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Posted on Techdirt - 29 September 2016 @ 3:00am

UK Government Says Smart Meters Can Definitely Be Trusted Because GCHQ Designed Their Security

from the oh,-that's-OK,-then dept

The idea behind smart meters -- that detailed information about how you consume electricity will allow you to use power more efficiently and thus cut your bills and your home's carbon emissions -- is a good one in theory. And yet smart meters are still not used very widely, even in countries like the UK, where the government has a strategy to install millions of them by 2020. Actually, the likely savings by users are small, but smart meters also promise to allow the electricity industry to lower salary costs by carrying out meter readings remotely, which is one reason why it is so keen on the idea. Another is because smart meters make it is easy to cut off someone's supply if they don't pay their bills.

The slow uptake of smart meters seems in part to be due to public concerns about security. People are worried that their smart meter will spy on them, sending back information to electricity companies that might be intercepted and used for targeted burglary when they are away. Similarly, there are fears that if the smart meter control system were compromised, domestic electricity supplies might be at risk on a large scale.

One of UK Parliament's most important committees, the one monitoring science and technology, has just published a report into the UK smart meter roll-out, offering recommendations for ways to speed it up. Security is an issue it discusses, and one of the committee's recommendations is as follows:

We recommend that the Government consider further how to communicate the level of thought that has gone into designing a secure system for smart metering
More about that "level of thought" is found in an appendix to the report, which contains the UK government's evidence on this topic, including the following statement:
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has worked with GCHQ since the very early design stage of the rollout, when the programme was initiated. The engagement with GCHQ has been one of partnership, issue discussion and resolution.
Helpfully, GCHQ has written a long and interesting description of its work on smart meters, and how it has tried to make UK smart meters resistant to attack. The post concludes:
We hope that this article has explained the thinking behind the design of the Smart Metering System. DECC, with support from GCHQ (part of which will be become the National Cyber Security Centre) has security right at the top of the list of things it cares about. Of course, no system is completely secure, and nothing is invulnerable. However, we’re confident that the Smart Metering System strikes the best balance between security and business needs, whilst meeting broader policy and national security objectives.
It's interesting that the post mentions national security objectives. As Techdirt has reported, one of the worst features of the UK's Investigatory Powers Bill that is currently wending it way through Parliament is that it creates a legal framework to allow GCHQ and the other intelligence agencies to hack into any kind of equipment in order to carry out surveillance. Of course, that's really rather easy when you were the one who designed its security systems.

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 September 2016 @ 11:08pm

Local Lawyers Challenge New Kuwaiti Law Creating Mandatory DNA Database Of All Citizens And Visitors

from the hands-off-my-genome dept

One of the most extraordinary government surveillance projects in the world is being rolled out in Kuwait, and involves creating a mandatory DNA database of all citizens and visitors. An article in New Scientist confirms that the system is now under construction:

The government has already begun to enact the law, collecting samples from people they suspect of having falsely claimed Kuwaiti nationality, as well as members of the police and military. From November, all Kuwaitis wishing to renew passports will have to submit DNA samples, while the country's embassies around the world have been told to notify potential visitors that they will be required to give a DNA sample upon arrival in the country.
The good news is that a bunch of public-spirited Kuwaiti lawyers are fighting back:
When the law was passed in July last year, Adel AbdulHadi of the Kuwaiti law firm Adel AbdulHadi & Partners and his colleagues began researching and drafting their challenge to it. Their principal argument is that the law violates privacy and human rights provisions in the country's own constitution, as well as those enshrined in international treaties to which Kuwait is a signatory.
To their credit, the lawyers are funding the challenge themselves, as they feel so strongly that the law should be struck down.

As the article points out, collecting DNA is hardly likely to be a very effective way of deterring would-be terrorists from entering the country. Equally, finding someone's DNA at the site of a terrorist explosion tells you little: by their very nature, such attacks cause tissues from bombers and victims alike to be scattered widely, making forensic DNA analysis difficult. On the other hand, there is considerable scope for abuse:

DNA samples could be used for other purposes, such as identifying illegal immigrants, or determining paternity in country where adultery is a punishable offence.
The New Scientist article offers no views on how likely it is that the legal challenge will succeed. We can only hope that it does, because once such a system is successfully implemented in one country, others are sure to see it as an example that they can follow.

