The U.S. has 23 million wired households, and many more Americans log on at work or school. The number of Netizens, in America and elsewhere, is set to rocket still further as PC prices fall and peer pressure to get online rises. Singapore is bringing high-capacity Internet access to every home. The global network has come of age - and those using it must grow up, too. The Net can be both the utopian dream electronic prophets foretell and the distopian nightmare its gainsayers decry, dependent on how we use or abuse the medium.
One dark side of the Internet is the ability to spread lies at the speed of light. Take the case of KPS, Hong Kong's largest video chain. A hoax e-mail circled the Web earlier this year claiming to be from an employee in a law office and alleging falsely that KPS had filed for bankruptcy. Thousands of customers descended upon the store to cash in pre-paid coupons. In 1996, Sony Corp. had to break its no-comment policy on acquisition rumors when a fake e-mail purportedly from its chairman to Apple Computer's CEO started making the rounds. The message implied that after merger talks had broken down, Sony was launching a hostile takeover bid. No such talks and bid. Then there was the Net-spread rumor in August about supposed riots in Kuala Lumpur. False again, but scared citizens still hoarded food.
Plainly, one mouse-clicking troublemaker can destroy reputations, move markets and panic populations. But the key to halting such scams does not lie in demonizing the Internet and trying to legislate away a patchwork of legal loopholes which can never be closed. Prudence and common sense will do. On the Web, surfers too often give e-mailed rumors and unverified assertions the same weight as news from, say, The Washington Post website. They forward spurious data to others before taking a moment to reflect on its worth or check its validity - the equivalent of passing on some scuttlebutt by word of mouth, but this time to thousands across the world.
The solution: never take what you read at face value, and always rely on a trusted source. If you get an anonymous e-mail making an alarming claim, verify it. Even if you get a message claiming to be a report from cnn.com, don't believe it until you have checked that website for the actual text.
The Internet may have come of age, but as its users we are still in our infancy. The Net is running before most of us have learned to crawl. Thus it has always been with new media. The first movie audiences fled the theater at the site of an approaching train. Early radio audiences panicked when Orson Welles dramatized a novel about Martians landing on earth. With time and level heads, similar Net-bred misimpressions will become rare. Then the Internet will truly realize its potential as a court of humankind - seeking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.