Policing The Internet

The Internet is the new wild, wild West, where anything goes. Many users revel in and laud this freedom, comparing it to our free airways. Others, for myriad reasons, push for filters and censoring. Meanwhile, nations swayed by both lobbies and by the Internet’s rich possibilities for raising tax revenue, try to insert some law and order into this new frontier.

To summarize the state of laws and pending bills, both here and abroad, the Trenton Computer Festival’s Professional Conference presents “Legal Issues on the Net” on Friday, April 27, at 8 a.m. at the College of New Jersey in Ewing. Cost: $135. Visit www.tcf-nj.org/professional conference.html. Speaker Frederic Wilf, partner with the Philadelphia-based law firm of Morgan Lewis, covers privacy, IP, E-commerce, and government controls.

Wilf likes to joke that he was once a computer programmer — for about 15 minutes — but this vastly underestimates his experience. Growing up first in Philadelphia, then Cherry Hill, Wilf attended Rutgers University. While a student in the early l980s, as computers were just beginning to appear on office desks, he worked briefly as a programmer for RCA.

After graduating from Rutgers with a bachelor’s in accounting in l982, he earned his law degree at Case Western University. For the last 25 years Wilf has focused his practice on technology, IP and, E-commerce issues. He has worked at the Philadelphia office of Morgan Lewis since l999.

“The real problem with the ‘Net,” says Wilf, “is that it just grew like Topsie — everything came upon us too suddenly for any sensible reaction.” Now there is an avalanche of pending legislation, ideas for legislation, and attempts at twisting old enforcement techniques to fit this new arena.

Censorship pendulum. Don Imus’ insults have set an appalled public swinging back to cries for more censorship. But America has long had a love/hate relationship with censorship of any kind. In 2000 Congress passed, and the Supreme Court upheld, the Children’s Internet Protection Act.

The act stated that all pubic libraries that did not install government-approved Internet filters would lose all federal and state funding. Librarians and human rights activists nationwide protested.

The South Brunswick library, for one, refused to install the devices, noting that no patrons could find out anything about their county because filters automatically blocked any site with the final three letters of Middlesex in it.

Even the most protective of parents were soon admitting that the filters were technically inept. Additionally, today’s tech-savvy children were finding their way into any site. The law was more honored in the breach, and recently a federal court in Philadelphia struck down an attempt to place filters in public libraries, calling this a violation of First Amendment rights. Generally this seems to be the trend.

“But internationally America is a piker when it comes to Internet control,” says Wilf. He cites “The Great Firewall of China” and Saudi Arabia’s national filter system. Both nations have traditionally viewed erotic and pornographic material in any form as totally corruptive and generally illegal. By filtering all reachable computers within the nation, they have made such materials truly a rare commodity.

The French have developed their own method of handling handle sexually objectionable materials. In public library computers in that country any site is available for a viewing period of five minutes. After that those listed as objectionable sites automatically crash.

Gambling. The anonymity of the cyberspace, and the ease with which a growing majority of people can access it, has made Internet gambling a huge business, able to defy all current state and local laws. This said, the United States has some of the most restrictive laws and attitudes towards gambling, and has put an enforcement system in place.

In response, many of the gambling entities have simply moved offshore. Most nations take the stance that if your site is illegal and visible in its borders, you are committing a crime. When such illegal operators respond by moving elsewhere, officials can often lure them back in.

Last year, for example, a group of neo-Nazi leaders whose website illegally espoused specific individual murder threats, were invited by a German club to speak in Berlin. When they stepped off the plane, the cuffs came on. As they were being whisked off to jail, smiling German police revealed that their was no German club, and the invitation has simply been a lure to bring them within jurisdiction.

The same tactic, however, has not yet stopped United States citizens from gambling online. But another measure has had a lot of success. A recent bill forbids credit cards from being used to pay gambling debts, and provides a whopping fine to violating card companies. This has made a major dent in online gambling, since credit card payment is about the only way online debts can be settled.

Attacking ISPs. Child pornography is the online crime most likely to draw a reaction in this country. Pennsylvania recently passed a law that would require a third party Internet service provider to block such offending sites. It was struck down, mostly because of the blanket blocking necessarily done to other, totally legal, sites to achieve the ban.

Utah followed suit on this same topic, with a differently worded law of similar intent.

“The solution here is coming from the service providers themselves,” says Wilf. “Once they discover they have a child porn or other illegal site on their lists, they are cutting it out themselves.”

IP unrewarded. “The Internet swallows all prior media,” says Wilf. “Radio, print, text, graphics, television — everything streams into the ‘Net. The problem is who pays?” By law, if you stream in content from the radio, technically you should pay a royalty, which goes back to the producer of the show, who in turn is paying the record company, which is paying the artist. But it just doesn’t happen.

