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A shy young woman sits among her fellow college students in a computer lab, researching a paper on the U. S. military. She types in the web address, “www.whitehouse.com,” only to be stunned by pictures of nude men and women engaging in various sex acts. Frantic, she calls her instructor over, who attempts to close the site. His efforts are fruitless, as dozens of pop-up ads for other porn sites fly up faster than he can close them. Finally, he is forced to reboot the computer, and the young woman loses all the research she has not saved.


I was the frustrated instructor who had to deal with this incident. This and similar incidents which have occurred in the classroom have raised questions for me concerning the lack of ethical fiber of those persons who infiltrate our computers or deceive us with clever distortions of our expectations.


I have no doubt that countless students and others have made the same mistake as my students in their attempts to access the White House’s website (which can be reached at www.whitehouse.gov). The university where I work has a fulltime staff of computer personnel who have installed the latest technology to prevent spam, pop-up ads, and trojan horses from infiltrating the school’s system, yet their efforts cannot be completely effective, as new spam and advertising technology consistently circumvents updated blocking and PC protection programs.


If professionals can’t stop unwanted intrusions, what success can the average PC user expect to have? Are our computers safe from those capitalists who worm their way into our home and office computers, even if we follow all the installation instructions that come with our software, turn on the highest level of parental controls our ISPs provide, and regularly clean out the history and temporary internet files? Hardly. Most computer users, myself included, lack the knowledge to protect ourselves from these internet prowlers or to remove them from our systems once they invade. And we have little chance of developing the necessary skills, since breaking into home PCs and developing programs to prevent break-ins have become multi-million dollar industries, working nonstop to stay one step ahead of the one another.


As our society is increasingly computer-dependent, the number of unethical persons seeking to encroach upon our personal computing life rises as well. The key word here is “unethical.” According to Drs. Richard Paul and Linda Elder, of the Foundation for Critical Thinking,


t is ethically wrong to cheat, deceive, exploit, abuse, harm or steal from others, that we have an ethical responsibility to respect the rights of others, including their freedom and well-being, to help those most in need of help, to seek the common good and not merely our own self-interest and egocentric pleasures, and to strive to make the world more just and humane.


Clearly, those parties responsible for most spam mail, trojan horses, and spy-ware lack ethical principles, as they expose children to pornography and steal our computer identities through “cookies” and other hidden files which embed themselves deep in our hard drives.


Were a businessman to show pornographic videos to a child or install hidden cameras in his competitor’s place of business, he would go to jail. However, when the offenses are committed on the internet, too often the reaction is, “What’s the harm? You have to expect this on the internet.” The harm lies in the inconsistency: unethical behavior is permitted in one segment but is unthinkable in another. The businesses who commit these offenses deceive (as the White House porn site does, knowing full well many visitors arrive by there by accident) and steal (through recording information from your hard drive), and they do not respect PC users’ privacy.


Still, ethical behavior on the internet is hardly new. People lie in their personal profiles (“I’m a six-foot two, 185 lb., tanned Adonis, with a fat bank account, winning personality, and 10” dick”). Pedophiles have found the web a great place to sweet-talk victims into making tragic and often deadly mistakes. And scam artists steal credit information and get away with our cash. (Just days ago, I received an e-mail notifying me that a complete stranger had died and left me $7 million, which I would get as soon as the lawyer received all my personal information, necessary to transfer the funds.)


But my focus here is not the work of individual lawbreakers or misguided souls stretching the truth as they seek love or sex. It is the work of businesses and corporations, and it is almost entirely legal.


Lawmakers are just now realizing the problems that typical computer users face when they sign on to the internet, and have introduced legislation to curb spam e-mail and imprison spammers who practice deception. (Spam e-mail is any unsolicited mail not of a personal nature.) Within the past week, two Congressional committees held hearings to consider pending legislation and leaders expect some bill to be passed by the end of the year, most likely in the form of an “opt-out” choice for computer users similar to the “opt-out” choice now available regulating telemarketing calls. In her 8 May 2003, article entitled “Inbox Intruders,” Ellen Goodman of The Boston Globe mentions that AOL alone blocks over two billion pieces of spam a day, and businesses annually lose $10 billion in work productivity as employees sit at their work stations deleting unwanted e-mail.


As annoying as it may be, though, spam is just the tip of the iceberg. Far more disturbing are pop-up ads, those pages that appear without invitation while you surf the web. The problem is complicated by legitimate advertising, as it is not unreasonable for some websites to use pop-ups. Take, for instance, online newspapers, usually available free of charge. If everyone started to read the paper online, publishers would lose vast amounts of revenue. So, the sites ask readers to endure some pop-up ads as a trade off for the convenience of reading for free.


Still, many pop-ups appear regardless of the website surfers are utilizing. One prevalent ad promises to provide computer users with protection from undesirable invasions of their privacy. A visit to the website advertised showed that the creator of the “protection” had no more ethics than racketeers who promise businesses protection from robbery. Once someone pays to download the program, she will no longer be bothered by the annoying advertisements that the website itself has been forcing on the user. In other words, “Pay us to stop bothering you.”


