Who You Gonna Call? Q&A With Software Freedom Law Center’s Eben Moglen

The Software Freedom Law Center provides free legal representation and other law-related services toopen source software developers. The organization beganin 2005 under the direction of Eben Moglen, a professor of law andlegal history at Columbia University Law School.

His law center represents many of the most important andwell-established free software and open source projects. The SFLC’sgoal is to help non-profit FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software)projects succeed.

The free legal assistance provides programmers and open sourceprojects with sound legal and organizational structures. The SFLC’sgoal is to protect the public’s right to access, use and developsoftware, according to Moglen, the founding director.

The SFLC received initial funding of US$4 million from the OpenSource Development Labs. LinuxInsider met with Moglen to discuss thesituations the SFLC faces in pursuing its legal goals.

LinuxInsider: What led to the formation of the The Software Freedom Law Center?

Eben Moglen:

About 15 years ago I started focusing on areas involvingfree software licensing issues and related use issues. In 2004 Iproposed to Stewart Cohen, CEO of OSDL (Open Source Developers Lab)that I lend my legal expertise involving software licensing to theirmember companies. We would provide a place that would provide legalassistance. I proposed to the companies that we would have problemssolved before problems happened. We began this plan on the first ofFebrary in 2005.

LIN: How is your office organized?


We are an actual nonprofit entity with lawyers on staff. Ihave six lawyers working in New York City and two lawyers working inIndia. These people are salaried, working full time on behalf of ourclients within the structure of the organization.

LIN: Is your organization’s case load strictly pro bono, or is there afee structure used depending on the case and company involved?


We are essentially a pro bono entity. With almost noexceptions, we do not charge the people for whom we provide theservices. We do have a small subsidiary which is a commercial law firmof Moglen and Ravicher that performs services to for-profit clients.And 100 percent of that profit is donated back to our non-profitorganization. So we have a very small commercial profit, almostinsignificant. The majority of our work is paid for by our donars.(Daniel B. Ravicher is the Law Center’s legal director.)

LIN: Does an open source software developer contact your organizationfor assistance directly?


We primarily respond to requests for assistance from projectsand legal groups who reach out and seek our help. These clients areopen source projects or software companies. Sometimes these requestsfor services involve companies who believe they have been challengedor threatened. Sometimes the requests are from companies that need alawyer to advise them on how to seek our help in organizing. Thesecompanies are already functioning and need a lawyer to advice orcounsel them on how to structure their operation.

LIN: What is the best way to contact the Freedom Law Center?


A very large number of our clients come to us as aconsequence of direct contact using our email address ofhelp@softwarefreedom.org. Sometimes we are referred by one project toanother or one company.

LIN: Do you ever initiate legal action on your own?


Occasionally we see a situation out in the world where wethink people would benefit from our legal advice, and we go to themand offer our assistance. In that case we contact the company andoffer our assistance.

LIN: What are some of the current or recent cases that we mightrecognize for their notoriety?


We mostly are not litigants. Our primary task is to helpprojects do what they want to do in making their software work withgreater efficiency and increase the prospects that the software willbe used by people around the world. Much of our work involves givingadvice to clients. We don’t say who those clients are or what advicewe give them because of the need for confidentiality.

LIN: Can you offer an example from a recent enforcement effort?


Sometimes our clients need us to help them enforce theirlicenses. And sometimes the process of enforcing licenses requireslawsuits. One client of ours is BusyBox, which is a small suite ofcode that creates a positive environment on top of an operating systemkernel which is very useful when embedded inside the stack or insideappliance devices.

The BusyBox project asked us to provide license enforcement for them.Their license is the GPL, so we do attempt to contact companies aroundthe world that manufacture devices using BusyBox to honor the GPL.Sometimes companies are unresponsive to our inquiries. They don’tanswer our letters or phone calls. And only under those circumstanceswe sometimes sue people.

LIN: Can you gives us some of the particulars involving the GPL license case?


Back in December we sued Samsung, Panasonic, Best Buy and anumber of other manufactures and distributors of electronics becausethose manufacturers were embedding BusyBox and not obeying the GPL.Most of that involved televisions. Most cases were consolidated andpresented in the U.S. District Court for the southern district of NewYork and are working their way through pretrial motions. I expect allof those cases to settle on various standards over the next fewmonths.

LIN: Is there a type of recurring legal issue that you see with opensource developers that drives a continuing set of cases to yourdoorstep?


Most of the issues involve working with unorganized projectswhere programmers come together. We help them set up non-profitorganizations that have limited liabilities. That’s not a recurringproblem. But it is a situation that many projects face. I wouldn’tcall these things recurring issues. They are matters that companiesneed help in setting up.

LIN: Where do you see your organization headed? Will you continue thepro bono service, or is there a role for you in lobbying within thesoftware industry?


No, we are not a lobbyist organization. I’m organized as a lawfirm. There are limitations against lobbying. We do not get involvedin legislation or candidates for office. But we do contact governmentsand government agencies in the United States and around the world onbehalf of our clients on the idea of free and open software. But we donot primarily support lobbying.

I do suspect that over the next five years we will primarily remain aswe are now, a law firm and a non-profit legal services entity. I aimto provide the best possible legal services through the broadestpossible range of clients. I expect us to continue operating in theUnited States and in India. I also do expect us to expand ouroperation into other parts of the world.

