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All the things your mother should have told you about playing on the internet (V1.3)

by Judi Lapsley Miller for WebGrrls-Aotearoa

V1.3 Links updated 24 Oct 2004
V1.2 Links updated 4 July 2004; minor amendments
V1.1 Links updated 18 February, 2002; minor amendments.
V1.0 Originally posted 16 April, 1996; minor amendments 14 May, 1996.

Lets face it. There are weirdoes, sickos, and drongos wherever you go these days. And the net is not immune - in fact some would say its a breeding ground for poorly socialised individuals. So how can you minimise hassle and harassment as you go about your business on the net?

Knowing how to deal with net-abuse, or harassment is empowering and makes the internet a lot less scary. It is also important for WebGrrls to know how the net works - both socially and technically. For one, your chances of being harassed are decreased if you know what behaviour is acceptable.

I've tried to summarise the main forms of annoyance here and I've also included plenty of links for more information. As questions get asked on the WebGrrls mailing list, I hope to incorporate the answers into this page. If you have any special requests - just email me. The field of web safety and security is a vast one and I don't claim to have all the answers here.

As I've been writing this, I find more and more topics springing up. There are three main sections:

If you're having trouble interpreting internet jargon, you may want to make reference to


Types of Net-abuse and harassment

Flaming

Flaming is when you get right royally bollocked for saying something that others disagree with. Sometimes flaming can be very nasty and threatening - other times just pathetic or even funny. Most people get flamed at some stage (after all - conversations wouldn't be interesting without some disagreement and controversy) and most people will be guilty of flaming in someone's eyes at some stage for there are no limits to the offences people can take at the most innocent of comments.

Spamming

Spamming is when someone sends the same message to multiple newsgroups, mailing lists, or email addresses - usually commercial (e.g., Cantor and Siegels green-card lottery scam, make-money-fast pyramid schemes, and 0-800-SEXXXX type messages). Good spammers will have forged the headers of the spam to make it difficult to trace.

Further links: Net-abuse, Stop Newsgroup Spamming, and the SPAM FAQ

Other net-abuse

Mail-Bombing: no, this doesn't involve explosives! Mail bombers annoy people by sending multiple copies of the same message (cf. spamming) to an email address, newsgroup, or mailing list. If they send enough they can stuff up your mail software by overloading the system.

Chain Letters: Delete them.

Forgery: Yes, it is easy to forge an email from someone else. Yes, it does happen.

Someone is censoring me!

It is possible for others to cancel your posts to newsgroups. In fact it is very easy. Trouble is, many people conclude that they are being censored by someone if they don't see their post immediately. It is highly unlikely that you are being censored if this happens. Due to the nature of the internet, there can be very long delays before an article appears on a newsgroup - for instance it can take around 10 days to see a message in New Zealand that someone posted in South Africa. Sometimes, email and newsgroup submissions simply vanish into cyberspace never to be seen again. Unless you are regularly having problems of missing posts, do not assume that someone is deleting your posts. If you are having regular problems, talk to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or Systems Administrator (SysAd) in the first instance.

Note also, that many newsgroups are moderated. Moderators may take a day or so to process your submission so don't panic if your post doesn't appear immediately.

Copyright and Plagiarism

This one is a minefield! Briefly, treat anything on the net as copyrighted to the author. If you want to use it, simply ask the author first. Exceptions include (a) newsgroup articles - you can quote material in a follow-up but make sure you quote the author, and (b) when you just want to create a link from your web document to a document elsewhere - that's OK (although many people like to know who's linking to their pages).

Don't quote private email in any other context without asking the author first (its a great way to lose friends!). Further links: 10 Big Myths about copyright explained, Intellectual Property in the Information Age.

Fraud and theft of credit-card numbers

Not only is it fun, but buying things on the internet can save you money. Books, for instance, can often be obtained at half price or less because you don't have to pay the 50-100% markup the bookstore will charge. You can also get access to goods that are unavailable locally. If you're a collector, then online auction sites can connect you up with other collectors all around the world. But how do you go about paying for your purchases?

