As TorrentFreak now notes, while 33 months may seem extreme, part of the reason for the long sentence was that Danks didn't seem to take the hint: FACT report that following his arrest in 2013, Danks continued to both sell and distribute illegal copies of movies. He was assisted with uploading by Michael Bell, his sister’s former boyfriend. The Court sentenced Bell to a 12 month community order with 120 hours unpaid work. That does seem particularly shortsighted if you wanted to avoid getting into further trouble. Either way, 33 months still sounds rather extreme. Skimming through UK sentencing guidelines, apparently camcording and uploading Fast & Furious 6 is criminally equivalent to a "series of assaults on children" or "protracted neglect and ill-treatment" of a child. That doesn't seem exactly equivalent. Meanwhile Fast & Furious 6 brought in $789 million worldwide, which makes it in the top 50 movies of all time in terms of revenue. It ranks 31st all time in terms of its opening week's performance.
Given all that, I'm curious how much "harm" Danks could really have done to the movie. Sure, it seems clear that he violated copyright law, and so it's legitimate to assume some sort of punishment is reasonable. But 33 months in jail when it's hard to see how any actual harm was done? How does that make any sense at all?
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The ODNI continues to comply with court orders from FOIA lawsuits but its compliance is in letter only. Declassifying documents the way the ODNI does isn't helping further the debate on privacy vs. security or making the government's arguments for surveillance dragnets any more clear.
Two more documents were released late Friday, with one of them being more about what it doesn't include than what it does and the other potentially leading to irreversible eye damage.
First up, the FBI's report on the maintenance and use of [REDACTED] databases. About the only thing surviving the redaction knife is a few footnotes which indicate this document has something to do with the pen register/trap and trace bastardization that turned a targeted surveillance technique with a low legal barrier to entry into a broad, untargeted dragnet with a low legal barrier to entry. (PDF link.)
But this is how most of the "declassified" report looks.
Right-margin barely large enough to contain the exemptions.
The unexpected use of black in a sea of white redactions.
All of the above is in addition to several pages that were withheld in their entirety, without even being given the chance to be redacted into uselessness.
What remains is mainly footnotes. One supplies a description of PR/TT surveillance pulled directly from the US code. One references CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act). One footnote points out that the FBI is not allowed to "affirmatively search" content gathered incidentally by this program, unless, of course, (truck-sized loophole ahead) it needs to "prevent harm to national security."
In total, the document is of zero value to anyone anywhere. No information was freed, nor will it be -- not if intelligence officials have the final say for redactions. The redactions can be challenged, but that's in EPIC's hands.
The second document, a declaration in support of the PR/TT program by CIA director George Tenet, contains more readable info… but just barely. There's a lot of redactions in here as well but the main struggle is reading the remaining text which looks like it was rolled off a myopic, 75-year-old mimeograph. (PDF link.)
Most of Tenet's declaration revolves around threats the CIA was tracking, none of which are allowed past the censor, despite it being a decade later. The name Al-Qaeda appears every so often, and there's hints of a discussion revolving around surveillance tactics and government actions related to the 9/11 attacks, but most of this information is withheld as well.
Interestingly, Tenet notes that the CIA (and other agencies) have picked up signals that signal a "US strike" in the "next four months," possibly in conjunction with the 2004 elections. It also cautions that being too effective may be accelerating terrorists' attack plans, with detainments and other factors possibly causing terrorism leaders to believe their operations are compromised.
Tenet declares all the redacted surveillance programs to have been essential in disrupting terrorists' plans and/or possibly pushing attack timetables forward, noting that the PR/TT has been invaluable in lots of things that are completely redacted. In conclusion, please give the NSA/FBI PR/TT dragnet privileges.
So much for transparency. Even a discontinued surveillance program is subject to page after page of complete redaction, including documents discussing threats over a decade old whose attacks and plans were either thwarted or never came to fruition. The word "declassify" generally is taken to mean a release of information previously withheld, but in the ODNI's hands, all it means is the release of as little as possible.
