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Defence plan debated in electronic newspaper

The Financial Post

Special report, June 29, 1985

At the time the only term the editors could think of to describe what would soon be known as the Internet was “electronic newspaper.” Only 90 Canadians had e-mail accounts.  But even then people were finding creative ways to express themselves.

Canada’s possible involvement in the “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative is being hotly debated—electronically—by scientists and engineers across the country linked by a computer network.

The debate is taking place in an electronic “newspaper” that is part of a worldwide computer network called Usenet, which links more than 1,000 subscribers.  More than 90 Canadians—in corporations, universities and laboratories—have signed up to the system.

The network, an option for users of the unix operating system, sends personal mail and functions as a public opinion forum.

The network news program, developed by Duke University in North Carolina five years ago, enables participants to post articles to any of approximately 800 different subject areas, called “newsgroups.”  One of these includes the strategic defense initiative opinion exchange.

Usenet is not even a true “network,” says the official newsletter of Usenixk, the association of Unix computer users.

“Unlike all other nets, there is no administration, no central structure, no joining, and no membership to Usenet.

“The net actually represents the human and professional network of personal, technical and business contacts, and pairwise desires for groups or individuals to communicate and share information easily,” the newsletter says.

Text is passed along the network via telephone lines at late-night rates, or through site-to-site high-speed linkups if two institutions communicate regularly . . .

Canadian participants include universities from British Columbia to Newfoundland and almost a dozen corporations.  Government institutions include the Department of National Defense and the National Research Council.

Its unique potential as a cross-country conference table was demonstrated recently when the can.general (the prefix is spoken of as “can-dot”) became the unofficial hotline for debate among scientists and engineers about the merits of Canada’s participation in the U.S.’s Strategic Defense Initiative program.

While the electronic round table has produced little consensus, Graeme Hirst, a professor at the University of Toronto and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, says, -“The network brings a whole new method of debating that is entirely good.”

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