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Policing the 'Net

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 4, 2003
(Issue 2127, Computer Hobbies)

It is perhaps a sign of the Internet's growing centrality to daily life that more and more of the news coverage about the 'Net is negative.

Spam. Porn. Piracy.

Just a few years ago, coverage of the Internet was still in the "Gee whiz" stage; newspaper reporters couldn't write enough stories about how wonderful it was all going to be.

Now, reality is setting in – yes, the Internet is wonderful, but it's still populated by human beings, who behave no better online (and perhaps a little worse) than they do in real life.

It's also becoming an increasingly popular punching bag for politicians looking for cheap votes.

From the news

In mid-June (as this is being written), the following stories all appeared on one day:

  • Bill Gates announced that Microsoft was suing a handful of spammers for sending unsolicited e-mail to the company's servers; he also called on Congress to pass laws banning spam, and urged other companies to join Microsoft in develoing software solutions to spam.
  • The music and film industries announced yet another round of anti-copying encryption being built into new CDs and DVDs. It seemed that hackers had already found ways around the earlier methods.
  • Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, interrupted music industry representatives giving testimony about online music trading to blurt out that maybe it would be best to simply give the industry the legal authority to destroy the computers of anyone who engages in piracy. Even the music industry reps were taken aback, with one of them replying that they wanted no such power. (Which isn't entirely true, of course – see below.)

Sorting it out

The new CD and DVD encryption is unlikely to work simply because customers don't like it.

For instance, the new Steely Dan album, sure to be a best-seller, is being issued on both standard CD and copy-protected five-channel audio DVD. The industry's thinking seems to be that even if copy-protected CDs haven't sold well to date, perhaps customers will put up with it in order to get the higher quality audio DVD.

The problem with that thought is that the high-end audiophiles – the kind of folks who used to own reel-to-reel tape decks and DATs and are the early adapters who will buy audio DVD players right away so the prices will drop later for the rest of us – have grown into the most hostile consumer group toward copy protection schemes. If the early adopters won't buy into the copy protection model, the music industry is in for a hard sell.

Sen. Hatch's comments were perhaps more telling than the desperate measures of the entertainment industry. Hatch has been an unusual voice of reason in Congress on technology matters; during the Microsoft anti-trust case and earlier congressional hearings, Hatch was one of the few Republicans willing to take on Microsoft's anti-consumer behavior.

But the point someone needs to make to Hatch is that more than 80 percent of American voters think music trading is moral behavior; he'd be better off either convincing us that his position is right, or else modifying his own position so he's actually representing the views of his constituents and not his big-money donors.

The Microsoft position on spam is the most surprising development. Microsoft has rarely taken a leading policy position on any issue.

But over the past six months, the amount of spam clogging up the Internet has grown exponentially – spam has now surpassed porn as the largest single usage of Internet bandwidth.

Microsoft is a large employer, with thousands of employees having a e-mail address. The company is also in the Internet service provider business with its MSN subsidiary, and offers the advertising-driven Hotmail free e-mail service.

And so if anyone is feeling the pains of spam, it's Microsoft. AOL has already filed lawsuits against several spammers, hitting them with civil charges related to trespass and unlawful use of their servers. Microsoft's legal department is nearly as big as AOL's, and both companies have the technical staff to track the spam's point of origin down.