September 2013

California’s continuing effort to make the Internet their own digital fiefdom continued this week with Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that creates an online “Eraser Button” just for minors. The law isn’t quite as sweeping as the seriously misguided “right to be forgotten” notion I’ve critique here (1, 2, 3, 4) and elsewhere (5, 6) before. In any event, the new California law will:

require the operator of an Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application to permit a minor, who is a registered user of the operator’s Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application, to remove, or to request and obtain removal of, content or information posted on the operator’s Internet Web site, service, or application by the minor, unless the content or information was posted by a 3rd party, any other provision of state or federal law requires the operator or 3rd party to maintain the content or information, or the operator anonymizes the content or information. The bill would require the operator to provide notice to a minor that the minor may remove the content or information, as specified.

As always, the very best of intentions motivate this proposal. There’s no doubt that some digital footprints left online by minors could come back to haunt them in the future, and that concern for their future reputation and privacy is the primary motivation for the measure. Alas, noble-minded laws like these often lead to many unintended consequences, and even some thorny constitutional issues. I’d be hard-pressed to do a better job of itemizing those potential problems than Eric Goldman, of Santa Clara University School of Law, and Stephen Balkam, Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, have done in recent essays on the issue. Continue reading →

Earlier this week NTIA petitioned the FCC to adopt a rule requiring wireless carriers to unlock the cell phones of customers and former customers who request it, and today the New York Times editorialized in support. While such a rule would solve the immediate problem of cell phone unlocking, it would be a band-aid solution that avoids dealing with the real problem: the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions.

As I’ve explained before, the cell phone unlocking issue is just one symptom of a greater problem, namely that it is illegal for you or any third party you contract to unlock content that you own. This affects not just phones, but also e-readers, music and video players, and even garage door openers and printer cartridges in the view of some. So I have to disagree with CDT when it says, “Perhaps the best feature of the NTIA’s approach is that it skips the absurd debate over copyright and DMCA exemptions and treats phone unlocking as what it is – a telecom issue.”

Cell phone unlocking, despite what the name might lead you to think, is not a telecom issue; it’s a DMCA issue. You can see this if you think about all the restrictions that remain in place even if the FCC were to adopt the NTIA’s proposed rule. For example, the rule forces carriers to unlock your phone at your request, but it would still be illegal for you to unlock your own phone, or to have a third party (such as a competing carrier that wants your business) unlock your phone.

Bottom line: It’s really strange to solve a problem created by Section 1201 of the DMCA by turning to the FCC to force carriers to give up their rights under the DMCA. Indeed, it removes a contractual possibility from the market because under the rule a carrier could no longer contract with a consumer to keep the phone unlocked for the duration of the contract. That’s an option that should be available to carriers and consumers. Any fix to this DMCA-created problem must leave the freedom to contract alone. The better way to address cell phone unlocking is to have the FCC stay out of what is an issue that Congress needs to address. Rep. Lofgren’s Unlocking Technology Act, for example, does just that.

The new discussion draft from Rep. Goodlatte is now circulating publicly. Here is a good summary from the EFF of what the legislation would do:

  • Heightened Pleading: Requiring a patent holder to provide basic details (such as which patents and claims are at issue, as well as exactly what products allegedly infringe and how) when it files a lawsuit.
  • Fee shifting: Requiring the loser in a patent case to pay attorney’s fees and costs. This would make it harder for trolls to use the extraordinary expense of patent litigation to force a settlement.
  • Transparency: The draft includes strong language requiring patent trolls to reveal the parties that would actually benefit from the litigation (called the real party in interest).
  • Joinder: If the plaintiff is a shell-company patent troll, the defendant could require the real party in interest to join the litigation. Even better, a prevailing defendant could collect attorney’s fees from the real party in interest if the patent troll can’t or won’t pay.
  • Staying customer suits: Requiring courts to stay patent litigation against customers when there is parallel litigation against the manufacturer.
  • Discovery reform: Shutting down expensive and often harassing discovery until the court has interpreted the patent. This should make it easier for defendants to dispose of frivolous cases early before the legal fees and court costs really add up.
  • Post-grant review: The bill expands an important avenue to challenge a patent’s validity at the Patent Office (known as the transitional program for covered business method patents). While this procedure is still too expensive for many of the trolls’ smaller targets, we support efforts to make it easier to knock out bad patents.

