What's Wrong With PROTECT IP and SOPA?

You may have heard about some new bills making their way through the U.S. Congress, related to piracy on the internet. But what are they and what's the big deal? Here's a simple guide to what the laws are and why so many internet nerds (like myself) are against them.

Executive summary: the new laws could make you, as an individual, liable for a five-year prison term for posting any copyrighted work; they would hand massive new power to the entertainment industry (and other content-owning interests) to shut down websites for minor infractions; and they would likely result in large-scale censorship of everything users post online because of these issues. Sounds great, huh? For a summary, check out this video:

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and this post does not contain legal advice. I am actually a copyright holder, and I think these bills threaten the fundamental operation of the internet -- which is where I make my living.

A Tale of Three Acts

In the Senate we have under consideration the PROTECT IP Act (S. 968); in the House there's the Stop Online Piracy Act (HR. 3261) (SOPA). Together, the bills would give copyright owners and governments new power to shut down websites if the copyright owners believe any infringing content is on the sites. Note that no trial has to take place; the content owner -- think "movie studio" -- just has to send a notice saying something bad is going down, then the site can be blocked via a legal injunction brought by a US government attorney and a single judge.

While the stated intent of these laws is clearly good (to reduce online piracy), the execution is so broad that it "breaks the internet" -- these laws shift the balance of power online such that major entertainment industry players (again, think "movie studios" or perhaps "record labels") can strangle websites. Can you think of any websites you visit that might have an image, song, or a video that infringes somebody's copyright? I bet you can. Can you imagine what would happen if copyright holders could block the entire site, prevent advertisements from running, and block credit card payments from occurring? You guessed it: those sites would be dead.

We already have a law in place that governs online piracy, and it predates these two new acts. It's called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and it was passed in 1998. While it has its own problems, it contains pretty straightforward mechanisms for copyright owners to request that their content be taken down. Indeed, "DMCA takedown requests" are very common online, and I have issued them myself to various websites. (I'm not just a writer, I'm a photographer -- and people steal my work all the time. So I find them and issue a takedown request, and the material is removed. Not the easiest thing in the world, but it works.) I want to be totally clear here: I'm against piracy, and I pursue people who pirate my work...and I think these new bills are bonkers. So when a copyright holder who currently exercises his legal powers (me) thinks these bills that would expand his legal powers is going too far, you know something weird is going on.

What these new acts would do effectively takes the sniper rifle of the DMCA -- "Somebody on your forums posted my photo without permission; remove it" -- and turns it into a shotgun: "Somebody on your forums posted my photo without permission; your entire website is blocked for everyone until you remove it." You only have to think for a few moments to realize how many websites would effectively disappear if this were the law of the land -- no more YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Tumblr, Wordpress, or any other site where people can post content of any kind (remember, copyright extends to written works too -- so this is not just about movies and songs). Many of these sites operate based on a mechanism that assumes people can freely post content (often with an automated screening process to try to identify infringing content, as with YouTube), and then copyright holders can identify infringing content, make a complaint, and have it promptly removed. This model (which is fundamental to how the internet works today) breaks down if the new laws pass. It also creates a regime where any new web service needs to enter into some kind of ongoing legal relationship with every copyright holder ever in order to really be safe. This is the definition of strangling innovation: startups can't afford to do the level of content filtering that, say, Google can. So there just won't be any more startups that let people share things. Oh, wonderful!

Who's Against the Bills

In an open letter, a who's-who of major tech companies wrote to Congressional leaders, urging them not to pass these laws. The signatories include AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Mozilla (they make Firefox), Twitter, Yahoo, and Zynga (they make Farmville and other games). Perhaps the most vocal critic of the legislation has been Tumblr (a blogging site where mental_floss shares content); Tumblr has added information to every user's dashboard pointing to a page called Protect The Internet, offering to call you to tell you more about the issues. Even Kickstarter is against the legislation. Oh, and our friends at Boing Boing have written up their own article on the issue. Guess what, they don't seem to like these laws either.

I live in Oregon, where we happen to have some really smart politicians. At the moment, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has placed a hold on PROTECT IP. In a press release yesterday, Wyden's office quoted his statement to a House Judiciary Committee hearing. Here's a snippet:

As I have said before, this is not an issue where we should use a bunker-buster bomb when a laser beam would do. And that is not just my opinion, venture capitalists who fund Internet start-ups, the biggest and smallest actors in the tech community, law professors concerned with speech, Internet technologists, security experts and mainstream and new media have all expressed concerns about the legislation advancing in Congress.

In writing laws to police the Internet, we need to consider more than how effective a proposed remedy would be at combating infringement, we must also consider the impact proposed remedies will have on everything else online. This means keeping the following in mind:

1. Be deliberate. While rights holders and law enforcement are understandably eager to go after bad actors, we must be mindful of the precedents we set here at home, and around the world.

2. Get the scope right. Narrowly focus law enforcement's authority on those who are willfully and deliberately breaking the law or infringing on others' property rights for commercial gain.

