Net Buzz

FRAMINGHAM (03/27/2000) - Participants join the Cahoots network by downloading a free 2M-byte client and filling out an online registration form. The software lets Cahoots users who are simultaneously visiting the same Web site swap messages about what they see or don't see, like or don't like. "The network watches what you are doing" and puts you in touch with others who are doing the same thing at the same time, says Cahoots President John Rizzo, who hopes to attract a million users over the next 12 months.

That "watching" stuff is not the unsettling part because anyone who signs on is, by definition, agreeing to be monitored.

But here's what is unsettling: All of this Cahoots communication happens unbeknownst to and out of the control of the company that owns the Web site being visited - that's what "above" means - unless the company pays a licensing fee to Cahoots. In that case, the unfettered and unmonitored speech occurring "over" the company's Web site becomes an online storefront lobby where a company representative can welcome Cahoots visitors, answer their questions, sell them stuff and, if need be, keep the rabble-rousers from raising rabble by revoking their access privileges.

Rizzo touts the network as a customer relationship management tool and says his company has already lined up 15 to 20 sites that want to provide more interactive service . . . and perhaps buy control over the air space Cahoots will be creating.

Rizzo discounts concerns about Cahoots being a tool for trespassing.

Participants leave behind none of the "digital graffiti" that has engendered criticism of a Web site annotation utility from Third Voice, he says, and there's already little businesses can do to squelch criticism on news groups and Web sites.

He may be right, but expect Cahoots to be controversial.

Founded last year in Newport Beach, California, eCatalystOne in May plans to begin peddling its ePaid cards in physical retail and convenience stores.

Consumers will buy the cards in various denominations and then enter the personal information numbers the cards carry to purchase goods and services at Web stores willing to accept such payment. The likes of Borders, FogDog Sports, Amazon, J. Crew and Disney have already agreed to accept ePaid as payment on their sites, says eCatalyst Chief Operating Officer Tom Fedro.

Who might buy such a card?

According to Fedro, one prime market will be teens, a group that collectively spends $141 billion per year despite the fact that only one out of 10 carries a credit card. (And you wonder why your wallet is always empty.)However, eCatalystOne has its sights set on a "bigger segment," Fedro says.

Surveys show a significant minority of would-be Web shoppers - maybe 40 percent - are worried sick about divulging credit card information online. Never mind that these same cautious individuals don't bat an eye when handing their Visas to any waiter or store clerk. They've seen the recent headlines, so don't try to tell them they have little to worry about as long as they stick to reputable sites.

These folks might leap at something like ePaid. So too, might anyone who likes to buy stuff without leaving the kind of paper trail that credit cards create.

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