Monthly Archives: October 2019

Read B4UCopy: software industry targets students with antipiracy site

Nearly everyone in the US is familiar with those cheesy MPAA ads sometimes shown in movie theaters: "You wouldn't steal a car. You wouldn't steal a handbag. You wouldn't steal a television. You wouldn't steal a DVD. Pirating downloaded films is stealing!" They are supposed to remind viewers that piracy is bad and deter them from going home to download a high-res copy of the movie they're about to watch. While it's unclear whether the MPAA's ad campaign has caused any significant reduction in piracy, software makers want to get in on the action anyway. The Business Software Alliance—which represents a number of well-known software companies like Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Intel, Adobe, Symantec, McAfee, and others—has launched its own ad campaign this week, aimed toward college students, called B4UCopy. Get it? B4… yeah. HangZhou Night Net

The BSA actually appears to have taken into consideration how college students think (on some level) when creating B4UCopy. Instead of putting a huge emphasis on how software piracy hurts the software industry, it only makes a slight mention of the losses they suffer due to piracy. Instead, the site puts a much larger focus on how students themselves might be hurt by piracy—how does it affect them? Students might be duped by getting defective or outdated software, burned by software that turns out to contain viruses or steal personal information, "bounced" by being locked out of their college or university networks, "booted" by eligible employers if they are caught pirating software, and busted with jail time or heavy fines, says the BSA.

Of course, no anti-piracy campaign would be complete without an educational video about the consequences of software piracy. The B4UCopy video contains observations from poor college kids on why they pirate, a testimonial from an emotion-ridden student who was arrested for piracy just before college graduation, and other testimonials from law enforcement and software makers.

"Many students say they don't realize they are doing anything wrong when they illegally download computer software or swap copyrighted digital files with their classmates," said BSA VP of public affairs Diane Smiroldo in a statement. "In reality, these students are stealing and breaking the law, which could have serious repercussions on their future."

The BSA says that, according to a recent survey of 1,052 college and university students, over half of students who say they have downloaded unlicensed software have experienced "negative consequences" after doing so. Some of those consequences include an increase in spyware and viruses (55 percent), hard drive crashes (20 percent), and file loss (18 percent).

The BSA claimed in 2006 that the software industry lost $34 billion due to piracy worldwide. We weren't alone in pointing out the problems with that figure, however, nothing that the method that the BSA and IDC used to calculate those numbers were based on the estimated retail value of pirated software. In order to accurately calculate losses, the organizations would have to guess at how much software is pirated, how much would have been purchased had it not been pirated, and what the relationship of legit sales to pirated installations is. Clearly, even the software industry isn't entirely sure how much is actually being lost to piracy.

Will the BSA's new campaign make a dent in software piracy among college students? It might, if it's able to emphasize some of the more immediate risks such as viruses and spyware. Anecdotally, I know several (perhaps not-so-bright) students whose PCs have been subject to virus takeovers so bad that they had to resort to reformatting their entire hard drives, thus losing everything on them. It was enough to scare a few of them straight, so the BSA might have some luck. Then again, being told about the consequences never quite drives the point home as hard as experiencing them firsthand.

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Copyright lawyer tells universities to resist “copyright bullies”

Wendy Seltzer, the founder of the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse and a former EFF staff attorney, gave a talk yesterday at Cornell (RealPlayer required) on "Protecting the University from Copyright Bullies." The bullies in question are the RIAA, and the issue is the recording industry's current campaign of both litigation and political pressure. Should universities assist the music industry in identifying the "pirates," or should they do everything in their power to resist? HangZhou Night Net

The title of Seltzer's talk gives the game away. She believes that the mission of the university is to promote academic freedom, research, the testing of boundaries, and the learning of personal responsibility by students and researchers. An open network facilitates such things; one that is filtered and used to watch the activities of its users does not, in her view, produced the sorts of effects that universities want.

The campus has become the latest battleground in the war on file-sharing. The RIAA has taken its fight to the halls of Congress, where it recently failed to secure some legislation that would have required colleges and universities to implement content filtering solutions on their networks and would direct the government to produce a list of the top 25 infringing schools. "Why Congress should be getting into the business of naming names and pointing fingers is beyond me," Seltzer said.

