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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


ACM TechNews is intended as an objective news digest for busy IT Professionals. Views expressed are not necessarily those of ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 7, Issue 810:  Wednesday, June 29, 2005

  • "File-Sharing Firms Can Be Held Liable"
    Washington Post (06/28/05) P. A1; Krim, Jonathon

    In two Supreme Court decisions this week, the entertainment industry scored significant proprietary victories. The first, decided unanimously, held that online distributors of file-sharing software can be found liable if it is demonstrated that they encourage users to illegally share copyrighted materials. In accordance with FCC precedent, the second, a 6 to 3 ruling, found that cable-television companies are under no obligation to offer rival operators access to their high-speed Internet lines. The two decisions can be seen as an overarching affirmation of private property rights. The exclusionary ruling on cable-access could have implications in the telecommunications industry, as the FCC has contemplated imposing a similar standard on DSL lines provided by telephone companies. The file-sharing case, MGM Studios Inc., v. Grokster Ltd., upheld the 1984 Betamax precedent that a technology is legitimate provided that it has "substantial" legal application, finding that Grokster and StreamCast, which powers the peer-to-peer sharing network Morpheus, "clearly voiced the objective that recipients use it to download copyrighted works, and each took active steps to encourage infringement." The decision angered file-sharing companies, manufacturers of consumer electronics, and advocates of digital rights. "Today the Supreme Court has unleashed a new era of legal uncertainty on America's innovators," said Fred von Lohmann, an attorney for the file-sharing companies. While this case is a setback for makers of small electronics devices that enable sharing, technology giants such as Microsoft and Intel applauded the decision, and expressed satisfaction that the Supreme Court shows no sign of revising the Betamax standard.
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    For more information on the MGM v. Grokster ruling, along with comments from ACM's U.S. Public Policy Committee, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "U.S.-Style Labor Pains From Mumbai to Bangalore"
    CNet (06/28/05); Kanellos, Michael

    As India's technology industry has been flourishing, it is experiencing the attendant labor problems of recruiting and retaining workers. The average turnover among India's software companies is 15 percent, with some reporting rates as high as 30 percent. Part of the genesis of India's boom was inexpensive labor, though the growth that ensued has led to a demand for labor that exceeds supply, which in turn has increased salaries and competition for capable workers. Salaries at India's tech companies are below half that of America's, though that disparity is vanishing as foreign companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Intel are honing in on the Indian labor market with American-level salaries. The drain in labor is hitting government-run enterprises especially hard. India has deliberately altered its education system to supply labor for its IT industry. In the last 20 years, the number of students concentrating in IT and computer science has jumped from 5,000 to 250,000 per year, while the number of schools supporting those programs has risen from 70 to 1,750, according to the Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology at the Indian Institute of Technology at Bombay. In Karnataka, the tech-heavy state that is home to Bangalore, the ranks of technology professionals have swelled tenfold in eight years. Educational programs in India have traditionally concentrated on software, though there have been recent advances in chip design. Admission to an undergraduate program, just like the job market, is staunchly competitive, with some technical institutions reporting acceptance rates of less than one percent. That can translate into a tough job market, but also creates an established talent base that is prone to mobility. "The stickiness of people to companies is very low," said Tejas Networks CEO Sanjay Nayak. "A little bit more stabilization is needed."
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  • "By and for the Masses"
    New York Times (06/29/05) P. C1; Markoff, John

