February 2001

Real World
Web-wide World
Wired World
Wireless World
Hard World
Soft World

Real World

  • Under the Terrorism Act 2000, which has just come into effect, someone may be a terrorist if they try to "seriously disrupt an electronic system" with a) the intention of threatening or influencing the government or the public, and b) to advance "a political, religious or ideological cause". So, to deface the McDonald's website with anti-meat slogans (to pick an example at random) would presumably qualify as an act of terrorism.
  • A couple of issues back we noted that the Data Protection Registrar's draft code of practice for surveillance in the workplace was somewhat at odds with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (as amended by statutory instrument). Following a large number of responses to this draft code, the Registrar's Office has delayed its response. Its current plan is to release a number of different responses over the year. The current situation as regards employees e-mails therefore remains in flux, with the RIP Bill, the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act all coming in to play.

Web-Wide World

  • Boxmind (www.boxmind.com) has just started up a site showcasing lectures from the good and great in the world of academia. The lectures - available in Windows Media Player format - are supplemented by slides, lecture notes and links to further information, and the whole thing looks very nice (although you do need a decent spec computer and large monitor to make the most of it). The first twelve lectures - provided by the usual media tarts like Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson, Dan Dennett - are currently freely available, but the site will soon move to a payment model, with the major revenue targets being academic institutions.

Wired World

  • [Focus] P2P Networks Revisited

    Napster, as everyone now knows, is a program that allows its users to swap music files across the Internet. The networks formed by Napster users are called 'peer-to-peer' (P2P) networks, because the traffic runs directly between the users, rather than through central servers.

    Central servers are, however, an integral part of the Napster system. These hold the names of each user's files, and also which users are currently online. So if I want song X, I can search a Napster server to get a list of online users with the song. With this information I then perform the actual file transfer by connecting directly to the host.

    The main use of Napster has been illegally to swap copyright-protected music - something that Napster itself admits. This fact led to last June's court case, brought by recording industry heavies. The result of this court case was an injunction against Napster, which was then stayed pending an appeal to the US Court of Appeals. The result of the appeal was published in February, and was not good news for Napster.

    The appeal found that the injunction against Napster was justified because on the balance of evidence Napster is both 'a contributory and vicarious copyright infringer'. That is, Napster both aids copyright infringement and indirectly benefits from it. The crucial point here is that because Napster holds the names of record files on its central servers, it is in the position to police the interaction between users. The only aspect of the Appeal's Court finding that differs from that of the district court is the view that Napster hasn't had an obligation to police the content 'proactively'. Instead, Napster has had (but failed to fulfill) an obligation to clamp down on infringements whenever these are brought to its attention. Recent news suggests that Napster only has an obligation to act when it is informed of the title of an infringing file. Since there are many ways of mizpeling filez, this puts a huge burden on the recording industry.

    The - quite readable - text of the Appeal Court's finding is available (for now at least) from www.napster.com/legalupdate.

    Napster is responding to the current legal situation by trying to move quickly to a subscription model, giving it the revenue to pay royalties. At the time of writing it is also trying desperately to introduce a content filtering system for its directory servers. It's not clear how all this will play out, but certainly the army of users who have grown used to free content are not happy. The most common suggestion found in the chatrooms is to move from Napster to one of the less popular clones (eg Gnutella), in the overoptimistic belief that it will be possible to stay indefinitely one step ahead of the regulators.

    A more interesting idea, however, is that it might be possible to have a Napster-like service which lacks the central servers altogether. The directories needed to support search functionality could be 'virtual', their implementation distributed amongst Napster users. This would make for much less efficient searching, and higher network traffic overheads, but it would have the effect of removing any central body responsible for policing the traffic. The record companies would then have to come after the individual users - something they have been reluctant to do in the past, for fear of a consumer backlash.

    Finally, we note with some amusement that an application 'Aimster' has sprung up, whose purpose is to circumvent the current Napster restrictions. Aimster works by scrambling the names of a user's mp3 files according to a fixed algorithm. This defeats Napster's content filter, but the user can still search for the files he wants by running search terms through the same algorithm. Now, Napster could, it is true, filter all restricted file names as scrambled by Aimster. But in order to do so without checking each name manually, it would need to know the scrambling algorithm. And since this would mean hacking into Aimster, it would have to infringe the very copyright law under which it is currently being sued.
  • A recent Guardian Online supplement contained an extended report on a games console called 'Cybiko', which apparently is currently all the rage in the US. The beastie in question is a hand-held computer hooked up to a two-way radio. One Cybiko can talk to up to 99 other Cybikos (Cybiki?), allowing for text messaging and multiperson gaming. The range of the radio is quite short, between 50-200m. However, messages are allowed to 'hop' across multiple consoles (so Adam's message might go to Charlie via Bob), which means that peer-to-peer networks can be created. Given a big enough market penetration, then, the range offered to a Cybiko can be large.

    At the moment the Cybiko doesn't support the exchange of MP3 files. But technology does have a way of moving on...
  • In the wake of the Napster case, a widely-criticised company called ShareSniffer has just started up. The software provided by this company allows the user to scan for 'open shares' - computer directories which can be accessed over the Internet without the need of a password. The justification is that groups of users with open shares can form P2P networks.

    The trouble is that users often expose their drives to the Internet by mistake. Locating unintentional open shares is a standard ploy of hackers, who are at liberty to install software effectively to take over the exposed computer. So don't expect ShareSniffer to be the future of P2P.

Wireless World

  • Microsoft has recently unveiled its latest attempt to break into the mobile telephony market. Its 'Stinger' platform is designed for 'smart phones' - a hybrid between 'feature' phones (eg standard WAP phones) and Portable Data Assistants (eg Ipaqs). Stinger phones will originally run over GSM and CDMA networks (GSM is what we have at the moment, CDMA will be a little better). The browser planned for the platform is to support each of HTML, WAP (WML) and XML.

    Anyone worried about the quality of the forthcoming Stinger phones will no doubt be reassured by the fact that one its 'Key Goals' is to 'Be a great phone'.

Hard World

  • Not much of non-geek interest happening recently on the hardware front.

Soft World

  • Operating system usage statistics for the year 2000 have become available. In both the desktop and server markets, Microsoft and Linux were the only OS' to increase market share. In the former, Microsoft increased its domination to a 92 percent market share and Linux rocketed to 2 percent. In the server market Windows was at 41 percent, Linux at 27 (with other Unix types at 14), and Novell at 17 percent.

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