HolidayBuyer's Guide

Week in review: The feds' book 'em club

Federal prosecutors denied bid for Amazon.com customer records, and Google takes green to the bank. Also: Verizon Wireless opens up.

Amazon.com doesn't want any part of the feds' book club.

The Internet retailer repelled an effort by federal prosecutors to force it to identify thousands of customers who bought books online. After a judge rebuked prosecutors, the effort was abandoned.

In an order that was sealed but has now become public, U.S. District Judge Stephen Crocker rejected the Justice Department's subpoena for details on Amazon's customers and their purchasing habits. Prosecutors had claimed the details would help them prove their case against a former Madison, Wis., city official charged with tax evasion related to selling used books through Amazon.

Instead of giving the Bush administration what it wanted, Crocker said Amazon could send letters to its customers asking them whether they voluntarily wanted to contact federal investigators. After losing the subpoena fight, Daniel Graber, the assistant U.S. Attorney in Madison, gave up and rescinded his request for the customer records.

It's not the first time that police on a fishing expedition have demanded customer records from the Web's largest bookstore. But the First Amendment gives online and offline bookstores a greater legal ability to resist law enforcement demands than, say, banks or credit card companies enjoy. And Amazon is following the tradition of other booksellers, which have a tradition of--individually and through the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression--opposing requests from overzealous prosecutors.

David Zapolsky, Amazon's vice president for litigation, said a few years ago that the company gets subpoenas "roughly once a quarter," and CNET News.com asked him for some more information about how the process works. Read excerpts from our conversation with Zapolsky.

News.com's readers lamented the invasion of privacy and were incensed to learn that their buying records could be targeted.

"It's my personal interests and I don't want some stranger digging into my past for their own purposes," wrote one reader to the News.com TalkBack forum. "I have nothing to hide, but that doesn't mean that I want it displayed for anyone to see."

In another case, a federal judge ordered the Bush administration to divulge documents related to immunizing telecommunications companies from lawsuits, saying they illegally opened their networks to the National Security Agency. U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco gave the Office of the Director of National Intelligence until Friday to turn over documents relating to conversations it had with Congress and telecommunications carriers about how to rewrite wiretapping laws.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation had filed this case to seek faster processing of a Freedom of Information Act request it filed, which could help buttress its ongoing lawsuit against AT&T. There are approximately 250 pages of unclassified material and 65 pages of classified material, which would be redacted, that the administration has identified but said could not be turned over until December 31.

However, Illston's order doesn't deal with the NSA's wiretapping program itself (how it works, what companies are involved, whether there really is a secret room at AT&T's 611 Folsom Street location in San Francisco). Instead, the documents relate only to conversations and communications about retroactive immunity for companies like AT&T that are accused of violating the law.

Green--the color of money
After revolutionizing the advertising industry, Google plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make renewable energy cheaper than coal. The effort, dubbed RE<C (shorthand for "renewable energy less than coal"), calls for Google to invest in companies developing clean-energy technologies and for Google itself to next year invest tens of millions in research and development in renewable energy.

Technologies created by Google will likely be used by Google, whose data centers are voracious consumers of electricity. The company envisions either selling electricity from renewable sources or licensing technology on terms that would promote broad adoption, according to company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Its overarching goal is to produce 1 gigawatt of electricity from renewable sources--enough to power the city of San Francisco--faster than the current pace of green-technology development.

CNET News.com talked about Google's philanthropic actions and philosophies with Dr. Larry Brilliant, the executive director of nonprofit Google.org. Brilliant has spent much of his adult life working on health and public-policy initiatives. At Google.org, Brilliant has the backing of one of the most successful technology companies and the opportunity to influence other wealthy businesses to look beyond product releases and profit margins. We talked with Brilliant about the hopes he has for the initiative, as well the challenges it faces.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is kicking off a competition to award $200,000 to entrepreneurs in the green-energy field. The MIT Clean Energy Entrepreneurship Prize combines two existing prizes and increases the prize money. Sponsors hope the competition will accelerate the pace of innovation and energy.

The revamped contest pulls in sponsorship from the U.S. Department of Energy and NStar, an electric and gas utility based in Massachusetts. In addition to receiving cash or services, competitors will get mentoring from experts as they develop their business plans. In the past three years, there has been an avalanche of venture capital money into clean tech businesses, with solar and biofuels attracting the most investment.

Open calls
Verizon Wireless plans to let any cell phone compatible with its technology run on its network, and to let owners of those devices run any application they desire, by the end of next year. That would mean that any U.S. customer of Sprint's, which also uses the CDMA (code division multiple access) cellular networking technology, could use his or her phone on Verizon's data network.

But the decision to open up the network to outside applications is an indication of the growing interest in mobile phones as an application development platform by companies like Google, and a dramatic departure from Verizon's usual practice of locking down its phones.

Even though it hasn't quite satisfied all of its critics on the subject, Verizon in the past few weeks has taken significant steps--including Tuesday's announcement--toward opening its network to devices and software not offered by the company.

In another announcement, Verizon Communications and Vodafone, joint owners of Verizon Wireless, plan to use the LTE (Long Term Evolution) standard backed by GSM industry players rather than the UMB (ultramobile broadband) standard backed by Verizon's current partners. There's a host of implications for the industry, but for the phone user, the impact is simple. Right now, if you're a Verizon or Sprint customer, and you want to travel to many parts of the world, you'll have to get a rental, if you want to make calls while you're there. The move toward LTE would bring Verizon into the GSM world and enable travelers to use their phones around the world (for a hefty fee, of course).

Meanwhile, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said that a 3G version of Apple's cell phone will be available in 2008. Stephenson didn't elaborate on exactly when we'd see it--though Jobs had said late in 2008--nor did he say exactly what features it would offer. And as for a price (currently the iPhone retails for $399), Stephenson said that would be up to Jobs to dictate.

Also of note
New tests have revealed that Windows XP with the beta Service Pack 3 has twice the performance of Vista, even with its long-awaited Service Pack 1...The Universal Digital Library, a book-scanning project backed by several major libraries across the globe, has completed the digitization of 1.5 million books and made them free and publically available...The immense popularity of the hit Guitar Hero franchise may be the best thing that has happened to the instrument, to rock 'n' roll, and to guitar instructors, in a long time.

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