By John Dillon
Industry and electronic commerce -- not government agencies -- are driving global social and technological developments in computer privacy, intellectual property and encryption, said George Metakides, keynote speaker at CFP96.
Metakides, director of research and development for ESPRIT (European Strategic Program for Research and Development in Information Technologies), offered an international perspective to what is often cast -- in the words of conference chair Hal Abelson -- as a "U.S.-centric" debate over freedom and privacy in the information age.
Four fundamental issues frame the discussion in the European Union, Metakides said: intellectual property, personal privacy, encryption and the strong desire to maintain cultural and linguistic diversity in the online world.
The European community and its member states have started a number of technical and legal initiatives, such as the pending deregulation of telcom companies, he said. But government administrations are slow and conservative by nature, Metakides said. Thus, whether one approves or not, "business is setting the pace," he said.
Metakides outlined the considerable challenges to the search for "balance" in intellectual property issues. There is a lack of uniformity within Europe in copyright laws; markets are global and legislation is highly complex, he said. And he noted that while the electronic medium is modern, the fundamental issues are not new. He told the story of a European author in 1837 who asked the U.S. Senate to protect his work from copying. Yet is wasn't until 1891 that the Senate approved reciprocity of copyright between the U.S. and Europe.
The best way forward, Metokides suggested, is not by scrapping existing law in each country and starting again from scratch. Instead, the European Union must build on its members existing intellectual property laws and strive for harmony. This should be done "with a light hand," he said.
Electronic commerce is also shaping developments in personal privacy issues, he said. But the EU is working on a "data protection directive" -- expected to be implemented by 1998 -- which would set binding rules for collection of personal information. The directive would require a "purpose principle" -- so those collecting data would state why they are doing so. Consumers would have the right to know how and why the information was being used. The EU proposal also calls for an "independent supervisor," who would act as a privacy ombudsman at the national level.
On the technological side of the privacy debate, ESPRIT is working on an electronic cash system that would basically offer a double-blind mechanism to shield a person's financial transactions from the bank handling the cash, he said.
Economic issues are driving encryption developments as well. Metokides listed the by-now familiar tug-of-war between the desire for individuals and businesses for privacy and security and the need for governments to fight crime and protect national interests. But encryption controls, he suggested, are a little like Prohibition -- when in the 1920s anyone with a bathtub and a bag of sugar could make illicit booze. The laws also vary widely across Europe. Encryption is banned in France, yet the technology is widely available on the Internet, he said.
Metakides said the emerging consensus in Europe is to use "trusted third parties" for key escrow. But any user of encryption should be free to choose any cryptographic tool available, not something that is government designed or controlled, he said.
Governments must strive to harmonize their laws and seek international agreements on cryptography. If not, commercial technology -- such as Microsoft crypto plug-ins -- could be sold in one country and not another. "That would be a bad thing. It would be bad for the global information infrastructure," he said.
Metakides saved the last portion of his talk for an issue of central importance to Europeans: the struggle to maintain cultural and national diversity in a rapidly converging and homogenizing world. The fear among many in Europe is that their diverse cultural richness will be lost under the "net onslaught," he said. "Can we have a Web where even through its pages we can distinguish Irish charm, French culture and Italian exuberance?" he asked.
The issue goes beyond national boundaries, he said. Minority communities within countries -- such as the Basque in Spain -- are also struggling to maintain their own identity, he said. "If citizens have the power to create content and have it distributed, we will make the whole world a more interesting and more diverse place for us all," Metakides said.
A search for balance in all aspects of the debate -- including cryptography, privacy and intellectual property -- is essential, he said.
"Is it hopeless? Certainly not, provided we get global cooperation on a technical level and on a legislative level," he said. "If we do that, there will be balance in a way that respects privacy, allows for freedom and allows for governments to govern in a proper way."
[ CFP96 Newsletter | CFP96 | CFP | general info ]
Comments and bug reports to Daniel C. Stevenson