Jan 152013
NOAH BERGER/REUTERS -  Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008

NOAH BERGER/REUTERS – Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008

Even if you didn’t who Aaron Swartz was before his suicide the other day, you probably do now. A tech prodigy (co-developer of RSS code and the website Reddit) and thoughtful young activist who fought to fulfill the real potential of our communications revolution – who Lawrence Lessig called an “incredible soul” – Swartz was facing up to 35 years in jail and millions in fines for taking documents via MIT’s network from the non-profit JSTOR repository. JSTOR was willing to settle; it seems that MIT was not. Clearly the Department of Justice was determined to prosecute this case to the bitter end.

I didn’t know Aaron but have followed his work for years. Some of the tributes by those who knew him can be found at the Guardian site.

Whether or not Aaron’s suicide is directly attributable to the legal case against him is hard to say – I tend to think that it is is but we never truly know the source of the inner demons in someone else’s mind. The family feels strongly that the court case is to blame.

What is truly frightening in all of this is the disproportionality of our intellectual property and copyright law. Mind you, Aaron was facing far more time in jail than if he had gone out and shot someone, robbed a bank, trafficked slaves, or threatened the President. Think Progress has a summary of the time you face for these crimes – if we learn anything from Aaron’s tragic death, it should be that the fear (largely from the corporate world) of the incredible ability to share ideas and resources in the digital age has spurred to a profound overreaction to protect intellectual property. Whatever Aaron did – even if one does draw the conclusion that it was outright theft – it does not measure up to the following.

Here is some of the list from Think Progress:

To put these charges in perspective, here are ten examples of federal crimes that carry lesser prison sentences than Swartz’ alleged crime of downloading academic articles in an effort to make knowledge widely available to the public:

  • Manslaughter: Federal law provides that someone who kills another human being “[u]pon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion” faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if subject to federal jurisdiction. The lesser crime of involuntary manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of only six years.
  • Bank Robbery: A person who “by force and violence, or by intimidation” robs a bank faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. If the criminal “assaults any person, or puts in jeopardy the life of any person by the use of a dangerous weapon or device,” this sentence is upped to a maximum of 25 years.
  • Selling Child Pornography: The maximum prison sentence for a first-time offender who “knowingly sells or possesses with intent to sell” child pornography in interstate commerce is 20 years. Significantly, the only way to produce child porn is to sexually molest a child, which means that such a criminal is literally profiting off of child rape or sexual abuse.
  • Knowingly Spreading AIDS: A person who “after testing positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and receiving actual notice of that fact, knowingly donates or sells, or knowingly attempts to donate or sell, blood, semen, tissues, organs, or other bodily fluids for use by another, except as determined necessary for medical research or testing” faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
  • Selling Slaves: Under federal law, a person who willfully sells another person “into any condition of involuntary servitude” faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, although the penalty can be much higher if the slaver’s actions involve kidnapping, sexual abuse or an attempt to kill.
  • Genocidal Eugenics: A person who “imposes measures intended to prevent births” within a particular racial, ethnic or religious group or who “subjects the group to conditions of life that are intended to cause the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part” faces a maximum prison term of 20 years, provided their actions did not result in a death.
  • Helping al-Qaeda Develop A Nuclear Weapon: A person who “willfully participates in or knowingly provides material support or resources . . . to a nuclear weapons program or other weapons of mass destruction program of a foreign terrorist power, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be imprisoned for not more than 20 years.”
  • Violence At International Airports: Someone who uses a weapon to “perform[] an act of violence against a person at an airport serving international civil aviation that causes or is likely to cause serious bodily injury” faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years if their actions do not result in a death. . . .

May his passing help us rethink our priorities and ensure that the Internet is a place of freedom.

Oct 192012

Great video on copyright law, remix and free culture. Disney was one of the great mashup artists of his time and ahead of many of his contemporaries in the use of technology to remix culture. But through corporate lobbying, the concept of copyright went from supporting creativity to a situation where a new generation of digitally literate kids are in regular violation of the law. This isn’t about stealing music and down downloading movies illegally; it is about fair-use and that the law needs to adapt to the new landscape of the digital revolution.

I’m not that hopeful in the short term, but perhaps down the road, Lawrence Lessig may be the inspiration for kids to effect change. After all, it’s the world they are inheriting and right now it’s a contradictory mess between the forces of creativity and innovation on the one side and legal codes that were written for a wholly different era.

