Star Wars: The Force Awakens has gone into an early and bizarre anti-piracy overdrive. Earlier this week a fansite posted an image of a ‘Rey’ action figure legally bought in Walmart but it was taken down by Facebook and Twitter following a DMCA notice. Meanwhile, webhosts are facing threats of legal action.
The Senate today is holding a key procedural vote that would allow the Trans-Pacific Partnership to be “fast-tracked.”
So who can read the text of the TPP? Not you, it’s classified. Even members of Congress can only look at it one section at a time in the Capitol’s basement, without most of their staff or the ability to keep notes.
But there’s an exception: if you’re part of one of 28 U.S. government-appointed trade advisory committees providing advice to the U.S. negotiators. The committees with the most access to what’s going on in the negotiations are 16 “Industry Trade Advisory Committees,” whose members include AT&T, General Electric, Apple, Dow Chemical, Nike, Walmart and the American Petroleum Institute.
The TPP is an international trade agreement currently being negotiated between the US and 11 other countries, including Japan, Australia, Chile, Singapore and Malaysia. Among other things, it could could strengthen copyright laws, limit efforts at food safety reform and allow domestic policies to be contested by corporations in an international court. Its impact is expected to be sweeping, yet venues for public input hardly exist.
Industry Trade Advisory Committees, or ITACs, are cousins to Federal Advisory Committees like the National Petroleum Council that I wrote about recently. However, ITACs are functionally exempt from many of the transparency rules that generally govern Federal Advisory Committees, and their communications are largely shielded from FOIA in order to protect “third party commercial and/or financial information from disclosure.” And even if for some reason they wanted to tell someone what they’re doing, members must sign non-disclosure agreements so they can’t “compromise” government negotiating goals. Finally, they also escape requirements to balance their industry members with representatives from public interest groups.
The result is that the Energy and Energy Services committee includes the National Mining Association and America’s Natural Gas Alliance but only one representative from a company dedicated to less-polluting wind and solar energy.
The Information and Communications Technologies, Services, and Electronic Commerce committee includes representatives from Verizon and AT&T Services Inc. (a subsidiary of AT&T), which domestically are still pushing hard against new net neutrality rules that stop internet providers from creating more expensive online fast-lanes.
And the Intellectual Property Rights committee includes the Recording Industry Association of America, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Apple, Johnson and Johnson and Yahoo, rather than groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which shares the industry’s expertise in intellectual property policy but has an agenda less aligned with business.
A controversial Transportation Security Administration program that uses “behavior indicators” to identify potential terrorists is instead primarily targeting undocumented immigrants, according to a document obtained by The Intercept and interviews with current and former government officials.
The $900 million program, Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT, employs behavior detection officers trained to identify passengers who exhibit behaviors that TSA believes could be linked to would-be terrorists. But in one five-week period at a major international airport in the United States in 2007, the year the program started, only about 4 percent of the passengers who were referred to secondary screening or law enforcement by behavior detection officers were arrested, and nearly 90 percent of those arrests were for being in the country illegally, according to a TSA document obtained by The Intercept.
Nothing in the SPOT records suggests that any of those arrested were associated with terrorist activity.
Those results aren’t surprising, according to those involved in the program, because the behavior checklist was, in part, modeled after immigration, border and drug interdiction programs. Drug smugglers and undocumented immigrants often exhibit clear signs of nervousness and confusion, or may be in possession of fraudulent documents.
“That’s why we started rounding up all the Mexicans,” said one former behavior detection officer.
Another strike for the Streisand Effect
Walmart. Just saying the company’s name is usually enough to evoke unbidden brain-sounds of terrifying organ music and images of pitchfork-wielding devil-imps. But, hey, it’s a large business that’s been around for quite a while, so I guess it’s doing alright. It seems to me that somebody might want to call a meeting with the Walmart legal brain trust, because the company’s campaign against a silly and simple parody website isn’t achieving much of anything at all, and is in fact Streisanding the parody site into national views.
This story starts back in 2012, when ICANN saw fit to hold a firesale on domain extensions. Buying them up was all the rage for reasons unfathomable to this author. Still, that was the impetus for how we arrived at Walmart going after a site with a .horse extension.
That explains why, for the mere price of $29, you can now purchase a .horse domain name, if you want to do such a thing. “With .HORSE, there are no hurdles between equine enthusiasts on the Internet,” says United Domains. “Giddy up and register .HORSE today!” It doesn’t seem like too many people have been receptive to this pun-based sales pitch, but a 34-year-old named Jeph Jacques saw the opportunity for what he calls an “art project.”
“I thought, ‘Alright I’m gonna buy this and do something stupid with it and see what happens,” he told me. And readers, he did just that.
This grand art project? Buying up the domain www.walmart.horse, slapping a picture of the front of a Walmart store with a, you guessed it, horse superimposed over the top, and declaring the whole thing a monumental artistic success. Seriously, this is the only thing at the website if you go there.
Monet it might not be, but the image is suddenly competing with the likes of famous artists for attention and views thanks to Walmart freaking the hell out about it. In its infamous wisdom, Walmart and its crackerjack legal team have demanded that the whole shebang be taken down, claiming infringement of trademark. The C&D letter Walmart helpfully sent along suggested that Jacques’ website would confuse customers into thinking that Walmart, who is not in either the business of horses nor in the business of having a sense of humor, might have some affiliation to walmart.horse. Interestingly, the letter targets the domain name, rather than the image on the site itself. I’m not personally aware of any infringement claim on domain name being refuted by the actual extension used, but this would seem to be a ripe candidate for that argument, given that Walmart is not in the horse business.
But this really shouldn’t even get that far, given the whole purpose of the site itself and the artistic nature of the creator.
Jacques argues that his site is “an obvious parody and therefore falls under fair use.” He also told Walmart in his response that he’d be happy to put a disclaimer on his site to let visitors know he is not actually affiliated with the Waltons. And although he doesn’t want to bow to the company just yet, he says he’s already proved his original hypothesis: that corporations spend an absurd amount of time policing their trademarks.
Point proven, I suppose. Meanwhile, a tiny joke site has been Streisanded into the national conversation because Walmart just couldn’t resist.
At least once a month TorrentFreak reports on the often crazy world of DMCA takedown notices. Google is kind enough to publish thousands of them in its Transparency Report and we’re only too happy to spend hours trawling through them.
Every now and again a real gem comes to light, often featuring mistakes that show why making these notices public is not only a great idea but also in the public interest. The ones we found this week not only underline that assertion in bold, but are actually the worst examples of incompetence we’ve ever seen.
German-based Total Wipes Music Group have made these pages before after trying to censor entirely legal content published by Walmart, Ikea, Fair Trade USA and Dunkin Donuts. This week, however, their earlier efforts were eclipsed on a massive scale.
wipedFirst, in an effort to ‘protect’ their album “Truth or Dare” on Maze Records, the company tried to censor a TorrentFreak article from 2012 on how to download anonymously. The notice, found here, targets dozens of privacy-focused articles simply because they have the word “hide” in them.
But it gets worse – much worse. ‘Protecting’ an album called “Cigarettes” on Mona Records, Total Wipes sent Google a notice containing not a single infringing link. Unbelievably one of the URLs targeted an article on how to use PGP on the Mac. It was published by none other than the EFF.