Tag Archives | Legislation

Bill Shock Be Gone: FCC, Wireless Carriers Strike a Deal

Rather than face regulation, wireless service providers have struck a deal with the Federal Communications Commission to warn customers about impending overage charges for voice, text and data use.

Customers will receive free text alerts in real-time when they’re about to exceed their limits, CNET reports. The move is supposed to cut down on the “bill shock” people may feel when hit with sky-high rates for extra usage. Wireless carriers will also warn customers who travel overseas about the additional fees they may incur.

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Mobile Location Privacy a Hot Topic on Capitol Hill

An effort to ensure consumers know how their mobile location data is being used and shared is underway on Capitol Hill, with a bipartisan bill now making its way through Congress. Called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act, the bill was written by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

The bill was simultaneously introduced in both the House and Senate today.

It aims to codify how companies may use and share data, as well as giving consumers more power in consenting to such tracking. In addition, the legislation provides guidelines on how government and law enforcement may use the location data on wireless phones.

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Patent Trolls: They Do Exist

Stanford University has announced a new service for analyzing and tracking patent lawsuits called Lex Machina. Its use of legal informatics has already led to some interesting findings about the nature of patent lawsuits in the US software industry.

The database helped Mark Lemley, the William H. Neukom Professor of Law and the director of the Law, Science Technology Program, determine that patent trolls account for nearly 30% of suits in the IT industry, depending on who is defined as a troll, he said. The clearinghouse data shows that trolls are “disproportionately owners of the most-litigated patents — the ones that show up in dozens of different lawsuits,” he added.

Lemley has conducted research to identify the characteristics of patent trolls, and has testified as an expert for the US Senate on the topic of patent reform.

“I do think [trolls] have a larger impact than the percentage alone would suggest, especially in the IT industries,” Lemley said. He added that the data will help dispel myths about patent litigation from who sues to who wins, and how much defendants have to pay. “We are giving the world access to the facts in a way they’ve never had before.”

Lex Machina is an outgrowth of a research project called the Stanford Intellectual Property Litigation Clearinghouse (IPLC). IPLC was developed to provide scholars, policy makers and citizens with open and instant access to data about intellectual property litigation in the United States.

The database grew so vast that Lex Machina was spun off as a separate venture to sustain development, according to Stanford. It now contains over 100,000 cases, over 10 million docket entries, and automates the parsing of that data. “The company includes more computer scientists than lawyers, and has people working at the very forefront of machine learning,” Lemley noted.

I applaud Stanford’s work, and hope that the IPLC database is used to drive patent reform, demystifying a complicated issue. Higher quality patents will protect investments in intellectual property while preserving the ability of start ups to do innovative things.


Will the EC’s Watchful Eye Hobble Microsoft’s Ability to Innovate?

Microsoft may have settled its differences with the EC over the antitrust complaint Opera Software’s levied against it, but I do not expect that the European Commission’s scrutiny of Microsoft will lapse. I just hope that the EC is judicious in exercising its regulatory authority against the company in the future.

Opera filed a complaint with the EC in 2007 alleging that Microsoft illegally bundled Internet Explorer with Windows. That complaint was settled today when Microsoft and the EC came to an agreement over a browser ballot for Windows that lets the end users choose which browser they would like to use as their default.

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EFF Outlines “Terms of (Ab)Use”

Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a consumer watchdog, embarked on a new project called Terms of (Ab)Use. Terms of (Ab)Use is the EFF’s attempt to enable people to understand what their End User License Agreements (EULAs) mean.

The EFF views EULAs as private contracts that enable online service providers to circumvent existing law and dictate their legal relationship with customers. They are frequently written to be one-sided in favor of the service provider, and are “designed to be beyond judicial scrutiny,” it said.

The organization’s objective is to cut through confusing legalese, and state what the contracts say in plain language. That goal is laudable, and could lead to greater transparency, but I wonder whether it is a problem that end users actually care about.

Do the majority of people even read EULAs before they click “Accept”? It’s doubtful. People just want to use the service, whether it be Gmail or an online game, and the provider determines how its service should be used.

The EFF needs to communicate the value of what it is doing to the public in order to be successful. Unfortunately, it is facing an uphill battle.

If a bridge collapsed, people would demand consequences. Yet, software failures are accepted, and the cost of those failures is passed onto consumers. With the exception of businesses that have iron-clad service level agreements, we are accustomed to a one-sided relationship with software vendors. There is no real framework for liability in the software industry.

It takes a group like EFF to stand up for users’ rights.

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European Commission Market-Tests Microsoft Browser Remedy

Opera BoxWhen the European Commission (EC) mandated that Microsoft ship Windows XP sans Windows Media Player, the final product proved unpopular with consumers. For Windows 7, the issue is Internet Explorer, and a more diligent EC announced today that it is market-testing its remedy for effectiveness.

After repeatedly wrangling with Microsoft over whether the company would be permitted to ship Internet Explorer 8 with Windows 7, the EC and Microsoft reached a compromise: letting customers pick which browser they want. Windows 7 users in European countries will select their default browser from a ballot screen that will be pushed for customers to configure via Windows Update.

