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Posted on Techdirt - 17 April 2015 @ 1:11am

Whistleblowers Urge UN To Strengthen Protection For Those Revealing Abuses

from the echoes-of-Snowden dept

Aside from the extraordinary information that he revealed about massive yet unsuspected surveillance programs, Edward Snowden has produced several other collateral benefits through his actions in 2013. For example, recently we learned that the DEA's phone tracking program was cancelled as a direct result of the revelations and the ensuing uproar. Other leakers have started to come forward, apparently inspired by his actions. And as the press has pored over Snowden's actions, it has become clear that support for government whistleblowers is woefully inadequate -- indeed, that they are regarded by the Obama administration pretty much as traitors.

More generally, the debate around Snowden has highlighted the important part that whistleblowers play in sustaining the rule of law and defending democracy. Now a group of whistleblowers has written a letter calling on the United Nations to recognize that role (pdf), and to improve protections within the organization (via Intellectual Property Watch):

As our experience shows, retaliation against whistleblowers affects the entire UN system and goes largely unchecked at all levels, including in the Executive suites. Some UN whistleblowers have been fired or demoted; others have been subject to more subtle forms of abuse like non-renewal of contracts or sudden transfer to duty stations on the other side of the globe; many face plain, simple harassment and intimidation.
The problems they have to deal with are very similar to those encountered by Snowden when he sought to use official channels to raise his concerns:
UN whistleblowers are forced to go through lengthy, and often expensive, internal appeal processes in which the burden of proof, as a practical matter, rests on the whistleblower to demonstrate retaliation (the usual standard in national systems requires the employer to justify their actions were not retaliatory).
As a result, they often end up taking the same route that he did:
Put simply, the UN system of justice fails whistleblowers, and most of us have been forced to leave the UN to save our livelihoods, our health and our reputations.
The letter's signatories go on to call for the UN to review whistleblower protection at the organization, and they make concrete suggestions on improving the lot of those revealing abuses, including recognizing that:
Whistleblower rights are human rights, which must be promoted and protected within the UN, as well as in affiliated specialized agencies and international organisations with immunity from national laws.
And extending whistleblower protections to:
UN peacekeepers, police officers, contractors, victims and any other person who provides information about misconduct that could undermine the organisation’s mission. The key to receiving protection should be the content of the information disclosed, not the identity of the person disclosing it.
Like much of the letter, that last point is applicable generally. It underlines the fact that a completely new framework for whistleblowers is required at every level, both nationally and internationally. The letter to the UN is part of an important move towards making that happen, in what could prove to be a key aspect of Snowden's long-term legacy.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 April 2015 @ 1:09am

Crowdsourcing The Human Telescope

from the great-spherical-insect-eye dept

One of the most interesting realizations in recent years is that done right, massive, open collaborations are not just an efficient way of working, but they scale in a way that can take us to entirely new levels. A good example -- and perhaps the first project to exploit this fact -- is Linux, which grew from a small bunch of hackers working together across the internet on some bedroom code into a global, distributed project that now dominates every sector of computing bar one (the desktop -- so far.)

The open source methodology has inspired all kinds of cognate projects in different fields, including that of citizen science, which pools the efforts of large numbers of people working with simple tools to produce important results that can be published in academic journals. The best-known example of this is Galaxy Zoo, which asks members of the public to help classify some of the millions of images taken as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, many of them unseen by any human previously.

Adrian Bowyer, the man behind RepRap, an open-source project to construct a 3D printer that is capable of self-replicating -- that is, printing all of its parts -- has written a fascinating blog post about another application of citizen science. It involves hundreds of people taking a picture of the same patch of night-sky with their smartphones, and then uploading the digital image to the website of a BBC program, which coordinated the whole project. As Bowyer explains:

Each individual picture was just a black rectangle -- not enough starlight had gone through the lens to make an image that could be seen. But some had gone through, and registered in the camera's pixels as a slightly less-dark patch of black.
On its own, then, each image showed so little that it was impossible to make out anything. But this is what happens when you combine hundreds of them:
A computer first matched them up by making sure that the centres of the prominent stars were all in the same place, and then added up the slightly-less-black bits to make the picture. Of course the pixels in all the cameras were not in the same place relative to the stars, which means that each camera pixel could be split into thousands of final-image pixels, which gives the fabulous resolution
The resulting composite image (available as a 40 Mbyte tif file) looks like it was taken using a high-power telescope, and is a wonderful demonstration of how combining a large number of apparently insignificant contributions can create something unexpectedly impressive. Here's just part of the image:
Typically, Bowyer wants to take this striking example of open, distributed collaboration even further:
The human race is a species on which the stars never set. So let's make the Human Telescope. Set up a website to which anyone anywhere in the world can upload any sky images that they have taken with any digital camera, phone or telescope. The images will have a timestamp and a GPS location, and will be continually stacked by a computer in the background to give an exquisitely detailed evolving picture of the whole vault of the heavens.

The world would become a great spherical insect eye looking at every star, galaxy, planet and nebula all the time. We would be automatically finding comets, supernovae and near-Earth asteroids. We would never miss an astronomical trick.

