The Australian Men's Computer Society

 
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It takes a special sort of lack of self-reflection to make International Womens' Day about men in IT but the men of the Australian Computer Society are made of pretty stern stuff with their upcoming event to celebrate the male champions of change! At this headline event they will shine a light on special men who personify ANZ Bank CEO Mike Smith's quote;

It strikes me that we need to celebrate men who have a track record of hiring, developing and advancing women

It appears to have struck him with insufficient force, and other things appear to have not occurred to him at all.

Women fight for every iota of recognition and merit within commercial IT, communities like the various open source software scenes and technology in society movements.  Women are intimidated and harassed at technology focussed events, they are treated like they are second rate technology practitioners (or worse, their male counterparts act pleasantly surprised when they achieve), and they are expected to practice "soft skills" on the job because "women are good at that stuff"- business-side engagement, organising people and things, administration tasks. Women's technical expertise is expected to be bronze standard but their housekeeping skills come into good use in the office.

When women are successful in IT, they are treated to the phenomenon where their gender is their defining professional feature.  Primarily, women who are recognised for their success are sneered about by men, who dismiss the recognition as being because they are a woman.  "Need to keep it even", "The ladies need to have some accolades", "she'll get this one to avoid HR's gaze but it's back to the real competition now".   The Australian Computer Society has outshone itself by being able to add to the caveat "it was because she's a woman", by formally introducing "it was because a man enabled her".

This event is a disgrace.  If you are a man in IT who is a member of the Australian Computer Society, I urge you to support women in technology by tearing up your membership card and mailing it to your local chapter with a letter.  That letter should explain that a decades-long history of women's achievement in IT being characterised as an adorable anomaly doesn't need a new era where women's achievement in IT is because of the men who enable them.

Update:  The ACS has replaced the event with one that is less offensive, but put the details of it at the original link.  This means that the link this article originally went to, showed the less distasteful content but without acknowledging the original.  The original event details are here.

Image:  brand0con

Fair Dealing v Fair Use v a Fair Attorney General

 
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Late last week some of the best coverage of the ALRC's copyright review recommendations was offered by IT News.  There's two main points in play here and it bears examining both, because both will be battlegrounds shortly.  The two recommendations that come out of the review are no-brainers from a consumer perspective, have the content industries howling and tearing at their shirts, and AG George Brandis' first reaction was to express concern and skepticism.

The first piece to examine is that of fair dealing and fair use, and how the report recommends we look at fair use in Australia to replace fair dealing. For the unfamiliar, copyright laws establish a bunch of legal rights and criminal offences around what happens to copyrighted material.  Under US Fair Use exemptions, reproducing copyrighted work is permitted so that you can critique it, use it as an example in a school assignment, make copies to include in a handed out uni case study etc.  The focus in fair use is on fairly broad concepts - how many copies were made? How much of the copyrighted work was reproduced?  Was there a non-copyrighted alternative to get the same information across?  Was the copyright owner's interest in protecting the profitability of its entertainment value impacted?

Fair dealing in Australia (and elsewhere) is different.  There are specific reasons that fair dealing exemptions can be considered in play for a copyrighted work, they are;

  • To research or study it
  • To review or critique it
  • To report it as news
  • As part of the provision of legal advice in most circumstances
  • To parody or satire it in most circumstances

Exemptions even exist to those fairly narrow exemptions; statutes have copyright attached to them from the crown and some satire and parody has been found to not be fair dealing.

Our ability to access US-style exemptions to copyright law follows a similar model to our ability to access everything else to do with movies and music from the US; years later, not as good, broadly ignored.

As it currently stands, while downloading movies and music non-commercially in Australia isn't illegal, copyright owners would have rights to pursue compensation if the much narrower "is it for one of these reasons" fair dealing criteria aren't met for a piece of copyrighted material.  If a teacher shows a portion of a copyrighted movie to a class and the criteria for research or study of the copyrighted material isn't met (perhaps it was part of researching and studying something else?) then Village Roadshow can pursue the Victoria Education Department for royalties.  The ALRC called out an even more concerning phenomenon (but were not the first to do so), copies of copyrighted works are routinely made automatically for various purposes whether or not we even think about it or realise.  Technology features like rewinding live TV, making a recording to watch later, transforming a work that is viewable on an Apple TV so it can be watched on a Samsung Tablet, all create copies of copyrighted work that are neither for research, critique, news, legal advice or parody.  The copies might be temporary and "behind the scenes" with you never able to access them, but they are created and that's what the law covers.

