FORUM;COMMERCE, NOT SMUT POLLUTING INTERNET;NEEDED: A NEW COVENANT FOR CYBERSPACE

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The hysteria-tinged debate on the "problem" of "rapidly proliferating smut and pornography" on the Internet (AA, April 13) is apparently being shaped by those who have never been on the Internet.

Have those who worry about such things any idea of the unbounded vastness of the Internet? Anyone who has, knows that one of the biggest challenges for marketers or any other entity is how to bring people to you, how to let them know where you are and how they can find you. Search engines, URLs and key words notwithstanding, it is often time-consuming, frustrating and sometimes even hopeless to locate people in cyberspace.

On the other hand, it is also extremely easy to limit access since passwords are a sine qua non for any online voyager. Although home-based access will no doubt increase once the commercial services become full-fledged Internet providers, most access at present occurs at work, courtesy of the .edu, .com, .org or .gov employer.

Let's get real.

The real threat to the Internet is commerce itself. It is commerce, not pornography, that's the intruder. The Internet is still a unique bastion of cooperation, sharing, information exchange, helpfulness and a testament to the more hopeful aspects of the human spirit. At present, this culture has as yet been relatively unimpeded by the crassness of commerce. It has been receptive to those who tread carefully in this culture, sensitive to its mores and values. The hope is that a new covenant will emerge between merchant and consumer, one that is inspired by the Internet, not one that has simply been dragged over from the more wretched anachronisms of the last decade.

The pornography-child argument is a tired one, reborn every time a new technology allows people to know and learn more. And the retort is also the same tired one. A parent's responsibility doesn't end when a child clicks a mouse. A parent's inability or unwillingness to control his or her children should not be converted into a weapon that threatens the first real ability we have for freedom of communication across the planet.

Even though the Internet was started by the Department of Defense in 1969, policing it today is arguably neither the right nor the obligation of the government. Anyone who has spent any time on the Internet is deeply aware of its international reach and flavor. It may be difficult for some to accept that we finally have a basis for truly global interaction. It is easy to understand that such a development can strike terror among control freaks. It may be even more difficult to accept that such control is likely to be forever elusive.

And finally, now may be an appropriate time to question those issues of privacy and the protection of information that we all hold so dear. Indigenous to our national ethos is the notion that information is power. The natural next step in this logic is that information is also a weapon. And weapons are used to harm or to protect. This is an intensely negative model of information. One can speculate that its roots lie in the McCarthy era, when information as weapon reached a sinister high in the war of man against man (and woman).

Is this model still an appropriate one? Does it really matter that much if we know each other's details or if corporations know consumers' spending patterns? Is another model possible where having more information about each other translates into friendly, useful, helpful? Has the time come for this masculine model of information as power to be modulated and give way to the feminine model of information as succor and support? After all, part of the confusion and excitement generated by the Internet itself is that this is a place of cooperation, communication and collaboration-characteristics that Jung long ago identified as the feminine side of the human psyche. The Internet is not, as yet, a natural breeding ground for the masculine, competitive part of each of our selves.

Let's celebrate the Internet for what it is and direct the need for change toward ourselves and our social and family responsibilities instead of trying to remake the digital virtual world in the image of our "real," familiar and troubled world.

Ms. Kahan is a New York-based market researcher (email address: HKahan@inch.com) who specializes in technology matters.

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