Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 28, 2003

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Issue 28, 2003

This week's headlines:

EU speeds up its spam offensive
July 17, 2003

EU officials are pressing for faster enforcement of new rules against unsolicited emails than previously planned.

EU Enterprise and Information Society Commissioner Erkki Liikanen said the new EU rules were a priority and should be adopted into national law books by next week ahead of the October 31 effective date previously planned. He said the European Commission would be proposing further legislation in the autumn on setting enforcement guidelines and co-ordinating anti-spam rules in the EU and with trading partners.

Unlike stricter laws in several US states, EU rules do not call for fines or prison terms. The new law leaves it up to national authorities to decide if they wanted to apply jail sentences. Under legislation passed last year, companies are restricted from sending mass-mailings to email accounts unless the addressees agreed in advance to receive them. However, companies that already have a 'commercial relationship' with someone can continue to send e-mail. New companies must get permission.

Full story: Ananova / AP Back to top

Wanadoo fined for selling Net access below cost
July 17, 2003

French internet company Wanadoo, which is owned by France Telecom, has been fined €10.35m by European Union regulators for undercutting competitors by offering fast internet access to consumers at a price below cost, the European Commission said.

It said Wanadoo had violated EU competition rules and found the company had a 'dominant position in the form of predatory pricing' in internet access services. Its investigation into the company found Wanadoo's predatory pricing had been in place for just over a year and a half, from March of 2001 to October of 2002. The Commission calculated that Wanadoo grew three to seven times more than its closest competitor during the year-and-a-half.

The watchdog, which fined Germany's Deutsche Telekom €12.6m for a similar offence two months ago, warned it might now go after other companies.

Full story: The Independent Back to top

End nears for Netscape browser
July 17, 2003

Netscape owner AOL has made redundant most of the staff working on new versions of the venerable net browser. AOL said it will keep the Netscape brand alive and still support old editions of the software but it will not produce any new releases.

Before the cuts, AOL employed about 50 people in its Netscape browser team. AOL became the owner of Netscape in 1998 when it bought the software company. Although AOL owns Netscape, it has preferred to build its web browsing tools around Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Many of the staff losing their jobs are moving to the Mozilla Foundation which will now take over the browser's development. When Netscape became part of AOL, the core code for the browser was also passed to Mozilla which started its own development programme. To aid the Mozilla Foundation AOL will give $2m to the group as well as domain names, trademarks and intellectual property to help the launch.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

US House proposal targets file swappers
July 17, 2003

Peer-to-peer users who swap copyrighted files could be in danger of becoming federal felons, under a new proposal backed by Democrats in the US House of Representatives. Their legislation would punish a web user who shares even a single file without permission from a copyright holder with prison terms of up to five years and fines of up to $250,000.

The Author, Consumer, and Computer Owner Protection and Security Act (ACCOPS) represents Congress' boldest attempt yet to shutter peer-to-peer networks, which the major record labels and movie studios view as a serious threat.

Currently, under a little-known 1997 law called the No Electronic Theft Act, many P2P users are technically already violating criminal laws. But if the ACCOPS bill were to succeed, prosecutors would not have to prove that a copyrighted file was repeatedly downloaded. The new proposal would require them to prove only that the file was publicly accessible.

Full story: ZDNet / CNET Back to top

PeopleSoft/JD Edwards gets green light
July 15, 2003

As expected, US regulators have given the green light to PeopleSoft's proposed $1.7bn acquisition of JD Edwards. But Oracle is refusing to throw in the towel.

PeopleSoft and JD Edwards have received early termination of the required waiting period under relevant US legislation, and now expect to complete the deal before the end of this week.

But the news has failed to persuade database giant Oracle to withdraw its hostile $6.3bn bid for PeopleSoft. Although the bid faces US regulatory review, and Oracle has yet to seek formal approval from European regulators, it is still bullish about its chances despite pushing back the original 18 July deadline for its offer to midnight on 15 August.

Full story: VNUNet UK Back to top

Flaw exposes internet hardware
July 17, 2003

Internet companies are scrambling to fix a flaw in equipment by the US firm Cisco which is widely used to keep the net flowing. It follows a warning from the company about a problem in the software used in its routers, a device that decides how and where to send internet traffic.

The flaw could allow attackers to take control of the hardware and block access to websites. Cisco has released a patch for the vulnerability, saying that it had no reports of anyone exploiting the flaw to attack its routers.

The danger to the routers is due to the way the Cisco equipment deals with some internet data. By sending a special sequence of data, a malicious hacker could trick the router into believing it was full, causing it to crash. Cisco released a fix for the software problem, which can be downloaded from its site.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Interest in anonymous file-trading grows
July 16, 2003

Interest in anonymous internet file-sharing networks has surged since the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) last month announced $150,000 suits against individual computer owners who consistently swapped large amounts of songs over the internet.

Research from internet monitor Nielsen NetRatings shows that sharing through the most popular file-trading networks has decreased by 15 percent since the threat was made. But it appears that many file-traders are looking for alternatives that protect their identity. One of the best known anonymous file-sharing systems, Freenet, said that traffic to the project's website had surged since the RIAA announced its plans.

Freenet provides completely untraceable sharing by dividing files up and distributing them at random across different computers. Requests for files are also designed not to reveal where they originally came from. One drawback is that the system is slow and difficult to use. But a new and improved version could help solve these issues.

Full story: New Scientist / BBC News Back to top

A new way to flip bits
July 11, 2003

Physicists at Tohoku University in Japan have shown that the magnetic field needed to reverse the magnetisation in a storage bit can be reduced by applying an electric field. The new method could have applications in ultrahigh-density information storage devices.

