[ Top of Page ]
[ Introduction ]
[ 1. Welcome SIGGRAPH 2001 Attendees ]
[ 2. Community Outreach on Digital Technology Policy ]
[ 3. UCITA Diary #2 ]
[ 4. Further Dialog, from February and May 2001 columns: electronic signatures, UCITA, DMCA ]
[ 5. `Imploding DSL Carriers` (Recent DSL Business Turmoil and Its Consequences) ]
[ 6. Digital TV Before the Court: Clashing Principles ]
[ Appendix I ]
[ Appendix II ]
[ Disclaimer ]
[ About the Presenter ]
[ References ]
This is the handout that goes with the presentation.
Computers, Public Policy and You
Copyright © 2001 by Robert A. Ellis. Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or
part of this work for personal or educational use is granted without fee provided that
copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies
bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To otherwise copy, republish, post
on servers or redistribute in any manner requires specific prior permission.
As the general public's use of digital technology (computing, recording (CD, DVD, etc.)
and data transmission (Internet, HDTV, etc.) has dramatically increased, governments at
all levels have been rapidly passing new laws and the courts have been busily interpreting
these and existing laws. Many of these new and existing laws directly impact what you
can and cannot do with this new technology, even for your personal use.
For example, in the pre-digital days you could access copyrighted printed material by
simply buying a book or checking it out of a library. You might copy a few pages for
your personal use but it was considerable work, expensive and the copies were generally
not high quality. In the digital age, just to read material downloaded from the Internet or
contained on a CD-ROM, a copy must be made inside your computer. Once there,
perfect copies can be made with little or no trouble and expense. This simple change has
had profound effects.
Who can read my email, access my computer files and how can I protect my data and
privacy? If I can protect my data will criminals and international terrorists also do this
and how will law enforcement agencies deal with the new options?
Email travels through and is stored on may computers even after it has been deleted.
Computer files can generally be read by anyone who has access to the computer either
physically or via a network. Encryption technology "scrambles" file contents so that they
can only be unscrambled by someone who has the mathematical "key". This works for
files on your computer as well as files, such as email, sent over the Internet. Encryption
is the first line of defense of your privacy. Protect your email address. Access web sites
with "cookies" turned off. But remember, almost anything can and has been subpoenaed;
computers have very long and accurate memories.
Smart criminals and terrorists all use encryption. Encrypted file can be opened without
the key by powerful computers with the effort required depending on the length of the
key. Escrowing systems for the keys by independent third parties and available to
governments by court order (much like wiretaps) has been proposed, but there are many
problems (e.g., how do you protect human rights organizations from totalitarian
governments?). Snooping systems like the FBI's Carnivore can collect information
subject to court ordered constraints.
You mean I don't actually own that software program I just bought and installed and I
can't do whatever I want with it? Can I legally own copies of MP3 music files and can I
trade them with others? What's all this fuss about Napster and Gnutella? What can I
legally do with copyrighted material I download from the Internet? Why can't I get an
Internet domain name that's the same as my business?
Unlike books, video and audiotapes and tangible goods, most software is licensed, not
sold, and the rights of the licensee are controlled by the "shrink-wrap" or "click-through"
license that can impose any constraints the licensor wants. Common constraints include
not making copies, requiring licensor approval before disposing of the software, not
analyzing the software, not writing articles about the software without the licensor's
approval, etc. The legality of these licenses has been questionable, but a new prospective
law, UCITA, attempts to change that.
MP3 is just a form of compression of audio data and is not illegal to use or have MP3
files. An MP3 form of copyrighted material is subject to the same rules as any other
copy. Except for "fair use" you cannot copy, sell or perform in public any form of
copyrighted material although you can give it away or even resell it (first sale doctrine).
Fair use derives from the U.S. Constitution. Fair use is generally defined as including
making copies for personal, private or non-profit use, quoting in reviews or scholarly
works, etc. Fair use is not precisely defined by statute.
Napster and Gnutella are systems for exchanging MP3 formatted files of data. As long as
the work is not copyrighted or otherwise controlled and you have a legal right to share it,
using Napster and Gnutella is not illegal. But it is easy to abuse these systems.
Copyrighted material you have legally downloaded from the Internet is subject to all the
conditions listed above.
In the pre-Internet days, trademarks had a strong geographical and line of business
separation (e.g., Apple Computer and Apple Records). Although country and even
further geographical domain names exist, everybody wants to be in the .com top level
domain. Who has trademark rights - United Airlines, United Van Lines, and United)?
Similar names (e.g., etoy vs. etoys) also cause problems. New top level domains (.biz,
etc.) will probably just make it more confusing.
Why can't I make a copy of the DVD movie I own or even have access to the digital format?
DVD movies are weakly encrypted by a scheme called CSS and unless you have a way to
unscramble the data (such as a computer program like DeCSS), there is no way you can
get a viewable picture. A technology also prevents making VHS tape copies of the
analog signal. In addition, there is no digital output data stream from any device that has
been manufactured under appropriate license arrangements. The only way currently to
see a DVD movie in digital format is on a properly configured laptop computer.
Is it safe to use my credit card to make purchases on the Web? Will I ever have to pay
sales taxes on my Web purchases? What can organizations on the Web do with the
personal information I supply?
Making a credit card purchase on the web is somewhat safe if the number is sent via a
secure connection. But the number is usually stored on an Internet accessible computer
and there have been many cases of crackers breaking into these computers and stealing
the information. Normal consumer credit card protections apply to Internet transactions.
Current U.S. law says that a seller only needs to collect sales taxes on interstate
commerce if it does business in the state where the purchaser lives. Most states have use
tax laws that require you to pay an equivalent tax on goods purchased out of state. Use
tax laws are very difficult to enforce, but some states have started putting use tax
questions on their income tax forms. There is currently a great debate about the fairness
of the current laws.
In the U.S. an organization can do anything it wants with the personal information it
collects from individuals, unless it has a stated policy limiting its actions. There are
laws limiting what organizations can do with this data.
How can I protect my children and grandchildren from objectionable material on the Web
when the courts keep throwing out the laws passed to protect children? What are the
limits on material I can download and store on my computer? How can gambling
websites operate when it is illegal in the US to transmit gambling information over
The problem with the child protection laws is that there is no practical way to allow
adults their First Amendment rights to free speech. You can install and use filtering
software, but there are severe limits on the capabilities. You can monitor the child's on-
Except for explicit exceptions to the First Amendment (child pornography, libelous
statements, proprietary information, etc.) you can download and store anything you find
on the Internet. Other countries do not have such legal systems and may restrict the
accessing and ownership of certain forms of materials. This is an important issue for the
Internet because it basically doesn't recognize national borders.
I don't know how gambling sites can operate legally using telephone lines.
Can my neighbors really access my computer files and print on my printer if I use one of
the new high-speed Internet connections? How do these new services differ from my
plain old dial up access?
Unless you have disabled all file and resource sharing, the people who share your cable
data channel can easily access your computer. If you also want to operate a home
computer network, you have a problem.
Both cable Internet access and DSL do not use the switched telephone network. In
addition, cable companies are not common carriers so they may exercise more control
over what you access with your computer than the telephone companies. There are
numerous unsolved technical, security, privacy and policy issues using these services.
When will I be able to buy an affordable High Definition TV (HDTV)? When will I have
to buy a HDTV set? Will I still be able to record HDTV programs for my own personal
Affordable HDTV systems will be available when there is a mass market for them (like
UHF enabled TV sets many years ago). There are many unresolved technical and policy
At some point a few years from now (when the broadcasters return their analog channels)
you will have to buy a HDTV set or a converter for your present set. This will not
happen until these become affordable.
Because of the concerns of the producers of digital TV programming, we are currently
headed towards a situation of copy protected technology which will not let you make
recordings. Many issues are unresolved such as how to provide fair use. And remember
the Betamax decision.
Why is the government picking on Microsoft? Why does the government need to fund
computing research with all the rich computer companies out there? What's this Digital
Divide I keep hearing about and why is it important to me?
Many people feel that Microsoft illegally used its likely monopoly status in operating
systems to restrict competition in other software.
Most companies, even pharmaceutical companies, rely heavily on the results of
government funded basic research. Most companies are not equipped to make good
decisions on basic research. Many argue that the success of government funded basic
research in the last fifty years has been responsible for much of the economic growth in
the United States.
The digital divide refers to the fact that computer and Internet access is not uniformly
distributed across all ethnic, social and economic classes and this is a potentially limiting
situation in equitable access to our legal, government and economic systems. Also,
disabled people may not have good access to computers and the Internet. A recent court
ruling has said that accessibility laws apply to both computers and the Internet.
Computer-based voting systems may become the next big access issue.
If I don't like how things are going, what can I do about it?
As with other policy issues, effective computing policy activity requires informed
citizens who then approach their government representatives either individually or in
organized groups to effect changes. Fortunately for those who have access, the Internet is
an excellent resource for information. Use search engines and be sure to find out who
really sponsors a site (e.g., HRRC). Be sure to look at web sites ending in ".org".