Architecture and Hardware Letters to the Editor

U.S. Does Not Control the Internet

  1. Introduction
  2. Author's Response
  3. Just the Facts... for Ethics Sake
  4. Planned [Software] Immortality
  5. Cyberstalking Already Addressed
  6. Ismail Cem Bakir Freed from Jail
  7. Footnotes
Letters to the Editor

In his editor’s letter "The End of The American Network" (Nov. 2013), Moshe Y. Vardi made this startling statement: "Thus, in spite of its being a globally distributed system, the Internet is ultimately controlled by the U.S. government. This enables the U.S. government to conduct Internet surveillance operations that would have been impossible without this degree of control." This is untrue on several levels: First, so-called U.S. control of the Internet is limited to approval of root-zone changes of the Domain Name System, though the U.S. has never exercised that authority against any top-level delegation or re-delegation proposed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (http://www.icann.org), the not-for-profit organization that oversees the Internet’s naming and numbering system. In addition, root-zone servers exist outside the U.S., and any heavy-handed attempt by the U.S. government to exercise unwarranted control over the contents of the zone would be international political suicide and likely cause a near immediate takeover by operators in other countries. Second, this administrative function has nothing to do with the routing of information on the Internet and does not provide any agency of the U.S. government any advantage for surveillance of Internet traffic.

Although the topology of the early Internet was such that much of the world’s traffic flowed through the U.S., it was a historical artifact of the Internet’s early development. More recently, the pattern changed radically, with Internet topology evolving into a more comprehensive global mesh structure.

Vardi’s repetition of spurious and incorrect claims, often made for political reasons by other countries, gives credence to ignorance while illustrating the extent to which a knee-jerk reaction generated by Edward Snowden’s recent disclosures concerning the National Security Agency’s surveillance of personal communications worldwide has been unthinkingly adopted by otherwise presumably sensible individuals. A retraction of Vardi’s statement is essential to confirm ACM is a professional organization, not a thoughtless echo chamber for uninformed sentiment.

George Sadowsky, Woodstock, VT (The author is a member of the ICANN Board of Directors)

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Author’s Response

I am not an Internet expert and am happy to be educated by Internet insiders like Sadowsky. But the revelations that have poured out for the past many months resulted in a massive loss of public trust in insiders. It behooves Internet insiders like Sadowsky to speak up and explain precisely what role the U.S. government plays in Internet governance and what has enabled the massive Internet surveillance operations run by the National Security Agency. Only more transparency, rather than vehement denials, may begin the process of rebuilding the public’s trust in insiders.

Moshe Y. Vardi, Editor-in-Chief

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Just the Facts… for Ethics Sake

Katina Michael’s and MG Michael’s "Computer Ethics" column "No Limits to Watching?" (Nov. 2013) was marred by a careless discussion of HeLa, an immortal line of human-derived cells that is today an important tool for biomedical research since being derived from a sample of cervical cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks, a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, in 1951.

The Michaels said Henrietta Lacks’s "…cells were ‘taken without her knowledge.’ " In fact, she had a biopsy, like millions of other cancer patients. They further said, "Until this year… HeLa cells were ‘bought and sold…’ without compensation." The understanding agreed in August between the National Institutes of Health and Lacks’s family was, in fact, about access to genomic data, not compensation. Lacks’s granddaughter Jeri Lacks Whye even said to the NIH: "The Lacks family is honored to be part of an important agreement that we believe will be beneficial to everyone."

The oncologists treating Lacks should indeed have asked her whether they could reuse her cells for research. But monetary payment in such cases could lead toward a market in human body parts. Your body is "yours" in many senses of the word, but not in the sense that you may sell it. This is a consequence of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and other anti-slavery laws around the world.

The Michaels further said, "Consider the story of Henrietta Lacks, whom scientists named ‘HeLa.’ " In my experience, even this is inaccurate. I have heard many scientists say they work with "HeLa cells," as well as with BL321 cells and CHO DG44 cells not of human origin. When I have heard them speak of Henrietta Lacks, they have called her by her full name.

