20 Years of Protecting Intermediaries: Legacy of 'Zeran' Remains a Critical Protection for Freedom of Expression Online



  • This article first appeared on Nov. 10 in Law.com.

    At the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), we are proud to be ardent defenders of §230. Even before §230 was enacted in 1996, we recognized that all speech on the Internet relies upon intermediaries, like ISPs, web hosts, search engines, and social media companies. Most of the time, it relies on more than one. Because of this, we know that intermediaries must be protected from liability for the speech of their users if the Internet is to live up to its promise, as articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in ACLU v. Reno, of enabling “any person … [to] become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox“ and hosting “content … as diverse as human thought.”

    As we hoped—and based in large measure on the strength of the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Zeran—§230 has proven to be one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet. In the past two decades, we’ve filed well over 20 legal briefs in support of §230, probably more than on any other issue, in response to attempts to undermine or sneak around the statute. Thankfully, most of these attempts were unsuccessful. In most cases, the facts were ugly—Zeran included. We had to convince judges to look beyond the individual facts and instead focus on the broader implications: that forcing intermediaries to become censors would jeopardize the Internet’s promise of giving a voice to all and supporting more robust public discourse than ever before possible.

    This remains true today, and it is worth remembering now, in the face of new efforts in both Congress and the courts to undermine §230’s critical protections.

    Attacks on §230: The First 20 Years

    The first wave of attacks on §230’s protections came from plaintiffs who tried to plead around §230 in an attempt to force intermediaries to take down online speech they didn’t like. Zeran was the first of these, with an attempt to distinguish between “publishers” and “distributors” of speech that the Fourth Circuit rightfully rejected. As we noted above, the facts were not pretty: the plaintiff sought to hold AOL responsible after an anonymous poster used his name and phone number on an AOL message board to indicate—incorrectly—that he was selling horribly offensive t-shirts about the Oklahoma City bombing. The court rightfully held that §230 protected against liability for both publishing and distributing user content.

    The second wave of attacks came from plaintiffs trying to deny §230 protection to ordinary users who reposted content authored by others—i.e., an attempt to limit the statute to protecting only formal intermediaries. In one case, Barrett v. Rosenthal, the attackers succeeded at the California court of appeals. But in 2006, the California Supreme Court ruled that §230 protects all non-authors who republish content, not just formal intermediaries like ISPs. This ruling—which was urged by EFF as amicus along with several other amici—still protects ordinary bloggers and Facebook posters in California from liability for content they merely republish. Unsurprisingly, the California Supreme Court’s opinion included a four-page section dedicated entirely to Zeran.

    Another wave of attacks, also in the mid-2000s, came as plaintiffs tried to use the Fair Housing Act to hold intermediaries responsible when users posted housing advertisements that violated the law. Both Craigslist and Roommates.com were sued over discriminatory housing advertisements posted by their users. The Seventh Circuit, at the urging of EFF and other amici, held that §230 immunized Craigslist from liability for classified ads posted by its users—citing Zeran first in a long line of cases supporting broad intermediary immunity. Despite our best efforts, however, the Ninth Circuit found that §230 did not immunize Roommates.com from liability if, indeed, it was subject to the law. The majority opinion ignored both us and Zeran, citing the case only once in a footnote responding to the strong dissent. It found that Roommates.com could be at least partially responsible for the development of the ads because it had forced its users to fill out a questionnaire about housing preferences that included options that the plaintiffs asserted were illegal. The website endured four more years of needless litigation before the Ninth Circuit ultimately found that it hadn’t actually violated any anti-discrimination laws at all, even with the questionnaire. The court left its earlier opinion intact, however, and we were worried the exception carved out in Roommates.com would wreak havoc on §230’s protections. It luckily hasn’t been applied broadly by other courts—undoubtedly thanks in large part to Zeran’s stronger legal analysis and influence.

