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There is nowhere you can turn these days to avoid hearing about how the Internet will revolutionize our lives. This hot new medium is at the center of discussions about privacy and pornography, family life, commerce, community, alienation, globalization, societal inequities and education. Given all this attention, you might think there’s little about the Internet that people haven’t already heard. Wrong. There are plenty of facets of the Internet that are little known. That was our motivation for putting together this package of stories: The Unknown Internet.

We’ve started right at the top-with a report on the organization that makes the decisions that will shape the future of the Internet: the World Wide Web Consortium, also known as W3C. This little-known group is based right down the street from us, on the MIT campus. Most of its members are companies that have a financial stake in the Internet-including such giants as Microsoft and Sun. Now, it’s fine for an industry to band together to regulate itself, and it may help ward off much more intrusive regulation from hamfisted congresspersons who don’t understand the first thing about cyberspace.

Nevertheless, it’s unsettling to think of a consortium made up primarily of corporations, with meetings closed to the outside world, making policy that might affect us all. Some critics of the consortium are more than a little unsettled by this prospect. They’re calling for the consortium to change its ways dramatically by opening up its membership and letting the sun shine in. But the lack of openness in policy-making isn’t the only criticism the consortium gets. In addition, some in the industry complain that the group’s decisions reflect the thinking of one man: Tim Berners-Lee, of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, who invented the fundamentals of the Web in the early 1990s. The critics question whether anyone should be, in their words,” king of the Web.” Are the critics right? You can decide for yourself after reading the first story in our special package, by a veteran writer on all things cyber, Simson Garfinkel. Garfinkel’s piece takes you behind the scenes and offers the first in-depth look at W3C, the Web’s “secret government.”

That isn’t the only unknown aspect of the Net we profile in this issue. Another is global epidemiology. Though most people these days think of the Web in terms of commerce or entertainment, it has a huge potential for informing public health. A piece by Gary Taubes shows how a couple of Web-based enterprises are bringing the latest news about disease outbreaks to epidemiologists. The package is rounded off by three other pieces that trace unsuspected aspects of the Net: the possibility that bandwidth will soon be traded like cocoa futures or pork bellies; the story of how a faltering real company (Egghead) transformed itself into a virtual company; and, finally, the story of how the Web allowed one collector to satisfy his desire for the transistor radios of his youth.

We don’t pretend that this special package is comprehensive. But we do hope it will intrigue and enlighten you, no matter how much you already know about this network that has arrived in our lives with such fanfare.

 

 

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