Irrevocable

One of the biggest advances in computing in my lifetime is the “Undo” button. Younger people will have no idea of this, but at one time if you accidentally deleted the piece you’d spent hours typing into your computer, it was just…gone forever.

This week, UK media reported on what seems to be an unusual but not unique case: a solicitor accidentally opened the wrong client’s divorce case on her computer screen and went on to apply for a final decree for the couple concerned. The court granted the divorce in a standardly automated 21 minutes, even though the specified couple had not yet agreed on a financial settlement. Despite acknowledging the error, the court now refuses to overturn the decree. UK lawyers of my acquaintance say that this obvious unfairness may be because granting the final decree sets in motion other processes that are difficult to reverse.

That triggers a memory of the time I accidentally clicked on “cancel” instead of “check in” on a flight reservation, and casually, routinely, clicked again to confirm. I then watched in horror as the airline website canceled the flight. The undo button in this case was to phone customer service. Minutes later, they reinstated the reservation and thereafter I checked in without incident. Undone!

Until the next day, when I arrived in the US and my name wasn’t on the manifest. The one time I couldn’t find my boarding pass… After a not-long wait that seeemd endless in a secondary holding area (which I used to text people to tell them where I was just in case) I explained the rogue cancellation and was let go. Whew! (And yes, I know: citizen, white, female privilege.)

“Ease of use” should include making it hard to make irrecoverable mistakes. And maybe a grace period before automated processes cascade.

The Guardian quotes family court division head Sir Andrew McFarlane explaining that the solicitor’s error was not easy to make: “Like many similar online processes, an operator may only get to the final screen where the final click of the mouse is made after traveling through a series of earlier screens,” Huh? If you think you have opened the right case, then those are the screens you would expect to see. Why wouldn’t you go ahead?

At the Law Gazette, John Hyde reports that the well-known law firm in question, Vardag, is backing the young lawyer who made the error, describing it as a “slip up with the drop down menu” on “the new divorce portal”, noting that similar errors had happened “a few times” and felt like a design error.

“Design errors” can do a lot of damage. Take paying a business or person via online banking. In the UK, until recently, you entered account name, number, and sort code, and confirmed to send. If you made a mistake, tough. If the account information was sent by a scammer instead of the recipient you thought, tough. It was only in 2020 that most banks began participating in “Confirmation of payee”, which verifies the account with the receiving bank and checks with you that the name is correct. In 2020, Which? estimated that confirming payee could have saved £320 million in bank transfer fraud since 2017.

Similarly, while many more important factors caused the Horizon scandal, software design played its part: subpostmasters could not review past transactions as they could on paper.

Many computerized processes are blocked unless precursor requirements have been completed and checked for compliance. A legally binding system seems like it similarly ought to incorporate checks to ensure that all necessary steps had been completed.

Arguably, software design is failing users. In ecommerce, user-hostile software design is deceptive, or “dark”, patterns, user interfaces built deliberately to manipulate users into buying/spending more than they intended. The clutter that makes Amazon unusable directs shoppers to its house brands.

User interface design is where I began writing about computers circa 1990. Windows 3 was new, and the industry was just discovering that continued growth depended on reaching past those who *liked* software to be difficult. I vividly recall being told by a usability person at then-market leader Lotus about the first time her company’s programmers watched ordinary people using their software. First one fails to complete task. “Well, that’s a stupid person.” Second one. “Well, that’s a stupid person, too.” Third one. “Where do you find these people?” But after watching a couple more, they got it.

In the law firm’s case, the designers likely said, “This system is just for expert users”. True, but what they’re expert in is law, not software. Hopefully the software will now be redesigned to reflect the rule that it should be as easy as possible to do the work but as hard as possible to make unrecoverable mistakes (the tolerance principle). It’s a simple idea that goes all the way back to Donald Norman’s classic 1988. book The Design of Everyday Things.

At a guess, if today’s “AI” automation systems become part of standard office work making mistakes will become easier rather than harder, partly because it makes systems more inscrutable. In addition, the systems being digitized are increasingly complex with more significant consequences reaching deep into people’s lives, and intended to serve the commissioning corporations’ short-term desires. It will not be paranoid to believe the world is stacked against us.

Illustrations: Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as temporarily divorced newspapermen in His Girl Friday (1944).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Borderlines

Think back to the year 2000. New York’s World Trade Center still stood. Personal digital assistants were a niche market. There were no smartphones (the iPhone arrived in 2006) or tablets (the iPad took until 2010). Social media was nascent; Facebook first opened in 2004. The Good Friday agreement was just two years old, and for many in Britain “terrorists” were still “Irish”. *That* was when the UK passed the Terrorism Act (2000).

Usually when someone says the law can’t keep up with technological change they mean that technology can preempt regulation at speed. What the documentary Phantom Parrot shows, however, is that technological change can profoundly alter the consequences of laws already on the books. The film’s worked example is Schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, which empowers police to stop, question, search, and detain people passing through the UK’s borders. They do not need prior authority or suspicion, but may only stop and question people for the purpose of determining whether the individual may be or have been concerned in the commission, preparation, or instigation of acts of terrorism.

Today this law means that anyone ariving at the UK border may be compelled to unlock access to data charting their entire lives. The Hansard record of the debate on the bill shows clearly that lawmakers foresaw problems: the classification of protesters as terrorists, the uselessness of fighting terrorism by imprisoning the innocent (Jeremy Corbyn), the reversal of the presumption of innocence. But they could not foresee how far-reaching the powers the bill granted would become.

