There was nothing very special about the message that made Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel the most hated couple in cyberspace. It was a relatively straightforward advertisement offering the services of their husband-and-wife law firm to aliens interested in getting a green card -- proof of permanent-resident status in the U.S. The computer that sent the message was a perfectly ordinary one as well: an IBM-type PC parked in the spare bedroom of their ranch-style house in Scottsdale, Arizona. But on the Internet, even a single computer can wield enormous power, and last April this one, with only a tap on the enter key, stirred up an international controversy that continues to this day.
The Internet, for those who are still a little fuzzy about these things, is the world's largest computer network and the nearest thing to a working prototype of the information superhighway. It's actually a global network of networks that links together the large commercial computer-communications services (like CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online) as well as tens of thousands of smaller university, government and corporate networks. And it is growing faster than O.J. Simpson's legal bills. According to the Reston, Virginia-based Internet Society, a private group that tracks the growth of the Net, it reaches nearly 25 million computer users -- an audience roughly the size of Roseanne's -- and is doubling every year.
Now, just when it seems almost ready for prime time, the Net is being buffeted by forces that threaten to destroy the very qualities that fueled its growth. It's being pulled from all sides: by commercial interests eager to make money on it, by veteran users who want to protect it, by governments that want to control it, by pornographers who want to exploit its freedoms, by parents and teachers who want to make it a safe and useful place for kids. The Canter-and-Siegel affair, say Net observers, was just the opening skirmish in the larger battle for the soul of the Internet.
What the Arizona lawyers did that fateful April day was to "Spam" the Net, a colorful bit of Internet jargon meant to evoke the effect of dropping a can of Spam into a fan and filling the surrounding space with meat. They wrote a program called Masspost that put the little ad into almost every active bulletin board on the Net -- some 5,500 in all -- thus ensuring that it would be seen by millions of Internet users, not just once but over and over again. Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community, compares the experience with opening the mailbox and finding "a letter, two bills and 60,000 pieces of junk mail."
In the eyes of many Internet regulars, it was a provocation so bald-faced and deliberate that it could not be ignored. And all over the world, Internet users responded spontaneously by answering the Spammers with angry electronic- mail messages called "flames." Within minutes, the flames -- filled with unprintable epithets -- began pouring into Canter and Siegel's Internet mailbox, first by the dozen, then by the hundreds, then by the thousands. A user in Australia sent in 1,000 phony requests for information every day. A 16-year-old threatened to visit the couple's "crappy law firm" and "burn it to the ground." The volume of traffic grew so heavy that the computer delivering the E-mail crashed repeatedly under the load. After three days, Internet Direct of Phoenix, the company that provided the lawyers with access to the Net,pulled the plug on their account.
Even at that point, all might have been forgiven. For this kind of thing, believe it or not, happens all the time on the Internet -- although not usually on this scale. People make mistakes. Their errors are pointed out. The underlying issues are thrashed out. And either a consensus is reached or the combatants exhaust themselves and retire from the field.
But Canter and Siegel refused to give ground. They declared the experiment "a tremendous success," claiming to have generated $100,000 in new business. They threatened to sue Internet Direct for cutting them off from even more business (although the suit never materialized). And they gave an unrepentant interview to the New York Times. "We will definitely advertise on the Internet again," they promised.
It was like a declaration of war, and as if on cue, the harassment surged anew. The lawyers' fax machine began spewing out page after page of blank paper. Hundreds of bogus magazine subscriptions began showing up on their doorstep. And technicians began devising tools that would prevent Canter and Siegel from making good their threat. The most ingenious: a piece of software written by a Norwegian programmer that came to be known as the "cancelbot" -- a sort of information-seeking robot that roams the Internet looking for Canter and Siegel mass mailings and deletes them before they spread.
The Green Card Incident, as the Canter-and-Siegel affair came to be known, , brought to the surface issues that had been lurking largely unexamined beneath the Net's explosive growth. It was not designed for doing commerce, and it does not gracefully accommodate new arrivals -- especially those who don't bother to learn its strange language or customs or, worse still, openly defy them.
