15th > October > 2000 Archive

Washington Roundup

US Senator Slade Gorton (Republican, Washington State) took to the airwaves with a polemic rant defending his beloved Microsoft from malevolent federal regulators and judges, during the weekly Republican radio address which he delivered on Saturday. "Unfortunately the Clinton-Gore Administration does not get it. Look at the case it brought against Microsoft. This Administration believes that nobody should be free to succeed too much," Gorton declared. "So, what are the consequences of this suit to us, our children and our future?" According to Gorton nothing less than the twin horrors of denying "freedom of companies and entrepreneurs around the country to innovate, succeed, and continue expanding our economy," and "more government regulation and more litigation." Damn, that sounds serious..... Europe may be ready to bless the AOL/Time Warner nuptials, but the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has dug in its heels over language in a memo of understanding from the pair related to broadband access for third-party small fry, and could go so far as seek a preliminary injunction if its concerns are not addressed adequately. This could get tricky; while the betrothed have the right to appeal any such action, if the appellate court rules against them, a lengthy trial would have to commence. And even more sticky, regardless of the fallout with the FTC, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is waiting in the wings with its own magnifying glass..... The federal government risks competing unfairly with the private-sector in on-line commerce, according to a new report by industry front group the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA). The report proposes rules which industry would like to see the government following as it ventures into cyberspace backed by vast war chests of public money. The study cites the United States Postal Service's eBillPay programme as a prime example of the government treading on commerce's patch. Other federal services are ranked from good, to potentially threatening, to clearly intrusive..... The spam wars are heating up in state courts, and may soon boil over into the federal circuit. Most recently, New Hampshire fax, voice and imaging software outfit Black Ice is suing a California spam scrubber called Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS) for appending them to a "Black Hole List" which screens junk e-mail. "The wrongful listing of Black Ice on MAPS and the labelling of Black Ice as a 'spammer' by MAPS resulted in a substantial loss of Black Ice's Internet and e-mail services and damaged Black Ice's business reputation," the company wrote in its court filing. "MAPS is, by its nature, a magnet for lawsuits," the defendant observes. With this in mind the organisation has started a legal defence fund to which it hopes concerned Netizens will contribute..... Libertarian Party Presidential hopeful Harry Browne spoke at Microsoft's Redmond campus on Friday, addressing a sympathetic audience. Browne has often criticised the US Department of Justice for pursuing an antitrust action against the company, while the Libertarian Party distrusts antitrust enforcement in general. Funny how these guys have the wisdom not to trust the government, yet the stupidity to trust Big Business..... Internet gambling (or 'gaming', according to the industry's preferred euphemistic spin) has come to Nevada, much to the chagrin of Congressional opponents. The slick Virtgame.com Web site is the first licensed on-line gambling joint, enabling (we nearly wrote 'empowering') victims to squander their hard-earned fortunes on sporting events. The Nevada Gaming Control Board (note euphemism) approved the deal after the company, Coast Resorts, persuaded officials that its advanced software security techniques would prevent out-of-state fools from placing bets from beyond state boundaries. We can't wait to see what the hacking underground will make of this one..... Legendary phreaker Kevin Mitnick suggests that the federal government should curb identity theft by developing a central database of DNA or other biometric data so nasty people can't pretend to be someone else. "I think the government has to establish some sort of central database that uses biometric identifiers, such as your DNA, that can label you as you. This might eliminate a lot of identity theft, because anyone can apply for credit by supplying information over the phone," Mitnick told Yahoo! Internet Life during an interview. He hasn't changed much since his incarceration; he's still exceptionally bright, and still incredibly foolish..... The Senate on Thursday voted in favour of a House bill called the National Defence Authorization Conference Report (HR 4205) which would reduce the time Congress would get to review changes to computer export controls, from 180 to 60 days. The Senate also obstructed legislation passed in the House to increase penalties for export control violations. Someone, apparently, wants to sell supercomputers to China so they can continue to design way cool nuclear warheads just like ours..... Senators Jon Kyl (Republican, Arizona) and Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, California) introduced the Cyber Security Enhancement Act (S-3188) Wednesday, calling for 'greater protection' of critical US infrastructure against malicious crackers, cyber-terrorists and hostile foreign governments. The legislation would allow companies to 'fess up to disgraceful weaknesses in their on-line networks without fear of having their trousers pulled down in public by concerned busybodies trying to use the Freedom of Information Act against them..... ®
Thomas C Greene, 15 Oct 2000

