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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

News: Emergency rules for net telephony

Fire engine leaving fire station, PA
Ofcom fears delay could make an emergency worse
Watchdog Ofcom has ruled that firms which route phone calls across the net must connect to 999 and 112.

Before now net phone firms have not been required to connect to emergency numbers. This ruling applies to those firms which let customers call normal national phone numbers.

Ofcom says the stipulation is needed to ensure that during an emergency people can summon help as quickly as possible.

Phone firms have until September 2008 to comply with the ruling.

Research carried out by Ofcom suggests few people know that net phone services, aka voice over IP, do not connect to 999 or 112, the European Union's universal emergency number for mobiles and fixed lines.

In an Ofcom survey 78% of those using net phone services which cannot connect to the emergency services thought that such a call was already possible on that network or were unaware that there might be a problem.

Ofcom fears that having to find a phone that can call the emergency services during a crisis might make a serious situation much worse.

The ruling does not apply to all net phone firms. Only those that let customers call out to normal national numbers but not receive them or let customers make and take calls from normal phone numbers are affected.

Ofcom started a consultation process on the emergency number issue in July 2007.

Excluded are services that only let their customers call other people on the same voip network or that only let customers receive calls from normal phone numbers.

In March Ofcom issued guidelines for net phone firms which stipulated that they must be upfront about the limitations on their services and tell customers what numbers and services they can and cannot call when they sign up.

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News: 'Digital locks' future questioned

Does DRM protect content or restrict consumers?
One of the world's largest hard disk manufacturers has blocked its customers from sharing online their media files that are stored on networked drives.

Western Digital says the decision to block sharing of music and audio files is an anti-piracy effort.

The ban operates regardless of whether the files are copy-protected, or a user's own home-produced content.

Digital activists say it is the latest step in a so-called war on copyright theft that is damaging consumer rights.

The shift to a digital world in which all forms of content, from books, music, and TV programmes to films, can be shared effortlessly around the world between people with an internet connection has produced an unprecedented upheaval in attitudes to media, copyright and consumer rights.

Professional content producers have struggled to adapt to this changing world and deal with rampant copyright infringement that threatens to undermine their businesses.

Digital restrictions management... is a restriction of our rights
Peter Brown, Free Software Foundation

The most popular method of copyright control in the digital age, Digital Rights Management (DRM), is a software - and sometimes hardware - solution designed to prevent copying and to control how different forms of media are used.

Peter Brown of the Free Software Foundation, a leading anti-DRM campaigner, said: "DRM and filtering attempts by firms like Western Digital are an attempt to take control of our computers.

"DRM is bad for society because it attempts to monitor what we do and how we live our digital lives. It is asking us to give up control of something which gives us some degree of democracy, freedom and the ability to communicate with a large group of people."

Western Digital has blocked users from sharing more than 30 different file types, if they are using the company's software, called Anywhere Access.

Mr Brown added: "DRM is never right because it takes away our rights as citizens."

He said all DRM solutions had been bypassed, rendering the technology useless.

Press conference
Apple and EMI announced DRM-free tracks earlier this year

"You can't stop the copying of ones and zeroes - its impossible," he said.

Paul Garland, head of intellectual property litigation at law firm Kemp Little, said it was not possible to say DRM was not working.

"Content creators are struggling to find a way to prevent mass distribution of their creations."

Alexander Ross, a partner at law firm Wiggin, said: "There is fundamentally two types of operation for DRM - to restrict usage, and track usage.

"That second element is essential and will remain essential - particularly for subscription services, which are beginning to take off.

"If we go down the subscription route, there must be control."

The common problem with DRM for many users is one of a lack of interoperability. Many of the world's leading content producers use DRM systems which are incompatible with one another.

The popular example is the majority of music bought and downloaded from iTunes, the world's most popular online music retailer, which can only be played in its original form on iPods, machines running iTunes and Apple's own wireless TV system.

However, iTunes does now sell a selection of music from EMI without DRM.

The biggest problem is that it is actually quite difficult as a consumer when downloading content to know what you are able to do with it
Paul Garland, Kemp Little

The BBC has been criticised for using a form of DRM for its TV downloads that means the programmes cannot be played on Apple Macs and PCs running Linux.

"The reason for a lack of standards across the industry is that there's no such thing as the industry," said Mr Ross.

"There is Steve Jobs and Microsoft and the two titans are at odds with one another. Between them they rule the market."

Mr Garland said: "The biggest problem is that it is actually quite difficult as a consumer when downloading content to know what you are able to do with it.

Bill Gates
There is Steve Jobs and Microsoft and the two titans are at odds with one another. Between them they rule the market.
Alexander Ross, Wiggin

"If DRM is going to survive, there needs to be much greater effort to tell purchasers what they can or can't do with it."

