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March, 2019

New spyware legislation a mixed bag

A comprehensive spyware bill recently cleared the House Energy & Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection (it flows trippingly from the tongue, no?) and is busy stirring up controversy. Dubbed the "Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass Act" (the SPY ACT Act), H.R. 964 would limit all sorts of spyware, but it also contains several important exceptions that lead the EFF to say that "the bill would actually make things worse." HangZhou Night Net

The legislation prevents a broad array of activities: spambots, botnets, adware, home page hijacking, keystroke logging, disabling antispyware or antivirus technology, and grabbing a person's modem and dialing numbers in Antigua. The bill also requires increased notice and consent from software vendors who collect personal information.

This sounds like a big step forward, but the FTC already has much of this authority and in fact has been prosecuting spyware vendors for several years. The new bill does give the agency the early Christmas present that it wanted—civil penalties against spyware operators—but it doesn't really allow them to prosecute new kinds of cases.

Worries arise

It does do some things that are new, however. First, it preempts many state laws about "unfair or deceptive conduct with respect to computers" and says that only a state Attorney General or the FTC can bring cases under the SPY ACT. The law does not affect state laws about trespass, contract law, tort law, fraud, or consumer protection statutes as they relate to spyware.

Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney for the EFF, said in a statement that "this is a terrible move" because "software and adware vendors are trying to quietly block consumer class actions that could target their misbehavior." The EFF believes, for instance, that it could not have brought suit against Sony BMG for the rootkit that was installed on many of the company's CDs if this law had been in place at the time. "If Congress is serious about enacting tough anti-spyware laws," von Lohmann continued, "it should create incentives that would encourage private citizens to pursue the bad guys."

The Center for Democracy and Technology, which testified before Congress on the bill last month, doesn't believe the bill is as bad as the EFF makes out, and in fact is "generally supportive" of the legislation. The CDT representative told Congress that "all of the state spyware cases have invoked state consumer protection laws," and noted that these laws would be left intact. What would change, though, is that state Attorneys General could not bring actions under specific state statutes against spyware; these would instead be replaced by the uniform federal standard. The CDT also notes that the FTC has been busy busting some of the biggest spyware vendors, but it has been unable to secure much in the way of financial penalties. The new civil penalty authority should give the agency the power to seek fines against companies, not just "disgorgements" of improperly earned revenue.

There is also some disappointment that a proposed "Good Samaritan" section doesn't go far enough in safeguarding legitimate anti-spyware vendors who attempt to remove software that consumers don't want. Forcompanies likeZanga, a one-time spyware purveyor who has now gone straight, this provision is particularly irritating. Speaking before the subcommittee considering the bill, a company representative worried that "some companies selling scanning applications to consumers compete with each other by issuing inflammatory warnings designed to frighten consumers about software 'lurking' on their computers." In other words, anti-spyware programs might remove our software.

The bill also includes an "exception relating to security" that provides a safe harbor for companies that conduct diagnostics, technical support, repair, or network security. It also provides a loophole for software used "solely to determine whether the user of the computer is authorized to use such software." Essentially, it's allowing for DRM that needs to communicate with a server; think Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage, for instance. While this provision has been upsetting to some pundits who don't like DRM, it hardly guts the spyware provisions in the first part of the bill. Even Sony BMG's rootkit would have been in trouble for collecting consumer data without clear notice and consent, and because it was not simple to uninstall.

The Direct Marketing Association worries that the bill might impact "legitimate advertisers" who also collect user data in ways that might appear surreptitious (cookies, web bugs, etc).

Should the bill pass, spyware vendors could be fined up to $3 million per violation.

Friday afternoon Apple links

"Generation Y" has a hard time trusting a lot of traditional brands, but apparently Apple is at the top of the list of the brands that they (we?) do trust. Also among the top trusted brands in a recent survey were Trader Joe's, In-N-Out, Whole Foods, Adidas, H&M, and Volkswagen (to name a few). "Apple's computers and iPods are so clean and simple and easy to use. No excess."

There's a new "Get a Mac" ad in the UK called Office Posse. It features the British Mac and PC guys bickering about Microsoft Office, who appears to be on Apple's side (and not wanting to leave).

Apple's getting all of its ducks in a row regarding the iPhone, and one of those ducks is iPhone support. The company is recruiting college grads for Senior iPhone Support positions, asking for applications no later than May of this year. If you're in Austin, need a job, and don't mind being asked "where's the keypad?" 743 times a day, then this job could be for you.

If you're planning to attend WWDC and are a coder (which I would assume that you are if you're going to WWDC), check out the Coding Headstarts that Apple has posted up for WWDC attendees. "Coding Headstarts provide you with step-by-step guidance on how to
create new and compelling features in your application using the
essential development languages, APIs and frameworks of
MacOSXLeopard."HangZhou Night Net

Apple may have conveniently chosen not to tell us how well the Apple TV is selling at their recent financial conference call, but resellers in Toronto, Canada report that the device is "flying off the shelves." Apparently, retailers can't keep them in stock, and it doesn't even matter that Canadians can't buy TV content from iTunes. What?Interested in a few tips for what you can do with Panic's new web dev app, Coda? Upstart Blogger has 30 tips and tricks for use with Coda—some of which are fairly obvious and some of which are not. Check it out, though, cuz there were a few things in there that even I didn't know.Insanely Great Tees is holding a contest for the funniest spoof iPhone commercial. The prize of the contest is, you guessed it, an iPhone. The commercial must be under 30 seconds and must contain the phrase "I'm an iPhone." I uh, can't wait to see the results.