    The Internet is playing host to a growing number of sharing sites that many believe will be the defining aspect of the next phase of the Web. Advances in software have lowered the operating cost and broadened the scope of sites offering user-created content, going beyond the celebrated music-sharing networks to include games, videos, and citizen journalist sites. The new threat emerging from these sites is not copyright infringement, but the fear among entertainment companies is that they pose a legitimate alternative to their products. Yahoo's recently unveiled My Web 2.0 seeks to capitalize on the proliferation of user-generated material, and uses new MyRank technology to order search results based on projected compatibility and the reputation of a certain site's usefulness. Microsoft and Apple have also developed search methods that address the problem of relevance amidst the proliferation of user-generated content. Gaming developers are also tapping into the legions of Internet users to create next-generation interactive games, such as the game Will Wright of Spore is working on that introduces the player into civilizations created by other users and permits interaction with other characters through artificial intelligence software. The obvious concern over user-supplied content is regulation, which Yahoo seeks to resolve by allowing users to "tag" sites they have visited and annotate them, information that would inform future searches and create a self-policing community of users. While Yahoo is the first major company to tap into its vast community of users, other companies see the benefits as well: "There is a lot of innovation coming from the fringe," said Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media.
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  • "County Moves Ahead With New E-Voting System"
    Inside Bay Area (CA) (06/29/05); Hoffman, Ian

    On Tuesday, Alameda County supervisors approved the continued use of Diebold's touch-screen electronic voting machines. The county will negotiate a $5.4 million contract for Diebold's TSx machines, which come with printers attached to create paper verification, for the next congressional and presidential elections. Critics of the measure argue that voters have no confidence in the electronic voting machines they perceive as untested and shrouded in secrecy. "We're basically talking about secret code, secret testing by the vendors, and secret results," said former ACM president and Stanford computer science professor Barbara Simons, who advocates a polling method of using optical scanners to read paper ballots. That measure was rejected in favor of the consistency created by using only one polling method. Board of Supervisors President Keith Carson fears the 17,000 Diebold machines California will use in the 2006 and 2008 make the election process too dependant on a technology that lacks public support. Carson laments that California's level of commitment to Diebold rules out balloting alternatives.
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    For more information on ACM's activities involving e-voting, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "Paint Program Renders Ink Physics"
    Technology Research News (07/06/05)

    A Hong Kong University of Science and Technology team of researchers has developed Moxi, technology designed to make computer paint and animation programs more realistic. Moxi simulates the properties of pigment at a very basic level, such as its tendency to clump at the edge of ink while it dries. In attempting to simulate the properties of applying ink to a surface, the program synthesizes the physical mechanics of ink absorption. Based on the mathematical lattice Boltzmann equation that gives insight into the properties of fluids, Moxi is faster and more complex than previous technologies. Developers will present a prototype of the device at the upcoming ACM SIGGRAPH conference next month in Los Angeles. The prototype works with a PC through a pressure-sensitive tablet, though researchers believe it is still one to two years away from commercial use, citing improvements needed to make it more user-friendly and the lack of high-resolution output rendering.
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  • "UF, Nine Other Universities Complete Ultra High-Speed Data Network"
    University of Florida News (06/27/05)

    The University of Florida is set to unveil Florida Lambda Rail (FLR) next week, a new computer network that will link that school with nine others in Florida and transmit data at speeds of 10 Gbps, or roughly 100 times the capacity of the old network. Two and a half years in the works, FLR capitalizes on 1,540 miles of dark fiber, or fiber that is already buried but unused, obtained in an acquisition leveraged by FiberCo. Cisco Systems also partnered with the universities to provide high-speed routers. The result is the fastest education-oriented network in the southeast, and one of the fastest in the country. "Everyone believes that high-speed networking and grid technology is the future of science," said UF's Mark Holt. "You have to have a high-speed network, and now we have one of the best." Each university pays according to its projected use. UF's annual cost is expected to be around $500,000, roughly the same as its old network. FLR's real payoff will be in advanced research that has to move vast quantities of data, while ordinary users will not notice the difference. "With the old system, it would have taken us months to download data that will now require only a few days," said UF physics professor Paul Avery of his research simulating conditions after the Big Bang.
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  • "Vint Cerf: Next Stop, Mars"
    BusinessWeek (07/04/05); Yang, Catherine

