Week in review: Policing the Net

Some in Congress want to see ISPs track your online activities and report suspicious content to the authorities.

There's a new Congress in town, and it's going to try to clean up the Internet--again.

A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate lays the groundwork for a national database of illegal images that Internet service providers would use to automatically flag and report suspicious content to police. The proposal made by Sen. John McCain also would require ISPs and perhaps some Web sites to alert the government of any illegal images of real or "cartoon" minors. Failure to do so would be punished by criminal penalties including fines of up to $300,000.

The Arizona Republican claims that his proposal will aid in investigations of child pornographers. It will "enhance the current system for Internet service providers to report online child pornography on their systems, making the failure to report child pornography a federal crime," a statement from his office said.

Civil libertarians, however, worry that the proposed legislation goes too far and could impose unreasonable burdens on anyone subject to the new regulations. And Internet companies worry about the compliance costs and argue that an existing law that requires reporting of illicit images is sufficient.

The announcement raised the ire of many CNET News.com readers in the TalkBack forum, with some alluding to an Orwellian society and others lamenting a future with fewer personal freedoms. However, one reader alarmed by the prospect of eroding privacy rights did offer a strategy for shielding children from objectionable online content.

"Want to keep your children safe? Don't let them have a computer in their room," the reader wrote. "Keep it in a public area and supervise them while they are using it.

"Technology cannot protect children online. The only thing that can is parental supervision."

Another bill introduced this week would require all Internet service providers to track their customers' online activities to aid police in future investigations. Employees of any Internet provider who fail to store that information face fines and prison terms of up to one year, the bill says. The U.S. Justice Department could order the companies to store those records indefinitely.

Supporters of the proposal say it's necessary to help track criminals if police don't respond immediately to reports of illegal activity and the relevant logs are deleted by Internet providers. But the broad wording also would permit the records to be obtained by private litigants in noncriminal cases, such as divorces and employment disputes. That raises additional privacy concerns, civil libertarians say.

All together now
Apple and the Beatles finally made their way down the long and winding road to trademark peace, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs said he wants to make anticopying technology a thing of yesterday.

In a rare open letter from Jobs, Apple urged record companies to abandon digital rights management technologies. The letter, posted on Apple's Web site and titled "Thoughts on Music," is a long examination of Apple's iTunes and what the future may hold for the online distribution of copy-protected music. In the letter, Jobs says Apple was forced to create a DRM system to get the world's four largest record companies on board with the iTunes Store.

But there are alternatives, Jobs wrote. Apple and the rest of the online music distributors could continue down a DRM path; Apple could license its FairPlay copy-protection technology to others; or record companies could be persuaded to license music without DRM technology. The company clearly favors the third option.

While one music fight was flaring up, Apple extinguished another. The Mac maker reached an agreement with Apple Corps, the record label started by The Beatles in 1968, concerning the use of the name "Apple" and related logos.

Under the terms of the agreement, Apple Inc. will own all trademarks and logos related to the name "Apple" and will license them accordingly to the Apple Corps music company. This marks an end to the long-running trademark feud between the two similarly named companies. Additionally, it replaces a pre-existing agreement, signed in 1991, which forbade Apple from distributing music through physical media like CDs and cassette tapes.

Another skirmish, related to music and other content played on handhelds, was taken to the streets of New York. State Sen. Carl Krueger plans to introduce legislation that would ban the use of electronic devices such as iPods, BlackBerrys and cell phones while crossing streets in major cities.

A Democrat who represents New York's 27th district in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, Krueger claimed that the phenomenon of "iPod oblivion" has led to a number of fatal accidents on urban streets.

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