“It didn’t violate the First Amendment because Americans weren’t among the people targeted”

We’ve recently been told quite a lot about the activities of the US National Security Agency in monitoring internet communications. Much of it could be described as “stuff you might have feared, but that’s a bit depressing to have confirmed”.

For people outside the US, one perhaps surprising thing is that the US government seems happy to say the NSA’s surveillance programmes are OK because they are only aimed at non-Americans.

It involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted.

— US administration official quoted at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/obama-administration-prism-program_n_3399858.html

Blanket orders from the secret surveillance court allow these communications to be collected without an individual warrant if the NSA operative has a 51% belief that the target is not a US citizen and is not on US soil at the time.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/11/microsoft-nsa-collaboration-user-data

For people outside the US who have been encouraged over many years to use American internet and cloud-hosting companies, it comes as a bit of a surprise not just that the US government feels this way but that it is so unashamed about it.

Although the details about NSA snooping are new(ish), this principle isn’t a new one. It turns out it’s normal for constitutional safeguards not to apply to non-Americans, even when they are using the services of US companies. A current case:

Chevron… is asking Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, which owns Hotmail, to cough up the email data. When Lewis Kaplan, a federal judge in New York, granted the Microsoft subpoena last month, he ruled it didn’t violate the First Amendment because Americans weren’t among the people targeted.

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/07/chevron-ecuador-american-email-legal-activists-journalists

Now this one has nothing to do with the NSA; it’s about gathering evidence for a court case. The only reason it is considered news is because the opposition argues that the hosting service didn’t know for sure that its users were not Americans.

This is so problematic not because the US necessarily behaves worse than any other country—I suspect it has better oversight in place, for its own citizens, than the UK—but because people like me from outside the US have got used to thinking of US-based hosting, services and companies as the norm in the Internet world.

This attitude long pre-dates pervasive cloud computing. Hotmail, the example above, has been one of the world’s most popular email hosting providers for around 15 years, with (I’m guessing) a couple of hundred million users outside the US.

But it’s quite a problem now that cloud hosting is routinely used to store business data and private documents. And it seems obviously problematic for EU-based businesses, which have a legal obligation to follow data protection rules that presumably don’t include sending their customer data off to a country whose government is unapologetic about taking a copy of it, just in case.

America

I’ve been a bit prickly about the USA and Americans a few times before on this blog. That prickliness has the same cause: I’m sensitive about having become so dependent on American companies and attitudes myself. I have grown used to engaging with American companies, working methods, and laws, almost more than those of my own country, and certainly more than those of other European countries. That has a lot to do with the USA’s historical reputation as a stable, reliable democracy with visible workings, answerable to a relatively incorruptible legal system.

But this dependency increasingly seems just perverse.

I have become used to giving all my personal and business records to companies that have promised to make it all available to a spy agency run by a foreign government that openly declares it has no interest at all in my rights.

Why would anyone want to do that?

Did you know? Some people like Helvetica

Helvetica is—as every font geek who enjoys a repulsive turn of phrase must agree—one of the most iconic fonts of our time.

Which is a pretty strange thing. Designed in 1957 by two not very famous type designers as a neutral typeface for the Haas foundry in Switzerland, Helvetica might almost have been drawn to Jan Tschichold’s 1928 prescription for the “New Typography”:

Among all the types that are available, the sans-serif is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time… But all the attempts up to now to produce a type for our time are… too artistic, too artificial… to fulfil what we need today.

I believe that no single designer can produce the typeface we need, which must be free from all personal characteristics: it will be the work of a group… For the time being it seems to me that the “jobbing” sans-serifs… are the most suitable for use today.

Gloomy

Helvetica is a basic, functional, not particularly charming typeface. But it has become the Graphic Designer’s Font. It’s currently the best-selling font from fonts.com. There are wallpapers. There’s a film about it (at least, I assume it’s about it—I haven’t seen it, partly because the title is a bit offputting). There are T-shirts, and I’ve seen people wearing them. It is the system font for iPhone and iPad: the squatting toad that contributes to the nagging sense of gloom that accompanies both devices.

