[Commentary] By now you've probably heard about the controversial Facebook study in which the company altered the news feeds of some 698,003 users for a week in 2012 to determine if seeing more happy or sad posts affected the emotional content those users posted next. There's been an enormous backlash: the study itself seems particularly dumb, there's a chance Facebook acted unethically or illegally by not disclosing the study to users, the researchers involved are apologizing, and in general it seems like Facebook did something really, really bad.
But here's the thing: manipulating the News Feed is Facebook's entire business. Where Google makes advertisers bid against each other to display ads that appear when you search for certain keywords. Facebook does something a fair bit simpler: it just doesn't show users everything in their News Feeds.
Of the 1500 potential items your friends will share on Facebook in a given day, you'll likely only see 300 of them -- and if an advertiser or marketer or news organization wants to get more eyeballs from Facebook, they can pay to make sure their stuff shows up in your News Feed, carefully targeted to keywords and demographics. Compare that to Twitter, which firehoses everything your friends share at you in real time.
It's better for news junkies, but Facebook can make promises about how many and what sort of people will see something that Twitter can only dream about. There's so much value in showing you things from your friends on Facebook that it's the revenue model for an entire class of viral media startups. Taco Bell pays BuzzFeed to create shareable advertising, and then pays Facebook to tweak the News Feed to make sure that advertising shows up when it's shared.
The House of Representatives voted to bar the Obama Administration from engaging in a controversial surveillance practice that insiders call a "backdoor search."
A letter from the Obama Administration gives some hints about how common the practice is. The letter, addressed to Sen Ron Wyden (D-OR), admits that the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation all conducted backdoor searches in 2013. At least 198 searches -- and possibly many more -- were seeking the contents of Americans' private communications. Here's how often government agencies engaged in the controversial practice in 2013:
- The NSA brass approved searches for the contents of the communications of 198 Americans. Such content searches could include the audio of phone calls or the body of e-mails.
- The NSA conducted approximately 9,500 searches for Americans' metadata -- information such as phone numbers dialed, email recipients, and the length of calls.
- The CIA conducted "fewer than 1,900 queries" for information about Americans, of which 27 percent were duplicate searches for the same American.
- The letter says the FBI doesn't keep track of how many queries it has performed, but "the FBI believes the number of queries is substantial." On the other hand, the FBI "only requests and receives a small percentage" of the NSA's collection of data acquired under the FISA Amendments Act.
A Q&A with Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist.
Bitcoin has enjoyed a meteoric rise. The value of one unit of the cryptocurrency has soared from $13 at the beginning of 2013 to $600. Investors have poured millions of dollars into Bitcoin-based startups. Yet Bitcoin still faces widespread skepticism. The payment system's many critics argue that it doesn't have any compelling advantages over the conventional financial system. And they say Bitcoin is hampered by security concerns, extremely volatility, and unsavory ties to the criminal underworld.
These criticisms give Andreessen a sense of deja vu. In 1994, he was an early adopter of another technology that was widely dismissed as an impractical fad: the Internet. He describes the "massive wall of negativity" he encountered when, as the co-founder of the browser company Netscape, he tried to convince major American companies to take the internet seriously.
Andreessen believes that Bitcoin has the same kind of disruptive potential that the internet had two decades ago. “Bitcoin could basically reconstruct the financial industry in an untrusted peer-to-peer environment. This is why all the technologists look at it and get excited,” Andreessen said.
The Supreme Court issued two major rulings: in Riley v. California, the court required cops to get a warrant before searching cellphones, and in American Broadcasting v. Aereo, the court banned the cloud-TV service Aereo from retransmitting broadcast television signals over the Internet. But both of these cases are also fundamentally about technology -- specifically, what happens when technology moves so fast that the law simply doesn't understand it anymore.
When that happens, it's up to the courts to provide answers to difficult questions: is searching a smartphone like searching a pack of cigarettes? Can thousands of tiny antennas and some clever code dance around copyright law well enough to create a new business model?
To answer these questions is to answer the hardest question of all: can you put the technology back in the box, or do we need to change society around it for good? The Supreme Court took a huge step when it agreed 9-0 that the smartphone revolution requires a change in how we interpret the Fourth Amendment. But the hard part for our legal system will be the thousands of little steps we need to ensure all those smartphone apps can keep changing the world.
The Supreme Court decision of Riley v. California isn't just a landmark ruling on cell phone privacy. It also represents a dramatic shift in the high court's attitude toward technology and privacy.
The Supreme Court's new attitude is best summarized by a single sentence in the opinion. The government had argued that searching a cell phone is no different from searching other items in a suspect's pocket. That, the court wrote, "is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon." The government has typically pursued a simple legal strategy when faced with digital technologies.
First, find a precedent that gave the government access to information in the physical world.
Second, argue that the same principle should apply in the digital world, ignoring the fact that this will vastly expand the government's snooping power while eroding Americans' privacy. In all legal precedents, the government wants the courts to ignore the huge practical differences between the technologies that existed when old precedents were established and the technologies Americans use today.
