Vol.33 No.3 August 1999

Focus on “Last-Mile” Bandwidth Continues

Bob Ellis
August 99 Columns
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Public Policy
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Readers who wish to learn more about CFP should consult their website.

As mentioned in the last column (Computer Graphics 33(2) May 1999), committee member Myles Losch and I will present and discuss the “last-mile” bandwidth issue at the annual Public Policy SIG meeting at SIGGRAPH 99 in Los Angeles. The meeting is Thursday, August 12 from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. in room 507 of the Los Angeles Convention Center. We will be reviewing the material contained in the May 1999 column and answering questions on technical topics and policy issues. All Internet users, particularly computer graphics users, will be interested in this topic.

Each year the Computers, Freedom and Privacy (CFP) conference brings together technical people and policy makers to discuss issues resulting from the availability and use of computing technology. This year, Myles and I (well, mostly Myles) organized a session on “Last-Mile” Broadband Access with speakers representing all the major players. Below, Myles summarizes this session as well as presents highlights from the CFP 99 conference.

— Bob Ellis

“Last-Mile” Bandwidth Issues Session and CFP 99 Review

Myles Losch

During the 1990s, the annual conferences on Computers, Freedom and Privacy (CFP) have arguably become the most successful and widely reported meetings on the intersection of information technology and public policy. (Though usually ACM-sponsored, CFP is guided by an independent steering group.) While still much concerned with the human-rights issues that its name reflects, CFP has broadened its scope to include such themes as critical infrastructure protection, on-line copyright, computer abuse and consumer protection. International participation has also grown markedly, paralleling the Internet boom.

Last-Mile Broadband Access Session

Noting CFP’s effective outreach beyond the technical community (to the legal profession, journalists, policy analysts, et al), Bob Ellis and I introduced, at CFP98, a new topic of much concern to SIGGRAPH: broadband Internet access over the “last mile.” For CFP99 this past April we further raised the issue’s profile, with a lively parallel-track panel session (which I chaired) on the dispute (sharpened by AT&T’s move into cable TV) over open access by Internet providers to broadband infrastructure they don’t own.

The session’s centerpiece was a face-off between open-access advocate Greg Simon of the AOL-backed OpenNET Coalition and Rick Cimerman of the National Cable Television Association, whose members say open access would sap the incentive to modernize cable nets for data transport. Commenting from a consumer and public interest perspective were panelists Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project and Jeff Chester from the Center for Media Education, who stressed the value of consumer choice as both a spur to market competition and a safeguard for on-line diversity.

Providing ‘bookends’ for these varied positions were the panel’s two technologists. ACM’s Prof. Ben Shneiderman, a noted user interface (UI) expert from the University of Maryland, opened the session by demonstrating with examples from his research how broadband access enables responsive, novel graphic UIs to boost user productivity. Last to speak was the Federal Communications Commission’s chief technologist, Stagg Newman, a former Bellcore executive and Bell Labs researcher. Dr. Newman laid out the FCC’s vision of how high-speed access may evolve, emphasizing wireless as well as wired options, and explained the agency’s cautious view of its role at this early stage in the evolution of “last mile” broadband.

The session was well received, drawing several times the attendance of our 1998 evening BOF (see May 98 column) despite strong competition. (CFP99’s Washington, D.C. site helped here, as good local speakers were abundant.) Since the topic is sure to remain a prominent one for years, future conferences will likely offer additional opportunities to educate the policy community about, and thus speed the growth of, broadband Internet access. If so, it would be desirable to expand coverage of other new “last mile” technologies, e.g. ADSL/G.lite and “wireless cable,” which have their own associated policy issues (see May 99 column).

CFP 99 Review

CFP consists largely of single-track panels, which strive for cross-disciplinary appeal by emphasizing societal concerns over narrow technical matters. One of this year’s more popular sessions featured researchers from Bell Labs, the Naval Research Lab and elsewhere, presenting new software tools to protect on-line anonymity. Related pre-conference tutorials dealt with anti-censorship techniques and cryptography.

More typical of CFP (and a magnet for the press owing to its timeliness) was a sulfurous debate over MP3 and on-line copyright, with CEO Mike Robertson, recording industry lawyer-in-chief Cary Sherman, musician Henry Cross, publishers’ lobbyist Carol Risher et al. Piracy of digital content worries many SIGGRAPH members and implicates recent copyright legislation, so the record companies’ anti-MP3 efforts this year will be closely watched. (Editor’s note: For more information on a recent ruling on MP3 issues, see these two articles from Wired.)

CFP99’s core was, as usual, a strong group of sessions on many international and domestic aspects of on-line privacy vs. surveillance, censorship vs. free expression, encryption policy and related concerns. In a lively privacy debate, Columbia University’s Eli Noam faced communitarian scholar Amitai Etzioni.

Two prominent Congressional privacy advocates (Reps. Ed Markey, D-MA, and Bob Barr, R-GA) separately presented legislative views of many policy issues. Other noteworthy speeches were given by Federal Trade Commissioner Mozelle Thompson (on E-commerce); W3C chief Tim Berners-Lee (on privacy concerns raised by his group’s technical standards); UNESCO official Henrikas Yushkiavitshus (on human rights in a digital era); and by Internet pioneer Vint Cerf.

Rounding out the CFP99 program were still more panels on such diverse topics as Internet access for the world’s poor and oppressed regions and public access to government data (using as an example the terrorist threat associated with the U.S.’ database of worst-case chemical plant disaster scenarios).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) presents its annual Pioneer Awards at CFP. This year’s ceremony was at AAAS headquarters, after an evening reception where former EFF chair (and interim ICANN chair) Esther Dyson joined other industry pundits and celebrities. Awards went to IANA’s late chief Jon Postel (accepted by SRI’s Peter Neumann); to Yugoslav math professor Drazen Pantic, an anti-censorship Internet provider to that heavily propagandized nation; and to U.K. law professor Simon Davies, who leads the group, Privacy International (PI).

Before the next evening’s banquet dinner, PI responded with some comic relief for CFPers: North America’s first annual Big Brother Awards, bestowed symbolically on the most privacy-invasive people and organizations in five categories. (Only Microsoft’s award was actually claimed, by a company manager.) For balance, two Brandeis Awards (named for the late Supreme Court Justice and father of U.S. privacy law) were also given, one of them to cryptographer Phil Zimmermann.

Evenings at CFP end with contributed BOF sessions, this year chiefly concerned with international issues, and to a lesser extent with Y2K problems. Among the best was a talk by noted cyberlaw expert (and UN consultant on Internet domain names) Prof. Michael Froomkin, on the links among trademark law, WIPO and human rights.

CFP99 drew more than 500 people (excellent for such an event, though public policy is, of course, among Washington’s major products). Contributing to its success were the hard work and strong local contacts of General Chair Marc Rotenberg (head of ACM’s Washington public policy office), and support from ACM President Barbara Simons (who is both a computer scientist and a public policy specialist).

Robert Ellis is Chair of SIGGRAPH’s Public Policy Committee. When last gainfully employed (1993), he was Sun Microsystems’ 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).
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