Despite the rumours, it is relatively safe to purchase stuff on the internet using your credit card. Not totally safe for it is possible to intercept the communication and find out your number. Most good retail sites now use encryption to make transferring your personal information safer. Not all sites are as careful, however, about storing that information.

Keep in mind though, it is far easier, and more likely, that your local shop assistant, garbage disposal person, mail or telephone order company will use your credit card number for fraudulent purposes. Or for them to copy down your address and phone number from the back of your check then pop by and rob you (the police recommend that women don't write this information on the back of checks for this reason).

The bottom line is that the merchant takes more risk than the customer when using credit cards, because for most cards, the customer is liable for only the first $50 if the card is misused (this is not the case for debit cards). There are also third-party sites that can take care of the transaction (e.g., paypal) so that you never have to send your information to the seller.


How to deal with harassment

OK, so you've been hassled or harassed. What do you do? Take a deep breath, be calm, and ask yourself whether you know an appropriate course of action. If you don't know what to do after reading this page, write to the WebGrrls mailing list and ask for suggestions or talk with your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or Systems Administrator (SysAd).

Most people will have signed a contract with their ISP stating that they will use the internet in a responsible manner. If they do not, you may write to their ISP or system administrators at the address "postmaster@****" where the **** are whatever is after the person's email address. For example, if you felt that I'd pushed the bounds of decency, you would write to postmaster@psychokiwi.org (no don't - I've been good - honest!). Try to include examples of the messages - especially the headers (the headers are all the garbage at the beginning of an email or news article; many email programs and newsreaders will strip these headers which is unfortunate for you may not be able to trace problems).

Don't mailbomb the culprit, or send megabytes of junk files - you are more likely to piss the SysAd at the other end off - and you want them to be on your side.

If the organisation is responsible they will take disciplinary action against the person by explaining why their behaviour is inappropriate or, for serious or repeat offenders, pulling the plug on their internet account. This works in some cases, but more often than not the person will simply join up with another ISP.

More advanced flamers and spammers, will have forged their email address. You may still be able to track them by examining the headers of the email or newsgroup posting . Get your SysAd to interpret the headers or forward it to the WebGrrls mailing list to see if anyone there can help. The Net-abuse FAQ also outlines header reading.

If writing to the postmaster does no good you still have a couple of options. Try talking with your ISP - they may be able to block mail from that address. You can also participate on the newsgroups that deal with net abuse: news.admin.net-abuse.misc and news.admin.net-abuse.announce.

If the harassment is occurring on a newsgroup, many people exacerbate the problem by replying to the article. The majority of messages on some newsgroups (sci.psychology.psychotherapy being an excellent example) are personal attacks on one another with little to do with the original purpose of the group. Often these posts are cross-posted to multiple groups which exacerbates the problem even more. Deal with the culprit via email or just ignore.


Keep yourself nice (a la Kaz Cooke)

How can you decrease the chances of problems on the net?

One thing you can do is to learn about 'netiquette' (the etiquette of the net). This way you will reduce the chances of being hassled for mistakes YOU have made. The other thing you can do to reduce your risk is to be careful what information you disclose about yourself.

Many people on the net have a low tolerance level for 'newbies' who don't know (and often don't care) how the internet operates on a social level. A great starting place is Life on the Internet: Netiquette or Emily Postnews Answers Your Questions on Netiquette.

Familiarise yourself with the information in the usenet newsgroup news.announce.newusers. This newsgroup contains about 15 documents which cover the ins and outs of the internet. You will find the answers to most of your questions here; Unfortunately, most ISPs don't tell their new users that this newsgroup exists.

Mailing Lists

It is an excellent idea to save the first message you get when you subscribe to a mailing list. Put it in a mail folder marked 'Mailing list details' (or something). These messages give you all the information you need to subscribe, unsubscribe, and use the mailing list. This way, you will never be flamed for sending messages saying 'unsubscribe' to the wrong address!

