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January 6, 2006

Government Cookies Show Up Even When Prohibited

There have been stories percolating in the press about the use of cookies on government sites.  The first set of reports appeared just before the New Year holiday concerned the use of cookies placed on machines of visitors to the National Security Agency web site in spite of federal rules to the contrary.  Once cookies were discovered and questioned the agency immediately disabled them.  The excuse given was that the Agency's site was recently upgraded and cookies were turned on inadvertently.  The irony was not lost on commentators who compared the revelation to other disclosures about domestic spying in apparent contradiction of existing law.

Then came word that the White House web site used web bugs (one pixel graphics) along with third party cookies from WebTrends.  David Almacy, the White House Internet director noted that the data from both were not used together and therefore not illegal.  The web bugs are not covered by guidelines and the cookies were not really from a government server.  In any event, "tracking" did not occur.

Now comes word that various congressional web sites, including several that have explicit notes that they do not collect cookie data in fact do so.  Among 66 congressional sites are those of John McCain, Harry Reid, and Ted Stevens.  McCain has been an outspoken advocate for privacy rules including those covering cookies.  When asked about these discrepancies, most webmasters offered variations on the "unintentional" theme.  Many congressional sites are created with Cold Fusion and cookies seem to be turned on by default until someone awkwardly discovers them and turns them off.

Advice:  Visit a government web site and check your cache to see if you have any unwanted government crumbs.

The stories are in the Washington Post here, here, and in CNET News here.

January 6, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Microsoft Censors China Blog

Microsoft is being criticized over its deciion to remove a blog fro it's MSN Spaces property written by a Chinese dissident at the request of the Chinese government.  Zhao Jing was known to post stories that questioned government policies.  Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO was quoted at CES as saying the company has to abide by local law in doing business in foreign countries.  "We do here, we do in Europe; we also do in places like China. And anybody can choose not to do business in any country. We all have that option."

This decision echoes another decision by search giant Yahoo, who gave the Chinese government materials from online products that was used to convict journalist Shi Tao for divulging state secrets.  The "secret" in this case was an email from the Chinese government to officials warning them to look out for dissident activities on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.  The sentence was 10 years in this case. There are reports of other similar results in China's aggressive regulation of speech.

There is probably a Chinese proverb somewhere that states it is better to squish a couple of dissidents than to depress stockholder value.

More on this from Techworld, CNN Money, and the International Herald Tribune.

January 6, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 5, 2006

U.S. Spammer Fined $11.2B

Yes, that's B for Billion(s).  The suit was brought by rural Iowa Internet provider CIS Internet Services against companies in Arizona and Florida.  Several judgments have already issued in the case.  This most recent came on December 23 against James McCalla of whom it was alleged that he sent over 280 million spam messages into CIS' system.  The mails also forged the CIS.net address in the return address field making it seem as if the messages came from the company.

No one expects the see the money anytime soon.  Another part of the penalty was that McCalla was barred from the Internet for three years.  While this judgment effectively takes one spammer off the net, it's unlikely that anyone will see a reduction in junk email.  Some speculate that spam accounts for two-thirds of the mail that flow through the system.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen has the story here.  Another account is at ZDNET UK.

January 5, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

EFF Wants EMI to Allow Security Exam of DRM Enabled Discs

The EFF is calling on EMI not to sue security researchers for reverse engineering of copy protection schemes on EMI releases.  The EULA forbids any reverse engineering for any reason.  In light of the Sony BMG scandal, the EFF believes consumers should know if there are any computer risks associated with copy protected discs from EMI. 

More information is here.

January 5, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A Cautionary Tale About Publishers and Contracts

There's an interesting story of an executive (unnamed) at a legal publishing house (also unnamed) that highlights the pitfalls of negotiating contract terms with service vendors.  The InfoWorld story describes a situation where a large amount of text needed to be re-keyed for a presumably online database.  The contractor defined the terms of what was intelligible and proceeded to produce a result that was in compliance with the contract but far from the result contemplated by the publisher.  The rest of the story has the details of how the process unfolded, including the blame up and down the corporate chain of command.  There seem to be little clues as to who might be the publisher involved.  Anyone know of a legal publisher with major offices in Colorado?

Read the whole story at InfoWorld.com here.

January 5, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 4, 2006

Update on the Spitzer Probe on Digital Song Pricing

More details are coming out in the Spitzer probe on digital download pricing.  The first news came out in regulatory filings with the SEC by various music distributors and online services.  Those who have acknowledged that they have received subpoenas have basically said they are cooperating with the probe and nothing more.

