New online music store could cut digital piracy

A new internet music service launched by Apple Computer offers a consumer-friendly method of downloading songs for a modest 99 cents each. If the service catches on among users, it could supply the music industry with an effective model for squelching the popularity of illegal song-swapping online—while giving schools and colleges one less legal headache to worry about.

The venture—announced just days after the music industry saw mixed results from two high-profile lawsuits involving online piracy—draws from all five major recording labels in offering more than 200,000 songs, including some from big-name artists who previously had shunned online distribution.

Unlike its competitors, Apple’ iTunes Music Store—announced April 28—has virtually no copy protection, a major concession to consumer demand.

Apple lets customers keep songs indefinitely, share them on as many as three Macintosh computers, and transfer them to any number of iPod portable music players. No subscriptions are necessary, and buyers can burn unlimited copies of the songs onto CDs.

“There’s no legal alternative that’s worth beans,” Apple chief executive Steve Jobs told analysts and reporters.

Apple charges no additional fees but does incorporate some minor restrictions: Playlists can be stored on no more than three Macs, and once a user burns 10 copies of a playlist onto CDs, he or she must “modify” the list before copying again. That can be as simple as shuffling the order of the songs.

“It’s a fresh start in the whole online music scene,” said Hilary Rosen, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company, which angered the recording industry with its “Rip. Mix. Burn” ad campaign two years ago, has instead won the industry’s cooperation with its new service.

Jobs has intensely courted music industry executives, who have been leery of digital music downloads and have aggressively used lawsuits and lobbying to stem the illegal copying and distribution of copyrighted works.

In contrast, Music Store already includes music by Bob Dylan, U2, Eminem, Sheryl Crow, Sting, and other artists previously wary about music downloads. Eventually, millions of songs will be for sale on the site, predicted Doug Morris, the chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group.

Morris called it “a defining moment in the music business.”

Until now, most music found online lacked the blessing of the major labels: BMG, EMI, Sony Music Entertainment, Universal, and Warner. Millions of internet users—many of them students—are downloading free copies of songs through file-sharing services such as Kazaa and Morpheus, services the recording industry has sued in an effort to stem what it deems revenue-robbing piracy.

Although the music industry last year was successful in shutting down Napster, the first and most notorious of these file-sharing services, a new breed of services that are less centralized—and thus harder to control—has emerged in its place.

Three days before the iTunes Music Store was unveiled, the entertainment industry received a blow from a federal judge in Los Angeles who ruled that two companies behind these next-generation services for sharing music and movies online are not to blame for any illegal copying done by users.

The decision, if it survives appeal, essentially absolves Grokster Ltd. and StreamCast Networks Inc. of liability. Grokster distributes file-sharing software by that name, and StreamCast distributes Morpheus.

Earlier in April, the RIAA had expanded the scope of its fight against illegal file sharing by suing four college students who allegedly offered more than 1 million recordings online, demanding damages of $150,000 per song (see “Students sued for alleged digital copyright violations,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4357).

The music industry is urging schools and corporations to crack down on the illegal downloading of songs over their networks, and some legal experts say it’s only a matter of time before schools themselves might be the target of lawsuits if they fail to prevent such file-swapping by students.

On April 24—the day before the StreamCast ruling—a federal judge in Washington, D.C., made it easier for music companies to identify and track users of popular file-sharing programs. U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ordered internet service provider ISP Verizon Communications Inc. to turn over the names of two of its subscribers suspected of illegally offering free music for downloading.

Bates, who ruled against Verizon in January in the same case, determined that First Amendment protections concerning anonymous expression do not conflict with the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The law permits music companies to force internet providers to turn over the names of suspected music pirates upon subpoena from any U.S. District Court clerk’s office, without a judge’s signature required.

Supporters of Apple’s Music Store initiative hope the service ultimately will render these court battles irrelevant—although industry analysts note that Apple enters a market that has yet to establish much traction. Other providers of online music to paid subscribers have drawn only about 650,000 users, analysts estimate.

By allowing people to do pretty much as they please with their digital copies, however, Apple and the music industry are acknowledging that—owing to digital technology—online file-swapping can’t be eradicated completely.

Even Rosen, who led the fight against Napster and its free online music-swapping successors, called Apple’s new service “cool, cutting edge.”

“It’s not stealing anymore. It’s good karma,” said Jobs, asserting that other industry-backed services’ subscription-based models treat music fans as “criminals” with extra fees and restrictions.

