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Peer-To-Peer News - The Week In Review - July 11th, ’20
July 11th, 2020
Our Intellectual Property Laws Are Out of Control
Intellectual property law is supposed to spur experimentation, PM contributor and Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds writes, not deter it. But the patent and copyright laws of yesteryear are ill-equipped for the world of 2013.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds
"Too much of a good thing," Mae West supposedly said, "can be wonderful." Is that true? Maybe in some cases, but probably not where patents and copyrights are concerned.
Just look at the controversy over a recent ruling that made unlocking your cellphone a felony punishable by five years in prison and $500,000 in fines. This twist on 1998's Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has encouraged people to rethink what, exactly, intellectual property laws should protect, and to wonder if they've gone too far. I think the answer is yes, and that a look back at the constitutional roots of our patent and copyright system can offer some useful guidelines.
Software is becoming the most valuable part of many physical goods. For a Blu-ray disc, that's obvious: The intellectual property—the movie—matters more than the physical medium. But these days, even cars and airplanes depend as much on their software as on their steel. With that in mind, companies have pushed for ever-greater protections. Because the DMCA makes it illegal to circumvent software encryption, some DIY car repairs could potentially be judged illegal—the software may be encrypted!
Intellectual property law is supposed to promote experimentation, not hold it back. A similar problem in 17th-century England led to the precursor of our own system of patents and copyrights. In those days British monarchs often granted monopolies to courtiers in exchange for money or political support. The holder had the exclusive right to sell a product, anything from playing cards to French perfume. These unpopular arrangements were political payoffs, not rewards for introducing new products. And the abuses got so bad that in 1624 Parliament passed a law banning monopolies except as a reward for inventors.
Fast-forward to the drafting of the United States Constitution and you find similar thinking. Thomas Jefferson opposed all government-granted monopolies, but James Madison argued that while monopolies generally are bad, there is a place for patents and copyrights. In the end, the Patent and Copyright Clause (Article I, Section 8) empowered Congress "[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."
The idea was that innovators would be rewarded with a short-term monopoly on their work. Afterward it would enter the public domain, hopefully sparking further creations or discoveries. In the early days the Constitution's "limited times" were quite limited: 14 years for patents; 14 years, plus a potential 14-year renewal term, for copyrights. And patents were strictly scrutinized to ensure that they represented real inventions. (Jefferson himself, when he was secretary of state, served as a patent examiner, so important did he consider this task.)
Nowadays the limited times aren't so limited. Copyright has been extended to the life of the author plus 70 years; corporate works (with no living person as "author") get a 120-year term. Patents are good for just 20 years, but there's far less scrutiny to ensure that they represent something truly new—a lot of "nuisance patents" are filed to provide bargaining chips rather than to protect actual creativity. Also, influential companies often get Congress to extend their own patent rights through special legislation. Does a century-plus exclusive right encourage invention more than a 28-year exclusive right? It's doubtful.
The DMCA's rules make things worse by interfering with the repair or repurposing of electronic goods after they have been sold. Some companies are even trying to apply that kind of thinking to nondigital products. The Supreme Court just took a small, positive step in the case of Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley, where it protected the right to resell books bought overseas. The publisher had argued, essentially, that you might own a book you bought, but the company retained the right to sell it.
Ownership ought to mean something. When you buy a smartphone or an automobile, it should be yours, and companies shouldn't be able to leverage their intellectual property rights in software to keep you from unlocking, repairing, modifying, or reselling it as you see fit. Intellectual property is a good thing, all right. But it turns out that too much of it isn't wonderful at all.
The “Music Mission” Anti-Piracy Campaign Makes Stunning Revelations
• The “Music Mission” has released its first findings around pirating platforms, and the size of some is startling.
• What is more alarming is that some music labels, DJs, AV vendors, and even anti-piracy organizations are involved in piracy.
• This highlights the complex nature of the phenomenon that is piracy, and why addressing it is so knotty.
Back in May, we covered the news about the launch of a new initiative called “Music Mission,” which aimed to take down the 200 biggest illegal music streaming platforms on the internet. This anti-piracy campaign is led by ‘AudioLock’ and ‘LabelWorx,’ and it’s financially supported by hundreds of copyright holders that would have to win a lot if the top illegal music platforms vanished from the internet world. Now, the first revelations from the “Music Mission” campaign actions and investigation have come to light, and some facts and stats are jaw-dropping.
So, the campaign reports that a single pirate music store they locked in their cross-hair was operating a database of 780,000 music tracks in MP3 format. That would be about 10.05 terabytes of data or almost eight years of music. Besides the sheer size of this platform, which is admittedly an impressive factor that reflects its operators’ audacity, other parts of the report are even more surprising. In one discovered case, a company promoting itself as an anti-piracy service was actually running a pay-piracy site, essentially playing on both sides of the board. In another case, a pirate store owner was also the owner of an AV software company and even a music watermarking firm. That company was playing the game on the entire field, grabbing financial gains from wherever they could.
Furthermore, the “Music Mission” reports record label companies and professional DJs promoting music on pirating stores, while conveniently excluding releases belonging to themselves. As the organization estimates, label companies engage in this practice to promote their albums higher in the charts, as the competing releases will lose sales that would be otherwise recorded on legitimate music store platforms. This shines a light on the multi-dimensional role that piracy plays in society and business, acting as a complex force that can work in ways that go well beyond just making or losing money directly through it.
The “Music Mission” isn’t naming anyone discovered to be involved in these unethical acts, so this will probably be resolved behind closed doors and between the copyright holders and these entities. Whether or not there is a legal prosecution or at least a publication plan ahead remains unclear, but the anti-piracy campaign is already yielding results. Before the phenomenon of piracy is determined from the perspective of its magnitude and the pinpointing of its epicenters, a qualitative appreciation needs to be specified, and the latest reports underline this clearly.
Mozilla Suspends Firefox Send Service While it Addresses Malware Abuse
Mozilla has temporarily suspended the Firefox Send file-sharing service while it adds a Report Abuse mechanism.
Mozilla has temporarily suspended the Firefox Send file-sharing service as the organization investigates reports of abuse from malware operators and while it adds a "Report abuse" button.
The browser maker took down the service today after ZDNet reached out to inquire about Firefox Send's increasing prevalence in current malware operations.