No, I don’t like it a great deal. It’s a font to respect, not to like. Its design is almost perfectly invisible, unless you’re the sort of person made gloomy by almost-invisible fonts. As its basic shape goes, it is pretty much unimprovable.

Corporate image, shoddiness, America

No, the reason I write about Helvetica is not because I dislike the font—at least not as much as Alastair Johnston appears to—but because I read something about corporate branding, namely this post by Dustin Curtis. He writes of American Airlines, who recently redesigned their logo from something using Helvetica to something not-using-Helvetica:

With Helvetica

American Airlines’ previous visual identity … was a beautiful tribute to modern American design. The simplicity of Helvetica, set in red, white, and blue, and positioned next to an iconic eagle, defined the company with a subtle homage to the country it represents.

After forty-six years, one of the finest corporate brands in history has been reduced to patriotic lipstick.

I’m 40 years old and to me, in my youth, the American Airlines logo represented shoddiness. Crap font, cheesy colours, a bit ungainly, thrown together: the essence of America.

I have a bit more appreciation for it now, but let me explain.

I have only once ridden in a Cadillac, the classic American luxury car. This was fifteen-odd years ago, and it was a car of about this type:

It wasn’t very good. It wallowed and pitched along, and although it had every possible feature inside the cabin, details such as switches seemed to have been thrown together from the cheapest bits and bobs to hand. The dashboard looked like an imitation of that from a 1970s Volvo. Actually, it was a car that I can imagine its owners loving—comfy but awkward and homely. But it wasn’t very well done.

American products have been seen like that for a long time globally. In the UK, “Made in Germany” and “Made in Japan” have been badges of quality for decades, but “Made in America” was a badge only applied to products too embarrassing ever to reach these shores at all.

Helvetica was designed in Switzerland, but it’s now an American font. It’s used mostly by American companies, and has been since American Airlines first adopted it. It suggests the qualities of American products. And the very plainness of the font, the ungainly quality in some letters like the “e”, and the implication from its sheer ubiquitousness that it probably wasn’t chosen but simply picked from the bucket, reinforce those qualities.

In other words—a logotype in Helvetica, in two obvious colours, with the word American in it,
is a badge of crap.

Hipness good, for once

The bright spot for Helvetica and its associated American corporate baggage is Apple.

To me, Helvetica brings down iOS: it’s a weak point. But to people who don’t give a crap about fonts, but love using their iPhones and iPads, Helvetica will be a subconscious reinforcer of quality.

Perhaps American Airlines—who had several rather cool logos before they got stuck with the venerated Helvetica one—might have been better making this decision a decade ago. Or else now staying put for a while, just to see.

Next week: “Made in England”, British Leyland, and the shocking legacy of Frutiger in books for children

iPads in schools

Fraser Spiers remarks, in a review of the Google Nexus 7 tablet:

My experience with two years of iPad in school is that the iPad can cover 99% of everything we want to do with a computer in school… the iPad can replace the computer suite

I think the radical nature of his observation has to do with the replacement of the desktop computer in dedicated labs—the iPad is already widely proposed and increasingly adopted as an assistance to learning for pupils outside the computer suite.

Viewed close-up, this seems like a good thing. iPads are generally cheaper,  more reliable, and easier to get to grips with than traditional PCs, are portable enough to be used across teaching disciplines, and make a wide range of software very easily available.

But imagine that, ten years ago, someone had proposed:

  • that in future, schools in the UK and elsewhere would buy all of their computer hardware and most of their software from a single American company;
  • that software for these computers could not be used with hardware made by anyone else, never mind with other operating system platforms;
  • that software for these computers could only be obtained through the company that made the computers, and that installing it would require entering a contractual relationship with them;
  • that these computers could not be programmed natively using the computer itself: prospective application programmers would first need to buy another, more expensive computer from the same company, enter another contractual relationship with them, and in most cases also pay them;
  • that GNU-style Free Software would be forbidden from running on them;
  • that the company in question was known to have designed this environment quite deliberately and had a record of squashing attempts to work around its limitations;
  • and that these computers would be used as a standard teaching platform across all disciplines, and would also be the platform on which computing as a subject was taught to children.

