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Technology | Should Internet companies be able to spy on their subscribers?

Issue: "UN's abuse of power," July 24, 2004

High-tech, low-privacy Should Internet companies be able to spy on their subscribers? A federal appeals court ruling concerning a long-forgotten e-commerce company raises profound questions about online privacy. It ruled on a technicality that an e-mail provider could secretly track users' messages. The case involves a now-defunct used-book marketplace called Interloc, whose subscribers were various used- and rare-book dealers. Prosecutors claimed former vice president Branford Councilman unlawfully told employees to intercept and copy all incoming e-mails from Amazon.com, in order to study the competition. A federal judge dismissed a wiretap charge against him last year -- and a three-judge panel in Boston upheld the dismissal. The Wiretap Act, the law interpreted in this case, is a 1968 law against phone snooping that was expanded to cover internet communications in 1986. Evidently, Mr. Councilman's argument took advantage of a loophole that protects eavesdropping on messages that are not stored. The appellate ruling admitted that "it may well be that the protections of the Wiretap Act have been eviscerated as technology advances." Mozilla: Son of Netscape A new browser called Firefox looks to challenge Microsoft Internet Explorer for desktop dominance. This Netscape descendant, set for September release, bills itself as the fastest, safest, and most efficient software of its kind. Firefox, available now in a preview version from mozilla.org, offers the typical browsing features with extras like a built-in pop-up blocker, privacy tools, and toolbar with Google search. It also includes tabs that let users read multiple web pages inside the same window. An open-source project called Mozilla started in 1998 and spun off as a nonprofit foundation last year. It adopted the Mozilla name for a package including Firefox and an e-mail program called Thunderbird. The combined Mozilla package already has a following as a Microsoft alternative that runs on many platforms. Since it has only a fraction of IE's user base, some consider Mozilla a more secure alternative. Yet, no software is perfect. Its developers admitted this month that the browser had a security vulnerability that could be manipulated by hackers. It was quickly patched and the fix is used in new copies of the software. Bits & Megabytes • America Online announced a partnership with MCI and Apple Computer to provide a telecommunications relay service for the speech- and hearing-impaired. Users can converse over AOL's Instant Messenger software in lieu of traditional TTY or TDD devices. They can also place video-relay calls and communicate using sign language. • The United Nations wants to control the spam problem within two years. Regulators from the Council of Europe, World Trade Organization, and 60 nations met in Geneva this month to discuss laws that would simplify prosecution of cross-border spammers. Spam accounts for up to 85 percent of all e-mail, according to the UN's International Telecommunications Union, compared to an estimated 35 percent just one year ago. • Two electronic voting critics invoked a whistleblower law to sue Diebold, alleging that the company's balloting equipment is vulnerable to software bugs and hacker attacks. This California case, unsealed this month, accuses the manufacturer of using uncertified products, including modems that may have allowed election results to be published before polls closed. State regulators will soon decide whether to join the case. • The FCC gave Nextel a valuable new piece of broadcast spectrum in a controversial move intended to end interference with public-safety systems. The bandwidth is worth an estimated $4.8 billion. Verizon, which wanted the frequencies sold at auction, has threatened to sue. • More than one-third of all computer software sold in the world last year was pirated, according to the market research firm IDC. This adds up to $29 billion in lost sales, of which $7.2 billion comes from the United States and about $9.8 billion from the European Union. The region with the highest piracy rate was Latin America, where 63 percent of software was counterfeit.

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