A Ferret In eBay’s Face

The great thing about covering this business is you don’t have long to wait. When a Netscape or Pointcast loses its way, the fall comes fast.

In such a world it’s the fact of a lawsuit, even the threat of a lawsuit, that can impose a penalty, not its result. Microsoft lost its antitrust case before it was filed, because money and attention that should have gone into innovation and corporate strategy went instead into lobbying and legal strategy.

I should have had more faith the same sort of thing might happen when eBay decided, a few weeks ago, that it would fight to keep other sites from linking to it without its permission. I was ready for a legal fight, but papers have yet to be filed.

Instead, the press’ attention is being diverted by a technical battle. eBay has blocked AuctionWatch from accessing its servers, while AuctionWatch CEO Rodrigo Sales has promised to get around the blocks.

In this fray, reporters act like kids on a playground who cheer another kid’s fight with a perceived bully. But as with those kids, who probably egged the smaller kid on, our hands are not clean. Our profession is expert at finding ways to legally keep links out.

The Wall Street Journal requires that people pay for access. The New York Times only allows access to registered users. The San Jose Mercury News and other papers take stories behind their firewalls when they get stale, then sell access to the “morgue.” Foxnews uses Javascript on its server to push all “deep” links back to its home page – the trick won’t work on old browsers but linkers can’t rely on that.

Unfortunately, eBay has a problem those sites don’t have, because without free user access to eBay’s database, eBay doesn’t have a business. Worse, eBay must allow users to bookmark its pages so they can stay with auctions until they close.

So, the final solution to this problem may be on the servers of eBot, an “electronic robot” that can deliver the latest updates and bug fixes of software you’ve already downloaded into your PC. One of the software companies served by eBot is FerretSoft LLC of Pickerington, Ohio, which makes web utilities.

While eBay and AuctionWatch were preparing to throw lemons at one another, FerretSoft general partner Kirk Colvin made himself a glass of lemonade. It’s a software program called AuctionFerret. Like AuctionWatch, AuctionFerret tracks auctions (ZDNet gives it five stars), but if you’ve ever had to deal with ferret infestation, you’ll know it can be tough to stop.

Let me quote Colvin directly on this point so it’s clear. “When you download the AuctionFerret or any of the FerretSoft products, the searches come from and originate from the user’s machine independent of FerretSoft. In other words, eBay would not be capable of stopping the AuctionFerret, because it is basically a desktop search engine.”

This, in a nutshell, is the most dangerous idea the web enables. No law or rule can truly be enforced, because there is always a technical work-around.

If thousands of police in hundreds of jurisdictions, with extraordinary worldwide cooperation, haven’t been able to halt the email distribution of child pornography (an effort we all give a standing ovation to, I’m certain), how can a public site control incoming links and still remain public? The answer from the Head Ferret is simple – it can’t.

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