The film’s framing story begins in November 2016, when Muhammed Rabbani arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport from Doha and was stopped and questioned by police under Schedule 7. They took his phone and laptop and asked for his passwords. He refused to supply them. On previous occasions, when he had similarly refused, they’d let him go. This time, he was arrested. Under Schedule 7, the penalty for such a refusal can be up to three months in jail.

Rabbani is managing director of CAGE International, a human rights organization that began by focusing on prisoners seized under the war on terror and expanded its mission to cover “confronting other rule of law abuses taking place under UK counter-terrorism strategy”. Rabbani’s refusal to disclose his passwords was, he said later, because he was carrying 30,000 confidential documents relating to a client’s case. A lawyer can claim client confidentiality, but not NGOs. In 2018, the appeals court ruled the password demands were lawful.

In September 2017, Rabbani was convicted. He was g iven a 12-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay £620 in costs. As Rabbani says in the film, “The law made me a terrorist.” No one suspected him of being a terrorist or placing anyone in danger; but the judge made clear she had no choice under the law and so he nonetheless has been convicted of a terrorism offense. On appeal in 2018, his conviction was upheld. We see him collect his returned devices – five years on from his original detention.

Britain is not the only country that regards him with suspicion. Citing his conviction, in 2023 France banned him, and, he claims, Poland deported him.

Unsurprisingly, CAGE is on the first list of groups that may be dubbed “extremist” under the new definition of extremism released last week by communities secretary Michael Gove. The direct consequence of this designation is a ban on participation in public life – chiefly, meetings with central and local government. The expansion of the meaning of “extremist”, however, is alarming activists on all sides.

Director Kate Stonehill tells the story of Rabbani’s detention partly through interviews and partly through a reenactment using wireframe-style graphics and a synthesized voice that reads out questions and answers from the interview transcripts. A cello of doom provides background ominance. Laced through this narrative are others. A retired law enforcement office teaches a class to use extraction and analysis tools, in which we see how extensive the information available to them really is. Ali Al-Marri and his lawyer review his six years of solitary detention as an enemy combatant in Charleston, South Carolina. Lastly, Stonehill calls on Ryan Gallegher’s reporting, which exposed the titular Phantom Parrot, the program to exploit the data retained under Schedule 7. There are no records of how many downloads have been taken.

The retired law enforcement officer’s class is practically satire. While saying that he himself doesn’t want to be tracked for safety reasons, he tells students to grab all the data they can when they have the opportunity. They are in Texas: “Consent’s not even a problem.” Start thinking outside of the box, he tells them.

What the film does not stress is this: rights are largely suspended at all borders. In 2022, the UK extended Schedule 7 powers to include migrants and refugees arriving in boats.

The movie’s future is bleak. At the Chaos Computer Congress, a speaker warns that gait recognition, eye movement detection, and speech analysis (accents, emotion) and and other types of analysis will be much harder to escape and enable watchers to do far more with the ever-vaster stores of data collected from and about each of us.

“These powers are capable of being misused,” said Douglas Hogg in the 1999 Commons debate. “Most powers that are capable of being misused will be misused.” The bill passed 210-1.

Illustrations: Still shot from the wireframe reenactment of Rabbani’s questioning in Phantom Parrot.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

Competitive instincts

This week – Wednesday, March 6 – saw the EU’s Digital Markets Act come into force. As The Verge reminds us, the law is intended to give users more choice and control by forcing technology’s six biggest “gatekeepers” to embrace interoperability and avoid preferencing their own offerings across 22 specified services. The six: Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, ByteDance, Meta, and Microsoft. Alphabet’s covered list is the longest: advertising, app store, search engine, maps, and shopping, plus Android, Chrome, and YouTube. For Apple, it’s the app store, operating system, and web browser. Meta’s list includes Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram, plus Messenger, Ads, and Facebook Marketplace. Amazon: third-party marketplace and advertising business. Microsoft: Windows and internal features. ByteDance just has TikTok.

The point is to enable greater competition by making it easier for us to pick a different web browser, uninstall unwanted features (like Cortana), or refuse the collection and use of data to target us with personalized ads. Some companies are haggling. Meta, for example, is trying to get Messenger and Marketplace off the list, while Apple has managed to get iMessage removed from the list. More notably, though, the changes Apple is making to support third-party app stores have been widely cricitized as undermining any hope of success for independents.

Americans visiting Europe are routinely astonished at the number of cookie consent banners that pop up as they browse the web. Comments on Mastodon this week have reminded that this was their churlish choice to implement the 2009 Cookie Directive and 2018 General Data Protection Regulation in user-hostile ways. It remains to be seen how grown-up the technology companies will be in this new round of legal constraints. Punishing users won’t get the EU law changed.

***

The last couple of weeks have seen a few significant outages among Internet services. Two weeks ago, AT&T’s wireless service went down for many hours across the US after a failed software update. On Tuesday, while millions of Americans were voting in the presidential primaries, it was Meta’s turn, when a “technical issue” took out both Facebook and Instagram (and with the latter, Threads) for a couple of hours. Concurrently but separately, users of Ad Manager had trouble logging in at Google, and users of Microsoft Teams and exTwitter also reported some problems. Ironically, Meta’s outage could have been fixed faster if the engineers trying to fix it hadn’t had trouble gaining remote access to the servers they needed to fix (and couldn’t gain access to the physical building because their passes didn’t work either).