Sep 012012

An article on technology to consider over the long weekend ahead – okay, yes the beach, the mountains, etc. are much better than reading online on the last days of summer but some have had their activities curtailed from the endless rain brought by Isacc or the sightings of all-too-many sharks along the New England coast.

You would think this question about technology is not one we need to ask in the middle of a seemingly endless technological revolution, but there are many factors holding us back. The article from Tech Radar, “10 Worst Enemies of Tech: Who’s Holding Us Back?”  is well worth reading. I’ll simply list the ten points here:Obstacles

  1. Copyright industries
  2. For-profit pirates
  3. Patent trolls
  4. Network operators
  5. Cheapskates
  6. Facebook
  7. Politicians
  8. Spammers
  9. Toothless regulators
  10. Us
I wouldn’t do the exact same list, but definitely copyright issues, patent trolls, network operators (phone companies and the like) and politicians would be high on my list. Some of the things here just come with the territory – in an open, distributed network with no central authority or regulation, there will be problems like spam. But I don’t see them as insurmountable. But copyright (and some others here) have the potential to do us in.
The one item glaringly missed here that would be in my list? The compulsive need (and the technology solutions fueling it) for surveillance by organizations and governments. Just ask anyone in the global community who has faced police interrogation (or worse) for a Skype call or Facebook post. Take a look at the recent news on FinSpy, espionage software that is already being used in over a dozen countries and probably more. How did this first surface? From Egyptian protesters who raided the state security building in March 2011 and discovered offers by the Egyptian government to purchase it. The Sidney Morning Herald relays the account of other researchers now tracking the spread of FinSpy:

Morgan Marquis-Boire works as a Google engineer and Bill Marczak is earning a PhD in computer science. But this US summer, the two men have been moonlighting as detectives, chasing an elusive surveillance tool from Bahrain across five continents. What they found was the widespread use of sophisticated, off-the-shelf computer espionage software by governments with questionable records on human rights. While the software is supposedly sold for use only in criminal investigations, the two came across evidence that it was being used to target political dissidents. The software proved to be the stuff of a spy film: it can grab images of computer screens, record Skype chats, turn on cameras and microphones and log keystrokes. The two men said they discovered mobile versions of the spyware customised for all major mobile phones.

Scary stuff. I’m not paranoid, just realistic. Power corrupts and with near impossible to detect spyware tools like this increasingly available, they will be appropriated by those in power to maintain power. That needs to be high on any list of what’s holding us back in technology. The Internet is a powerful enabler of freedom; but in some ways it is the best tracking device ever invented.

FinSpy is part of the FinFisher surveillance software suite

FinFisher and FinSpy Surveillance Software

More on this later. For now, enjoy the last moments of summer and the long Labor Day weekend if you’re in the States. More posts this weekend from somewhere off the Connecticut coastline.


Jul 292012

Google Lawsuit Over YouTube mp3 Conversion Site

A 21 year-old German student is fighting a cease and desist order from Google that he take down his YouTube video conversion site which rips YouTube videos to mp3 format. The site’s owner, Philip Matesanz, did a petition through change.org and has now collected over a million signatures that he intends on delivering in person to Google (interesting how in the age of everything digital there is still much power in the face-to-face statement). His argument is that the site does not violate YouTube’s terms of service since users are only making personal copies and there is legal precedent for making personal copies of video from a public broadcast.

Not surprisingly, Google will see this differently, pushed no doubt by corporations such as Viacom that do not want to see users making any copies at all. Of course, there is nothing new here in that people have been able to rip YouTube videos through online conversion sites for some time. Matesanz is simply making it easier for the end-user and when copying becomes easy, you move dead-center into the the target sight of corporations bent on controlling every aspect of their content delivery. From ReadWriteWeb.

Jul 122012
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), author of SOPA and now the IPAA

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX)

Sometimes it seems that bad things never die; like zombies, they rise from the grave . . . again and again. Yes, a new version of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act that was killed off earlier this year is now back as a new bill in the House of Representatives, titled the Intellectual Property Attaché Act (IPAA).  Dust off those Guy Fawkes masks as it appears to just be SOPA under another name – it was even introduced by the same author, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). Good grief, this man must hate the Web – at the very least, he doesn’t understand how it functions.