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- Some folks adamantly recommend that everyone should NOT store their butter in a refrigerator. Room temperature butter is obviously more easily spread, but some people just don't like the idea of butter going rancid slowly on a kitchen table. [url]
- Which edge of a butter knife have you been using all your life? If you said the serrated edge, try the other side when spreading butter. Maybe there is no wrong way, but there's more than one way to use a butter knife. [url]
- If you want to buy a butter knife that's specifically designed to spread butter better than any other butter knife, throw some bucks at the Stupendous Splendiferous ButterUp knife. It's just a bunch of holes in the knife that act like a grater, so you can scrape off buttery bits, even off a cold stick of butter. [url]
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The FBI's Criminal Database Is Filling Up With Non-Criminals And No One In Law Enforcement Seems To Care
America has long held the position as the world's foremost imprisoner of its own citizens. Around 2 million people are incarcerated in America, giving us nearly one-fourth of the world's total prison population. Spending any length of time in prison is a good way to destroy your future. But even if you never spend a day inside -- or even end up facing charges -- there's a good chance you'll still be facing a bleak future should you ever have the misfortune to be booked. Over the past 20 years, authorities have made more than a quarter of a billion arrests, the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates. As a result, the FBI currently has 77.7 million individuals on file in its master criminal database—or nearly one out of every three American adults.
Between 10,000 and 12,000 new names are added each day. This master database is accessed by thousands of employers running pre-hire background checks, as well as by banks and landlords. One moment of stupidity, even if it never results in time served, could derail someone's life. Arrests are damaging, even if it's ultimately determined that no criminal activity occurred. How many thousands of people are being turned down for loans or rejected by landlords simply because a cop made up BS charges to arrest a photographer or deployed handcuffs instead of responsible crowd control? When Precious Daniels learned that the Census Bureau was looking for temporary workers, she thought she would make an ideal candidate. The lifelong Detroit resident and veteran health-care worker knew the people in the community. She had studied psychology at a local college.
Days after she applied for the job in 2010, she received a letter indicating a routine background check had turned up a red flag.
In November of 2009, Ms. Daniels had participated in a protest against Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan as the health-care law was being debated. Arrested with others for disorderly conduct, she was released on $50 bail and the misdemeanor charge was subsequently dropped. Ms. Daniels didn't anticipate any further problems.
But her job application brought the matter back to life. For the application to proceed, the Census bureau informed her she would need to submit fingerprints and gave her 30 days to obtain court documents proving her case had been resolved without a conviction...
She didn't get the job. This is one case out of thousands. Exacerbating law enforcement's enthusiasm for making meaningless arrests is the fact that no one involved in maintaining the criminal database is interested in making sure it only contains convicted criminals. Documentation of arrests aren't removed when charges are dismissed and information on cleared individuals is seldom forwarded to the FBI by local PDs.
And it's not as though false arrests are the exception to the rule. According to research done by the University of South Carolina, it's more of a coin toss -- 47% of respondents who were arrested were never convicted and 25% were never even charged.
This callous disregard for the falsely arrested places the burden on those harmed by law enforcement's wrongful actions to clear their names, which in our criminal justice system is an entirely uphill battle. In October 2012, Jose Gabriel Hernandez was finishing up dinner at home when officers came to arrest him for sexually assaulting two young girls.
Turns out, it was a case of mistaken identity. In court documents, the prosecutor's office acknowledged that the "wrong Jose Hernandez" had been arrested and the charges were dropped.
Once the case was dismissed, Mr. Hernandez assumed authorities would set the record straight. Instead, he learned that the burden was on him to clear his record and that he would need a lawyer to seek a formal expungement.
"Needless to say, that hasn't happened yet," says Mr. Hernandez, who works as a contractor. Mr. Hernandez was held in the Bexar County jail on $150,000 bond. He didn't have the cash, so his wife borrowed money to pay a bail bondsman the nonrefundable sum of $22,500, or the 15% fee, he needed to put up. They are still repaying the loans. Notably, there are no corresponding negative results for police who arrest the wrong person. It's always an "honest mistake" even when nearly half of their arrests never result in convictions. It's the citizens who need to spend their time and money (which, given the economic background of those most likely to be arrested, are generally commodities in short supply) trying to convince potential employers, landlords and banks that they're not actually criminals.
The difference a false arrest can make in one person's life is devastating. According to the Wall Street Journal, someone with an arrest on their record is only half as likely to own a house and twice as likely to be below the poverty line by age 25.
