Saturday, 3 March 2012

Choosing The Right Side In The Cyber Wars

The cyberwars are upon us and it's time to choose a side. The only way to be neutral is to not use the internet. I'm not the one being alarmist here — I'll leave that to the opposition with their dire warnings of flammable pajamas and exploding mobile phones. One one side is Big Content, who are trying to bring about a global Orwellian surveillance state that we as taxpayers will pay for policing. On the other side are those of us who are having none of it.

The battle is being fought on several fronts, and like the Axis powers in the Second World War, they're also fighting with each other. I'm going to identify the fronts on which this war is being waged and suggest ways that we, the internet users, can either avoid being caught in the crossfire, take advantage of the situation, or fight back.

Patent trolling

You'd think that in a recession the growth industries would be debt management and security, but actually there's another one that's slowly coming to light; the murky world of patent aggregators, one of the worst of which is Intellectual Ventures.

In 10 short years, we’ve become a global leader in the business of invention, HOLDING one of the largest intellectual property portfolios... [We] Support the value of invention and inventor’s rights through advocacy and policy efforts.

They trawl the planet looking for patents and things to patent, then license them. Then they lobby for tougher IP laws and enforcement. And it's legal. An article by Tom Feldman and Robin Ewing of Stanford University makes for interesting reading. The key point is,

Given the imperfections of the patent system and the odd characteristics of the product created by the market for patent monetization, mass aggregators may serve as a tax on current production that reduces future innovation. Characteristics of the market may also provide opportunities for anticompetitive behavior... Intellectual Ventures buys the rights to most of Digimarc’s patents, assumes the costs of maintaining the portfolio, and gains the right to go after other companies.

That might explain all the shell companies; they're trying to hide their monopolization in patents. They're not the only ones at it; IA Labs was recently slapped down by a Maryland judge for accusing Nintendo of patent infringement for the Wii Balance Board. Gametek is a shell company set up in December 2011 and there's nothing else on the internet about it except patent trolling stories and their registration details. When you've clicked on the link you have to insert "Gametek" into the search box and choose "Limited Liability Company/Limited Partnership Name" to bring up the results. At the moment, it's suing Facebook and a range of social gaming companies over their use of virtual currency to buy items in their games.

"This could potentially crater a large chunk of not only Facebook, but the entire mobile app ecosystem," says Dallas attorney Mark Methenitis in an interview on Ars Technica.

Another massive patent troll is Eolas, which sued Google, Amazon and Adobe for infringing on its patent on virtually every web application, including online video, suggestions on search engines and rotating images on retail websites. Their butt ugly bright green table-based website has a news ticker displaying their latest court actions. They're all about taking people to court for alleged patent infringements. A sensible judge and jury in Tyler, Texas, slapped them down and sent them on their way.

Even Yahoo is at it, going after Facebook for patents across technologies that include advertising, the personalization of Web sites, social networking, and messaging.

Current solutions

While patent reform is being put forward as a solution by the Pirate Parties and digital rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the solutions being employed by the big tech companies include "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," and settling out of court, which of course provides the fees for the next round of litigation. The trouble with fighting is a well-fed troll can keep it up for years, draining a company dry. It's legalized mugging.

What this means for us

The trouble with all this patent trolling is the chilling effect on innovation; if a company's patent is broad enough, you can't invent anything that covers it unless you either get a license or check with the patents office to see what might cover it and work around what you find there. As they say in the General Patent Corporation video, your patent is only as valuable as the enforcement measures you're willing to take. They're the ambulance chasers of patent law. I've also discovered that you don't even need a valid patent in order to troll; if a patent has been granted, you can litigate to your heart's content. The devil is in the details of proving infringement. Therefore the patent rights holders (who are driving ACTA, by the way) are limiting innovation to themselves and those willing to pay their license fees and royalties. It also pushes up the prices on software. Thank goodness for open source! But if they start going after open source products and clamp down on interoperability, we're screwed. Thankfully, that's illegal. For now. The result is that licensing fees push up the cost of innovation and therefore the prices we pay for the things we buy.

What we can do

Use free or open source products and services as much as possible. Contribute to the EFF and join the Internet Freedom Movement and the Pirate Parties. Bother your representative with questions about policies on patent reform and ask what they're going to do about it.

Copyright maximalism

Aggressive copyright enforcement policies that include criminalization and harsh penalties for infringement are tearing at the fabric of our society. I'm not kidding; the difference between the way infringement of patents and copyrights is treated is ridiculous. I mean, if you're accused of infringing on someone's patent you can fight a civil case or settle out of court, as outlined above. This is about company versus company. However, infringement of copyright is a different animal; jail sentences can be applied and governments all over the world are colluding with the maximalists and fighting their battles for them — against their own people. ACTA is about consolidating that. Add to that the fact that some of them are taking a leaf from the patent trolls' book and Houston, we have a problem.

