Posted on Nov 9, 2017 by Glyn Moody

What the Sci-Hub saga and DNA testing services can teach us about privacy




Privacy News Online has just written about an “unprecedented” injunction granted by a US judge against the site Sci-Hub. The reach of that injunction is clearly deeply problematic for lots of reasons, and creates a very troubling precedent. But there’s an aspect of the story that merits further consideration, since it has broader implications for privacy.

As far as the law is concerned, Sci-Hub is no different from any other pirate outfit holding copyright material without permission. It is being treated as if it were making music or videos available, like many other sites. But Sci-Hub is profoundly different, since it holds academic research papers – currently, over 64 million of them. It is not trying to make money by placing ads alongside pirated content. It runs entirely on donations from people who use the site, who are numbered in the millions. In the most detailed analysis of Sci-Hub users so far, an article in Science magazine found that during the six months leading up to March 2016, Sci-Hub served up 28 million documents. More than 2.6 million download requests came from Iran, 3.4 million from India, and 4.4 million from China. That’s to be expected, perhaps, but the following was more surprising:

“Some critics of Sci-Hub have complained that many users can access the same papers through their libraries but turn to Sci-Hub instead – for convenience rather than necessity. The data provide some support for that claim. The United States is the fifth largest downloader after Russia, and a quarter of the Sci-Hub requests for papers came from the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the wealthiest nations with, supposedly, the best journal access. In fact, some of the most intense use of Sci-Hub appears to be happening on the campuses of U.S. and European universities.”

The data indicates that many Sci-Hub users are entitled to read the papers they download, and that in fact no real copyright infringement is involved. They choose to go to Sci-Hub rather than through official channels because Sci-Hub is a “one-stop shop” where it is easy to find and download content. The publishers’ systems are fragmented, and often awkward to navigate.

But even for the other Sci-Hub users, who would not normally have legal access to the papers, there is another strong argument that they should be allowed to download them freely. Most research, certainly in the sciences, is paid for by the public through government grants made from taxes. That is, the public has already paid for the work, and yet is expected to pay again to see the results of that work. Sci-Hub simply rights that wrong.

The authors of the academic papers in question, the researchers, naturally want as many people as possible to read their work – that’s why they publish it. They lose nothing if the papers are downloaded from places like Sci-Hub, since they are not paid by the publishers when their work appears in journals. So how has it come about that an injunction has been granted against Sci-Hub if the copyright owners – the academics – have no reason to want Sci-Hub blocked, not least because they almost certainly use it themselves?

It all comes down to control. Even though the paper’s authors retain copyright, they are generally required to grant publishers an exclusive license that effectively hands them control – and the power to initiate lawsuits of the kind we are now seeing against Sci-Hub. Had the researchers granted publishers a non-exclusive license, which is all that they require, it would also be possible to give permission to sites like Sci-Hub to help distribute academic work as widely as possible. That would be a win for the researchers, who gain more readers; a win for other academics, who gain easy access; and a win for the general public, which gets to read work it has paid for. As for the publishers, they can concentrate on adding real value to the basic research, which is what they often claim they do in order to justify their high subscription prices for material which they obtain free of charge from the authors. In practice, though, they currently add very little beyond sub-editing and formatting. The popularity of preprints, with no formal subbing and minimal formatting, shows that neither of those is indispensable.

Retaining control is vital when it comes to protecting privacy. That’s shown in a dramatic fashion by a recent article on Gizmodo, which looks at DNA testing services:

“we’re guessing that when you signed up for Ancestry or 23andMe, you probably didn’t read the fine print to find out what, exactly, those companies plan to do with your data. We can’t blame you — they’re long, boring polices written in legalese that’s difficult to understand. If you actually read those policies, though, you might not have gone ahead with the test. It turns out that the breadth of rights you are giving away to your DNA is kind of terrifying.”

The article goes on to list some of the worrying privacy aspects of DNA companies’ terms and conditions. For example, the fact that your genetic information will be shared within the company and in certain circumstances with third parties for research and business purposes, but without you knowing with whom or for what. Or the fact that promises to anonymize your data don’t guarantee someone won’t be able to work out who you are. Moreover, despite all these risks, you are effectively unable to sue DNA companies for any mistakes they make, including loss of privacy:

“Way down in the fine print, 23andMe spells out a policy that basically makes sure the company will never get sued, ever: If you sue them for something (like maybe screwing up your test), and lose, you would be responsible for the possible millions of dollars in legal fees accrued by 23andMe.”

Your DNA is perhaps the most personal information that exists about you – and about people genetically related to you. People can probably appreciate that handing over control of it to companies is not a wise move, even in return for some interesting, if limited, information about their genome. The downsides are simply too great. But much the same can be said about the other information that billions of people routinely hand over to online companies like Facebook. That data is your digital DNA, and should be kept tightly under your personal control at all times. New legislation in the EU is starting to move things in that direction, and will require all companies operating in the EU to provide strong privacy protection, wherever they may be based. Other governments should use the fact that businesses must obey EU privacy laws to bring in local legislation requiring them to do the same in other jurisdictions.

Featured image by School of Natural Resources from Ann Arbor.

About Glyn Moody

Glyn Moody is a freelance journalist who writes and speaks about privacy, surveillance, digital rights, open source, copyright, patents and general policy issues involving digital technology. He started covering the business use of the Internet in 1994, and wrote the first mainstream feature about Linux, which appeared in Wired in August 1997. His book, "Rebel Code," is the first and only detailed history of the rise of open source, while his subsequent work, "The Digital Code of Life," explores bioinformatics - the intersection of computing with genomics.


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