Analysts are speculating that because of past conduct of the industry, the New York Attorney General isn't taking any chances on collusive pricing activity by the major labels.  Steve Jobs of Apple acknowledged that labels were exerting pressure to change pricing from a standard 99 cents per track to a higher price for more current tracks and a lesser price for slow movers. 

While the market can play a role in the demand for tracks, no one in the industry has suggested a price point on either end of the scale or what is in fact a slow moving track.  Jobs was widely quoted as calling the music industry as "greedy."  From a populist perspective, Job's comment was not generating much debate about its accuracy.  The studios did have to settle a CD pricing collusion case some time back.  There was also the payola scandal where manufacturers paid stations and DJ's to place some songs in a heavier rotation which resulted in monetary damages. 

Some speculate that this probe is less about pressuring the labels to maintain a consistent pricing as they should not use illegal means to set those variable prices.  Jobs comment aside, it is one salvo in the upcoming iTunes Store licensing negotiations.  Spitzer's probe is another way of saying to the labels that they should play legal on this one.

CNN Money and CNET have stories on this.

January 4, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 3, 2006

Legislation Introduced to Close the Analog Hole

It's 2006 and the copy protection wars continue unabated.  Sony's disastrous foray with CD audio protection served as a win, to some extent, for consumers because Sony approached protecting their property with a hacker's mentality.  The problem was not in protecting content as much as the side effects of creating a haven on consumer machines for viruses and spyware.  To top it off, Sony's DRM added insult to injury by installing itself even when consumers did not agree to the "license," and by reporting consumer listening habits back to corporate.  That scenario was so bad that even states such as Texas and New York, among others, presented legal action against the company.

This is all falling in the back drop as Sony settles class action suits by eliminating this form of copy protection on discs through voluntary action.  Some analysts believe that the lack of DRM measures implemented in hardware will draw calls for legislation mandating that manufacturers place a system in computers and other devices to stop rampant copying, fair use concepts be darned (or worse).

Now that broadcast television is going digital cold turkey in 2009, there is a concern on Capitol Hill that copying television shows to digital equipment will undermine the entertainment industry business model.  The issue of a no-copy broadcast flag made news when a D.C. Court of Appeals struck down the FCC's rules because the court said Congress did not give the Commission power to require a flag.  Congress responded with legislation that would authorize the FCC to create those rules.  That might take care of the purely digital world, but it leaves open the "analog hole."

There are any number of devices on the market that digitize video from any number of sources, including those that play copy protected content.  Take one digitizer, connect it to a computer on one end, or a cable box or VCR on the other end via analog outputs and inputs, and one has a reasonable if not perfect copy of video content.  This works with CD audio by the way as the digitizer is built into the machine in the form of the sound card, at least until aforementioned legislation is passed to limit this capability.

Most video digitizers on the market today actually have systems built in that recognize market leading DRM systems such as Macro-Vision, which is used to prevent analog copying of protected content.  Try copying your old VHS copies of the original Star Wars on even the least expensive PVR sold at Wal-Mart and you'll discover these systems honor DRM protection.

Nonetheless, Congress, or at least several members thereof are concerned that where there is a will, there is a way.  HR 4569 (Digital Transition Content Security Act of 2005) introduced by Reps. Sensenbrenner (R-WI)and Conyers (D-MI) , would tighten that way by requiring all digitizers sold within one year of the bill's passage to include two DRM systems that would detect and respect a signal embedded in content that would prevent analog copying.

The immediate criticism of the bill is that it would lock in a DRM technology that may either get old or get hacked.  Another disturbing prospect is that the technology may be may be ignored by pirates altogether by breaking the digital stream instead.  If that happens, Congress may have to pass another bill.

There is a great article on this at Ars Technica.

January 3, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 2, 2006

Google Sued over Alleged Patent Infringement in Google Talk Service

Google is being sued by Rates Technology (RTI), a holder of several telecommunications patents.  RTI claims that two of its patented technologies are part of Google Talk's VoIP component.  As implemented, the minimize consumer costs by locating the least expensive network prior to making a call.  Other companies have licensed this technology.  Other tech and telecommunication giants are also at risk of suit.

Read more at Techworld, the Inquirer (with links to related materials), and CNN Money.  The complaint is here.

January 2, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack