Features

King of the Web?

National | Stephen King sells an online story, the FBI tries e-mail surveillance, and other technology news

Issue: "Bush picks Cheney as VP," Aug. 5, 2000

Honor thy author
Stephen King took the jump. He launched his grand experiment of offering a novel over the Net, one chapter at a time for a buck per installment. Readers simply pay the money, download the file, and read it on their computers. Mr. King had already made waves in March by publishing an online novella (WORLD, July 1). Is this the wave of the future? Part of the big experiment is that it involves an honor system, that millions of people will be ethical enough not to pass out copies to their closest friends. If it works, it could be a new wrinkle in electronic fiction. "We have a generation of computer jockeys that we've raised on Napster and MP3 who have gotten the idea, the mistaken idea, that everything in the store is free," Mr. King said on ABC's Good Morning America. "And I'd like to see if we can't reeducate these people to the idea that the fruits of talent cost you money." Serialized novels are nothing new; Mr. King has written them before. In the days before paperback books, lots of mass-market fiction was sold this way. Sherlock Holmes's adventures, for example, were a hit in The Strand magazine before they were sold in books. There was also pulp fiction, which offered readers new adventures of The Shadow or Doc Shadow or The Avenger every few weeks. And comic books have run serialized stories for decades. Yet resurrecting the format on the Internet gives writers a new way to sell books. The prototypical form of serialized writing is the sermon. Numerous churches post their pastor's weekly message online for others to read. The distribution is simple, cheap, and extends far beyond the confines of a local parish. Someone who might not swallow a huge book on a computer screen would find it more digestible in short installments. And if the work isn't any good, the reader can drop out after chapter one, thus not having to spend money on the whole book. Big Brother's net?
Could a Carnivore read your e-mail? That's what many want to know as more details come out about an FBI Internet surveillance system. The FBI claims it's just like a telephone tap, except it watches for e-mail instead of phone calls. "Carnivore" is the term used for the entire system. A computer with special software is installed at an Internet service provider's network and then captures whatever comes in and out. The Feds are only supposed to be able to watch e-mail that is intended for certain, suspected persons. FBI officials told a House Committee that Carnivore has been used 25 times, including 16 times this year, but none of the cases had gone to trial. They also claimed its search is limited to the "To" and "From" lines in an e-mail, not the subject or message text. Still, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request last week for Carnivore's source code in order to find out exactly what the program does. The program's existence shows that the patina of privacy around an Internet account is very fragile. dot-communism
Napster has given the music industry hives (see page 14), but it has also shown the potential of a whole new industry: Peer-to-Peer (P2P) computing. The song-swapping service shows how much people like sharing data with one another, which is prompting startups that want to turn the idea into a mainstream business. P2P is just a spin on what the Internet has done for years: facilitate uploading and downloading. With this type of system, someone uses the software like a search engine to find what he wants. Then the two parties make a transaction. With millions of people using computers, the ability to go digging this way becomes more valuable as time passes. The industry's hope is to move file sharing beyond trading music and video to trading other types of content. HotDispatch, a Mountainview, Calif.-based company, offers a product called OfficeFront, which acts like a consignment shop for people who want to see downloadables. AgentWare, an Atlanta company, enables business transactions with anything connected to the Internet, including cell phones, handheld computers, and even pagers. Many fear that a boom in P2P-type computing will result in a world of "dot-communism" where anything from pop music to nuclear bomb secrets are free-floating on the Net, open to anyone and virtually untraceable. Perhaps that world already exists, at least for those with really fast Internet connections.

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