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War a turning point for Web's reach, role
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq - called the "first war of the Internet age" - is showing how much the communications medium has adapted in its relatively recent life.
Major news sites on the Web have handled from 30 percent to 100 percent more traffic this week, compared with last week, with scant disruption, partly because they bulked up their computer servers in recent years. They also learned tricks for peak times, such as removing graphics and pictures, which take added minutes for computers to digest.
The Internet's global reach has vastly eased communications, from soldiers writing home to war protesters organizing demonstrations. And the increased popularity of personal Web logs - nicknamed "blogs" - has led battlefield corespondents and others to produce running diaries of the war in real time for all the world to see.
"I think this is a watershed event in terms of depth of information," said Steven Jones, an Internet researcher and communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Whether the Internet makes a difference in the way that television did in Vietnam, I don't think we can answer that at this point, but it's going to make a difference in more personal ways."
While technology historians say the Internet would be hard-pressed to match the feat of television in the 1960s, credited with shifting public sentiment and ultimately ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the informal, untamed aspect of cyberspace is delivering this conflict to the public in ways much different from the past, including the spoon-fed broadcasts of the first Persian Gulf war in 1991.
Top news Web sites such as CNN.com and MSNBC.com each had roughly 1 million more users a day since the war began than a week earlier, said Keynote Systems, a Silicon Valley company that measures Internet performance.
Keynote said that in spite of the increased traffic, it hadn't detected the system disruptions it noted during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, or even during the train tunnel fire in Baltimore two months earlier that temporarily cut a major fiber-optic line on the network. Among the Web properties that have struggled to process increased demand were those belonging to the Army and Marine Corps, a protest site called antiwar.com and Al-Jazeera.net, belonging to the satellite television station in Qatar, Keynote said.
Because the U.S. invasion had been long anticipated and has escalated gradually since it began late Wednesday, it hasn't caused a singular jam as occurred on Sept. 11, 1998, when millions of users simultaneously attempted to download the 445-page report by Special Prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr about Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton.
Greg Bloom, an Internet analyst with Nielsen/Net Ratings, said one change helping unclog the Internet was that "streaming video" services that were once widely available for free became paid "premium" services after 2001 because of the news demand produced by the terrorist attacks but also because the technology investment bust gave providers less incentive to give away Internet services. RealNetworks, a major provider of streaming video and audio for CNN and ABC News among various sites, could benefit from increased demands of the Iraq war, he speculated.
America Online Inc., the top Internet provider, with 35 million users, has seen spikes in use among groups communicating since the war buildup began, spokesman Marty Gordon said. AOL's busiest message boards these days are dedicated to Navy spouses and for families "dealing with deployment."
AOL has also received 100,000 "letters" of support for American troops in a project it launched late last year with the USO after anthrax fears discouraged the Postal Service from distributing general mail as it had in wars past.
War comments quadrupled on AOL's general message board during the past week, although not far behind were other topics on Americans' minds at the start of spring: the rescued kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart, the Oscar awards, the college basketball championship and TV's American Idol.
David Card, an analyst with Jupiter Research in New York, said the war presents an opportunity for Internet news and service providers to prove their worth to an enlarged audience. Like the television inroads made by CNN after Operation Desert Storm, the trick will be keeping users afterward, he said.
On the downside, Internet news sites are hampered by the same advertising challenges that other media confront: Advertisers aren't eager to spend money if consumers are too anxious and distracted to buy their products.
Said Harrison "Lee" Rainie, executive director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington, "The way that people around the world are talking with listservs and blogs, the way that anti-war groups and war supporters are using the Internet to mobilize, the embedded correspondents with digital cameras and tape recorders who are filing in 'takes' like the old wire services ... this could be something that we'll all look back on as very important."