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June 26, 2009

Pass the policy

For quite a few years now, the Canadian law professor Michael Geist has been writing a column on technology law for the Toronto Star. (Brief pause to admire the Star for running such a thing.) This week, he settled down with a simple question: where does copyright policy come from?

The story is that about a month ago the Conference Board of Canada recalled three reports on intellectual property rights after Geist accused the Board of plagiarism and also of accepting funding for the reports from various copyright lobby groups. The source of the copied passages: the International Intellectual Property Alliance. According to its own Web site, the IIPA was "formed in 1984 to represent the US copyright-based industries." It includes: the Association of American Publishers, the Business Software Alliance, the Entertainment Software Association, the Independent Film and Television Alliance, the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Music Publishers' Association, and the Recording Industry Association of America. We know *those* guys, or most of them.

This week, Geist settled down to examine the sources more closely in a lovely bit of spaghetti-detangling. Basically, just two organizations - Canada's equivalents of the MPAA and RIAA - were the source of multiple reports as well as funding for further lobbying organizations. "The net effect," Geist writes, "has been a steady stream of reports that all say basically the same thing, cite to the same sources, make the same recommendations, and often rely on each other to substantiate the manufactured consensus on copyright reform." And of course, these guys don't mean "copyright reform" the way Geist - or the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the Open Rights Group would. We say reform, we mean liberalize and open up; they say reform, they mean tighten and extend. I'd call their way "business as usual".

What's interesting, of course, is to compare Geist's handy table of who recommended what and to whom to the various proposals that are flying around the UK and Europe at the moment. To wit:

Create an IP Council. The Digital Britain report, launched ten days ago, calls this the "Digital Rights Agency", and there's even an entire separate report (PDF) outlining what it might be good for. It would include industry representatives working in collaboration with government (but would not be a government agency), and it would, among other things, educate the public. Which leads us to...

Create public education awareness programs. Of course, I predicted something like this in 1997 - for 2002.

Create an Intellectual Property Crime Task Force. While I'm not aware of speciific Briitsh proposals for this, I would note that Britain does have various law enforcement agencies already who deal with physical forms of IP counterfeiting, and the Internet Watch Foundation has throughout its history mentioned the possibility of tackling online copyright infringement.

Tougher penalties. The Digital Britain report is relatively polite on this one. It says flatly that for-profit counterfeiters will be pursued under criminal law, and calls file-sharing, flatly, "wrong", but also says that most people would prefer to remain within the law (true) and therefore it intends to encourage the development of legal downloading markets (good). However, it also proposes that ISPs should use methods such as bandwidth throttling to deter persistent file-sharers.

Implement the WIPO Internet treaties and anti-circumvention measures. Already done. Anti-circumvention was a clause in the 2001 European Union Copyright Directive and was enacted in the UK in 2003, with some exceptions for cryptographic research.

Increase funding and resources to tackle IP crime. Well. Where agencies come doubtless funding will follow.

The Digital Britain report's proposed next steps include passing legislation to enact sanctions such as bandwidth throttling. There's also a consultation on "illicit peer-to-peer filesharing" (deadline September 15); the government's proposals would require ISPs to notify alleged infringers, keep records of how often they've been notified, and allows rightsholders to use this information, anonymized, to decide when to initiate legal action. Approving the code will be Ofcom, for the time being. The consultation document helpfully reviews the state of legislative play in other countries.

It's extremely rare that we get a case where the origins of a particular set of policies can, as Geist has done here, be traced with such clarity and certainty. And it means that advocates of real copyright reform were right to distrust the claims in this area - the figures the industry claims represent losses to rightsholders from file-sharing - no matter how neutral the apparent source.

I first heard the term "policy laundering" from Privacy International's Gus Hosein; it's used to describe the way today's unwanted policies are shopped around until their sponsors can find a taker. The game works like this, as Geist shows: you publish reports until a government agency - any government agency - adopts your point of view in an apparently neutral document. Then you cite that to other governments until someone passes the laws you want. Then you promote that legislation to other countries: Be the envy of other major governments.

The Digital Britain report sells these policies as aiding the British intellectual property industry. But that's not where they came from originally. Does anyone really think the MPAA and RIAA have Britain's best interests at heart?

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and links to earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

June 19, 2009

Star system

In all the discussions I've seen about the mass extinction of newspapers and worries about where people, particularly elderly people, will get their news, I've seen little about the impact of the death of newspapers on the ecology of industries that have traditionally depended on them. At Roger Ebert's film festival there was some discussion about this with regard to movies. Reading critics is an important way people decide whether they can afford two hours of scarce leisure time and $20 to $50 of hard-earned money (tickets, babysitters, travel costs) to see a particular movie. As newspapers shrink, die, and fire their movie critics, the result, a panel concluded, is death to the chances of arthouse and independent movies.

