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Michael Costanza

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 June 2017 @ 08:19am

Colorado Legalizes Another Vice: Texting While Driving

Distracted driving laws and the crusade against distractions in the car have a history that goes back many years. Generally, the trend has been to try to ban each new distraction that comes along, and to seek to place the blame on device makers and automakers for not figuring out how to reliably disable those devices. There was even a ruling in California that made it illegal for a driver to use a mapping app. But now, the state of Colorado has done something unexpected, and perhaps even… reasonable.

The state has made it legal to text while behind the wheel, unless it’s done in a “careless or imprudent manner.” While the new law does give a reprieve to those who use their phones in a safe manner (e.g., while at red light, or stopped in traffic), it also significantly increases the penalties for those who run afoul of the “carelessness” provision. As we’ve written before, there are many potential distractions inside a vehicle, and eliminating them all would be impractical, if not impossible. So this new law puts the focus on the dangerous behavior instead of the potential distraction itself, holding the driver responsible for unsafe actions.

Before now, any text messaging or manual data entry by a motorist was prohibited. “The simple fact is that if you are texting while driving but not being careless, it’s no longer illegal,” said Tim Lane at the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council.

While the change does appear to have support among law enforcement, it is still understandably controversial.

“The focus of the law isn’t for people who are stopped at stop lights or pulled over on the road texting,” said Mike Phibbs, the legislative chair for the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police. “I think it’s actually helped clarify the issue and targets what’s really causing the problem.”

But officials acknowledge that it is now harder to issue citations to drivers for texting while driving — and that the law opens the door to more legal challenges in court.

There is a reasonable concern that having what amounts to a conditional ban will embolden people to push the limits of what is acceptable behavior, or just make it more likely that people won’t worry as much about texting while driving, since it is now “legal.” However, the hope is that the severity of the penalties for the illegal behavior — even for first time offenders — will make drivers more cautious in how they use their phones. Either way, it’s good to see a focus on actual bad behavior, rather than a broad ban on activity that might be bad, depending on circumstances.

Posted on Techdirt - 20 November 2015 @ 11:43am

Gmail Takes A Sledgehammer To The Techdirt Daily Newsletter When Not Even A Scalpel Is Needed

As several subscribers to our Techdirt Daily Newsletter have pointed out to us, Thursday morning’s edition was flagged by Gmail with the following warning:

“Be careful with this message. It contains links to websites hosting malware.”

Of course, being a collection of the previous day’s Techdirt posts, the Techdirt Daily email contains many, many links. Also, as it is something of a Techdirt policy to not spread malware to our readers, our writers are generally careful about the sites they link to in their posts. So, trying to track down which link might be to a site Google deems suspicious seemed daunting. But it turns out we didn’t have to look any further than the third post to figure out what happened, the title of which conveniently contains the word “malware.” Within that post, Tim Cushing included the domain name of a site that has been known in the past to distribute malware (in addition to squatting on a domain using the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s name). It appears Google took that unlinked mention of the domain name as Techdirt carelessly endangering the digital lives of our newsletter subscribers, and stepped in to protect those subscribed via Gmail by throwing up the scary red warning banner and squashing every link in the email (even the unsubscribe link!).

While it’s nice that Google tries to look out for its users by preventing them from inadvertently downloading malware, their approach is a bit over the top. First, if Google can detect which links in an email may be hazardous, why not just unlink or censor those particular links? And, in this case, the “link” in question didn’t even exist. Google should be able to detect that and realize that no, we’re not sending our readers to their doom. It seems obvious that Google should be able to handle this type of thing in a much more sophisticated way — and you’d think that it would want to do so. People trust Google and many people use its products, and when it makes mistakes like this, it can cause real reputational harm.

Posted on Techdirt - 20 September 2011 @ 04:34am

Netflix: We're Sorry About The Huge Price Increase, So, Uh… Qwikster!

Reed Hastings is very sad. I know, because today I got a very somber email from the Netflix Co-Founder and CEO (also posted here). He’s sad about the very negative reaction of Netflix subscribers to the recent fee increase. He’s also sad about something called “Qwikster” and red envelopes.

