OVERNIGHT TECH: Senate to hold final patent briefing

THE LEDE: Senate staffers will gather Friday for the final scheduled staff briefing on patent reform, this time about a provision that would allow tech companies to step in when their customers are being sued for patent infringement.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up patent reform, led by Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), it is considering proposals, including a “customer stay” provision to allow tech companies to intervene in infringement lawsuits against consumers.

While there is general agreement over the need for companies to step in to protect customers — such as a small coffee shop facing an infringement suit over the wireless Internet router it uses — some have expressed concerns about the customer stay provision in Leahy’s bill.

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Late last year, the National Retail Federation wrote to Leahy, calling his customer stay provision a “poison pill” that would prevent customers from asking tech companies to step in. If a company that is facing an infringement lawsuit steps in to defend customers facing a related suit, the customers should be able to defend itself later even if the tech company loses, the group said.

Patent holders say that kind of system would create unnecessary legal burdens for the companies bringing the lawsuits.

Friday’s staff briefing will examine this issue and will feature presentations from retailers as well as Adobe Vice President of Intellectual Property and Litigation Dana Rao.

In a statement to The Hill, Rao said he plans to tell Senate staff that the customer stay provision “allows manufacturers like Adobe to more easily step in and defend its customers” and that, “coupled with other reforms like fee shifting and discovery reform," it will "significantly help level the playing field for America’s businesses against the patent trolls, while ensuring our patent system still works for inventors like Adobe.”

“It is time for the Senate to take action, as the House did in the fall, and pass a strong patent litigation reform measure, as President Obama called for in his State of the Union address,” he said.

Commerce Department laying facial recognition groundwork: The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration began its process on the privacy implications of facial recognition technology with a meeting of tech groups and privacy advocates Thursday.

While the group will ultimately craft a privacy-enhancing code of conduct for facial recognition technologies, “our goal today is to have a factual discussion that establishes a common level of technical understanding within this group,” Larry Strickling, administrator of the Commerce agency, said in his opening remarks.

Privacy advocates at the meeting questioned the potential privacy risks of the technology.

“Will these technologies be able to say, based on a certain look of a face or a body, this person is probably ill or probably intoxicated?” asked Michelle De Mooy, senior associate at Consumer Action.

Those at the meeting also discussed the current commercial uses for this technology. Bob Schmitt, vice president of marketing at facial recognition technology firm Biometrica, said that casinos use this technology to recognize individuals who have been banned either for violating casino rules or self-identifying as a gambling addict.

Allison Howard, senior attorney at Microsoft, explained that the company uses facial recognition technologies in its Xbox products without storing data. Users can choose to sign into the company’s platform using the facial recognition capability of Kinect devices.

“That information doesn’t need to come back to us for the authentication to work,” Howard said. “From the beginning we viewed it as a tool for the Xbox customers more so than for us.”

Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, asked the group to recognize “the distinction between the use of data and the sharing of data.” Certain implementations of facial recognition technology would use face-prints without sharing or comparing across other databases, he said. 

DelBianco also noted the abilities of facial recognition technologies to identify characteristics of a person without identifying that person in particular. For instance, a company could use facial recognition technology to identify only age or gender of a person, he said.

Broadcasters sit down with FCC: Top communications regulators met with broadcast company executives and officials from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) this week to talk about retransmission agreements and ownership arrangements. 

In a notice about the meeting released on Thursday, the NAB said that broadcast executives “emphasized the ever increasing levels of competition faced by broadcast television stations in local markets” from the Internet and other video services.

“Given the public’s continued and growing reliance on over-the-air viewing and local stations’ provision of valued services including local news and emergency journalism, the Commission should be cognizant of the unequal regulatory burden it places on local TV stations in a highly competitive marketplace,” NAB said. 

The broadcasters asked FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and her staffers to update the commission’s ownership restrictions, especially the “duopoly rule,” which prevents companies from owning more than one of a media market’s top four stations. That rule should be updated, broadcasters said, “to reflect the changes in the video marketplace.” 

Trade group weighs in on hearing aids: The Telecommunications Industry Association filed comments with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about its draft guidance for hearing aids and devices that amplify sound. The trade group supported the FDA’s effort and asked regulators to provide more clarity about how its definition of personal sound amplification devices, which are not categorized as medical devices, differs from hearing aids, which are categorized as medical devices. The agency should also take a “de-regulatory approach” that uses discretion about enforcement and allows labeling to prevent consumer confusion.

“The guidance provided in this matter, once final, will have a direct affect on the ability of millions of Americans to make informed purchases of products to improve their hearing,” Danielle Coffey and Brian Scarpelli, the heads of its government affairs team, wrote in the comments.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Privacy advocates want the Commerce Department to help shed some light on government use of facial recognition technology.

Libraries are saying they need better Internet services as they provide new technologies to patrons, pointing to a recent announcement from the administration to increase broadband funding for educational institutions.

Twitter says it is prepared to sue the Obama administration for the right to disclose more details about government surveillance requests.

Building on a push to have its voice heard in Washington, urban Web guide Yelp is joining an Internet trade group.

Government regulators have some role to play overseeing the virtual currency bitcoin, a top developer said on Thursday, but they should be sure not to crack down too harshly.

 

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