I hope you all have a fantastic weekend. The weather is supposed to be gorgeous here in Chicago and other parts of the country (and world?), so maybe we'll all be forced to go out and enjoy a rare encounter with the daystar. Or not.

Apple acknowledges MacBook battery problems

Apple has come out and acknowledged that there are some problems with MacBook and MacBook Pro battery performance this Friday afternoon. The batteries pose no safety risk, according to Apple. The affected batteries come from MacBooks and MacBook Pros sold between February 2006 and April 2007. HangZhou Night Net

In response to this problem, Apple has released a firmware update for those Intel-based Mac laptops. According to Apple's website describing the battery update (available both via the web and Software Update), you can identify an affected battery because it will have "one or more of the following symptoms":

    Battery is not recognized causing an “X” to appear in the battery icon in the Finder menu bar.Battery will not charge when computer is plugged into AC power.Battery exhibits low charge capacity/runtime when using a fully charged battery with a battery cycle count (as shown in System Profiler) of less than 300.Battery pack is visibly deformed.

    That whole "visibly deformed" thing makes me think that not all batteries can be fixed by a software update. That suspicion appears to be confirmed by the fact that Apple's website specifies that the next step after running the update—if you are still experiencing these problems—is to immediately take it into an Apple Store for battery replacement. If your battery is not showing any of the above symptoms, you do not need a replacement.

    One thing to note is that if you've got an older MacBook or MacBook Pro, this program extends warranty coverage on the battery for another two years:

    For MacBook and MacBook Pro systems with Intel Core Duo processors, this program extends repair coverage on the battery for up to two years from the date of purchase of the computer.

    Good to know. So how many of you think you've been affected? I wish I could say that I was, but I think I just messed up my MacBook's battery life on my own. C'est la vie.

Behind the OLPC price bump: better hardware

After many years of prototypes, design changes, production delays, and a recent price increase, the final specifications for the "One Laptop Per Child" PC (OLPC) are starting to take shape. In fact, the most recent specs help explain the price jump, in part, for the system has gained a bit more muscle as the project pushes on. HangZhou Night Net

The final OLPC will cost $175 and have the following specs and characteristics:

433 MHz AMD Geode LX-700 x86 Processor256 MB RAM1GB NAND Flash storage3 USB Ports2w power usage during nominal load802.11b/g-based WiFi Mesh networkingDual Mode Display (Color, high-contrast for outdoors)

Astute observers will recall that at one time the XO laptop was slated to sport a 366MHz AMD Geode processor, 128MB of RAM, and 512 MB of NAND flash storage. As you can see, the machine has received a bit of a lift over time, and it's probably no coincidence that the specs are much closer to Intel's Classmate PC, at least in terms of RAM and storage.

Also worth nothing is the battery: the nickel-metal hydride battery selected will allow the XO to operate for between four and eight hours depending on what features are in use. And when power sockets aren't available, users can recharge the battery with a built-in pull-string charger.

Power usage will be at its highest when the device is in "e-book mode." The XO laptop's unique 7-1/2 inch dual-mode LCD supports a resolution of 800×600 in color mode, but it jumps to 1200×900 in monochrome mode for reading and ease of use outdoors. In that mode, power usage will be closer to 4-8 watts.

As far as software, the OLPC will run a suite based around Linux, X-Windows, the lightweight Matchbox window manager, and the Sugar desktop environment. A FORTH interpreter is provided to teach programming skills.

The machines will act somewhat differently from regular laptops, in that everything created on them will automatically get backed up to the child's Google account, using a mesh networking infrastructure. This networking protocol is a form of Internet connection sharing that allows a single connection to be shared by many nearby laptops. There is also shared school software that sits on a common server accessible by all students.

The laptops can also run some form of Windows, most likely the $3 Starter Edition bundle, although this hasn't been finalized yet and stories claiming otherwise are simply inaccurate. We're looking into whether or not the bump in specs has anything to do with Microsoft. We doubt it, if only because the Classmate PC's storage jumps to 2GB with a Windows configuration, which suggests that the XO couldn't manage Windows with only 1GB of NAND storage.

Virtual Console Monday: Nintendo’s new offerings for 4-30-07

Another Monday, another set of three Virtual Console games from Nintendo. We have some great stuff to play today, so let's jump right in. HangZhou Night Net

Castlevania (NES, 500 points or $5)

Before there were the endless re-imaginings, before the stumbles into 3D, before Symphony of the Night rebooted the franchise, there was the original Castlevania. A whip as a main weapon? Killing classic monsters? This was the stuff back in the day. This is a great way to look back and see how far the Castlevania name has come, and to realize just how well the original stands up. This is a very linear, six-level game; it's hard to remember how big a deal things like the sub-weapons were for the time.

The Legend of the Mystical Ninja (SNES, 800 points or $8)

Minigames, 2D and 3D gameplay, and some great sprite work make this an underappreciated gem. While the hardcore gamers are going to go crazy after hearing it's available, some people may not know what the fuss is about. Give it a download and see for yourself that this is a great title that will be well worth your time. The piggy-backing of characters wasn't really helpful in the game, but it was a fun way to practice team work. The game does a good job of mixing things up to keep you on your toes, too. This is a good title to rediscover, or to play for the first time.

Shockman (Turbografx 16, 600 points or $6)

This is an attractive 2D shooter with a few interesting teamwork elements in it as well. The Virtual Console has many shooters and Shockman is one that most of us will be seeing for the first time, but it's going to be find for this one to find a home with the other two choices available this week.

So what do you think? Excited? Let down? Any of these games going to find a home with you?