Category Archives: Tech Policy

“Cast a wide net…”

ars Technica reports on on a case where it appears that a legitimate web business was taken down because of what one or more customers was doing.

Details remain sketchy, but the fact that the site was allowed to reopen on the .net domain after its .com presence was summarily executed would seem to indicate it was not the site or its owners in the cross hairs. Much to the chagrin of the company owners and over 400,000 customers, many of whom assume that the site owners were criminals if the Secret Service shuttered the site.

So there must have been some good evidence presented to a grand jury to get a multi-million-dollar internet business closed and a banner displayed in its stead that says “NS1.SUSPENDED-FOR.SPAM-AND-ABUSE.COM” without even notifying the owners, right?

All it took was a request to GoDaddy.com, the domain provider by a prosecutor. JotForm.com has had incidents of phishers using its service to try to harvest personal info, but it had thought that it had cooperated responsibly with authorities. It of course could be that the owner is guilty of crimes the Secret Service is interested in, but if that were the case, why allow the site to go right back on-line with a minor domain change (.org from .com)?

If it was a matter of the site’s customers being the criminals, why not go to the site owners and ask them to cooperate instead of going to the domain provider and closing the site “with prejudice”? How can internet commerce thrive when sites can be taken down and customers lead to believe the site promotes spam and abuse, simply on a prosecutorial request? What are the rights of those trying to do business on the internet? Should those that run sites have their reputations be held hostage by those that use the site?

How do you balance the responsibility of law enforcement to police the internet with those of service providers and clients? Do domain providers “own” the access they provide and can withdraw it upon request? Is there any recourse if someone is portrayed as “spammer” without a judgement by a court?

Tough questions that need legal answers if the internet is going to be a fair and equitable landscape. I doubt Google would be subject to such treatment. But if a company with 400,000 customers can be affected so dramatically without judicial over sight, it will become the domain of those “too big to fail.

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Nevada first to embrace self driving cars

PC Mag reports on a home for testing driver-less cars.

iProgrammer has a couple articles about the science behind it whether it can be “proven” that such cars are “uncrashable” as some want to demand in approval legislation. This gets to issues about “why does software have bugs”and the correlary, why does software that is sold, have any bugs at all?

It comes down to doing things in parrallel with feedback between “lines of operation” – this is the recipe for a “complex system” and raises the spectre of “emergent behavior”.

Then there is the Vebber’s correllary to Godwin’s Law (“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”) “The longer a tech thread goes on the probability of a comparison involving Skynet approaches 1″.

US resumes building Nuke plants

This New Scientist article reports that Southern Company, an Atlanta, GA based utility has been given approval by the NRC to build a pair of reactors at its Vogtle Plant near Waynesboro.

As a side note, the Vogtle Plant complex (currently with 2 operating reactors) is named for Alvin Vogtle, a WWII POW who inspired the character played by Steve McQueen in the Movie The Great Escape.

With this approval, it is expected that the NRC will also approve 4 more reactors in the next few future. SC Electric and gas is pursuing licenses for 2 near Jenkinsville SC and 2 Florida Power and Light has proposals for funding 2 others in Florida.

All three sites are proposing using Westinghouse’s new AP1000 reactors a 1000MWe class gen III+ pressurized water reactor with a passive cooling system that can keep the reactor safe for 72 hours without power.

China was the first to build the AP 1000 with two pairs in commission. INdia is building 6 Gen III+ reactors (though different from the AP1000 design. The emerging economies are where growth in the Gen III+ (large pressurised water reactors with passive safeguards and potential 120 year lifetimes with refueling) market is projected to explode, with 65 reactor projects currently under construction and 52 countries asking the IAEA for help starting nuclear programs. The first tier includes The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Egypt was among those IAEA intended to help, but the recent unrest has shifted them to the “motivated but politically unstable” list.

