My request of my state legislators: a strong anti-SLAPP statute

This week’s wins by Democrats in Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate will relegate Republicans to minority status in Richmond and open up progressive possibilities that have been stalled for decades.

But while I look forward to seeing my state pass overdue gun-control legislation, allow localities to scrap Confederate memorials, ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and promote renewable energy instead of coddling the coal industry, I won’t be writing my state delegate and senator about those issues.

Instead, I will ask them to enact a strong anti-SLAPP statute.

SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” which is a concise way of saying “jerks filing defamation lawsuits to make their critics shut up or go bankrupt.” My friend Mike Masnick got hit with one in 2017 for writing at length and with gusto on his Techdirt blog that Cambridge, Mass.-based computer scientist Shiva Ayyadurai did not invent e-mail as he’d claimed.

Ayyadurai–whom independent reports have confirmed did not invent e-mail–responded to Masnick’s exercise of his First Amendment rights by having Gawker-killing lawyer Charles Harder file a $15 million defamation lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Boston.

Judge Dennis Saylor dismissed Ayyadurai’s defamation claims, but the suit didn’t get settled for another 18 expensive months–and while Masnick didn’t have to pay a cent to Ayyadurai, he did have to pay his lawyers. He’s described the experience as “harrowing,” and the risk of the same thing happening to me constitutes a low-level source of existential dread.

Strong anti-SLAPP statutes such as those in California and Washington, D.C., let defendants short-circuit this attack by filing a motion to dismiss that stops the potentially expensive process of discovery and requires action within weeks. Virginia’s anti-SLAPP law starts with the right principles but does not include those protections.

Amending it to allow journalists, activists and other citizens voicing opinions to quash attempts to litigate them into bankruptcy would defend free speech in one of the places where it started. And it shouldn’t have to be a partisan issue: The last attempt to pass a federal anti-SLAPP statute, the SPEAK FREE Act, came from a Texas Republican, then-Rep. Blake Farenthold, in 2015.

That bill drew support from liberals and conservative groups before dying in a subcommittee, much like too many good ideas have in Richmond over the past 25 years. We ought to be able to do better now.

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Weekly output: Black Hat hacks and security fixes, T-Mobile news, self-driving-car security, voting-machine security, fear of robots

Most of this week’s copy was reported and written the previous week at the Black Hat security conference in Vegas. Considering my own frequently-elastic interpretations of deadlines, I can’t complain about editors with their own crowded calendars taking a day or two to give their full attention to my own work.

8/13/2018: Hacks of Macs, Microsoft Cortana are two more reasons why you should install updates, USA Today

I used this column to synthesize my notes from a few different Black Hat talks that intersected to yield the same lesson: You are safer overall if you install security fixes for your apps and devices when they arrive instead of playing IT department and deciding which ones should wait.

8/13/2018: What could T-Mobile uncap for its next Un-carrier news?, Fierce Wireless

I wrote this curtain-raiser for T-Mobile’s Wednesday announcement twice when a late reply from one analyst and my tardy queries to others led me to file a 1.0 version that would make it into Fierce’s mid-day newsletter. The one you can read now includes quotes from those additional experts–none correctly forecasting that T-Mobile would make its next big push better customer service.

8/13/2018: How two car hackers plan to keep GM’s self-driving cars safe, Yahoo Finance

The single most entertaining talk at Black Hat was this presentation from Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek. You may remember them as the guys who hacked a Jeep Cherokee in 2015 to seize control of it with Wired writer Andy Greenberg at the wheel. The two now work for the GM subsidiary Cruise Automation, and at Black Hat they explained how they plan to stop the likes of them from remotely exploiting Cruise’s fleet of self-driving vehicles–in part by removing such attack surfaces as Bluetooth wireless and the FM radio.

8/14/2018: There’s more to election integrity than secure voting machines, The Parallax

Another Black Hat talk gave me one more chance to take a whack at the WinVote voting machines that infested polling places across Virginia–mine included–for a decade. This time around, I checked back with a couple of the experts I’d consulted for earlier coverage of electronic voting machines and learned that both wished they’d paid more attention before to such separate election-integrity issues as voter registration systems.

8/15/2018: Robot workers or human employees, Al Jazeera

I got a request from my usual guy in AJ’s D.C. bureau asking if I could talk about the prospect of robots taking human jobs–both in the private and defense sectors. I was in Boston at the time visiting family, but that proved to be no problem. Instead of them sending a car to my house to take me to their D.C. studios, they ran me over to a studio in downtown Boston, where I did my talking-head duty (overdubbed live into Arabic) wearing one of my brother’s jackets. Since I knew I’d only appear on camera from the torso up, I didn’t bother changing out of the shorts and sandals I’d put on that morning.