Initially, Music Store works only on Macintosh computers with Mac OS X or higher, but by year’s end, Apple plans to make it compatible with devices using the nearly ubiquitous Microsoft Windows platform. The service then could have mass appeal.

Although the service is limited to Macs, which make up less than 3 percent of the entire desktop computing market, the segment is big enough to let the music industry test a new business model, said Phil Leigh, an analyst at the research firm Raymond James & Associates.

“I think it’ll change the world a little bit,” Leigh said. “It’ll be the first legitimate online music service that will have major brand recognition, and it’s focused on portability and ease of use.”

Links:

iTunes Music Store
http://www.apple.com/music

Recording Industry Association of America
http://www.riaa.org

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This $4.2 million U.S. Department of Education (ED) program promotes improvements in the quality of new teachers, with the ultimate goal of increasing student achievement in the nation’s K-12 classrooms. Partnership grants are designed to promote significant improvements in teacher education by strengthening the vital role of K-12 educators in the design and implementation of effective teacher education programs, and by increasing collaboration among these educators, institutions of higher education, and departments of arts and sciences. ED expects to make four awards ranging from $750,000 to $1.25 million. The deadline is June 2 for preliminary applications and August 8 for full applications.

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School board: Teacher’s personal web site is grounds for dismissal

A high school teacher could be out of a job in a dispute over a personal web site he created before he was hired by a western Pennsylvania school district. But the state’s teachers union has vowed to defend his right to free expression on the web, arguing that the site has nothing to do with his in-school behavior.

The Grove City Area School District placed music teacher and assistant band director Dan Konnen, 24, of Hermitage, Pa., on an unpaid suspension in March when students found his personal web site, which contains jokes about genitalia and scatological references extracted from the controversial Comedy Central cartoon series South Park, as well as other sources.

When visited by an eSchool News reporter in April, the site said it was created in December 1997 and last updated in September 2001, meaning Konnen had updated it at least once since being hired by the school district in August 2001.

Pennsylvania State Education Association attorney Tod Park, who is representing Konnen, said the web site doesn’t contain pornography and Konnen didn’t tell students about it.

“He talks about who he is. There are pictures of him fully clothed in [high school] band camp. There [are] horoscopes and jokes,” Park said. “Most high school students have access to far more objectionable material.”

Nevertheless, the incident adds another wrinkle to the legal dilemmas of schools in the internet age—and begs the question of whether teachers who maintain personal web sites should be held accountable by their employers for material posted to the internet outside of school and intended for personal use.

Similar controversies have erupted over the discovery of potentially offensive, student-created web sites, many of which have been accused of unfairly chastising teachers and insulting fellow students.

In these cases, schools so far have had little success in punishing students for their online antics outside of school. In fact, in some cases, schools have been forced to pay several thousand dollars in legal damages to students who were wrongly suspended for web sites created on their own free time. (See “Use restraint when dealing with offensive student web sites,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/PFshowstory.cfm?ArticleID=168.)

But what happens when the web site is the product of a school system employee, and not a student?

The school board has begun the process to dismiss Konnen on the grounds of “immorality, incompetence, intemperance, persistent negligence,” and other reasons, said district Superintendent Robert Post.

The teachers union plans to file a grievance on Konnen’s behalf, Park said, adding, “It may come down to a First Amendment issue.”

Maybe. But some legal experts say Konnen’s constitutional right to free speech might not be enough to spare his job in this case.

According to Craig Wood, an attorney for the law firm McGuire Woods LLP who specializes in education law, the decision to terminate a teacher’s contract eventually boils down to community sentiment.

If students’ parents are offended to the point that they no longer feel comfortable placing their children under the teacher’s supervision, there’s a good chance the controversy might claim his job, Wood said.

He added that if a school district can prove there is a nexus between the employee’s off-duty conduct and his effectiveness in the classroom, then it is justified in taking action against the teacher.

Unfortunately for Konnen, that includes notoriety, Wood said. If too many students have seen the web site and its content is disturbing the daily ebb and flow of classroom activities, then the district could consider a termination based on these disruptions.

Before the allegations, just over 300 people had accessed the web site in question. However, since news of the controversy broke in mid-April, the site already had taken on more than 1,000 additional hits as of press time.

Another question that potentially could discredit a free-speech defense on Konnen’s behalf is whether the content on his web site is in violation of the district’s acceptable-use policy, which Konnen would have signed when he was hired as a teacher, Wood said.

Of broader concern is whether or not Konnen’s web site was in violation of school and state codes regarding acceptable conduct of school system employees, Wood said.

