Friday, May 24, 2013

Vermont Declares War on Patent Trolls

Wow! The state of Vermont passed a law, H.299, which will be codified as 9 V.S.A. §§ 4195 - 4199, "Bad Faith Assertions of Patent Infringements."  This seems to be the first state attempt to regulate Patent Trolls. States may actually not have any authority in this area, which may have been completely pre-empted by the federal government.  But the feds have not really stepped in either fully or fast enough to suit everybody.  (see excellent article at Forbes for analysis here) There have been a few federal gestures in this direction:

H.R. 845, the SHIELD Act, Saving High-Tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes Act of 2013. This bill was introduced in Feb., 2013, assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, and has languished there with little chance of success.

S. 866, the Patent Quality Improvement Act.  This bill was just introduced in May, 2013, and assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.  It may be moved out of committee, but again has little chance of final passage, according to the analysis at

End Anonymous Patents Act, which seems so newly introduced as not to even have a bill number yet, or to have been yet assigned to a committee. It was introduced by Congressman Ted Deutch in the House.

Back to Vermont.  The Vermont law does not define "Bad Faith" so much as list factors for judges to weigh in determining whether a patent infringement assertion is being brought in good faith or bad.  It does, however, allow attorneys general to bring lawsuits against patent trolls. And the Vermont Attorney General lost no time in doing just that.  The State of Vermont v. MPHJ Technology Investments, LLC, is actually brought primarily under the Vermont Consumer Protection Act, 9 V.S.A. §§ 2451 et seq.  The Attorney General claims the Defendant has engaged in unfair and deceptive acts by sending letters to small non-profit organizations in Vermont threatening them with patent litigation if they do not pay patent license fees.

The complaint asks the judge to award:

1. Permanent prohibition against the Defendant engaging in any business activity in, into or from Vermont that violates Vermont law;

2. Permanent injunction to stop threatening Vermont businesses with patent infringement litigation;

3.  Full restitution to all Vermont businesses who suffered damages due to Defendant's acts;

4. Civil penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation of the Consumer Protection Act;

5.  Award of investigative and litigation costs and fees to the state of Vermont;

6. Such other relief as the Court deems appropriate.

Decorated with the ubiquitous Troll face. (see The Atlantic's article about trolls and Internet subcultures such as Reddit and 4chan where an image such as this Troll face would appear.  Different kind of troll, but just as annoying.)

Google Streetview Going to the Galapagos Islands

The Google Streetview folks are going to the Galapagos Islands!  When I heard this, I imagined those little cars bumping disastrously over volcanic rocks and giant tortoises.  But no! They are outfitting hikers with 42 pound computer backpacks (!) and those round balls you see on the cars. Inside the balls are an array of 15 cameras pointing in all different directions to give you the "surround" image you get with Streetview.  These intrepid hikers are called "trekkers," and will give those of us who will probably never tour the Galapagos ourselves a chance to tool around the ocean, beaches, rocks and even a volcano!

See the article I selected from the Washington Post, though there are a gazoodle out on the Internet right now.  The article mentions that they are processing the images right now. But I didn't know that they have already expanded beyond streets, with views of the Amazon rain forest, the ocean floor and Arctic.  Between using the satellite images, and Streetview, it's a very interesting way to explore our world.  The Post article mentions that they are hoping to use this new imaging technology to watch how tourism is affecting the environment in the Galapagos.  Interesting.

The image comes from the Google folks, and appears at multiple news sites. This was downloaded from the Toronto Star version of the AP story written by Jason Dearen.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Wiring the future

The Boston Globe for May 19 had an interesting article in the Ideas section, "The Too-Smart City" by Courtney Humphries, in print at pp . K1, 4-5. The article looks at the amazing new ideas that city planners and technologists are coming up with, sometimes without much public debate, for making cities work smoother and smarter.  Some are better known than others, such as the multiple cameras that are being installed in many cities to monitor for criminal activity or watch for those who run red lights, or fail to pay tolls. Others are less well known.

The entire article gave me such mixed feelings, because some of the ideas, such as the lead-off technology, a system to help maximize and ease parking, sound like a WOW! and very seductive sort of thing.  A Boston University professor is testing a technology that helps drivers locate the best parking spot for their purposes in a parking garage at the university.  The system uses a smart phone app to sense when a spot is opening at the optimal location for that driver and alert the person.  Oooh!  Hard to complain about that, it seems. Lots of the technology in the article is designed to make life in cities more efficient, easier, and more convenient. Much of it is designed to make things safer, and easier to manage for the city administrators.

But the rest of the article gives the reader an increasing sense of Big Brother unease, as one reads about cameras, data gathering and storage that one never knew about, and that really wasn't debated. There are issues about First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, though the article does not discuss this in legal terms. There are also problems in terms of sharing data with third parties and protecting the data from hackers.

There are multiple levels of other problems, too, as the author brings up the issue of cities that purchase proprietary software from corporations, for systems on which the city relies:
1)  Without open access to the code, the city becomes completely reliant on the corporation that wrote the code. If the company suddenly increases the subscription fees, the city is trapped. 
2) Or if the company goes bankrupt, there is nobody to update and manage the code. (Does these sound familiar, librarians?)
3) The author also raises the issue, when a city relies on coders to create an algorithm to analyze criminal hotspots, for instance, there is real policy-making being done by that coder.  People need to realize that and ask for the algorithm involved to understand the assumptions being coded into the program.

