Internet vs the Invaders: Users fight on-line publicists

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The Independent Online
TWO American entrepreneurs have been accused of computer sacrilege after telling people how to make money out of the world's biggest free information network, the Internet - the hackers' holy of holies.

Anger at the idea of profiting from the world-wide web of data links, which offers information on almost anything to anyone with a PC, a modem and a telephone, was much in evidence this week at Britain's first computer cafe, Cyberia in central London.

The target for the wrath of the Internet aficionados, who hang out in Cyberia to drink cappucino and wander around or 'surf' on the Net, was a book to be published next month called How to make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway.

It is a non-technical guide to exploiting the vast, and as yet untapped potential of the Internet as an advertising medium, written by two American lawyers, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, who run an advertising consultancy called Cybersell. The authors say it is no more than a general interest guide for anyone wanting to profit from the Internet's global reach.

But that very idea is anathema to the Netties. They like to think of the Net as an anarchic web of computer networks linked haphazardly, with nobody in control, no fixed rules, and nobody making money from it.

'Advertising has no role in the culture of the Internet,' said Simon Trask, a musician and computer programmer. 'The Net is about interactive involvement. People go on to it to get away from things like advertising.

The problem with advertising is its intrusiveness. Advertising pushes material out at you. It's kind of in your face.'

Mr Trask, who was reading a copy of Byte magazine, added: 'The big companies see the Internet as something they can't control. They want to persuade people to get on-line, but then work round the Internet and get them on to a more commercial Information Superhighway. Once you control a highway you can put toll booths on it.'

'I think it's terrible,' said Elizabeth Van Couvering, one of the cafe's Internet 'tour guides' who (for a fee) show beginners how to find their way around the Net's bewildering maze of files, discussion forums and bulletin boards. 'We get advertising on television and we don't need it here . . .

that's one of the things that makes the Internet such a good place to be. It is a haven for people who want to get their information out.

'If, all of a sudden, it gets caught up in the commercial world, where people want returns, that would really spoil things.'

June Adams, a librarian with Ealing Borough Council who was being shown round the Net by Ms Van Couvering, agreed: 'If a lot of companies started advertising on the Net, people would stop using it.'

Mr Canter and Ms Siegel have no time for the reverence the Netties accord their network. 'There is a small group of people that live on the Internet, are obsessed by it, and act as if it is a church or holy area that must be treated differently from newspapers or magazines,' Ms Siegel said. 'That's idiotic.'

In the United States, the pair have already fallen foul of Netties and their informal ethical code, which is known as Netiquette. Last April they caused outrage by posting copies of an advert on 6,000 Internet newsgroups - forums set up as electronic talking shops on subjects ranging from arcane religions to the recent comet impact on Jupiter.

The scatter-gun approach of sending messages to large numbers of newsgroups is known as 'spamming', and is considered one of the most serious breaches of netiquette, as Internet users are forced to waste time and money wading through such postings to reach the information they want.

Thousands of enraged Net users responded by sending huge amounts of physical junk mail to the address of the Canter and Siegel law firm, and filling their electronic mailboxes with junk computer files - Internet revenge called 'flaming'.

Nevertheless, the pair said last week that they were surprised by the negative reaction of British Netties to their book. 'People seem to think the book is just a guide to spamming,' said Mr Canter.

'That's not the case, it is a comprehensive guide to all the possible ways to advertise on the Net. We believe people should be able to make choices on how they market them selves.'

Publication of the book in America is due on 30 November, with UK publication scheduled for May next year.

(Photograph omitted)