I was going to write up a post analyzing the causes of Mr. Hastings’ sadness and how he plans to make things right, but then I saw this:


Frankly, I really don’t understand the point of this apology letter. If you’re not going to do anything to address the real cause of your (former) subscribers’ dissatisfaction, why even bother bringing more attention to the issue? Seems like when you say you’re trying to “make things right,” it might be a good idea to actually try to make things right, not worse.

Posted on Techdirt - 11 August 2011 @ 03:15pm

If You Can Read This, You're Breaking The Law!

I get lots of (legitimate) email, intended for other people, sent to my email address. I guess it’s easy to screw up your own address and wind up at mine — or mine is just a popular one to use as a fake, when people don’t want to supply their real one. Just today, I received an email from Remax, Northern Illinois, thanking me for registering on their site (and conveniently providing me with the password “I” used to sign up), which I didn’t, an order confirmation for tickets to see Blue Man Group at the Pioneer Center (in Reno), which I did not purchase, and an “Acknowledgment Letter” from an attorney (maybe) with attachments and no message body aside from the following:

NOTE: This e-mail message (including attachments) is subject to attorney-client privilege and contains confidential information intended only for the person(s) to whom this email message is addressed. This e-mail may be covered by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 18 U.S.C. §2510-2521, which provides criminal penalties for your use of this email without permission. This message may contain Protected Health Information covered under HIPAA Rules and HITECH Standards including, but not limited to, all applicable requirements of the HIPAA Security rule in 45 C.F.R. §§ 164.308, 164.310,164.312 and 164.316, including any amendments thereto. If you have received this e-mail message in error, please notify the sender immediately by telephone or e-mail and destroy the original message without making a copy.

Now, although I have to admit that I was initially impressed by all those fancy numbers and § symbols, a few things struck me as odd. First of all, if the information is “intended only for the person(s) to whom this email message is addressed,” and it was addressed to me, wouldn’t that mean it’s intended for me? Second, with absolutely no information in the body of the email, other than this warning, how am I supposed to know for sure that it was not intended for me? And, finally, if you mistakenly send someone else’s confidential information directly to me (not because of an email server routing error), how is it that I am the one in danger of “criminal penalties” for opening my own mail?

As I have no interest in reading this person’s confidential information, I have not opened the attachments and have no plans to do so. And although I’m not even certain a threat like this is enforceable, I will be canceling my email account, destroying my hard drive, and leaving the country for a while. Wish me luck.

Posted on Techdirt - 17 June 2011 @ 05:38pm

Tonight On Security Theater: After Hours Airport Antics Expose Security Tunnel Vision

We’ve written quite a bit, recently, about the more controversial actions of the TSA and their airport screening practices. And now there’s a somewhat amusing story that demonstrates why many people think that doing things like groping little children — and claiming that it’s not only proper, but necessary — is really just security theater. Two travelers, stranded at Dallas-Fort Worth airport, made the local news after filming themselves goofing around in the terminal, after hours. A DFW airport board member was not amused and vows that this kind of thing is “not going to happen again.” However, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened (though it might be a first at DFW), so it kind of makes you wonder why the security folks hadn’t already taken steps to prevent this. Of course, it looks like these guys were just having fun, but doesn’t it seem like a couple of guys wandering unchecked in a nearly empty terminal might be a bit more of a security risk than a toddler’s underwear? Apparently, the experts don’t think so:

Aviation security experts who have seen the video say it doesn?t show any major security concerns because the two guys were ticketed passengers who had already been screened by the TSA.

Hmm, so, the fact that they were “ticketed” and “already screened” means that there’s nothing that they could have gotten their hands on, as they made their way through the terminal (at one point, entering the kitchen of a restaurant), that might pose a threat to other travelers? While I don’t think anyone should be freaking out about these incidents, they do seem to lend credence to the idea that many of the actions taken by the TSA are just for show, while obvious security holes are left wide open. They’ll go out of their way to make sure a baby isn’t the next underwear bomber, but can’t even send someone to remind some marauding men to stick to the designated passenger areas and quit messing with airport property? Good show.