    The Fight Continues

    We are now squarely in the middle of a fourth wave of attack—efforts to hold intermediaries responsible for extremist or illegal online content. The goal, again, seems to be forcing intermediaries to actively screen users and censor speech. Many of these efforts are motivated by noble intentions, and the speech at issue is often horrible, but these efforts also risk devastating the Internet as we know it.

    Some of the recent attacks on §230 have been made in the courts. So far, they have not been successful. In these cases, plaintiffs are seeking to hold social media platforms accountable on the theory that providing a platform for extremist content counts as material support for terrorism. Courts across the country have universally rejected these efforts. The Ninth Circuit will be hearing one of these cases, Twitter v. Fields, in December.

    But the current attacks are unfortunately not only in the courts. The more dangerous threats are in Congress. Both the House and Senate are considering bills that would exempt charges under federal and state criminal and civil laws related to sex trafficking from §230’s protections—the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (S. 1693) (SESTA) in the Senate, and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (H.R. 1865) in the House. While the legislators backing these laws are largely well meaning, and while these laws are presented as targeting commercial classified ads websites like Backpage.com, they don’t stop there. Instead, SESTA and its house counterpart punish small businesses that just want to run a forum where people can connect and communicate. They will have disastrous consequences for community bulletin boards and comment sections, without making a dent in sex trafficking. In fact, it is already a federal criminal offense for a website to run ads that support sex trafficking, and §230 doesn’t protect against prosecutions for violations of federal criminal laws.

    Ultimately, SESTA and its house counterpart would impact all platforms that host user speech, big and small, commercial and noncommercial. They would also impact any intermediary in the chain of online content distribution, including ISPs, web hosting companies, websites, search engines, email and text messaging providers, and social media platforms—i.e., the platforms that people around the world rely on to communicate and learn every day. All of these companies come into contact with user-generated content: ads, emails, text messages, social media posts. Under these bills, if any of this user-generated content somehow related to sex trafficking, even without the platform’s knowledge, the platform could be held liable.

    Zeran’s analysis from 20 years ago demonstrates why this is a huge problem. Because these bills would have far-reaching implications—just as every other legislative proposal for limiting §230—they would open Internet intermediaries, companies, nonprofits, and community supported endeavors alike to massive legal exposure. Under this cloud of legal uncertainty, new websites, along with their investors, would be wary of hosting open platforms for speech—or of even starting up in the first place—for fear that they would face crippling lawsuits if third parties used their websites for illegal conduct. They would have to bear litigation costs even if they were completely exonerated, as Roommates.com was after many years. Small platforms that already exist could easily go bankrupt trying to defend against these lawsuits, leaving only larger ones. And the companies that remained would be pressured to over-censor content in order to proactively avoid being drawn into a lawsuit.

    EFF is concerned not only because this would chill new innovation and drive smaller players out of the market. Ultimately, these bills would shrink the spaces online where ordinary people can express themselves, with disastrous results for community bulletin boards and local newspapers’ comment sections. They threaten to transform the relatively open Internet of today into a closed, limited, censored Internet. This is the very result that §230 was designed to prevent.

    Since Zeran, the courts have recognized that without strong §230 protections, the promise of the Internet as a great leveler—amplifying and empowering voices that have never been heard, and allowing ideas to be judged on their merits rather than on the deep pockets of those behind them—will be lost. Congress needs to abandon its misguided efforts to undermine §230 and heed Zeran’s time-tested lesson: if we fail to protect intermediaries, we fail to protect online speech for everyone.

    https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/11/20-years-protecting-intermediaries-legacy-zeran-remains-critical-protection





Tmux Commands

screen and tmux

A comparison of the features (or more-so just a table of notes for accessing some of those features) for GNU screen and BSD-licensed tmux.

The formatting here is simple enough to understand (I would hope). ^ means ctrl+, so ^x is ctrl+x. M- means meta (generally left-alt or escape)+, so M-x is left-alt+x

It should be noted that this is no where near a full feature-set of either group. This - being a cheat-sheet - is just to point out the most very basic features to get you on the road.

