Anyone Can Be President Online

On Feb. 14, Bill Clinton became the first President to participate in a live public Internet chat. Of course, he was helped in reaching that goal by the fact that prior to 1992, the Internet didn't exist as a mass medium. But that's no reason to deny Clinton the glory of being the "first." Organized by CNN and moderated by correspondent Wolf Blitzer, the chat was intended to be an opportunity for citizens to interact with the President more directly than was possible before the Internet. Unfortunately, not even Clinton was immune to the biggest problem of Internet chats--that people are not always what they seem.

The chat started quite uneventfully; as is to be expected, the questions were moderated and were mostly softballs. The problem, however, came when the heavy load of users trying to ask questions crashed the Internet relay chat server and forced CNN to restart it.

Surprisingly, the server had not been set up to reserve any usernames, such as President_Clinton or Wolf_Blitzer, to specific computers. Anyone could take those names, without even a password, as long as no one else had them first. Since Clinton and Blitzer had been logged in from the beginning, this did not seem to be a problem--until one clever user wondered what would happen if the server crashed.

Christopher Petro, who works at an Internet startup in Manhattan and had been participating in the chat under the username of "wankel," decided to put this possibility to the test. As soon as the server had restarted after a crash, he tried switching his username to "President_Clinton." Since Clinton (or, rather, the person typing for the President) hadn't logged on yet, it worked, and for a few fleeting instants Petro had the bully pulpit all to himself.

President_Clinton then told the chat room, "Personally, I'd like to see more porn on the Internet." When Blitzer reconnected a few seconds later, President_Clinton asked him, "Wolf, how about you? Are you all for more porn on the Internet?"

After thirty seconds, during which Petro says he "found himself in respiratory distress due to excessive laughter," someone at CNN decided that this was probably not the President talking and banned President_Clinton from the chat. However, Petro reconnected faster than the real President Clinton could and told the chat room, "okay, that was just too much. my apologies" before he was banned permanently. One wonders how long Petro could have lasted if he had decided to discuss a more realistic topic, such as China policy or the 2000 elections. Perhaps he would have finished the rest of the chat, and sent the news media home with some new revelations ("'George W. Bush a Weenie,' Clinton Says in Internet Chat").

Coming as it did after a week of distributed denial-of-service attacks against major commercial websites, the prank was reported as yet another example of the dangers of the electronic age. The original story on Foxnews.com described the attack as "the latest in a recent wave of cyber-vandalism that has already targeted cnn.com," and the New York Daily News said Clinton's chat had been "victimized by a cyberattack."

CNN scrambled to announce that its computer systems had not been "hacked" and that no one had taken control of them; the problem was simply that CNN failed to set up the chat correctly. The episode seems to be a reminder that computer systems are just as vulnerable to silly human error as to malicious "hackers." Just paying adequate attention could have saved the network a good deal of embarrassment.

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