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Friday, 20 December, 2002, 09:11 GMT
Presents for online warriors
Bill Thompson, BBC
As the festive season fast approaches Santa Bill, otherwise known as technology consultant Bill Thompson, has been casting his eye over who in the world of the internet deserves a reward.

Christmas is nearly here, so like Santa Claus, I have been making my list of those who deserve to get presents this year.

I've checked it twice, and I am now prepared to reveal who in the online world has been naughty and who has been nice during 2002.

Biggest present of all goes to Stand.

This loose association of digital revolutionaries managed to stir up a big fuss about proposals in the UK to give local authorities, utility companies and almost anyone else who cared to ask access to records of websites you visited, chatrooms you entered and e-mails you sent.

Chinese crackers

The home secretary was forced to back down, an almost unprecedented achievement, and though he'll be back in 2003 with new plans, any victory for online community activism should be applauded.

And since they couldn't have done it without support from FaxYourMP - a very British institution - they get a pressie too.

The US Patent Office is definitely off my present list for granting so many dubious patents on software and business processes

Bill Thompson
The British Home Office may not deserve a present, but their efforts to damage online freedom pale when compared to the Chinese Government.

The People's Republic has been lambasted by Amnesty International for the harsh prison sentences and appalling treatment of those who use the internet for political activity.

Yet they continue to see freedom of expression as a threat. Just this week they have detained Liao Yiwu, a banned poet who posted his work on websites outside China.

They continue to use the latest technology to filter and block access to the web, including BBC News Online, and they are allowed to get away with it.

The solution is not technical, as the technology supports control. It must be political and cultural.

We need to put pressure on the Chinese Government to allow citizens to speak and read what they want.

But there is little sign that change will come soon.

Libel common sense

Elsewhere, the US Patent Office is definitely off my present list for granting so many dubious patents on software and business processes, creating uncertainty about legal challenges to almost any online innovation and encouraging companies like BT to go to court to defend their own dubious patents.

BT van with BT Tower in background
BT was unsuccessful in patent claim
At least BT failed to show they owned hyperlinking. But with AOL getting a patent on instant messaging just this week, the tide of litigation seems unlikely to stop anytime soon, especially as the European patent office wants to head in the same direction.

Fortunately at least one set of judges showed they do know what really happens online.

The five judges of Australia's High Court who ruled that Dow Jones could be sued for libel in Australia and threw out their claim that they don't actually publish there.

At last we seem to have a judiciary that understands the net, even if they are on the other side of the world.

In another court, presents go to the jury in the trial of Elcomsoft, the Russian software house that had the temerity to write a program which cracked the protection on Adobe's electronic books.

Elcomsoft programmer Dmitry Sklyarov was arrested in the US at Adobe's request, and charged under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act with doing stuff of which the US disapproves.

Realising they were in danger of creating a copyright martyr, Adobe shifted the focus and persuaded the US Government to prosecute Sklyarov's employer instead.

But the jury decided that the case had no merit and acquitted them.

It seems that writing a programme in Moscow without checking whether what you're doing is illegal in New York is still allowed - a rare victory for common sense in the US court system.

Triumph for democracy

OpenDemocracy has some of the best and most intelligent writing on all aspect of global politics seen on the web for many a year.

Bill Thompson
There will however, be no presents at all from this Santa for the European Commission, whose Copyright Directive asks EU countries to introduce laws that are even more restrictive than the DMCA.

Or for the UK Patent Office, who seem unwilling to take advantage of the many get out clauses left in the directive that could make UK law less repressive and limiting.

No present either for Icann, the group in charge of internet domain names, for messing around all year and still not coming up with any sensible plan for expanding the range of allowable names.

They also managed to remove the last vestiges of accountability by getting rid of the few directors who were elected by net users, leaving them even more under the influence of the large companies who want to own tomorrow's internet.

My last two presents go to organisations I'm involved with. But I don't get paid by either, so you can take my endorsement as reflecting their value not my financial interest.

First, openDemocracy, whose relaunched website may still be navigationally challenged but which has some of the best and most intelligent writing on all aspect of global politics seen on the web for many a year.

And lastly, the Work Foundation's iSociety team for having the brilliant idea of sending two academic researchers to go and live with net-using families for three days at a time to see what they really thought about broadband.

Guess what? It isn't the speed or the always-on aspects that count. It's the way a broadband connection can be integrated into everyday life that really makes a difference.

That insight definitely deserves a present.

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology



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See also:

18 Jun 02 | Politics
19 Dec 02 | Technology
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06 Sep 02 | Technology
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