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Tech Industry

Naughty or nice?

If a tech-savvy Saint Nick were making a list of the year's Internet stories and checking it twice, he'd probably come to the conclusion that though the Net looked naughty, it was mostly nice to be online this year.

    As a child, my image of Santa Claus may have been a little ahead of its time.

    While other children all over the world imagined the Jolly Old Elf licking a quill pen and writing out a long scroll of naughty and nice children, in my mind's eye I saw Santa Claus more like a gritty black-and-white film noir character, due almost entirely to one children's Christmas song. "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good," the tune piped along, as if Santa were some sort of cheerful G-man eavesdropping via wire from the North Pole.

    I imagined him taking notes in a yellow circle of lamp light amidst a room full of spinning reel-to-reel tapes with earphones the size of halved coconuts clapped to the sides of his head.

    Even then I knew it was an odd way to picture Father Christmas, so I kept it to myself. But today, it seems somehow right. This is the kind of Santa Claus who would program a database to keep straight who gets a Palm Pilot and who gets a lump of coal (or worse, a 2400 baud modem) in their stockings this year.

    If this savvy Saint Nick were making a list of the year's Internet stories and checking it twice, I think he would come to the conclusion that the Net may have looked naughty, but mostly, it was nice to be online this year.

    The Net was implicated in such unsavory activities as international child pornography rings to a mass suicide and open fraud, making 1997 a trying year on its reputation. Hardly a day passed without the Internet being linked to another atrocity. But if the Net became a wilder, less reliable place, it was because there were more people getting online.

    After years of predictions that it would finally "go mainstream," the Net finally did. And with that shift came all the diversity, the craziness, and the widely varied interests of the mainstream.

    The year kicked off with online providers straining under the pressure of their popularity. In January, Pacific Bell experienced a two-day email outage on the heels of 1996 outages for AT&T WorldNet and Sprint. And America Online entered the new year still short of capacity, often limiting the length of time members could log on without getting bumped. After dropping its price to a flat $19.95 per month, AOL was overwhelmed with new subscribers, and under heavy scrutiny by several state attorneys general. To pacify customers it handed out a lot of refunds and credits. Throughout the year, other providers experienced burps and hiccups in service.

    With more citizens becoming Netizens, democracy plowed into full swing.

    Citizens and government finally began having some long overdue discussions about what part the Internet should play in our lives. The "land wars" of the Internet have started shaping up over free speech, privacy, and who owns information.

    In June, the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act, a law that would have prohibited "indecent" communications over the Net. The ACLU and the American Library Association successfully argued that the law was unconstitutional because it was too broad, and won the added bonus of having the high court declare that the Net deserves the same First Amendment protections as newspapers and other printed media enjoy.

    Shortly thereafter, free speech advocates found themselves face to face with a more daunting censorship foe than the federal government: filtering software. In order to head off other legislation, the Clinton administration initiated a private-sector discussion on protecting children online without limiting the rights of adults.

    Despite the sometimes-heated rhetoric and a slew of Internet-related legislation, however, Internet governance didn't change a lot this year. That's a sure sign that old-fashioned, consensus-building democracy may finally be penetrating the Net for real.

    In July, President Clinton released his framework for electronic commerce, an ambitious document that tackled everything from business-to-business relationships to consumer protection and privacy. The laissez-faire approach suggested that taxes and laws should be kept to a minimum. Only a few simple contract law rules need be used in cyberspace and privacy can be protected by voluntary measures, it said. Not everyone agrees with the document; it has made up the backbone for discussion of some of the most crucial issues facing us on the Web today. Foreign governments that initially resisted it have begun to slowly accept some of its tenets.

    This year, radical copyright holders were routed in their attempts to "own information." After losing a fight at the World Intellectual Property Organization in 1996, database owners are still trying to get legislation through the Senate that would allow them to copyright databases, a move that researchers and teachers say could chill the free flow of information. Meanwhile, software manufacturers are still shaping a law that would make "shrinkwrap" and "clickwrap" licenses legally binding in all 50 states.

    Finally, this year, the U.S. government decided at long last to stop fiddling while the Internet burned. Though it is late in unveiling explicit plans, the White House has gotten itself--and the citizenry--involved in discussing the future of the Internet's domain name system, as this crucial Internet resource transitions from government hands to the private sector.

    Despite all the pressure the Net has been under--politically, structurally, and organizationally--1997 has been a good year. So much of the distressing news we hear grows out of the fact that we are finally holding long-delayed public discussions about the role we want the Net to play in our lives, along with discussions about its nature and governance. On balance, it's been a tough year, but a good one for the Net and the people who use it.

    May 1998 be as interesting, lively, and rich.

    Opinions editor Margie Wylie had a perfectly normal childhood, thank you very much. Despite this, she still gravitated to technology reporting and now writes about the good, bad, and ugly of the Information Age, Wednesdays in Perspectives.