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Monthly Archives: January 2014
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United States Sanctions On Exporting Open Online Learning Courses Are Completely Backwards
Between Syria, Cuba, Iran and Sudan, Americans bothering to pay attention to the world around them are becoming increasingly familiar with how we sanction other countries and the intricacies of those sanctions. The intersection of sanctions and technology tend to revolve around the export of hardware, software, and services to nations with regimes we don’t particularly care for. All of these sanctions are typically designed to achieve one or both of the following goals: altering the behavior of the regime in question and/or encouraging the people of that nation to rise up against the regime by making everyone completely miserable.
With that in mind, we can now conclusively say that at least some of the tech sanctions levied against some countries are completely useless and should be done away with, namely those that intermittently punish the people of Syria, Iran, Cuba and Sudan, preventing their people from accessing open education platforms.
Coursera, which according to its site aims “to change the world by educating millions of people by offering classes from top universities and professors online for free,” is now subjected to a recent directive from the US federal government that has forced some MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) providers to block access for users in sanctioned countries such as Iran and Cuba. Coursera explains the change in its student support center:
“The interpretation of export control regulations as they related to MOOCs was unclear for a period of time, and Coursera had been operating under one interpretation of the law. Recently, Coursera received a clear answer indicating that certain aspects of the Coursera MOOC experience are considered ‘services’ (and all services are highly restricted by export controls). While many students from these countries were previously able to access Coursera, this change means that we will no longer be able to provide students in sanctioned countries with access to Coursera moving forward.”
While updates to this post suggest that connectivity to Syrians has been reestablished, that isn’t so with regard to countries like Iran, Cuba or Sudan. Examine for a moment the practical application of this kind of sanctioning. The US has identified a regime we do not like, which will almost by definition be relatively well-educated, affluent, and powerful. That regime oppresses its people. To combat this, part of our sanctions policy is designed to prevent the oppressed people from accessing educational services that would offer a ladder towards the educational standards enjoyed by the offending regime. Knowledge is power, of course, and the ability to learn about the world outside of the pens in which these countries have placed their own people is a tool that could be used to encourage change in these countries. Don’t take that from me, take it from the governments in those nations which are quite busy censoring the internet out of fear of their people becoming more educated. And now the US is essentially joining the censoring party, too.
In September 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation called on the US to lift all restrictions “that deny citizens access to vital communications tools.” But the US has continued its piecemeal approach, going back and forth between blocking new ranges of transactions to allowing the export of certain services.
“These sorts of export restrictions are overbroad and contain elements which have no effect on the Syrian regime, while preventing Syrian citizens from accessing a wealth of tools that are available to their activist counterparts in neighboring countries and around the world,” EFF stated.
Likewise in Iran, Cuba, and Sudan. A common complaint one sometimes gets from peace activists is that sanctions should be lifted because they don’t hurt the regime, only the innocent civilians. That complaint is usually moot, because often times the entire point is to hurt the citizens to breed unrest building towards revolution. But in this case, the harm is repressing the capacity for change, and therefore serves no purpose. Even beyond the humanist concept of exporting information and education as a simple matter of human rights, these sanctions can only have the opposite effect of their intention.
Fortunately, Coursera appears to have a genuine interest in spreading education and, as they did with the Syrian issue, appear to want to work with the US government to get around these outdated sanctions.
Coursera ended the announcement of the changes that prevent access to their courses in sanctioned countries with the following note: “We value our global community of users and sincerely regret the need to take this action. Please know that Coursera is currently working very closely with the U.S. Department of State and Office of Foreign Asset Control to secure the necessary permissions to reinstate site access for users in sanctioned countries.”
If the US government has any interest in their sanctioning policies beyond using them as some kind of penis-measuring contest, they’ll act quickly to give Coursera the ability to export education to the nations of oppressed people, otherwise known as the places where it is most sorely needed.
