The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Dropbox ToS becoming less of a sure thing

Not so very long ago there was an absolute staple of my computing life: Dropbox. Friends who got new computers would find themselves signed up for Dropbox and I would keep one year of university files in my Dropbox at any time for access from the web interface or my laptop. The versioning system was very useful sometimes.

That was fine when they were a reasonably interesting startup company. They supplied a service which was great, necessary and I can’t think of anything quite like it just now. It’s not all been good though.

They released some new policies following of some fairly terrifying security lapses in which the entire nature of their product had to be re-assessed. Dropbox’s big USP back when I started using it was that everything was encrypted — you could send your files off to some strange company knowing that it was encrypted as it travelled and encrypted as it resided with Dropbox (stored communications are important too). Then it was revealed that, obviously, Dropbox could decrypt your files when they had them and there’s confusion about just how much encryption is really used.

They then had a bizarre security breach where they apparently turned their password system off for a few hours but left the file sharing system up. I didn’t really think that the two were separate.

I have two main thoughts about the new terms of service, one is about the terms themselves and the other is the reaction that the new terms have generated.

The terms

The policies are drafted in a deliberately non-threatening plain-language way, so as to try and fix their image. It’s interesting to see contracts being used as public relations devices but I don’t think it’s really worked; most people didn’t read them (of course) and the people who did are picking at how they’re written.

Plain language drafting is a bit of a holy grail – the idea is to draft clearly and precisely and well duh, because the alternative is stupid. Drafting should be as simple as possible. Fluffy, non threatening drafting isn’t what is required. You can clearly see what Dropbox meant when it wrote the terms but, from my reading, the terms don’t strictly line up with that.

One of the stand out issues for me is the cute “your stuff” that they’ve used: your stuff is defined as your information, files, and folders and your stuff gets to be used however they like, for the purposes of running Dropbox. Although I wouldn’t have lumped my personal information in with my files and folders (I certainly don’t expect Dropbox to process any of my personal information contained in the files I store with them) that’s a mostly stylistic choice but it does mean that every time they say “stuff” later on they’re talking about a huge range of material, some I want distributed to other people, some I want kept limited to my own machines and some I want locked in a safe. I’m not entirely comfortable granting a licence allowing Dropbox to distribute and copy my stuff when, strictly speaking, my stuff includes any payment details I have on record with them. I’m not even sure that the Privacy Policy would definitely overrule me voluntarily granting them a licence.

The main flaw in the agreements is the lack of definition of “the Service”. I can imagine my legislation tutor’s reaction if I handed in a drafting assignment that failed to define “the Service” in a “Terms of Service” agreement. Dropbox can do what they need to do with your stuff to provide you with the service but don’t say what that service consists of. I can assume that the service involves taking a copy of my files and spitting them out over the Internet but anything more detailed is a mystery. If it was easy you’d do it yourself.

The reaction: contracts as PR

One of the main complaints is that the update was the 4th of July weekend so it seemed that they were burying it. I personally don’t see that Internet companies really need to bury changes to their terms and conditions because no one reads them anyway.

The other side is that people who got the announcement (sent by email) despite the holiday weekend promptly got out magnifying glasses and looked to see how Dropbox was trying to screw them. A lot of people don’t trust lawyers and by extension they don’t trust contracts. This is why I think it’s interesting to see contracts being used as PR devices. Users who have pointed out that the terms are pretty broad have been accused of “presuming malice”.

I can’t really believe that Terms of Service agreements will ever be particularly effective as a public relations tool. Almost no one reads them, the people who do don’t trust them (if you trusted it to be acceptable you wouldn’t read it) and your audience may not be able to read them in the first place. The plain language drafting has left it vague enough that, as far as I can see, pretty much everyone blogging about it has made reasonably sensible interpretations of the terms and they’ve all been supported by provisions in the agreements.

However, pretty much no one blogging about this has actually agreed on what the terms say.

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Blog recommendation: etclaims.co.uk

There’s a fantastic book called Employment Tribunal Claims: Tactics and Precedents which I followed religiously when I acted as a lay representative during an Employment Tribunal case earlier in the year. It’s great for providing an overview of how the tribunal system works for someone just looking up at it from the bottom.

The book emerged from the collected resources and experience of a London law centre and is written from the perspective of pro bono representatives who do it a lot. The advice, from if you should claim to how you should cross examine a witness, works for everyone and it might even be worth having a read just in case if you’re an employee.