Ballooning law enforcement budgets have combined with bad ideas like zero tolerance policies and "broken windows" policing to turn arrests into a near inevitability, especially for citizens who aren't white… or document police activity… or engage in First Amendment-protected speech. There's no path guaranteed to keep your record from being blighted by a trumped-up charge or an arrest that leads nowhere. To those who control your future -- employers, landlords, banks, college admission offices -- it all looks the same when the background report comes in. The FBI is barely interested in ensuring its criminal database only houses data on criminals and local law enforcement agencies seem to be totally disinterested in clearing those wrongfully charged. Once again, the public is expected to do the legwork if it ever hopes to climb higher than the lowest rung in our nation -- guilty even if proven innocent.
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Judge Kozinski Calls Out Former FISC Judge John Bates For Claiming To Speak For The Entire Judicial Branch
A few weeks ago, former FISC judge John Bates (now helming the Administrative Office of the US Courts) sent a letter to the intelligence oversight committees arguing that the Senate's USA Freedom Act would do too much damage to the NSA and the FISA Court. Bates feels the toothless bill passed by the House would be a much better fit for the FISA Court.
In particular, Bates raised several not very convincing arguments against the appointment of an advocate to act on behalf of the surveilled, thus turning this secret court into something more adversarial. Steve Vladeck of Just Security noted a few problems with Bates' arguments back in early August. First, on the informational point, Judge Bates offers no evidence in support of his claim that allowing a security cleared outside amicus to participate before the FISA Court will somehow affect the government’s duty of candor to the tribunal, or otherwise disrupt the (apparently quite congenial) relationship between the FISC and the relevant government stakeholders. Indeed, Congress has already provided for security cleared private counsel to participate in FISA Court proceedings in the contexts of applications under section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and section 702 of FISA (as amended by the FISA Amendments Act of 2008). Does Judge Bates object to those provisions, as well? If not, why would a security cleared special advocate be any different in this regard than a security cleared private lawyer for the recipient of a section 215 production order or section 702 directive? Not only are Bates' concerns non-specific and undermined by provisions already in place, but his disagreement with these aspects find him standing alone. Moreover, with respect to Judge Bates's real concern–that having to provide a special advocate with access to at least some of the classified information upon which surveillance applications are based “could prompt the government not to pursue potentially valuable intelligence-gathering activities under FISA”–it’s more than a little telling that the Executive Branch nevertheless supports the Senate bill. If this was really a genuine problem (indeed, some may well think that forcing such a choice is exactly the point), wouldn’t we expect to have heard about it from the intelligence community, the Justice Department, and/or the White House? Bates' objections to these reforms make him somewhat of an outsider, even inside his own wheelhouse. But you wouldn't know it by the phrasing Bates uses in his letters -- letters that he's been sending to various oversight entities since the beginning of the year. After making it clear he was speaking in a more limited capacity in letters sent in January and February ("...as a liaison for the Judiciary on matters concerning the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act"), that wording vanished from those sent later in the year. The letters Just Security covered in August saw Bates giving himself increasing prominence. … the new letter both (1) fails to persuade in its substantive objections; and (2) only further raises the question of why Judge Bates believes he’s entitled to speak “on behalf of the Judiciary”–especially when at least two former FISA judges have expressly endorsed reforms far more aggressive than those envisaged by the Senate bill… 9th Circuit Appeals Court Chief Judge Alex Kozinski is now wondering the same thing, having had Bates' letters forwarded to him by a colleague. He has sent a letter to Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee, informing him of Bates' tactics. (The letter also CC's leaders of both the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, as well as Eric Holder and Judge John Bates himself.) I am writing in regard to a letter sent to you on August 5, 2014, by The Honorable John D. Bates, Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. In that letter, Director Bates comments on legislation now pending in the Senate, namely the USA FREEDOM Act, S. 2685. In so doing, Director Bates purports to speak 'on behalf of the Judiciary,' and frequently uses the first-person-plural pronoun 'we' in stating his views. I understand 'we' to refer to the federal judiciary. Kozinski then points to Judge Bates' January letter in which he states that these sorts of issues are usually deliberated by the Judicial Conference before presenting the federal judiciary's collective opinion. Kozinski notes that "nothing has changed" between January's more limited letter (when Bates spoke as only a FISA representative) and August (after Bates began claiming he represented the entire federal judiciary).
