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DON’T LET KIDS NAVIGATE THE NET ALONE

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I am a computer science teacher. We're trying to get an Internet connection in our school but some administrators do not want it because it is unregulated and they fear pornography on the Net. I believe the benefits of the Internet are greater than the problems. What is your opinion? - Ennio Fano Reyes, Guadalajara, Mexico, ennio itesocci.gdl.iteso.mx. (Questions about the need for regulation and self-regulation of the Internet were asked by many others, including Cesar Hernando, Madrid, Spain, mtl94049 oasis.dit.upm.es, as well as Claude Cunningham, South Africa, zax!mdfh!cunningc explzax.attmail.com.)

Answer - The benefits are vastly larger than the problems, but that doesn't mean the problems should be dismissed.

It is true that today an unsupervised child using the Internet can encounter almost anything imaginable - from fascinating information and opinions to lies, rants and pornography. Consequently, each parent and school needs to weigh the degree of access to offer and how much supervision to provide.

Fortunately the situation will get better over time as the quantity of high-quality information and entertainment grows and as mechanisms evolve that help segregate certain kinds of content from people who shouldn't or don't want to encounter it.

The world has never had a global publishing vehicle before. It is not always clear who should be held accountable when something is published improperly - whether because it is copyrighted, proprietary, defamatory or pornographic.

Old rules and distinctions don't apply. It's not like the telephone, where you talk just to one person and can say pretty much whatever you want. But it's not like a newspaper either, where there is professionalism and clear responsibility for what is said.

The Microsoft Network, which is one part of the Internet, is going to declare whom it considers the "publisher" of information to be, in any context. We'll have parts of MSN that Microsoft publishes, parts that other content providers publish, and parts where a single individual (whether or not identifiable) is the publisher.

For example, our online guide to movies, called Cinemania, is information we publish. But when you're in a "chat room," where thousands of comments from thousands of people intermingle, each utterance must stand by itself and the individual who makes the utterance is the publisher.

Determining who publishes particular information can be a tricky problem. Not only do different countries have different views about what's appropriate, but they also have different views about the relationships between the originator of a message and those who may have had some role as an intermediary or conduit of the message to others.

Eventually I expect that anyone publishing information on a network will be expected to categorize it on in an agreed-upon way, toindicate its nature. The software used to access the Internet or commercial electronic communities will filter information based on how it is categorized. Software for use by children will reject adult-oriented content, for example.

In order for self-categorization to be effective, the sources of information on a network must be authenticated so that people and companies can be held accountable for the information they distribute electronically.

Today there is no such protection. I know this well because people pretend to be me all the time. Impostors sometimes do incredibly nasty things, such as sending electronic mail in my name that promises people jobs or money or that criticizes the Apple Macintosh. This mischief is wrong and damaging, but there is no way to trace it back to who did it.

I'm not suggesting we do away with all forms of anonymity. I can imagine electronic communities where anything goes and no one can trace the real origin of information - or verify its authenticity.

You would enter such a community - by deciding to read or watch the information posted there - at your own risk, and if people said offensive or untrue things to you, your only recourse would be to set the record straight in the same forum.

Consenting adults should be entitled to participate in this kind of community. But kids certainly should not.

This takes us back to your original question. Should kids have access to the Internet?

If I had kids I wouldn't let them roam today's Internet completely unsupervised. But I wouldn't deny them access, either. The Internet is too important to ignore or avoid.

Question - What you feel is the greatest contribution computers have made to our society? (Tonia Gentile, New York)

Answer - Being a tool for individuals to be creative, starting at a very young age.

Question - Do you think document-centered component software solutions like OpenDoc and OLE will replace monolithic applications? (Scott Anderson, San Francisco)

Answer - The short answer is no. You can buy automobile parts and put them together to build your own car but very few people do. The same will remain true of software.

The issue is whether large, full-featured software applications such as word processors will be replaced by collections of interlocking components that users pick and choose to suit their particular needs.

Will people give up a product such as Microsoft Word - which has hundreds of features - and instead rely entirely on an ad hoc collection of word-processing features hooked together with a technology such as OLE (an acronym for Microsoft's Object Linking and Embedding technology)?

The reason I say no is that a person who wants to create a document wants to use something that is tested and documented, and crafted as a total solution. Full-featured applications tend to be very inexpensive relative to what they do, and answers to questions are available from a single source. It's hard for a collection of features to match this integrated capability.

That is not to say that component tools aren't important. A lot of people choose to add or replace features in their mainstream applications, customizing them in meaningful ways. To use a simple example, users of Microsoft Word can buy add-in products that let them easily check spellings or find synonyms in any of more than a dozen different languages.

But I don't think the availability of components means people will stop buying word processors or even integrated packages of office applications.

Question - Do you think that UFOs are actually alien spacecraft, or are witnesses merely misperceiving natural, but unfamiliar events? (Adam Liversage, Britain)

Answer - I think witnesses are misperceiving natural but unfamiliar events.

Note: In two weeks my column will describe some of the effects of the microcomputer revolution. I invite readers to share, via e-mail, personal examples of the impact PCs have had on their lives.

Questions may be sent to Bill Gates' by electronic mail. The address is askbill@microsoft.com. Or write to him care of The New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Bill Gates regrets that unpublished questions cannot be answered individually.