As a result, both law and technology are struggling to establish a distribution value chain in which all parties get their fair share.

Apple has an overwhelming inventory of privately-created music that can be loaded onto its iTunes website. To handle the legal aspect of such intellectual property, the company has developed a digital distribution rights management system that limits the number of copies that can be made or transferred.

This system has worked well to day, but is being challenged in France. As owners of the lion’s share of the digital music market, Apple has kept its product separate by coupling its iPod MP3 music players with its iTunes website. Yet this new French bill, which has passed the French Parliament and is now in the Senate, if passed, would force Apple into making its enormous iTunes library compatible with any digital device. An outraged Apple has called this “state enforced piracy.”

Privacy remnants. “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it,” Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems’s CEO told reporters. And increasingly people are beginning to believe that technology has robbed them of this precious possession.

However, Wilf is quick to point out that the United States has been foremost in protecting valuable consumer information, dating back to the l970s. Today medical histories, credit information, and banking and investment transactions are guarded by a legal web, which, while often tough to enforce, doles out large penalties once offenders are located.

Taking up this banner, the European Union has adopted its staunch, no-nonsense E.U. Privacy Directive, which places the burden on the information collector. Basically the directive states that anyone collecting personal information must take very specific steps to protect that information. It also limits processing and distribution. The directive adds further protection by not allowing the export of personal information to nations with lower standards than that of the European Union — and this currently includes America. Thus a vast number of American firms, hoping to trade across the Atlantic, have adopted this newer, tougher international code.

“The laws are legion and the problems are endless,” says Wilf. The power of the Internet is undeniable. Many political strategists, for example, have cited the Democrats’ better use of the Internet as one of the main reasons they were able to gain Congressional majority in the last elections.

The free-wheeling style of the Internet inspires fear in some, but citizens of every nation want to keep it free. It is generally a political death knell to even propose legally limiting Internet content, except for the most egregiously offensive materials. Can we protect ourselves from our technology, while still reaping all of its benefits? The balancing act goes on.

— Bart Jackson

Saturday, April 28

Charting the Future Of Technology

Mapping the future is best done by using the compass of the past. For over 50 years Leonard Sragow has been hitting the computer prognostications right on target with a simple formula. He looks at today’s inventions, bundles in all the current technologies, and multiplies them out to their logical conclusions. But then he also adds in the human equation — factoring in all the trends and disruptions this emerging technology has already caused in recent history. As a result, Sragow’s vision of what we might achieve in the future helps to fill in an very poignant picture of where we stand now.

Sragow joins a host of speakers and presenters at the Trenton Computer Festival on Saturday and Sunday, April 28 and 29, beginning at 9 a.m. each day at the College of New Jersey. Cost: $17 for a two-day pass. Visit www.tcf-nj.org. Sragow’s talk, “Beyond the Internet: Much Beyond and Far, Far Away,” takes place at 3:40 p.m. on Saturday, April 28. In addition to the talks, visitors can walk through hundreds of exhibits, and poster sessions, and even be tested for ham radio operators licenses.

While the term Renaissance man can be a cliche, Bronx-born Sragow truly embodies the term. Tune in to the final episode of “The Sopranos” television show, and you can spy him as one of the wiseguys. Many Manhattanites, unaware of his acting career, know him as a popular stand-up comic who has played the city’s top clubs for 50 years. Still others recognize his name as author of the satiric “Join the Responsibles” column in the Village Voice.

In l944 Sragow graduated from Brooklyn College with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. “I knew I couldn’t get a teaching job back then,” he says, “so I picked the major I figured would be most useful to me.” After college he took a franchise with an insecticide company. The company folded, but Sragow analyzed the product, redeveloped it, and came out with a new version under his own label.

Always the ultimate gadgeteer, Sragow leapt into personal computers from the outset, buying early versions of Timex and Mattel. He says that he envisioned the iPod 20 years ago, and he remains on the cutting edge of technology through his membership in the New York Amateur Computer Club.

Technologies unite. If we don’t blow each other up, or kill each other off in wars for the last remaining unpolluted water, we might just have a Utopia, Sragow thinks. He sees the possible unification of three emerging technologies. The first of these is cold fusion, which would supply us with limitless energy. So far, despite exhaustive attempts by leading research universities and electronics companies, all attempts to produce cold fusion have failed, but Sragow remains hopeful that an alternative to hot, explosive fusion, can be achieved.