Outages like these should serve as reminders not to put all your login eggs in one virtual container. If you use Facebook to log into other sites, besides the visibility you’re giving Meta into your activities elsewhere, those sites will be inaccessible any time Facebook goes down. In the case of AT&T, one reason this outage was so disturbing – the FTC is formally investigating it – is that the company has applied to get rid of its landlines in California. While lots of people no longer have landlines, they’re important in rural areas where cell service can be spotty, some services such as home alarm systems and other equipment depend on them, and they function in emergencies when electric power fails.

But they should also remind that the infrastructure we’re deprecating in favor of “modern” Internet stuff was more robust than the new systems we’re increasingly relying on. A home with smart devices that cannot function without an uninterrupted Internet connection is far more fragile and has more points of failure than one without them, just as you can read a paper map when your phone is dead. At The Verge, Jennifer Pattison Tuohy tests a bunch of smart kitchen appliances including a faucet you can operate via Alexa or Google voice assistants. As in digital microwave ovens, telling the faucet the exact temperature and flow rate you want…seems unnecessarily detailed. “Connect with your water like never before,” the faucet manufacturer’s website says. Given the direction of travel of many companies today, I don’t want new points of failure between me and water.

***

It has – already! – been three years since Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code led to Facebook and Google signing three-year deals that have primarily benefited Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, owner of most of Australia’s press. A week ago, Meta announced it will not renew the agreement. At The Conversation, Rod Sims, who chaired the commission that formulated the law, argues it’s time to force Meta into the arbitration the code created. At ABC Science, however, James Purtill counters that the often “toxic” relationship between Facebook and news publishers means that forcing the issue won’t solve the core problem of how to pay for news, since advertising has found elsewheres it would rather be. (Separately, in Europe, 32 media organizations covering 17 countries have filed a €2.1 billion lawsuit against Google, matching a similar one filed last year in the UK, alleging that the company abused its dominant position to deprive them of advertising revenue.)

Purtill predicts, I think correctly, that attempting to force Meta to pay up will instead bring Facebook to ban news, as in Canada, following the passage of a similar law. Facebook needed news once; it doesn’t now. But societies do. Suddenly, I’m glad to pay the BBC’s license fee.

Illustrations: Red deer (via Wikimedia.)

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

To tell the truth

It was toward the end of Craig Wright’s cross-examination on Wednesday when, for the first time in many days, he was lost for words. Wright is in court because the non-profit Crypto Open Patent Alliance seeks a ruling that he is not, as he claims, bitcoin inventor Satoshi Nakomoto, who was last unambiguously heard from in 2011.

Over the preceding days, Wright had repeatedly insisted “I am the real Satoshi” and disputed forensic analysis – anachronistic fonts, metadata, time stamps – pronouncing his proffered proofs forgeries.. He was consistently truculent, verbose, and dismissive of everyone’s expertise but his own and of everyone’s degrees except the ones he holds. For example: “Meiklejohn has not studied cryptography in any depth,” he said of Sarah Meiklejohn, the now-professor who as a student in 2013 showed that bitcoin transactions are traceable. In a favorite moment, Jonathan Hough, KC, who did most of the cross-examination, interrupted a diatribe about the failings of the press with, “Moving on from your expertise on journalism, Dr Wright…”

Participants in a drinking game based on his saying “That is not correct” would be dead of alcohol poisoning. In between, he insisted several times that he never wanted to be outed as Satoshi, and wishes that everyone would “leave me alone and let me invent”. Any money he is awarded in court he will give to charities ; he wants nothing for himself.

But at the moment we began with he was visibly stumped. The question, regarding a variable on a Github page: “Do you know what unsigned means?”

Wright: “Basically, an unsigned variable…it’s not an integer with…it’s larger. I’m not sure how to say it.”

Lawyer: “Try.”

Wright: “How I’d describe it, I’m not quite sure. I’m not good with trying to do things like this.” He could explain it easily in writing… (Transcription by Norbert on exTwitter.)

The lawyer explained it thusly: an unsigned variable cannot be a negative number.

“I understand that, but would I have thought of saying it in such a simple way? No.”

Experience as a journalist teaches you that the better you understand something the more simply and easily you can explain it. Wright’s inability to answer blew the inadequately bolted door plug out of his world’s expert persona. Everything until then could be contested: the stomped hard drive, the emails he wrote, or didn’t write, or wrote only one sentence of, the allegations that he had doctored old documents to make it look like he had been thinking about bitcoin before the publication of Satoshi’s foundational 2008 paper. But there’s no disguising lack of basic knowledge. “Should have been easy,” says a security professor (tenured, chaired) friend.

Normally, cryptography removes ambiguity. This is especially true of public key cryptography and its complementary pair of public and private keys. Being able to decrypt something with a well-attested public key is clear proof that it was encrypted with the complementary private key. Contrariwise, if a specific private key decrypts it, you know that key’s owner is the intended recipient. In both cases, as a bonus, you get proof that the text has not been altered since its encryption. It *ought* to be simple for Wright to support his claim by using Satoshi’s private keys. If he can’t do that, he must present a reason and rely on weaker alternatives.

Courts of law, on the other hand, operate on the balance of probabilities. They don’t remove ambiguity; they study it. Wright’s case is therefore a cultural clash, with far-reaching consequences. COPA is complaining that Wright’s repeated intellectual property lawsuits against developers working on bitcoin projects are expensive in both money and time. Soon after the unsigned variable exchange, the lawyer asked Wright what he will do if the court rules against him. “Move on to patents,” Wright said. He claims thousands of patents relating to bitcoin and the blockchain, and a brief glance at Google Patents shows many filings, some granted.

