Tag Archives: Computer law

Learning in the Open

Here’s a piece I wrote for the WSJ on open source education resources. It’s part of the free section of WSJ.com.

A revolution of sorts is sweeping education.

In the past few years, educational material, from handwritten lecture notes to whole courses, has been made available online, free for anyone who wants it. Backed by big-name universities in the U.S., China, Japan and Europe, the Open Education Resources movement is gaining ground, providing access to knowledge so that no one is “walled in by money, race and other issues,” says Lucifer Chu, a 32-year-old Taiwanese citizen and among the thousands world-wide promoting the effort. He says he has used about half a million dollars from his translation of the “Lord of the Rings” novels into Chinese to translate engineering, math and other educational material, also from English into Chinese.

The movement started in the late 1990s, inspired in part by the “open source” software movement, based on the notion computer programs should be free. Open-source software now powers more than half the world’s servers and about 18% of its browsers, according to TheCounter.com, a Web-analysis service by Connecticut-based Internet publisher Jupitermedia Corp. Behind its success are copyright licenses that allow users to use, change and then redistribute the software. Another inspiration was the proliferation of Web sites where millions share photos or write encyclopedia entries.

Free Online College Courses Are Proliferating – WSJ.com

Marketers Baffled By Spam Laws

This new spam law, so far, is taking us nowhere.

A new survey conducted by email marketing service Blue Sky Factory reckons that nearly half of email marketers aren’t sure whether the stuff they send out is compliant and more than half admit that they do not understand the new U.S. laws (called, catchily but inaccurately, CAN-SPAM). Marketers, needless to say, aren’t happy: almost 40 percent do not believe the new laws will have a positive influence on the online relationship between businesses and their consumers. (A PDF version of the survey is available here.)

This seems to be the prevailing view at a conference in San Francisco, where WIRED reports that a lot of folk are nervous, since the law carries heavy penalties not just against marketers but the folk selling the product they’re peddling. This may be no bad thing, of course: The story quotes someone from dating site Date.com as saying his company now has a “a strict policy on privacy and bulk e-mailing” in place. Others complain that the law gives too much leeway to Internet Service Providers to block stuff that looks like spam, so they find that their emails are getting stopped even when they’re complying with CAN-SPAM.

Nowhere, so far, is mentioned the alternative: RSS. To me it seems a logical step. RSS feeds don’t get blocked, control over receiving or not receiving is in the hands of the reader, and it’s cool. Get with the program, email marketers.

Update: Diebold Withdraws E-voting Suit?

 Further to my column about e-voting a few weeks back, Diebold, maker of electronic voting machines, has apparently withdrawn its suit against an ISP and some individuals for posting leaked company documents about some of the problems with their system.
Stanford Law School reports that Diebold had filed papers with the court saying it ?has decided not to take the additional step of suing for copyright infringement for the materials at issue. Given the widespread availability of the stolen materials, Diebold has further decided to withdraw its existing DMCA notifications and not to issue any further ones for those materials.?
 
No mention of this yet on the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s website (which is funding legal protection for the ISP) or Diebold’s.

News: Have Microsoft Done It Again?

 An excellent, and damning, article by Robert X. Cringely on Microsoft shenanigans, this time in court over a lawsuit with Burst.com. Read the whole thing: In short, Microsoft appear to have been caught deleting emails that could be evidence. The judge has ordered Microsoft to produce the missing messages.
 
 
Here’s Robert’s conclusion: “What happens next with Microsoft and Burst is interesting. In a few weeks, Microsoft will either find the messages or not. If they do find the messages and produce them, whatever is in those messages becomes part of the case. If they don’t find the messages and the case goes to trial, the judge will tell the jury that Microsoft deliberately withheld and destroyed evidence. Juries are generally unimpressed by such behavior.”
 
From here it looks like Microsoft not playing by the rules to sideline a tiny competitor anxious to sell up. This does not sound unusual. Watch this space. Or more correctly, this space.
 

News: Cracking a Password is Fast

Now your Microsoft Windows password can be cracked in 13.6 seconds, a vast improvement over the slow and tedious 101 seconds it took previously. An improved cryptanalytic method uses large amounts of memory–in this case, 1.4 GB–to speed its cracking of
keys, says Security Wire Digest.

I won’t bore you with how they did it. But the bottom line is that this attack doesn’t pose any practical threat, since only an administrator would be able to encryped password to conduct the attack, and users can resist by using passwords that contain more than just letters and numbers.

Hardware: A Computer For the Price of a Pedicure

If you’re cheap, skint, or just like buying stuff that doesn’t cost very much, check out the $169 Lindows WebStation. The Lindows WebStation is “the first ultra-affordable, ‘unbreakable’ computer designed specifically for Web work.” Just plug it into a broadband connection and you’re off. Apparently it’s idiot proof too: “It’s literally impossible to destroy the system configuration or settings, making the WebStation the ideal computer for many situations.”

