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From Dan's bookmarks:

  • www.eTattler.com
    - a completely bogus Internet company;
  • www.mcspotlight.org
    - a case study in Web activism;
  • directory.mozilla.org
    - tries to answer the question, "Can volunteers take on the big commercial portals?";
  • www.dictionary.com
    - a great online reference;
  • www.scripting.com
    - because Dave asked (and it's worth pointing to...).


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    Dan Gillmor's Technology column

    Posted at 12:49 p.m. PST Tuesday, January 4, 2000

    Netizens unite against Big Business over DVDs

    Mercury News Technology Columnist

    IT was, says Allonn E. Levy, ``like having 50 expert witnesses sitting behind me'' -- all of whom were donating their time.

    Levy is a defense lawyer in what's shaping up to be a pathbreaking legal case, pitting the entertainment industry against a band of Internet-based activists. Only the early battles have been fought in this war, which ultimately could help settle key questions about the nature of intellectual property and free speech in the Digital Age.

    But it's already clear how the Net is changing some traditional rules of engagement -- and perhaps the nature of power itself.

    The DVD Copy Control Association (www.dvdcca.org) sued dozens of individuals for alleged violations of trade secrets after they posted on Web sites copies of software that lets people decrypt and play back encrypted DVDs on non-authorized devices. Some of the Web sites merely pointed to other sites that were posting the software.

    I believe the most important aspect of this case is free speech. Barring someone from merely telling someone else about something strikes me as a gaping violation of the First Amendment.

    Other participants have different views of what issues are most critical. The lawyers for the DVD industry say it's about protecting intellectual property from theft. Some activists believe it's mostly about their right to reverse-engineer -- take something apart to figure out how it works and then create your own version. And so on.

    Whatever the stakes, a state superior court judge in San Jose denied the industry's request for a temporary restraining order against the defendants. The next step, in 10 days, is a hearing on a temporary injunction, in which the burden is still on the plaintiffs.

    Just as interesting as the legal case, and potentially just as significant in the long run, is the way the defense came together. It was a community effort -- and this is a community whose power is growing.

    To understand why, you need to understand a bit more about the case itself. It stems from the cracking of code, known as content scrambling system, or CSS, that acts as a key unlocking encrypted files on DVDs. Consumers view DVD movies on various kinds of DVD players, including players that run on computers with the Windows and Macintosh operating systems, that use CSS.

    By many accounts, hackers created the program DeCSS so that people using the GNU/Linux operating system could also play back DVDs. Linux is the poster child for ``open-source'' software, a genre in which the programming instructions, or source code, are freely available and can be modified by the user.

    The industry had already been sending out cease-and-desist letters to sites posting DeCSS, winning some compliance and prompting grumbling around the Net. But when the lawsuit was filed early last week, with its stated intention of obtaining a temporary restraining order, Netizens leaped into action.

    A tactical goof on the other side helped. The industry's law firm sent its e-mail to the defendants, announcing the suit and the upcoming court hearing, and listed defendants' e-mail addresses in a ``CC:'' field, which allowed the defendants to contact each other more easily. Robin Gross, Levy's co-counsel at last week's hearing, is surprised the plaintiffs didn't use what's called a ``BCC:'' field, or blind copy, which hides other recipients' e-mail addresses from each recipient.

    Another catalyst for action was the Slashdot (slashdot.org) Web site, a haunt of Linux and open-source programmers. Within hours of the e-mail to defendants, word was circulating via Slashdot and around the world, prompting non-defendant activists to create protest Web pages and start gathering momentum for a courthouse protest.

    The turnout at last Wednesday's hearing was evidence of their success. What Levy called expert witnesses weren't there just for show, though their mere presence did alert the judge that this was not just a typical corporate case. The activists also took careful notes and helped the lawyers through the technical thickets.

    ``Ten or 15 people gave me really good information,'' says Levy, an associate with the Huber Samuelson law firm in San Jose.

    That Levy was even in the courtroom was another result of the cyber-networking. He'd been called by Gross, a staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), a San Francisco-based organization that defends civil liberties in cyberspace. The EFF had been looking for a case like this one, says Gross. She and Levy worked long into the night before the hearing and had plenty of help from the activists, including John Gilmore, an EFF co-founder and open-source legend who attended the hearing.

    Deirdre Saoirse, one of the spectators who'd come to support the defense, heard what she considered a serious flaw in the plaintiffs' argument. During a break in the hearing, she conferred with Gross. After the break the defense team brought Saoirse's information -- which itself is now a matter of some dispute, though the plaintiffs didn't object at the time -- to the court's attention.

    Activists' moves go further yet. The latest gambit is called ``The Great International DVD Source Code Distribution Contest'' (dvd.zgp.org) and it's largely the brainchild of Don Marti, publicity director for the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group.

    The purpose of the contest is to spread DeCSS even further beyond the industry's possible ability to retrieve it. Marti is collecting e-mails describing various tactics.

    Techniques vary. ``One person wrote a program to embed DeCSS into an image on a Web site,'' Marti says. ``He posted the image along with a short program you can use to recover the source code from the image'' -- a method known as steganography.

    I don't know who'll win the legal case. But it's plain enough who's already won the war over access to DeCSS. In this case, the Net is acting as an antibody to what it perceives as a dangerous disease -- and the implications are clear.

    Big Business bets that it -- right or wrong -- can squash what it doesn't like ``like a bug,'' Marti says. ``The rules have changed.''

    Dan Gillmor's column appears each Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. E-mail: dgillmor@sjmercury.com; phone (408) 920-5016; fax (408) 920-5917. PGP fingerprint: FE68 46C9 80C9 BC6E 3DD0 BE57 AD49 1487 CEDC 5C14.


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