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Tuesday may be a tough day for technology-dependent lawyers inside the Supreme Court. The court chamber will be full of them that day, as the justices consider key cases on the legality of peer-to-peer downloads and on the regulatory regime for cable modem services. But not one of the lawyers will be able to stay connected to the outside world while inside the Court: Laptops and BlackBerry wireless devices are not allowed inside the Court, let alone cellphones and pagers. A lifeline to the outside world is not far away, however. For nearly a year now, the marble plaza and front steps of the Supreme Court have been wireless hotspots — just like your local Starbucks. It’s the brainchild of Greg Staple, a partner in the D.C. office of Vinson & Elkins and a founder of the nonprofit Open Park Project, which is dedicated to making Internet access available in public spaces. “We thought there was a need for a public test bed for the technologies being debated across Washington,” says Staple, a communications law specialist. “What better place to start than the steps of the Supreme Court?” The equipment needed to create the hotspot is located at a private building nearby — Staple won’t say which one — and the footprint includes the steps of the Library of Congress next door, then runs across the street from the Court to the Capitol grounds. That area is torn up right now during the construction of the Capitol visitor’s center, but once the center is built, Staple thinks tourists and others will benefit from the wireless hotspot his group has created. Plans are afoot for another hotspot along the National Mall. Already, says Staple, the hotspot in front of the high court has seen steady use, about 15 to 20 logons a day. And he is sure that number will spike on Tuesday. Bloggers or Internet news organizations could easily use it to report on what they saw during oral arguments as soon as the arguments are over, he said. Could they also download songs while they are on the steps of the Court — the type of alleged copyright infringement at issue before the justices that day? It is technologically possible, Staple acknowledges, and logging in is anonymous. But he adds that the project has a clear “acceptable use” policy that prohibits illegal uses, and the system can be shut down if unusually long or voluminous downloads are detected. “We don’t want this to be used as a backdoor for illegal Internet activity,” says Staple, “which of course is what the Court will be debating inside.”

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