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The week in review: Judging tech

All eyes were on courtrooms this week as some of technology's biggest companies and issues awaited decisions that could determine their fates.

A federal judge on Friday said that troubled Excite@Home could sever its ties to a handful of cable partners, but whether the high-speed Net access service would be shut down while negotiations continued was still undetermined.

The decision left more than 4 million cable Internet subscribers--including businesses--in limbo. Most have been waiting on pins and needles all week to see whether Excite@Home would be temporarily shut down. Judge Thomas Carlson said however that "flipping the switch and shutting off service" was highly unlikely. Still, as of late Friday cable partners were undecided as to whether service would continue uninterrupted through contract negotiations.

Friday's court event was the culmination of a number of problems that have plagued the leading broadband Net access provider. Some close to the issue say the court date was the result of creditors trying to get AT&T, Excite@Home's parent company, to raise its $307 million bid for the company's assets. Excite@Home filed for bankruptcy protection in October, yet the pending asset sale has resulted in a political and financial tug-of-war between shareholders and bondholders on one side, and AT&T and other cable executives on the other.

Concerns over a shutdown have cable companies accelerating their own plans to improve networks to retain high-speed Internet access customers. Cox announced Wednesday that it will use hardware from Riverstone Networks and ADC Telecommunications to build faster networks. AT&T Broadband and Comcast say they are working on their own solutions to keep customers online.

Computer code and the Constitution
The entertainment industry won a couple of key court battles that pitted the use of computer code against First Amendment rights.

The motion picture industry won another round in its battle against the dissemination of DVD-cracking code when a federal appeals court upheld an order prohibiting the posting of, or linking to, the DeCSS code. The ruling backed the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a law that civil rights advocates have argued is overbroad. Additionally, the advocates say, the threat of banning links to content online could wreak havoc with free expression on the Internet.

Although the court ruled that code is speech and entitled to some First Amendment protections, the material in this case was determined to be "content-neutral," and therefore entitled to considerably less protection than "expressive" content such as poetry or a work of fiction.

Separately, the recording industry scored its own victory when a judge dismissed a lawsuit against it, saying that threatened legal action didn't keep a computer-science professor from publishing research on anti-copying technology. Princeton University professor Edward Felten claimed legal threats stopped him from publishing a paper outlining the weaknesses in the industry's technologies for protecting digital music.

Both the Justice Department and the Recording Industry Association of America, representing major music labels, asked the court to dismiss the case. Felten's suit requested permission for the Princeton researcher to publish his findings and asked that certain parts of the DMCA be overturned.

Educating Microsoft
No stranger to the courtroom, Microsoft found itself embroiled in another fight over plans to settle more than 100 civil cases pending against it. Microsoft and plaintiff attorneys cut a settlement deal last week, agreeing to set up a private foundation to aid needy schools and donate an estimated $1 billion in cash, software, services and training over five years. Microsoft also would provide Windows licenses for refurbished computers donated to the schools.

Microsoft lawyers made the case for how the deal would benefit schools, explaining that the donations would go to public schools at which 70 percent of students are eligible for federal meal assistance, or approximately 14 percent of the nation's schools. Critics, however, say the settlement is anticompetitive and is the wrong way to address problems with the nation's public schools.

Apple Computer, a company that has a big stake in the education market, criticized the settlement as anti-competitive in a 30-page brief opposing the proposed agreement.

"Around half of the computers in education today are Apple computers, and we're the second largest supplier overall and the largest supplier of portable computers to education," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in the statement. "Given this, we're baffled that a settlement imposed against Microsoft for breaking the law should allow--even encourage--them to unfairly make inroads into education, one of the few markets left where they don't have monopoly power."

And Microsoft isn't out of the woods yet. The company is gearing up for a series of important December court and legal-brief filing deadlines that could end many of the software giant's legal woes.

Also of note
Popular search engine Google makes a bold attempt to combat commercialism among search engines and portals by launching a trial service where readers rank Web sites by preference...Despite gloomy predictions, online retailers said they rang up surprisingly strong holiday shopping figures during the Thanksgiving week...A computer worm that was spreading at an alarming rate has begun to slow...IBM will pay San Francisco a $100,000 fine and almost $20,000 in related costs to clean up after the company's "Peace, Love & Linux" ad campaign, in which the company's ad company spray-painted logos on sidewalks and streets around the city...Supercomputer experts have released a more sophisticated ranking of the world's brawniest computers, and the new order has toppled IBM from the top spot.

Want more? Check out all this week's headlines.