps changing hands. But as the Guardian rightly points out, the real issue is not which outfit should get to own the database, but the following:
The conflict has raised the kind of thorny ethical questions that are likely to become more pervasive as scientists tap into the promise of massive DNA databases to learn more about disease. Should a private company be able to profit from the study of a population’s DNA, when the DNA was voluntarily donated?
Needless to say, lawyers are now involved in resolving the more mundane issues of ownership of the Blue Zone blood samples. But even if a court hands down its judgment for this particular case, the larger ethical issues will remain, and become ever-more pressing as the importance and value of DNA databases continues to rise.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 August 2016 @ 3:28am

University Tracks Students' Movements Using WiFi, But Says It's OK Because It's Not Tracking Students

from the slippery-slope dept

One of the many revelations from the Snowden files was that Canada's spy agency has been tracking people as they connect to WiFi in different public locations. And if Canada is doing it, you can be pretty sure the NSA and GCHQ are doing the same, since neither is known for being backward in using whatever means it can to snoop on huge numbers of people. Of course, you'd expect spy agencies to be up to these kinds of tricks, and you might also be unsurprised to learn that shops are also tracking you using your WiFi connection. But we might have hoped that universities would have been a little more sensitive to privacy issues than the following news on the Australian ABC News site suggests is the case:

The University of Melbourne has moved to allay privacy concerns amid revelations it is tracking students through their wi-fi usage.

The university said the practice, which looked at where people were moving around campus, helped institutions improve retention rates and the experience of students.
According to the article, the university is using the data for the following reason:
The university is trying to work out where people move across the campus to help with planning the new Metro Rail project, which will run through the middle of the campus.
That's certainly a reasonable goal, but the university seems blissfully unaware of the privacy dangers of its data gathering. In particular, the fact that it is interested in which campus room students are in at any given time means that it could probably work out the identities of those using a particular WiFi system by correlating the rooms visited with the different courses taken by each student. The university would then have a record of where all its students went during the day, who they met, and for how long. Apparently meaningless location information is actually incredibly revealing.

There's no suggestion that the university is doing anything like this, or even thinking about doing it. But once advances in technology mean that something is theoretically possible, the pressure to put it into practice can become irresistible, as other students have discovered.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 August 2016 @ 12:09am

Archivists Grapple With Problems Of Preserving Recent Culture Held On Tape Cassettes And Floppy Drives

from the digital-archaeology dept

Most Techdirt readers probably surround themselves with the latest technology. But there's a slightly unusual class of professionals who are only now beginning to grapple with things like CP/M, 8-inch floppy disk drives and the Apple Lisa. These are the archivists, whose job is preserving cultural artifacts from all periods of history. That includes the recent past, whose technologies now seem paradoxically so strange and distant. The real-life consequences of that growing chasm between today's digital technologies, and those that were commonplace 10, 20 or 30 years ago, are made evident in an article published by the Guardian last week:

In the belly of a former whisky store in the inner Melbourne suburb of Brunswick lies a vast and varied collection of artefacts that feminist scholars can't wait to get their hands on.

Nearly 500 boxes in this dark, temperature-controlled warehouse hold a lifetime of handwritten letters, browning manuscripts and newspaper clippings.

But there are more modern treasures too: floppy disks containing an unpublished book about Margaret Thatcher; two computers, a Mac Powerbook G4 and iMac G5; and voicemail recordings about dinner plans in 1976.
These are all part of the archives of the well-known Australian writer Germaine Greer. According to the article, Greer has been hoarding personal documents and artifacts from the 1950s to the present day, which means they are in both analog and digital forms:
Greer's archive includes floppy disks, tape cassettes and CD-roms, once cutting-edge technologies that are now obsolete. They are vulnerable to decay and disintegration, leftovers from the unrelenting tide of technological advancement. They will last mere decades, unlike the paper records, which could survive for hundreds of years.
It is an irony of these formerly high-tech holdings that they are far less durable than old-fashioned paper-based systems. And researchers studying them face problems of compatibility that simply don't arise with paper. This is a major issue that is only now being faced, as cultural figures of Greer's generation pass on their archives to universities and libraries, who must start to grapple with the core tasks of deciphering and preserving them.

The good news is that once they have been decoded, they can be transferred to other media, and in more open formats that will be easier to access in the years to come. But that still leaves the problem of how to store all these archives in a way that will stand the test of time. Perhaps they will be encoded as data held on the ultimate storage medium, DNA. Or maybe it would just be easier to print the lot out on paper.

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Posted on Techdirt Wireless - 9 August 2016 @ 11:06pm

Building Large-Scale Mesh Networks Using Ubiquitous Software-Defined Radios

from the distributed,-ad-hoc,-federated,-and-self-organizing dept

A couple of years ago, we noted that one lesson from Snowden's leaks was that the NSA and GCHQ were listening in to all the major pipes and nodes that go to make up the Internet. Mesh networks seemed one way to make things harder for the snoopers, but they have been slow to develop on a scale large enough to make a difference. A fascinating article on the Wireless Week site offers tantalizing glimpses of a new generation of wireless technologies that could make meshes easy to set up and hard to monitor. The basic technology is software-defined radio (SDR):