3. Avoid collateral damage. Rather than frustrating the architecture of the Internet or establishing a censoring regime, consider instead promoting approaches that empower users and do no harm to the 'Net. More simply, fish for tuna without catching dolphins.

4. Promote innovation over litigation. Our efforts should be to protect copyrights and trademarks, not outdated business models.

Remember that bit about the five-year prison term I mentioned at the top? Here's a snippet from Boing Boing, quoting Tiffiny from Fight For The Future:

Sites that would be legal under the DMCA and its safe harbor provisions would now risk losing everything for allowing user generated content. It also has added in the streaming felony bill that would make it so ordinary Internet users are at risk of going to jail for 5 years for post[ing] any copyrighted work that would cost $2,500 to license. And because copyright is so broad, that means videos with copyrighted music in the background, kids in a school play, people singing karaoke could all be a risk.

Guess what's also a felony in, oh, let's just pick Oregon? Among many others: burglary, child pornography, DUI, tampering with elections, kidnapping, manslaughter, murder, rape, and robbery. Really, Congress? You're really going to make it a felony to sing a song? That's utterly insane.

What You Can Do

Check out Tumblr's page allowing you to email your representatives or get a phone call with more info; use the Electronic Frontier Foundation's page to find your representatives and email them (it's easy); or check out American Censorship Day (which was yesterday, but there's still time to act).

Also, please share your thoughts in the comments. I'm assuming there is some counter-argument that these bills are a good thing -- I'd love to hear it; all I've found online is a bunch of smart people who I trust saying this is a really bad deal for all of us.

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Live Smarter
You Can Now Order Food Through Facebook
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After a bit of controversy over its way of aggregating news feeds and some questionable content censoring policies, it’s nice to have Facebook roll out a feature everyone can agree on: allowing you to order food without leaving the social media site.

According to a press release, Facebook says that the company decided to begin offering food delivery options after realizing that many of its users come to the social media hub to rate and discuss local eateries. Rather than hop from Facebook to the restaurant or a delivery service, you’ll be able to stay within the app and select from a menu of food choices. Just click “Order Food” from the Explore menu on a desktop interface or under the “More” option on Android or iOS devices. There, you’ll be presented with options that will accept takeout or delivery orders, as well as businesses participating with services like or EatStreet.

If you need to sign up and create an account with or Jimmy John’s, for example, you can do that without leaving Facebook. The feature is expected to be available nationally, effective immediately.

[h/t Forbes]

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ETH Zurich
This Soft Artificial Heart May One Day Shorten the Heart Transplant List
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ETH Zurich

If the heart in the Functional Materials Laboratory at ETH Zurich University were in a patient in an operating room, its vital signs would not be good. In fact, it would be in heart failure. Thankfully, it's not in a patient—and it's not even real. This heart is made of silicone.

Suspended in a metal frame and connected by tubes to trays of water standing in for blood, the silicone heart pumps water at a beat per second—a serious athlete's resting heart rate—in an approximation of the circulatory system. One valve is leaking, dripping onto the grate below, and the water bins are jerry-rigged with duct tape. If left to finish out its life to the final heartbeat, it would last for about 3000 beats before it ruptured. That's about 30 minutes—not long enough to finish an episode of Grey's Anatomy

Nicolas Cohrs, a bioengineering Ph.D. student from the university, admits that the artificial heart is usually in better shape. The one he holds in his hands—identical to the first—feels like taut but pliable muscle, and is intact and dry. He'd hoped to demonstrate a new and improved version of the heart, but that one is temporarily lost, likely hiding in a box somewhere at the airport in Tallinn, Estonia, where the researchers recently attended a symposium.

Taking place over the past three years, the experimental research is a part of Zurich Heart, a project involving 17 researchers from multiple institutions, including ETH, the University of Zurich, University Hospital of Zurich, and the German Heart Institute in Berlin, which has the largest artificial heart program in Europe.


Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support the organs; common causes are coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It's a global pandemic, threatening 26 million people worldwide every year. More than a quarter of them are in the U.S. alone, and the numbers are rising.

It's a life-threatening disease, but depending on the severity of the condition at the time of diagnosis, it's not necessarily an immediate death sentence. About half of the people in the U.S. diagnosed with the disease die within five years. Right now in the U.S., there are nearly 4000 people on the national heart transplant list, but they're a select few; it's estimated that upwards of 100,000 people need a new heart. Worldwide, demand for a new heart greatly outpaces supply, and many people die waiting for one.

That's why Cohrs, co-researcher Anastasios Petrou, and their colleagues are attempting to create an artificial heart modeled after each patient's own heart that would, ideally, last for the rest of a person's life.

Mechanical assistance devices for failing hearts exist, but they have serious limitations. Doctors treating heart failure have two options: a pump placed next to the heart, generally on the left side, that pumps the blood for the heart (what's known as a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD), or a total artificial heart (TAH). There have been a few total artificial hearts over the years, and at least four others are in development right now in Europe and the U.S. But only one currently has FDA approval and CE marking (allowing its use in European Union countries): the SynCardia total artificial heart. It debuted in the early '90s, and since has been implanted in nearly 1600 people worldwide.

While all implants come with side effects, especially when the immune system grows hostile toward a foreign object in the body, a common problem with existing total artificial hearts is that they're composed of hard materials, which can cause blood to clot. Such clots can lead to thrombosis and strokes, so anyone with an artificial heart has to take anticoagulants. In fact, Cohrs tells Mental Floss, patients with some sort of artificial heart implant—either a LVAD or a TAH—die more frequently from a stroke or an infection than they do from the heart condition that led to the implant. Neurological damage and equipment breakdown are risky side effects as well.

These complications mean that total artificial hearts are "bridges"—either to a new heart, or to death. They're designed to extend the life of a critically ill patient long enough to get on (or to the top of) the heart transplant list, or, if they're not a candidate for transplant, to make the last few years of a person's life more functional. A Turkish patient currently holds the record for the longest time living with a SynCardia artificial heart: The implant has been in his chest for five years. Most TAH patients live at least one year, but survival rates drop off after that.

The ETH team set out to make an artificial heart that would be not a bridge, but a true replacement. "When we heard about these problems, we thought about how we can make an artificial heart that doesn't have side effects," he recalls.


Using common computer assisted design (CAD) software, they designed an ersatz organ composed of soft material that hews closely to the composition, form, and function of the human heart. "Our working hypothesis is that when you have such a device which mimics the human heart in function and form, you will have less side effects," Cohrs says.

To create a heart, "we take a CT scan of a patient, then put it into a computer file and design the artificial heart around it in close resemblance to the patient's heart, so it always fits inside [the body]," Cohrs says.

But though it's modeled on a patient's heart and looks eerily like one, it's not identical to the real organ. For one thing, it can't move on its own, so the team had to make some modifications. They omitted the upper chambers, called atria, which collect and store blood, but included the lower chambers, called ventricles, which pump blood. In a real heart, the left and right sides are separated by the septum. Here, the team replaced the septum with an expansion chamber that is inflated and deflated with pressurized air. This action mimics heart muscle contractions that push blood from the heart.

The next step was to 3D-print a negative mold of the heart in ABS, a thermoplastic commonly used in 3D printing. It takes about 40 hours on the older-model 3D printers they have in the lab. They then filled this mold with the "heart" material—initially silicone—and let it cure for 36 hours, first at room temperature and then in an oven kept at a low temperature (about 150°F). The next day, they bathed it in a solvent of acetone, which dissolved the mold but left the printed heart alone. This process is essentially lost-wax casting, a technique used virtually unchanged for the past 4000 years to make metal objects, especially bronze. It takes about four days.

The resulting soft heart weighs about 13 ounces—about one-third more than an average adult heart (about 10 ounces). If implanted in a body, it would be sutured to the valves, arteries, and veins that bring blood through the body. Like existing ventricular assist devices and total artificial hearts on the market, it would be powered by a portable pneumatic driver worn externally by the patient.


In April 2016, they did a feasibility test to see if their silicone organ could pump blood like a real heart. First they incorporated state-of-the-art artificial valves used every day in heart surgeries around the world. These would direct the flow of blood. Then, collaborating with a team of mechanical engineers from ETH, they placed the heart in a hybrid mock circulation machine, which measures and simulates the human cardiovascular system. "You can really measure the relevant data without having to put your heart into an animal," says Cohrs.

Here's what the test looked like.

"Our results were very nice," Cohrs says. "When you look at the pressure waveform in the aorta, it really looked like the pressure waveform from the human heart, so that blood flow is very comparable to the blood flow from a real human heart."

Their results were published earlier this year in the journal Artificial Organs.

But less promising was the number of heartbeats the heart lasted before rupturing under stress. (On repeated tests, the heart always ruptured in the same place: a weak point between the expansion chamber and the left ventricle where the membrane was apparently too thin.) With the average human heart beating 2.5 billion times in a lifetime, 3000 heartbeats wouldn't get a patient far.

But they're making progress. Since then, they've switched the heart material from silicone to a high-tech polymer. The latest version of the heart—one of which was stuck in that box in the Tallinn airport—lasts for 1 million heartbeats. That's an exponential increase from 3000—but it's still only about 10 days' worth of life.

Right now, the heart costs around $400 USD to produce, "but when you want to do it under conditions where you can manufacture a device where it can be implanted into a body, it will be much more expensive," Cohrs says.

The researchers know they're far from having produced an implantable TAH; this soft heart represents a new concept for future artificial heart development that could one day lead to transplant centers using widely available, easy-to-use design software and commercially available 3D-printers to create a personalized heart for each patient. This kind of artificial heart would be not a bridge to transplantation or, in a few short years, death, but one that would take a person through many years of life.

"My personal goal is to have an artificial heart where you don't have side effects and you don't have any heart problems anymore, so it would last pretty much forever," Cohrs says. Well, perhaps not forever: "An artificial heart valve last 15 years at the moment. Maybe something like that."


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