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Cyberspace's Coming of Age Bittersweet for Net Faithful


The online posting of the independent counsel's report Friday was widely seen as a defining moment for the Internet, just as the Gulf War was for cable, the Kennedy assassination was for network television, and Edward R. Murrow's dispatches from World War II London were for radio.

Breaking out of the shadows of its older media siblings, the Internet had the spotlight all to itself for a few hours Friday, as Congress unleashed the lurid details of Kenneth W. Starr's report on the only medium equipped to convey the lengthy document so instantly and exhaustively.

The posting created a clicking frenzy across the global network, as millions sought a firsthand look at the fruits of an investigation into President Clinton's sexual relationship with an intern.

But cyberspace's coming of age was an uncomfortable one for many of its most prominent residents, who rejoiced at the display of the Net's power and reach, but regretted that it was all centered on such an unseemly episode in the nation's history.

"This is a defining moment for the Internet, but not necessarily a proud one," said Esther Dyson, a venture capitalist and Internet guru. "Like it or not, everybody's going to remember this, and a lot of people are going to say this was the first time they took note of the Internet."

As much as the posting took advantage of the Net's strengths, it also exposed some of its weaknesses, and raised anew concerns that have swirled around the Net since it exploded into the mainstream five years ago.

There were philosophical questions about the consequences of the Net's ascendance, centering on such familiar themes as privacy, censorship, information overload and protections for children.

There were also basic questions about the ability of the sometimes fragile network to handle the spike in traffic. And indeed there were numerous breakdowns, delays and other problems reported.

Seconds after it was posted on the House of Representatives' Web site and mirrored at dozens of others, millions of people instantly began poring over the report--or at least trying to get pages to load.

"I've been trying since late this morning to get to the government sites, but couldn't access any of them," said Martin Burack, executive director of the Internet Society in Washington, D.C.

AT&T Corp. and Sprint Corp., which operate some of the major pipelines carrying Internet traffic, were reporting usage was up 15% by 3 p.m., and expected to surge even higher later in the day.

The frenzy was expected to last for days, then taper off, as has been the case with other events that prompted Internet logjams, from the Pathfinder mission to Mars to the death of Princess Diana.

But many say the legacy of this event will be more lasting, because it raises unsettling questions about whether direct access to information--as only the Net can provide--is always a good thing.

Many began their day in cyberspace wondering whether the details of the report were appropriate for all eyes. The report contains graphic descriptions of sexual acts, which left many Internet filtering companies and even libraries struggling to tread an uncomfortable line between newsworthiness and salaciousness.

Lycos, a leading search engine on the Net, warned that "some of the contents of this report may be offensive to some people." The site decided that the report ought to be treated as news, and not be filtered, at least temporarily.

By early morning Friday, the American Library Assn. was flooded with calls from hundreds of librarians across the country, asking whether they ought to make the material available to all patrons or not, said Judith Krug, director of the office for intellectual freedom.

"I told them our responsibility is always to provide ideas and information," Krug said. "Everyone should have access to this information, which is incredibly important not only for today, but for the future of this republic."

Critics were quick to point out that the report's lurid details might well have been banned from the Internet if the Communications Decency Act that was favored by many Republicans hadn't been overturned in court.

Indeed, many saw the posting of the report as the exercise of a new political weapon. After all, it was Republicans in Congress who pushed to publish the report online. Would they have been so quick to do so if the report were damaging to their party?

"I think this is being used by Republicans to spam the country before the president could even respond in an informed way," said David Talbot, editor of Salon, an online magazine.

The White House did publish online a response to the report, but it was not circulated nearly as widely as the Starr report.

Despite Talbot's political misgivings, the posting of the report was the latest in a series of boosts the Lewinsky scandal has brought to online news organizations. The story has had many significant milestones online, including the initial disclosure of the affair on a Web site operated by cybergossip Matt Drudge.

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