High Court ponders online porn law

Struggling to find a balance between protecting children from online smut and preserving free speech, the Supreme Court on Nov. 28 questioned whether a sweeping national standard could rule the unruly internet.

There can be no objective nationwide standard to judge what is damaging for youngsters but might have artistic, educational, or other value for adults, said American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Ann Beeson.

“A national standard would be an exercise in futility,” she said.

The court is expected to rule next year on the Child Online Protection Act, Congress’ latest attempt to shield children from sexually explicit pictures and other material readily available to anyone with a computer. The court struck down an earlier version of the legislation as an unconstitutional limit on free speech.

At issue this time is whether it is possible to wall off internet content deemed “harmful to minors” by using what Congress called “community standards” of what is appropriate for youngsters and teen-agers to see.

The ACLU claims that community standards would end up meaning the standards of the most conservative community in the country, since the internet spans all communities—permissive, conservative, and in-between.

The government claims that community standards are workable online, because reasonable people generally agree about what should be out of bounds.

Several justices seemed skeptical.

“Would it be possible for a North Carolina jury … to decide whether [online material] would offend the standards of Las Vegas or New York City?” asked Justice Antonin Scalia.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked whether a jury in California should take into account the views of an expert witness brought in from New York.

“Jurors are allowed to draw from their experience, which necessarily comes from the community in which they reside,” replied Solicitor General Theodore Olson, the government’s top Supreme Court lawyer.

A federal appeals court in Philadelphia barred enforcement of the 1998 law because it said online community standards is a concept so broad and vague that it is probably unconstitutional.

The law makes it a crime knowingly to place objectionable material within a child’s easy reach on the internet. Violation can carry fines or six months in jail. The act requires commercial web sites to collect credit card numbers or access codes as proof of age before allowing internet users to view online material deemed harmful to minors.

The law is narrower and more specific than the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in 1997.

Congress got it right this time, Olson argued Nov. 28.

The law would put internet pornography and other explicit material on the same footing as material offered for sale in bricks-and-mortar bookstores or convenience stores, Olson said. Children are not supposed to see pornography in such establishments, so it comes wrapped in paper or is displayed behind a screen.

The ACLU claims that Congress’ second attempt is just as flawed as the first, in large part because it remains unclear who would draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate material and how it would be drawn.

Sexually explicit words and pictures that are deemed indecent but not obscene are protected by the First Amendment. Adults may have free access to such material, but children may not.

The ACLU sued on behalf of several legitimate businesses that claim their online offerings would be restricted, even though the law is aimed at much cruder content.

Mitch Tepper runs a for-profit web site that dispenses specific sexual how-to advice to the disabled. He answers questions online and posts articles and manuals that he feels many people would find shocking.

“I’m here to protect my rights as a speaker, as a publisher, to present accurate, straightforward sexual health-related information on the web,” Tepper said after the argument session, “without having to second-guess every time I answer a question whether a community, national or otherwise, is going to [say] this information that he’s giving … to an adult is harmful to their minor children.”

The case is Ashcroft v. ACLU, 00-1293.

Links:

Appeals court ruling in ACLU v. Reno
http://www.uscourts.gov/links.html (click on 3rd Circuit)

American Civil Liberties Union
http://www.aclu.org

Tepper’s web site
http://www.sexualhealth.com

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Catapult Systems’ web-based survey software

Inquisite 3.0, a recent upgrade to Catapult Systems’ electronic and web-based survey system, is designed to make asking questions and finding answers easy. Whether you’re giving a survey over the internet, an intranet, by eMail, diskette, or scannable paper forms, this product eliminates data entry, improves accuracy, and reduces response time, according to Catapult Systems.

Inquisite 3.0 lets you create intelligent, professional-looking surveys in just a few minutes. You can customize the look and feel of your survey by adding logos, backgrounds, images, or HTML templates. For security, web-based surveys and responses are protected by a firewall. Inquisite also authenticates the respondent’s identity, making sure that each respondent is entitled to complete the survey and does so only once.

The software’s collection and analysis mechanisms build flexibility into the survey process by letting users create customized reports. Inquisite will export data to several popular analysis software applications, such as Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Word, or SPSS. The product is available through Catapult Systems’ web site.

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Instructional lab software from SMART Technologies

With SynchronEyes 1.1, from SMART Technologies Inc., teachers can control and monitor up to 80 computer workstations in one lab using an existing TCP/IP network. The software projects thumbnail views of each student’s screen onto the teacher’s computer to allow for easy control and monitoring.

