NEW YORK, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- The great thing about the Internet is that it's a wild unregulated noisy messy brawling international bazaar. Thomas Paine would have loved it, because it awards a printing press to everybody in the world as his or her birthright.
Fortunately for all of us down here at the social grubworm level, every attack on it so far -- as people try to censor it, rein it in, make it respectable, or harness it for commerce -- has been dashed on the rocks of its immensity. There are too many gremlins throwing stuff up on it at all hours of the day and night for it to ever become corporate or predictable. It's like the hydra: cut off one head, it grows nine more.
And maybe that's why the corporate media hates it so much. Hollywood attacks it. The music industry attacks it. And now, not so surprisingly, I guess, the largest newspapers in America are attacking it.
On June 27 a lawsuit was filed in Alexandria, Va., by pretty much every major newspaper in America against one little Internet company in Redwood City, Calif. (Ah, for the days when newspapers actually competed with one another instead of banding together in corporate litigation, like the tobacco industry.)
At the outset, note the typical corporate we-have-more-money-than-you tactic of filing the lawsuit in the jurisdiction farthest removed from the defendant's home city. This is obviously Goliath playing hardball.
The defendant: Gator Corporation, which sells a "middleman" advertising service that creates pop-up ads that appear whenever the user goes to a specific site. (In other words, these ingenious entrepreneurs have created a way to identify the shopping destination of the consumer and advertise to him before he gets to that destination, or while he's shopping at that destination. It's simply adapting demographic mailing-list principles to the Internet.)
The plaintiffs: Gannett (largest newspaper chain in America and publisher of USA Today), Washington Post/Newsweek, The New York Times, Dow Jones (which publishes the Wall Street Journal), the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, American City Business Journals (41 newspapers), Media West, Smartmoney, Condenet (representing the Conde Nast publications), Cleveland Live, and the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain.
What could make this many hundreds of newspapers THIS mad?
What they would say -- like frumpy librarians -- is that people aren't using the Internet PROPERLY. There's one way to visit the New York Times Web site and one way only, and that's to log onto it directly without having any software on your computer that provides a pop-up ad for some business that hasn't paid money to the New York Times. (The New York Times is the most hypocritical of the plaintiffs, having hired Gator Corporation last year to run its own pop-up ads on the Wall Street Journal site.)
They say that Gator Corporation is a "parasite" business.
After they invest all these millions of dollars in their Web sites, they ought to be allowed to sell their own advertising, at their own rates, and not be ripped off by interlopers earning a nickel here and there off people who want to see THEIR content.
Of course, the newspapers could simply charge for the content. That would be the straightforward way to do business. But since newspapers are addicted to advertising, having long since given up on the idea of just charging the real price to the consumer, they're invoking some kind of Divine Right of Eyeballs -- namely, anyone who reads their copy should also be exposed to their ads, and no one else's.
Oh yeah, there's another reason they can't charge directly for the content: nobody would buy it.
But, in fact, this is no different from direct mail marketing -- or, to use the more popular term, "junk mail." An advertiser can buy a mailing list of people who claim to read the New York Times, then mail as many ads to them as they want. The right to send junk mail has been well established in the courts.
All the Internet does is speed up the process and make it cheaper. The ad doesn't pop up unless you go to a certain place.
Nobody has Gator on their computer unless they've taken some action to put it on there. They can get rid of it at any time. They've accepted the ads as the price of using the service.
Lee Gomes wrote a fairly strange column in the Wall Street Journal, defending the newspapers' lawsuit and all but admitting that he was taking the position he takes because he works for Dow Jones. "Unlike a real competitor," he wrote, "Gator needs other Web sites to exist. But its business threatens those sites' very survival. 'Parasite' is pretty close to the right word here."
This is like saying a travel agent is a parasite business because it needs airlines and hotels to exist. You would expect the Journal to be a little bit more sophisticated about the nature of middleman service businesses.
What's happened is that Gator has set up business next door to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, in the same way that a small fruit vendor might put his cart out on the sidewalk near Gristede's. He knows that the shoppers aren't making a special trip to visit his fruit cart -- in fact, they don't know his fruit cart exists and probably intend to buy fruit at Gristede's -- but he picks them off with lower prices. This is exactly the kind of little niche business that the market is supposed to encourage.
In this case, there's an even deeper level of hypocrisy. It's not like the Web users want to read the New York Times ads any more than they want to read Gator's ads. It's all the same blur to Mr. John Q. Surfer, who feels manipulated anyway. So in a sense, the newspapers are saying "This is OUR guinea pig to manipulate, not yours." If any propaganda crosses his field of vision, we want coin.
But there's an even more incredible attack on the Internet being planned. California Rep. Howard Berman, who gets major contributions from Hollywood, is proposing legislation that would allow record companies and movie studios to hack into computer systems and knock personal computers offline if people are using them to trade songs and films.
He calls this "technological piracy," and even though Napster is pretty much a thing of the past, Kazaa and Morpheus have risen up to take its place -- remember the hydra! -- and the recording industry is blaming all its woes on the Internet.
"There is no excuse or justification for this piracy," said Berman. "Theft is theft, whether it is shoplifting a CD in a record store, or illegally downloading a song."
Well, no, not exactly. Shoplifting is secretly taking a physical object that you didn't pay for from a store. Downloading a song from the Internet is more equivalent to borrowing an old Beatles album from a friend down the street so you can tape it. As far as I know, you're still allowed to make tapes to listen to in your car, just as long as you don't start packaging them and selling them on the street.
The downloading of music is set up exactly like a lending library. Somebody buys the product. Then he loans it to people he meets on the Internet. All the sites are set up this way. If money changes hands, it becomes piracy. If no money changes hands, it's just a bunch of guys sharing their CDs. It existed long before the Internet. The Internet just makes it easier.
The guilty secret of the music industry is that most downloaded music is not even available in record stores. When you want an Iron Butterfly song, what are you supposed to do? Write letters to the record company, asking them to please re-release it? No, you're going to BORROW IT from somebody. Or buy it at a second-hand record shop. In fact, second-hand record shops, it seems to me, would be even guiltier of copyright infringement if you carry this industry position to its logical conclusion. They're not only making the old music available, they ARE taking money for it.
Meanwhile, the Recording Industry Association of America is already hard at work, with full-time computer guys seeding networks with fake files to make it frustrating for people trying to download music. But if Congress acts, they'll be able to turn their big guns loose. "Britney Spears theft in progress! Take THAT, you felon!" And some guy's screen goes blank in Salinas, Kan.
What's encouraging about disputes like this is that, judging by past experience, the Internet itself always wins. They shut down Napster, but the principle behind Napster continues. They might shut down Gator -- the judge has already issued an injunction against the company -- but a hundred more sophisticated versions of Gator will take its place.
What's ironic is that one guy, with a modicum of computer talent and a lot of time on his hands, can now create Internet content that actually competes heads up with The New York Times. That's what the old media barons really don't like about the Web. It's too damn democratic. Their dollars can win occasional battles, but it's like plugging holes in the world's leakiest dike.
I like that sound of rushing water.
(Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)