No More Surfers' Paradise

Ynet has started charging users abroad to enter its site, kicking up a storm at home and away

You are away in Miami and are suddenly come over by an irresistible urge for Bamba or Elite coffee. What do you do? In this particular case, Rami of Florida, a regular surfer on Ynet, supplies you with the address where you can satisfy your craving. Another surfer on the site, Tal, unhesitatingly distributes the address in Alabama where they serve Schnitzel-fries-Israeli salad. Itzik, yet another surfer, warmly recommends the best shawarma (gyro) to be had in the Ukraine and Pini will tell the forum where in Belgium one can find Tnuva white cheese. The fact that Israeli-made snacks are sold in supermarkets worldwide at exorbitant prices does nothing to dampen their attraction in the eyes of Israelis hungry for a taste of home. When it is freezing outside and you are surrounded by Americans (or Belgians, Swedes or Chileans) in an alien world that has never heard of grill-flavored, deep-fried fusili macaroni, spending a few dollars on a bag of Bisli seems like a perfectly logical investment.

Last week, on the other hand, Ynet surfers were concentrating on exchanging hot tips in a mad chase after quite another Israeli product - Ynet itself. In a dramatic step taken less than two weeks ago, Yedioth Ahronoth's Ynet, the leading Israeli content site, which until now supplied all visitors to the site with a concentrated ration of Israeliness free of charge, began to charge surfers abroad to read the contents on the site. Access to the home page, including headlines, subheadings, news flashes as well as entry into the communities channel, will remain free of charge. Israelis, from Tokyo to Texas, found it difficult to accept this painful step, and many viewed it as a form of deliberate discrimination and a personal insult.

Ynet is now waiting to see if its audience of over 100,000 surfers abroad will agree to pay three dollars a month for what Israelis at home can receive for free. "It is still too early to predict the significance of this move or measure the loss, but I am very optimistic, says Yon Feder, Ynet's editor in chief. Feder says that thousands have already taken out subscriptions since the decision became effective. But it did not take long for the stratagems and maneuvers to make their appearance. A few days after the new procedure went into effect, the forums that Ynet places at the disposal of Israelis abroad turned into a number-one-priority area for the distribution of instructions on how to bypass the payment system.

"Israelis, even if they are abroad, are not suckers, and a way has already been found to sneak into the site," announced a surfer on the "Israelis in Europe" forum, and distributed suggestions on how to evade payment. "All those who are upset by Ynet's decision ... are welcome to visit here and get answers," wrote a surfer in the "Israelis in New York" forum and referred readers to documents on the Geocities servers where they can find detailed instructions on how to steal into the site by changing the properties of the proxy servers. For those who have trouble carrying out the (quite simple) steps, the protesters have even already organized an address for technical support.

`A disgraceful thing'

Feder is not disturbed by the attempts to bypass the payment procedure and is even enjoying them a bit. "They absolutely do not worry me. They're even a little amusing. When the entire Web is abuzz about the subject and so many people are taking the trouble to find out how to get into the site, it just shows how much people need to surf on Ynet," he says. Nonetheless, it is no accident that notices of this type have disappeared from Ynet's forums in the past few days. "For a few days, we allowed surfers to let off steam and we took no steps at all on the matter," says Riki Cohen, the director of Ynet communities. "In the past few days, we have started to erase notices of this type. I think that they are a very disgraceful thing."

With losses piling up and the new economy illusions of targeted markets buried somewhere back in 1999, the content sites now realize that charging surfers to visit their sites is an unavoidable step. This launched a war of nerves among the competing Hebrew-language news sites to see who would crack first and test the payment model, thereby becoming the target of the surfers' fury, taking them through the slow and painful reeducation process, paving the way to the cash for all the others. "Someone had to be courageous enough to carry out this step, and we are apparently courageous enough to do it. We know that our competitors are at this very moment carrying out preparations for the transition to charging surfers for visiting their sites, and it is convenient for them that Ynet was the first. The next one to do it will arouse less anger. They are taking unfair advantage of the situation," explains Feder, apparently referring to a notice that recently appeared in Ma'ariv lambasting Ynet for not allowing Israelis abroad free access to the site "at a time of war," and to another site, Tapuz, which as usual exploited the crisis in the neighboring site to immediately establish communities of Israelis abroad "disappointed with Ynet."

At the same time, all the other players are groping in the dark, asking surfers to register and counting heads, trying to come up with a formula of their own that will prevent them from crashing financially without visiting too harsh a blow on their surfers. "We are technologically prepared for the possibility of charging payment for entry into certain parts of the site, but we are not planning to make use of this ability in the near future," says Elihai Vidal, the head of Ha'aretz's Internet department. Danny Dor, the editor in chief of Ma'ariv's site maintains that tens of thousands of surfers have registered for the site since Ynet began charging.

"On the Internet, there is currently a consumer and cultural revolution going on, a transition from free culture to having to pay to surf," says Feder. "It is difficult to get used to paying for something that you have become accustomed to getting for free. As a surfer, I can identify with the sense of feeling offended. But from the point of view of the one supplying the content - it is unavoidable."

But despite the general shock and insult involved in having to say good-bye to the period of free news on the Internet, the furious emotional and defensive response on the part of Israeli Ynet surfers abroad made it clear that Ynet had exposed a particularly raw nerve. Many of the surfers viewed the step as a deliberate assault on their Zionist identity and concluded that Ynet views them as "second-class Israelis" or "potential expatriates" and was punishing them for it. Some called for a boycott of the site because of the discrimination. "It goes without saying that we do not relate to surfers abroad as less valuable than those in Israel," responds Feder. The decision, he explains, was the result of purely financial considerations: The heterogeneous nature of the surfers abroad makes them a less attractive target audience for advertisers, and the high cost of producing special content for this population is what tipped the scales. At the same time, the Ynet model for making profit is still in its early stages. Value added services for payment are currently in the development stages, but will not appear on the site in the near future. Even surfers that have difficulty opening their wallets can receive their desired portion of Israeliness in the site's communities.

"We believe the communities should remain open. The high concentration of people in a similar situation creates a strong emotional effect. An immigrant has to undergo a gradual process until he adapts to his new surroundings and the forum gives him a place where he feels immediately accepted and can communicate in his own language without cultural constraints," says Cohen. She adds that surfers to the site's communities have so far demonstrated loyalty to the site. In the wake of the thousands of e-mail messages Feder received, Ynet's editor in chief decided to visit the "Israelis in Europe" site on January 8.

Trial by fire

"I thought the new move made it especially important for me to have direct contact with them, and even if they were furious - I would not prevent them from venting their fury," he explains his four-hour trial by virtual fire, which in fact cooled down somewhat during his visit. "Some Israelis abroad expressed their resentment at having to pay for access to the list of tips that they themselves supplied to Ynet. At that very moment, we informed them that the tips would be moved to the open communities area of the site and that the access to it would remain free," says Feder.

So if Itzik, hungry and overcome with longing for home, forgets the name of the best shawarma stand in Ukraine, which he himself recommended to Ynet surfers, he can still enter the site and get a free tip there himself. Perhaps to get an even stronger taste of home, he will also decide to add a few dollars each month to read about terror attacks, strikes, elections and yet more terror attacks. But then again, perhaps he will just make do with the shawarma.