The impact

It's everywhere and creeping into everything. Even the academics aren't immune.

Currently, some federal agencies require that researchers who rely on government funding make their resulting journal publications freely accessible online... At issue is who, if anybody, should retain copyrights to—and make money off of—academic work that involves stakeholders as various as the government, universities, scientists, and publishing houses... It's about the creative product of that research - Prospect

The publishers are arguing that if they pretty up a drab research paper, they add value and therefore are entitled to copyright.

Want to watch a bit of telly? It had better be prescribed by a copyright doctor or the cable and broadcasting people will come after you. Want to read online? It had better be sanctioned by the publishing industry or down it goes. Enjoy your music? You don't really own it even if you buy a physical copy; after that your use of it is limited unless you want to pay royalties for either playing recorded music (this includes playing your radio) or singing in public. Digital downloads are poor value for money compared to buying a disc. This is done in the name of paying artists but they are not always the copyrights holders and are regularly screwed by the agencies that claim to act in their names.

Don't get me started on streaming and downloading files on the internet. DMCA abuse is rife and as I reported in my last post, although Big Content is moving towards streaming online, their programs are not interoperable and they're aiming at a vertically integrated tiered system that would meter data usage.

What this means for us

People are still willing to go pirate and risk being arrested after being caught by ISP snooping or go hipster and avoid Big Content. Or you can submit to being charged many times over for the same flippin' thing. Already there are plans afoot to doctor search engine results to ensure copyright protection without consultation with digital rights groups. Thankfully the internet users are waking up to this and are vigorously protesting the erosion of our rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

What we can do about it

Join and donate to digital rights groups, yadda yadda yadda ad infinitum.

Creeping legislation, overzealous enforcement, and ISP snooping

Fear-mongering politicians and government agencies have been trying to increase the ways in which they can spy on us without a warrant and make our ISPs retain data and charge us for the privilege. Needless to say with the increasing criminalization of copyright infringement, real and imagined, they'd be expected to forward the data to the copyrights maximalists so they can come after us. If you think I'm exaggerating, may I remind you of the events of last month, when our own police acted as attack dogs for the RIAA?

What this means for us

Our options for enjoying popular content are being limited to the ways in which we are permitted to experience it. The authorities are conniving at a closed monopoly of content and the associated ratcheting of penalties for infringement. The proliferation of DMCA takedown services that freely and recklessly abuse the system using automated tools is leading to innocent URLs being pulled from the search results. When called to account, those responsible typically shrug their shoulders and say it was all a mistake. No harm done, right? Ask Jotform and those people who rely on it. Oh, yeah. It's not just about being taken off the search results, websites are being shut down for days or even months at a time because someone somewhere got a bit overzealous. So we end up losing things we like or things we need even if they haven't done anything wrong. Or we could be kicked off the internet.

What we can do about it

Hassle @HarrietHarman on Twitter by asking her to explain her support for the Digital Economy Act and tell her how it would affect you. Hassle your representatives, join the digital rights groups, etc.


I'd better start by saying that I don't approve of piracy, but I do approve of the Pirate Party because Loz Kaye is a musician and understands the need to protect copyright, but in the artists' favour, not that of Big Content. It's not about legitimizing copyright infringement, but reforming copyright law.

However, not everybody shares my moderate views, indeed, some people feel entitled to receive their content entirely for free whether the creatives responsible for making are properly compensated or not. Despite the passage (or near passage) of laws that tighten IP enforcement, pirates' business is booming because it caters to the market instead of trying to control it.

The much-vaunted arrest of Kim Dotcom did not result in stemmed revenue suddenly pouring forth from legitimate sources, according to blogger and musician Jonathan Coulton. The reason is, the problem is bigger than MegaUpload and the way people experience content has changed as technology advances.

Make good stuff, then make it easy for people to buy it. There’s your anti-piracy plan. The big content companies are TERRIBLE at doing both of these things, so it’s no wonder they’re not doing so well in the current environment. And right now everyone’s fighting to control distribution channels, which is why I can’t watch Star Wars on Netflix or iTunes. It’s fine if you want to have that fight, but don’t yell and scream about how you’re losing business to piracy when your stuff isn’t even available in the box I have on top of my TV.

Or legislate the Hell out of it and criminalize pretty much everyone for everything, then chuck them off the internet. That'll work!