How would that have sounded?

“Various nifty functions”

Further to the code-literate judge in Oracle v Google, via Groklaw we now have his ruling that the Java APIs are not copyrightable.

It’s an exceptionally clear piece of work and a good introduction to the subject. I certainly couldn’t have written a better technical summary, although I’m sure there are bits that a non-programmer would still struggle with—for example, the judge uses the term “subroutine” without explanation.

I like the jaunty language:

After Java’s introduction in 1996, Sun [...] wrote hundreds more programs to carry out various nifty functions

And he is certainly decisive. The section describing the code at issue (rangeCheck) is introduced thus:

Oracle has made much of nine lines of code that crept into both Android and Java. This circumstance is so innocuous and overblown by Oracle that the actual facts, as found herein by the judge, will be set forth below for the benefit of the court of appeals.

And in the closing remark,

[It] is important to step back and take in the breadth of Oracle’s claim. Of the 166 Java packages, 129 were not violated in any way. Of the 37 accused, 97 percent of the Android lines were new from Google and the remaining three percent were freely replicable under the merger and names doctrines. Oracle must resort, therefore, to claiming that it owns, by copyright, the exclusive right to any and all possible implementations of the taxonomy-like command structure for the 166 packages and/or any subpart thereof — even though it copyrighted only one implementation. To accept Oracle’s claim would be to allow anyone to copyright one version of code to carry out a system of commands and thereby bar all others from writing their own different versions to carry out all or part of the same commands. No holding has ever endorsed such a sweeping proposition.

As an aside, nice to see our old friend Sega v Accolade cited again. I haven’t read all that many US legal opinions on software copyright, but I think pretty much all the ones I have seen have referred to Sega v Accolade.

You can read the whole thing on Groklaw.

Speaking of learning to code

Dialogue in Oracle vs Google, between Judge Alsup and Oracle’s lead counsel David Boies:

Judge: We heard the testimony of Mr. Bloch. I couldn’t have told you the first thing about Java before this problem. I have done, and still do, a significant amount of programming in other languages. I’ve written blocks of code like rangeCheck a hundred times before. I could do it, you could do it. The idea that someone would copy that when they could do it themselves just as fast, it was an accident. There’s no way you could say that was speeding them along to the marketplace. You’re one of the best lawyers in America, how could you even make that kind of argument?

Oracle: I want to come back to rangeCheck.

Judge: rangeCheck! All it does is make sure the numbers you’re inputting are within a range, and gives them some sort of exceptional treatment.

(via Groklaw)

A dot com is an American domain

Verisign seizes .com domain registered via foreign Registrar on behalf of US Authorities” (via Daring Fireball) — a gambling site based outside the US, using a .com domain registered by a non-US registrar, has had its domain seized by US authorities after prosecutors in Maryland asked Verisign, who control the top-level .com nameservers, to hand it over.

The prosecutor noted that “sports betting is illegal in Maryland, and federal law prohibits bookmakers from flouting that law simply because they are located outside the country”. It’s not clear whether the site was doing anything that would be considered illegal outside the US, but I can’t see anything in the story to suggest so. It looks like a legal business in the country it operated in.

In my earlier post about the now-postponed SOPA regulations in the US (Why the proposed US copyright regulations should worry UK citizens) I wrote

The definition of a “domestic” site [in the draft legislation] is brief, but not without ambiguity: it’s a site with a domain name registered or assigned by a US registrar, or (if it has no domain name) a site hosted in the US.

I can’t tell whether that means names whose top-level domains have US-based sponsoring registrars, including all .org, .com and .net domains, or only those whose registration was carried out by a US-based registrar.

This case shows that US authorities may be inclined to treat any .org, .com or .net domain as being under US jurisdiction, no matter where its registrar was based.

Here in the UK, I think we’ve become too used to thinking of .com or .org domains as meaning simply “of the Internet” rather than of any specific country. That will have to change.

I’m not going to suggest we should rush to replace all our .org domains with .org.uk ones—chances are many of them are hosted in the US in any case—but it’s time to forget the old ideal of an Internet domain rather than a national one. A dot com is an American domain.