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CNET Canada News Briefs
Monday, October 6, 1997

Attack of the killer Web sites!

The Net seems to be media's bogeyman of the month. Lucky us.

by Mitchell Brown, mitchell@yahoo.ca

If you're anything like me - and for the sake of your future children, let's hope not - you're probably wondering what Sommy is up to these days.

You remember Sommy, of course. Earlier this year, Debbie Tamai of Windsor, Ont., went international with the story of how a high-tech stalker was making her family's life a living hell. Televisions changing channels by themselves. Lights flickering on and off. Phone calls interrupted by heavy burps and babble. It was all part of a stalking campaign orchestrated by a supposed computer genuis who called himself "Sommy" and delighted in pulling pranks on the Tamai family from his secret lair.

Experts were called in to figure out how Sommy gained control of the family's appliances. Dateline NBC and the Discovery Channel scoured the house with high-tech sensors. Commentators schooled in the art of beard-stroking and hand-wringing leapt on the whole affair, decrying our modern, wired society as the tool by which cyber-terrorists have intruded into our lives.

And then, the punchline: Ms. Tamai's 15-year-old son came forward and confessed. Flickering lights? Fuse box. Interrupted phone calls? The phone in the other room. He said he wanted to come forward before, but he just got scared after his prank got a little out of hand. Let's face it, it's not every day you get to make your parents, Bell Canada, Ontario Hydro, and Jane Pauley look like total fools on national TV.

This modern-day parable is useful to us not so much for the childish antics of a young boy screaming for attention as for the media's immediate reaction to it. Without question, they accepted the "expert's" word that Sommy was a computer genuis who outwitted everyone, an amoral Netizen who found a way to use his computer to terrorize.

And why not? It made for great headlines. And these days it seems as if every headline heralding the Internet's arrival comes with an evil twin on the next page. Child neglect? Kidnapping? Stalking? Scam artists? Suicide pacts? Addiction? Bombings? Been there, done that. Add the Internet, though, and a story about run-of-the-mill crimes and tragedies somehow becomes more modern, more seductive, more - dare we say it - sexy.

Consider:

Take out the Internet angles in all of these stories, and I defy you to find an editor anywhere who would give any of them more than a paragraph under the lottery numbers report. And yet they all merited headline status in some of the largest newspapers in the country.

The Internet is new and, therefore, still untrusted by much of the populace. What better way to spice up a story, then, than to add a little feigned shock. (You can almost hear the editorial voice behind each of those stories saying, "And to think, this is the same technology that our very own children are using right now!")

And then, of course, there was Heaven's Gate. Back in March, a small commune brought together by a charistmatic leader all dressed the same, acted the same, had themselves ritually emasculated for their leader, ran a Web site design firm, and committed suicide to rejoin the mother ship they thought was behind the Hale-Bopp comet.

Take out the suicide part, and that last paragraph could sum up pretty much any management trainee seminar. Take out the Web site part and it's a tragic story about a few misguided souls. But leave them both in together, and watch the connotations fly. Desperate for new angles after the story broke ("People still dead" just doesn't sell papers), the networks and the papers followed this logic: the cultists were Web designers (yes), they had their own Web site (yes), and they solicited members online (probably). Conclusion: that same machine you proudly gave your child for Christmas may be the instrument of his death!!!

One can be forgiven for wondering that, had these misguided souls ran, say, a clown college on the side, what the media would have done with that. Mothers would hide their children's faces whenever Bozo walked by. Time magazine would run an article "Crying on the inside? How clowns may be enticing your kids to ritual suidice by promising happiness." You get the idea. And the fact that this sounds ludicrous does not occur to the people who are constantly alarmed by the stories of crime, sex, smut, and deviance that are all connected to the Net.

About a hundred years ago, when telephones were still fairly new, thousands of otherwise rational people bought disinfecting mouthpieces to protect their loved ones from the germs they were told could travel over phone lines. We got over that, and we'll get over this. The Net is sexy because it's new. In time, when it becomes a part of everyday life (it will, too, and I'm not just saying that because I'm part of any conspiracy... or maybe I am), we'll forget these sensational headlines and get on with life.

After all, if I can steal a useful line from an otherwise useless organization, the Net doesn't kill, rob, kidnap, or rip off people. People do. And that's as useful as any advice I can give to the next person who gets hysterical all over me about the Internet's dark side corrupting our children.

That, and the next time something freaky happens, ask the 15-year-old what's going on. Chances are, he'll know.

Mitchell Brown is the online editor for Yahoo! Canada, where he gets to spend a lot of office time surfing the Web. He also delights in occasionally being part of the fear-mongering masses.


Copyright © 1997 by CNET, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.