Selling books used to seem so, well, genteel. If it was, it isn't anymore. A federal prosecutor filed suit in Boston yesterday charging that an online dealer in rare and antique books intercepted e-mail between Amazon.com (AMZN) and its customers. The accused bookseller, Mass.-based Interloc, last year morphed into Alibris, a well-funded California startup. Alibris said it would plead guilty; it expected to pay a $250,000 fine. The Boston Globe assigned reporter Steven Wilmsen to the story and ran it on page 1, possibly because of the Massachusetts connection. Wilmsen turned up a few angles the other outlets missed, although the Wall Street Journal's Glenn R. Simpson did get one detail more nearly correct. Wired, ZDNet, and the Washington Post ran 8 paragraphs from Reuters; the New York Times linked AP copy from its technology front page.
The story's history is a tangle compressed into Internet time. Ages ago, in 1993, a Massachusetts outfit named Interloc plied a rare-book trade; among its customers were other book dealers. Early in the Internet revolution Interloc began offering its customers ISP services, including e-mail addresses, through a subsidiary called Valinet. According to the federal lawsuit, in January 1998 Interloc had Valinet modify its e-mail routines to capture a copy of every e-mail message sent to its customers by Amazon.com. Saying that Interloc had been trying to collect intelligence on the market, the feds charged the company with 10 counts of violating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. There was also one count of unauthorized possession of passwords with intent to defraud; it seems those bad boys had hacked into their competitor's ISPs, too.
The Globe reported that Alibris had acquired Interloc last year. But the Wall Street Journal's Simpson captured the nuance better by saying that Alibris was "fashioned out of a combination bookseller and Internet service provider called Interloc." A Wired News story from last December described it this way: "Alibris grew out of one of the earliest online rare-book lists, Interloc." And press releases on Alibris' site say, "Alibris was founded in 1993 as Interloc, and is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area."
Everyone but the Globe got a soundbite from Marty Manley, CEO of Alibris. In a bizarre sidelight, today's Los Angeles Times ran an e-commerce story by Jonathan Gaw about the thriving prospects for old books on the Internet. Gaw penned two paragraphs on Alibris and included a quote from Manley, but oddly enough the executive didn't mention any lawsuits. The interview may have occurred weeks ago; it was a 47-paragraph story.
Only the Globe's Wilmsen thought to ask what had become of the Interloc employees who had done the dirty. Alibris' lawyer, Ethan Schulman, replied that "appropriate disciplinary action" has been taken; he declined to elaborate. But were any of the evildoers on the Valinet side? Are they still at large?
Wilmsen quoted a security officer at Mitre, a local government contractor: "This is the first time I've heard of a case like this, but it's what we all worry about." Right on. If you can't trust your ISP, who can you trust? - K.D.
Internet Merchant Accused of Intercepting Rival's E-Mail
Used-Bookseller Alibris to Plead Guilty to Intercepting Amazon.com's E-Mail
Wall Street Journal
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ISP Settles Charges With Amazon.com
New York Times
Alibris Pleads Guilty to Snooping
Bookseller Guilty of E-Mail Intercept
Firm Pays for Intercepting E-Mail
The Amazon of Antiquaries
Old-Book Stores Are Preserved as Readers Peruse the Internet
Los Angeles Times