    Vinton Cerf, who along with Robert Kahn came up with the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol that gave computers standard addresses by which they could exchange bundles of data, a precursor to today's Internet, is at it again, this time shooting for the moon and beyond. Now with MCI, Cerf is working with engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop an InterPlaNet protocol that will eventually enable space probes and planetary stations to communicate with one another and with Earth. The key problem is overcoming transmission delays and interruptions. An electronic signal takes 2.5 seconds to make a round-trip to the moon, and to Mars it takes as much as 40 minutes, not factoring in severe storms on the planet. Though those delays cannot be eliminated, they can be mitigated to assure the data's delivery. Meanwhile, Cerf is also working on IP version 6 to solve a clogged cyberspace that promises to saturate given the advent of nanotechnology and its potential for delivering a future of computing on the molecular level, potentially producing trillions of devices, all of which could be Internet-enabled. The new IP version will make room for 380 trillion trillion trillion unique domain addresses; the current version only allows for 4.3 billion variations.
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    Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn are recipients of the 2004 ACM A.M. Turing Award. For more on their work and achievements, visit http://www.acm.org/awards/taward.html.

  • "Space Station Gets HAL-Like Computer"
    New Scientist (06/27/05); McKee, Maggie

    Voice-operated computer software will soon be used on the International Space Station to help astronauts test station water for bacteria. Developed with assistance from astronauts at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, Clarissa will be run on a laptop and will query astronauts about the details of what they need to accomplish and talk them through step-by-step instructions on how to accomplish it. Astronauts, communicating via a headset, can use simple commands to prompt the software, which "understands" 260 words. "The idea was to have a system that would read steps to them under their control, so they could keep their hands and eyes on whatever task they were doing," says Beth Ann Hockey, who leads the effort. Eventually, the software may be used to help astronauts on all computer-related tasks on the station. Ames Research Center project leader computer scientist Beth Ann Hockey says, "Ultimately, we'd like speaking to your computer to be normal." Early versions of the system bogged down when Clarissa, which listens to all conversation, failed to distinguish between commands and background conversation between astronauts. The problem was rectified by a "spam-filtering system" developed by researchers at the Xerox Research Centre Europe in Grenoble, France. On Monday, astronauts began training the software for use in space.
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  • "A Quantum Leap in Cryptography"
    Technology Review (06/27/05); Hoffman, Karen Epper

    Quantum encryption, heretofore an abstraction confined to laboratories, may soon be available to the average network administrator, as id Quantique and MagiQ Technologies have been preparing second-generation products for public release. Developers also envision broader applications for the technology. Quantum encryption, which encodes data through a single light particle, has the potential to be used wirelessly and in conjunction with satellite communications. As developers such as Toshiba and NEC, who are working on their own quantum encryption tools, pursue applications in audio and video encoding, extending the distance over which keys can be transmitted has become critical. Quantum encryption has the distinct benefit of inherent security, as it is a tenet of quantum mechanics that when an object is observed at the atomic level it is also changed, meaning that even if one of the lengthy "impenetrable ciphers" that codes data keys is compromised, the alteration would be detected. Id Quantique recently demonstrated its Vectis Link Encryptor system, which established a secure connection over 100 kilometers and can be monitored by administrators through SNMP. MagiQ says its alternative, Quantum Private Network, could be included in major hardware packages by 2006. Mainstreaming the technology has been essential: "We automated the whole thing, so a network engineer could do this, not just a physicist," said id Quantique CEO Gregoire Ribordy. BBN Technologies and British QinetiQ recently announced their "free-space" wireless quantum cryptography network, which currently relies on telescopes, but could have implications in the satellite field, bringing increased security to a traditionally risky area. While the development of quantum encryption outpaces expectations, significant concerns still hover around its cost and reliability over long distances.
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  • "Tracking Trends in the Top Supercomputers"
    HPC Wire (06/24/05) Vol. 14, No. 25; Curns, Tim

