Friday, September 29, 2006

Tony Blair's barcode mustache

Guardian readers will have already seen it but the NO2ID folks have been having a go at Tony Blair again.

"Tony Blair is not Hitler. But he is building the tools of totalitarianism. The identity scheme he is pushing is more controlling than any Europe has seen before. He can give no guarantee how it may be used in his lifetime, let alone the lifetimes of our children.

Some practical freedoms - personal privacy, confidentiality, anonymity, going about our business without need for official permit - are so familiar to us that they are unnoticed, like breathing. This ID scheme will choke them. It seeks to replace the trust in our society with formal validation by officials.

Numbered, indexed and tagged, your identity subject to approval, the simplest things in life will no longer be under your control. Tony may have faith in the future, but who else will have that power? In 10 years? In 20? In what back room?"

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Drug companies lobby ministers

The Guardian has a front page story today on pharmaceutical companies lobbying of ministers both to encourage fast track approval of their drugs through the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) assessment process and to complain that NICE were not very nice in turning down, for example, Pfizer's Alzheimer's drug on the grounds that it was no more effective than existing treatments and too expensive. The top executives have also been hinting that unless the UK steps in line they might take their business elsewhere.

This is absolutely standard practice for the big pharmacuetical sector, lest anyone be too shocked. If you are interested in the activities of pharmaceutical companies then I'd highly recommend Information Feudalism by Peter Drahos and The Truth About Drug Companies by Marcia Angell. In business the key perspective to understand is that concerned with maximising shareholder value. The means to that end, sadly, are somewhat incidental.

Summary judgement v Streamcast in Grokster

The US District Court for the Central District of California has just issued a summary judgement holding Streamcast liable for inducement of copyright infringement in the Grokster case. On page 30 of the judgement:

"Plaintiffs need not prove that Streamcast undertook specific actions, beyond product distribution, that caused specific acts of infringement. Instead Plaintiffs need only prove that Streamcast distributed the product with intent to encourage infringement."

Which is pretty much what the Supreme Court said in Grokster. The District Court go on to say Streamcast technology was "used overwhelmingly for infringement" and their
  • targetting of Napster users
  • technical assistance to users with copyright infringing content (like Seinfeld and the Matrix)
  • active steps in developing the technology to enable infringing use (e.g. in beta testing the software they identified insignificant availabilty of infringing content as a problem)
  • their business model relied on income from infringing use
  • lack of effort to prevent infringing use
constituted clear evidence of intent to encourage infringement.

Game set and match to the entertainment industry, which following the Supreme Court's ruling in Grokster last year was pretty much inevitable.

Thanks to Mark Lemley on the Cyberprofs listserv for the copy of the judgement. It will no doubt be widely available on the Net soon, if it is not already there.

Update: The EFF have a link to the judgement

Italian wiretapping

The latest EDRI-gram recommends reading the British Academy's recent copyright report and has some more information on the Italian wiretapping scandal

"The chaotic way in which the public authorities have dealt with the situation is underlined in several articles that show the state institutions have reacted very late and only when their leaders' personal interests might have been at stake.

Andrea Monti from EDRI-member ALCEI has correctly underlined that the Italian Data Protection Commission, which should have controlled this market has only "succeeded" in sending a press release. He also points out that, contrary to the most spread common opinions that the "hackers", "pirates" and "direct marketing multinational companies" are those targeting our personal data, the authors of the biggest problems related to the misuse of information are actually insiders, not very technical, such as members of the Police and Information Services."

Makes you wonder about the parallels with the NSA domestic spying programme authorised by president Bush. The problem is not the huge majority of decent public servants working for these agencies but the few intent on corrupting or exploiting the system for their own nefarious ends. Ed Felten makes the same point in relation to Diebold's criticism of his paper pointing out a Diebold evoting machine is insecure. In addition Diebold have been complaining that it is unfair to claim their machines are insecure since they are never networked, yet the user manual for the machines tested by Felten and co. state that "Results [of elections] are transferred are [sic] by means of a TCP/IP network connection, either directly, by modem or ethernet." And as Felten points out anyway:

"Diebold’s insistence that the voting machines cannot be networked is especially odd given that the conclusions in our report don’t rely in any way on the use of networking — even if Diebold’s no-networking claim were true, it would be irrelevant."