This is a very interesting article, and I recommend you read it.  One thing that struck me. The author is assuming that crowd-sourcing or at least open discussion, is better for policy-making.  One thing that I have learned about the development of the Internet, is that the technologists who built it actually did a GREAT job of securing the system against the sorts of control that government figures are just now wanting to impose. The very infrastructure of the Internet makes centralized government control and monitoring very difficult.  If it had been set up with the input of the crowd, or planning by governments, the Internet would be a much different place. It makes me have mixed feelings about this author's assumptions that opening these policies up for group discussion is going to be a positive improvement.  I am not sure I like the decision-making as it is; I am just becoming more skeptical about democracy and the wisdom of crowds, I guess.

The decoration is a still from the movie 1984, and of course, Big Brother is watching you!  I am afraid I found the image at

Friday, May 17, 2013

New Student Loan Bills in Committee - Watch Out!

On July 1, 2013, the interest rates on student loans is scheduled to double, from from the current 3.4% to 6.8%.  

The House Education and Workforce Committee, controlled by Republicans, passed HR 1911,out of committee to the floor,  the Smarter Solutions for Students Act (another link to the text here, and to a summary of the bill here; the Committee provides a factsheet here, and its press release here.) This bill ties the student debt interest rate to the federal reserve interest rate.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, Representative Sinema appears to have introduced an alternative to this student loan bill, the Stability to Ensure the American Dream for Youth Act (STEADY), HR 1876.IH.  This bill simply extends the current interest rate until 2017.

The White House has made a proposal on the issue, in the annual budget. Obama's proposal would tie student loan interest rates to the 10-year Treasury note rate, but with a lower added percentage: 0.93 percent for federal student loans, 2.93 for unsubsidized loans and 3.93 for PLUS loans. (You can't see that level of detail in the Whitehouse press release here,  Here is a link to the entire budget; here is the Washington Post analysis).

There is a bill from Senator Elizabeth Warren chugging along in the Senate, S897.IS.  Her interest rate would be the same as that offered to banks by the Federal Reserve.  She just introduced it May 8.  According to the little news item, Warren's bill is gathering support. The bill is titled the Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act, and is, like the House bill, designed to avoid the looming jump in student loan interest rates.  Note that Warren's bill does not address private loans.

And there is a stop-gap measure in the Senate, jointly sponsored by Senators Jack Reed, Tom Harkin and Harry Reid, S. 953. Titled The Reed-Harkin Student Loan Affordability Act, the bill freezes the interest rate at 3.4%, and pays for the expense by closing several tax loopholes.  See the press release for a nice summary.  Sadly, though, the bill cannot possibly make its way through the legislative process before July 1.  

While everybody seems to agree that the jump is a bad thing, there is a great gulf in how the two parties want to address the problem. The Republican solution, in the Smarter Solutions for Students Act, is to tie the interest rate to the Federal Reserve interest rate. That seems pretty benign right now, when rates are at historic lows. But that won't last for very long. And it appears these days that student loans may last longer than either marriages or mortgages!

Warren's solution cuts the student loan interest rates, and at the same time, tackles the problems of the entire student loan lending apparatus.  This comes at a time when the large banks that have been major lenders in the privatized student loan arrangements are beginning to complain about default rates. Interestingly, a coalition of big banks are seeking agreement from the regulators to extend the time for borrowers to repay some loans before the lender is required to write it off.  Currently, banks that extend time to borrowers may have the debt classified by regulators as a "troubled debt."  Such a designation then triggers requirements that the bank maintain more of their assets on hand, rather than investing them in income-earning projects.

However, from the debtor's point of view, forbearance is not a completely positive benefit.  While they may be allowed to defer payments at the time, when they don't have a job, or don't earn enough to make the payments, they will be required to pay the total owed amount in the future. And interest owed continues to mount. This means that the total cost of the loan continues to rise for the debtor who is offered forbearance!  

Here is an interesting map from CNN showing which states have the most student loans delinquent by 90 days or more.  It's an interesting map, and something to think about.  Keep in mind that student loans are the one kind of debt that are not usually allowed to be discharged in bankruptcy. Student loans that are delinquent are treated very differently than other debts. Here is a nice short article from Time about how student debt is treated, and how that has changed over time.

If Congress does not address this trap they have created for students and their families, it will be a shame on our country.  Lives are being ruined. Rather than creating upward mobility, college and higher education is trapping whole families into debt.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

CERN celebrates 20 years of the World Wide Web

CERN is where the Web was actually invented by Tim Berners-Lee, and they are celebrating it's 20th birthday this year.  See their website here.

They also give a link to the document by which CERN put the Web into the public domain on April 30, 1993, which is what is making this the 20th anniversary.

Tip of the OOTJ hat to my good friend Roy Balleste for the alert!  The image is a picture of Tim Berners-Lee running WorldWideWeb software at CERN in 1994, from the CERN webpage.