    While IBM's BlueGene/L System held its position atop the list of the world's 500 most powerful supercomputers, there has been significant fluctuation in the high performance computing field, as five of the top 10 from last November's list were new additions. IBM holds six of the top 10 spots, five of which use the BlueGene model, including the top two, with Linpack benchmark performances of 136.8 and 91.2 TFlop/s. NEC's Earth Simulator, which had held the top position for five years before being supplanted by BlueGene, dropped one spot to number four. Also of note was that 333 of the 500 use Intel processors. Upstarts played a significant role, as over 40 percent of last year's list was edged out by new systems. While the Linpack standard has some shortcomings, such as only measuring peak operating speeds, it has nonetheless been the benchmark of performance for decades and is an easy, consistent measurement to take. As an example of the dramatic increase in speeds, the system that tested at 1.166 TFlop/s and took the No. 500 spot would have been ranked No. 299 when the same survey was conducted six months ago. IBM soundly beat out Hewlett-Packard in the list, claiming 51.8 percent of the systems compared to HP's 26.2 percent. Among foreign countries, Japan claimed 23 of the top 500 systems, China boasted 19, and Germany beat out the UK by a measure of 40 to 32. Most dramatic, though, were the staggering jumps in speed, particularly among clustered computers; 304 of the 500 use a clustered architecture, a trend that "demonstrates that clustered systems are continuing to replace traditional monolithic supercomputing systems," said Charles King of Pund-IT Research. "As this trend continues, and every indication suggests that it will, the influence of supercomputing will expand across an ever-widening range of commercial and consumer markets."
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  • "Microsoft Gets Hip to AJAX"
    CNet (06/27/05); LaMonica, Martin

    Microsoft is making it easier for developers to build AJAX applications-- Web applications that have rich graphics. The software giant is developing software, code-named Atlas, designed to provide developers with an enhanced environment for building applications, and will include services such as an object model and debugging. A downloadable piece of JavaScript code, Atlas will work across any Web browser that supports JavaScript, dynamic HTML, and XmlHttp, which prevents Web clients from having to reconnect to a Web server whenever information is downloaded. "In some ways, this papers over the mess that is JavaScript development," says Microsoft's Charles Fitzgerald. "It's easy-to-build 'spaghetti' code." Microsoft will make a version available during its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles in September. In November, Microsoft will ship Visual Studio 2005 development tools and the Web development framework ASP.Net 2.0, which developers can use to access the Atlas software.
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  • "Exporting Technology"
    Boston Globe (06/27/05) P. C1; Weisman, Robert

    After failed initiatives in India and Ireland, the MIT Media Lab has joined forces with Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) to establish a Media Lab collaboration in Hsinchu, Taiwan. Members of the NEXT consortium, comprised of an assortment of Taiwanese companies, will utilize the Media Lab. The Taiwan Media Lab, which is essentially a partnership with Taiwan's research community, marks a departure from MIT's previous foreign endeavors, which both unraveled because of disputes with the host country's governments. "This is the first time we're running an international consortium that's living in two places at once," said MIT Media Lab Executive Director Walter Bender. "The idea is to have a collision of cultures, of points of view." From the Taiwanese perspective, ITRI President Johnsee Lee hopes his researchers will absorb the creative spirit of their colleagues from MIT and elevate Taiwan's economic character from mere manufacturing to world-class innovation. The lab will conduct research in a variety of fields, but will give special attention to "human augmentation," or technologies that help people move beyond their limitations and provide real lifestyle applications, such as controlling the speed of a kitchen appliance by the volume at which you speak. "I cannot predict the outcome, but I can see a lot of passion in it," Lee said. "We're working together in a very untraditional way."
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  • "IT Field Now Faces Worker Shortage"
    Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA) (06/27/05); Kan, Michael

    In a dramatic reversal of the dismal job scene that followed the dot-com collapse, many students graduating with computer science degrees are finding jobs right out of college. While the demand for computer scientists has cooled, the level of interest among students in a field perceived as unstable and risky has dropped off precipitously. The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA reports a 60 percent decline in interest among freshman in computer science from 2000 to 2004. Declining enrollment has many experts worried about the future of America's IT workforce in the face of greater foreign competition. "Students who majored in [computer science] because they thought it meant instant riches dropped away," said University of Virginia associate professor of computer science Kevin Sullivan. With that myth now shattered, students are looking increasingly toward other disciplines. In an effort to address the problem, Intel is partnering with colleges to renew interest in IT, and has given universities in California $2 million to create a program that will offer dual degrees in math or computer science and teaching. Some schools, such as George Mason University, are also shifting their curricula to emphasize an interdisciplinary approach to computer science. "The logic is, if we can teach people how they can apply computer science to one discipline, they may be able to apply the same tools to another discipline," said Arun Sood, chair of GMU's computer science department.
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  • "Cybersecurity Group Looks to Europe for Help"
    IDG News Service (06/27/05); Pruitt, Scarlet

