By Linton Weeks and Leslie Walker
In the brief history of news on the Net, yesterday broke all records.
On the day that the independent counsel's summary was released to the public and posted online, Cable News Network Interactive and MSNBC, the most heavily trafficked news sites on the Web, reported they were headed toward their busiest days ever. An MSNBC spokeswoman said traffic was almost twice its previous high 1.1 million unique users set when Clinton gave his grand jury testimony Aug. 17. Erin O'Shea of Washingtonpost.com said the site had probably tripled its previous record of page views. "It's unprecedented," she said. "We were almost maxing out."
In offices, homes, schools and public libraries across the country, people with access to the Internet were scrolling through the report, which was posted complete with a detailed table of contents and corresponding links to passages.
Overall, the glitches were minor and the Web did not unravel.
The fact that the full 453-page document was posted on a multitude of commercial sites as well as the quartet of spots designated by the House of Representatives alleviated the snarly situation. There were delays at some Web sites; snags in others.
Anxiety mounted even before the report was uploaded. Washingtonpost.com, for instance, was overwhelmed by traffic around 2 p.m. and was unavailable for several minutes. The computers that serve the Web sites of the House of Representatives, the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress were publicly accessible only intermittently yesterday.
The official sites were well behind some news organizations in making the report available to the public. Several news sites, including the Associated Press and CNN, posted the report sometime before 3:30 p.m. Technicians at the Library of Congress didn't even receive a disk containing the report until 3:45. By 4:30, the report was on the library's site.
The House published the Starr report on its private "intranet" first, making sure that members of Congress had access before the public did. Congressional staff members then quickly downloaded the report and gave copies to reporters. Sources said that's why several news organizations posted the report on the Web before it was available on the government's public sites.
Traffic immediately soared on the House servers, which logged 3 million hits an hour, up from the average of 66,000 hits per hour, said Jason Poblete, spokesman for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.
"This is historic," Poblete said. "It worked the way it was supposed to work."
At the GPO, T.C. Evans, assistant director of electronic information distribution, said, "The good news is, our site is doing above average." The bad news, he added, is "we're very, very slow." Evans said GPO placed the report on two different Web servers in an effort to handle the huge public demand. At 4 p.m., he said, it appeared that people were able to contact GPO's Web computers but had trouble getting pages returned to them fast enough, causing error messages to appear on their screens.
A California firm that measures Web traffic said only one of 10 folks who tried to reach the House Web site at about 4 p.m. yesterday were able to connect. Keynote Systems of San Mateo reported that CNN and MSNBC's sites also were taxed, with two of three people getting through to CNN and about half getting through at MSNBC. The average failure rate the day before was only 2 percent at all those sites, according to Keynote.
Tony Rimovsky, a computer expert for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Illinois, said he doubted the heavy traffic at the Starr report sites would affect the Internet in general.
"The Internet is completely decentralized," Rimovsky said. "As a result, there is no single point of failure or single point of congestion."
At 4:45 yesterday, Kurt Gray of Internet Traffic Report in Acton, Mass., said that he hadn't bothered to monitor online activity recently. He was too busy reading Ken Starr's report on the BBC Web site.
He wasn't the only one.
On America Online, which provided the report and a plethora of related materials, an enormous throng more than 600 people gathered in a supper-time chat room to share opinions.
"Everyone makes mistakes," opined someone with the screen name FudgeNCo.
"I don't think having an affair is a MISTAKE! you kinda hafta do THAT on purpose," replied another user called Staceieio.
"Clinton does a good job and he should be allowed to continue," FudgeNCo wrote.
The American Library Association, anticipating reaction from parents whose children access the report on library computers, issued a statement saying the decision was up to parents.
Some software companies that produce Internet filters reported receiving numerous requests from parents to block access to the Starr report for their children.
In Loudoun County, where the library board has adopted a policy banning library patrons from viewing "child pornography and obscene material," library director Doug Henderson said patrons should have unrestricted access to the full text of this report.
"I think this is a news report of national interest and Congress would be violating the law if they were releasing a report that was obscene," Henderson said. "Any place that uses filters that allows the report to be blocked would not be doing the public a favor."
Prince William County's library board also had a long debate about what kind of Internet access should be made available to library patrons, ultimately voting for unrestricted access in the adult section of the library.
"I am certain that the report will not be written in a style that will arouse sexual feelings," said Dennis Daugherty, a board member who is also active in the local Christian Coalition. "This report will not fail an obscenity test," he said. "It is a valuable use of the Internet. I think the public should have access to it and I hope that people will learn the facts and give their input to their elected representatives."
There are many ironies to the House decision to publish the explicit report online, say those who have monitored the efforts by federal lawmakers to restrict online access to indecent materials. In 1996 Congress passed a bill later struck down by the Supreme Court aimed at punishing those who would make "indecent" and "patently offensive" materials available to minors via computer.
While signing autographs on Capitol Hill yesterday, Internet gossipmonger Matt Drudge whose site was so overwhelmed on Thursday it crashed paused for a moment. The public's knowledge of Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky "began on the Internet," he philosophized. With the posting of the Starr report, he added, "I guess [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich made the decision to end it on the Internet. It's come full circle."
Staff writers John Schwartz, Dana Hull, Mike Mills and Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company