I voted. You should too. Will this help?

 

(Why? See this post from 2012. Sample quote: “Because if you don’t vote, you invite the stupidest voter in your precinct to cast a ballot on your behalf.”)

A modest proposal: How Google can weigh “right to be forgotten” requests

I took part in a panel discussion of the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” privacy directive earlier today, and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to one of the thornier aspects of that rule: How is any one company, even one with the resources of Google, going to adjudicate all of those requests?

Google RtbF searchThat’s turned out to be a much bigger problem than I’d feared when I covered this issue in a Yahoo Tech column in May. At the end of July, Google reported that it had received more than 91,000 requests from EU citizens asking to have particular links not shown in response to searches for their names. And many were sketchy in a way that wasn’t immediately obvious:

… we may not become aware of relevant context that would speak in favour of preserving the accessibility of a search result. An example would be a request to remove an old article about a person being convicted of a number of crimes in their teenage years, which omits that the old article has its relevance renewed due to a recent article about that person being convicted for similar crimes as an adult. Or a requester may not disclose a role they play in public life, for which their previous reported activities or political positions are highly relevant.

At the panel, I suggested there was only one fair way to resolve this, and I’ll expand on it here.

It’s clear that Google will have to research each “RtbF” request carefully to see if it falls under the EU’s exceptions for people in public life or whose activities would otherwise involve the public’s right to know. The history of search-engine abuse shows you can’t count on everybody to act ethically about their image online–and when that kind of manipulation goes uncaught by unscrupulous individuals, innocent people suffer.

But that’s not enough. Lest Google inadvertently hide material from somebody about to launch a business or a political campaign, it would be wise to check for evidence of any upcoming ventures into the public sphere by an individual. The history of “RtbF” abuse so far leaves little other choice.

EU citizens, in turn, deserve a timely response to their right-to-be-forgotten queries. The simplest way to do that for a company with Google’s search traffic and computing capabilities would be to do some advance work: It could merge its own records with other sources to determine which EU citizens clearly qualify as being in public life, which ones rank as private citizens and which ones seem likely to cross that threshold either way. To avoid unduly burdening smaller search sites also subject to the “right to be forgotten” directive, Google could allow them access to these records as well.

And so Google would come to protect the privacy of EU citizens by maintaining a massive database about them.

An extreme solution for a problem that can be solved by easier, simpler means in the real world? Yes, that’s my point.

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Don’t blame this nonsense on “Washington” or “Congress”

Most of the federal government shut down at midnight, and that sucks for multiple reasons. (Beyond the basic breakdown in democratic government on display, the shutdown has cut off a few friends from their next paychecks.) But spare me the ritual outrage over the evils of “Washington” or “Congress.”

Capitol stop-sign barrierThe former is not just a political abstraction but a city of 632,323 people. Most of the residents of the District of Columbia have nothing to do with Congress, and none have voting representation there.

As for the latter, there’s a great deal to dislike in the deliberative body that meets and occasionally gets actual work done a few blocks south of Union Station. But it’s an epic feat of false equivalency to blame the shutdown on some bipartisan failure to cooperate.

One part of one party in one house of Congress made it happen. That segment of House Republicans deeply loathes the Affordable Care Act (would that all these advocates of individual liberty were also at the barricades over the NSA’s subversion of the Fourth Amendment), have already staged dozens of stunt votes against it, and yesterday led the rest of the House GOP to hold up the entire federal budget over a policy that won a mandate in two presidential elections and survived the Supreme Court’s scrutiny.

That won’t work, on account of the simple math of a Democratic majority in the Senate and the absence of a veto-proof Republican majority in the House. That’s normally a cue to compromise. So is the political reality that every minute that ACA insurance signups continue in overwhelming numbers–oh, yes, that’s one thing the government shutdown didn’t stop–Obamacare collects more constituents.

In days or weeks, I trust that enough of the House will realize this–hopefully before the true  believers there shove the country into default. In the meantime, don’t mistake those in the grip of a preexisting condition some have diagnosed as Obamacare Derangement Syndrome for the entirety of Congress, and please leave the good city of Washington right out of this.

Potential exposure is not forced exposure

One of the foremost foes of intellectual-property extortion is shutting down. Groklaw founder and editor Pamela Jones announced this morning in a post, titled “Forced Exposure,” that the possibility of NSA surveillance of her e-mail means she can’t trust e-mail as a means of collaborative input, and therefore the blog must end.

Groklaw signoffThey tell us that if you send or receive an email from outside the US, it will be read. If it’s encrypted, they keep it for five years, presumably in the hopes of tech advancing to be able to decrypt it against your will and without your knowledge. Groklaw has readers all over the world.

