Tuesday, December 30, 2008

True innovators giving away life-changing innovation for free (as many times happens)

Two students created a mouse that allows people with total paralysis to manage a computer with their eyes. This development resulted in them receiving the award to Technological Innovation 2008, given by the Argentine-German Chamber of Commerce. The project, carried out by the school ORT located in Belgrano (a neighbourhood in Buenos Aires) is the continuation of work done two years ago when they developed a device aimed at people with paralysis called “Head Mouse”, which required head movements to operate the computer.

The new device, the “Eye Mouse”, allows controlling a computer with eye movements, which would let thousands of people that have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to use a computer. The project started when a friend of one of the students’ father contacted them to access the “Head Mouse” but discovered that his disease did not allowed him to use it. That prompted the students to work on adapting it so it could be controlled using only the eyes.

As if the development wasn’t good enough, the students decided that that sort of device should be available for everyone that needs it and posted on the school’s blog how to build it and the necessary software, giving a de facto licence to everyone to use the fruit of their innovation royalty-free.

Now that there is a global crisis and that a new US president is going to be sworn in, many members of knowledge industries are using an obscene amount of resources to lobby almost everyone that have a saying on IP issues to convince them that innovation depends on strong and stronger IP rights and that the wealth that IP rights seem to guarantee are the necessary incentive for innovators…well, a couple of school students in the South of the planet are giving yet another example that the argument is simply not true. People innovate and create due to a very vast array of reasons and there is growing evidence that IP rights have gone quite beyond the point where they have become more a burden than an incentive to innovation…

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Indentity, e-government and using ICT for judicial proceedings

Few weeks ago while living a talk about e-government at the MERCOSUR Conference for Computer Law in Cordoba, Argentina, I repeated my discontent with the overemphasis that Civil law jurisdiction place on the issue of identification and the constrains that the identification requirements place on the use of ICT for government and judicial business. The issue requires a quite long and deep analysis but, notwithstanding the long tradition of written documents in Civil law jurisdictions and leaving apart the scaremongering of identity theft in Internet (it does exist, it is growing but the sky is not falling), the issue is one of cost-benefit and usefulness. I have suggested for a while that even mobile phones should be allowed to transact with the recognition of the phone’s unique transmission identification as prove of identity, and finally a country, Estonia, has decided to move towards allowing its citizens to vote using their mobile phones. It ca be argued that not every country is like Estonia, but once the move is started there, studies should be conducted to adapt the idea to countries with other cultural backgrounds, but where participation and transparency could be greatly enhanced by the use of ICT. Those countries, while lacking extensive Internet and computer networks deployment, have an increasing number of mobile phones in the hands of their population.

Other example that shows that there is an excess of focus on the issue of identity in certain jurisdictions is the one given by the recent situation in Australia…there an Australian lawyer used Facebook to serve an eviction notice on a couple, move that was then approved by an Australian supreme court. The lawyer tried several times to contact the couple by other means without success, so he opted for Facebook. The lawyer's client had been given permission to repossess their house in Canberra, but Australian law requires anyone losing their home to be notified. In April, a lower Australian court ruled against documents being served by Facebook because the option of contacting a person via post was not exhausted, but in the latest ruling, the judge allowed it to happen but insisted that the documents must be attached to a private message sent via Facebook that could not be seen by other members.

Can you imagine that in most Civil law jurisdictions?...not by coincidence some countries are in the state they are…

Monday, December 08, 2008

Convicted for "assisting" suicide in Internet

The Correctional Tribunal of Guingamp, France, found the defendant Joel Avrillon guilty of "not assisting a person in danger" for his guidance and advice as to how to commit suicide given to a teenager in a Internet chat-room. The 16 year old teenager told the defendant that she was planning to commit suicide and Avrillon explained to her how to do it. When the girl committed suicide by taking an overdose of morphine, as suggested by the defendant, Avrillon was originally accused of "inducement to suicide" but the crime was changed (probably to secure a conviction)…not need to say that those encouraging others to commit suicide, especially when the “others” are vulnerable, don’t deserve much sympathy, but the issue is whether providing information constitutes a crime…In the last few years the law has been modified so the provision of information per se may imply criminal liability and posting in Internet information that can be used to commit crimes or even supporting a criminal cause can lead to prosecution. Although in this case it seems that the defendant did guide the victim towards committing suicide, it could be argued, as the mother of the victim has argued, that the pharmacy that provided the morphine is closer in the chain of causation than somebody that randomly met the victim and explained to her how to do what it seems she was planning to do beforehand…again, it is difficult to feel sympathy for the defendant, but this is the type of case that test where one stands on the assertion of criminal liability. What type of information is legal to provide? Does any information that can be used to commit a crime or may result in somebody suffering an injury or death attract criminal liability? Would it be correct to prosecute TV presenters that show how to drive car very fast (and dangerously) every time that somebody has an accident due to reckless or dangerous driving?...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Visualizing networks: how information travels in Facebook