Kozinski finished up by pointing out that not only does Bates not speak for the whole of the judiciary, but that much of the judiciary is unlikely to back up Bates' positions. He makes it entirely clear that he won't. The matters raised by S. 2685 and Director Bates's letters are of profound significance and merit the closest consideration. I have not, however, had an opportunity to study them and make an informed decision because, as Director Bates notes, "the [Judicial] Conference has not at this time been engaged to deliberate on them." Were the matter put before the Judicial Conference, I would certainly take the time to study it, form an opinion and cast a vote, after considering the views of my Judicial Conference colleagues. And, whatever the outcome, I'd feel bound by that decision. But, having given the matter little consideration, and having had no opportunity to deliberate with the other members of the Judicial Conference, I have serious doubts about the views expressed by Judge Bates. Insofar as Judge Bates's August 5th letter may be understood as reflecting my views, I advise the Committee that this is not so. We'll have to see what Bates' post-Kozinski letters bring. He probably won't change his mind on FISA court reforms, but he'll likely stop claiming he speaks for the judicial branch, when he's clearly only pushing his own agenda.
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My understanding is that there was once a theory that America's public universities were havens of free speech, political thought, and a center for the exchange of ideas. I must admit that this seems foreign to me. I've always experienced universities primarily as a group-think center mostly centered around college athletics. That said, if universities want to still claim to be at the forefront of idea and thought, they probably shouldn't be censoring the hell out of what their students can access on the internet.
Yet, as btr1701 writes in about, that's exactly what Northern Illinois University appears to be doing. Northern Illinois University enacted an Acceptable Use Policy that goes further than banning torrents, also denying students access to social media sites and other content the university considers “unethical” or “obscene.” A discussion on the ban was brought to Reddit by user darkf who discovered the new policy while trying to access the Wikipedia page for the Westboro Baptist Church from his personal computer in his dorm room. The student received a filter message categorizing the page as “illegal or unethical.” It seems possible to continue to the webpage, but the message warns that all violations will be reviewed. While sites that only potentially violate the policy, such as the Wikipedia page for stupidest church in America, are still accessible after the warning, other sites that NIU has deemed offensive, defamatory, or threatening remain. These, oddly, include pornography sites, for some reason. It also includes social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIN, the latter of which seems like an especially odd choice since it's primarily a job networking site and I'd think that would be the kind of thing a university would want their students to be doing. Granted, this usage policy applies to staff as well as students, but that's the entire problem with a catchall filtering system like this: you block too much good along with the "bad."
But where this really goes off the rails is NIU's apparent attempt to stifle political discussion on their campus. Perhaps one of the most controversial of the terms is the restriction on political activities such as surveying, polling, material distribution, vote solicitation and organization or participation in meetings, rallies and demonstrations, among other activities...Isn’t it obvious that an institute of higher learning should be the last place to put a huge block in the information pathway? It's not just obvious, it seems like the antithesis of what a public university ought to be doing. Forget the social media and pornography sites for a moment. Turning the filters up to the point when Wikipedia pages are blocked is insane. That site is a go to resource for, well, everyone, but probably especially for students. And the ban on political activism and traffic suggests NIU is turning a blind-eye to the important role that universities have always played in political thought and activism.
Shame on NIU for trying to strangle the internet access their students rely on as they learn and become adults.
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Guy Claims Patent On Photographing People In Races And Then Selling Them Their Photos; Sues Photography Company
taking photographs of at least one participant of a sporting event along at least one point of a course or field thereof;
associating identifying data with each photograph taken, wherein the identifying data is selected from at least one of: a number corresponding to a number worn by a participant, a participant's name, a code acquired from a component worn by a participant, and a date and time, including hour and minute the photograph was taken;
informing the sporting participants of the identifying data;
transferring the photographs to a computer network server;
cataloging each of the photographs in a web-site server according to the identifying data;
accessing the server at a location other than the sporting event and searching for a photograph of a particular sporting event participant utilizing the identifying data; and
displaying the photograph of the sporting event participant for inspection and ordering. Or, as EFF's Vera Ranieri summarizes: In plain English: Take photos of a race, tag and sort by bib number and date, and search for photos based on that tag via the Internet. That’s it. This, of course, is the problem with many patents these days. You could take nearly any half-competent programmer, explain to him what you wanted to do, and they could build you a system like this without any trouble at all. Because there's nothing tricky here at all. It's just putting together a few basic obvious ideas that were really only limited in the past by the underlying technology not being ready. But now that it is... one guy has patents to block anyone else from implementing such an obvious idea. These patents aren't promoting the progress, they're hindering it. It seems likely that under the Alice v. CLS ruling, this patent is not valid.
