May 7, 2015

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The End of a Brief Era: Recent Appellate Decisions in “Copyright Troll” Litigation

The onslaught of “copyright troll” litigation began only a few years ago, with lawsuits implicating hundreds or even thousands of “John Doe” defendants, who were identified by IP addresses with timestamps corresponding to alleged uses of BitTorrent services to share and download video content without authorization. Recently, federal appellate opinions confirmed growing consensus in district courts concerning this type of litigation.
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Free Law Project Partnering in Stewardship of RECAP

More than five years ago, I spoke at CITP about the US Federal Courts electronic access system called PACER. I noted that despite centuries of precedent stating that the public should have access to the law as openly and freely as possible, the courts were charging unreasonable rates for access to the public record. As it happened, David Robinson, Harlan Yu, Bill Zeller, and Ed Felten had recently written their paper “Government Data and the Invisible Hand“, arguing that:

…the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data.

After my talk, Harlan Yu and Tim Lee approached me with an idea to make millions of court records available for free: a simple browser extension that made it easy for individuals to share the records that they had purchased from PACER with others who were looking for the same records. The idea became RECAP (“turning PACER around”), and the tool has indeed helped to liberate millions of public records in the years since then. But the time has come to turn over our stewardship, and we could not be more pleased that CITP is announcing a new partnership with Free Law Project to take over and expand upon RECAP.
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Google Spain and the “Right to Be Forgotten”

The European Court of Justice (CJEU) has decided the Google Spain case, which involves the “right to be forgotten” on the Internet. The case was brought by Mario Costeja González, a lawyer who, back in 1998, had unpaid debts that resulted in the attachment and public auction of his real estate. Notices of the auctions, including Mr. Costeja’s name, were published in a Spanish newspaper that was later made available online. Google indexed the newspaper’s website, and links to pages containing the announcements appeared in search results when Mr. Costeja’s name was queried. After failing in his effort to have the newspaper publisher remove the announcements from its website, Mr. Costeja asked Google not to return search results relating to the auction. Google refused, and Mr. Costeja filed a complaint with Spanish data protection authorities, the AEPD. In 2010, the AEPD ordered Google to de-index the pages. In the same ruling, the AEPD declined to order the newspaper publisher to take any action concerning the primary content, because the publication of the information by the press was legally justified. In other words, it was legal in the AEPD’s view for the newspaper to publish the information but a violation of privacy law for Google to help people find it. Google appealed the AEPD’s decision, and the appeal was referred by the Spanish court to the CJEU for a decision on whether Google’s publication of the search results violates the EU Data Protection Directive.
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I Join the EFF and Others in Calling for Craigslist to Drop CFAA Claims

[Cross-posted on my blog, Managing Miracles]

Craigslist is suing several companies that scrape data from Craigslist advertisements. These companies, like Padmapper and 3taps, repurpose the data in order to provide more useful ways of searching through the ads. I have written about this in earlier posts, “Dear Craig: Voluntarily Dismiss with Prejudice,” and “A Response to Jerry: Craig Should Still Dismiss.” Fundamentally, I think that the company’s tactic of litigating against perceived competitors is bad for Craigslist (because it limits the reach of its users’ ads and thus the success of Craigslist), it is bad for the law and policy of the web (because scraping of public web sites has historically been a well-established and permissible practice that beneficially spreads public information), and is in bad taste (given Craiglist’s ethos of doing well by doing good).

One of the most problematic aspects of the lawsuit is the set of claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and its California state-law counterpart. The CFAA, passed in 1986, introduces criminal and civil penalties for “unauthorized access” to “protected computers.” The CFAA was largely a reaction to generalized fear of “computer hacking,” and it did not envision the public internet as we know it today. Nevertheless, some have tried to apply the CFAA to public web sites. This approach has been widely frowned upon by both the tech community and the courts. For instance, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are actively pushing to reform the CFAA because it has been subject to prosecutorial abuse. Craigslist has nevertheless alleged violations of the CFAA based on access to their public web site.