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 April 2015 @ 1:13am

UK Government Refuses To Reveal Job Title Or Salary Of Top Law Enforcement Officer Because Terrorism

from the oh,-come-on dept

As Techdirt has reported previously, the UK government is so reflexively secretive that it even refuses to confirm or deny information that it has previously confirmed. The Intercept reports on another absurd case of completely trivial requests for information being turned down because "terrorism". It's refusing to reveal either the job title or salary of Cressida Dick, a top government official in some apparently mysterious role:

The British government is refusing to disclose the job title and taxpayer-funded salary of one of the most senior law enforcement officials in the United Kingdom, claiming the details have to be kept a secret for security reasons.

Cressida Dick (pictured above) was formerly one of the highest ranking officers at London’s Metropolitan Police, the largest police force in the U.K., where she headed the Specialist Operations unit and oversaw a controversial criminal investigation into journalists who reported on Edward Snowden’s leaked documents.

In December, Dick announced she was leaving the London police to take up a top job with the government’s Foreign Office. But her new role is being shrouded in intense secrecy.
It's just about theoretically possible that the job title could reveal operational details of the role in question -- something along the lines of "Head of Department Trying To Use Man-In-Middle Attacks To Spy On Google Users in the Middle East" -- but only if that job title were extremely ill-chosen. Moreover, the British civil service has centuries of experience in coming up with grand-sounding but totally meaningless job titles, so it's hard to believe that for the first time in its glorious history it was really stumped, and had to resort to literalism. Refusing to release details of the salary attached to the position is even more ridiculous -- unless, of course, UK officials are required to use their secret stipend's digits as a password to access government systems.

All that the UK government achieves by refusing to release this information is that it comes across as risible and petty, ridiculously focused on controlling unimportant details, instead of concentrating on what really matters. Things like respecting the public's desire to know how its taxes are being spent, rather than dismissing it as if it were an impertinent question from a tedious child.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 April 2015 @ 1:15am

Another Reason To Deploy Encryption Widely: Spiking China's 'Great Cannon' Attack

from the reasons-to-be-crypto dept

A couple of weeks ago, Mike provided an in-depth analysis of China's new tactic in its longstanding efforts to restrict access by its population to material that challenges the official narrative. This powerful DDoS attack has now been dubbed "China's Great Cannon" by researchers in a fascinating analysis published by The Citizen Lab. As Mike pointed out, one reason why this new approach has been developed is that it is not possible to block individual URLs when HTTPS traffic is involved. Thus, ironically, the increased use of encryption -- which is meant to protect users online -- led to the development of a powerful new digital weapon that potentially makes them not just victims, but even part of the attack. However, encryption is also a remedy, as The Citizen Lab researchers write:

Our findings in China add another documented case to at least two other known instances of governments tampering with unencrypted Internet traffic to control information or launch attacks -- the other two being the use of QUANTUM by the US NSA and UK’s GCHQ. In addition, product literature from two companies, FinFisher and Hacking Team, indicate that they sell similar "attack from the Internet" tools to governments around the world. These latest findings emphasize the urgency of replacing legacy web protocols, like HTTP, with their cryptographically strong versions, like HTTPS.
However, the remedy is only partial. Writing on his blog, Brian Krebs quotes Bill Marczak, one of the lead authors of the Great Cannon report, as saying:
Relying on an always-on encryption strategy is not a foolproof counter to this attack, because plug-ins like https-everywhere will still serve regular unencrypted content when Web sites refuse to or don't offer the same content over an encrypted connection. What's more, many Web sites draw content from a variety of sources online, meaning that the Great Cannon attack could succeed merely by drawing on resources provided by online ad networks that serve ads on a variety of Web sites from a dizzying array of sources. "Some of the scripts being injected in this attack are from online ad networks," Marczak said. “But certainly this kind of attack suggests a far more aggressive use of https where available."
This confirms that encryption is no panacea, but is certainly worth deploying. The fact that it can make China's Great Cannon attacks harder, if not impossible, should also give pause to government officials around the world as they try to demonize encryption and call for it to be weakened or even banned.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 April 2015 @ 3:56am

Latest Russian Censorship Move: Banning Internet Memes Using Photos Of Celebrities

from the just-putin-it-out-there dept

For a while now, Techdirt has been tracking the continuing efforts of the Russian government to rein in the Internet, at the cost of squeezing much of the life out of it. As an article on Global Voices reports, this has now reached ridiculous levels:

Russian censors have determined that one of the most popular forms of Internet meme is illegal. According to Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin's media watchdog, it's now against the law to use celebrities' photographs in a meme, "when the image has nothing to do with the celebrity's personality."
Roskomnadzor's statement is the result of a decision by a court in Moscow, which decided that a particular photo meme violated the privacy of Russian singer Valeri Syutkin -- the Global Voices post has the fascinating details. Although no new law is involved, Roskomnadzor's power is such that it is able to make these kinds of rule changes -- and enforce them. Along with a ban on the use of celebrities' photographs in what are termed "image macros," the new ruling also forbids the creation of parody accounts or sites (original in Russian.) The key problem with the image macro part is the following:
Roskomnadzor's vague new policy threatens to do more than crack down on potentially defamatory juxtaposition, however. By saying it is illegal to add celebrities' images to memes that "have nothing to do with the celebrity's personality," the Kremlin could be opening the door to banning a whole genre of absurdist online humor.
Even if the policy is not rigorously enforced, it could have a chilling effect on the Russian online space, already under pressure because of previous censorship moves. And that's probably precisely what the authorities are seeking to achieve here. After all, when it comes to Russian celebrities' photographs with witty captions, what name springs to mind?