These are excellent steps forward in the fight against patent trolls, but I’m still hoping for more. The explosion in patent litigation, both troll and non-troll, is due to the astonishing increase in the number of software patents. Software patents now make up over half of all patents! Software patents are more likely to be litigated than other kinds of patents, including four times more likely than a chemical patent.

Given the extent to which the problems with our patent system are caused by software patents, it is unfortunate that none of the patent reform bills under consideration in this Congress contemplate simply excluding software from the set of patentable subject matter. By all means, slay the trolls. But also go after the source of their power.

Seriously Uncompromising

by on September 23, 2013 · 2 comments

Many “serious people” are beginning to make the case that it’s time for the outrage and indignation over the NSA’s mass surveillance to subside and give way to a “national conversation” about how much privacy and liberty we are willing to trade for security, which they argue is a “choice we have to make.” Today at Reason I argue that until we have good reason to trust the oversight mechanisms that we are told will keep the system honest—or indeed trust the mechanisms for formulating such an oversight regime—civil libertarians have no reason to feel sheepish about obstinately refusing to make that “choice we have to make.”

Yesterday the MPAA issued a report commissioned from the global PR firm Millward Brown looking at "the role of search in online piracy." This coincided with the RIAA's Cary Sherman testimony before the House IP subcommittee that search engines are not doing enough to protect his industry from piracy. Here are some thoughts on the new report and the issue generally.

The report tries to ascertain how much of the traffic to infringing content is sent there by search engines. To measure this, the report employs "a customized, hybrid approach" that doesn't merely look at whether the visit to an infringing URL came from a link on a search page. Instead, it looks at whether a user searched for a "qualifying" search term within 20 minutes of reaching the infringing URL. "Qualifying" search queries, the report says, are associated with attempts to find illegal content and include "domain terms like '1Channel' and 'sidereel', generic terms like 'watch movies online' and movie and TV title-based terms like 'Dark Knight Rises'." As the report puts it, "This holistic approach contrasts with a more narrow definition that counts search only when a visit is preceded by a visit to a search engine."

The report is clear that "this method did not seek to indicate the degree to which infringing content appears on search engine results pages themselves," but merely sought to show that search engines "influenced the path" users took to reach infringing content. It concluded that "approximately 20% of all visits to infringing content were influenced by a search query from 2010-2012."

I have a couple of concerns with this methodology. First is that it implicitly puts search engines on the hook not just for linking directly to infringing content (for which there is a notice-and-takedown process available), but also for "influencing the path" that a user takes on their web travels. As we all know, correlation is not causation, so it's not clear to me that because I searched for "transformers" 15 minutes before I visited the URL for a pirate stream of Game of Thrones that necessarily means that the search engine influenced me in any way, and much less should be responsible for my behavior.

Continue reading →

Last month, I wrote at The Guardian that NSA surveillance is harming our Internet freedom efforts. Now we have tangible evidence of that. Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ecuador, Russia, Indonesia, Bolivia, Iran, and China, Pakistan delivered the following statement (video, starts around 52:25). Pay special attention to the last two paragraphs: Continue reading →

It’s been over five years since Congress passed major legislation addressing copyright protection, but this hasn’t stopped copyright owners from achieving real progress in securing their expressive works. In cooperation with private-sector stakeholders, rights holders have made several deals aimed at combating copyright infringement and channeling consumer demand for original content toward legitimate outlets. These voluntary agreements will be the subject of a hearing this afternoon (9/18) before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet. This panel marks the latest in a series of hearings the committee launched earlier this year to review the Copyright Act, much of which dates back to 1976 or earlier.

Copyright consensus may sound like an oxymoron, especially in the wake of last year’s bruising legislative battle over SOPA and PIPA. But in reality, there’s no shortage of common ground when it comes to copyright protection. Despite all the controversy that surrounds the issue, copyright isn’t so much a “conflict of visions”, to borrow from Thomas Sowell, but a conflict of tactics, as I argued earlier this year on Cato Unbound.