It's in copyright owners' interest to maximise the circumstances in which they can pursue being paid for the use of something they have the commercial rights to, and they are pushing back against it being rationalised.  George Brandis appears to be sympathetic to the idea of maintaining the status quo and keeping content owners' options open.

The second fairly harrowing issue to come out of the nascent discussions is the old chestnut of making ISPs responsible for copyright infringement on their networks and introducing a "graduated response" scheme where Internet users who are alleged to infringe copyright are sent warning notices from content owners via their ISPs which escalate in gravity until becoming legally relevant and/or the ISP terminates the customer's service.  This has been coming from the(/an) Australian government since a cabal of copyright lobbyists lost a lengthy and expensive series of court battles to ISP iiNet where it was established that ISPs have no more obligation to control the legality of your Internet use than AGL has to control the legality of your electricity use.  Communications Minister Stephen Conroy after (and distastefully during) that decision was highly critical and flagged legislative change to support the network operators being obligated to do Hollywood's bidding.  Brandis appears excitable about the plan now.

What will be interesting to watch is that in the time between this being originally floated as a copyright protection strategy years ago overseas, and it being ruled out here, it's been implemented in other countries as an unmitigated disaster.  Primarily international experience has been that content owners would like to commence a flooding rain of warning notices on Internet users but the costs that ISPs set to process the notices makes it impossible to be indiscriminate with them.  The model is also predicated on the idea that no users retaliate, but where Internet users have replied with varying degrees of civility - and particularly where they have sought legal advice before doing so - the procedures in place have been caught not expecting and unable to accommodate lengthy arguments.  Perhaps most notably, France backed away from a graduated response scheme in 2012 when a million warning emails and 99,000 registered letters were sent to suspected pirates, but 134 cases were referred for examination for prosecution and 0 of them were actually escalated to cutting someone off from the net.

The ALRC review and what the attorney general thinks of it will continue to evolve and Any Any will continue to follow it, but the initial direction seems clear.  The content industry want to maintain the overly broad circumstances in which it can assert its rights, and the adoption of failed mechanisms to protect them looks like it is on the cards.

 

Image: Makerbot

 

 

Copyright Game On

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Attorney General George Brandis has received the report the Australian Law Reform Commission put together into copyright and it has not at all blown a gentle warm breeze up his skirt.  This is important, as journalist Matthew Knott notes without really bothering to go into detail about why;

Australians are among the most avid users of pirating websites in the world. For example, Australians accounted for 16 per cent of all illegal downloads of television program Breaking Bad.

Setting aside the use of the term "illegal download" as a factual error, of course we are.  We're the English-speaking western-style democracy with the largest interest in and understanding of United States culture and simultaneously we have the least access to authorised channels of US output of entertainment industry media.  We want it the most and we can have it the least, so we get it the most with the least authorisation.  This is a no-brainer.

The article signals that the government is gearing up to go quite made with failed overseas models like graduated response (where copyright infringers are disconnected from their ISP) as well as locally failed ideas like ISP responsibility for how their customers use their network.  The latter was the outcome of a legal case that was fought all the way to the high court, and it'll take grave legislative change and a squint in the face of separation of powers to make that happen.  Brandis appears up to the task.

 

The Dark We Can't See

 
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In mid January trade minister Andrew Robb suggested it was nonsense for a Daily Telegraph reporter to suggest that the public was "in the dark" over the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, which negotiating states have been working on in complete secrecy for months. To oversimplify only slightly, the agreement seeks broadly to export US attitudes to intellectual property into other country's laws in return for trade access.

This is a bold statement.  One that's able to be measured.

The day after the statement I sent a request under the Freedom of Information Act to DFAT.  That request read simply (along with salutations, sign offs and etc);

On the 12th of January the Daily Telegraph ran an article in which
the minister is reported as dismissing critics of the trans-pacific
partnership agreement, labelling it nonsense to suggest that people
were "in the dark" as regards the agreement. It is highly
encouraging and refreshing to note the minister's approach to
transparency and openness.