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 April 2015 @ 1:07am

EU Politicians Say: Don't Undermine Data Protection Rules With TAFTA/TTIP -- And Stop The Mass Surveillance

from the you-have-been-warned dept

The mosaic of interlocking political, economic and civil society groups at multiple levels -- local, national, regional and continental -- makes decision-making within the European Union extremely complex. That means the European Parliament's decision whether or not to ratify TAFTA/TTIP at the end of the negotiations is subject to a vast array of contrasting forces and opinions, which can lead to the outcome of that final vote shifting dramatically in a very short space of time, as the ACTA saga demonstrated so clearly.

The European Parliament's committees play a key role in determining policy, and one of the most important -- for civil liberties -- has just formally adopted an "opinion" on TAFTA/TTIP that will feed into the final position of European politicians. It re-iterates many of the points the committee made last year, and places great emphasis on protecting the personal data of Europeans:

The European Commission should incorporate in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), as a key priority, an unambiguous horizontal self-standing provision that "fully exempts the existing and future EU legal framework on the protection of personal data from the agreement", says the Civil Liberties Committee in its TTIP opinion adopted on Tuesday.
That "horizontal provision" basically means across the entire agreement, and not just in certain chapters. To achieve that, the Civil Liberties MEPs call on the Commission:
to incorporate, as a key priority, "a comprehensive and unambiguous horizontal self-standing provision based on Article XIV of the GATS [general exceptions] that fully exempts the existing and future EU legal framework on the protection of personal data from the agreement, without any condition that it must be consistent with other parts of the TTIP".
Article XIV of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) says:
Subject to the requirement that such measures are not applied in a manner which would constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between countries where like conditions prevail, or a disguised restriction on trade in services, nothing in this Agreement shall be construed to prevent the adoption or enforcement by any Member of measures:

...

(c) necessary to secure compliance with laws or regulations which are not inconsistent with the provisions of this Agreement including those relating to:

...

(ii) the protection of the privacy of individuals in relation to the processing and dissemination of personal data and the protection of confidentiality of individual records and accounts;
The Committee points out that this threat to data protection is present not only in TTIP, but also in TISA, as Techdirt has discussed before:
Ongoing negotiations on international trade agreements, such as TTIP and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), also touch upon international data flows, while excluding privacy and data protection entirely, which will be discussed in parallel track within the framework of the US-EU Safe Harbor and the data protection "umbrella agreement".
Safe Harbor, as we've noted, is major point of contention between the US and EU. Another, of course, is the mass surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, and the Civil Liberties Committee is not shy about mentioning that, too:
The negotiators should keep in mind that that the consent of the European Parliament to the final TTIP agreement "could be endangered as long as the blanket mass surveillance activities are not completely abandoned and an adequate solution is found for the data privacy rights of EU citizens, including administrative and judicial redress", MEPs say
This is only one committee, albeit a key one. But at the very least it gives an indication of some of the serious issues that will be raised if and when it comes to a vote on ratifying TAFTA/TTIP -- and of the difficulty of gaining enough support among MEPs to do so.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 April 2015 @ 1:08am

Is It Acceptable For Academics To Pay For Privatized, Expedited Peer Review?

from the bumps-along-the-way dept

Academic publishing is going through a turbulent time, not least because of the rise of open access, which disrupts the traditional model in key ways. But in one respect, open access is just like the old-style academic publishing it is replacing: it generally employs peer review to decide whether papers should be accepted, although there are some moves to open up peer review too. As this story from Science makes clear, commercial publishers are innovating here as well, although not always in ways that academics like:

An editor of Scientific Reports, one of Nature Publishing Group's (NPG's) open-access journals, has resigned in a very public protest of NPG's recent decision to allow authors to pay money to expedite peer review of their submitted papers.
According to the Science article, there are now several companies making millions of dollars from this kind of privatized, expedited peer review. Here's more about Research Square, the one employed by NPG:
"We have about 100 employees with Ph.D.s,” says Research Square’s CEO, Shashi Mudunuri. That small army of editors recruits scientists around the world as reviewers, guiding the papers through the review process. The reviewers get paid $100 for each completed review. The review process itself is also streamlined, using an online "scorecard" instead of the traditional approach of comments, questions, and suggestions.
Authors pay $750 to NPG, and are guaranteed a review within three weeks or they get their money back. Research Square seems to be flourishing:
So far, Mudunuri says, the company has about 1400 active reviewers who have scored 920 papers. The company pulled in $20 million in revenue last year.
Still, the question has to be whether this leads to key benefits of the peer review process being lost. After all, the system is not just about accepting or rejecting papers. The NPG editor who resigned, Professor Mark Maslin, is quoted as saying:
"Deep consideration and a well thought out review is much more important than its speed. I have had brilliant reviews which have considerably improved my papers and I really appreciated all the time taken."
The other issue is that the expedited, paid-for route is discriminatory:
"My objections are that it sets up a two-tiered system and instead of the best science being published in a timely fashion it will further shift the balance to well-funded labs and groups," Mark Maslin, a biogeographer at University College London, tells ScienceInsider. "Academic Publishing is going through a revolution and we should expect some bumps along the way. This was just one that I felt I could not accept."
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Posted on Techdirt - 7 April 2015 @ 1:13am