This news bothers me deeply–because Groklaw has provided an immense public service in collecting and presenting evidence of grotesque IP abuse such as the SCO Group’s prolonged and mendacious attempt to claim copyright over code in the Linux operating system, and because I don’t like finding fault with somebody whose work I and so many other people admire.

But look: Potential exposure is not forced exposure. Or if it is, it’s always been there. Yes, the NSA might be reading my e-mail and PJ’s. But keyloggers planted by the Russian mob might be reading it too. The NSA might have the ability to crack PGP encryption in five years–or they could have had it all along and haven’t told us, or they could decide to ignore that five-year timeline. Your own computer might be airtight, but what about the machines of all your correspondents? For that matter, how can you be sure you’ve maintained your privacy offline without going into Kaczysnki-esque seclusion?

If your reaction to those possibilities is to declare that all is lost and that you should “get off the Internet to the degree that it’s possible,” as PJ wrote in this morning’s post, then how are you not tumbling into the same existential fear that the defenders of the surveillance state sometimes seem to think is the right and proper state of a compliant citizenry?

I don’t know PJ (friends whose judgment I trust do and profess a deep respect for her) and only have a vague notion of what her life has been like running Groklaw (it’s entailed being the target of an unhealthy dose of character assassination). But with my limited knowledge I can’t endorse her stance. I wish she’d at least found somebody else to run the site: While we’re having this hypothetical discussion, very real copyright and patent extortion is going on, and Groklaw was doing a damn good job of exposing it.

Qualms Over QAM (2012 CEA re-post)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up or shed light on current issues. This one ran on Feb. 14, 2012;  the AllVid effort I mentioned at the end has gone nowhere since, but in October, the Federal Communications Commission voted to allow QAM encryption–with results that I’ll be discussing in this weekend’s USA Today column.)

This month’s telecom-policy squabble covers a TV technology that nobody seems to love–if they even know it exists.

The system in question goes by the name QAM, short for “quadrature amplitude modulation,” and it’s the only way to tune into digital cable without a box. But while “cable-ready” sets dealt fairly well with even premium channels in the mid 1990s, QAM’s horizons are far more limited.

Coax cableYou can’t count on QAM providing more than the “basic tier” of local broadcast stations plus public, educational and government channels. Forget ESPN or even CNN; to get those without a cable box, you need a CableCard-compliant device–which in practice means either a TiVo digital video recorder or one of a few add-on tuners for computers.

But it’s worse than that: As readers have testified and I’ve seen myself, QAM reception often presents a puzzling picture of your cable choices. Channels can appear under seemingly random numbers–and then move to new ones or disappear outright.

So the proposal now before the Federal Communications Commission to allow cable operators to encrypt QAM signals on all-digital networks–simplifying their systems while cutting off existing QAM hardware–might not seem like anything worth fussing over.

And yet for a small minority of users, QAM does work. Some use it on second or third sets (PDF); some resorted to basic-tier cable after failing to get adequate over-the-air digital-TV reception; some employ it to use computers as digital video recorders. And these subscribers don’t want it to go away.

How many people are we talking about? The Web-media-receiver vendor Boxee says that 40 percent of buyers of its new Boxee Live TV device use QAM to receive cable TV through that add-on. You could dismiss that as a figment of a small sample size; that $49 add-on has only been on sale since January. But a more established computer-video vendor, Hauppauge Computer Works, also cited 40 percent QAM usage (PDF) among buyers of its PC peripherals.

The Consumer Electronics Association has no stats for this segment of the market.

CEA has joined those manufacturers in their opposition to QAM encryption, writing in a November filing (PDF) that the FCC should decline this request unless it also moves forward on other, long-standing proposals to open up the market for TV hardware (more on that in a moment).

The cable companies’ arguments, as related over a call Friday with representatives of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, fall into three categories:

• Cable operators’ own figures suggest that almost nobody relies on QAM. Cablevision, which obtained a waiver from the FCC to start encrypting QAM after converting to all-digital service in New York, N.Y., reported that “less than 0.1 percent of subscribers” (PDF) requested a free set-top box or CableCard to decode it.

• Encryption will allow remote activation and deactivation, without sending a technician on a truck to somebody’s house. (NCTA realizes that people don’t like sitting through four-hour service windows.)

• Encryption will also stop people from tuning into basic-tier cable without paying. RCN, among other cable operators, reports (PDF) this is a growing problem among Internet-only subscribers.

It’s important to note that the the cable operators, while maybe not everyone’s favorite companies, have been way ahead of satellite vendors in the interoperability game. DirecTV users who wanted to plug in a TiVo could only wait for that service to ship its own “DirecTiVo” model; that recently arrived, years late, to complaints over its aged interface.

Meanwhile, CableCard finally seems to work as advertised–even if that’s happened too late for some pioneering CableCard vendors. Once-prominent TiVo rival Moxi Digital gave up the fight two weeks ago when its new owner, ARRIS Group, announced that it would only sell through cable operators.