Thanks to inexpensive open source software-defined radios (SDRs), innovators will now be able to design their own wireless protocols. These protocols will be easy to use and effective in solving concrete problems instead of broad generalizations or focusing on exceptional use cases. The Github generation of wireless engineers will be born.
As their name suggests, the big breakthrough of SDRs is that many components that were previously implemented in hardware can be recreated in software. That means they can be easily changed, which allows wide-ranging and continuing experimentation. Couple that with plummeting costs, and we could be seeing SDRs built into practically everything:
Digital signage, smart light poles, vending machines, ATMs, home appliances, and many more devices can all have an SDR in them and provide mobile broadband or other wireless solutions with licensed spectrum, as well.
From that, it might seem that SDRs are just a superior, programmable form of the Internet of Things. But here's where things get interesting:
Any device will be able to be part of a distributed ad-hoc, federated, self-organizing broadband network. Running a mobile network will be less about installing large antennas and more about automating the management of distributed networks that get built on top of third-party owned equipment.
In other words, once SDRs are cheap and commonplace, and can be found in all kinds of everyday devices, they can then be turned into the ultimate mesh network simply by tweaking their software. That avoids the current problem with mesh networks, which is that they are often hard to set up -- a barrier to their widespread use.

These SDR-based networks would have another big advantage. Since they could potentially be on a huge scale, with multiple nodes in a single home, there is potential for obfuscatory routing of the kind used by Tor. Another interesting possibility is to build the ultra-cheap SDRs into drones, and use them as part of the ad-hoc mesh networks too. None of these approaches is guaranteed to stop the NSA and friends from spying on everyone, but they certainly offer the hope of making it considerably more difficult.

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

Medical Researchers Want Up To Five Years Exclusivity For Clinical Trial Data Derived From Volunteers

from the papers-before-patients dept

A year ago, we wrote about how TPP's requirement for "data exclusivity" risked undermining one of science's fundamental principles: that facts cannot be owned. Data exclusivity is just the latest attempt by Big Pharma to extend its monopoly over drugs, whether using patents or other means. To a certain extent, you might expect that: after all, companies are designed to maximize profits, and if it means more people suffer or die along the way, well, that's regrettable but sort of beside the point. However, it's surprising to see a group of medical researchers writing in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) calling for just the same kind of data exclusivity. The post is in response to an earlier NEJM article by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), entitled "Sharing Clinical Trial Data":

As a condition of consideration for publication of a clinical trial report in our member journals, the ICMJE proposes to require authors to share with others the deidentified individual-patient data (IPD) underlying the results presented in the article (including tables, figures, and appendices or supplementary material) no later than 6 months after publication.
Reasonable enough, you might think. But in the new commentary from the International Consortium of Investigators for Fairness in Trial Data Sharing -- which doesn't seem to have any online presence currently -- a group of "282 investigators in 33 countries" (pdf) beg to differ:
Although we believe there are potential benefits to sharing data (e.g., occasional new discoveries), we believe there are also risks (e.g., misleading or inaccurate analyses and analyses aimed at unfairly discrediting or undermining the original publication) and opportunity costs (e.g., the ICMJE proposal would have enormous direct costs and would probably divert resources, both financial and human, from the actual conduct of trials).
It's rather telling that the new discoveries that arise from research are dismissed as "occasional," while the rather weird concern about "discrediting or undermining the original publication" is put forward as if it were a major problem in the field. The International Consortium of Investigators for Fairness in Trial Data Sharing has a few suggestions for what should be done instead of the ICMJE proposal:
The timeline for providing deidentified individual patient data should allow a minimum of 2 years after the first publication of the results and an additional 6 months for every year required to complete the study, up to a maximum of 5 years.
Five years' data exclusivity takes us into TPP territory. And then there's this:
Persons who were not involved in an investigator-initiated trial but want access to the data should financially compensate the original investigators for their efforts and investments in the trial and the costs of making the data available.
You may have thought research was about winning new knowledge and willingly sharing it with your peers, but in fact it's about money. Actually, what is most shocking about the International Consortium of Investigators for Fairness in Trial Data Sharing's opinion piece is not what it says, but what it doesn't say. The whole thrust of the piece is what a tough life researchers have:
To complete an RCT [randomized, controlled trial], investigators must develop a protocol, obtain funding, overcome regulatory and bureaucratic challenges, recruit and follow participants, undertake analyses, and publish the results. This process takes several years, and for large clinical trials it can sometimes take a decade or longer. Adequate incentives for researchers to invest the substantial time and effort required to conduct RCTs and to publish the results in a timely fashion are important.
But at least it's a noble struggle, you might think, since this is all done for the patients' benefit. Or maybe not:
A key motivation for investigators to conduct RCTs is the ability to publish not only the primary trial report, but also major secondary articles based on the trial data.
It's all about those career-enhancing publications, apparently. But it's not just the patients who are missing from the International Consortium of Investigators for Fairness in Trial Data Sharing's worldview. They are also ignoring an absolutely indispensable aspect of clinical trials. It's so important that the ICMJE's article begins by acknowledging it in the first sentence:
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) believes that there is an ethical obligation to responsibly share data generated by interventional clinical trials because participants have put themselves at risk.
This is why the data that results from those clinical trials must be shared as soon as possible: because members of the public who volunteer to take part in them have literally risked their lives in order to benefit others. The idea that this data should be hoarded by the researchers for up to five years just so that they can squeeze out a few more articles that look good on their CV is profoundly insulting to the participants and their unsung selflessness.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 August 2016 @ 10:30pm

After The Age Of The PC, Welcome To The Age Of The PD -- The 'Personal Drone'

from the promising-start dept

Techdirt has been following the rise of small, low-cost drones for some years. A major milestone was the release of the FAA's draft rules for the devices, which came out last February. Quartz has just published an interesting report of an FAA conference on the future uses of drones in US airspace, at which the following statistic was quoted:

Federal Aviation Administration director Michael Huerta told the gathered crowd that more than consumer 500,000 drones had been registered with the agency since December.
Quartz provides some context for the figure of half-a-million newly-registered drones:
According to the FAA, it took 100 years for about 320,000 regular aircraft to be registered with US officials -- a feat that drones have surpassed in a matter of months. Granted, even the largest consumer drone is far smaller than the average plane, helicopter or hot-air balloon, but it's an impressive statistic for an agency that has been criticized in the past for moving slowly on regulations that adapt to the growing uses for drones.
As that rightly notes, there's a world of difference between today's small drones -- "consumer" in this context means anything weighing more than 0.5lbs -- and traditional aircraft. But in many ways, it's exactly the same difference between the very first PCs, and the mainframes and minicomputer systems that had existed for decades. In that respect, we can see the 500,000 registered drones as an indication that we are now truly in the age of the PD -- the Personal Drone.

The conference also touched on a key concern raised by Karl Bode last year, who was worried that over-strict regulation of drones might kill off some promising new business models. Quartz reports:

Speakers discussed the potential for drone operations beyond the line of sight in the future. And the FAA is already testing out the feasibility of delivery services like this. Last month it approved a test by the drone delivery service Flirtey and 7-Eleven to deliver some snacks to a household in Arizona.
Combined with the sizable installed base of personal drones just revealed, that's a good sign for the future of the sector if it is to continue tracking the PC industry in terms of rapid growth.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 August 2016 @ 3:23am

China's Home-Grown Version Of Spotify Shows How To Make Money In A World Of Digital Abundance

from the removing-obstacles dept

The fact that the best-known music streaming service, Spotify, is still struggling to turn a profit despite its huge popularity, is often held up as proof that making money in a world of digital abundance is almost impossible. Of course, here on Techdirt, we've published many posts about people and companies that have adopted various innovative strategies to get around the problem. But what about music streaming as a mass medium: will it ever be possible to make money in this sector?

A fascinating article on Mashable shows that it is already happening, but perhaps not where most people are looking. QQ Music is part of the extensive digital empire of the Chinese giant Tencent, best known for its messaging app WeChat, and now the largest Internet company in Asia. Last year, its turnover was $15.8 billion (pdf). As the Mashable article explains, QQ Music's general manager revealed last week that the service is now profitable. One reason is the sheer scale of Tencent's user base:

As one of China's biggest dotcoms -- WeChat has 762 million active users -- the company has far better negotiating power at the table with record labels. Back in 2014, Tencent already used this to its advantage, striking exclusive Chinese distribution deals with large music producers the likes of Sony, Warner Music and South Korea's YG Entertainment.
Similarly, QQ Music is itself large compared to Spotify:
QQ Music reports 100 million daily active users, and 400 million monthly actives.

Spotify, in comparison, has about 100 million monthly actives, although it has 30 million paying subscribers -- three times QQ's 10 million paying subscribers.
The secret to QQ Music's profitability seems to be the following:
Chinese analyst iResearch estimates that over half of [QQ Music's] users in China would have paid for something on their music apps this year. That could be a one-off purchase like an album or concert tickets, even if it's not an ongoing subscription.
Moreover, beyond the 57% that already buy ancillary items, a further 20% said they were willing to do so at some point. That means over three-quarters of QQ Music's users have or will buy other goods. Crucially, Tencent makes that as easy as possible by offering its own payment system as standard. That emphasizes a key point about making money in a world of digital abundance: success flows from removing as many barriers as possible, so that people can pay you for things they want at the moment they want them.

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 August 2016 @ 3:45am

Yes, You Read That Correctly: China Says It's OK For Members Of The Public To Record The Police

from the well,-look-at-that... dept

As Tim Cushing wrote a few months back, recording the police is a complex and contentious issue in the US. But what about in China? Given the increasing clampdown on the Internet world, it's pretty easy to guess that the Chinese authorities wouldn't take too kindly to members of the public trying to hold the police to account in this way. Easy to guess -- and yet wrong, according to this story in the South China Morning Post (SCMP):

Chinese residents can now record the actions of police ­officers as long as it does not stop them from doing their job.
The article provides a little background to this rather surprising news:
The move is expected to help keep police in check but there were no details on how it will be enforced.
And this is why some of them clearly need to be controlled better:
Environmental scientist Lei, 29, died in police custody in May just 50 minutes after he was ­approached by plainclothes ­officers for an identification check in his neighbourhood.

At first, police said he died of a heart attack, but an autopsy report this month said he died of suffocation from gastric fluid.

The public blamed his death on police handling, with two case officers arrested on suspicion of dereliction of duty.
Although this move might be seen as the Chinese authorities giving new powers to the people against the police, it's probably better thought of as using the people to root out the bad apples of the kind mentioned in the SCMP piece. As such it's of a piece with President Xi Jinping's crackdown on corrupt officials who abuse their power, seen most recently in the sentence of the top Chinese general Guo Boxiong, who was jailed for life for taking bribes.

In other words, while citizens use this new permission to aid Xi in his purge of unwanted elements in the system, they will be welcome to record the police as much as they like. However, if they start making life awkward for the authorities by passing around the "wrong" kind of recordings, we can probably expect this newfound power to be rescinded quite quickly.