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Disappointing: Twitter Gives In To IBM’s Patent Shakedown
Well, this is disappointing. It would appear that Twitter has basically thrown in the towel and paid off IBM concerning IBM’s bogus patent threats. IBM issued those threats just as Twitter was about to go public, and Twitter has done what so many large… Continue reading
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The Importance Of Anonymity And The Wonders Of YouTube’s Saddest Comments
First off, while I’ve linked to a few of its stories lately, if you’re not listening to the TLDR podcast you are seriously missing out on some really fantastic stories concerning fascinating and amazing things happening online. The story of Vile Rat, f… Continue reading
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DailyDirt: Food Forensics For Fighting Fraud
The global food supply chain generally delivers products that are safe to drink and eat, but every so often there are some stories about unscrupulous distributors who try to sell knockoff items that aren’t exactly what they say they are. The infamous 2… Continue reading
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This Is Trademark: Kate Spade Had To Go To Court To Use The Term ‘Saturday’ In A Clothing Line
If you want to highlight the silly behavior of some folks when it comes to protecting their all-important trademarks, marks on generic terms typically does the job nicely. Whether it’s board game makers going after folks for using a common phrase or banks threatening reporters over virtual wallets, the idea of locking up some commonly used words for the purpose of commerce is usually enough to make most folks pinch their noses.
But, because one silly turn deserves another, we’ve now reached the point where companies are fighting over days of the week, such as the case of Kate Spade winning out over Saturday Surf LLC for the ability to use the name of everyone’s favorite day in a clothing line.
After recently filing a lawsuit declaring that its new, SATURDAY brand, did not infringe on the name of any of the popular men’s clothing company, SATURDAY SURF LLC, the district court officially ruled in the women’s retail apparel company’s favor.
Shortly after filing the suit, Surf LLC filed a counterclaim alleging trademark infringement and reverse confusion against Kate Spade’s use of the word Saturday in its new brand. Surf’s biggest concern was that the use of the term Saturday would confuse consumers by leading them to believe that Surf’s products were licensed by or affiliated with Kate Spade, or that Surf was the one infringing on Kate Spade’s SATURDAY mark.
Everyone stand up and take a bow: there are people in court fighting over the word Saturday. That it’s a day of the week apparently wasn’t enough to make it ineligible for a trademark, of course, but the court ruled instead that the use of Saturday in clothing lines was so widespread that Surf shouldn’t be allowed to lock it up against another company’s use. That’s a good ruling, of course, and the court went on to state that Surf didn’t come anywhere near proving they relied on the Saturday mark.
The court also held that Surf did not present sufficient evidence showing use of SATURDAYS as a trademark. According to the ruling, the court found that Kate Space had adopted the SATURDAY mark in good faith, citing Kate Spade’s lack of knowledge about Surf and its consultation with counsel before and after learning of Surf and its SATURDAY-formative marks.
Nice, but all I’m left with is that fact that this required legal action.
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Guardian Releases Video From That Time Its Editors Were Forced To Destroy A Laptop That Had Snowden Documents
You may recall how, last summer, there was a ridiculous situation in which David Cameron ordered a government official to go down to the Guardian’s offices in London and force them to physically destroy a computer that had stored some encrypted documen… Continue reading
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Canadian Gov’t Responds To Spying Revelations By Saying It’s All A Lie And Calling Glenn Greenwald A ‘Porn Spy’
We’ve seen various government officials act in all sorts of bizarre ways after revelations of illegal spying on their own people (and foreigners), but none may be quite as bizarre as the response from the Canadian government, following the release late… Continue reading
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Obama Says James Clapper ‘Should Have Been More Careful’ In How He Lied To Congress
Many of us are still quite disappointed that James Clapper has kept his job as Director of National Intelligence after flat out lying to Congress over whether or not the NSA spied on Americans. There have been increasing calls from within Congress to have Clapper investigated and possibly prosecuted for the felony of lying to Congress, but there appears to be no movement there at all. Not only does the Obama administration seem to want to protect one of their own, but it’s also made it clear that something like that would make it look like Ed Snowden “won” and they can’t allow that sort of thing.
CNN’s Jake Tapper finally got President Obama to “address” the issue in an interview, and the best that Obama could muster was that Clapper “should have been more careful” in how he lied to Congress:
“I think that Jim Clapper himself would acknowledge, and has acknowledged, that he should have been more careful about how he responded,” Obama told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “His concern was that he had a classified program that he couldn’t talk about and he was in an open hearing in which he was asked, he was prompted to disclose a program, and so he felt that he was caught between a rock and a hard place.”
I’m wondering if anyone else charged with a felony for lying to Congress will now be able to use that excuse: yes, yes, they should have been more careful in how they lied to Congress.