What I didn’t realise is that there is a companion site to the book at etclaims.co.uk which has a regularly updated blog on employment tribunal practice. If you’re involved in employment cases I can see this being very useful to check.

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Kindle for law students

I got a Kindle for my birthday this year and I think it’s a great thing. The interesting thing is that I think it’s deeply flawed in a few ways (the annotation features and the keyboard for two) but regardless think it’s amazing.

In particular the current model begins to puts a dent into the logic of using photocopiers. I’m a huge fan of photocopying, of course, because it’s the best thing ever and all law students love doing it.

Interestingly, it’s suggested that students are actually doing more reading than they used to because of the increased use of computer resources. There isn’t the same need for students to spend time buried in the stacks fighting over the one copy of a set text and that leaves more time for them to read the set text. Whether or not students pouring over endless piles of PDFs is a good thing is, of course, something humans are not allowed to agree on.

2011 EWHC 1578 (Admin) is R v Hookway

The photocopy metric

I’ve written about paperless law students before and, although it’s getting better, the economics still don’t quite stack up. My university does 5p/sheet photocopying and this is relatively high as photocopying costs go. Nonetheless, at £111 for a Wifi-only Kindle you break even when you read the equivalent of 2220 A4 pages on your Kindle and I’m aware that’s a big number. I’m not sure exactly how many pages I read at uni but my impression is you are going to manage that at some point during your degree (it’s not all that many 20-30 page cases and journal articles spread over the years). That said four and a half reams is a big chunk of pages and it won’t pay for itself quickly compared to a photocopier. You’re still paying a fair bit for convenience.

You can’t completely replace photocopying with a Kindle because you may still need it for copying books and paper only periodicals as well as printing out submissions, bundles and so on but you’ll not need to spend quite so long printing out case reports and journal articles and it’s easier to read a kindle on the bus than a thick stack of A4. Bear in mind that, as you go through your degree, you start reading fewer and fewer textbooks and more and more journal articles so it becomes increasingly handy. In terms of reading it should be perfectly fine for law students. I can understand that certain disciplines are unsuited to a device which is designed to display text but law is not one of them.

The "flip through" problem continues for ebook readers and I still don’t see any practical way to fix it. I don’t think this is such a concern for journal articles as it is for textbooks. I think that you consume journal articles from beginning to end and flipping to the middle of an article doesn’t make sense in the same way that flipping to the middle of a textbook does.

Display

The Kindle’s stand out feature is its display. E-ink is effectively an electromagnetic printer which applies and removes ink onto a surface on demand. The screen is incredibly paper like and I’ve experienced no eye strain (to be fair I don’t really get eye strain looking at a backlit display either) when using it. It’s like using paper which changes which you press a button.

The black and white flicker effect when you change pages is a bit annoying but it lasts for a fraction of a second and it’s the very definition of a first world problem. The display works extremely well (perhaps better) in strong light which means that it can be used by windows or outside but there is a slight sheen on the display which can cause some reflections. As someone who has sat inside on nice days reading case reports on my laptop that is worth the price of admission alone.

Annotation

The markup features on the Kindle are just alright. They’re not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination. The lack of a touch interface means that highlighting is fiddly and there doesn’t seem to be a way to get your highlighted documents onto your computer. You can copy your highlighted text over a USB cable but you can’t display highlighted case reports on your computer. I prefer to write notes rather than highlight the text so this wasn’t a huge concern for me but depending on your style it could be substantial. I think Amazon should really make it easier to use your annotated "personal documents" (ie. documents on your Kindle not purchased from Amazon) with the desktop software.

Keyboard

The keyboard on the Kindle is frankly not designed to be used. It’s a waste of space in its current form. The only things on the Kindle that require typing are 1) the browser and 2) notes but the keyboard really hamstrings them. Amazon has to fix that.

iPad

There are some rather more substantial PDF based tools available on, for example, the iPad (which really blows the photocopy metric out of the water: the break even point on a 16GB iPad is 7980 pages) which I’m not going to recommend for a student. I think a student has much more pressing financial concerns than owning two computers, especially if one is just there to annotate PDFs. If you can afford it and you want one you should go ahead. My view on the iPad is that it’s a good device but it’s pretty expensive for a student.

