Originally created 02/26/97

Their preach exceeds their grasp of the Net



At first blush, it hasn't been a particularly good couple of weeks for the Net.

A mail worker in Fort Worth gets busted for allegedly selling porn online. Then a group in New York gets nailed for reportedly creating a rogue program that bilked people of millions of dollars in phone charges.

It's migraine moments like those that boost efforts to keep cyberspace at bay. Armed with such examples, groups exhort the evils of the Net, politicians and activists seize on the problems as justification for new regulations, and countries like Iraq and China block access at the border.

The Internet "is the end of civilizations, cultures, interests and ethics," a government official says in Baghdad's Al Jumhurlya newspaper. The Net "is one of the American means to enter every house in the world."

Once again, someone has confused the message with the medium.

But there is hope. I found great solace in a comment by Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. During a chat session on America Online, someone asked him about the role the Net should play in religion.

"If St. Paul were alive today, he would be on the Net night and day," he said.

Now this is someone who gets what this is all about. For all the vice, mindless content, access problems and other irritants online, this moral leader sees vast potential in cyberspace.

I know it shouldn't come an any surprise, considering that the Vatican has its own Web site.

But Cardinal Mahoney's simple comment goes beyond a commitment to be online; it embraces the diversity of opinion that so many rail against.

Think about the image he paints. Today the Roman Catholic Church can afford to get its message out any way it wants.

But in the time of Jesus, there were no mass media. He and his apostles worked by word of mouth, slowly and arduously urging others to join them.

Whether or not you're Christian, it's impressive to realize how far that message has spread. But think about how much further it, or the message of any other religion, might have gone with the power of the Net.

For decades, Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries have tried to shut out anything coming from the West, in particular the United States. Our culture has been called corrupting and immoral. Those are the same sentiments used by Iraq and China today in blocking Net access.

They don't get it. Unlike movies, television or music, cyberspace is not something that's crammed down the throats of citizens. It's a forum you participate in - a two-way dialogue.

If you don't like, change it. Everyone online has that power. The same Yahoo! search that gives me the Vatican's address also has listings for the Catholic Radical Page, which is one person's voice of dissent on church doctrine. Clearly, Cardinal Mahoney is confident that St. John would be able to state a compelling case online. No doubt others would try to make equally compelling cases against him or in favor of someone else.

But in the end, every user would decide what they believe. They wouldn't even be forced to read the arguments, since the Net cannot pull you into a site.

It is increasingly popular to make the Net a convenient scapegoat for other issues. But if politicians and activists really believe what they say, I'd issue a simple challenge: Forget banning the Net; instead get online and make your case.