Away from the glamor event that is Wimbledon, which starts Monday, the same concerns can be applied to the future of the two professional tennis tours, run by the WTA (women) and the ATP (men). This week's Eastbourne tournament - this year known as the AEGON International - began the week with seven of the world's top ten female players, plus the 2006 Wimbledon champion (Amelie Mauresmo) and the 2007 Wimbledon finalist (Marion Bartoli). By the semifinals, all of those but Bartoli were gone (and she retired, limping, from her semi against Virginie Razzano), and the survivors, while fine and accomplished players and diligent hard workers, are not the kinds of names whose exploits can be easily sold to editors. The national interest is in British players, who had all lost by the second round; the international interest is limited to Wimbledon contenders. You know it's a bad situation when journalists start going home before the quarterfinals.

To some extent, it's arguable that professional tennis writers are not as essential as they were. In 1989, say, if you wanted to follow the tour year-round you had to scour the sports pages for box scores and terse match write-ups. Today the Net is awash in tennis reporting: player sites, fan sites, official and unofficial blogs, Facebook pages and groups, Twitter, news wires, and official releases from the tours, the national federations, individual tournaments, and the overall governing body, the International Tennis Federation. It's a rare match whose report you can't find online within half an hour, and even if you don't sleep you probably couldn't read all of it.

In addition, the matches themselves are far more accessible than ever before: Europe has Eurosport; the US has The Tennis Channel. And if you can wait a day, more and more tennis matches are being posted online for download, legally or otherwise.

A couple of decades ago, the famed American sportscaster Howard Cosell wrote a book complaining that sports journalism was failing the public, that to cover sports properly journalists should have a working knowledge of economics, labor law, business, and medical science. You could see his point, especially over the last decade in baseball, where a bitter players' strike was followed by steroid scandals. Go back to the beginning of the Open Era of tennis, which began in 1968, and you'll find long-serving commentators like Richard Evans writing books about the considerable complexities of tennis politics. But that kind of coverage has largely shrunk: this week what you can sell a newspaper is either 1) local players or 2) Wimbledon contenders - that is, the stars. You hear many complaints among the tennis press about how little access they now have to the players, but they have even less access to the game's controllers.

Tennis is not alone in this: stars in every area from technology to movies would rather sequester themselves than answer too many unpleasant questions. And I can't always blame them. Explaining a bad loss to the media while the disappointment is still raw must be one of the most unpleasant moments for a player, almost up there with having your physique closely inspected and criticized. That sort of thing was something stars put up with when their industry was young and struggling to establish itself; the early pioneers of the women's tour did 5am talk radio, appeared in shopping malls - whatever it took.

We are not in those times any more. But as newspapers fail and lay off staff and reduce their expenditure on coverage of minority interests - which include tennis - both tours, and the movie industry, and many other industries that rely on sponsorship for fuel should be asking themselves how they're going to keep their public profile high enough to stay funded. The Slams - Wimbledon, the US Open, the Australian Open, and the French Open - will most likely survive (although the Australian has already announced the loss of several important sponsors). But creating the field of high-quality players for these events requires a healthy ecosystem of feed-up events that keep coaches, juniors, and amateurs engaged and involved. New media may sometime fill the gap, but not yet; no single outlet has a big enough megaphone. (And Wimbledon, apparently living in the past, does not accredit online-only writers.)

You may not feel that losing tennis as a spectacle would be much of a loss, and I'm sure you're right that the world would continue to turn. But the principle that the loss of traditional media disrupts many more industries than just its own applies to many more industries than just the one that will dominate the BBC for the coming fortnight.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

June 13, 2009


"What is the future of computers, freedom, and privacy?" a friend asked over lunch, apparently really wanting to know. This was ten days ago, and I hesitated before finding an out.

"I don't know," I said. "I haven't been to the conference yet.

Now I have been to the conference, at least this year's instance of it, and I still don't really know how to answer this question. As always, I've come away with some ideas to follow up, but mostly the sense of a work in progress. How do some people manage to be such confident futurologists?

I don't mean science fiction writers: while they're often confused with futurologists and Arthur C. Clarke's track record in predicting communications satellites notwithstanding, they're not, really. They're storytellers who take our world, change a few variables, and speculate. I also don't mean trend-spotters, who see a few instances of something and generalize from there, or pundits, who are just very, very good at quotables.

