Week in review: Sex, spies and video flaps

Porn law overturned, corporate spying and video-hosting sites--what's next on the court docket?

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
7 min read
They didn't exactly match Law & Order for celebrity cachet, but the greatest dramas in the tech world this week unfolded in the courtroom.

A federal judge ruled that the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, was unconstitutional and violated Americans' First Amendment rights, dealing another serious setback to Congress' efforts to muzzle pornography on the Web.

The judge barred prosecutors from enforcing COPA, saying it was overly broad and would undoubtedly "chill a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech for adults."

Even though politicians enacted COPA nearly a decade ago as part of an early wave of Internet censorship efforts, the courts have kept it on ice and it has never actually been enforced. The law makes it a crime for commercial Web sites to make "harmful to minors" material publicly available. Violators could be fined as much as $50,000 and face up to six months in prison.

The almost-forgotten law made headlines last year after Department of Justice attorneys preparing to defend COPA in U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed's Philadelphia courtroom sent subpoenas to Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL asking for millions of search records. Only Google fought the subpoena in court, and it managed to persuade a California judge to limit what information prosecutors would receive.

While CNET News.com readers debated the merits of the ruling, one reader offered a novel solution to the issue.

"What we really need is two separate Internets. One for porn and spam, and one for legitimate uses," wrote one reader to News.com's TalkBack forum. "Let people choose which one they want."

The same day, Oracle announced it had filed a lawsuit against archrival SAP, alleging the software giant hacked into Oracle's customer support center and downloaded copies of its proprietary software code. The lawsuit, which names SAP and its wholly owned subsidiary TomorrowNow as defendants, alleges the two companies engaged in computer fraud and abuse, computer data access and fraud, and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage.

Oracle says that in late November it noticed an unusually heavy volume of download activity on Oracle's password-protected customer support and maintenance site for its PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards customers. Upon a review of the Customer Connection site, Oracle alleges, it found more than 10,000 illicit downloads in which customers with expired, or soon-to-expire, support and maintenance contracts had accessed the support and maintenance site. Oracle claims that a common thread among all of the customers with allegedly misappropriated customer IDs is that they were about to become, or had recently become, an SAP TomorrowNow customer.

And in the continuing legal adventures of Viacom versus Google, a lawsuit filed against Viacom accuses the media conglomerate of misusing U.S. copyright law by forcing YouTube to remove a parody video of The Colbert Report. However, Viacom denies the accusation and said it does not object to the video being on YouTube. The suit, filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, accuses Viacom of filing a baseless copyright complaint and takedown notice on YouTube.

The tongue-in-cheek clip, "Stop the Falsiness," uses snippets from The Colbert Report, a program on Viacom's Comedy Central, for parody. That approach, the EFF said, is permissible under the "fair use" provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, just as The Colbert Report uses excerpts from real news shows in its segments.

Not all fun and games
After saying that it would investigate complaints about fraud on its Xbox Live online gaming service, Microsoft said it found no evidence of a security breach on its Xbox Live or Bungie.net online gaming services, and gamers who had trouble with their accounts were likely duped into giving up their details to fraudsters.

"There have been a few isolated incidents where malicious users have been attempting to draw personal information from unsuspecting users and use it to gain access to their Live account," the company said in a statement.

Gamers had reported that their Xbox Live accounts were hijacked and their credit cards used to buy "Microsoft Points," the virtual currency on Xbox Live, which has more than 6 million users.

Gamers have been reporting the incidents for some time in online forums --including on Xbox.com--and to Microsoft's Xbox help desk. Many users of the Microsoft console have been frustrated with the software giant's response to date.

"My Xbox Live account was hacked and all credit card info was stolen and used to run up points...Microsoft says: 'Oh, well, better call your credit card companies, nothing we can do,'" one user wrote on the Xbox Web site last month.

And apparently World of Warcraft isn't all virtual love and flowers either. According to several players, WoW participants recently have been banned from the game for what they believed to be little or no justification. Critics claim WoW publisher Blizzard Entertainment has been snaring innocent players in a dragnet for banned activities like account sharing and gold farming--a system in which players either directly or indirectly acquire large amounts of in-game currency or goods through repetitious actions, often achieved by operating automatic "bots" or macros that kill monsters or discover treasure.