Should People Be Told Key Results Of Genetic Tests They Never Took?

from the ethical-dilemmas dept

The population of Iceland is unusual in a number of ways. Icelanders are descendants from a relatively small group of early settlers that remained isolated for hundreds of years. They have unmatched genealogical records that allow the family tree of many Icelanders to be traced back a thousand years, and thus for familial interrelationships on the island to be established with unprecedented completeness. Put those together, and you have a population that offers unique advantages for studying human genetics. That fact led to the founding of the Icelandic company Decode, which was set up in the hope that it would be possible to use Iceland's population to pinpoint genes associated with medical conditions, and then come up with new ways of diagnosing, treating and preventing them.

That didn't work out, and in 2012, Decode was bought by Amgen. But technology has advanced hugely since Decode's founding in 1996. The cost of sequencing the human genome has fallen dramatically, allowing the DNA of thousands of people to be compared -- something prohibitively expensive 20 years ago. The New York Times reports on research by Decode that has resulted in the sequencing of the genomes of 2,636 Icelanders, the largest collection ever analyzed in a single human population. Because of the completeness of Iceland's genealogical records, Decode's scientists were able to do something rather remarkable: work out the full genomes of another 100,000 Icelanders, a third of the entire country, without collecting any of their DNA.

With a technique called imputation, the researchers say they are able to ascertain the full genomes of people they have not even examined. Dr. Stefansson said that means that his firm could generate a report for genetic disease on every person in Iceland.
Once those "imputed" genomes have been constructed using computers, they can be interrogated in novel ways:
With the push of a button, for instance, the firm can identify every person with the well-known BRCA2 mutation, which dramatically raises the risk of breast and ovarian cancer -- even if they have not submitted to genetic testing themselves.

Currently, that information is withheld from Icelanders, but Dr. Stefansson hopes that the government will change its policy. “It’s a crime not to approach these people,” he said.
That raises an interesting ethical question. Should people who have never had their genome sequenced be told the results of this kind of computer-based analysis? Although the Icelandic case might seem unique, it is only a matter of time before sequencing costs fall so far that millions, rather than thousands of individuals can be sequenced within a population. And the more genomes that are available, the more imputed genomes that can be calculated, making the ethical dilemmas faced in Iceland something that people in other countries will soon have to confront too.

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 April 2015 @ 9:49am

Australian Politicians Create An Exemption From Data Retention Laws For Themselves... Or Not, Because We Got Fooled

from the not-thinking-it-through dept

Update: Or not. Turns out this was an April Fool's joke that Glyn missed. So, congrats, Crikey, on fooling our most careful writer...

Now that the completely disproportionate data retention law has been rushed through the Australian Parliament, politicians are suddenly realizing that their metadata will be collected too. And so, as was perhaps inevitable, they have asked for an exemption, as reported here by Crikey:

An in-camera meeting of the high-powered Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security last week agreed to task the Department of Defence's signals intelligence arm, the Australian Signals Directorate, and the new Australian Cyber Security Centre with ensuring politicians' metadata is not captured by the government's new data retention regime while they are at work in [the Australian capital] Canberra.
The argument was that:
given Parliament House is supposed to be the centre of Australian democracy, they shouldn't be, you know, tracked while at work there
Well, many people would argue that they shouldn't be tracked either, but obviously politicians are special. It seems that there were two options for achieving this carve-out. One required officials personally identifying and deleting the metadata of politicians, staffers and senior public servants -- a manual process aptly dubbed "handwashing". The other, cheaper, approach -- the one chosen -- was simply to remove metadata from all communications generated within Australia's Parliament House.

Problem solved -- except that some 680,000 visitors enter the building annually, and while they are there, their metadata will not be collected either. Ironically, then, the new exemption for politicians from a scheme allegedly to help the fight against terrorism and crime will turn Parliament House into the perfect location for plotting precisely those things in relative safety.

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 April 2015 @ 1:00am

Immovable North Korean Authoritarianism Meets Irresistible Moore's Law: Which Wins?

from the I-know-who-I'm-backing dept

North Korea has become a by-word for oppressive tyranny and technological backwardness. But Reuters reports on an interesting development that may begin to chip away at both:

A $50 portable media player is providing many North Koreans a window to the outside world despite the government's efforts to keep its people isolated -- a symbol of change in one of the world's most repressed societies.

