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Privacy and property
Some things you can’t upload; others you must

12/22/11
By John Andrews jandrews@hippopress.com



Depending on your perspective, it’s either a great time or a terrible time for your online liberties. While a controversial anti-piracy bill makes its way through Congress, the public is also learning about a company that’s had access to sensitive customer information. The good part about that is, well, at least we’re finding out about it.

The first thing comes in two parts: the House version, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA); and the Senate version, the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP Act). Though their language differs, they both aim to prevent the unauthorized distribution of intellectual property, like music and movies, on the Internet. Perfectly legitimate purpose, but the way they go about that has many folks up in arms.

SOPA and PROTECT IP would require ad networks and payment processors to cut ties with any site breaking intellectual property laws as determined in a court order. The U.S. Department of Justice could also force search engines to remove the site from their listings, and Internet service providers could be told to redirect users away from infringing sites. All this would apply not just to pirated entertainment content, but things like counterfeit drugs and fake branded merchandise.

A court order, critics say, is not a trial, and effectively blotting out an entire site when only one small part might be infringing is draconian. YouTube, for example, hosts plenty of videos uploaded by users without the rights to that content. But it’s also used by music, movie and television studios to promote their work. An alternative is the recently introduced OPEN Act, which goes through the International Trade Commission instead of the Department of Justice. It can be seen and discussed at KeepTheWebOpen.com.

Meanwhile, a company called CarrierIQ is getting some uncomfortable attention. It advertises itself as “the leading provider of mobile intelligence solutions to the telecommunications industry,” meaning it gathers and analyzes information on cell phones. It runs in the background and might not show up on a list of running apps, because it’s often bundled into diagnostic software installed by your wireless carrier.

What can it log? Oh, text messages, your Web browsing history, every single key you press, that kind of thing. It might not necessarily be doing all that, but it has the capability. AT&T and Sprint admitted putting CarrierIQ software on at least some of their phones, though Sprint has since said it would be disabling it. They also said customers agreed to it in their privacy policies — those long documents in tiny legalese print that no one ever reads. It’s all to improve network performance, they say.

Realistically, of course, it only makes sense that mobile providers would have access to the data that you send through their network. You’d expect them to pass it through without looking at it, though, so why even have the ability to collect it in a privacy-breaching manner?

Minnesota Senator Al Franken (yes, the one from Saturday Night Live) is spearheading the government’s skeptical reaction to these revelations. He’s also a co-sponsor of the PROTECT IP Act, so he and Internet populists might not see eye-to-eye on everything. Just like any other two people on the Internet.

There’s never ever a single controversial thing at twitter.com/CitizenjaQ.






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