In data storage, the reversal of magnetisation is used to 'write' bits of information onto magnetic materials. The magnetisation is usually reversed by applying a local magnetic field. To increase the amount of information stored in a device, it is necessary to use materials with increased magnetic energy densities. However, this means that higher magnetic fields are required to switch the magnetisation.

The Tohoku team applied an electric field of 1.5 megavolts per centimetre to a ferromagnetic semiconductor sample, and found that they could reverse the magnetisation at a coercive field that was 5 times lower than when no external voltage was applied. The coercive field is the magnetic field that needs to be applied to a material to reduce its magnetisation to zero.

Full story: Physicsweb Back to top

Cheaper optics-chip link on tap
July 16, 2003

Realising the full promise of the internet-video-on-demand, home- videoconferencing and fully-immersive interactive games will require a lot more bandwidth than today's cable modems offer. The challenge is finding an affordable way to extend to the home the high-speed fibre-optic lines that form the bulk of the world's communications infrastructure. Part of the problem is the cost of connecting fibre optics, which carry light signals, to PCs, which use electrical signals.

Researchers from the Italian Institute for the Physics of Matter and the University of Rome Three in Italy have discovered an inexpensive, low-temperature method of manufacturing fast photodetectors in the near-infrared light range used in optical communications equipment. Photodetectors convert light pulses to electrical signals.

The device combines a very thin layer of germanium, which absorbs infrared light but is not very efficient converting it to electricity, with silicon, which is an efficient light converter. The device can detect light pulses as fast as 2.5 gigabits per second, a standard communications network speed.

Full story: Technology Research News Back to top

Gel yields nanotube plastic
July 14, 2003

Carbon nanotubes are stronger than steel by weight and they conduct electricity. They are not easy to work with, however. The rolled-up sheets of carbon atoms can be as small as one nanometre across and they have a tendency to form a tangled mass.

Researchers from Japan Science and Technology (JST), Kyoto University, and the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) have found a way to distribute nanotubes evenly throughout a gel to form an electrically versatile material.

The method involves grinding nanotubes and mixing them with ammonium ion salts, which are liquid at room temperature. The resulting gel contains evenly spread nanotubes, and can be used to form capacitors, batteries and fuel cells. The gel can be printed using an inkjet printer, and ionic liquid can also be polymerised, or hardened into plastic. This opens the way to making cables, transistors and actuators from electrically conductive, high-strength plastic.

Full story: Technology Review / TRN Back to top

3D display goes vertical
July 15, 2003

Researchers from Seoul National University in Korea have devised a method that widens both the horizontal and vertical viewing angles of three-dimensional integral imaging systems, which use the clustered-lenses arrangement of insect eyes. Although flies-eyes-arrays can provide high-quality 3D pictures and do not require special viewing aides, they tend to have a narrow viewing angle - about 20 degrees.

The researchers previously widened the horizontal viewing angle using a system of fast mechanical shutters that blocked all but the appropriate portions of a 3D image for a given angle. Their latest method is non-mechanical, and thus less prone to wear, and it increases the viewing angle both horizontally and vertically.

The method uses a beam splitter to separate images into two opposite polarisations, one of which is used to widen the horizontal angle and the other the vertical. The system switches between the two polarisations faster than the eye can detect, creating a single, 3D image that has twice the viewing angle of the original.

Full story: Technology Review / TRN Back to top

Trojan program uses PCs to relay porn
July 14, 2003

A computer program that hijacks the personal computers of ordinary home users has been discovered. The program, dubbed Migmaf, can turn a home PC into a temporary relay for adult web pages and unsolicited 'spam' email. So far 2000 infected computers have been detected.

US computer security firm Lurhq has analysed a copy of Migmaf. The Trojan routes traffic for adult sites hosted on a master server via the infected computers. The owner of the master server redirects requests through the hijacked machines by updating the website's domain name system (DNS) settings. These settings translate a domain name into an IP address. Altering the settings links the IP address of the infected machine to the pornographic website's domain name.

Migmaf tries to keep the identity of its master server secret by scrambling its IP address. However Lurhq has traced the master server to a US-based ISP called Everyones Internet. The company has now launched an investigation. It is not yet clear how the program is uploaded to PCs.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Linux reaches Afghanistan
July 15, 2003

Afghanistan is being rebuilt with the help of the Linux operating system. The UN is training civil servants in the intricacies of the software to help them get government computer systems up and running. The first civil servants to complete their training in Linux went back to work earlier this month.

The UN hopes that training government workers to use Linux will help the country close the technology gap that separates it from many other countries. Working with Afghanistan's Ministry of Communications, the UN Development Program has been putting civil servants through classes that familiarise them with the open source Linux operating system.

Initially, the UNDP has targeted technical staff to give them more in-depth skills that will help them end their reliance on external contractors and consultants and let them take charge of their own technology infrastructure. Already the Ministry of Communications is thinking about using its Linux experts to train other civil servants in computer use and to set up advanced network services.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Bacchus satellites help wine growers
July 17, 2003

The wine you buy in the coming years could have had a helping hand from space technology. Satellites from the European Space Agency (ESA) are being used to beam back images of vineyards which can provide vital information about the geology of a wine-growing area.

The Bacchus project is backed by the European Commission and involves 14 companies, research institutes and wine growers' organisations in Europe. It aims to link satellite imagery with computer analysis to help growers get the best out of their vineyards. The aim is to chart vineyards in Europe in unprecedented detail, providing information such as the slope and humidity of the area.

The satellites could be used to monitor the colour and shape of vines as they grow. The images could then help farmers take the tricky decision about the best time to pick their grapes. They could also help growers analyse how the soil and geology of an area, and even the slope of the land, could affect the distinct flavour of a grape.

Full story: BBC News Back to top