Wednesday, March 30, 2005

High Court to Rule on File Sharing

When I was a kid, sharing music meant that I would lend a friend one of my 45 RPM records so he could listen to it at his house for a few days. If I was lucky, I would actually get it back eventually.

Sharing a movie meant that a group of friends and I would go down to the Pixie Theater in Edinburgh and watch a comedy flick together. We usually took in a Sunday matinee.

Those definitions of music sharing and movie sharing remained fairly constant until about six or seven years ago when the Internet gave the terms a whole new meaning. Today everybody knows that song swapping, movie sharing and peer-to-peer connections mean that copyrighted material is being downloaded from the Internet to someone’s personal computer.

Computer uses may be downloading them legally, meaning they have either purchased the rights to download and use them, or the material has been offered free to the public by the copyright holder. But the vast majority of file sharing, as it is generically called, is done illegally, without the copyright owner’s permission, through such online services as Kazaa, Grokster, and others.

A few years ago, the software company that started it all, Napster, lost a court battle over its song swapping service. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in another case brought by the motion picture industry and the recording industry against two file sharing companies.

The difference is that, unlike Napster, neither of these companies have a centralized list or collection of illegal files. They are decentralized, meaning they have no control over who uses their services or what the users do with it. They can download legal copies of any type of file, or they can use the services to download illegal copies of music and movies.

The justices seemed divided during the hearing. Mostly, though, they questioned how an adverse ruling against the file sharing companies would curtail future research and development of new technologies. For example, one justice wondered what would have happened to the ubiquitous copy machine if companies such as Xerox had been prohibited from making them simply because they can be used to make illegal copies of documents or publications.

Another justice wondered why the entertainment industry isn’t suing Apple Computers over the iPod, which can also be used to download illegal copies of music files. Most iPod users download songs legally from Apple’s Web site. But they could also use it to play illegally downloaded music.

Still, some of the justices were concerned that the file sharing companies were making big bucks through advertising revenue off people’s illegal activity, even though they have no control over it.

The High Court will decide by June whether file sharing services can be held liable for the illegal activity of their users. Lower courts have always sided with the file sharing companies, citing earlier Supreme Court cases such as the one brought against Sony years ago for selling VCRs.

Video recorders can also be used to make illegal copies of copyrighted material, but the High Court ruled that just because something can be used for illegal purposes doesn’t mean it should be banned if there are also legitimate uses.

The same reasoning should apply in this case. If fairness and logic prevail, the recording and motion picture industries will lose their appeal.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Will France be Able to Abridge Yahoo's Rights?

Can laws in foreign lands limit free speech rights of Americans or American companies? Can foreign courts fine American companies for listing items for sale in American catalogs if those items are illegal to buy in the foreign countries?

The obvious answer to both those questions is, no. But what if the “catalog” where the prohibited items are listed happens to be on the Internet where residents of those foreign countries can easily purchase them and have them shipped overseas?

Again, the obvious answer still should be no. But a French court four years ago fined Yahoo.com, a U.S. company, for listing and selling Nazi memorabilia on its American-based Web site because people in France are able to access it.

Yahoo’s French-based subsidiary, Yahoo.fr, complies with France’s laws. In fact all its foreign subsidiaries comply with the laws of each country in which they are based. So where does a Paris judge get the gall to levy a fine against an American company for exercising its free speech rights from American soil?

A San Jose federal judge ruled in 2002 that the French court was out of bounds and that Yahoo owed nothing. But on appeal, the French human rights groups who originally filed the suit won. A three-judge appeals court panel said that the lower court judge ruled prematurely, since the plaintiffs had not yet sought to collect the fine, which has now grown to $15 million.

Now, Yahoo wants the full court to re-hear the case, and it has agreed to do so. At issue is whether or not Yahoo will ever be liable for the fine, if the plaintiffs should decide to collect. A ruling will also let other companies in a similar situation to Yahoo’s know what they may face from foreign court intervention in American capitalism.

Yahoo executives claim they are caught in a Catch-22 situation, not knowing whether to abide by the judges order, meaning they would be caving in to foreign censorship, or just let the fines continue to mount. The fine grows by $15,000 for each day that the Nazi merchandise remains on Yahoo’s American site.