The idea was shot down, but the RIAA has also embarked on an aggressive plan to sue thousands of college students into submission this year, and that plan continues to move forward. Universities, including Cornell, now routinely receive "pre-litigation" letters from the RIAA that contain only an IP address. The group wants universities to pass these letters on to students. The letters offer students the possibility of a several thousand dollars settlement or the more expensive alternative of going to court. If the letters don't produce a response, the RIAA then files a "John Doe" lawsuit and obtains a subpoena to force the university to turn over the student information (some of these subpoenas were recently quashed on technical grounds). Once that happens, a specific lawsuit is filed against the student.

Seltzer hopes to encourage universities to start challenging these tactics, especially challenging the subpoenas on the ground that they pose an "undue burden" to the university. While cost is certainly one factor here, the "burden" that Seltzer is primarily talking about is the effect that complying with the subpoenas has on the university's mission.

In her view, it makes universities take a stand as an adversary of students, since they are forced to turn over personal information shared with them only for reasons of education. It also curtails the openness of the university's network.

One questioner asked whether the issue wasn't complicated by the fact that students also live at the university; that is, the users of the network aren't simply doing academic research, and massive copyright infringement is no doubt going on at most universities. Seltzer responded by pointing out that universities already deal with legal and law enforcement issues on a regular basis, and they generally do so without tracking or monitoring their students. For instance, underage drinking can be a problem on most campuses, but few or no schools install cameras or other devices to detect underage drinkers. Part of letting students grow up, she said, was taking a step back.

Normally, that would also mean letting students pay the penalty for their mistakes, but Selzer doesn't believe that it is fair for a few students to be singled out for such draconian penalties while nothing happens to the vast majority of their peers. In addition to the severity of the statutory penalties for copyright infringement, there are the well-known evidentiary problems of linking an IP address to an individual.

It's an interesting talk for those on both sides of the debate, but especially for those in university administration across the country who have to confront these issues on a daily basis.

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Consumer group blasts binding arbitration clauses

The fine print associated with service agreements from credit card, wireless phone, Internet access, and other service contracts is increasingly likely to includes a clause that removes contract disputes from the legal system, subjecting them instead to binding arbitration. Superficially, arbitration sounds like a great way to settle disagreements while avoiding the fees and animosity associated with legal action; arbitrators ostensibly offer an impartial decision quickly and painlessly. But a report (PDF) issued by the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen portrays the process as heavily slanted towards business, and a Kafkaesque nightmare for individuals. HangZhou Night Net

The report was triggered by the fact that California, alone among the states, compels the law firms that handle arbitration rulings to list the results of their decisions. Public Citizen downloaded each individual decision made by the firm National Arbitration Forum during the period from 2003 to 2007 and performed a statistical analysis on the outcomes. The results provide a revealing window into the arbitration process.

Arbitration is apparently used largely as a debt collection mechanism and is almost uniformly triggered by the service providers. Of the 34,000 cases examined, all but 15 involved debt collection, and only 118 were instigated by consumers. Given the high levels of consumer debt, a high rate of success might be expected, but the study found that companies prevailed in a startling 95 percent of the cases. The records also suggest that very little care goes into many of these decisions, as it documents a number of cases where arbitrators decided over 50 cases in a single day, with the consumer losing in all of them.

These data do not appear to be a California aberration; a court case involving the NAF and First USA Bank in Alabama revealed that the credit card issuer prevailed in over 19,900 out of 20,000 cases there. The report also details anecdotal cases where people were hit with adverse rulings by arbitrators despite evidence of fraud, identity theft, and even mistaken identity.

More compelling is Public Citizen's description of the arbitration process, which goes a long way towards explaining the skewed statistics. As the instigators of the process, corporations can choose the firm that performs the arbitration, and can shop for those that have provided the most favorable outcomes in the past. They also have the option of rejecting the initial choice of arbitrators, allowing those with pro-consumer records to be screened out. Both the firms and individual arbitrators are paid on a per-case basis, and thus are under pressure to ensure they are viewed favorably by companies.

