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Xbox’s Orwellian patent, and when social media politics gets old

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Microsoft has filed a patent for the Xbox gaming Kinect controller, and it has nothing to do with how well you dance Gangam style. It appears to be designed for figuring out if too many people are watching something on Xbox — a DVD, a Blue Ray disc, etc. If it detects a couple of people watching, fine. But what if it’s a dozen? That might constitute a real audience, and you’d have to pay more for a lisence to show it like you’re a theater. 

“Somebody comes and sits down next to you, and the TV screen goes wooop wooop wooop…’insert another quarter to continue playing,” says James Grimmelman, a technologist and professor at the New York Law School. “It’s telling you that it’s watching you, and everything you’re doing.” 

Does a screen watching you conjur up visions of dystopian literature? It does for Grimmelmann. 

“The patent is literally Orwellian,” he says. “It’s the telescreen, the TV that watches you as you’re watching it. I mean, I have trouble believing that any copyright owner would actually use it, because it’s so creepy.” 

Whether or not the idea is disturbing to readers of 1984the patent could bring up some interesting legal connundrums. 

“Another big picture that this fits into legally is this idea that copyright law and privacy law are coming into conflict,” says Peter DiCola, a visiting law professor at Northwestern. “Creating this amalgam of contract law and technological protection measures to control private performances, and potentially monetize them in different ways or control them. That raises privacy concerns for sure.” 

There’s another point connected to this story regarding how tech works in the real world. Grimmelmann says Microsoft may never have to build this thing. 

“The way to think about this is that Microsoft has this Kinect which is a breakout success,” he says. “And once you’ve got something like this it makes total sense to have a bunch of people behind it just sit down and brainstorm everything they can think of. And some of those ideas are going to be really far fetched, but some of them might actually work. They’re just hedging their bets.” 

Why? In part because the company could get a cut. Of course, a patent filing is a long way from a final product. We reached out to Microsoft today to get a statement. Here’s what they wrote back: 

“Microsoft regularly applies for and receives patents as part of its business practice; not all patents applied for or received will be incorporated into a Microsoft product. It is also important to note that Microsoft has a strong track record of implementing some of the best privacy protection measures in the industry. We place great importance on the privacy of our customers’ information and the quality of their experiences.” 

Some of us are breathing sighs of relief now that the election is over because we don’t have to get in fights with our Twitter and Facebook friends over politics. A post on a colleague’s feed said, “When is Facebook gonna be fun again?” The Pew Internet and American Life Project has fresh data showing 22 percent of voters used social media to tell others they voted. An exciting sign of engagement to be sure, but it’s also true that people get hopping mad and take action. 

“About one out of every five social networking users has blocked or unfriended someone for political reasons on a social networking sight,” says Aaron Smith, at Pew. “By far the number one reason someone did that was, they were just posting too much political materials.” 

The problem has become prevalent enough that Lifehacker has a handy guide for setting up a filter to weed out politics or anything else that has you fed up on Facebook. Someone on my feed from Rhode Island takes a different approach to his acid reflux, by posting this disclaimer: 

“While I’m intensely interested in politics, I decided long ago to keep my opinions to myself in the Facebook universe.”

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