For a closer look at a particular student’s computer screen, the teacher can click on a thumbnail to get a full-size view. The teacher then can assist the student remotely by taking control of the student’s mouse and keyboard. SynchronEyes’ “show mode” also broadcasts any software displayed on the instructor’s workstation onto each student’s monitor—including software the teacher is controlling from a student’s computer. This lets students follow along and see the material up close. To focus the class’s attention, SynchronEyes lets teachers blank each screen, mouse, and keyboard so students must pay attention.

Pricing for SynchronEyes 1.1 starts at $999 per computer lab. Upgrades from an older version to the faster version 1.1 are available as free downloads from the SMART Technologies web site.

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Instructional lab software from SMART Technologies

With SynchronEyes 1.1, from SMART Technologies Inc., teachers can control and monitor up to 80 computer workstations in one lab using an existing TCP/IP network. The software projects thumbnail views of each student’s screen onto the teacher’s computer to allow for easy control and monitoring.

For a closer look at a particular student’s computer screen, the teacher can click on a thumbnail to get a full-size view. The teacher then can assist the student remotely by taking control of the student’s mouse and keyboard. SynchronEyes’ “show mode” also broadcasts any software displayed on the instructor’s workstation onto each student’s monitor—including software the teacher is controlling from a student’s computer. This lets students follow along and see the material up close. To focus the class’s attention, SynchronEyes lets teachers blank each screen, mouse, and keyboard so students must pay attention.

Pricing for SynchronEyes 1.1 starts at $999 per computer lab. Upgrades from an older version to the faster version 1.1 are available as free downloads from the SMART Technologies web site.

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Edmark’s hands-free mouse

TouchFree Switch, by the IBM subsidiary Edmark, enables the disabled to use computers and surf the web. This “no-touch” device pairs a digital camera with switch software to let users who are unable to use a traditional mouse trigger a mouse click.

TouchFree Switch can recognize almost any movement as a mouse click—from a head nod to a toe tap, according to Edmark. After setting a designated movement for the camera to detect, the user watches a cursor on the monitor float from icon to icon. When the cursor gets to the right icon, the student makes the designated movement and the computer makes the selection.

TouchFree Switch, which installs quickly, comes with switch software and a high-quality USB camera. It is compatible with both Macs and PCs. The suggested retail price is $249.99

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Lightweight multimedia projector from 3M

3M’s new MP7630 multimedia projector gives the district traveler an ultraportable projector with an above-average image, according to the company. Weighing in at just five pounds, the MP7630 is designed with digital light processing (DLP), a Texas Instruments technology that provides higher resolution and sharper contrast.

The MP7630’s projection of 700 (peak) ANSI lumens of on-screen brightness and SVGA (800 x 600 pixel) resolution ensure bright, clear color presentations. Its “intelligent image scaling” technology optimizes image quality, while its one-watt speaker adds auditory impact to presentations, 3M said. The projector has manual zoom and focus, and it also features seven different remote-controlled presentation tools: blank, laser pointer, freeze, timer, reveal, mouse emulation, and digital image magnification.

The MP7630 enables you to show presentations from your laptop’s DVD or CD-ROM drive. Additional multimedia adapters allow the projector to connect to camcorders, VCRs, DVDs, and a cable, antenna, or satellite connection. 3M also sells a variety of accessories for the projector, including a security cable to protect against theft, a carrying case, a hard shipping case, cable extension kits, replacement lamps, and a high-end display camera.

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e-D3 web-based data warehousing system

Enterprises Computing Services Inc. (ECS), a software development and services company based in Woodstock, Ga., has released a comprehensive web-based data warehousing solution for school districts.

Called e-D3 (ee-dee-cube), the system lets superintendents, administrators, and other policymakers collect and store data in one central location, allowing them to access the data easily over an internet-based network and analyze the information to help them make numbers-based decisions. The software can be used to track grades, attendance, spending, and student demographics; discover trends; and determine learning-related costs.

e-D3, short for “Electronic Data Driven Decisions,” takes data from legacy systems and other information systems used throughout a district and organizes the data into one centralized system. Data can be collected, processed, stored, and reported in-house using any database server. e-D3 also generates internet report cards and automatically outputs the required local, state, and federal reports, according to ECS. The system is scalable to fit small or large school districts, the company said.

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Affordable yet powerful laptop from Compaq

Educators looking for a portable computer that compares to a PC in both price and functionality should consider this new product from Compaq Computer Corp.

The Compaq Notebook 100 sells for just $1,112 and has the power of similarly priced desktop computers. This small, lightweight laptop features a 475 MHz AMD processor, 512K of external Level 2 cache, accelerated graphics, a 24x CD-ROM drive, 5.0 GB hard drive, and a 56K modem. It comes with your choice of 4 or 8 MB of memory, Windows 98, Microsoft Word, Norton Anti-Virus, Winfax software, Adobe Acrobat, and Compaq Internet software.