Trust the developers and manpage writers more than me. This document is originally from 2009 when tmux was still new - since then both of these programs have had many updates and features added (not all of which have been dutifully noted here).

Action tmux screen
start a new session tmux OR
tmux new OR
tmux new-session
screen
re-attach a detached session tmux attach OR
tmux attach-session
screen-r
re-attach an attached session (detaching it from elsewhere) tmux attach -d OR
tmux attach-session -d
screen -dr
re-attach an attached session (keeping it attached elsewhere) tmux attach OR
tmux attach-session
screen -x
detach from currently attached session ^b d OR
^b :detach
^a ^d OR
^a :detach
rename-window to newname ^b , <newname> OR
^b :rename-window <newn>
^a A <newname>
list windows ^b w ^a w
list windows in chooseable menu ^a "
go to window # ^b # ^a #
go to last-active window ^b l ^a ^a
go to next window ^b n ^a n
go to previous window ^b p ^a p
see keybindings ^b ? ^a ?
list sessions ^b s OR
tmux ls OR
tmux list-sessions
screen -ls
toggle visual bell ^a ^g
create another window ^b c ^a c
exit current shell/window ^d ^d
split window/pane horizontally ^b " ^a S
split window/pane vertically ^b % ^a |
switch to other pane ^b o ^a <tab>
kill the current pane ^b x OR (logout/^D)
collapse the current pane/split (but leave processes running) ^a X
cycle location of panes ^b ^o
swap current pane with previous ^b {
swap current pane with next ^b }
show time ^b t
show numeric values of panes ^b q
toggle zoom-state of current pane (maximize/return current pane) ^b z
break the current pane out of its window (to form new window) ^b !
re-arrange current panels within same window (different layouts) ^b [space]
Kill the current window (and all panes within) ^b killw [target-window]
  • Criteo is an ad company. You may not have heard of them, but they do retargeting, the type of ads that pursue users across the web, beseeching them to purchase a product they once viewed or have already bought. To identify users across websites, Criteo relies on cross-site tracking using cookies and other methods to follow users as they browse. This has led them to try and circumvent the privacy features in Apple’s Safari browser which protects its users from such tracking. Despite this apparently antagonistic attitude towards user privacy, Criteo has also been whitelisted by the Acceptable Ads initiative. This means that their ads are unblocked by popular adblockers such as Adblock and Adblock Plus. Criteo pays Eyeo, the operator of Acceptable Ads, for this whitelisting and must comply with their format requirements. But this also means they can track any user of these adblockers who has not disabled Acceptable Ads, even if they have installed privacy tools such as EasyPrivacy with the intention of protecting themselves. EFF is concerned about Criteo’s continued anti-privacy actions and their continued inclusion in Acceptable Ads.

    Safari Shuts out Third Party Cookies…

    All popular browsers give users control over who gets to set cookies, but Safari is the only one that blocks third-party cookies (those set by a domain other than the site you are visiting) by default. (Safari’s choice is important because only 5-10% of users ever change default settings in software.) Criteo relies on third-party cookies. Since users have little reason to visit Criteo’s own website, the company gets its cookies onto users’ machines through its integration on many online retail websites. Safari’s cookie blocking is a major problem for Criteo, especially given the large and lucrative nature of iPhone’s user base. Rather than accept this, Criteo has repeatedly implemented ways to defeat Safari’s privacy protections.

    One workaround researchers detected Criteo using was to redirect users from sites where their service was present to their own. For example, if you visited wintercoats.com and clicked on a product category, you would be first diverted to criteo.com and then redirected to wintercoats.com/down-filled. Although imperceptible to the user, this detour was enough to persuade the browser that criteo.com is a site you chose to visit, and therefore a first party entitled to set a cookie rather than a third party. Criteo applied for a patent on this method in August 2013.