    Former White House security director and current Cyber Security Industry Alliance (CSIA) executive director Paul Kurtz on Friday called the global information systems security threat "high risk," and warned that federal agencies are "taking information security for granted." Kurtz left his position at the White House because he disagreed with the emphasis on physical security over information security. At CSIA, Kurtz is working along with CEOs from security companies on global cybersecurity issues, such as developing policies with cooperation from a variety of concerned players and improving prevention standards. Kurtz laments the U.S. government's reduced spending on cybersecurity research and development, and says some in government wrongly believe that most cyber mischief is the work of geek teenagers instead of professional criminals. Kurtz says CSIA is pushing the private sector to develop strategies to mitigate cyberthreats, focusing on a holistic approach that involves many affected parties. CSIA is already working with the European Union's Article 29 working group on data protection, and plans to eventually extend their work into Asia. In the U.S., Kurtz hopes CSIA's efforts will push the U.S. government to take more action. He says, "We need to raise these issues, but at the same time, we need to make sure that the government doesn't overreact."
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  • "Prof Bemoans Loss of the Long View"
    EE Times (06/20/05) No. 1376, P. 24; Mannion, Patrick

    The computer skills of U.S. students continue to improve, says Virginia Polytechnic Institute engineering professor Jeff Reed, but their math skills trail those of international students. Reed, a wireless communications expert, believes that too much of a focus on "'get the A, get the degree' rather than on 'what am I learning here?'" has hurt students, and he acknowledges that industry and government-based research is suffering from this same lack of long-term, strategic thinking. U.S. students should be well-versed in the fundamentals, since they are likely to switch jobs a number of times during their career, says Reed, who adds that graduate school and international experience could do wonders for their careers. As for working engineers, Reed says the job market is improving, especially for someone such as a software programmer who has obtained more sophisticated and broader skills, considering job functions that graduate students would have done 15 years ago are now being handled by undergrads and workers without degrees. Reed, who has had a book published on ultra wideband this year, says he is excited about the early potential for delivering high-data rates for through-wall radio, sensor networks, tag technology, and locationing, but also has some concerns about power consumption. He sees cognitive radio heading in a more sophisticated and methodical direction in which the existence of other signals in the spectrum will need to be determined, certain signals will need to be prioritized and that knowledge will need to be shared around the network, and the pitfalls of using spectrum in certain areas will need to be addressed. Reed is also working on having collaborative radios work toward a common purpose, such as having handsets in a region fill in coverage holes to help find him if he makes a 911 call and is inside.
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  • "University Researchers Make Device That Turns Drivers Into Musicians"
    Chronicle of Higher Education (07/01/05) Vol. 51, No. 43, P. A27; Kiernan, Vincent

    Playing a piece of classical music can be as simple as driving a car. The Expression Synthesis Project, developed by researchers at the University of Southern California, generates Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor through driving on a virtual road. The program incorporates a MIDI synthesizer to play the music, and displays the road on a monitor, while players use a steering wheel and pedals to drive the virtual car. Buttons on the steering wheel serve as the piano's pedals. The road turns, forcing the driver to slow down, when the tempo of the piece drops. Players are invited to experiment with tempo and volume by adjusting their speed. This simulates the musician's experience for those without formal training, according to Elaine Chew, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at USC and head of the project. Her team is now at work developing artificial intelligence techniques for creating virtual roads for other pieces of music.
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  • "Keeping an Eye on You"
    U.S. News & World Report (06/20/05) Vol. 138, No. 23, P. EE12; Barnett, Megan