Futurologists are good at the backgrounds science fiction writers use - but not good at coming up with stories. They're not, as I had it explained to me once, researchers, because they dream rather than build things. The smart ones have figured out that dramatic predictions get more headlines - and funding - than mundane ones and they have a huge advantage over urban planners and actuaries: they don't have to be right, just interesting. (Whereas, a "psychic seer" like Nostradamus doesn't even have to be interesting as long as his ramblings are vague enough to be reinterpretable every time some new major event comes along.)

It's perennially intriguing how much of the past images of the future throw away: changing fashions in clothing, furniture, and lifestyles leave no trace. Take, for example, Popular Mechanics' 1950 predictions for 2000. Some of that article is prescient: converging televisions and telephones, for example. Some extrapolates from then new technologies such as X-rays, plastics, and frozen foods. But far more of it is a reminder of how much better the future was in the past: family helicopters, solar power in real, widespread use, cheap housing. And yet even more of it reflects the constrained social roles of the 1950s: the assumption that all those synthetic plastic fabrics, furniture, and finishings would be hosed down by...the woman of the house.

I'll bet the guy who wrote that had a wife who was always complaining about having to do all the housework. And didn't keep his books at home. Or family heirlooms, personal memorabilia, or silly gewgaws picked up on that trip to Pittsburgh. I'm not entirely clear why anyone would find frozen milk and candy made from sawdust appealing, though I suppose home cooking is indeed going out of style.

But my friend's question was serious: I can't answer it by throwing extravagantly wild imaginings at it for their entertainment value. Plus, he's probably most interested in his lifetime and that of his children, and it's a simple equation that the farther out the future you're predicting the less plausible you have to be.

It's not hard to guess that computing power will continue to grow, even if it doesn't continue to keep pace with Moore's Law and is counterbalanced by the weight of Page's Law. What *is* hard to guess is how people will want to use it. To most of the generation writing the future in the 1950s, when World War II and the threat of Nazism was fresh, it was probably inconceivable that the citizens of democratic countries would be so willing to allow so many governments to track them in detail. As inconceivable, I suppose, as that the pill would come along a few years later and wipe away the social order they believed was nature's way. Orwell, of course, foresaw the possibilities of a surveillance society, but he imagined the central control of a giant government, not a society where governments rely on commercial companies to fill out their dossiers on citizens.

I find it hard to imagine dramatic futures in part because I do believe most people want to hold onto at least parts of their past, and therefore that any future we construct will be more like Terry Gilliam's movies than anything else, festooned with bizarre duct work and populated by junk that's either come back into fashion or that we simply forgot to throw away. And there are plenty of others around to predict the apocalypse (we run out of energy, three-quarters of the world's population dies, economic and environmental collapse, will you burn that computer or sit on it?) or its opposite (we find the Singularity, solve our energy problems, colonize space, and fix biology so we live forever). Neither seems to me the most likely.

I doubt my friend would have been satisfied with the answer: "More of the same, only different." But my guess is that the battle to preserve privacy will continue for a long time. Every increase in computing power makes greater surveillance possible, and 9/11 provided the seeming justification that overrode the fading memory of what was at stake in World War II. It won't be until an event with that kind of impact reminds people of the risk you take when you allow "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" to become society's mantra that the mainstream will fight to take back their privacy.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

June 4, 2009

Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2009 - Day Four

The challenge posed by many of today's panelists: activism transfer. How do you get people communicating via Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks to take to the streets? Because that's where the real impact is.

How little things have changed since 1994, my first year at CFP, when Simon Davies dressed up as the Pope, read from the Book of Unix, and told everyone that if they wanted governments to listen they needed to stop sending around email petitions and organize at the grass roots level. In India, explained Gaurav Mishra, this meant getting people to vote instead of complaining that the system was corrupt and staying home.

Use online tools to build offline institutions, he concluded. "Real social change will not happen online."

But today's China panel - probably the best of all this year's offerings - made the point that although we have tended to assume that the Internet will bring democracy and light to anywhere it penetrates, China shows that the Internet can also be used to spread propaganda. You'd think this would have been obvious, but policy has tended to assume otherwise.

Said Rebecca MacKinnon, who is writing a book about China and the Internet, "It's true that China has shown that authoritarianism can do a lot better in the internet age than a lot of people ever expected."

China has implemented several different elements of control: many overseas sites and services are blocked (so many blogging sites are down "for maintenance" on this 20th anniversary of Tiannamen Square that there's a joke about China Maintenance Day). There is some change, but it's a slow evolution: "The Internet may be liberalizing people to some extent, but on the other hand, we're not going to see any kind of regime change." The liquid metal man in Terminator 2 only becomes a threat when the little blobs of metal flow together; you can let little local pockets of increasing liberalization occur as long as they never join together to become national.