The school district did not respond to an eSchool News reporter’s telephone calls regarding these specific policies.

Despite potential problems, Park said he is confident in his client’s defense.

“The real question is going to be whether the web site is immoral,” he said. “I don’t think it sinks to that standard.”

Park said Konnen has yet to receive formal notification of any charges filed against him by the district.

According to Park, Konnen was not aware of any requests to take the web site down and there were as yet no immediate plans to deactivate the site. Park said it will be three or four months before legal hearings are held on the matter.

The web site is one reason Konnen could be fired, but the school board has other reasons, too, Superintendent Post told the Associated Press. He declined to elaborate, however, because it’s a personnel issue.

Links:

Dan Konnen’s web site
http://www.geocities.com/d_konnen/index2.html

Grove City Area School District
http://www.grovecity.k12.pa.us

McGuire Woods LLP
http://www.mcguirewoods.com

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Companies can now certify as ‘SIF Compliant’

A highly touted solution that lets different K-12 software programs share student data among multiple software programs without any retyping launched its long-awaited compliance program April 25.

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) is an open-standard specification that lets different K-12 software programs—such as student information systems and library automation software—connect through a central server and share information in a common computer language.

Software companies can now certify that their software applications conform to the SIF Implementation Specification Version 1.1. Once the certification is complete, they can advertise their products as “SIF Compliant” so education customers will know that it truly works.

“There’s always been this bar that we have to cross before we can say we are SIF compliant. Now, with this process in place, we can finally say it,” said Mark Reichert, senior programmer at Mandarin Library Automation. Reichert was actively involved in developing the SIF Compliance Program.

Driven by K-12 education technology providers, SIF—formerly a division of the Software and Information Industry Association—aims to save educators from repeatedly entering and updating student information. The project’s goal is to enable diverse software applications to interact and share data efficiently, reliably, and securely in real time, regardless of their respective platforms.

The initiative has officially been under development since 1999. In August 2000, eSchool News reported that SIF Implementation Specification v1.0 had been released to software developers. In February 2002, a remote demonstration of SIF-compliant products proved the specification works.

A lack of a clear certification process for SIF-compliant products was among the factors that hindered the widespread adoption of the standard (see “eSN Analysis: Costs, complications slow SIF’s arrival in schools” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=3817).

“Ever since SIF came into being, our customers have been asking for SIF compliance even though it didn’t exist yet,” Reichert said.

To get certified, software companies must demonstrate that their software “interoperates” with other SIF-compliant applications by properly transmitting and receiving the specific set of standard messages, queries and events defined by the SIF Specification, written in XML, and sent using internet protocols.

The Open Group, a vendor- and technology-neutral consortium that specializes in compliance, will serve as the certification authority for the SIF Compliance Program. The Open Group will collect fees, process applications, and give the stamp of approval.

“[The Open Group] provides an online testing environment where a company can bring its product and run it through an online compliance test,” Reichert said.

Companies first fill out a comprehensive, detailed application to indicate what data objects and elements their software will support. Example objects—meaning categories of data—include “student personal,” “staff personal,” “library patron status,” and “student meal.” The elements—or field names—in the object could include name, address, phone number, bar code, library fines, meal privilege, and grade level.

Then, a test is generated for each area that the company claims is operable. SIF also provides a self-test, called the Agent Test Harnes, that companies can try before the formal compliance process.

The Open Group will post a list of all SIF-compliant applications and the Conformance Statements of each qualifying product on its web site.

Many companies are expected to begin certification in the coming weeks.

“This is going to be really beneficial for our clients. It will make them confident that our products will really interact with other programs,” said Judith Barnett, senior systems analyst at Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, a regional service agency in Pennsylvania.

By getting certified “you’re promising to people who purchase your product that it does conform and it will continue to conform as long as you claim that you have SIF compliance,” she added.

To assist schools and school districts in specifying SIF-compliant applications in their purchasing processes, SIF has published a set of questions and indicators, which can be used in requests for proposal (see Links).

SIF also announced that it has incorporated as a separate, independent non-profit entity. Under its new status, SIF will be eligible for government funding and other education grants. The final transition is scheduled to take place by May 15.

