In August, Microsoft trumpeted a spate of deals it had made to offer free access to popular subscription sites if they were viewed through its Internet Explorer. It was the latest attempt to pummel archrival Netscape Communications in the raging browser wars.
But proving once again that no system is foolproof, a few industrious hackers have found a way to let Navigator or any other browser masquerade as Explorer and get a free pass into the exclusive sites.
Two sites, both created under the name "Ryan," provide instructions to allow Navigator users into sites that have made deals with Microsoft, such as the Wall Street Journal and ESPNet, which normally charge for access.
The creator of the "LIE like a rug" site says he came up with a way to make Macintosh versions of Navigator look like Internet Explorer because he wanted to "tweak what you can make your browser do," and intentionally or not, he is tweaking Microsoft in the process.
The publishing deals struck in August were seen as an aggressive bid to steal market share from Navigator. Since then, Microsoft claims that some Web sites show that its share has gone up to as much as 28 percent.
Ryan's efforts show how deep loyalty for Netscape's Navigator runs among many of its users. When he realized that his discovery would give Navigator users access to free content offered only through Internet Explorer, he decided to offer it to the world. "I wasn't able to check the score on the Yankees game with my Unix, and now I can," he said.
Ryan's instructions are not for the newbie, however. They require that a user download a separate program called ResEdit, which allows developers to modify program code, to alter Navigator's browser ID.
Like all Web browsers, Internet Explorer contains a sort of digital watermark, called an "HTTP user agent," that tells a Web server the brand of browser with which a user is viewing a site. Web sites use the browser agent information for different purposes, from tracking of browser statistics to presenting graphics and content, such as ActiveX controls or style sheets that are only available to users of one browser.
Both the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition and ESPNet watch for browsers that identify themselves as Internet Explorer. They permit only IE users to access certain areas of their sites for free. But by following Ryan's instructions, Macintosh Navigator users can effectively impersonate Explorer users.
But Ryan's "little hack," as he calls it, won't add Internet Explorer features to Netscape.
Ryan expects Netscape and Microsoft to come up with a solution to his program. "They're going to turn right around and beat what this little program does with their next versions."