Like its predecessor, under the IPAA a user would only need to accuse another website of a violation of copyright.  Search engine results, payment and advertising systems would then have to be terminated within five days. Even more troubling, the IPAA has significantly broader support in the House of Representatives, with many of those opposed to SOPA in favor of the latest reincarnation. In other words, we have another fight on our hands.

Here are the details from Readwriteweb:

A new bill is about to be officially introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives that would resurrect some unsavory aspects of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that sparked widespread protests last winter.

The bill, which the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to mark up as soon as today, is titled the Intellectual Property Attaché Act (IPAA) and is primarily designed to expand the powers of so-called IP attachés within a new agency inside the Department of Commerce, even to the point of establishing a new Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property.

This is a very deliberate shift within the bureaucracy that’s designed to expand the powers of the intellectual property enforcement agents who work within the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The primary mission of these new IP attachés would be, according to the bill, “to achieve potential benefit by reducing intellectual property infringement in the United States market and globally.”

One way to interpret this mission? Giving members of the diplomatic corps more powers to enforce intellectual property violations around the world.

What’s the Problem This Time?

Given that IP violations are against the law, where’s the problem? Opponents of the SOPA and PIPA bills from late 2011 and early 2012 will recognize this expansion of powers as part of the SOPA act, though at the time the provision got very little attention.

Those bills gave a number of new powers to copyright holders who found content on a website that they believed infringed on their copyright:

  1. They could ask any vendor providing revenue to that site to stop. For instance, the request could go to advertising or credit card providers for the allegedly infringing site, and they would have five days to cut their ties with the site.
  2. The bills would have enabled the U.S. Attorney General to send court orders to DNS server operators ordering them to stop resolving the domain names of allegedly infringing sites to their matching IP addresses – making it impossible for Web browsers to reach the sites by name.
  3. Search engines would also be required to remove or block links to these sites.

Protesters were incensed, particularly because all of these actions could have been set in motion by private corporations, with no requirements for legal proof.

A copyright holder need only accuse a website of infringement, and the search engine, advertisement and payment systems would be cut off in five days. DNS filtering would need the involvement of the Department of Justice to get a court order, but again, there would be no need to prove anything to obtain such an order from a judge. . . .

. . . . Clearly, Hollywood and other intellectual property holders would love to see IPAA passed: It actually expands on some aspects of SOPA/PIPA. And government agents with more power to enforce private intellectual property rights both domestically and globally is a taxpayer-funded dream for copyright holders. 

You can read an alternative – and less critical – view of the implications of ITAA over at Digital Trends, but having read through some sections of the legislation, I sense trouble.

Feb 112012

There have been protests in over 200 European cities today against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) despite the brutal winter weather of the past few weeks. ACTA’s already been approved by most European governments but still needs the approval of the European Parliament and will probably come up for a vote in June. In ways similar to the now slumbering SOPA and PIPA legislation in the United States, it would criminalize a good deal of activity on the Web without effectively stopping piracy.

Here’s a map of today’s ACTA protests:

ACTA is not actually legislation, but far worse: a  trade agreement negotiated in secret by the United States and Japan with the participation of a few other countries and industries. It’s all been done in secrecy and were it not for leaked drafts, even less would be known about how it was developed.

Bulgarian MPs in Guy Fawkes Masks to Protest ACTA

Bulgarian MPs in Guy Fawkes Masks

You’ll find two good accounts of ACTA agreement at Stop ACTA and at the  Electronic Frontier Foundation. If you are in favor of an open society, of creativity, of the right to remix and make appropriate reuse of material on the Web, this is not the time to fall asleep. The concept of copyright needs to be upheld; criminalizing everything we do on the Web is not the solution. If your really undecided or think this agreement is a good idea, take a look at Killacta.org. Just read through reason number 5:

ACTA Permanently bypasses democracy by giving the “ACTA Committee” the power to “propose amendments to [ACTA]” (article 6.4). In other words, voting for ACTA writes a blank check to an unelected committee. These closed-door proceedings will be a playground for SOPA-supporters like the MPAA. 

Jan 212012

The comedian Bill Maher just doesn’t get it when it comes to SOPA and PIPA. Seems to still be hurting over his not-overly-successful movie. Yes, there were pirated copies of the comedy-documentary Religulous floating around but maybe if the movie had been better, there would have been more ticket or post-theater sales. He is right that there is a “moral dimension” to piracy that doesn’t get discussed, but it might come up if the other side wasn’t so unbelievably radical in its solutions. Clearly he does not get how the Internet works-at least admits he has not read the bill (but, hey, even a summary might help)-and seems focused totally on the idea that this is something whites do – “Caucasian looting” is how he terms it. Yep, there’s a digital divide, but it’s not quite like that.