Secondly, he says, nanotechnology, developed to its fullest, would provide the ability to align atoms and thus create nearly any substance desired. Just like Captain Picard of the Enterprise, everyday citizens could sit in their living rooms and say to the replicator “Earl Grey — Hot!” — and the steaming cup of tea would appear.

Finally, directing all of this energy and atomic-level manufacture, would be computers of sprawling, enormous capability, made feasible by warm superconductors.

The real fly in this Utopian ointment seems to come in the cold fusion category. A strong body of evidence, and U.S. Department of Energy research, points to the position that no truly useful energy could be obtained from cold fusion. Further, environmentalists note that the vast amounts of low-level heat produced during such fusion could radically effect global warming.

On the other hand, 45 years ago, light without heat seemed beyond our capacity.

Far possibilities. Were all three technologies to meet in a single production stream, Sragow foresees a total departure of life from its historic course. Atoms would be fed into a master database and goods would be created as needed. Want and famine would end. The need for competition, stockpiling, and theft would be eliminated. Humankind’s entire culture would change.

Whether this technological,life-changing dreamland actually comes to fruition or not, Sragow insists that we have made the first faltering steps in that direction.

Computerization, which is now taken for granted, did not even exist when people now in the middle of their lives were in grammar school, after all.

“When I first studied the binary system I saw a whole different world emerging,” says Sragow, “and to borrow the words of Immanuel Kant, ‘it wakened me from my dogmatic slumbers.’”

Virtual virtuosity. Americans deal less tangibly in business, daily errands, and even sports. We shop, sell, buy, apply for jobs, keep in touch with friends, share photos, download music and movies, join support groups, research ailments, build stock portfolios, review bank statements, get news, post news, and compete online.

At the same time, planes are launched, and drop very real bombs on the cue of pilots sitting miles behind the lines. They are trained for this action by years of imaginary play at computer games, where the bombs shown on the screen are not real — not yet. The infatuation has become so deep that many individuals live a “Second Life” on the popular website, at http://Secondlife.com. The virtual world had 5,671,766 residents, and replicates whole sectors of everyday life.

Virtual and reality become blurred. Yet no one can doubt that big reason for the initial dotcom crash was that many companies ran brilliantly on the screen until they realized they had to physically deliver the goods — and make a profit along the way.

Globally wired. We won’t have to reach a tech-utopia for most all human kind to be connected. Telecommunications in all forms already allows us to chat with friends in Mongolia and business partners in Peru. Language barriers are already tumbling as English dominates the Internet and instantaneous translators kick in on websites and in E-mail. There may be a certain culture crunch as an international homogeneity dominates cyberspace. On the other hand, many find that traditional cultures are getting more space and publicity on the Internet than ever before.

Doubtless many benefits have come from our wired society. Physicians can monitor patients and even provide treatments from great distances. Yet a lot of this distant connectivity makes us uneasy. Are we more remote and less human for all our electronic interlinking? How can we re-establish our humanity through the buffer of the machines?

Possessions and profit. In Sragow’s view technology has already led us toward a less greedy, thing-oriented society. While many may point to the frightening materialism all around us, he invites us to look at the sharing world of cyberspace.

“Fifteen years ago, who would have ever thought that Wikipedia could have existed and maintained itself,” he asks? On literally billions of websites and blogs people contribute their information and understanding for no material gain. Citing the philosopher Spinoza, he says that humankind’s creative urge is natural and far stronger than the unnatural urge of greed. Certainly the web attests to the fact that we want to create more than we want to own.

In this blend of technology, caveats, and idealism, humanity is finding a whole new direction, says Sragow. Our new quest may be more for understanding, rather than for staking personal claims. Tolerance may be achieved through the sheer numbers of varied relationships across the globe. And, of course, the effectiveness of our destructive weapons will grow. In the end, technology will make many avenues available. But it remains humanity’s decision to decide which path to take.

— Bart Jackson

Saturday, April 28

Stock Tips from a Brain Like Yours

Everyone wants a crystal ball for looking to the future of the financial markets. In the mid-l980s, Donn Fishbein, at the National Institute of Health, found himself giving a talk on neural networks and genetic algorithms and how they helped in graphic imaging. Standing before his fellow physicians, he carefully outlined how datapoints could be pictorially presented using this new method. To make the talk come alive, he developed a system that charted and projected events for Standard & Poor 500 stocks.

He flashed it on the screen to absolute silence. When the lights came on, nobody in the audience asked anything concerning medicine. All the doctors wanted to hear was about how this system might work in making market predictions.