Posted on Techdirt - 14 September 2010 @ 03:23pm

Does Open Data Help The Rich Exploit The Poor?

JNomics points us to a Marshall Kirkpatrick post on ReadWriteWeb about “How Open Data is Used Against the Poor,” in which Kirkpatrick discusses an article and research about the effects of the digitization of land records in Bangalore. Apparently, as a result of the increased access to the data (for those with computers), middle and upper income people were able to exploit details found in the records as leverage for gaining land ownership from the poor.

Kirkpatrick and the author of the original article, Mike Gurstein, use this example to make the point that simply opening up data is often not really enough to benefit the broader population, and further, that it can simply promote the widening of the divide between the rich and the poor. Both argue for coupling open data with efforts that insure “effective use” for the most people – i.e., leveling the playing field by essentially controlling access to the data or delaying openness until tools and policies are put in place to insure equal footing for everyone. Kirkpatrick concludes his post with the following warning:

… if you want all parts of society to benefit from the opening of public data, then simply opening it up and allowing the most ferociously competitive people in society to grab a hold of it may not be a good way to impact the world positively.

This seems like a bit of an overstatement. There are always going to be those who are better positioned to take advantage of the opportunities presented by new technologies. An example from history would be the invention of the printing press. Of course the greater availability of books that followed initially provided a much bigger benefit to the educated than to the illiterate. However, not only were more people able to take advantage of cheaper, more abundant, books as literacy rates increased — the abundance itself helped to drive that increase. Similarly, while this example from Bangalore shows that, initially, the more well connected have been able to take better advantage of the opening up of land record data, it is not difficult to imagine how the less fortunate will also benefit. The opening up of the data has exposed many problems with the records, allowing for the possibility that those issues will be addressed, and more care will be taken to guard against such issues in the future. Also, there will certainly be opportunities for some enterprising people among the poor to take advantage of the newly available data — opportunities which did not exist at all when the information was effectively hidden. After all, the “ferociously competitive people” didn’t actually “grab hold of” the data — it’s still open for access by anyone.

This case does demonstrate how the growing divide between the digital haves and have-nots is self-perpetuating, and it is certainly worthwhile to pursue efforts to close that gap by promoting education and the development of more widely available, cheaper technology. And efforts should be made to insure that access to open data is not abused by the better off to gain advantage over the poor. But in the end, the open data itself is not the culprit.

Posted on Techdirt - 13 April 2010 @ 01:42am

Japanese Newspaper Says: How Dare You Send Us Traffic!

While others, like News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch, continue to make a lot of noise about cutting off or punishing news aggregators like Google News, Japan’s Nikkei newspaper has decided to take some action in the war against the “freeloaders” by forbidding any links to its content without explicit permission. Apparently, Nikkei believes not only that “unauthorized” links would somehow circumvent its paywall, but also that it is such an incredibly important source that free referrals are neither necessary nor welcome. Although most of Nikkei’s Japanese competition apparently also locks up content behind paywalls, going beyond a paywall to actively block inbound links seems very short-sighted, in that it will serve to drive traffic and attention elsewhere. It’s still pretty amazing how certain organizations don’t seem to have any understanding of how the internet works.

Posted on Techdirt - 15 April 2009 @ 03:22pm

Want To Know Why Newspapers Are Dying? Maureen Dowd Shows Us

In her recent New York Times op-ed, Maureen Dowd takes aim at Google, blaming it for the sorry state of the newspaper industry. Perhaps in hopes of winning people over to the newspapers’ side in the argument over how much Google should be profiting from their content, Dowd spends a lot of the article attempting to make the reader fear Google, trying to paint the company as anti-privacy and bent on “world domination.”

But there is a vaguely ominous Big Brother wall in the lobby of the headquarters here that scrolls real-time Google searches — porn queries are edited out — from people around the world. You could probably see your own name if you stayed long enough. In one minute of watching, I saw the Washington association where my sister works, the Delaware beach town where my brother vacations, some Dave Matthews lyrics, calories Panera, females feet, soaps in depth and Douglas Mangum, whoever he is.

