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Expert speaks on internet privacy

Marc Rotenberg, one of the country's premier privacy experts and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, spoke on privacy in the digital age at the law school Monday evening.

His speech, entitled "Restoring a Public Interest Vision of the Law in the Age of the Internet," explored salient issues in contemporary privacy policy and techniques for effecting change.

The lecture was sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain as part of its "The Information Ecology" series on intellectual property and related areas.

He cited several lessons learned from EPIC's successful 1993 crusade against the Clipper encryption scheme, in which the group produced what Rotenberg called the first-ever Internet petition. The scheme would have ensured government access to encoded Internet communications through an escrow key, which would be kept in case investigators desired to review the content of the communications at a later date.

Rotenberg said leading cryptologists called the scheme a bad idea, and EPIC recruited over 40 experts to sign a letter that was posted on the Internet. Over 50,000 e-mails poured in over the next six weeks from people seeking to add their names to the letter, and the eventual result was President Bill Clinton's decision to withdraw the Clipper scheme.

Many of the lessons Rotenberg learned dealt with the particular policy implications of technological advancement. Technology is a powerful way to create public policy, he said, noting that code can create laws even when no vote takes place.

He stressed that when complicated issues are involved, it becomes crucial to bring together people from a variety of fields together for discussion. On the Clipper scheme, he said cryptologists were enormously important, but also invaluable were legal experts and those with a broader comparative understanding of the issue. Generally, he said it is advisable for U.S. policymakers to look abroad to see how other countries are grappling with privacy issues.

In advocacy, however, the cast needs to be expanded even beyond experts and into the public realm. He said only a handful of people in Washington, D.C. understood the Clipper scheme at the time, because it seemed arcane. "It was precisely because this debate was taking place at the outskirts that engaging the public was critical," he said.

Rotenberg's presentation also touched on the USA PATRIOT Act, which Congress passed following the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. He said that privacy law constructs a series of firewalls for investigators, such as establishing probable cause, giving notice to the individual whose privacy is infringed upon and publicly reporting infringements. However, he said, "the [USA] PATRIOT Act removed, reduced and pushed to the outskirts these various safeguards that had been established in privacy law over the past 30 years."

Rotenberg is the winner of the 2002 World Technology Award in Law, and EPIC is one of Washington, D.C.'s leading privacy advocacy groups.

"There is no more distinguished person in the world on privacy," said James Boyle, law professor and faculty co-director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, in his introductory remarks.

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