by Dana Blankenhorn
Volume V, No. XLVII
For the Week of November 26, 2001

This Week's Clue: Everybody Wants to AOL

This Week's Clue: Everybody Wants to AOL

SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)

SP (Shameless Promotion)

Advertising So Bad It's Funny 

Rendering ISPs Gutless

The Myth of the Golden Shield 

Clued-in, Clueless

We've become accustomed to the annual war of words between Microsoft's MSN and AOL. We've also become accustomed to both parties' obsessions with control, control over what their users (they see us as users belonging to them) read and spend, with guaranteed rake-offs for Daddy Case or Daddy Gates.

Bell-heads like SBC and cable head-ends like AT&T Broadband have always been jealous of AOL. They can't satisfy millions of customers one at a time. All they seem able to do is anger them. 

But that has not stopped SBC (which has the worst customer service of any Bell) from continuing in its efforts to capture users, with or without their consent. The company has been stealthily acquiring Prodigy for years (the process finally finished this month ) and it has used every trick in the book to refuse cooperation with competitive providers, or end what cooperation once existed. (SBC has also been screwing its broadband customers at every turn .)

The final proof that SBC is a political party bent on control came last week from its appointment of William Daley, former Gore campaign head, as its number-two

He's not there to climb on poles. He's there to push Tauzin-Dingell, the most naked political power grab the Internet has ever seen . This bill, which claims to be about extending and enriching broadband coverage, is actually about one thing - killing the competitive ISP and CLEC industry. If Daley can get the bill through, customers' broadband choice will be limited to one phone company, one cable company (depending on where you live) and one satellite company. That's not competition - it's oligopoly. It's control of the millions by the politically-connected few. 

But control over access is just one half of SBC's strategy, just as it's only half of AOL's. The other half is to force users into taking its content. Since SBC isn't a content company it must buy one for this purpose, and the one it's planning on buying is Yahoo . Combine SBC's broadband with "Yahoo Essentials" and you have an environment where users are pushed toward Yahoo content constantly, in a myriad of ways, from the time they start their computers until they turn them off. 

Every company goes through distinct phases as it grows. The smallest companies are customer-focused. Mid-sized companies are often employee-focused, as they build their internal systems to handle more business. The largest companies are always financially-focused, caring nothing about people and everything about numbers. A simple exercise shows why this is necessary. Look down your street, then look at your city from its tallest building, and finally look out the window of an airplane. Describing and serving the world from 30,000 feet demands mathematics, while working with the people on your street demands a personal touch. 

Management by numbers works best when the number of competitors are strictly limited, and that's what the current M&A activity in this space is really all about. All the bidders for AT&T Broadband demand control of the customers, and limits to competition. We know this is true for AOL, which is why its bid is so strongly opposed . But it's also true for every other bidder, real or imagined. 

The biggest problem, and the reason Tauzin-Dingell might just pass, is that today's politics only allows entry by those with the 30,000 feet view. A company like SBC can dump millions of dollars into your political campaign, through a PAC and "executive" contributions, not to mention the energy of its lobbyists on your behalf. The fact this bill was even proposed is proof that the system is corrupt.

But the system is not hopelessly corrupt. Popular pressure can change political outcomes. Nor is it endlessly corrupt - political revolutions are there to be seized in every election cycle. The power to decide how and when change happens is yours. This is often forgotten in the fat times and the boom times. But it's never forgotten in the lean times. President Daley may be about to find that out. 

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

It's here! Yes, the PDF version of "Living on the Internet" is finally available for purchase at eBooks.Com , hyperlinks and all. More outlets are being sought, and the November update will go to all buyers who notify me (and other interested members of this list) as soon as it's finished. (Whew!)

You can join the A-Clue.Com discussion at I-Strategy , our shared e-mail digest produced with Adventive.Com. You can also read me at ClickZ , BtoB, and Boardwatch. I'm also on the mast-head at Bottom Line Personal , a great print newsletter. Remember that it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...

Shameless Promotion

E-mail marketing works, but only if it's based on a relationship and a database.

Permission is just the first step. An audit of your database to eliminate extraneous names is the second step. Building interactive relationships with every name in that database should be your Job One, the main creator of value in your company.