In a later panel on taking Tweets to the street, Ralf Bendrath recounted creating a 75,000-person demonstration against surveillance and in favor of privacy in Germany starting with little more than a wiki. But, he noted that individual liberals are not the only voices who will be able to use these tools.

"We celebrate Obama's use of these tools because we believe in his ideology," said Mishra, going on to point out that in India a right-wing party that wants to restrict women's movements is at the forefront of using Twitter, Facebook, and blogging. "As much as I hate to say this, very soon we will find enthusiasm for these tools being tempered by realism that anybody can use them." The tools by themselves do not give us more power.

"Use online tools to build offline institutions," said Bendrath. "Real social change will not happen online."

Over and out. Anyone with ideas for next year should submit them not at www.cfp2010.org. Have a good year, folks!

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter or email netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2009 - Day Three

"Do you feel guilty about killing newspapers?" Saul Hansell asked Craig Newmark yesterday. The founder of Craig's List, widely credited with stealing newspapers' classified ads, offered the mildly presented answer that it would be more correct to say that Craig's List, Amazon, and eBay took the newspapers' audience by offering them a more friendly and convenient marketplace.

At some point in the early 19-00s, Charlotte-Anne Lucas explained today, newspapers changed from charging for content to charging for audiences, leading them to selecting content based on its mass appeal. Exactly, she didn't say, like AOL in the mid 1990s, when it switched from making its money from connect time, which favored all sorts of niche content, to making its money from advertising, which required mass eyeballs.

One advantage bloggers have, noted Marcy Wheeler is that they don't have to frame every story as a controversy that can be resolved in 700 words (how like a sitcom).

My other favorite quote of the day, from a panel on whether government secrecy makes any sense in the post-Internet world "Secrecy makes people stupid." The speaker, Steve Aftergood, a senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, went on to note that the US spends $10 billion a year on keeping secrets - that is, protecting classified information. He didn't draw the obvious conclusion...

The panel, which included a former undercover agent (Mike German, now with the ACLU), a former director of the US Information Security Oversight Office (Bill Leonard), and a former chief information policy officer from the NSA (Mike Levin), is worth listening to in full. Satirists could have fun with Aftergood's later note, that while you can find out that the 2008 intelligence budget was $47.7 billion, and the 2007 budget was $43.5 billion, the 2006 number is classified - as is the budget from 50 years ago. Aftergood tried to find out the number from the 1940s and was refused; appeal was denied, second appeal was denied, and a lawsuit to force disclosure was unsuccessful. He's not sure how this figure could damage national security; I say with these numbers he could go on Letterman.

Still, it's a fair point to say that secrets are harder to keep than they've ever been, not least because the intelligence community is adopting the same kinds of tools the rest of us use, albeit versions closed to public access. Perhaps we can get away from the sort of thing John Le Carre wrote about at the end of one of his books, in which an agent died for a fact that would be published in a Russian newspaper the following week. The good news is there's to be a review of all these procedures, a "unique opportunity", the panel called it, to effect real change.

We finished today with a selection of ultra-short presentations. Lock your credit record with a ten-digit code, said Jeremy Duffy, and celebrate Sam Warren, Brandeis's less famous partner, said Paul Rosenzweig. The highlight for me, though: meeting < a href="http://www.veni.com">Veni Markowski, whom I've read about for years as Bulgaria's cyberspace king. He's going to work now for the government to coordinate international action on cybersecurity. Good stuff.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

June 3, 2009

Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2009 - Day Two

One hundred and thirty-three days into the Obama Administration. He still still has a lot of fans - one conference attendee was wearing silver Obama logo earrings yesterday and CNet writer Declan McCullough was pleased that a FOIA request that kept him waiting for over a year was answered within a few weeks of the inauguration - privacy advocates are beginning to carp that his record on privacy seems unlikely to be any improvement on his immediate predecessor's. Kicking off the day's first session, Susan Crawford talked some good principles, but a basic one - answering public questions - was off-limits. `

McCullough also noted that Obama has yet to fulfill his promise to post non-emergency legislation for public comment for five days before signing it.

Meanwhile, however, said the ACLU's Caroline Fredrickson, the US's Real ID effort, which threatened to unify state-issued driver's licenses into a single national ID card-equivalent, has halted under the pressure of the refusal of many individual states to participate. Why? Unworkable, costly, and invasive. Sounds like Britain's ID card, though the UK government still persists, lacking state governments to stand in its way.

"A mistake in the database can render you an unperson," she noted.

