Internet citizenship

Three million years out in Deep Space, a dilapidated mining ship drifts pointlessly round in a huge, aimless circle.

On board, its four crew members sit in a horseshoe, trapped in the ultimate computer game: a game that plugs directly into the brain, and enables them to experience a world created by their own fantasies.

The game is called Better Than Life, and a very few ever escape its thrall: very few can give up their own, personally sculpted paradise.

Grant Naylor, Better Than Life (Red Dwarf)

What the Internet isn't.

It isn't worldwide

'Internet' does not stand for 'international network' or anything like that. The name comes from 'inter-' meaning 'between' and '-net' for 'networks'.

Most of the countries in the world are connected now, I think. However, some countries only have a single link (to their major university, for example) just for the prestige.

Think about this - you need to be able to read and write and have access to a stable electronic communications infrastructure (electricity and telephones). Most of the world's population don't have access to these basics yet. The Internet won't be worldwide until they do.

It isn't a democratic right

The Americans are very big on the idea that everybody has a basic right to free speech, including free speech on the Internet. Yeah, right...

Currently, Australia is introducing a system of filtered Internet access. From the first of January, 2000, sites that the Australian Broadcasting Authority deems offensive will be blocked from access to Australia.

Singapore, one of the most 'law-full' countries in the world, is developing one of the world's most sophisticated networks. Free speech, and a lot of other democratic rights, are not available to Singaporeans. Being on the Internet won't change that.

Even in democracies, you have to be connected, be literate and be empowered to use it. At the moment, the Internet is an elite community. Maybe that will change - I hope so.

It isn't free

It isn't even cheap. It may only cost you a local phone call to connect.

However, whether you connect to RMIT or to an Internet Service Provider (ISP), they have paid a considerable sum to set up equipment to connect to their service provider (the Victorian Regional Network, a community of universities). The universities are paying considerable sums to Optus to carry their Internet traffic into and out of the country. Telecom and Optus are expending huge amounts to upgrade the national telecommunications network. And their efforts are being duplicated around the world.

That doesn't count the cost of the computer and, if you are connecting from home, the modem and your telephone bill.

On top of that, you are 'paying' in terms of the time that you spend getting up to speed. You're not alone. The Internet is so new that the whole (connected) world is going through the same process.

And it isn't difficult!

But it is different. That distinction is important because it affects how you will cope. The Internet is probably very different from anything that you have ever used before. But so was a car when you learnt to drive. It's not difficult, once you come to terms with the strangeness of it all.