- A single gram of DNA can store up to 455 exabytes of data, and roughly four grams of DNA could store all of the world's collected information. It's not cheap to store arbitrary data on DNA yet, but the costs are coming down. [url]
- Stored data on DNA encased in glass at freezing temperatures could survive for a couple million years. The DNA of a woolly mammoth in Siberia was preserved for 40,000 in a tundra, so it's not unthinkable that we might want to keep a few backups of our data on ice. [url]
- Making large DNA crystals with precisely-controlled structures is something that can be done with a "DNA-brick self-assembly" method. Being able to do this could help fabricate all kinds of nanoscale designs and create a manufacturing process for complex, artificial DNA structures. [url]
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Verizon At Least Shows It Has A Sense Of Humor About Net Neutrality, Even If It's Incapable Of Respecting It
As you might expect, Verizon took to the company's blog to protest the FCC's new TItle II based net neutrality rules. Amusingly however, it posted the entire thing in Morse code -- piggybacking on the oft-repeated ISP mantra that applying older Title II regulations to broadband is a dangerous and historically backwards proposition (because all old laws are automatically bad laws, get it?).
If you look for a translation, you're further directed to a press release (pdf) that appears to be written on an old typewriter. In that, Verizon trots out ye olde bogeyman that the FCC is using "antiquated regulations" for a modern era: "Today’s decision by the FCC to encumber broadband Internet services with badly antiquated regulations is a radical step that presages a time of uncertainty for consumers, innovators and investors." Of course if we were to stop using laws just because they smell like mothballs, we'd be in for quite an adventure. After all, the Constitution is pretty old, right? As is the Communications Act of 1934 and the revamped Telecommunications Act of 1996, which govern spectrum allocation and without which Verizon couldn't function as a company. Stupid old laws. So unnecessary! It's an overly-simplistic argument, made more so by the fact that Verizon's FiOS network -- and the voice component of their wireless network -- are governed by Title II in some instances to glean Verizon some lovely tax breaks.
Verizon stumbles forth unabated, insisting that it has your best interests at heart: "What has been and will remain constant before, during and after the existence of any regulations is Verizon’s commitment to an open Internet that provides consumers with competitive broadband choices and Internet access when, where, and how they want." Yes, so committed is Verizon to an open Internet, it has violated the principles of Internet and device neutrality more aggressively than perhaps any other company, whether that's trying to block GPS radio functionality unless you use their navigation software, or charging completely illogical fees to use basic functionality embedded in phones (like tethering, or Bluetooth). Verizon's also fairly insistent on ignoring the fact it was their lawsuit that pushed the FCC toward Title II in the first place, so if there's "regulatory uncertainty" at play, the lion's share of the blame belongs on Verizon's shoulders.
Still, you've got to hand it to Verizon for at least showing a sense of humor about the whole thing. That's more than Comcast or AT&T were capable of.
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Despite the feds' best efforts to keep IMSI catchers (Stingray devices, colloquially and almost certainly to the dismay of manufacturer Harris Corporation, as they head to becoming the kleenex of surveillance tech) a secret, there's still enough information leaking out around the edges of the FBI's non-disclosure agreements to provoke public discussion.
The discussion appears to have reached the top of the food chain. Sen. Bill Nelson -- following the lead of Senators Leahy and Grassley -- has sent a letter to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler asking the following:
[image credit: Julian Sanchez] Dear Chairman Wheeler:
On Feb. 23, The Washington Post published a front-page article “Secrecy around Police Surveillance Equipment Proves a Case’s Undoing.” That article indicated that the Tallahassee Police Department and other law enforcement agencies around the country have been using a device called the StingRay to collect cell phone call information.
That article and previous others concerning the device reveal the StingRay was certified for use by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), contingent upon the conditions that StingRay’s manufacturer sell these devices solely to federal, state, and local public safety and law enforcement; and that state and local law enforcement agencies must coordinate in advance with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) before acquiring or using this equipment. According to the article, these devices now have been purchased by 48 law enforcement agencies in 20 states and the District of Columbia and used in hundreds of cases. Yep, the devices are pretty much everywhere and no one wants to talk about them. When the US Marshals Service isn't stepping in to physically remove Stingray-related documents, local law enforcement agencies are disguising their use of these devices behind vague warrants and subpoenas.
What Sen. Nelson wants to know is what the FCC knows about Stingrays. What information the FCC may have had about the rationale behind the restrictions placed on the certification of the StingRay, and whether similar restrictions have been put in place for other devices;
Whether the FCC inquired about what oversight may be in place to make sure that use of the devices complied with the manufacturer’s representations to the FCC at the time of certification; and
A status report on the activities of the “task force” you previously formed to look at questions surrounding the use of the StingRay and similar devices. What we DO know so far about the interplay of Harris, the FBI and the FCC is that the first two parties have been less than forthright with the third. Harris managed to push its devices past the FCC by implying they would only be used in emergencies -- even though it was already clear at the point it made that statement that law enforcement agencies were frequently deploying them in non-emergency situations.
