The Internet is a collection of more than 48,000 interconnected computer networks a network of networks, so to speak. Essentially, a computer network is a number of computers which are linked and able to pass information one to another to another. Computer networks exist for as many different purposes as the imagination can posit, ranging from automated teller machines to electronic mail that allows co-employees around the world to communicate with each other instantaneously.
Some of the networks linked by the Internet serve computer users in large geographic regions such as the Northeast United States, while many others serve only a single college campus. But however he or she is linked in, a researcher in Japan can log on to a home computer and, by typing in a series of commands, travel to files at the University of California at San Diego more easily and much faster than a UCSD student can walk across campus to the library. All for the cost of a local phone call.
Students and instructors can roam the stacks and carrels of the Library of Congress without ever leaving their desks, and have instant access to virtually any book, in or out of print. News seekers can read whole magazines and newspapers from anywhere in the world. Entertainment buffs can read the latest gossip and trivia. Computer users can obtain copies of software and computer games. Shoppers can purchase and even obtain samples of everything from music to movies. The opportunities for information, communication, commerce and entertainment are endless.
Although the information superhighway description for the Internet is apt the Internet is chiefly a way to get to destinations where information of interest is available that highway is largely unmapped. The Internet has no comprehensive, user-friendly directory of addresses and features, though many have endeavored to fill this need with printed directories and even an Internet yellow pages.
Many Internet features mirror those we see in everyday life, but are significantly expanded. For example, there are thousands of Bulletin Board Services (BBSes) or newsgroups, which are literally computer-generated bulletin boards or news/discussion groups.
On a BBS relating to archery, for example, one would type his way in and find numerous notices or stories regarding archery equipment and activities, perhaps even classified ads. The cyberspace archery buff can also find and join public discussions of archery and related topics. Its all so very easy. A user posts a message on the bulletin board. One or more other aficionados respond and post their answers, and so on. Correspondence is instantaneous and everyone gets to see everything and can join in if they want. The Internet is a global and very public meeting hall.
Thats not the only way to use the Net. Use of it for personal electronic mail (e-mail) which doesnt automatically go to a bulletin board unless someone chooses to post it there is commonplace. Correspondents for newspapers and magazines regularly include Internet e-mail addresses (how to locate them on the Internet) next to their bylines. Letterhead and business cards now carry them, too.
Computer services including America Online, CompuServe, Delphi, GEnie, Prodigy and even Dow Jones provide access to the Internet and offer numerous ways to make traveling through the Internet easy, inexpensive and comprehensive. And as any dedicated Internet user will tell you, cruising the information superhighway is as habit-forming as eating peanuts or potato chips.
The Internet is growing by leaps and bounds, at an estimated rate of 10 to 20 percent per month. Much of Washington is populated by avid Internet users, including Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Vice President Al Gore (email@example.com).
Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is a dedicated Internet user and supporter of the movement to make the government more computer-accessible. (Rep. Gingrich is at firstname.lastname@example.org).
While millions provide and use the services of the Internet for the good it serves and the beneficial potential it promises, the Internet certainly is not immune to the treachery of a small but insidious number of people who have furnished the Internet with a dark side: privacy invasions, lawlessness, intolerance and theft. Criminals and bigots exist in society, so it comes as no surprise that they also exist on the Internet. But the Internet offers them a new and unique way to hide from discovery and work their frauds and subterfuges from the safe harbor of anonymity.
An Internet user can travel widely in complete anonymity because computer facilities are especially designed for that purpose. An individual can, untraceably, traffic in child pornography, infringe copyrighted works, spread false and libelous information on bulletin boards and read and even answer another persons mail. (See Hijackers on the Information Superhighway and Solutions to On-line Lies.) The Internet has even become a venue for large-scale criminality credit card scams, theft of computer files and mail all the harsh realities of armed robbery, but with a modem instead of a magnum.
Law enforcement is coming to grips with such unlawful conduct and starting to shut it down. (See A Crime by Any Other Name....)
But beyond the issue of outright criminality, there is the equally disturbing problem of privacy invasions. It is one of the hottest and most sensitive subjects surrounding the Internet, and one which affects everyone, every day.
Steve Arbuss, a partner with Pircher, Nichols & Meeks in Los Angeles, author and frequent lecturer on computers and the Internet, cites a Government Accounting Office inquiry which found that 37 federal agencies reported that they maintain computer profiles on citizens. Shades of the Nixon White House and the darkest days of the FBI, the IRS and other federal agencies. But the efficiency and comprehensiveness of these electronic hit lists and dossiers is unprecedented.
Extensive federal and state computer databases on individuals and companies would, if merged, result in virtually complete dossiers on every citizen though any such unification has been opposed by Congress thus far. Already, some agencies, including the departments of motor vehicles in various states and the United States Postal Service, will sell their information to private individuals and companies.
Arbuss says that many people seem to think that privacy is only a concern for those who have something to hide. He also says they should think again. Many studies have found that an alarming amount of extremely inaccurate or misleading computer information exists on private citizens generally. According to the credit reporting industry itself, five percent of credit reports are inaccurate, said Arbuss. Privacy Rights Clearinghouse estimates that this is more like 40 percent.
Arbuss warns of the result of public apathy and inaction toward ethical use of electronic data. We could face a loss of freedom and an increased risk of `Big Brother style totalitarianism, he says.
Steve Arbuss, Internet authority and attorney, warns of the result of public apathy and inaction toward ethical use of electronic data: We could face a loss of freedom and an increased risk of Big Brother-style totalitarianism.
The Internet is owned by no one, largely unregulated and essentially unpoliced. There is that small number who use it as a vehicle for anti-social activity and who misuse information on the net, but the answer to such abuse does not lie in censorship or over-regulation.
The only real safeguards lie in the informed, ethical and responsible use of this dynamic and promising medium, and the observance of existing laws by those who use the Internet. Many efforts are already under way to raise awareness, educate users and introduce practical and enforceable ethical standards throughout the worldwide Internet community. (See Introducing Ethics into the Computer World.)
In this way, the Internet can remain a forum for broad, positive and unencumbered use. The only result of a failure to do so would be the imposition of burdensome legal regulations because the law-abiding many have failed to control the abuses of a lawless few.
The information superhighway is a road never before taken. It provides opportunities previously undreamed of. The key is understanding both the positive and negative sides and using the Internet responsibly, ethically and lawfully.
It is a route into the 21st century and should be a hazard-free road for everyone.