Firefox Send -- launched for secure file-sharing in 2019
Mozilla launched Firefox Send in March 2019. The service provides secure and private file-hosting and file-sharing capabilities for Firefox users. Despite its name, the service is in reality accessible for anyone accessing the send.firefox.com web portal.
All files uploaded and shared through Firefox Send are stored in an encrypted format, and users can configure the amount of time the file is saved on the server and the number of downloads before the file expires.
Firefox Send: From ransomware to surveillanceware
However, while Mozilla launched Firefox Send with the privacy and security of its users in mind, since late 2019, Firefox Send has seen broader adoption in the malware community.
In most cases, the use is usually the same. Malware authors upload malware payloads on Firefox Send, the file is stored in an encrypted format, and then hackers share the links inside emails they send to their targets.
Over the past few months, Firefox Send has been used to store payloads for all sorts of cybercrime operations, from ransomware to financial crime, and from banking trojans to spyware used to target human rights defenders.
FIN7, REVil (Sodinokibi), Ursnif (Dreambot), and Zloader are just some of the few malware gangs and strains that have been seen hosting payloads on Firefox Send.
In an interview with ZDNet today, Colin Hardy, a UK cybersecurity researcher, took the time to describe some of several features that have drawn malware authors to Firefox Send.
For starters, Hardy said that Firefox URLs are natively trusted within organizations, meaning that email spam filters won't detect or even be configured to block Firefox Send URLs.
Second, cybercrime gangs don't have to invest any of their own time and financial resources into putting together a file-hosting infrastructure. They can just use Mozilla's servers.
Third, Send encrypts data, hindering malware detection solutions, and download links can be configured to expire after a certain time or number of downloads, hindering incident response efforts.
"Send also has a Password protect feature, again making it easier to escape detection from perimeter devices," Hardy said.
The rising number of malware operations abusing Firefox Send has not escaped the cyber-security community and the various malware-hunting groups.
For the past few months, security experts have complained about the lack of a "Report Abuse" mechanism or "Report File" button they could use to take down malware operations that have abused the platform.
Last month, security researchers filed a bug report on the Mozilla bug tracker, asking Mozilla to add a Report Abuse system.
Earlier today, ZDNet reached out to the Mozilla to inquire about the malware-hosting issues we found, and the status of the Report Abuse mechanism.
While we were expecting a simple status update, Mozilla surprised both us and the cyber-security community by taking a proactive approach and almost immediately suspending the entire Firefox Send service while they worked to improve it.
"These reports are deeply concerning on multiple levels, and our organization is taking action to address them," a Mozilla spokesperson told ZDNet today.
"We will temporarily take Firefox Send offline while we make improvements to the product. Before relaunching, we will be adding an abuse reporting mechanism to augment the existing Feedback form, and we will require all users wishing to share content using Firefox Send to sign in with a Firefox Account.
"We are carefully monitoring these developments and looking critically at any additional next steps," Mozilla added.
There was no timeline provided for Firefox Send's return, at the time of writing. Any Firefox Send links are now down, meaning that any malware operation relying on the service has also been thwarted.
Italy’s Outdoor Summer Movies See Threat From Ailing Film Industry
A longstanding dispute between film distributors and associations that show outdoor films for free comes to a head as the industry reels from a post-coronavirus downturn.
Since the dawn of cinema, Italy’s torrid summers have made outdoor movie showings under the stars a favorite entertainment choice of the season.
Even the first Venice Film Festival, in August 1932, was held on the terrace of the Hotel Excelsior at the Lido, the island just off the center of Venice.
But this year, several nonprofit cultural and social organizations have struggled to get their summer film festivals going after film distributors refused to rent them many requested titles, from the Harry Potter series to “BlacKkKlansman” to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The reason? These nonprofit organizations screen films for free, even as Italy’s fabled film industry is reeling with many theaters closed because of the coronavirus.
“We use cinema as an instrument of social cohesion, to try and build community and have a nice time together,” said Luca Sansone of the Laboratorio di Quartiere Giambellino Lorenteggio, a group that shows free films in a Milanese low-income neighborhood “where people don’t go to the movies because it costs too much.”
Normally the Milan open air initiative screens 10 films during the summer. This year, it will show only four, after five distributors for Universal, Warner Bros., Disney, 20th Century Fox and RAI Cinema refused to issue rights to films that Mr. Sansone’s organization had chosen with input from local residents, he said.
“The distributors told us that if we show them for free, they can’t give us films,” he said.
But those in the business say that the pandemic dealt such a blow that it put the survival of Italy’s film industry at risk, and that giving unfettered free access to films would only make matters worse.
“We lost more than 30 million tickets and more than 200 million euros in takings, just in box office receipts,” not to mention the loss of income from food concessions and other revenues, said Mario Lorini, president of ANEC, the association of cinema owners who control the country’s 4,000 movie screens.
Film industry operators note that the free initiatives receive public funding or have sponsors.
The stalemate is the latest chapter in a conflict that started heating up two years ago.
It has also affected other groups that screen free films throughout Italy, including one that travels through small central Italian towns struck by recent earthquakes, and a Roman association that began by showing films in the capital’s trendy Trastevere neighborhood and now runs two other venues.
Distributors denied so many films to “Piccolo America,” the Roman association, that it was forced to scrap retrospectives featuring the films of Sergio Leone, Kathryn Bigelow and Francis Ford Coppola, said Valerio Carocci, the association’s combative leader.
Mr. Carocci and other organizers accuse ANEC, the association of cinema owners, and ANICA, the National Association of Cinema and Audiovisual Industries, of conspiring to undermine the free programming.
The accusation triggered an investigation by Italian regulators that became public last month when the police raided offices in Rome. The ongoing investigation seeks to determine whether these associations engaged in anticompetitive behavior, breaching an EU law, or an Italian one.
Both ANICA and ANEC have denied any wrongdoing.
The clash over summer film is playing out against the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak and its economic ramifications. Like countless other sectors, the film industry and its players, from filmmakers to movie theater owners, have been left gasping ever since Italian cinemas shut their doors on March 8, shortly before the national lockdown.
Even though cinema theaters were given the green light to reopen on June 15, only 540 cinemas have reopened under new safety and social distancing guidelines limiting such indoor spaces to 200 people. Many cinema owners say they cannot break even under such rules.