The FBI has performed its own obfuscation, implying in a letter to law enforcement agencies that the FCC required the signing off a non-disclosure agreement with the FBI. The FCC has since denied this, and obtained documents indicate it's the FBI that wants to control the flow of information regarding Stingrays, not the other way around.
I imagine the FCC would be compliant with this request, considering its past relationship with the FBI and Harris. But it can expect to run into significant resistance from the DOJ, which still believes that the long-exposed technology should still be afforded NSA-level secrecy -- especially when answers to Sen. Nelson's questions will likely expose its less-than-honest dealings with the FCC.
Sen. Nelson deserves some extra praise for being willing to put himself in an awkward situation. As the ACLU's Chris Soghoian notes, the senator has picked a very public fight with his second biggest campaign contributor.
Somebody needs to provide some answers and, while it's really the FBI that should be talking at this point, the FCC's take on this -- and its dealings with the FBI -- should be enlightening. The FBI's insistence on secrecy is not only screwing defendants during the discovery process, but it's also harming local law enforcement itself, which has shown an alarming willingness to drop cases/charges rather than reveal the use of Stingray devices.
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At some point, this whole fad of trademarking phrases that leap into the public consciousness through public events is going to have to stop. Between trying to lock the language of the recently slain, the foreign policy story du jour, and all the rest, eventually the public and the courts are going to have to realize that this can't go on unchecked. For some reason, professional and college sports organizations seem especially prone to this kind of nonsense, from the attempt to exert control over a colloquial term to a team simply treating its own fanbase like so much trademarkable chattle.
That last example, concerning the Seattle Seahawks' apparent attempt to trademark roughly all the things, is particularly apropros in the latest trademark news, which features the team's running back, Marshawn Lynch. See, Lynch likes to paint himself as an anti-establishment guy. Far from the spotlight-seeking nature enjoyed by some of this league-mates, Lynch shies from the press, refusing to do the mandatory press engagements collectively bargained between the players union and the league. When he deigns to grace the press with his presence at all, he typically keeps things to one-word or one-phrase non-sequitors in answering reporters' questions, such as when he most recently responded to all questions with, "I'm just here so I won't get fined." It was petty, childish and a departure from the rules agreed upon between the league and the union. Oh, and now it's the subject of a trademark application by Lynch as well. Lynch last week filed for the trademark to the phrase "I'm just here so I won't get fined" with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Lynch famously uttered the phrase as the answer to more than 20 questions on Super Bowl XLIX media day before walking off the podium.
"We heard from our fans, and so many of them were saying that they wanted that phrase on the clothing," Chris Bevans, who runs Lynch's "Beast Mode" apparel line, told ESPN.com. "This is just listening to the marketplace." That last bit is nonsense, of course, because no fan of Marshawn Lynch's anywhere ever pined for the running back to get a trademark for a phrase he happened to utter. Why such a generic sentence deserves any manner of protection is simply beyond me. A brand is a brand, but simply going out and putting a mark on ever half-garbled jab at his employer that Lynch's fans happen to enjoy isn't what trademark is for. At some point, with the acknowledgement that the USPTO has been so lax in allowing the culture of permission and gates to spring forth, some kind of litmus test is going to have to be introduced to keep otherwise common language from being locked out of commerce this way.
And it's not like this is the first time Lynch has gone around applying for trademarks on whatever happens to come out of his mouth that grabs any measure of attention. Last year, he trademarked "About that action BOSS," which he said to Deion Sanders of the NFL Network in the only interview he conducted during Super Bowl XLVIII media day. Lynch is expected to be the owner of that trademark by this summer, but in the meantime, he has already started selling clothes with the phrase on it. Lynch owns four "Beast Mode" trademarks and has filed for four more. He has also filed for the phrase "Power Pellets."
Devin Lacerte of Octagon, who works with a trademark attorney on all of Lynch's trademarks, told ESPN.com last month that hundreds of cease-and-desist letters have been sent to people who try to sell products with the "Beast Mode" name. Delightful, especially considering the origins of "Beast Mode" don't exactly start with Marshawn Lynch (it almost certainly was used in conjunction with video game Altered Beast as well as the cartoon Beast Wars). So here we have a guy who paints himself as anti-establishment, but who is quite happy to run to the USPTO and turn himself into language authoritarian any time something he says grabs attention.
Maybe it's time for the USPTO to go all beast mode on phrases getting trademarks like this, please?