Wolf is suing a small (mostly part time!) photography company called Capstone for doing some of this. While it's already likely that the patents are invalid, with Capstone, because of how it works, and because of the Limelight v. Akamai ruling, it's likely that Capstone itself isn't even infringing (that ruling said that if separate parties do separate parts of the claim, you can't say that the original party "induced infringement" because there is no direct infringement). But, still, as we've discussed many times, patent lawsuits are crazy expensive. And Capstone is a tiny company:
Capstone doesn’t have a widely-distributed podcast that it can use to drum up the backing of thousands of fans and supporters. Its owner’s own attempt to crowdfund the defense raised only about $5,000. And although Capstone’s business has been profitable, the owner tells us that because of the patent lawsuit and the costs his company is facing, his business faces the very real prospect of shutting down.
Recent reforms have been helpful to reduce costs for some defendants. For example, the Inter Partes Review (“IPR”) program now being implemented at the Patent Office promises to be a much cheaper way to determine validity. One problem though, is that it is still too expensive for businesses like Capstone. An IPR costs $23,000 in filing fees alone, and requires paying lawyers and often experts as well.Ranieri notes that the US Patent Office is accepting comments about dealing with post-grant challenges, and now might be a good time to highlight that it's impossibly expensive for small businesses being sued over questionable patents: EFF previously advocated for reduced fees for IPR filings by small businesses and others without the ability to fund patent challenges. Unfortunately, the PTO ignored our request. However, the PTO is currently accepting comments regarding the post-grant challenges such as the IPR process. We encourage the public, especially small business owners, to let the PTO know by September 16 that the costs are still too high for many, and absent a lower cost, patent trolls will continue to assert dubious patents against companies they know can’t afford to do anything but settle.
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We've long-argued that red light cameras, those little flashy things that ticket you for going through a stop light, have always been way less about safety and almost entirely about generating revenue for municipalities. And, while we've covered how corrupted the money-flow of these systems can be, you just have to admire the brazenly "Chicago-way" story of how the windy city got into bed with camera peddlers. The former chief executive officer of Redflex, a major red light camera (RLC) vendor, has been indicted on federal corruption charges stemming from a contract with the City of Chicago. On Wednesday, in addition to former CEO Karen Finley, government prosecutors also indicted John Bills, former managing deputy commissioner at the Department of Transportation, and Bills' friend Martin O'Malley, who was hired as a contractor by Redflex. Now, I can tell you as a native of the area that city officials getting indicted on corruption charges along with the company bribers barely registers as news here any longer. Hell, we send governors to prison like it was the official retirement plan for the office. The charges in this indictment, however, are a special brand of sleazy. Redflex sold the city on the cameras, hired O'Malley as a contractor for $2 million dollars, and O'Malley then sent much of that cash directly back to DoT official John Bills, like some kind of monetary boomerang. Redflex then got into the act directly, because why the hell not. Via Redflex employees, Bills also acquired a Mercedes and a condominium in Arizona. A May 2014 affidavit written by an FBI special agent suggests that Bills likely used some of this money to purchase and store a boat, buy a car, pay for an addition to his Michigan cabin, pay for his girlfriend's mortgage, pay his own mortgage, pay his kids' schools, and hire a divorce attorney over the course of several years. To be fair to Bills, it costs a lot of money to keep your side-piece living happily while you divorce the mother of your children and update that sweet cabin-pad. Oh, it should also be mentioned that Redflex employees sent Bills on a couple of vacations over half a decade, and by "couple" I mean seventeen. This all adds up to 23 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, bribery, and some additional charges thrown in because screw these guys. And it's not as though these stupid cameras all this corruption paid for actually, you know, worked. The Chicago Tribune's reporting indicates that something like 13,000 bogus tickets were issued to city residents via Redflex cameras, which were dropped in 2013 due in part to this scandal.