Just under half of the 65 reactors under construction are in China…

New fronts in surveillance vs privacy

MIT Tech Review reports that terahertz sensing technology is nearing maturity. One of the first applications is in stand-off scanners allowing police to check people for concealed weapons from a distance. Current models have a range of about 15ft, but should be able to be tuned for ranges up to 75ft. The scanners will allow the current “stop and frisk” policy of stopping people on the street for questioning and if they have “reasonable suspicion” – a lessor standard than “probable cause” that can lead to a search warrant – they conduct a pat-down search for weapons.

Law Enforcement advocates taut the tech as a way to protect police who are often assaulted or even shot during such episodes. Privacy advocates cry foul claiming this is a further erosion by remote sensing technology of constitutional protects from “unreasonable searches and seizures”. They argue that remote scanning technology has the potential to make physical searches for many types of items unnecessary, and importantly, conducted without the subjects knowledge. “The Fourth Amendment doesn’t vanish when you leave your house” a privacy advocate maintains.

On a related note, stores are starting to analyze store security footage to try to gain insight into what people specifically do when they shop, with an eye to increasing marketing effectiveness. Company’s are starting to market store surveillance that goes beyond security to analyze movement, actions, and even collect RFID info on purchases brought into stores. So far stores have balked at capturing wi-fi data of customers for supposedly “anonymous” marketing analysis, fearing a backlash on snooping. Most people do not read the terms of use agreements before they connect to free wi-fi, but watchdog groups have been quick to jump on unnecessary permissions buried in the fine print. Iphone and Android apps have been boycotted for onerous permission changes, and Google has come under criticism for recent consolidation of of its disparate privacy policies into what many consider a “lowest common denominator” that is unnecessarily friendly to Google marketing uses.

The tension between “fair use” of information about what you do online and within stores and the spectrum of privacy expectations people have is increasingly going to cause dust-ups in both the real and virtual worlds

Can there be a digital “used record store”?

This ars technica article talks about a start-up that has developed a technology that removes a music file and its digital rights from one computer or device and transfers it to another. The problem is, that in moving the file from the seller’s computer to its server, and thence to the buyer’s computers involving copying the file, something that Capitol records says is a criminal copyright violation liable for up to 150K$ in fines per file.

ReDigi – the company – claims an exemption under the “essential step” clause in the copyright law that allows copying a computer program if it is an “essential step” in the utilization of the program.

(a) Making of additional copy or adaptation by owner of copy. Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106 [ 17 USC 106 ], it is not an infringement for the owner of a copy of a computer program to make or authorize the making of another copy or adaptation of that computer program provided:

(1) that such a new copy or adaptation is created as an essential step in the utilization of the computer program in conjunction with a machine and that it is used in no other manner.

Capitol records claims that the entire analogy to a ‘used record store” is inapplicable because used record stores do not make copies of records, but resell the physical object. Since a digital music file is not a physical object, but a license to reproduce specific intellectual property – that is not transferable – they say ReDigi’s enterprise is based on illegal theft of their intellectual property. They say the “essential step” defense is also not applicable because a music file is not a “computer program” – it is simply data with no executable code. This is not entirely true because of the digital rights management code embedded in the music file that is executable code, which of course Capitol says is a “container” protecting the file and not an actual part of the file itself.

On the face of it it appears ReDigi has a tough road ahead, but a lot will depend on the extent to which the courts buys into the “digital used record store” analogy and whether a music file is considered a “computer program” or whether adding digital rights management changes that. There has already been push-back in the courts to the idea that you don’t actually “own” a music file, but have simply purchased a non-transferable licence to use the file. Similar arguments regarding computer programs have already failed to sway courts who have allowed the resale of computer software. That has involved the transfer of the physical media the program is distributed on – making it a direct equivalent to the “used record store” and not an “analogy”.

Supreme Court nixes warretless tracking

The argument was that since police could follow someone, and that because of that nobody had a right to an expectation of privacy as to their whereabouts in public, it was ergo fair game to surreptitiously place tracking devices on anyone’s car they wanted to monitor. It was just a matter of good use of resources. Why devote police officers to trail suspects, when technology could do the same thing cheaper and more efficiently! It was “reasonable” and police could use it at their discretion without judicial oversight.

