Monthly Archives: February 2006

Off to Anguilla

I’m off today to Anguilla, a beautiful small island in the Carribean (near St. Maarten), where I’ll be attending the annual Financial Cryptography ’06 conference sponsored by the International Financial Cryptography Association. I attended the very first Financial Crypto conference ten years ago, and had a great time. Now I’ve been invited back for a tenth-year retrospective.

Yes, I hear you thinking, it’s a tough life being a law professor. But consider: it takes seven hours just to get to Anguilla from Miami. And the forecast is for pretty solid rain all week.

Even if it rains, it will be wonderful to see some people I’d lost touch with as crypto moved off the front burner of my academic writing. I used to write a lot about the regulation of cryptography, including The Metaphor is the Key: Cryptography, the Clipper Chip and the Constitution, 143 U. Penn. L. Rev. 709 (1995), Flood Control on the Information Ocean: Living With Anonymity, Digital Cash, and Distributed Databases, 15 U. Pitt. J. L. & Com. 395 (1996), It Came From Planet Clipper, 1996 U. Chi. L. Forum 15, and of course Digital Signatures Today in Financial Cryptography 287 (Rafael Hirschfeld ed., 1997) (Springer Lecture Notes in Computer Science vol. 1318), a write up of my talk at FC #1. Nowadays I write more about things that use crypto than about crypto itself.

Blogging may be quite light for the next few days. Meanwhile, to tide you over, here’s an abstract of the talk I’ll be giving, called “Are We All Cypherpunks Yet?”:

Continue reading

Posted in Cryptography, Talks & Conferences | 3 Comments

Where We Live Now

Brad DeLong summarizes the ongoing restructuring of American society:

  1. The rise of a very powerful, successful, exploitative upper class.
  2. Further increases in inequality as the tax and transfer system becomes less progressive.
  3. Increases in risk that threaten to move middle-class families sharply downward in the wealth distribution.
  4. Skill-biased technical change that sharply raises the benefits to education.
  5. Holes in the safety net–the fall in the value of the minimum wage, time-limited welfare, and so forth.
Posted in Econ & Money | Leave a comment

Stealth UK Bill Would Give Government Power to Rule Without Parliament

David Howarth is an old friend, one of the smarter lawyers I know, and definitely one of the smartest politicians around (he’s a Reader in Law at Cambridge and Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge). David is currently the campaign manager for one of the two leading candidates in the Liberal Democrat leadership election.

So please do not dismiss what follows as some weird backbench conspiracy stuff. And keep in mind that this bill has already had its second reading, so it’s one step away from law (the vote follows the third reading): Who wants the Abolition of Parliament Bill is an alarm by a serious person:

The boring title of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill hides an astonishing proposal. It gives ministers power to alter any law passed by Parliament. The only limitations are that new crimes cannot be created if the penalty is greater than two years in prison and that it cannot increase taxation. But any other law can be changed, no matter how important. All ministers will have to do is propose an order, wait a few weeks and, voilà, the law is changed.

For ministers the advantages are obvious: no more tedious debates in which they have to answer awkward questions. Instead of a full day’s debate on the principle of the proposal, detailed line-by-line examination in committee, a second chance at specific amendment in the Commons and a final debate and vote, ministers will have to face at most a short debate in a committee and a one-and-a-half hour debate on the floor. Frequently the Government will face less than that. No amendments will be allowed. The legislative process will be reduced to a game of take-it-or-leave-it.

The Bill replaces an existing law that allows ministers to relieve regulatory burdens. Business was enthusiastic about that principle and the Government seems to have convinced the business lobby that the latest Bill is just a new, improved version. What makes the new law different, however, is not only that it allows the Government to create extra regulation, including new crimes, but also that it allows ministers to change the structure of government itself. There might be business people so attached to the notion of efficiency and so ignorant or scornful of the principles of democracy that they find such a proposition attractive. Ordinary citizens should find it alarming.

Any body created by statute, including local authorities, the courts and even companies, might find themselves reorganised or even abolished. Since the powers of the House of Lords are defined in Acts of Parliament, even they are subject to the Bill.

Looking back at last week’s business in the Commons, the Bill makes a mockery of the decisions MPs took. Carrying ID cards could be made compulsory, smoking in one’s own home could be outlawed and the definition of terrorism altered to make ordinary political protest punishable by life imprisonment. Nor will the Human Rights Act save us since the Bill makes no exception for it.

The Bill, bizarrely, even applies to itself, so that ministers could propose orders to remove the limitations about two-year sentences and taxation. It also includes a few desultory questions (along the lines of “am I satisfied that I am doing the right thing?”) that ministers have to ask themselves before proceeding, all drafted subjectively so that court challenges will fail, no matter how preposterous the minister’s answer. Even these questions can be removed using the Bill’s own procedure. Indeed, at its most extreme, in a manoeuvre akin to a legislative Indian rope trick, ministers could use it to transfer all legislative power permanently to themselves.

More links at JURIST – Paper Chase: UK bill amounts to abolishing Parliament, warn Cambridge law professors.