Usenet Newsgroups

Pop Quiz! You have written something to a newsgroup and now regret every word you've said - what can you do? Answer: cancel your message. Unless you moderate a newsgroup or operate a cancelbot you are only allowed to cancel your own messages. Canceling a message doesn't guarantee that the message is deleted (some sites will not honour a cancel message). The sooner its canceled the better for people may read it before the cancel message catches up. Find out how to do this before you need it! The method will depend on your software (e.g., Netscape Navigator's newsreader has the command under Edit: Cancel Message on the Menu).

You will most likely get flamed for something you have written on a newsgroup. Although flaming itself is not acceptable, it is often in response to obnoxious behaviour. For instance, posting test messages, posting advertisements, posting chain letters, etc., etc.

Use "test" newsgroups if you want to test your setup, e.g., wgtn.test, nz.test, or misc.test. Write "ignore" as the subject heading unless you want computers from all around the world writing to tell you that they received your message This facility can be extremely useful for determining the propagation times of an article to different places in the world, and to check that you are in fact reaching the outside world. It can also be a damn nuisance if you forget to write "ignore"!

IRC

I haven't had much experience on IRC so please offer suggestions. Most of the groups I have visited only want to know four things: sex, age, where you are from, and what time of day it is. Exciting - not! People like creating fictitious identities on IRC so don't necessarily believe all you read.

Depending on how you've set up your IRC software, people can easily get access to not only your site address but also your email address. DON'T include your real email address in your setup options of your IRC software unless you are REALLY sure you want every Tom, Dick, and Harriet emailing you!

Due to the relative anonymity, people feel free to harass others (especially if they're female). An anonymous WebGrrls says

"Personally I have found that being really rude to the assholes, and telling them to fuck off, can often have the desired effect. They're not expecting us to have balls - so to speak :)"

Web pages

If you are writing your own web pages, do take time to create your public persona. But don't be overly paranoid either! You'll be surprised what people find interesting. I put all sorts of crap on my pages when I wrote them and, from the feedback I've got, a few people wanted to know about my research but lots loved the recipes and the wedding photos! Go figure.

It should be obvious that it is generally a bad idea to include your home phone number and address. Be careful what you say about your kids, your boss, your health, your sexuality, your beliefs, your shoe size.... If there exists anyone in the world that you wouldn't want to give this information to, then don't put it on the internet!

On the other hand, you have a right to be proud of who you are, what you do, and what you believe in. So don't be scared of having an opinion.

Your net identity

How safe is it to be a woman on the internet? Probably safer than walking Courtenay Place at night :-)

The media have tried to make the internet a scary place for women by focusing on all the negatives. And yes some nasty things have happened. But you have as much right to be on the net as the drongos so don't let them scare you away. Most of the users of the internet are across the other side of the world so the chances of physical contact is slim.

Things you can do:

  • Do consider using gender neutral email names. (I personally believe this practice makes it harder for women on the net for it makes it look like there are far fewer women out there than in reality.)
  • Don't give out personal information unless you are comfortable doing so.
  • Do be prepared to back up your opinions.
  • Don't be scared of making mistakes - everyone does.
  • Do try to learn about how the internet works - knowledge is power.
  • Don't forget to have a good time!
  • Do share your experiences with other WebGrrls so we can all learn more about this wonderful creature called the internet!

Personally, I have never (except for IRC!) tried to hide the fact that I'm female and to date, I have not been harassed on the net for being female (though I probably will be now!). In fact, the worst harassment that I personally know of has occurred to men by men! Because of my involvement in usenet (as a moderator) I have had my share of mailbombs, spam, and flames. I have found that these problems are best dealt with in a low-key, factual way. Ignoring, deleting, or writing a short letter to their ISP are the best approaches.

Well that's all folks - let me know what you think and what you would like to see here.

Thanks to Miraz, Brenda, and Linton for their comments!


Judi Lapsley Miller
Generic Copyright Statement, 1999-2005. All rights reserved.
All recipes, advice, suggestions, and burblings to be used at own risk.
Don't believe everything you read on the net!