This article in WSJ gives the “not so fast” from the Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling, that was split 5-4 along lines of reasoning. The majority opinion, authored by Antonin Scalia (backed by CJ Roberts together with Kennedy, Thomas, and Sotomayor agreed that the 4th amendments protection of “person’s, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” would logically extend to private property such as automobiles and the use of GPS trackers constituted a “search” – since the governments case was based on the claim that it was not, the Government case was forfeit, and a conviction based on such a “search” was thrown out. They said that was enough reasoning to suit them. Interestingly, Justice Alito, supported by Justices Breyer, Kagan and Ginsberg, added to this in a concurring opinion. They felt that a property-based argument alone was too narrow to guard against threats to personal privacy from other modern technology.

Given the increasing use of things like cell phone data extractors and Wi-Fi collectors, the more liberal justices seemed to want to serve notice that they will not look kindly on arguments (which they are likely to see) equating the Information highway to real highways in this regard, with similar arguments as to the expectation of privacy. The “expectation of privacy” protects the person, while unreasonable search protects property. Both are to be protected. The Alito argument serves notice too those preparing possible challenges to warrantless police snooping on Wi-Fi or data collection from cell phones and standoff thermal imaging of interiors of residences better have better arguments than that citizens have “no expectation of privacy” over things that are snoopable, thus giving government free rein to do such snooping at its pleasure.

The day after the SOPA blackouts…what did it accomplish?

Several itmes: Time Magazine the Seattle Times and ABC News have interesting takes on the anti-SPA blackout. Time reports that before the the blackout 5 Senators were on record against the bill, and now one source it is now 19 with 7 more “leaning no” in the Senate. To find key remaining supporters…follow the money: of the 19 Senators that received over 75K from Hollywood and the Music Industry, 13 are supporters, and only 1 Roy Blunt (R-MO), is on the record firmly against.

Interestingly, Silicon Valley money does not seem to carry the same weight, as the 16 Senators with over 75K in Silicon valley money, only 2 are firm “No’s”, though 7 in that category saw Hollywood outspending Silicon Valley, with a “yes” resulting…outspending your competition seems to work 😉 The group “Fight for the Future” claims the Senate ‘No’s’ have increased to 35 no, but that seems to be a single, biased, source. Total donations to the Senate by Hollywood/Big Music were 5.6M$ (Big winner Barbera Boxer (D-CA with a whopping 571K$) while Silicon Valley gave 4.2M$ (Big winner Patty Murray (D-Micro$oft…errrrr WA) with 363K$ – note Barbera Boxer was 2nd with 348k$)

The House is far more hostile, with only 27 on the record for, and now 83 opposing. Of the 15 House Members with over 75K in Hollywood and Music Industry Money, only 6 supporters remain. Only 7 received over 75K from silicon valley, 5 are nos, and none of those 7 were outspent by Hollywood/Music interests. 7.9M$ was donated to House members by Hollywood/Big Music (Big winner Howard Berman (D-CA) with 286K), 6.5$ by Silicon Valley (Big winner Anna Eshoo (D-CA) with 163K).

The Administration has weighed in threatened to oppose legislation that contains language that would make it easier for the government to censor the web or make the internet less secure, but not saying it considered either SOPA or PIP contained such language. Opponents say it’s obviously implied, but there is a ton of re-election money at stake that Obama does not want to put at risk with a clear answer.

The opposition seems to be remarkably non-partisan with groups ranging from the expected host of conservative and libertarian groups to Moveon.org taking their sites down in protest. Google had

The “rest of the story” however, is where the interesting innovation is taking place.

