Late last week Facebook sent a legal threat to the NYU Ad Observatory, a research project that collects and studies political ads on Facebook. The timing of this threat could not be worse. The Ad Observatory is one of the best sources available to understand how political advertisements on being deployed on social media. But the threat is also is a threat to a critical form of ethical data collection, and an attempt by one of the most powerful and controversial websites in the world to cut off scrutiny of its practices.

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The NYU Ad Observer

Facebook calls what the Ad Observatory does “scraping,” but that’s not what this is. The data source, the “Ad Observer,” is a browser plugin. Researches often use plugins like these to collect information for data science and algorithmic accountability projects. It isn’t a script serially visiting websites in some independent or autonomous way from a human at a browser. It is a small piece of software, installed by the data subject, that extracts data from the local copy of a webpage that is inherently made when a person loads website onto a computer. …

The federal court in Massachusetts has the rare opportunity to clarify the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act this afternoon.

The Moakley Courthouse
The Moakley Courthouse
Image of the Moakley Courthouse CC BY-SA from Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken

While I doubt many onlookers followed in the courtroom, there was a hearing on a temporary restraining order this afternoon that gave the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts the rare opportunity to shed light on the current scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, in the days-old case NewPro Operating LLC v. Pic Home Pros, LLC (1:19-cv-12068)

The CFAA is the federal anti-hacking statute and prohibits, among other things, those who access a computer without authorization or exceeding their authorized access, and then obtain information from a computer. As many scholars (including me) have documented, we have seen the scope of the CFAA change fairly dramatically over the past ten years, starting with courts in the Ninth Circuit in LVRC Holdings v. Brekka and United States v. Nosal adopting what most courts and scholars call the “narrow” view of the CFAA, and specifically the question of what “exceeding authorized access” under the CFAA means. …

Originally posted to an older blog on 11 May 2015, reproduced here after that blog closed.

A list developed thanks to input from Mike Ananny, Mark W. Bennett, Sarah McLaughlin, Natalie Nicol, Brian Rideout, and Francis Walker.

A. Times where you can shout “fire!” in a crowded theater.

  1. The theater is on fire.
  2. You are an actor performing in the theater, and the script calls for it.
  3. You’re a singer in a band singing a song where you shout “fire!” (e.g., R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” the Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire,” etc.), …

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Today the Massachusetts Joint-Committee on Labor and Workforce Development is considering a series of proposals to modify non-compete and trade secret law in Massachusetts. One proposal in particular (bill S. 1020) would abolish non-competes in the Commonwealth entirely. I’m a big supporter of this idea, and just sent a letter to the Committee expressing as much.

My feelings on this are largely channeling the feelings of my clients. In my clinic I represent solely college and graduate students with their innovation-related legal questions. …

Note: This is a post I originally wrote on 26 April 2011, on a blog that I’ve since deleted. I’m reposting it here, as I’ve discovered a few people who liked the old post and wondered what happened to it. I’m not sure if I fully agree with what I wrote here; terms like “transformativeness” have taken on a new life in copyright law since this was written. But I think I still agree with the heart of what I argued here.—AFS

I’m spending the next couple of days back in Boston at the Rethink Music conference, with a humbling collection of music industry minds. I wanted to mark the occasion by bringing back a thesis about which I wrote extensively last year, following several discussions at the Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit in October 2009. In response to perceived market failures in the licensing market for sampling music, I proposed that Congress should develop a statutory license for sampling. The details of this proposal are below. The paper I drafted received a warm response from my peers (thank you), but needs substantial revision in light of Peter DiCola and Kembrew McLeod’s excellent new book, and my own Sisyphean push for excellence. I wanted to share my thoughts here and take this time to solicit some feedback. So here they are. …

This essay first appeared in Internet Monitor project’s second annual report, Internet Monitor 2014: Reflections on the Digital World. The report, published by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, is a collection of roughly three dozen short contributions that highlight and discuss some of the most compelling events and trends in the digitally networked environment over the past year. This essay is modified from its original version to better fit the format of Medium.

It has been over four years since the bill later known as SOPA was introduced in Congress, and nearly three years since SOPA was abandoned in a watershed moment for popular constitutionalism and online democratic participation. SOPA has now become a four-letter word around Capitol Hill, invoked whenever a group wants Internet legislation to fail. But some of SOPA’s most outrageous powers — the powers that allowed law enforcement to take down material without any meaningful judicial procedure by targeting DNS providers — didn’t need SOPA to appear. They are already in the law. They have been used before in the name of copyright enforcement, and they sit waiting to be used again. …


Andy Sellars

Director of the BU/MIT Technology Law Clinic. Technology law, intellectual property, and freedom of expression.

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