According to the Government of India, private service providers like AirTel and Vodafone are failing in their legal obligations under the Information Technology Act, hastily amended in the days immediately following the Mumbai 7/11 attacks, by not providing access to the content of emails and texts sent to or from BlackBerry users. As a lawyer, I have some doubt about this legal position, no doubt under discussion between GoI and the service providers. But there is no doubt that the Government has failed to make clear the context of this dispute, or the real consequences of the demands it is making.
In the haze of confusion surrounding the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bilski v. Kappos, the appeals board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued a ruling last week that takes a definitive stand against the worst kinds of patents that threaten software developers every day.
This weekend marks the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, widely considered to be the foundation of modern copyright law. The Statute, formally titled “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning," is often praised for placing intellectual property rights in the hands of individual authors and ushering in the era of public interest copyright law. In reality, however, the law's most lasting legacy has been the misguided proposition that “the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books" cannot be accomplished without copyright: a system which restricts the flow and use of information, chills collaboration, and presupposes that property rights are necessary to encourage innovation.
Last week, to the surprise of patent lawyers and the biotechnology industry, advocates for technological freedom won an enormous victory against socially harmful distortions of patent law. The Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York held invalid patents owned by Myriad Genetics on diagnostic testing for genetic susceptibility to the most common hereditary forms of breast and ovarian cancer. By "patenting" the right to determine whether the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are present in the relevant mutated form in a women's genome, Myriad Genetics has been able to exclude all other laboratories from conducting the test. Patients and their insurers have paid much more, and women and their families have waited crucial weeks longer than necessary for information relevant to treatment and potentially affecting survival.
Earlier this week, the Office of Foreign Assets Control announced the relaxation of rules prohibiting export of software to Iran and Sudan. The new exemptions build on a recent easing of some rules governing exporting telecommunications technology to Cuba. These moves are surely an attempt to capitalize on the Iranian election demonstrations last summer that some called the "Twitter Revolution". They are also a sign that the Obama Administration is carrying out its plans to make internet freedom a pillar of US diplomacy.
I hope the revised OFAC rules are the beginning of a broad and nuanced re-examination of US technology export policy. They are certainly good news for Free Software developers who are currently prohibited from distributing their software in embargoed countries.
Public Safety is not a matter of Private Concern
In a recent article, Slate's Farhad Manjoo attempts to play down fears of faulty software in car braking systems as a potential cause of traffic accidents. Citing numerous studies which conclude that “the overwhelming reason we get in crashes is driver error,” Manjoo reasons that “the less driving people do, the fewer people will die on the roads.”
While it may certainly be true that most crashes occur because of intoxication, distraction, or driver fatigue, and that computer controlled cars may decrease driver error, Manjoo doesn't seem to see the obvious implication of his own assumptions -- “opaque” and “inherently buggy” software which could endanger public safety should be subject to review.
New York Times reporters John Markoff and Ashlee Vance correctly pointed out that "nations, private corporations, and even bands of rogue programmers are capable of covertly tunneling into information systems," by exploiting bugs in a program's source code in their January 20th story, "Fearing Hackers Who Leave no Trace."
This is the first installment of a weekly blog about the SFLC 's work or a development in the free software community.