However this case comes out, therefore, it seems likely Wright will continue to try to control bitcoin. Wright insists that bitcoin isn’t meant to be “digital gold”, but that its true purpose is to facilitate micropayments. I haven’t “studied bitcoin in any depth” (as he might say), but as far as I can tell it’s far too slow, too resource-intensive, and too volatile to be used that way. COPA argues, I think correctly, that it’s the opposite of the world enshrined in Satoshi’s original paper; its whole point was to use cryptography to create the blockchain as a publicly attested, open, shared database that could eliminate central authorities such as banks.

In the Agatha Christie version of this tale, most likely Wright would be an imposter, an early hanger-on who took advantage of the gap formed by Satoshi’s disappearance and the deaths of other significant candidates. Dorothy Sayers would have Lord Peter Wimsey display unexpected mathematical brilliance to improve on Satoshi’s work, find him, and persuade him to turn over his keys and documents to king and country. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have both Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes on the trail. Holmes would get there first and send him into protection to ensure Morarty couldn’t take criminal advantage. And then the whole thing would be hushed up in the public interest.

The case continues.

Illustrations: The cryptographic code from “The Dancing Men”, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Nefarious

Torrentfreak is reporting that OCLC, owner of the WorldCat database of bibliographic records, is suing the “shadow library” search engine Anna’s Archive. The claim: that Anna’s Archive hacked into WorldCat, copied 2.2TB of records, and posted them publicly.

Shadow libraries are the text version of “pirate” sites. The best-known is probably Sci-Hub, which provides free access to hundreds of thousands of articles from (typically expensive) scientific journals. Others such as Library Genesis and sites on the dark web offer ebooks. Anna’s Archive indexes as many of these collections as it can find; it was set up in November 2022, shortly after the web domains belonging to the then-largest of these book libraries, Z-Library, were seized by the US Department of Justice. Z-Library has since been rebuilt on the dark web, though it remains under attack by publishers and law enforcement.

Anna’s Archive also includes some links to the unquestionably legal and long-running Gutenberg Project, which publishes titles in the public domain in a wide variety of formats.

The OCLC-Anna’s Archive case has a number of familiar elements that are variants of long-running themes, open versus gatekept being the most prominent. Like many such sites (post-Napster), Anna’s Archive does not host files itself. That’s no protection from the law; authorities in various countries from have nonetheless blocked or seized the domains belonging to such sites. But OCLC is not a publisher or rights holder, although it takes large swipes at Anna’s Archive for lawlessness and copyright infringement. Instead, it says Anna’s Archive hacked WorldCat, violating its terms and conditions, disrupting its business arrangements, and costing it $1.4 million and 10,000 employee hours in system remediation. Second, it complains that Anna’s Archive has posted the data in the aggregate for public download, and is “actively encouraging nefarious use of the data”. Other than the use of “nefarious”, there seems little to dispute about either claim; Anna’s Archive published the details in an October 2023 blog posting.

Anna’s Archive describes this process as “preserving” the world’s books for public access. OCLC describes it as “tortious inference” with its business. It wants the court to issue injunctive relief to make the scraping and use of the data stop, compensatory damages in excess of $75,000, punitive damages, costs, and whatever else the court sees fit. The sole named defendant is a US citizen, María A. Matienzo, thought to be resident near Seattle. If the identification and location are correct, that’s a high-risk situation to be in.

In the blog posting, Anna’s Archive writes that its initial goal was to answer the question of what percentage of the world’s published books are held in shadow libraries and create a to-do list of gaps to fill. To answer these questions, they began by scraping ISBNdb, the database of publications with ISBNs, which only came into use in 1970. When the overlap with the Internet Archive’s Open Library and the seized Z-library was less than they hoped, they turned to Worldcat. At that point, they openly say that security flaws in the fortuitously redesigned Worldcat website allowed them to grab more or less the comprehensive set of records. While scraped“>scraping can be legal, exploiting security flaws to gain unauthorized access to a computer system likely violates the widely criticized Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986), which could be a felony. OCLC has, however, brought a civil case.

Anna’s Archive also searches the Internet Archive’s Open Library, founded in 2006. In 2009, co-creator Aaron Swartz told me that he believed the creation of Open Library pushed OCLC into opening up greater public access to the basic tier of its bibliographic data. The Open Library currently has its own legal troubles; it lost in court in August 2023 after Hachette sued it for copyright infringement. The Internet Archive is appealing; in the meantime it is required to remove on request of any member of the American Asociation of Publishers any book commercially available in electronic format.

OCLC began life as the Ohio Library College Library Center; its WorldCat database is a collaboration between it and its member libraries to create a shared database of bibliographic records and enable online cataloguing. The last time I wrote about it, in 2009, critics were complaining that libraries in general were failing to bring book data onto the open web. It has gotten a lot better in the years since, and many local libraries are now searchable online and enable their card holders to borrow from their holdings of ebooks over the web.

The fact that it’s now often possible to borrow ebooks from libraries should mean there’s less reason to use unauthorized sites. Nonetheless, these still appeal: they have the largest catalogues, the most convenient access, DRM-free files, and no time limits, so you can read them at your leisure using the full-featured reader you prefer.

