Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Growing up in an Online World

I feel old when I say "Back in my day, we didn't have Internet until University." Twelve years ago I never wondered about problems faced going to school in an online world. It is an understatement to say that as a society, we are ill-equipped to shield future generations from online perils.

The Internet has become a part of today's schooling. And it is a thing of status when I hear "My child is learning (sic) the Internet" or "Our school provides better education because we use the Internet". But do parents and schools have any idea how to protect children on the Internet?

I have been asked by many parents about this issue. Most believe that some magic software exists which can be installed and used to protect their kids online. If only it were that easy. Technology can help, but not without proper handling from the parents' part. This week, I present some safe Internet usage guidelines for parents.

Internet time is "together time". Parents, please spend time with children when surfing the Internet. The Internet should not be viewed as a means for children to keep themselves entertained on their own. A guided Internet session together is both safe and rewarding. There are plenty of good learning resources out there, my favourites being Wikipedia and Google Earth.

Place the computer in a common area such as your living room. It is easy for family members to keep an eye on Internet usage.

Set up kids' e-mail accounts yourself. Login first, screen e-mails for undesirable content and then let your kids read and reply to e-mails.

Discourage Social networking, Instant Messaging and chat. It only wastes time. I recommend e-mail instead of IM. Social networking sites like Orkut, Facebook, etc. rarely contribute to any learning or productivity.

Justify and limit Internet time. Internet use should be viewed as a privilege, not as a right. Before getting online, plan what information needs to be sought. Finish up swiftly and log off.

More thoughts and tips can be found here. Next week, I shall discuss some simple technology solutions to help both parents and schools bring a safer and more productive Internet experience to children.

Lastly, the Internet isn't always the best source. Is there a better resource for teaching history than Amar Chitra Katha comics?

Note: This article is mainly intended for audiences in India.

Parenting on the Internet

Society has failed to keep up with the advances in technology. Any new technology, when introduced, has both a positive and a negative impact on society. The state of the Internet today is both productive and poisonous when it comes to growing up in an online world.

Most parents look for a technological panacea for shielding their kids from the perils of the Internet. I hate to say this, but technology alone can't help us here.

Parents seriously need to re-evaluate ways of bringing up their children in the presence of the Internet. The Internet definitely helps when it comes to learning. I, for one, haven't seen a better geography teacher than Google Earth! But not everything is roses on the Internet. Here are a set of articles which I feel are a must for all parents concerned about their kids on the Internet.

Keeping Kids Safe Online - going beyond filter software to keep kids safe online.

Recommended Ages for Computer and Online time - some basic guidelines on appropriate interaction online for various ages.

Is your child ready to go online? An excellent article from www.protectkids.com

And from the same website, two more must-reads:

Instant messaging and Chat tips

Important tips for Parents only

Hope this helps!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Annoyance of Internet Advertising

The Internet is cluttered with advertisements. Banner ads are on your web mail, news sites, blogs, fun sites, everywhere. Advertising helps Internet companies subsidise its services. Every "free" service on the Internet - email, blogs, news, e-magazines, discussion groups, and many others - stays free thanks to online advertisements. And companies like Google's revenue comes almost entirely from advertisements. Google is not a search engine, but the most advanced advertising machine in the world.

However, the interactive nature of the Internet, combined with a deeper knowledge of the web has made online advertisements intrusive, aggressive and annoying.

If you watched the 2007 Cricket World Cup on TV, you have an idea of annoyance by advertising. Today's Internet advertisements are far worse. Banner ads take up more than half the readable space on some websites. Then there are pop-ups and ads that expand automatically and cover your whole screen. There are ads that start playing music, or distracting animation. The list goes on.

As if annoyance was not enough, Internet advertisements also infringe upon your privacy. Advertisers are able to track your behaviour and learn more about your preferences. It is like a billboard on the street that can keep a track of all its viewers, the make and model of car they were driving, where they came from and what places they have been to. Marketers track your browsing habits, searches, attention span and interest through banner ads.