From then on Fishbein was nudged toward a secondary career that has led him to devise mathematical systems for equities, exchange-traded funds, and future indexes. He shares his systems at the Trenton Computer Festival, which takes place on Saturday and Sunday, April 28 at 29, beginning at 9 a.m. with an all-day flea market each day at the College of New Jersey. Cost: $17 for a two-day pass. Visit www.tcf-nj.org.

Fishbein’s talk, “Neural Network and Genetic Algorithm-Based Stock Trading Systems,” takes place both on Saturday, at 11:20 a.m., and on Sunday, at 12:50 p.m. In addition to many seminars on everything from digital photography to antique computers to podcasting and GPS navigation, visitors can tour hundreds of exhibits, and poster sessions, and even be tested for a ham radio operator’s license.

Fishbein is a man with one foot planted firmly in two camps, all springing from the same research. A native of Springfield, he graduated from Penn State University in l978, and then entered Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. It was a George Washington University doctoral study in neurophysiology that led him to his visual research at the National Institute of Health.

He maintains a private pathology practice in Dayton, Ohio. In his few off hours Fishbein operates Neuroquant, an online company (www.neuroquant.com) that provides investment advice, and allows subscribers to buy into the several funds he has created.

“The reason people are so good at dealing with a wide range of tasks, is that they have the ability to adapt to constantly changing conditions,” says Fishbein. “The reason so many mechanical trading systems are so bad at dealing with the stock market is that they are fixed on only one element and can never adapt.”

The trick then was to invent a technical analysis system that functioned more like the human brain.

Neural networks. The term “artificial neural networks” shows just how far artificial intelligence has come. Modeled on the human thought method, such computer processing networks receive data in nodes similar to biological brain neurons, and put them back out in a synapse-style arrangement.

The real benefit comes from the fact that many nodes are combined together to handle a single data stream, so when one breaks down, others can make take up the slack. They are robust, non-rigid, nonlinear, and easily adaptable to changes in the data stream. They are ideal for dovetailing the many aspects of stock market fluctuations.

To sort out all the complex piles of data, basic mathematical formulae or algorithm are required — an algorithm being nothing more than a list of instructions for some sort of total task completion. Turning again to the human model that has served so well these many millennia, Fishbein developed a genetic-style algorithm, so termed because it mimics human evolution. The genetic algorithm was inspired by such human abilities as reproduction, mutation, and natural selection.

In the abstract world of computer ideas, a genetic algorithm operates just like a human brain. It receives a problem, such as to find a stock trend. Then, just as happens when a brain tackles a simpler problem, perhaps how to get to the top of a tree, the computer’s genetic algorithm tosses out scores of possible solutions. Each is quickly, hypothetically tested, and each either mutates into a better solution, or is thrown away as the best ones are naturally selected — just as in human evolution.

“It can calculate all the possible combinations of indexes by which you want to measure stock performance — all so quickly and accurately,” says Fishbein.

Into the market. Stock prognosticators have charted everything from ladies hemlines to politics in a desperate attempt to figure out whether to buy, sell, or hold. To help in this determination there are dozens of popular indicators. The trouble is that most brokers, experts, and most existing models, track only one indicator — perhaps price or earnings.

The Fishbein method allows the investor to select any number of the limitless indicators, to combine them, and, most importantly, to weight them appropriately.

Say you want track a stock by a simple moving average. That is, you follow the day’s trading at the close of market, and judge its trend. You might also want to take in a stochastic trend, which measures random probability. In addition to such price indicators, there are a host of possible predictors based on volume.

The Fishbein genetic algorithm allows you to combine the simple moving average (SMA) with the stochastic trend (ST) and weight them appropriately, for example, 2 SMA + .7 ST = time to sell.

Flex funds. Fishbein has tried his algorithms actively for the last six years, and by his own vague admission says, “I’ve been quite successful.” He typically works with end-of-day indicators, which are collected two to four times a month. By Wall Street standards this makes him a speculator, rather than long-term investor. But recently he has began exploring the application of his formulae to day trading and claims the results look promising.

He has developed several hedge funds, which, as opposed to mutual funds, have more trading flexibility and less SEC investment restrictions. With his exchange fund based on the NASDAQ 100, Fishbein recently took a short position (something mutual funds are not allowed to do). Then the indicators suddenly reversed, and he went in for a long buy. Signals in his funds can be checked overnight, with buys taking place at the start of market the next day. To learn more about Fishbein’s funds, visit www.neuralquant.com.

Baron Rothschild was famous for saying “Fortunes are made by buying low and selling too soon.” Even for pundits like Rothschild or systems wizards like Fishbein, stock picking always involves a roll of the dice. But then again, when you are keeping score with real money, who would want it any other way? — Bart Jackson

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