By some estimates, up to half of all urban North Korean households have an easily concealed "notel", a small portable media player used to watch DVDs or content stored on USB sticks that can be easily smuggled into the country and passed hand to hand.

People are exchanging South Korean soaps, pop music, Hollywood films and news programs, all of which are expressly prohibited by the Pyongyang regime, according to North Korean defectors, activists and recent visitors to the isolated country.
The Reuters story reports that the device has become so popular that the North Korean government felt obliged to legalize the "notel" -- but with the requirement that they had to be registered. These versions must be fixed to official state television and radio channels, but the smuggled models are more versatile:
The low-voltage notel differs from the portable DVD players of the late 1990s in that they have USB and SD card ports, and a built-in TV and radio tuner. They can also be charged with a car battery -- an essential piece of household equipment in electricity-scarce North Korea.
The dual media capability means a North Korean DVD can be inserted while watching smuggled, forbidden content from South Korea on a USB stick, which can be quickly removed if the authorities turn up to conduct a check on a household.

A key factor driving the uptake of these new devices is Moore's Law. This has pushed down the price of the components used in the notel box to the point where even North Koreans, with their rising, but still very limited disposable incomes, can afford them. It has increased the capacities of USBs and SD cards such that several film-length videos can be stored on devices that are very easy to hide at short notice. That means it only requires one copy of a South Korean film -- or other, even more subversive material -- to enter North Korea, and it can be copied and passed around on a scale that makes stopping it almost impossible for the authorities. It will be fascinating to watch the social and political ramifications of this silent struggle between tyranny and technology.

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Posted on Techdirt - 2 April 2015 @ 1:12am

European Commission Discovers The Hard Way That Corporate Sovereignty Provisions And EU Laws Are Incompatible

from the we-did-warn-you dept

The US government and European Commission insist that the inclusion of a corporate sovereignty chapter in the TAFTA/TTIP treaty will not in any way diminish the ability of nations to pass laws as they wish. A fascinating case involving an investment in Romania shows why that's just not true. It concerns a state aid scheme instituted by Romania to attract investments in the country, which offered tax breaks or refunds of customs duties on raw materials. The scheme was supposed to remain in place for 10 years. But as part of Romania's accession to the EU, it was required to cancel this scheme, which was regarded by the European Commission as providing unfair state aid. So, obediently, Romania abolished the scheme in 2005, some years earlier than it had promised.

That didn't go down too well with investors. Two of them were able to use the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clauses of a bilateral treaty between Sweden and Romania to sue the latter. Here's what happened next, as described in the European Commission's press release:

An arbitral award of December 2013 found that by revoking an investment incentive scheme in 2005, four years prior to its scheduled expiry in 2009, Romania had infringed a bilateral investment treaty between Romania and Sweden. The arbitral tribunal ordered Romania to compensate the claimants, two investors with Swedish citizenship, for not having benefitted in full from the scheme.
Just part of the price of joining the European Union, you might think. But the European Commission is unhappy that compensation has been paid:
By paying the compensation awarded to the claimants, Romania actually grants them advantages equivalent to those provided for by the abolished aid scheme. The Commission has therefore concluded that this compensation amounts to incompatible state aid and has to be paid back by the beneficiaries.
That is, both the original state aid and the subsequent compensation for not providing that aid for the full term of the agreement are regarded as forbidden under EU law. So the European Commission is ordering Romania somehow to pull back from the Swedish investors the compensation awarded by the ISDS tribunal. Leaving aside the difficulty of doing so, even if Romania manages that, it will then be in breach of the corporate sovereignty tribunal ruling, which could leave it open to further legal action, and further awards against it. On the other hand, if it doesn't rescind the compensation, it will be fined by the European Commission.

This provides a perfect demonstration of how corporate sovereignty provisions in treaties take away the ability of national governments to act freely. Moreover, in this particular case, whatever Romania chooses to do, its people will suffer financially.

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Posted on Techdirt - 1 April 2015 @ 1:37pm

Unpatentable Vegetables Are Now Patentable In Europe

from the as-such dept

As Techdirt has reported, in the US, software patents are getting harder to obtain as the US Patent Office applies the important Alice v. CLS Bank ruling from the Supreme Court. In Europe, "programs for computers" are explicitly excluded from patentability according to Article 52 of the European Patent Convention -- but "only to the extent to which a European patent application or European patent relates to such subject-matter or activities as such." That cunningly opaque distinction between "programs for computers" and "programs for computers as such" has allowed thousands of patents for the former to be granted, even though they differ very little from the latter.

That trick worked so well, it seems that the European Patent Office (EPO) has decided to apply it to another area: plants. Once more, the European Patent Convention states quite clearly:

European patents shall not be granted in respect of:

...

plant or animal varieties or essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals; this provision does not apply to microbiological processes or the products thereof.
Despite that, we have the following news reported by Intellectual Property Watch:
The highest court of the European Patent Office has declared that plants or seeds obtained through conventional breeding methods are patentable.

...