Attorney’s for the plaintiffs say they do not intend to collect the fines. But they could. And, besides, Yahoo and other companies need to know if American courts will allow such invasion of free speech rights by foreign laws.

The Internet, with its worldwide access, is forcing lawmakers to rewrite the books on many points of law that were once clear-cut. And if they haven’t started to adapt yet, as the French apparently have not, then maybe it’s time they did.

What if, for example, a nation like Saudi Arabia filed suit against an American Web site for promoting women’s rights? It’s kind of scary to think about.

As long as Yahoo’s foreign-based subsidiaries obey the laws of the lands in which they are based, the courts in those countries have no basis to rule against the American-based parent company. To do so is the epitome of arrogance.

And if U.S. courts allow the foreign courts to abridge the First Amendment rights of U.S. companies, they have surely not given the matter enough thought. That’s why I fully expect the appeals court to reverse its former ruling and clarify things for Yahoo and other Internet-based companies that sell things abroad.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Nowhere to Go to Escape Threat of Weather

Winter is finally over; many schools are in the middle of spring break, including the one where I teach. And the weather has been, well, March-like. It gets warm, then cold. The sun shines, then it rains.

Springtime brings the rebirth of grass and flowers. But it also marks the return of severe weather season in Indiana. I’ve already heard a few rumbles of thunder this year.

Weather fascinated me when I was younger. For much of my childhood, I remember being very apprehensive about the weather. Most kids ignored it completely, unless it interferes with their outdoor play schedule.

But I remember being terrified of storms. I also really hated the wind, even if it was blowing on a clear day. If the wind was blowing strong enough to make the leaves rustle, it was blowing too hard for me.

It seems silly, looking back on it. But, although I became less concerned about the summer breeze, I still retained my anxiety about storms well into adulthood.

It probably stemmed from the fact that my aunt, who cared for my siblings and me while my parents worked, had a phobia about storms herself. We had quite a ritual every time it thundered, piling up on the bed because it was supposed to protect us from lightning somehow.

Anyway, with storm season at hand, I find that I’m not nearly as apprehensive about this time of year as I used to be. But I still don’t like wind storms. Lightning doesn’t bother me much, because I know I’m safe from it as long as I remain indoors, or in a car.

Wind is still the main threat from storms. Wind can blow your house down, or blow a tree onto it. Simply being inside does not protect you from strong winds.

My early fear of tornadoes and severe storms caused me to consider ways to avoid them. I knew all the safety rules, but the only sure way to avoid them was to move to a place where they did not occur.

There are many states which have a lower occurrence of tornadoes than Indiana, but they still happen. To escape them, I would have to move to the west coast. Even the west coast doesn't escape tornadoes completely, but they are very rare there.

Of course, if I moved to the West, I could rest easier about tornadoes, but I would have to start worrying about earthquakes. And earthquakes have no season, so I'd need to be on my toes all year.

I started thinking where in the entire country I could move and not have to worry about natural disaster striking. The Midwest and South have tornadoes; the West has earthquakes and the east coast has hurricanes. Is there a place I could go to escape?

Probably the safest region to go would be somewhere around Wyoming or Montana. They have a slight predisposition to earthquakes, but then, so does Indiana. They are more prone to droughts, with hot, dry temperatures in the summer.

After concluding that there really is no truly safe place to go, I concluded that Indiana wasn’t such a bad place. It is moderate in almost everything, including its risk of tornadoes. It doesn’t get as hot as the Great Plains or the South. It doesn’t get as cold as the upper Midwest or New England. And it never gets hit by a hurricane.

So, it looks like I’m staying put for awhile.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Congress Subpoenas Vegetative Woman

If it were not true, and so serious, it could by funny.

Imagine a scenario where the U.S. Congress, under the control of a religious right-wing majority, takes time from its busy schedule to interfere with what is rightfully a family matter by issuing a subpoena to a woman who has been little more than a vegetable for fifteen years.

Congressional subpoenas are ordinarily issued to those whom Congress needs to testify before them. I wonder if they will try to quiz the vegetative woman, Terri Schiavo. And since she’s in a vegetative state and, therefore, can’t respond, will they find her in contempt of Congress or guilty of trying to foster a cover-up of some kind?