The pandemic hit just a year after film industry associations and the culture ministry began promoting year-round movie attendance under the banner “Moviement.”
It worked, Mr. Lorini said: Theaters, traditionally closed during the summer, stayed open. And film attendance went up 45 percent between June and August 2019, boosting the industry’s annual revenues by 14 percent, despite new streaming services entering the Italian market.
“We came from a good period of revitalization, and had a good sense of the future,” Mr. Lorini said.
Despite subsidies from the Italian government to combat the pandemic’s effects, cinema owners are still struggling.
And the organizers of the free summer festivals say they are collateral damage, unable to obtain the titles that they had sought. Mr. Carocci said distributors had denied the rights to more than 150 films that he had asked for.
A request for Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” for the Guarimba Film Festival in the Calabrian seaside town of Amantea was one of around 60 titles that the organizers asked for but did not get.
“We wanted to bring movies that weren’t so known here,” said Giulio Vita, the chief organizer of the festival. “We’re talking about quality films, not unfair competition.”
“No one in Calabria goes to the cinema when it’s 50 degrees Celsius outside,” he added. Though many cinemas are now air-conditioned, traditionally Italians haven’t made them the summer hangout spots that they are in the United States and elsewhere.
The distributors accused of denying access have mostly remained mum about the dispute.
Representatives of Universal declined to comment. Representatives of Warner Bros. did not respond to request for comment. Representatives for the state broadcaster, Rai Cinema, and its distribution arm said they had granted rights for all films more than three years old.
Others in the industry said that costly investments into making films need to be valued, and compensated.
“It’s an error to propose culture and cinema at zero cost,” Alessandro Giacobbe, chief executive officer of Academy Two, a Genoa-based distribution company. “Especially this year, when cinemas have been closed for months and the industry in trouble,” he said.
“The message that has to pass to the public is that films should not be seen for free, that unless you pay for culture, it will die,” Mr. Giacobbe said.
The Drive-In is Back, in All its Retro, Slightly Annoying Glory
Social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has made drive-in theaters, such as the Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City, Va., more popular.
If this summer had a jingle, it might go something like: Let’s all go to the drive-in . . .
As the coronavirus era extends into summer, social-distancing mandates have turned out to be perfectly suited to drive-in theaters, where we watch movies from the safety of autonomously operated self-isolation pods also known as cars. At the onset of the pandemic, about 300 drive-ins were still operating in the United States, compared to more than 4,000 during their heyday in the 1950s. Many of them have experienced an unforeseen resurgence at a time when audiences crave not just health and safety but the reassuring cocoon of nostalgia.
People are going to church at drive-ins, and attending concerts at drive-ins; meanwhile, restaurants, weed-strewn parking lots and even indoor theaters are turning into drive-ins. Multiplexes may be on increasingly shaky ground — will people really risk their lives to see the new, perpetually delayed Christopher Nolan movie? — but the drive-in has proved its durability against all odds, including expensive digital conversions and the notorious Big Rains of 2018, which threatened to wash them out forever. We’re still here, those lonely, looming screens seem to whisper. We knew you’d be back.
Of course, much has changed since many of us saw our last drive-in movie, when the bulk of the evening’s entertainment value was indexed to how many friends you could smuggle inside in the trunk, or how many naughty bits you could spy while pirating the sound-free proceedings from a surrounding field. (I still can’t un-see that anonymous New Year’s Eve reveler plunging to his death in “The Poseidon Adventure,” which, appropriately enough, screened at my neighborhood drive-in, located in the middle of a flood plain in Des Moines.)
Gone are the days of rolling up to a wooden post, turning off the car, cranking down the window and affixing a speaker that looked like surplus from FDR’s last fireside chat. Today, the windows are automated and the cars are computerized — and, tragically, festooned with lights wherever you can possibly conceive of putting a light: inside, outside, along the side, whirling in the wheel rims. During a recent visit to a beloved Baltimore drive-in, if you couldn’t turn off every white light in or on your car, you were asked to pull over and cover them with whatever you had on hand.
“Folks, please!” a sign read upon entering. “Read the rules before you leave your vehicle!” So many rules. Not only have cars changed, but people have, too: The long list of regulations reflects a social contract frayed beyond repair. We really shouldn’t need to be reminded not to curse, cook or brandish laser pointers — much less cellphones — at the drive-in. But we do. During the pandemic, there’s a whole new list of rules, having to do with masks, restroom use and visiting the snack bar.
It’s in that bustling mid-century masterpiece of Americana that, just after sunset, everyone stops and turns to the 120-foot-wide screen while “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays. Some hold hands to hearts. Others grip their hot dogs a bit more solemnly. Back in the car, masks mercifully doffed, windows and moon roofs open to the starry night, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” begins, early-evening raindrops giving way to an enveloping cushion of humidity and the occasional buzzing mosquito. Escapist, uncynical, unfolding mostly at night — could we ask for a more perfect drive-in movie? And is there a more suitable drive-in auteur than Steven Spielberg, whose films “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park” have been duking it out for No. 1 at the box office, at least a generation after their initial release?
With John Williams’s swelling, lyrical score booming out of radios tuned to the pre-assigned frequency, the static-ridden tin boxes of yesteryear feel like fondly remembered but unmissed hardships, like outdoor plumbing or those rabbit-ear antennae your big brother forced you to adjust while he watched “Gunsmoke.” Nearby, a car alarm wails and is hastily extinguished, only to go off again — and again. Here and there, patrons engage in brief moments of bootleg illumination, by way of quick glances at cellphones or flaring brake lights. Tense moments, to be sure. But no one’s busted.
Meanwhile, E.T. and Elliott pursue their mystical bond over Reese’s Pieces, hearts and bicycles soaring right on cue. Still, even on what is claimed to be the “BIGGEST movie theatre screen in the USA,” their adventures are rendered less than pristine by virtue of being seen through a windshield and several yards of heat-thickened air. Everyone, it seems, is falling back in love with the drive-in. But there’s no sense in denying that, as an aesthetic encounter, it’s not entirely uncompromised: The point isn’t the total, pristine immersion that so many blockbusters have been striving for in recent years. Like 3-D and other cinematic novelties, what you lose in visual definition and aural precision, you make up for in the experience itself — its retro rituals, sense of shared history and ambient pleasures.
