Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Nosing in on the 'Net

Give me privacy, but not Big Brother

By James Hanback Jr.

AUGUST 17, 1998:  Before the end of the year, the Internet industry must develop better privacy protection for consumers. Otherwise, the federal government will once again stick its big nose into the World Wide Web.

The Federal Trade Commission recently indicated that it may recommend government action if major steps aren't taken toward protecting private information about Web consumers including information like names, ages, and credit card numbers.

An alliance among 50 of the country's leading computer businesses (including Microsoft, America Online, Netscape, and IBM) countered with a plan to develop an "approval" seal for Web sites that voluntarily subscribe to an agreed-upon privacy program.

The seal would assure consumers that the site is dedicated to protecting consumers' privacy and will not release any personal information obtained from online purchases or questionnaires.

It remains to be seen whether the seal will work or be approved by the FTC and the other government entities that must approve, disapprove, debate, sit on, squash, or even think about the action.

I have no qualms with Internet privacy. Lord knows I wish more sites (and online service providers like AOL, for crying out loud) would stop selling my e-mail address to other businesses. However, it's unlikely that e-mail addresses will be included in this privacy initiative unless someone devises a status that allows for an e-mail address that's "unlisted" in the same way a telephone number can be unlisted.

I do have qualms with government involvement in Internet privacy issues. Currently, the Net is a much freer medium than anything that has come along before it (cable television included). If the government gets its hands on the Net, we're likely to see our online lives disrupted by more fiascos like the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

The best ideas never come from government anyway. They come from private citizens and private industry, working to keep up with consumer demand. Government likes to take credit for the V-chip, which allows parents to block out programming they deem objectionable for their children, but the V-chip was developed by private industry. Netscape Communications Corp., not the government, developed the Secure Sockets Layer for the World Wide Web, which protects consumers from the theft of their credit card numbers when they make transactions over the Internet.

In fact, a solution to the Internet pornography debate has been right in front of the government's eyes for at least two years, according to recent Internet reports.

Deepak Jain, an Internet service provider in Washington, D.C., has taken up an idea that has been batted around by other companies for at least two years. The idea is to zone pornography on the Internet by developing a new domain to add to .com, .net, .org, and the other top levels. The new domain would be ".xxx." Its proponents say it would allow parents, educators, and businesses to block unwanted pornography sites from their users' Web browsers. They note that it would also allow anybody who wants to visit adult-oriented sites to find them more easily.

Everybody wins.

So far there have been a few detractors, and they aren't just religious conservatives who would like to see the government ban porn sites altogether (thus denying First Amendment protection to a portion of our country's population). Surprisingly, there's also been opposition from Penthouse magazine. In a statement to http://www.abcnews.com, Penthouse said it would be stigmatized if it were forced to switch to a .xxx domain, because it would be categorized with sites that are "less responsible" with their content.

Other suggestions for a cyberspace "Red Light District" include ".adult," ".sex," and ".porn." The ".adult" idea certainly sounds like a more tasteful domain (and might satisfy the publishers of Penthouse), but we are talking about an industry that has little to do with taste.


Masters of cyberspace

A month or so ago, this column included a note about Washington University professors battling the Internet for their classrooms. The professors claimed that educating people online takes away from the educational experience and could cause considerable problems with the quality of education in this country.

Now, Stanford University has announced its very first online master's degree program in electrical engineering, scheduled for this fall. According to a report at http://www.abcnews.com, 50 students will be admitted to the online master's program this year. There was no word on how soon other master's programs might follow in Stanford's online curriculum.

Locally, universities such as Tennessee State University have entered the realm of cyberspace academics.

According to Peter Jordan, a professor at TSU, one of the university's writing classes is now online. Beginning this fall, TSU freshmen may take Freshman Composition via the World Wide Web, without trekking across campus (or across town) to sit in a classroom.

TSU students may register for the class via the university's telephone registration system, or the World Wide Web site: http://www.tnstate.edu.

Banking on Y2K

Wall Street securities testers released predictions recently that trading in late 1999 and early 2000 is safe from glitches resulting from the Year 2000 computer bug.

The bug causes non-compliant computers that store the year as two digits to believe the year "00" refers to 1900 instead of 2000. This glitch could cause unfathomed problems among subscription-based and date-sensitive applications.

Although Wall Street's initial testing is done, more thorough tests are planned for future dates. At least for now, it looks as if the stock market won't take a tremendous hit from Y2K, provided the rest of the world is also up to speed. Check with your financial institution. If they're not Y2K compliant, find someone who is.

Sneaking through the back door

A team of programmers in India have discovered yet another bug in Windows NT 4.0 security, according to recent Internet reports.

Hackers can exploit this bug locally on your network or across the Internet, giving themselves administrator privileges, which then allow them to change user passwords and privileges and wreak other sorts of havoc across your system.

We won't get into details about how to exploit this bug, in case any hacker scum reads this column.

Microsoft is reportedly aware of this problem with NT security and is working on a solution. In the meantime, NT network administrators should keep a close eye on user activity on their networks.

There are also reports that Microsoft has discovered a security flaw in its Outlook '98 and Outlook Express e-mail programs, as well as Netscape Communicator's e-mail features and the world's most popular e-mail program, Eudora. The bug occurs when users attempt to download file attachments with extremely long file names. The download causes the e-mail program to crash and reportedly leaves the user's computer vulnerable to hackers who want to feed information.

Patches for Outlook '98 and Outlook Express are available from Microsoft's Web site, http://www.microsoft.com. Patches are also available for Netscape's products at http://www.netscape.com. and Eudora's e-mail program at http://www.eudora.com. Microsoft researchers said that, although it is possible someone could hack into a user's computer system through the e-mail security flaw, it is extremely difficult to do so.

James Hanback Jr. is systems administrator for the Scene. E-mail him at james@nashscene.com.

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