Why Web Publishers Fear a Little Sharing


By Olga Kharif Matt Haughley, a Web developer in Portland, Ore., registered for access to The New York Times' Web site years ago -- he can't remember when exactly. But he does recall patiently plowing through questions about his household income and his job title. Then, either he forgot his password or the Times lost his records. He was locked out of the site, and he wasn't about to go through the aggravation of filling out another lengthy registration form.

Instead, Haughley found that someone else had voluntarily posted his or her own registration information online -- on a message board or a blog, perhaps even his own mega-blog, MetaFilter.com. Thanks to the shared information, Haughley avoided the bother of registering again. "Who wants to fill this [stuff] out," he says. "I just want to read your dumb story."

WEB ADS' FUZZY FUTURE. Look out, Internet publishing world. Your registration-only content is being threatened. Cyber-savvy folks like Haughley now have a way to tap shared site registrations and use them to access both free and subscription-only sites. Haughley, for example, says he hasn't registered for a single site in 2 years.

While this may be a convenience boon to Web surfers, these community registration systems pose a problem for online publishers. To boost ad sales, many content providers require viewers to answer questions about their gender, age, and income level before allowing access to their site. With that information, they can tell their advertisers exactly what kind of demographic groups they would be reaching and then charge a premium to advertise to those readers.

Take away such registration, and the future of the $6.6 billion online advertising market begins to look fuzzy. Advertising typically accounts for 85% to 90% of an online content provider's revenues, so this has got to be troubling. "If lying on registrations becomes widespread, or communal passwords become widespread, advertisers might begin to question the information they're given," says Neil Budde, founder of online media consulting outfit the Neil Budde Group, in Richmond Hill, Ga.

DEDUCING PREFERENCES. Perhaps most troubling to publishers -- sharing registration information appears to cross no legal lines, say experts. "There's no general law that interferes with it," says Lawrence Lessig, a digital copyright expert at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. Operating in that legal limbo, the use of community passwords is on the rise. Aggregator BugMeNot.com possesses keys to more than 30,000 sites, according to Lessig.

Commenting on the difficulty of stopping sharing, lawyer Robert Bauer of Brown Raysman in New York explains: "There's no way to determine who's using that user name and password." However, he warns, some might hesitate to share some subscriptions because it might enable others to see their credit-card number and other personal information.

Still, as community passwords spread, Web publishers may be forced to make major changes. Some may abandon registrations altogether and buy software that can deduce what a reader is like without requiring registration information, says Gary Stein, an analyst with market consultancy Jupiter Research in San Francisco.

MIRRORING PROBLEM. Companies like Revenue Science and Tacoda Systems are making software that collects data about a reader's behavior without requiring the user to provide any input. It notices that a reader typically views automotive articles, for example. In turn, the site might serve that reader with ads for new cars.

A growing chorus says the only credible response is to abandon online registrations in favor of registrations for premium services, such as message boards. "We use registration only where it makes sense to do so from a reader's perspective," explains Adrian Holovaty, lead developer of World Online, the Web division of The Lawrence Journal-World newspaper in Lawrence, Kan. "The classic example is on message boards and comment forms, where readers want to register so they can own the rights to their usernames -- and, thus, their online reputations."

Net collaborators pose other dangers to publishers. Just in the last month, sites that completely copy a content providers' site have popped up. Mirrordot.com first posted in September copies, summaries, and links of stories that appear on Slashdot.org, a popular tech message board. Then Mirrordot.com simply caches the stories to which Slashdot links. Mirrordot.com, which runs its own ads with the stories as well as the original sites' ads, tallies the traffic for itself. And it all appears quite legal under current law, say experts.

TOUGH SLOG. Such "mirroring" is a genuine thorn in Slashdot.org's relationship with publishers, who usually welcome the attention. Getting "Slashdotted," or linked to the chat site, typically leads to a surge in readers for a Web publisher. Sure, Mirrordot has only attracted about 45,000 visitors, reports co-owner Jay Jacobson. But that's traffic that other sites -- ones that actually developed the content -- didn't get.

Already, Slashdot.com has received a number of complaints from publishers, asking how they can get links to their stories off Mirrordot.com, says Jeff Bates, co-founder of Slashdot.org. Slashdot is currently in talks with Mirrordot to try and resolve this, and no suits have been filed.

On the upside for publishers, getting someone to read a news organization's "dumb story", as Haughley puts it, may be getting easier. But making a buck off of content may be getting a lot harder. Kharif is a BW Online reporter based in Portland, Ore.


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