To wit: After the last bikes have flown and E.T. has been safely dispatched home, a disembodied voice comes over the speakers, encouraging the audience to express our approval by flashing our headlights, and reminding us to enjoy “funnel cake intermission,” before “Back to the Future” gets underway. It’s almost 11 p.m. — already way past our bedtime. We turn the car back on, preparing to be hermetically resealed. For a moment, though, the slightest hint of a cooling breeze makes its way through the open windows, while crickets chirp outside. Blink and you’ll miss it, but a firefly has found its way to the drive-in, punctuating tonight’s double feature with its own light show. Oblivious to the rules, and gloriously, blazingly above them.
Google Fiber's First Expansion in Four Years is in West Des Moines
The city is building an open conduit network, with Google as its first tenant.
About ten years after starting its high speed internet quest, Google Fiber is expanding again. Availability in the city of West Des Moines, IA adds its first new market in four years. It will be a tenant, leasing space in an open conduit network that the city is building, with plans to offer service throughout the entire network. A blog post by director of corporate development David Finn noted some “mistakes” made in the project’s history, but reaffirmed a commitment to increasing broadband access.
Since Google Fiber first launched, gigabit internet speeds (at least down) have become available in more places from more providers, but there’s still many underserved areas of the country, or places that could use some competition. Initial hopes that Google would be the one to push giants like Comcast and Verizon (the owner of Engadget’s parent company) may have been too ambitious, but they’re apparently not done yet.
Residents can sign up for updates on availability via the Google Fiber website here.
Internet Speeds Were Awful, so these Rural Pennsylvanians Put Up their Own Wireless Tower
Big Valley is a living postcard of Pennsylvania. Jet-black buggies hug the shoulders of its long, straight roads and knobby-kneed foals prance in fields so green they look electrified. Most signs there urge motorists to repent and rejoice, or to buy fresh strawberries from the Amish children sitting in the shade.
But one Pennsylvania tradition also plagued residents who live in this sweeping landscape: slow, unreliable, and expensive internet service. The government couldn’t help. Private suppliers have long said improved speeds were too costly to provide for such a sparsely populated area. So a group of mostly retirees banded together and took a frontier approach to a modern problem. They built their own wireless network, using radio signals instead of expensive cable.
“We just wanted better internet service up our valley. It was pretty simple as that,” said Kevin Diven, a founding member of the Rural Broadband Cooperative.
The nonprofit RBC services anyone who can see the 120-foot, former HAM radio tower its founders bought and erected on a patch of land they lease from an Amish man at around 1,900 feet on Stone Mountain, on the border of Mifflin and Huntington Counties, 180 miles from Philadelphia. Users pay an initial set-up fee of about $300, and monthly costs for the service are approximately $40 to $75, depending on the speeds you choose, ranging from 5 to 25 megabits per second.
The RBC has just under 40 paying customers.
“We love living out here,” said customer Helena Kotala, of Jackson Corner, Huntingdon County. “It’s just that the internet totally sucked.”
A Pennsylvania State University research project conducted in 2018 found that internet speeds in the state were dismal. Counties such as Sullivan and Wyoming in the northeast, along with vast areas in and near the Allegheny National Forest in the northwest, had the slowest speeds. Some were as dismal as 0 to 3 megabits per second, far below the FCC’s 25 mbps benchmark for “high speed.” A 2016 Federal Communications Commission report estimated that 39 percent of rural Americans, about 23 million people, had no access to 25 mbps. In Pennsylvania, the number of people without access to high-speed internet is 803,645, about 6 percent of the state’s total population.
The Philadelphia suburbs had the highest speeds.
The areas of Mifflin and Huntingdon Counties that the RBC serves often had speeds less than 2 mbps, Diven said. He was served by Verizon and said he was frequently in touch with the company about improving speeds. Verizon representatives often attended local meetings about the issue. Comcast, he said, wanted $80,000 to lay high-speed internet for approximately eight miles.
“I tried the FCC and the PUC [Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission] and got nowhere,” said Diven, who had hoped they would intervene with the private providers.
The issue of slow internet speeds isn’t something that anyone rages on about, but it’s a consistent problem from coast to coast, made even more noticeable during the pandemic. In some parts of Pennsylvania, online learning was not possible for school districts. Kotala, 30, works as the mapping coordinator for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and has to download large files to her computer daily. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she left her office in State College and started working from home, where downloads screeched to a halt.
After one month of quarantine, she bought into the RBC and loves the service.
“I had already gotten rid of Netflix because watching any movie online was a nightmare,” she said. “I would have to sit there and wait for stuff to download or upload and just go do something for a while.”
The RBC’s members did all the work starting in 2017, saving money by divvying up talents and livelihoods. Approximately 25 people kicked in $60,000 for the project. Some worked in construction, others in engineering. One was a former genomics professor at Penn State, another retired from the U.S Army. Brandon Beck, the RBC’s president, was a professional musician in the Tampa Bay area, playing the French horn. They pooled their money to clear the land, buy the tower and equipment, and pour concrete for the bunker that houses the electronics, which includes two banks of batteries used to propel Nissan’s electric car, the Leaf.
“They were available,” Beck said, explaining the batteries.
Power is supplied through solar panels, with a back-up wind generator.
The signal went live in 2019. Unlike traditional DSL or satellite-based wireless, the RBC taps into an existing fiber line it turns into a radio signal that bounces off a dish fastened to a three-pump gas station in Allensville. The signal races across Big Valley, then up the mountain past bast buzzards and ravens. The signal can be bounced off other dishes and relayed to other homes, much like a laser off mirrors. Each home has its own small dish to receive the wireless signal from the tower.
The signal can service a 15-mile-radius. Fixed wireless systems are “line of sight,” meaning users have to be able to see the tower from their residences in order to connect. Sometimes, trees block it.
“Leaves,” Beck said. “Leaves are the enemy.”
Tom Bracken, an RBC board member, said pines are the worst.
“If you’re going to try to shoot through pines,” Bracken said, “just hang it up and go home.”
Bracken, retired from the U.S. Army, said fixed wireless systems exist all over the world and rural communities can emulate what the RBC did.
“You have to tap into the skills of your community,” he said. “You never know who your neighbor is and what they can do.”
The Remote British Village that Built One of the UK’s Fastest Internet Networks
The serene, postcard-perfect village of Clapham is becoming known for more than its views.
