Censorship and the Hollywood Sign

I read with interest some months ago a Gizmodo article entitled “Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps”. My interest came first as a freedom and digital rights advocate, and second as a frequent contributor to OpenStreetMap. The latter of these is particularly important as you will see shortly. (Yes, the article is a bit old, but the larger issues are just as important today, and will become no less important as time goes on.)

The Gizmodo article was written by Alissa Walker, who is perhaps best known for her blog awalkerinla.com and specifically this post from 2011 June entitled “The best way to see the Hollywood sign”. In the Gizmodo article, something very disturbing is noted: with the advent of GPS technology, area residents are resorting to putting pressure on the likes of Google, Apple, and Microsoft (Bing Maps) to divert those asking for directions to the Hollywood Sign to either Griffith Observatory or Hollywood & Highland Center.

Such is the problem with relying on corporations for one’s mapping data: corporations are controlled, in the end, by stockholders, who decide it’s in the corporation’s best interest to do such things to avoid a lawsuit. The article goes on to share Alissa’s own experience getting legal threats from a homeowner in the area of Lake Hollywood Park. The threat as quoted from the article:

Please immediately cease and desist from using 3204 Canyon Lake Drive and 6161 Mulholland [Hwy] or any other residence as the address for the Hollywood Sign and change the address to one of the two official viewing spots sanctioned by the Hollywood Sign Trust as shown in their map. The locations are: Griffith Park Observatory and the Hollywood and Highland Center…

Please be advised that up to this point your actions may have simply been due to an oversight of the local situation. However, should the address not be changed going forward, you may named in a lawsuit and be held liable for damages in an accident or due to your knowing and/or negligent continuing direction of visitors to the viewing spot at 3204 Canyon Lake Drive and 6161 Mulholland Hwy.

As mentioned later in the article, Alissa got some photos emailed to her as well from the same homeowner showing illegal parking attributed to her directions. The way I see it, the tourists driving in the area are the ones responsible for parking lawfully according to the laws of the state of California and the city laws of the appropriate city (whether Hollywood or otherwise). To pin vicarious liability on Alissa for the actions of others is absurd. Information, such as that Alissa gives out, carries with it the responsibility to use it wisely and obey the applicable laws. It is the same as if someone posted the location of a good fishing spot; the use of the information regarding the location of the spot would not be an excuse to violate daily catch limits or other boating regulations (unless the person posting the location were to do something stupid like include “warden never patrols this area” or “don’t worry about the limit”).

Alissa wrote another article for Gizmodo entitled “There Is No Such Thing As An Unbiased Map” a short time later. This one focuses more directly on OpenStreetMap, but also contains a couple of other gems. Such as this one:

“If I recall correctly, back in the days of MSN maps, searching for Infinite Loop in Cupertino [where Apple is headquartered] showed a blank spot on the MSN map, as if there wasn’t anything there,” said [former Code for America fellow Lyzi] Diamond. “There is no such thing as an accurate map. It’s all up to cartographers.”

Indeed, it’s a pretty low blow to blank out the campus of a competitor company on one’s own mapping service (though I would think trusting Microsoft to get you to an interview at Apple or Google is not exactly the brightest move either). But this is where OpenStreetMap (hereinafter OSM) really comes into play, as like Wikipedia, it maintains an audit trail of what was added, modified, or deleted, and by whom (at least a screen name, though I would assume the IP addresses are recorded as well somewhere). And yes, you can get accurate directions to the Hollywood sign using OSM data. The community behind OSM considers shenanigans like redirecting visitors to Griffith Park Observatory or Hollywood & Highland Center as vandalism, and rightfully so.

Would our angry homeowner really sue the OpenStreetMap Foundation, or any other non-profits that financially sustain OSM? It’s certainly possible, but I would like to think most people consider suing a non-profit to be off-limits. The mere existence of OSM, however, serves as a rather powerful check on the near-monopolies enjoyed by the likes of Google, Microsoft (Bing Maps), AOL (Mapquest), Apple, and others who, until OSM became a viable alternative, enjoyed an effective oligarchy on map data. Not only do I personally edit OSM, but I wish I could use OSM every time I needed to map something. As it is I still wind up using some other service (usually Google Maps) maybe 20% of the time as of this post.

