The Internet

The Glaswegian newspaper dated November 2, 2000 had the front page headline "School Web Site Threat". The story opened with "School web sites are a potential perverts' paradise according to a leading children's charity" and went on to describe how these web sites can reveal pupils' identities to paedophiles. On the same page was the more cheery story headlined "Megan is a wig and clever funny girl" about a seven year old girl who won a comedy competition. The short article mentioned Megan's school and contained a photo of Megan with two friends, captioned with the full names of all three girls.

Why did this irony so obviously escape the attention of the newspaper's editors? Why is there the misconception that nasty people use the Internet but don't read newspapers?

Power

All technology is a means of empowering people. This is particularly true of the Internet, the largest collection of information and knowledge ever assembled in human history. Knowledge is power therefore the Internet is power. It is an obvious worry that anyone with a computer has such easy access to knowledge and power. But as is often the case with new technologies that the power of it is exaggerated by a sceptical and frightened society.

How much power does the Internet really give to people? According to popular science fiction, the Internet violates your right to privacy from the moment you sit down at a computer (The Net, 1995) and allows teenage hackers to start World War 3 (WarGames, 1983). In tedious reality it offers little more than a sizable source of information, most of which can be obtained by other means anyway.

Anonymity

Why then is the idea of someone with malevolent intentions sitting in front of a computer screen such an obvious stereotype? First of all the Internet offers anonymity - essential for anyone with something to hide. Internet users need never see or speak to anyone, use their real name or ever leave the safety of their home. Everything you see on the Internet is faceless. There is no way of tieing a real world identity to e-mail senders, web site writers or people you 'meet' in virtual chat rooms. This anonymity is often abused. There are many cases of naive Internet users being lured to a real world meeting by people in chat rooms using false identities or giving false information.

Fear

People fear the broad and extreme range of information available on the Internet. The Internet is known to have plenty of pornography, pirated software, subversive and otherwise offensive material. One of the biggest fears among prospective users is that they or their children may accidentally stumble across this material. This is a very real fear. Obvious examples are www.whitehouse.gov - the website of the US president's official residence - and www.boyzone.co.uk - the website of the popular Irish boy band. Trying either of these addresses with the .com suffix (the most well known of the Internet suffixes) will lead to sites that are certainly not suitable for under 18s or the easily offended.

Communications giant NTL have plans to introduce an Internet through television service to cable customers. The obvious market for this service is existing customers who do not own a PC. The vast majority of these customers are likely to be net novices and as such are likely to have these concerns over the content that is accessible. Also, the service will be accessible through a cable television, most likely in the family living room and not locked away in a study or parents' bedroom. The customers fear of having unsavoury material accessible from their living room telly led NTL to create a special 'walled garden' service for Internet TV. The service will only allow the user to access NTL's site along with sites specially selected by NTL. The rest of the world wide web will be locked out entirely. NTL's policy is that they will open up the rest of the Internet 6 months to a year after the introduction of the walled garden service in the hope that users will be less afraid as they become more familiar with the Internet.

My Conclusion

I have established that the Internet is at least perceived to be very shady and nasty. I think that often, the users of the Internet can be dragged down by this reputation and labelled shady and nasty by association. This may be why The Glaswegian was so keen to run the rather hysterical front page article on the supposed dangers of the Internet.

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