The neatest thing that has come out of all this is that the rival legislation to SOPA/PIP – the OPEN act – has been used to debut an alternative to the library of Congress’ legislation publication site “Thomas”, dubbed informally by its users “Madison” here. Rather than Thomas’ bare bones search engine that often returns a confusing array of bill versions, both with and without pending amendments, Madison employs real-time mark-up as proposals for changes and amendments are passed – INCLUDING the ability to show those recommended by the public. – It’s a Thomas meets Wikipedia and Twitter experiment in participatory democracy. The site tracks amendments proposed, passed, and failed along with video clips of proceedings. It has a LOT of room for improvement, tracability and filtering of comments, more comprehensive video archives cross-indexed to amendments. Compared to the sterile and confusing “if you are not a poliwonk have fun slogging” that is Thomas…(my search on ‘SOPA’ – resulted in “no items found” – you need the HR/SR number just to get started…) it is a potential “game-changer” for how individuals can observe and if desired PARTICIPATE in the sausage-making of bill -crafting.

Is opening the door in this way fraught with peril? Are we not after all a Republic, and not a direct Democracy for good reasons? Can’t the Hollywood and Music shills exploit this to get language they want into bills? Yes. But the current system has that happen behind closed doors enabled by access largely granted by campaign donations. In my mind, anything that moves that out into the light of day, where anybody can see it, is better.

5 Top Tech Issues to watch in 2012

This article at CIO magazine talks about the five major tech issues for the next year. These are:

Smartphone spectrum – The 2010s are the decade of the smartphone, with tablets, “talking (and listening) cars”, and other “internet appliances” exploding on the scene. So where does the spectrum come from to support this huge demand? One idea is to offer current spectrum licence holders (primarily TV stations) a cut of the profits if they sell. The worry is that current legislation may allow “eminent domain” domain type abilities to government to force compliance, if not enough spectrum is voluntarily offered. There is also concern about the implementation and what exactly constitutes “licensed spectrum”. The light squared vs GPS debate shows that technical implementation issues can have dramatic “good neighbor” effects on adjacent spectrum, potentially rendering GPS receivers unusable in the vicinity of light squared transmitters. In a similar manner it is possible 4G and higher equipped towers, may cause interference with over the air broadcast HD TV and radio. As anybody who has dealt with RFI issues on ships knows, just because you have transmitters and receivers operating on different parts of the spectrum, you can still have debilitating interference problems that are difficult or impossible to eliminate. Given the demand for fast, mobile internet access, there looks to be a high probability growing pains that will see ‘orphaned’ uses like broadcast HD TV and an acceptance of geographic or temporal “holes” in services such GPS and legacy cell services in order to satisfy the ravenous demand for fast, mobile internet devices. From an innovation standpoint, what is the relative tradeoff between going “all in” on new ways to delivery content and services and respecting the investment nearly everyone has in the hodgepodge of existing delivery mechanisms.

SOPA/PIP – The downside of the shift from media delivery by physical means to electronic means is the perceived ease with which creative property can be reproduced and distributed without compensation to the rights holder. I’ve discussed this before. It is a problem. The scope of the problem is only a fraction of what some like the RIAA claim it to be, but it is a problem. The problem is that what appears to be a straightforward case of addressing “foreign exploitation” but the devil is in the details. With the rise of cloud computing jut what is a “foreign website”, well the RIAA and its allies want to treat the definition of “foreign” as “anything that is not explicitly domestic” – something that is increasingly impossible to determine with data centers around the globe exchanging website data as required to service demand from an increasingly networked world. By taking advantage of the fact that the internet is increasingly divorced from terrestrial geography and national borders, the RIAA and allies are trying to exploit a seemingly reasonable argument that we can treat “foreign pirates” differently from domestic ones, the result would allow them to treat any website that employs cloud resourcing as “not explicitly domestic, and therefore foreign”. This sets up a confrontation between IP producers, trying to protect their IP, and resource distributors (like Google, Yahoo, even Microsoft) who the IP producers want to hold hostage in whole, if they can find any little sub-component in violation. The resulting chilling effect on resource provider/distributer borders on extortion, with the content providers licking their chops over a potential mountain of harassing litigation that would dwarf the likes of Righthaven’s efforts. The other issue is the effect “militarizing” the current DNS architecture would have could lead the real bad guys from taking advantage of security issues in the DNS naming apparatus to create in effect a “black internet” free of any regulation whatsoever. Groups like anonymous could also wreak havoc within the current DNS system that is based on voluntary compliance within a largely self-regulated system. Right now there is no incentive to “go outside the system” or “attack the system”. Force people out of the system and odds are they won’t just go “oh, darn ya got me” but will either operate outside the system, or seek retribution with the system.

