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Posted on Techdirt - 21 September 2017 @ 6:36am

EU Buried Its Own $400,000 Study Showing Unauthorized Downloads Have Almost No Effect On Sales

from the but-the-truth-is-finally-out-now dept

One of the problems in the debate about the impact of unauthorized downloads on the copyright industry is the paucity of large-scale, rigorous data. That makes it easy for the industry to demand government policies that are not supported by any evidence they are needed or will work. In 2014, the European Commission tried to address that situation by putting out a tender for the following research:

to devise a viable methodology and to subsequently implement it in view of measuring the extent to which unauthorised online consumption of copyrighted materials (music, audiovisual, books and video games) displaces sales of online and offline legal content, gathering comparable systematic data on perceptions, and actual and potential behaviour of consumers in the EU.

The contract was awarded to Ecorys, a "research and consultancy company" based in the Netherlands that has written many similar reports in the past. The value of the contract was a princely €369,871 -- over $400,000. Given that hefty figure, and the fact that this was public money, you might expect the European Commission to have published the results as soon as it received them, which was in May 2015. And yet strangely, it kept them to itself. In order to find out what happened to it, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request was submitted by the Pirate Party MEP, Julia Reda. It's worth reading the to and fro of emails between Reda and the European Commission to get an idea of how unhelpful the latter were on this request. The European Commission has now released the report, with the risible claim that this move has nothing to do with Reda's FOI request, and that it was about to publish it anyway.

The 304-page document (pdf), made available on the netzpolitik.org site, contains all the details of the questions that were put to a total of 30,000 people from Germany, France, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the UK, their answers, and exhaustive analysis. The summary reveals the key results:

In 2014, on average 51 per cent of the adults and 72 per cent of the minors in the EU have illegally downloaded or streamed any form of creative content, with higher piracy rates in Poland and Spain than in the other four countries of this study. In general, the results do not show robust statistical evidence of displacement of sales by online copyright infringements. That does not necessarily mean that piracy has no effect but only that the statistical analysis does not prove with sufficient reliability that there is an effect. An exception is the displacement of recent top films. The results show a displacement rate of 40 per cent which means that for every ten recent top films watched illegally, four fewer films are consumed legally.

That is, there is zero evidence that unauthorized downloads harmed sales of music, books and games. Indeed, for games, there was evidence that such downloads boosted sales:

the estimated effect of illegal online transactions on sales is positive -- implying that illegal consumption leads to increased legal consumption. This positive effect of illegal downloads and streams on the sales of games may be explained by the industry being successful in converting illegal users to paying users. Tactics used by the industry include, for example, offering gameplay with extra bonuses or extra levels if consumers pay.

The research did find evidence that there was some displacement of sales in the film sector. Another result of the Ecorys work provided an explanation of why that might be:

Overall, the analysis indicates that for films and TV-series current prices are higher than 80 per cent of the illegal downloaders and streamers are willing to pay. For books, music and games prices are at a level broadly corresponding to the willingness to pay of illegal downloaders and streamers. This suggests that a decrease in the price level would not change piracy rates for books, music and games but that prices can have an effect on displacement rates for films and TV-series.

In other words, people turn to unauthorized downloads for films and TV because they feel the street prices are too high. For books, music and games, by contrast, the prices were felt to be fair, and therefore people were happy to pay them. This is exactly what Techdirt has been saying for years -- that the best way to stop unauthorized downloads is to adopt reasonable pricing. A new post on the EDRi site points out something rather noteworthy about the research results concerning video and TV series:

Interestingly, these results concerning the film industry found their way to a publication of an academic paper by Benedikt Hertz and Kamil Kiljański, both members of the chief economist team of the European Commission. Yet the other unpublished results, showing no negative impact of piracy in the music, book and games industry, were not mentioned in the paper. Beyond that, the original study itself is not referred to either.

This seems to substantiate suspicion that the European Commission was hiding the study on purpose and cherry-picked the results they wanted to publish, by choosing only the results which supported their political agenda towards stricter copyright rules.

The European Commission was quite happy to publish partial results that fitted with its agenda, but tried to bury most of its research that showed industry calls for legislation to "tackle" unauthorized downloads were superfluous because there was no evidence of harm. This is typical of the biased and one-sided approach taken by the European Commission in its copyright policy, shown most clearly in its dogged support for the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement -- and of the tilted playing field that those striving for fair copyright laws must still contend with on a regular basis. Sadly, it's too much to hope that the European Commission's own evidence, gathered at considerable cost to EU taxpayers, will now lead it to take a more rational approach to copyright enforcement, and cause it to drop the harmful and demonstrably unnecessary upload filter it is currently pushing for.

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Posted on Techdirt - 20 September 2017 @ 3:38am

Free Software Foundation Europe Leads Call For Taxpayer-Funded Software To Be Licensed For Free Re-use

from the public-money,-public-code dept

Free Software Foundation Europe has a new campaign -- "Public money, public code" -- which poses the following question:

Why is software created using taxpayers' money not released as Free Software?

And goes on:

We want legislation requiring that publicly financed software developed for the public sector be made publicly available under a Free and Open Source Software licence. If it is public money, it should be public code as well.

It certainly seems pretty ridiculous that code written for public bodies, whether by external companies or contractors paid by the public purse, or produced internally, should not be released as free software. But aside from this being a question of fairness, the FSFE lists other reasons why it makes sense:

Tax savings

Similar applications don't have to be programmed from scratch every time.

Collaboration

Efforts on major projects can share expertise and costs.

Fostering innovation

With transparent processes, others don't have to reinvent the wheel.

An open letter on the site, supported by dozens of organizations and open for individual signatures, provides a few more:

Free and Open Source Software is a modern public good that allows everybody to freely use, study, share and improve applications we use on a daily basis.

Free and Open Source Software licences provide safeguards against being locked in to services from specific companies that use restrictive licences to hinder competition.

Free and Open Source Software ensures that the source code is accessible so that backdoors and security holes can be fixed without depending on one service provider.

Considered objectively, it's hard to think of any good reasons why code that is paid for by the public should not be released publicly as a matter of course. The good news is that this "public money, public code" argument is precisely the approach that open access advocates have used with considerable success in the field of academic publishing, so there's hope it might gain some traction in the world of software too.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 September 2017 @ 3:38am

Free Software, Open Access, And Open Science Groups Join Fight Against EU Copyright Directive's Terrible Ideas

from the how-to-destroy-Europe's-science-and-tech-future-in-one-easy-move dept

Techdirt has been covering the EU's plans to "modernize" copyright law for years now, and noted how things seem to be getting worse. Two ideas -- the so-called link tax and the upload filter -- are particularly one-sided, offering no benefits for the public, but providing the copyright industry with yet more monopolies and powers to censor. That much we knew. But two new initiatives reveal that the harmful effects are much, much broader than first thought.