The Michaels rightly said, "There is a stark asymmetry between those who use wearables and those who do not. … Maker or hacker communities … create personalized devices … [which] often [are] commercialized for mass consumption." I suspect they were trying to reinforce this point by saying if "scientists" disrespected Henrietta Lacks, then perhaps engineers devising wearable devices today would likewise be disrespectful of bystanders in the field of view.

Such lazy generalizations about scientists can hardly help readers like me address the ethical challenges we face.

Chris Morris, Chester, U.K.

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Planned [Software] Immortality

I could not disagree more with Marshall Van Alstyne’s column paean to mortality "Why Not Immortality?" (Nov. 2013) because, unlike the living creatures and appliances he modeled, there is no aspect of software that cannot be designed to evolve. Software becomes obsolete and must be replaced only if its designers do not design for immortality. Consider our cities. Although Julius Caesar would not recognize Paris or Rome today as the places he knew, they existed long before his time, and will continue to exist long after mine. We do not abandon cities and replace them with new ones; cities live forever because we continuously reinvent and renew them. Over time, neighborhoods built for horses and wagons have evolved to suit cars. Office parks replace factories. But even as they morph, cities live on, except in the rare instance when one is destroyed by natural disaster or by war. Although nothing short of the universe itself is truly immortal—and even that is in doubt—it is time to stop viewing software through the automobile designer’s mind-set of planned obsolescence and view it instead through the urban planner’s mind-set. Great software should last forever but can do so only if its designers think of it that way, investing in continuous reengineering to make it happen.

K.S. Bhaskar, Malvern, PA

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Cyberstalking Already Addressed

Esther Shein’s news item "Ephemeral Data" (Sept. 2013) said the ex-boyfriend of a woman in Florida had posted nude photos of her online and that the woman now wanted a law to "criminalize ‘cyberstalking’ " in Florida. I would like to point out this would be a waste of her time since Florida already has a cyberstalking law under state statute 784.048 subsection 1.d. Moreover, I do not see how enacting such a law has anything to do with being stalked in the first place since the legal definition of stalking involves (as defined by the Florida Legislature) "…willful, malicious harassment or following evinced by a course of conduct over a period of time, no matter how short, including any acts of credible threats to one’s safety, the safety of those close to that person, or the safety of the person’s family members."

Since the photos of the Florida woman allegedly exist, one can assume she consented to them being taken. If not, another Florida law comes into play concerning voyeurism. If the woman indeed consented to the photos, she should have thought about having them taken in the first place, since we all know relationships do not necessarily last forever. By the way, nude photos do not constitute porn.

Anthony Cunarro, Palm Beach, FL

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Ismail Cem Bakir Freed from Jail

My letter "Free Ismail Cem Bakir" (Oct. 2013) concerned Istanbul Technical University computer student Ismail Cem Bakir, who had been arrested and illegally imprisoned by the Turkish government in July following anti-government protests in June. I am now pleased to say he has been released, with all charges dropped. I sent the letter to my colleague, Vladimir Lifschitz, of the University of Texas, who was to lecture at the 29th International Conference on Logic Programming in Istanbul, August 24–29, and who then took time to speak on this violation of Bakir’s human rights.

Several weeks later, a computer scientist, fluent in Turkish and who attended Lifschitz’s lecture, informed him the Turkish government had indeed released Bakir, finding this information in a search of the Turkish website "ITU Gezi Forum #8"; Gezi is the park in Istanbul that was at the center of anti-government protests.

The translation he sent said 29 people, mostly university students, including Bakir, had been arrested and held illegally for four days, quoting Bakir saying "…he was in the stands to watch the graduation ceremony on July 8, and that he noticed plain-clothes police officers, summoned by the administration, taking photos of him and of many others like him. He said that might be one of the reasons he was taken into custody. He thanked his professors and friends who didn’t leave him alone during his time in custody and in the Çağlayan courthouse."

Publicizing information on and support for our colleagues can be critical when their scientific freedom and human rights are at risk. As seen from Bakir’s statement, his colleagues helped his cause and improved his morale while doing no harm. Publicity in Communications and other journals is also extremely useful.

Jack Minker, College Park, MD

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