Tangled Web Tangles Up the World Wide Web

By Amy Harmon, New York Times. Published September 10, 1998.
Copyright, New York Times.


NEW YORK, New York -- The downloads were slow, the error messages were many, but in the first experiment in electronic communication between the United States Government and its citizens on a massive scale, millions of perservering Internet users were devouring the Starr report yesterday within hours of its release.

Across cyberspace, the response ran the gamut: "Impeach the hypocrite!" demanded the subject line of an America Online message board. "Keep this President!" came the immediate reply.

Many readers simply quoted the most salacious details, and at length. But political activists who have been promoting the Internet as a tool for more participatory democracy said the release of the report on line was a watershed whose implications went beyond the current scandal.

"There's a whole universe of information waiting for the public to discover on the Internet," said Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation. "Maybe this will lead people to realize that this is a way to become more engaged and involved in public life in this country."

Many sites on the World Wide Web reported huge spikes in traffic as people who had been listening to pundits and politicians speculate about the investigation for months stampeded the Internet to find out for themselves what the special prosecutor had to say.

MSNBC, one of the leading news sites on the Web, said two million users had visited the site even before the report was published, double its previous record, set when President Clinton testified before the grand jury on Aug. 17.

Traffic doubled again once the report was posted. The Washington Post's Web site reported that its traffic had tripled by late afternoon.

Despite preparing for logistical nightmares -- news organizations did not know until Friday morning what format the report would be delivered in or whether it would need to be scanned from paper -- the electronic publication process appeared to go smoothly. Yahoo, a popular gateway to the World Wide Web, received the report from Congress through the Internet at 2:50 P.M. and published it five minutes later. Five minutes after that, its message boards were flooded with comments.

"So, let me get this straight, you went through the report and thought this was the most damning and critical evidence against Clinton?" demanded one Yahoo user in reply to another who had posted a passage about Monica Lewinsky's testimony regarding oral sex. "Ahahahah. But it isn't about sex??"

Indeed, one of the refrains in the online debate was whether the report was about sex or substance.

"Surprise, surprise, surprise, it's all about sex and covering it up," wrote an America Online user. "Is this what all you Republicans were waiting for?"

But others had a different take: "YOU THINK YOU ARE ABOVE THE LAW," another America Online denizen shouted a message to the President in all caps. "WE GAVE YOU A JOB TO DO AND YOU HAVE LET US ALL DOWN."

But as Americans across the country tried to participate in this unprecedented kind of electronic town hall meeting, many were shut out because of the overload on the computer network. Keynote Systems, a company in San Mateo, Calif., that monitors Internet traffic, said that half of those who tried to connect to the major news sites received error messages yesterday afternoon.

On Thursday, the Library of Congress's Thomas Web site had an average access time of 10 seconds and 98 percent of all requests for pages were successful. On Friday morning, Thomas started out with a 55-second response time and only 13 percent of people's attempts to connect were successful, the San Mateo company said.

Still, Internet activists noted that many of the other events that have caused Internet traffic jams have had little to do with politics. The death of Princess Diana, the Olympics, the Mars Pathfinder mission and, most recently, the stock market's gyrations have slowed the network.

"This shows that the Internet is now the choice medium for distributing information to the public," said Jerry Berman, chairman of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "One benefit is that the Internet is unmediated. There's no one interpreting the material, so citizens can make their own interpretations. On the other hand, the material does require context, and what we're going to have to look at is whether it can provide that, too, and allow people to make intelligent judgments."

Although some 100 million people worldwide are now believed to have Internet access, the publishing of the Starr report raises thorny questions about inequality of access -- just who has it, and to what they have access.

Several Internet rating and filtering services said Friday that the Starr Report would be blocked to minors under their family-content criteria. And a recent Department of Commerce report found that a "digital divide" based on race and income that appeared to be increasing.

And then there is the long-term effect that the Starr Report might have on a populace already disenchanted with the political process.

"We can put all the information we want on the Internet," said Ms. Alexander of the California online advocacy group. "But if people are so cynical and apathetic that they have no incentive to look at it, it's not going to make politics better."


Amy Harmon at amy@nytimes.com welcomes your comments and suggestions.

Copyright 1998 New York Times. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Reported by the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com.





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