Computing Applications Forum


  1. The 'Terrible Price' of the DMCA
  2. The Patriot Act Is Only the Beginning
  3. Communicating vs. Computing
  4. Don't Tag Living Organisms
  5. Author

Alan Karp’s "Making Money Selling Content that Others Are Giving Away" (Jan. 2003) places the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) where it belongs—on the scrap heap of legislative solutions to outdated business models.

Sometimes called the best legislation money can buy, the DMCA, along with digital rights management software, seeks to maintain existing business models. But at the terrible price of restricting the lawful fair use of content. Another unintended side effect of the DMCA’s restrictions on reverse engineering via the anti-circumvention clause is a huge aid to cyberterrorism. How are we to train a new generation of security-conscious experts when publishers and conference hosts fear legal action.

Karp aptly points out the two methods of profitable business: "added value and barriers to entry." Customers can either be given a carrot encouraging their purchase of products or beaten with a stick toward a few specific products. For example, DVDs—the most rapidly diffused technology in the history of consumer electronics—add value to movies with two key features: the ability to instantly randomly access any portion of the disc and a menu-based interface giving the consumer access to customized material. Why don’t movie studios market the menus themselves, along with customized material people could add to inexpensive MPEG files of the movies. The music industry likewise could sell music videos, menu interfaces, and commentaries to music.

No one is saying that music and videos should be free, but if they were convenient to copy and additional value were added, consumers would buy them in much greater numbers. As an anecdotal data point, over the last year I discovered the value of MP3s and how their compressed size is much smaller than the CD-audio data format. I’ve copied all my CDs to my computer and often listen to music from the computer. I have been buying more CDs than I have in years. It is the convenience of converting and copying CDs into MP3s that has increased my buying of CDs.

I am dubious of claims by the Recording Industry Association of America that piracy hurts its members’ business. The content industries’ DMCA mentality shows little improvement from 1982 when Jack Valenti said, "VCRs are to Hollywood as Jack the Ripper is to women."

Sandy Ressler
North Potomac, MD

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The Patriot Act Is Only the Beginning

The Electronic Frontier column by Brock N. Meeks ("Conspicuous in Their Silence," Feb. 2003) about the erosion of U.S. civil rights under the administration was refreshing. It’s nice to hear someone courageous enough to call the so-called Patriot Act what it is: an unprecedented attack on civil rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, the Patriot Act is only the beginning. The administration is on its way to sponsoring even more repressive legislation—with as little public discussion as possible.

The newest legislation—the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 (see reclaimdemocracy.org)—includes provisions to indefinitely detain people associated with "terrorist groups," strip them of their citizenship, and throw them out of the country. The definition of a terrorist group is so loose it can include essentially anyone disagreeing with the administration.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I only hope that one day Meeks also gets some coverage of these issues on the MSNBC network where he is a commentator.

Michael DeBellis
San Francisco, CA

Brock Meeks is confused over the nature of rights ("Conspicuous in Their Silence," Feb. 2003). He says "the [Homeland Security] bill imbues the federal government with ever-increasing rights . . ."

Actually, only individuals have rights. Governments have none; instead, they have powers, which, history shows, they continually try to increase. The difference is vital. Rights are inalienable (see the U.S. Declaration of Independence); they can be ignored or violated by governments, but we still possess them. As Ayn Rand wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), "Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (the smallest minority on earth is the individual)."

We do not get our rights from the U.S. Constitution or from any other government document or action. The Constitution (correctly) recognizes that we have rights; it does not grant them. That which can be granted can be revoked. Rights cannot be revoked at the whim of a government official or even the collective whim of 535 of them on Capitol Hill.

Powers are granted to the government (in a free society) or seized by the government (in a statist society). Powers can be taken away from governments if a sufficiently motivated citizenry so chooses.

Mark Wallace
Los Angeles, CA

Meeks responds:
Excellent point, Mark. The more precise way of stating what I wrote was that the bill imbues the federal government with ever-increasing powers that pose a clear and present danger to a broad range of individual rights.

The government, when provided such power, begins to believe it has the right to impose itself on our lives. You can argue semantics all day long, but it won’t stop the government from exercising its power whenever and wherever it wants or believes it has a "right" to do so.

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Communicating vs. Computing

The buzzwords "ubiquitous" and "pervasive" computing show we are stuck on our heritage of computing machinery. Since everything is increasingly automated in the worlds of information, transactions, and personal communication, the computing label has become meaningless, especially for differentiating information access and delivery from person-to-person communication. But anyone catering to an enterprise IT department may still feel compelled to throw in the "c" word to connote the need for programming expertise.

The "Thinking Objectively" column ("Toward Ubiquitous Acceptance of Ubiquitous Computing Engineering," Feb. 2003) by Nayeem Islam and Mohamed Fayad looked at some of the right problems handheld mobility brings to the fore but not necessarily at the right solutions. The real world deals with the mobility of people, not only applications and device interfaces. We have already witnessed the arrival of handheld multimodal devices supporting interactive and asynchronous communications (messaging) among people and application processes. These interfaces employ text, graphics, speech, and, coming soon, practical combinations of all three. Moreover, as mentioned in the column, speech input can be much more time-efficient and less error-prone than typed input, but scanning screen output is more efficient than listening to tedious and transient speech output.

