October 2001

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

Real World

  • As the after-effects of the September 11th bombings play out across the globe, the Internet has been a fertile medium for the creation of urban myths and hoaxes. An interesting collection is cited and debunked at: http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/28/22200.html. It does seem, however, that the best of these is in fact true: supporters of Osama Bin Laden did indeed take from the Internet a spoof picture of Osama with Bert from Sesame Street, and use it on their posters.
  • The UK Census 2001 has seen 'Jedi' classed for the first time as a religion. At 896th in the list, the proportion of Jedi Knights in the population is presently rather low (roughly equal to the proportion of fat, balding IT managers), but this response still managed to beat 'Heathen', 'Atheist' and 'None'.
  • [FOCUS]

    The 24th of October saw the start of the second transitional phase of the Data Protection Act (1998). Under this law UK companies should be ready to hand over whatever personal data they possess on someone - whether electronically or on paper - for a fee of no more than 10 GBP. Failure to comply with this requirement can attract fines of up to 5,000 GBP.

    Whilst companies have been preparing their databases and filing cabinets for compliance, however, they have not been paying quite as much attention to their web sites. In particular, sites using UK servers, that collect identifying personal information about their visitors, need to be quite careful. For example, a web-site that collect information about the identity of its visitors must not only ensure that the information collected is secure, but also organise these data in such a way as to make them available upon request.

    On top of this, sites should also tell their users what information is being collected, how it is going to be used and who will have access to it. Those with privacy statements on their sites are ahead of the game here, but they may still have work to do. The point is that the nature of any personal information collected, and its subsequent use, must be made clear to the user 'at or before the point of collection'. The individual's consent must also be gained for certain uses of this information..

    Mainland Europe is actually a little ahead of the UK here, as most European states require an 'opt in' element for forms gathering personal information. Legislation going through the EC may soon mean that the UK follows along the same lines and so the Data Protection Commissioner (soon to be renamed the 'Information Commissioner') suggests that UK sites adopt the same policy as "best practice". At the moment, however, many UK sites use a weaker 'opt out' procedure.

    The most worrying aspect of the lax attitude towards notification and consent procedures, however, is the fact that most Internet users aren't savvy enough about their data protection rights to enforce compliance through complaint or rejection. This state of affairs hasn't been helped by the one major initiative to address public ignorance.

    On the 30/2/01 the Data Protection Commissioner and the National Consumer council announced a joint initiative to improve public awareness of data protection issues. Central to the campaign is a new graphic called the 'Information Padlock'. This graphic, which represents a padlock in the 'open' position, is to be used on forms requesting personal data, indicating that these forms are 'open' about their data practices (for more information on this see http://www.dataprotection.gov.uk).

    Unfortunately, however, surfers are used to images of open and closed padlocks indicating, respectively, 'secure' and 'non-secure' sites. Since in most cases one doesn't want to entrust personal information to a non-secure site, the choice of image for the 'Information Padlock' is clearly a bad one. This may account for the trouble that the Data Protection Commissioner has had in persuading sites to use it.

Web-Wide World

  • A new programming language called Curl is currently being pushed as 'the future of the Web'. From its description it seems something like Flash, except with more of an emphasis on the programming side of things. Like Flash, to run Curl content on your browser requires the browser to have the appropriate plug-in (called 'Surge').

    From a PR perspective, it has some good cards to play. For instance, all of DARPA (from whence sprang the Internet), MIT, and Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the Web) have been involved in its development. On the other hand, commercial use of Curl content is not free: the Curl Corporation's white paper 'Business Case' states that "Curl charges Web content providers on a usage basis". In which case it seems to us highly unlikely that Curl will be the future of the web, especially in light of the current hoo-ha over RAND licences (see the article in Wired World).

    If you would like more information on Curl, the website is: http://www.curl.com/html/technology/technology.jsp
  • Last month's newsletter trailed a forthcoming article on the Platform for Privacy Preferences Project (P3P). This article is now up on our site at: P3P Tutorial. The article introduces P3P, discusses the kind of criticisms that have been made of it, and provides links to further resources.
  • Those who see Microsoft as the evil empire were given further ammunition this month as it transpired that msn.com - Microsoft's portal - was only serving up pages to Microsoft's own browser, Internet Explorer. Users of alternative browsers like Netscape, Opera, etc. were being turned away with the message that their browsers were unable to render the site correctly.

    Following criticisms of its policy, a hapless Microsoft spokesman decided to fan the flames a little by claiming that the reason for the exclusion was that the other browsers were insufficiently standards compliant. The reader can probably imagine the expressions of gobsmacked increduality which met this comment, and Microsoft backed down fairly soon after.