The Internet evolved from a computer system built 25 years ago by the Defense Department to enable academic and military researchers to continue to do government work even if part of the network were taken out in a nuclear attack. It eventually linked universities, government facilities and corporations around the world, and they all shared the costs and technical work of running the system.
The scientists who were given free Internet access quickly discovered that the network was good for more than official business. They used it to send each other private messages (E-mail) and to post news and information on public electronic bulletin boards (known as Usenet newsgroups). Over the years the Internet became a favorite haunt of graduate students and computer hackers, who loved nothing better than to stay up all night exploring its weblike connections and devising new and interesting things for people to do. They constructed elaborate fantasy worlds with Dungeons & Dragons themes. They built tools for navigating the Net -- like the University of Minnesota's Gopher, which makes it easy for Internet explorers to tunnel from one place on the network to another. Or like the programs whimsically named Archie, Jughead and Veronica, which allow users to locate a particular word or program from vast libraries of data available to Net users. More and more newsgroups were added, until the bulletin-board system had grown into a dense tangle of discussion topics with bizarre computer-coded titles like alt.tasteless.jokes, rec.arts.erotica and alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die.
Until quite recently it was painfully difficult for ordinary computer users to reach the Internet. Not only did they need a PC, a modem to connect it to the phone line and a passing familiarity with something called Unix, but they could get on only with the cooperation of a university or government research lab.
In the past year, most of those impediments have disappeared. There are now dozens of small businesses that will sell access to the Net starting at $10 to $30 a month. And in the past few months, mainstream computer services like America Online have started to make it possible for their subscribers to reach parts of the Internet through standard, easy-to-use menus.
But with floods of new arrivals have come new issues and conflicts. Part of the problem is technical. To withstand a nuclear blast and keep on ticking, the Net was built without a central command authority. That means that nobody owns it, nobody runs it, nobody has the power to kick anybody off for good. There isn't even a master switch that can shut it down in case of emergency. "It's the closest thing to true anarchy that ever existed," says Clifford Stoll, a Berkeley astronomer famous on the Internet for having trapped a German spy who was trying to use it to break into U.S. military computers.
But a large part of the problem is cultural. The rules that govern behavior on the Net were set by computer hackers who largely eschew formal rules. Instead, most computer wizards subscribe to a sort of anarchistic ethic, stated most succinctly in Steven Levy's Hackers. Among its tenets:
-- Access to computers should be unlimited and total.
-- All information should be free.
-- Mistrust authority and promote decentralization.
The Internet was built up by people who lived and breathed the hacker ethic -- students at Berkeley and M.I.T., researchers at AT&T Bell Laboratories, computer designers at companies such as Apple and Sun Microsystems. "If there is a soul of the Internet, it is in that community," says Mark Stahlman, president of New Media Associates, a research firm in New York City.
As long as the community was relatively small, it could be self-policing. Anybody who got out of line was shouted down or shunned. But now that the population of the Net is larger than that of most European countries, those informal rules of behavior are starting to break down. The Internet is becoming Balkanized, and where the mainstream culture and hacker culture clash, open battles are breaking out. Canter and Siegel may head the most- hated list, but they are hardly alone.
HERE COME THE NEWBIES!
Tensions between old-timers and new arrivals -- or "newbies" -- flare up every September as a new crop of college freshmen (armed with their first Internet accounts) are loosed upon the network. But the annual hazing given clueless freshmen pales beside the welcome America Online users received last March, when the Vienna, Virginia-based company opened the doors of the Internet to nearly 1 million customers. It was bad enough that America Online users, clearly identifiable by the aol.com attached to their user IDs, were making all the usual mistakes -- asking dumb questions, posting messages in the wrong place and generally behaving like boorish tourists. But because of a temporary bug in AOL's software, every message they wrote was duplicated eight times -- magnifying their errors and making the AOL folks sitting targets for locals already disposed to resent their presence on the Net.
The result was a verbal conflagration that dominated the newsgroups for weeks and is still smoldering four months later. "It looks like Beavis and Butt-head finally bought themselves a cheap modem," wrote an Internet regular, in one of the gentler messages. Things deteriorated when the AOL crowd began to give as good as they got, hinting that the old-timers ought to make way for people who actually paid for their Internet services. Feelings are still raw on both sides and are not likely to be salved until the next wave of newbies arrives -- probably from CompuServe, as early as August. If history is any guide, the loudest complaints about the new immigrants will come from those who immediately preceded them -- the next-to-newcomers from America Online.