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Posted on Techdirt - 28 July 2016 @ 3:25am

Not Just In The US: TPP Meeting More Resistance In Australia And Japan, Too

from the it-ain't-over-yet dept

It's remarkable how TPP, a previously obscure trade deal known only to a few specialists -- and to enlightened Techdirt readers, of course -- has suddenly become one of the hottest issues in the US Presidential contest. But it's important to remember that TPP is still a live issue in many of the other participating countries too. Malaysia seems to be the furthest along in the ratification process, and Peru is also moving forward. But there are signs that resistance could be growing, rather than diminishing, in some key nations. For example, the Australian Government's Productivity Commission has just released its Trade & Assistance Review 2014-15 (pdf), in which it says:

There are provisions in the TPP that the Commission has previously flagged as of questionable benefit. These include term of copyright and the investor state dispute settlement elements.
On the former latter, the report says:
The Australian Government should seek to avoid the inclusion of Investors-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions in bilateral and regional trade agreements that grant foreign investors in Australia substantive or procedural rights greater than those enjoyed by Australian investors.
On copyright, the Productivity Commission warns:
The history of Intellectual Property (IP) being addressed in preferential trade deals has resulted in more stringent arrangements than contained in the multilateral agreed Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS). Australia's participation in international negotiations in relation to IP laws should focus on plurilateral or multilateral settings. Support for any measures to alter the extent and enforcement of IP rights should be informed by a robust economic analysis of the resultant benefits and costs.
It's not just Australia's Productivity Commission that is concerned. As the Guardian reports, Australia's opposition party, Labor, has also taken a firmer stance against corporate sovereignty chapters in TPP and elsewhere:
The opposition recently promised to review three of the major free-trade agreements signed by the Abbott and Turnbull governments -- the Korean FTA, the China FTA and the TPP -- in the hope of removing their ISDS clauses.

Labor says it will not accept ISDS clauses in new trade pacts. If existing ISDS clauses can't be removed, then Labor's position is stronger safeguards should be imposed on existing agreements to make it harder for corporations to sue the government.
Finally, there's some trouble brewing in Japan, as The Japan Times notes:
Although the Diet [Japan's parliament] is expected to resume discussions on the TPP and accompanying bills this autumn, the government is facing headwinds after a number of ruling bloc candidates from the Tohoku region were defeated in the July 10 Upper House election.

Observers say the losses in Tohoku, where farmers wield considerable influence, highlights lingering opposition to the pact.
That's not to say that TPP is doomed in either Japan or Australia. But coupled with the very real problems in ratifying the deal in the US, these latest developments emphasize that it is by no means certain that TPP will ever come into force.

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 July 2016 @ 3:56am

This Is What It Was Like To Take Part In The Failed Turkish Coup, In The Words Of The Plotters

from the history-in-the-making dept

A year ago, we wrote about an interesting new organisation called Bellingcat. Although it's not clear what kind of project it should be called, it's easy to understand what it does: it takes publicly-available information from many sources, and tries to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of contemporary events. Its most recent analysis is an extremely topical piece of work:

A group of plotters of the failed Turkish coup attempt used a WhatsApp group to communicate with each other. Bellingcat has transcribed, translated, and analysed the conversation, thereby cross-referencing the messages with photos, videos, and news reports of the evening, night, and morning of July 15-16.
There are two sources for the WhatsApp conversation. One was widely circulated on Twitter soon after the coup, and consists of a video purporting to show messages on the phone of a plotter. The other source is a series of photos obtained by a journalist with Al Jazeera, although no further information on them is given. Naturally, claims that these are authentic need to be treated with caution, and this is where the Bellingcat method of drawing on diverse sources shows its strength. For example, a mention of the 66th Mechanised Infantry Brigade in the conversation is corroborated using other information from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as follows:
By cross-referencing registration plates, military vehicles of the 2nd Armoured Brigade and the 66th Mechanised Infantry Brigade can indeed be spotted on photographs taken during the coup attempt in Istanbul. Number plates from vehicles from the First Army all start with "1" followed by five other numbers, thus "1XX XXX". While some military vehicles had their number plates covered during the coup attempt, others had not and often showed registration plates starting with "117" and "196", as Twitter users @Ald_Aba and @AbraxasSpa noted.

These numbers can be specifically attributed to the 2nd and 66th regiments, by looking at older photo and video material of both units, @Ald_Aba tweeted. As with regards to the numbers "196", photos uploaded to Facebook of the 2nd Armoured Brigade also show vehicles with the number "196". Similarly, the numbers "117" we also spotted on a vehicle of a YouTube video of the 66th Mechanised Infantry Brigade.
The extensive Bellingcat post consists of the conversation, in the original and in translation, as well as commentary of the kind quoted above. It provides extraordinary insights into the mechanics of a coup in the digital age.

At first, everything seems to be going according to plan, as key Turkish infrastructure is seized, including the state broadcaster. At around about midnight local time, one of the plotters in the WhatsApp group warns: "Privately owned TV stations must be silenced." But shortly afterwards, Turkey's President Erdoğan made his by-now famous speech using FaceTime while mid-flight, broadcast by the privately-owned TV stations the plotters had failed to shut down. The Bellingcat post explains:

President Erdoğan's speech is not mentioned in the group conversation, but the direct results of that speech are clearly noticeable: most units are asking for support as they are being surrounded by large crowd of civilians.
As a result, the plotters give increasingly desperate orders to use lethal force on the growing crowds, but to no avail. The last part of the WhatsApp transcription records the guttering of the short-lived attempted coup:
"Has the operation been cancelled Murat", Major Aygar asks.
"Yes, commander", he replies.
Major Aygar: "We're quitting??"
Colonel Doğan: "Which operation, all of it?"
Major Çelebioğlu: "Yes quit, commander."
Colonel Doğan: "Meaning?"
Major Çelebioğlu: "Yes, commander, operation aborted."
Colonel Doğan: "Shall we escape?"
Major Çelebioğlu: "Stay alive, commander. The choice is yours. We have not decided yet. But we have left our position. I'm closing the group. Delete the messages if you want."
It's fortunate for us -- and for future academics who will pore over them -- that the messages were not completely deleted. They survive to provide us with a unique record of a coup as it happened, told in the words of those who tried and failed to seize a major nation. On their own, the short bursts of conversation would be interesting, but hard to parse. With Bellingcat's characteristic annotations and amplifications, they become a gripping spectacle of history as it was being made, just two weeks ago.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 July 2016 @ 3:25am

China To Ban Ad Blockers As Part Of New Regulations For Online Advertising

from the whatever-next? dept

As we noted last week, China continues to find new ways to bring the online world under control. A post on the Adblock Plus blog has spotted yet another sector the Chinese authorities are bringing to heel: Internet advertising. Last week, China's State Administration for Industry and Commerce issued "Interim Measures for Internet advertising" (original in Chinese.) As the Adblock Plus blog post explains, the rules seek to pin down what exactly Internet advertising is, what is allowed, and what isn't:

Among other things the rules seek to target false or misleading online advertising for prescription medicine and tobacco; require government approval to run ads for health products, medical supplies, veterinary medicine and pesticides; necessitate that paid search results be clearly differentiable from organic results; and oblige advertisers to be responsible for the authenticity of their ad content.
That's all sensible stuff. But Article XVI (B) says that the following are prohibited:
the use of Internet services, network devices, applications etc. to disrupt normal advertising data, tampering with or blocking reasonable advertisements from third-party businesses, unauthorized loading of advertisements;
The Adblock Plus post points out that the ban on ad blocking is likely to have a major impact on Chinese users when it comes into force:
There are apparently 159 million people who block ads on their mobile devices in China. Desktop numbers are relatively low by comparison. All of them, though, are going to have a fundamental right snatched from them come September, when their government will take away their right to block ads.
Since it's hard to see the Chinese government really caring too much about the problems that ad-blocking software causes for online publishers, there is presumably another motivation behind this particular move. One possibility is that the Chinese authorities use the tracking capabilities of online ads for surveillance purposes, and the increasing use of ad blockers in China is making that harder. That clearly runs against the current policy of keeping an eye on everything that online users do in China, which is perhaps why the authorities want ad blockers banned in the country, despite the inconvenience and risks for users of doing so.

It remains to be seen how successful the Chinese government will be in stamping out such popular software, or whether this will be another regulation that is largely ignored.

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 July 2016 @ 3:27am

Just As We Warned: A Chinese Tech Giant Goes On The Patent Attack -- In East Texas

from the we-don't-want-to-say-'we-told-you-so',-but... dept

Techdirt has been warning for years that the West's repeated demands for China to "respect" patents could backfire badly. In 2010, Mike pointed out that Chinese companies were starting to amass huge patent portfolios, which were soon used as weapons against foreign firms operating in China, most notably Apple. In another 2010 post, Mike wrote the following:

Huawei, the Chinese networking giant, has taken over the lead as filing the most international patents of any company. Just wait until American companies, whose execs complained about China "not respecting intellectual property," start getting sued in East Texas for violating Huawei's patents.
And guess what? That is exactly what has just happened, as The Wall Street Journal reports:
Huawei Technologies Co. said it has filed a lawsuit against T-Mobile US Inc., alleging the U.S. telecommunications carrier violated the Chinese company’s patents related to wireless networks.

In its complaint filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Huawei said T-Mobile is using its patented technology without signing a licensing agreement.
There is an uncanny closeness between those two stories, even though six years separate them. In part, of course, that's because of Mike's ability to spot trends well ahead of others (no, he didn't tell me to write that...) But it's also down to the fact that this trend was really obvious to anyone who was able to consider the situation dispassionately. Sadly, that seems to exclude most of the people demanding that fast-growing economies around the world should start to "respect" patents.

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Posted on Techdirt - 18 July 2016 @ 10:16pm

Defeat Of Philip Morris In Its Corporate Sovereignty Case Against Uruguay Likely To Open Floodgates For Tobacco Packaging Legislation

from the this-is-the-big-one dept

Last December, Techdirt wrote about Australia fending off an attempt by Philip Morris to use corporate sovereignty to overturn the country's plain-packaging regulations. As we pointed out, this wasn't proof that investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) was no threat to national sovereignty, despite what some were claiming. Australia won on purely procedural grounds, not because the ISDS tribunal agreed that Australia had a fundamental right to regulate.

However, as the Techdirt article also mentioned, there is another tobacco case based on corporate sovereignty provisions in a trade deal -- the one which Philip Morris brought against Uruguay. It's fortunate that Uruguay decided not to roll over, but to contest the case -- something it could only do because of funding from a foundation set up by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg -- because a tribunal has just found in its favor:

The award released on Friday brings to a close a six year dispute between the global tobacco giant and Uruguay, with an arbitral tribunal upholding Uruguay's right to do two things: prohibit tobacco companies marketing cigarettes in ways that falsely present some cigarettes as less harmful than others and require tobacco companies to use 80% of the front and back of cigarette packs for graphic warnings of the health hazards of smoking.