This most recent ruling suggests that when these issues reach the nation's highest court, the justices won't be so credulous. They'll recognize that cell phone tracking is as different from a bank deposit slip as a ride on horseback is from a flight to the moon.
[Commentary] On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled against a company called Aereo in a case that while not super-important on its face has potentially significant implications for the entire cloud storage industry.
Back on June 19, in another ruling, the Court substantially restricted the eligibility of software innovations for patent monopolies. And on June 23, it made it harder for the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict greenhouse gas emissions.
These three rulings have two things in common. They're all very consequential for American public policy, and they all have nothing to do with the United States Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
Reactions to the Aereo ruling were varied, but absolutely nobody said "regardless of what the courts decide, Congress can always rewrite the relevant laws to sort out any problems." Because everyone takes for granted that in this day and age Congress can't rewrite the relevant laws. It can't clarify the legality of Aereo's repacking of over-the-air television broadcasts, it can't clarify the patent status of software, and it certainly can't clarify the scope of the EPA's authority over climate pollution. Congress can name post offices and not much more.
The judicial branch is simply not properly equipped to make broad evaluations of the policy merits of different approaches.
A lot of people expected Aereo to lose its Supreme Court case. The real question has always been whether a ruling against Aereo would have implications for other online services.
Many of the arguments broadcasters made against Aereo could just as easily be made against conventional cloud storage services such as Google Music and Dropbox, which also transmit copyrighted content to consumers.
A legal scholar whose work was heavily cited by Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion says that the case will have cloud storage and consumer electronics companies "looking over their shoulders." "The court is sending a very clear signal that you can't design a system to be the functional equivalent of cable," says James Grimmelmann, a legal scholar at the University of Maryland. "The court also emphasizes very strongly that cloud services are different. But when asked how, it says, 'They're just different, trust us.'"
Cloud storage services have relied on this "volitional conduct" principle to avoid copyright liability. If you upload a pirated movie to your Dropbox account or fill your Google Music account with pirated music, you might be guilty of copyright infringement.
But Dropbox and Google don't have to worry. It's probably not a coincidence that cloud music services blossomed a couple of years after the 2008 decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to protect Cablevision from copyright liability, letting it rest on the customer when storing selected programs on a remote DVR cloud storage system. Now, Grimmelmann says, "the reasoning of Cablevision is dead."
Columbia University's Tim Wu has only been a law professor for 12 years, but he's accomplished a lot during that time. He has contributed frequently to Slate, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and the New York Times, written an influential book, and advised the Federal Trade Commission on Internet policy. Oh, and he coined the term network neutrality. Now he's hoping to add another item to his resume: Lieutenant Governor of New York.
Wu is running alongside Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. In May, Teachout sought the endorsement of New York's Working Families Party.
New York's unusual election system allows a candidate to appear on more than one party's line on the ballot, and Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) ran on both the Democratic and Working Families lines in 2010. If Wu wins, he won't be able to do much about the tech policy issues he has focused on over the last decade.
Telecom regulation is primarily a federal issue, as are copyright and patent policy. But Wu has hinted that cracking down on Comcast could be on his agenda.
In 2013, Americans started learning about the true extent of domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency. Now, a coalition of technology companies and civil liberties groups are taking matters into their own hands.
The one-day campaign is called Reset the Net, a campaign to encourage the use of technologies that make the Internet more resistant to NSA snooping. What does Reset the Net recommend I do to protect my privacy?
- For your cell phone, Reset the Net recommends ChatSecure, TextSecure, and RedPhone. As the names suggest, these products enable users to communicate securely over instant messaging, text messaging, and voice calling. Reset the Net also encourages users to set a password on their phone so its contents can't easily be accessed by criminals or the police.
- For your Mac or PC, the bundle includes secure instant messaging software (Adium for Mac or Pidgin for PC) as well as Tor, software that helps preserve your anonymity by allowing you to browse your address without revealing where you're browsing from.
- Finally, Reset the Net has tips for improving password security. You should avoid re-using the same password on multiple sites. Instead, keep track of your passwords with a password manager or just write them down on paper.
Apple's most important health news had nothing to with the major tech company getting into the world of fitness tracking. It had everything to do with a much-less noticed part of the announcement: Apple will partner with Epic Systems, the country's largest electronic health records company, a deal that has the potential to revolutionize how patients access their medical history.
An estimated 40 percent of Americans already have medical information digitally stored on an Epic Systems health record. And Apple's new HealthKit will integrate with those millions of patient records, the company announced. This kind of partnership is something that no other fitness apps have -- it's what could set HealthKit's other fitness tracking features apart from competitors like FitBit or Jawbone.
Here's how HealthKit could be different: by looping patients in with their providers through electronic health records, the app could hypothetically target people whose health is actually a problem, which is where real opportunity for improvement exists.
But there's a flip side: experts are already concerned by how much of the EHR market Epic controls. If Apple decides to keep its partnership with the company exclusive, health care providers could feel pressure from patients to adopt medical records that are iPhone-compatible.