Calibre

My main use of the Kindle in practice, mostly due to getting it in the latter part of my honours year, has been newspapers. There is a fantastic program called Calibre which lets you email the paper to your kindle every day and I find that convenient for the bus in the mornings as well as being cheaper than buying a paper.

Calibre also handles converting most document types into a format that the Kindle can understand (and Amazon can also directly convert documents themselves). The device itself has a relatively narrow range of supported formats but conversion programs exist to allow a wide range of documents to work.

I think all Kindle owners should install Calibre pretty much as a matter of course because it is such a useful piece of software.

Conclusion

As you can see I think the Kindle is a flawed device in many ways but it does something, for a very reasonable price, which is pretty hard to complain about. The e-ink display is fantastic and really makes the device, with the battery life and easy over-the-air sync being why you should it love it.

The Kindle won’t be your one-thing-to-get-you-through-law-school computing device but there is no such thing anyway. If you’re looking for a good, reasonably priced device for reading case reports in the park or on the bus I think you have to consider the Kindle.

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Lord Rodger RIP

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry died yesterday aged 67.

This is very sad news and means one of the leading Scottish legal minds of this generation is no longer with us.

Trams, whether you like it or not

Macbeth complained that “I am in blood stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er” and it seems that Edinburgh City Council is up to its knees in something as well.

BBC news reports that it would now cost £750m to not have trams in Edinburgh, which is a far cry from the £545m it was supposed to cost to have them.

You're definitely getting them

I’m regularly disappointed with public building contracts which seem to utterly fail at setting deadlines, cost ceilings, penalties, or even just exit strategies. The trick to running a public building project in the UK seems to be that, if it’s nice enough, people will eventually forget the nightmarish cost and delays involved in getting it there.

The sad thing is that it does seem to work like that. The Scottish Parliament is an example I’m old enough to remember imploding horribly and then being accepted over time.

I’m also regularly impressed with the way government contracts manage to make what are obviously unreasonably low starting bids so large to begin with (IT projects are particularly jaw dropping for me because a fair few of them seem within the reach of one guy with a laptop) but it’s how they can grow from that which is really shocking.

I have no experience with major building projects but even I can see that you’d want to agree on a price with a builder and not pay an extra couple of hundred million on top of that. I can think of a fairly basic way of incentivising a builder to finish on time, charge you what you agreed and not go on strike. It’s called a contract.

I think that contracts, particularly several hundred million pound taxpayer funded ones, should be written carefully and fairly. It seems strange that it’s even possible to be hundreds of millions of pounds over budget on something and every time I see this I have two equal thoughts, firstly “that’s a lot of money wasted” and secondly “I should really get on that”. I’m serious about the second one; the money seems to be fantastic and I don’t know how to manage a major building project either so I should be fine.

BBC News reports:

Andrew Burns, Edinburgh City Council’s Labour leader, said: “This is a project which Audit Scotland gave a clean bill of health in June 2007.

“Since then it has totally unravelled.”

“I believe it would be wrong to commit further public money to trams.”

And the problem is not so much that a project can unravel, it’s that the suppliers seem to be able to use a project unravelling as a way to bill quite a bit more.

It seems that public projects suffer from being too big to fail. A contractor who catastrophically bungles building a housing estate will simply have their ass sued off by the developer who’ll calmly add their per day losses, which the commercial contract probably put onto the defaulting party, for as long as the court process takes. On the other hand, a contractor who digs up a major city’s high street and then threatens industrial action unless they get eighty million pounds simply needs to be paid off as quickly as possible. We desperately need to get away from that power imbalance.

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On editing

“Editing is just like writing, except hateful, and in reverse. Instead of birthing words and ideas out of nothing, you’re murdering them in cold blood, culling them like sickly sheep weakening the flock.”

Robert Brockway, Cracked.com

One of the most shocking tips I ever got for producing decent written work for uni was to spend half as long again on editing as I did on writing. Thankfully that doesn’t include research time.

Half as long again. Yup.

There are three big stages in written work: research, writing, editing. In larger pieces of work these steps are even iterative.

Editing is one of the stages that I feel has the most potential for grabbing marks from so it’s worth your time. I often found that I’d leave assignments to the last minute and, looking at deadlines and editing seems temptingly optional at that point. In my experience it’s rarely a good idea. Beyond feeling like a luxury intended for more organised people it also hurts to delete words that don’t fit. I compromise by having a clippings file where I keep bits of what I’ve written that didn’t make it in the final submission. It’s a depressingly large file.

