Death of a Culture?

Green Card Redefines the Internet Community

Few events in the Internet's short history have brought the rough edges of cyberspace into clearer focus:

On April 12 Canter & Siegel, a small Arizona law firm, hit upon the idea of advertising on the Internet. So to find immigrants in need of legal aid, Laurence Canter posted an advertisement to about 6,000 electronic news groups -- where people converse about subjects from particle physics to sexual fetishes -- announcing a final government lottery for 55,000 green card work permits and urging interested people to contact the firm.

The Net responded, all right. Members of the community sent a system-crashing deluge of 35,000-plus messages, most demanding the law firm's electronic head and applauding a drastic move by the company's Internet provider to cut off Canter's Internet access -- the cyberspace equivalent of castration. About a dozen system crashes later, the story made the New York Times and Washington Post. Canter has reportedly threatened a $250,000 lawsuit against Internet Direct, its access provider, to get its messages -- some of which actually sought green card information.

Which is the worse of the acts -- wounding the non-profit ethos of Net denizens or causing innocent users down-time in the quest to digitally tar and feather the offender? And what about the Net users who actually were interested in the information the law firm offered? A running debate on this issue continues on Internet newsgroups worldwide, showing, among other things, that most holders of opposing positions on the Net appear ill-equipped for compromise.

Indeed, the Green Card is beginning to look like it could just be that crucial turning point for the Internet -- a time of permanent transition from an idealistic and perhaps unrealistic view, where all Net users have the selfless and free exchange of information as their primary motive.

The Internet has allowed commercial use of itself since 1990. More recently, the National Science Foundation has made moves to divest itself from ownership and management of an Internet backbone known as NSFnet. At the same time, NSF is backing away from its longstanding policy of preserving backbone access for non-profit use only.

Previously, commercial users were relegated to the fringes of the network, essentially becoming second-class citizens in cyberspace.

All that has changed -- with one key exception: Though the outright policy ban on commercial use has been decisively lifted from most places on the Net, its spirit appears to live on in Internet culture. As Green Card illustrates, this cultural lag can have explosive results.

And where a spirit of selflessness prevailed on the Internet in the past, profit and pornography are just as likely to dominate today. That is particularly true as more users log on and bring to the Net all the virtues, vices and mixed motives of society at large.

"The Internet is a mirror of society, but without the normal restraints because you are a disembodied presence. Your head is floating in cyberspace and your body is left behind," said Mark Gibbs, author of Navigating the Internet. Retaliation on the Net is a press of the return key away. Unencumbered by body and physical proximity, Internet users are prone to posting angry messages and giving them the widest possible distribution. Where the threat of being punched out or just ignored always tempers actions in the real world, Net users are restrained by little more than a vague code of "Netiquette" to guide how they should act and how transgressions should be punished.

"The Internet is the first thing that looks like mass media where the audience talks back," said Gibbs.

This situation can -- and often does -- lead to hypocrisy: some offerers of information are held to much higher standards than others; most receivers of that information are given almost free rein to vent their anger in return -- something called "flaming."

Thus, when all is said and done Canter has clearly violated one of the most unambiguous tenets of Netiquette: Cyber-surfers should only post relevant messages on newsgroups. In this particular instance, the Canter posting would have been appropriate for the many Internet bulletin boards set aside for commercial purposes.

But some apparent violations of this tenet go unpunished -- or at the least are viewed as amusing and tolerable transgressions. For instance, Gibbs points out that those in search of profit and enterprise are often first to incur the wrath of the Net; few get so exercised by newsgroup members who frequent fringe domains such as alt.rec.tasteless posting sometimes cruel and offensive jokes on other bulletin boards.

To argue for free rein to tastelessness and even pornography, and to deny it to commerce, seems almost un-American (although it is noted that Internet is international and not something wholly American). And at any rate, no one is forced to read a message posted on a bulletin board -- just as listeners can turn their radio dial to something other than Howard Stern.

"My conclusion is that strategies of mail-bombing, flaming in newsgroups and mass postings of complaints to system administrators are techniques employed by those who (consciously or unconsciously) want to control the content of Net discussion (for example, commercialism of the Net), and do not necessarily reflect valid technical concerns," noted one message posted on an Internet news group following Green Card.

Noted another, "The main complaint about using the Net is having to wade through useless garbage...but one man's trash is another man's treasure."

Is there a solution? Can the principle of free access to the Net be reconciled with the clear need to maintain some semblance of management and network integrity? Maybe, but there are no easy answers. Michael Schrage, Los Angeles Times columnist and technology writer, used the incident as an occasion to hold forth on the increasingly popular topic of "agents," sometimes called "knowbots."

Under development at the Corporation for National Research Initiatives and elsewhere, they would be programmed to go out onto the Net and gather information at the user's behest -- similar to Internet search programs such as gopher's veronica, only more sophisticated. Likewise, the same technology could automatically delete or "filter" information that a particular newsgroup might find inappropriate, such as advertising, dirty jokes or even messages from obnoxious people.

So equipped with the ability to detect themes and process natural language -- a longstanding pursuit in artificial intelligence beginning to bear fruit -- these devices would be a kind of computer caller-ID-cum-search-and-retrieval device.

Schrage believes cyberspace, and its growing melange of competing motives and cultures, can be tamed by such personal agents. And he also has pushed for "electronic stamps" Internet users would buy to send E-mail. Combined with agents, these stamps could bring civility back to the Net, forcing potential advertisers as well as others to pay handsomely for the widest possible distribution of their postings. "Ultimately, what you'd have is a thriving market in software filters, screens and agents to get the information you want and avoid the messages you don't want," he wrote.

On the other hand, the idea of charging for distribution of information on the Net -- a normal state of affairs in most other media -- would also limit the Net's use by those not seeking profit. And filtering information also raises the spectre of censorship by those controlling the filters -- or even worse a society of "filtered" cybernauts. One can imagine a world of computer users, each programming a personal filter to receive exactly what he or she wants to hear, see and read. Is that a good thing for democracy, predicated as it is on the free and open exchange of ideas, no matter how disagreeable? Will filters have the net result of closing off the mind to the outside world?

Perhaps most disturbing, the approach itself -- a technological fix to a technologically derived problem -- may end up creating unexpected glitches.

Writing in the most recent issue of Educom Review, New York Times writer John Markoff notes that automated information seeking and screening tools, once unleashed on the Net, may have unintended consequences -- much as the 1988 Internet Worm virus brought the Net to a virtual crash.

"It's not just the Internet," wrote Markoff. "Telescript -- General Magic's telecommunications language -- is really just a virus design lab in disguise permitting me to launch a program that runs on your computer. What does it do? Can I control it? AT&T's executives have already acknowledged that they're not certain they can contain the technology....

"Traditional market behavior may not be suited for an information economy in which things of great value can be endlessly replicated," he concludes.

As Tsar Nicholas II of Russia ultimately discovered, after remarking at the first Hague peace conference in 1898: "If only there were a way to keep people from inventing things."

In short, there's no turning back in cyberspace.

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