The Board of Appeal found that the exclusion of essentially biological processes for the production of plants does not extent to a patent claim for a product that is directly obtained from or defined by such a breeding process, the EPO said.
That's pretty close to the "as such" trick. Of course, it's not so surprising that a specialist patent court at the EPO should hand down a judgment in favor of granting more patents, just as has occurred in the US. What's troubling is that if and when the completely independent Unified Patent Court system is introduced in Europe, there will be no way to rein in the patent courts as has finally started to happen in the US.

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Posted on Techdirt - 1 April 2015 @ 1:12am

Following Canada's Bad Example, Now UK Wants To Muzzle Scientists And Their Inconvenient Truths

from the non-appliance-of-science dept

Techdirt has been following for a while Canada's moves to stop scientists from speaking out about areas where the facts of the situation don't sit well with the Canadian government's dogma-based policies. Sadly, it looks like the UK is taking the same route. It concerns a new code for the country's civil servants, which will also apply to thousands of publicly-funded scientists. As the Guardian reports:

Under the new code, scientists and engineers employed at government expense must get ministerial approval before they can talk to the media about any of their research, whether it involves GM crops, flu vaccines, the impact of pesticides on bees, or the famously obscure Higgs boson.
The fear -- quite naturally -- is that ministers could take days before replying to requests, by which time news outlets will probably have lost interest. As a result of this change, science organizations have sent a letter to the UK government, expressing their "deep concern" about the code. A well-known British neurobiologist, Sir Colin Blakemore, told the Guardian:
"The real losers here are the public and the government. The public lose access to what they consider to be an important source of scientific evidence, and the government loses the trust of the public," Blakemore said.
Not only that, by following Canada's example, the British government also makes it more likely that other countries will do the same, which will weaken science's ability to participate in policy discussions around the world -- just when we need to hear its voice most.

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Posted on Techdirt - 31 March 2015 @ 1:06am

Few Australian Businesses Use Or Know About Trade Agreements: So Why Make Big Concessions To Sign Up To TPP?

from the serious-question dept

Techdirt recently looked at the important leak of the investment chapter from the TPP trade agreement, noting how bad it was, particularly as far as the corporate sovereignty provisions are concerned. One obvious question this raises is: will the supposed benefits of TPP outweigh these kind of serious problems? Obviously, we won't be able to make even a provisional assessment until we have the full and final text, but what we can do is look at whether past trade agreements have been worth it. Measuring that objectively is not easy, but one way of gauging their value is to look at the extent to which businesses -- the intended beneficiaries of trade agreements -- actually use them. There's not much data to go on here, but this report in the Sydney Morning Herald is pretty unequivocal:

The annual Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry trade survey shows the least understood free trade agreement is the Korea-Australia FTA, followed by the Australia-Chile FTA. The most understood agreements are the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA (understood by 18 per cent of those surveyed) and the Australia-United States one (understood by 17 per cent). The results have dropped by about 7 percentage points since the 2014 survey, suggesting fewer Australian businesses understand the agreements than previously.
Note that this survey comes from a trade organization, and so is unlikely to be biased against such agreements. Actual usage by Australian businesses was equally unimpressive:
Only 13 per cent of small businesses found Australia's FTA with New Zealand "really useful". Almost 23 per cent of big businesses found it useful. About 15 per cent of small businesses found the free trade agreement with the US useful and 22 per cent of big businesses did.
Of course, this is only one survey, and in one country. But you'd think that all governments contemplating signing up to global trade agreements like TPP and TAFTA/TTIP would have done plenty of this kind research before committing themselves. The fact that they haven't might almost lead a cynic to suspect that they were prepared to sign up whether or not it was a good thing for their nation, just so they could claim a political "win".

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 March 2015 @ 2:39pm

UN Appoints Special Expert To Report On Online Privacy; Surprisingly, US And UK Don't Object

from the wonders-will-never-cease dept

The world of online privacy was changed forever by Edward Snowden's revelations of massive, global spying by the US, UK and others. And the repercussions of his actions continue to make themselves felt. Two countries particularly affected by the surveillance conducted against them, Germany and Brazil, have led efforts to appoint a new rapporteur (special expert) for privacy at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and with surprising success. Despite fears that the US or UK might try to block the move, or neuter the role, they both accepted the following resolution, which was adopted by consensus, without a vote:

The Council invites the Special Rapporteur to include in the first report considerations on the right to privacy in the digital age; calls upon all States to cooperate fully with and assist the Special Rapporteur in the performance of the mandate, including by providing all necessary information requested by him or her, to respond promptly to his or her urgent appeals and other communications, to consider favourably the mandate holder’s requests to visit their countries and to consider implementing the recommendations made by the mandate holder in his or her reports.
It will be interesting to see what happens when the Rapporteur comes calling on the NSA and GCHQ asking for more details of their surveillance operations. The resolution affirmed a general right to privacy:
according to which no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, and the right to the protection of the law against such interference...; recognizes the global and open nature of the Internet and the rapid advancement in information and communications technology as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms; and affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, including the right to privacy.
The Rapporteur will have no real powers to demand information or enforce recommendations. But at the very least, the creation of this new role will help to increase international awareness of the importance of privacy in the digital world, and of the scale of the threats ranged against it.

