December 21, 2006

2007 Preview: Newt's Muzzle, Google's Data, and Microsoft Over the Line

Greetings. As 2006 draws to a close, I wanted to review three issues from this year that are likely to be of considerable note in 2007. One is a bizarre blast from left field (or more precisely "right field"), the next is a pressure cooker data problem that we must resolve soon, and the last demonstrates how anti-piracy efforts can cross the line from reasonable to arrogant and potentially dangerous.

The latter two of these topics may cry out for legislative attention if voluntary approaches continue to be impotent -- and with the new Congress coming into power we may have our best shot of accomplishing something positive on the federal level if legislation indeed becomes necessary.

I realize that many people shudder at the prospect of legislation, fearing that it may make matters worse, that lobbyists will warp beneficial efforts into twisted mutations of intent, and similar concerns. These are indeed real risks, but we're also seeing the increasing risks of allowing important technology issues that affect society at large to be determined solely by corporate entities who -- quite naturally and understandably -- have their own agendas and priorities. Again, I'd prefer to see things done on a voluntary basis, but we may have to bite the bullet and give legislation the old college try.

But onward to the issues ...

OK, what the blazes is Newt's Muzzle? A couple of weeks ago, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich started spouting off (first in a speech and just a few days ago on NBC's "Meet the Press") about how useful it would be to censor the Internet. The example he's using (for now) is "jihadist" Web sites, and he'd like a panel of federal judges to decide which sites would be "closed down."

Outside of showing his true colors when it comes to freedom of speech issues, Newt is also displaying a woeful lack of understanding of the Internet and how essentially impossible (and counterproductive) attempts at censorship really are in this environment.

The UK Guardian asked me for an op-ed on this topic, and it went up on their Web site a few days ago as "Can Newt Nix the Net". Rather than my taking much more space discussing the matter here, if you're interested in Newt's thinking (and my views on the Internet censorship topic in this context), please visit that link.

Even though Internet censorship (despite the help of U.S. technology companies that provide systems to foster its deployment) is ineffective, it is still a tremendously counterproductive waste of time, resources, and human creativity, and distorts communications in ways that are both unnecessary and potentially result in dangerous backlashes. This is an issue that will only become more important in 2007 and beyond.

Onward ...

The data retention controversy -- the battle to determine how much data is reasonable for search engines and other entities to maintain on their users -- is becoming ever more a red flag issue. In 2006 alone we saw the specter of the feds going after Google data in DOJ vs. Google, AOL releasing privacy-invasive search keyword lists, and issues of Chinese use of U.S. company Internet records to track dissidents, among other similarly distressing activities.

The concerns in this area go way beyond Google, but as the most powerful player in the Internet search industry, Google has a special responsibility to be a leader, not only by fulfilling their "don't be evil" slogan (and I do believe Google's motives are benign) but also by not creating infrastructures that allow others to do evil. It is in this latter respect that it appears Google "talks the talk" when it comes to concern about how their data could be abused by outsiders, but hasn't "walked the walk" by taking sufficient definitive steps to make such abuse impossible.

Again, I'd prefer that this entire area (industry-wide, not just Google) be dealt with on a voluntary basis. But as I've discussed in detail over at the California Initiative For Internet Privacy and links referenced there, if voluntary approaches don't work we may have to take the next step, either at the California initiative level or -- given the upcoming changes in Congress -- perhaps at the federal legislative level (an option that did not appear reasonably to be on the horizon when I wrote the existing CIFIP essay). While some of my reservations about the California state legislature might apply to Congress as well, it is undeniable that a federal approach to these issues could be far more effective, that is if -- and only if -- we need to choose the legislative course.

This is a complex area, with the competing goals of mandated data destruction to protect users' privacy, and the desires of governments to mandate data retention, continuously at odds. We have a tremendous amount of work to do to reach a reasonable outcome.

Finally ...

There's been a lot of discussion about the anti-piracy features in Microsoft's new "Vista" Windows operating system (see this blog entry for example). I've had a number of very friendly conversations with MS executives regarding the issues surrounding their anti-piracy implementations, and in particular their new ability to functionally "hobble" Vista systems that they believe are pirated.

The more that I've considered this, the increasingly unreasonable and hazardous this functionality appears to be. It turns the assumption of innocence on its head -- you have to take affirmative steps to prove to Microsoft that you're not a pirate if your system appears on their suspect hit list. As we know from Windows XP, there are all sorts of ways that honest consumers can end up with systems that have cloned copies of the OS (often installed by repair depots to replace trashed copies of the original system after disk failures, for example).

Many consumers don't even realize the difference between the hardware and operating system of their computers. Many will ignore the warning messages that MS will send before triggering a system hobble, assuming that the messages don't apply in their cases, or that they're phishing or virus come-ons. The mere existence of the mechanisms to initiate the hobbling may represent an attractive attack vector for destructive hackers, who might well get their jollies by shutting down a few thousand (million?) PCs at a time.

Vast numbers of these computers will be in highly important applications in business, health care, government, and the military. Yes, Microsoft says you're not supposed to use them for critical applications. But we know what the real world looks like, and even the definition of "critical" can be nebulous.

Even more to the point (and this also relates to the data retention issues above) it is extremely problematic to assume that it is even reasonable for individual corporate entities to have total ad hoc, carte blanche authority to make these decisions on their own, decisions that technologically have an enormous and ever increasing impact on individuals and society at large.

I might add that while the new Microsoft anti-piracy systems are of particularly concern, there are other anti-piracy technologies being deployed that carry similar risks, including but not limited to a range of upcoming Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems.

I keep saying "voluntary is best" and I mean it. In all of these topic areas I've discussed, voluntary approaches are always to be preferred. But in our society, a key role of legislation is to help provide mechanisms for "power-sharing" in situations like these, if voluntary and cooperative approaches prove to be failures.

We are all part of this. We can sit on our hands and watch as mute spectators -- or we can get our hands dirty by reaching directly into the innards of the machines -- figuratively speaking -- and helping making sure that these systems serve not only their immediate masters, but also society's requirements as well.

None of this will be trivial, of course. But to quote the great animated philosopher "Super Chicken" -- "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it."

Have a great holiday season, and all the best for 2007.

Take care, all.


Posted by Lauren at December 21, 2006 03:13 PM | Permalink
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