anonymous e-mailers, forum posters, meet norwich orders

A very nice summary of a recent Ontario case on Norwich orders by Omar Ha-Redeye in Slaw. Within the context of anonymous internet communications (anonymous e-mail accounts, forum postings, etc.), a Norwich order can be used to compel a service provider (such as an ISP, a forum host or e-mail service provider) to provide information on its customer in an attempt to identify the individual who has sent an e-mail or posted a message that has given rise to a claim or potential claim.

The case noted by Omar related to a defamatory e-mail that was sent from an anonymous Gmail account. The person making the claim needed to take a few steps in order to attempt to identify the alleged wrongdoer. First, as it is possible to open a Gmail account without submitting full/accurate personal information, he would have needed to obtain a Norwich order from Google. That order likely would have requested from Google a listing of the IP addresses used to create and/or access the specified Gmail account and the times at which they were used. Once the IP addresses were obtained, it would be easy to identify the ISPs or organizations which were allocated those addresses through a WHOIS or similar enquiry (generally IP address allocations are public information). IP addresses typically are not sufficient to identify a particular individual since most (if not all) of them are allocated to organizations, who then either permit specific computers within their organization to use them on a permanent basis (static IP addresses), or allocate them on a dynamic basis. In the case of most ISPs, they will maintain a pool of IP addresses that are used as their customers switch on their computers and access their accounts, so that the address allocated to any particular customer may vary over time.

Consequently, one the wronged party had obtained the relevant IP addresses and identified the ISPs, he would have needed to file a Norwich order against the ISPs to obtain information regarding the account holders who had used the IP addresses at the indicated times. The ISP’s records would allow them to do this, as ISPs will usually need to validate the identity of their customers when they sign up. The case at hand involved this second step, and the wronged party was successful in having the Norwich order issued against the ISPs.

Norwich orders are very useful devices to help advance claims where a wrongdoer attempts to use the cloak of anonymity to protect him or herself from liability. That being said, technology being what it is, there are limits to what a Norwich order can do. For example, if a wrongdoer used cash-only web-cafes, free anonymous wifi connections or, anonymization proxies, IP spoofing or pirates third party wifi signals or hacks into a third party computer, it may be more difficult to successfully identify the wrongdoer (though even in these cases it may not be impossible). Along similar lines, the defence of a claim by an individual whose information was obtained in such a manner could also assert that, although the account with the ISP was in his or her name, it wasn’t that individual who actually initiated the wrongful communication – e.g. shared ISP connection with others or hacked computer or internet connection. In short, while a Norwich order will provide useful information that will likely lead in the right direction to track down a wrongdoer, ultimately the only information it will provide is the linkage between an IP address used for wrongdoing and the account holder allocated that IP address, and not necessarily the individual committing the wrongdoing.

silly lawsuit of the week

OK. Short version of the story in InformationWeek: Woman puts up a website. She puts a “webwrap” agreement at the bottom – i.e. basically a contract that says if you use the site then you agree to the contract. Still some question as to whether such a mechanism is binding, but anyway…

So the Internet Archive of course comes along and indexes her site. Which apparently is a violation of the webwrap. So she sues, representing herself, I believe. The court throws out everything on a preliminary motion by IA except for the breach of contract.

InformationWork observes that “Her suit asserts that the Internet Archive’s programmatic visitation of her site constitutes acceptance of her terms, despite the obvious inability of a Web crawler to understand those terms and the absence of a robots.txt file to warn crawlers away.” (my emphasis). They then conclude with this statement:

If a notice such as Shell’s is ultimately construed to represent just such a “meaningful opportunity” to an illiterate computer, the opt-out era on the Net may have to change. Sites that rely on automated content gathering like the Internet Archive, not to mention Google, will have to convince publishers to opt in before indexing or otherwise capturing their content. Either that or they’ll have to teach their Web spiders how to read contracts.

(my emphasis).

They already have – sort of. It’s called robots.txt – the thing referred to above. For those of you who haven’t heard of this, its a little file that you put on the top level of your site and which is the equivalent of a “no soliciation” sign on your door. Its been around for at least a decade (probably longer) and most (if not all) search engines

From the Internet Archive’s FAQ:

How can I remove my site’s pages from the Wayback Machine?

The Internet Archive is not interested in preserving or offering access to Web sites or other Internet documents of persons who do not want their materials in the collection. By placing a simple robots.txt file on your Web server, you can exclude your site from being crawled as well as exclude any historical pages from the Wayback Machine.

Internet Archive uses the exclusion policy intended for use by both academic and non-academic digital repositories and archivists. See our exclusion policy.