Kudus to the Obama administration for listening to all sides of the argument and voicing “serious concerns” and pushing back against the current legislative thinking.

Consumer Privacy – Recent revelations that iPhones and many other smartphones spy on their owners geographic location and read their texts and email for hints on what our interests are have a lot of people evaluating how “helpful” this is. Particularly in light of attempts by law enforcement to consider downloading the entire contents of a non-password protected smart phone (and with the thinnest probable cause demand access to a protected one) putting this data in the hands of law enforcement. Attempts to restrict this type of warrantless search in California were recently vetoed by Gov Brown. In like fashion, national legislative efforts have died because of “national security implications”. Enter the European Union, where privacy still trumps security concerns, and a a host of national laws require a comprehensive Euro-zone wide solution. It is odd that the EU bureaucratic system may set the standard for privacy policy, which the US would have to subsume, at least in principle, for US companies to engage in EU commerce. Such requirements to protect your data from unscrupulous businesses and “apps” originating in the EU (including default use of strong encryption) could well be what protects your mobile data from the prying eyes of over-zealous US law enforcement. Unlike the Patriot Act where privacy concerns are mostly theoretical in nature, there are already an increasing number of cases where warrantless cell phone data extractions have lead to convictions, with some states like California and Michigan being particularly aggressive.

Net Neutrality – The Second Front in the war on piracy, the issue of internet providers limiting the ability of customers to download what they want and media content providers ability to offer high density content is still looming large. Its predominantly the later, but the former has been cast as an issue of “high bandwidth users are obviously pirates”. The rise of netflix in particular has shifted this from a user-moderation issue to a supplier compensation one. The user aspect of this is the right to download what you want without throttling or capping of access. The provider side is notion that providers of high density content like netflix should be taxed because of the bandwidth requirements of supporting their business model. The internet providers want their cake and eat it too, getting increased revenue from high density content providers, while they extract more fees from high bandwidth users. The “real” net neutrality advocates say neither is appropriate, and if an internet provider collects fees based on offering a service to provide “access” that works both ways and means users should get the access promised without throttling and capping, while service providers should not have to pay a premium based on the density of their product. The reality is that service providers have to give something, and internet suppliers have to give something. the market should be allowed to sort this out, not having aa solution forces on them by legislation. The problem is that many places (like Aquidneck Island) have an effective monopoly (You will never see FIOS on AQUIDNECK ISLAND, ITS JUST NOT PROFITABLE – SO WE ARE HOSTAGE TO COX…) has only a single internet service provider, and providers enjoy a monopoly that lets them try to make money on both the consumer and content provider ends. Net neutrality in its pure sense prevents monopolies from holding both ends hostage and extorting profit without competition.

Cyber-security – This brings all of the above into alignment as hackers have shown how vulnerable mid-level and “should know better” players on-line are to hackers. The good news here is that major players have not suffered serious problems. Google, Amazon, and major retailers, like the banking industry, are moderately secured against no-national level hackers. The issue is, against those high-end threats, just how vulnerable are the high-end players? The respective hands are yet to be played out, but the indications are not encouraging. The question is, since the financial risk is on the commercial sector, should they be relied on to keep us safe, or should the government step in and take the lead? If the government takes the lead, should it be in the role of supported, or supporting “commander”…

You could see this one coming…

Verizon reverses 2$ bill-pay fee. Really? After the B of A 5$ fee to use a debit card debacle was there no one at Verizon that could see this was DOA? As Mike Ditka says “C’mon, man!!”

Big game names shun new Stop Online Piracy Act changes

Top game companieshave removed their support of the SOPA legislation that is meandering its way through Congress. Despite an attempt to leverage existing governance via the International Trade Commission (see this previous post) tthe latest mods to the bill instead take the idea of monetary attack ON TOP of the already onerous censorship and delisting threats.