You can take the first step on this journey with help from my friends at Whitehat Interactive - click here to begin.

Takes on the News

Advertising So Bad It's Funny

Microsoft has a PR problem. People think it's trying to take over the Internet, to control their online actions. Yet at the same time Microsoft is trying to sell its services to business, and needs to do that if it's to ever make an online profit.

So what do the geniuses working for Redmond do? They create an ad for their business services under .Net that causes the XP butterfly to flutter all about the screen, but also causes a page's URL to be overwritten by the name of the javascript program needed to perform the trick. What this means is that you can't cut-and-paste the page address for a link, and your back button is disabled, since every time you go back to the address of the page, the javascript automatically jumps on top, sets the butterfly going again, and overwrites the URL.

Best of all, none of this happens when you use a competing browser, like that of Netscape or Opera. The butterfly doesn't move, the message isn't sent, and the URL isn't overwritten.

There are no links in this story only because the ad moved to other pages, and in fact by now it might have been pulled. But the damage has been done.

Rendering ISPs Gutless

It doesn't take an Act of Congress, or even an Executive Order, to render ISPs gutless in terms of defending the rights of their customers.

Sometimes all it takes is a court order.

Since Laurence Godfrey won his case against Demon Internet, a UK ISP that paid him 15,000 pounds over an alleged libel published by a user , service providers there have become completely unwilling to defend anyone's speech rights. All someone need do in order to get a UK-based Web site taken down is merely complain to the relevant ISP, and it's taken down - no questions asked. (The situation here is different, so I can write "Laurence Godfrey is a big fat idiot" without fear. He is, by the way.)

The height of this nonsense is the recent case of the Portadown News , a satirical weekly in, of all places, Northern Ireland. The site's editor knows laughing at either side or (worse) both sides can be hazardous to one's health, so he remains anonymous.

But a single complaint to Freeserve, which was never made public, had his site at www.portadownnews.fsnet.co.uk taken down completely, with no notice, no apology, and no willingness to even negotiate its return. A Freeserve spokeswoman's response to the BBC was positively Orwellian. "We won't put ourselves in the role of publisher. The internet's about freedom, and Freeserve is about freedom. It's not our policy to police sites at all, but if we receive complaints we will investigate them." (Italics are mine.)

Fortunately The Editor found a friend to host the site at portadownnews.com, working with a new Belfast company called Internet Solutions Ireland. God bless them. If they run into trouble, however, there's still opportunity in the U.S. (for now), and there's a lot of opportunity for U.S. ISPs to host content that's controversial in its own country. For the UK there's also a lesson. When satirists are treated like Nazis it is up to us, not them, to change.

The Myth of the Golden Shield

Since 911 the call has gone out to watch everything, everywhere, all the time. America has become paranoid to the point of silliness, as when Atlanta's Airport was closed for an afternoon recently because some Georgia football fan got lost looking for his camera bag .

But reports of something like "China's Golden Shield," or even the reality of such efforts going on in China , miss an important point. It's impossible to read every e-mail, to search every Web log, or to watch every street corner, in real-time, and thereby prevent crime. It's only possible to search through or see such records after-the fact. The most extensive surveillance system now in operation, in the UK, offers only the occasional grainy photo of a possible suspect weeks after the crime.

No shield of surveillance can prevent crime. It may, if a camera and a sensor are correctly linked to a database and a printer, enforce some traffic laws in real time. (Radar gun detects speeding, camera photographs license plate, network sends ticket to address of license plate's owner.) It's also very possible that, in coming years, GPS systems may work together with sensors and computers to control cars and let drunks get home safely.

But we can't watch everyone, everywhere, all the time. China can't do it. John Ashcroft can't do it. They make fools of themselves, and waste money, when they try to do it. This is true online and offline. It's about time we learned to accept that.

Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is Merrill Lynch for firing Henry Blodgett . But why should he get the kind of golden parachute usually reserved for top-flight CEOs? Perhaps it's because Merrill needs to cover up the fact that it's responsible for the boom-bust cycle, and Blodgett was just its mouthpiece.

Clueless is the pay version of Aimster . All this does is create a pot of money and a rich target for recording industry lawyers.

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