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 September 2016 @ 8:34am

The EU's Proposed Copyright Directive Is Likely To Be A Wonderful Gift -- For US Internet Giants

from the law-of-unintended-consequences dept

A couple of weeks ago, Techdirt ran through the catalog of horrors that make up the EU's new Copyright Directive proposals, pointing out that they would be a general disaster in their current form. Of course, the misery would not be evenly spread: some would suffer more, some less. Indeed, an earlier open letter to the European Commission from a bunch of tech companies (including Techdirt), published on the Don't Wreck the Net site, pointed out one group who wouldn't have too much of a problem with the changes:

The largest companies have the resources and staff to deal with increased regulations and burdens. Startups do not.
That is, the big online companies can weather more or less anything: it's the smaller ones -- particularly startups -- that will have difficulties. That warning was issued before the details were known, and now Joe McNamee from the European digital rights group EDRi has penned a very similar analysis based on the newly-published plans:
There is a lot of noise in the press and among lobbyists about an alleged hostility of the EU towards big American internet companies. Reality is more nuanced and more surprising -- the policies appear to be hell-bent on giving Google new monopolies, to the detriment of European citizens and European internet companies.

The most astonishing of these policies is the proposal in the new Copyright Directive for mass, preventive filtering of information as it is being uploaded to the internet in Europe -- a policy so restrictive and absurd that even China or Russia would baulk at the notion. An anti-Google measure? Hardly. Google actively lobbied the Vice-President of the European Commission about the alleged virtues of its content identification system ("contentID"), even if they hadn’t expected the Great Firewall of Europe to be the result.
Even if the Copyright Directive manages to pass through the EU legislative system without any changes -- which seems unlikely -- Google would be in a strong position, because it already has the content ID technology in place that will allow it to comply. Although McNamee suggests that as a result Google would be "uniquely placed to license such software to European internet providers," it's more likely that it would keep it for its own exclusive use. However, the US company Audible Magic would doubtless be more than happy to license its widely-used content identification system as an alternative. And irrespective of whether it's based on technology from Google or from Audible Magic, it's hard to see how this outcome helps the European tech industry. Moreover, McNamee is certainly right about the likely outcome of bringing in an insane "ancillary copyright" in the EU, which would require Internet companies to pay a fee to use news snippets:
In Germany, where this policy has already been adopted, Google has the economic muscle to simply refuse to pay and suddenly it is not Google, but the publishers, who have a problem. Publishers put their content online in order for people to view it and to make money from advertising that is on their sites. They need Google News more than Google News needs them. So, the outcome is that everybody pays except Google. The Spanish government came up with a cunning plan, they passed a similar law to the one in Germany, but required Google News to pay. Result: Google News Spain shut down, to the detriment of smaller Spanish news outlets in particular and, again, everyone except Google loses.
The rest of the EDRi post points out other fundamental flaws in the proposed EU Copyright Directive. But the key point is that far from stimulating the European digital economy, the EU's deeply-flawed plans are likely to boost the power and the profits of the largest US Internet companies. That may be good news for them and their shareholders, but it isn't really the European Commission's job.

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Posted on Techdirt - 20 September 2016 @ 11:34pm

New Economic Study Indicates EU-Canada Trade Deal Will Cause 'Unemployment, Inequality And Welfare Losses'

from the tell-me-why-we-are-doing-this-again? dept

As Techdirt noted back in January, it is astonishing that the TPP negotiations proceeded for years with almost no detailed analysis of whether they would be beneficial. It was only recently, after the text had been finalized, that a number of studies started to appear which explored the likely impact of TPP in some depth. Strikingly, every single one of them predicted almost no benefit for the US economy from the deal.

The situation for TPP is rather better than for the other big US trade negotiations currently underway, TAFTA/TTIP, where attempts to model its impact are thin on the ground. The same is true for CETA, the EU-Canada trade deal that was supposedly "finished" two years ago, and yet still hasn't been passed because of the text's deep problems, not least because of its corporate sovereignty provisions. Despite the fact that CETA may be quite close to final ratification -- although growing resistance to it in Europe may still stop it -- we have very few studies of what benefits it might bring. The main one is the official analysis that was used to kick off the talks (pdf) in the first place, published in 2008. Here's the key result:

The annual real income gain by the year 2014, compared to the baseline scenario, would be approximately €11.6 billion for the EU (representing 0.08 percent of EU GDP), and approximately €8.2 billion for Canada (representing 0.77 percent of Canadian GDP). Total EU exports to Canada go up by 24.3 percent or €17 billion by 2014 while Canadian bilateral exports to the EU go up by 20.6 percent or €8.6 billion by 2014.
Leaving aside the fact that 2014 has come and gone, it's clear even from these figures that CETA will produce almost negligible annual GDP uplift for both sides, since the quoted figures are cumulative extra growth that would come from CETA. But an important question is just how reliable even these small gains are, since they implicitly form the main justification for the whole deal. A new study from the Global Development And Environment Institute at Tufts University, which also conducted one for TPP last year, offers a useful perspective. Its results are pretty damning, and include the following:
CETA will lead to wage compression. By 2023, workers will have foregone average annual earnings increases of €1776 in Canada and between €316 and €1331 in the EU depending on the country. Countries with higher labor income shares and unemployment, such as France and Italy, will experience the most pronounced wage compression.

CETA will lead to net losses of government revenue. Competitive pressures exerted by CETA on governments by international investors and shrinking policy space for supporting domestic investment, production and investment will reduce government revenue and expenditure. Government deficits will also increase as a percentage of GDP in every EU country, pushing public finances closer or beyond the limits set by the Maastricht treaty.

CETA will lead to job losses. By 2023, about 230 thousand jobs will be lost in CETA countries, 200 thousand of them in the EU, and 80 thousand more in the rest of the world, adding to the rising dependency ratio (the average number of people supported by one job).

CETA will lead to net losses in terms of GDP. As investment and foreign demand remain sluggish, aggregate demand shortfalls nurtured by higher unemployment will also hurt productivity and cause cumulative welfare losses amounting to 0.96% and 0.49% of national income in Canada and the EU, respectively. While the United Kingdom (-0.23%) and Germany (-0.37%) may be least affected, France (-0.65%) and Italy (-0.78%) will lose more than other EU countries (-0.53%).
The full 40-page paper (PDF) goes into the details. Along the way, it provides a highly critical analysis of the underlying econometric model used for almost all of the official studies of CETA, TPP and TTIP -- the so-called "computable general equilibrium" (CGE) approach. In particular, the authors find that using the CGE model to analyze a potential trade deal effectively guarantees that there will be a positive outcome ("net welfare gains") because of its unrealistic assumptions:
In these CGE analyses, the Canadian and EU economies instantaneously and costlessly adjust to the trade reform, and as any increase in unemployment or loss of aggregate income, even temporarily, is ruled out beforehand, CGE analyses can only point to net welfare gains. Blinded by such strong but palpably unrealistic priors, neoclassical CGE modelers have merely defined away the problem. In light of such a lack of intellectual diversity and empirical realism, this paper contends that, already by their design, these studies do not represent a reliable basis for assessing CETA and meaningfully informing policy-makers.
Another new paper on CETA (pdf) points out a further issue with existing analyses of the economic impact: the fact that CETA -- like TTIP -- is mostly about regulatory convergence, rather than simple tariff reduction. And yet no account whatsoever is taken of the negative consequences of these moves in the official study or in those that follow its approach:
The additional burden on regulators from the various additional steps due to CETA -- and even more after its potential extension to other countries -- in the context of diminished regulators' resources, is likely to lead to delays, blockages and a reduction in the standard of regulation. Use of the precautionary principle is likely to be under great pressure in a number of areas. All of this is done in the name of economic gains which turns out in the official impact assessment to be vanishingly small -- the equivalent of a cup of coffee every three months for each European in terms of disposable income -- and if the omitted effects of constrained regulations in the areas of climate change, finance, toxic chemicals, etc., were included in a more thorough assessment, then the economic evaluation would turn out to be heavily negative. Locking such provisions into an international treaty would turn out to be the height of folly.
These two new studies offer valuable perspectives on CETA. It's a pity they weren't produced years ago, when more might have been done to mitigate the harmful effects they reveal. As it is, it seems the only option now is to reject CETA completely.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 September 2016 @ 1:03pm

Brazilian Court Agrees Wikipedia Can Use Publicly-Available Personal Information For An Article

from the wow,-you-don't-say dept

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about a victory in the courts for Creative Commons licenses, noting that such judgments were still rather few and far between. That's unfortunate, in the sense that some people still think CC licensing is weird, rarely-used or even invalid. The situation regarding Wikipedia is similar. Even though it has been around for 15 years -- just like Creative Commons -- it too suffers from continuing doubts about its aims and methods, and a relative dearth of legal cases helping to clarify the status of both.