But, hey, don't worry, guys. Redflex is all over this problem. "Last year we announced aggressive leadership changes, industry leading compliance policies and procedures, and a distinction between our past and present," Jody Ryan, a spokeswoman, wrote to Ars. "Redflex Traffic Systems is moving forward. Since we announced these changes we have signed, renewed, or executed over 100 contracts. Redflex has cooperated fully with the investigative authorities while maintaining the integrity of our customer programs. Our focus is on making a life-saving difference in the communities we serve across the country." Except their cameras don't do any of that and nobody is going to trust anything coming from the company or city officials about the effectiveness of the cameras, either, what with the details on how the Chicago bid was won by Redflex being revealed. It turns out that Bills actually coached Redflex on how to win the bid, rigged the voting order so that members of the evaluation committee Bills had convinced to vote for Redflex would vote first (indicating broad support to other members), and then had the company hire his buddy, O'Malley, as the Chicago account manager for Redflex.
When it comes to Chicago politics, contracts, and the like, this is as Chicago as it gets. However, given that the whole red light camera thing is a money-making scheme to begin with, the whole concept reeks of corruption. Kill these things off now, please.
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That video also highlights a post on Molyneux's Facebook page in which he declares "IP must die" in response to an article by Mark Cuban on reforming patents. So it's always interesting when people claim to not support intellectual property laws at all, but then abuse them for their own benefit. Furthermore, Molyneux went on to Joe Rogan's podcast and flat out admits that the DeMarco did this for reasons that had nothing to do with copyright. It's at about 50 minutes into the linked clip. Specifically, he says: Molyneux: So there was a guy... I won't say troll, because that will poison the well. There was a fellow out there.
Rogan: A gentleman.
Molyneux: A gentleman of trolly persuasion. I do these call in shows, and people talk about philosophy and ideas and whatever. And he had gotten some of those calls, and through means I don't pretend to understand, you know doxxing -- where you start revealing people's personal information -- he got pictures of their kids, he found out where they lived...
Molyneux: He had just done stuff where he was...
Rogan: So someone called in and he got pictures of their kid?
Molyneux: What can I tell you?
Rogan: Why would he do that?
Molyneux: Can I pretend to know why people do this, no.
Molyneux: So, everyone uses my stuff and I don't care about it. You can do a search on YouTube for my stuff and everybody who said 'I'd really like to reuse your stuff' I'm like 'hey, go for it.' Right? But we had a number of listeners who called in and said, 'listen, this guy is doing some pretty creepy stuff with my personal info here, I'm not comfortable with this.' So we used that mechanism to take that down. It's got nothing to do with copyright or anything like that, I just felt that listeners were being acted against in a negative way. A significantly negative way, so that's what we did. It's got nothing to do with copyright or anything like that. People use my stuff all the time. Now, Molyneux's position that the trolling/harassment was a problem is a perfectly reasonable argument to make. But YouTube has a process for dealing with harassment and cyberbullying, and it's not abusing federal copyright law to silence those videos. And, while it's unclear if FreeDomainDamon was actually bullying Molyneux's readers, from everything that people have been presenting online in various forums, it seems pretty clear that TruShibe was not doing that, but was merely critical of Molyneux. However, thanks to multiple copyright claims against TruShibe's YouTube account, the entire account has been taken down.
It does seem odd for someone who claims to be an anarchist and against "state violence" to then use copyright law to take down critical videos. I can understand the desire to avoid having listeners intimidated or harassed, but abusing copyright law seems like the wrong way to go about it. Not that it seems likely this will lead to a lawsuit, but the very fact that Molyneux flat out admits that this "had nothing to do with copyright" while using copyright law to silence a critic suggests that he may have opened himself up to DMCA 512(f) claim for "materially misrepresenting" his copyright claim with regards to the videos (many of which would have a strong fair use claim as well.
Either way, if you're going to go around claiming that you're against intellectual property and an "anarcho capitalist," it's going to look pretty sketchy when you use a federal law like copyright to censor someone else's speech that is critical of you.
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Can We Create A Public Internet Space Where The First Amendment, Not Private Terms Of Service, Rules?
And the threat isn't entirely at the hands of governments. In last week's New Republic, Jeffrey Rosen reported on a cadre of twentysomething "Deciders" employed by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to determine what content is appropriate for those platforms -- and what content should get blocked.
While they seem earnest in their regard for free speech, they often make decisions on issues that are way beyond their depth, affecting people in parts of the world they've never been to.
And they're often just plain wrong, as Facebook demonstrated last week. They blocked a political ad from progressive group CREDO Action that criticized Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's support of the Keystone XL pipeline.
This case is just one of several instances where allegedly well-intentioned social media companies cross the line that separates Internet freedom from Internet repression.And it actually goes beyond that to some extent. As well-intentioned as these companies might be, the example above shows that they'll cave on issues all the time.
