How the internet came through in a crisis

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center the web’s unsophisticated but powerful role as the world’s biggest noticeboard, constantly updatable, came into its own.

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The internet showed its true colours last week; some good, some bad, some ugly. As I watched the terrible events in New York live on television, I also tried to get into various news websites for more information. Anyone else relying on the internet for complete coverage would probably have been frustrated.
Part of the problems were technical – I logged on to CNN, and found the front page cleared except for the one story. At first I thought this was editorial judgement; it may have been, but it was also technical necessity. I later learned that the only way some sites could keep operating was by stripping them down to a bare minimum. Several became inaccessible for an hour or two at the height of the crisis. The internet, we must remember, is a relatively crude network. It is susceptible to overload, so will never be as reliable as television or radio.
But if the internet is crude, it also robust – designed specifically to survive a nuclear war. I was not surprised to learn that people were able to communicate by e-mail from New York when they could not get through by phone. They were also able to use internet chat rooms, more usually associated with frivolity, which proved more resilient than the web.
So, good and bad. Now the ugly. There have been plenty of stories about the way hackers have ‘vowed revenge’ using the internet: a strange new type of war, certainly. I have read of hackers who have got together to attack Palestinian and Afghani sites, and the FBI has issued an “advisory” warning of increased hacking activity. A site with the address had a page reproducing the FBI site’s “Most Wanted” page for Osama Bin Laden. But I am not sure the Taleban ever controlled this site. It’s not available now, anyway.
Then there were the online vultures, again a new breed. E-mails were sent asking for phoney donations. All sorts of scams quickly emerged to take advantage of the shock.

Information bulletins

Back to the good, indeed the very good. The web’s unsophisticated but powerful role as the world’s biggest noticeboard, constantly updatable, came into its own. It was used to post information about who was safe, and who was not. No other medium could have carried out this job as effectively.
Some of the sites were simple information centres. Prodigy, a web portal, set up an “I’m okay” message centre. Survivors simply filled in their names, home cities and where they are now. This Tuesday it had 6,200 people listed. Other sites were more specific. The official New York City site has an interactive “patient locator”, which lets people search for someone in the city’s hospitals. On another page organisations could fill in details of heavy lifting equipment they had available.
Many companies that had people in the buildings had information aimed at reassuring, or at least informing visitors. Tradeweb had a front page message: “I’m grateful that all employees are accounted for safe and well”.
Morgan Stanley, which had 3,500 people working in the World Trade Center, quickly posted a message on its home page from the president. This has been updated, but does not give much specific information. Another giant, the insurance broker Marsh McLennan, has a message telling us that 315 employees are missing or dead, and also a link to a forum and chat area where family, friends and employees can talk.

Emergency relief

Cantor Fitzgerald, the broker that must, in proportion to its size, have been ravaged as badly as any company, has turned over its entire web presence to an emergency relief site for itself and two other companies, eSpeed and Tradespark. This is a professionally built site where the usual corporate links have been replaced with “Safe employees”, “Memorial Services”, “For friends and families”, etc. An e-mail form allows relatives or friends to fill in the details of people working in the WTC, along with the last time they were spoken to. I know this site is heavily used, because it is often difficult to get into.
Then there is Risk Waters, a London-based financial publishing house that was holding a conference at the top of the North Tower. A pop-up box appears when you arrive at the site, giving regular updates. Basic but practical information has been regularly updated. The lack of emotion, the concentration on the raw facts, makes this an especially sad site.
The internet is creating a strange new world where crooks and cranks can flourish in ways the rest of us can hardly imagine. The web is not a great broadcasting medium – radio and television beat it hands down – but thanks to its interactivity, its updatability, its accessibility and its ability to store lots of data, it is quite the best message board ever invented.

First published 21 September, 2001
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