In reality, though, commercialization is a foregone conclusion and advertising is likely to play a key role in ensuring the global computer network's future.
By some estimates, half the traffic on the Internet is there for commercial purposes.
Of course, marketers hoping to strike gold in cyberspace still face significant hurdles, but no more so than, say, those entering Vietnam: You need to understand the culture before making the pitch.
"This is sort of the pinky rings meet the tweed jackets," said Mark Walsh, president of Information Kinetics, a Chicago-based interactive information company, referring to the convergence of marketers and highbrow Internet users.
"Interactive shopping is one of those words, like child porn, that people have a knee-jerk, negative reaction to," he said. "In fact, commerce and the Internet will work well together, and at some point, there need to be revenues to support the Internet from other than the current model."
The Internet, created by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1969, has long served as a global network of computers and databases used primarily for government, research and academic functions. User estimates range from 10 million to 30 million people.
With no central governing body, users operate under an unofficial code of conduct known as "netiquette," which has a primary enforcement mechanism of "flame mail"-angry e-mail to violators.
There can sometimes be a backdraft. Direct marketer Suarez Corp. Industries filed a defamation suit last month in Ohio's Cuyahoga County Court against electronic newsletter publisher Brock Meeks after being flamed by Mr. Meeks' Cyberwire Dispatch.
Earlier this month, Phoenix lawyers Laurence Canter and Marsha Siegel also got flamed. The husband and wife team sent an unsolicited message about immigration services to more than 5,000 news groups accessible to millions of users.
The results: Some 30,000 responses within days, many of them "flames" that crashed the computers at Internet Direct-the law firm's Internet access provider-15 times. Internet Direct has banished Canter & Siegel, but the lawyers insisted they're pleased with the results and will try Internet ads again soon.
"Other people are going to post [ads] on this type of a basis, and people will get accustomed to it," Mr. Canter said. "I do think the commercialization of the Internet is inevitable."
Internet observers agree but point out Canter & Siegel's most glaring error: sending out an unsolicited, unmarked message, the Internet equivalent of junk mail.
"There are places on the Internet where it's appropriate and timely and even fashionable to advertise," said Jeff Wheelhouse, system administrator for Internet Direct.
"Canter & Siegel overstepped the bounds of what's acceptable. The Internet will probably never allow people to come in without observing traditions."
The key, observers say, is to provide information-driven advertising messages that users can access or ignore. Such ads would avoid the intrusive e-mail approach.
"Offering people information at the bottom of a message that they find useful has always been permissible, but the netiquette is don't do bold, in-your-face advertising," said Lisa Thorell, principal analyst at Dataquest, a San Jose, Calif.-based market research company.
Ms. Thorell believes advertising "will be a key component in keeping the Internet alive ... [since] the government's made it quite clear they're not going to subsidize it anymore."
Among those said to be taking the right approach to placing ads on the Internet: Electronic Newsstand, a service that hawks subscriptions to more than 80 magazines and has already cut ad deals with Lufthansa German Airlines and Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln-Mercury Division; and O'Reilly & Associates, Sebastopol, Calif., a publisher of online information that counts Digital Equipment Corp. among its advertisers.
Internet users "are offended by hype. They're not offended by information," said Wally Vincenty, president of Cybernet, a Westport, Conn., consultancy.