Links:

The SIF Compliance Program
http://www.opengroup.org/sif/cert

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF)
http://www.sifinfo.org

The Open Group
http://www.opengroup.org

SIF Request for Proposal Language
http://www.sifinfo.org/getrfp.html

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Witness the search for extraterrestrial life at this NASA web site

The tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew Feb. 1 hasn’t deterred NASA from its search for new worlds. This search is being conducted over the next 15 years through a series of NASA missions using the most sensitive instruments ever made. On the agency’s “PlanetQuest” web site, students can learn all about these instruments and the missions they are being used in. Students can find out how scientists discover new planets and determine whether a planet is habitable, search an “atlas” of planets to see what planets have been discovered thus far (there are 102), or tour a multimedia gallery. Resources for teachers and focused learning activities for students also are provided.

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Congress considers $100 million increase in library funding

The American Library Association (ALA) is leading the charge to reauthorize a bill that could pump millions of dollars of additional funding into school library programs nationwide. Schools would be able to use the funds to upgrade sophisticated technology systems, connect to statewide electronic databases, and preserve documents digitally, among other things.

The Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) of 1996—part of the larger Museum and Library Services Act—was intended to improve access to learning and information resources by boosting communication between libraries and by making resources more readily available to underserved populations.

Its pending reauthorization stands to increase the amount of federal money available to school and public libraries by as much as $100 million. Given the recent spate of education-related budget cuts and the sheer expense of high-end data storage and information-sharing technologies, library advocates and policy makers agree that current funding levels fall short of rapidly evolving needs.

“School libraries have been neglected for a long time. A lot of collections have been neglected,” said Mary Costabile, ALA’s associate director. “I look at [the reauthorization] as a big step along the way to helping libraries improve.”

Library systems, she said, have had a hard time keeping pace with technology upgrades, including the computerization of archaic card catalogs; access to internet resources, trade journals, and online encyclopedias; and the ability to locate resources using a complex web of computer networks and searchable, statewide databases.

In light of nationwide budget cuts, Costabile said increased funding for school libraries is critical. “It’s so very important,” she said. “The worst that could be done is to not pay attention to this.”

The Senate version of the bill (S. 888)—referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee on April 11—would increase funding for school and public library programs from $150 million to $250 million a year, while museum funding would jump from $28.7 million to $41.5 million.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who co-sponsored the bill along with Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said additional funding for library services would garner national enthusiasm for learning.

“Museums and libraries are rich centers of learning, woven into the fabric of our communities, big and small, urban and rural,” Reed said in a statement promoting the legislation. “Today’s library is not simply a place where books are read and borrowed. It is a place where a love for reading is born and renewed again and again, and where information is sought and discovered.”

The House passed its own version of the bill (H.R. 13) on March 6 by an overwhelming margin of 416-2. Sponsored by Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., H.R. 13 authorizes $215 million for libraries and $35 million for museums—meaning if the Senate bill passes as expected, lawmakers from both chambers of Congress will have to work out a compromise on funding.

Still, barring any unforeseen circumstances, school and public libraries stand to benefit from at least $65 million in additional funding.

“We’d like to get it finished as quick as we can,” Costabile said. “I mean, there’s really nothing to fight about here.”

At the district level, some educators predict the reauthorization would herald a new era of library-resource management in schools.

“In the current reauthorization bill, there is certain new language which could open the door to providing more money for multi-use collaboration between school and public libraries,” said Trish Mulkey, assistant director for learning media services at the Plano Independent School District in Texas. “Using funding to maintain records and locations of print resources, as well as linking users to primary source materials, seems like a very equitable and efficient use of federal money.”

Under the new law, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) would hold on to 9 percent of the federal allocation for libraries. A portion of these funds would support the IMLS’s competitive national grant program for research, training, and the digital preservation of library resources, while the rest would be tagged for Native American Library resources and administrative costs.

The remainder of the allocation would be divvied out to states based on a two-step formula. Initially, each state would receive a block grant. The pending reauthorization would double funding for this minimum base allocation, from $340,000 to $680,000 per state. The rest of the money then would be distributed to each state library association based on the state’s overall population.

According to Mamie Bittner, director of public and legislative affairs at IMLS, state library associations would be able to use the appropriations to support statewide initiatives and services. They also could dole out the funds to public, academic, research, school, and special libraries in their state by way of a competitive grants process or through cooperative agreements.

Bittner said each state maintains a five-year plan outlining its library programs. These programs must support the LSTA’s goals, which are to:

  • Establish or enhance electronic linkages among or between libraries;
  • Link libraries electronically with educational, social, or information services;
  • Help libraries access information through electronic networks;
  • Encourage libraries in different areas and different types of libraries to establish consortia and share resources;
  • Pay costs for libraries to acquire or share computer systems and telecommunications technologies; and
  • Target library and information services to persons who have difficulty using a library and to underserved urban and rural communities.