Mr Ross said people had to understand they did not have the rights to do whatever they wanted with digital content.

One solution could be to develop information standards to inform people about the rights and restrictions around DRM, said Mr Garland.

He said: "Content owners are entitled to give you what rights they decide to give you; when you are downloading a piece of music, for example. They are also entitled to restrict you from circumventing the DRM.

"Trying to circumvent the DRM is an offence in itself. DRM is part of the law and a legitimate method of trying to protect your copyright content."

For the music industry the future looks less and less likely to involve DRM, said Mr Garland.

He said: "There is a backlash, people are concerned. The music industry is now talking a lot more about DRM-free products. DRM hasn't been the way to overcome the copyright infringement problem."

Mr Ross said that DRM as a copy protection tool might not last much longer.

"However, DRM as a track and rights management system is here to stay - as long as the music industry exists on a royalty model," he said.

Mr Brown said the industry did not need to use DRM, nor employ laws which prohibit the bypassing of DRM, in order to protect their financial interests.

"Media companies are trying to force people to think about copyright infringement almost in line with murder on the high seas.

"Copyright law is about copying and reproduction of work; that is on the statue books for everyone and is sufficient to tackle the problem.

"Digital restrictions a restriction of our rights and the use we make of media files, that historically and legitimately we have been used to.

"The idea this is somehow protecting someone is untrue - it is an attack on us as citizens."

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News: Ask rolls out search privacy tool

The AskEraser on the homepage
The AskEraser will feature prominently on the site
Search engine Ask has launched a feature that it hopes will prove a selling point for consumers concerned about their online privacy.

AskEraser allows users to immediately delete search queries stored on Ask's servers, in contrast to rivals such as Google which stores data for 18 months.

How personal data is used is becoming more of an issue as people live more of their lives via search engines.

Some are concerned about possible deals between search engines and ad firms.

In America consumer advocacy groups have expressed doubts about a proposed merger between Google and ad-serving company DoubleClick, which is currently being reviewed by US regulators.

Privacy issues

Jumping on the privacy bandwagon, Ask is offering users the chance to take charge of what happens with their search history.

An AskEraser link will feature prominently on the homepage and, when enabled by the user, will delete all future search queries and associated cookie information from its servers.

The information it destroys includes IP address, user ID and session ID along with the complete text of a query.

Jim Lanzone, chief executive of Ask
Jim Lanzone hopes the tool will lure users concerned about privacy

"For people who worry about their online privacy, AskEraser now gives them control of their search information," said Jim Lanzone, chief executive of

But some critics have pointed out that it doesn't entirely erase all information, as search queries relating to advertisements supplied by Google will continue to be passed to the search rival.

Other search engines are attempting to quell concerns about privacy and most operate polices which mean search histories are deleted between a year and 18 months after they were made.

But some consumers are getting twitchy about how their data is shared, following some high-profile cases.

In August 2006 AOL was forced to apologise after it released the search queries of more than 650,000 of its US subscribers to help in academic research.

Although users' names were not associated with the search terms, fears were raised that the queries contained personally identifiable data. It was not clear which researchers were given the data and how they intended to use it.

And just last week Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of social networking site Facebook, had to make changes to a new advertising system after more than 50,000 users complained about it.

Called Beacon, the system is designed to track web shopping on partner sites outside Facebook with the intention of providing targeted adverts to the social network based on purchases.

After complaints the site was invading privacy, Facebook changed Beacon from an opt-out system to opt in.

Mr Zuckerberg has said users can now switch off Beacon completely.

'Paying with privacy'

Despite these cases not everyone is convinced that privacy is a big enough winner for users to desert their favoured search engine for Ask.

"The press loves to run stories about the hidden privacy concerns caused by data collected online, but consumers have taken an 'out of sight, out of mind' approach," commented technology blog TechCrunch.

"We're finding that people are willing to pay for the best free products with their privacy," it added.

Surveys conducted in the US seem to bear this out. While a majority of Americans say they are concerned about their online privacy, only a tiny percentage are actually prepared to take steps to protect it.

Yahoo believes that its current privacy policy is sufficient.

"Search log data is anonymised within 13 months of collection except where users request otherwise or where Yahoo! is required to retain the information to comply with legal obligations.," the firm said in a statement.

"We believe the 13 month-policy is the appropriate timeline to honour our commitment to our users' privacy while preserving our ability to defend against fraudulent activity and continue to improve our services," it read.

Google said it had no plans to implement such a tool.

The highly competitive search engine market, which is dominated by Google, means rivals are increasingly searching for applications that differentiate them.

According to internet measurement firm comScore, Ask accounted for 4.7% of US searches during October. Google took the lion's share with 58.5%, with Yahoo accounting for 22.9% and Microsoft for 9.7%.

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