Wired World

  • Something of a hoo-ha (comes between a kerfuffle and a rumpus) blew up at the start of this month, in response to a draft report of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C is the standards organisation which deals with the specifying open protocols for the Internet (HTTP, HTML, etc), and the report in question concerned its policy on patented software technology.

    Throughout its short history, the Internet has been built primarily on free and open standards. There have always been some aspects of it which have become popular despite being restricted in some way, but these have not been ratified by the W3C. Furthermore, in such cases the W3C has tried (with limited success) to promote open alternatives. For example, the GIF picture format and the Flash animation format are each to some extent proprietary, and the W3C would be happy to see them replaced by the PNG and SVG formats respectively.

    The dispute arose because the W3C draft suggested that in future the W3C might consider making standards out of formats covered by RAND - 'Reasonable, Non-Discriminatory' - licences. The reasonableness and non-discriminatoriness of these licences is legal rather than moral, residing in the fact that the patent holder must offer all licences at a fixed price, regardless of the status of the licencee. As some critics have noted, if the fixed price is high enough to exclude everyone apart from big business, such licences could in fact be highly discriminatory in the everyday sense.

    Once the proposal was spotted by netizens at large - in fact only several days before the end of the period reserved for feedback - a campaign was mounted to force the W3C to back down. So far this campaing is proving fairly successful, with the W3C agreeing firstly to take evidence from prominent software libre campaigners, and secondly to produce a further draft report in a few months. We will bring you more information when this draft arrives - if you can't wait, the W3C maintains a list of news articles at: http://www.w3.org/Press/Articles

    Addendum: in the last few days Tim Berners Lee, the talismanic inventor of the web, has started to make noises against the W3C accepting RAND licences.

Wireless World

  • A company called 'LaserBit Communications' claims that it has invented a system allowing 100Mbit network connections by infrared laser over distances of up to 5km. The system apparently compensates for effects of bad weather, refraction, etc., and won't cook passing birds.
  • Two Australian composers now claim to hold the copyright for all possible mobile phone melodies, after printing out the results of their simple iterative algorithm. The idea behind their stunt is, apparently, to highlight concerns about businesses claiming ownership of DNA strands. The way in which their scheme really doesn't have many parallels with the gene-patenting debate does rather detract from their message, but it has to be admitted that their crazy prank did prove useful on an otherwise slow news day.

Hard World

  • According to online IT news site The Register (http://www.theregister.co.uk/), Intel is planning to persuade PC manufacturers to phase out floppy disk drives from new machines. With a capacity of only 1.4 Meg, floppy disks compare extremely poorly with the alternative of rewritable CDs, and Apple has already stopped fitting floppy disk drives into their new Macs, so the news from Intel isn't too shocking.
  • Michael Jackson's new CD 'Rock My World' incorporates measures designed to stop it working in PC CD drives. The measures are obviously designed to stop users 'ripping' (copying) the tracks into audio files. The copy protection has raised two kinds of criticisms. Firstly, from those who are concerned about the audio quality of CDs, since the protection works by creating subtle distortions into the CD. Secondly, from those who complain that their 'fair use' copying rights have been infringed.
  • Online hardware site Tom's Hardware has been testing how currently available processors cope with the overheating caused by failure of their heatsinks (the heatsink being the gizmo that dissipates the heat generated by the processor). Because there are a number of ways that such heatsinks can fail - they can become dislodged, or their internal fans can stop working - the fate of the chips they protect is important.

    Four processors were tested: a P4 2Ghz, P3 1Ghz, Athlon (thunderbird) 1,4Ghz and AthlonMP 1.2Ghz (Palamino) processor. The results show that the P4 processor survived best, due to an internal mechanism that slows it to a speed which is safe for its temperature. The P3 responded to the excess heating by hanging the system, but no permanent damage was done. The Athlon processors, however, died a horrible death, rapidly reaching temperatures capable of destroying the chips and their motherboard.

    The full article describing these tests is available at http://www.tomshardware.com/cpu/01q3/010917/index.html. A subsequent article http://www.tomshardware.com/column/01q4/011029/index.html notes that AMD engineers have demonstrated a solution to the frying of the Palomino processor, but no motherboards currently support this solution.

Soft World

  • Microsoft's 'simplified' software licencing arrangements for companies have come under fire from many of its business customers. In a nutshell, the effects of these changes are as follow. If you upgrade your Microsoft software regularly, you will do somewhat better than before. But if you upgrade your Microsoft software infrequently, you will do somewhat worse than before.

    By employing this stick and carrot, Microsoft is clearly trying to tempt companies into accepting a kind of rental model of Microsoft business software. But it is also leading some companies to look more seriously at open source software. In relation to this point, it is interesting to note reports that Amazon.com, the online retailer, has saved some 17 million US dollars in the last quarter, partly as a result of moving its servers to Linux.

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