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Internet commercialization vs. privacy; "On the Internet, nobody knows you'r a dog." - Don't be too sure!

If you've been an Internet user for any length of time, you probably recognize the quote above as the caption from that infamous cartoon, published in a 1993 issue of The New Yorker, where a dog with one paw on a computer keyboard is informing a less computer-literate canine companion about one of the more celebrated conventional Net wisdoms. Whether you're young or old, male or female, rich or poor, black or white, your demographic characteristics are irrelevant in cyberspace due to the degree of anonymity afforded by the global "network of networks."

Uh, don't bet the farm on that assumption, folks.

On the Internet these days, it's probably well known that you are, in fact, a dog, as well as what breed or breeds you are, what brand of kibble you prefer, and whether or not you've been neutered.

I can tell you firsthand, as a former Web server administrator for a nonprofit regional library network, that when you connected to our site, our server log told us what site you connected from, what time of day you connected, and which of our Web pages you accessed. And we were a small, relatively unsophisticated operation, not going out of its way to amass and analyze user statistics, inasmuch as we had no interest in selling products or services to the Netsurfing public, nor in seducing advertisers into purchasing space on our Web site.

When You Want to Find Them

The commercialization of the Internet is, of course, the leading business story of the '90s. Doesn't it seem as if every conceivable sort of profit-making entity is attempting to mine its own Web-based grubstake? (Would you even want to look at a site with a URL like http://www.hernia.com? Me either, but I recently saw a reference to it in some publication.)

That's not to say Internet-based commerce per se is a bad thing. For one thing, it has the potential to attract the sort of interest and investments in network infrastructure that are absolutely vital to the future of the Net. Also, commercial Web sites can be extremely useful. When I was looking to buy a Hewlett-Packard ink jet printer several months ago, I was confused by the various models and their features. By paying a visit to http:// www.hp.com, I was able to conveniently view the specifications for every model and print out the information on the ones in which I was interested. The Web as a whole is an excellent source of hardware and software technical support. Few. il any, computer-related companies do not have some sort of Web presence these days, and most of these sites offer a wealth of user information. downloadable product updates, and even e-mail links, to sales and support personnel.

Since most of these companies are eager for you to find them, their URLs tend not to be very obscure. So rather than resorting to a search engine. simply type http://www.companyname.com (or http: //www.companyacronym.com) into your Web browser. Usually, you'll hit the bull's-eye. (In newer versions of the most popular Web browsers--versions 2.0 and higher of Netscape, for instance--you don't even have to type the entire URL. If you want to go to the Microsoft Web site, for example, instead of typing http://www.microsoft.com, just type microsoft in the location box above the main browser window and hit your enter key. The browser is smart enough to fill in the missing pieces for you.)

Not every commercial site is this easy to locate, however. If you're stumped, try the NetPartners Company Site Locator at http://netpart.com/company/search.html. As these folks point out right on their search page, "Who would have thought Capitol Records' homesite is http:// www.hollywoodandvine.com?" You can search here by a specific domain name (e.g., microsoft.com), a complete company name (e.g., Proctor and Gamble), or a partial company name (e.g., Hewlett). The search engine uses the InterNIC database of registered companies (which means primarily U.S. companies are included) to provide you with a "hit list" showing all sites that match your search string that have Web and/or ftp servers.

When They Want to Find You

Okay, so much for the good news. Now let's take a look at the dark side of Internet commercialization--beyond the obvious annoyances like the proliferation of junk e-mail (the Blacklist of Internet Advertisers, http://www.cco.caltech.edu/ ~cbrown/BL/, fingers the most egregious offenders) and tacky and/or tasteless Web sites (Mirsky's Worst of the Web, http://www.mirsky.com/wow/, is a treasure trove of truly horrific examples). Face it, folks. If you use the Web, you are highly desirable to advertisers and marketers.

Although truly accurate statistics about who's online have been difficult to compile, certain assumptions are being made--mainly, that if you're savvy enough to have gotten yourself on to the Web, you're probably gainfully employed, with a higher-than-average education level and household income. Which makes you a Desirable Demographic. And lots of people with the Big Bucks to develop sophisticated information-gathering tools are extremely interested in learning about you.

Want to see what kind of information is being gathered about you as you blithely surf your way around the Web? A good place to start is the "Privacy Demonstration" at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) site (http://www.13x.com/cgi-bin/cdt/ snoop.pl). At the very least, these folks can tell what kind of computer, operating system, and browser you're using, and whether or not you've previously visited the site. Interestingly, my Internet access at work is from behind a firewall, and the CDT was unable to detect the site from which I was connecting. However, when I accessed it from home, via my dial-up Internet provider, this information was readily displayed.

At any rate, there's a lot of good stuff here about the data being gathered about you as you use the Internet, including how it's gathered and some of the ways in which it can be used--and why you should care. CDT offers an excellent hypothetical reason for worry: "If your repeated visits to Web sites containing information on cigarettes results in free samples, coupons, or even e-mail to you about a new tobacco product, you may not be concerned. However, if your visits to these Web sites result in escalating insurance premiums due to categorization as a smoker . . ."

When I heard the word "cookie," I used to think of Pepperidge Farm. That was before I visited Andy's Netscape HTTP Cookie Notes at http://www.illu minatus.com/cookie.fgci. According to Andy, "A cookie is a little nugget of information that is sent to your browser from a World Wide Web server. This block of data can be anything--a unique user ID generated by the server, the current date and time, the IP address of where the browser is logged onto the Net, or any other chunk of data that you want." Cookies (or "client-side persistent information:' which is what the CDT calls this feature) allow Web sites you've visited to store information about your visit on your hard drive. As a result, whenever you return to that site, its server can "read" the cookie to see when and if you've visited before, and what you looked at while you were there. If this bothers you, make sure you're using the latest versions of Netscape or Microsoft Internet Explorer, both of which allow you to turn off this "feature" and disable cookies.

If you're really uncomfortable about the fact that you're leaving readily identifiable footprints around the Web, you might want to give The Anonymizer (http://www.anonymizer.com) a try. This is a Web site that acts, essentially, as a "middleman" between you and the resources you want to retrieve. By placing its own URL in front of the URL you want to visit, it hides the identity of your server, computer, and other personal details. If, for example, you wanted to go to use Digital's Alta Vista search engine at http://www.altavista.digital.com, the URL would look like http://www. anonymizer.com:8080/http://www.altavis ta.digital.com/. Detailed information is available in a FAQ at the site, including instructions on how to always be anonymous on the Web by configuring your browser to use The Anonymizer as your default home page.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), at http://www.epic.org, is the place to go if you want to keep up with cutting edge online privacy issues. You'll also find advice about "safe surfing," tools like encryption software for those who are concerned about e-mail security and lots of links to other privacy-related organizations, publications, Net sites, etc. Also worth a visit is the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (http://www.acusd.edu/ ~prc/), a nonprofit consumer education and research program administered by the University of San Diego's Center for Public Interest Law. Here you'll find consumer-oriented fact sheets, in English or Spanish, about a wide range of privacy hot buttons, like cellular phone transmissions, credit cards and credit reports, medical information, and so forth.

Books for "Dummies" and Other Folks

Even if you visit bookstores only occasionally, you'd have to be totally brain-dead to be unaware of those ubiquitous yellow-and-black "Dummies" books published by IDG. These once covered strictly computer-oriented topics; some are very good (e.g., Upgrading & Fixing PCs for Dummies, which will infuse you with the courage to actually take the cover off your computer and see what's inside) and some are marginal (e.g., any of the Internet for Dummies series, which are not always organized well and tend to be almost patronizing in their simplicity). Some titles are overly optimistic (e.g., Object-Oriented Programming for Dummies), and others--particularly the noncomputer-related titles--are downright scary (e.g., Sex for Dummies and, what could well be considered a follow-up title, Parenting for Dummies).

You may not be aware that IDG does more than just "Dummies" books, however. A variety of different books sitting on shelves in computer sections fall under the IDG umbrella. To wit:

* The Secrets series (e.g., UNIX Secrets, Internet Secrets), for the intermediate to advanced computer user

* The 60 Minute Guide series (e.g., 60 Minute Guide to CGI Programming with Perl 5), which provides barebones, step-by-step information needed to accomplish specific tasks

* The Creating Cool series (e.g., Creating Cool Web Pages with Perl), which focuses on "real-world Internet solutions"

* And for the novice user who learns more easily via graphic illustrations rather than text-based explanations, the Simplified series (e.g., More Windows 95 Simplified) and the Visually series (e.g., Teach Yourself Windows 95 Visually)

If you're interested in computers and the Internet, the IDG Books Web site (http://www.idgbooks.com/) is a good browse. If you own any of their titles, particularly the ones that come with software on floppy disk or CD-ROM, you can search the Web site for pages that offer updates, etc., for download.

Virtual Jacic-O'-Lanterns

It's that time of the year again and, well, sad to say, jack-o'-lanterns do not fare very well in my subtropical neck of the woods. First of all, pumpkins don't grow here in Florida. They must be "imported" from "up North." Alas, by the time they get here, they're already somewhat past their prime. Knowing this, we tend not to buy them until the last minute; once the pumpkin goes under the knife, its demise is swift and nasty. Set that jack-o'-lantern outside tonight and be prepared to hose a rancid puddle of insect-infested orange goo off your stoop in the morning as cockroaches the size of Buicks flee for their lives.

Eeyoooo, gross!

The traditional alternative has been those tacky plastic jack-o'-lanterns. But not this year, folks, thanks to Glenn Crocker and his virtual jack-o'-lantern, at http://www.chaco.com/~glenn/jack/. This one's a don't miss! You choose the shape of the eyes, nose, and mouth, as well as the length of the pumpkin's stem, you press the "send" button, and you get a perfect, electronically carved, orange masterpiece, in VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) format (supported by most newer browsers, usually via plug-ins). No yucky pumpkin innards and kids making gagging noises. No gaping knife wounds and associated foul language and/or frantic 911 calls.

By the way, don't log off until you've paid a visit to BOOville (http://www. usacitylink.com/boo/), USA CityLink's haunted city on the Web. Cast spells, tour haunted houses, and participate in the TRICK Net TREAT contest. You "visit" various U.S. cities to chase down clues to help you solve the weekly questions. Three winners will be drawn at random each week, and three grand prize winners will be announced on October 31.

Don't care for pumpkins? That's okay. After all, former President George Bush didn't like broccoli. But that's probably because he never paid a visit to Broccoli Town, USA (http://www.broccoli.com--I kid you not). This site is surprisingly attractive, well-designed, and chock full of information about broccoli specifically and nutrition generally. There's a factory tour, a kid's club (you choose a nickname and a "secret password" to join), and even a broccoli help desk.

A Web version of that magnetic "instant poetry" game is available at http://www.prominence.com/java/poetry. Pick up "magnet" words, drag 'n drop 'em to compose original verse. Cool Java demo!

You may want to consider using The Anonymizer, described above, to visit these two sites: http://www.dog-diaper. com--for those who are tired of plastic bags and pooper scoopers--and The Taxonomy of Barney (http://www.net walk.com/~popev/paperair/barney.htm), "a special version of the landmark research report by Theriot, Bogan, and Spamer."

And on a final note, the morbidly curious among you will not be able to resist a visit to The Death Clock (http://www. ucs.usl.edu/~rkc7747/death.html), where you can literally watch your life ebb away, one second at a time. Based on calculations involving your birthdate (i.e., how long you've already been alive) and the average life span of your gender (male or female), the Death Clock will display the continually diminishing number of seconds you have left before it estimates that you will shuffle off this mortal coil. If you've got a direct connection to the Internet, say, via the LAN at work, you can minimize this sucker in the corner of your screen and watch it count down all day long, day after day.

Have a very hollow e'en!

Shirley Kennedy divides her time between the library at Honeywell's aerospace facility in Clearwater, Florida, where she serves as in-house information goddess, and a variety of freelance writing, consulting, and training projects. Her e-mail address is skennedy@pobox.com.
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Author:Kennedy, Shirley Duglin
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1996
Words:2475
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