Nestled between Lancashire’s stand-out beauty, the Forest of Bowland, and the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire Dales, the serene, postcard-perfect village of Clapham seems far removed from the COVID-19 pandemic. But when the British government announced a nationwide lockdown in mid-March, Clapham went on high alert.
Local residents formed what they dubbed “Clapham COBRA," a volunteer emergency response initiative that aimed to mitigate the negative effects of isolation by sharing information, delivering supplies, and checking in on one another. Like many rural villages, Clapham is fairly geographically isolated and home to an ageing population, with most of its roughly 600 residents over the age of 45. But when it came to confronting extreme isolation, it also has a unique advantage: unlike much of rural England, Clapham boasts one of the best Internet connections in the country—and the locals built it themselves.
Ann Sheridan remembers well the moment she got Broadband for the Rural North, known as “B4RN” (pronounced “barn”), to her farm in Clapham in March 2016. She recounted to me over the phone:
I remember my next door neighbors nearly coming to blows because their son downloaded the whole series of Game of Thrones on a 2 megabits per second (Mbps) Internet connection. And none of them could do anything else on the Internet for days, right? So it was obvious that if the community wasn’t going to be left behind … we had to do something.
B4RN started planning to roll out its fiber-to-the-home network in Clapham in 2014, and by the end of 2018, around 180 homes out of 300 in the village had been hooked up with an affordable full gigabit-per-second symmetrical connection (currently only around 10% of homes in Britain are even capable of receiving such a connection). The speeds are impressive, especially in a rural context where Internet connectivity lags horrendously behind urban areas in Britain. Rural download speeds average around 28Mbps, compared to 62.9Mbps on average in urban areas. B4RN, meanwhile, delivers 1,000Mbps.
The Internet is more important than ever during the lockdown, where lack of access exposes other inequalities in Internet use and skills. But B4RN means much more to digitally and geographically isolated communities than the Internet service it provides.
fiber-optic cable reel in a sheep field
A community network
B4RN is registered as a Community Benefit Society, which means the business belongs to the communities who need it: community members own the enterprise, and in B4RN’s case, they also actually build a lot of the infrastructure themselves. As a result, the process of “getting” B4RN involves a substantial commitment—of time, training, money, and physical labor.
Ann Sheridan was a B4RN “champions," meaning that she headed the volunteer effort to build B4RN in her village. The role involved “all kinds of things," she recalls. Building a fiber-optic Internet network from scratch involves a steep learning curve and a lot of teamwork. Community members need to map their coverage area, secure permissions (called wayleaves) to cross their neighbors’ land, and dig trenches across fields and gardens to lay plastic ducting for the fiber-optic cable.
In the end, the connections B4RN facilitates in a place like Clapham are more than technological—they’re personal. And the impact of those connections is especially evident now. “Everybody in the village knows every everyone, it was like that anyway,” Sheridan explains. “But B4RN put rocket boosters under it.”
Over the last year, I have visited and spoken with people in many different communities that have had a hand in building B4RN, and each time I have heard a similar story: you dig B4RN into your own back garden, but B4RN also digs into you. The mutual understanding and genuine friendships fostered among local people during the building process last well beyond the installation itself. In Clapham, the collaborative effort that went into B4RN contributed to a pre-existing rapport that helped in the face of the coronavirus lockdown.
As Sheridan put it: “We know each other. We know our strengths and weaknesses, so we can just crack on with things.”
The connectivity divide
B4RN was born of necessity. To date, traditional profit-making telecommunications companies have struggled to reach rural communities. Mobile coverage lags behind, too: 83% of urban premises have complete 4G coverage, but in rural areas, it’s just 41%. In some areas, including many of the places B4RN operates, there’s no coverage whatsoever.
A major reason for this disparity is that private telecom companies have few financial incentives to extend their networks to rural areas. More physical infrastructure is needed to reach scattered villages and homes, and there are rarely enough potential paying customers in these sparsely populated areas to offset the costs.
Government incentives, such as subsidies and voucher schemes, have helped to spur private companies to take on less commercially viable “builds," but companies are still slow to carry them out and tend to prioritise bolstering existing infrastructure over building entirely new networks. Year on year, the pervasive digitisation of everyday life, from banking to entertainment, has made this rural-urban digital divide even more profound.
According to the UK’s telecommunications regulator Ofcom, around 11% of rural premises cannot access even a 10 Mbps connection, and although Ofcom observes 95% coverage of “superfast” broadband (30 Mbps) nationwide, those statistics are collected from telecom companies themselves. Rural users often describe much worse service.
In a 2019 survey of National Farmers Union members, 30% said they experienced less than a 2Mbps connection, and only 17% could access a 24Mbps connection. Rural communities are getting left behind, and their experiences of disconnection are invisible in aggregate statistics.
“I wanted broadband”
On arrival in Lancashire in spring 2019, I met Chris Conder, a straight-talking farmer’s wife who was arguably the driving force behind B4RN. Her unwavering campaign for broadband for her village, Wray, has spanned almost two decades and spurred more than one experimental infrastructure project. Like many people I’ve spoken to in rural villages, Conder’s desire for broadband was personal.
“I was a carer for granddad, who had dementia,” Conder told me. Getting him proper care at their rural farm was difficult, but she had heard about telemedicine, and it seemed like exactly the thing she needed.
I would ring the doctor, and I would say, look he’s just thrown the newspaper in the fire and nearly set fire to the house because he’s read something in it that upset him, or he’s fallen on the floor, will you please send somebody out? And the doctor would send the psychiatric nurse a week on Tuesday. And when the psychiatric nurse came, there was a lovely old man sat in his chair, drinking his tea, happy as Larry. So, I couldn’t get any help with his medication, and his condition got worse and worse. And I knew I could do video conferencing if I had broadband, so I tried everything to get broadband … I just thought, if only the doctor could see what he was doing, he would say, oh my goodness, yes, let’s just change his medication.