Indeed, with some notable exceptions, most scholars, business leaders, and policymakers accept that government has a legitimate and important role in securing to inventors and creators the fruits of their labors“. Unsurprisingly, the devil is in the details, where genuinely tough questions arise regarding the government’s proper role in policing the Internet for copyright violations. Should the law hold online intermediaries accountable for their users’ infringing acts? What remedies should the law afford rights holders whose works are unlawfully distributed all over the Internet, often by profit-generating foreign actors?

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No doubt I won’t be the only one to point out how funny it is that today’s New York Times front page exposé on the excesses of the Renewable Fuel Standard puts the blame on Wall Street firms trading in the market for ethanol credits. But I also want to make a comparison to intellectual property.

As the headline puts it, “Wall St. Exploits Ethanol Credits, and Prices Spike,” Yet ethanol credits are a thing that affect the price of gasoline only because the government created them out of thin air and mandated their use. Having created a new commodity–and a mandatory one for many refiners–it’s no surprise speculators entered the market. Yet this is how the NYT describes it:

The banks say they have far less influence in the market than others are suggesting, and are doing nothing wrong. But the activities, while legal, could have consequences for consumers.

See that? It’s the perfectly legal activities of the banks that will have consequences for consumers. I’d say it’s the entire program itself, created out of thin air by the government, that allows for these activities in the first place.

Because Congress and the EPA didn’t accurately predict future gasoline consumption (shocker that) they set the amount of ethanol that refiners must blend into gasoline too high. Refiners are on the hook to use more ethanol than possible, which forces them to buy ethanol credits instead. So of course commodity speculators are going to play in this made-up market, but it’s not the players we should be hating, it’s the game.

And for the record, I don’t mean to excuse the banks. I don’t know enough about this issue, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the banks had a hand in getting the government to create this market. If they did, then that’s par for the crony capitalist course.

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SpaceNeedleI’m excited to be attending the big annual Privacy Identity Innovation (pii2013) conference next week in Seattle, Washington from September 16-18. Organized by the amazing Natalie Fonseca, who also created the widely attended Tech Policy Summit, the Privacy Identity Innovation conference brings together some of the best and brightest minds involved in the digital economy and information technology policy.

Natalie and her team have put together another terrific agenda and group of all-star speakers to debate the “challenges associated with managing and securing the vast amounts of personal data being generated in our increasingly connected world” as well as the “huge opportunities for innovation if done properly.” There will be panels debating the implications of wearable technologies, Google Glass, government surveillance practices, digital advertising, transparency efforts, privacy by design, identification technologies and issues, and privacy developments in Europe and other countries, among other issues. The event also features workshops, demos, and other networking opportunities.

I’m looking forward to my panel on “Emerging Technologies and the Fine Line between Cool and Creepy.” That’s an issue I’ve had a lot to say about in blog posts here as well as recent law review articles. Occasional TLF contributor Larry Downes will also be on that panel with me.

Anyway, if you’ll be out there in Seattle for the big show, please make sure to find me and introduce yourself. I’ll be doing plenty of live-Tweeting from the event that you can read if you following me at (@AdamThierer) on Twitter.

Over on Forbes today, I have a very long post inspired by Monday’s oral arguments in Verizon’s challenge of the FCC’s Open Internet rules, passed in 2010

I say “inspired” because the post has nothing to say about the oral arguments which, in any case, I did not attend.  Mainstream journalists can’t resist the temptation to try to read into the questions asked or the mood of the judges some indication of how the decision will come out

But as anyone who has ever worked in a court or followed appellate practice  well knows, the tone of oral arguments signals nothing about a judge’s point-of-view.  Often, the harshest questioning is reserved for the side a judge is leaning towards supporting, perhaps because the briefs filed were inadequate.  Bad briefs create more work for the judge and her clerks.

I use the occasion of the hearing to take a fresh look at the net neutrality “debate,” which has been on-going since at least 2005, when I first started paying attention to it.  In particular, I try to disentangle the political term “net neutrality” (undefined and, indeed, not even used in the 2010 Open Internet order) from the engineering principles of packet routing. Continue reading →