Schiavo has been in a vegetative state and on life support since 1990 when she suffered massive brain damage due to heart failure. It’s worse than a coma.

On Friday, the tubes were finally removed - for a third time. The first two times, her family fought to have them put back in.

Her husband wanted her feeding tubes removed so she can die in peace. He says she told him she wanted it that way if she were ever in this situation. But her parents want her to continue to vegetate, hoping one day she might wake up.

Get real folks, she’s been dead from the start. If there is an afterlife, she has been there for 15 years.

It never ceases to amaze me the kinds of dead-end avenues of faulty logic we Americans often take. I understand the parents’ wishes to have their daughter back. I don’t understand their logic in holding out that she might actually come back. Even if she did finally wake up, she would still have serious brain damage. She wouldn’t be her old self again.

And why are the laws so muddy on this matter. It seems rather black-and-white to me. If a person is vegetative, then the first priority should be given to the written wishes of that person. Schiavo didn’t leave any.

The next priority should be the spouse’s wishes. And, lacking a spouse, the wishes of the next of kin should take priority.

So, in the case of Terri Schiavo, the husband’s wishes should be carried out without any possibility of legal interference from the parents. Period.

And interference from Congress should not ever be part of the equation. It’s none of Congress’ business. More importantly, in this situation, Congress seems to have used its power of subpoena to attempt to place a de facto injunction on a state court’s ruling. How’s that for entanglement of the separate powers of government?

I’ve never understood why there is such a controversy over the right to life. To me, it seems easy. Maybe I’m just too na├»ve to understand all the complexities, but I don’t think so. I think it’s the religious right butting their collective noses into everyone’s business again.

If a terminally ill patient wants to take medicine to end the suffering, their doctors should have the right to comply with their dying wishes. Oregon is the only state that allows that to happen, and its law is under attack by, you guessed it, the religious right.

Doctor Kavorkian was right. He should be labeled as a pioneer in human rights, not as a criminal who violated some archaic morality law.

Euthanasia should be an accepted option in situations where patients are terminally ill and suffering or in a vegetative state with little or no chance of returning to normal.

I used to consider myself to be a moderate republican. I still am loathe to call myself a democrat. I have historically been in agreement with the foreign policy of republicans, and even some of their economic policies. I especially like it that they have not been so willing to cave in to pressure from minority groups.

But then there have always been those nagging religious factions who insist on drawing moral lines for the masses. They are republicans, too. And therein lies the problem.

Since George W. Bush has been president, the religious faction has had a loud and clear voice. And as the voice of that faction grows stronger, the rights of the rest of us will continue to be trampled, even those of us who are in a vegetative state and need to be allowed to die.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Too Much Government Secrecy

In a democracy such as ours, it is often necessary to balance national security against the public’s right to know what its government is doing. But, being government, sometimes that balance is shifted too much toward secrecy.

A new poll, conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs for Sunshine Week, a coalition of media organizations and other groups pressing for government access, shows that more than half of all Americans believe the government is not being open enough. Seven out of 10 people are concerned about too much government secrecy.

The feeling of most Americans is that, as a democracy, the government is theirs and they want to know what’s going on. Although most acknowledge the need for some secrecy when national security is dependent upon it, most also believe the government goes too far in keeping secrets from its citizens.

It does not serve the best interest of the country when the government pulls down the window shades and denies the public access to its records. Even under the Freedom of Information Act, the government can censor all or parts of documents that are ordered released by courts.

Take, as an example, the highly secret Area 51, a government-run facility in Nevada used to test new aircraft. It has existed since the 1940s, but it wasn’t until a lawsuit in the mid-1990s that the Pentagon even acknowledged its existence.

Everybody knew it was there. Many speculated it was a laboratory facility used to study extraterrestrials that had been captured by the Air Force. Others thought it might be a test facility. But the government always denied it even existed.

That’s an extreme example, but it is not a lone one. Anytime you have bureaucrats in power, things tend to get a little hushed.

Americans are generally not too happy with that, as the poll showed. The poll also showed:

Fifty-two percent of those surveyed said there is too little access to government records; 36 percent said access is "just about right," and six percent said there is too much access.

Fifty percent said access to court records is about right, while 33 percent said there is too little and eight percent said there is too much.