Integrate your credits cards into Windows? MS buys dodgy patent

Microsoft has bought a new ludicrous patent to add to its collection. That of course is not quite how the company describes US patent 5,655,089 - according to Redmond Innovation Central: "The patent protects electronic payments technology that will be integrated into future Microsoft initiatives." Cool? Well, you decide. The patent was granted to Joseph Bucci on August 5th 1997, goes on about paper and envelopes a lot, and relates to the consolidation of multiple bills from unrelated companies into a single mailing sent to participating consumers. This is how Bucci's application says it works: "The method forms a computer database of addressee information; merges with that database all such record information provided by subscribers; prints out one or more sheets, preferably on both sides, of all information intended for designated recipients during the time period in question; and allows for a single mailing of such sheets in a single envelope." Any of you who've ploughed through pages and pages of supercomplex and largely unintelligle semiconductor patent applications will be surprised/relieved to learn that that is it. Bucci's application for a "Method for the consolidation summarization and transmission of a plurality of mailable materials" says something of this ilk several times over a commendably short document, but it's the sort of invention any of us might hit on while waiting for the kettle to boil - rock on, US patent office. What it means is simply that billing organisations can participate in a clearing house system whereby participating subscribers get just the one summary bill every month, and can pay the lot with one cheque if they like. The clever bit, such as it is, seems to be merging the database info, or maybe printing on two sides of a sheet of paper. Wow. You can see why, if this sort of tosh is defensible, Microsoft might want the patent. Bucci seems to have largely envisaged snailmail as the transport when he applied back in 1992, but it obviously works better if done electronically. And actually, it probably wouldn't work too well by mail, because you'd surely look at the summary, wonder how you spent this big sum on, say, Amex, then demand details - exit the single sheet of paper printed on two sides. A convenient MSN-based (oh yes) centralised billing and payment system "integrated into future Microsoft initiatives" (oh yes oh yes) could work very nicely. Microsoft takes the hassle out of your financials, right? Microsoft also holds an awful lot of your financial records, and equally importantly, your financial records are all consolidated in the one place. So there are all sorts of potential advantages (not for you) in terms of credit checking, fighting tax evasion and general-purpose snooping. To an extent the amount of this that happens kind of depends on how much They think they can get away with, but it'd obviously be a tempting target for investigators, security services and general-purpose hackers, even without the traditional security holes. Bucci touches on this in between repeating the database merge mantra, suggesting the method could have applications in terms of identifying consumers' buying patterns, which indeed it could. But if it's defensible (yes, we know it shouldn't be), it could help Microsoft establish a strong (dare we say monopoly?) position in the operation and management of consumer billing systems. Would consumers pay for the convenience? Could banks, credit card companies and retailers be forced to pay a gatekeeper fee? Both? Endless possibilities based on the flimsiest of foundations - hats off to the US patent office... ® Related story: Why ludicrous patents are WRONG
John Lettice, 15 Oct 2000

Gorton hangs trial on Gore – will MS become an election issue?

The Microsoft trial has shuffled closer to the centre stage of the presidential election, following an attack on the US government and the case by Senator Slade Gorton. Gorton getting stuck into the DoJ isn't exactly news; as the senator for Washington, Microsoft's home state, he's been defending our boys' freedom to innovate stoutly all along the way - but this time it's kind of official, making the trial much more likely to turn into a stick for the Bush campaign to beat Gore with. Gorton's latest lash-out took place on Saturday, in the weekly GOP radio address, and was largely a determined effort to hang the antritrust albatross around Gore's neck. The Clinton-Gore administration does of course have ultimate responsibility for what happens to Microsoft, but Gore would prefer to be seen as loftily and responsibly not interfering in the judicial process. Bush himself is somewhat more aligned with Gorton, but it'd look bad if he just flat-out announced that after victory, he'd pull the plugs on the whole show. That would be interfering with the judicial process in spades. So enter the good senator for Redmond, whose broadcast on behalf of the GOP can be used to send out messages without overly incriminating Dubya. (We at The Register, by the way, have no great problem with Gorton doing his job on behalf of his electorate and their sources of employ - the senator for Novell does pretty much the same for the other camp, and 'tis the way of the world.) Gorton's pitch in his new (semi-?) official role was in line with his previous pronouncements. The "Clinton-Gore administration's proposed solution is almost too amazing to be true," he says, neatly slicing through several layers of the judiciary in order to attach the tin can to Gore. The administration's solution, he adds in a somewhat imaginatively inaccurate precis of Judge Jackson's verdict, "is to break up the company and put government employees in positions to supervise a divided Microsoft company." He rams this home by suggesting "software developers [will] have to check in with the federal government every time they get a new idea," and slides gracefully into the Big Picture with: "We understand that the best role for government is to allow our workers to continue to create new and better products that enrich our lives - free from the federal government's heavy hand of regulation." If this one plays, Gorton has plenty more ammunition, as he's obviously a lot more directly concerned with saving Microsoft from the noose than Bush is. Gorton's previous pronouncements include: "Every other time Al Gore's campaigned in our state he's managed to dodge questions about the Microsoft legal action. But we think it's time his feet were held to the fire. What exactly does he think about the Microsoft lawsuit? If he were president, would he support the Microsoft breakup? Do you support your Justice Department's attempt to turn Microsoft into a government-run software company? Do you really think that software will be improved by having Microsoft employees check in with the federal government every time they have a new idea? C'mon, Mr. Gore - we're waiting for your answers... "This trial started as a sham, was a sham throughout the process, and ends as a sham... According to the crazy logic of this administration, though, if you're successful you must be punished.  Slade has stood squarely on the side of freedom and innovation from day one, and he will continue to do so... "The Clinton-Gore Justice Department should abandon its effort to tear down a company that has been a tremendous creator of jobs and prosperity in the Northwest. The government should get out of the high tech business and allow the thousands of Microsoft employees to continue to create new products that improve and enrich our lives." That's the sort of stuff Gorton has been saying all along, and of itself it's not news. But if the Bush campaign detects positive feedback from his broadcast, it could well become the sort of thing Dubya starts saying too, and the case would then become a major issue. Meaning big Big Government problems for Al and, not entirely inconceivably, a Microsoft election. ® Related story: This week's Washington Roundup Little helper for MS and Bush says sorry, keeps both jobs
John Lettice, 15 Oct 2000