In my 2009 piece, an OCLC spokesperson fretted about “over-exploitation”, which there would be no good way to maintain or update countless unknown scattered pockets of data, seemingly a solvable problem.

OCLC and its member libraries are all non-profit organizations ultimately funded by taxpayers. The data they collect has one overriding purpose: to facilitate public access to libraries’ holdings by showing who holds what books in which editions. What are “nefarious” uses? Arguably, the data they collect should be public by right. But that’s not the question the courts will decide.

Illustrations: The New York Public Library, built 1911 (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Objects of copyright

Back at the beginning, the Internet was going to open up museums to those who can’t travel to them. Today…

At the Art Newspaper, Bender Grosvenor reports that a November judgment from the UK Court of Appeal means museums can’t go on claiming copyright in photographs of public domain art works. Museums have used this claim to create costly licensing schemes. For art history books and dissertations that need the images for discussion, the costs are often prohibitive. And, it turns out, the “GLAM” (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) sector isn’t even profiting from it.

Grosvenor cites figures: the National Gallery alone lost £31,000 on its licensing scheme in 2021-2022 (how? is left as an exercise for the reader). This figure was familiar: Douglas McCarthy, whom the article quotes, cited it at gikii 2023. As an ongoing project with Andrea Wallace, McCarthy co-runs the Open GLAM survey, which collects data to show the state of open access in this sector.

In his talk, McCarthy, an art historian by training and the head of the Library Learning Center at Delft University of Technology, showed that *most* such schemes are losing money. The National Gallery of Liverpool, for example, lost £71,873 on licensing activities between 2018 and 2023.

Like Grosvenor, McCarthy noted that the scholars whose work underpins the work of museums and libraries, are finding it increasingly difficult to afford that work. One of McCarthy’s examples was St Andrews art history professor Kathryn M. Rudy, who summed up her struggles in a 2019 piece for Times Higher Education: “The more I publish, the poorer I get.”

Rudy’s problem is that publishing in art history, as necessary for university hiring and promotions, requires the use of images of the works under discussion. In her own case, the 1,419 images she needed to use to publish six monographs and 15 articles have consumed most of her disposable income. To be fair, licensing fees are only part of this. She also lists travel to view offline collecctions, the costs of attending conferences, data storage, academic publishers’ production fees, and paying for the copies of books contracts require her to send the libraries supplying the images; some of this is covered by her university. But much of those extra costs come from licensing fees that add up to thousands of pounds for the material necessary for a single book: reproduction fees, charges for buying high-resolution copies for publication, and even, when institutions allow it at all, fees for photographing images in situ using her phone. Yet these institutions are publicly funded, and the works she is photographing have been bought with money provided by taxpayers.

On the face of it, THJ v. Sheridan, as explained by the law firm the law firm Pennington, Manches, Cooper in a legal summary, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the GLAM sector. Instead, the central copyright claim was regarding the defendant software used in webinars and presentations. However, the point, as the Kluwer Copyright blog explains, was deciding which test to apply to decide whether a copyrighted work is original.

In court, THJ, a UK-based software development firm, claimed that Daniel Sheridan, a US options trading mentor and former licensee, had misrepresented its software as his own and had violated THJ’s copyright by using the software after his license agreement expired by including images of the software in his presentations. One of THJ’s two claims failed on the basis that the THJ logo and copyright notices were displayed throughout the presentation.

The second is the one that interests us here: THJ claimed copyright in the images of its software based on the 1988 Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act. The judge, however, ruled that while the CDPA applies to the software, images of the software’s graphical interface are not covered; to constitute infringement Sheridan would have had to communicate the images to the UK public. In analyzing the judgment, Grosvenor pulled out the requirements for copyright to apply: that making the images required some skill and labor on the part of the person or organization making the claim. By definition, this can’t be true of a photograph of a painting, which needs to be as accurate a representation as possible.

Grosvenor has been on this topic for a while. In 2017, he issued a call to arms in Art History News, arguing that image reproduction fees are “killing art history”.

In 2017, Grosvenor was hopeful, because US museums and a few European ones were beginning to do away with copyright claims and licensing fees and finding that releasing the images to the public to be used for free in any context created value in the form of increased discussion, broadcast, and visibility. Progress continues, as McCarthy’s data shows, but inconsistently: last year the incoming Italian government reversed its predecessor’s stance by bringing back reproduction fees even for scientific journals.

Granted, all of the GLAM sector is cash-strapped and is desperately seeking new sources of income. But these copyright claims seem particularly backwards. It ought to be obvious that the more widely images of an institution’s holdings are published the more people will want to see the original; greater discussion of these art works would seem to fulfill their mission of education. Opening all this up would seem to be a no-brainer. Whether the GLAM folks like it or not, the judge did them a favor.

Illustrations: “Harpist”, from antiphonal, Cambrai or Tournai c. 1260-1270, LA, Getty Museum, Ms. 44/Ludwig VI 5, p. 115 (via Discarding Images).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Infallibile

It’s a peculiarity of the software industry that no one accepts product liability. If your word processor gibbers your manuscript, if your calculator can’t subtract, if your phone’s security hole results in your bank account’s being drained, if a chatbot produces entirely false results….it’s your problem, not the software company’s. As software starts driving cars, running electrical grids, and deciding who gets state benefits, the lack of liability will matter in new and dangerous ways. In his 2006 paper, The Economics of Information Security, Ross Anderson writes about the “moral-hazard effect” connection between liability and fraud: if you are not liable, you become lazy and careless. Hold that thought.

