Going, going, gone

National | Disney closes its Web portal, Amazon embraces the honor system, and spies find a way to read e-mail

Issue: "Reining in the UN," Feb. 17, 2001

No go
Go, stop! Disney's attempt to conquer the Internet with a Web portal is going away. The Magic Empire plans to shut down the Go.com site, its clone of Yahoo, Lycos, and other services. Disney announced the closure as part of a "strategic shift," in which the company will "focus on its top-ranked content Web sites" and get rid of the Disney Internet Group. Other company sites like ABC.com, Disney.com, and DisneyStore.com will keep running. Go.com was representative of the get-online-or-get-clobbered mentality of the late 1990s. To boost itself into cyberspace, Disney absorbed two companies, Starwave and Infoseek, and put them together to create one megasite. This was a portal, meaning a site that a person was supposed to use as a start page that appears when he first loads his Web browser. The idea was to give Disney the power to direct eyeballs currently held by AOL and Yahoo. The problem was that there were already enough portals in existence-and Go.com wasn't unique enough to move ahead of the pack. Go.com's failure shows that even the most powerful media players find the new frontier challenging. Internet content is young, and many still scratch their heads trying to figure out how to make money with it. On your honor
Why pay when you can get it for free? That's a big question in the bottomless world of Internet content. Amazon.com is pushing a new paradigm for reimbursement: tipping good service. The Seattle-based e-commerce giant calls it the Amazon Honor System. The way it works is simple: You see a site you like and you send off a contribution from $1 to $50 to help keep it running. Amazon.com runs the transaction with your credit card, collects its commission (15 percent of your payment plus a fixed cost of $.15 per transaction). According to the Honor System's rules, any contribution is refundable for up to 30 days. Previous attempts at this concept have failed. Many Web visionaries have dreamed of building business by collecting a critical mass of users who contribute micropayments. Author Stephen King tried writing a novel for an audience that would voluntarily send him a dollar per chapter; the project came to a halt with its story unresolved. But there may be something more in Amazon's plans than just contributions. The company says Honor System members can sell access to content. So if somebody runs a newsletter, he can use the Honor System to collect from readers who download each issue. Instead of providing "free" content backed with banner ads, publishers can serve up "premium" services with an easy method for getting paid. Thus Amazon.com winds up competing with another transaction system, PayPal, which is commonly used to process online sales and Web auctions. E-commerce between individuals and small businesses needs some system to replace the inconvenience of paper money and checks. Whatever method works could turn into the biggest thing since credit cards. Online spies
Is your e-mail spying on you? Privacy activists warn about a programming trick that can send personal comments off to unintended recipients. These so-called e-mail wiretaps can bounce from user to user as they pass around a message. The trick works by malicious use of Javascript, a language that adds features to hypertext pages, on the Web or in e-mail. When the code is hidden in a message, then forwarded to others, the messages are secretly copied to the original poster. A prankster can collect e-mail addresses, spy on peers, or see what others say about him. Companies could use this for industrial espionage, since someone could see how a negotiating partner responds to an offer. If users pass a message around frequently, an almost endless chain develops that sends notes back home. "You really would never know that this is occurring, unless you could view the source code and know what it meant," said Stephen Keating, executive director of the Privacy Foundation, a group that warned about the trick. The trick affects some e-mail programs (Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, and Netscape 6 mail) and not others (Eudora, AOL, and the Hotmail service). Also, a user can protect himself by disabling Javascript. (Microsoft's Outlook Express version 5.5 does this by default and Netscape is producing a patch.) In any instance, the script is still passed around once a message is forwarded. This bug doesn't read everything the victim types, merely text added to a specific message. With the Internet taking up more and more critical communications, this raises the issue that personal communication-particularly business contacts-deserve prudent protection.

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