The first, dubbed "Save Code Share", comes from the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), and the open source organization OpenForum Europe (disclosure: I am an unpaid Fellow of the associated OpenForum Academy, but have no involvement with the new project). The two groups are concerned about the impact of Article 13 of the draft text (pdf) -- the upload filter -- on coding in Europe, as they explain in a white paper:

large businesses, SMEs and individuals relying on current tools to develop software, especially in FOSS [free and open source software] or collaboratively, could be faced with automated filtering which could engender 'false positive' identifications of infringing software, which in turn could cause developers' dependencies randomly to disappear and so literally "break" their builds, resulting in lost business, lost productivity, less reliable software, and less resilient infrastructure.

The problem they identified is that widely-used version control systems (VCS) like GitHub seem to meet the definition of "information society services" laid down by the proposed EU Copyright Directive, and as such would be required to filter all uploads to block copyright infringements. Moreover, as the white paper points out, developer Web sites would not only be held responsible for any material uploaded by users without permission of the copyright holders, but would also seem liable for illegitimate distributions of derivative works in violation of the applicable license.

GitHub and other similar services could also be required to sign licensing deals with other copyright holders, although what kind and with whom is totally unclear. That's because the ill-thought-out Article 13 was designed to catch unauthorized uploads of music and videos, not of software; but its current wording is such that it would seem to apply to VCS platforms as much as to YouTube -- a ridiculous situation. Destroying the indigenous software industry in Europe is presumably not the EU's intention here, and so the FSFE and OpenForum Europe call for Article 13 to be deleted completely.

The other new initiative, an open letter from a coalition of European academic, library, education, research and digital rights organizations, agrees, and wants Article 11 -- the link tax -- thrown out too. Here's why:

The extension of this controversial proposal [the link tax] to academic publications, as proposed by the [European Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy] Committee, significantly worsens an already bad situation. It would provide academic publishers additional legal tools to restrict access, going against the increasingly widely accepted practice of sharing research. This will limit the sharing of open access publications and data which currently are freely available for use and reuse in further scientific advances. If the proposed ancillary right is extended to academic publications, researchers, students and other users of scientific and scholarly journal articles could be forced to ask permission or pay fees to the publisher for including short quotations from a research paper in other scientific publications. This will seriously hamper the spread of knowledge.

Similarly, the coalition believes that the upload filter required by Article 13 of the current Copyright Directive draft will have a major, negative impact on the world of open access and open science:

The provisions of Article 13 threaten the accessibility of scientific articles, publications and research data made available through over 1250 repositories managed by European non-profit institutions and academic communities. These repositories, which are essential for Open Access and Science in Europe, are likely to face significant additional operational costs associated with implementing new filtering technology and the legal costs of managing the risks of intermediary liability. The additional administrative burdens of policing this content would add to these costs. Such repositories, run on a not-for-profit basis, are not equipped to take on such responsibilities, and may face closure. This would be a significant blow, creating new risks for implementing funder, research council and other EU Open Access policies.

These latest interventions are important because they show that the reach of the Copyright Directive's worst elements is much wider than originally thought. They emphasize that, by lobbying for these extreme measures, the copyright industry seems not to care what collateral damage it causes in the EU, whether to the public at large, to the local software industry, or to the entire process of scientific research. The white paper and open letter provide additional, compelling reasons why both Article 11 and Article 13 should be dropped from the final legislation. If they aren't, the danger is that the full potential of the huge and rapidly-growing high-tech ecosystem in Europe will be sacrificed in order to prop up the relatively small and sclerotic copyright industries that refuse to adapt to today's digital environment.

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Posted on Techdirt - 31 August 2017 @ 7:34pm

Big Ag Gets Ag-Gag Envy, Helps Bring In 'Seed-Preemption' Laws Across The US

from the local-democracy,-who-needs-it? dept

As multiple Techdirt stories attest, farmers do love their "ag-gag" laws, which effectively make it illegal for activists to expose animal abuse in agricultural establishments -- although, strangely, farmers don't phrase it quite like that. Big Ag -- the giant seed and agricultural chemical companies such as Monsanto, Bayer, and DuPont -- seem to have decided they want something similar for seeds. As an article in Mother Jones, originally published by Food and Environment Reporting Network, reports, it looks like they are getting it:

With little notice, more than two dozen state legislatures have passed "seed-preemption laws" designed to block counties and cities from adopting their own rules on the use of seeds, including bans on GMOs. Opponents say that there's nothing more fundamental than a seed, and that now, in many parts of the country, decisions about what can be grown have been taken out of local control and put solely in the hands of the state.

Supporters of the move claim that a system of local seed rules would be complicated to navigate. That's a fair point, but it's hard to believe Big Ag really cares about farmers that much. Some of the new laws go well beyond seeds:

Language in the Texas version of the bill preempts not only local laws that affect seeds but also local laws that deal with "cultivating plants grown from seed.” In theory, that could extend to almost anything: what kinds of manure or fertilizer can be used, or whether a county can limit irrigation during a drought, says Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. Along with other activists, her organization was able to force an amendment to the Texas bill guaranteeing the right to impose local water restrictions. Still, the law's wording remains uncomfortably open to interpretation, she says.

You would have thought that farmers would welcome the ability to shape local agricultural laws according to local needs and local factors like weather, water and soil. But apparently ag-gagging activists to stop them doing the same is much more important.

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Posted on Techdirt - 31 August 2017 @ 10:47am

Leaked Plans Shows Top EU Body Backing Copyright Industry Against The Public, The Internet, And Innovation

from the whatever-happened-to-Estonia's-deep-understanding-of-digital? dept

Techdirt has been covering the slow and painful attempts by the EU to make its copyright laws fit for the digital age for nearly four years now. Along the way, there have been some good ideas, and an astonishingly bad one that would require many online services to filter all uploads to their sites for potential copyright infringements. Despite the widespread condemnation of what is now Article 13 in the proposed Copyright Directive, an important new leak (pdf) published on the Statewatch site shows that EU politicians are still pushing to make the censorship filters mandatory.