As for the “rock and a hard place” claim, that’s also simply untrue. Clapper knew full well the question was coming and also knew full well that he could easily respond by saying a variety of things, such as “I can only fully answer that question in a closed hearing.” Clapper knows he can do this because he’s done it many times before. In fact, he did it just this week when asked another question by Senator Wyden about the NSA’s activities. He specifically said that he was uncomfortable discussing such details in an open hearing but would be happy to discuss them during a closed session. And, in fact, Clapper had done similar things in previous sessions, as is clear from the correspondences between him and Wyden that pre-dated the hearing where he lied.
For example, take a look at a letter Clapper sent in 2011 to Senator Ron Wyden, in which he states: “the questions you pose on geolocational information are difficult to answer in an unclassified letter.” He was able to do that in 2011 and no parade of horribles followed. It did not reveal any “sources and methods” of classified intelligence. He easily could have done the same thing in 2013 when asked.
There was no rock. There was no hard place. Clapper didn’t need to “be more careful.” He lied. Which is a felony. And the President is excusing it because he doesn’t want Snowden to “win.”
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Former TSA Agent Explains Full Body Scanners Didn’t Work, But Did Let Him See You Naked
There’s been less discussion over the TSA’s full body scanners recently, especially since the TSA’s brief but insanely expensive (with YOUR money!) experiment with the “nudie scanners” went away. However, Politico has a fascinating story from a former TSA agent revealing that much of what you suspect about the TSA is true: they were able to see you naked even as the scanners had little actual value. They do target attractive women and have a rather long list of official sounding “code names” for good looking women so they can alert each other to them while appearing professional. On those nudie scanners, he has the story of the guy who taught them how to use it, who was then asked what he thought of the machines:
“They’re shit,” he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.
We quickly found out the trainer was not kidding: Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.
Of course, what he leaves out is the real reason why these were installed in airports across the country. It had nothing to do with terrorist threats, but the fact that former DHS boss Michael Chertoff was getting rich off of helping to sell them to the government agency he used to run.
As for looking at you naked, yes, the TSA folks would look and laugh:
Most of my co-workers found humor in the I.O. room on a cruder level. Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues: Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies were easy to discern—their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred poses—mouths agape, Ã�’Â la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels.
There were other types of bad behavior in the I.O. room—I personally witnessed quite a bit of fooling around, in every sense of the phrase. Officers who were dating often conspired to get assigned to the I.O. room at the same time, where they analyzed the nude images with one eye apiece, at best. Every now and then, a passenger would throw up two middle fingers during his or her scan, as though somehow aware of the transgressions going on.
And yes, he talks about the ridiculousness of confiscating nail clippers and liquids:
I confiscated jars of homemade apple butter on the pretense that they could pose threats to national security. I was even required to confiscate nail clippers from airline pilots—the implied logic being that pilots could use the nail clippers to hijack the very planes they were flying.
Once, in 2008, I had to confiscate a bottle of alcohol from a group of Marines coming home from Afghanistan. It was celebration champagne intended for one of the men in the group—a young, decorated soldier. He was in a wheelchair, both legs lost to an I.E.D., and it fell to me to tell this kid who would never walk again that his homecoming champagne had to be taken away in the name of national security.
Basically, pretty much everything we already knew about the TSA and its security theater seems to be more or less accurate. There’s a lot more in the article, but it really paints a picture of typical bureaucratic insanity. The whole setup of the TSA seems designed to do two things: to help make a few ex-gov’t officials very wealthy while giving the public appearance that current government officials are “doing something” about terrorism.
As we’ve noted in the past, even the TSA knows that there’s not much of a threat directed at air travel these days, which is probably why they’ve started giving up the pretense and waving large groups of folks through at times.
Of course, beyond the government officials getting rich part of this, the simple fact is that the political incentives here always will lead to these kinds of ridiculous results. When there is, inevitably, some other attack, questions will be asked about why we weren’t “doing enough.” So everyone has incentives to do as much useless stuff as possible, even if it’s all really useless. That way they can talk about everything they had already been doing — and then layering on some other idiotic idea (like taking off your shoes, or not carrying water bottles through security) and go on with the myth that they’re “protecting” people. It’s just that sometimes this leads to bored TSA agents staring at tons of people naked based on no warrant, no threat and no damned reason at all.
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David Cameron Says Snooper’s Charter Is Necessary Because Fictional Crime Dramas He Watches Prove It
You may recall the stories from the past couple years about the so-called “snooper’s charter” in the UK — a system to further legalize the government’s ability to spy on pretty much all communications. It was setting up basically a total surveillance … Continue reading
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