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[FYI] (Fwd) <nettime> A report of "Computers, Freedom and Privacy 20
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Date sent: Mon, 10 Apr 2000 00:32:07 -0400
Subject: <nettime> A report of "Computers, Freedom and Privacy 2000"
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Ana Viseu)
A report of "Computers, Freedom and Privacy 2000"
"Challenging the assumptions" was the theme of this year's 'Computers,
Freedom and Privacy' conference (April 4-7). The tenth edition of CFP
was held in Toronto and, as usual, it brought together professionals
from a broad range of fields: computer scientists, lawyers, business,
journalists, academics, NGOs and students.
Reversing the chronological order of things I start my review with the
last session entitled "Ten Years of CFP: Looking back, looking
forward", because it condensed and made visible two themes that
underlied the feeling of this conference. The first has to do with a
shift from 'whether the Net will be regulated' --a concern which
prevailed in the first editions of CFP-- to a concern with 'who will
regulate it' --that dominated this year's conference. Adding to this
point, Simon Davies (Privacy International) spoke of a struggle
between 'us' (computer scientists, privacy advocates, etc) and 'them'
(business and government). The second, has to do with the delicate
balance between concepts such as freedom and privacy. How can we make
them work together, and if they don't which should prevail?
These issues were dealt with in a variety of contexts that ranged from
the 'domain name system', to children's rights, intellectual property,
surveillance and technological determinism, amongst others .
Although the 'domain name system' and its regulation was a hot topic,
after debating it for almost two mornings the only conclusion that one
can arrive to is that it is a dead topic. On one hand, nobody seems to
applaud the ICANN initiative for it resembles too much a political
instrument; on the other, nobody can provide feasible alternatives
. Jerry Berman (Center for Democracy and Technology) summarized
this position well when saying that ICANN should be concerned only
with issues of management of the domain names. The rest, he said,
should be in the hands of the government and the different
organizations that lobby there. It goes without saying that the above
mentioned government is the American one, and that the 'lobby groups'
are also American.
Another hot topic, and the one that created the most heated
discussion, was that of 'net filters' and children's rights. With two
defendants and two opponents the panel on "Views of the Bertelsmann
Foundation's self-regulation of internet content proposal" was the
best place to see the inextricabilities of the concepts of freedom and
privacy. The proposal's supporters argued for the need to 'protect our
children', for the self-regulating aspect of the proposal, and for the
innocuous character of labeling devices. The opponents replied with
the real danger of institutional use of these filtering systems as
mechanisms of control (what happens when a website falsely self-rates
itself?…), and with the global homogeneity of the filtering systems
themselves because, in fact, there is no filtering system that, for
example, has a category for media monopolies… Christopher Hunter
(Annenberg School of Communication) brought up the danger of pushing
idiosyncratic speech to the 'no-man's land' of the web and the subsequ
ent homogenization of content. As it is, he said, 80% of the traffic
goes to 5% of the sites.
An issue that the panelists did not question, but that is of the
greatest importance, is that of giving unlimited power to parents to
decide for their children. In countries such as the U.S. and Canada,
where a 'zero tolerance' policy is already in place in schools it is
urgent to consider if implementing filtering systems at home will not
lead to the creation of children that are unable to deal with any
situation that falls beyond the lines delineated by others and that
lack a capacity for self-critical thinking. Besides, why assume that
the Net is more powerful than any other media in perverting our
children and that, therefore, there is a need for strict regulation?
