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Weitzner, Daniel, Harold Abelson, and Michael M. Fischer, 6.805 Ethics and the Law on the Electronic Frontier, Fall 2005. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), (Accessed 09 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Ethics and the Law on the Electronic Frontier

Fall 2005

Internet regulation has its origin in the U.S. Constitution.
The regulation of the Internet has its origin in the U.S. Constitution. Technology continues to shape policies governing the use of the electronic frontier. (Image by MIT OCW.)

Course Highlights

This course features weekly lecture notes and assignments. In addition, an extensive list of readings and resources devoted to the issues discussed in this course are available in the readings section.

Course Description

This course considers the interaction between law, policy, and technology as they relate to the evolving controversies over control of the Internet. In addition, there will be an in-depth treatment of privacy and the notion of "transparency" -- regulations and technologies that govern the use of information, as well as access to information. Topics explored will include:
  • Legal Background for Regulation of the Internet
  • Fourth Amendment Law and Electronic Surveillance
  • Profiling, Data Mining, and the U.S. PATRIOT Act
  • Technologies for Anonymity and Transparency
  • The Policy-Aware Web

*Some translations represent previous versions of courses.



Hal Abelson
Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, MIT

Danny Weitzner
Director for Technology and Society, World Wide Web Consortium

Mike Fischer
Professor of Anthropology and Sci. Tech. Studies, MIT

Prerequisites and Enrolling

MIT course 6 students may count this subject as one of the general engineering concentration subjects required for the S.B. or M.Eng. programs, or use this subject for HASS elective credit (but not both). Students wishing engineering concentration credit should enroll under the subject number 6.805, and students wishing HASS credit should enroll under the number STS.085. Graduate credit can be granted through STS (not Course 6), although this will require making special arrangements with Mike Fischer for extra work.

There are no formal prerequisites for this subject, but students should be prepared to do extensive independent research, involving both technology and policy analysis. In selecting participants for the class, we will be looking for people with appropriate backgrounds, such as knowledge of 6.033. Also, due to the importance of class participation, class attendance is mandatory.

Important: There are class readings, and also a writing assignment due before the first class. These must be completed and the writing assignment turned in by email before 5PM on the day before the first lecture. No one will be admitted to the first class without having completed this assignment. See the description of the pre-semester assignment in the assignments section.


The class will have many readings, mostly short. Most of these can be found in the readings section. There are also two books that you'll be reading as the semester progresses:

Brin, David. The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? New York, NY: Perseus Books, 1999. ISBN: 0738201448.

O'Harrow, Robert. No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005. ISBN: 0743254805.

You should get copies of both of these (or borrow copies, or whatever).

Grading and Required Work

Grades will be based on

  • Class Participation: We expect you to participate actively in class discussions, contributing your own ideas and commenting on the ideas of others. The readings assigned each week should be done before class. In class, we will call on you and ask you to answer questions about the readings and to contribute to the discussion. The quality of class participation will be a factor in grades. If you are the type who "does not like to talk in class," you should consider whether you really want to take this class. Class attendance is mandatory.
  • Short Writing Assignments: There will be weekly short writing assignments, that use a system called the writing rotisserie. Most weeks' assignments will have two parts: (1) writing your own paper (due Sunday evening); and (2) commenting on other students' paper (due Wednesday). All assignments will be provided on the course server for everyone in the class to read. See the description of the writing rotisserie in the assignments section for details.
  • Term Project: You will be required to do a term project, leading to a final paper. You can make this an individual project, or work with a partner. This will be a major project, and you should expect to devote a lot of time to it throughout the semester. The project can be purely a research paper, or it can involve design and implementation (but this still requires a paper). Papers may be selected for inclusion in the class archive of student papers on the Web. You should browse through the paper selections to get an idea of the scale of work expected.
  • Oral Presentation: At least once during the semester, you will be required to make an oral presentation on your project, either a final report or a progress report.
  • Midterm Exam: There will be an in-class midterm exam.
  • Final Exam (not): There is no final exam.


1 Course Overview and Introduction
Policy Making and the Structure of Law
Pre-writing assignment due 1 day before Lec #1
Unit A: Regulating the Decentralized Internet
2 The Internet meets the U.S. Constitution  
3 The Legacy of Reno: The Strengths and Limits of Filtering and User Control  
Unit B: Regulating Government Use of Surveillance Technology
4 Fourth Amendment Foundations and the First Century of Electronic Surveillance  
5 International Issues  
6 Technology-driven Public-private Boundary Shifts
The Crypto Wars
7 Profiling and Datamining Post-9/11  
  Midterm Exam Project proposal due
Unit C: The Transparency Challenge
8 Anonymity vs. Transparency 1-page topic description and procedure due
9 Personal Information on the Web  
10 Transparency in Consumer Protection and Commercial Regulation Thesis and arguments for papers due
11 Origins of Broadcast Regulation Complete paper drafts due 4 days later
12 Semantic Web Public Policy Challenges Final paper due 6 days later   Tell A Friend