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Cult reports prey on Net fears

The Heaven's Gate ties to the Web have made for great headlines, though some think the Net is less mysterious to the media than before.

When the word got out that the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult also happened to be Web designers, the media bit on the angle like pit bulls on a rampage.

Netizens weren't surprised. Whenever something tragic happens, the media seem to scramble for that Internet angle. Mike Godwin, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, calls it "Internet panic."

He remembers finding out about the Olympic bombing this summer. "My first thought was what a terrible thing. I hope they find the guy." His second thought was, "I hope they don't find even a Newton on him; they'll blame it on the Internet." In fact, the next night's news led with a story on how information on making a bomb is available on the Net.

But with the San Diego suicides, the media didn't have to look far for the Net angle. Now some civil libertarians are concerned that the story will stoke fears of a new medium that is a haven for pornographers, terrorists, and now cultists.

Godwin's organization and others have been fighting against regulatory controls on the Net such as the Communications Decency Act, which is intended to protect the public's interest by safeguarding children against inappropriate material available on the Net.

Until now, debates over this issue have focused on the ability for sexual predators to locate victims or the easy dissemination of information like bomb-making. Stories about child pornographers or other disturbing tales of Net interactions are sometimes cited by those who defend the CDA.

While the Heaven's Gate suicides probably won't directly affect any existing legislation, the coverage does add another element to the widespread fear of the Internet.

"Are there people out there who are going to believe that this is another reason to keep themselves and their children away from the Internet?" asked David Sobel, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The answer is yes."

There is a bonafide connection to the Net of course: The 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult who killed themselves worked as Web developers. They posted a Web page to explain their ideologies and at least one had sent messages about their ideas to Usenet bulletin boards.

Many news organizations--including some online--have been playing up the Internet angle, exploring whether cults use the Net to recruit and whether the Internet contributed to the mass suicide. But Net community activists feel the coverage has exaggerated the computer connection.

"The coverage I've heard is extremely shallow," said Audrie Krause, executive director of Net Action. "This morning I was listening to my favorite radio station, and they had Dr. Joyce Brothers talking about this. She made this astonishing comment that the Internet is a place where people who are lonely and isolated could reach out to other people who are lonely and isolated and this could contribute to cult activity."

Krause worries that the story "will exacerbate the negative perception that many people have of the Internet based on media reports that are semi-hysterical."

At the same time, Sobel said many reporters have at least demonstrated a better understanding of the Internet with this story. The attention also underscores the increasing relevance the Internet has to the general public.

"We're finally getting to the point that people are starting to recognize that the Internet is a ubiquitous medium and good things are going to happen there and bad things are going to happen there," said Sobel. "More and more people are going to recognize that there is no more significance to the fact that these people used the Internet than there would be to the fact that they used the telephone."

In fact, Sobel thinks the coverage of the suicides has demonstrated a more precise understanding of the Web than did previous major headlines linked to the Net. "I think I've seen more balance to the stories than I have in the past," he added.

David Whittle, author of Cyberspace: the Human Dimension, would like to put this controversy into a larger context. The Internet, he says, is still in its early phases. As more people log on to the Net, they're going to have to sort through all kinds of issues, including how and whether to control content and activities. And the issues won't be settled overnight.

"That's going to be a major culture clash over the next five to ten years," he said. "The issues are so big."