Palantir have created an application that allows the user seeing the social interactions of Facebook members, the efficacy of the adds and the actions within friends' networks...there could be many implications for such development, but for now, it seems a very cool thing (and quite more useful that one may think)...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Internet fraud and banking security gone mad

Few weeks ago I wrote about the steep rise in reports referring to Internet fraud and online banking fraud and how careful one needed to be when taking those things at face value. Even respected financial publications as the Financial Times enter into the trend of publishing and amplifying reports that talk about increasing Internet fraud but recognize “the absence of comparative data from previous years”, which makes extremely difficult to prove or disprove that what companies with vested interest in the topic are saying. But governments and companies react…and heavily handed (even stupidly)…and today I’ve had a clear and ridiculous example of how bad things are going. Taking into account that I have lived in several countries, keep family and banks accounts in most of them and I travel quite (very) often, my bank account receives and send money in a very international and sometimes strange pattern. You would expect that my bank, after six years of having an account there, would know that and would react to it accordingly. However, today after making some international transactions (for which I notified the bank before hand) my account was frozen. I spoke with the people in security (by phone) and they “defrost” my account. Some minutes later, after other transactions, it was frozen again, and there is when the situation turned Kafkaesque, surreal and very bizarre. I went to a branch of the bank to explain the situation and, after half an hour on hold (yes, while calling from inside the bank) a person told me that my account had been frozen due to suspicious activity but that she couldn’t tell me the exact reason why, she couldn’t unblock the account and she couldn’t connect me to anyone that could either unblock it or tell me what was going one…somebody would contact me….so, I decided to speak with a personal banker. The reason for that is very simple: banks don’t own the money, they hold it under a mandate from the owner, vg the client, vg me. So, if the client, vg me, appears in personam in a branch, has prove of identity and gives a mandate, that should be the end of the story, regardless what the situation could be, specially when the client, in personam, clarifies that all the suspicious transactions have been carried out by him/her…but it seems that is not anymore. Somebody in security told the personal banker that a special investigations unit had the case so there was nothing that anybody could do until that unit decided to contact me (?!), even after I certified that the transactions in question were genuine…so, what are they going to investigate? The thing went beyond surreal when I said that I wanted to close my account and they told me that I couldn’t until this mysterious unit decided that everything was OK…
The legal issues are more complex that one may think because one may tend to imagine that they are fulfilling some contractual obligations and that they have some rights given my me in the contract, but the buck stops when the client/owner is present and certifies the absence of fraud. Any contractual clause giving the right to the bank to not carry out the mandate of the client in order to “protect” the client against the wishes of the client would very likely to be deemed unfair under the UCTA 1977 and the subsequent European legislation. The problem is that it seems that the system is designed in such a way that there is no way to override it even when the legitimate owner of the money wants to do so. Is like having a plane in automatic pilot, the automatic pilot is going to crash the plane against a mountain by mistake and the pilot had no right to take the controls…total madness.
Some of the transactions that I will no be able to carry out involve foreign currency…will the bank be liable for the difference in exchange rate that may occur while its carry the unneeded investigation? (the pound keeps loosing value against almost any serious currency in the world) What about loss of enjoyment? Some trip may have to be cancelled…and the list is very long, but banks keep justifying that unacceptable behavior (is like having somebody’s money kidnapped) with the excuse that Internet and online banking fraud is on the rise…why not using some of the funds wasted in unnecessary investigations into educating the public so most of the fraud, which is based on convincing people more than actual technical expertise, never takes place…

Monday, December 01, 2008

Prize to innovation for Coloriuris

Last June, during a presentation at the European Intellectual Property Teachers Network workshop in Newcastle, when I mentioned ColorIuris as one of the forms of alternative licensing I could see that most attendants made notes about the tool (leading me to assume that they had never heard about it before). Well, ColorIuris is an alternative form of licensing but goes far beyond that: it is actually a form of administering protected content, putting the holder of the right in control of what can and cannot be done with the creation in question. It relies on a series of well-crafted contracts that allow the right-holder to express in a clear and precise form what she/he wants the user to do with a work. The legal analysis of the tools has always made me, and others, think that it could represent the solution that other forms are not providing, but it now has gone a step further with the recognition given by the Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Trade of Spain that awarded to ColorIuris one of the FICOD 08 Prizes to Innovation for its creation of a “simple tool for self-managing copyrights”…more than very well done! A proper celebration would provide another excuse to go to Zaragoza in winter…