“It’s a really nice package, at a reasonable size and an incredible price,” said Jake Schlumpf, director of education product management at Compaq. The Compaq Notebook 100 can also be configured with a wide variety of leading productivity and utility applications, according to the company.

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eSchool News Analysis: Digital copyright bill could be 9-11 casualty

A bill to bring copyright law into the Digital Age appears in jeopardy. In spite of bipartisan support, the measure appears likely to fall victim to the same terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center. Delayed in the rush of more-pressing congressional business, the legislation–set to extend educators’ fair-use rights beyond the traditional classroom–now probably will be put off until next year at the earliest.

Senate bill S.487, the Technology Education and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act—once considered a slam-dunk to sail through Congress this year—has been languishing in the House Judiciary Committee since Sept. 11.

“My understanding is that almost every domestic issue is not going to be considered before the end of this year,” said Jee Hang Lee, senior legislative associate for Leslie Harris & Associates, which represents the Consortium for School Networking and the International Society for Technology in Education in legal matters.

“The only items on the agenda are [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or] ESEA; the [economic] stimulus package; the appropriations bill; and the anti-terrorist package,” Lee said.

The TEACH Act is intended to update the Copyright Act of 1976 and account for advancements in digital transmission technologies that support distance education.

The current fair-use provisions for distance education, as set out in the 1976 law, grant an exemption from copyright liability for “in-class performance, displays of certain copyrighted works, and the transmission of those performances to outside locations” via analog technology, such as broadcast television.

“Unfortunately, currently copyright law does not allow the sharing of many copyrighted materials for educational purposes through digital means,” such as satellite broadcasts, two-way videoconferencing, and internet-based courses, said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who introduced the bill in March along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

If passed, the TEACH Act would:

  • Eliminate the current requirement that the instruction occurs in a physical classroom or that special circumstances prevent the attendance of students in the classroom;

  • Clarify that the distance-learning exemption covers the temporary copies that would need to be made in networked file servers to transmit material over the internet; and

  • Amend the current law to let educators show limited portions of dramatic literary and musical works, audiovisual works, and sound recordings, in addition to complete versions of non-dramatic literary and musical works, which currently are exempted.

In the October 2001 issue of eSchool News, Leslie Harris, president of Leslie Harris & Associates, said that Hatch and Leahy had vowed to bring the bill to the Senate floor quickly.

“Their resolve brought a previously reluctant content community to the bargaining table and created a bill acceptable to all parties. By the time the TEACH Act was considered by a House Judiciary subcommittee, all the witnesses—educators and content owners alike—spoke in favor of the bill,” wrote Harris in an eSchool News “Viewpoint” column.

“With no opposition and strong bipartisan support, the TEACH Act could be slated for passage this fall,” she predicted.

But the events of Sept. 11 changed everything, causing the TEACH Act and other legislation to play second fiddle to issues of national security.

“There are so many things that were going to be considered pre-Sept. 11,” said Lee. “Right now, the only domestic issue that has remained in the spotlight is ESEA. Everything else has just slowed down.”

“The whole agenda and priorities after Sept. 11 have changed,” agreed Jeff Lungren, spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee. “We’ve been completely consumed with the anti-terrorism bill and the terrorism investigation.”

After the Sept. 11 tragedies, Lundgren said, the Judiciary Committee had to redirect its resources to more pressing needs. The committee is just now getting back to the issues it had hoped to tackle earlier, he said.

Some critics of the TEACH Act, including the Association of American Publishers (AAP), might welcome the change in legislative priorities.

In a hearing last spring, a lobbyist for the AAP warned members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that changes to the current law could lead to increased piracy of copyrighted materials.

Allen Adler, AAP’s vice president of legal and governmental affairs, said he hoped the committee would reconsider the bill “so that the clever acronym that you’ve come up with for this legislation, TEACH, does not devolve into something that really would stand more for the Technology Education And Copyright Heist Act.”

But educators who testified at the hearing said the bill was sorely needed, as licensing fees for the use of copyrighted materials threaten to undermine the growth of distance-education programs.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Marlboro College in Vermont, told the committee that a student at his college wanted to use 15 seconds from Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V for a multimedia presentation a few years ago.

“It took almost two weeks to track down the right person with whom to speak, and when we finally had that conversation, they reported back to us that it would cost the student $2,000 for a one-time use of that video,” he said.

While the TEACH Act’s momentum has subsided, legislative analysts say it will remain on the agenda for the 107th Congress in 2002.

“Our gut feeling is that it will be addressed again sometime in the middle of next year,” said Lee. Lungren, the House Judiciary Committee spokesman, would not speculate on when the bill would be addressed once again.