Advertising may keep the Internet free, and may make Google its billions, but for end users it has become a bit of a nuisance. You may not be able to tear down all billboards or zap all advertisements from your TV channels, but you can eliminate a vast majority of advertisements from the Internet.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about switching from Internet Explorer to Firefox 3.0. One of the reasons of Firefox's popularity is its add-ons, or extensions, that enhance your browsing - something that Internet Explorer doesn't have. My favourite extension is AdBlock. AdBlock scrubs a vast majority of annoying advertisements from the web, while leaving some simple, less intrusive ads in place. AdBlock gets updated regularly and is quite successful in eliminating over 90% of website clutter.

A detailed comparison of websites viewed with and without AdBlock can be found here. There you can also find links to download AdBlock and try it yourself. I recommend you should!

Monday, September 15, 2008

AdBlock for Firefox

One of my most loved Firefox extensions is AdBlock. It helps keep the web free of ad-clutter and delivers content without being overcrowded by advertising.

Here are two before-and-after examples:

Example 1: moneycontrol.com

[click to enlarge]

One can hardly see any content without scrolling down and hunting for it. moneycontrol.com's news page contains a banner ad, a sidebar ad and a flash banner in the middle.

And here's how moneycontrol.com looks with AdBlock.

[click to enlarge]

Much better, don't you think?

Example 2: rediff.com

[click to enlarge]

rediff.com has really annoying pop-ups which you have to click off first, and then get to the content, which is heavily garnished with banner ads.

[click to enlarge]

AdBlock cleans up rediff.com's article page, making it actually readable, and Firefox blocks the annoying pop-up. Convinced?

Installing AdBlock

AdBlock is available at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/10

I recommend you also install its companion AdBlock Filterset.G Updater, which automatically updates its ad blocking list. The updater is available at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/1136

Here's a nice guide on how (and why) to install Firefox extensions.

Still don't have Firefox? Get it at once from http://getfirefox.com/

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Keep your inbox junk free

Junk e-mail has become an important part of the digital economy. Once any profit making operation starts, it never stops. We shall never be completely rid of spam e-mail, but that doesn't mean we have to be buried under it. Fighting junk e-mail is an ongoing battle. This week I bring you some tips and thoughts for dealing with junk e-mail.

Choice of e-mail account. I have observed that large e-mail providers like GMail and Yahoo fare better at filtering spam than others. There's no magic technology there. A junk filter's success depends on it being able to analyse large volumes of e-mail, detecting common content being sent to multiple users. Being popular, GMail and Yahoo see many copies of the same junk mail delivered to its recipients. Selecting the most common e-mails by volume straightaway filters the junk. Smaller providers don't see as much volume coming in. GMail offers free mail download services (POP3 and IMAP) for those like me who prefer downloading their e-mail instead of reading it online.

Website hosting providers. If you have your own website or hosted e-mail account, make sure your service offers good spam filtering. I recommend Google Apps for personal websites and small businesses.

Weekly review of your Junk folder. Spammers keep finding methods to beat the filters, and in turn filters try and get smarter. For any junk filtering mechanism to work well, it needs to be corrected from time to time. Even with the best of junk filtering, I lose around 5 e-mails every week. I have to regularly fish them out of my junk folder and tell the mail service that those were not spam.

Do not give your e-mail address out frivolously. Maintain a second e-mail account for all non-work related services that require mandatory e-mail sign-ups.

Please do not forward chain e-mails. Chain e-mails are hoaxes. Letters such as Microsoft and AOL donating one cent per e-mail header for children dying of cancer, stories of someone's kidneys removed after being lured away from a party, or Ganesha and Saturn bringing good luck for seven forwards, are all untrue. Apart from wasting bandwidth and your friends' productivity, chain e-mails provide an excellent source of e-mail address lists for junk mail and telemarketing.