The document is an attempt by Estonia, which currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU -- one of the three main European Union bodies -- to come up with a revised text for the new Copyright Directive. In theory, it should be a compromise document that takes into account the differing opinions and views expressed so far. In practice, it is a slap in the face for the EU public, whose concerns it ignores, while pandering to the demands of the EU copyright industry.

Estonia's problem is that the whole idea of forcing Web sites to filter uploads contradicts an existing EU directive, one from 2000 on e-commerce. This created a safe harbor for sites that were "mere conduits" or simply hosting material -- that is, took no active part in publishing material online. The Directive explicitly says:

Member States shall not impose a general obligation on providers, when providing the services covered by Articles 12, 13 and 14, to monitor the information which they transmit or store, nor a general obligation actively to seek facts or circumstances indicating illegal activity.

Most of the leaked document is a forlorn attempt to circumvent this unequivocal ban on upload filters:

In order to ensure that rightholders can exercise their rights, they should be able to prevent the availability of their content on such [online] services, in particular when the services give access to a significant amount of copyright protected content and thereby compete on the online content services' market. It is therefore necessary to provide that information society service providers that store and give access to a significant amount of works or other subject-matter uploaded by their users take appropriate and proportionate measures to ensure the protection of copyright protected content, such as implementing effective technologies.

It is reasonable to expect that this obligation also applies when information society service providers are eligible for the limited liability regime provided for in Article 14 of Directive 2000/31/EC [for hosting], due to their role in giving access to copyright protected content. The obligation of measures should apply to service providers established in the Union but also to service providers established in third countries, which offer their services to users in the Union.

In other words, even though Article 14 of the E-commerce Directive provides a safe harbor for companies hosting content uploaded by users, the EU wants to ignore that and make online services responsible anyway, and to require upload filtering, even though that is forbidden by Article 15. Moreover, this would apply to non-EU companies -- like Google and Facebook -- as well. The desperation of the Estonian Presidency is evident in the fact that it provides not one, but two versions of its proposal, with the second one piling on even more specious reasons why the E-commerce Directive should be ignored, even though it has successfully provided the foundation of Internet business activity in the EU for the last 17 years.

Jettisoning that key protection will make it far less likely that startups will choose the EU for their base. The requirement to filter every single upload for potential infringements will probably be impossible, and certainly prohibitively expensive, while the legal risks of not filtering will be too great. So the Estonian Presidency is essentially proposing the death of online innovation in the EU -- rather ironic for a country that prides itself for being in the digital vanguard.

The leaked document also contains two proposals for Article 11 of the Copyright Directive -- the infamous link tax. One takes all the previous bad ideas for this "ancillary copyright", and makes them even worse. For example, the new monopoly right would apply not just to text publications in any media -- including paper -- but also to photos and videos. In addition, it would make hyperlinks subject to this new publisher's "right". The only exceptions would be those links not involving what is termed a "communication to the public" -- a concept that is so vague that even the EU's top courts can't agree what it means. The other proposal completely jettisons the idea of any kind of link tax, and instead wants to introduce "a presumption for publishers of press publications":

in the absence of proof to the contrary, the publisher of a press publication shall be regarded as the person entitled to conclude licences and to seek application of the measures, procedures and remedies … concerning the digital use of the works and other subject-matter incorporated in such a press publication, provided that the name of the publisher appears on the publication.

This is something that has been suggested by others as providing the best solution to what publishers claim is a problem: the fact that they can't always sue sites for alleged copyright infringement of material they have published, because their standing is not clear. It effectively clarifies that existing copyright law can be used to tackle abusive re-posting of material. As such, it's a reasonable solution, unlike the link tax, which isn't.

The fact that two such diametrically-opposed ideas are offered in a document that is meant to be creating a clear and coherent way forward is an indication of what a mess the whole EU Copyright Directive project remains, even at this late stage. Unfortunately, the Estonian Presidency's unequivocally awful drafts for Article 13 suggest that the EU is still planning to bring in a law that will be bad for the Internet, bad for innovation, and bad for EU citizens.

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Posted on Techdirt - 30 August 2017 @ 3:30am

India's Supreme Court Rules Privacy Is A Fundamental Right; Big Ramifications For The Aadhaar Biometric System And Beyond

from the constitutional-core-of-human-dignity dept

In a move that will have major implications for the online world in India and beyond, nine Supreme Court judges have ruled unanimously that privacy is a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution. As part of a decision spanning 547 pages (pdf) they declared:

Privacy is the constitutional core of human dignity.

The case was brought as a result of a legal challenge to India's huge biometric database, Aadhaar, whose rise Techdirt has been charting for some years. A post on the EFF Web site explains the legal background, and why the Supreme Court decision was necessary:

The right to privacy in India has developed through a series of decisions over the past 60 years. Over the years, inconsistency from two early judgments created a divergence of opinion on whether the right to privacy is a fundamental right. Last week's judgment reconciles those different interpretations to unequivocally declare that it is. Moreover, constitutional provisions must be read and interpreted in a manner which would enhance their conformity with international human rights instruments ratified by India. The judgment also concludes that privacy is a necessary condition for the meaningful exercise of other guaranteed freedoms.

Now that a solid constitutional foundation for privacy in India has been affirmed, other judges will proceed with examining the legality of Aadhaar in the light of the many relevant points made in the ruling:

The Aadhaar hearings, which were cut short, are expected to resume under a smaller three- or five-judge bench later this month. Outside of the pending Aadhaar challenge, the ruling can also form the basis of new legal challenges to the architecture and implementation of Aadhaar. For example, with growing evidence that state governments are already using Aadhaar to build databases to profile citizens, the security of data and limitations on data convergence and profiling may be areas for future privacy-related challenges to Aadhaar.

A case challenging WhatsApp's new privacy policy that allows content sharing with Facebook is also certain to be affected by the ruling, but the ramifications go far beyond Aadhaar and the digital world. As an analysis in the Economic Times notes, the judgment could lead to the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, as well as affecting laws that restrict a person's right to convert to a different religion, and state-level rules that impose restrictions on animal slaughter. The breadth of those possible impacts underlines just how epoch-making last week's decision is likely to prove.

