Cash Cow!

Make money or unplug your computer

Illustration by Bob AulWay back in the distant mists of time, all the way back to the early '90s, the Internet was a vast wasteland. There were databases and discussion groups and people holding lengthy conversations and sharing their innermost feelings and swearing at each other a lot, but nobody was using the Internet to sellthings.

And let's face it: selling things is the ultimate pinnacle of human existence. Poetry and sunsets and smelling flowers are nice, but they don't pay the electric bill at the end of the day. Commerce is king, and it was only a matter of time before corporate America girded up its loins to make the Internet its own.

But there were all these pesky geeks in the way—programmers, idealists, fanboys and -girls with no proper appreciation of the Internet's potential for making money. It has taken a while to clear them out, but with a combination of threats, laws and lawsuits, corporations and politicians are finally beginning to see their efforts rewarded. It shouldn't be long now before the powers that be squeeze every last ounce of life out of the Net and turn it into a bland, smooth medium ideal for cramming consumerism down people's throats.

We'd like to honor those captains of industry and statesmen who have contributed so much to the taming of the Internet. We may have railed against one or two of these fine people in the past. We were wrong. We realize that now. Viva commerce!

THE STIFLING FREE SPEECH AWARD. This prestigious honor goes to the DVD Copy Control Association (CCA)and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for their joint efforts to squelch Linux programmers around the world. Thanks to them, a computer program has been banned from the Internet, a number of people with no money to defend themselves are being dragged through the courts, and a 16-year-old boy in Norway was taken into police custody. And the entire ruckus started over a little program called DeCSS, designed to let Linux users play DVDs on their computers. But in the process of writing the program, the designers cracked the DVD encryption code, which meant pirates could potentially unscramble movies and sell illegal copies, although the DVD CCA appears to have no evidence that anyone has actually used DeCSS to do so. The DVD CCA and the MPAA sprang into action in January, getting judges to issue restraining orders against people who posted DeCSS on their Web sites and suing a number of folks for violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Watching huge, multibillion-dollar corporations stomp on insignificant individuals is more entertaining than Riverdance any day.

THE WE'RE WATCHING YOU AWARD. Corporations spy on customers every day. How could they provide the highest-quality service to their clientele without violating the basic rights of privacy guaranteed every American by the Constitution? But it's unquestionably worth it, particularly online, where without sophisticated data-collection processes, Netizens might inadvertently see banner ads they're not interested in!But few companies have advanced as far in the field of customer espionage as DoubleClick. The online advertising firm made headlines in January when it announced its plans to merge the information it collected online—which sites surfers visited, what merchandise they bought and so on—with the real-world database it acquired when it bought Abacus Direct last year. But civil-rights advocates, not understanding the tremendous boon DoubleClick was offering consumers, pitched a nationwide hissy fit until the corporation finally backed down and shelved the plan in early March. Here's hoping some other company will step forward and bravely lead the charge for documenting everything about customers up to and including their genetic codes.

THE WE DON'T CARE IF YOU GOT THERE FIRST AWARD. This award goes to online toy seller eToys for its novel interpretation of trademark law. eToys (www.etoys.com) was justly worried that people might confuse their site, with its pictures of Barbie dolls and Tickle Me Elmos, with the European art group etoy (www.etoy.com), a Web site run by a collection of anarchistic artists. The company went to court in LA and obtained a preliminary injunction against the artists' domain name, arguing that it constituted trademark infringement. The artists, having no other defense, fell back on insidious logic, arguing that their domain name was registered in 1995, a full two years before eToys'. Sadly, the case ended in a defeat for eToys: the company offered to drop its suit on Dec. 29, 1999, after the artists launched an online insurgency movement that flooded the company's servers with complaints. Fortunately, a number of other companies have filled the void and launched their own vendettas, including Transasia Corp., CBS and the California HMO HealthNet. THE NO PUBLICITY IS BETTER THAN GOOD PUBLICITY AWARD.There were so many strong contenders for this award that I scarcely knew how to choose, but I ultimately decided to honor 20th Century Fox for its brave efforts to close down fan sites. Fresh from its triumph over fans of The Simpsonsand The X-Files, several months ago Fox began to go after fans of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which it produces for the WB network. The studio took one look at the countless thousands of hours fans of the show had poured into their Web sites, trying to spread their love of Buffy throughout the world, and firmly shook its head no. The cease-and-desist letters started to flow, and outraged fans started to protest. But you really can't blame Fox for its position; after all, what huge entertainment company would want hundreds of volunteers working long hours to promote its shows? THE LIMITS TO FREEDOM AWARD. This award goes to governor of Texas, presidential hopeful and all-around swell guy George Dubya Bush. When Bush started his campaign for the highest office in the land, his staffers took the sensible precaution of buying up a bunch of "george bush"-related domain names to prevent parody sites from sabotaging their official site (www.georgewbush.com, www.georgebush.com and several dozen others). But they forgot one—www.gwbush.com—and some shady individual, probably a pinko, promptly took advantage of their oversight by starting up a parody site that suggested Bush may have used drugs and might possibly be unqualified to be president. Bush bravely fought back, petitioning the Federal Election Commission to intervene on his behalf and uttering the words that have become an anthem for a generation: "There ought to be limits to freedom." We're with you, George! THE MAKING CYBERSPACE SAFE AWARD. Our final award goes collectively to those numerous members of Congress who have worked so tirelessly to protect huge corporations, which would otherwise be left defenseless, on the Internet. From Representative Chris Cox's (R-Newport Beach)_unstinting efforts at banning taxes on Internet commerce to Senator John McCain's (R-Arizona) insistence on tying federal funding for libraries to the installation of smut- and education-blocking filtering software, these men and women have bent over backward to give American business everything its heart desires. The Communications Decency Act, the Child Online Protection Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Cybersquatting Act—the list just goes on and on. God bless you, Congress. Without these causes to occupy your days, you might have blown your time working to represent individual citizens. What a waste that would have been. Cheer Wyn's fabulous new attitude at machineage@mediaone.net.
 
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