Here's one from Brazil, which has recently been settled in favour of Wikipedia's parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation. It concerns the Brazilian musician Rosanah Fienngo, who had brought a lawsuit objecting to information about her personal life being included on her Portuguese Wikipedia page. Wikimedia pointed out:

The Portuguese Wikipedia article about Ms. Fienngo contained information about her as a notable public figure in Brazil. This information included some details of her personal life, but this information was derived from public sources, most of which Ms. Fienngo had provided herself, such as an interview Ms. Fienngo gave to the gossip website O Fuxico.
You would have thought that someone who had provided details about her personal life to a gossip website would (a) realize that people might pass on that public information -- that's how gossip works -- and (b) be grateful to those who spread details she herself had chosen to make public. Fortunately, the judge seems to have understood the situation:
The court stated that although the information available on her Wikipedia page concerned her private life, Ms. Fienngo had already disclosed that information to the media herself, so its inclusion on Wikipedia was not an invasion of her privacy.
It's ridiculous that it required a court case to establish that, but the good news is the judgment should help to discourage others from bringing more such suits. Well, probably. Unfortunately, another similarity between the Brazilian Wikipedia case and the earlier Creative Commons one is that Ms. Fienngo could make an appeal, although Wikimedia notes:
We believe that the decision was strong enough that community members should feel free to make editorial decisions to write articles like the one about Ms. Fienngo.
Let's hope they're right.

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 September 2016 @ 9:35am

Hatch Still Trying To Change The Finalized TPP Deal To Make It Even Worse For Other Nations

from the two-edged-sword dept

As Techdirt noted in 2014, by agreeing to the "fast track" procedure for trade deals, Congress has essentially given up its power to change them. That's a two-edged sword. Although it makes the ratification process simpler, because things like TPP and TTIP must be accepted or rejected in their entirety, it also means that political bosses have no ability to tweak the text to make it more likely the deals will be ratified. That's coming back to bite one of the people who introduced the fast track bill, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch.

He has been trying for a while to get TPP to require the same 12 years' monopoly of drug safety data that the US provides for so-called "biologic drugs," in addition to the normal patent protection they enjoy. The final TPP text specifies eight years, and because of the fast track authority that he worked so hard to put in place, there is no way for Hatch to get the text changed now that it has been finalized. According to a report from Bloomberg, Hatch is apparently hoping that "binding side agreements" with the other TPP nations might do the trick, but there's a problem with that or any similar approach:

Australia, New Zealand and Peru have all indicated at various points during the last six months that they will not change their positions concerning biologics and stand by the agreed-upon language contained in the TPP.

"I don't know what they're going to offer, but they know I'm at 12 years of data exclusivity,” he said of the administration. "They're going to have to find a way of having the countries agree to change that formality in the TPP to 12 years or come up with something that will be acceptable."
That's really pretty extraordinary. After nearly eight years of tough negotiations, concessions were made and a final text agreed by all the countries involved. And now Hatch says it's not good enough, that the US has some special right to ask for yet more, and that countries refusing to up their protection for biologics data to 12 years won't be part of the TPP deal. Understandably, some in those nations at risk of being thrown out of TPP are unhappy about this threat. For example, Dr. Patricia Ranald, Convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network, said:
"The extra three years of monopoly [beyond current Australian regulations] in the current TPP text is already unacceptable. It is outrageous that the US is demanding an even greater increase from 8 to 12 years. We call on the Australian and other governments to reject this proposal."
In fact, it's even worse than that. As we pointed out a year ago, granting any protection to the clinical trial data used to gain approval for biologics seriously undermines one of the fundamental principles of science: that basic facts cannot be owned, and that progress is made by building on the results of others. Hatch is right that the eight-year term of protection for biologics data in TPP is unacceptable, but he's wrong about what the right term would be: it's not 12 years, but zero.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 September 2016 @ 2:29pm

Chinese State Patent Troll Absorbed By Smartphone Maker Xiaomi, Adding To Its Patent Hoard

from the but-will-it-come-in-peace? dept

A couple of years ago, we wrote about Ruichuan IPR Funds, which seemed to be a rather odd kind of patent troll -- one that was essentially backed by the Chinese government. Since then, Ruichuan has dropped off the radar in the West, but there have been some important changes in its home country, as reported on the IAM blog:

China's first patent fund is now being run as part of the Xiaomi IP function, IAM can exclusively reveal. When last we reported on the Ruichuan IPR Funds its status was somewhat unclear. The fund's operator, an IP services firm called Zhigu, had apparently been merged with the smartphone company's in-house IP department, but there had been no official word on the move.
Techdirt wrote about Xiaomi -- sometimes called "China's Apple" -- last year. Although it has lost some of its initial shine, it's still a top Chinese company, and one that has global ambitions. As Techdirt readers know only too well, to stand a chance in the West's patent-saturated tech markets, new entrants need a patent portfolio to use as a bargaining counter, and Xiaomi has been busy acquiring one. In June of this year, Bloomberg reported the following:
Xiaomi Corp. bought nearly 1,500 technology patents from Microsoft Corp. in a deal that may smooth potential legal tangles over intellectual property as it pushes beyond China.