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Posted on Techdirt - 28 August 2017 @ 5:22pm

CCTV + Lip-Reading Software = Even Less Privacy, Even More Surveillance

from the HAL-would-be-proud dept

Techdirt has written a number of stories about facial recognition software being paired with CCTV cameras in public and private places. As the hardware gets cheaper and more powerful, and the algorithms underlying recognition become more reliable, it's likely that the technology will be deployed even more routinely. But if you think loss of public anonymity is the end of your troubles, you might like to think again:

Lip-reading CCTV software could soon be used to capture unsuspecting customer's private conversations about products and services as they browse in high street stores.

Security experts say the technology will offer companies the chance to collect more "honest" market research but privacy campaigners have described the proposals as "creepy" and "completely irresponsible".

That story from the Sunday Herald in Scotland focuses on the commercial "opportunities" this technology offers. It's easy to imagine the future scenarios as shop assistants are primed to descend upon people who speak favorably about goods on sale, or who express a wish for something that is not immediately visible to them. But even more troubling are the non-commercial uses, for example when applied to CCTV feeds supposedly for "security" purposes.

How companies and law enforcement use CCTV+lip-reading software will presumably be subject to legislation, either existing or introduced specially. But given the lax standards for digital surveillance, and the apparent presumption by many state agencies that they can listen to anything they are able to grab, it would be na&iumlve to think they won't deploy this technology as much as they can. In fact, they probably already have.

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Posted on Techdirt - 25 August 2017 @ 3:23am

Repeal All UK Terrorism Laws, Says UK Government Adviser On Terrorism Laws

from the outbreak-of-sanity dept

It's become a depressingly predictable spectacle over the years, as politicians, law enforcement officials and spy chiefs take turns to warn about the threat of "going dark", and to call for yet more tough new laws, regardless of the fact that they won't help. So it comes as something of shock to read that the UK government's own adviser on terrorism laws has just said the following in an interview:

The Government should consider abolishing all anti-terror laws as they are "unnecessary" in the fight against extremists, the barrister tasked with reviewing Britain’s terrorism legislation has said.

the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, argued potential jihadis can be stopped with existing "general" laws that are not always being used effectively to take threats off the streets.

As the Independent reported, the UK government's Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Max Hill, went on:

"We should not legislate in haste, we should not use the mantra of 'something has to be done' as an excuse for creating new laws," he added. “We should make use of what we have."

Aside from the astonishingly sensible nature of Hill's comments, the interview is also worth reading for the insight it provides into the changing nature of terrorism, at least in Europe:

Mr Hill noted that some of the perpetrators of the four recent terror attacks to hit the UK were previously "operating at a low level of criminality", adding: "I think that people like that should be stopped wherever possible, indicted using whatever legislation, and brought to court."

This emerging "crime-terror nexus" is one reason why anti-terrorism laws are unnecessary. Instead, non-terrorism legislation could be used to tackle what Hill termed "precursor criminality" -- general criminal activity committed by individuals who could be stopped and prosecuted before they move into terrorism. Similarly, it would be possible to use laws against murder and making explosive devices to hand down sentences for terrorists, made harsher to reflect the seriousness of the crimes.

Even though Hill himself doubts that the UK's terrorism laws will be repealed any time soon, his views are still important. Taken in conjunction with the former head of GCHQ saying recently that end-to-end encryption shouldn't be weakened, they form a more rational counterpoint to the ill-informed calls for more laws and less crypto.

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 August 2017 @ 1:28pm

Moving On From Obviously Fake News To Plausibly Fake News Sites

from the did-the-Guardıan-really-write-that? dept

Fake news is old news now. The hope has to be that we have all become slightly more suspicious when we read astonishing stories online (well, we can hope). It also means that those peddling fake news have to work a little bit harder to make us fall for their tricks. Like this:

Fake articles made to look like they have been published by legitimate news websites have emerged as a new avenue for propaganda on the internet, with experts concerned about the increasing sophistication of the latest attempts to spread disinformation. Kremlin supporters are suspected to be behind a collection of fraudulent articles published this year that were mocked up to appear as if they were from al-Jazeera, the Atlantic, Belgian newspaper Le Soir, and the Guardian.

The Guardian report on this new development says that it's not just a matter of getting the typography and layout right: even the domain names are similar. For example, the fake Guardian site's URL replaced the usual "i" in Guardian with the Turkish "ı" -- a tiny change that is easy to miss, especially when it's in a URL.

What's particularly problematic with these fake newspaper sites is that their domain names add an extra level of plausibility that make it more likely the lie will be spread by unsuspecting Internet users. Even when stories are debunked, the online echo of the false information lives on as people re-post secondary material, especially if legitimate sites are fooled and repeat the "news" themselves, lending it a spurious authenticity. Taking down the material can make things worse:

Ren TV, which has a history of producing pro-Kremlin content, did a piece portraying the removal of the article as a deletion by the Guardian of a true article, an angle also taken by an Armenian outlet following the fake Haaretz piece on the Azerbaijani first family.

In other words, deletion might be used as "proof" that powerful forces did not want people to see the "truth". Even though the original is removed, the rumors and conspiracy theories might actually increase as a result. This latest evolution of fake news shows that we are still nowhere near to tackling the problem. Indeed, it looks like things are going to get worse before they get better -- assuming they do.

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Posted on Techdirt - 18 August 2017 @ 7:39pm

Welcome To The Technological Incarceration Project, Where Prison Walls Are Replaced By Sensors, Algorithms, And AI

from the shocking-new-approach dept

At heart, a prison is a place where freedom is taken away, and inmates are constrained in what they can do. Does that mean a prison has to consist of a special building with bars and prison guards? How about turning the home of a convicted criminal into a kind of virtual prison, where they are limited in their actions? That's what Dan Hunter, dean of Swinburne University's Law School in Melbourne, suggests, reported here by Australian Broadcast News:

Called the Technological Incarceration Project, the idea is to make not so much an internet of things as an internet of incarceration.

Professor Hunter's team is researching an advanced form of home detention, using artificial intelligence, machine-learning algorithms and lightweight electronic sensors to monitor convicted offenders on a 24-hour basis.

The idea is to go beyond today's electronic tagging systems, which provide a relatively crude and sometimes circumventable form of surveillance, to one that is pervasive, intelligent -- and shockingly painful:

Under his team's proposal, offenders would be fitted with an electronic bracelet or anklet capable of delivering an incapacitating shock if an algorithm detects that a new crime or violation is about to be committed.

That assessment would be made by a combination of biometric factors, such as voice recognition and facial analysis.