"Hosting your political movement on YouTube is a little like trying to hold a rally in a shopping mall. It looks like a public space, but it's not -- it's a private space," writes Ethan Zuckerman of MIT's Center for Civic Media. "And your use of it is governed by an agreement that works harder to protect YouTube's fiscal viability than to protect your rights of free speech."
Zuckerman compares the social media executives to "benevolent despots" who use their corporate terms of service -- not the First Amendment -- to govern their decision making about content.In many ways, it may be even more complicated than Karr and the people he quotes describe. First off, even if you have a company that claims it will respect a right to free expression, it's not their decision alone to make. As we saw, for example, with Wikileaks, when there's strong pressure to silence a site, the downstream providers can get antsy and pull the plug. Upstream hosting firms, data centers and bandwidth providers can all be pressured or even threatened legally, and usually someone somewhere along the line will cave to such threats. In such cases, it doesn't matter how strongly the end service provider believes in free speech; if someone else along the chain can pull things down, then promises of supporting free speech are meaningless.
This issue keeps coming up. A few months ago, Jillian York wrote a powerful piece about how we run a risk in treating private social media spaces as if they're public: The trouble with private companies controlling our speech is that they are subject not only to shareholders, but also to governments. Many of the most popular social media companies – most notably Twitter, which once called itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party” – profess a commitment to free expression. But in their efforts to provide access to their services to users around the world, these companies often face an unfortunate choice: to avoid being blocked by a government’s censorship apparatus, they must sometimes agree to take down content, at least in a given country.
In any case, when a company unnecessarily complies with censorship orders from a foreign government, it sends the message to users that profit is more important than free speech, something that all of the aforementioned companies count amongst their values. Furthermore, by making the company – and not the government issuing the orders – the “bad guy,” it becomes harder for users within a country to fight back, and less clear to users that the governments seeking censorship are the real enemy. And now this issue is coming up again in a slightly different context, with the decision of various social platforms this week to block the video of James Foley (or even linking to it). Glenn Greenwald has now chimed in on the subject as well, and makes the key point about how, even if you understand the reasons for why these companies chose to do it (and, it might not even be "valuing profit over free speech"), it creates a real challenge for free speech when someone (anyone) gets to decide what is and what is not allowed:
Given the savagery of the Foley video, it’s easy in isolation to cheer for its banning on Twitter. But that’s always how censorship functions: it invariably starts with the suppression of viewpoints which are so widely hated that the emotional response they produce drowns out any consideration of the principle being endorsed.
It’s tempting to support criminalization of, say, racist views as long as one focuses on one’s contempt for those views and ignores the serious dangers of vesting the state with the general power to create lists of prohibited ideas. That’s why free speech defenders such as the ACLU so often represent and defend racists and others with heinous views in free speech cases: because that’s where free speech erosions become legitimized in the first instance when endorsed or acquiesced to.
The question posed by Twitter’s announcement is not whether you think it’s a good idea for people to see the Foley video. Instead, the relevant question is whether you want Twitter, Facebook and Google executives exercising vast power over what can be seen and read.Given all of this, it seems like it would be good to have some sort of even safer "public space" online. Karr, in his piece from last year, suggests that companies that want to be supporters of an open internet be much more transparent about their moderating decisions, allowing for public review: To be more accountable to users, these platforms should adopt publicly transparent processes allowing a full view of every decision to block content. And these sites should invite feedback from users as a check against abuses. I like that idea, though I can see how it would be difficult to implement in practice. But, really, an even bigger question is how do we set up a space on the internet that isn't prone to such issues. I'd hate to think that it would need to be hidden away in the "dark web" like the infamous Silk Road market, but I'm not sure how else one would create such a truly safe harbor that is impervious to outside attempts to block.
York hopes that companies will "stand up" against such censorship requests, but it always seems like there's a weak link somewhere in the chain. It would be great if everyone agreed to protect the speech, but when complainants can go to ISPs asking for filters, to upstream providers, to server hosting companies, to domain registrars and more, you would need to build a top to bottom wall of organizations totally committed to free speech. I'm not sure that's possible.
And that leaves us with quite a conundrum if you're looking for a true venue for free speech online. It's almost technically not truly possible.
