Legislation puts rights, technology in danger

October 15, 2001|By Dan Gillmor | Dan Gillmor,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Sports people have a saying, "Keep your eye on the ball" - which means to maintain your focus amid distractions. That admonition has never been more apt.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 atrocities, we've understandably allowed our attention to be diverted from almost everything else.

Now it's time to get our eyes back on the key issues facing the technology and business communities. Some are inevitably related to the horrors we've seen. Others will be manipulated by cynical opportunists to appear related. Still others, which genuinely have no relationship to terrorism, will simply escape our notice unless we pay attention - and do something.

Here are three of many such matters:

The entertainment industry has stepped up its efforts to ensure that owners of copyrighted material have total control over how it's used, thereby wrecking what is left of users' rights.

Hollywood and the record companies went back to court last week, this time trying to stop online services and software that have replaced Napster as the file-sharing method of choice. The music companies succeeded in squashing Napster, but they only led creative people to find new methods.

You can sympathize with the copyright owners' worries. But when they demand absolute control over everything we read, hear and watch - and treat all customers like thieves - they go way too far.

In a few weeks, Congress will hold hearings on the most pernicious notion yet: forcing PC makers and other consumer-technology companies to build copy protection into every device they make.

This not only would cause huge damage to the hardware companies, but it would effectively criminalize free software and other technologies on which many people rely today.

What can you do? Write your member of Congress and insist on fair treatment for average people in the copyright arena. So far, the lawmakers have listened almost solely to the entertainment industry, and your rights have been ignored as a result.

Major technology companies are pushing a key Internet standards organization, the World Wide Web Consortium, to adopt standards that have been patented. This is a grotesque idea, and it would damage the foundations of the open, royalty-free standards that have marked the rise of the Net as a useful part of our lives.

The Web works because of its openness, not despite it. So when Microsoft, Philips, IBM and other patent holders try to ram through a fundamental shift - to a system whereby the big players might be able to collect rents on everything that moves online - they are attacking the foundation of the Net and its usefulness. The consortium's standards-setting work was founded in openness. It has promoted nonproprietary systems to ensure that all players could have a level field.

To abandon history and precedent would be to damage the Web itself.

To learn more about this power grab, go to the consortium's Patent Policy Framework Web page (www.w3.org/TR/patent-policy) and read the organization's explanation and the public comments posted to date (http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/www-patentpolicy -comment).

The Bush administration's appointee to head the Federal Trade Commission, Timothy Muris, announced more than a week ago that he would kill proposed rules to regulate the flow of personal data without people's permission.

It was no surprise, unfortunately, given Muris' long-standing views, but it was disappointing. When President Bush was running for office, he claimed to care about protecting personal privacy.

What can you do? Tell your legislator you'll be paying attention when privacy protection comes up, and that you will adjust your voting preferences accordingly.

Suppose the powers that be ignore your wishes in these three matters. It's happened before. I can tell you for certain that if you don't speak out, however, you'll be completely at the mercy of monied interests.

I guarantee that Hollywood has its eye on the copyright ball. Technology companies have their eye on using patents to make the Net more proprietary. And financial institutions know precisely what they want.

In a time when decisions can go unnoticed amid the furor surrounding terrorism, it's up to everyone to keep an eye on the other things that matter. Be vigilant, or be warned that big decisions will go against your interests.

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