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Groklaw: the british library gets it on drm

Regular readers will remember Pamela Jones anger at the British Libary's adoption of restrictive policies and Microsoft drm in their deployment of information systems to handle electronic materials. She's now changed her mind about their perspective on drm because of their recently issued IP manifesto (pdf). The Library's press release gives a neat summary. Pamela Jones says:

"I wish to say thank you to the British Library for issuing this document.

The IP Manifesto's key recommendations include, quoting from the press release:
* Existing limitations and exceptions to copyright law should be extended to encompass unambiguously the digital environment;

* Licenses providing access to digital material should not undermine longstanding limitations and exceptions such as ‘fair dealing';

* The right to copy material for preservation purposes – a core duty of all national libraries – should be extended to all copyrightable works;

* The copyright term for sound recordings should not be extended without empirical evidence of the benefits and due consideration of the needs of society as a whole;

* The US model for dealing with ‘orphan works' should be considered for the UK;

* The length of copyright term for unpublished works should be brought into line with other terms (ie: life plus 70 years).

In other words, copyright law should not change in the digital environment, and if it doesn't change, then fair dealing and fair use are just as applicable there. Here's the press release. This sentence says it all: "Licenses providing access to digital material should not undermine longstanding limitations and exceptions such as ‘fair dealing.'" And here's another angle to the story.

I am so thrilled, I can't even express myself."

I said at the time of her original essay that she was probably being a little harsh on the good folks at the British Library, since their director, Clive Field, had already publicly expressed his concerns about drm potentially causing digital lockdown of libaries; and though this is an excellent initiative from them it won't make the issues surrounding the adoption of the Microsoft drm at the Library go away. The reality of the day to day deployment and managing of complex information systems tends to be far removed from well intended high level policies and it is important that things are right at the operational level as well as the policy level. The very nature of the institution, however, means that it is crammed full of dedicated people who will, hopefully, tip the balance in terms of killing off their operational drm strictures in the longer term.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Simulating terrorism

There's an interesting article in this month's Spectrum on using computer simulations to help model or predict terrorist behaviour.

"Different forms of the software are aimed at military officials, who are already using such programs to train officers and troops, and at intelligence analysts, who are finding that the shadowy, shifting organizations they must study are so complex and unstable that keeping track of all the variables without computer help is increasingly unrealistic. The hope is that one day an intelligence analyst sitting at a desk thousands of miles from Jakarta or Jalalabad will be able to make preternaturally good guesses about who is likely to commit violent acts, and to advise policy-makers on specific ways to prevent an attack...

Such work, concentrated in the United States and sustained by tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in funding by various intelligence organizations, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, points to a new era in training and intelligence analysis. The experts developing these systems are reticent about exactly how their programs are being used. But outside observers say it is a good bet that software designed to identify the critical people in a terrorist organization will be used—if it hasn’t been already—to draw up lists that prioritize which people should be killed or captured so as to do maximum damage to the organization.

That worries some experts, who caution that even when the models are fed by the best available intelligence, they should never be trusted to determine, by themselves, whether someone should live or die. “A simulation is by its nature speculative, and you don’t go out and kill people based on speculation,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, in Washington, D.C...

50 percent of U.S. analysts have less than five years’ experience, according to some estimates. And yet despite all the turnover, Johnston noted a lingering tendency among analysts to look for information to confirm the prevailing hypothesis in their groups or sections rather than challenge it and risk alienating colleagues and superiors. Indeed, it is considered taboo to change “the corporate product line”: if the president or his national security team receives an official opinion from an intelligence agency and that agency later radically revises it, trust, status, and ultimately funding are jeopardized."


Martin points to a terrific education technology blog by Michael Feldstein, called e-Literate.

Feldstein seems to have written quite extensively on the Blackboard patent and has provided an excellent 'english translation' of the legalese in the patent claims. He mentions a promising bill making its way through Congress at the moment, that I wasn't aware of, called the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DO IT) Act.

"There is a bill in committee in both houses of the U.S. Congress right now. It’s called the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DO IT) Act. I just published an article with the details, but the gist is that it would take the estimated $20 billion in proceeds from the impending sale of analog television spectrum and put it into a trust for developing digital content and technologies for education. The annual interest on the trust is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $1 billion. That’s one billion dollars. Every year. Going toward creating educational content and educational technology.

But it gets better. The R&D roadmap for the Trust, developed by the Federation of American Scientists (an organization composed mostly of Nobel laureates), hits all of the hard stuff that we may never get right without proper funding--intelligent tutoring systems, immersive simulation authoring tools that are usable by faculty, robust integration standards--you name it.