It includes a “complete, Microsoft-compatible Office Suite making it possible to open, edit, save, and email Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft PowerPoint files without additional software!” Needless to say, the gadget works on Lindows, a Linux version of Windows (and nothing to do with Microsoft despite the name). So don’t expect too much. it doesn’t have a hard drive, so boots from a CD. Oh, and bring your own monitor.

News: Phew. Search Engines Are Safe, For Now

  From the I Didn’t Know I Was Breaking The Law Dept, you’ll be relieved to know that deep linking is now legal, at least in Germany. Thank God for that. Er, what is deep linking?
 
Basically a deep link takes you from one webpage to another page that isn’t the homepage on another website. Nothing wrong with that, I hear you say. But what if the link takes you to an article in a pay-as-you-surf database?
 
The excellent TechDirt website alerts us to a report that says the German Federal Court of Justice last week issued a verdict “holding that an online service which offers links to articles in a protected database is not in violation of copyright and competition law”, rejecting arguments that deep links deprive folk of revenue because they take users directly to news articles, bypassing introductory pages and advertising. 
 
As the article says, a decision the other way may have eventually put an end to search engines, which are nothing more than a list of deep links. “Try to imagine the Internet without search engines!” the article concludes.

Loose Wire: Actually Bill, No,

Loose Wire: Actually Bill, No, I Can’t
By Jeremy Wagstaff

12/13/2001 Far Eastern Economic Review (Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

I’m frankly flabbergasted that the Microsoft antitrust trial in the United States is reaching such an ignominious end. But am I alone in my righteous indignation?
I won’t bore you with the details, but the Redmond giant is edging close to victory, via a settlement that contains so much wiggle room you could drive a truck through it. True, it faces opposition from nine U.S. states to its settlement with the Justice Department, and a host of other hearings and investigations. But chances are Microsoft will win out. And we users won’t.

What frosts my shorts up is that for all the teams of lawyers, miles of opinion, submissions and judgments there’s rarely been any mention of what I think is the main problem with Microsoft’s dominance of the software market: that users end up being worse off the more Microsoft products they use. We face the growing probability that if something goes wrong with one Microsoft product, the whole caboodle will come tumbling down with it.
Now this might sound slightly mad, but bear with me. The legal arguments have largely revolved around whether Microsoft has harmed consumer choice by what is called bundling, or tying, its products together. The main focus has been Internet Explorer, which Microsoft stands accused of intentionally binding into its Windows operating system to undermine rival browsers.

The problem is that this debate has, since its original airing in 1998, become largely irrelevant. Internet Explorer now dominates the marketplace — AOL Inc.’s once great Netscape Navigator now looks and feels like trying to drive a car with a fish for a steering wheel. It’s hard to imagine your average computer user waking up one morning and saying: “Hmm! I think I’ll remove IE and install BloggsBrowser today!” without thinking seriously about the likely consequences. (Don’t believe me? Try using Microsoft Money or Encarta without IE running properly. It gets ugly.)

What’s more, Microsoft increasingly dominates word-processing, spreadsheet, e-mail, contact-management, encyclopaedia and personal-finance software, blending so much of the code that your computer resembles less a multifunctional powerhouse than a tower of kiddies’ bricks. Pull out one and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Take what happened to me last week. When my laptop, running Windows 98, wouldn’t close down properly, I had to turn it off myself. When I turned it back on, I was faced with a scary message informing me my registry — the directory that stores settings for all the programs loaded onto the computer — had been corrupted and replaced with a previous version that was intact.

Now, this kind of thing shouldn’t be a problem. After all, it sounded as if my computer was in good hands. Wrong. The recovered version of the registry was apparently from a different era, blissfully unaware of the printers and other bits and bobs I had installed since the invention of the cotton jenny. Suddenly, anything with Microsoft’s name in it somewhere stopped working. Outlook — the e-mail and contact-management program — had mislaid all my personal settings and blithely assumed I was a new user. Microsoft Word, meanwhile, wouldn’t even leave the garage. Increasingly frustrated, I reloaded both Office and, when that didn’t really help, Windows itself. The whole experience has taken years off my life and I’ve started drinking again.

This is the direct consequence, in my view, of this bundling thing (the computer problem, not the drinking). All my other non-Microsoft programs worked fine despite the mayhem going on around them, making me grateful I hadn’t removed a simple old e-mail program I’d ditched for the bright lights of Outlook.

Where does this leave us? Well, I’d recommend doing two things. First, limit your exposure to bundled products by trying out alternatives, like Eudora, The Bat! or Pegasus.

Secondly, I’d suggest you submit your own comments to the court (microsoft.atr@usdoj.gov or www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/ms-settle.htm) — something you’re entitled to do as a member of the public under a piece of antitrust legislation called the Tunney Act. Preferably using words like “flabbergasted” a lot.

Write to me at jeremy.wagstaff@feer.com