Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Computer Ethics

Ok, so I have like 30 Slashdot tabs open, with potential subjects. I'll limit them down to the best. I'll admit I don't really know what computer ethics really covers, so some of my subjects may be fringe.

First let me say that if you want to find potential subjects on Slashdot, they have a section your rights online, which this falls into:

As we talked about on the phone, one subject would be software patents. I can think of a number of sub subjects that relate to patents. First let me review patents and copyrights. Patents are for 22 years, and the length pretty much hasn't changed. The purpose of a patent is to explain how your invention works so that after your 22 year monopoly on it others can copy it. This is to prevent people from inventing things then trying to hide how it works and make it difficult to reverse engineer. And also to promote progress when the patent expires. For the most part I think the patent system is fine, perhaps a bit too long, at least for some types (software, drugs). But the largest problem by far is silly patents on everything, this is a big problem in software area.

Copyright on the other hand is something like authors life + 75 years, or 95 years for a corporate copyright. It keeps getting 20 year extensions every time the length is being reached, and most people assume it'll get extended again when it begins to expire some time in 2010's. It's worth noting that the Constitution specifically says congress has the power to grant patents and copyrights to further science and the arts for a limited time, thus unlimited lengths are unconstitutional. It's hard not to go off on a rant about copyrights, but they don't have much to do with computer ethics, so I'll restrain myself.

So first software patents on everything. A common problem in software is that companies patent things that are obvious or that have existed for years, and because the patent office is swamped, and judges are old and don't understand technology a lot of these patents stick. I think one of the most well known cases is "Amazon One-Click Shopping". Note they didn't patent any crazy backend database solution to do this, merely the concept of having a single button a user could click to buy something (once they've previously signed in and filled in their information). The patent was granted in 1999, and it still stands. One of the good things in all this is that it hurts other companies, and thus companies are pushing for patent reform. Problem with that is that it's likely the industry giants will get reform that best suits them. An example is a program the patent office recently tried where they allowed software patents to be reviewed by companies to see if they thought it was good or not. The problems with that should be obvious.

I wouldn't do the Amazon patent specifically, because it's probably been done to death. I'd either do the whole idea of software patents, or pick a different more recent patent. Another patent subject is an idea I've had that perhaps software should be patented instead of copyrighted. With this I don't mean patenting end user interactions, but rather the source code. If you think about it source code should fall under patents not copyright. There is no creative effort in source code, it's not an art. On the other had source code is a blueprint for how something will work, it's more like a recipe, and blueprints and recipes are both patents not copyrights (although a trend lately is for companies to try to get everything copyrighted because of the absurd length of time it has). Also it's silly that source code is being protected for 95 years, even 22 years is long enough where it's all but useless when it does expire, but 95 years is long enough where it won't even be usable when it expires (Windows 95 in 2090).

Spam is a classic subject, and I won't go into too much detail. Just note that there have been recently been some convictions in spam related cases. Some think that anti spam laws are rather silly, as they will likely have no effect.

The DMCA is a computer ethics subject that could probably have several full books written about it, and still not be fully covered. To review the DMCA is a law which outlaws anything which helps circumvent DRM. As judged have no idea what DRM is or how computers work, you can imagine this can be interpreted quite widely. One of the most laughable examples is the "AACS encryption key controversy", which is when the key to AACS, which protected both HD-DVD, and Blu Ray was broken. The key was a 128 bit number, which could be represented as 16 hex pairs, or in any number system. In other words it could be represented as a regular base ten number (13,256,278,887,989,457,651,018,865,901,401,704,640). The MPAA issued DMCA take down notices to sites that had this number. Which sparked it being debated if a number could be made illegal, as well as many attempts to disguise the number as legitimize data as many different ways as possible.

I mentioned DMCA take down notices, which are perhaps the most seen effect of the DMCA. The DMCA allows anyone to issue a take down notice to anyone else, telling them they have to take down something they don't like. The classic example is Time Warner (or whoever) telling Youtube to take down videos. When ever this happens almost without fail the company receiving the take down will just take down whatever is in question. Only when there is a outcry do they seem to review it and see if it really is copyrighted. As you can imagine this is abused. One case was where some guy created a video (from scratch), posted it to Youtube, some show used the video (without permission) then the company owning that show issued a take down notice to Youtube for the guy's original video, and they took it down. They put it back up, after public outcry, but it just shows the flaws in the system. One of the most interesting things about how the law is written is that there are stiff penalties for ignoring a take down notice (if it's legit), and it's purgery only to say you represent someone you don't. In other words if you issued a take down notice to Youtube for something that the MPAA held a copyright to, you'd be committing purgery. However, if a company issues a take down notice for something it has no legal right to, there is no penalty. The law was written this way by design by the copyright lobbies.

Another issue coming up recently is that US border agents can seize and search your laptop at the borders, for no real reason. Since they can search anything you have when you cross the border, and since laptops can take quite a while to search thoroughly, this means they can seize your laptop for a long time (all warrantless of course). As this actually effects people it seems people may complain enough about it to stop it.

Other good stories, I encourage you to look at the story summeries, as some of them are quite good, I just didn't feel like writing them all up:

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