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A Netizen Tells Stories of Cyberspace

net.wars

These days, a fully-wired citizen of the Net need never set foot in a grocery store, a bank, a bookstore, a post office, or a coffee shop. It would simplify things if all of the social and legal conventions of these old offline institutions could be smoothly imported to the new online ones, but as with most momentous technological transitions, it’s not that easy. Now, from a journalist who is also a participant in the online revolution, comes one of the first comprehensive reports on the upheavals underway in cyberspace.

Wendy M. Grossman is an American who writes from London for publications such as New Scientist and also moderates a Compuserve forum for UK journalists. net.wars chronicles the Internet’s evolution from 1995 to 1997, a period marked by vicious “boundary disputes,” as Grossman terms them, over issues such as encryption and privacy, sex and sexism, and copyrights and censorship.

Grossman declares up front that she is too thorough a “Netizen” herself to be an objective storyteller, but the cultural and technical savvy she brings to her stories are far preferable to the naivete of the uninitiated. She also admits that she loves “the fact that in this age of polite political correctness there is a place in the world where people feel free to speak their minds, even offensively,” and fears that overhasty government regulation threatens to undermine this freedom. But a journalist can be forgiven for advocating free speech.

In one representative chapter, Grossman reports on the Church of Scientology’s crusade, in the name of copyright protection, to quell criticism of its theology on the Internet. In 1995 the church sued one critic for distributing documents on advanced church doctrines via the contentious Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology. The church said the documents contained “trade secrets,” and not only attempted to have the critic’s Internet account stripped but also tried to have the newsgroup itself banned from all Internet computers, efforts that succeeded only in magnifying the online debate and the spread of the documents. In Grossman’s perceptive rendition, the tale has two conflicting lessons, one about the new vulnerability of intellectual property to unauthorized distribution via the Net, the other about individuals’ new ability to expose private information that may be in the public interest.

Grossman writes plainly yet entertainingly, providing a pleasant antidote to the breathless rhetoric one finds in many books and magazines devoted to computer culture. But what ties the book together is Grossman’s demonstration that the boundary disputes have more to do with power than with decency or etiquette. The Net gives all its users a vastly increased power to communicate. How much of this power, she asks, will average users be allowed to keep?

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