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Posted on Techdirt - 26 March 2015 @ 1:05am

Unimpressed, UK's Parliamentary Committee For Business Calls For 'Evidence-Based Approach' To TAFTA/TTIP

from the making-astrology-look-respectable dept

Given the magnitude of the effect that TAFTA/TTIP could have on the economies and daily life of both the US and EU, it is surprising that there has not been more analysis of its likely impact. In particular, you would have thought that the governments who favor it would have made great efforts to deploy plenty of evidence supporting the agreement. Instead, the European Commission simply repeats the same set of figures from the 2013 analysis that it commissioned from the London-based CEPR group (pdf), while the US side seems to think even one study is one too many.

Analyses from the public's political representatives are also surprisingly thin on the ground. That makes a new report from one of the UK Parliament's specialist committees, which are made up of current MPs, particularly welcome. It comes from the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee, so you might expect it to be really upbeat about the TTIP negotiations. Instead, it is pretty unimpressed by the debate so far:

The BIS Committee finds that while a lack of detail on negotiations makes it difficult to assess the benefits of TTIP, all involved in the debate -- campaigners, lobbyists, business groups, the UK Government and the European Commission -- must ensure they take an evidence-based approach when assessing TTIP’s potential.
The report focuses on two main areas: TTIP's economic benefits and the corporate sovereignty provisions, also known as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). As it notes, the main figures used time and again in support of the trade deal come from the European Commission's CEPR report. Leaving aside its many debatable assumptions, one key fact that has emerged is that the core prediction for the best-case scenario -- US and EU economies to grow by 0.4% and 0.5% respectively as a result of TTIP -- refers to cumulative growth by 2027, and therefore amounts to around 0.05% extra GDP per year, on average. Regarding this fact, the economist Dean Baker wrote: "As growth policy, this trade deal doesn't pass the laugh test." On this issue, the Committee commented:
When we challenged the [UK Trade] Minister on the accuracy of the estimated benefits of TTIP, he appeared to agree that they should not be taken as fact. In doing so he quoted JK Galbraith, who said that the only purpose of economic forecasts was to make astrology look respectable.
The Committee was equally unimpressed with the arguments in favor of including a corporate sovereignty chapter:
We have yet to be convinced of the need for ISDS provisions in TTIP. The UK Government and the EU must demonstrate that the advanced legal institutions of the EU and the US cannot protect foreign investors before any ISDS is considered in the TTIP.
Again, coming from a naturally pro-business Parliamentary Committee, that's a pretty damning comment. It shows just how much work the US and EU governments need to do in order to convince people -- even those favorably inclined to the idea -- that TAFTA/TTIP is worth bothering with at all.

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Posted on Techdirt - 25 March 2015 @ 8:23am

Copyright Industry Keeps Asking For More In Australia: VPN Ban Next?

from the collateral-damage dept

Techdirt has been following the rather depressing saga of the Australian government's attempt to ram through new copyright powers for some time now. As TorrentFreak reports, under great pressure from the Australian government, local ISPs have put together a draft voluntary code for dealing with alleged copyright infringement (pdf). The Australasian Music Publishers Association (AMPAL) has now weighed in, and basically wants everything to be much harsher, including the following:

"The Code does not place a general obligation on ISPs to monitor and detect online copyright infringement," the publishers write. "AMPAL submits that ideally the Code should include such a duty using ISPs’ monitoring and filtering techniques."

...

"The Code does not require ISPs to block access to infringing material. AMPAL submits that ideally the Code should include provisions obliging ISPs to take such action following provision of the relevant information by Rights Holders and/or following discovery of copyright infringing websites by ISPs’ monitoring and filtering techniques," the publishers write.

...

"AMPAL submits that ideally additional options should be available to Rights Holders in the form of sanctions or mitigation procedures to be imposed on Account Holders," the publishers write.
In other words, AMPAL wants to get ISPs do all the dirty work, turning them into both cops and executioner. But AMPAL isn't alone in coming up with disproportionate responses to the ISP code. Via ZDNet, here's a comment from BBC Worldwide (pdf), the wholly-owned commercial arm of the British broadcaster:
The Code is ill-equipped [to] deal with consumers who spoof or mask their IP addresses to avoid detection, behaviour that we believe will increase as a result of an introduction of a notice scheme.
The footnote for that point refers to a TorrentFreak article about Canadian piracy notifications boosting demand for VPNs, which confirms that what BBC Worldwide is concerned about here is the ease with which Australians will be able to use things like VPNs to evade sanctions by masking their IP address.

Of course, anyone who understands how the Internet works -- and how people use it -- has been pointing this out for years. But the worrying thing is that the copyright industry seems to be surprised by this possibility. Knowing the way it thinks, and its complete indifference to the collateral damage it might cause, the fear has to be that the next stage in its war on sharing will be demanding that governments ban VPNs.

