The Internet is many different things to many different people. For some users its primarily a jukebox, VCR, and video game console. For others its a teacher, tutor and library. For still others its the daily newspaper, a radio, the evening news and stock market tickertape.
It also functions as a telephone, a videophone, a post office, a newsletter, a fan club, a debating society, a boardroom, a shopping mall, a bank, an auction house, a sales floor, a travel agency, a business directory and much, much more.
In less than a decade, the Internet has become a ubiquitous appliance for the free world, and is frequently held up as the embodiment of freedom itself and what could be freer than the World Wide Web, the apogee of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly?
The Internet has also remained relatively free of laws and regulations, and as a result a lot of the information flying around out there is free when by all rules of commerce and copyright it shouldnt be.
Thats not necessarily a good thing.
Because of the difficulty in tracking individuals, the anonymity the technology allows, and the fact that laws are applied differently around the world, the Internet has become a haven for criminal activity.
Subscribers to child pornography rings are frequently picked up by the authorities in international crackdowns, including a recent sting that included Who guitarist Pete Townshend and more than 1,300 others. Still, authorities believe that these computer users are just the tip of the iceberg.
Thieves are using Internet auction sites and message boards to fence stolen goods, which are virtually untraceable. Con artists are using the Web to scam people out of their money and personal information, and hackers are using the Internet to steal credit card numbers and software, and to disrupt the flow of information.
Recently the Human Society of Canada discovered that the Internet is also being used to facilitate the trafficking of banned animal parts, including bear gall bladders. One Web site led to the seizure of 386 bear galls in Ontario.
"This kind of cruelty puts a price on the head of every living bear," commented HSC director Michael OSullivan. "The Internet is the new frontier with a dominant culture that vigorously encourages freedom of expression and speech at all costs. Even if someone is promoting cruelty to animals, and even if the company hosting the Web site agrees that they dont like it, they will protect the persons right to express themselves."
Students, professionals even British intelligence have used the Web to plagiarize information for assignments.