Houston’s nominal equivalent of the Hollywood sign, the We Love Houston sign on the south side of I-10 near downtown, was among my additions to OpenStreetMap. And so far, there have not been similar issues regarding the We Love Houston sign; then again, it’s still relatively new, and while I admire and respect the work of David Adickes, I wouldn’t realistically expect it to be the same type of tourist draw in its infancy.

AT&T’s blame game: the Andrew Aurenheimer case

I haven’t been following the Andrew Aurenheimer case as closely as I perhaps should have.

But recently I read VentureBeat’s story of the night before and Rolling Stone’s story of the sentencing. And I find this case more than a bit unsettling.

Andrew’s alleged “crime” for which he will serve 41 months in Federal prison stems from a just plain boneheaded lapse in security on the part of AT&T, which Andrew was trying to get closed.

From the VentureBeat story:

During the summer of 2010, Auernheimer and co-defendant Danile
Spitler discovered that by querying AT&T’s iPad servers with a string of numbers that matched subscribers’ SIM card identifiers, AT&T’s servers would send back the unencrypted, unprotected email address of the AT&T customer, the iPad owner. AT&T had a massive security design flaw, which, as it admitted in Auernheimer’s one-week trial, was intentional: for subscriber convenience. After running the script to capture 114,000 email addresses of AT&T iPad subscribers, Auernheimer sent a list of the email addresses to Gawker to highlight the security hole. Gawker then printed them in redacted form.

Later in the VentureBeat story:

“We sent [HTTP] Get requests to a public API,” Auernheimer says. “They charged me with unauthorized access to a computerized device … and identity theft, which is a possession charge … if you walk down a street and write down physical addresses, you’re stealing identifiers, and you’re an identify thief.”

If you’re reading this, and thinking “this is just plain ludicrous” you’re not alone. If anyone should be prosecuted in a criminal court, it’s an AT&T employee for letting this happen. “Subscriber convenience” is an extremely poor excuse for this kind of thing.

The VentureBeat article goes into much more detail, which I’m not going to quote, on the implications. It would be one thing if Andrew had an AT&T employee’s password or similar access control information and got the 114,000 email addresses that way. But what Andrew’s trial sets as precedent is that any one of us could, in theory, be arrested just on the whims of the owner of an Internet-connected computer for what is perceived as “unauthorized access”.

It’s extremely difficult if not outright impossible to have a blog like this one for over four years, and throughout that entire time, completely avoid talking about someone who would rather not be talked about in a given context or even at all. In fact I know I’ve done this at least twice on this blog (probably more than that, but twice that I can easily remember). Based on this, if I access someone’s blog who doesn’t want me talking about them, to quote what they are saying, it can be labeled “unauthorized access”. And I could, in theory, be subject to the same 10 years in prison Andrew was facing, for accessing a public blog entry, the same way AT&T accidentally made public its subscriber info which it should not have. And so could anyone else, in theory. All they would need is a prosecutor willing to go along.

The EFF is leading the charge to reform the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act), the law under which Andrew was prosecuted. If you can help the EFF, please do so. I hope Andrew wins his appeal. Because if the court system is about justice, then the court system really failed us here, because this is quite emphatically not justice.

Taking a slice out of the DRM dragon

As recently reported in chron.com’s Techblog, the Librarian of Congress has approved a few important exceptions to the force of law afforded to digital restrictions management (DRM). This ruling has given the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) grounds to claim victory.

Most of these are long overdue. There were six items, I’m only going to touch on four of them.

The most-noted is that jailbreaking an iPhone, or for that matter, any similar mobile telephone or computing device, is not a DMCA violation now. There’s considerable doubt on whether it was a DMCA violation to begin with, but of course, it’s kind of moot now. This decision, while important, does not even come close to solving the issues with DRM on the iPhone. Apple can still refuse to honor the warranty for jailbroken iPhones and almost certainly will. Play Apple’s game, follow Apple’s rules, and bow to Apple’s whims. There’s still a very real risk that jailbreaking one’s iPhone will sooner or later “brick” it, and there are other laws which may apply to the DRM on an iPhone besides copyright. This ruling would appear at first glance to not necessarily apply to the iPad.