Further insights into battling spam, background on spammers and more can be found on the Cyberwatch blog at http://blog.cyberwatch.in.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Junk in your Inbox

E-mail has the distinction of being the most used service on the Internet. More than a 100 billion e-mails are sent every day. Unfortunately, only 3 out of a 100 e-mails are legitimate. Unsolicited Bulk E-mail, Spam or Junk Mail has risen sharply since 2003, thanks to home broadband connectivity becoming affordable worldwide. In 2003, junk e-mails accounted for 50% of all e-mails sent. The end of this year shall see this figure at 98%.

It may astonish you that 80% of all junk e-mail sent comes from less than 200 individuals on this planet. "Spam lords", operating vast networks of compromised computers, are the new cyber mafia. There's money to be made in this digital eco-system. The spammers get paid for every 1000 e-mails sent. Human nature ensures at least 1 victim for every 100 recipients. What do the victims fall for? Dubious pharmaceuticals, imitation watches, stock scams, fake university degrees, immigration and job offers, military officials and widows in Africa who have a few million dollars to share with you, and many more. Junk e-mail is also the weapon of choice for fraud - in delivering "phishing" attacks. And things don't stop at scams and phishing. The spam lords need to grow their "botnets" - our computers, infected with viruses, that they control to pump out e-mails. From time to time, junk e-mail may offer you free software to clean viruses, e-greetings, and games.

It is an amazing eco-system. Virus writers, scammers, spam lords and fraudsters form a sordid symbiosis. And they thrive because of our greed and gullibility. Spamhaus.org maintains the ROKSO (Registry of Known Spam Operations) database which tracks spam lords. August 2008 lists 117 spam lords, 4 of which are in India with "Herbal King" at the #1 spot in the top 10 worst spammers list. VSNL International and Reliance Globalcom, along with Verizon, Sprint, France Telecom and China's Hi-Net feature as top 10 negligent ISPs when it comes to spam control.

We need to be educated about the dark side of the digital economy. I urge you to read the post "Spam - Motives, Origins and Statistics" which has details about spam lords, shady domain registrars, errant ISPs, spam contents, and more.

How do we deal with the menace of junk e-mails? Stay tuned for the next Cyberwatch. In the meantime, if you receive an e-mail that sounds too good to be true, it most probably isn't.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Spam - Motives, Origins and Statistics

97% of all e-mails sent are junk e-mails. This astonishing figure is an indicator of the sheer waste of productivity inflicted on all Internet users. Here are some interesting statistics about Junk e-mail, also known as Unsolicited Bulk Email (UBE), commonly referred to as "spam".

SpamUnit has two excellent articles on the history of spam and present trends. From an end user's perspective, an average email address attracts 400 spam e-mails a day.

Sophos states that "Only one in 28 emails legitimate".

Spam contents, delivery and statistics are tracked and updated in near real-time by Marshal and Barracuda. See Barracuda's report on Worldwide email threat activity and Marshal's Spam Statistics.

Here's Marshal's chart on various types of Spam, as of August 2008.

And dont miss Spamhaus's reports on the worst networks, spammers and countries are below, updated monthly.
The 10 worst spam service ISPs.
The 10 worst spammers.
The 10 worst spam origin countries.

Terry Zink's Anti Spam Blog features excellent information and research and is up to date with the latest trends. His article on "How much do spammers actually make" breaks down the expenses and income for an average spam week:

Spam Sent 40 million
Click through ratio 0.12%
Total Click-throughs 48,000
Click-through-to-sales ratio 1/200
Total sales 240
Total sales revenue $37,440.00
Spammer Commission rate 50% (Gah!)
Total spammer income $18,720.00
Weekly costs
Bulletproof hosting $230
4 days of botnet access $6800
Email addresses $4000
Total Costs $11,030
Net Profit $7690

A net profit of $7690 per week sounds very lucrative!