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Information providers are beginning to put locks on their World Wide Web sites, which has some purists up in arms.

The Internet, they say, is all about the free flow of information. Take that away and you take away its value and beauty.

To which my answer is, "Be real."

The Internet is already a commercial marketplace and, despite moans and groans from some corners, that's not necessarily a bad thing. For providers of editorial and marketing content, the Internet is a global pipeline through which to distribute information to vast audiences. That's where its beauty and value lie.

Although marketers and media companies have been crowding onto the Web for learning purposes, there has until now been little or no incentive for them to use this platform to distribute truly valuable information. That's because they get nothing in return: no money and no information on who's hitting their site and why.

There's no compelling reason, for example, for a $500-a-year ink-on-paper newsletter to publish that newsletter electronically on the Web and give it away free to anyone with a computer and modem.

That's not to say every part of every site should be behind closed doors. But while it is important for Web publishers to give away some information, the move to register users is the right way to go for several reasons.

For the purposes of this argument, let's focus on media sites like HotWired and Pathfinder, since media companies are still determining what their role is on the Web and what value they provide to marketers and consumers by being there.

If they're simply giving away their products online, they may get consumer goodwill but they're not doing themselves or their marketing partners any good.

Marketing dollars can and should play their traditional role in subsidizing media costs for users. But there's no reason users can't pick up a portion of the tab to access valuable, targeted information.

Eventually, registering and charging users will enable the Internet to define its value as a medium and to realize a wonderful benefit of interactive marketing: the ability to deliver customized, timely, topical messages to consumers on demand.

As long as content providers protect the privacy of individual consumers-and there's no reason to think they'll do otherwise-users can benefit by revealing information when they subscribe to a site. Targeted marketing messages are a heck of a lot more welcome than intrusive shotgun blasts.

Web publishers can also begin to track new and repeat visits to a site as opposed to "hits," a virtually meaningless measure of site traffic. And if the user is willing to pay for the information, marketers will be more inclined to spend their money supporting the site.

There will still be plenty of public libraries available on the Internet, but there will also be lots of commercial storefronts. Each has a right and a reason to be there.

Scott Donaton is Advertising Age's executive editor/interactive and new media.

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