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CFP'93 - Ackerman Summary

CFP'93 - Summary

by Lorrie Ackerman

I attended the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference March 10-12 in San Francisco. The following is a summary of the conference proceedings combined with some of my thoughts on the conference. I have not had time to edit this file, so please excuse the typos and convoluted sentences. Please feel free to forward this file to others.

The conference program was arranged in a single-track format that ran until late in the evening. There were about 500 attendees including hackers, law enforcement officers, academics, industry people, civil liberatarians, and members of the press. The conference program included several lunches, banquets, receptions, and breaks, designed to allow informal discussion among attendees.

The keynote address was delivered by former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson. I found Johnson's discussion of whether or not phone companies should be allowed to sell information quite interesting. Johnson maintained that phone companies are the only remaining providers of free speech to anyone who has 25 cents and can get to a phone. Media organizations exercise their own rights of free speech to selectively refuse publication or broadcast. In addition, regulations force them to refuse to publish or broadcast some material. The phone companies, on the other hand, allow people to say anything they want over the phone lines. If the phone companies get into the information provider business, and thus become a new media outlet, their right to freedom of speech as members of the press may allow them to suppress speech or force them to adhere to content regulations. "The phone folks have such a deal already," said Johnson, "they can charge the provider and recipient, suck money out of both ends of the cable. Shouldn't that be enough?"

Johnson also commented on the time lags between realizations by innovators, academics, and policy makers, saying, "It took 50 years to get the overhead projector out of the bowling alley and into the classroom." Overall, the speech was quite humorous and informative. I had the pleasure of sitting at the same table with Johnson at dinner one evening, and was impressed with the amount of interest he seemed to take in the research of the students seated at the table. Johnson would be a good person to invite to a university as a guest speaker.

A panel discussion on "Electronic Democracy" followed the keynote address. This discussion included a debate between Jamie Love of the Taxpayer Assets Project and William Behnk of the California Legislative Information System. Love argued that information in legislative and other government databases should be available to the public at a reasonable price. Behnk countered that it would be too expensive to make the data available electronically to the general public. He noted that citizens can call their representatives' offices and have them send whatever they need in the mail. Another highlight of the session was when Sarah Gray, operations manager of Jerry Brown's We the People campaign, was told that her organization had broken the law by accepting free accounts on commercial electronic mail services during the presidential election campaign. Gray said she was unaware that election laws were applicable in this case.

The next session examined the risks associated with electronic voting machines. The panelists seemed to agree that current electronic voting systems often do not include proper safeguards against tampering and that most people are either not aware of this or are not concerned about it.

A panel on "Censorship and Free Speech on the Networks" discussed cases in which free speech on the net has been challenged. The panelists seemed to agree that the best way to allow free speech on electronic bulletin board systems while maintaining some semblance of order, was to allow for the creation of forums by people interested in discussing specific topics-- and allowing those people to moderate their forums however they see fit. Thus, the moderator of a political discussion group may eliminate messages pertaining to dirty jokes or assembly language programming. Those who wish to read dirty jokes can find them in a forum set up for that purpose, while others need not see them. This topic was brought up several other times throughout the conference, and other panels had similar thoughts on the issue. Members of a panel on gender issues later stated that the inclusion of groups on a computer system did not constitute grounds for sexual harrasment complaints, while the display of pictures found in those groups on screens in public computer labs did.

Mike Godwin, a lawyer for EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), offered an interesting anecdote. He described a discussion of VCR+ programming codes in a USENET news group. The inventor of VCR+ sent letters to those involved in the discussion, threatening suit if they did not end the discussion and delete all record of it from their computer systems. Godwin said he contacted the lawyer and asked on what grounds his client planned to sue. The lawyer insisted the posting of VCR+ codes copied out of television guides was an infringement of copyright. After several requests from Godwin for the legal reasoning to back up this claim, the lawyer said his client would not be filing suit over the matter.

The final panel discussion on the first day of the conference was titled "Portrait of the Artist on the Net." It featured presentations by several artists on how they use the net for their work.

The next day, the conference began with a controversial discussion of "Digital Telephony and Crypto Policy." The FBI is proposing legislation that would require phone companies to build digital systems that the FBI can tap. Several computer-related organizations (including the EFF) are opposing this proposal on the grounds that it could pontentialy cause more problems than it will solve. The March issue of CACM features a debate on this topic. Dorothy Denning, Georgetown University computer science department chair, received (in my opinion unjust) harsh criticism throughout the conference by siding with the FBI. Although I do not agree with most of what Denning had to say, I was glad she presented an alternative view point.

