Opinion » Cybernaut


A Merr-e Christmas for retailers



Whether it’s a sign of a technology coming of age or merely a testimonial to how busy and last-minute holiday shoppers have become, online retailers are jingling all the way to the bank.

Not counting online holiday travel purchases, an eSpending survey by Goldman Sachs, Harris Interactive and Nielsen/NetRatings discovered that shoppers in the U.S. spent $13 billion online this holiday season – 46 per cent more than last year.

Amazon.com, one of the leading e-tailers in North America, experienced its busiest Christmas yet with record sales. On one day the company sold 2.1 million items, or 24 units per second.

The number of online shoppers caused a few problems for e-tailers that weren’t able to handle the volumes. Many sites reported slower than average performance with significant lags for customers. Still, Internet watchers were impressed by how well the technology handled the volumes, having never undergone a test of this magnitude.

Court sides with Norwegian code breaker

In some circles, Norway’s Jon Johansen is something of a hero.

As a teenager, he created a tool called DeCSS that allows people to circumvent the copyright encryptions embedded in DVDs, allowing consumers to copy the disks.

His defenders argue that there is no difference between DeCSS and widely available technology that allows people to make audio and video duplicates of tapes. They argue that people should be allowed to make back-up versions of the DVDs they purchase because the DVDs themselves can be damaged or may deteriorate over time. While it can be used to steal, the DeCSS tool also has legitimate uses, they say.

Johansen originally wrote the program so he could watch movies he owned on his computer which was equipped with a Linux operating system. For supporters of freeware, the idea that a technology like DVD video will only work with Microsoft or Apple operating systems is more proof of the anti-competitive nature of the software industry – if companies wouldn’t go to such great lengths to exclude competitors, they argue, it wouldn’t be necessary to create programs like DeCSS.

In addition, his supporters believe programming is protected as free speech and free enterprise, and that attempts to curtail these kinds of initiatives will stifle creative software development.

His opponents say that Johansen has essentially created a tool for thieves and bootleggers that is doing real economic damage to movie makers and distributors.

Early in 2003 Norwegian authorities brought Johansen up on criminal charges for creating a software tool that overcomes anti-copy technology built into commercial DVDs. On Monday, Dec. 22, the appeals court threw out the case on the grounds that Johansen had not broken any Norwegian laws.

If nothing else, the case illustrates the need for new laws to address new technologies, rather than trying to reapply the older copyright laws in a new way.

The entertainment industry has been pressing lawmakers in Norway and other countries to adopt similar copyright legislation that would make it easier for authorities to get prison terms for people who develop or distribute digital encryption cracking tools. The European Union, Canada, Australia, and Central and South American countries are preparing to pass similar laws.

Johansen is probably not quite done with the courts just yet. In November it was announced that the 19-year-old thorn in the entertainment industry’s side had created a crack tool that can be used to get around iTunes copyright protections.

Called QTFairUse, the tool purports to circumvent the DRM (digital rights management) system built in to iTunes, making it possible for iTunes users – the bulk of iPod owners – to listen to songs that may have been downloaded illegally. It also allows people to record songs they listen to at iTunes without purchasing them first.

No legal action has been taken against Johansen for QTFairUse, but it may only be a matter of time.

Men.com sale reverses trend

Before the dot-bomb bubble burst a few years ago, the Internet was plagued by cyber squatters – companies and individuals that bought rights to as many Internet domain names as possible for the purposes of reselling them. When the bubble burst, the demand for commercial sites declined significantly. Faced with paying $30 a year to hold onto hundreds or thousands of sites that weren’t selling, many squatters were forced to give up on their investments.

In addition, a court ruling made it impossible to own sites that were named after companies or individuals without giving those companies and individuals first right of refusal. Squatters were forced to give up sites without making a profit.

The squatters may be regaining their foothold, however. Last week an unnamed entertainment company purchased the Internet domain name of Men.com for $1.3 million US – almost a thousand per cent return on a $15,000 investment.

Cyber squatter Rick Schwartz said he probably could have sold the site for more, but wanted the money to make a few other key purchases before the prices started to grow again. He currently owns and maintains domain names for more than 4,000 Web sites.