March 2002

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Messaging Phenomena: Lawless Days Ahead?

IRC Until August 1988, the Internet was a pretty quiet place. Actually, it was pretty quiet for a few years after that, too. But the seeds for some real noise were planted then because that’s when Jarkko Oikarinen finished developing Internet Relay Chat and posted it to his home server in Oulu, Finland. IRC brought something new to the Internet: anonymous live conversations among grops of people. It’s pretty simple. Download an IRC client (from, for example), give yourself a lame nickname (the point of IRC is to be anonymous), connect to an IRC server, join any of the topical "channels," and start typing. Think CB radio with a global reach and without the disco overtones. First it was just a Scandinavian thing, but within a few months it jumped stateside. A few servers here, a few more there, and by 1993 IRC was a genuine social phenomenon.

Viral Marketing The best way to sell something is to have your customers do it for you. Cheaper, too. People have understood this for as long as commerce has existed. But the Net has taken this simple little idea and motorized it. The textbook case is Hotmail, the original Web-based e-mailer. Hotmail was the first e-mail product that did not require you to have special e-mail software on your computer. With a Hotmail account, you could get at your e-mail from anywhere on the planet with a browser and an Internet feed. From a standing start in mid-1996 to the end of 1998, when Microsoft bought it for $400 million, Hotmail scored 12 million loyal, trackable subscribers. It didn’t hurt that Hotmail was free, but what really launched Hotmail’s rocket was its elegantly simple subscriber acquisition mechanism. Every single e-mail sent through Hotmail ended with the line "Get your free e-mail at Hotmail."

Consequently, you, the receiver of the e-mail, know that the sender is a Hotmail user, that Hotmail works, what it looks like and that whoever sent the e-mail to you thinks Hotmail is great. Every Hotmail subscriber is an unwitting host of the marketing message, which now spreads like, well, a virus.

ICQ In 1996, four Israeli programmers cobbled together a novel little service they called ICQ. I seek you. Clever name. ICQ was designed to be a more private version of IRC. With IRC (or the now Web-based chat rooms available on MSN, AOL or Yahoo), you join an impersonal crowd of people interested in a given topic. You have no control over who is in the group and everyone is, in effect (and by design), a stranger. With none of the usual social constraints, things can and do get fairly rough.

ICQ, on the other hand, is a personal communications tool. The free software (available from allows you to set up direct links with friends, family and colleagues and exchange messages with them in real time. AOL has a similar service called AIM (AOL Instant Messenger), but you have to be a member of AOL to participate. ICQ has no such restriction. And its designers know all about viral marketing. ICQ requires that you download client software from the Net. But just as a fax machine is no good to anyone unless there are other fax machines to send to, ICQ is no good to you unless your friends have it.

So how do you spread the software around? Well, Mirabilis made it superbly simple for new users to e-mail all of their friends about what a great thing ICQ is and how to get it by clicking on the link built right into the message. And what population group would best serve as a prolific vector for this virus? Right. Teenagers. Without spending a single shekel of marketing money, ICQ had a million users at the end of its seventh month—exclusively on the strength of what Mirabilis calls "word of mouse." By June 1998, 18 months from inception, ICQ had more than 11 million users and a new owner: AOL. The acquisition cost was a cool $287 million in cash and plenty more in stock.

IM Instant messaging, the generic name for what ICQ does, is now everywhere—including a lot of places it shouldn’t be. Like at work. Not that it isn’t being put to some remarkably useful business purposes, but the IM phenomenon has snuck up on enterprises largely unnoticed. Parents or friends on the job, say, wanting to stay in touch with the kids or their pals simply download a copy of ICQ (or AIM or MSN Messenger) to their work machines and message away. Harmless, right? Nuh-uh. The very nature of the dominant consumer instant-messaging clients is such that they can punch a hole right through an unsuspecting firewall from inside and open things up to no end of misery. The key fact: IM is simply not secure. That makes it scary dangerous in a business context.

In many ways, the present state of IM echoes the early lawless days of e-mail. Just as sensible e-mail policies have helped turn e-mail into a powerful business tool, policies are urgently needed that encourage the safe harnessing of IM for appropriate business purposes. Harsh as it sounds, until controls are in place, IM should be banned from the workplace—and especially the legal workplace.

Mark Tamminga ( practices law and fiddles with software at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Toronto.