Today I signed on to an an amicus brief written by the EFF–which was also co-signed by other scholars in the field–that urges the court to dismiss these ill-advised CFAA claims. The brief reads, in part:
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Copyrights, Fundamental Rights, and the Constitution

There was a lot to take issue with in Scott Turow’s recent op-ed in The New York Times. Turow, who is currently President of the Authors Guild, took to The Times to criticize the Supreme Court’s decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, which brought physical books manufactured and sold abroad within the protective scope of copyright’s first sale doctrine. Turow cast the Court’s decision as another blow to authors’ rights, which, by his account, are being pitilessly washed away by the digital tides. He blames the usual suspects: e-books, Amazon.com, pirates, Google, and—this last one may surprise you—libraries. The coup de grace, he asserted, will be the extension of first sale rights to digital copies of books. (It may comfort him to know that the possibility of that happening is more remote following Redigi’s recent defeat in federal district court.)
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Two Major updates to RECAP: Developers from Around the World Write Code in Memory of Aaron Swartz

A little over two months ago, we joined with the Think Computer Foundation to offer a set of grants in memory of our friend Aaron Swartz. Aaron worked on many issues in his too-short life, but one of those was liberating American court records from behind a pay-wall. He helped to inspire our RECAP project, which has allowed thousands of people to legally liberate and share millions of public records.

We didn’t know if anyone would take up the challenge, but today we are extremely pleased to award two of these grants. These awards recognize some truly amazing coding by software developers that were inspired by Aaron Swartz and his causes. Over the past several years, the two most-requested features for RECAP have been support for US Courts of Appeals (a.k.a. circuit courts), and a version of RECAP that works with the Chrome browser.

Ka-Ping Yee, Filippo Valsorda, and Alessio Palmero Aprosio represent the best kind of technological idealists. They are idealists that not only believe in worthy causes, but also have the engineering expertise and the dogged determination to see their vision through. Read more about them and install their code at recapthelaw.org.

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A Reivew of Oral Arguments in McBurney v. Young: State FOIA and State Rights

Yesterday, I attended oral arguments in the Supreme Court case of McBurney v. Young, which I have previously written about. The case involves two different petitioners who were denied access to state records under a Virginia “freedom of information” law that limits such access to Virginia residents only. McBurney is a former Virginia resident who wanted some records related to an ongoing child support dispute. Hurlbert is a government information aggregator and reseller.

At issue is whether this preferential treatment is constitutional under the Constitution’s “Privileges and Immunities” clause, as well as the “Dormant Commerce Clause.” In my previous post, I discussed these doctrines in more detail, but I devoted most of my time to describing the privileges and immunities argument — essentially that citizens must receive equal treatment across all states when it comes to “fundamental rights.” While waiting for arguments to begin, I was chatting with another person in the audience. I asked him whether he thought that the argument was going to focus significantly on states’ rights, and he said he expected more time to be devoted to the question of whether or not the rights in question were “fundamental.” It turned out that, with the boisterous support of Justice Scalia, states’ rights were the order of the day.

[Update: Transcript of the arguments is available here]

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My Bill to #OpenPACER in memory of #aaronsw – Open for Comment and Available on Github

I unveiled a draft bill at an event on Capitol Hill this week. It is drafted in Legislative XML, allows you to comment, and the code is available on github. Here’s the video:

The Open PACER Act provides for free and open access to electronic federal court records. The courts currently offer an expensive and difficult-to-use web site. They charge more than their cost of offering the service—more than Congress has authorized—violating the E-Government Act of 2002. This Act seeks to, once and for all, compel the courts to fulfil Congress’ longstanding vision of making this information “freely available to the greatest extent possible“.

More details are at openpacer.org. Twitter hashtag is #openpacer, of course.

Transcript after the jump.
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New Jersey Voting in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy has disrupted many aspects of life here in New Jersey. Even beyond the physical destruction, the state’s infrastructure is still coming back on line. Many homes are still without power and heat, and some roads are closed. Schools were closed all of last week, and some will be closed for longer.

Sandy has also disrupted plans for Tuesday’s election. The election cannot be rescheduled, so we have to find a way to let people vote. Here in Princeton, 63% of the voting districts will vote in temporary, relocated polling places.

In response to the electoral challenges, New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno has issued three orders (1, 2, 3), decreeing changes in voting procedures:
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NJ Lt. Governor invites voters to submit invalid ballots

On November 3rd, the Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey issued a directive, well covered in the media, permitting storm-displaced New Jersey voters to vote by e-mail.  The voter is to call or e-mail the county clerk to request an absentee ballot by e-mail or fax, then the voter returns the ballot by e-mail or fax:

“The voter must transmit the signed waiver of secrecy along with the voted ballot by fax or e-mail for receipt by the applicable county board of election no later than November 6, 2012 at 8 p.m.”

We see already one problem:  The loss of the secret ballot.  At many times in the 20th century, NJ political machines put such intense pressure on voters that the secret ballot was an important protection.  In 2012 it’s in the news that some corporations are pressuring their employees to vote in certain ways.  The secret ballot is still critical to the functioning of democracy.

But there’s a much bigger problem with the Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s directive:  If voters and county clerks follow her instructions, their votes will be invalid.
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