Come on Maher, you’re a funny and often a bright man, sometimes one of the few to tell it like it is. You can do better than than the conclusion that “people just want free sh*t.” Not surprisingly, he gets shot down by his three guests, each taking it from a different perspective:

Jan 212012

Here’s Clay Shirky on TED.com, actually at the TED offices with a hard-hitting statement on what SOPA and PIPA would mean for the Internet. A strong statement “to defend our freedom to create, discuss, link and share, rather than passively consume.”

The most important point here: it would upend the current legal approach to policing copyright under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) begun in 1998, making users essentially guilt until proven innocent. But whether you agree with Shirky or not, it’s worth 14 minutes of your time to watch:

Jan 202012

Megaupload, the high-volume, massive content file sharing site, was shut down by the Feds Thursday for copyright violations and its founder and other executives arrested in New Zealand. From ABC News:

The indictment alleged that megaupload.com and a shell company associated with the website, Vestor Limited, caused an estimated half-billion dollars in copyright losses and made an estimated $175 million in proceeds. The website was established in 2005 and at one point ranked as the 13th most-visited website on the Internet.

Ironically, the site has major celebrity support:

Megaupload SIte

Megaupload SIte

Megaupload was unique not only because of its massive size and the volume of downloaded content, but also because it had high-profile support from celebrities, musicians and other content producers who are most often the victims of copyright infringement and piracy. Before the website was taken down, it contained endorsements from Kim Kardashian, Alicia Keys and Kanye West, among others. 

Fallout from the shutdown has included denial of Service attacks on websites belonging to the Department of Justice, Recording Industry Association of America, Universal Music and the Motion Picture Association of America. The hacker group, Anonymous, claimed responsibility.

Jan 162012

UpSOPA Lamar Smith PosterSOPA has finally, at long last, died. Representative Eric Canter has announced that he is stopping action on SOPA in the House of Representatives. According to the Examiner, this effective kills the bill, though there is still concern about the Senate version, PIPA, which has 40 co-sponsors. Rep. Issa issued the following statement:

While I remain concerned about Senate action on the Protect IP Act [PIPA], I am confident that flawed legislation will not be taken up by this House. Majority Leader Cantor has assured me that we will continue to work to address outstanding concerns and work to build consensus prior to any anti-piracy legislation coming before the House for a vote.


Original Post (Jan. 16, 2012): It’s been a long battle but the tide is rapidly turning against SOPA, the Stop Online Priacy Act that has been working its way through Congress with significant bipartisan support. According to Forbes, a number of supporting are backing down including the author of the bill, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) who released the following statement from his office:

After consultation with industry groups across the country, I feel we should remove DNS-blocking from the Stop Online Piracy Act so that the [U.S. House Judiciary] Committee can further examine the issues surrounding this provision.

This is how Wired described the new proposal:

Under the amended plan (.pdf), which was released late Monday, a judge would have to order ad networks to stop doing business with a site “dedicated” to infringing activities. Under the original proposal, a rights holder could make those demands on an ad network or payment processor and effectively kill off the site.

Still not perfect, but the DNS-blocking provision based simply on the request of the rights holder was one of the most damning aspects of the bill.

Other developments: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) is considering an amendment to scale back the Protect IP Act (S.968), or PIPA, the Senate version of the bill. In addition, the Obama administration’s technology team has come out against the bill. Finally, Rep Darrell Issa (R-CA), has decided to not hold hearings with DNS experts. Issa was at the Consumer Electronics Show last week to drum up opposition to the bill and propose the alternative OPEN Act that would have the International Trade Commission deal with piracy issues.

As Matthew Yglesia argues in Slate:

For the economy as a whole, I’ve never seen any compelling evidence that online piracy is in fact a real problem. If it was a real problem, you would expect the problem to manifest itself in the form of consumers with cash in their pockets finding themselves unable to find songs to listen to or films or TV shows to watch. Obviously content-producers (like me!) would prefer to have higher revenues, but if there’s a genuine problem here it should manifest itself on the consumer side as creators just give up on writing new books or whatever. To say that there’s no real problem here isn’t to say we need to move to a zero-copyright or zero-enforcement world, it’s simply to observe that the enforcement status quo actually seems fine.