The uselessness of this statement is hard to overstate. If you stayed long enough you’d see your name? She saw the names of places where her sister works and her brother vacations? Ever look at a phone book or a map, Maureen? All she was seeing was evidence that people are looking for information.

And that is where Google adds value: it helps to connect people with the information they want. If Dowd would just pause the dramatics long enough, maybe she would recognize that this concept sounds very familiar. Just like newspapers have always done, Google tries to find information that its users want, and deliver it to them in a way that is useful — and news stories are just one example of what people want Google to find for them. Dowd quotes Rupert Murdoch calling what Google does “stealing.” But, Google is no more “stealing” the information to which it links than newspapers steal the events on which they report. It does not take much thinking to see the parallels. But hey, why take time to think when you can engage in some juicy fear-mongering and hyperbole?

Like many others, Dowd also makes the mistake of equating the decline of newspapers with the end of journalism, ignoring the evidence that says this is simply not true. We’ve already pointed out examples of how journalism can not only survive but thrive apart from physical newspapers. Newspapers were valuable when they were the most convenient, useful way to deliver the news. The content itself was always practically free. But the value of the content was used draw eyeballs to ads — to give advertisers paid access to the community of readers. With the newspaper format now dying, entrepreneurs will find new ways to leverage the still-existent value of the free content to sell something scarce.

Fear-mongering, making misleading statements, ignoring evidence, not understanding your own business — it’s ironic that, while attempting to blame others for the woes of her own industry, Dowd makes so many of the mistakes that are really contributing to its decline.

Posted on Techdirt - 25 March 2009 @ 03:13am

Senator's Solution To Dying Newspapers: Become A Non-Profit

With many newspapers struggling to stay in business, a lot of ideas have been tossed around about how to keep existing papers alive. One idea, which has reached the US Senate in the form of a bill introduced by Senator Benjamin Cardin, is to allow newspapers to operate as non-profits, which would exempt them from taxes on subscription and advertising revenue, while also allowing them to raise funds via donations, similar to how public broadcasting companies operate. This approach would seem to have many potential issues. First of all, to qualify for the program, a paper would no longer be allowed publish editorial endorsements. This could have the twin effect of chilling editorial commentary in support of or against various candidates’ positions, and driving more bias into the reporting. It would also put the government in charge of what could or could not show up in a paper’s editorial pages. Second, to be successful, the papers would be heavily dependent on donations, which could raise questions about objectivity. But the biggest problem with this approach is that it simply props up a failing business model, rather than forcing the newspapers to adjust to the new realities of the marketplace. In the senators own words:

“We are losing our newspaper industry,” Cardin said. “The economy has caused an immediate problem, but the business model for newspapers, based on circulation and advertising revenue, is broken, and that is a real tragedy for communities across the nation and for our democracy.

Whether the loss of newspapers (as opposed to journalism) is a tragedy “for our democracy” is certainly debatable. But the senator is right about the business model being broken. And if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be wiser to experiment with new, better models, rather than put the old one on life support?

Posted on Techdirt - 15 September 2008 @ 05:14pm

Google On The High Seas

It looks like Google has had enough of the taxes, rules, and regulations associated with hosting its data in various countries around the world. Its solution? Floating data centers anchored beyond national boundaries. The idea seems pretty ridiculous on its face. The costs associated with maintaining a fleet of barges, in addition to the challenges that would arise regarding server maintenance, power requirements (wave power? really?), and security (protection from real pirates), make the effectiveness of such a solution highly questionable. To make this story even more ridiculous, Google has filed for a patent on the idea, presumably so that it can reap the huge rewards when everyone else realizes that hosting data at sea is the way to go. To be fair, this is likely just a defensive patent filing — given Google’s past patent activities. But what does it say about the patent system when a company has to waste the resources of the patent office, on an idea that’s probably never intended to be implemented, with the possible effect of preventing someone else from innovating in a related area? And, even though the idea as proposed may be silly, what if someone else could make something similar work? Do we want a single company to have the exclusive right to attempt something like this? The patent system is supposed to promote progress, not be an anchor dragging it down.

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