Revisit Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference Online

Robyn Fizz and Susan B. Jones

Electronic money. Cryptography. Crime and law in cyberspace. Copyright and freedom of expression. If these topics prick up your ears, you probably attended, or at least heard about, the Sixth Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP96). Hosted by MIT and the World Wide Web Consortium, CFP96 was held in late March at the Cambridge Hyatt Regency Hotel.

If you didn't attend the conference, you can still get a good sense of what went on there. The CFP96 home page at has a hypertext schedule of events. Even better, there are links to daily reports from the conference and to RealAudio recordings of the plenary sessions. If there's a session that piques your interest, you can listen to it from your desktop, as long as you have RealAudio installed on your computer. Note: For details about RealAudio, go to

The Daily News

A group of students - John Dillon, Kevin Fu, Ben Gross, Sam Hartman, and Daniel Stevenson - produced a daily online newsletter that reported on CFP96 sessions. They often worked far into the night to get their reports written and on the Web by the next day. You can read their summaries at

A Conference Cross-Section

One thing you may not get from the online CFP96 Newsletter is a sense of the conference's local color. People from the National Security Agency, CIA, and FBI rubbed shoulders with members of the Electronic Freedom Foundation. Developers of public-key encryption software - PGP being the prime example - wrangled with pro-ponents of escrowed encryption - as exemplified by the government's proposed Clipper Chip. In short, hackers and cops and everyone in between came to explore and debate how computer and telecommunications technologies are affecting freedom and privacy. Here are a few of the conference highlights.

Before the Court

One of the most dramatic sessions, co-sponsored by the American Bar Association, was a moot Supreme Court case. Five federal judges and four advocates for the government and the defense tackled a case related to the Cryptography Control Act of 1995. The key questions raised by the case were: As in a real Supreme Court case, there were no witnesses. Lawyers for both sides presented their arguments and were questioned by the judges. However, in this instance the judges did not rule on the case. (If they express an opinion outside a real courtroom, they disqualify themselves from ruling on such cases later on.) Instead, the verdict was delivered by a shadow panel of regional law school professors.

The shadow panel decided in favor of the defense, but also stated that if the case were tried in the Supreme Court today, it is unlikely that the judges would arrive at the same decision.

Limiting Online Speech on Campus

It's not uncommon to read about flare-ups at colleges that involve the content of messages sent over a campus network. Universities own the wires and feel responsible for protecting their students, employees, and public image. Students value privacy, and some have a penchant for online mischief. In this environment, the limits of free speech are bound to be tested.

Harvard Law professor Arthur Miller, with a panel drawn from the legal, journalistic, and university communities, used the Socratic method to explore some hypothetical situations involving students and online content. In one scenario, a student intern tells a female TV reporter about a private all-male mailing list that is rating "sexy coeds" online. The intern hacks into the mailing list, so that the reporter can eavesdrop. She does a story on the evening news, naming the men and the student they voted most sexy.

The panelists were asked to consider issues of relationship, responsibility, and civil rights. A lively discussion ensued.

We Know Where You Will Live

Four science fiction writers - Pat Cadigan, Vernor Vinge, Tom Maddox, and Bruce Sterling - were asked to share their impressions at the end of CFP96. Cadigan envisioned a time when we will be taxed at the super- market checkout for "risks to your health incurred by certain items." She talked about how we confuse information with knowledge, and the mistaken notion that improved surveillance in cyberspace can provide greater protection against terrorism.

Vinge described a post-Orwellian world with ubiquitous law enforcement (ULE), made possible by "fine-grained distributed systems." A portion of every microchip would be mandated for government use. Vinge's examples included "smart" copyright, census-taking and surveillance, tax collection, and routine enforcement of bureaucratic rules. He cautioned that each new generation of microchip would give government new powers and, in the wrong hands, unheard-of control over citizens.

Maddox gave a critique on the "Conference for Computers, Regulation, and Commerce." He felt that on most of the panels, regulators and marketers outnumbered the "rabble" who extend the humanity of cyberspace. He expressed distrust for a government that says "trust us," and displeasure with marketers who want to corral cyberspace by throwing dollars around. His contrary conclusion: We are threatened by government and corporations, not by individuals; by the regulation of speech, not by its existence; and by controls on cryptography, not by cryptography itself.

Sterling wrapped up the conference with an impassioned speech proclaiming disorder as the new world order. He spoke about why Prodigy, with $900 million in backing from IBM and Sears, couldn't compete with the Internet, that "headless breadmold of a network." He characterized 1996 as a time of corporate anorexia, road warriors with laptops, and empty political gestures divorced from reality.

In Sterling's view, social structures are visibly coming apart, while machinery has begun to take on the role of the adult in our society. Will it take a "digital atrocity" to wake us up? Sterling concluded CFP96 by asking, "Where is our future? If you come up with something, send e-mail."

Back to CFP96 home page
Last updated June 28, 1996