Posted in UK | 5 Comments

Strike Looms at UM

The University of Miami employs a contractor to provide janitorial and other services on campus. This of course leads to capitalism’s favorite race to the bottom, as potential suppliers compete to be the low bidder. The current winner, Unicco, achieves its status as the low-cost-provider by paying its workers as little as possible and providing almost no healthcare benefits. So far, so legal, if not necessarily very cheerful for the workers, or for the people who work around them.

Some of the Unicco workers, as is their right, decided to try to form a union. If reports are to be believed, however, Unicco decided to play hardball in response and started harassing and firing workers it thought supported the effort. That isn’t legal. It’s an unfair labor practice. And the NLRB says there is reasonable cause to believe it is happening.

The NLRB’s finding allows workers to strike against the unfair labor practice, even though they have yet to form a recognized union. As a technical legal matter, the University of Miami is not implicated here. It’s not guilty of anything (in law) other than trying to save a buck. But as a practical matter (not to mention at the moral level), this is very much the University’s problem. If the University wanted to require that its contractors pay a living wage, or provide decent medical coverage, it is fully within the University’s power to do so — at a price, of course.

And so far the University (Donna Shalala, CEO) has shown little sign of being willing to pay this price. It has, I’m told, hired a union-busting law firm to represent it.

Last Thursday, President Shalala issued a statement announcing the formation of “work group charged with conducting a thorough review of compensation and benefits accorded to all contract employees working on our campuses.” But the two-person (!) work group is chaired by a person whose sympathy to workers’ problems I personally would rate as “unusually low”. In response, on Friday, a group of professors hurriedly produced a letter expressing measured skepticism about this work group.

Which brings us to the present pass: last night, the Unicco workers voted to strike. Somewhere. Sometime.

I won’t be crossing that picket line. Which is easy for me to say, since I’m not teaching this term. Many people who are teaching will be very reluctant to cross it too, but their position is very difficult. First, there simply aren’t enough spaces in which to hold large classes in area churches or other local venues which might be willing to give us space. Second, there’s a real issue about our contractual obligations to students who don’t care about honoring the picket line, and who would be inconvenienced — sometimes substantially — by having to run around to various different off-campus sites to take classes.

I have first-hand experience of university strikes, and I know just how unpleasant they are: I went to Yale, where strikes are as regular as clockwork. Almost my entire first semester of law school was spent off-campus due to a picket line, which certainly ruined my first year, and cast a great pall over the whole experience. Two of my four professors (Tort, Civil procedure I) moved their classes off campus. One refused to do so (Contract), and those of us honoring the picket line met off-campus to listen to a taped version of his class provided to us by a sympathetic student who did attend classes. And one professor, Charles L. Black, Jr., held two sections of Con Law I: one in the classroom at the appointed hour, and one in his living room, for he believed that he had an obligation — an almost sacred trust — to teach his class at the appointed place and time, but he was not about to make anyone else cross a picket line. One more reason why I admired him tremendously.

Posted in U.Miami: Strike'06 | 5 Comments

This Headline is Real. Honest.

When I saw this headline at CNN, I thought it was some sort of early April Fools joke, but it’s real: Scalia addresses wild-turkey hunters

Scalia addresses wild-turkey hunters.

Scalia addresses wild-turkey hunters.

Yes, it’s real.

(Actually, there’s nothing necesarily wrong with a Justice addressing “the nonprofit turkey federation” which “is dedicated to conserving wild turkeys and preserving hunting traditions.” But it’s still a funy headline.)

Posted in Law: The Supremes | 2 Comments

Marty Lederman Eyes the Panic Button on FISA ‘Reform’

Marty Lederman, a man not given to false alarms, eyes the panic button as he contemplates Sen. Specer’s ‘reform’ of FISA. See Balkinization for the gory details.

Posted in Civil Liberties | Leave a comment

French ISPs Found to Violate French Consumer Protection Law

My dad forwarded me this interesting article in Le Monde, Wanadoo et Free : des clauses abusives à haut débit.

Following a trail blazed by AOL and Tiscali, supposed good-guy ISPs Wanadoo.fr and Free have been found guilty of violating French consumer protection law. Wandoo now becomes the holder of a special booby prize (Le Monde calls it a gold medal for abusive clauses), having been ordered to revise no less than 32 clauses in its standard form contract that were found to be “abusive or illicit”.

Among the clauses ruled illegal by the court were those which:

  • disclaimed of any liability for interruptions of service due to equipment breakdowns or poor maintenance
  • disclaimed all liability in case of damage
  • disclaimed any risk of transport in the case of distance selling
  • claimed the right to modify unilaterally the conditions of service offered at any time
  • reserved the right to to terminate in certain cases consumer contracts without notice or warning
  • made automatic e-payment the only accepted means of payment
  • asserted that terms and conditions published online would trump the terms and conditions agreed to by the consumer a the time of subscription

(all translations are mine).

I’m sure almost every reader of this blog in the US is party to one or more contracts with clauses like these. But good luck getting anyone to declare them illegal (although conceivably a state court might refuse to enforce one or two of them if push came to shove).

Posted in Internet, Law: Internet Law | Leave a comment