When it comes to government meetings and hearings, 48 percent said there is too little access, 42 percent said access is about right, and five percent said there is too much.

The percentages are similar to those produced by the same type of survey done in 2000. That is somewhat surprising since it was assumed that in a post-9/11 era, more people would be willing to put up with increased government secrecy. Apparently, that isn’t the case.

It’s not just the federal government that is too secretive, according to the poll. Even local government can hold things back. Across the country town councils and school boards make decisions in the back rooms or across the table in a restaurant, only meeting in public to make it official.

It remains up to the pubic, and to watchdog groups such as Ipsos, to pressure the government into keeping things more open. A government that operates in secret can’t remain democratic forever.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Griffin Nominated to Head NASA

Last Friday, Pres. Bush nominated Michael Griffin as his new NASA chief to replace Sean O'Keefe, who left NASA to become chancellor at Louisiana State University. Liked by many members of Congress, Griffin’s confirmation by the Senate may be quick to come.

Bush’s choice comes just weeks before the space shuttle is scheduled to resume flights following the Columbia disaster that killed all seven astronauts during reentry more than two years ago.

But the space shuttle fleet is scheduled for retirement by 2010, as Bush and NASA have made plans to return to the moon. A new generation of spacecraft will transport astronauts and equipment to the International Space Station, which will serve as a space dock for ships going to the moon and, eventually, to Mars.

Griffin seems right for the job. He is a scientist and engineer, holding a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and five master's degrees, in aerospace science, electrical engineering, applied physics, civil engineering and business administration. His bachelor's degree is in physics.

He has the right mix of space science knowledge and administrative talent needed to put NASA on track for the future. And that’s just what the beleaguered agency needs after suffering a number of failures over the past decade.

Although NASA has had several success stories, such as the two Mars rovers that are still operating on the surface of the Red Planet, it has also been plagued by embarrassing failures.

Griffin would also be in a position to reverse O’Keefe’s decision not to send a shuttle mission to repair the aging Hubble Space Telescope. It was an unpopular decision based on safety issues. But many experts believe that the risks are well within acceptable limits, given the extraordinary discoveries that have been the fruit of the Hubble mission thus far.

Bush is no friend to science and technology in general. But his devotion to the space program and to sending humans outside of Earth’s orbit for the first time in a generation is laudable. The biggest problem with his plan is that it stretches decades, when it should only stretch years.

With Griffin on board, it’s possible the timetable could be shortened. Last year, he joined eight other experts in writing a report that pushed for an even quicker retirement of the shuttle in order to accelerate work on a spaceship that could carry astronauts to the international space station and ultimately to the moon.

In 1962, Pres. Kennedy set a goal to send men to the moon and bring them back safely before that decade was out. At the time he set the goal, America was having trouble even sending unmanned rockets into space.

Yet we beat that goal by five months, despite the setback of the Apollo I disaster that killed three astronauts, including Hoosier Gus Grissom. But the public was behind that effort. With the Soviet Union ahead of us in the space race in 1962, we had someone to race against.

Today, there is no evil empire to spur us along. And the public has not been completely sold on the idea. Perhaps Griffin can start the processes of selling it.

Sending explorers back to the moon and to neighboring planets is the next logical step, the only step left really, in human exploration. The rewards would be huge, well worth the investment.

Griffin’s experience and background may be just the prescription for NASA’s return to a golden age of space travel, which will one day lead to colonization, not simply exploration. It’s a good first step.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Indiana House Boycotted by Crybabies

It’s a different legislative session, but the same old political games are still being played. This time it’s the democrats who want to play a game of kill bill. House democrats, who are in the minority this year, boycotted the General Assembly last week, potentially killing 130 bills.

Last year it was the minority republicans who walked out. That move eventually killed at least 40 bills.

But whether it is the democrats or the republicans who snarl the legislative process by not showing up to vote, the ploy is nothing less than childish and makes everyone involved look like a bunch of crybabies.

The democrats walked out in protest of republicans’ plans to pass a bill that would create a governor-appointed inspector general and another bill that would require a state ID to be shown at polling places during elections.

Democrats have every right to oppose those pieces of legislation. But the proper way to oppose them is to show up and vote against them. If they lose, they lose. That’s the democratic process.

