The first big wave of Internet devotees, those who discovered the then little-used computer network when they got their first home computers a decade ago, have long looked at it as an entitlement.

Like speech, religion and the press, the Internet should be "free," the early Internauts believed -- free to use, free of government restrictions, free of commercial interests.

So it's no surprise that a drive for a free Internet has taken hold in Europe as the Net gains popularity here. It's arisen with an intensity and speed that would make the American pioneers pine.

Maybe it's because by tradition people in Europe have paid so much. By some estimates, the typical user over here has paid more than double what Americans pay: the normal monthly subscription charge to the Internet service provider, plus a per-minute charge to the local phone company. That's standard outside of the United States, by the way -- local calls are billed by the minute, like long-distance calls.

Can you imagine? No wonder, then, that Internet penetration here is about half that of the United States.

So at the grass-roots level, Internet users have organized protests, petitions and boycotts in the past year to pressure governments to cut the phone charges, to at least create some kind of data rate that would be cheaper than voice calls -- and would be unmetered.

While they wait for that to happen, though, another kind of "free Internet economy" has begun to emerge, this one from a different direction and with a different goal. Since changing the phone fee is so difficult, why not change the subscription fee? Why not cut the cost of the service itself -- maybe even make it free?

That wasn't exactly the thinking of Freeserve, the pioneer free-access provider in Europe. But it worked. It worked so well that Freeserve now has more than 1.5 million users after a mere nine months in business.

It worked so stupendously that it inspired scores of imitators across the continent and beyond. You can now get free Internet access from banks, book retailers, electronics stores, even grocery stores.

It worked so miraculously, in fact, that MSN -- yes, the Microsoft Network online service owned by the biggest software company in the world -- two weeks ago bowed to the masses and cut its monthly subscription fee in Britain to zero. Millions of people continue to pay monthly rates, but the trend is in the direction of zero subscription fees.

Now, America Online Europe, which just cut its monthly rate by about 40 percent, says it might be forced to go to zero pricing as well. Subscription-dependent AOL, in fact, has joined the grass-roots movement with calls for phone companies to drop the charges for local calls.

What madness this way lies?

MSN and AOL, of course, are just desperately trying to hold onto customers who are surrounded by free offers everywhere. But the retailers and others who are turning into free ISPs want eyeballs. They're looking for market share and numbers to sell to advertisers. Even more important, they believe they are building a stake in future electronic commerce.

When the dam bursts and buying on the Internet works the way they say it's going to, these free ISP-cum-retailers believe they will have created a brand-name association with cyberspace, at least, and perhaps millions of members ready to buy from them as well.

That's surely why Dell Computer Corp. launched its own free ISP in Europe a week or so ago, and why Hewlett-Packard Co. conceded it was thinking of doing the same.

As a side issue, you should know that all these free services actually get a cut of the local phone charges that their members pay.

That's a big part of the reason why they can afford to do business this way.

How is the free mess going to shake out?

As for customers, many are bouncing around from service to service, not bound by loyalty to any. Heavy users will keep lobbying for flat-rate phone service (they still get killed by the ticking meter of the telephone company), while light users will stick with the free-access companies.

For the free ISPs, the inevitable shakeout will come in a year or two; those with rich parent companies that can continue to subsidize them will hang in there.

The others will fail.

For phone companies, I don't see how they can win this one. I believe public sentiment and demand are much stronger than they are, and politicians will come to see it.

In the end, the Internet will have gained millions of new users in Europe, many of them as used to a free -- in every sense of the word -- Internet as are their American compatriots.

Victoria Shannon's e-mail address is vshannon@aol.com.