Uruguay's lawyers, the Boston-based firm Foley Hoag, praised the decision as having broad international consequences.
As that quotation from an article in The Mandarin suggests, this is a much more significant decision than the Australian one, because Philip Morris did not lose on procedural grounds this time. That establishes a crucial precedent for other countries that wish to introduce health measures affecting tobacco packaging. Several have been holding off from bringing in such laws until they knew what happened to Australia and Uruguay, and therefore what legal risks they would run. We can probably expect many more nations to move forward with new legislation now, not least because Philip Morris was also ordered to pay $7 million of Uruguay's $10.3 million costs (pdf).

Uruguay's regulations on cigarettes did not bring in plain packs of the kind adopted by Australia. Instead, the South American country currently limits how much of the cigarette packet can be used for branding, and also stops tobacco companies from making misleading claims that their products are "mild" or "ultra-light." However, The Mandarin notes that Uruguay will:

soon move towards all tobacco products being sold in generic packages, with even larger warnings of the harms caused by smoking, in an effort to further reduce smoking levels.
The latest defeat for Philip Morris clears the way for Uruguay to do that. Even more importantly, it also represents a high-profile failure of the tobacco company's strategy of using the threat of ISDS litigation to apply pressure to nations not to bring in legislation. It's hard not to think that the tribunal's refusal to sanction this approach is due to a massive growth in public awareness and public antipathy towards corporate sovereignty, an area that not so long ago was a sleepy corner of trade law familiar to only a few specialist lawyers.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 July 2016 @ 9:38pm

AstraZeneca Tries To Use 'Orphan Drug' Designation To Extend Patent Life Of Top-Selling Pill

from the evergreen-desire-to-hang-to-intellectual-monopolies dept

At the heart of copyright and patents there is -- theoretically -- an implicit social contract. People are granted a time-limited, government-backed monopoly in return for allowing copyright material or patented techniques to enter the public domain once that period has expired. And yet copyright and patent holders often seem unwilling to respect the terms of that contract, as they seek to hang on to their monopolies beyond the agreed time in various ways.

In the case of copyright, this has been through repeated extensions of copyright's term, even though there is no economic justification for doing so. In the realm of pharma patents, a number of techniques have been employed. One is "pay for delay." Another is the granting of "data exclusivity." And a third is the use of "evergreening." Techdirt wrote about the last of these a while back, so it's no surprise that companies have continued to "innovate" in this field since then. For example, AstraZeneca is trying to use a variant of evergreening for its anti-cholesterol pill Crestor. As a New York Times article explains:

Crestor is the company’s best-selling drug, accounting for $5 billion of its $23.6 billion in product sales last year. About $2.8 billion in sales were in the United States, where the retail price is about $260 a month, according to GoodRx.com.
Here's how AstraZeneca hopes to hold on to that lucrative market, even though its patent on the drug is now coming to an end, and it should be entering the public domain:
The company is making a bold attempt to fend off impending generic competition to its best-selling drug, the anti-cholesterol pill Crestor, by getting it approved to treat [a] rare disease. In an unusual legal argument, the company says Crestor is entitled to seven years of additional market exclusivity under the Orphan Drug Act, a three-decade-old law that encourages pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments for rare diseases.
In May, AstraZeneca won approval of Crestor to treat children with the rare genetic disease of homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (HoFH ). That gives it an additional seven-year patent on the drug, but only for that particular -- very small -- market. However, the designation means that detailed prescription information about using Crestor to treat children in this way must not be included on the label. AstraZeneca's clever lawyers are trying to turn that into an extended patent for all uses of the drug:
AstraZeneca immediately petitioned the F.D.A., arguing that if the correct dose for children with HoFH could not be on the generic label, then it would be illegal and dangerous to approve any generic versions for any use at all. That is because doctors might still prescribe the generic for children with HoFH and choose the wrong dose, posing "substantial safety and efficacy risks."
Needless to say, AstraZeneca was only asking for generic versions to be kept off the market for another seven years for safety reasons, not because doing so would bring it billions more in exclusive sales to the general population. Of course.

The New York Times article goes into more detail about the fascinating legal background to AstraZeneca's argument here, and notes that other drug companies have tried the same approach in the past, without success. Even if this particular ploy does fail again, we can be sure that pharma companies will be back with other sneaky ways of extending their patent monopolies -- implicit social contract be damned.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 July 2016 @ 9:58pm

China Forbids The Use Of English Words In Mobile Games

from the not-as-crazy-as-it-looks dept

Techdirt has run many articles about China's direct assault on Internet freedom. Indeed, its attempts to muzzle online dissent are so all-encompassing you might think it has run out of things to censor. But you'd be wrong: China is now reining in games for mobile phones, as a post on Tech in Asia explains:

A little over a month ago, Chinese censorship bureau SAPPRFT announced new rules that require every mobile game launched in China to be pre-approved by SAPPRFT (already-launched games will have to get retroactive approval before the grace period ends in October). Before the rules had even gone into effect, developers and analysts alike were predicting things could be bad, and that the rules might dismantle China’s indie mobile gaming scene entirely.
Making sure games aren't seditious in any way might be expected, but there's a rather weird twist to this latest move:
One developer's rant has gone viral in the Chinese web after their game was supposedly rejected by SAPPRFT for containing English words. Not offensive English words, mind you, but completely innocuous ones like "mission start" and "warning." "I'm really fucking surprised," wrote the developer of the rejection.

Another developer confirmed that their game had been rejected for the same reason: including English words like "go" and "lucky." SAPPRFT's rules also forbid the use of traditional Chinese characters.
The use of English here is hardly subversive. The words in question form part of a global gaming language that has little to do with either the US or the UK. The ban on traditional Chinese characters, as opposed to the simplified ones that are generally used in China, is more understandable: Taiwan still uses the traditional form, so their inclusion might be seen as some kind of subliminal political statement.

