But there's still a great deal that the government can and should do to ensure that consumers come out winners in the new bacchanal. A good place to start would be to develop a system through the Department of Commerce that certifies Web sites that comply with privacy rules and consumer-protection statutes. If a web page is completely based in the United States, follows binding U.S. rules, and practices full disclosure, give it the Department of Commerce stamp. If it doesn't, don't. If a program like this were sufficiently publicized, companies like drugstores would fall over themselves to make sure they could qualify, and no one would have to worry about seedy companies vanishing into thin air after picking their customers' pockets. Already, a few organizations, like TRUSTe, offer this service.

Another step would be to develop a consumer protection code that would activate when first-time users start their browsers. The Department of Commerce has developed a page that explains what to be wary of on the Net, how to navigate, and how to make sure that you don't get duped. It's a great page, but it's buried deep. To bring information like this to the mainstream, the government would have to lean on Netscape and Microsoft (perhaps in the same way that tobacco companies were forced to put the Surgeon General's warning on their products) to get them to post an informational notice like this as their browsers' original starting point. Net fraud threatens new users far more than it does experienced ones, and a page explaining the potential dangers of the Net could be an important first line of defense.

But most importantly, the government needs to get the glaze out of its eyes and start thinking through its basic responsibilities. The more something is repeated, the more it becomes an unexamined truth--and this is starting to happen with the Net. Everyone "knows" that the Net shouldn't be regulated, but few people can offer a serious rationale. It's a shibboleth, sleepily repeated over and over with only timid voices trying to shout it down.

The more time that passes before the government starts to build a regulatory and supportive infrastructure, the more damage will have already been done and the harder the task of regulation will be.

The Net does need to become a "clean, well-lighted place." And it should be the government's job to start sweeping the streets and building the lampposts as soon as possible.

Research assistance provided by Yvonne Kalawur.