How it affects us

It puts the content items we want within our reach but because it's unregulated and user-driven, you could end up downloading viruses or poor quality content as much as the things you want. The thing is, it's popular because, as Armovore admitted to me, it's faster and more convenient.

What we can do about it

That's up to you but I'm for staying within the laws we have and complaining about them till they change. And supporting digital rights groups, etc. yadda yadda yadda.

Hacktivist groups

Anonymous get most of the press for hacking and DDoS but actually government agencies including the CIA are up to it, too.

Former CIA chief Gen. Mike Hayden says the Stuxnet virus that sabotaged the Iranian nuclear program was a "good idea." ...The computer worm was fingered as a culprit in the mass failure of centrifuges at Iran's nuclear fuel-enrichment facility at Natanz a couple of years ago. Stuxnet, which first made headlines in July, is believed to be the first known malware that targets the controls at industrial facilities such as power plants. It's estimated that Stuxnet disabled more than 1,000 centrifuges.

Unnamed US government agencies were involved in hacking Anonymous members who used DDoS tools to take down websites operated by the Department of Justice and other targets last month. Since they use Pastebin, I'm amazed that it's not been shut down by the government as part of a crackdown on crime.

Antisec is an affiliated hacktivist group that mostly breaks through security systems and posts compromising data online.

Besides going after Monsanto, AntiSec has also recently claimed responsibility for attacks on U.S. law enforcement agencies, Vanguard Defense Industries, and private prison companies. In these assaults, the hackers deface the companies' Web sites as well as release documents, e-mails, and other files. - CNet

Anonymous is the most famous of the hacktivists and have moved from general mayhem to more targeted, politically motivated actions such as taking down or DDoSing the websites of people who anger them. They also stage protests in real life and are often involved in vigilatism. Their decentralized, amorphous nature means they're hard to control or direct, so splinter groups often break off to do their own thing. A recent spate of attacks on church websites is a typical example but since the particular targets are internationalist, racially integrated and involved in social assistance programs the attacks make no sense, particularly when their preferred targets are Scientology and Westboro Baptist Church. They're not particularly dangerous, despite the claims made by US law enforcement agency NSA.

What this means for us

You don't want to get on the wrong side of them, but the worst they can do if they're not breaking into your website via web applications exploits to deface it is to DDoS your website till it's driven offline. Typically these attacks go on for a few hours, then cease. You can defend yourself from this by taking courses like the ones offered by Google. Of course, the law enforcement agencies will use them as an excuse to be more zealous in enforcement than necessary and politicians can use them as an excuse to ramp up surveillance "for our own good."

What you can do about it

Try not to get their attention. Don't worry about DDoS attacks because they don't last long. Don't believe the hype and hyperbole about them either being internet Robin Hoods or dangerous anarchists intent on overthrowing the government. And for the love of all decency never get involved in their activities because hacking and DDoSing is illegal.

Digital rights groups

Respectable protesters like the EFF and the Open Rights Group have been doing their best to keep the internet free. Aided by other tech-tivists, they lobby politicians, arrange protests and petitions and occasionally fight court cases. It was people like them that defeated the feared SOPA and PIPA laws and rallied the internet. We've also got the Internet Freedom Movement and the Pirate Parties.

What it means for us

They've got our back, but are only as effective as the support we give them. It's an ongoing battle and they can't let the ball drop or we'll be pulled into an Orwellian surveillance society run by and for the benefit of Big Content. Remember, that's what ACTA is about.

What we can do about it

Join them and support them every way possible. Sign petitions as and when required.

Everybody else

Like I said, you're in this war whether you like it or not and you can either pick a side and fight for your digital rights or surrender and permit them to be taken away. There is no fate but what we make — either by action or by going "Meh! Not my problem" and refusing to engage with it until the consequences come and bite you on the bum. You can make a difference.

How it affects us

Even those of us who don't use the internet will be affected by the cost of enforcing legislation and the rising prices of the software, hardware, and content they want to experience. Only by getting off the grid can you escape the consequences of the surveillance and metering world the copyright maximalists want to bring in.

What you can do about it

By mobilizing — or not — we can demonstrate the power we have. In a democratic society — nominal or not — we can elevate one politician to office or vote them out. They know that. That's why lobbying works. You don't have to be rich, just noisy and persistent. You saw what happened to PIPA and SOPA. There's ACTA and the TPP to take down by the same means. Then we've got to go after Big Content and put an end to their racketeering by lobbying our politicians to stop paying attention to their fear-mongering and serve us, not them. It's a long road but together we can do it.

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