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Amazon blip no disaster

Just when it seems that the old media are beginning to understand the Internet, somebody writes something that shows how much ignorance persists among even the most intelligent editors and reporters.

They still don't get it.

Just when it seems that the old media are beginning to understand the Internet, somebody writes something that shows how much ignorance persists among even the most intelligent editors and reporters.

The latest example comes in column run by my former employer, the Los Angeles Times. It addresses a recent outage at online bookseller, whose Web site went black for nearly 12 hours last Wednesday. The outage, gasped this Cassandra-like report, "was a pointed reminder of the vulnerability of companies that depend so heavily--if not exclusively--on the Internet to conduct their business."

OK, so the outage was a setback for Amazon. In the fight for its digital existence against brick-and-mortar rivals like Borders and Barnes and Noble, the scrappy book merchant needs every sale it can get. And yes, the last thing any Internet-based company needs is a high-profile technical failure when it's trying to persuade customers to share their credit card numbers for online purchases.

But let's be serious: Is Amazon really that much more "vulnerable" than any other business? I wonder how businesses are faring near Rome, Maine, where 850,000 residents have been without power after several days of record ice storms along the Canadian border. How did cafes and nightclubs fare in Sarajevo while the city was under siege? Remember the near panic of catalog retailers during the UPS strike last year? You get the idea.

There is a reason that the Net is described in highway metaphors. It is a pathway for transactions, whether it be communications, distribution, or commerce.

Roads are vulnerable to things like ice storms. They're also susceptible to congestion, deterioration, and the occasional gawker who slows things down for everyone else. A car accident delayed eastbound traffic on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for nearly two hours Friday night, undoubtedly cutting into business for restaurants, movie theaters, nightclubs, and shopping malls hoping to start their weekend sales, yet that hardly qualified as national news.

Equipment fails too, whether it be my father's old pressing machine at his dry cleaner or the Pacific Gas & Electric network that was apparently sabotaged last fall, cutting off power to three-quarters of San Francisco proper.

If anything, Amazon went (if you'll forgive one more highway metaphor) the extra mile, offering ten percent discounts to inconvenienced customers. By contrast, when storms freeze citrus crops in Florida, the price of oranges usually rises at the supermarket. So do paper prices when the lumber industry runs into problems, driving up the cost of newsprint used to publish the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers.

The possibility of disaster striking the Internet has proven as likely as any other catastrophic event. And, like its counterparts in the local mall, Amazon would do well to assume such occurrences in its annual budget and take out a good insurance policy.

Amazon's mishap was hardly the first occasion to yield dire warnings about the fragility of the Internet. A few months ago, I was interviewed on television on this very subject after the judge in the homicide trial of au pair Louise Woodward failed in his attempt to distribute his sentencing by email. While news organizations were quick to blame the Internet for this failure, the culprit was actually the local power system in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which purportedly went down just minutes before Judge Hiller Zobel hit the button on his PC.

The reason the Internet gets so much attention is because it's so new. I suppose that when telephones were just getting off the ground, every outage must have been taken as a hopeful sign by telegraph operators that they could fend off obsolescence. The same was true with radio and television.

Today, much of the mainstream press will seize any chance it gets to point an ink-stained finger at the Internet in a vain attempt to show that the Web won't work. The fact is that some blackouts are more important than others, but all are often reported with equal weight.

Considering that newspaper circulation continues to plummet at unprecedented rates, I can understand the desire to diminish the importance of the Internet. Next to survival, denial may be the strongest human instinct.