To it add: in the British courts, there is a legal presumption that computers are reliable. Suggestions that this law should be changed go back at least 15 years, but this week they gained new force. It sounds absurd if applied to today’s complex computer systems, but the law was framed with smaller mechanical devices such as watches and Breathalyzers in mind. It means, however, that someone – say a subpostmaster – accused of theft has to find a way to show the accounting system computer was not operating correctly.

Put those two factors together and you get the beginnings of the Post Office Horizon scandal, which currently occupies just about all of Britain following ITV’s New Year’s airing of the four-part drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

For those elsewhere: this is the Post Office Horizon case, which is thought to be one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history. The vast majority of the country’s post offices are run by subpostmasters, each of whom runs their own business under a lengthy and detailed contract. Many, as I learned in 2004, operate their post office counters inside other businesses; most are news agents, but some share old police stations and hairdressers.

In 1999, the Post Office began rolling out the “Horizon” computer accounting system, which was developed by ICL, formerly a British company but by then owned by Fujitsu. Subpostmasters soon began complaining that the new system reported shortfalls where none existed. Under their contract, subpostmasters bore all liability for discrepancies. The Post Office accordingly demanded payment and prosecuted those from whom it was not forthcoming. Many lost their businesses, their reputations, their homes, and much of their lives, and some were criminally convicted.

In May 2009, Karl Flinders published the first of dozens of articles on the growing scandal. Perhaps most important: she located seven subpostmasters who were willing to be identified. Soon afterwards, Welsh former subpostmaster Alan Bates convened the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, which continues to press for exoneration and compensation for the many hundreds of victims.

Pieces of this saga were known, particularly after a 2015 BBC Panorama documentary. Following the drama’s airing, the UK government is planning legislation to exonerate all the Horizon victims and fast-track compensation. The program has also drawn new attention to the ongoing public inquiry, which…makes the Post Office look so much worse, as do the Panorama team’s revelations of its attempts to suppress the evidence they uncovered. The Metropolitan Police is investigating the Post Office for fraud.

Two elements stand out in this horrifying saga. First: each subpostmaster calling the help line for assistance was told they were the only one having trouble with the system. They were further isolated by being required to sign NDAs. Second: the Post Office insisted that the system was “robust” – that is, “doesn’t make mistakes”. The defendants were doubly screwed; only their accuser had access to the data that could prove their claim that the computer was flawed, and they had no view of the systemic pattern.

It’s extraordinary that the presumption of reliability has persisted this long, since “infallibility” is the claim the banks made when customers began reporting phantom withdrawals years ago, as Ross Anderson discussed in his 1993 paper Why Cryptosystems Fail (PDF). Thirty years later, no one should be trusting any computer system so blindly. Granted, in many cases, doing what the computer says is how you keep your job, but that shouldn’t apply to judges. Or CEOs.

At the Guardian, Alex Hern reports that legal and computer experts have been urging the government to update the law to remove the legal presumption of reliability, especially given the rise of machine learning systems whose probabilistic nature means they don’t behave predictably. We are not yet seeing calls for the imposition of software liability, though the Guardian reports there are suggestions that if the onoing public inquiry finds Fujitsu culpable for producing a faulty system the company should be required to repay the money it was paid for it. The point, experts tell me, is not that product liability would make these companies more willing to admit their mistakes, but that liability would make them and their suppliers more careful to ensure up front the quality of the systems they build and deploy.

The Post Office saga is a perfect example of Anderson’s moral hazard. The Post Office laid off its liability onto the subpostmasters but retained the right to conduct investigations and prosecutions. When the deck is so stacked, you have to expect a collapsed house of cards. And, as Chris Grey writes, the government’s refusal to give UK-resident EU citizens physical proof of status means it’s happening again.

Illustrations: Local post office.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Relativity

“Status: closed,” the website read. It gave the time as 10:30 p.m.

Except it wasn’t. It was 5:30 p.m., and the store was very much open. The website, instead of consulting the time zone the store – I mean, the store’s particular branch whose hours and address I had looked up – was in was taking the time from my laptop. Which I hadn’t bothered to switch to the US east coat from Britain because I can subtract five hours in my head and why bother?

Years ago, I remember writing a rant (which I now cannot find) about the “myness” of modern computers: My Computer, My Documents. My account. And so on, like a demented two-year-old who needed to learn to share. The notion that the time on my laptop determined whether or not the store was open had something of the same feel: the computational universe I inhabit is designed to revolve around me, and any dispute with reality is someone else’s problem.

Modern social media have hardened this approach. I say “modern” because back in the days of bulletin board systems, information services, and Usenet, postings were time- and date-stamped with when they were sent and specifying a time zone. Now, every post is labelled “2m” or “30s” or “1d”, so the actual date and time are hidden behind their relationship to “now”. It’s like those maps that rotate along with you so wherever you’re pointed physically is at the top. I guess it works for some people, but I find it disorienting; instead of the map orienting itself to me, I want to orient myself to the map. This seems to me my proper (infinitesimal) place in the universe.

All of this leads up to the revival of software agents. This was a Big Idea in the late 1990s/early 2000s, when it was commonplace to think that the era of having to make appointments and book train tickets was almost over. Instead, software agents configured with your preferences would do the negotiating for you. Discussions of this sort of thing died away as the technology never arrived. Generative AI has brought this idea back, at least to some extent, particularly in the financial area, where smart contracts can be used to set rules and then run automatically. I think only people who never have to worry about being able to afford anything will like this. But they may be the only ones the “market” cares about.