Subsequently I am writing to request under the Freedom of
Information Act, the most recent working draft of the agreement.

After 30 days, 3 minutes inside of the legally required response period, the department replied refusing access to the draft in its entirety.  Their reasons were that to release the document would;

divulge any information or matter communicated in confidence by or on behalf of a foreign government, an authority of a foreign government or an international organisation to the government of the Commonwealth

and, to combine separate points set out in the decision

damage our working relations with the other parties (foreign governments) to the negotiations, undermine the trust that the other government have in the Australian Government's ability to protect information provided in confidence and prejudice the willingness of foreign governments to provide confidential information to the Australian Government in future

The respondent further advised they consider it would undermine candour in the negotiations as well as Australia's negotiating position

The respondent assured me however that once the negotiations were final and irreversible and the Commonwealth is committed to what has been negotiated, the text would become public, so there's that.

I responded to this decision a within a few hours of receiving it with;

I am writing to request an internal review under S54 of the Department
of Foreign Affairs and Trade's handling of my FOI request, seeking
access to the most recent draft of the Trans Pacific Partnership
agreement.

The basis for my original request was that the minister advised an
interviewing journalist on the 12th of January that it was nonsense
to suggest that the information I sought under the act was not
available. The refusal of my request in toto for the reasons
provided must therefore be an error in application of the act, or
the minister was either mistaken or misquoted to an unprecedented
extent, or the minister was aware that the information requested
was able to be refused under the act but he expected discretion on
the part of the department to be exercised and the information be
released. Whichever the circumstance, the minister has made not
only a clear public statement that the information is available to
the public, but emphatically suggested it absurd to assert a
position to the contrary - a position the department appears to
hold.

That response signs off that a full history of the request and correspondence relating to it, is available on the most excellent Right to Know website here.  And it is.

I'll update when I have more.

Image: c.mcbrien

Apple to Honour Australian Consumer Law on Warranties

An image of rotten and moulding apples.

The ACCC have released that they have accepted an enforceable undertaking from Apple, effectively this will see Apple stop its illegal nonsense with regards to refunds, repairs and exchanges under the Australian Consumer Law or ACL.  They'll educate customers of their rights, train staff on Australian regulations, implement compliance checks and improve reseller processes.

The situation arose due to Apple staff telling porkies to customers that constituted a breach of the law, specifically.

  • Apple doesn't have to give refunds in circumstances where there is a major failure of something
  • Apple is not obliged to provide a refund, replacement or repair in circumstances where there are minor failures with something
  • Apple doesn't have to give repairs, replacements or refunds on things that are purchased in an Apple store but manufactured by someone else (e.g. Sennheiser earphones or Canon printers)
  • No refunds are available for third party things purchased from the iTunes store or App Store

Staff of shops aren't allowed to make any of these claims in Australia.  In Australia the ACL guarantees minimum standards for refunds, repairs and replacements, usually by guaranteeing that the shop has to make good on faulty goods but leaving it to the shop which of a refund, repair or replacement it'll offer.  A shop's refund policy can offer rights in addition to those rights in the ACL, but it can't reduce them, and if it offers rights in addition it doesn't get to replace existing ones.  It seems that Apple staff might have thought Apple's 14 day full refund on things for any reason at all which isn't an ACL right, allowed them to then applying Apple head-office policies that are more restrictive after that 14 day period.  They were wrong.

It's great that the ACCC have stepped in, but in a way it's sad they've targeted Apple.  The ACCC has a bit of a fetish for tech giants, Apple isn't the first to have been targeted for enforcement action to stop behaviour which is not only typical but almost universal across Australian retail.  Shops all around the country have signs which put time limits on refunds or replacements for faulty goods (14 or 30 days), assert that refunds are unavailable on some items (floor stock or items on sale are common targets), or advise that they will only give refunds or replacements if conditions are met that they have no right to demand (the original receipt is most common here). With the persecuted behaviour being that popular it's difficult to be convinced that the ACCC was genuinely looking to fix it everywhere, it seems they just wanted to bounty-hunt a popular household brand.

Hopefully in doing the latter they'll have done the former. If Apple's wrist-slap and pinkie-promise is popularised enough, retail across Australia might start following the otherwise roundly ignored laws. Time will tell.

 

Image:  per.olesen