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STARR REPORT GAVE INTERNET ITS BIGGEST TEST -- AND IT PASSED

The Internet has just faced its biggest test ever -- and passed with flying colors.

It was perfectly logical for the House of Representatives to upload the Starr report to the Internet. The Web distributed this important (if embarrassing) document faster and farther than any other medium.

The decision prompted a digital rush hour of historic dimensions. Various Web sites and Internet service providers reported increases over normal usage, with log-ons running about 10 percent above normal -- and sometimes more than that. America Online reported 600,000 users logged on simultaneously, about 25 percent above a normal Friday.

And the system survived.

Barely two years ago, when system crashes were common, there was much breast-beating about "too much data, too little capacity" on the Internet. But this time, the Web endured what was probably its greatest usage spike ever with no major breakdowns.

There are several explanations for a successful day that will surely go down in Internet history.

For one thing, the Starr report is all text -- incendiary text, to be sure -- but it's simply words. And text is the easiest thing to send over the bitstream.

For another, the Internet industry has vastly increased its "band width, its carrying capacity, since the notorious system crashes of the mid-'90s. When the crunch came, the network capacity was adequate to meet it.

The most important factor, though, was that the document was in the public domain. There were no restrictions or regulations governing which Web sites could offer it to readers. There were no federal censors looking over the shoulders of Web site proprietors to make sure that rules were followed.

Instead, the Internet community followed its own procedures. Not just one or two, but hundreds of different Web sites quickly made the report available. That meant potential readers were clicking on hundreds of different addresses to get the same material. If only two or three sites had had copies of the document, or if some kind of official approval had been required in advance, serious bottlenecks would have developed.

Most Web sites immediately put the entire Starr report, plus the rebuttals, in place with no editing. Several sites added warnings about the filthy material to be found in this government document.

The Microsoft Webzine "Slate" (www.slate.com) tried an interesting experiment: It ran the 453-page report through the "auto-summary" function of Microsoft Word to generate a computer-edited short version. The result was almost unreadable; not a very good advertisement for Word, but it was worth a try.

Other Web sites used search software to count up how many times the Whitewater special prosecutor mentioned "Whitewater" in his report (two times), and how many times he mentioned "sex" (more than 500).

The key point is that the system worked. The Internet industry, with no regulation or governmental restrictions, got the job done.

We emphasize the point because there are still a lot of voices in Congress arguing that the Internet is "too free" -- that the global network needs a good, strong dose of government regulation and oversight. Two years ago, in fact, Congress established an unwieldy and intrusive regulatory regime in its notorious "Communications Decency Act."

This was the bill that had members of Congress wailing furiously about the threat to America's children from what one member called "a vast ocean of pornography" on the Internet. It prohibited the distribution of "indecent" or "offensive" material on the network.

The Supreme Court quickly threw out the law on grounds that it violated freedom of speech. But many members of Congress, still professing to be worried about that "ocean" of online porn, have proposed new versions of Internet regulation.

Thus is was interesting that almost no member expressed concern about children's welfare when the House voted on Sept. 11 to upload the Starr report. The same Congress that was once so up-in-arms about "porn" on the Internet blithely added its own flood of filthy material. The rule seems to be that overtly sexual material on the Internet is a terrible thing -- except when it might be politically useful.

T.R. Reid can be reached at trreid@twp.com

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