But rather than show up and vote, knowing they would probably be defeated, they simply didn’t show up. Unfortunately, that means a quorum didn’t exist and business couldn’t be conducted. It was an underhanded and immature method of getting their way.

A similar situation happened last year when republicans walked out, preventing a vote on a same-sex marriage bill. The bill would have started the process of amending the state constitution to say that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Two-thirds of House members must be present to conduct business. Although republicans are in the majority this year, they do not have the requisite two-thirds majority.

Do voters in Indiana really want their elected officials to boycott a vote? They get paid, with taxpayer’s money, to do their jobs. But when they refuse to even show up, they are not doing those jobs.

That means important legislation, such as a bill that would finally place all of Indiana on daylight saving time in the summer is in serious jeopardy. It also means legislation providing funding for a new stadium for the Colts is dead. Unless republicans in the Senate can find a way to tack on these bills as amendments, they’re doomed.

Unfortunately, the Senate has rules preventing unrelated bills from being added as amendments to other bills. There is still some hope for the stadium, because there are other funding bills pending in the Senate that it could be amended to. But it looks as though the daylight saving time bill will have to wait yet another year.

Gov. Mitch Daniels blamed House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, for sidetracking the legislative process. In a statement, the governor said, “I shouldn't be surprised that a throwback politician like Mr. Bauer would put party over jobs, reform, public safety, or the protection of children. But it's harder to understand why not one House Democrat had the courage or conscience to stay at work when he told them to walk off the job.”

It probably shouldn’t be hard to understand, given the nature of politics. But it still leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth to know that partisan politics can bring state government to a screeching halt.

Voters of Indiana deserve better than that. They want and need their elected officials to show up and do their jobs. And if they don’t, voters ought to demand that the esoteric rules that govern the General Assembly be changed.

Make a quorum 51 percent instead of two-thirds majority. That would end the walk-outs by those who have lost power but who are not ready to give it up just yet.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Court will Decide on 10 Commandments

In a few months, the last word on whether or not the Ten Commandments can be displayed legally on public property will be heard. The Supreme Court debated the question brought in appeals to cases involving a Texas monument and a framed document in a Kentucky court, both depicting the text of the Ten Commandments.

Public opinion polls indicate that a vast majority, 76 percent, of Americans have no problem accepting the placement of the religious symbol on public property. Some argue that the Ten Commandments provided the framework for modern laws and, therefore, also have a secular purpose.

The High Court justices seemed torn. One noted that the Supreme Court itself has a depiction of Moses and the Ten Commandments on its building. Other justices wondered whether the line separating church and state had been crossed by these displays. But Sandra Day O’Conner, who often casts the swing vote in these types of matters, did not tip her hand at the hearing.

One problem for the High Court is to decide whether or not displays of the Ten Commandments on public land are so ubiquitous that it would be logistically difficult to ban them now. And strong public support for the displays might also have an effect on the decision.

That’s not the way it should be, though. Supreme Court justices hold office for life. The Constitution grants them life terms so that they will not cave in to pressure, either from the other branches of government or from the public, when forming their opinions. High Court decisions should be based solely on the law, the Constitution, and on past court decisions, not on the whims of a majority of the public.

But interpreting the Constitution can be tricky. The First Amendment says the government shall pass no laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” It also forbids any law that would prohibit the free expression of religion.

The question is often raised as to what the Founding Fathers meant. But they were vague on purpose, knowing that future generations would develop different societal norms than existed in 1787.

A more appropriate question would be, “What would the Founding Fathers say about religion if they were drafting the Constitution today?”

We can’t know that for sure, but the burden of deciding that has historically fallen upon the justices of the Supreme Court. They are all very learned men and women who, like the Founding Fathers, have what is best for the country as a whole in mind.

If the Constitution were drafted today, there is a good chance that the line separating church and state would be drawn very sharply. Government has no business meddling in, promoting, or hampering any kind of religious observation, including the symbols thereof.

Coins and currency should not say “In God we trust.” The Pledge of Allegiance shouldn’t include the phrase “under God.” And federal buildings should not display the Ten Commandments, a clearly religious symbol.

As one demonstrator in front of the Supreme Court put it, “My God does not need government help.”