Now that more libraries are beginning to use technology as a means of sharing resources and cataloging data, “a whole new world has opened up,” ALA’s Costabile said. “You wouldn’t think of living without your computer.”

Library funding also would provide schools with technology to preserve historical texts and other valuable documents digitally, so they are easily accessible and withstand the passage of time. “History is full of dead machines that no one knows how to work anymore,” Costabile said. “Keeping the information and storing it is one thing, accessing it is another.”

Sen. Gregg, who chairs the HELP Committee, said the impending reauthorization and its potential increase in funding would position America’s museums and libraries for the future.

“Libraries and museums serve as important cultural institutions in communities all around our nation,” he said. “I benefited from the local library in my community growing up, and by reauthorizing this funding we will continue to ensure the preservation of our libraries and museums for generations to come.”

He continued: “I am also pleased that this bill will coordinate its action with the school library provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. I expect to move this legislation through the HELP Committee soon and look forward to its speedy passage.”

Links:

American Library Association
http://www.ala.org

Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee
http://www.senate.gov/~labor

THOMAS: Legislative Information on the Internet
http://thomas.loc.gov

Institute of Museum and Library Services
http://www.imls.gov

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FCC moves to ban eRate ‘bad actors,’ approves wireless

Any applicant or service provider who is convicted of criminal violations of eRate policies or held civilly liable for eRate misconduct will be banned from participating in the program for three or more years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled April 23 at an open meeting in Washington, D.C.

The commission also ruled that wireless connectivity is eligible for eRate funding.

The agency’s decision regarding so-called “bad actors” comes as allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse threaten to derail the $2.25 billion-a-year program, which provides telecommunications discounts to schools and libraries.

“Debarring those who have shown themselves as ‘bad actors’ is an important step in protecting the integrity of the program and deterring others with bad intent,” said Romanda Williams, staff attorney for the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, who presented the new rules.

Said FCC Chairman Michael Powell: “It’s very important that we have taken a much tougher and increasingly stronger stand against those who would abuse, waste, create fraud, and really are stealing the fruits of this program away from our children. I think it’s a heinous misuse of the public trust.”

The FCC commissioners expressed unanimous support for the eRate program and its success, but they agreed more work still needs to be done to make the program more efficient and effective.

“When this program was started, we didn’t appreciate all the ways one might manipulate our rules, and that’s what we’re learning here. We’re learning ways to make them better,” said Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy.

The agency’s ruling takes a step toward preventing waste, fraud, and abuse, but it marks only the first in a series of comprehensive reforms the FCC will undertake.

“Great programs like the eRate do not thrive without regular care and review. The gains we have made can vanish without continued attention and, indeed, without ongoing vigilance, and that’s why our actions today are so important,” Commissioner Michael Copps said.

For example, a bill introduced into the House of Representatives in March, called the eRate Termination Act, would kill the eRate. Sponsored by Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo, the measure would end the eRate immediately and remove all mention of it from the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the law that authorizes the program.

Tancredo’s bill is the most extreme in a series of actions in the House following recent reports of widespread eRate abuse from the FCC’s Office of Inspector General and the Center for Public Integrity. The report was not the sole motivation for Tancredo, however, because he introduced a nearly identical bill several years ago.

Two other House Republicans, on the other hand, come more recently to the cause. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa., who heads that committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee, have launched an investigation into the alleged abuses (see “Lawmakers query FCC about ‘troubling’ eRate abuse,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4304).

Other eRate changes

The FCC’s April 23 actions reflect only a fraction of the items from a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released in January 2002. FCC Commissioner Abernathy has organized a public forum scheduled for May 8 to explore eRate issues further with stakeholders.

Here are other rules adopted April 23:

  • Requests for duplicative services—where a school or library receives the same functionality from multiple services at the same time—will not be funded.

  • Voice mail is now eligible for support and will not have to be excluded from the price of telecommunication services.

  • Wireless services are eligible for support to the same extent as wired services.

  • To expedite the approval process, the Universal Service Administrative Co., the agency that administers the eRate, will pilot an online list of eligible equipment to wire schools.

  • Applicants who have received funding-decision letters may elect to pay their service providers only the full discounted cost of services received, instead of being forced to pay the undiscounted cost and waiting for reimbursement.

