A new generation of computer chip will be unveiled this week, bringing nifty new audio and video functions to the screens of America's expanding universe of Internet users.
It will also bring a giant collision of values that are increasingly at war as the nation's newest form of communication moves into the social mainstream.
Intel Corp., whose microprocessors power most of the nation's personal computers, is embedding for the first time an identification number in its newest chip.
While the chip promises to enable lots of new multimedia functions for Internet users, its identification feature gives computers a sort of fingerprint that Intel says adds security to online activities, whether making an online purchase or transferring sensitive personal data from one computer to another.
But that identification feature also has the makings of a vast tracking system that could help accumulate data on users as they travel around the Web, violating their fundamental right to privacy, say critics.
So outraged are some privacy advocates that they've launched a boycott of products containing the new Intel Pentium III chip, the first such broad-based boycott of a product over the privacy issue.
Just as the ongoing antitrust suit against Microsoft Corp. is grappling with how to apply age-old rules of fair competition to the Information Age, the Intel controversy represents a benchmark in the struggle to apply traditional notions of privacy and security to that same information revolution.
Drawing a historic parallel, computer science professor Lance Hoffman of George Washington University says traveling the Internet has been like the early days of the automobile, when people were unencumbered by the requirements of a drivers license, license plates, or traffic rules.
Yet developing new procedures for expanding uses of the Internet, Mr. Hoffman says, is far more sensitive than anything encountered in Henry Ford's era. That's because one of the primary functions of the Internet is communication, which is by its very nature personal. And while the issue once concerned a relatively small group, that is no longer the case.
"We're seeing the privacy concerns of cyberspace change from something that affected a relatively small number of people to the general public," adds Hoffman, director of the university's Cyberspace Policy Institute.
Spearheading the boycott drive is the Washington-based advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
"A lot of people feel they're being forced to make a trade they don't want to make," says EPIC's Marc Rotenberg. The message to Internet users from Intel is "enjoy the benefits of Web-based services, but the admission ticket is your privacy," he says.
Believing the identification feature should be dropped, the EPIC is drafting a formal request that the Federal Trade Commission recall the new chip, which is already being sent to computer manufacturers. It will be officially unveiled to the industry tomorrow.
The EPIC has plenty of company in its opposition to the new chip. Joining in the boycott are two other privacy organizations, Junkbusters and Privacy International. Though not involved in the boycott, the American Civil Liberties Union calls the new chip "a blow to privacy."
AFTER meeting with privacy advocates in recent weeks, Intel made a concession that some critics applaud, but still say is inadequate. Essentially, Intel changed the nature of the identification feature, called a Processor Serial Number, so that it will be in the off position unless a user turns it on.
Even with that, critics still see the identification capability as the camel with its nose in the tent. They worry that once the capability is in the computer hardware, Web sites may begin to require the identification number for access and its use will snowball.
They add that turning it on and off requires shutting down and rebooting each time, a procedure most users will not have the patience for. Thus, if one Web site requires it, users will get in the habit of leaving the feature on.
What opponents fear is that ultimately marketers will be able to accumulate vast amounts of personal information from tracking a users trail across various Web sites, a trail left by use of the identification serial number.
Privacy advocates see a worrisome potential for government snooping and unwanted commercial exploitation of personal data. "If this goes forward," warns Junkbuster's Jason Catlett, "it's a foregone conclusion that marketers will ultimately have all the information they want about users."
For Mr. Catlett and others, the Internet is such a powerfully personal vehicle, that allowing the tracking capability embedded in the new Intel chip is akin to having a movie camera mounted inside the home." In using the Internet, you should be just as anonymous as you are when you're watching TV," he says.
But the complexity of the Internet is such that it includes so many functions - everything from pure entertainment to its growing use as a vehicle for commercial transactions - that new security tools are needed, says Intel.
Indeed, corporate spokesman Tom Waldrop says the company expects the most enthusiastic users of the new feature to be corporations who want greater security of computer use within their internal networks.