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Based on that, you might think that we no longer need patent reform. But you'd be wrong. Patent trolls are regrouping and fighting back. Despite the big drop in patent lawsuits following the Alice ruling, patent trolls have come up with some new ideas, and have recently ramped up the filing of new trolling lawsuits at a rapid pace. And there have even been a few victories. While the dollar amounts were relatively low (especially compared to what was asked for), a troll who claimed to have a patent over Bluetooth 2.0 (despite "inventing" it years after Bluetooth 2.0 was on the market) was awarded $15.7 million, and the world's biggest patent troll, Intellectual Ventures actually won a case against Symantec (but got "only" $17 million).
But, earlier this week, there was the big one. A pure patent troll, Smartflash, with a collection of vague and broad patents (US 7,334,720, US 8,118,221 and 8,336,772 -- all for "data storage and access systems") has been awarded $532,900,000 from Apple, despite everyone happily admitting that Apple came up with the idea on its own. Here's the East Texas (of course) court jury form: And, yes, Apple could probably pay that off with the spare change falling off the edge of Tim Cook's desk, but that's not really the point. Rulings like this don't seem to create any value towards actual innovation. Smartflash once had a product, but it failed in the marketplace over a decade ago. Apple built a product that people actually wanted. Shouldn't we be rewarding the people who actually make the things people want, rather than subsidizing failure by the successful?
Smartflash's lawyer told Ars Technica's Joe Mullin that this ruling is actually a "great example of why the patent system exists." Actually, it's a great example of how screwed up the patent system is. The lawyer also spewed this load of bullshit: The thing about a patent is—let's say you have a university professor who spent two years researching something. It's irrelevant the effort that [an infringing company] spent to build it. It's the person who came up with it first. That's the way the Constitution, and the patent laws, are written. It's designed to cause people to spend money and time innovating. The patent office publishes it, so that advances the state of the art. In exchange for that, you get a property right. That's also not how the Constitution is written, though it is (unfortunately) how patent laws are written. But that's not a way to get people to spend "money and time innovating" because the actual innovators here -- Apple -- had to pay out to the guy who failed in innovating. Being "first" isn't innovating. Building the product someone wants is.
Either way, Apple will appeal this ruling (and those other rulings are likely to be appealed as well). And in the last few months, CAFC has actually been shown to have gotten the message about problems with its previous interpretation of patent law. But, in the meantime, we still need serious patent reform.
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Evidence Copy Of 'CitizenFour' Needs To Be 'Locked Up' Claims Plaintiff Suing Snowden, Filmmakers For Billions
The billion-dollar lawsuit against the producers of the Edward Snowden documentary CitizenFour rolls on, gradually unraveling as it does. Since we last covered the story (where the United States of America was added as an involuntary plaintiff -- a plaintiff since forcibly removed by the court), a lot has happened. For one, CitizenFour won an Oscar for Best Documentary, something that can't be sitting too well with Horace Edwards and his legal representation, which sought to have the film removed from consideration during the early days of this lawsuit.
The film has also been put into limited release and is streaming on HBO GO -- something that makes the following developments even crazier than they would be without these key details. Over at Vice, Jason Koebler has compiled a timeline of Edwards' (and his lawyer, Jean Lamfers') descent into paranoiac craziness.
Around January 23rd, Lamfers requests that a copy of the film not be allowed to be entered as evidence, what with it being full of highly-sensitive documents, espionage and whatever. She asserts that the movie contains so much classified info that it should only be reviewed in camera.
Then, no hell at all breaks loose, although in Lamfers' and Edwards' eyes, the espionapocalypse is nigh. Poitras and her attorney deliver a copy of the film to the Lamfers. She does not take it well.
"I said I did not want to take possession of it. This was because of my understanding the film contains classified information based on my having seen the film. I received no response to [my] request from defendants' counsel [to bar the film from being entered as evidence in court]," Lamfers wrote in an email sent to the judge presiding over the suit. "To the contrary defendant's counsel delivered a copy of the DVD to my office (which remains unopened and under lock and key)." That time when the normal process of discovery became a cheap knockoff of a le Carré novel.
From this point on, it's a long but fast slide downhill into amateur cloak-and-dagger awkwardness.
Two DVDs and a transcript of the film are entered as evidence because this is how that process works. Lamfers immediately files a motion asking for these to be sealed. The requested injunction would have no effect on the public release of the film, as the judge notes. "Given the inherently public nature of this film, the Court can discern absolutely no interest that could justify sealing this exhibit. Moreover, even if this DVD contained some sort of confidential information for which Plaintiff had an interest in preventing public disclosure, it has already been publicly filed…" [Side note: For reasons only comprehensible to Cryptome, a copy of the movie is being made available at the site, apparently under the mistaken belief that publicly-filed evidence automatically enters into the public domain. This perhaps-willful misunderstanding of both the court system and copyright law may be at least partially due to Cryptome's ongoing animosity towards anyone involved with the Snowden leaks for their refusal to make every single document Snowden gave them available in one massive dump -- and without redactions.]