Somewhere during the time when software agents were originally mooted, I happened to sit at a conference dinner with the University of Maryland human-computer interaction expert Ben Shneiderman. There are, he said, two distinct schools of thought in software. In one, software is meant to adapt to the human using it – think of predictive text and smartphones as an example. In the other, software is consistent, and while using it may be repetitive, you always know that x command or action will produce y result. If I remember correctly, both Shneiderman and I were of the “want consistency” school.

Philosophically, though, these twin approaches have something in common with seeing the universe as if the sun went around the earth as against the earth going around the sun. The first of those makes our planet and, by extension, us far more important in the universe than we really are. The second cuts us down to size. No surprise, then, if the techbros who build these things, like the Catholic church in Galileo’s day, prefer the former.

***

Politico has started the year by warning that the UK is seeking to expand its surveillance regime even further by amending the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act. Unnoticed in the run-up to Christmas, the industry body techUK sent a letter to “express our concerns”. The short version: the bill expands the definition of “telecommunications operator” to include non-UK providers when operating outside the UK; allows the Home Office to require companies to seek permission before making changes to a privately and uniquely specified list of services; and the government wants to whip it through Parliament as fast as possible.

No, no, Politico reports the Home Office told the House of Lords, it supports innovation and isn’t threatening encryption. These are minor technical changes. But: “public safety”. With the ink barely dry on the Online Safety Act, here we go again.

***

As data breaches go, the one recently reported by 23andMe is alarming. By using passwords exposed in previous breaches (“credential stuffing”) to break into 14,000 accounts, attackers gained access to 6.9 million account profiles. The reason is reminiscent of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where access to a few hundred thousand Facebook accounts was leveraged to obtain the data of millions: people turned on “DNA Relatives to allow themselves to be found by those searching for genetic relatives. The company, which afterwards turned on a requireme\nt for two-factor authentication, is fending off dozens of lawsuits by blaming the users for reusing passwords. According to Gizmodo, the legal messiness is considerable, as the company recently changed its terms and conditions to make arbitration more difficult and litigation almost impossible.

There’s nothing good to say about a data breach like this or a company that handles such sensitive data with such disdainx. But it’s yet one more reason why putting yourself at the center of the universe is bad hoodoo.

Illustrations: DNA strands (via Wikimedia.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Game of carrots

The big news of the week has been the result of the Epic Games v. Google antitrust trial. A California jury took four hours to agree with Epic that Google had illegally tied together its Play Store and billing service, so that app makers could only use the Play Store to distribute their apps if they also used Google’s service for billing, giving Google a 30% commission. Sort of like, I own half the roads in this town, and if you want to sell anything to my road users you have to have a store in my mall and pay me a third of your sales revenue, and if you don’t like it, tough, because you can’t reach my road users any other way. Meanwhile, the owner of the other half of the town’s roads is doing exactly the same thing, so you can’t win.

At his BIG Substack, antitrust specialist Matt Stoller, who has been following the trial closely, gloats, “the breakup of Big Tech begins”. Maybe not so fast: Epic lost its similar case against Apple. Both of these cases are subject to appeal. Stoller suggests, however, that the latest judgment will carry more weight because it came from a jury of ordinary citizens rather than, as in the Apple case, a single judge. Stoller believes the precedent set by a jury trial is harder to ignore in future cases.

At The Verge, Sean Hollister, who has been covering the trial in detail, offers a summary of 20 key points he felt the trial established. Written before the verdict, Hollister’s assessment of Epic’s chances proved correct.

Even if the judgment is upheld in the higher courts, it will be a while before users see any effects. But: even if the judgment is overturned in the higher courts, my guess is that the technology companies will begin to change their behavior at least a bit, in self-defense. The real question is, what changes will benefit us, the people whose lives are increasingly dominated by these phones?

I personally would like it to be much easier to use an Android phone without ever creating a Google account, and to be confident that the phone isn’t sending masses of tracking data to either Google or the phone’s manufacturer.

But…I would still like to be able to download the apps I want from a source I can trust. I care less about who provides the source than I do about what data they collect about me and the cost.

I want that source to be easy to access, easy to use, and well-stocked, defining “well-stocked” as “has the apps I want” (which, granted, is a short list). The nearest analogy that springs to mind is TV channels. You don’t really care what channel the show you want to watch is on; you just want to be able to watch the show without too much hassle. If there weren’t so many rights holders running their own streaming services, the most sensible business logic would be for every show to be on every service. Then instead of competing on their catalogues, the services would be competing on privacy, or interface design, or price. Why shouldn’t we have independent app stores like that?

Mobile phones have always been more tightly controlled than the world of desktop computing, largely because they grew out of the tightly controlled telecommunications world. Desktop computing, like the Internet, served first the needs of the military and academic research, and they remain largely open even when they’re made by the same companies who make mobile phone operating systems. Desktop systems also developed at a time when American antitrust law still sought to increase competition.

It did not stay that way. As current FTC chair Lina Khan made her name pointing out in 2017, antitrust thinking for the last several decades has been limited to measuring consumer prices. The last big US antitrust case to focus on market effects was Microsoft, back in 1995. In the years since, it’s been left to the EU to act as the world’s antitrust enforcer. Against Google, the EU has filed three cases since 2010: over Shopping (Google was found guilty in 2017 and fined €2.4 billion, upheld on appeal in 2021); Android, over Google apps and the Play Store (Google was found guilty in 2018 and fined €4.3 billion and required to change some of its practices); and AdSense (fined €1.49 billion in 2019). But fines – even if the billions eventually add up to real money – don’t matter enough to companies with revenues the size of Google’s. Being ordered to restructure its app store might.