Leaving aside the obvious and important issue of how reliable the algorithms would be in judging when a violation was about to take place, there are a couple of other aspects of this approach worth noting. One is that it shifts the costs of incarceration from the state to the offender, who ends up paying for his or her upkeep in the virtual prison. That would obviously appeal to those who are concerned about the mounting cost to taxpayers of running expensive prisons. The virtual prison would also allow offenders to remain with their family, and thus offers the hope that they might be re-integrated into society more easily than when isolated in an unnatural prison setting. Irrespective of any possible financial benefits, that has to be a good reason to explore the option further.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 August 2017 @ 7:13pm

Danish University And Industry Work Together On Open Science Platform Whose Results Will All Be Patent-Free

from the they-said-it-couldn't-be-done dept

Here on Techdirt, we write a lot about patents. Mostly, it's about their huge downsides -- the stupid patents that should never have been awarded, or the parasitic patent trolls that feed off companies doing innovative work. The obvious solution is to get rid of patents, but the idea is always met with howls of derision, as if the entire system of today's research and development would collapse, and a new dark age would be upon us. It's hard to refute that claim with evidence to the contrary because most people -- other than a few brave souls like Elon Musk -- are reluctant to find out what happens if they don't cling to patents. Against that background, it's great to see Aarhus University in Denmark announce a new open science initiative that will eschew patents on researchers' work completely:

The platform has been established with funds from the Danish Industry Foundation and it combines basic research with industrial innovation in a completely new way, ensuring that industry and the universities get greater benefit from each other's knowledge and technology.

University researchers and companies collaborate across the board to create fundamental new knowledge that is constantly made available to everyone -- and which nobody may patent. On the contrary, everyone is subsequently freely able to use the knowledge to develop and patent their own unique products.

According to Aarhus University, Danish industry loves it:

The idea of collaborating in such a patent-free zone has aroused enormous interest in industry and among companies that otherwise use considerable resources on protecting their intellectual property rights.

The attraction seems to be that an open platform will make it easier for companies -- particularly smaller ones -- to gain access to innovative technologies at an early stage, without needing to worry about patents and licensing. Aarhus University hopes that the approach will also allow researchers to take greater risks with their work, rather than sticking with safer, less ambitious projects, as has happened in the past. The first example is already up and running. It is called SPOMAN (Smart Polymer Materials and Nano-Composites), and has a project page hosted on the Open Science Framework site:

In this project, you will find minutes from the Open Science meetings, current status of the initiative, general presentations etc. More importantly, this project has links to the individual activities and research projects under Open Science. In these projects, the research progress, lab journals and more are found.

Combined with the no-patent promise, you don't get much more open than that.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 August 2017 @ 1:23pm

The Ultimate Virus: How Malware Encoded In Synthesized DNA Can Compromise A Computer System

from the digital-code-is-digital-code dept

DNA is a digital code, written not as 0s and 1s (binary) but in the chemical letters A, C, G and T -- a quaternary system. Nature's digital code runs inside the machinery of the cell, which outputs the proteins that are the building blocks of living organisms. The parallels between DNA and computer code are one reason why we speak of computer viruses, since both are sequences of instructions that subvert the hardware meant to run other, more benign programs. Wired reports on new work which brings out those parallels in a rather dramatic fashion:

a group of researchers from the University of Washington has shown for the first time that it's possible to encode malicious software into physical strands of DNA, so that when a gene sequencer analyzes it the resulting data becomes a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software and takes control of the underlying computer.

A certain amount of cheating was involved in order to obtain this undeniably impressive outcome. For example, the researchers took an open source compression utility, and then intentionally added a buffer overflow bug to it. They crafted a specific set of DNA letters such that when it was synthesized, sequenced and processed in the normal way -- which included compressing the raw digital readout -- it exploited the buffer overflow flaw in the compression program. That, in its turn, allowed the researchers to run arbitrary code on the computer system that was being used for the analysis. In other words, the malware encoded in the synthesized DNA had given them control of a physical system.

While they may have added the buffer overflow exploit to the compression program themselves, the researchers pointed out they found three similar flaws in other commonly-used DNA sequencing and analysis software, so their approach is not completely unrealistic. However, even setting up the system to fail in this way, the researchers encountered considerable practical problems. These included a requirement to keep the DNA malware short, maintaining a certain ratio of Gs and Cs to As and Ts for reasons of DNA stability, and avoiding repeated elements, which caused the DNA strand to fold back on itself.

Clearly, then, this is more a proof of concept than a serious security threat. Indeed, the researchers themselves write in their paper (pdf):

Our key finding is that it is possible to encode a computer exploit into synthesized DNA strands.

However, in the longer term, as DNA sequencing becomes routine and widespread, there will be greater scope for novel attacks based on the approach:

If hackers did pull off the trick, the researchers say they could potentially gain access to valuable intellectual property, or possibly taint genetic analysis like criminal DNA testing. Companies could even potentially place malicious code in the DNA of genetically modified products, as a way to protect trade secrets, the researchers suggest.

If nothing else, this first DNA malware hack confirms that there is no unbridgeable gulf between the programs running in our cells, and those running on our computers. Digital code is digital code.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 August 2017 @ 7:41pm

Elsevier Continues To Build Its Monopoly Solution For All Aspects Of Scholarly Communication

from the but-can-people-be-bothered-to-support-open-alternatives? dept

Techdirt has just written about the amazing achievements of Sci-Hub, and how it now offers the vast majority of academic papers free online. One implication may be that traditional publishing, with high-cost journals hidden behind paywalls, is no longer viable. But as we noted, that doesn't mean that traditional publishers will disappear. For one thing, many are embracing open access, and finding it pretty profitable (some would say too profitable thanks to things like "double dipping".) But there's another way that academic publishers, particularly the biggest ones with deep pockets, can head off the threat to their profits from developments like Sci-Hub and open access: by diversifying.

Mike wrote about one example last year, when Elsevier bought the preprint service Social Science Research Network (SSRN), arguably the most popular repository of research in the fields of economics, law and the social sciences. Since SSRN deals in preprints, which can be freely downloaded, sites like Sci-Hub are no threat. Similarly, preprints are generally posted before submission to journals, and therefore can flourish whether or not those journals are open access. Now we have yet another significant move by Elsevier, reported here on the Scholarly Kitchen blog:

Elsevier announces its acquisition of bepress. In a move entirely consistent with its strategy to pivot beyond content licensing to preprints, analytics, workflow, and decision-support, Elsevier is now a major if not the foremost single player in the institutional repository landscape. If successful, and there are some risks, this acquisition will position Elsevier as an increasingly dominant player in preprints, continuing its march to adopt and coopt open access.