Undeterred by the judge's logic, Lamfers proceeds to pester the court with "emergency" phone calls in hopes of sealing the Very Dangerous DVD. The judge reminds Lamfers that there are certain ways these things are handled during court proceedings and making "emergency" phone calls isn't one of them. Lamfers reads this rebuking email and decides the judge is suggesting she pester the court with "emergency" emails. Lamfers emails the judge, at 12:46 AM local time (according to the court record), chastising the court for endangering national security and not immediately responding to her call.
"This situation has placed the plaintiff in an untenable position regarding avoiding irreparable harm and obtaining appropriate relief sought on a serious issue in a timely manner," she wrote. "The denial of a sealing motion has furthered the irreparable harm and relief necessary to address such harm, among other things, by the continuing injury through repetition of classified, stolen information that reaches a broader constituency of extremists with each showing." Lamfers follows this up with a filed motion stating that the DVDs and transcript should be locked up under the legal precedent of "better safe than sorry." (No, I am not making this up. If I was, it would be more credible.)
Apparently further phone calls from Lamfers ensued, because the court is forced to formally -- via a court order -- tell her to knock it off. Plaintiffs counsel has been instructed that the Court prefers informal communications with the Court be made by e-mail, with copy to the opposing counsel. In the Court's experience, such informal communications are rarely necessary and are typically limited to coordinating hearing dates after the court has determined a hearing is necessary, or to address routine, procedural questions. The does not and will not entertain requests for relief in this manner and the Plaintiff shall refrain from this practice going forward. Well, we'll see if that works. Nothing else has so far. The docket shows things have remained eerily quiet over the past several days, but there's no telling how many phone calls and emails have made their way to Judge Julie Robinson's court in the meantime.
Of course, the lawsuit doesn't hinge on the misguided actions of the plaintiff and his counsel but on the actual merits of the case. However, even if Edwards' suit has its legal merits, he and his counsel appear to be the worst people to argue them.
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First, it's important to note that despite a 3-2 vote approving the Title II-based rules, we won't get to see the actual rules today. Despite claims by neutrality opponents that this is some secret cabal specific to net neutrality, the agency historically has never released rules it votes on (pdf) until well after the actual vote. It's a dumb restriction that's absolutely deadly to open discourse, but it's not unique to one party or to this specific issue. As for when we'll actually get to see and start dissecting the actual Title II rules ourselves, we may be waiting weeks -- in part, ironically, thanks to neutrality opponents on the Commission that spent the last few weeks professing to adore transparency:"In fact, it could take weeks before the final rules are published, the official said. That’s because the two Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly—who oppose net neutrality of any sort—have refused to submit basic edits on the order. The FCC will not release the text of the order until edits from the offices of all five commissioners are incorporated, including dissenting opinions. This could take a few weeks, depending how long the GOP commissioners refuse to provide edits on the new rules." Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Reilly voiced their opposition to the new Title II-based rules by not only voting against them, but by trying to bore meeting attendees to death. Pai, a former Verizon regulatory lawyer, offered a mammoth speech in which he ironically lamented "special interests" and claimed repeatedly to only be opposing net neutrality out of a concern for consumer wallets. O'Reilly tried to top Pai with an even longer, duller speech that continually insisted the FCC was trying to conduct a secret, regulatory takeover of the Internet. A visibly emotional Wheeler was having none of it:"This proposal has been described by one opponent as, quote, a secret plan to regulate the Internet. Nonsense. This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concepts: openness, expression, and an absence of gate keepers telling people what they can do, where they can go, and what they can think." While the net neutrality rules are incredibly important, the FCC's decision on municipal broadband may actually wind up being more meaningful over the long run. As we've noted for years, neutrality violations are really just a symptom of a lack of competition. Around twenty states now have laws in place -- usually based entirely on ISP/ALEC model legislation -- that prohibit towns and cities from improving their own broadband infrastructure -- even in instances where nobody else will. In some cases these rules even go so far as to prohibit towns and cities from striking public/private partnerships to improve broadband service.
Specifically, the FCC voted 3-2 to approve petitions by EPB Broadband in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Greenlight in Wilson, North Carolina. Those petitions requested that the FCC use its authority to ensure timely broadband deployment using "measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment." While some politicians have lamented the FCC's move as a trampling of states' rights, these same individuals ironically have had no problem with ISPs writing state telecom law that tramples those same rights. The justifications for these restrictions have never been coherently supported, and Wheeler was quick to highlight the hypocrisy of the position:"You can’t say you’re for broadband and then turn around and endorse limits on who can offer it. You can’t say, ‘I want to follow the explicit instructions of Congress to remove barriers to infrastructure investment,' but endorse barriers on infrastructure investment. You can’t say you’re for competition but deny local elected officials the right to offer competitive choices." Needless to say, this is likely only a new chapter in the debate over both issues, and you can expect ISP legal action on both fronts aimed at protecting the uncompetitive status quo. It also probably goes without saying that opponents of net neutrality and those who like it when AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are allowed to write protectionist telecom law aren't taking the day's events very well. One of the best freakouts of the day belonged to Hal Singer, author of that misleading study we've previously debunked claiming that you'd face $15 billion in new taxes under Title II: February 26, 2015 While some grieve the death of imaginary "innovation angels," thousands of others are celebrating a rare instance where Internet activism was able to overcome lobbying cash and push a government mountain toward doing the right thing.
