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Leading items and editorials


Banks and browsers. The state of Linux-based web browsers has improved in a big way over the last couple of years; Linux users can now use the net with fast, robust, free, state-of-the-art applications and need no longer content themselves with old, proprietary, buggy code. Thanks to the efforts of the Galeon, Mozilla, and Konqueror developers (among others), life has gotten much better.

It has often been pointed out, however, that it is not enough just to have a pile of nice, free code. Without open data formats, the free software community's ability to interoperate with the rest of the world is limited. Anybody who has had to exchange Word documents understands this point well. Open formats, of course, extend to data exchanged on the net, including web pages.

Certain web sites have proved to be difficult to use with Linux-based browsers - free or otherwise. Commerce sites, and banks in particular, can be problematic. The developers of many of these sites do not feel that they have many customers in the Linux world - if they think about Linux at all. As a result, Linux users lose out on some of the functionality of the net.

A few efforts have been made to track which banks have sites that work with Linux browsers, and which do not. Now, a new web page put together by Evan Leibovitch is pulling that information into one place. With a glance, it is possible to see which banks work well with your Linux system, and which do not.

This information is useful on a couple of fronts. In cases where incompatibility is caused by a failure of the bank to follow current web standards, a public display can help members of the community to encourage changes and, if need be, to choose a more customer-friendly bank. Where the problems are caused by bugs in the Linux browser(s), the site can point developers at the problems and help to get them fixed. For the free browsers, anyway.

Linux browser compatibility has gotten better as the browser software itself improves. If AOL really does deploy Mozilla-based browsers to its customers, one can expect things to improve quite a bit more. It will always be necessary to watch out for proprietary formats and "extensions," however, if Linux is not to be relegated to a small, free software backwater.

Time to ban markers. Various schemes for "copy protecting" audio CDs are seeing increasing use, especially in Europe. These techniques generally involve violating the CD standard by putting corrupt data tracks on the outer part of the disk. Audio players ignore that data and play the disk without trouble, but computer drives get confused and refuse. At least, if you are lucky, they refuse: Apple drives, apparently, lock up and must be taken in for service.

The many of us who listen to their legitimately purchased music on computer drives have a new hope, however, in the form of a high-tech circumvention device. Chel van Gennip pointed us at this Chip Online page (in German) which gives detailed instructions on defeating corruption-based protection (a translation into something resembling English is available via Babelfish). There are two techniques, both of which work by preventing a computer drive from trying to read the corrupted data track.

Essentially, all you have to do is cover that track. This can be done with a Post-It note, a piece of electrical tape, or a carefully-drawn line with a heavy marker. All it takes is a few seconds of effort, and the "rip protection" is no more.

It will be interesting to see how the entertainment industry responds to this one. The industry and the U.S. courts have been very clear on their position: a device which circumvents protection schemes is illegal under the DMCA, regardless of any legitimate uses it may have. The industry, it seems, must either (1) take the marker manufacturers to court, or (2) admit that, perhaps, some tools capable of circumvention might have uses that don't involve letting pirates take over the world. Which will it be?

The digital consumer's bill of rights. On a related subject, it is worth taking a look at the bill of rights proposed by the Digital Consumer project. These rights are:

  • The right to time shift content.
  • The right to space-shift content.
  • The right to make backup copies.
  • The right to use content on the platform of their choice.
  • The right to translate content into new formats.
  • The right to use technology to achieve the above rights.
These rights are a good starting point: if they were a part of U.S. copyright law, there would be no DeCSS, Elcomsoft, or personal video recorder cases, and office supply stores could start stocking markers again. It is a good beginning for the definition of "fair use" in the digital age.

This bill of rights would not solve the entire problem, however. We are not just consumers of "content;" increasingly we are all producers as well. As many have pointed out, "content" and "intellectual property" are inputs to the creative process, not just the output. The current expansion of copyright, patent law, and "digital rights management" schemes makes it ever harder to create anything without running into somebody's claimed intellectual property. Thus the original goal of intellectual property laws - to encourage invention and creation - is being thwarted.

Modern technology makes it easier for us all to be producers, not just consumers, and the world is a richer place for it. We very much need a bill of rights which protects our rights as consumers, but we also need a bill of rights which recognizes that we are producers.

No dismissal in Elcomsoft case. Meanwhile, back in the real world, here is a release from the EFF on the latest ruling in the Elcomsoft case. Judge Whyte has refused all of the defense's motions for dismissal. The DMCA, he says, is entirely clear: it means to ban all "circumvention devices" regardless of their legal uses. And, while the program involved qualifies as speech, the government still can regulate it because it is controlling its "function," not its "content." The trial date is May 20.

Inside this LWN.net weekly edition:

  • Security: Superworms; Nessus; dhcp and netfilter vulnerabilities; tcpdump correction
  • Kernel: Kernel web servers; per-driver filesystems; a different approach to asynchronous I/O.
  • Distributions: ALT Linux; Aleph ARM Linux returns.
  • Development: The FOX Toolkit, Mini SQL 3.0 Pre 4.1, WaveSurfer 1.4, Mozilla 1.0 RC2, FLTK 1.1.0rc2, Wine 20020509, AbiWord 1.0.1, Ask Perl 6, PHP 4.2.1, Phpmole 1.3.
  • Commerce: Free software in the Spanish administration; Red Hat opens new facility.
  • Letters: Commercial use of GPL software; total cost of ownership.
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

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May 16, 2002

 

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