Salon 21st: E-mail From the Underground -- the System Quashes: What happens when a marketing firm's research reveals that intellectual property on the Web is one big shell game? Our intrepid hacker makes another hapless expos

Published June 15, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the Hacker Formerly Known as Microworm -- having exposed the machinations of the Clickstream Cabal -- spends his days designing custom hackbots for IRC predators and his nights Java-coding a TCP/IP-based remote control for his espresso machine. In his remaining spare time, he hunts down scandalous data.

From: The Hacker Formerly Known As Microworm
To: Digital Golem
Subject: Hot stuff

You remember those rumors that a bombshell report on the future of the Web was circulating among the high-and-mighty? Remember how I went after it full-bore, hunt-and-seek mode? I kept coming up empty. Marketing research firms have the toughest security -- as one of my friends learned the hard way. I didn't want to end up face down in a bit-bucket, brain scrambled by some biogenetic defense algorithms.

Last night, trolling through a godforsaken corner of the Net, I finally scored: I traded the source code to Barbie Fashion Designer for a gibberish-filled e-mail transcript nabbed from an unprotected recycle bin. Apparently, someone had tried to shred the conversation using the Word97 AutoSummarizer function. Reversing the process was simple. Forwarded messages follow.

From: over@pluto.com
To: priced@pluto.com
Subject: Quash?
Date: 08:30, May 15, 1997

Jack -- the new report on intellectual property rights on the Web is a grade one disaster. I'm recommending that we quash it now, pretend it never happened. The authors way overstepped their bounds: In their conclusion, they claim that, for all practical purposes, the Web doesn't exist! That it's a shell game, a con, a hall of mirrors with zero financial potential. I say we ship the analysts to Siberia or Newark, and launch Operation Play Possum immediately. From: priced@pluto.com
To: over@pluto.com
Subject: Re: Quash
Date: 09:01, May 15 1997

Can you summarize? You know I don't have time to read our own reports. From: over@pluto.com
To: priced@pluto.com
Subject: Re: Re: Quash
Date: 09:17, May 15 1997

You'll recall that at our last brainstorming session one of our cyberscouts alerted us to a recent wave of Net-based intellectual property rights brou-ha-has. Most recently, there was that incident where Ticketmaster sued Microsoft's Sidewalk Web operation for linking to the Ticketmaster site. Before that, Time Warner, Dow Jones and the Washington Post jumped all over a tiny Web site that was selling ads for what they considered their stolen content. Those two incidents, combined with a Web zine spat over whether or not hypertext markup code is copyrightable, underlined exactly the kind of marketplace confusion we specialize in exploiting. So we green-lighted an analysis of the economic potential of property rights on the Net.

The conclusions are stunning.

a. Did you know that every time an individual looks at a Web page, an actual physical copy of that page is retrieved and placed on that person's hard drive! There is no property on the Web, and there doesn't seem to be any way to circumvent that fact. It seems to have been built in to the very structure of the Web! I honestly can't imagine what the people who set up the Web were thinking.

b. Even worse, there doesn't even appear to be a way to distinguish Web sites according to the quality of their content. Our researchers discovered that at one time or another, every single Web site known to humanity has received an award for being the Cool Site of the Day ... AND the Worst Site on the Web! The implications are appalling. The Web is an undifferentiated mass of content all jumbled together ... with no copy protection.

c. Then there's this linking business. Everybody talks about how great linking is, about how it's supposed to allow access to all knowledge to a depth greater than is possible in any encyclopedia or library. But an exhaustive analysis of Web content reveals that 52.9 percent of all Web content consists of the code to the links themselves! In other words, the Web is made out of links, not substance. What good is that?

d. Finally, when you combine the research gathered in the report with the utterly unnerving statistic that some 90 percent of the advertising money spent on the Web is by Web-based companies advertising themselves on other Web sites, it becomes revoltingly clear that the Web is just one giant circle-jerk. There is no there there. Consequently, we're all screwed. From: priced@pluto.com
To: over@pluto.com
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Quash?
Date: 10:27, May 15, 1997

Uh ... what's the problem? From: over@pluto.com
To: priced@pluto.com
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Quash?
Date: 10:35, May 15, 1997

Don't you see? If nothing can be differentiated from anything else, and everything can be easily copied, and advertising revenue is merely passed from one company to another and then back to the first, then there isn't really any property, intellectual or otherwise, to protect or exploit, to begin with. How can you have a business model for something that doesn't exist? The Web is vaporware. From: priced@pluto.com
To: over@pluto.com
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Quash?
Date: 10:37, May 15, 1997

Interesting. What did we price this report at? From: over@pluto.com
To: priced@pluto.com
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Quash?
Date: 10:38, May 15, 1997

10 grand to individual users, 25 to corporations. And we've already booked half a mil in advance sales! They'll be suing our asses off. From: priced@pluto.com
To: over@pluto.co
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Quash?
Date: 10:40, May 15, 1997

You haven't worked here very long, have you? Double the price, make some noise about a press blackout, and announce that we've decided this report is so important we're only going to sell 500 copies. By the time our customers figure out what's going on, we'll have identified the next potential sure thing. *Our* business model is rock solid.

From: Digital Golem
To: The Hacker Formerly Known as Microworm
Subject:Re: Hot stuff

Man, you busted your butt to get *that* report? Some mailroom guy at Pluto posted it to the Plate o' Shrimp mailing list last week. It was a riot! He also said that the stats were all cooked and the guys who wrote it left right afterwards to found their own Web startup operation selling vanity domain-name generators.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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