The search for a user of Altavista's unmetered internet service

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The Independent Online

It's turning into something like the Great Snark Hunt. A growing media team (now including ourselves, the Register the Guardian, the Times and the Telegraph) are searching for a real, breathing user of Altavista's much-heralded unmetered internet access service. We're not having much luck. Altavista, you'll recall, made a great hullabaloo in March, saying that it would offer an unmetered service "by summer". It pipped NTL to the announcement by 24 hours, which put NTL's PR nose severely out of joint.

It's turning into something like the Great Snark Hunt. A growing media team (now including ourselves, the Register the Guardian, the Times and the Telegraph) are searching for a real, breathing user of Altavista's much-heralded unmetered internet access service. We're not having much luck. Altavista, you'll recall, made a great hullabaloo in March, saying that it would offer an unmetered service "by summer". It pipped NTL to the announcement by 24 hours, which put NTL's PR nose severely out of joint.

So, where are the folk using Altavista's service? Searches on newsgroups and Web pages reveal nobody with that tell-tale domain name. I called Altavista's PR two weeks ago, to ask how many people were using the unmetered service. Can't say, he said. Who could say? Andy Mitchell, Altavista's UK managing director would be the obvious choice. But Mr Mitchell had gone away on holiday and apparently left two instructions: (1) he was not to be interrupted; (2) nobody was to give out any details about Altavista's unmetered service.

It's management, Jim, but not as we know it.

Like so many companies, Altavista has failed to realise that in today's networked culture, you only get one chance to cry "Wolf!" If there's no wolf, there are a thousand other people with much more interesting virtual wolves to show you. Apparently, Mr Mitchell is due back at work today. Surely those sign-up CDs will be flying out of the window. Or perhaps Altavista will just slump into silence.

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote a short story pointing out that a number of British authors had complained to Amazon.com that "author comments" under their names on its site were not written by them. This, it transpires, is because Amazon.com has woeful security on postings which purport to be by those rare people, the real authors. Posting as an "author" is only slightly harder than posting as a "customer". In the latter case, you just say what you think. For the former, you're asked when you post: "Hold on! Are you the author?" And that's it. No requirement to provide details such as an editor or publisher's phone number.

I contacted Amazon.co.uk to ask if the same could happen to them. "We have a very strict screening process," insisted a PR flackette. "But I won't tell you what it is."

So a journalist at The Register decided to test this out. He posted an author comment on the Friday, which appeared on the Saturday. On Monday, he called Amazon.co.uk to query their "strict screening process". They took down every detail, including customer comments and even the cover images, of all that author's books. Steve Frazier, managing director of Amazon.co.uk, had a slight meltdown. He insisted that maintaining zero security on author postings encourages the online community that Amazon finds so valuable. "Do you think it's a good thing in principle that we allow author postings?" he asked. In principle, yes; but if anyone can pretend to be someone they're not, surely that lowers its value. He was aware of only one case where an author review was faked - the one in question. But how many authors does Amazon.co.uk carry? Thousands. What chance then that Amazon will detect them? It has to rely on people telling it. Some security.

I've since been pointed to examples of authors and publishers posing as customers and writing glowing reviews about books they wrote or published. Even Einstein and Dostoyevsky have risen from the dead to pump their sales. In the networked world, if you can't trust some information on a site, you automatically begin to distrust all of it. The usefulness of Amazon isin the "people who bought this also bought" function. It comes from Amazon's unspoofable internal database. If that got hacked, there'd be real trouble.

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Amazon has bigger problems, though. Living.com, an online furniture seller, shut up shop last week, just three months after the would-be Wal-Mart of the Net bought 18 per cent of it. Living.com was to pay $150m for being featured on the Amazon site. It's the first closure of an Amazon area. It may be a cloud no bigger than a man's hand on the horizon, but one can see stormy weather ahead even for the big online companies as funding keeps getting squeezed.

***

Like the Duracell Bunny, the Love Bug just keeps going. I received another copy last week and now there's a variant which targets customers of the United Bank of Switzerland. The Love Bug, it seems, was a great open-source project - at least for virus writers. Everyone whose machine survived had a copy of the code, and could rewrite it as they liked. Analysts think the latest one was really a "proof of concept" and that there will be bank-specific versions of the virus. That seems reasonable - not to say enormously likely.

***

Still on the topic of online banking, I had an e-mail conversation with somebody about the Barclays fiasco earlier this month, where people logging into its (now withdrawn) system could see other people's account details. He reckoned it was a known problem on mainframes, and distrusts bank security so much he doesn't have a cash card. What does he do? Security at a government installation. One wonders if the online banks have talked to him.

carthur@independent.co.uk

Eva Pascoe is spending time with her startup, Alexandra

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