There was another good line on this: "Information asymmetry is how repressive regimes operate." The Internet's power to flatten information hierarchies all by itself might be why Nicole Wong wakes up every morning and checks her Blackberry to find out which country Google is blocked in today. As the deputy general counsel for Google, it's her job not only to track that sort of thing but to try to remove these blockages by negotiating with national governments. The New York Times recently described Wong as the person with the most influence over the exercise of free speech in the world.

Wong was part of my panel on Internet censorship, we were arguing about censorship in the US, the UK, and Australia, and debating whether John Gilmore's oft-quoted aphorism is still correct. "The Internet perceives censorship as damage, and routes around it," Gilmore thinks he probably said sometime in 1990 or thereabouts. Is that still true, given the computing power to do deep packet inspection? Very possibly not. Derek Bambauer had a neat list of the stages of Internet censorship. Version 1.0: it can't be done. Version 2.0: the bad guys do it. Version 3.0: everyone does it. Australia is on round two of let's-filter-the-Internet, and it is the world's pilot on this. The danger, Wong commented, is that we may get tied up in arguing whether it's OK to filter specific types of content; the existence of a filter in a country like Australia legitimizes filtering for the more repressive countries coming online that she has to negotiate with.

Perhaps the most surprising bit of the day was the appearance on the same panel of Bruce Schneierand Stewart Baker without acrimony. Valerie Caproni, the FBI's general counsel, also on that panel, was a little frostier, particularly when travel data privacy expert Edward Hasbrouck attacked her and the US government's apparent belief that foreigners do not have the same human rights as US citizens. Both Schneier and Baker fired off a few good lines. Schneier pointed out that as technology increases and gives each of us more personal power amplitude, the harm that ten armed men can do to society keeps getting bigger. At what point, he asked, is that noise bigger than society?

Baker, who's made a sort of career of insulting the CFP crowd, more or less agreed: there is an illusion that the continued working of Moore's Law is always going to be beneficial to society. That aside, Baker was slightly miffed. After winning the Big Brother award for Worst Public Official in 2007, he said, Privacy International had yet to deliver his award. Via Twitter PI promised to deliver it. Eventually. When he least expects it.

More tomorrow.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

June 2, 2009

Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2009 - Day One

"Did you check that with your ethics committee?"

The speaker, who was feeling the strain of being a newcomer to privacy issues among a very tough, highly activist crowd, turned a little shakier than she already was.

"I didn't need to," she said, or something very like it. "It's not interacting with humans, just computers."

We spend a lot of time talking about where the line might be between human intelligence and artificial intelligence, but the important question may not be the usual one, Not "What does it mean to be human?" but "How far down the layer of abstractions does human interaction persist?" If I send you email intended to deceive, clearly I'm interacting with a human. If I set up a Facebook account and use it to get you to friend me by first friending one of your less careful friends and never communicate directly with you, the line gets a little more attenuated. Someone who had thought more about computers than about people might get confused.

This sort of question is going to come up a lot as we get better at datamining, the subject of an all-day tutorial on the first day of CFP (you'll find a lot of streams and papers on the conference Web site, if you'd like to investigate further), and you can pick up notes-in-progress on the conference real-time Twitter feed. (I missed out on the annual civil liberties in cyberspace tutorial, and others on health data privacy and behavioral advertising.)

The important point, as speakers like Khaled El Emam, a research chair at the University of Ottawa, and Bradley Malin, made clear, is that it's actually very difficult to anonymize data, no matter how much governments would like to persuade us otherwise. Pharmaceutical companies want medical data for research; governments want to give it to them in return for (they hope) lowered medical costs.

But what is identifiable data? Do you include data that can be reidentified when matched against a different dataset? The typical threat model assumes that an attacker will try once and give up. But in one case, Canadian media matched anonymized prescription data for an acne drug against published obituaries, and managed to find four families that matched. Media are persistent: they will call each family until they find the right one.

When we talk about anonymized data, therefore, we have to ask many more questions than we do now. What are the chances of unique records? What are the chances of unique records in the databases this database may be matched to? That determines how easy it is to find a particular individual's record. With just a name, full date of birth, and postal codes for the last year, 98 percent of 11 years of patient data covering 4 million people in Montreal was uniquely identifiable.

People have of course been working on this problem because patient data is incredibly valuable for research to improve public health.

The problem, as Malin noted, is that "People have been proposing methodologies for ten-plus years, and there's not much in the way of technology transfer."

El Emam had an explanation: "A lot of stuff is unusable." Really anonymizing the data using tools such as generalization, perturbation, or multi-party computation, is currently not a practical option: it leaves you with a dataset you can't analyze using standard research tools. Ouch.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or reply by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).