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 March 2015 @ 9:11pm

Open Letter To Key EU Copyright Working Group Calls For 'Balanced Representation Of Views'

from the good-luck-with-that dept

Back in January, we wrote about the report from the Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda, which made a number of bold but sensible proposals for reforming the EU's 2001 copyright directive. Not surprisingly, the lobbyists have been hard at work, and no less than 556 amendments to the report have been proposed (pdf), many of them clearly aiming to undermine some of Reda's ideas completely -- for example, those seeking to rein in DRM. One of the important players in the revision process is the European Parliament's Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights and Copyright Reform, which describes itself as follows:

The aim of the Working Group is to reflect on IPR issues and especially to pave the way to the upcoming reform of the EU legal framework on copyright. The Working Group will meet once a month and will exchange views with the widest range of stakeholders and civil society. The result of the work would serve as a starting point for future legislative review in the field and would enable Members to present concrete and innovative proposals to the European Commission.
Of course, one of the problems with reform in this area is that rarely do lawmakers engage with "the widest range of stakeholders and civil society": instead, they tend to listen to what the copyright industries tell them, and act accordingly. Hoping to head off that risk this time, a group of industry and civil society groups has sent an open letter to the coordinator of the Working Group (pdf), Jean-Marie Cavada, calling for a more balanced representation of views. Here's the key section (found via Netzpolitik):
We would like to express our concern with regard to the lack of diversity of expert speakers and the corresponding representation of views. In the digital age, copyright impacts a great variety of stakeholders. Apart from established copyright industries and authors, it is of great relevance to citizens, consumers, cultural heritage institutions, libraries, researchers, universities and the Internet industries. It is also of fundamental importance to creators who are taking advantage of new, digital opportunities and who are not represented by traditional copyright industries.

In that context, we call on the WG to make sure that these views are appropriately represented in the upcoming meetings. Making copyright rules future-proof requires a holistic approach. This can only be achieved if the full spectrum of stakeholders is adequately represented and given a chance to speak in front of Members of Parliament who will ultimately be tasked with passing new copyright legislation.
That pre-emptive call is a shrewd move: it makes the Working Group's coordinator aware that people are watching carefully who exactly he calls to give their views. Whether it succeeds in producing a more balanced representation is another matter.

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 March 2015 @ 11:36am

Indian Supreme Court Strikes Down Censorship Law -- But Leaves Web Blocking

from the pillars-of-democracy dept

Back in 2012, Techdirt reported on a poor Twitter user who was arrested after tweeting to his 16 followers something vaguely unflattering about a politician. The law invoked in this case, Section 66A of India's Information Technology (IT) Act, has been used on other occasions against many quite harmless online comments, particularly if they embarrassed the powerful. Now India's Supreme Court has struck it down, as the Times of India reports:

The court said such a law hit at the root of liberty and freedom of expression, the two cardinal pillars of democracy. The court said the section has to be erased from the law books as it has gone much beyond the reasonable restrictions put by the Constitution on freedom of speech. The Supreme Court said section 66A was vaguely worded and allowed its misuse by police.
But the judges did not eliminate another controversial power granted by the IT Act:
The court, however, upheld the validity of section 69B and the 2011 guidelines for the implementation of the I-T Act that allowed the government to block websites if their content had the potential to create communal disturbance, social disorder or affect India's relationship with other countries.
Those are pretty vague criteria, and it's easy to see them being abused, just as Section 66A was. Nonetheless, this is an important ruling (pdf), not least for the Indian Supreme Court's robust defense of free speech. Let's hope future Indian laws attempting to control online activities take note of its wisdom.

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 March 2015 @ 1:05am

All Parties In Austrian Parliament Support Resolution Calling For Action Against NSA And GCHQ Spying

from the largely-symbolic,-still-significant dept

However much the US government might hope otherwise, there is still widespread concern in Europe about the activities of the NSA and its Five Eyes friends. Here's the latest proof of that: a joint motion signed by all political parties in the Austrian parliament, against illegal surveillance (via Netzpolitik). The Parliament's own summary of what the motion contained reads as follows (original in German):

The recent revelations of the US whistleblower Edward Snowden have now acted as a call to action for the six parliamentary groups. In a resolution introduced jointly, they express their support for tackling seriously the illegal spying by the US foreign intelligence NSA, its British counterpart GCHQ and other foreign intelligence services. In their opinion, the [Austrian] government should exhaust all available diplomatic options, and diligently pursue violations of the Austrian Criminal Code. In addition, the MPs urge taking steps at the European level to promote the technological independence of Europe in the field of information and communication technology.

In the justification for the motion, reference was made to the recently-discovered "cyberbug", presumably attributable to the NSA. With this new malware, which cannot be detected by anti-virus software, and can even survive wiping the hard disk undamaged, it is possible for encryption to be circumvented, for example. The Members find equally worrying the theft of millions of electronic encryption keys from the Dutch SIM card producer Gemalto.
Although the motion in itself is unlikely to achieve much, it's a clear indication of continuing anger among European politicians at the activities of the NSA and GCHQ in spying on innocent members of the public, and undermining key elements of telecommunications infrastructure. If nothing else, it's a timely reminder that there are plenty of unresolved issues here, and that they are likely to have serious ramifications on US-EU relations in the future, not least in areas like Safe Harbor and TAFTA/TTIP.

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