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Amazon Lawsuit Fingers Facebook Groups Recruiting Fake Reviewers

online reviews

A lawsuit against the administrators of more than 10,000 Facebook groups alleged to be part of a broker network for churning out fake product reviews was filed Tuesday by Amazon.

In its lawsuit, Amazon alleges the administrators have attempted to orchestrate the placement of bogus reviews on Amazon in exchange for money or free products. It added that the groups are set up to recruit people to write fake reviews at Amazon’s online stores in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Japan.

Amazon said in a statement posted online that it would be using information discovered through the lawsuit to identify bad actors and remove reviews commissioned by them from the retail website.

“Our teams stop millions of suspicious reviews before they’re ever seen by customers, and this lawsuit goes a step further to uncover perpetrators operating on social media,” Dharmesh Mehta, Amazon’s vice president of selling partner services, said in the statement. “Proactive legal action targeting bad actors is one of many ways we protect customers by holding bad actors accountable.”

Against Meta Policy

Meta, which owns Facebook, condemned the groups for setting up fake review mills on its infrastructure. “Groups that solicit or encourage fake reviews violate our policies and are removed,” Meta spokesperson Jen Ridings said in a statement provided to TechNewsWorld.

“We are working with Amazon on this matter and will continue to partner across the industry to address spam and fake reviews,” she added.

According to Meta, it has already removed a majority of the fraudulent groups cited in Amazon’s lawsuit and is actively investigating others for violating the company’s policy against fraud and deception.

It noted it has introduced a number of tools to remove violating content from its service, tools that use artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision to analyze specific examples of content that breaks the rules and identify patterns of misbehavior across the platform.

Is Facebook Doing Enough?

Rocio Concha, director of policy and advocacy for Which?, a consumer advocacy group in the U.K., praised Amazon’s action, but questioned whether Facebook was doing enough to prevent the abuse of its platform.

“It is positive that Amazon has taken legal action against some of the fake review brokers operating on Facebook, a problem Which?’s investigations have repeatedly exposed,” he said in a statement. “However, it raises big question marks about the proactive action Facebook is taking to crack down on fake review agents and protect consumers.”

“Facebook needs to explain why this activity appears to be rife, and the [U.K.] Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) must challenge the company to provide evidence to show that the action it is taking is effective,” he continued. “Otherwise, it should consider stronger action against the platform.”

“The government has announced that it plans to give the CMA stronger powers to protect consumers from an avalanche of fake reviews,” he added. “These digital markets, competition and consumer reforms must be made into law as a priority.”

In 2019 Which? issued a report estimating 250,000 hotel reviews on the Tripadvisor website were fake. Tripadvisor dismissed the analysis in that report as “simplistic,” but a year later in a “transparency” report of its own, the travel site found almost one million, or 3.6%, of the reviews on the site were fake.

No Time for Deep Dives

“Most consumers don’t have time to dig deep into the reviews,” observed Ross Rubin, the principal analyst with Reticle Research, a consumer technology advisory firm in New York City.

“They take the star rating as a way to instill trust in a product and if people are getting compensated for posting fake reviews, that undermines confidence in the review,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Not only do fake reviews incentivize consumers to purchase an inferior product, they also make it more difficult to determine the differences among products,” he added.

“If you have an overwhelming number of products in a category with four-and-a-half- or five-star reviews because so many of them are participating in these fake review programs, then the value of the reviews themselves are diminished,” he explained.

He acknowledged that fake reviews were a problem everywhere on the internet. “But,” he continued, “because Amazon has such a strong position in online retail and is often the first website that consumers go to, it tends to be disproportionately targeted by these fake review groups.”

Review mills have also used bots to pad product reviews, but Rubin noted that technology lacks the effectiveness of using human beings. “The reason these groups use people instead of bots is that the bots are easier to detect,” he said. “Amazon uses machine learning technologies to identify when companies are using bots.”

‘Widespread’ Review Manipulation

In a report issued last year by Uberall, an online and offline customer experience platform, review manipulation on Amazon was termed “widespread.”

Amazon claims only 1% of the reviews on the site are fake, but the report disputed that. It cited a 2018 analysis by Fakespot that found fakes outnumbered true reviews in some product categories such as nutritional supplements (64%), beauty (63%), electronics (61%), and athletic sneakers (59%).

“Even if we discount these numbers by 50%, there would still be a chasm between what Amazon says and what Fakespot reported,” the Uberall report noted.

What can be done to tamp down fake reviews?

Uberall reported that Amazon and a few others use “verified purchaser” labels to signal higher confidence in reviews. “This is an approach that needs to be more widely utilized,” it noted, “though it’s not foolproof, as Amazon has discovered.”

“Regardless of the specific anti-fraud mechanisms,” it continued, “fake reviews are a problem that needs to be more systematically and vigorously addressed.”

Among the paths forward identified in the report for finding a solution to the problem are using more technical sophistication and aggressive enforcement to bring review fraud down to low single digits, embracing a review framework that is structurally harder to cheat and allowing only actual verified buyers to write reviews.

“These are not mutually exclusive approaches,” it explained. “They can and should be used in combination with one another.”

“There’s an enormous amount at stake for businesses of all sizes with online reviews,” the report maintained. “More and better reviews translate directly into online visibility, brand equity and revenue. This creates powerful incentives for businesses to pursue positive reviews and suppress or remove negative reviews.”

John P. Mello Jr.

John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.

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