Besides these newly adopted rules, the FCC also issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to seek additional comments from the public about creating an online checklist of eligible services, rolling over any unused funds to future program years, and expanding the circumstances under which participants will be debarred from the eRate.

At the meeting, the commissioners also brought up issues they would like to have addressed in the future.

“We need to work harder to ensure that deserving school districts and libraries around the country receive support in a timely fashion,” Copps said, referring to the fact that funding commitments for the 2002 program year—which began last July and ends this June 30—are still being issued.

The FCC also needs to clarify the program’s competitive-bidding rules so applicants are assured of getting services at the lowest price, Copps added. Although the FCC needs to get serious about rooting out abuses, these programmatic challenges are an equally pressing priority, he said.

“I’m interested in [whether] we should adjust” how discount levels are determined, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said.

Because only applicants that qualify for the highest discount levels have received funding for internal connections in recent years, Adelstein wants to explore whether the FCC should set a minimum level of connectivity—based on the speed of connections or the number of computers on site per student—and target funds to the schools and libraries that fall below the baseline.

Also, Adelstein said, “We need to look at whether the request for the same service for the same school is sustainable, or whether we should establish a useful life for equipment.”

eRate experts who spoke with eSchool News said the FCC’s April 23 actions were a positive start. But more needs to be done and defined, they agreed.

“We are encouraged that the commissioners are now moving forward to address the issues that were raised more than a year ago,” said Sara Fitzgerald, vice president of communications for the eRate consulting firm Funds for Learning LLC.

“As far as I know, there have not yet been any criminal convictions or civil cases that have been resolved through the program, but there may be in the future. Again, this is a good first step, but additional sanctions may be necessary to address some of the issues that have been raised about instances of fraud,” she added.

“We also would have liked the FCC to decide it could simply go ahead and roll over the undisbursed funds now, when the need is so great. The Universal Service Administrative Company is about to report to the FCC that its current pool of undisbursed funding from multiple funding years is more than $400 million,” Fitzgerald said.

Links:

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

Funds for Learning LLC
http://www.fundsforlearning.com

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Parents, schools unite against ‘cyber bullying’

“Cyber bullying,” in which students use the internet to send cruel messages or post anonymous rumors about their peers, is a growing problem for schools nationwide. Now, some Southern California parents are fighting back against the practice, meeting with school officials and others in hopes that a web site where students anonymously post gossip about other students might be shut down.

Internet users of schoolscandals.com—one of many web sites where cyber bullying occurs—can find links to chat rooms for nearly 100 Southern California middle and high schools. The site, which includes chat rooms for private and religious schools, claims 31,400 registered users.

While the postings might hurt feelings, they are not illegal, said Ken Tennen, an attorney who represents the web site owners. He described the site as a nonprofit, opinion-based message board that is operated by students.

“People really don’t understand that a bulletin board system like schoolscandals.com exposes into the light of day the way that kids actually talk to each other, whether it is on the playground, in the locker room, on the sports field, or hanging around the mall,” Tennen told the Los Angeles Times.

He said the site’s owners, whom he declined to identify by name, are Nevada investors operating under the name Western Applications. The 3-year-old company plans to expand nationwide, Tennen said.

Parents in the San Fernando Valley began complaining about the web site three months ago. They met recently with administrators from Las Virgenes Unified School District, who agreed to block the site on school computers.

One mother, who asked that her name be withheld to protect her son, said she is organizing parents to sue the web site owners, the Times said. She said her son is in counseling because of his embarrassment over a message posted about him on the site.

“That kid who said that awful thing is just a stupid adolescent. But who is allowing him to do it? All of the adults,” she said.

Dr. Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director for the National Association of School Psychologists, said the web postings amounted to cyber bullying, which could inflict serious emotional damage to teenagers.

Students have been picking on each other for years, but the internet offers a new and some say even more destructive way to do so. Now, with the help of the internet, rumors can spread across a school—and beyond—in a matter of hours.

Although most cyber bullying occurs outside of school, educators say they’re spending more and more time dealing with the fallout as it creeps into the classroom.

Parents and school leaders might face an uphill battle in trying to curb the practice legally, experts warn.

Messages such as a student is “ugly” are not grounds for legal action, said Mark Goodman, executive director for the Student Press Law Center. He said thousands of sites similar to schoolscandals.com operate nationwide.

But authors of some postings could be held liable for their words, even if a 1996 federal law protects many internet service providers from lawsuits about their content, according to Wendy Seltzer, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties organization.

