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National data network: a bumpy ride.

Pres. Clinton's plan to create an information network linking every U.S. home, business, classroom and library may have vast economic and sociological impact, but the road to the network may be paved with problems. "Before the nation goes on-line, we must address issues such as security, property rights, and access controls," cautions Eugene Spafford, a Purdue University computer scientist who has written and lectured extensively on computer security. Even if the computing community, there are a few standards and not strong consensus on how to handle important issues. The fact that existing networks already reach worldwide and that the new information highway will enhance those global connections will further compound issues such as:

Intellectual property rights and copyrights. Emerging technologies make it easier to copy and distribute data. As the use of electronic networks grows, ownership rights of people who create computer software and other products considered "intellectual property" are endangered. "Laws differ from country to country and some countries have no laws governing intellectual property," Spafford points out. "People don't respect copyrights now. We don't have the etiquette in place to make people think it's wrong to copy software and other products without paying for them."

Locating and presenting information. "Trying to find something on such a large system with our current technology would be like going to a library with no card catalogs, no on-line resource, no librarians. We need standard indexing systems and guidelines on how information should be presented."

Accuracy and validity of information. "Let's say you're looking for information about whales. If you're lucky enough to find materials about whales, you would find everything from children's literature to scientific journals. Some of that material might be erroneous, written by someone who believes whales are aliens. There's no way of checking which information is authentic. Who should be allowed to put what information on the system is a major concern."

Accessibility for everyone. "This is only going to get worse in a population that has difficulty using advanced technologies in the first place. More services have come to depend on using computer technologies, from health care to car care. The public not only needs access to technologies, but also the fundamental skills to use computers and to communicate effectively using the written word. The disparity between the haves and have-nots may only get larger."

Security and privacy. "Electronic access to commercial files, medical data bases, government files, and personal computers represents a tremendous opportunity to misuse or vandalize that information. Existing security technologies are not adequate to protect the information, and social conventions and regulations do not [thoroughly] address personal-privacy issues. We need to explore each of these areas, such as what defines property and theft, come to a consensus, and develop standards."

If such obstacles could be overcome and a consensus reached, Spafford believes, a national data highway would lead to vast benefits. "A national and international computer network could promote tolerance and understanding among people because electronic communication gives visibility only to words, not age, race, sex, or nationality." Moreover, networking would let some people work at home, leaving time for things such as child care; educators and students would have access to state-of-the-art research and information; and Third World and developing countries could move into the information technologies market by investing in education, instead of developing heavy industries that require large capital investment and damage the environment.
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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