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Dot-coms may be swashbuckling when it comes to financing and IPOs, but they're timid as kittens when it comes to standing up for their clientele. For instance, Amazon.com has shown several times in the past few months that speaking to them in a sharp tone of voice will scare them enough to pull books off their un-shelves -- a decision that earned the un-bookstore widespread derision from real booksellers, long accustomed to standing up for books threatened to be censored or banned.
But Amazon's not alone under the electronic dunce cap. Around the world, ISPs deny users access to various parts of the Net for fear of specious lawsuits. As I write this, an SOS has gone up from the U.K., where provider Demon Internet has blocked customer access to certain Usenet areas under threat of a libel suit by one Dr. Laurence Godfrey, who has made something of a career of suing people he feels have defamed him on the Net. According to the U.K. courts, Demon is liable for damages if it does not prevent its users from reading the alleged libel on Demon news servers. Though Demon representatives claim to be confident of winning the libel case, they failed to appeal the liability ruling, which may in the end be the more damning precedent.
ISPs have themselves been the target of an increasing number of "John Doe" lawsuits, which hamstring individual users' attempts to shield their identity. A John Doe suit is filed before the names of the defendants are actually known; the complainant's lawyer can then subpoena an ISP or online service for the real name and personal information of the user they claim has done them wrong. (In fact, in some cases an actual lawsuit is overkill; the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it possible to issue subpoenas to get such information without any suit being filed.) Many of these suits have been â filed by companies hunting down online detractors, but at least one has been filed by the Church of Scientology to obtain the identity of a former church member who has posted copyrighted Church texts in the past. That person responded to AT&T WorldNet's dangerous lack of customer support, so to speak, in the only way he/she could: "I guess it won't surprise anybody that because AT&T has put my life at risk [from] this harassment organization, I will be switching both Internet service providers and my long-distance service from AT&T to MCI."
Meanwhile, back at the office, pending legislation would allow software companies to disable (by remote control!) programs you bought and paid for. Allegedly, this protects companies from the scourge of piracy. But what happens the first time someone names, say, Microsoft as a party to a libel suit because Word was used to create the defaming pamphlet? If it came to light that Adobe Photoshop was the preferred graphics package of the Aryan Nation, wouldn't it be good PR for Adobe to shut the Nation's software down? What if a firm with known right-wing leanings, such as Solid Oak Software, was able to purchase the licensing and shutoff rights to software used by Planned Parenthood or the ACLU? And speaking of shutdowns . . .
YOUR GOVERNMENT HIRES HACKERS TO WAGE UNDECLARED WARS IN YOUR NAME.
U.S.-government sites ranging from the FBI to the Department of the Interior have gotten walloped by hackers during the past few weeks, and the Feds are wringing their hands in the media about how these nasty hackers are simply common criminals and not making a political statement at all, whatever they may claim. So what does it mean when the Feds enlist hackers to attack foreign governments and their sovereign rulers?
In May, Newsweek published reports stating that government hackers had been authorized to "diddle" with Serb president Slobodan Milosevic's international bank accounts. Whether or not you regard that kind of news as mere FUD, it hardly inspires confidence in your own account's security or sanctity. And what happens if you become an enemy of the state? (Can you imagine how much fun Dick Nixon could have had with a roomful of hackers and his enemies list?)
YOUR GOVERNMENT ALLOWS -- NO, ENCOURAGES -- OTHERS TO SPY ON YOU.
Can you imagine a system of spy posts and satellites that captures almost every e-mail, fax, phone call or other transmission, scans it for certain key words and concepts, and files it (and you, the sender or recipient) for future reference? And what if the U.S., U.K., Canadian and other governments were working together to spy on each other's citizens with such a device? It sounds like X-Files conspiracy fodder. Problem is, last month the Australian government admitted to The (Melbourne) Age that science fiction became science fact years ago.