You can find exclusion directions at exclude.php. If you cannot place the robots.txt file, opt not to, or have further questions, email us at info at archive dot org.

standardized methods of communications – privacy policies, etc. – more. Question is, will people be required to use it, or simply disregard and act dumb?

Microsoft Patents RSS. Or Tries To. Maybe.

Interesting post on someone else’s blog about Microsoft apparently trying to patent RSS:

The applications, filed last June but just made public yesterday, cover subscribing and discovering what Microsoft calls “Web feeds.” That comes as a bit of a shock to anyone who’s been working on RSS, which has its origins in a format developed seven years ago at Netscape Communications.

Microsoft executive Don Dodge, while not involved in the patent applications, says he suspects the filings were made to defend the company against “patent trolls”. (The filings were made shortly before Microsoft announced plans to build RSS technology into its upcoming Vista operating system.) Still, if granted, the patents would give Microsoft a legal cudgel to wield against other companies using RSS.

Well. They do have a point. Generally speaking, I don’t think patent trolls (those that basically file overly broad patents and then sit on them in a dark cave until someone who actually does something useful, and therefore has deep pockets, unwittingly infringes, at which point the troll comes out and clubs them over the head with a lawsuit or settlement) are a good thing. That being said, its ironic that Microsoft feels the need to abuse the system in the same way as patent trolls in order to proactively defend itself. It will be interesting to see how things turn out.

Unfortunately, I’m not necesarily sure that prior art would necessarily invalidate these patents – after all, most of NTP’s patents were more or less considered invalid, but that didn’t stop them from collecting several hundred million from RIM. And its not like there haven’t been other, um, rather broad patents asserted in the past. You know, like back in 2002, when British Telecom asserted ownership of hyperlinks (which they lost) though of course BT doesn’t quite fit the description of a patent troll.

Then again, it begs the question as to who or what should or shouldn’t be considered a patent troll – for example, its well known that IBM has a huge, gigantic, enormous arsenal of patents at its disposal. IBM also actively licenses these patents (and of course threatens litigation where it believes its rights are being violated), but it isn’t necessarily the case that IBM would otherwise have exploited these patents in what I’ll call “active” business – i.e. making and selling something based on the patent as opposed to primarily seeking royalties and licenses from those do – even though IBM does do so in some cases. So does that make IBM a patent troll? What about Philo T. Farnsworth who, arguably, never started producing televisions but instead sought legal claims against others?

My perhaps overly simplistic take on this is that patent trolls are not inherently the problem, but rather the ability, primarily in the US, to register patents that should have never issued in the first place. If someone comes up with a smart, cool, inventive, and truly novel way of doing something, then they should certainly be free to either produce something with it, or sue the living daylights out of someone else who comes along and infringes the IP even if they don’t (or can’t) make productive use of it themselves. Not actively exploiting a patent is not necessarily tantamount to being a bad guy, IMHO.

It will be interesting to see what happens on this front, if anything. If nothing does, then I may well turn to drafting patents, the first being “Method of Utilizing a Rhythmic Cadence in the Expansion and Contraction of Multiple Muscular Groupings to Faciliate Indefinite Continuation of Metabolism of Cell Structures.” I like the sound of that. Yes indeed.

Technology Breakfasts

The Toronto Board of Trade has been organizing these great events focused primarily on the Information and Communications Technology sector. The next one will be coming up will be an ICT Forum with Accenture on Wednesday, January 31, 2007.

A brief description:

The Toronto Board of Trade is pleased to present Bill Morris, Country Managing Director, Accenture, as our next featured speaker for our Technology Innovators Series, a showcase for Toronto’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) community.

Bill will highlight outstanding Canadian and international ICT performers and will provide his insight on what it takes to succeed in an intensely competitive and consolidated marketplace. He will share his forecast for the next wave of technology and discuss Accenture’s findings from a global study, encompassing over 6,000 companies, focused on high performance business and high performance information technology.

Bill is responsible for driving the growth of Accenture’s business consulting, systems integration and technology as well as outsourcing businesses across all industries and governments. He has more than 24 years of experience working on technology consulting, business transformation and outsourcing initiatives.

Also taking part in the panel discussion will be Phil Sorgen, President of Microsoft Canada. Phil joined Microsoft Canada as President in January 2006 after a 10-year career with Microsoft Corp. in the United States. Phil is responsible for all elements of Microsoft Canada’s business and for deepening the company’s commitment to this country.

Networking will take place from 7:30 a.m. – 8:00 a.m. and there are no ties required!

Register at the Toronto Board of Trade Website. Well worth it.