Sunday, February 23 1997

Networking -- Meanies on the Web

Sevanti Ninan

The virtual world being a creation of people from the real world, the malaises that affect the latter are creeping into the former. Human nastiness is increasingly manifest here, too; after all, the anonymity of the Web makes attacks on unsuspecting and defenceless victim easy.

A new site which opened last week, Woman Halting Online Abuse, is linked directly to this phenomenon. Sexual harassment has been prevalent on the Web for some time, and the group intends to tackle it by documenting safe sites, unsafe sites, and providing resources to empower individuals who have been targets of such harassment. It plans to develop voluntary policies that a site administrator can adopt. A safe site, for instance, is a chat room which disallows abusive behaviour, or sexually explicit material. Unwanted sexual advances are forbidden; you cannot go into these chat rooms and ask questions like, ``Anyone wanna have Net sex?'' Flaming, or sending nasty messages to others who are online, is also not allowed.

To appreciate why such initiatives are needed, you have to understand the kind of things that happen on the Internet. One case which has been exhaustively documented is that of Jayne Hitchcock, a writer who found somebody posting phony ads against her name on bulletin boards on Usenet, and supplying her home address and phone number to boot. The ads invited people to share their sexual experiences with her for a book it claimed she was writing.

Women Halting Online Abuse (WHOA) says it has been moved to take this initiative because the fact is that on the Internet today, an unidentified person sitting at a keyboard can terrorise the life out of someone else. The two types of harassment that are common are unwelcome E-mail, and unacceptable behaviour during chats on the Internet Relay Chat Channel.

Rarer, but nastier, is stalking, which again is documented in case histories available at this site. Stalking is when you discover someone's online behaviour pattern, and follow her around to discussion groups, and let her know that she is being stalked. The place for much unwelcome action is Usenet, the network of bulletin boards and discussion groups, which is a popular sub-culture of the Internet. Nasty postings on the Usenet, targeting someone personally, can leave victims feeling quite intimidated and helpless.

Where E-mail harassment is concerned, one line of defence that has become available is Proc Mail, a UNIX utility which is used to scan incoming E-mail for key-words in the header or the body of the message, and then act on it accordingly. It helps to filter out messages from harassers. Groups like WHOA are lobbying to make Internet service providers aware of such problems so that they terminate the accounts of abusive users.

`Barton's Online Harassment Site', to which there is a link through WHOA, provides tips on how to avoid unpleasant situations. Making friends online is all right, but be careful about bringing those friendships offline, or setting up to meet someone in person. Don't respond to unsolicited E-mail. Be careful about what personal information you put out on the Web.

Women are not the only targets of meanies on the Web, corporations are too. The Reuters news agency reported last week that public relations firms are surfing the Net to find out if someone, somewhere is trashing a client, so that they can provide a corrective spin if required. Middleberg Associates, a mid-sized Manhattan firm, specialises in Internet monitoring. Its president says that the online world is the greatest boon to public relations he has seen in the 20 years he has been in business. Because getting nasty on the Web is so easy.

Bit by BYTE

VSNL has revised its Internet tariffs, so here's an analysis, done by the Cyber Community of India, of how each category of user is affected. One-time registration charges remain the same: Rs 500 for both TCP/IP users and terminal Dial-up (Shell account) users, and Rs 50 for student accounts.

The current flat charge of Rs 500, Rs 5,000 and Rs 15,000 for 500 hours for student, Shell and TCP/IP users respectively, has been revised and broken up into an annual maintenance charge, an hourly usage charge and a security deposit. Instead of giving users a flat 500 hours a year, VSNL now proposes to charge a fairly hefty security deposit, and then levy on hourly usage charge to be billed quarterly, in arrears.

At current rates, the effective cost per hour of Internet access works out to Rs 1, Rs 10, and Rs 30 respectively, for student, Shell and TCP/IP accounts. At the revised rates, this works out to an effective increase of 600 per cent in what students will pay for 500 hours of use (Rs 6 an hour), a 210 per cent increase for Shell account users (Rs 21 per hour), and an 140 per cent increase for TCP/IP account subscribers (Rs 42 an hour).