Network: That's more information than I needed, Ken

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The Independent Culture
THE CLINTON affair has done more than merely paralyse one of the globe's biggest economies at a time when economists around the world are getting a little nervous.

Bill's troubles, or, more precisely, Kenneth Starr's "referral" (as the Starr Report is technically called), have brought a lot of attention to the Internet and the ways it can be used. And some of those uses - well, Houston, I think we have a problem here.

This has been a crystallising event, for me, anyway. When President Kennedy was killed, we Americans ran to TV for the news, and learned in the process that TV had really replaced newspapers as our medium of choice.

When Princess Diana died last year, I and many others ran to our browsers, and confirmed that the Net had become the new medium of choice, at least among computer owners.

When the Starr Report was published on the Net, I stopped cold. I didn't zip over to the Library of Congress website to take in all the creepy details. Like at least a few other Americans, I knew enough, indeed, too much, already.

Clinton had been stupid, Monica Lewinsky had been ratted out by a friend, and a frustrated Starr seems to have resorted to a smear campaign to justify the $40m (pounds 24m) his office has spent investigating the President.

The reams of salacious details that Starr seemed to think was fit for consumption by the general populace, weren't really something I wanted to deal with. That a Republican would publish this stuff on the Net struck me as, at least, a little disingenuous. The Library of Congress is not a site that is normally blocked by parental filtering software.

After all, Republicans were big supporters of the Communications Decency Act last year, under whose guidelines Ken Starr, his staff and webmasters at the Library of Congress, could have been sent to federal prison. At least some Americans would have objected to the lurid and extensive sexual descriptions in the report.

For most of my life, the public media I look at and listen to have been like a moderated newsgroup. Newspapers and mainstream broadcasters have editors who filter and prioritise the news before it gets to me. Before the advent of the Net, the chances of something as sexually explicit as the Starr Report being offered in mainstream media would have effectively been zero.

Even today, most broadcasters were reluctant to read most of the passages in the Starr Report on the air, although many US newspapers published much of it, sex and all, on the grounds that it was public already via the Internet, and Americans had a right to know.

But this was more like the alt. newsgroups, the unmoderated ones, where robot servers publish anything, no matter how stupid, salacious or brilliant it might be - completely uncensored by an editor's judgement.

To me, the Starr Report reeks of a political hit job - and an expensive one, at that - cloaked as a independent investigation. Nowhere in this document do I see evidence of high crimes against the republic. Stupidity? Sure. Crimes? No.

Yet, thanks at least in part to the Internet, this document has, at the least, altered the course of history, and effectively shut down the machinery of the US government. I have to wonder what the implications are in an era where media and technology seem to be changing the balance of personal freedoms and responsibilities so clearly spelled out and protected by documents like the US Constitution.

Starr used the Net to publish a document that might well have been withheld from most other media. Some cynics and Democrats would say that that would have been a good thing. But I'm starting to wonder if it really was the best thing. If only oblique references had been made from traditional media, many people might have assumed that there was more fire than smoke in the Starr Report. Rumour would have been rampant.

The sordid reality, cigars and all, let us all be judges of just how hideous these crimes were. The report made public, for all the agony and soul-searching it wrought, allowed Americans, and, indeed, the world, to form their own judgement.

The scariest thing, for me, has been the effect on privacy. While most of us are not famous enough that our sexual adventures are likely to interest anyone outside a small circle of neighbours and co-workers, the Clinton affair has certainly set a new standard for "outing" normally private behaviour. Most of us don't expect intimate details of our sex lives to be published where the whole world can see them.

People are already vulnerable to irresponsible attacks on the Net: a number of individuals and companies have suffered because of unfounded, anonymous rumours, circulated via e-mail. In the wake of Ken Starr, nothing (except boredom) stops you, or anyone else with Net access, from publishing the Chris Gulker sex report.

While that document is not likely to be widely read, and nor are its authors likely to advance their agenda, it would still be awfully annoying and embarrassing to me. Lacking a censoring medium, anyone could attack anyone else. Given a little bad timing, this could be personally inconvenient.

But, maybe, if I really did it, it's just better that I have to face the music.

cg@gulker.com

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