The consequence is likely to be fewer games from smaller Chinese software companies, who are less able to meet the stringent new demands. As the Tech in Asia post rightly points out:

We could be facing a future where China's entire mobile game catalogue consists only of the games produced by powerful corporations like Tencent and Netease, with no room for startups and indies.
And that is probably the real reason for this latest move: big companies tend to be far more willing to toe the government line than smaller independents, since they have far more to lose. So, as with other apparently arbitrary moves, the latest unexpected clampdown by the Chinese government looks to be yet another example of its shrewd and subtle control of the online world.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 July 2016 @ 3:35am

France Might Allow NGOs To Sell Public Domain Seeds To Non-Commercial Buyers. Might?

from the so-what's-the-problem? dept

When Techdirt has written about seeds in the past, it tended to be in the context of patents, and how Big Agribusiness is trying to use multiple layers of intellectual monopolies to prevent patented seeds from entering the public domain. By contrast, seeds that are already in the public domain -- that is, owned by no one and thus everyone -- ought to be unproblematic. But an interesting story in Intellectual Property Watch indicates that's not the case in France:

the French Senate is due to consider a bill on biodiversity for the third time. That bill, which could be modifying several legislations, might allow for the sharing and selling by non-governmental organisations of seeds in the public domain to non-commercial buyers, which is so far not permitted under the current French legislation, according to sources.
The fact that non-governmental organisations are currently not allowed to sell public domain seeds to non-commercial buyers seems curious, to say the least. The issue seems to be about governmental control, since the new law:
would allow NGOs already sharing and selling seeds to individual gardeners, which are not on the French National official seeds catalogue, to legalise their activities, and escape prosecution, according to a press release [pdf] (in French) from Kokopelli, one of those associations.
That's a reminder of how controlling seeds was a key government power back in the days when agriculture represented a far greater share of economic activity than it does now. Such control may have been justified back then in terms of ensuring that "official" seeds were the varieties they claimed to be, and of high quality. But it's surely time for restrictions on selling public domain seeds to be relaxed not just in France but everywhere they exist, to promote biodiversity and to offer a counterbalance to the increased control exercised by companies using patents.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 July 2016 @ 10:13pm

Sweden Considers Making DNA Donated Purely For Medical Research Available To Police And Insurance Companies

from the so-what-if-we-promised-we-wouldn't? dept

When it comes to biometrics, you really can't beat DNA. You can always erase your fingerprints, or wear contact lenses to fool iris scanners, but there's no way of changing all your DNA enough to make it unrecognizable (even with the new CRISPR technique). Couple that with the fact that we are shedding DNA everywhere we go -- leaving tell-tale markers on everything we touch -- and you have the perfect surveillance mechanism. That's why earlier UK plans to give police access to medical databases are problematic, to say nothing of Kuwait's mandatory DNA database for all citizens, residents and visitors. Now Rick Falkvinge has written a post about troubling moves in Sweden:

Since 1975, Sweden has taken a DNA sample from all newborns for medical research purposes, and asked parents’ consent to do so for this research purpose. This means that over time, Sweden has built the world's most comprehensive DNA database over everybody under 43 years of age. But now, politicians are considering opening up this research-only DNA database to law enforcement and private insurance companies.
As Falkvinge points out, this is not just a betrayal of a trust, it is totally counterproductive:
This is, of course, an outrageous and audacious breach of contract with the parents who were promised the sample would be used only for the good of humanity in terms of medical research. The instant there's a mere suspicion that this will be used against the sampled newborn in the future -- as is the case now -- instead of being used for the good of humanity as a whole, people won't provide the DNA database with more samples, or at least not enough samples to provide researchable coverage.
The risk that Sweden might proceed down this road is also a reminder that once such huge databases are created, it is almost inevitable that one day someone will come along and say: "since we have this information, surely nobody could object to it being used to catch terrorists/pedophiles/rapists etc. etc." And as the news from Sweden shows, initial promises that such sensitive data will only be used for research are worthless, since they can always be revoked later on, and there is no easy way of removing the data once it is on the database.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 July 2016 @ 10:42am

Polish Authorities Demand British Law Enforcement Interrogate Tor Exit Node Operator About Information He Doesn't Have

from the colossal-waste-of-time-and-effort dept

As numerous posts on Techdirt attest, the authorities really don't like Tor, even though the Onion routing system was developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory, not some terrorist hacker group. The latest jurisdiction to misunderstand how Tor works is Poland, as this report on Motherboard explains:

Polish authorities have requested British law enforcement to interrogate the node operator because of a 2014 forum post supposedly insulting the ex-mayor of a small Polish town; apparently an illegal act in Poland.
Specifically:
A letter from the District Public Prosecutor's Office in Bialystok, Poland, to the UK Home Office points to Article 212, paragraph 2 of the Polish Penal Code, which says, in sum, that characterising someone else in such a way that might "degrade them in public opinion or expose them to the loss of confidence necessary to occupy a given position […] is subject to a fine or the penalty of limitation of liberty."
The Tor exit node used by the person who allegedly wrote the problematic post is run by Thomas White, better known as TheCthulhu on Twitter, where his bio reads:
Technology and privacy activist. Hidden service dev. Turkey-certified terrorist. Radical giver of no shits.
It will therefore come as no surprise that White is unsympathetic to the request by the District Public Prosecutor's Office in Bialystok. Even better, he has posted part of his statement in reply to that request, which is well-worth reading. White points out that the Polish law in question seems to violate Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, further enshrined as Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. He says that he accepts the ex-mayor in question may have found a statement about him to be humiliating or offending, but adds:
I have many times felt offended where his political party have made derogatory remarks concerning the LGBT community for example, or where his complaint is an attempt to trample upon the rights of others. The difference is that I seem to have the mental capacity to take the opinions of others on board and reason my views with them to make my points.
White concludes pretty much as you might hope and expect:
I can only reaffirm my position that I have no intention of assisting with the request from the Polish authorities
Of course, the great thing about Tor is that White couldn't help the Polish authorities even he wanted to, since he was just operating the exit node, and knows nothing about the origin of the Tor traffic he facilitates. The sooner governments learn this basic fact, the sooner they can stop wasting time and resources trying to extract information from people that don't have it.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 July 2016 @ 9:46pm

India's High-Tech Billion-Person Aadhaar Identity System Can't Cope With Real-Life Biometrics

from the well,-that's-awkward dept

We first wrote about India's Aadhaar system, which assigns a unique 12-digit number to all Indian citizens, a year ago. Mainstream media are finally waking up to the scale of the project, as this article in the Guardian indicates:

The Aadhaar scheme was launched in 2009, under former prime minister Manmohan Singh, but the current government, led by Narendra Modi, is credited with rolling it out across India. According to the latest figures in May 2016 from the Unique Identification Authority, more than a billion people have been given Aadhaar numbers. Within the next few months, the details of every person in India will be in the government database.
To allay privacy and surveillance concerns, the Indian government insisted initially that Aadhaar was to be purely voluntary. But as Techdirt reported earlier this year, it's quite clear that the government's intention is to get everyone on to the Aadhaar system, and to embed it ever-more deeply in daily life. The principal argument for doing so is that it will make India's bureacracy more efficient, help fight corruption, and make it easier for citizens to receive government support:
The data collected by the Aadhaar centres will be stored in a network of servers in the southern city of Bangalore. Information from the database can then be circulated to different authorities. The ID system, according to the government, will prevent welfare fraud and ensure subsidies and social security schemes are reaching the right people.
All laudable goals, but an article in The Times of India reveals the reality. In the Indian State of Rajasthan, 14 million people have dropped off the Aadhaar system. A major problem is that one of the key biometric identifiers -- fingerprints -- is proving unusable for precisely the groups of people that Aadhaar was supposed to help:
Hard manual labour flattens fingerprint patterns on the palm. Chances of the machines detecting them are really dim.

These patterns also fade with age. "I've never been a manual labourer, but at 70 the lines on my fingers are faint and the device never works with me too," says Aruna Roy of [the Indian social movement] MKSS.

Vaishali Devi of Kishangarh tehsil, Ajmer, complains she's been deprived of ration and pension for over three months. She was at the Jawab Do dharna in Jaipur for 20 days. With her was fellow villager Vanni Bai. For three months, she hasn't been able to collect her quota of supplies.
Another issue is that poor Internet connectivity makes it hard to check readings with the central Aadhaar databases in Bangalore, so many attempts are necessary before fingerprints are recognized, and the food rations can be given out. The good news is that there's an alternative approach:
In principle, the Unique Identity Authority of India, implementing agency for Aadhaar can issue a one-time password to the ration seeker's mobile phone if the system fails.
The bad news:
Many using the system can't afford mobile phones; some don't remember the number registered on their Aadhaar.
It sounds like getting India’s 1.29 billion population to use the Aadhaar system for routine daily transactions is going to be something of a challenge, to put it mildly.

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Posted on Techdirt - 5 July 2016 @ 11:23pm

Diagnostic Patents Suffer Another Setback In US As Supreme Court Refuses To Hear Sequenom Appeal

from the outbreak-of-good-sense dept

In recent years, there have been a couple of really important US Supreme Court decisions in the biotech field. One is the 2013 judgment striking down gene patents. The other is a ruling from 2012 that rejected the patenting of basic medical diagnostics, in a case involving Mayo Collaborative Services and Prometheus Labs. The resultant loss for biotech companies in terms of devalued patent portfolios, and their reduced ability to control the market using intellectual monopolies, has been so serious that it is no surprise that there are periodic attempts to get these decisions mitigated through subsequent court rulings.

For this reason, the industry has been watching with great interest a case involving Sequenom, and its patent on a non-invasive pre-natal diagnosis test using the fact that fetal DNA is present in the blood plasma of expectant mothers. A lower court invalidated that patent on the basis of the Mayo decision, and Sequenom appealed to the Supreme Court to review the ruling. But a statement from the company has now dashed the biotech industry's hopes:

The Supreme Court of the United States denied [Sequenom's] petition to review decisions by lower Federal courts that the claims of Sequenom's U.S. Patent No. 6,258,540 ("'540 Patent") are not patent eligible under the patent eligibility criteria established by the Supreme Court's Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories decision. In the petition, Sequenom urged the Court to hear the case because the Court is uniquely suited to reconcile and interpret the patent eligibility criteria established in its Mayo decision. Sequenom will pursue no further appeal opportunities for review of the '540 Patent.
Although the industry will doubtless whine about how there is no incentive to produce new diagnostic tests, there's no evidence that research and development in this area has ground to a halt in the US since the Supreme Court ruling on Mayo. All that has happened is that obvious applications of natural biological phenomena have been removed from patentability. Given the inherent reasonableness of that, we can probably hope that further challenges to Mayo will also fail.

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