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How big is the Internet? Part of its mystique is that nobody knows for sure. The only fact that can be measured precisely is the number of computers directly connected to it by high-speed links -- a figure that is updated ! periodically by sending a computer program crawling around like a Roto-Rooter, tallying the number of connections (last count: roughly 2 million). But that figure does not include military computers that for security reasons are invisible to other users, or the hundreds of people who may share a single Internet host. Nor does it include millions more who dial into the Internet through the growing number of commercial gateways, such as Panix and Netcom, which offer indirect telephone access for $10 to $20 a month. When all these users are taken into account, the total number of people around the world who can get into the Internet one way or another may be 20 million. "It's a large country," says Farber of the Internet population. "We ought to apply to the U.N. as the first nation in cyberspace."
That nation is about to get even bigger as the major commercial computer networks -- Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online, GEnie and Delphi Internet Service -- begin to dismantle the walls that have separated their private operations from the public Internet. The success of the Internet is a matter of frustration to the owners of the commercial networks, who have tried all sorts of marketing tricks and still count fewer than 5 million subscribers among them. Most commercial networks now allow electronic mail to pass between their services and the Internet. Delphi, which was purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. in September, began providing its customers full Internet access last summer. America Online (which publishes an electronic version of Time) is scheduled to begin offering limited Internet services later this month.
People who use these new entry points into the Net may be in for a shock. Unlike the family-oriented commercial services, which censor messages they find offensive, the Internet imposes no restrictions. Anybody can start a discussion on any topic and say anything. There have been sporadic attempts by local network managers to crack down on the raunchier discussion groups, but as Internet pioneer John Gilmore puts it, "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."
The casual visitor to the newsgroups on the Usenet (a bulletin-board system that began as a competitor to the Internet but has been largely subsumed by it) will discover discussion groups labeled, according to the Net's idiosyncratic cataloging system, alt.sex.masturbation, alt.sex.bondage and alt.sex.fetish.feet. On Internet Relay Chat, a global 24-hour-a-day message board, one can stumble upon imaginary orgies played out with one-line typed commands ("Now I'm taking off your shirt . . ."). In alt.binaries.pictures.erotica, a user can peek at snapshots that would make a sailor blush.
But those who focus on the Internet's sexual content risk missing the point. For every sexually oriented discussion group there are hundreds on tamer and often more substantial topics ranging from bungee jumping to particle physics. Last week Virginia college student Chris Glover responded to a distressed message from a suicidal undergraduate in Denver. After two hours of messages back and forth, Glover was able to pinpoint the woman's location and call for help.