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Despite Lack Of Evidence It Will Help, Australia Still Planning To Bring In Data Retention, Still Not Clear If It Could Be Used Against Copyright Infringement
Morris also said any changes to the way metadata is collected and used would have to be approved by the ombudsman.But that guarantee is less than watertight because of the following: The ombudsman, Colin Neave, has told Guardian Australia his office would not play a formal oversight role in the scheme and would give advice only at the attorney general’s discretion. The Greens senator Scott Ludlam, noted that the ombudsman's oversight provided only "weak" protection against function creep, and that the public could not therefore depend on Morris’s assurances that the scope of the scheme would not expand in the future.
Whether or not stored metadata will be used against copyright infringement may be in doubt, but it seems that the Australian government's intention to bring in data retention is not, despite the fact that when asked on multiple occasions for evidence the move was justified, it has been unable to provide any. That's not really surprising given the Danish experience that keeping this kind of data didn't help, and may actually have hindered police investigations. Sadly, it looks like Australia is determined to discover this fact the hard and expensive way.
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Paris, 26 February 2015 — Just as the Julia Reda report (GREEN/EFA - DE MEP) on copyright reform was being discussed this week in the European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI), another report was examined today by the Committee on Culture and Education (CULT). The latter concerns the reinforcement of the “Intellectual Property” rights, and contains a number of disturbing points regarding repression and enforcement that bring back to mind highly contested provisions from the ACTA agreement, and encourages an extra-legislative approach to fighting “commercial scale counterfeiting”. Citizens should get ready to mobilise on a large scale, both to support the positive evolutions of the Reda report, and to denounce the dangerous proposals pushed by the European Commission and some Member States, among which France.
The report prepared by Pavel Svoboda (PPE - CZ MEP) suggests the European Parliament adopts a resolution on a communication by the European Commission, published in July 2014 and titled “Towards A Renewed Consensus For The Protection Of Intellectual Property Rights: An EU Action Plan”. La Quadrature du Net already had reacted at the time of publication by criticizing the Commission for trying to reintroduce some of the controversial aspects of ACTA through the backdoor. Unfortunately, the Svoboda report validates the Commission's intentions and especially welcomes its intention to act against counterfeiting “on a commercial scale”, a term directly taken from ACTA and likely to seriously harm civil liberties given its vagueness.
The text also supports direct agreements between right-holders and intermediaries (such as advertising agencies) to fight infringing websites, which leads to bypassing legislative procedures and extra-judiciary Copyright enforcement. The influence of Member States such as France can be seen in such proposals. France, notably, is currently preparing tougher measures against commercial counterfeiting, with a complete lack of transparency. These measures may include a black-list of websites, designed to be used to pressure technical intermediaries into “self-regulation”.
Although indirectly validated by the recent report by Farida Shaheed 1, UN rapporteur on Cultural Rights, the positive and balanced Julia Reda report has been swamped by an aggressive smear campaign, led by MEP Jean-Marie Cavada (ALDE - FR MEP), whose interventions (fr) this week in JURI displayed incredible contempt for digital culture and its potential to give the means for cultural creation to the majority (greatest number, doesn't quite work). France is also using all its influence to try to block the reform and reorient the current works towards their repressive components.
The JURI Committee will vote on the report Reda in the coming weeks. It will be a decisive moment and La Quadrature du Net invites citizens to start telling their MEPs right now to defend a positive reform of copyright that makes cultural rights a reality for all.
These proposals are dangerous to civil liberties and reveal the European Commission's position's ambiguity on copyright reform. The heated debate around the Reda report seems to be used as a distraction to simultaneously push for the establishment of a new form of repressive policies.
“It is time to turn the page on a maximalist conception of copyright, which has in recent years mistreated both artists and public, in the name of preserving private interests. The Svoboda report is yet again an expression of such interests, but European citizens can act to influence and change things, in particular by supporting the proposals of the Reda report.”, said Lionel Maurel, member of the Strategic Orientation Council of La Quadrature du Net.
- 1. Farida Shaheed, UN rapporteur on cultural rights, presented a report to the intergovernmental organization, in which she advocates the establishment of a new balance between copyright and Human Rights, through the strengthening of exceptions and limitations to copyright. Just as in the Reda report, she brilliantly shows that this approach is compatible with respecting creators and improving their livelihood, as long as their rights are clearly differentiated from the interests of cultural industries. For more information, see this blogpost by Lionel Maurel (in French).
