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New Opportunities Bring New Challenges

We've only just scratched the surface of what can be done on the Net. New hardware and software applications have opened up some intriguing and controversial uses of the capabilities of the Internet. Screen scrapers, bots, and content-on-the-edge technologies have raised concerns.

One area revolves around the bots. Though most of the bots that consumers use are fairly non-controversial, there's a love/hate relationship between the comparison-shopping bots and the merchants they shop. Consumers looking for products or price comparisons on different products visit a comparison-shopping site such as DealTime or mySimon. By using such a service, consumers are introduced to shopping sites unknown by them before and might actually visit and buy from those online merchants. This is a plus for the online merchant. On the other hand, merchants are not pleased with the fact that they're competing for business based on price alone. Next-generation shopping bots should remedy this problem by including information such as shipping and handling fees charged for the product, merchant satisfaction guarantees, return policies—that is, providing the full selling position of each merchant.

One company in particular is refusing the access of bots to its site. eBay wants to keep bots from displaying its listings without its permission. Auction aggregators such as BidXS let shoppers compare prices for specific items at more than 80 auction sites. What's good for the shopper, however, was not deemed appropriate by eBay. eBay had sued an aggregate auction search site called BiddersEdge for displaying listings culled from its site. In response, BiddersEdge filed a countersuit calling eBay a monopoly, and the U.S. Justice Department has investigated the case. eBay also asked comparison-shopping agent mySimon to remove eBay's listings from its search criteria, and mySimon has complied.

Whatever the outcome of the legal wrangling, the question remains—whose Net is it, anyway? As companies create e-businesses that act more and more like infomediaries and less like purveyors of products, the controversies will get worse before the situation gets better.

Enter the screen scrapers. When you visit Amazon.com, you're greeted by name and offered books and CDs that the company thinks you'd enjoy based on your past purchases. Portal sites such as Yahoo! let you create a personalized page with filtered headlines, local weather, and a personal stock portfolio. But screen-scraping tools take the concept of personalization one step further—one that has copyright issues written all over it.

The technology behind screen scrapers is quite simple. The Net is basically one big database, and it's not hard to pull pieces of information from one URL and display it on another. That's what bots do, to some extent. Companies such as Octopus and Quickbrowse.com make it easy for businesses and consumers to combine different content from multiple Web sites on a single page of their making.

None of these new e-businesses have explored the legal questions that their screen-scraping technologies raise. The problem with all these sites—and where copyright issues will be raised—is in the way in which they let consumers grab content at a very basic level and then present it in ways that the creator of the content did not have in mind.

These types of issues and more will almost certainly be raised when companies begin to realize the true potential of selling anything through the technology of the Net.

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Last Update: November 17, 2020