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Vol.32 No.2 May 1998

Public Policy Issues Featured at Numerous Conferences

Bob Ellis

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This column again covers several items: a final update on ACM’s Policy 98 conference and presentations I made at a Visualization 97 workshop and a Computers, Freedom and Privacy 98 birds-of-a-feather (BOF) meeting.

ACM Policy 98

As described in my last column (Computer Graphics 32(1) February 1998), ACM’s flagship conference for 1998 was on policy. With the theme, "Shaping Policy in the Information Age," it was held May 10-12, 1998, in Washington D.C. at the Renaissance Hotel. Detailed information is available on their WWW site.

The four main conference topics were: universal service, electronic commerce, intellectual property and learning on-line. I was part of the Universal Service Panel which used a broader definition of universal service than that used by the regulatory agencies, and included discussion of all aspects of access. My presentation followed the SIGGRAPH policy white paper, “Computer Graphics, Visualization, Imaging and the GII: Technical Challenges and Public Policy Issues” which was published in May 1997. It is available on-line at SIGGRAPH’s WWW site, or by contacting Judy Osteller at ACM SIG Services, 1515 Broadway, 17th Floor, New York, NY 10036.

The conference featured an ethics and social impact component that concentrated on "Envisioning the Future,” the role that computer professionals can play in building the future. A computing policy component connected policy makers in government, associations and industry to the computer science professional community and the journalists who serve society by reporting on important issues in the computer science field.

Preconference lectures sponsored by SIGCAS were held at The George Washington University, Washington, D.C. Topics included: “Filtering the Net -- Legal and Policy Implications”; “The Dilbert Ethics Game”; and “Fundamentals of Lobbying and Domain Names on the Internet: Context, Politics, and Technology.” The conference also featured the annual ACM awards banquet and a conference reception.

Some of the people participating included: Ira Magaziner, Special Advisor to the President; Representatives Vern Ehlers and Constance Morella; NSF Deputy Director Juris Hartmanis; and others. A special debate between Esther Dyson and Gary Chapman was featured. In addition, the ACM Presidential Award for founding NetDay was presented to John Gage, Sun Microsystems.

Visualization 97

The Workshop on PC Visualization in October 1997 was organized by Bill Ribarsky of Georgia Tech. My participation was twofold: to make the visualization community aware of policy issues now that their work will potentially be widely available and to tell them that ultimately I saw the general public as users of visualization techniques. The text used as the basis for my presentation follows.

As the public has greater access to computer graphics, particularly over the Internet, public policy becomes increasingly important and computing professionals need to understand and participate in the process. Graphics, because it makes computing more accessible, makes policy issues very important to us.

Over the past few months, there have been many news reports which show computing has become a hot policy issue. Several laws have been passed which control aspects of on-line computing. The ill-fated Communications Decency Act was an attempt at the U.S. federal level to regulate what material could be transmitted. The state of Texas now has a statute which requires that on-line service providers provide blocking software to their customers who are Texas residents.

Several bills are in process in the U.S. Congress which would ban activities which may already be illegal. Examples include bills which would make gambling over the Internet and stealing/distributing software or other copyrighted works a crime. Finally, several industry problems have occurred which impact members of the general public. Examples include the inability of customers to access America Online and newly purchased computers with preinstalled on-line service software that was incorrectly set up and by default used extra cost 800 numbers to access the service provider.

There are several reasons for increased activity in law making. These include consumers looking for protection, lawmakers looking to take action and the concern that existing laws are somehow not applicable to computing and the Internet.

There are a number of significant policy issues which have high-level societal aspects. These include security, privacy, protection of intellectual property and censorship. While important, they are not specifically related to computer graphics.

There are several policy issues which relate directly to computer graphics. The first is bandwidth. Graphics systems will either require more data or more complex models to be transmitted. In either case, today’s dial-up transmission speeds are simply too slow for all but the most simplistic graphics and many users do not even "surf" with graphics enabled. For some applications, asymmetrical transmission speeds may be appropriate. Although the primary policy issues are not very technically related (tariffs and regulatory) the technical community, particularly the computer graphics community, must be prepared to enter the debate even if only to provide technical advice. Of course technology can be used in many cases to lessen the need for bandwidth, but increased interest in accessing information will increase the need for bandwidth in spite of technological advances.

In addition to transmission bandwidth, adequate computation capacity is also needed, particularly for 3D graphics. Again, the technical community must be prepared to enter the policy discussions.

Access, availability and affordability are also critical issues for computer graphics and there are many instances of technology/policy interactions. For example, how do we provide effective access to a very diverse set of users? No longer are we developing systems for ourselves, our technological peers or business people who are willing to learn what they must to use our systems.

The convergence of television and computing means several things to us in the computer graphics community in addition to the need for appropriate standards. For one, the public will expect computing and computer graphics to be as easily accessible as TV. It is also reasonable to expect that widespread public access to computer graphics and visualization will result in significant lifestyle changes in areas such as telemedicine and the ways we communicate with our families and friends.

Hovering over all of this is the specter of regulation. As computing and computer graphics become pervasive, the people, or at least their elected representatives, will be calling for more regulations. Many years ago, the telecommunications industry accepted regulation in exchange for being granted monopoly status in their service areas. While essentially insuring profitability, the regulation has meant the industry has spent valuable resources interacting with the regulatory process instead of being used to develop and market new products and services. I believe we must enter into the debate, possibly accepting some regulation particularly in the area of consumer protection, in order that our industry does not become like the over-regulated telecommunications industry. We must also be prepared to educate the public and policy makers and design our systems so that users will not be so upset with them that they feel they have to ask their representatives to pass additional legislation.

Computers, Freedom & Privacy 98

This conference, which was started about eight years ago by the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) and is sometimes sponsored by the ACM and various SIGs, was sponsored this year by the University of Texas Law School’s continuing education program and several commercial and non-profit organizations. As might be expected from the title, the program was heavy on Constitutional issues, particularly first and fourth amendment ones. The heterogeneous audience which ranged from lawyers in suits to hackers in tie-dyed T-shirts, reminded me somewhat of our own conference.

Sessions covered such topics as activities continuing after the Communications Decency Act, privacy implications of biometrics, net vengeance and ethics, pragmatism and principle in on-line advocacy, cryptography, sale of public and government records, Internet jurisdiction, key escrow and recovery, filtering and even a moot court on suing spammers (the spammers lost!). The CFP conferences attract a reasonable number of policy maker speakers in spite of their location outside the Beltway. Examples this year included Brian Kahin of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, former FCC Commissioner Nick Johnson and representatives from the FBI and Library of Congress.

I attended for two reasons: to evaluate CFP as an avenue for SIGGRAPH public policy activities and to present material on the need for high-speed Internet access at a birds of a feather session organized by Myles Losch, a member of the SIGGRAPH Public Policy Committee. Although the conference is well organized, attended by policy makers and covers issues of importance to everyone associated with computing, it does not offer the right focus for our issues unless the organizers decide to broaden its program. While all who work with images are concerned with freedom and privacy, I believe our major policy issues are availability of adequate bandwidth and digital television definitions which are more regulatory than Constitutional issues. I plan to work with the organizers of CFP99, which will be held in Washington, to see if our issues can fit into their program.

I also attended the open meeting of the American Committee for Interoperable Systems (ACIS). The meeting was very well organized and documented. For more information see their WWW site. Quoting from the ACIS fact sheet: “The organization supports policies and principles of intellectual property law that provide a balance between rewards for innovation and the belief that computer systems developed by different vendors must be able to communicate fully with each other. This ability to communicate is termed ‘interoperability,’ and involves the interchange of information that benefits all computer users.”

The keynote speaker was Whitfield Diffie from Sun Microsystems. His view was that digital communications is the future, the use of cryptography is so easy that it can’t be regulated, the purveyors of intellectual property are well organized and gaining ground on users and that widespread control of intellectual property might make it too costly for members of the general public to make simple inquiries. He also felt that there ought to be strict expiration of copyrights and patents. Other presentations were made by members of ACIS’s Board of Academic Advisors: Julie Cohen, Dan Burk and Mark Lemley.

The BOF had interesting speakers from the telephone and cable industries presenting their plans for high-speed Internet access and issues associated with competition and deregulation. As usual, my theme was that computer graphics and advanced graphical user interfaces require high bandwidth connections. There was no written record, but a copy of my presentation follows.

Computer Graphics and the Need For Speed

CFP98 Fast Internet Access BOF

Reference: “Computer Graphics, Visualization, Imaging and the GII: Technical Challenges and Public Policy Issues,” May 1997, SIGGRAPH White Paper 1. Available on the Web.

Bob Ellis is Chair of SIGGRAPH's Public Policy Committee. When last gainfully employed (1993), he was Sun Microsystem's representative on the Computer Systems Policy Project's (CSPP) Technology Committee and also co-managed Sun's external research program. Before that Ellis held computer graphics software development and management positions with Sun, GE-Calma, Atari, Boeing and Washington University (St. Louis).

Bob Ellis

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

Computer Graphics and the Internet

  • More effective user interfaces can be provided
  • Accommodating the needs of diverse users
  • Organizing information effectively for greater comprehension
  • Increasing delivery speed by image compression and simplification
  • Reducing the information deluge from searches and queries
  • Research and development are needed to improve the situation

Computer Graphics and Bandwidth

  • A picture may be worth a thousand words but it’s many more bits
  • Available communications speeds have not kept up with improvements in computing
  • Many users ‘surf’ with graphics off
  • Need to make new technology available
  • Proliferation of secondary devices without broadband access
  • Graphics-accessible Internet may become part of basic service
  • Convergence of TV and computing
  • Worldwide differences in infrastructure development and affluence
  • Deregulation, regulation and deregulation