    …And Closes the Backdoor

    Last summer, however, Apple unveiled a new version of Safari with more sophisticated cookie handling—called Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP)—which killed off the redirect technique as a means to circumvent the cookie controls. The browser now analyzes if the user has engaged with a website in a meaningful way before allowing it to set a cookie. The announcement triggered panic among advertising companies, whose trade association, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, denounced the feature and rushed out technical recommendations to work around it. Obviously the level of user “interaction” with Criteo during the redirect described above fails ITP’s test, which meant Criteo was locked out again.

    It appears that Criteo’s response was to abandon cookies for Safari users and to generate a persistent identifier by piggybacking on a key user safety technology called HSTS. When a browser connects to a site via HTTPS (i.e. a site that supports encryption), the site can respond with an HTTP Strict Transport Security policy (HSTS), instructing the browser to only contact it using HTTPS. Without a HSTS policy, your browser might try to connect to the site over regular old unencrypted HTTP in the future—and thus be vulnerable to a downgrade attack. Criteo used HSTS to sneak data into the browser cache to produce an identifier it could use to recognize the individual’s browser and profile them. This approach relied on the fact that it is difficult to clear HSTS data in Safari, requiring the user to purge the cache entirely to delete the identifier. For EFF, it is especially worrisome that Criteo used a technique that pits privacy protection against user security interests by targeting HSTS. Use of this mechanism was documented by Gotham City Research, an investment firm who have bet against Criteo’s stock.

    In early December, Apple released an update to iOS and Safari which disabled Criteo’s ability to exploit HSTS. This led to Criteo revising down their revenue forecasts and a sharp fall in their share price.

    How is Criteo Acceptable Advertising”****?

    "… w__e sort of seek the consent of users, just like we had done before_."__1_ - Erich Eichmann, CEO Criteo

    _"Only users who don’t already have a Criteo identifier will see the header or footer, and it is displayed only once per device. Thanks to [the?] Criteo advertisers network, most of your users would have already accepted our services on the website of another of our partner. On average, only 5% of your users will see the headers or footers, and for those who do, the typical opt-out rate is less than .2%._" - Criteo Support Center

    Criteo styles itself as a leader in privacy practices, yet they have dedicated significant engineering resources to circumventing privacy tools. They claim to have obtained user consent to tracking based on a minimal warning delivered in what we believe to be a highly confusing context. When a user first visits a site containing Criteo’s script, they received a small notice stating, _"_Click any link to use Criteo’s cross-site tracking technology." If the user continues to use the site, they are deemed to have consented. Little wonder that Criteo can boast of a low opt-out rate to their clients.

    Due to their observed behaviour prior to the ITP episode, Criteo’s incorporation into the Acceptable Ads in December 2015 aroused criticism among users of ad blockers. We have written elsewhere about how Acceptable Ads creates a clash of interests between adblocking companies and their users, especially those concerned with their privacy. But Criteo’s participation in Acceptable Ads brings into focus the substantive problem with the program itself. The criteria for Acceptable Ads are concerned chiefly with format and aesthetic aspects (e.g. How big is the ad? How visually intrusive? Does it blink?) and excludes privacy concerns. Retargeting is unpopular and mocked by users, in part because it wears its creepy tracking practices on its sleeve. Our view is that Criteo’s bad behavior should exclude its products from being deemed “acceptable” in any way.

    The fact that the Acceptable Ads Initiative has approved Criteo’s user-tracking-by-misusing-security-features ads is indicative of the privacy problems we believe to be at the heart of the Acceptable Ads program. In March this year, Eyeo announced an Acceptable Ads Committee that will control the criteria for Acceptable Ads in the future. The Committee should start by instituting a rule which excludes companies that circumvent explicit privacy tools or exploit user security technologies for the purpose of tracking.

    1. http://criteo.investorroom.com/download/Transcript_Q3+2017+Earnings_EDITED.pdf

    https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/12/arms-race-against-trackers-safari-leads-criteo-30

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  • Have you ever sent a motivational text to a friend? If you have, perhaps you tailored your message to an activity or location by saying “Good luck in the race!” or “Have fun in New York!” Now, imagine doing this automatically with a compuuuter. What a great invention. Actually, no. That’s not a good invention, it’s our latest Stupid Patent of the Month.

