Court Decision, Settlement Could Finally Ensure Universal Website Accessibility

Yesterday, Netflix announced that it had reached a settlement with the National Association of the Deaf to caption all of its streaming content by 2014.  This is big news, but went largely unnoticed, just like the court ruling that prompted it.  This summer, the United States District Court in Massachusetts issued a decision in a case that was almost completely ignored in the press.  That was quite surprising considering that the outcome of the case has the potential to completely change how many websites operate.  The decision in National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix, 26 A.D. Cases 1091 (D. Mass., June 19, 2012) is a major step toward ensuring that people with disabilities are able to access the internet and experience a fuller range of the services available to the larger community.  The decision breathes new life into Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which had languished for years under readings of the law that failed to recognize how important the internet was becoming to everyday life. Continue reading

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New Posts Coming This Fall

Hey everyone, hope you’re enjoying the last bits of summer before the leaves start to fall and sweaters emerge from their hiding place under the bed. I’ve been out and about, but I will start posting more regularly as things settle down. Look for posts on the fallout from the Facebook and Google privacy settlements, the failure of the Cybersecurity bill in Congress and other developments in the weeks to come. Until then, I’m going to go back outside… in flip-flops… while I still can.

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NPR Discusses Inheriting Digital Assets

I’ve been talking about the importance of figuring out the heritability of digital assets for some time now.

A recent sign that the issue is starting to hit the mainstream emerged yesterday on All Things Considered as Robert Siegel talked with Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, about what happens to your iTunes library when you pass away.  Zittrain’s commentary centers mostly on IP rights and tangentially on the Terms of Service agreements, but it’s a start.  Check it out.


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Fake Gun Used to Steal Man’s Virtual Currency

Two men recently met in the Fordham University library for a simple currency exchange: $3,300 for 4.7 billion RuneScape coins.  When the deal looked shady, the seller of the coins wanted to back out.  That’s when the alleged buyer pulled a gun on him and demanded that the transaction go through.  Fortunately, this thief did nothing to mask his identity or cover his tracks, so the Boston police picked him up in no time.  Unlike many similar stories, this one involves actual criminal charges for the thief.  The New York Post reports that the alleged thief, Humza Bajwa, faces second-degree robbery and grand larceny.  Is the world finally starting to realize that virtual items have real value?

This is definitely one of the strangest stories I’ve heard about in the five or so years that I’ve been study virtual worlds.  I’ve read about thefts through hacking or trickery, some of which lead to actual violence, but never has a fact scenario like produced a result like this in the United States.  The situation is unique in that involved two victims, a face-to-face transaction and a fake gun.  Most thefts of virtual items are the result of hacking or phishing, where a person’s account login information is stolen, which is then used to transfer items and currency to the thief’s account.  Here, the thief offered to buy a large quantity of RuneScape coins for $3,300 and wanted to meet in public for the exchange. This is another rarity, as most often the players are on opposite sides of the world and the transfer would be all electronic.  The chances for one side or the other to be ripped off are great, as few game companies actually sanction such real money trading (RMT).  A personal exchange is a good way to avoid that, but not when one side appears to be giving you fake money for your virtual currency.  When David Emani met Bajwa on behalf of his friend, Jonathan Dokler–who was at home at his computer, ready to make the transfer once Emani received the cash–he suspected something was up when the cash Bajwa gave him looked bogus. Rather than call off the deal, Dokler had Emani meet Bajwa a second day, prepared to examine the cash more closely.  That’s when Bajwa pulled the gun (which turned out to be fake) on Emani and threatened him unless he told Dokler to complete the transaction.  Fortunately, Emani was not injured.

There are so many things that are amazing about this situation, but what I’m most amazed by isn’t that someone would try to steal virtual currency, but that the police and the prosecutor were willing to see this as an actual crime.  In the past, as I mentioned, law enforcement in the United States has ignored reports of virtual thefts, citing a lack of concrete value or verifiable loss.  This is not surprising because virtual items and currency generally lack any real-world equivalency and are traded on the black market.  There are some worlds that do have recognized currency markets (Second Life being the most well-known, but also Entropia Universe and Blizzard’s new Diablo III) but the vast majority of worlds and games choose to keep their currency as an in-house transaction facilitation tool and lock down their use in the terms of service.  That usually means that when a virtual item or currency is traded (or stolen), there is no crime, but a breach of the virtual world’s contract.  Few people are ever in the position to pursue legal action against a thief, either because they lack grounds to sue (it’s not their contract that was violated, but the game company’s) or because a suit would cost up to 1000 times the value of what was stolen–not a wise move.

I’ve already set my Westlaw alert, and I will be following the outcome of this case closely.  Whether it was the fact that he pulled a gun or that there was a decided upon value between the parties that gave the virtual currency sufficient value for the state to consider theft charges, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.  Either way, this is a watershed moment in virtual law.

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Netflix Settles Class Action Privacy Lawsuit

This week, Netflix chose to settle a pesky class action lawsuit alleging that it violated the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988.  You’re probably wondering what egregious violation got them in this hot water, but it’s actually barely a crime at all. I could go on about it, but it’d be much easier for you to just watch this news segment in which I was recently interviewed about this very topic.

Fox 9 News: Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I personally think this was a case of a violation in search of a victim, since no information was disclosed and thus no actual harm was caused to anyone. Obviously, Netflix just wanted to make it go away. Of the $9 million settlement, $2.25 million goes to the attorneys. The remainder is too small to distribute to class members individually, so the company agreed to send the money to an internet privacy-related charity under the cy press doctrine. There were no details about which charity will receive the funds, but here’s hoping it’s the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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Internet Speech Rights in New York Are Taking a Beating

Happy Fourth of July everyone! To celebrate Independence Day, I have a nice set of stories about liberty and justice to remind us all just how important it is keep a vigilant eye on the government.

This week a protester affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement accused of  disorderly conduct lost his battle to keep his tweets out of court. The Manhattan criminal court judge, Judge Matthew Sciarrino Jr., ordered that Malcom Harris’s posts under the handle @destructuremal must be turned over. Arguments of free speech fell on deaf ears. Said the judge, “The Constitution gives you the right to post, but as numerous people have learned, there are still consequences for your public posts. What you give to the public belongs to the public. What you keep to yourself belongs only to you.” That’s a no-brainer, really, but the bigger threat to free speech is not the part of this story that grabs headlines; for that, you have to dig a little deeper. Continue reading

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Phone Cramming: Hackers Hijack Technology Designed to Help Earthquake Victims

EDITOR’S NOTE: A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that, of the 88% of Americans with smart phones, 55% of them use those phones to get online. This means that smart phones are rapidly becoming a major portal for approximately 150 million people to access and share information. While this blog usually does not cover general technology issues, I found that this connection between mobile devices and the internet indicates that I need to keep my eye on issues in this area.

With that in mind, following a discussion after class that brought this issue to my attention, I invited one of my former students to write a post for inclusion on this blog. After collaborating with Jake as we dug into this relatively unexplored topic, I am pleased to present the first guest post to Virtual Navigator in its 2+ year history! Enjoy.

Phone Cramming Goes Mobile
By Jake Sherlock

Here’s a scenario based on events that I had the misfortune of experiencing a few weeks ago: I am one of the 331.6 million cellular phone subscribers in the United States. This should be easy to relate to, as that number actually covers 104.6 percent of the total US population! (Actually, only 88% of Americans have smart phones, so that means that several million people have more than one!)  Like most of those people, I send and receive the occasional text message. Now, here is where things start to get a little more interesting.  Imagine that you receive an odd text message from a number you do not recognize.  It might be asking you if you want to receive weather updates, sports scores, “fun” facts, or dating advice, all conveniently delivered to your phone for the low, low, monthly price of only $9.99!  Like most people, you would probably delete such messages rather than respond, like most would do to similar e-mail spam messages.  After all, these spam companies are like the annoying kid in class; if you pay attention to them and acknowledge their antics, they will only get worse.  In internet slang, you don’t want to “feed the troll.”

Now, instead of receiving an advertisement for one of these “worthwhile” services, imagine that you get a text message with actual weather update, real sports score, “fun” fact, or dating advice–followed shortly with another message advising that you have been enrolled in the service and the “low, low” price of $9.99 has conveniently been billed to your account, and will continue to be billed on a monthly basis.  You might chuckle to yourself at the audacity of these spammers.  You would never agree to such a thing.  You then proceed to go about your life. Later, on, just to be sure, you check your phone bill.  There you discover, tucked in with all the other taxes, fees and surcharges, you see an additional charge for $9.99…

Wait, what?!

Continue reading

Posted in Legal Developments, Legislation, Mobile Devices, Privacy | 1 Comment