Indeed, a look at any of the many public WoW forums reveals no shortage of postings from players complaining that they had been banned and asking for help.

To Zak, a 14-year-old player, the notice didn't make any sense. He believed he hadn't done anything to break the game's rules against an illegal process known as "power leveling," in which players gain points and levels in online games through banned exploits.

That was the activity for which he believed he had been kicked out of WoW. A week later, after writing to Blizzard, his account was reactivated.

Server shifts
Defying the prevailing pattern of the computer industry, server prices increased at the end of last year as customers showed a new preference for more-powerful machines.

"For the first time in 10 years, we've seen the average selling price market-wide go up year-over-year," said analyst Matthew Eastwood. In the fourth quarter of 2006, worldwide server sales increased 5.2 percent to $15.2 billion but shipments stayed level at 2 million units, meaning that the average server price tag went up from $7,308 to $7,690.

According to analysts and server makers, virtualization and multicore processors helped trigger the change. Virtualization can make a single server more efficient, running more software at the same time in separate partitions called virtual machines. And multicore processors let a single chip handle the work of two or four single-core models.

Virtualization and multicore processors are certainly making an impact, leading IDC to lop off 4.5 million units from its forecast for the number of x86 servers to ship in the second half of the decade. That 4.5 million number is a major change--about 10 percent of the servers the market analysis firm had expected would be sold from 2006 to 2010. In addition, the firm trimmed its spending forecast by $2.4 billion.

The reason for the change is that customers are buying fewer, more powerful systems, IDC argued. Virtualization lets a single system run multiple operating systems simultaneously; multicore processors amplify the consolidation trend by enabling individual servers to handle more work.

Any new x86 server can run virtualization software, but Dell plans to release a model that's geared specifically to customers drawn to the newly mainstream computing trend.

"You're going to see us in the second part of this year going back to the virtualization trend," said Jay Parker, director of Dell's PowerEdge server group. "We believe there's an opportunity to optimize hardware products and surrounding software for virtualization."

Gadget goings-on
At long last, it looks like Apple TV is now available for purchase. The Apple Web site is listing the set-top box as available for shipment in three to five business days.

Calls to New York- and San Francisco-area Apple Stores confirmed that the box, which is meant to deliver content between a TV and a PC, is so far available only online. A San Francisco Apple Store employee said they expect to have Apple TV "any day now."

CNET got its first in-person look at the Apple TV since its unveiling back in September of 2006. Company representatives were showing it off at a Manhattan hotel suite and gave us a loaner to do our own hands-on testing.

Microsoft is still planning to release a software update soon to fix several issues with its Zune music player, but releasing the patch is taking longer than expected. The software maker said last month to expect a patch in mid-March. The update is designed to address a couple of issues, including one that causes some songs downloaded from Microsoft's online Zune Marketplace store to skip when played on the device.

Microsoft isn't giving a new time frame, but marketing director Jason Reindorp said in an e-mail that "it is very close to being ready."

On the legal front, an association of music publishers filed a lawsuit that accuses XM Satellite Radio of refusing to stop "widespread infringement" of popular copyrighted songs. The National Music Publishers Association argues that the satellite radio operator's "XM + MP3" music service skirts copyright laws by allowing radio listeners to make permanent copies of on-air tracks through devices like the Pioneer Inno player without permission and without properly compensating songwriters.

Also, in a preliminary victory for Palm, a federal judge halted proceedings related to a patent infringement lawsuit brought against it by NTP. The ruling essentially means Palm can continue to sell products in question--the line of Treo smart phones, the Palm VII, Palm i700 and Palm Tungsten--at least until the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) rules on whether they infringe on wireless e-mail patents held by NTP.

Also of note
Widespread abuse of the FBI's authority to secretly obtain Americans' telephone, Internet and financial records drew pointed questioning from a key U.S. House of Representatives panel...A security researcher has found a way hackers can make PCs of unsuspecting Web surfers do their dirty work, without having to actually commandeer the systems...Microsoft is closing its video-sharing site, Soapbox, to new users for up to two months so it can create better safeguards against pirated content.