10 Years of CFP: Looking Back, Looking Forward

by Alexander Macgillivray

Larry Abramson, panel moderator and Telecommunications Correspondent for National Public Radio, opened the "Looking Back, Looking Forward" panel with a challenge to consider how CFP would go into the new century with the freedoms it had gained while instilling strong ethical values in the cyber-citizens of tomorrow. The panel and the audience took his challenge and examined the interplay between freedom and responsibility in the frank and sometimes tense hour and a half of discussion that followed.

Barbara Simons, President of the Association for Computing Machinery, highlighted the difficulty of critical introspection saying that "ethics are a Pandora's box, once you open it, it brings all sorts of problems." Even though "our community is very good at denial" because "people don't want to know about things that are difficult, Ms. Simons said that it is important to face the ethical implications of one's work, to be just as interested in who is funding the work and how it will be used, as exploring the technical issues at hand.

Stewart Baker, a lawyer at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, D.C. and formerly General Counsel to the National Security Agency, lamented what he saw as the disproportionate focus of this year's conference on Computers and Privacy to the detriment of Freedom. Baker thought that CFP had made some good progress on privacy, and he pointed to the Microsoft Universal ID Number and Intel Serial Number incidents as signposts of that victory. In both cases he said the US government had brought pressured companies invading privacy and this intervention had been successful in changing the privacy invasive policies. As another panelist, Ron Plesser, a lawyer at Piper, Marbury, Rudnick & Wolfe in Washington, D.C., told the audience, ten years ago the question was, "will the e-communications be regulated." Now because of the ubiquity of the internet for business and pleasure, the only question is "who will regulate the internet and in what manner." According to Ben Smilowitz, a political activist and the panel's representative from the next generation of cyber-citizens, his generation may be ill-equipped for the task. He lamented the fact that, though his generation is tremendously well equipped to handle the "Computers" of CFP, many in his generation, particularly computer science majors, do not care about politics and so may be left out of the "Privacy" and "Freedom" policy debates.

Simon Davies, Founder and Director of Privacy International, stressed that this year's CFP even more than others was too quiet to grab their attention. Davies still sees the Computers, Freedom and Privacy landscape as an "us" versus "them" battle: "those with vision and the parasites." He said "over the past ten years, the parasites have grown in number, wealth and influence" so that there is "a rancid stench" in the air and though "we should be extremely angry we are calm." His only hope is that "a small but growing number of companies have developed an ethical compass."

Ron Plesser, who identified himself as Davies' "them," countered that all of the sides in the debate over the future of technology must "get to us and get to yes on these issues." He pointed to industry, activist and government co-operation on H.R. 3783, The Child Online Protection Act (COPA), as a good example of what can come from such collaboration. He hoped in the coming years similar collaborations could impart a value system for the internet that all parties could be happy with. Plesser also commented that CFP has always fostered open debate among the wide range of conference participants but more than one audience member questioned the panel, and CFP 2000 organizer Lorrie Cranor who stepped in to answer some of their questions on behalf of CFP, about why women and minorities were so poorly represented in the audience and in speakers' list. Davies responded that the make up of CFP was a reflection of the relative interests of different societal groups in the topics of the conference. Baker jokingly explained the overrepresentation of men in privacy circles as being because "men have more to hide or we need more help to hide it." But Simons granted the audience that it was a difficult problem and one that the ACM and CFP have tried, and must continue to try, to fix. The difficulty, Davies summarized, is that activist organizations like CFP are overworked and under-funded and they need to expend a lot of energy to do effective affirmative action. However, all agreed that the digital divide may be the pressing issue for CFP in the coming years and that CFP must continue to find the energy to attempt address the problems maintain the divide as well as it can.

Jessica Litman, a Professor of Law at Wayne State University and Thursday's lunch speaker, returned to the question of what ethics to leave our children by speaking about her children. She acknowledged the "perfectly natural impulse" to want to keep control but cautioned conference attendees that much of what is evil in the laws has been motivated by the destructive desire to keep control in a changing world.

Instead, Litman argued that we should pay attention to the architectures we are erecting but remember that our children will build their own world and create their own set of values. She said, "it is not our job to design what tomorrow's world looks like." "The best we can do is try to keep it safe for people like us if our children are like us without trying to make it unsafe for people who are not like us.