Despite Losing Money Year After Year, States Still Wondering How They Can Hand Out BIGGER Subsidies To Hollywood
Michigan has made some moves in the right direction after being burned so often by Hollywood and its fleeting, mercenary "interest" in its state. It paid out nearly $100 million in subsidies in 2011, but that number has dropped to $38 million for the coming year. Michigan House Minority leader Tim Greimel is pushing to bring that back up to $50 million, claiming that the program has been a great job creator -- an assertion that couldn't be farther from the truth. The state has funnelled $500 million in public funds to its fledgling film industry since 2008, and has almost nothing to show for it. While some jobs were created—temporary production crews, mostly—those were offset by the losses to the sectors of the economy that had to finance the film subsidy (i.e. Economics 101). In fact, over the past 15 years, job creation has remained almost flat. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, there were 1,537 in-state jobs in the film industry in 2001. As of 2013, there were 1,564. And in that particular year, the subsidized industry didn't create a single job. This boondoggle currently costs Michigan taxpayers $50 million a year and even the state’s own economic development agency (MEDC) reported this costly subsidy failed in 2013 to create one permanent job,” said Tricia Kinley, senior director of tax and regulatory reform at the chamber, in an press release. A study released in 2012 showed that for every Michigan dollar spent on subsidies, the film industry only generated $0.11 of in-state revenue. And yet, politicians like Greimel are still insisting the best way to make money is to spend money -- year after year after year.
The same issue is under discussion in Pennsylvania, another state suffering from budget overruns and the odd desire to throw away the better part of every subsidy dollar. Despite a $2.3 billion deficit, some legislators are thinking of increasing the state's film subsidies. Senate Bill 218, introduced by state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, would raise the cap to $125 million. It’s now $60 million a year.
Senate Bill 219, also by Fontana, would allow for “rollover” of tax credits approved for a project but not ultimately awarded. To push for these bills in the face of some heightened resistance, Fontana is trotting out some very suspicious numbers. The Department of Community and Economic Development -- an entity that sounds neutral but in reality administrates the film subsidies -- claims this handout has generated thousands of jobs and billions in revenue. Since the program’s inception, nearly $433.5 million in film production tax credits have been approved/awarded to film production companies under the program. These companies, in turn, have directly injected close to $1.8 billion into PA’s economy; generated an estimated $3.2 billion in total economic activity; and supported an estimated 21,700 jobs (based on 2014 IMPLAN multipliers). There are big problems with the Department's fuzzy math, as Rachel Martin at Watchdog.org points out. For one, it grabs unfinished and pending projects and mixes them in with completed projects to up the totals for both the number of jobs and the amount of money generated. Looking at the state's financial statements reveals something completely different. [F]rom fiscal 2007 to 2013, only $55 million in credits were awarded and 2,700 jobs were created. A more sobering assessment put together by the state's Independent Fiscal Office takes a lot of the irrational exuberance out of the Department's fluffed numbers. There's no "anything's possible" math to be found here. The report takes a very long and detailed look at the fiscal performance of the state's film subsidies and finds that -- much like other states -- handing out money to Hollywood doesn't make it rain locally. In terms of budgetary return, a 2013 report by the state Independent Fiscal Office, “Uncapping the Film Production Tax Credit: a Fiscal and Economic Analysis,” found the state got a return of 14 cents on the dollar for tax credits, from state taxes generated by the program. This pitiable return rate remains completely unchanged from the conclusions drawn by the Tax Foundation in 2010. Pennsylvania's film subsidies hand out dollar bills to film producers and then follow along behind them to catch any change that might fall out of their pockets. It's easy to sell subsidies to legislators, who are often more interested in the reflected glory of Hollywood projects than in safeguarding the funds they've been entrusted with.
The report also debunks the notion that film subsidies are job creators, much less wealth generators. Wages constitute more than 60 percent of production expenses receiving credit under the FPTC, and the economic effects of the FPTC depend heavily on the amount of credit-eligible earnings that leave the state. Nonresidents spend only a small share of their earnings in the state while working on a production, thus limiting the impact on the state economy… According to data analyzed by the IFO, approximately 70 percent of production-related wages were paid to nonresidents. The bottom line, according to the IFO? The net, fully phased-in fiscal impact for the additional credits authorized in FY 2013-14 is estimated to be -$46.5 million at the lower end… and -$93.1 million at the higher end of the range. Of course, if Pennsylvania decides to limit or dump its subsidies, it will soon discover that all the money it spent in the past has purchased nothing in the way of loyalty. As an example of the mobility and fickleness of the industry, consider the show “Banshee.” It filmed its first three seasons in North Carolina, but packed up after that state eliminated its tax credit program and replaced it with a much smaller grant program.