This music will self destruct in 5 plays: RIAA looks to the future

AnalysisAnalysis The RIAA's announcement last week that it would develop a digital music ID system probably is the last desperate throw of an outflanked and outmoded industry, but it'll likely get worse before it gets better. The RIAA tries to pitch its system as a positive move for "future on-line music commerce," but there's a more ominous quote a little further down the food chain: "Very soon, licence terms will be associated with the digital information asset itself, and content protection technology will require that consumers comply with those terms." Our emphasis, of course. This does not sound like an inoffensive, relatively neutral system that simply keeps track of the amounts music download operations should pay in royalties. Au contraire, friends, the clear message is that if you don't pay as you play your music will erase itself, and maybe even mail your details to the FBI while it's about it. The quote itself is not from the RIAA, but from Rightscom, the British consulting outfit that will be managing development for the RIAA. But one can presume that Rightscom's views regarding the future of music sales and copy protection will have some considerable influence on the nature of the ID system developed, so the presence of self-destruct systems can be seen as an ultimate objective, if not a feature of the first rev of the software. Although the RIAA itself hasn't gone this far in public, its suggested uses for the technology imply a fairly robust level of protection, and - surely - a conveniently drastic revision of the legal definitions of 'fair use.' Music will have embedded in it identifiers and limitations on use, so for example you could own it for a set number of days, or for a set number of plays. You could, says RIAA general counsel Cary Sherman, buy one-time access to a database of 100 songs to play during a party. You could view that as meaning that people could buy cheap access to 100 songs they didn't have, just so they could make their party go better, or more suspicious people might think of it as the beginnings of a cunning plan to make you pay for the songs you play in public, at your party. Chaos and madness lies down the latter road, but we'll get back to that. We should however note that the legal toleration of home taping for personal use is a major obstacle for the recording industry's efforts to police copyright. If copying was just plain illegal, as with other software, their lives would be a lot simpler. So go figure. According to Sherman: "The record industry world-wide needs an infrastructure that will facilitate new digital delivery systems for music systems. An effective identification system for digital files, that is capable of specifying each unique sound recording, in all its forms, is a key element of this infrastructure." Just a slight dose of chaos and madness here to whet your appetite: How does a unique sound recording know it's unique, and not a copy? If it's a recording sold to an individual for home play, how does it know it's not being played at a rave party in a barn in Gloucestershire? If it's being played at a party, how does it know if you're taking money at the door, rather than just having a few friends round? At the moment Sherman explains the system as having data encoded in the header of the file that will allow rights holders to track royalty payments, depending on use, but as Rightscom is still at the specifying stage, and sounds decidedly more hawkish, the end product could be a lot tougher than that sounds. Surely, though, it's a fool's errand. If you put the data in the header, then it can be stripped out fairly easily. But it can probably also be removed if you built it into the file itself as a watermark, and even if that was difficult, there are all sorts of likely holes in the system that could only be plugged by some kind of global digital police state. If you can copy the file, and you wind up with, say, 100 people who own the same file with the same ID, how do you tell who actually paid for it? And if you can tell who actually paid for it, doesn't that imply a rather more transactional system than rev 1.0 sounds like? Music (today) is also something you buy for life, whereas encryption systems as we know them are just for Christmas. Anything you buy now will be trivial to crack in two years, tops, so your new smart music tracks will be as dumb as your old dumb ones RSN. Even if for some reason you can't digitally copy the file, any audio recording equipment that doesn't understand your nice new ID system will surely just copy it anyway. So they need some kind of system that makes a bizarre, unpleasant noise, say like an Iron Butterfly track*, mysteriously record on the analogue equipment instead of whatever it was you tried to record. Or they need some kind of combo ID-encryption system that cunningly manages to retain its integrity after being transferred to tape, and magically reappears when you put it back to a digital PC format. All of this is no doubt possible, given enough recording industry bucks to throw at crazed boffins, and its even possible that those bucks could be used to arrange for new audio equipment to be chipped so that it did understand the terms and conditions of the wonderful new music format. But then the old stuff has to be made illegal everywhere, all your old tapes and CDs have to be illegal too, and the offering of a non-IDed track for copying must in itself become illegal. Even the music business can't buy enough fingers to plug this dam - face it, people, it's over. * Actually, there's a possible upside here. If selected atrocities - Grandad, the Birdie Song, Ebony and Ivory - could be irretrievably associated with piracy, it'd make pirates think thrice, and we'd never have to hear them in a public place again, right? ® Related items: usic biz to define digital music ID system Register Full Coverage: The Napster Controversy
John Lettice, 15 Oct 2000