There’s been a proposal afoot, against opposition from cable, to set a comprehensive pay-TV standard called “AllVid” that would work not just for cable but also satellite and fiber-optic services. It would allow every screen in a home network to tie into a simple gateway adapter–the video equivalent of the wireless router that links a cable modem and a laptop.

That’s what CEA has been asking for in return for giving up clear QAM. Boxee could also live with this tradeoff, said spokesman Andrew Kippen; Hauppauge CEO Ken Plotkin, however, was not to ready to make that deal.

Me, I think I could live with that bargain–if it included an assurance that current QAM users who will have to tolerate a new box and remote control won’t have to pay extra for them. (If encrypting QAM harms so few people and yields as many benefits as cable operators say, they should be able to afford subsidizing that hardware.)

But this is an easy thing for me to say, since I switched to over-the-air and Internet broadcasts years ago. If you pay for cable today, I’d rather know your opinion: Would you trade simple reception of entry-level cable today for easy access to a full lineup of channels a few years from now?

Overlooked E-Book Chapter: DRM Makes Monopolies (2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran on April 17, 2012; since then, sci-fi publisher Tor Books–a subsidiary of the Macmillan publishing conglomerate–has gone DRM-free, but most of the industry has yet to take that step.)

Even if you’ve been following the e-books story for the past five years, it can be hard to define the heroes and villains of that plot.

First Amazon was the innovator, liberating us from paper with its Kindle. Then Apple was going to upend things with the iPad’s iBooks app and store. Now the Department of Justice says that the real problem is an unholy union of the publishers and Apple.

E-book reader appsIn an antitrust lawsuit announced last Wednesday, the DoJ charged Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin Group and Apple with conspiring to fix prices, to the disadvantage of consumers and Amazon.

The first three publishers have already agreed to a settlement that will block “most-favored nation” clauses that prevent e-book stores from discounting titles while allowing them to place other limits on the sale of their work. Meanwhile, Macmillan, Penguin and Apple continue to fight the suit.

It’s an immensely complicated issue, colored to a large degree by who you think is more evil. Is the problem the big publishers targeted by the DoJ’s suit, who allegedly colluded over dinners in expensive Manhattan restaurants? Or is it the gigantic Seattle retailer, which both controls a huge share of e-book sales and has been getting into the publishing business itself?

(A CEA press release posits a third foe, quoting association president Gary Shapiro calling the lawsuit “another sad milestone in our government’s war on American companies.”)

But the basic issue at stake here is not complex: ensuring vigorous competition in e-books that eliminates the need for court battles and consent decrees. And in that context, you can’t ignore how publishers have not just given Amazon a tool to build a monopoly but required its use.

This is the “digital rights management” restrictions required by publishers on e-book titles sold through all of the major online outlets–not just Amazon’s Kindle Store but also Barnes & Noble’s Nook store and Apple’s iBookstore.

DRM is supposed to stop unauthorized copying and sharing by making a copyrighted work playable, readable or visible only on authorized products. It’s not always a huge annoyance: DVDs and Blu-ray discs employ standardized–if easily circumvented–DRM that doesn’t limit you to player hardware or software specifically approved by a movie studio.

But in the world of digital downloads, DRM usually locks the “buyer” of a DRMed item into using only one vendor’s hardware or software.

(The scare quotes are necessary because the license agreements for many DRMed items stipulate that you don’t actually own those downloads.)

If you want to keep your future hardware and software options open, this favors doing business with the e-book store that offers the most DRM-compliant reading options.

That store, by a hardcover-thick margin, is Amazon. Beyond its growing family of Kindle reader devices, including last year’s Kindle Fire tablet, it also ships reader apps for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (via a “Cloud Reader” Web app) iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry and even HP’s now-abandoned webOS.

Barnes & Noble, by contrast, only provides Nook reader apps for iOS, Android, Windows and OS X. And Apple limits iBooks to its iOS devices.

Considering that evidence, where do you think somebody ought to shop?

So long as DRM stays part of the plot, every Kindle reader sold, every Kindle app installed and every Kindle title purchased will strengthen Amazon’s hand.

DRM can’t solve this problem, any more than any form of DRM tolerable to home users can abolish copyright infringement. But ditching it would erase the equation. If you could buy an e-book in a standard format that, like an MP3 music file, would be playable on current and imaginable future hardware, it wouldn’t matter which store sold it. There would be no lock-in; each sale would would not weigh so heavily on the next.

(As I wrote last spring, not having to worry about DRM-induced obsolescence would also vastly increase the odds of me buying e-books at all.)

The music industry figured this out years ago. Giving up on the DRM dream enabled a thriving competition between Apple, Amazon and other vendors of digital downloads, with no lock-in beyond the relative difficulty of syncing music from iTunes to a non-Apple device.