The ballot features a choice of 12 browsers; browsers are listed alphabetically by vendor, and are sorted into groups according to their popularity. Microsoft provides introductory information for each option. You can see a screen shot of the ballot screen here.

Further action could be taken against Microsoft pending the EC’s findings in the Opera antitrust case. Opera indicated today that more work was needed for the ballot remedy to become acceptable.

I’d be interested in knowing what the users ultimately do, and would like to see data about installations to see if it jives with what is being reported on the Web. Firefox 3 has surpassed IE 7’s market share in Europe, but who’s to say that the remedy isn’t effective if Internet Explorer 8 is the most popular choice. As long as people are happy with the process and it is fair, the results really don’t matter.

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The FTC Goes After Bloggers (Say, What’s a Blogger, Anyhow?)

The lady in the weight-loss ad who says that she took off a hundred pounds in no time flat. The washed-up minor celebrity doing late night commercials on behalf of some obscure product. And me. We’re all subject to new scrutiny by the FTC, as a result of revised guidelines for “endorsements” of products and services announced on Monday.

Here’s the FTC’s entire document, in case you feel like reading all eighty-one pages (I’ll wait):

Even if you read the whole darn thing, the upshot is hard to summarize. But I’ll give it a try: The FTC is trying to clarify its expectations of paid endorsers, a group into which it lumps real people who givetestimonials in ads, celebrity spokespeople, and bloggers. It wants bloggers who receive products or who otherwise have “material connections” to the companies whose products they write about to disclose the relationship. If they don’t, they’re at risk of receiving a fine of up to $11,000.

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Google’s Google Voice FCC Letter: Uncensored!

Last month, Apple, AT&T, and Google all responded to the FCC’s request for information on the circumstances regarding Apple’s failure to approve some Google applications for release on the iPhone App Store. The letters became public, and helped to explain what was going on. Except that Google chose to redact its answer to a really important question in the version of the letter released for general consumption:

Google Redacted

Several people filed Freedom of Information Act requests to see the unexpurgated letter, and rather than fight the requests, Google has decided to accept publication of the full letter. Here’s the section we didn’t see before:

Google letter to FCC

On one level, there’s nothing surprising here: In Apple’s own letter to the FCC, it said it hadn’t approved Google Voice largely because it “altered(d)” and “replace(d)” placed Apple’s own phone-related features with ones designed by Google. (Alter and replace probably aren’t the right words here: Google Voice would be an additional way to make calls on the iPhone, and Apple’s features would remain unchanged. But you get the idea.)

But here’s one bombshell: Apple’s letter denied that the company had rejected Google Voice and said that it was still “studying” and “ponder(ing)” the app. Google’s letter, however, says that Apple told it that Google Voice had been rejected, period. The real-world difference is pretty much moot, since an application that enters a permanent limbo of being studied and pondered is no more useful to the world than one that’s been rejected. But it still seems to be a fundamental disagreement on a matter of fact: Apple says it didn’t reject the app, and Google says it did.

Also interesting: Google says the matter went all the way up to Phil Schiller. That would remove the possibility that Google Voice ran into trouble because of hasty and/or inconsistent decision-making by lower-level employees involved in the App Store. Apple knew what it was doing.

Just how directly was Google CEO’s exodus from the Apple board tied to this disagreement? Your guess is as good as mine, but if Schmidt were still on the board today it would be particularly strange given the Rashomon-like situation that’s developed.

As I’ve said before, I want a phone that lets me replace standard functionality with new and useful alternatives. Apple says that doing so may confuse iPhone owners, but I have a hunch that most of them are smart enough to deal with it–and hey, if they’re baffled, they can always delete the app in question.

I continue to think that Apple will eventually come to the conclusion that a more open-minded approach to iPhone app approval is in its own best interest. I just hope it decides that sooner rather than later, and without further nudging by the FCC.

Accepting and releasing Google Voice in the form Google originally submitted it wouldn’t address the larger issues here, but it would be an awfully good start…


DOJ Investigates Microhoo

The U.S. Department of Justice is placing the Microsoft-Yahoo search partnership under greater scrutiny, according to reports. The DOJ is allegedly requesting more information about ad pricing, product plans, and search engine investments.

Microsoft was prosecuted in the 1990s for abusing its monopoly position in the desktop operating system market, so it comes as no surprise that the company is operating under the long shadow of government regulators. However, in the search engine area Microsoft is playing underdog to Google, which comScore reports held 64.7 percent share of the U.S search market in July.

In comparison, Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo have a combined 28.2 percent share. If the deal is approved, Microsoft will be in a position to claw its way up to compete with Google. The company is rumored to be preparing to launch an upgrade to Bing before the end of the month, and is spending profusely to promote Bing.

The only people who have any right to be upset about the deal are Yahoo’s shareholders. Shortly after the deal was announced, some shareholders began to cry bloody murder over Yahoo’s use of the Bing search engine for nothing in return.

Further, Yahoo did not receive an upfront payment to make the deal happen, as many Yahoo investors had hoped. The deal’s complexity also makes it unlikely that any company other than Microsoft will be able to acquire Yahoo over its 10-year duration. None of that concerns the DOJ.