On the theme of surveillance Duncan Campbell gave an excellent report
on ECHELON. Campbell started off with a bit of history and argued that
despite widespread belief ECHELON was not born out of the cold war. In
fact, he said, the USSR never had a system like this or the ability to
create it. The fact of the matter is that ECHELON is a product of our
own Western society, it is designed to monitor global satellite
communication (140 centers around the world) and it does so
automatically. That is, 80% of what is intercepted is sent directly to
the U.S. It's enemies are not single individual users that write
'dangerous' keywords in their email messages, rather, its enemies are
hackers, NGOs, single lobby groups, et cetera. Campbell argued that
currents movements in favour of stronger security laws--such as the
banning of anonymous web hosting in France--are used to increase
Questions related to intellectual property (IP) and the adjacent legal
systems were very prominent in this conference. Apart from the usual
legal discussions there were two ways of approaching this issue that I
believe are helpful to understand the broader social aspects of the
enforcement of IP laws. The first was brought up by Jessica Litman, a
Professor at the Wayne State University. Litman highlighted the
dangers of applying the traditional IP model to the new digital
context. Discussing specifically the issue of piracy, Litman stated
that the current IP model establishes a direct correlation between
strong copyright models and the amount of works produced, that is, it
implies that the more 'protection' the more 'production'. Using this
kind of metaphor its proponents have managed to convince people that
anything that has the same effect as piracy is indeed piracy, and that
if the results of any practice are the same as piracy then it is also
piracy. Litman argued that in order to change this situation we need
to start using new metaphors that reflect a new reality. In order to
do this we have to come up with a new vocabulary to replace the
current one. Thus, rather than using words such as piracy or
cybersquatting--which are heavily loaded words--we should use terms
that are neutral in the eyes (and hears) of the majority of people.
The second point, which I think is important to mention, was brought
up by Randall Davis (MIT). Davis affirmed that new technologies change
our relation to information. To exemplify these changes Davis
mentioned what happens to libraries when their contract to an online
journal finishes. The library no longer possesses the previous issues,
these were only there while there was a bond between both
institutions. Thus, Davis argues, information becomes more an
experience than an artifact.
It is then possible to take this argument a step beyond the
immateriality of information, and note that the experience of
information is based on a relationship: Information no longer resides
in you or in me but in our connection, and this, I believe is crucial
to the understanding of the so-called 'new digital society'.
The last point that I want to mention is that of the discussion
regarding the non-neutrality of technology. Although many speakers
addressed this issue, I will focus exclusively on Steve Talbott.
Talbott, the publisher of the NetFuture newsletter, argued for the
need to look beyond the immediate technological use, that is, to start
by thinking about our (human) needs and concerns and then think of the
technology. If you don't understand how the things are connected, he
argued, then the cause of problems are solutions. Talbott argued that
throughout our struggle for progress we seem to have lost track of our
initial goals and purposes, and technological advancement became, in
itself, a goal or even the goal. For example, we first wire up all the
schools in the nation and only then think about how to use this
technology. Or, we introduce notions of efficiency in realms--such as
workplace--that traditionally had much less numerical and statistical
traits. Our freedom, says Talbott, resides in the capacity to think in
larger terms, to leave behind the immediate and think about the future
while keeping in mind our humanity.
Much more could be said about this conference, but as I finish I just
want to mention one last problematic issue: diversity. This issue is
double sided for, on one hand, this conference has the great merit of
being diverse both in the range of issues dealt with, but also in the
spectrum of fields. The presence of specialists both from the private
and governmental areas, the presence of theorists and pragmaticians,
of lawyers and journalists, et cetera is definitely a characteristic
that makes many other conferences envious. But, by the same coin, this
conference lacks diversity in attendees and realities. Most of the
sessions dealt exclusively in a very North-American (if not American)
reality which does not apply to most of the world. As an attendee from
Spain put it, "in Spain we deal with much more basic and profound
problems than the ones dealt with here". Also, the attendees were
almost exclusively white and largely male.
But, personally, what bothered me the most was the widespread tendency
to say 'consumers' or 'little guys' when referring to people. In a
conference whose aim is to deal with privacy and freedom issues, and
try to make these concepts part of the public awareness it strikes me
that confining it to the realm of 'consumers' is not the solution.
Rather, we should see these concepts as part of that which makes us
human, as a right that everyone should and must have.
 Wired News published yesterday a summary of many of the panels of
<http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,35519,00.html>. See also
 A good, if impractical, solution was advanced by Simson Garfinkel,
who proposed that we take all the meaning out of the domain name
making it similar to a telephone number.
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