Juno's going Orwellian

The idea of accessing consumer machines for distributed computing projects isn't new. However, Juno Online Service's plan to sell unused processing power on member computers to third parties, has hit a raw nerve.

Juno Online Service's jump into the supercomputing business has alarmed consumer and privacy advocates, who fear the move could open subscribers' computers to vulnerabilities--including snooping by third parties such as the government.

Juno quietly posted a new agreement for subscribers of its free Internet service. Those customers must allow the downloading of software that would perform computational tasks unrelated to Internet connection. They must also agree to leave their computers on all the time if asked. The software would replace the screensaver, and people would not be able to uninstall or tamper with it. Furthermore, under the terms of the agreement, Juno would have the right to "initiate a telephone connection from your computer to Juno's central computers."

How would you like your computer to be used by people you don't even know and perhaps even give them access to your most sensitive information YES

The market for free Internet service providers has been hit particularly hard during the dot-com downturn, mainly because it relies heavily on advertising dollars. To make more money, Juno, which gets about one-third of its revenue from advertising, is hoping to sell unused processing power on member computers to third parties, who can string them together in a virtual daisy chain to form a supercomputer.

However, defenders of privacy and consumer rights worry the new requirements amount to an unprecedented exchange of personal property and data to get something for free. Worse, they say, Juno customers might not understand what kind of relationship they're getting themselves into when they click on the agreement. They're also criticizing the company for slipping the wording into the agreement Jan. 18 and then not going public with the plan until Feb. 1.

Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology, worries the new rules will make it easier for government investigators to violate constitutional provisions against unreasonable search and seizure. For example, he said, weak wiretapping laws could allow federal investigators to go through Juno to gain access to customers' computers without their knowledge via the software that's installed on their machines.

"Individuals are in some ways signing over their Fourth Amendment rights by opening up their computers," Schwartz said. "It's too bad that to protect people's privacy, they have to pay extra."

Juno spokesman Gary Baker downplayed such concerns and said the new pact wouldn't actually require subscribers to keep their computers on all the time--only for a few prescribed hours. He also said paid subscribers, which make up about 20 percent of Juno's 4 million customers, would be exempt from the rules. In addition, he said the computers wouldn't be connected to the Internet constantly because most of the computations would take place offline, synching up to the system only when a customer connects to the Internet.

However, people who sign onto the service must agree to a policy that "may require you to leave your computer turned on at all times."

Baker said he's confident that most of the company's existing subscribers will agree to the terms. After all, he said, Juno already requires members to agree to, among other things, a permanent display screen that shows ads.

"They're already making some sacrifices in exchange for some free Internet access," Baker said.

The company plans to announce more details of the plan, and who qualifies, in the coming months.

"This is a tremendous resource that is being wasted by people when they leave their computers off," he said.

The idea of accessing consumer machines for distributed computing projects isn't new. For example, 18 million people have donated their dormant computing power to the SETI Institute, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Other community-based programs have let people give unused computer time to scientists researching diseases such as AIDS. And United Devices lets people give their processing power to commercial projects and causes such as cancer research in exchange for cash and prizes.

Still, Richard Smith, chief technology officer of the Privacy Foundation, is concerned that the software Juno installs on customers' computers might make their machines less reliable, causing them to slow or crash. Juno said it is designing the software so that it doesn't interfere with home machines.

What's more, Smith said, companies who potentially could sign up for the extra processing power might not want their intellectual property floating freely on random customers' computers. Juno said it was still researching security issues. Whatever the case, Juno's plan is sure to be a test of how much consumers are willing to give up in exchange for free service.

Smith said that when he first came across the agreement it was troublesome. "I just read it over and said, 'Oh my God. Who would agree to this?'"

Some people took to the message boards to dissect the new policy. One person on DejaNews said: "It smacks of George Orwell's 1984. I'll give up my Internet before I accept this sort of invasive intrusion into my privacy."

Others wondered whether it was hoax or asked if someone could explain what the terms were really saying. And still others took Juno's side, pointing out that people shouldn't expect something for nothing. "There's no such thing as a free lunch," wrote one.