Net rules

Last week’s arrest in New Jersey of the man suspected to be the originator of the “Melissa” virus should bring a sigh of relief to anyone who uses the Internet, or even a computer for that matter. Even though some ‘hackers’ will tell you that a virus is no more than a childish prank, the Internet has made them powerful tools of destruction that can wreak havoc in a very short period of time.

I had my first computer virus (the fabled “Stoned” virus) about 10 years ago, and it is not an experience anyone wants to share. After questioning everyone I had shared a floppy disk with, I quickly discovered that the source of the virus was a computer at a community college where I’d been teaching. I bought the appropriate software and disinfected all my disks. Everything was fine, until the Internet came along.

As everyone now knows, “Melissa” spread like wildfire through the Internet, and shut down the email servers at several large companies. Time was wasted, communication was disrupted, business was lost, all because a jerk in New Jersey decided to use the tremendous power of the Net to have some fun at our expense.

The news of the arrest shows that the power of the Net caalso be used against those who abuse it. We may not like it all the time, but the speed with which the suspect was tracked down underlines the fact that the Net is far from the anonymous medium some people think it is. Various companies and agencies cooperated to catch him, demonstrating in the process just how public a medium the Net really is.

The arrest should serve to discourage others from destructive virus pranks. It also reminds us that the Internet really is a public institution that has rules, and that enforcing those rules involves what some might consider an invasion of privacy.