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The value of spam

A must read paper has been published:

Levchenko, Click Trajectories: End-to-End Analysis of the Spam Value Chain, Proceedings of 32nd annual Symposium on Security and Privacy 2011 (PDF)

It really goes without saying that someone must click on those links that come in spam emails or they wouldn’t send them. Spam isn’t a pointless annoyance; it’s a form of direct marketing. The basic technology behind spam is just vast networks of computers (often botnets) sending email and is fairly pedestrian as it goes. The only impressive thing is really the scale and a very healthy proportion of all human communication in history is spam.

The technological side of spam has been fairly well researched but spam has not really been examined from a technical-economic perspective and certainly not in an end-to-end fashion. This is what this paper does. It works out where the money goes and that’s revolutionary.

The weak link in the money chain seems to be the relatively few banks willing to handle the credit card transactions. Spam regulation, if we want to regulate it, could do worse than target these organisations.

Why wouldn’t we want to regulate spam? For me the most interesting lesson of the paper is the sheer quality of the spam based retail service. You tend to get what you ordered, it tends to be the real thing and you tend not to get your credit card ripped off at the end of it. I had pretty much assumed that even just clicking on a link in a spam email would be signing up for viruses and credit card fraud. It turns out some of these people even have pretty decent customer service set up.

H/T: Bruce Schneier Crypto-Gram 1106

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Excellent advice

From Bad Metaphors:

“If ever in life you find yourself thinking of a group of human beings as nonhuman — be it cartoonish caricatures or monsters or whatever — you’ve gone wrong. If you’re ever making an entire race or gender the watermelon in your Gallagher routine, you’re making yourself a worse person and making the world a worse place.”

-David Wong, Cracked.com, on racist jokes

It’s aimed at racist jokes but it’s great advice for everything. It’s very easy to start thinking about the “other side” without thinking that the other side is nearly always going to be you with a different perspective and that hurts your options for dealing with them.

Universities to change degree results?

This is a fairly dramatic proposal.

Currently, as I suspect every single reader of this blog knows all too well, three or four year honours degrees are effectively summarised into a final year mark of first, upper/lower second and third class honours. This leaves you with an easily conveyed measure of academic achievement to give to potential employers. The problem tends to be in the margins where the difference between scoring 59.9% and 60% can end up being what job you do for the rest of your life and even policies of rounding up can’t completely eliminate the boundary.

Unfortunately it’s getting to a point where larger graduate employers using automated job application searches are simply not looking at anything below a 2:1 and it’s leaving a large chunk of graduates invisible. There are proposals to change this to a portfolio based scheme called the “higher education achievement report” (HEAR), where an employer gets a summary of what you’ve done over your whole university career which, depending on your class:union ratio is either a great idea or a bit terrifying.

The LLB is quite good for bringing in more than just final year results (which just adds to the pressure I found) for further law qualifications but it seems to be less keen on extra-cirrcular material which the HEAR would bring in.

H/T: The Guardian

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Checklists

I’m enjoying some time off after my exams (I got an email from uni telling me to pay my library fines or else today) and I’ve been catching up on things on the blogosphere. I was reading Ben Goldacre’s Secondary Blogtoday and found an old, in Internet years, post (26 May 2011) about newspaper corrections.

There is a site, regrettheerror.com which includes a checklist for not getting things wrong. The writer suggests that working from a checklist provides a memory jogger which helps you check that you’re not forgetting anything while doing the primary thing you were doing. Memory is not fallible, especially if you’re distracted, and jogging it is important.

Part of the checklist is about getting your ducks in a row as a working journalist: having your interviews recorded and research saved for future reference and so on. Some of it is simply checking the details: checking your maths and, because it’s writing, if you’ve dotted i’s and crossed t’s.

The interesting one for me is at the end of “While Reporting”:

Ask sources what other reports got wrong.

This is a genius move. Kudos to Craig Silverman for sharing it. Finding out that there are common mistakes in an area is a good first step to avoiding falling into them (you’re probably not special enough to make entirely novel mistakes).

It should go without saying that being accurate is an extremely important skill for just about anyone. It’s hard to see a sphere in life where being wrong is a benefit.

H/T: Ben Goldacre’s Secondary Blog

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