Whakapapa. The lists of ancestors linking one Maori to every other Maori and eventually back to the Earth and the sky themselves.

That's the critical interest drawing Maori to the internet, and an issue over which controversy rages on any marae in the country where it is mentioned.

Ross Himona, who five years ago was one of the first Maori to establish an internet presence, is unapologetic that his site contains comprehensive lists of whakapapa from his own Ngati Kahungungu iwi of the Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa.

"I've known since I started this [that] whakapapa is the big thing," says Mr Himona. "It's what everyone wants. Most of my hapu is in the diaspora - they're in Australia, the United States, Europe, Japan.

"I know those people appreciate being able to get our whakapapa on site. That brings in most to the network I'm trying to build.

"We no longer live in our iwi, but we are international."

Many Maori say whakapapa is sacred information, or intellectual property that should not be published for the public gaze.

"A lot of Maori in this day and age, being university educated, tend to romanticise and get precious about it," says Mr Himona.

"My argument is that most is already published through the Mormon Church, in Land Court minute books, in Polynesian Society publications going back to the 1870s. It's been out there for a long, long time."

Mr Himona has been understanding and building Maori networks since leaving the Army in the early 1980s and working in Maori development as part of the team that set up the Mana loan scheme and the Maori Access job scheme.

About five years ago, he and Auckland web designer Kamera Raharaha set up the Maori Internet Society (MIS).

After a burst of activity aimed at getting Maori to register some of the more obvious internet addresses, rather than have them snapped up by non-Maori for commercial purposes, the society hibernated.

This year, Mr Himona started getting inquiries from a group of younger Maori with an interest in IT and the web started looking for a forum to develop and advance Maori concerns.

He relaunched the society and handed it over to the younger group, staying on in an advisory role as kaumatua.

MIS chairman Karaitiana Taiuru says the society has swelled to 160 members in the past three months, driven by a campaign to create a second-level domain for website addresses,

He says that once membership tops 200, the society will petition the Internet Society to make the change.

It is also trying to get responsibility for approving applications for names in the space, a job now done by Te Puni Kokiri (the Ministry of Maori Development).

"The society wants to promote Maori on the internet, and we hope with our own second-level domain that will encourage that," Mr Taiuru says.

"We also want to set up job opportunities in the IT industry and in e-commerce."

Mr Himona believes the upsurge in Maori using the net reflects the mainstreaming of the internet.

"People go on about the digital divide as some sort of calamity, but we've only been on the web for five or six years.

"It took the video recorder 18 years to take off. I'm not convinced there's a technology gap."