SEX AND THE NET
For those interested in pornography, there's plenty of it on the Internet. It comes in all forms: hot chat, erotic stories, explicit pictures, even XXX- rated film clips. Every night brings a fresh crop, and the newsgroups that carry it (alt.sex, alt.binaries.pictures.erotica, etc.) are among the top four or five most popular. The salacious stuff is clearly an embarrassment to the Clinton Administration, which has been trying to make a virtue of getting the Internet into schools. The White House is concerned, admits Tom Kalil, an adviser to Vice President Al Gore. But to judge the Net by its smut, he says, "is like forming an impression of New York City by looking only at the crime statistics."
For purely technical reasons, it is impossible to censor the Internet at present. "It's designed to work around censorship and blockage," explains Stoll. "If you try to cut something, it self-repairs." But some antipornography activists have found a clever way to cope with that. From time to time, they will appear in newsgroups devoted to X-rated picture files and start posting messages with titles like "YOU WILL ALL BURN IN HELL!" These typically provoke flurries of angry responses -- until it dawns on the pornography lovers that by filling the message board with their rejoinders, they are pushing out the sexy items they came to enjoy.
No battle on the Internet has been as public as the one waged over the Clipper Chip -- the U.S. Government-designed encryption system for encoding and decoding phone calls and E-mail so that they are protected from snooping by everyone but the government itself. The information-should-be-free types on the Internet were strongly opposed to Clipper from the start, not because they were against encryption, ironically, but because they wanted a stronger form of encryption -- encryption for which the government doesn't have a back-door key, as it intends to have with the Clipper system.
In the ensuing debate -- much of which took place over the Net -- government officials maintained that they needed Clipper to be able to intercept and decipher messages from mobsters, drug dealers and terrorists. Not so, claim critics. "Clipper is not about child molesters or the Mafia but about the Internal Revenue Service," argues Bruce Fancher, proprietor of a New York City Internet service provider called Mindvox. "Clipper just doesn't make sense any other way." As more and more commerce takes place on the Internet, contends Fancher, the IRS is going to need a surefire way to track the flow of cyberbucks -- and to collect its share.
WHO NEEDS THE PRESS?
If it is true, as A.J. Liebling once wrote, that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one," then the Internet may represent journalism's ultimate liberation. On the Net, anyone with a computer and a modem can be his own reporter, editor and publisher -- spreading news and views to millions of readers around the world. Adam Curry, a former MTV announcer, uses the Internet to publish Cyber Sleaze Report, a music-industry gossip sheet that tells readers which rock stars are pregnant, which have had breast surgery, which are drying out at the Betty Ford Clinic. Brad Templeton, an Internet old-timer who used to publish a satirical guide to Internet "netiquette" called Emily PostNews, now distributes Clarinet news service, an electronic newspaper that brings wire-service stories to 65,000 Internet subscribers.
But publishing on the Internet has its risks, as Brock Meeks learned. Meeks, a reporter by day for Communications Daily in Washington, by night publishes an electronic broadsheet called CyberWire Dispatch, in which he tells readers what he thinks is really going on. Last April he investigated an Internet advertisement offering $500 or more just for receiving junk E-mail and uncovered what he called a bait-and-switch scheme operated by "a slick direct-mail baron" in Ohio. He wrote a story headlined JACKING IN FROM THE P.T. BARNUM PORT and dispatched it to the Net. He was promptly sued for libel. Whatever the truth of the story -- or the merit of the suit -- Meeks now faces a $25,000 legal bill that, because he was working on his behalf, not his employer's, he must pay out of his own pocket. It was a pointed reminder to reporters -- and would-be reporters on the Internet -- that the laws of libel don't stop at the borders of cyberspace. "It definitely had a chilling effect on me," says Meeks.
