"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 18 November 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Pretty Good Deal



At the young age of 24, it's

nearly impossible to affect

the proper mix of dignity and

authority demanded of those

forced into the role of

reluctant disciplinarian. But at

this moment, James Howard,

burdened by both age and the

task of delivering a stern

spanking to the infant web

publishing industry, would be

well-served by the opportunity

to toss off a conscientious

"This hurts me more than it

hurts you," or even a "You'll

thank me for this one day."

Still, Howard might be forgiven

for his more eccentric

child-rearing habits - he's busy

tallying the generous nanny's

fee he's recently received for

his troubles.



For the past few weeks, the

website of Howard's year-old

start-up, PrivNet, was dimmed.

The promise of further

explanation was consummated last

Friday with an all-too-familiar

explanation: "Pretty Good

Purchase." PrivNet, whose

reputation had been inordinately

staked on the distribution of an

ad-filtering extension to Netscape,

had been purchased outright by

Fed-targeted cryptographer Phil

Zimmerman's newly incorporated

PGP. But in a deviation from

industry script, PrivNet's

sell-out breaks wide more than

just the bank accounts of Howard

and his even younger

cofounders. The stewardship of

PrivNet's products by PGP Inc.

cracks open a whole realm of

possibilities for the

beleaguered business of internet

consumer armament.



As a small Chapel Hill privacy

software mill, self-financed by

Howard and staffed by himself

and three student friends

(barely of drinking age), the

company was little more than an

exercise in masochism. They

calculated correctly that their

flagship product, Internet Fast

Forward, would whip the press into a

frenzy with the supposed threat

to advertising their software

made imminent. But in the

ensuing hype, over what was

arguably the least sophisticated

tool in their arsenal, they made

themselves conspicuous targets

for those who dreamt of grinding

them under their heels.



Starwave continually harassed the

young company with threats of

legal action, claiming IFF

enabled unauthorized, illegal

tampering with the integrity of

their media. When PrivNet

shopped their AnySearch utility

to the search engine players,

their idea was promptly stolen.

On the eve of inking a deal with

Infoseek for use of the plug-in,

which adds a configurable search

query interface directly on the

Netscape toolbar, Infoseek

abruptly ceased negotiation and

released their own "version" the

next day. When confronted with

legal action, Infoseek settled

out of court for an undisclosed

sum. Faced with the prospect of

a life spent more in front of

judges than their monitors, PrivNet

chose to not even bother

wrassling with Excite over a





But while speculation on the

death of webvertising and

editorial integrity was bandied

about, and open season for

screwing over PrivNet was being

declared, few stopped to

question the meaning of their

easy ascent. Most people have

little interest in filtering out

all ads - those pathologically

opposed to ads are as rare as

the few who conscientiously

click on ads in support of sites

they appreciate. In fact, the

tendency to blithely ignore the

peripheral nonsense that

surrounds most of the web

experience was the instinct

PrivNet's software set out to

intelligently combat.



Unlike their ad filter, the

cookie filter IFF added to

Netscape was designed with user

configurability in mind; that a

third party was forced to design

this tool is in and of itself

a damning indictment of

Netscape. Similarly, the

options they added for users to

arbitrarily select a maximum

image size to allow, or to set

Netscape's Directory buttons to

point to their preferred web

"resources," not to mention

their <BLINK> tag filter, all served a

common (and common-sense) end:

helping tooled users become tool

users, as befits those of us

flaunting party affiliations

with the nominally hominid.


[Business Week]

It's unclear whether PGP will

move to support and distribute,

much less defend, the more

anarchic aspects of PrivNet's

product line - the purchase was

primarily motivated by PGP Inc.'s

lusting after their PGP mail

client. But the prospect of a

company with a possibly

Softbank-grade line of credit

backing a tool that some see as

a terrorist threat will drive

more than a few marketing

managers deep into fits of



[Double Click]

If advertisers, marketers, and

prostrate publishers greet PGP's

impending distribution of

PrivNet's software with

trepidation, their trembling

should be dismissed as what it

is: the misfortune of

those roughly coerced into

thinking and working a

little harder. Most users are

painfully aware of the "no ads =

no content" formula that zeroes

out most sites aspiring to be

more than weekend projects;

marketers need to be reminded

that they're engaged in a quid

pro quo with users before they

hatch fanciful cookienet



The web can be relied upon to

recapitulate every tension that

vexed previous media, and

the uneasiness that has

traditionally followed in the

wake of advertising is no

exception. But, as always, the

web adds a twist guaranteed to

make everybody's life more

miserable (or more entertaining,

depending on your vantage

point). In this case, if the

versatility promised to

advertisers and narrowcast

marketers isn't matched by a

similar advance in user

control, the big step forward

promised by digital media might

lead exactly nowhere. Just ask

any responsible 24-year-old -

they'll tell you the same, and

bill you for the consultation.

courtesy of Duke of URL