The show will now film in Pittsburgh, which has a built-in irony, given that the show’s setting has always been the fictional Banshee, Pennsylvania. Given the deficit the state is facing, you'd think legislators would be more than happy to drop the subsidy, if only to prevent the leakage of another $50-90 million. But the glamour of show business -- even if only admired from afar -- is tough to resist. It's easy to mistake the busy milling around of temp workers and nonresident stars for created jobs and positive economic impact. Throwing away 9/10ths of every dollar simply doesn't make sense, especially in a state already severely overdrawn. But nothing involving both Hollywood and accounting ever adds up.
The math is so severely screwed up that the original home of the stars is upping its subsidy ante in hopes of luring Hollywood back to Hollywood. Between 2004 and 2012, the California entertainment industry lost 16,137 film production jobs. During that same period the state of New York increased its entertainment employment by 25 percent. The Milken Institute attributes this shift in employment to the billions of dollars in robust incentives from competitive states like New York, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. If you can keep all of the money in one place, a state might turn a profit. But with productions scattered all over the US, California will just be another state throwing money at fickle, mostly uninterested productions. A short-term "bribe" never buys loyalty, especially not in the Land of 1,000 Backstabbings. The film industry is still very cutthroat and California's decades-long slide into legislative absurdity has made movie-making within its heavily-taxed confines very unattractive. (And then there's the labor stranglehold, but we'll let that go. For now...) The solution? More taxes! But this time mostly from the little people! The legislation will increase the annual allocation of state tax credits to $330 million per year, more than triple the current amount, starting with fiscal year 2015-16 and lasting for five years. [...]The legislation also provides extra incentives — beyond the current 20% — for visual effects and music scoring, as well as to producers who shoot in parts of the state outside of the Los Angeles region. The industry is -- and has been for years at this point -- pay-to-play. Unfortunately, it's the states' long-term residents who are paying the most, and reaping none of the benefits.
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Here's 140 Fully-Redacted Pages Explaining How Much Snowden's Leaks Have Harmed The Nation's Security
If the US intelligence committee is concerned about the status of "hearts and minds" in its ongoing NSA v. Snowden battle, it won't be winning anyone over with its latest response to a FOIA request.
Various representatives of the intelligence community have asserted (sometimes repeatedly) that Snowden's leaks have caused irreparable harm to intelligence-gathering efforts and placed the nation in "grave danger." But when given the chance to show the public how much damage has been done, it declares everything on the subject too sensitive to release. EVERYTHING.
Here's the Defense Intelligence Agency's appraisal of the current situation, as released to Vice News' Jason Leopold.
On the subject of compromised information:
How about intelligence sharing and cooperation?
At least we know that -- as of January 2014 -- there were four (4) "talking points."
Every single assessment, dating back to September 2013, is fully redacted. How does that help communicate the DIA's concerns about Snowden's leaks to the general public? How does that persuade anyone about the alleged severity of the situation?
From what's not on display here, it's safe to say the general public's perception of the American intelligence apparatus doesn't matter. Those who do matter are those already on the NSA's side, and then only those with the power to guide legislation towards favorable ends. It's safe to say that there are people in Washington DC who have seen at least a portion of these reports, but that small group contains no members of the general public.
A fully-redacted report may seem logical in the eyes of the intelligence community, which despite multiple leakers, still pretends its secrets will always be secret. Page after page of redaction shows it's really not interested in the transparency it keeps promising will make everything better. It doesn't want to give the public any more information than it already has and this mess of whiteout and black ink clearly and loudly states that it believes the public has no stake in the ongoing debate over mass surveillance.
It's a wordless insult, delivered under the pretense of "national security."
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US regulators are voting on whether to enshrine the openness of the internet, and the outcome is likely to influence policy worldwide.
Net neutrality is the principle of making sure that your internet service provider doesn’t make it easier for you to access one service over another – the Guardian over the Telegraph, say – or otherwise distorting your use of internet services just because someone dropped a few extra quid in their pocket. […]
We citizens, often derogated as “users” or “consumers”, have much to win in a global communication space. That is much more than simply a “neutral network”. Instead, it is a truly open, distributed network where everyone’s fundamental rights are respected. Not having our access providers acting as interested gatekeepers may be a step in the right direction, but it is by no means an end. Many other distortive factors remain and we will not have an open space until we get rid of them all.
Nvidia Actually Listens To Its Customers, Will Again Let Them Use The Expensive Hardware They Own As They See Fit
Perhaps a bigger deal was Nvidia's December decision to roll out mobile graphics card drivers that prevented paying customers from overclocking the cards they own. The ability for consumers to do as they see fit with their own hardware, Nvidia claimed at the time, was a bug in the company's driver software that needed to be removed for the safety of the consumer (read: Nvidia got tired of processing returns and calls from idiots who didn't understand things pushed to work harder get hotter than ever when in confined spaces).