Traditional journalism flows from the top down: the editor decides what to cover, the reporters gather the facts, and the news is packaged into a story and distributed to the masses. News on the Net, by contrast, is bottom up: it bubbles from newsgroups whenever anyone has anything to report. Much of it may be bogus, error-ridden or just plain wrong. But when writers report on their area of expertise -- as they often do -- it carries information that is frequently closer to the source than what is found in newspapers.
In this paradigm shift lie the seeds of revolutionary change. The Internet is a two-way medium. Although it is delivered on a glowing screen, it isn't at all like television. It's not one-to-many, like traditional media, but many- to-many. It doesn't work in couch-potato mode. And as Canter and Siegel discovered, it doesn't take kindly to in-your-face advertising.
But it does represent a new and fast-growing market. For better or worse, the Internet is filled with bright, well-educated, upwardly mobile people -- a demographic that makes it particularly attractive to those with things to sell. And while the green-card lawyers were creating a diversion, hundreds of businesses were quietly staking out the territory. Silicon Graphics, a computer manufacturer, uses the Internet to distribute software and answer customer questions. Joe Boxer, a San Francisco design firm that makes colorful and offbeat men's briefs, invites customers to submit "underwear stories" to its Internet address joeboxer.com]
"I think the market is huge," says Martin Nisenholtz, an advertising executive at Ogilvy & Mather who has drawn up a set of guidelines for marketing to the Net. (Rule No. 1: Intrusive E-mail is unwelcome.) He insists there's a place for advertising on the network. It's O.K. to post an ad for a used computer, for example, in a newsgroup called comp.system.mac.wanted, or to sell flowers in a corner of the Net marked florist.com. Global Network Navigator, one of the first Internet publishers to include advertising in its offerings, now has 45 online clients, including Lonely Planet Publications, an international publisher of travel guides. "The response has been tremendous," says Dale Dougherty of Lonely Planet. "The Internet has opened up a lot of doors for us."
While the Net is still not entirely ready for business, the pieces are falling into place. A system that will enable merchants to take credit-card numbers over the Internet and verify their customers' signatures, for instance, is expected to be up and running before the end of the year. Right now the hot product is a program called Mosaic, which gives the Internet what the Macintosh gave the personal computer: a navigation system that can be understood at a glance by anybody who can point and click a mouse. Hundreds of companies are using Mosaic to establish an easy-to-find presence on the Net. Last year there were a handful of these Mosaic "sites"; today there are more than 10,000, including such blatantly commercial ventures as the California Yellow Pages and the Internet Shopping Network.
And what about the folks who settled the Internet when it was still a frontier town? Some have left, preferring to spend time with their family and friends. Most are bracing for the next wave of homesteaders. Dave Farber, a University of Pennsylvania computer-science professor, has developed what he calls "New York City filters" -- techniques for surviving in a densely populated network and for sorting E-mail that arrives at the rate of 400 pieces a day. Others use "bozo filters" and "kill files" -- lists of individuals whose past behavior has convinced Internet users that their lives will be richer and much saner if they never read another word those bozos write.
The Internet has grown too large to think of it as a single place, says Esther Dyson, a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet watchdog group. "It needs to be subdivided into smaller neighborhoods. There should be high-class neighborhoods. There should be places that parents feel are safe for their kids."
San Francisco's Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL) is perhaps the most famous of these new virtual communities. It is connected to the Net but protected by a "gate" that won't open without a password or a credit card. Stacy Horn, a former WELL user, built a similar system on the East Coast with this twist: she offered free accounts to women, hoping they would provide a "civilizing force" to counterbalance the Internet's testosterone-heavy demographics. It turned out to be a successful formula, and Horn has plans to build similar services in six U.S. cities, including Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.
The danger, if this trend continues, is that people will withdraw within their walled communities and never venture again into the Internet's public spaces. It's a process similar to the one that created the suburbs and replaced the great cities with shopping malls and urban sprawl. The magic of the Net is that it thrusts people together in a strange new world, one in which they get to rub virtual shoulders with characters they might otherwise never meet. The challenge for the citizens of cyberspace -- as the battles to control the Internet are joined and waged -- will be to carve out safe, pleasant places to work, play and raise their kids without losing touch with the freewheeling, untamable soul that attracted them to the Net in the first place.