Another startup blatantly steals university trademarks

A friend directed my attention to a startup-y website selling “cheap smartphone [insurance] coverage” for “as little as $3 a month”. Right at the top of the Penn-branded subdomain (penn.getcovered.co) was an iPhone mockup showing the Penn shield:

GetCovered ripping off Penn seal

highly doubt they went through all the trouble of actually licensing the trademark from the university. Penn’s policy on use of its logos by external entities provides (emphasis added):

Outside sponsors of University programs or activities often seek to use University names or insignia in promotional or advertising materials. While the University is pleased to recognize the contributions of sponsors, such recognition must not suggest University endorsement of the sponsor’s activities. Therefore, University names or insignia may not be used in connection with any outside entity’s name or logo without prior approval of the Secretary of the University. In general, the Secretary will approve uses which recognize or acknowledge the sponsor’s contribution to the University program or activity. Uses which, in the Secretary’s judgment, may suggest University endorsement or approval of the sponsor’s goods or services will not be permitted.

The big issue, of course, is the risk of confusion — by consumers, etc — who might think that the service is sponsored or endorsed by the university. There would be a pretty good prima facie case for trademark infringement, especially since the registrant behind the domain name appears to be a Stanford grad with no connection to Penn.

But to top it all off, the site seems to be lying on its face. The Penn page includes a quote from a “Leah B, Philadelphia, PA”:

Leah B, Philadelphia, PA quote

but the exact same quote is used on the non-Penn-branded homepage of GetCovered, this time from “Leah B, Washington, DC”!

Leah B, Washington, DC quote

As an alum, I certainly don’t want the university’s shield to be used in connection with this company. What they’re doing is strangely reminiscent of the Campus Backup service that OCM was marketing a few years ago — which shut down after my blog post overtook their site in search engines.

Update (2015-11-02): a quick Google search of the opening sentence of the quote directed me to the source — a 2012 comment on a Gawker post by a Gawker contributor, no obvious connection to GetCovered.

How should Internet regulation of content work?

I first published the following query in a closed discussion forum for CIS 125/LAW 613 (Technology & Policy) at Penn Law. It is reposted here with minor edits.

Understanding the layers of the Internet (TCP/IP, etc) helps us to think about Internet governance in terms of allocating scarce resources, such as IP addresses and domain names. There is another layer to regulating the Internet that has little to do with scarcity or technical concerns: content on the World Wide Web. While people around the world effectively must agree to the same technical standards and the same mechanisms of allocating scarce resources in order for the Internet to function, there seems to be disagreement on which laws relating to speech and content apply, the geographic boundaries (if any) within which they apply, and to what extent foreign entities must comply. These concerns are obvious when we talk about the “Great Firewall of China”, highlighted by Google’s pull-out from mainland China, but less so evident when talking about countries that don’t use technical measures to censor citizens’ Web access.

This week, the issue became topical when Russia’s media/telecom regulator clarified existing rules on use of an individual’s image, seeming to outlaw certain forms of the Internet phenomenon known as memes.[1] The clarification came on the heels of a Russian court ruling in favour of a singer whose likeness was used without his permission in various Internet memes, some of which were unflattering. According to the Roskomnadzor—the agency that issued the clarification—as reported by the Washington Post, it is illegal in Russia to depict a public figure in a way that is unrelated to their “personality”, whatever that should mean. As expected, American media quickly seized on this act as part of a broader effort to control dialogue on the Web, at least within the Web as seen in Russia; noncompliance with the agency’s rules can result in a website being blacklisted in all of Russia.[2]

Setting aside any immediate visceral reaction that categorizes this as censorship, we might pause to consider Roskomnadzor’s justification, which pointed to the offence to celebrities’ “honor, dignity and business.”[3] But this is not some novel argument to protect celebrities at the expense of open expression; after all, even US law, which is weaker than European regimes that acknowledge a dignitary right in privacy, protects one’s likeness and privacy to some extent in tort, for very similar reasons.[4] And even if we disagree with the application of this principle in the agency’s rule, protecting individuals’ privacy and identity is still a legitimate state interest.

The real question, I think, is not whether Russia’s rule accomplishes the right balance of priorities, between privacy/control-of-likeness and open expression. After all, the extent to which the rule can even be enforced is dubious. (It would be a waste of resources for the Russian government to go after every meme of Putin on horseback.)

The much more interesting question for us is, to what extent should geopolitical nations be able to control content on the global Web according to their own sovereign laws? Moreover, given the borderless (by default) accessibility of websites and the diverse origins of Web publishers, is it reasonable to burden companies across the world with the task and cost of complying with a patchwork of nation-by-nation rules and judicial orders lest they allow their site to go dark in Pakistan or Russia or China?

In other contexts, like inconsistent cybersecurity laws across US states, companies have found it easiest to follow the strictest set of rules, hence simplifying their task. Maybe an image host like 9gag, catering to meme-makers, would find it technically easiest to comply with these inconsistent rules by deleting content whenever any nation complains. But then free speech everywhere is constrained to the narrowest rules among jurisdictions, so this is an unacceptable outcome. What is the alternative? Does the company have to add technical complexity to its systems to block Russian visitors only from accessing a picture of Putin? Isn’t this option economically inefficient?

Looking to a historical example, even a company that wants to stand up for human rights and free speech principles might find a weighty cost of defiance. In 2010, Google withdrew from operating the mainland Chinese edition of its search engine so as to relieve itself of the burden of obeying mainland Chinese regulations.[5] Reportedly frustrated with complying with strict censorship, and probably having small market share in the shadow of China’s Baidu, Google decided to redirect all mainland Chinese visitors to its Hong Kong edition, which operates under more lax rules. The cost of doing so? Losing relevance in the Chinese market.[6]

Many other companies lacking Google’s backbone and cash would likely roll over when requested to avoid losing their audience. Does this give too much influence to countries like the United States, China, and the UK, over what citizens can see on the Web? Is the Web any better under the rules of the superpowers than under the patchwork of nation-by-nation restrictions on free speech?

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Megan Geuss, Russia’s Internet censor reminds citizens that some memes are illegal, Ars Technica (Apr. 11, 2015), http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2015/04/russias-internet-censor-reminds-citizens-that-some-memes-are-illegal/; Caitlin Dewey, Russia just made a ton of Internet memes illegal, Wash. Post Intersect Blog (Apr. 10, 2015), http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/04/10/russia-just-made-a-ton-of-internet-memes-illegal/.
2. See Caitlin Dewey, supra note 1.
3. Id.
4. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652A-E (1977).
5. Jemima Kiss, Roundup: Google pulls out of China, Guardian (Mar. 23, 2010), http://www.theguardian.com/media/pda/2010/mar/23/google-china.
6. See Kaylene Hong, Google’s steady decline in China continues, now ranked fifth with just 2% of search traffic, Next Web (Jul. 5, 2013), http://thenextweb.com/asia/2013/07/05/googles-steady-decline-in-china-continues-now-ranked-fifth-with-just-2-of-search-traffic/.

Review: PennMobile app, and its botched launch

In the past, I’ve written about scams in computer services, and poor use of technology on a campus media site. Now bringing you… my views on a student government project to deliver a mobile app, PennMobile, to the University of Pennsylvania.

Since I was involved with planning when the 2013-2014 Vice-President of the UA was drafting the Penn Mobile App Resolution (which passed on December 8, 2013), I have been tracking the project and offering feedback since its inception. On multiple occasions, I have been disappointed with how the project was realized.

In this 3-part post, I’m going to cover:

  1. The botched initial public release
  2. Still unfixed bugs on Android that were reported
  3. The original vision

Continue reading “Review: PennMobile app, and its botched launch”

Found some old screenshots…

When I first came to Penn, the website for the Nominations & Elections Committee looked like this:

Old NEC site circa 2011
No, this wasn’t the year 1999… this was in 2011.

NEC website redesign

I set out to redevelop and redesign this, upgrading it from a static HTML site edited over SFTP to a WordPress CMS on Canvas. More importantly, the website redesign in 2012 needed to fit the rebranding that Penn underwent that academic year. In other words, I wanted it to look more like the university’s design. (An email to the Communications office responsible for web assets clarified that we could, in fact, do this.)

Continue reading “Found some old screenshots…”

Form 1098-T: an example of international students’ special needs

Blank Form 1098-T

I am not a tax attorney or tax consultant. I’m merely an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Co-Chair of the International Student Advisory Board.

IRS Form 1098-T, which educational institutions issue to students as a tuition statement for tax purposes, is used by many American families to claim educational credits or deductions on their federal tax returns.

Should international students have this form?

It’s complicated. In many situations, yes.

Universities often will choose not to issue this tuition statement to international students because those students can’t do anything with it. ← If I had to write this with footnotes, there would be a million asterisks next to that sentence; keep reading. We’ll return to this question below.

Are international students able to use this form for anything?

Most international students are ineligible to claim those educational credits/deductions because they are nonresident aliens (e.g. F-1 student). Hence, these individuals would not benefit from having the 1098-T.

Some, especially graduate students, may be eligible to claim credits/deductions because…

  1. they are resident aliens per the substantial presence test, particularly after the 5th year of being in the United States;
  2. they are nonresident aliens for immigration, but resident aliens for tax purposes as the spouse of an American citizen or resident alien; or
  3. they are nonresident aliens for both immigration and tax purposes, but eligible dependents of parents who are resident aliens/permanent residents/citizens; those parents are able to claim these credits in certain situations.

IRS Publication 970 explains who is eligible to claim the American Opportunity Credit. Of note: tax-free scholarships and grants affect whether, and how much, you can claim.

Figure 2-2 from IRS Publication 970, illustrating who is eligible to claim the American Opportunity Credit.
Figure 2-2 from IRS Publication 970, illustrating who is an eligible student for the American Opportunity Credit. Note: not all eligible students can claim. See Publication 970 for a flowchart of who is eligible to claim.

I am an international student in the above categories. Can I get a 1098-T from my school?

The IRS says that universities “do not have to file Form 1098-T or furnish a statement for… nonresident alien students, unless requested by the student“. Additionally, they are not required to provide it for “students whose qualified tuition and related expenses are entirely waived or paid entirely with scholarships”.

You must still meet all of the other requirements to get a 1098-T:

  1. Attend an eligible educational institution (college, university, vocational school, or other postsecondary educational institution in §481 of the Higher Education Act)
  2. Have paid qualified tuition and related expenses in that tax year
    • i.e. tuition, fees, course materials required to be enrolled
    • does not include room, board, insurance, medical expenses including student health fees, transportation, and personal/living/family expenses
  3. Receive credit for the completion of course work leading to a postsecondary degree, certificate, or other recognized postsecondary educational credential
    • i.e. most undergraduate bachelors programs and graduate masters and PhDs are fine
    • continuing education is often not included
  4. Be enrolled in any academic period of that tax year (consult IRS instructions for exceptions)
  5. Have provided your SSN or ITIN to the educational institution either through student records or an additional Form W-9S

What are some potential hurdles?

I was in a situation this year where my university did not issue me a 1098-T, and responded to my request with a form letter:

Does every Penn student receive a 1098-T?
Penn does not provide a 1098-T to non-resident aliens, or any student whose qualified charges are fully funded by grant, scholarship or tuition waivers, or any student who was enrolled in non-credit courses during the academic year.

They additionally stated,

“Though you might have received a 1098t form in the past, going forward as a Canadian citizen you will not receive one.”

As I’ve explained above in this post, this determination was a mistake. It conflates citizenship & immigration status with residency for tax purposes, and ignores the possibility that someone else other than me may be eligible to claim the credit.

Furthermore, even if I were a nonresident alien ineligible to claim the credit, nothing in the IRS regulations for Form 1098-T gives the educational institution the right, responsibility, or power to determine whether I might be eligible to claim the credit; nor does it permit them to deny a Form 1098-T to a nonresident alien’s request.

I’m not a lawyer.

Neither are the people at Penn who decided initially that I wouldn’t get a statement. But apparently I’m capable of reading the IRS documents and figuring out for myself what I’m entitled to.

What does this situation reveal about international students?

First, on the superficial level, this situation reveals that immigration status and residency for immigration purposes differs from tax status and residency for tax purposes. Clearly, not all employees who handle these cases are aware of these stipulations.

More importantly…

Even if we define international students to be non-citizens and non-permanent residents of the United States, this constituency is large, diverse, and varied, with complex needs based on their individual families’ statuses. It is a mistake to define broad, indiscriminate policies that treat all international students identically.

If you think I’ve made a mistake in this post, or wish to disagree with my conclusion here, I’d like to hear from you. Comment below or send me an email using the contact form.

Reflections on Penn

I’ve been attending classes for nearly three weeks here at the University of Pennsylvania, and in this short month I have already experienced many aspects of college life: meeting new people, making new friends, learning new things, trying new things, seeing new places, and so on… (This post was originally drafted in September 2011 but has been revised for December 2011; the new intro follows.)

Update (January 28, 2012): I’ve decided to remove password protection from this post and open it up to the world.

Update (December 2014): I’ve updated some of the campus photos, added links, and updated the objective factual statistics.

I just completed my first semester at the University of Pennsylvania. The past three months have brought me many joys: new friends, new experiences, and new knowledge. It’s been a rollercoaster of sorts—the cycles of stress due to impending exams, strange sleeping patterns, and a litany of decisions from picking courses to prioritizing assignments. It has been, however, rewarding.

College Hall, College Green, University of Pennsylvania

For those who have not yet left the warmth and comfort of a family home, the most important thing to know is that university life is quite unlike high school life. (You probably knew that already, but I wanted to confirm it nevertheless.) Yes, there will still be classes with people you know, but lectures are much bigger, and it is entirely possible that TAs and professors will grade your papers/tests without ever meeting you face to face. Of course, university life is also different in that you will be running your own life. I’ll elaborate on this later.

For those who are experiencing university for the first time as well, it will be interesting to compare your experiences to mine. Every university has its own unique atmosphere, level of academic rigour, diversity of students, breadth of opportunities, and social climate. Of course, there are some common traits, such as students’ immense freedom, increased responsibilities (not only in time management, but in eating well, shopping for basic living needs, doing laundry, etc).

To anyone who is reading this post, I want to make it clear that anything subjective I write is only my personal opinion. My perception of Penn, or of college life, may differ significantly from that of someone else in a different social circle, program of study, or undergraduate school; it may also differ from that of someone who is living a (virtually) identical life. Even if I am experiencing something joyful at Penn, I cannot guarantee that you would make the same conclusions after the same experiences. The same goes for anything I complain about. Still, this post will contain objective information about the educational experience at the University of Pennsylvania.

Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania
Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania

Notice of Americanism: I will use the term ‘college’ to refer to four-year institutions, like the University of Pennsylvania, interchangeably with the term ‘university.’ Don’t let this confuse you, my non-American reader.

Let’s jump right into how I feel about life at university in general.

Continue reading “Reflections on Penn”