Only sites that hold the right to edit their content, such as newspaper web sites, can be sued for defamation, Seltzer said.

Meanwhile, schools can help fight cyber bullying by holding classes for parents, making them aware of what their kids might be doing on their home computers, experts advise.

Another suggestion: Hold workshops where victims of cyber bullying can talk about their experience. That might help kids understand how destructive their anonymous postings can be.

“People think it’s fun, it’s funny,” one parent told the Ventura County Star. “But if they knew there was a consequence, maybe they wouldn’t do it.”

Links:

National Association of School Psychologists
http://www.nasponline.org

Student Press Law Center
http://www.splc.org

Electronic Frontier Foundation
http://www.eff.org

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Oregon dad sues to ban Channel One from schools

Channel One, the satellite network beamed into middle and high school classes around the country, would be banned from schools in a Portland, Ore., school district under a lawsuit brought by a father who objects to two minutes of commercials shown during class time. The service provides schools with free televisions and other equipment in exchange for airing its programming.

Gary Boyes says the 12-minute television segments are aired each day to a wide-eyed audience of students trapped in their classrooms and include ads for snack foods, soft drinks, and movies.

By the end of the school year, students will have watched the equivalent of five full days of Channel One programming, days that could be used for instruction at a time when the state is already slicing instruction time because of budget cuts, Boyes said.

“Most parents actually believe Channel One has something to do with school,” Boyes said. “It’s a commercial interest occupying the public school.”

The satellite network provides daily news and entertainment programming to 12,000 schools across the country, with an estimated audience of 8 million children a day. A Channel One web site says programs show news geared toward teenagers and interviews with young people in other parts of the world.

Parent company Primedia Inc. of New York owns Seventeen magazine and other publications. “Channel One’s contract with schools implicitly supports local decision making and clearly accommodates any school implementation of an opt-out policy,” said Jeff Ballabon, vice president of public policy for Primedia.

Twelve of the 17 middle and high schools in Oregon’s Salem-Keizer School District show Channel One, said district spokeswoman Mary Paulson.

Individual principals reportedly decide whether to show Channel One based on educational value. Because so many of them have the channel, there must be value, Paulson said.

“We stand by the principals’ decisions,” she said.

A similar objection to Channel One was brought before the Texas Board of Education last November and was voted down.

Board members there noted that children are exposed to advertising in a variety of other ways at school, including over the internet and through newspapers and magazines provided in classrooms and school libraries.

Boyes filed the suit April 17 in Oregon’s Marion County District Court on behalf of his son, Gary, 18, and daughter, Shanna, 13.

It asks the school district to void contracts providing televisions, VCRs, and video cameras to schools in exchange for obliging students to watch the 12-minute segment on 90 percent of school days.

The suit argues that time spent watching commercials deprives children of a right to an education under the Oregon Constitution. It also objects to the Salem-Keizer district accepting more than $5,000 worth of television sets without an open bidding process.

It is the first such suit filed against Channel One in Oregon, said Boyes’ attorney Mark McDougal.

“If it were up to them, little kids would be counting McDonald’s french fries to learn how to count,” McDougal said.

Channel One’s commercialism has been controversial for years, despite the free technology schools receive.

“There have been a few other lawsuits [that challenged the presence of Channel One in school districts], but none in recent years,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a national nonprofit organization intended to protect children from commercialism.

Commercial Alert launched a campaign in 2001 to remove Channel One from schools.

“They misuse the compulsory education laws to force kids to watch ads in school,” Ruskin said, adding that Channel One wastes school time and promotes destructive values to students.

“They glorified the movie ‘Dude, Where’s My Car,’ where two pot heads got so stoned they couldn’t remember where they left their car,” he charged.

Primedia’s Ballabon countered by noting that Channel One enjoys a 99-percent renewal rate in schools nationwide.

“Channel One stands by schools and they stand by Channel One, because the shared objective is improving education,” he said. “Ruskin, on the other hand, has teamed up with groups that openly have said they want to dismantle public education and that oppose technology in schools.”

San Jose’s Overfelt High School, the first California public high school to contract with Channel One, spent six years fighting a lawsuit for its decision to accept the service.

Although a California judge ruled that schools in that state could continue to contract with Channel One, Overfelt ultimately cancelled the service in 1996, caving in to pressure from activists who opposed the commercialization of the classroom.

