CyberWire Dispatch // Copyright (c) 1994 //

Jacking in from the "You Gotta See This to Believe It" Port:

Money for Nothing and the Bits Are Free

Washington, DC -- Here's the deal: The Internet is being held hostage by a bunch of fucked up, entrenched techno-elitists. That's the premise of the International Internet Association (IIA), a nonprofit group that promises to give "anyone on the planet free Internet access," according to IIA Executive Director Max Robbins.

Robbins held a press conference here today to flesh out what has been the Net's biggest mystery for the past several weeks. When IIA first announced its plan to provide free Internet access, the group was assailed as being a scam. Adding fuel that speculation was the fact that in order to process your account application, the IIA required that you provide them with a credit card number (preferably your own).

Oh yeah, there were also those other little niggling details that didn't add up, such as the IIA's address in D.C. really being a rented post office box and that their net domain -- IIA.ORG -- didn't seem to exist.

Robbins, dressed in a rafish multi-colored cardigan sweater and IIA turtle-neck T-shirt, acknowledged that his organization made "some rookie mistakes" in the beginning. But he insisted all was above board. He said the credit card number was needed because the company providing the 800 number access to the IIA host computers needed it to bill people, at 20 cents per minute. "But we always told people that's what it was for," he said. "And we do have a direct dial in number so people don't have to use the 800 number if they don't want to," he said.

The organization was swamped with applications, some 40,000 have flooded in since November, Robbins said. But only 16,000 have actually been given accounts. He says they're working on the backlog.

But let's cut to the chase. Robbins is a young, idealistic do-gooder that thinks the Internet has been co-opted by its techie users and his mission is to set it free. He figures that if he provides free Internet access to "the great unwashed" of the world, the Net will be a better place. About the only thing this self proclaimed "Idaho farm boy" (with a Georgetown University degree) didn't say is that his efforts would eventually bring world peace. May the force be with you, Max.

The organization, which hasn't yet set any standards or procedures for taking on members, as any normal association is want to do, is being underwritten, apparently, but the good will of IDT, an international call-back racket out of New Jersey. The IDT scheme is brilliant. The company offers international callers the ability to call into the U.S. (on an 800 number), whereby, the IDT computers call your number back and give you dialtone from the good ol' U.S. of A. Using that dial tone, you can then make calls to anywhere in the world, which (technically) look as they they've originated from the U.S. Begin to get the picture?

The upshot is that if your company is located in Rangoon, you can bypass the outrageous long distance rates that Rangoon Telecom and Telegraph normally charges, instead getting rates more in line with AT&T. IDT, which has received its share of grief from several countries for taking hard currency straight from their pockets, is headed Howard Jonas.

For all its talk of good will and free access, the IIA seems to be nothing more than a front-loaded, money making machine for Jonas. The guy is a sharp entrepreneur and he saw dollar signs in those free IIA accounts. By providing the 800 number (which most people still think is always a free call) he saw a way to generate millions of dollars from anxious users thinking they were getting "free" Internet accounts.

You do the math: Figure 40,000 users (if the IIA grows no bigger than current applications) dialing in 10 hours a month. If they use the 800 number that whole time, IDT racks in a whopping $4.8 million PER MONTH in access fees alone. Free my ass.

Just how much is Jonas tied into the organization? Well, IIA lists their administrative offices being headquarted at 294 State St., Hackensack, N.J. Funny thing, but that's the same address as Jonas' company. The IIA "public relations" person at the press conference, Steve Rowe, pulls in a paycheck from... damn, you guessed it, IDT. And the boxes and wires that make up IIA's technology base have the same serial numbers listed in IDT's inventory data base and insurance papers.

With all this free shit being given away, how does Robbins pay the rent? "I do some work for IDT," he said. "But we've had enough donations come in so that it basically pays my salary.,"

You have to admit, this kid Robbins is well meaning, if out to lunch, or maybe his idealism is just way out in front of his common sense. The group said it's supposed to have 501(c)3 status. Legally that makes them a charity. But in their press kit, under the "facilities" heading is an address for "Lobbying." Non-profits listed as 501(c)3 are expressly forbidden from lobbying, it makes the IRS nervous to think a charity would take money from my grandmother and then use it to take Congressmen to expensive lunches or send them to exotic resorts for speaking engagements.

I pressed young Robbins on this apparent flaw: "Well, that's not really 'lobbying' in the pure sense of the word," he said. Turns out his idea of lobbying is what Apple likes to call "evangelism." Oh, did I mention that the "lobbying" office address is really home to the IIA lawyer? It is.

So, does an organization like IIA do when demand outstripps supply? It goes begging. Literally. Only Robbins doesn't call it that. IIA has "place a bid for services" with U.S. telecommunications and service providers, he says. But when asked how he defined the word "bid," Robbins said: "Well, we asked them if they wanted to give us service." In other words, he wants companies to donate time or materials out of the goodness of their hearts.

Robbins justifies this hat-in-hand procurement process by claiming that companies now making money off providing Internet service "have an obligation to give something back to the people." The world would be a better place, he said. Honest.

In the meantime, Jonas is waiting in the wings, with some 16,000 and counting credit card numbers, listening to the sound of the "unwashed masses" dialing in, throwing money at his company's bottom line. It's all legal, all very shrewd.

And Robbins? Hell, he has a good heart, some big dreams, and an impossible task. Write him, won't you: max@iia.org

Or send a check... if the charity status holds up, you can claim it on your taxes, right there under the heading: Donation to World Peace.

Meeks out...