    U.S. Patent No. 9,069,648 is titled “Systems and methods for delivering activity based suggestive (ABS) messages.” The patent describes sending “motivational messages,” based “on the current or anticipated activity of the user,” to a “personal electronic device.” The patent provides examples such as sending the message “don’t give up” when the user is running up a hill. The examples aren’t limited to health or exercise. For example, the patent suggests sending messages like “do not fear” and “God is with you” when a “user enters a dangerous neighborhood.”

    The patent’s description of its invention is filled with silly, non-standard acronyms like ABS for “activity based suggestive” messages or EBIF for “electronic based intelligence function.” These silly acronyms create an illusion of complexity where plain, descriptive language would reveal the mundane nature of the supposed invention. For example, what the patent grandly calls EBIF appears to be nothing more than standard computer processing.

    The ’648 patent is owned by Motivational Health Messaging LLC. While this may be a new company, at least one of the people behind it has been involved in massive patent trolling campaigns before. And the two named inventors have both been inventors on patents that trolls have asserted hundreds of times. One is also an inventor listed on patents asserted by infamous patent troll Shipping and Transit LLC. The other named inventor is the inventor on the patents asserted by Electronic Communication Technologies LLC. Those two entities (with their predecessors) brought over 700 lawsuits, many against very small businesses. In other words, the ’648 patent has been issued to Troll Co. at 1 Troll Street, Troll Town, Trollida USA.

    We believe that the claims of the ’648 patent are clearly invalid under the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice v. CLS Bank, which held abstract ideas do not become eligible for a patent merely because they are implemented in conventional computer technology. Indeed, the patent repeatedly emphasizes that the claimed methods are not tied to any particular hardware or software. For example, it states:

    The software and software logic described in this document … which comprises an ordered listing of executable instructions for implementing logical functions, can be embodied in any non-transitory computer-readable medium for use by or in connection with an instruction execution system, apparatus, or device, such as a computer-based system, processor-containing system, or other system that can fetch the instructions from the instruction execution system, apparatus, or device and execute the instructions.

    The ’648 patent issued on June 30, 2015, a full year after the Supreme Court’s Alice ruling. Despite this, the patent examiner never even discussed the decision. If Alice is to mean anything at all, it has to be applied to an application like this one.

    In our view, if Motivational Health Messaging asserts its patent in court, any defendant that fought back should prevail under Alice. Indeed, we would hope that the court would strongly consider awarding attorney’s fees to the defendant in such a case. Shipping & Transit has now had two fee awards made against it for asserting patents that are clearly invalid under Alice. And the Federal Circuit recently held that fee awards can be appropriate when patent owners make objectively unreasonable argument concerning Alice.

    In addition to the problems under Alice, we believe the claims of the ’648 patent should have been rejected as obvious. When the application was filed in 2012, there was nothing new about sending motivational messages or automatically tailoring messages to things like location. In one proposed embodiment, the patent suggests that a “user walking to a hole may be delivered ABS messages, including reminders or instructions on how to play a particular hole.” But golf apps were already doing this. The Patent Office didn’t consider any real-world mobile phone applications when reviewing the application.

    If you want to look for prior art yourself, Unified Patents is running a crowdsourcing contest to find the best prior art to invalidate the ’648 patent. Aside from the warm feelings that come from fighting patent trolls, there is a $2000 prize pool.

    Despite the weakness of its patent, Motivational Health Messaging LLC might still send out demand letters. If you receive such a letter, you can contact EFF and we can help you find counsel.

    We have long complained that the Patent Office promotes patent trolling by granting obvious and/or abstract software patents. The history of the ’648 patent shows how the Patent Office’s failure to properly review applications leads to bad patents falling into the hands of trolls.

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