July 25, 2014

Patch Friday

Updated 7/25/2014 to add the link to ORG's blog and explain the inclusion of Neil Harman.

This is a week of catch-ups: Ofcom reported on the workings of family filters. DCMS told Out-Law that it's no longer planning to disconnect users who ignore four warnings of copyright infringement under the Digital Economy Act. In a follow-up to April's ECJ judgment, Google was invited to a meeting with data protection regulators to discuss how the company is handling right-to-be-forgotten requests. The EFF discusses the UN's just-released report on mass surveillance and human rights. The MPs Tom Watson (Labour, West Bromwich East) and David Davis (Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden) are teaming up with Liberty to mount a High Court challenge to the DRIP Act. Researchers have uncovered yet another way to track us across the Web. The long-serving Times tennis writer Neil Harman has admitted to plagiarism and relinquished his post as head of the International Tennis Writers Association. And an interesting but flawed play at the Almeida Theater (and touring various US cities) studies culture and collaborative story-telling.

Ofcom reports very low take-up for the government's "family-friendly filters", the program to ensure that all Internet subscribers make an "unavoidable choice" whether to have filters turned on. Lacking access to details of the many imponderables in why a particular household will make such a decision, the report tells us only this much: most household don't want the controls. The even bigger imponderable is whether the UK government will now accept that its filtering policy is unpopular or whether it will take this as its cue to make the filters harder to escape. The Open Rights Group's analysis captures some of the issues.

A number of media outlets have gotten wildly excited over the DCMS news, but although we have to welcome the news that Internet users won't be cut off, it doesn't really change anything else. As the file-sharing news site TorrentFreak spells out, nothing else has changed: copyright infringement is still illegal, and users can still be taken to court by ravening rights holders. The change is certainly welcome, but it's small. It's definitely not a cue to go wild.

As EFF's analysis says, the UN report is astonishingly clear-minded on the disproportionality of mass collection of traffic data and need for transparency and an understanding that human rights apply to foreigners as well as a country's own citizens. The big next step is getting countries that think they're above all this to accept that they're not.

Many reports have focused on the "unstoppable" aspect of canvas fingerprinting, which turns text into an HTML 5 image that every browser will render slightly differently - enough so to be unique (or nearly so). Among the sites found to be using this technique, says BoingBoing, is the White House site, despite the clear conflict with its privacy policy. EFF helpfully has an explanation of how the thing works as well as the advice that its own PrivacyBadger or NoScript to block the canvas fingerprinting JavaScript from running.

As for Neil Harman, the spectacular irony is that ITWA, which he co-founded and jointly headed, has successfully campaigned to keep audio, video, and transcripts of player press conferences offline until the on-site pros can use them. So Harman is both a rampant plagiarist *and* a protectionist - and an embarrassment to his profession.

To Mr Burns...

The New York Times loved it, but the British critics were mixed. The play begins in the near future, when an undefined apocalypse involving illness and fires has abruptly wrecked the US, perhaps the never-discussed rest of the world, too. Around a campfire at night, a small group of survivors (whose near-invisible faces really could have used dawn to come along after the first few minutes) are trying to keep their sanity by collaboratively struggling to reconstruct the entirety of an episode of The Simpsons.

Never having quite gotten on board with the show myself, I was unfamiliar with the episode in question, Cape Feare. It was a good choice, since even without their efforts the episode itself is a layered experience of popular culture: it recapitulates, references, and parodies multiple prior movies and leavens it all with some Gilbert and Sullivan. So far, so good. My favorite moment of the first act is when the group abruptly downs their excited recollections to

The second act moves ahead seven years, to when the characters have moved on to more elaborate recreations and are competing with other reenactment groups. There's a brief, intriguing discussion about buying lines: there are fraudsters out there. By the third act, set 75 years hence, the episode has become a near-religious ritual, with complex costuming and singing (and fairy lights powered by a frantic cyclist running a generator). The critics' distaste is understandable: every act needs trimming, and even after reading the script the characters lack individuality. My favorite moment was in the first act, where a newcomer and the established group take turns reading out lists of the people whose fates they want to know. The parallel between this collaborative effort to create a canonical list of survivors and the effort to recall Cape Feare is the one truly emotional moment in the piece. There are lots of other quibbles about plausibility - no musical instruments or their players survived? no group tried instead to reconstruct physics textbooks? - but the exploration of the way popular culture accretes into an analogue of geological strata contributes a new take on the meaning of the public domain.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.