The good news is that after being absolutely pummeled in the media for weeks, Nvidia has issued a statement in its forums saying that the company has had a change of heart and will reintroduce the "bug":"As you know, we are constantly tuning and optimizing the performance of your GeForce PC. We obsess over every possible optimization so that you can enjoy a perfectly stable machine that balances game, thermal, power, and acoustic performance. Still, many of you enjoy pushing the system even further with overclocking. Our recent driver update disabled overclocking on some GTX notebooks. We heard from many of you that you would like this feature enabled again. So, we will again be enabling overclocking in our upcoming driver release next month for those affected notebooks. If you are eager to regain this capability right away, you can also revert back to 344.75."While it's certainly great to see Nvidia listen to customer feedback, you'd think that after years of catering to the obsessively-anal gaming community, Nvidia would know better than to keep making the same PR mistakes. When you cater the lion's share of your business to technical enthusiasts capable of fact-checking your performance claims and PR fluff down to the millisecond, your marketing bullshit leash is notably shorter. It's not entirely clear why Nvidia needs to be reminded of this every few months, but you'd think this lesson would ultimately find its way to the company's central processor and take up permanent residence in system memory.
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One judge found out just how out of touch federal sentencing guidelines are when he did something out of the ordinary: he asked the jury's opinion. (via Simple Justice)
The crime was one of the most universally-loathed: the collection and distribution of child porn. And the perpetrator was completely unsympathetic. When government agents used cutting-edge software to hack into the hard drive of Ryan Collins’s computer, they found more than 1,500 sexually-explicit images of children, some of whom were younger than twelve. The agents also discovered file-sharing programs, indicating that Collins may have been distributing the pornography online.
Collins was unrepentant, even after a jury in Cleveland, Ohio convicted him of possessing, receiving, and distributing child pornography. The prosecutors sought the statutory maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment, and the federal sentencing guidelines would have allowed a term of as long as 27 years. Even when faced with someone as apparently damnable as Ryan Collins, the jury's suggested sentence was lower than the sentencing guidelines called for. Far lower. Before dismissing the jury, [Judge Gwin] asked each member what they thought would be an appropriate sentence for someone who had downloaded child pornography. According to Gwin, the average of the sentences they recommended was only 14 months. This admittedly-small sampling shows that mandatory sentencing guidelines do not match up -- at all -- with what the public believes to be fair and just. These guidelines are supposedly written on behalf of the general public, with Congress and other government bodies acting to "protect" us from drug dealers, sex offenders, hackers, etc. by locking them away for extended periods of time. But it appears the public may still feel "protected" without putting child porn enthusiasts behind bars for a quarter of a century.
And it's not just Judge Gwin's peculiar query -- although he appears to be the first to make this line of questioning public. Other judges have heard similar answers from jury members, behind the scenes.
Iowa district court judge Mark W. Bennett: "Every time I ever went back in the jury room and asked the jurors to write down what they thought would be an appropriate sentence -- every time – even here, in one of the most conservative parts of Iowa, where we haven't had a 'not guilty' verdict in seven or eight years – they would recommend a sentence way below the guidelines sentence." Why wouldn't judges ask the jury's opinion on sentencing? After all, it's supposedly composed of the accused's "peers." They're entrusted with determining guilt or innocence, but somehow can't be trusted to offer up a worthwhile opinion as to the "reasonableness" of the sentence recommended by Congress? Those intimately familiar with the details of the case should at least be trusted to give their view on the ensuing sentence. Their view is no less informed than that of their representatives, who mostly deal with criminals and the criminal justice system in the abstract -- and are often far more inclined to appease the prosecutorial half of the equation than appear to be "soft on crime."
Judge Gwin's informal jury straw poll shows that the word "justice" -- in the context of mandatory sentencing guidelines -- is nothing more than a prosecutorial term of art, completely removed from the actual definition of the word. All those people being sentenced to decades in prison under the pretense that it’s what society wants and needs is revealed, as Judge Bennett says, as baloney. While the Sentencing Commission won’t heed the defense lawyer perspective, perhaps a few federal judges making this point clear might carry sufficient weight to end the needless destruction of a life or two under the draconian guidelines. For the rest, maybe they will start taking the admonition of § 3553(a), “sufficient, but not greater than necessary.” seriously. As for Judge Gwin, he did what he could in response to this gaping disparity by sentencing Collins to the minimum allowed under the guidelines -- five years, or roughly four years longer than the jury felt was reasonable or just. The prosecution had recommended the maximum -- 27 years -- a number so far removed from the public's sense of justice it may as well have been a number pulled out of thin air by a government lawyer who had stumbled into the wrong courtroom.
We're imprisoning people at an alarming rate in this country, and the nation's unofficial hobby shows no sign of slowing. And we're doing it for far longer than the public itself feels is necessary. We're destroying lives by taking criminals out of circulation for decades at a time, based on little more than Congressional appeasement of professional moral panickers and the law enforcement officials who love them. The fact that so many of our prisons are now run by private corporations makes the situation worse, because nothing pays better -- or more consistently -- than cell after cell of long-term "tenants."
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