As that post explains, Bepress is not a publishing company, but seeks to provide key elements of the general infrastructure needed for scholarly communications. That includes things like repositories -- the stores of articles produced by researchers at an institution, or covering a specific field -- and "showcases". Bepress's product in this field is called Digital Commons. It claims to be:

the only comprehensive showcase that lets institutions publish, manage, and increase recognition for everything produced on campus -- and the only institutional repository and publishing platform that integrates with a full faculty research and impact suite.

It's a shrewd acquisition by Elsevier. It continues to move the company beyond the role of a traditional publisher into one that can offer a complete solution for the academic world, with products and services handling every aspect of scholarly work. By acquiring more and more parts of this solution, Elsevier can integrate them ever-more tightly, which will encourage users of one element to adopt others. If this process of integration can be carried out successfully, it will leave Elsevier with almost total control of the sector, beyond even today's already profitable position.

That may be great for Elsevier shareholders, but it limits choices for the academic community. Fortunately, there are ways to counter Elsevier's rise to monopoly power. Techdirt wrote about one of them last year, when a new open preprint repository for the social sciences, SocArXiv, was created soon after Elsevier bought SSRN. There are already a number of open source alternatives to Bepress products, and supporting those rather than moving to Elsevier-owned services is an obvious move for those in the academic community who wish to preserve their independence. The problem is that doing so is likely to require a certain amount of effort, and it may be that institutions, libraries and academics don't have the time or energy to do that, and they will simply sign up to Elsevier's monoculture without worrying too much about the long-term consequences.

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Posted on Techdirt - 9 August 2017 @ 1:24pm

Australian Public Servants Warned Against Liking Social Media Posts That Are Critical Of Government Policies

from the couldn't-happen-in-the-US-oh-wait dept

The Internet effectively turns everyone into a publisher, able to promulgate their ideas in a way that was not open to most people before. That's great for the democratization of media -- and terrible for governments that want to control the flow of information to citizens. The Australian government is particularly concerned about what its 150,000 public servants might say. It has issued a "guidance" document that "sets out factors for employees to consider in making decisions about whether and what to post". Here's why:

The speed and reach of online communication means that material posted online is available immediately to a wide audience. It can be difficult to delete and may be replicated endlessly. It may be sent to, or seen by, people the author never intended or expected would see it.

Deciding whether to make a particular comment or post certain material online is a matter of careful judgement rather than a simple formula. This guidance sets out factors for employees to consider in making decisions about whether and what to post.

That sounds reasonable enough. But it turns out that what the policy is really about is muzzling public employees, and stopping them from expressing or supporting views that disagree with government policies. As the Australian organization Digital Rights Watch summarizes:

The new guidelines warn that public servants would be in breach of code of conduct if they "liked" anti-government posts, privately emailing negative material or do not remove "nasty comments" about the government posted by others. The new policies apply to employees even if they use social media in a private capacity outside of work hours.

It also applies to your past employment with the Australian government -- and futures ones:

it is also worth bearing in mind that comments you make about an agency you've never worked in might be made public and taken into account if you apply for a job there later. Perhaps you haven't breached the Code, but you might have ruled yourself out for that job if the comment could reasonably call into question your capacity to work there impartially.

In other words, if you criticize any aspect of government policy, you'll never work in this town again. What's troubling about this move is not just that it is limiting people's freedom of speech -- something that the guidance freely admits:

The common law recognises an individual right to freedom of expression. This right is subject to limitations such as those imposed by the Public Service Act. In effect, the Code of Conduct operates to limit this right.

It's also that we have seen before where this kind of muzzling leads. Back in 2013, Techdirt wrote about similar rules for public servants in Canada, only rescinded last year. One of the most problematic areas was in the field of the environment, since it meant that even world-leading scientists were unable to point out publicly the evident flaws in the the Canadian government's climate policy. It looks like experts employed by the Australian government now find themselves similarly unable to be openly critical of the official line, no matter how misguided or dangerous it may be. There are also signs that a similar muzzling of scientists is starting to take place in the US. Despite unequivocal evidence of "drastic" climate change in a new, but unreleased US government report, emails obtained by the Guardian reveal the following:

Staff at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been told to avoid using the term climate change in their work, with the officials instructed to reference "weather extremes" instead.

At least they can still like social media posts that are critical of the US government's environmental policies. For now...

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 August 2017 @ 3:23am

Georgia To Roll Out Tens Of Thousands Of CCTV Cameras With Real-Time Facial Recognition Capabilities

from the are-you-a-sheep-or-a-goat? dept

Surveillance using CCTV cameras is old hat these days, even for locations outside the world's CCTV capital, London. But there's an important step-change taking place in the sector, as operators move from simply observing and recording, to analyzing video feeds automatically using facial recognition software. Techdirt has written about this area a few times, but these examples have all been fairly small-scale and exploratory. News from Georgia -- the one in the Caucasus, not the State -- shows that things are moving fast in this field:

NEC Corporation today announced that it has provided an advanced surveillance system for cities utilizing facial recognition to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia, in cooperation with Capital Systems LLC, a leading system developer. The system began operation in June of this year, and works in combination with 400 CCTV surveillance cameras installed in Georgia's major cities, including the capital, Tbilisi.

The system utilizes NeoFace Watch, NEC's real-time facial recognition software for video, featuring the world's highest recognition precision. It checks images captured by CCTV cameras against pictures of suspects and others registered in a watch list, making it possible to identify figures rapidly and accurately.

This system was introduced as part of Georgia's "Safe City, Safe Region, Safe Country" program aiming to improve public safety. Georgia also plans to install tens of thousands of additional cameras nationwide in the future.

It's not clear whether those tens of thousands of CCTV systems will all be equipped with real-time facial recognition, or only some of them. But even the immediate roll out of facial recognition to 400 CCTV cameras is substantial, especially for a country with fewer than four million inhabitants. It's hard not to see this as a test-bed for other, much bigger countries, which will doubtless be watching Georgia's experience with interest. Some have already started their own trials: ZDNet reports that at least two of Australia's police forces -- the Northern Territory Police and South Australia Police -- have 100s of CCTV cameras with real-time facial recognition features. There's also a small-scale trial employing vehicle-mounted cameras with similar capabilities being conducted by UK police in Wales. All of the examples mentioned here use the NeoFace Watch system from NEC, which the company claims is able to process multiple camera feeds, and to extract and match thousands of faces per minute.