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Of course, perhaps the reason why the cybersecurity is so awful is because the White House's "cybersecurity coordinator," Michael Daniel, not only isn't a cybersecurity expert but thinks that's a good thing. I wish I was joking. After spending a few minutes talking about all his training at Princeton and the Kennedy School at Harvard taught him to communicate well and "break down problems" he dismisses the need for actual technical knowledge. You don't have to be a coder to really do well in this position. In fact, actually, I think being too down in the weeds at the technical level could actually be a little bit of a distraction..... You can get taken up and sort of enamored with the very detailed aspects of some of the technical solutions. And, particularly here at the White House... the real issue is to look at the broad, strategic picture and the impact that technology will have. Now there is some truth to the idea that it's important to be able to look at the bigger picture, but when you're talking about cybersecurity, part of the way that you can look at the bigger picture is to actually understand the technology. That's not "a distraction" it's part of the core and necessary knowledge to then do the job of a cybersecurity coordinator. People who don't spend much time with these things view cybersecurity and technology as a kind of "magic." But it's not. Nor is technology economics, but Daniel thinks it is: But the other issue in my mind is that at a very fundamental level, cybersecurity isn't just about the technology but it's also about the economics of cybersecurity. Why companies choose to invest the way they invest. It's about the pscyhology of cybersecurity. You know, one of my sayings is that 'expediency trumps cybersecurity every time' meaning that people will prioritize convenience over being secure many times. So you need to have the understanding of those kinds of factors: the psychology, the economics, the broad policy, the politics with a little p, in addition to the technology. So you need to be more of a generalist than having a lot of expertise particularly in the technological side. Yes, in addition to the technology. All of those things are important, but they're mostly useless if you don't understand the underlying technology. He's then asked what are the biggest challenges and... after talking about how important it is to understand the psychology and economics (more important than the technology) he admits that he doesn't actually understand the psychology and economics. Because, apparently, he wants to make sure that he has none of the job qualifications for the job. There are a few [challenges] that I can identify. One is that we don't actually truly understand the economics and psychology behind cybersecurity. We know that a huge number of intrusions rely on known fixable vulnerabilities... We know that intruders get in through those holes that we know about that we could fix. The question is, 'Why don't we do that?' That clearly leads me to the conclusion that we really don't understand all of those economics and psychology well enough. So there you have it folks. The White House's cybersecurity expert doesn't have the technological expertise, but insists it's okay because he's focused on the economics and psychology of the fact that people don't patch their computers -- and then admits he has no idea why that happens.
This doesn't make me feel any safer.
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They're all moving forward with their goals, and two new commercials have come out that are worth highlighting. First, Represent.us has teamed up with Mayday in their effort to promote Jim Rubens, the (generally considered to be a long shot) candidate for Senate in New Hampshire. They've sent "Gil Fulbright" to New Hampshire to "campaign" for Rubens' opponent (and former Massachusetts Senator) Scott Brown. The ad is well worth watching: In case you can't watch it, here's a basic transcript of the text stated by the exceptionally honest Gil Fulbright: I'm a career politician and this is an unprovoked attack on Jim Rubens. And I'm in it!
You see, me and my buddy, Scott Brown (shows picture of Brown making the "call me" sign), we want to take your tax dollars and hand them out to the cronies and lobbyists who bankroll our political campaigns.
But this Jim Rubens guy? He wants to stop corruption in Washington. He thinks it's his job to help the people of New Hampshire.
Career politicians like me? We've got a sweet thing going on. Do not let Jim Rubens screw that up. This is a bit different from some of Mayday's earliest commercial spots which I thought were a bit weak. Frankly the first few radio ads (which, for some reason seem to have disappeared from Soundcloud where they were) sounded a little off. Lessig is a great presenter, but I'm not sure he's the best radio voice. Though, the latest TV commercial for Ruben Gallego (which also uses Lessig's voiceover) is stronger than those first few radio ads: Finally, CounterPAC has also launched its first TV ads, including this one involving a sky diver, calling on Georgia Senate candidates Michelle Nunn and David Perdue to pledge to deny dark money in their campaigns (they also have a nearly identical ad targeting Alaska Senate candidates Mark Begich and Dan Sullivan). The production value of the ad is a bit weak, and it kind of buries the point of the ad, which is unfortunate.
Either way, we're seeing the first steps of these efforts to try to limit the impact of money in politics and it will be worth watching how these various campaigns work out.
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