Best of all, any technology funded by the grant is released to the public domain by default. (The Trust’s board can approve exceptions if necessary, but the policy is to release the software to the general public unless there is a strongly compelling reason to do otherwise.) Think of a billion dollars a year of prior art being created and documented as a wall against EduPatents. For that matter, think of a billion dollars a year of new digital content and teaching tools. This could fundamentally change the landscape for e-Learning."

Sounds amazing, if only it gets through the Congressional legislative minefield unscathed and then the money can be used with sufficient intelligence, energy and creativity. So far we've been doing a fair job, sometimes, in getting the technologies to compliment what we already do in education. But we haven't really even scratched the surface of the things the technology could help us do better, or tapped into the new environments these technologies are creating or could create if we applied sufficient imagination, even just to harness some the emergencing properties of these technological systems.

As Martin is fond of saying, the places where technology compliments or parallels what has gone before are interesting but even more interesting are the gaps - the places where our metaphors for the technology don't quite work. Where are the differences, the disontinuities, the latent ambiguities, the puzzles and opportunities and how can we exploit them for positive ends in the educational context.

Felten refutes Diebold response to evoting report

Ed Felten refutes the Diebold response to his e-voting report with Ariel J. Feldman and J. Alex Halderman on the Diebold AccuVote-TS Voting Machine.

Recommended reading.

Shame and torture

Michael Froomkin is "thoroughly depressed by recent events to post anything about the capitulation of the power centers of the Senate to the administration's program of lawlessness, torture, with the undermining of one of the great success stories of international legality thrown in for garnish.

Fortunately, others are made of sterner stuff.

Marty Lederman, The Torture Chorus

Marty Lederman, Senators Snatch Defeat From Jaws of Victory: U.S. to be First Nation to Authorize Violations of Geneva

Marty Lederman, Three of the Most Significant Problems with the "Compromise"

Stanford Levinson, Legal Realism 101 and the McCain Capitulation

The Carpetbagger Report, McCain, Warner, and Graham cut and ran"

Radically more of the same

ARCH yet again are right on the money when it comes to the government's latest 'radical education reforms.'

"We hear often enough about a child’s ‘right to education’ (Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in case you’re interested in the technicalities) but there’s a stunning silence on its Siamese twin, Article 29, that defines exactly what education should be about, as in:

‘States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to (a) The development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.'

What will it take for this - or any other - Government to rip out our dismal education system and replace it with something fit for purpose? Rather than contemplating yet more ways of controlling the children who fall of the conveyor-belt, a good start would be to ask them what needs to be done – now that really would be radical."

Absolutely. We could transform the entire country for the better within the space of a generation if we got serious about the education system. Unfortunately we put a never ending succession of people in charge of the system, who can't see beyond the next headline or the need to make their mark with 'radical reforms,' in the maximum of two or three years they are likely to have in the post. The result is armies of dedicated and worn out teachers, so weighed down with ticking boxes and processing bits of paper so the latest secretary of state can proudly declare what a fantastic job that the government is doing, that those teachers have no time or space for children or teaching. Primary schools become government paper processing and child minding facilities and any learning that goes on is merely incidental to that main business. As for the secondary sector, well I leave it to people much better qualified than me to comment.

A watering hole for patent trolls

Michael Perelman has been reading the NYT's article on a town in Texas, which appears to be the patent litigation capital of the US.

"What sets Marshall apart from its neighbors is a red-hot patent docket. Four years ago, 32 patent lawsuits were filed in the Federal Eastern District of Texas, which includes Tyler, Texarkana and Marshall. This year, an estimated 234 cases will be filed in the district, a majority of them in Marshall.

What’s behind the rush to file patent lawsuits here? A combination of quick trials and plaintiff-friendly juries, many lawyers say. Patent cases are heard faster in Marshall than in many other courts. And while only a small number of cases make it to trial — roughly 5 percent — patent holders win 78 percent of the time, compared with an average of 59 percent nationwide, according to LegalMetric, a company that tracks patent litigation.

Those odds are daunting enough to encourage many corporate defendants to settle before setting foot in Marshall. Add to that the fact that jurors here have a history of handing out Texas-sized verdicts to winners. In April, for instance, a Marshall jury returned a $73 million verdict against EchoStar Communications for infringing the patents of TiVo."