Links:

Channel One
http://www.channelone.com

Salem-Keizer School District
http://www.salkeiz.k12.or.us

Commercial Alert
http://www.commercialalert.org

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Judge: Student can’t discuss potential flaws in school transaction system

Should intellectual property laws prevent tech-savvy students and other “hackers” from exposing potential flaws they find in computer systems? It’s a question being raised in a growing number of court cases—and although the courts have tended to side with the computer industry so far, civil rights and consumer advocacy groups say that’s unfair to schools and other software purchasers.

Take the recent case of a Georgia Tech student. Fifteen minutes before he was to lecture on security flaws in a debit card system used on 223 college campuses, 22-year-old Billy Hoffman found out a judge had banned him from talking.

Hoffman had used a screwdriver to break into a laundry room swipe machine that reads BuzzCards, identification cards used by staff and his fellow students at Georgia Tech and similar to ones at hundreds of other schools. The computer engineering major says he found ways to bilk the school out of Cokes, laundry service, and cash.

He was scheduled to discuss his findings before computer hackers at the Interz0ne conference in Atlanta earlier this month, but card maker Blackboard Inc. got a judge to issue a temporary restraining order.

Hoffman said he wasn’t a curiosity-seeker breaking the law. He says he was trying to expose security flaws so they could be fixed.

“All I wanted to do is tell everyone, ‘Hey, this is a problem, and it needs to be protected,'” Hoffman said. “Everyone was blissfully unaware of how it works. I looked at it and found the emperor has no clothes, and now everyone’s mad at me.”

Washington, D.C.-based Blackboard likened Hoffman to a common thief who’s spreading his criminal methods. Blackboard, which reported revenues of $69.2 million in 2002, said it could suffer severe financial losses if Hoffman’s methods are spread.

“We took the legal course because what he’s presenting and promoting was encouraging illegal behavior,” said Blackboard spokesman Michael Stanton. “He was able to tap into the wires, like anyone could do if they took a sledgehammer to an ATM machine.”

Although Hoffman wouldn’t discuss the specifics of how he hacked into the system because of the restraining order, he had previously published the information on a web site that is still viewable.

The site discusses ways to trick a vending machine into giving free drinks and deceive a laundry machine into starting for free. Hoffman also describes other possible ways to exploit the BuzzCard, such as getting into dormitories and sporting events, ordering free food on the student meal plan, and getting textbooks for free.

“These flaws don’t necessarily just extend to silly things such as tricking a Coke machine—they have much more important implications to physical security,” he said in an interview.

Blackboard asserts its system is safe unless someone physically breaks into a circuit board or card-reading terminal, though Hoffman suggests hackers might be able to remotely do what he did with a screwdriver.

Citing student privacy, Georgia Tech wouldn’t discuss whether it took disciplinary action against Hoffman, spokesman Bob Harty said. He added that he believed the systems on campus were secure.

Hoffman’s lawyer, Pete Wellborn, said the courts must decide whether intellectual property laws prohibit exposing security flaws.

“It’s sheer folly to claim that the purchaser must blindly use that system accepting the word of the seller with no means of investigation or confirmation,” he said.

The restraining order, issued April 12 by DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Anne Workman, keeps Hoffman and co-defendant Virgil Griffith—who was scheduled to help Hoffman give the presentation at the Interz0ne conference—from discussing information relating to Blackboard card readers. A hearing on the case is set for May 30.

The order relied on trade secret, trademark, and other state and federal laws, though it did not cite the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a controversial law that prohibits circumventing anti-piracy devices. Lawyers on both sides said the DMCA could become part of the case later.

In another recent court ruling on the issue, a federal judge on April 9 threw out a lawsuit that challenged the DMCA by seeking permission for a Harvard student to probe internet filtering software used in schools and public libraries. The lawsuit was brought last summer by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Ben Edelman, a Harvard Law School student who argued that such software—which is required of schools and libraries that receive federal technology funding—often blocks far more than pornography and other objectionable sites.

Edelman had asked Seattle-based filtering company N2H2 Inc. for a list of sites its software blocks, but was rebuffed. He then went to court to seek permission to reverse-engineer N2H2’s product, saying he needed court permission because the controversial 1998 law forbids the dissemination of information that could be used to bypass copyright-protection schemes.

U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns ruled that “there is no plausibly protected constitutional interest that Edelman can assert that outweighs N2H2’s right to protect its copyrighted material from an invasive and destructive trespass.” (See “Judge tosses lawsuit seeking probe of filtering software,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4360.)

Links:

Hoffman’s site
http:/se2600.org/acidus

Blackboard Inc.
http:/www.blackboard.com

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