At the New York Times, Steve Lohr compares the Microsoft and Epic v Google cases. Microsoft used its contracts with PC makers to prevent them from preinstalling its main web browser rival, Netscape, in order to own users’ path into the accelerating digital economy. Google’s contracts instead paid Apple, Samsung, Mozilla, and others to favor it on their systems – “carrots instead of sticks,” NYU law professor Harry First told Lohr.

The best thing about all this is that the Epic jury was not dazzled by the incomprehensibility effect of new technology. Principles are coming back into focus. Tying – leveraging your control over one market in order to dominate another – is no different if you say it in app stores than if you say it in gas stations or movie theaters.

Illustrations: “The kind of anti-trust legislation that is needed”, by J.S. Pughe (via Library of Congress).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

Surveillance machines on wheels

After much wrangling and with just a few days of legislative time between the summer holidays and the party conference season, on Tuesday night the British Parliament passed the Online Safety bill, which will become law as soon as it gets royally signed (assuming they can find a pen that doesn’t leak). The government announcement brims with propagandist ecstasy, while the Open Rights Group’s statement offers the reality: Briton’s online lives will be less secure as a result. Which means everyone’s will.

Parliament – and the net.wars archive – dates the current version of this bill to 2022, and the online harms white paper on which it’s based to 2020. But it *feels* like it’s been a much longer slog; I want to say six years.

This is largely because the fight over two key elements – access to encrypted messaging and age verification – *is* that old. Age verification was enshrined in the Digital Economy Act (2017), and we reviewed the contenders to implement it in 2016. If it’s ever really implemented, age verification will make Britain the most frustrating place in the world to be online.

Fights over strong encryption have been going on for 30 years. In that time, no new mathematics has appeared to change the fact that it’s not possible to create a cryptographic hole that only “good guys” can use. Nothing will change about that; technical experts will continue to try to explain to politicians that you can have secure communications or you can have access on demand, but you can’t have both.

***

At the New York Times, Farhood Manjou writes that while almost every other industry understands that the huge generation of aging Boomers is a business opportunity, outside of health care Silicon Valley is still resolutely focused on under-30s. This, even though the titans themselves age; boy-king Mark Zuckerberg is almost 40. Hey, it’s California; they want to turn back aging, not accept it.

Manjou struggles to imagine the specific directions products might take, but I like his main point: where’s the fun? What is this idea that after 65 you’re just something to send a robot to check up on? Yes, age often brings impairments, but why not build for them? You would think that given the right affordances, virtual worlds and online games would have a lot to offer people whose lives are becoming more constrained.

It’s true that by the time you realize that ageism pervades our society you’re old enough that no one’s listening to you any more. But even younger people must struggle with many modern IT practices: the pale, grey type that pervades the web, the picklists, the hidden passwords you have to type twice… And captchas, which often display on my desktop too small to see clearly and are resistant to resizing upwards. Bots are better at captchas than humans anyway, so what *is* the point?

We’re basically back where we were 30 years ago, when the new discipline of human-computer interaction fought to convince developers that if the people who struggle to operate their products look stupid the problem is bad design. And all this is coming much more dangerously to cars; touch screens that can’t be operated by feel are Exhibit A.

***

But there is much that’s worse about modern cars. A few weeks ago, the Mozilla Foundation published a report reviewing the privacy of modern cars. Tl;dr: “Cars are the worst product category we have ever reviewed for privacy.”

The problems are universal across the 25 brands Mozilla researchers Jen Caltrider, Misha Rykov, and Zoë MacDonald reviewed: “Modern cars are surveillance-machines on wheels souped-up with sensors, radars, cameras, telematics, and apps that can detect everything we do inside.” Cars can collect all the data that phones and smart home devices can. But unlike phones, space is a non-issue, and unlike smart speakers, video cameras, and thermostats, cars move with you and watch where you go. Drivers, passengers, passing pedestrians…all are fodder for data collection in the new automotive industry, where heated seats and unlocking extra battery range are subscription add-ons, and the car you buy isn’t any more yours than the £6-per-hour Zipcar in the designated space around the corner.

Then there are just some really weird clauses in the companies’ privacy policies. Some collect “genetic data” (here the question that arises is not only “why?” but “how?). Nissan says it can collect information about owners’ “sexual activity” for use in “direct marketing” or to share with marketing partners. ” The researchers ask, “What on earth kind of campaign are you planning, Nissan?”

Still unknown: whether the data is encrypted while held on the car; how securely it’s held; and whether the companies will resist law enforcement requests at all. We do know that that car companies share and sell the masses of intimate information they collect, especially the cars’ telematics with insurance companies.

The researchers also note that new features allow unprecedented levels of control. VW’s Car-Net, for example, allows parents – or abusers – to receive a phone alert if the car is driven outside of set hours or in or near certain locations. Ford has filed a patent on a system for punishing drivers who miss car payments.

“I got old at the right time,” a friend said in 2019. You can see his point.

Illustrations: Artist Dominic Wilcox‘s imagined driverless sleeper car of the future, as seen at the Science Museum in 2019.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon