April 25, 2014

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Internet Voting Snafu at USRowing

USRowing, the governing body for the sport of rowing in the U.S., recently announced the discovery of likely fraud in one of its leadership elections.

Further investigation into this region’s voting resulted in the determination that fraudulent ballots were cast in the Mid-Atlantic election that directly affected the outcome of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director of the Board of Directors election only. Those responsible for the fraudulent ballots have not yet been identified.

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Arlington v. FCC: What it Means for Net Neutrality

[Cross-posted on my blog, Managing Miracles]

On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Arlington v. FCC. At issue was a very abstract legal question: whether the FCC has the right to interpret the scope of its own authority in cases in which congress has left the contours of their jurisdiction ambiguous. In short, can the FCC decide to regulate a specific activity if the statute could reasonably be read to give them that authority? The so-called Chevron doctrine gives deference to administrative agencies’ interpretation of of their statutory powers, and the court decided that this deference extends to interpretations of their own jurisdiction. It’s all very meta, but it turns out that it could be a very big deal indeed for one of those hot-button tech policy issues: net neutrality.

Scalia wrote the majority opinion, which is significant for reasons I will describe below. The opinion demonstrated a general skepticism of the telecom industry claims, and with classic Scalia snark, he couldn’t resist this footnote about the petitioners, “CTIA—The Wireless Association”:

This is not a typographical error. CTIA—The Wireless Association was the name of the petitioner. CTIA is presumably an (unpronounceable) acronym, but even the organization’s website does not say what it stands for. That secret, known only to wireless-service-provider insiders, we will not disclose here.

Ha. Ok, on to the merits of the case and why this matters for net neutrality.
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Open-Source 3D Printing and Copyright Reform: It’s Time to Revisit Personal Use Copying

Last week, I attended MSU’s Fifth Annual Conference on Innovation and Communications Law, where I saw a wonderful presentation by Joshua Pearce, an engineering and material sciences professor from Michigan Tech, on “distributed open-source digital manufacturing” (a.k.a. open-source 3D printing). The hardware Joshua presented is called RepRap:

RepRap takes the form of a free desktop 3D printer capable of printing plastic objects. Since many parts of RepRap are made from plastic and RepRap prints those parts, RepRap self-replicates by making a kit of itself – a kit that anyone can assemble given time and materials. It also means that – if you’ve got a RepRap – you can print lots of useful stuff, and you can print another RepRap for a friend…

I love conferences that bring lawyers together with technologists, because they really help the lawyers among us understand what’s at stake for developers of new technologies that intersect—maybe “collide” is the better word—with intellectual property law. Joshua’s presentation ended with a plea to the lawyers in the room to prevent IP law from inhibiting the development and proliferation of open 3D printing technologies, which promise to revolutionize—maybe “disrupt” is the better word—our entrenched, centralized, and outsourced manufacturing model.
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Blocking of Google+ Hangouts Android App

Earlier this week, online news sites started reporting the apparent blocking of Google’s Google+ Hangout video-chat application on Android over AT&T’s cellular network [SlashGear, Time, ArsTechnica].

Several of the articles noted the relationship to an earlier controversy concerning AT&T and Apple’s FaceTime application. Our Mobile Broadband Working Group at the FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee released an case study on the AT&T’s handling of FaceTime in January of this year. Our report may help inform the new debate on the handling of the Google Hangout video app on cellular networks.

Addendum (5/21/2013): AT&T announces support for FaceTime over cellular under all pricing plans over LTE by the end of the year [MacObserver, The Register].

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CALEA II: Risks of wiretap modifications to endpoints

Today I joined a group of twenty computer scientists in issuing a report criticizing an FBI plan to require makers of secure communication tools to redesign their systems to make wiretapping easy. We argue that the plan would endanger the security of U.S. users and the competitiveness of U.S. companies, without making it much harder for criminals to evade wiretaps.

The FBI argues that the Net is “going dark”—that they are losing their ability to carry out valid wiretap warrants. In fact, this seems to be a golden age of surveillance—more collectable communications are available than ever before, including whole new categories of information such as detailed location tracking. Regardless, the FBI wants Congress to require that voice, video, and text communication tools be (re-)designed so that lawful wiretap orders can be executed quickly and silently.