Consumers, in contrast, have very few rights. Arbitration can proceed provided the company has attempted to notify the individual; actual consumer awareness of the proceedings appears to be optional. There are also fees at nearly every stage of the process, including a fee simply to have a hearing on the dispute or to see the ruling itself. Having the reasoning behind the decision spelled out requires a fee paid in advance of the actual decision. Appeal options are limited, and even a flawed initial ruling isn't grounds for reversal. Finally, arbitration doesn't allow individuals to pool resources through class action status.

Given how the deck appears to be stacked, why would anyone ever agree to mandatory arbitration? In many cases, it's simply a matter of ignorance of the risks involved; the report includes a list of steps to take to avoid entering into a contract that includes mandatory arbitration. But in some instances, such as Internet or phone access, consumers may have few options and find these clauses hard to avoid. As a long term solution, Public Citizen urges support for the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2007 (PDF), which amends existing laws to limit binding arbitration to cases where the two parties have equal power within existing contracts.

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Joost quietly slips 1.0 beta out the door for Mac (and Windows)

The Joost team has finally released version 1.0 (beta) of the P2P video software this fine, fourth Friday of September, which brings along with it a new "spoon" UI. As detailed on the (unofficial) Joost Team Blog (apparently not written by the devs), the interface is no longer black, but instead sports a transparent gray. If this was Apple, the color change would already be labeled as a feature. HangZhou Night Net

More interesting than the gray, however, is the completely redesigned Channel Guide. It's been renamed to "Explore" and animates out a list of available categories to choose from. This looks much nicer than the old Channel Guide, but as the blog post points out, people who are used to accomplishing certain tasks quickly may have trouble doing so with the new UI. Adding and deleting new channels from your own stored list of channels seems to be particularly difficult—"It is almost as if the interface is 75% done and is lacking 25% of it’s functionality," writes the Joost Team Blog.

Officially, the Joost for Mac release notes say that the 1.0 beta is more tolerant of bad network connections, and will continue to retry broken streams before the actual video stalls. A few other updates have been made to the way rewind and forward, age warnings, and advertisement overlays are handled, among other things.

The 1.0 beta is actually available for both Mac OS X and Windows. If you've become a Joost fan, this should be a welcome update (I'm downloading it as we speak), although the service is still invite-only. There are tons of invites floating around these days though, so if you're curious about Joost, just ask a few of your Internet buddies to hook you up.

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Human genetic diversity through chromosome structure

A few years ago, people were focusing on the lack of human genetic diversity. At the level of individual DNA bases, any two humans were well over 99 percent identical. With the completion of the human genome, however, researchers have been able to detect differences in the structure of the chromosomes themselves, including deletions, extra material, and other changes. An early access publication in Science describes the most detailed search yet for these changes. HangZhou Night Net

The study used a clever method of getting increased size resolution while allowing the detection of a greater variety of changes compared to prior work. The researchers fragmented human chromosomes in a way that all the fragments should be close to a single, average size (3kb, in this case). The ends of these fragments were sequenced, and the sequenced matched with the existing human genome. If the two matches weren't 3kb apart, the researchers knew that there was some sort of difference. Using this method allowed them to identify hundreds of chromosomal changes with an average difference of about 650 bases.

They performed the study using DNA from two individuals, and found that they had 761 and 887 structural variations (SVs) compared to the reference human genome. The subjects are of African and European origin, but half of these SVs were present in both of them, suggesting that some of them might be older than the human species itself. Most SVs were fairly small—a third were less than 5kb long—but about 17 percent appear likely to affect gene activity, as they eliminate coding regions and fuse or flip portions of a gene. Basic metabolic genes were rarely affected, with immune and olfactory proteins being the most commonly altered.

Overall, the researchers estimate that, combined, these structural differences change more DNA than all the single base changes combined. So, it turns out that the human population is probably over twice as diverse as originally expected, at least on the DNA level.

Science, 2007. DOI: 10.1126/science.1149504

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