At first, she investigated options through a major telecom provider. But the costs were high, and villages would have to endure a long wait. In some cases, communities were told to raise tens of thousands of pounds for a company to install a fiber cabinet nearby, but when it arrived, speeds in people’s homes, which were often miles away from the cabinet connection, were still abysmal.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had someone visit us without their own car,” I remember Conder saying on the phone to me in 2018, when I was planning that first excursion up to B4RN from Oxford. “How will you get around here?” Although not far from cities like Lancaster or Manchester, the train station where Conder ultimately met me was decidedly remote in certain consequential ways. One glance across Lancashire’s undulating hills dotted with forests and sliced through by rocky rivers, and it’s obvious why getting the Internet here is no small feat.
Building resilient, fiber-fed networks in rural areas is challenging and expensive for any telecom operator. In recognition of this fact, the UK government has committed £5 billion to rolling out rural fiber networks. The high costs are due to many factors. Homes are often spread far apart, and getting a connection from one property to the next requires obtaining legal permission to cross big stretches of privately held land. In addition, there’s old infrastructure in place—mostly copper wires laid to carry telephone signals—which companies have largely preferred to repurpose for carrying Internet connections, rather than put down new fiber-optic lines across the many rivers, roads, railway lines, and ancient stone walls that stand in the way.
So, Conder and a few exasperated friends began investigating alternative options, like wireless mesh networking. Those efforts brought her into contact with computer network engineers at the University of Lancaster, and after years of collaborating, campaigning and cajoling, B4RN was established in 2011—with Barry Forde (now B4RN CEO), a professor of computer networking at Lancaster University, at the helm. He contributed his technical expertise while Conder exercised her chutzpah.
Conder and Forde, along with a few other local advocates, made up the founding management committee, and all that remained was to turn their ambitious vision into reality without breaking the bank. And that’s how the B4RN motto was minted: “JFDI”; “just flipping do it."
Just Flippin’ Do It
The B4RN management team started raising money for their network by selling shares in the business, but communities still needed to fundraise aggressively to afford the build, which could easily could have reached into the hundreds of thousands of pounds for materials and specialist contractors. They needed to keep costs down, and that’s when, according to Conder, the local postman in Wray made a game-changing suggestion.
Conder sometimes ran a small hair cutting business out of her farmhouse, and the postman was in for a trim one day while she nattered away about the B4RN plans. After listening to her various apprehensions about actually pulling it all off, he said: “You’re farmers, right? You’ve got diggers. Why not dig it in yourselves?”
And the rest was history. Conder and the other founding members had already been volunteering nearly full time for B4RN, but they realised that if they recruited almost every new subscriber as a volunteer (responsible for digging in their own connection), that would expedite the whole process and keep the costs low. Early adopters recruited neighbors, and neighbors recruited neighbors. They negotiated free wayleaves to cross each other’s land and pooled resources like spades, diggers, drills, and other equipment. The first village to get connected was Quernmore in 2012, and Conder’s village, Wray, nearly 20km away, came online in 2014.
When Conder requested a quote from BT for laying fiber from the nearest mast in Melling to Wray, BT told her it would cost £120 per metre. B4RN’s first round of shares raised £300,000 to purchase the ducting, cabling, and other equipment for their own build, and they compensated volunteers £1.50 per metre of core ducting they put down. Not only did they save money on the initial network roll-out across rural farmland, but they kept the funding entirely in the community from start to finish.
Today, B4RN has connected roughly 7,000 homes in the rural north-west of England. Alongside the volunteers who still carry out the local build, they employ 56 permanent staff members to run the network day-to-day. A connection costs £150 per subscriber, and the monthly subscription for a full 1000Mbps connection is a flat £30 per month. It’s difficult to compare broadband prices meaningfully across UK providers, but Cable.co.uk reports that the average cost of broadband in the UK is about £0.86 per megabit per month. B4RN’s monthly price is closer to £0.03 per megabit.
For other communities considering their options in hard-to-reach areas across the country, B4RN now features as a “case study” in the government’s guidance on community-led broadband projects. And before lockdown, B4RN’s periodic “show and tell days” offered prospective communities the chance to visit B4RN-land and learn how to do it first-hand. As a result of this knowledge exchange, B4RN has inspired and trained other projects in places like Norfolk and Devon and Somerset.
Over time, recognition of the importance of affordable broadband connectivity has slowly grown, reflected in several important initiatives to spur infrastructure development in rural areas. And just as the scale of the COVID-19 crisis necessitated an imminent national lockdown in March, the government’s Universal Service Obligation (USO) came into effect. It grants people in the UK the right to request a decent broadband connection (of at least 10 Mbps).
In a public recognition of the UK’s digital divide, the 2019 general election manifestos of all three major parties contained ambitious broadband plans. Labor even promised to nationalise British Telecom (BT) in order to provide free broadband to the country, which was roundly derided. But the coronavirus crisis has trained a spotlight on the importance of broadband in everyday life and arguably given substance to the hotly contested supposition that Internet access is a question of basic rights.
“Most people at the moment would switch the gas off, I think, rather than switch the broadband off,” Jorj Haston, the B4RN Volunteer Coordinator and Training Officer told me over the phone in April.
Right now, B4RN is in the middle of building out the network in around two dozen communities. A further two dozen are in the planning stages. The process can take time, as communities scrape together funding and coordinate volunteer “dig days” to move a project forward. Lockdown has inevitably slowed things down, but the volunteer-driven nature of each community build, along with the open lines of communication between community champions and B4RN staff, have offered unexpected advantages when it comes to getting people connected under lockdown conditions.
In Silverdale, near Morecambe Bay, local B4RN champion Martin Lange is responding quickly to “desperate” local residents who are waiting on connections. Silverdale is mid-build, with around 400 homes online so far. “Over the last two years, we’ve learned all the tricks,” Lange says, talking about B4RN. “I’ve got all of this kit in my garage.” The decentralised nature of B4RN builds, where community volunteers often do much of the technical installation, has meant that champions like Lange can continue to make connections and identify local priority cases based on word-of-mouth.
The week I spoke with him, Lange had just connected a Silverdale man and his family, who were self-isolating due to illness. The man had emailed saying they urgently needed the Internet to do work and school online, with one child who has special needs. Lange blew the fiber to the man’s house: sending the fiber-optic cable through plastic ducting using compressed air. This is a job that would normally take an hour with two volunteers but took Lange four, working alone to observe social distancing guidelines. Then, wearing gloves, he fused the fiber into the router, working outside the house. Finally, he passed the sterile router back through the window.