Our report focuses in particular on the drawbacks of mandating wiretappability of endpoint tools—that is, tools that reside on the user’s computer or phone. Traditional wiretaps are executed on a provider’s equipment. That approach works for the traditional phone system (wiretap in the phone company’s switching facility) or a cloud service like GMail (get data from the service provider). But for P2P technologies such as Skype, information can only be captured on the user’s computer, which means that the Skype software would have to be changed to add a virtual “wiretap port” that could be activated remotely without the user’s knowledge.
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Who Owns the Future? Not the Middle Class

Jaron Lanier, in the latest contribution to the public conversation about how we live with technology, blames the Internet for the fall of the middle class.  Only the problem is he’s wrong.

In his new book Who Owns the Future? Lanier–often described with the word visionary–argues that the information economy in general and network technologies in particular are to blame for the plight of the middle class. I haven’t read the entire book yet (that will have to wait until after my team puts in our proposal to NSF’s Smart and Connected Health ). I suspect I will agree the political spirit of much of what Lanier writes, but on this point I have to push back now, even at the risk of missing the subtlety of his full argument.  We probably agree on many points, but this one is crucial to tease out because of it’s political implications.

In Venture Labor I traced why seemingly rational, well-educated young people rushed to be a part of the first wave of dot-coms in the 1990s and early 2000s. My point was the entrepreneurial spirit of the dot-com era was a response to growing job insecurity, not the cause of it. Young graduates of the 1990s found that risky Internet startups offered the best options in an economy that increasingly felt (and was) closed off to them.  They acted as “venture labor,” risking layoffs in the hopes of a future stock payout because they had, relatively speaking, few other choices.
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Design is a poor guide to authorization

James Grimmelmann has a great post on the ambiguity of the concept of “circumvention” in the law. He writes about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) language banning “exceeding authorized access” to a system.

There are, broadly speaking, two ways that a computer user could “exceed[] authorized access.” The computer’s owner could use words to define the limits of authorization, using terms of service or a cease-and-desist letter to say, “You may do this, but not that.” Or she could use code, by programming the computer to allow certain uses and prohibit others.

The conventional wisdom is that word-based restrictions are more problematic.

He goes on to explain the conventional wisdom that basing CFAA liability on word-based restrictions such as website Terms of Use is indeed problematic. But the alternative, as James points out, is perhaps even worse: defining authorization in terms of the technical functioning of the system. The problem is that everything that the attacker gets the system to do will be something that the system as actually constructed could do.
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A Response to Jerry: Craig Should Still Dismiss

[Cross-posted on my blog, Managing Miracles]

Jerry Brito, a sometimes contributor to this blog, has a new post on the Reason blog arguing that I and others have been too harsh on Craigslist for their recent lawsuit. As I wrote in my earlier post, Craigslist should give up the lawsuit not just because it’s unlikely to prevail, but also because it risks setting bad precedents and is downright distasteful. Jerry argues that what the startups that scrape Craigslist data are doing doesn’t “sit well,” and that there are a several reasons to temper criticism of Craigslist.

I remain unconvinced.

To begin with, the notion that something doesn’t “sit well” is not necessarily a good indicator that one can or should prevail in legal action. To be sure, tort law (and common law more generally) develops in part out of our collective notion of what does or doesn’t seem right. Jerry concedes that the copyright claims are bogus, and that the CFAA claims are ill-advised, so we’re left with doctrines like misappropriation and trespass to chattels. I’ll get to those in a moment.
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Collateral Freedom in China

OpenITP has just released a new report—Collateral Freedom—that studies the state of censorship circumvention tool usage in China today. From the report’s overview:

This report documents the experiences of 1,175 Chinese Internet users who are circumventing their country’s Internet censorship—and it carries a powerful message for developers and funders of censorship circumvention tools. We believe these results show an opportunity for the circumvention tech community to build stable, long term improvements in Internet freedom in China.

The circumvention tools that work best for these users are technologically diverse, but they are united by a shared political feature: the collateral cost of choosing to block them is prohibitive for China’s censors. Our survey respondents are relying not on tools that the Great Firewall can’t block, but rather on tools that the Chinese government does not want the Firewall to block. Internet freedom for these users is collateral freedom, built on technologies and platforms that the regime finds economically or politically indispensable.

Download the full report here: http://openitp.org/?q=node/44

The study was conducted by CITP alums David Robinson and me, along with Anne An. It was managed by OpenITP, and supported by Radio Free Asia’s Open Technology Fund. We wrote it primarily for developers and funders of censorship circumvention technology projects, but it is also designed to be accessible for non-technical policymakers who are interested in Internet freedom, and for China specialists without technology background.