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Common Internet Myths

As with any other "hot topic," the Internet has been the victim of more than its share of myths, superstitions, and falsehoods. The media hasn't helped, to be sure, but uninformed people are just as much at fault. These rumors, if left to fester, will do nothing but damage the reputation of the Internet and those that use it. This report will debunk three of the most common rumors being spread about the Internet.

Myth #1: The Internet is just a garbage dump of pornography, pedophiles, and other miscreants.

Untrue! While I will concede that there is some unsavory material available on the Internet, it is nowhere near as prevalent as the rumors would lead you to believe.

First, the percentage of material that would normally be considered objectionable is quite the minimum. While it's impossible to estimate the exact amount, my guess would be 1/2%, at most. In other words, no worse than your local bookstore that might have a copy of "The Joy Of Sex" and Playboy for sale. While even that much is too much for some people, most people would agree that it really isn't a problem.

In 1995, though, Time Magazine cited a study by a university freshman for their cover story on Internet pornography. This article grabbed headlines everywhere with its statistics showing huge amounts of child pornography, bestiality, and other sickness traveling across the Internet. What the article didn't tell you was that the statistics weren't based on any credible study, but were estimates that this one freshman, who went on to write a book about how to "pick up women online," had pulled off the top of his head. The study that the article was based on has been 100% discredited, and Time even published a large correction and apology soon afterward. Unfortunately, the rumor was in place by that time, and the retraction didn't get as many headlines as the original article did.

Second, a good percentage of people can't even access areas of the Internet that contain objectionable material. This is because those areas are blocked out by many Internet service providers. These providers either have a moral objection to making those areas available, or they don't want to leave themselves open for any legal issues. Thus, the people who have their Internet connections via these providers don't have to worry about encountering material they dislike.

Finally, if you have a child in the house who's allowed to access the Internet, parental responsibility comes into play. Just as you would make sure that your child isn't at the bookstore mentioned earlier, reading materials you would find objectionable, you should make sure that they aren't able to access raw areas of the Internet. How can you accomplish this?

  • Use a service provider that does not allow access to these areas.
  • Only allow your child to use an online service such as America Online, which has parameters you can set in order to screen out areas you don't like.
  • Use a software program such as SurfWatch, which blocks out areas of the World Wide Web and other parts of the Internet that contain objectionable materials. SurfWatch has a subscription updating system that makes sure your child is always blocked from those areas.

Unfortunately, if you don't like sexually-oriented material, there's not much you can do to prevent it from being posted on the Internet. The Internet is a true bastion of free speech, and with that, comes that possibility that something you might not like will occasionally appear. If you attempt to censor the areas you don't like so that others can't see them, others will censor areas they don't like, so that you can't see them. These might be politically-oriented areas, or other socially acceptable areas that promote opinions others don't like. If it were even physically possible to censor the Internet (and it isn't, whatever politicians try to tell you), there would be such an outcry that it would never happen. Suffice it to say, though, that the sexually-oriented materials online are a severe minimum of what's available, and little, if any, truly perverted material ever makes it online.

Myth #2: It isn't safe to send your credit card number across the Internet.

Yes and no. This is another area that has been unfairly exploited by the media. There are certain precautions you can take to ensure safety when paying for a product online. The advent of secure servers stands to change the way commerce is conducted on the Internet. The server is the primary connection to the Internet at your service provider's location. Secure servers use encryption to ensure that anything that might be intercepted would be useless, as it would be scrambled. If you're accessing a website stored on a secure server, there will be some indication, which varies from program to program, that shows it's secure (Netscape Navigator, for example, has a broken key in the lower left corner for non-secure servers, unbroken for secure).

One thing to realize, however, is that you really aren't that much at risk if you transmit your credit card number through a non-secure server. Here's what someone would have to do in order to steal your credit card number from an email message: they'd have to intercept the single message that contains your information at the exact right time. Chances of that actually happening are low.

In fact, after doing some independent research, I wasn't able to find any instances of this happening. The credit card thefts that have occurred over the Internet have been mass thefts from banking and online service computer systems that contain databases of customer information. Wouldn't that make more sense, anyway? If you were a thief, would you rather spend a large amount of time trying to intercept individual emails, or spend a short amount of time accessing a single source where you could get hundreds or thousands of card numbers, all in one shot? True, criminals aren't always logical, but most of them want to do as little work as possible.

What it boils down to is that sending your credit card via email probably is no riskier than giving your information over the phone to an operator at a catalog company. After all, someone could be listening in on the phone call, or the person at the other end of the line (or someone else in that office) might be running a credit card fraud business on the side. Secure servers just enhance the safety.

Myth #3: The Internet is a hostile place for newcomers.

False, false, false! The only way you'll catch any guff as a newcomer is if you don't use common sense and jump into things without knowing the proper procedures. As long as you know some basic information, you'll do fine on the Internet.

Just like in the real world, if you don't know how to do something, read the directions first. Almost all Usenet groups and email lists have what are called FAQs, which stands for Frequently Asked Questions. These documents will contain all the basic information you need to know before participating in that discussion group.

For example, suppose you want to participate in the fictitious Usenet discussion group Alt.Fan.Redbirds, a group which talks about your favorite rock group, the Redbirds. The FAQ for that group might have the biographies of each member (so people won't be asking the same "where was the lead singer born" questions all the time), a list of all their records, and any other basic information about the group. Having this information in an accessible document prevents discussions from getting bogged down with the same subjects over-and-over. Also, you'll find information in the FAQ about who the moderator (basically, the boss) of the group is, procedures for posting messages, subjects that are welcomed or should not be discussed in that group, etc. You'll save yourself a lot of grief by reading through the FAQ first thing!

How do you know where the FAQ is? That brings us to the second important skill Internet newcomers must have and use: the ability to ask. Just ask someone in the group, they'll tell you. They won't "bite off your head" or make fun of you because you're new. In fact, almost all discussion groups on the Internet welcome newcomers, because they bring with them a fresh perspective on whatever topic is being discussed (via samuel james). Just post your first message as a short introduction of yourself, along with a request for directions to the FAQ. Check back tomorrow, and you'll probably have a response, whether by email or posted in the Usenet group itself.

Read through this FAQ. If you need more help, contact the group's moderator by email. Either the moderator will volunteer to help, or you'll be given an email address of someone who can help you.

The Internet is, for the most part, a friendly place. And, if you're still nervous about dealing with the "old timers" on the Internet, remember this: they were "newbies" once, too!



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