Its Time to Stop Overpackaging and Underprotecting Content

Opinion: Put data-and freedom-in the proper perspective.

Its good that the Internet enables exchanges of any kind of content among consenting nodes. Embracing that principle, though, is not the same as liking the results. Some of the packaging choices Ive seen almost give me second thoughts about content-neutral networks.

People routinely overpackage and underprotect content. Ive seen public documents, linked from government Web sites, presented as Microsoft Word-format files—but containing only a pasted-in image of a hard-copy printout. Talk about the worst of all worlds: proprietary, bandwidth-hogging, and not even accessible to indexing or search.

I routinely receive "spreadsheet" files that are really just tables of text. Presumably, people fire up Excel because its a few mouse clicks quicker than creating a table in a word processor or (better yet) an HTML editor. But the doctrine of least

privilege thats applied to system security should also be used, at least mentally, by anyone about to author a document. Whats the actual content, and whats the simplest tool to convey it without irrelevant encrustations?

I said overpackaged content is often underprotected. People commonly send out editable files, not bothering to lock down content with passwords or to restrict users changes to defined fill-in fields. Ive long urged broader use of Adobes PDF technology, which offers fine-grained control of such things. And the cost of full-strength PDF authoring falls into a practical range for general document authoring with this weeks release of the $99 Nitro PDF Desktop from Arts PDF (

Its not enough, though, to deal with the technical side of content. There are also questions of politics. Those who ignore technology overestimate the power of politicians compared with the deviousness of hackers. Those who ignore the politics get blindsided by the options available to people with lawyers, guns and essentially blank-check budgets.

People say things such as, "The Net sees censorship as damage and routes around it," a thought usually attributed to cyber-libertarian John Gilmore. The argument of Gilmore and others that the Internet is essentially ungovernable is only right, though, to the extent allowed by those who control our access to its edges—whether that control is a matter of contract or of law.

Digital rights management is a common stalking-horse for intrusive restrictions on moving bits from one place to another. Hypothetically, imagine being barred from attaching an Excel spreadsheet to an e-mail unless you give the e-mail service provider your authorization code for document-exchange rights from a registered copy of Microsoft Office.

Alternatively, telecommunications regulation can restrict users access to particular sets of DNS domains and/or network protocols. Legislators and judges can indirectly limit network use by dramatically changing the rules that determine users expectation of privacy.

To those who object to my last point by invoking the First Amendment, Ill retort with that amendments actual language: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." In other words, its not inherently a First Amendment violation to reduce your ability to say things anonymously.

To those who suggest journalists source-protecting shield laws as a counterexample, Ill quote the Supreme Courts 1972 decision in the source-confidentiality case of Branzburg v. Hayes: "We perceive no basis for holding that the public interest in law enforcement ... is insufficient to override the consequential, but uncertain, burden on news gathering that is said to result from insisting that reporters, like other citizens, respond to relevant questions."

In plain English, those words amount to a ruling that the government can demand to know who said something.

Yes, there are anonymizer technologies available to us today. No, I wont assert that theres no way for a sufficiently aggressive government to block their use.

Im urging you, therefore, to defend your interests on two fronts. Work to focus document technology on delivering no more, but protecting what you deliver no less, than is needed. Work also to preserve your freedom to say what you want, when and where you want, and in the way you want.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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