B4RN volunteers and staff have been coming up with “quick fixes” rapidly in recent months, getting creative about how to install connections without getting too close. That’s a challenge for B4RN, which has been built in many ways on physical proximity. On “dig days," villages would typically come together to work on various aspects of the network together. And there’s something for everyone to do.
“People who maybe necessarily couldn’t dig, think, oh, this project isn’t really for me, but there’s so much more to it than that,” Mike Iddon, a B4RN champion in Burton-in-Kendal, says. They need people to draw the local network maps or to clearly label the ducting. Some folks contribute by providing tea and cake.
These days, B4RN staff and volunteers—like Lange and Iddon—are passing routers through windows, walking people through the digging and installation process over the phone, and setting up wireless hotspots in areas where the fiber hasn’t quite reached the homes. Where they can, B4RN staff are also implementing temporary connections for key workers and organisations. In recent weeks, they have connected a policewoman in the Ribble Valley on the COVID-19 response team, a haematologist in Cumbria who needed to set up a home office to serve his self-isolating patients, and a pharmaceutical warehouse in Lancashire supplying the NHS.
Lockdown has highlighted the importance of the Internet. But paradoxically, B4RN’s model for success has more to do with the power of human connections that have long been integral to geographically isolated rural communities.
Modern times and trends have eroded many facets of rural life, as local institutions like village halls and shops have buckled under the economic pressures of ever-increasing centralisation of services in metropolitan areas—or online. Young people have fled the countryside for educational and economic opportunities in cities. In this context, B4RN offers a new local venue for community-building—a social space forged in and of the digital age.
During normal times, a small bunch of B4RN volunteers—led by Conder—organise a weekly “computer club” at B4RN headquarters in Melling. People from all over B4RN’s northwest coverage area trundle in with their devices and questions, and get advice from local folks on how to set up a wifi booster or ring the grandkids on Skype. Under lockdown, it’s these in person services that are missed most.
In this rural corner of the country, B4RN is succeeding—doggedly, gradually—where other attempts at extending digital connectivity have failed. This mostly comes down to local commitment and local knowledge. The coronavirus pandemic has made apparent something these communities have felt for a long time—the Internet is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity for participating fully in an increasingly digitised society.
In the process, communities have shored up their personal ties and re-energised a community spirit that can do more than get the Internet to a few hundred local living rooms. In Ann Sheridan’s words, “It builds community resilience”. And that resilience is plainly apparent now. One thing’s for sure: come rain or shine, or a global pandemic, B4RN will keep making connections. They will just flippin’ do it.
New H.266 VCC Codec Up to 50% More Efficient than Previous Standard
The Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute on Tuesday announced the H.266 Versatile Video Coding codec, which will power more data-efficient video capture and transmission on future iPhones.
Apple adopted the predecessor to the new codec, H.265/HEVC, in iOS 11. The updated video codec, which was developed after years of research and standardization, will bring a number of tangible benefits to future iPhone users.
In its announcement, the Fraunhofer HHI said that H.266 will reduce data requirements by around 50% thanks to improved compression. With the previous HEVC codec, it took about 10GB of data to transmit a 90-minute ultra-high definition (UHD) video. H.266 can do that with 5GB.
The codec, as detailed in a 500-page specification, was designed from the ground up for use with 4K and 8K streaming. It'll allow users to store more high-definition video and reduce the amount of data on cellular networks.
"Because of the quantum leap in coding efficiency offered by H.266/VVC, the use of video will increase further worldwide. Moreover, the increased versatility of H.266/VVC makes its use more attractive for a broader range of applications related to the transmission and storage of video," said Benjamin Bross, the Fraunhofer HHI's Video Coding Systems head.
The H.266 represents what the Institute calls the "pinnacle" of four generations of international video coding standards. The previous codecs, H.265/HEVC and H.264/AVC, process an estimated 90% of the total global volume of video bits.
Of course, it will still take years for consumer-facing devices and platforms to support H.266. The H.265 standard was completed in January 2013, but was supported by Apple's iOS 11 in 2017.
The Fraunhofer HHI developed the H.266 standard in partnership with industry leaders like Apple, Intel, Huawei, Ericsson, Qualcomm, Sony and Microsoft. Apple, although a longtime user of the standards, signaled support for alternative codecs in 2018.
Why the New H.266/VCC Video Codec Is a Big Deal
The new H.266 video codec is a pretty big deal. You can’t play with it yet—tempted as you might be to go install Handbrake and bask in video encodes that are half the size of your already-optimized H.265 videos—but its very existence will speed up the eventual transition to 8K HDR video. And that’s a good thing, right?
If you’re scratching your head, here’s why H.266 is going to soon change your multimedia world.
What the heck is H.266?
H.266 (also known as VVC) is a video codec. Codecs are software that compress and decompress video files so they can take up less space when stored on a hard drive and less bandwidth when transferred over a network, among other things.
According to BBC R&D (via Extreme Tech), H.266 can shrink files to 50 percent smaller than what the current H.265 can achieve, without affecting video quality to a noticeable degree. In other words, a 10GB video encoded in H.264 shrinks to a mere 2.5GB—still a big chunk of space, but manageable—when you encode it with h.266.
This incredible reduction in file size will do a lot to help playback and streaming of 8K HDR video content on future TVs, smartphones, and other devices. After all, a typical 8K HDR movie could eat up anywhere from 6GB to 20GB per hour if you were watching it on Netflix today. Shrinking that figure down to one-half or one-fourth means more movies and fewer data caps to worry about.
When will H.266 and 8K be a thing?
H.266 will ultimately replace the H.265 codec, but here’s the thing: H.265 never fully replaced H.264. That means there could be an even bigger jump in storage efficiency for developers and hardware manufacturers who still rely on H.264. The only problem is, H.266 requires much more powerful hardware for the encoding process—and even with the right hardware, H.266 encoding takes a really long time (almost seven times as long as H.265).
That said, H.266 is poised for (potentially) better adoption rate because of the benefits it brings to 8K video.
8K TVs already exist, but there’s not much of a reason to own them. H.266 will likely change that, but the first apps and devices that support the codec are expected to launch within the next couple of years. 8K HDR streaming could follow shortly after. However, if consumer demand for 8K hardware and content is high enough, the turning point could come even sooner.
Expect to see the first software decoder and encoder for H.266 this fall.
Does this mean I need to upgrade?