NEC also emphasizes that its product is "suitable for the detection of both undesirables and VIPs." That's an important point. CCTV systems are currently fairly egalitarian, spying on and recording everyone equally. But the addition of facial recognition allows a crowd's sheep and goats to be distinguished, and then dealt with appropriately. While beefy security guards preemptively -- and discreetly -- remove the "undesirables" who might lower the tone of a venue, exquisite hospitality experts can meet and greet the VIPs as they approach. One of the unexpected results of adding facial recognition to CCTV is that it brings out the "servile" in "surveillance".

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Posted on Techdirt - 1 August 2017 @ 6:41pm

How May 35th Freedoms Have Blossomed With China's Martian Language

from the say-what? dept

In recent years, the Internet news from China has been pretty depressing, as Xi Jinping tightens his control over every aspect of the online world. But the Chinese are a resourceful people, with thousands of years of experience of circumventing imperial oppression. For example, one of the many taboo subjects today is the "June 4th incident", better known in the West as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. A New York Times article published in 2011 explains how people in China managed to refer to this forbidden date online:

You might think May 35th is an imaginary date, but in China it's a real one. Here, where references to June 4 -- the date of the Tiananmen incident of 1989 -- are banned from the Internet, people use "May 35th" to circumvent censorship and commemorate the events of that day.

Inevitably, the authorities soon spotted this trick, and blocked references to May 35th too. But as the author of the New York Times piece, Yu Hua, explains:

May 35th freedom is an art form. To evade censorship when expressing their opinions on the Internet, Chinese people give full rein to the rhetorical functions of language, elevating to a sublime level both innuendo and metaphor, parody and hyperbole, conveying sarcasm and scorn through veiled gibes and wily indirection.

The latest, most highly-developed form of that "May 35th freedom" is described in an article on Quartz, which explores an invented Chinese language known as "Martian":

Martian dates back to at least 2004 but its origins are mysterious. Its use appears to have begun among young people in Taiwan for online chatting, and then it spread to the mainland. The characters randomly combine, split, and rebuild traditional Chinese characters, Japanese characters, pinyin, and sometimes English and kaomoji, a mixture of symbols that conveys an emotion (e.g. O(∩_∩)O: Happy).

Martian is an extension of the May 35th approach, but with additional elements, including fairly random ones. That makes it hard for the automated censorship systems to spot forbidden topics, since the Martian elements have to be decoded first. Naturally, though, the human censors eventually work out what the Martian terms mean, and add them to the blacklists for automatic blocking. However, according to the Quartz article, China's censorship system is not monolithic, and just because a post written in Martian is blocked on one service doesn't mean it will be blocked on another.

It's the continuing existence of those small spaces for free speech, coupled with the never-ending ingenuity of Chinese Internet users in coming up with Martian-like linguistic camouflage, that allows controversial material to be posted and circulated, despite the massive censorship machine.

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Posted on Techdirt - 1 August 2017 @ 9:28am

Streisand Effect Helps Sci-Hub To Acquire Almost All Scholarly Literature, Dooms Traditional Academic Publishing

from the leak-once,-available-perpetually dept

Techdirt has been covering the story of Sci-Hub, which provides unrestricted access to a massive (unauthorized) database of academic papers, for a while now. As several posts have emphasized, the decision by the publishing giant Elsevier to pursue the site through the courts is a classic example of the Streisand Effect: it has simply served to spread the word about a hitherto obscure service. There's a new paper exploring this and other aspects of Sci-Hub, currently available as a PeerJ preprint. Here's what one of the authors says in a related Science interview about the impact of lawsuits on Sci-Hub:

In our paper we have a graph plotting the history of Sci-Hub against Google Trends -- each legal challenge resulted in a spike in Google searches [for the site], which suggests the challenges are basically generating free advertising for Sci-Hub. I think the suits are not going to stop Sci-Hub.

That free advertising provided by Elsevier and others through their high-profile legal assaults on Alexandra Elbakyan, the academic from Kazakhstan who created and runs Sci-Hub pretty much single-handedly, has been highly effective. The surge in searches for Sci-Hub seems to have led to its holdings becoming incredibly comprehensive, as increased numbers of visitors have requested missing articles, which are then added to the collection:

As of March 2017, we find that Sci-Hub's database contains 68.9% of all 81.6 million scholarly articles, which rises to 85.2% for those published in closed access journals. Furthermore, Sci-Hub contains 77.0% of the 5.2 million articles published by inactive journals. Coverage varies by discipline, with 92.8% coverage of articles in chemistry journals compared to 76.3% for computer science. Coverage also varies by publisher, with the coverage of the largest publisher, Elsevier, at 97.3%.

The preprint article has some interesting statistics on user donations, a measure of people's appreciation of Elbakyan's work and the Sci-Hub service:

We find that these [Bitcoin] addresses have received 1,037 donations, totaling 92.63 bitcoins. Using the U.S. dollar value at the time of transaction confirmation, Sci-Hub has received an equivalent of $60,358 in bitcoins. However, since the price of bitcoins has risen, the 67.42 donated bitcoins that remain unspent are now worth approximately $175,000.

That suggests a fairly healthy financial basis for Sci-Hub, but there is still the risk that its servers and contents could be seized, and the site shut down. As the preprint points out, there are technologies under development that would allow files to be hosted without any central point of failure, which would address this vulnerability. The paper also notes two powerful reasons why old-style academic publishing is probably doomed, and why Sci-Hub has won:

adoption of Sci-Hub and similar sites may accelerate if universities continue canceling increasingly expensive journal subscriptions, leaving researchers with few alternative access options. We can also expect biblioleaks -- bulk releases of closed access corpuses -- to progress despite publisher's best efforts, as articles must only leak once to be perpetually available. In essence, scholarly publishers have already lost the access battle. Publishers will be forced to adapt quickly to open access publishing models.

It's worth noting that this does not mean the end of academic publishing, simply that it makes no sense to put papers behind a paywall, since it is almost inevitable that they will end up on Sci-Hub. However, as the quotation above notes, adopting an open access publishing model, whereby academic institutions pay for their researchers' papers to be made freely available online, can still flourish in this situation. The current analysis finds that people already don't bother to use Sci-Hub so much for open access papers, because they don't need to:

We find strong evidence that Sci-Hub is primarily used to circumvent paywalls. In particular, users requested articles from closed access journals much more frequently than open access journals. Accordingly, many users likely only resort to Sci-Hub when access through a commercial database is cumbersome or costly.