Links:

House Judiciary Committee
http://www.house.gov/judiciary

Leslie Harris & Associates
http://www.lharris.com

Association of American Publishers
http://www.publishers.org

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Red Hat challenges Microsoft on settlement offer

Red Hat, a company offering open-source software, has countered Microsoft’s proposal to settle class-action suits by donating what the software giant describes as $1 billion worth of software, hardware, and computer training to needy schools. Among other things, the Red Hat counterproposal focuses attention on how much Microsoft actually would have to spend if the courts were to accept its settlement offer.

Microsoft has described the proposed donations as an innovative way to end more than 100 class-action lawsuits pending against it. Microsoft’s proposal was submitted to the Federal District Court of Maryland Nov. 20 and is awaiting approval by U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz in Baltimore, who is overseeing the class-action suits. The suits stem from anti-trust litigation originally filed by the U.S. Justice Department.

Critics immediately labeled the Red Hat offer a publicity stunt, but some school technology leaders told eSchool News the proposal seems to have substance.

Red Hat—which makes a version of the Linux open-source operating system—offered to give its software to every school district in the nation for free. As a result, the company said, Microsoft could focus on buying hardware, instead of software, for the estimated 14,000 eligible school districts.

“While we applaud Microsoft for raising the idea of helping poorer schools as part of the penalty phase … for monopolistic practices, we do not think that the remedy should be a mechanism by which Microsoft can further extend its monopoly,” said Matthew Szulik, chief executive officer of Red Hat.

Under Microsoft’s proposed settlement, the majority of the $1 billion would be spent on software donations, while smaller portions would be used to fund teacher training, create programs to support and sustain technology in schools, and discount the cost of approximately 200,000 refurbished computers for schools each year.

The products included in this offer are Office XP, Office 2000, Office 2001 for the Mac, Windows XP Professional, any Scholastic Magic School Bus title, any My Personal Tutor title, one Windows 2000 server and client access license, and one Encarta Class Server and access license.

Only schools at which 70 percent or more of students receive free or reduced-priced lunches would be eligible. That’s approximately 14 percent of all schools, according to Microsoft’s estimates.

Red Hat said it would give its open-source Red Hat Linux operating system, office applications, and associated capabilities to any school system in the United States at no charge. Red Hat also will offer online support for the software through the Red Hat Network, which currently is a fee-based service.

Unlike the Microsoft settlement, which is guaranteed for five years, Red Hat’s offer has no time limit, the company said.

“Initially, I just found it humorous, since you can download Red Hat’s software for free already. However, since the offer includes Red Hat Network [support], this becomes a much more serious offer, as that service does involve some direct costs to Red Hat,” said Kyle Hutson, director of technology at Rock Creek School District in Kansas.

He added that this public-relations stunt is more than a philanthropic gesture. “It calls Microsoft’s bluff that they are spending $1 billion as the settlement for a lawsuit, when it will actually cost Microsoft much less than this amount,” Hutson said.

Norris Dickard, senior associate of the Benton Foundation, which focuses on digital divide issues, said Red Hat’s offer is “part of a ‘tit for tat’ among competitors.”

“Competitors of Microsoft—like Red Hat—feel that Microsoft is using this deal to get out of numerous lawsuits and extend its monopolistic position by getting [schools] hooked on its software, while looking good in doing so,” Dickard said.

He pointed out that Red Hat—which earns money by charging fees for technical support for its free, open-source software—essentially is doing the same thing. “Of course [Red Hat would] like to see Linux become the standard in schools,” Dickard said.

“Red Hat, Microsoft, and Apple are all battling for the schools’ [business], because today’s students become tomorrow’s consumers and business leaders. I think schools tend to forget that this is the ace up their sleeve when dealing with any software that has a practical use outside the schools,” Hutson said.

So, would schools fare better with free, open-source software from a company like Red Hat, or more mainstream products from Microsoft? “It could be argued from a straight cost-benefit analysis that using open-source software like Linux could be cheaper for schools in the long run. However, schools and systems are not as familiar with it,” Dickard said.

“A school that has already invested a great deal in Microsoft products would probably not get a whole lot of value out of Red Hat’s proposal, because it would cost more to integrate the old and the new,” Hutson said. “For a school without much investment in Microsoft or … in any platform, Red Hat’s proposal provides a way to get much more value.”

When eSchool News contacted Microsoft for a comment, the company said it would welcome contributions to its National eLearning Foundation, which will be created to oversee Microsoft’s school donations.

“If [Red Hat] would like to donate to the foundation—to the schools—that would be wonderful and they should do it,” Microsoft spokesman Rick Miller said.

Links:

eSchool News, Nov. 21: Microsoft’s $1 billion class-action settlement to benefit schools
http://www.eschoolnews.org/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=3302

Red Hat Inc.
http://www.redhat.com

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

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