Another victory, which I consider the most important, is for cracking DVD copy protection (Content Scrambling System, or CSS, not to be confused with Cascading Style Sheets). The exceptions granted are for educational uses at colleges and universities, documentary filmmaking, and noncommercial videos. Curiously, the educational exception leaves out elementary and secondary schools. I doubt this was intentional, but either way, the big change is that tools such as DeCSS have substantial non-infringing uses now.

Yet another important victory in this ruling relates to ebooks which have disabled the read-aloud function via DRM. The fact this ruling had to be made to begin with shows just how far the draconian abuse of DRM can go. Maybe this will get the attention of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and yes, even Apple.

Finally, it’s now legally permissible to get around old dongle-based restrictions when the dongle is damaged, obsolete, and no longer being made. I’m surprised any software companies would use such obnoxious and environmentally unfriendly license restriction enforcement techniques today. Yet I do remember seeing reference to USB dongles some years ago, so it’s quite likely they are still being deployed in 2010.

A little sidenode here: my first experience with dongle-based license restriction enforcement is rather humorous. I remember an old golf game called Leader Board for my Atari 1200XL which came with such a device. It took me about five minutes in BASIC to figure out what it did (it appeared as a joystick with both the up and down switches shorted). Having noted this, I was able to rig up a broken joystick to mimic the dongle long after I could no longer find it.

Shining light on abuse of copyright for censorship

ReadWriteWeb recently reported on the EFF’s launching of its Takedown Hall of Shame. One of the most notable parts of this site-within-a-site is that there is a specific guide to YouTube video removals. (Aside: yes, I noticed the EFF is yet another organziation that insists upon using the loaded term “intellectual property” and maybe they are unaware of why it is so bad).

It’s sad that we even need something like this. Copyright is not inherently evil; as originally implemented, the Statute of Anne accomplished a quite noble goal when originally passed back in 1710. However, somehow, someway, we as a society (and it’s not just the US anymore, but most of the world) have gone from a reasonable, single 14-year term to what is a nominally limited term that in reality, may as well be perpetuity (70 years from the author’s death, 95 years from publication, 120 years from creation).

In addition, the entire concept of fair use has gone out the window. I wrote a bit about the NFL’s heavy-handed abuse of copyright back on 2009 January 15. (It’s been almost ten months, long enough for the next NFL season to have started, and nobody ever sent me a URL of a video of this play that is still online.) This is a clear example of fair use, about as clear as they get. And yet, YouTube yanks it because the NFL says “that’s copyrighted.”

I could go on and on. It’s time we move to restore copyright to some modicum of sanity: fourteen years, plus a fourteen year renewal, and then public domain. We also need more exceptions to allow for the preservation of works that would otherwise just disappear due to decay of the media onto which they are recorded.

Otherwise, we have something intended to encourage innovation, but which in fact discourages and destroy it. We don’t need that, and it’s time to wake up and realize that’s where we are headed. Don’t believe me? Patents are already being abused this way against computer software.

FCC takes aim at Apple and AT&T re: Google Voice app rejection

Fred von Lohmann, writing for the EFF Deeplinks blog, reports on the FCC’s investigation regarding the highly dubious and potentially anti-competitive rejection of a Google Voice app for the iPhone.

And my not-so-humble opinion, of course, can be summed up thusly: About damn time. Hopefully, a decision on this will be at least useful as some kind of precedent so that Apple’s out-of-control rejections of iPhone apps are at least reined in a bit.

One of the more interesting quotes from the blog entry:

When a dominant hardware platform vendor teams up with a dominant network services provider, and then selectively blocks or hobbles software applications on the platform, consumers should smell an anticompetitive rat. After all, if Microsoft had a veto right over every app that ran under Windows, and used that power to selectively ban competitors who “duplicate” functionality offered by Microsoft’s own apps, we’d expect competition regulators to be up in arms.

Indeed, even Microsoft knows they would never be able to get away with locking down Windows to the extent Apple has locked down the iPhone platform. Of course, it’s much easier and nowhere near as risky (legally and otherwise) to install an alternative operating system on a PC compared to jailbreaking an iPhone.

Hopefully, the FCC will see Apple’s for what they are: anticompetitive, unfair, and unacceptable.