It turns out that the best way to "defeat" Sci-Hub is not through legal threats, which only strengthen it, but by moving to open access, which effectively embraces Elbakyan's vision of all academic literature being made freely available to everyone.

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 July 2017 @ 6:42pm

Surveillance Used To Give Poor Students Extra Financial Assistance Discreetly. Is That OK?

from the invisible-subsidies dept

A story about surveillance in China is hardly notable -- Techdirt has run dozens of them. But there are some unusual aspects to this report on the Sixth Tone site that make it a little out of the ordinary:

The University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), in the eastern province of Anhui, collects data from the charge cards of students who frequently eat in the school cafeteria -- usually the cheapest option, thanks to government subsidies -- but spend very little on each meal. The school's student affairs department uses the information for "invisible subsidies," or allowances delivered without drawing attention -- what it calls "a more dignified way for poor students to receive stipends."

According to the post, the program has been running for many years, but only came to light when a former student posting under the name of "Shannon" wrote an account of being selected in 2005 for additional support, published on the site Zhihu, the Chinese equivalent of Quora. His post has received over 45,000 likes so far, and the number continues to rise. As the Sixth Tone story notes, comments on Shannon's post have been overwhelmingly positive:

One comment that received over 3,000 likes read: "The University of Science and Technology of China has really got the human touch -- they are pretty awesome." Another netizen, meanwhile, described the innovative scheme as "the right way to use big data."

This raises a number of questions. For example, does the widespread use of surveillance in China make people more willing to accept this kind of benevolent spying, as here? Or is it simply that its use is felt to be justified because it led to additional funding that was given in a discreet fashion? More generally, how would Chinese citizens feel about this approach being rolled out to other areas of life? Since that's pretty much what China's rumored "citizen score" system aims to do, we might find out, if it's ever implemented.

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Posted on Techdirt - 18 July 2017 @ 3:49pm

From Sans Serif To Sans Sharif: #Fontgate Leads To Calls For Pakistan's Prime Minister To Resign

from the fun-with-fonts dept

Some people get really worked up about fonts. Here, for example, is a thread on Reddit, spotted by Leigh Beadon, about the appearance of the serif font Cambria on the show "Better Call Saul". The problem is that the show is set in the years 2002 and 2003, while Cambria was designed in 2004. The (mock?) outrage about this slip-up is all good fun, but obviously nothing too serious. Unlike in Pakistan, where another apparent font faux pas is leading to calls for the country's prime minister to resign.

As the Guardian explains, the daughter of Pakistan's prime minister is being investigated by the country's supreme court as a result of revelations in the Panama Papers that linked her to expensive properties in London. Documents produced in her defense had a slight problem, as spotted by font aficionados:

Documents claiming that Mariam Nawaz Sharif was only a trustee of the companies that bought the London flats, are dated February 2006, and appear to be typed in Microsoft Calibri.

But the font was only made commercially available in 2007, leading to suspicions that the documents are forged.

Social media users have derided Sharif for this apparent misstep, coining the hashtag #fontgate.

Such is the interest in #fontgate and the humble sans serif Calibri font, that visits to the relevant Wikipedia page have ballooned from 500 visits per day to 150,000 in just two days. As a result of the intense interest and some dubious editing attempts, Wikipedia has been forced to act:

After users seemingly tried to change the article's content to say the font was available from 2004, Wikipedia suspended editing on its Calibri page "until July 18 2017, or until editing disputes have been resolved".

Although you might think this is pretty much at the level of the Reddit discussion of Cambria, rival politicians in Pakistan see it as much more serious -- and an opportunity they can exploit:

Opposition parties have urged prime minister Nawaz Sharif to step down after the investigation found a "significant disparity" between his family's declared wealth and known sources of income.

However things turn out in Pakistan for the country's prime minister and his daughter -- Nawaz Sharif has denied wrongdoing -- #fontgate has already had one positive outcome. It allowed the Indian newspaper Financial Express to use the memorable headline: "Awesome story of Calibri, the font that may leave Pakistan sans Sharif."

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 July 2017 @ 6:34pm

When The 'Sharing Economy' Turns Into The 'Missing Or Stolen Economy'

from the anybody-seen-my-300,000-umbrellas-lying-around? dept

The sharing economy -- actually better-described as a rental economy -- is very much in vogue, inspired by the high-profile examples of Airbnb and Uber. But Western enthusiasm pales in comparison to that of Chinese entrepreneurs, who seem to have taken the view that the model will work for anything. For example, alongside the companies that rent out homes and cars, there are now some that will let you pick up an umbrella in a public spot, use it for a short while, and then return it. At least, that's the theory. But the South China Morning Post reports that the Sharing E Umbrella startup ran into a few problems:

Just weeks after making 300,000 brollies available to the public via a rental scheme, Sharing E Umbrella announced that most of them had gone missing, news website Thepaper.cn reported on Thursday.

The company was launched back in April, and is operating in 11 Chinese cities. Customers borrow umbrellas after paying a deposit of about $3, and a fee of 10 cents for every 30 minutes. Undeterred by the fact that each missing umbrella represents a loss of $9, the company's founder says he hopes to proceed on a larger scale by making 30 million of them available across the country by the end of the year. Here's why he's convinced he's on to a winner:

After seeing the launch of bike-sharing schemes across the country, the Shenzhen-based businessman said he "thought that everything on the street can now be shared".

Perhaps he should have waited a little before modelling his business on bike sharing. Caixin reported last month that Wukong, one of the smaller players in this crowded market, has just closed down -- after most of its bikes went missing:

Wukong operated its 1,200 bikes in the southwestern city of Chongqing. But most of the bikes were lost because the firm didn't embed GPS devices in the vehicles. By the time the company decided the devices were necessary, it had run out of money and failed to raise more

Wukong isn't the only rental company that lost track of most of its bikes, as Shanghaiist.com notes:

Wu Shenghua founded Beijing-based 3Vbike in February, using 600,000 RMB ($89,000) of his own money to purchase the first 1,000 bikes. But only four months later, he told the Legal Evening News that there were only dozens left.

Despite those failures, money continues to pour into the Chinese bicycle rental sector: last month, one of the leading startups, Mobike, announced $600 million in new funding, which it will use it to expand outside China. Let's hope people there remember to bring the bikes back.

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