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Strange goings-on

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 23, 2004
(Issue 2230, Robots and Robotics)

The Supreme Court strikes down a law that would have forced pornographers to verify the age of their visitors but sings the praises of anti-porn filters, Congress starts work on a bill to make it easier to ban new technologies, and more of the most prominent bloggers are blogging no more.

To start with the strangest of all the strangeness that happened in June, a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Child Online Protection Act violated the Constitution because it made it too difficult for adults to view explicit materials online. Which is a goofy sort of thinking – by that standard, cities and states can't force 7-11s and other convenience stores to put Playboy and Hustler behind the counter to keep them away from youngsters because it might make it too difficult for adults to know they're there and purchase them.

While free-speech types were pleased with the ruling, they may not be quite so pleased when they read it through completely – for the Court's majority based its decision on the existence of Internet content filters. The groups that are opposed to opt-in interfaces on sexually explicit Web sites are also, by and large, opposed to the mandatory use of filters. The Supreme Court has already upheld a law that forces public libraries to install anti-porn filters to qualify for federal funding; in comments written for the majority in the latest decision, it seems the Court is willing to rely even more on filters.

The decision isn't final in this latest case; the Supreme Court majority ruled that the COPA law probably violates the First Amendment, but indicated it's willing to listen to arguments to the contrary. So we'll be hearing more about this case.

Who do they work for?

In the case of a Senate bill to ban entire classes of new technology, you have to wonder who these clowns think is paying their bills. The so-called Induce bill would lay legal and financial liability on anyone who 'intentionally aids, abets, induces or procures" any and all copyright violations.

The bill is being opposed by a broad coalition of consumer groups, civil libertarians and business organizations. It's one of those rare bills so egregious that it's creating otherwise unthinkable alliances between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.

So who supports it? Hollywood, of course. The movie studies and music labels are pushing it hard, arguing that piracy and not lousy movies and CDs are the reason behind flagging sales.

In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that new technologies themselves can't be banned if they have an overwhelmingly legitimate use – even if the technology is also used to break the law. That case revolved around Sony's introduction of home videocassette recorders (oddly enough, the lawsuit revolved around the Beta VCR standard that never found market traction against the competing VHS standard).

While VCRs could be used to make illegal copies of movies, it could also be used to quite legally make home movies or tape television shows for later viewing.

Hollywood lost that suit, but later made billions on the movie rental industry that sprang up around the VCR (and now DVD).

That 1984 decision still holds sway, and was built on an earlier decision from the late 1960s when Sony introduced the audio cassette recorder. The music labels sued then, trying to block the audio cassette for the same reason the movie studios later tried to block the VHS.

And the Supreme Court has also ruled in other cases that American consumers have a fundamental Constitutional right to make backup copies of copyrighted products they purchase. That if you legally buy software or a movie (or conceivably a book), you have a right to make a copy of it in case the original breaks or otherwise becomes unusable.

That is a principle lower courts have recently taken to ignoring as they do the music and movie industry's bidding in seeking to strike new technologies like the DeCSS software that allows a PC to make a perfect copy of the data on a DVD.

Blogging losing its luster

One of blogging's greatest draws is turning out to be its biggest drawback as well. That feature would be the fact that a Web blog is updated daily, or even hourly.

That takes a lot of time, time not everyone has.

Howard Owens, who with former ComputorEdge editor Ken Layne was one of blogging's most enthusiastic adherents, has now joined Layne on the blogging sidelines. While Layne's site,, is now devoted to his music,, is now just a holding site. Among the questions and answers Howard has posted about the suspension of the blog is this answer to 'Why": 'It was a distraction from more important things."


And if you look through the various blogging indexes and start visiting some of the supposed hundreds of thousands of blogs out there, you'll find that a surprisingly small number of them are still active. Many, if not most, are dormant.

This is a revolution?