, February 26, 1998

Cyber Battles
by Ronald K.L. Collins
see the full online review at]
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Gray Areas Magazine, February 11, 1998

Wendy Grossman's entire book is online here with chapters on hackers, scientologists, cryptography, pornography, Internet commerce, AOL, CDA, etc. It's gray in itself that a book publisher would put an entire book online to be read for free, but clearly the book is full of gray topics as well.
see the award gif]
  [see the listing]
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The Village Voice, January 20, 1998

Free for All

Information may wan to be free, but does knowledge want to go gratis? Risking profits for the sake of progress, NYU Press has decided to publish journalist Wendy Grossman's canny new book, net.wars, simultaneously in print and in a free online version ( For NYU, it's a big gamble for publicity. For Grossman, a regular on the Bay Area BBS The WELL, it's a threat to royalties but terrific distribution for the book, which tracks the development of the Net through "battlesites" -the controversies that have raged in the electronic ether.

Not the least of which may be the Web publication of net.wars itself. While no one has been able to prove that people will actually curl up with a good monitor, publishing direct to the Web as an advertising strategy hit a certain vogue last year. A John Grisham excerpt and a Stephen King short story had brief runs online, but most offerings are "crippleware,"says Glenn Jauman, who runs electronic text outlet BiblioBytes - just chapters, parts of chapters, or frustrating bagatelles. Other sites, like the 27-year-old Project Gutenberg ( or Internet Public Library (, offer only Chaucer and Marlowe, not works on the market.

But the online design of net.wars points to an even more dramatic literary evolution. Net.wars, with over 500 hypertext links, is truly more Web site than book, and it unquestionably belongs online. In testament, traffic to the site is up tenfold, says editor Timothy Bartlett, who just left NYU Press. Unlike Esther Dyson, whose Release 2.0 includes a pathetic appendix of URLs, Grossman is careful to keep her history organic and relevant-linking to sites on the anti-Scientology and encryption debates. As Hauman says, rather than"try to explain sex when there's a bed handy," Grossman opens her work out to the Web. "Because the book grew out of Net culture, it still holds that mentality of sharing information," says Hauman.

Academic presses are alone in experimenting with the mix of print and electronic versions, explicitly because they're not an industry of bestsellers. In its vanguard Digital Projects division, MIT has also released six books on the Web, but only done one simultaneous release of both versions, William J. Mitchell's City of Bits in 1995. Like net.wars, the book is truly networked literature, but is unfortunately drunk on hypertext (e.g., a mention of "jokes" links to a random site with lightbulb humor).

Despite the fertile crossbreeding between dead-tree and electronic fiction, it's likely online publication won't survive as a free for all. Previously, the publicity could drive sales, but witht he proliferation of other online book distributors, ‘the e-books are having less of a positive impact on the print edition," says MIT Press editor Terry Ehling. But tinkering with the form is as important as developing a pay-to-peruse system. As Ehling says, "We're in a gray area and it's not clear what we should do next, but we won't stop experimenting."
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Publisher's Weekly, December '97

Both newbies (newcomers to the Internet) and Netizens (old-timers) will find challenges and rewards in this witty, knowledgeable and timely report from the electronic front. Journalist Grossman covers in considerable depth the battles now raging over the First Amendment rights, security, privacy and general standards of conduct in cyberspace. The Net has been a place where people speak their minds, freely and even offensively, and many Net useres would like to keep it that way. As Grateful Dead lyricist and Electronic Frintier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow has declared, "cyberspace should be its own sovereign state." Politicians and various special-interest groups don't see it that way, however, and push to govern what may well be an ungovernable universe. Grossman's tour takes in pornography and the Communications Decency Act; cliques and kooks on the net; gender online; and issues of Internet capacity, overload and access. She highlights thorny issues related to encryption, including the ongoing efforts of the U.S. government to outlaw "strong encryption" software, which it ranks as a munition for export purposes. Such topics as "public-key cryptography" may seem remote and difficult to grasp now, but they're bound to start entering everyday conversation soo, as we all struggle to decide how much of our own business to conduct, secrets to send and lives to live online.
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Booklist, December '97

Grossman, a journalist covering the Internet beat for Wired and New Scientist, vividly describes the virtual realm as a place of interconnecting communities every bit as complicated, exciting, and dangerous as any city. What engages her most are the battles, or net.wars, "along the border between cyberspace and real life," over issues of privacy, censorship, commercialization, policing, and access.

As Grossman relates Net lore and history, she traces its transformation from a textual, academic medium into a graphics-heavy promotional bonanza, a development that has caused the online population to double over the past three years to nearly 60 million users. High populations always lead to intensified conflicts, and, for better or worse, the Net does mirror society, a fact that emerges with startling clarity as Grossman discusses online pornography, the battle between the Church of Scientology and Net users, blocking software, and so on.

Happily enough, none of the controversies or challenges diminish Grossman's enthusiasm for the Net, and her optimism is contagious.
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Library Journal, December '97

Fans of Grossman, whose Wired magazine article,, won her an award in 1996 from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, will appreciate her latest endeavor. Grossman sets out to answer questions about the future of the Internet and how it will be regulated. She does a fine job of explaining the issues and the background behind online controversies ranging from the Church of Scientology raids on net users to the derailment of the Communications Decency Act. She also addresses such issues as net scams, class divisions on the net (especially regarding America Online users), privacy issues, women online, pornography, hackers, and computer crime. Her approach is one of informed skepticism, which is not surprising from someone who founded Britain's The Skeptic magazine in 1987. Grossman predicts that the world's governments will confront further issues as if dealing with an alien invasion, making the net wars of the 1990s look like a mere fracas.
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The Kirkus Review, November '97

Grossman, a freelance journalist, covers some old ground (the Communications Decency Act of 1996, for instance) but for the most part she concerns herself with newer issues unique to cyberspace. One area of controversy is cryptography, the process by which digital messages are scrambled to keep them private. The government finds the idea of complete privacy uncomfortable: What if someone is passing seditious messages or child pornography in encrypted email?

One of the most volatile areas is copyright protection in an age of electronic production: Grossman covers here the "copyright terrorism" practiced by the Church of Scientology, which relentlessly litigated and, it has been alleged, physically threatened and harassed former members who tried to make copyrighted church texts public on the Internet. Although courts have supported the Scientologists' right to protect their materials, the peripheral results, most notably the closing down of several remailers (who offered anonymity to those who wanted to send messages without identifying themselves), was, many felt, too great a price to pay.

Grossman also devotes space to the battle of the sexes on the Internet, paying particular attention to issues of sexual harassment via computer and the endless war against pornography of all kinds; the proliferation of pornography on the Internet seems, Grossman observes, to prove that "sex perceived regulation as a dam and diverts into new media." Unfortunately, the solutions that Grossman suggests, while more politically moderate than those suggested by others, seem to subvert the true purpose of the Internet. She suggests smaller, more manageable virtual communities, whereas the Internet, in theory, is supposed to link all corners of the world.

At least Grossman is offering solutions, however, which is what distinguishes net.wars from most contribution on this seemingly inexhaustible topic.
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  [go to Wendy Grossman's personal web site]
  [go to Wendy Grossman's articles on the Internet]

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