The scariest part of this bill is the fact that those supposedly crafting it admit they have no idea what they are doing…(see Wash Post)

If I had a dime for every time someone in the hearing markup used the phrase “I’m not a nerd” or “I’m no tech expert, but they tell me . . .,” I’d have a large number of dimes and still feel intensely worried about the future of the uncensored Internet. If this were surgery, the patient would have run out screaming a long time ago. But this is like a group of well-intentioned amateurs getting together to perform heart surgery on a patient incapable of moving. “We hear from the motion picture industry that heart surgery is what’s required,” they say cheerily. “We’re not going to cut the good valves, just the bad — neurons, or whatever you call those durn thingies.”

The Heritage Foundation has chimed in on this recently with a “beware of unintended consequences” warning that seems to be going unheeded. THis report points out the some of the provisions in previous versions that allowed intellectual property owners to file “takedown” notices directly to offending websites, without court involvement have been removed, but this may open the door to overzealous and lawyer-rich IP holders to use the threat of court action in private communication to cause much of the previously reported mayhem, without the ability to file counteraction. Deep pockets will be able to force expensive court action on the “little guys”.

THe question is, will this really have the chilling effect claimed by doomsayers? To some extent, but as we have seen with the record industry, attempts to sue random teenager’s families for 100s of thousands in piracy damages caused more backlash than it was worth and has mostly run its course as the record labels spent by 1 account $17 million to get less than 400K in settlement money. Even the deepest pockets can’t keep that up for long.

So where do we go from here? Piracy has always been a major problem, but one that has been blown WAY out of proportion by the IP holders. Having been an online software vendor, and one with threadbare pockets, we found that our bottom line suffered with onerous anti-piracy schemes and improved when we made customers feel like their satisfaction and ease of use was more important than trying to eliminate piracy. Did we lose more sales to piracy with the latter strategy than the former? Yes! Did every pirated copy represent a lost sale? NO! Most pirated games are never played more than once or twice if at all, and in many cases sit on a pirates “trophy shelf” as proof of his street cred. Same with music. If I had ever used a file sharing site to find a song, it would have been a one time deal, often to find and play a song while sitting around with friends that I actually owned, but could get quicker online than ruffling through my CD collection (3-400 accumulated over the years). The notion that every pirate event is a lost sale is preposterous, and Matrix Games demonstrated that you increase sales with good customer service and allowing paying customers to have a game they paid for on multiple computers they own (or maybe a friend or two own) than you do locking things down with things like STEAM and making customers feel like proto-criminals. Maximizing sales, not minimizing piracy should be the success metric. Legislation like this needs to recognize this and be structured to balance “fair use” against no kidding wholesale IP theft.

The bottom line is that trying to stop piracy with a legislative shotgun will end up doing more harm than good. The proof is in the pudding – if the IP owners are against it – the people you are trying to protect – then you can be pretty sure you have a BAD solution. Look at physical “piracy” the sale of knock-off goods with “designer labels”. You stop that through the ITC and by making it financially risky to deal in such goods. Losing the ability to process credit cards because of repeated abuse has been effective in addressing large-scale offenders. Street corner cash sales will always be there, like any black market, and in many cases become gateways were young women in particular who start buying knock offs, go to the real thing when they are successful enough to afford it. These streetcorner sales to those who can’t afford the real thing anyway can be looked at as “diluting the exclusivity” of the brand, or as a form of viral marketing that leads to young women developing brand loyalty in the knock-off market that translates to real brand loyalty when they mature. Much like Apple’s attempts to inculcate brand identity by donating computers to schools.

Effective legislation will focus on large-scale foreign offender’s in a way that does not leave the door open to abuses of the types the articles linked to warn against. The current legislation needs to be thrown out and redone by a task force composed of those intended to be protected, tech policy experts, and bi-partisan legislators, with an eye to empowering the ITC to do the job it already does regarding “real world” piracy of goods.