Since VCC-supported apps and hardware are still a ways off, and 8K streaming is still a logistical pipedream, you won’t need to upgrade your devices any time soon. In fact, you may not have to for a really long time.
4K streaming and broadcasting only recently hit its stride, yet 4K HDR-compatible devices have been on the market for years. Part of that slower adoption rate was due to bandwidth and video codec bottlenecks, but also because 4K content was hard to come by for a long time (and still is on many popular streaming services).
Then there’s the issue of physical space—at a certain distance, 4K content does’t look all that much better than full HD content. Besides, HDR is arguably the bigger video quality upgrade, and you can experience it without needing a giant 4K (or 8K) TV.
The hurdles to widespread 8K adoption are just as high as those 4K TVs faced, if not higher. Some projections estimate that only three percent of TVs purchased by 2023 will be 8K-ready (though H.266 and competing codecs like the royalty-free AV1 could make the transition much easier).
In other words, don’t worry about the 8K revolution just yet. The codecs—H.266, AV1, or whatever else comes along—are just the first steps. We’re just getting started; no need to be an early adopter on this one.
France to Introduce Controversial Age Verification System for Adult Websites
Macron made the protection of children against adult content online a high-profile issue.
Elisa Braun and Laura Kayali
The French Parliament unanimously agreed on Thursday to introduce a nationwide age verification system for pornography websites, months after President Emmanuel Macron pledged to protect children against such content.
Macron made the protection of children against adult content online a high-profile issue well before the coronavirus crisis hit. In January, tech companies, internet services providers and the adult movies industry signed a voluntary charter, pledging to roll out tools to help ensure minors don’t have access to pornographic content.
Within a broader law on domestic violence, the Senate decided in June to introduce an amendment requiring pornography websites to implement an age verification mechanism.
In order to enforce the law, the French audiovisual regulator CSA will be granted new powers to audit and sanction companies that do not comply — sanctions could go as far as blocking access to the websites in France with a court order.
The choice of verification mechanisms will be left up to the platforms. But lawmakers have suggested using credit card verification — a system first adopted by the U.K., which mulled similar plans to control access to pornography but had to drop them in late 2019 because of technical difficulties and privacy concerns. Italy also approved a similar bill in late June, which raised the same concerns over its feasibility and compliance with the EU laws.
As private actors could implement their own solutions, the new law also highlights the challenges of digital identification. In Brussels, there are growing calls to introduce an EU-wide digital ID system that would allow users to bypass Google and Facebook’s identification ecosystem. For politicians, including French Junior Digital Minister Cédric O, systems of identification online are a matter of digital sovereignty.
The Senate has already voted on the bill. Following an agreement today between senators and lawmakers from the lower house National Assembly, a final vote will be held again in the Senate where the bill is expected to pass.
Senators have also suggested using FranceConnect, a tool developed by the state to help users connect to public services such as tax collection and health insurance.
In the face of skepticism and privacy concerns from campaigners, O has since denied that the national connection tool would be used.
"We voted on one principle, which is to give the CSA the obligation to monitor the protection of minors, but the CSA is free to find the right way for sites to comply with their injunction," the text’s rapporteur in the Senate Marie Mercier told POLITICO.
Key actors from the French porn industry have long called for new measures to modernize a French law which was drafted at the time of the “Minitel rose,” a very popular pornography service in the 1980s.
“[With this law] we can already fine up to 75,000 euros and three years of prison, but no one applies it,” said Mercier.
The conservative politician worked on the amendment after hearings with French pornography producer Marc Dorcel, ex-adult actress-turned-documentary-director Ovidie and child protection NGOs.
“Most of those who abide by the law feel that it’s unfair that the [sites] keep doing their business without restriction," Mercier added.
For years, one of the most difficult tasks for French regulators has been finding a way to enforce local laws on foreign services.
With this new law, if the site does not comply within 15 days after a first warning from the audiovisual regulator CSA, the regulator will be able to ask the Paris Court of Justice to send an order to telecom operators to block the access to these sites from France.
Giorgio Leali contributed reporting.
The U.S. Copyright Office Says Pirates Shouldn’t Lose Their Internet Connection
• Breaking the law is condemnable, but barring someone out of the internet world is unconstitutional.
• The U.S. Copyright Office is calling the Senate to consider bandwidth limiting or speed slowing instead.
• There are multiple repercussions when it comes to shutting someone’s internet connection, and this shouldn’t be an option.
Back in April, when we interviewed the intellectual property attorney Kerry Culpepper, we asked him about what the best solution to stop piracy would be. The answer was to force ISPs and host providers to terminate the accounts of repeat infringers and abduct their right to connect to the internet. A recent letter sent from the U.S. Copyright Office to the Senators in the country analyzes this very proposal and calls the termination of internet accounts inappropriate, even for persistent pirates. Instead, they suggest the limitation of the internet bandwidth for these subscribers, which should be enough to deter them from engaging in pirating activities in the future.
Last May, the Copyright Office proposed stricter DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) law provisions, recommending additions that concerned the ISPs, like calling ISPs to publish a clear infringer handling policy. Moreover, they urged the Congress to clarify matters that concerned the termination of internet accounts on the ISP level. They also focused on what actions should the ISPs take when they receive a takedown notice from a copyright holder. Furthermore, the effect of the DMCA subpoenas was proposed to be extended to include the ISPs.include the ISPs.
All this caused concerns, so the Copyright Office returned through a clarifying letter, calling the Senate to consider individual user rights. Terminating someone’s internet access is considered a very drastic measure these days, as the person is left with no alternative options. Violating the copyright law is, of course, a punishable offense, but free access to information is also a right that should be protected. This right becomes even more powerful when multiple people are using the same internet connection, like a five-member family sharing the same IP address, for example.
So, the Copyright Office is proposing a median solution, which would be to throttle these connections for a pre-determined period. Limiting the bandwidth or slowing down the service speed should be enough to deter repeat infringers, and it would make piracy next to impossible from a practical perspective as well. Keeping the internet connection alive in that case would protect the right to access information, though, so this approach could work well in this context.
There are quite a few cases under the American justice system review right now, involving copyright holders going against ISPs, accusing them of not doing enough against repeat infringers. That said, what the Senate decides on the matter will be pivotal for both the ongoing and future cases.
Until next week,
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