Network: The Internet is far more powerful than a hangman's rope or a cowpoke's six-gun

In the 19th-century American West, folks had their own way of dealing with things. Cut off from East Coast refinements and the legal system, the citizenry had ad hoc methods for dealing with what you might call "social problems".

They formed a posse, they got a rope, and they hanged offending varmints from a handy tree. If the varmints weren't in the mood for a necktie party, then the posse loaded up their Colt Peacemaker revolvers and Winchester repeating rifles and headed out for a showdown. After all, if a cuss was too ornery to stand still for a hanging, then he deserved to be shot.

Many a murderous, larcenous or otherwise socially irresponsible soul met his maker in this fashion.

Problem was, so did some other folks, who may have been less deserving of an early date with the big Cowpuncher in the Sky. Folks who didn't see things the same way as other folks, for example.

You could be hanged or shot for being black; for being Native American; for being a foreigner; for being a Mormon, or not being a Mormon; for not wanting to sell your land; for selling your land to the wrong person; for being a sheep-herder; for being a cattle-rancher; for damming the creek in a drought or opening the dam in a flood; for marrying the farmer's daughter or, certainly, for not marrying her.

In some towns, during some epochs, just about anything was an excuse for a little "social engineering", including the fact that it was Saturday night and there was nothing else to do after the saloon ran out of whisky.

The Internet is often called a frontier. Indeed, one of the Net's most influential advocacy groups is called the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Just like the young United States, the Internet is a place where there are lots of new opportunities and where former strangers from all walks of life are gathering to form new communities.

And, like the West of old, Net communities often have to make do without the established legal system. The capabilities of an instant global network render obsolete many legal notions based on 17th- and 18th-century concepts of how information moves.

Even the language harks back to a simpler world. Take "freedom of speech": does that mean I'm OK as long as I use Real Audio to express my views? What about freedom of e-mail? Freedom of HTML?

How about national boundaries? It's perfectly possible to post something to your Web site that is completely legal (indeed, encouraged) in places such as the UK and Norway, but which would be grounds for a prison sentence (or worse) in places such as China and Myanmar.

The Net's denizens have filled this gap by cobbling together ad hoc standards, referred to as "netiquette", based on widely accepted notions of civil behaviour as it translates to an electronic medium.

However, when transgressions occur, Net people react remarkably like their counterparts in old Dodge City.

A prime example was the case of those ever-so-uncivil Arizona attorneys Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, who spammed some 6,000 newsgroups with their pitch for legal services for immigrants. Netizens launched such a hail of return hate e-mail that Canter and Siegel's service provider was knocked off the air repeatedly until the account was cancelled.

Couldn't hang 'em, so we cut 'em off at the cyber pass. Not a lot of tears were shed for the couple, who've been quoted calling the Internet community "hackers, pornographers and forgers".

But apparently, some members of the cyber posse occasionally find themselves bored on a Saturday night, too.

A recent example is the case of Tommy Hilfiger, the New York fashion designer who has been vilified in e-mail and newsgroup postings for allegedly making racist remarks on two American television shows. As word spread, many outraged correspondents called for a boycott of Hilfiger's clothing.

Problem is, it just ain't so. The New York Times investigated, and confirmed, in an article published last Thursday on its Cybertimes Web site, that Hilfiger had never even appeared on the television shows in question, much less made the comments.

And Hilfiger's is just the most recent case. There's a long list of businesses and individuals who've been unjustly strung up on the cyber gallows, their good name fallen victim to malicious persons cloaking themselves in the Net's anonymity.

The Net is far more powerful than a hangman's rope, or a cowpoke's six- gun. Great power brings with it the need for great responsibility, like folks who check before they jump on to a runaway rumour wagon. For any cyber varmints who think otherwise, this Net just ain't big enough for the two of usn

cg@gulker.com

Erratum: In my column of 22 April, I attributed the invention of the transistor to the Bellcore research organisation. Bell Labs in fact have the kudos. Many thanks to John Haine for setting me straight.

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