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Week in review: Taming the Net

A new sheriff is aiming to clean up the wild, wild Internet: the U.S. Justice Department. Among other things, the agency is seizing Web sites for activities that allegedly break the law.

A new sheriff is aiming to clean up the wild, wild Internet: the U.S. Justice Department.

The Justice Department has adopted a new crime-fighting tactic: seizing control of domain names for Web sites that allegedly violate the law. The Justice Department took over the iSoNews.com domain, whose owner pleaded guilty to using his site to sell "mod" chips that let Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation owners modify their devices so that they could use them to play illegally copied games, or "warez."

Visitors to the site were greeted with the message: "The domain and Web site were surrendered to U.S. law enforcement pursuant to a federal prosecution and felony plea agreement for conspiracy to violate criminal copyright laws." But the Web site is still online and accessible via means other than the domain name. iSoNews.com regulars have resorted to using the site's numeric IP address and are continuing to discuss the case.

Earlier in the week, the Justice Department indicted 11 Web site operators for allegedly selling illegal devices including bongs and holders for marijuana cigarettes. Attorney General John Ashcroft said that the domain names for the Web sites allegedly set up to sell illegal "drug paraphernalia" would be pointed at servers located at the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"With the advent of the Internet, the illegal drug paraphernalia industry has exploded," Ashcroft said. The prosecutions represent the federal government's boldest attempt yet to shutter Web sites that sell drug paraphernalia.

Federal law could also be employed to strike back at computers that are attacking a company or home network, a technology-law expert says. Curtis Karnow said during a speech at the Black Hat Security Briefings conference that no court case has yet established precedent regarding the use of a limited counterstrike to stop Internet attackers but that nuisance statutes appear to apply.

Nuisance laws allow the state and private individuals to file lawsuits aimed at ending activities deemed harmful to a community. They have been used to close buildings that house drug dealers and to shut down businesses, such as quarries, that create excessive dust in a neighborhood.

In hot pursuit of pirates
The federal government has its sites on the growing copyright wars too. Key politicians chided universities for not doing enough to limit peer-to-peer piracy, calling unauthorized copying a federal crime that should be punished appropriately. Members of Congress said at a hearing that peer-to-peer piracy was a crime under a 1997 federal law, but universities continued to treat file-swapping as a minor infraction of campus disciplinary codes.

Under the 1997 No Electronic Theft Act, it is a federal crime to willfully share copies of copyrighted products such as software, movies or music with anyone if the value of the work exceeds $1,000, or if the person hopes to receive files in return. So far the Justice Department has not tried to use the NET Act to imprison peer-to-peer pirates.

321 Studios is asking a judge to block Hollywood's attempts to stop it from shipping its DVD-copying products, claiming its software is protected free speech. The company has been sued by seven major movie studios, which claim 321's DVD X Copy and DVD Copy Plus programs are helping to promote movie piracy.

However, in its latest filing, 321 argued that its products are protected free speech and that the studios are violating the First Amendment by trying to quash them. The company said the software is designed to allow people to make backups of DVDs they already own.

Two major trade groups filed a slew of civil lawsuits against people they claim were selling pirated copies of films and software via online auction sites. The Motion Picture Association of America brought 12 cases against individuals who were allegedly auctioning pirated editions of popular films. The Business Software Alliance, whose members include Adobe and Apple Computer, filed a handful of similar cases against people it said were selling stolen or illegally copied pieces of software.

Note the PC
Dell Computer is getting ready to deliver a more powerful Inspiron notebook for consumers. The Inspiron 5100 uses Intel Pentium 4 processors with clock speeds ranging from 2.4GHz to 2.8GHz, as well as a 14-inch screen and built-in wireless networking. The new machine also adopts a "desknote" design theme, meaning that it uses desktop versions of the Pentium 4 and pairs them with a large screen.

While the overall PC market has been weak since the end of 2001, notebook sales have comparatively been very strong, especially among consumers. Many consumers have begun replacing their desktop PCs with desknotes. Despite drawbacks that make the machines heavier and more power-hungry than standard laptops, desknotes come at a lower price than a notebook with a mobile processor.

Portable is key these days. Top vendors Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba say sales of their tablet PCs--tiny portable computers fitted with pens, touch screens and handwriting-recognition technology--are exceeding predictions made before the devices' November launch.

Tablet PCs are still a fairly small segment of the overall notebook market. But the devices have so far been a bright spot for manufacturers that are still feeling the effects of the PC market crash of 2001. The smaller machines have generated interest among the legal, real estate and health care industries, as well as from some consumers, executives from Toshiba and HP said.

Eastman Kodak is inching back into the consumer printer business with a new device that works as both a docking station and as a photo printer. The $199 Kodak EasyShare Printer Dock 6000 can send photos to a PC or television as well as make standard 4-inch-by-6-inch prints.

Kodak used to sell a line of inkjet printers but discontinued that effort, focusing instead on just making paper for other companies' inkjet printers. Despite the new release, executives say Kodak does not see itself as a printer maker.

Sun sheds light on future
Things have been tough for Sun Microsystems, but Chief Executive Scott McNealy wants analysts to maintain faith in the company. "The skepticism is at an all-time high right now," McNealy acknowledged at the company's annual analyst conference, but he exhorted, "Don't write us off too quickly...We've had a lot tougher times than today."

The usually brash McNealy adopted a restrained, guarded tone in his introductory remarks. Sun is coming back to an even keel after several years of adjusting to the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the recession that struck immediately afterward.

Taking a page from the Intel playbook, Sun revealed many of its future microprocessor plans as part of an effort to illustrate why the company continues to push its own chips. Traditionally Sun has forsaken technology such as Intel processors and the Windows and Linux operating systems, and then been criticized for shunning it or adopting it late after the technology improved.

But Sun began a counterattack, shedding more light on its chip plans to show why it thinks its UltraSparc processors are worth buying now and in the future. Sun detailed several processors scheduled to arrive in coming years, including the UltraSparc IV and V models, and the "throughput computing" technology acquired from Afara Websystems.

Sun also announced that it would build its entire collection of software into a single, gigantic version of its Solaris operating system and release updates once a quarter. The project, called Orion, is Sun's attempt to make its software simpler to install, run and buy.

Strictly speaking, however, it won't be just Solaris, because Sun will release the Orion components for Linux at the same time. And though Orion is a response to Microsoft's broad collection of software, the "uber-operating system" is designed to make Sun compete better against its chief rivals, IBM and HP.

Also of note
Former file-swapping wunderkind Sean Fanning has signed up to help CD-burning technology company Roxio build a reborn Napster service that will cooperate with the recording industry?Legal online music services began their biggest test this week as America Online launched a long-awaited paid-subscription music plan aimed at competing with free services such as Kazaa?The U.S. Defense Department has awarded millions of dollars to more than two-dozen research projects that involve a controversial data-mining project aimed at compiling electronic dossiers on Americans?Washington lawmakers and the White House were inundated by e-mail, fax and phone as part of a "virtual march" on Washington?Printer maker Lexmark International Group won a preliminary injunction in its efforts to prevent a company from selling computer chips that allow toner cartridges to be recycled.