    Social scientists such as cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell are helping Intel to think more about the end users of its products, and consider that people around the world may be using its products in different ways. Bell, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Stanford University, joined Intel in 1998, spending two years in Asia studying how the Chinese use computers, and her research played a key role in the development of the China Home Learning PC. Based on her research, Intel created a model of a small-size living space of a Chinese family, and determined the most important parts of such a home. The Chinese PC is smaller than a typical PC, has English and Mandarin characters, and has a lock that limits access to educational content during the study time of a child. Bell's research is unlikely to lead to product development, but venture capitalists have used it when considering investments, sales and marketing used it for making local pitches, and engineers used it in research and development. "Genevieve has insight into how people behave and she is able to translate that for our technologists," says Bell's boss Don MacDonald, vice president of Intel's Digital Home Group. "It's better to understand who you are developing a product for before you put any resources into it."
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  • "The Innovation Arms Race"
    CIO Insight (06/05) Vol. 1, No. 54, P. 37; Fitzgerald, Michael

    Innovation has consistently kept the U.S. at the forefront of the global economy, but when it falls victim to outsourcing the U.S. could be left in a tenuous position. Fears of U.S. displacement escalate amid a cut in the NSF's research and development budget and Bill Gates' charge that our schools are obsolete. Yet as interest in science and engineering declines among American students while increasing among foreign students, an historical perspective frames the current situation as cyclical and reversible. Funding sources raise special concern, though, as the federal government, which used to provide the lion's share of R&D funding, has been eclipsed by the private sector, which now accounts for 68 percent of domestic funding, signifying an alarming shift in the government's priorities away from science and toward defense. Some are also worried about binding the future of innovation to an erratic business cycle where R&D funding ebbs and flows, dictated by short term profitability with little heed to future implications. In contrast, China intends to increase its proportion of basic research spending in science by 200 percent over the next 10 years. The U.S. is also being outpaced by Asia in increases in patent applications. Some note that policy decisions, such as the ban on embryonic stem-cell research, have also hampered U.S. competitiveness. Administration critics are calling for increased budgetary allotments for R&D and a strengthening of math and science education. Still, America outpaces Japan, its closest competitor, in R&D spending two and a half fold, and is so entrenched at the forefront of innovation that it will take years for any of its global rivals to supplant it. Accenture's Al Delattre reminds us that "you need a culture that supports innovation, that encourages risk, and allows for failure. The U.S. does that better than anyone, and that is not a culture that is available or can be replicated."
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  • "The Net Effect"
    IEEE Spectrum (06/05); Cherry, Steven

    China is planning a major Internet upgrade to bring its infrastructure into line with those of other developed nations, but China's traditions of online censorship and intrusiveness are a cause for concern. Experts warn that the upgrade will largely remove the technological constraints that have so far limited censorship, and perhaps allow China to pave the way for a more repressive and intrusive global Internet infrastructure. China Telecom has awarded contracts to four telecom equipment companies to set up the three-layered network routing architecture for the ChinaNet Next Carrying Network (CN2): The innermost layer or ring is made up of core routers that will facilitate the transfer of data packets across regions or to the outside; the outermost ring is comprised of edge routers that businesses and institutions will employ to establish high-speed links between each other and to the world at large; and the intermediate ring consists of metropolitan routers. Internet censorship expert Seth Finkelstein says router-based censorship occurs at any point in the network, and every router provided under the terms of the CN2 contract can be expected to access a database of prohibited names and words, either within the router itself or in a subsidiary or proxy server that is linked to the router. Proxy servers intercept requests by function, and so are regularly used to block access to undesirable sites. Surfers can sometimes turn the tables on this form of censorship by using anonymizing proxy servers. Another way China practices repression is to force all Internet businesses to censor themselves in order to get operating licenses. It is hoped that the spread of advanced communications equipment so necessary for China to have a thriving economy will eventually make freedom of expression too widespread to effectively control.
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