Other observers of the e-book business have been making the same call on personal blogs and on tech-news sites. One publisher, Hachette, may even be paying attention, as PaidContent reporter Laura Hazard Owen wrote last month.

But in much traditional-media coverage of digital content, DRM remains the lock that dare not speak its name. You can read a thousand-word piece about the slow market for movie downloads that notes a “lack of interoperability” without ever explaining why–or even using that three-letter abbreviation. Many of last week’s stories about Amazon, Apple and book publishers miss this point just as badly. And if we can’t properly identify this issue, we certainly can’t fix it.

DMCA exemptions: requesting permission to innovate (2011 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran Dec. 16, 2011; it may help explain where the last few months of headlines about phone unlocking came from.)

One of the stranger rituals of U.S. tech policy is now unfolding in Washington: the triennial reassessment of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “anti-circumvention” rules.

In this exercise, the Librarian of Congress considers granting exemptions to the DMCA’s ban on picking digital or electronic locks that control access to copyrighted works. The DMCA mandates this review because of the possibility–in retrospect, certainty–of companies abusing their immunity from customer interference with “digital rights management” systems to limit non-infringing uses.

DMCA exemption rulemakingYou may prefer to call this a “requesting permission to innovate” ritual.

In four earlier rounds of exemption proceedings–in 200020032006 and last year–Librarian James H. Billington has inconsistently expanded the range of DMCA exemptions, sometimes taking away earlier permissions.

He legalized hacking into Web-filtering software to inspect lists of blocked sites the first two times but didn’t renew that in 2006. The exemption granted in 2000 for defeating broken DRM mechanisms that wrongly deny access was then narrowed to a loophole for breaking obsolete or malfunctioning “dongle” hardware keys. (A related exemption, covering systems that require presenting an original copy of a program or game in a storage format that has become obsolete, arrived in 2003 but was not renewed in 2010.)

E-book customers won the right in 2003 to hack their DRM if it prevented the use of screen-reader accessibility software and have kept it since, but no equivalent accessibility exemption has been granted for movie viewers. And yet in 2010, the Librarian legalized ripping “protected” DVDs for fair-use criticism and commentary purposes, something still not allowed for DRMed e-books or music.

2006′s exemptions let you unlock a phone to use on a competing network, but 2010′s narrowed that to used phones. But last year’s proceeding also granted the right to jailbreak a phone to install the software of your choice–a big development for iPhone users.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the 20 comments submitted in this year’s proceeding focus on preserving prior gains or ironing out inconsistencies.

For example, a group called the Library Copyright Alliance only wants to renew 2010′s DVD-ripping exemption, while the University of Michigan’s library seeks to have its protected class of students widened beyond those in “film and media studies.”

(Those links and all that follow point to PDF files.)

Public Knowledge wants to see the current DVD rule extended to cover “space shifting” to other formats, noting the increasing number of laptops without DVD drives.

A coalition of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Gallaudet University and the Participatory Culture Foundation propose granting a broader exemption to make movie downloads, streams and discs accessible to those with hearing or sight impairments.

A group led by the International Documentary Association proposes to expand the same provision to cover Blu-ray discs and movie downloads and streams so that future filmmakers can incorporate fair-use excerpts in documentary or fictional works. A set of professors at the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere make the same request for educational use and are echoed by the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab.

The American Council of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind, meanwhile, want to maintain an exemption for making e-books accessible to readers with limited vision. The Open Book Alliance wants another for removing DRM from books that are already in the public domain.

Mobile devices figure in over a quarter of these submissions. Small wireless firms MetroPCS CommunicationsYoughiogheny Communications and a trade group called RCA – the Competitive Carriers Association all want to renew and expand 2010′s phone-unlocking exemption to cover mobile devices in general, not just phones. Consumers Union concurs.

The Software Freedom Law Center also favors allowing device owners to install the operating system of their choice. It also wants to permit desktop users to bypass any mandatory app stores–although neither Windows nor Mac OS X impose that restriction today.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation sent in an all-of-the-above brief backing exemptions for jailbreaking phones, tablets and video-game consoles and another set for unlocking DVDs, downloads and streams to extract fair-use clips.

Four submissions from individuals request blanket waivers on circumvention for personal use; a fifth seeks one for the narrow category of DRMed e-books in the Mobipocket format Amazon no longer supports on its Kindle readers.

We’ll have to wait until sometime in February to see which of these requests get a favorable hearing, or if any of 2010′s exemptions will disappear. That’s plenty of time to contemplate a broader question: If a far-reaching provision of a law carries such a high risk of collateral damage that an unelected official must drill holes into it every three years–and those holes seem to get bigger over time–shouldn’t we think about rebooting that rule?