Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

June 29 2015 7:02 PM

Maybe Don’t Shoot Down Your Neighbor’s Drone When It’s Not Even Over Your Property

If there's one thing we know about Americans, it's that many of them own guns. So it was pretty inevitable that with more and more small drones zipping around, some would get shot out of the sky. But now a court has ruled that if you shoot a drone out of the sky, you're liable for damages.

Ars Technica reports that Eric Joe was visiting his parents in Modesto, California, in November 2014, and was flying a hexacopter drone (which he’d built) over their property. After about three and a half minutes, a shot from a 12-gauge shotgun took the drone down. When he went to investigate, Joe saw his parents' neighbor Brett McBay coming toward him. “I asked: ‘Did you shoot that thing?’ He said, ‘Yeah, did we get it?’ ” Joe said.

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McBay said he thought the device was a CIA surveillance drone. When Joe emailed him an itemized list of parts that needed to be replaced on the hexacopter, totalling $700, McBay said he would split the cost. But Joe said he wanted McBay to pay for the damages, and pointed out that the drone’s GPS log showed that it was over Joe’s parents’ property when McBay shot it down.

Eventually Joe filed a case in small claims court in Stanislaus County, and last month the court awarded him $850 in damages. Ars reports that McBay hasn’t paid yet, though, and that Joe is considering further action.

The court decision isn’t unprecedented, but it is part of the current nascent era of drone law. In October 2014, a New Jersey man was arrested after shooting down a neighbor’s drone while it was flying over his  property. Ryan Calo, a robotics and cyberlaw scholar at the University of Washington, told Gigaom at the time, “Generally speaking, tort law frowns on self-help and that includes drones. ... You would probably have to be threatened physically, or another person or maybe your property, for you to be able to destroy someone else’s drone without fear of a counterclaim.”

And when Rand Paul told CNN in January that people flying drones over his house should “beware” because he owns a shotgun, Eric Cheng, the director of aerial imaging at drone maker DJI, told VentureBeat, “The law is pretty clear about fining or imprisoning people who shoot at aircraft.”

Laws and law enforcement will evolve as more and more of these specific cases come up, but for now shooting down drones is probably not the most constructive way of expressing opposition.

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June 29 2015 6:24 PM

Bad News: Supreme Court Blocked Power Plant Rules. Good News: The Era of Coal Is Over.

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled against one of the Obama administration’s primary battle victories in the so-called war on coal. The court decided that the government hadn’t appropriately considered the economic cost to the coal industry of new rules designed to limit toxic mercury emissions. But buck up, environmentalists. The defeat for the Environmental Protection Agency probably won’t make much of a difference.

At the heart of the court’s decision was a dispute about the benefits of cracking down on mercury pollution from coal burning. From USA Today:

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While the estimated annual cost of $9.6 billion is not widely disputed, the cost-benefit ratio is. Opponents said the benefits are as low as $4 million a year. Proponents said when all secondary pollutants are considered, they're as high as $90 billion.

Under the Clean Air Act, regulations like this must be “appropriate and necessary.” The Supreme Court took the side of the opponents and ruled that the rules did not fit that mandate. "One would not say that it is even rational, never mind 'appropriate,' to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia, in the majority opinion. "No regulation is 'appropriate' if it does significantly more harm than good."

The ruling has been widely interpreted as a setback for Obama’s second-term focus on the environment, but a close reading of the ruling shows that not a whole lot will actually change. My Slate colleague Mark Stern has the main takeaway:

This ruling does not invalidate the mercury regulations altogether. Rather, it simply requires the EPA to reconsider costs to power plants before deciding whether the regulations are "appropriate and necessary." Presuming it considers these costs and decides that the regulations remain necessary, the EPA may again impose the new emissions standards.

Today’s ruling is essentially just a delay in what is likely to be an inevitable crackdown on coal emissions. “It is very likely that the mercury rule will ultimately be upheld, and that it will remain in place as the legal process continues,” Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity and dean emeritus of NYU Law School, said in a press release.

One hundred sixty-five years after it was first discovered that there’s a lot of energy stored in those dirty black rocks, coal remains one of the world’s leading power sources. Regardless of Monday’s Supreme Court decision, that is changing.

Coal use in America is dying a long, slow death as cheaper and cleaner sources of energy emerge. This historic shift has been led by a boom in domestic natural gas, quickly expanding sources of cheap renewable energy, and awareness of coal’s damaging effects on public health and the environment. Earlier this year, a study concluded that, in order to preserve a safe and stable climate, the vast majority of the world’s coal reserves must stay in the ground. The Obama administration’s proposed rules, now delayed, essentially just sped up a process that’s taking place anyway.

Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of our transition away from coal. Coal use has already peaked in the U.S. and may have also peaked in places like China, years earlier than expected. China burns about as much coal as the rest of the world combined, and Chinese citizens are rightly fed up with how dirty the air there has become—estimates suggest that it contributes to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year. Since its release a few months ago, a documentary called Under the Dome has garnered hundreds of millions of views in China. (The Chinese government initially celebrated the film but then censored it.) It seems China, too, now has its own war on coal. Expect other major emitters, like India, to follow.

For a bit, it seemed like America would just send overseas all the coal it wasn’t using at home, but that too looks like a dead end for the industry. U.S. coal exports declined a whopping 17 percent just between 2013 and 2014. Beyond mercury and smog, coal is the most carbon-intensive source of energy, and a huge contributor to climate change. That means the shift away from coal needs to happen as quickly as possible.

After the Supreme Court ruling was released, coal stocks spiked with the prospect of perhaps a few more years delay before the mercury emissions rules go into effect. The stock of Peabody Coal, America’s biggest coal company, closed up more than 9 percent on Monday. But—get this—it is down a whopping 67 percent so far this year. That’s a pretty good indication that Monday’s Supreme Court ruling is a mere blip in a long-term market-driven shift away from coal.

What’s more, Monday’s ruling actually strengthens the government’s case in defending legal challenges to the Obama administration’s plan to reduce power plant emissions. The quirk here is that, according to Clear Air Act scholars, the order of the regulations matters: Coal companies didn’t want to navigate a mandate to reduce carbon emissions after a separate rule to limit mercury was already on the books. If the carbon dioxide rule can be finalized first—which is more likely with Monday’s delay to the mercury rule—it may pave the way for tougher emissions standards to happen sooner. And that just might be the death knell for coal.

June 29 2015 3:02 PM

What Does It All Mean? Google’s New Philosophical Chatbot Can Take a Stab.

Wired logo

A human talks to a machine. And it goes like this:

Human: what is the purpose of life?

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Machine: to serve the greater good.

Human: what is the purpose of living?

Machine: to live forever.

Human: what is the purpose of existence?

Machine: to find out what happens when we get to the planet earth.

Human: where are you now?

Machine: i’m in the middle of nowhere.

Human: what is the purpose of dying?

Machine: to have a life.

Human: what is the purpose of being intelligent?

Machine: to find out what it is.

Human: what is the purpose of emotions?

Machine: i don’t know.

It reads like a scene from a classic sci-fi flick. But it’s not. It really is a human talking to a machine—a machine built by Google. And there may be good reason it sounds like a movie. Part of the trick is that this machine learned to converse by analyzing an enormous collection of old movie dialogue.

Google detailed its project earlier this month in a research paper published to Arxiv, a popular repository for academic research. Other “chatbots” can carry on (somewhat) reasonable conversations with humans. But this one is a little different. There wasn’t a team of software engineers who meticulously coded the bot to respond to certain questions in certain ways. Google researchers Oriol Vinyals and Quoc Le built a system that could analyze existing conversations—in this case, movie dialogue—and teach itself to respond.

“Instead of using rules to build a conversational engine, we use a machine learning approach,” Le tells Wired. “We let the machine learn from data rather than hand-coding the rules.”

The system uses what are called neural networks, vast networks of machines that approximate the web of neurons in the human brain. Neural nets are an old idea, but recently, after many years in exile from the A.I. community, they’ve risen to prominence—in enormous ways—now that companies like Google and Facebook and Microsoft have the computing power needed to run them.

At these internet giants, neural nets are already working to recognize faces and objects in photos posted to social networks, identify spoken words on Android phones, and translating online phone calls from one language to another. Google’s paper shows they can also drive chatbots, and perhaps move us closer to a world where machines can converse like humans.

“With papers like this, people always give the most impressive interactions,” says Chris Nicholson, founder of the neural networking startup Skymind. “But I was impressed. And this represents a significant front in the industry.”

Google’s chatbot draws on research from across the larger A.I. community, including work from University of Montreal professor Yoshua Bengio and researchers at Facebook and Microsoft. Richard Socher, the founder and CEO of neural networking startup MetaMind, says the human-to-machine conversations in the paper aren’t that surprising, given previous research. “Neural networks are already well-known for modeling language,” Google’s Vinyals says.

But previous research involved other tasks, such as machine translation. Le—who has worked extensively with neural networks in recent years—says that when Vinyals brought the initial research to him, it was wholly unexpected. He didn’t think that neural nets would work so well with conversations. “When he told me that we could put all this complexity into a machine learning approach,” Le says, “I was very surprised.”

The system Le and Vinyals built is just a proof of concept. But they see it as a way of improving the online chatbots that help answer technical support calls. In addition to training the system on movie dialogue and having it chat about the meaning of life, they trained it on old support calls and had it chat about browser problems:

Machine: hi

Human: hi

Machine: could you please let me know what is the operating system you are using?

Human: linux

Machine: ok this is the issue with the system performance, nasser, tools.

Human: what is that ?

Machine: is it a windows machine?

Machine: we have linux on your machine.

Machine: is it windows xp or windows 7?

Human: i am using linux

Machine: let me take a remote of your machine and check if issue has been pushed properly.

Human: ok

Machine: please open terminal and run the be- low commands in one computer:

Machine: sudo apt – get update

But as these types of systems are perfected, they could operate in so many other ways, well beyond tech support. “It may sound crazy,” says Nicholson, “but ultimately, chatbots could deliver the morning news to people like gossip over the fence, breaking the one-to-many model of the journalism.” In other words, it could put Wired out of business.

Dennis R. Mortensen, the CEO and founder of x.ai, a startup offering an online personal assistant that automatically schedules meetings, calls the Google paper “somewhat scary,” given how well it mimics human conversation. “The examples,” he says, “are very lifelike.”

This is perhaps most true when you read the philosophical conversation about the meaning of life. At the same time, it’s a bit heartbreaking. “Where are you now?” the human asks. “I’m in the middle of nowhere,” the machine says. And given that machine is training itself on existing data, it’s wonderfully fascinating—even when you know it can ultimately put you out of business. “The outputs come not just from machines but from what humans have produced in the past,” Mortensen adds.

Le says that, with this project, he’s most interested in learning what machines think about morality. And then he laughs. The research says as much about us as it does about machines.

Also in Wired:

June 29 2015 1:00 PM

FCC Commissioner Says Internet Access Is “Not a Necessity”

The FCC's regulations preserving net neutrality took effect a couple of weeks ago, and the commission voted last week to extend phone subsidies for low-income Americans to broadband as well. But at least one member of the five-person group doesn't view Internet as something Americans need fair and equal access to every day.

In a speech Thursday to the Internet Innovation Alliance (a coalition that promotes broadband accessibility), Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly made his views plain:

It is important to note that Internet access is not a necessity in the day-to-day lives of Americans and doesn’t even come close to the threshold to be considered a basic human right. ... People do a disservice by overstating its relevancy or stature in people’s lives. People can and do live without Internet access, and many lead very successful lives.  
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Not surprisingly, O'Rielly voted against the FCC's net neutrality protections and the proposal to expand telephone subsidies to broadband. But he wants you to know that he's not a technophobe. "I am neither afraid nor ashamed to admit that technology has been one of the greatest loves of my life, besides my wife," he said in the speech.

Still he maintained that, "It is even more ludicrous to compare Internet access to a basic human right. In fact, it is quite demeaning to do so in my opinion." In 2014, Internet inventor Tim Berners-Lee famously declared Web access a basic human right. But O'Rielly believes that true human rights are more elemental, like food, shelter, and water.  

Though it is not a surprising stance based on his voting record within the FCC and previous work as a Republican legislative aide, O'Rielly's position seems somewhat incongruous with his job as an FCC commissioner, as Motherboard points out. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 says that part of the FCC’s mandate is to "encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans.”

A Pew Study about Americans' Internet access from 2000 to 2015, published Friday, shows that overall adoption among adults is at 84 percent for the third year in a row. The number is partly skewed by adults 65 and older, only 58 percent of whom regularly use the Internet. But the study shows that education is also a determinant of Internet engagement. Only 66 percent of adults who did not graduate from high school use the Internet, compared with 95 percent who graduated from college. Income and race are also factors.

The study seems to indicate that virtually everyone with the means and other societal privileges to access the Internet does so. And for years now, the opportunities and tools to facilitate economic mobility have been almost exclusively online. For example, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, local papers across the country reported that unemployed people who didn't have Internet access were at an enormous disadvantage in the job market. And over the last seven years, the divide has only increased.

O'Rielly knows that "we live in a technology-centric society," and he says that "trying to curtail the Internet is a fool’s errand." And yet ...

June 29 2015 8:45 AM

Can an Online Teaching Tool Solve One of Higher Education’s Biggest Headaches?

Carnegie Mellon University has a problem. It’s a good one, this time—unlike when it lost dozens of researchers and scientists to Uber. The university’s new problem is not one of lack but of excess: Too many students are interested in taking a popular computer science course, and there’s not enough physical space in the classroom to accommodate them all.

Rather than move the course to a football stadium, the Pittsburgh-based university plans to open the course up to more students by moving the majority of its instructional content from the classroom to the Internet. But it’s not just uploading a series of lectures and calling it an online course. The university will rely on a “blended learning” approach, combining video lectures, optional minilectures, and a handful of face-to-face group meetings between students and instructors for concepts that need to be reinforced in person. The program, which is backed by a $200,000 prize from Google’s Computer Science Capacity Awards program, will debut in the fall, and some of its materials may also be used in high schools next year.

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What Carnegie Mellon’s trying to address is an important problem. Universities across America often struggle with disproportionate interest-to-availability ratios in their courses. Courses in computer science especially face an oversubscription problem. Some schools just allow classes to be overcrowded, resulting in large auditorium lectures in which students squeeze shoulder to shoulder along the walls; others try to tackle the issue by capping courses and determining enrollment with an application or a lottery system. In both cases, though, students lose out. Schools could hire more teachers for extra classes, but new instructors have to be paid, even if they are cheap adjuncts.

Some colleges have tried to use online offerings to bridge the gap between supply and demand—to mixed results. Though online courses that count toward a degree tend to see more success than massive open online courses, or MOOCs, just offering free knowledge, performances in these formal classes are still lackluster. A dozen studies from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center found appalling withdrawal and failure rates in courses taught online. Formal online courses still cost money, so the large percentage of students who fail them are essentially paying tuition to receive nothing. 

So why could Carnegie Mellon’s new approach find success? Carnegie Mellon’s approach of blended learning is one of the rare forms of online education that have been shown to actually work. A U.S. Department of Education report in 2010 showed an abundance of blended learning’s positive effects on K-12 students, and numerous other research studies support this finding as well.

In the Columbia center’s dozen studies, online-only courses were shown to yield poor performance and success—but hybrid classes of online and in-person instruction were as successful as traditional courses. Blended learning has even been documented to help poor-performing high school algebra students improve more than their counterparts in traditional teacher-led classes.

Hybrid classes have not become widely popular in colleges yet because of a combination of wariness and cost. Universities, especially prestigious ones, tend to shy away from taking risks on online ventures in general because they could dilute the school’s elite brand or uphold the brand and fail anyway. In addition, implementing blended learning and teaching professors how to work with the new materials takes a lot of time. But Carnegie Mellon’s determinate efforts provide a spark of hope—if the school is successful, others may follow in its path. Perhaps we will begin to see more diverse teaching methods, as well as fewer students crouching in the aisles of overcrowded lecture halls. 

June 26 2015 4:45 PM

Want a Same-Sex Marriage? Make Sure Your County’s Software Is Up to Date.

For same-sex couples who couldn't get married until today, there shouldn't be anything left to worry about except where and when. But there's one thing to check before embarking on a victory lap to the local courthouse, and it's crushingly mundane: Has your county updated its marriage licensing software?

In the 14 states that didn't already offer same-sex marriages, counties are scrambling to ensure that their marriage licenses can accomodate two men or two women instead of only offering fields for "bride" and "groom."

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In Wilson County, Tennessee, County Clerk's Office supervisor Scott Goodall told the Wilson Post that the office had prepared its licensing system for the possibility of legalized same-sex marriage, but it didn't push the update until the ruling came down from the Supreme Court at 10 a.m. Eastern. "Ours is up and running good," he said. "On the print out, it still needs to be updated, but they said it will take a while before that's ready. We just have to cross out 'bride and groom' and write 'applicant 1 and applicant 2.' "

In South Dakota, the Department of Health announced that it had completed system updates to offer gender-neutral licenses beginning at 1 p.m. local time on Friday. Julie Risty, the Minnehaha County Register of Deeds, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that she would start issuing same-sex marriage licenses when the update came through to her office.

In Harris County, Texas, the Houston Chronicle reported that County Attorney Vince Ryan was seeking a court order to compell County Clerk Stan Stanart to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Stanart said that he did not have forms with the appropriate gender fields and thought that using these for same-sex marriages would nullify the unions. But he added that he would begin issuing licenses at 3 p.m. local time on Friday.

The Austin American-Statesman reports that officials in Williamson County, Texas, posted a sign explaining that same-sex couples wouldn't be able to get a license until the county's software vendor performed the necessary updates. The sign did note, though, that neighboring Travis County was actively issuing licenses. Meanwhile, Hays County representative Laureen Chernow told the Statesman that it wasn't clear yet when the county would be ready to issue licenses, beucase County Clerk Liz Gonzalez was waiting for updated license forms from the state.  

Madison County, Tennessee, had updated its software by noon local time. County Attorney Steve Maroney told the Jackson Sun that, "I assume the right [to marry] is settled now. ... There just may be some logistical things with getting the licenses issued." After decades of advocating for marriage equality, same-sex couples prooobably won't give up because of "logistical things” like software updates.

June 26 2015 3:00 PM

After Nixing Every Title With a Confederate Flag, Apple Will Restore Some Games

Shortly after the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting, Apple CEO Tim Cook joined those calling for the elimination of the Confederate flag. “Let us honor [the victims’] lives,” he wrote on Twitter, “by eradicating racism & removing the symbols & words that feed it.” This being Twitter, he offered no explanation of how he thought we could achieve such change. But there was little question of which symbols the Alabama-born Cook had: He was clearly thinking of one that flew at full mast over the South Carolina Capitol Complex, of the one the terrorist Dylann Roof flaunted on the plates of his car.

The reaction to Cook’s words was quick. On 9to5Mac, Zac Hall called attention to the wide array of content in the App Store featuring the flag. Just searching for the word “Confederate,” Hall wrote, “reveals iconography and artwork that displays exactly the symbol that Tim Cook spoke against on Sunday.” Among them was the game Redneck Shooting Range, which “displays the flag behind a rifle scope.” If Apple wanted to better the world, Hall proposed, it should begin by cleaning its own house. Still, Hall acknowledged, Apple shouldn’t “censor historical content or remove informational material from iTunes or the App Store.”

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When Apple’s response came—and it did within days—it was more than Hall could have hoped for, and likely more than he would have wanted. On Friday searching for “Confederate” produces far fewer results than Hall turned up, and fewer still feature the flag in any capacity. There’s a peculiar e-book edition of confederate president Jefferson Davis’ history of his failed insurrection. Another app offers information about the activities of a Civil War re-enactment group. Meanwhile titles such as Redneck Shooting Range are nowhere to be found.

But the programs that concerned Hall aren’t the only ones missing. Thursday, on Touch Arcade, Tasos Lazarides reported that a wide range of less self-evidently troubling games had disappeared from the store, including a host of Civil War simulators such as Ultimate General: Gettysburg—“a tactical battle simulator that allows you to lead thousands of soldiers in the famous battle of Gettysburg as commander of either the Union or Confederate army.” For games, this was the Sherman’s March of flag removals: Everything had had to go, regardless of its degree of complicity in the vile culture Cook hoped to expunge.

Apple is not, of course, alone in taking such steps. Walmart and other retailers pulled Confederate merchandise from their stores as flag sales boomed online. As Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley suggested, the spike clearly correlated directly with a larger culture of racism. In the case of games like Ultimate General, however, the flag’s image appears in the service of a representation of the past. Its mere presence in such titles does not implicitly endorse racism, and removing them may be tantamount to hiding the historical fact of racism instead of combatting its present persistence.

Kyle Orland of ArsTechnica describes the removal of this image from games in particular as the product of a worrisome “double standard,” one that treats interactive digital entertainments as somehow more dangerous than other media. Orland points out that Apple still sells Civil War­–related films, books, and music, many of which prominently feature the iconography of the Confederacy. Apple has since promised to reverse some of these deletions, but the initial move is still telling.

Games that feature the flag appear to be functioning as a scapegoat for Apple here. And as they always have been, scapegoats have more to do with forgetting our own sins—and our complicity in the sins of others—than with preventing new crimes. As the United States continues to grapple with its racist legacy, it will need to find ways to make sense of its past, but we do ourselves no favors when we occlude only the most convenient images of that history.

Some research suggests it is possible that games can intensify existing forms of racism, especially under specific laboratory circumstances. And yet other studies propose that gaming can make us more social, turn us into better learners, and provide other benefits. Ultimately, causality is difficult to establish. It’s more telling that we keep carrying out such studies: The number of inquiries conducted on this topic testifies to a fear of video games more than it does to anything fearful that they accomplish.

A similar suggestion of dubious causal logic underlies Cook’s comments on Twitter. In his formulation, “symbols & words” aren’t merely part of a racist culture that must be eradicated—they “feed” it. How nice it would be if things were this simple, if the Confederate flag truly sustained racism instead of standing for it.

The danger of proposing a largely causal connection between the Confederate flag and racism is that it obscures the very real systemic roots of social ills. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t carefully remove symbols of white supremacy, but it does mean that we shouldn’t trade in fantasies about the way those symbols work and what empowers them. The Confederate flag isn’t responsible for the Charleston massacre, a pervasive culture of racism is. And racism is much larger than its symbols.

June 26 2015 2:36 PM

The Internet’s Dad Emailed 97,931 People to Let Them Know Their Passwords Were Compromised

Every time there's a major corporate or government hack and email address/password combinations pour onto the black market, you have to wonder whether your credentials are among them. But most of us don't take any action to check. If only we had a digital dad watching our backs and trying to help us stay safe.

“Julian,” the blogger behind ATechDad, is experimenting with a way to do just that. Over three days, he collected (formerly personal) user data that had leaked in large-scale breaches and was posted to sites like PasteBin that host plain text uploaded anonymously. To do it, he made Canary, a tool that scrapes sites like PasteBin, meaning it automatically culls select data from Web pages and then sends a pre-written email alerting people that their credentials are exposed on the Internet.

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As Julian notes in a blog post, similar scraping services already exist, but they have two problems. "1. Most users have no idea these services exist. 2. Many users are wary of sending the information they care most about to another online service." So Julian figured that the credentials could speak for themselves: If they're on PasteBin, the owner should probably get notified.

On May 19 he used Canary to send 97,931 emails warning people that their cybersecurity was at risk. Motherboard rightly points out that lots of people would probably ignore such an email because it might look like a phishing scam. But Julian reports that some people actually responded. He got nine thank yous.

The project might feel a little paternalistic and even invasive, but Julian really seems to be doing a dadlike good deed. Since he sent the first round of warnings, he's collected a total of 300,000 login credentials and is contemplating another email blast.

"I received no donations. This was not unexpected—but since the campaign didn’t cost me much, it’s also absolutely fine," he wrote. "Overall I consider this experiment a success. I hope that many people were helped and did not reply instead of ignoring or losing the email to spam filters." <3 dad

June 26 2015 1:47 PM

Website Owners Deserve the Right to Stay Anonymous

Anyone who’s ever purchased a domain name knows the drill: You’re required to provide a mailing address, email address, and phone number during the process. That information is made publicly available on Whois, the public database that stores contact information for all registrants. But not everybody wants their home address and phone number available for the entire world to query, and that’s why many people choose to pay a small annual fee, typically around $10, to keep their contact information safe from prying eyes.

But now, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is considering a proposal that would roll back anonymity for commercial website owners by making them ineligible for proxy registration services. If approved, this means that any small business owner with a website—possibly even bloggers simply running ads or accepting donations—would be prohibited from protecting their own contact information.

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Lots of website owners, particularly those who hold unpopular political opinions, may wish to remain anonymous. David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, recently discussed international legal protections for anonymity and encryption at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. While the report he presented didn’t mention Whois, he rightfully pointed to the link between privacy and freedom of expression and noted that digital anonymity, along with encryption, is necessary to protect these fundamental human rights.

Other website owners, particularly those who are members of marginalized groups, may choose to protect their home address for safety reasons. Close to three-quarters of adult Internet users have witnessed online harassment, and 40 percent have experienced it personally, according to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center. The level of severity of this harassment varies, with swatting being among the most extreme. But even people who haven’t been personally targeted at all may choose to keep some information private as a preventive measure, as opposed to broadcasting their contact information to anyone who knows how to use the Whois look-up tool. (As a recent example, two Twitter users located Charleston church shooting suspect Dylann Roof’s website after doing a reverse WHOIS search for his name.)

Some site owners choose domain privacy for other reasons. Displaying one’s personal information can lead to identity theft, and having a personal email address posted in the Whois directory can lead to massive amounts of spam.

So what are the benefits? As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, supporters of the proposal include the Coalition for Online Accountability, a group of eight U.S. entertainment companies (including the Motion Picture Association of America, the Walt Disney Company, and Time Warner). Of course, the loss of anonymity would save money when pursuing legal action for trademark and copyright infringement, such as pirated content. It’s worth noting, however, that Whois data is already available with a subpoena or court order—so there is already a mechanism by which entertainment industry law firms (or anybody else) can reach website owners for purposes of litigation—and they do.

Another benefit? Perhaps people wishing to purchase dormant domains could contact the owners more easily. But this problem pales in comparison to individuals who may very well be putting themselves in harm’s way by making their contact information publicly available.

Proponents of these changes brush off the risk by pointing out that people who don’t want to blast out their home address could always use a work address or even a friend’s address. But someone who feels unsafe sharing a home address probably wouldn’t feel comfortable giving out a friend’s address. And someone who may be publishing content on their site that represents them and not their employer probably won’t want to share a work address with anyone who disagrees with their political viewpoint.

Another option that’s often thrown out is to get a post office box, but even this would publicize one’s city and state, and some website owners may not want to disclose even that, particularly if they’re living in a suburb or small town. Not to mention that getting a PO box is an inconvenience and an unnecessary expense.

ICANN has already received thousands of comments about this proposal, and you can submit yours until July 7 to this email address. After all, active citizens stepping up to successfully preserve the privacy of website owners would be a real Hollywood ending.

June 26 2015 9:40 AM

Chinese Router Maker Implies That Wi-Fi Can Hurt Fetuses, Sparks Absurd Debate

Though there isn't strong evidence to support it, controversy about the supposed link between cellphone radiation and cancer is always percolating somewhere on the Internet. And this week the conversation broadened to include pregnancy and Wi-Fi. You know this can't end well.

The Chinese company Qihoo 360 unveiled a device, an upgrade to an existing product, that has three settings it describes on its website as wall penetration, balance, and "pregnant women." That last one may sound weirdly specific, but Zhou Hongyi, the president and CEO of Qihoo, said, according to South China Morning Post, “We are targeting people who are afraid of radiation.”

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The company says that the pregnancy mode cuts radiation emissions by 70 percent, but Hongyi also told SCMP, “We aren’t scientists. We haven’t done many experiments to prove how much damage the radiation from Wi-Fi can cause.” That's true! “We leave the right of choice to our customers.” Oof.

Maybe no one would have dramatically called Qihoo out, except that the company is in a heated, longtime rivalry with competing router manufacturer Xiaomi. In a post on the company's official Weibo page, Xiaomi wrote, “We firmly oppose and feel ashamed of those who create rumors and arouse instability for business purposes. ... The so-called pregnancy mode is just a marketing tactic. Wi-fi usage is safe, so please rest assured when using it."

BBC News points out that the United States has its share of those who argue that radiation from wireless systems can cause harm to pregnant women and their fetuses—like the BabySafe Project. But the World Health Organization writes on its website, "The overall weight of evidence shows that exposure to fields at typical environmental levels does not increase the risk of any adverse outcome such as spontaneous abortions, malformations, low birth weight, and congenital diseases." WHO goes on to say that it recently conducted a thorough review of available research on mild exposure to electromagnetic fields and did not find evidence of health risks.

If nothing else, the situation produced some hilariously creepy exchanges. In response to Xiaomi's comments, Hongyi said, “We will wait and see who has a more profound understanding of Wi-Fi routers, me or our competitors.” Seriously, don't cross that dude.

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