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Issue: "Roe v. Wade @ 31," Jan. 17, 2004

Net worthless

WANT A COLLEGE DEGREE FOR $600? Want a high-school diploma for $300? Numerous diploma mills offer deals like this for job seekers looking for credentials. The prices are low and the programs are probably low-end.

Questionable schools with names like James Monroe University, Branford Academy, and the University of Homeland Security are popping up all over the internet. They may or may not be legitimate and are almost always unaccredited. Often they list offices as far away as Liberia, the Dominican Republic, or Romania.

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Despite the large bureaucracies that dominate American education, so-called "diploma mills" are largely unregulated. Only Illinois, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Oregon have laws restricting use and sales of spurious degrees. The General Accounting Office is investigating the problem among federal employees, however.

Many Americans know about diploma mills from the spam in their inboxes. These schools claim that they can give "students" a better life and a higher income if they buy "a diploma within days from a prestigious non-accredited university."

Often the result turns out to be a "life experience" degree with no classes or tests and coursework consisting of a single multiple-choice test. The "students" must know they're not receiving a real education. Prospective employers may not.

Hero or pirate?

Computer geek cult hero "DVD Jon" finally won his battle with Hollywood when Norwegian authorities last week ended their piracy case against him. At age 15, Jon Johansen wrote software that unlocks DVD security and allows copying-then he posted how to do it on the internet.

Mr. Johansen claims he wasn't trying to break the law. He says he only wanted to watch movies on his Linux-based computer and should be able to do what he likes with his property. The movie industry said he enabled copyright infringement and filed a complaint with prosecutors.

A court acquitted DVD Jon in January 2002, but prosecutors, agreeing with Hollywood that he had helped pirates mass-duplicate movies, appealed. Judge Wenche Skjeggestad upheld the decision last month, ruling that Mr. Johansen could freely copy DVDs he bought. Prosecutors last week said they wouldn't appeal the ruling to Norway's highest court. "I'm going to celebrate by watching a few DVDs on unauthorized equipment," Mr. Johansen told the Norwegian daily Dagbladet.

DVDs differ from CDs in that they use a special security system called CSS (Content Scrambling System) that keeps people from simply dragging-and-dropping movies onto their hard drives. Mr. Johansen's program disables the protection without affecting the content. Numerous disc-copying programs followed Mr. Johansen's invention; a few even reached mainstream computer store shelves.

Bits & Megabytes

Electronic voting suffered its latest embarrassment when VoteHere, a company that develops security measures for computerized ballots, admitted that an unidentified hacker accessed internal documents. Company executives claim they know the intruder's identity-and say they turned over valuable evidence to the FBI and Secret Service. The hacker may have accessed some of VoteHere's proprietary programming code.

The music industry's campaign against mp3 pirates may be driving millions away from song-swapping. The percentage of American internet users who download music dropped by over half-from 29 percent in May to 14 percent in December, according to a Pew survey. The figure includes visitors to both commercial sites like MusicMatch, Rhapsody, and iTunes and underground services like Kazaa and its clones.

America Online lost a battle against spam when a federal judge dismissed a suit against a group of Florida computer technicians. AOL claims it may amend and refile its complaint because the case was tossed out on a technicality concerning jurisdiction in Virginia, the company's home state. The decision may complicate future anti-spam suits in which the plaintiff and defendant hail from different states.

A new computer virus tries to scare e-mail users, warning that terrorists will strike Southeast Asia. "At this moment, the government of Malaysia knows about at least 5 planned acts of terrorism," reads its message. Authorities in Malaysia have arrested dozens of suspected terrorists since 2001, but have not warned of any local threats recently.

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