The patents cover a range of wireless communications, video, cloud and multimedia technologies, spokeswoman Kaylene Hong said. The acquisition came as part of a broader agreement announced Wednesday with the U.S. software giant, under which Microsoft Office and Skype will come pre-installed on the Chinese smartphone maker devices.
The absorption of Ruichuan IPR Funds by Xiaomi -- which must have taken place with the Chinese government's approval -- is clearly part of the same strategy of bulking up in the patent department as it prepares to expand abroad. The big question is whether Xiaomi is planning to use its new portfolio purely defensively, so that it can sign cross-licensing deals, or whether it will start going on the offense and sue Western companies in their home markets too.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 September 2016 @ 4:25pm

Austrian Courts Uphold Creative Commons License Terms -- For Now

from the but-it's-not-over-yet dept

Last week, Mike wrote about an important case involving one of the Creative Commons licenses. The fact that some 15 years after the CC movement started and the courts are still trying to bring legal clarity to the use of CC licenses is further proof that the law tends to lag far behind technology. Given their rarity, it's interesting to see another recent case involving a CC license, this time in Austria, pointed out by Alan Toner on his blog.

As the timeline (in German) of the events indicates, the story began in January 2014, when thousands of left-wing protesters demonstrated against a ball organized by the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), held annually in Vienna. Following attacks on property and the police during the protest, one person was arrested, and in June 2014 his trial began.

The left-wing film collective Filmpiraten published a couple of short videos relating to the person involved. Shortly afterwards, the FPÖ used excerpts from the two Filmpiraten videos as part of a report published on its YouTube channel. The FPÖ video was released under the standard YouTube license, which claims full copyright in the material. However, both the Filmpiraten videos used a Creative Commons license -- specifically, the BY-NC-SA license. Under its terms, others may use the material free of charge, but are required to release the resulting work under the same CC license.

The FPÖ video did not respect that condition, so Filmpiraten's lawyers sent a letter asking for its material not to be used. The FPÖ responded by taking Filmpiraten to court, demanding €35,000 (about $40,000) in compensation for what it said were false accusations about its use of copyrighted material. The court case finally began in February 2015, and in July 2016 the judge ruled in favor of Filmpiraten, effectively upholding the Creative Commons license.

One worrying aspect of the case is that Filmpiraten struggled to find the resources to conduct such an expensive and time-consuming legal battle. As a spokesperson for the organization told the Austrian site futurezone, that may be why the FPÖ has adopted this approach -- and why it is now appealing to a higher court in an attempt to get the judge's ruling overturned.

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Posted on Techdirt - 2 September 2016 @ 5:59pm

Bhutan's Gross National Unhappiness: In The Wake Of The Country's First Facebook Defamation Lawsuit, Fears Of Censorship Rise

from the well,-that's-sad dept

The Kingdom of Bhutan is probably best known for its splendid location in the Himalayas, and for eschewing measurements of Gross Domestic Product in favor of Gross National Happiness. In the one Techdirt story so far about the nation, we also reported that Bhutan's government seemed to lack a sense of humor when it came to the Internet. Three years later, the online situation threatens to deteriorate further:

Bhutanese journalist Namgay Zam is facing defamation charges over a Facebook post, marking the first time that anyone in the Himalayan country has been taken to court over their social media activities.
As the detailed Global Voices post makes clear, this is a complicated story, involving not just journalists, but also senior judges and powerful business and political figures. The ramifications of this case are likely to be serious. Here's what the country's prime minister said, quoted on the Bhutanese Web site Kuensel Online:
As of now, Bhutanese are using social media in a sensible manner but often we come across news that takes an unhealthy trend. For that, we do have a social media policy coming into force where we have incorporated certain restrictions regarding what we can share on social media and what we can't share or what kind of news can come into the social media, among others.
It remains to be seen what that new policy will entail, and the extent of the censorship imposed. But it's sad to see a country that cares about maximizing national happiness taking precisely the same route as less enlightened nations.

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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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