The new multimodal handheld devices must be sensitive to each user’s dynamic situational status. The user must indicate in some convenient and perhaps implicit or automated way what modality of interface communication (not computing) is appropriate at any given moment. Whether in the form of hands-free, eyes-free speech while driving a car, silent text messaging in a noisy environment, or a do-not-disturb-with-sound business meeting, the same rules of communication apply to application processes as to people personally exchanging information.

The column rightfully pointed out that technology used by application developers has to be independent of the network for accessing the user’s communication device, whether wired or wireless. An example is the recently announced plans by Avaya, Motorola, and Proxim to develop a wireless handset to let real-time voice conversations move seamlessly among enterprise Wi-Fi and 3G carrier networks.

Application developers also must plan on their processes being equally independent of the modality the user needs or chooses. For example, users might instantly upgrade the size of their handheld device displays by plugging into an available monitor via Bluetooth or wired docking connection. Tiny keyboards and telephone keypads can likewise be enhanced with accessory folding devices.

Where will the accommodation of dynamic user interfaces really take place? It has been ages since we learned to separate application programming from databases (remember Cobol?); it is now time to do the same for user interfaces. "Mobility servers" already translate application output to the appropriate formats for different screen sizes, as well as into speech. With speech recognition, VoiceXML, and the Speech Application Language Tag initiative, we will see such translations extended to inputs as well.

The speech grammars and vocabularies may have to be tailored to particular application or user needs, but text-to-speech can be more generalized and application independent.

Mobile alphanumeric input is supported by several methodologies evolving to accommodate mobile users with handheld devices. The objective is to allow universal communication with only one hand (and thumb) if necessary.

"Presence" detection and availability management technology will provide the gateway for applications to communicate with people in the same way people use various modalities to communicate with each other. Therefore, applications need to be redesigned to be communication and interface independent, relying, hopefully, on new standards for the dynamics of mobile personal contact (not just online or remote connectivity).

All this means we must develop new standards for the multimodal user interface infrastructure before plowing ahead with individual applications that do everything for the unconverged devices we already have.

Arthur M. Rosenberg
Santa Monica, CA

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Don’t Tag Living Organisms

The article "Organic Data Memory Using the DNA Approach" (Jan. 2003) reports on research in which a message is incorporated into the DNA of a living organism. Being able to recognize and understand the message embedded in otherwise natural DNA requires special expertise and equipment. Among several suggested applications, the authors advocate tagging seeds to identify their source.

The authors Wong et al. use the phrases "greedy farmers" and "needy farmers." Neither expertise nor equipment is required to recognize that these phrases are socio-political concepts that do not belong in a technical article. Moreover, the characterization of individuals and groups as greedy is both offensive and threatening. Whatever authority is established to designate particular farmers who are to be considered greedy wields excessive and dangerous power. Likewise, the authority to designate particular farmers as needy creates an opportunity for abuse of power.

This is not the first time I have noted blatantly political content in ACM publications. I therefore recommend ACM adopt and enforce a policy to discourage the use of its publications for political advocacy.

Moreover, the entire proposed scheme of seed tagging is economically and socially disruptive. The practice of collecting, sharing, selling, and trading seeds is almost universal among people who work with or use plants. Would the authors go so far as to advocate fining or otherwise punishing those who receive nonterminating seeds from others? Do they think we need "seed police" to monitor farmers, even the local garden club, to identify which ones are considered greedy and not entitled to use nonterminating seeds? Are they unaware of the extent to which seeds are blown by wind and carried by birds. These natural mechanisms serve to distribute both naturally occurring and genetically modified seeds to neighboring properties and sometimes as far as distant continents. Do they wish to see a new global seed bureaucracy emerge to trample the rights of farmers and other property owners on whose land such seeds might fall and take root?

Another concern is the authors’ proposals advance two problematic trends. The first is to extend the reach of intellectual property law to encompass an ever-increasing share of human artifacts. If this trend continues, we will in due course be required to rent everything and own nothing. The other is the movement to instrument the world, thereby destroying human privacy and individuality.

The authors assert that the proposed technology is "neither impossible nor impractical—only challenging." I suggest that certain potential uses of genetic tagging technology constitute a grave threat to social and economic stability, as well as to human rights. These uses should not be pursued, regardless of the perceived intellectual challenge.

Robert Levine
Sierra Vista, AZ

The article by Wong et al. on using DNA to store information ("Organic Data Memory Using the DNA Approach," Jan. 2003) reminded me of an exhibit I saw some years ago at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (see www.amnh.org/exhibitions/timescapsule/notableentries.html). The New York Times had sponsored a contest to design a durable time capsule. Jaron Lanier and two colleagues proposed encoding the millennial issues of the New York Times Magazine in DNA and storing it in the DNA of cockroaches. They estimated that in 14 years every cockroach in the city would carry the information.

Barry I. Soroka
Pomona, CA

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