The next session explored the topic of "Medical Information and Privacy." Panelists discussed pros and cons of various proposals for computerizing medical information. Dr. Daniel Sands stressed the importance of a computerized medical records for use by physicians. Others, however, raised questions about personal privacy issues, especially in light of the fact that medical records systems often include patients' social security numbers. The panelists suggested that these issues should be addressed in a national healthcare policy.

The Thursday lunch speaker, former Greatful Dead songwriter and co-founder of the EFF John Perry Barlow, spoke on "Privacy vs. Secrecy: Power, Tolerance, and Reality." I felt the speech generally lacked substance and tolerance of any ideas that Barlow didn't agree with (actually, this is how I feel about most of Barlow's recent writings....I want to know where he gets his credential to be considered an expert on these topics by the EFF, the ACM, and others). Others found fault with what little content Barlow had. George Trubow, who will chair next year's conference, latter issued a statement opposing Barlow's notion that secrecy and privacy are the same thing. Barlow issued a response indicating that he had not meant to make such a comparison. The two then read their statements and had a sort of debate at the end of the conference.

I resented Trubow's attitude that he had a right to publically debate a speaker, just because he was on the steering committee. Throughout the conference people continuously complained that they had no opportunity to give their opinions on points raised by the speakers. At first I could see no good solution to this problem other than lengthening the conference or including fewer speakers, but after thinking about a bit I have a solution which I plan to propose to Mr. Trubow for next year. I suggest that *written* comments be solicited from all conference participants. Each day these comments could be collected, summarized/paraphrased, and given to the speakers to the speakers for response. The summarizes and responses could be distributed instead of the conference newsletter (which contained more opinions from the steering committee) and included in the proceedings.

Thursday afternoon featured a double session on "The Many Faces of Privacy" followed by "The Digital Individual." The first session was highlighted by a revelation from David Lewis of the Massachusetts DMV that tapes containing car registration records were sold routinely for $77 to whomever wanted them in order to comply with the freedom of information act. The last session included an interesting slide show by Will Hill of Bellcore in which he demonstrated how much can be learned by observing wear marks on books and personal possessions. Hills research focuses on applying a wear metaphor to digital information.

After dinner speaker Rosemary Jay, legal advisor to the UK data protection registrar, gave the perspective of a British regulatory lawyer on data privacy and protection issues. She described the British concept (or lack there of) of privacy and the good and bad aspects of British data protection laws. British law, she explained, prohibits the use of information about a person without their permission. However, with no legal concept of privacy, the law does not explicitly state its rationale. Jay urged Americans to try to learn from the mistakes of the British. Her speech was informative, humorous, and well-delivered.

The final day of the conference opened with a discussion of "Gender Issues in Computing and Telecommunications." The panel (which included 4 women and 1 man) discussed the need to include more women in the policy making process, consider the needs of women and girls in the development of user interfaces, and eliminate sexual harrasment from the net. Anita Borg, and engineer at DEC, talked about an electronic mailing list she runs for women in computer-related fields.

The next session featured a role-playing activity in which the audience was the jury for a computer crime trial. Despite a great deal of preparation on the part of the panelists, their were still some confusing holes in the story. The activity raised questions about liability and free speech on the net.

The lunch time speech was exhuberently delivered by Cliff Stoll, author of The Cuckoo's Nest. Stoll's message was to stop waiting for others and to get out and do things yourself. It was a speech you would have to see to believe.

The next session, titled, "The Power, Politics, and Promise of Internetworking," explored the development of a national information infrastructure and discussed the possibilities of such an infrastructure being built by phone companies or cable television providers. Mitch Kapor, Chair of the EFF, insisted, as usual, that what we need is ISDN. (BTW, having now met Kapor and Barlow and heard presentations from each of them, I am feeling less positive about EFF. The EFF founders seem to spend a lot of time speaking about their personal agendas. The organization is a membership organization, but it does not seem to be interested in its members. I hardly saw Kapor mingling with people or even attending many of the conference sessions. I understand that it is inefficient for an organization like this to let its member vote on everything, but I am not getting the impression the board is all that interested in the opinions of members-- and thus I have not joined, although I do support most of their lobbying efforts. I must note, however, that Jerry Berman, the executive director, did seem more interested in the members than the founders did.)

The final session of the conference examined issues related to "International Data Flow." By that point, I was too tired to pay close attention. I did note the controversy sparked when Trubow referred to Rosemary Jay as a "little bitty." He claimed the remark was a joke referring to an impersonation she had used in her speech. It seemed, nonetheless, inappropriate, and the audience let him know that.

Well, that's the conference in a (large) nutshell. There are definitely a lot of controversial issues related to computers, freedom, and privacy that will be difficult to resolve.

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