The most controversial example of this sort of ad is Gator, which has faced lawsuits from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Dow Jones, L. L. Bean, Extended Stay America, and Lending Tree.Com, among others, within the last year. These suits maintain that Gator engages in unethical business practices by advertising a site’s competition on the original site. A study by Harvard University found that those who visit Expedia.com will receive pop-up ads for rivals Orbitz, Travelocity.com, Priceline.com, and Cheap Tickets. However, instead of appearing while a user is at Expedia.com, the pop-up ads will not appear until later, often several hours later, while a user may be visiting a completely unrelated site. Imagine going to Target to shop, only to have a representative of Wal-Mart, who watched you as you shopped earlier, show up hours later, to solicit your business.


For a starting price of $25,000, clients of Gator will not only get advertising, they will also get to know the surfer habits of PC users, as Gator’s programs embed themselves in hard drives and collect information on users’ surfing habits, to report them to Gator’s central mainframe. Gator and similar advertisers argue that they use the information not to spy on an individual’s surfing habits, but to compile information for larger trend analysis. So, Gator claims the personal PC user needn’t worry that someone knows he visits adult websites, but Gator can report on such sites’ popularity. For all the rationalizing, a bottom line remains: advertising your business is ethical; spying on your competitor’s customers to target them for advertising is not.


These companies are not the only ones spying on PC users. Some online companies send trojan horses into hard drives, retrieving data and sending it to the home source. And, while most cookies which users download are harmless and make surfing the web much easier, especially if the user returns to the same sites frequently, many of the cookies downloaded from sites are “tracking” cookies—small files that install dialers on a user’s PC, which enables the source of the cookie to dial into the computer and retrieve information whenever the computer has internet access.


The largest collector of such data is the largest provider of computer services—Microsoft. Anytime a user is online, he allows Microsoft full access to whatever he has in his computer. In addition, Windows Media keeps a record of where users travel, as do CD players, which keep track of what is being played. This is completely legal, and most users don’t realize that they have given Microsoft legal permission to spy by installing Microsoft software on their computer. Users of Microsoft products do not buy their operating systems, they lease them. So, even if you paid big bucks for your new copy of Windows XP, you do not own the disks you received.


The fee you paid is similar to the fee paid to a car rental company—you can use the car, but Budget still has the final say in what and how the car is maintained. Granted, Microsoft users can protect themselves from unwanted intrusions from the corporate giant and others, but they must possess computer programming knowledge to be effective. For instance, to protect themselves after installing the company’s new operating system, Windows 2003, users must read and comprehend two manuals, “Windows 2003 Security Guide” and “Threats and Countermeasures,” each almost 300 pages long.


While computer experts laud Microsoft’s efforts to increase security measures in its new systems, they have three major complaints. First, as I mentioned, most users lack the necessary technological knowledge to make the security systems efficient. Second, although users can turn off or on individual features of the system, once a user logs on to the web, Microsoft has the ability to change or alter the features in that person’s PC as the company decides.


And third, final analysis of whether or not the new features are effective will take up to a year and a half, during which time Microsoft plans to introduce new operating systems with even more features to regulate. Microsoft clearly fails to take the average computer user’s needs and desires into consideration, instead focusing its efforts on installing systems that benefit Microsoft more than the user.


Microsoft’s ethical track record has long been questionable, both as a workplace and a technology provider. A 2003 survey by Business Ethics magazine ranked Microsoft behind all other major computer manufacturers and service providers, except Dell, on such ethical considerations as “community, employee, and customer relations”; “diversity”; and “work environment.” Rushworth M. Kidder of the Institute of Global Ethics argued in a 2000 article posted on the group’s website, “If ever we needed proof that corporate ethics matters, that it can affect the lives of millions worldwide,” it is in Microsoft’s monopolization and restraint-of-trade activities.


Finally, and most condemning, is a study entitled An Ethical Analysis of Microsoft, conducted at Stanford University and posted on the University’s website, which concludes, “When it all comes down to it, from a utilitarian standpoint it is almost impossible for Microsoft to be considered ethical. They seem to have a bad habit of abusing their excessive power.”


Recently, Microsoft and AOL settled a lawsuit, to allow interfaces between Microsoft and AOL software to work together with fewer problems. While AOL’s objective is to push its own web browser, Netscape Navigator, it needs Microsoft’s cooperation to do so, as Microsoft has programmed its software to work almost exclusively with its own browser, Internet Explorer. Whether this marriage will be successful or how long it will take remains to be seen.


As the companies are self-interested and Congress is obviously behind the curve of advancing technology, the burden of protection lies with the individual user. Unfortunately, unless a person is willing to spend the countless hours needed to become a techie, her options are limited. The Stanford study suggests three things that users can do. First, get educated. Don’t rely on what Microsoft or individual ISPs tell you. Read reports from independent sources about the systems you install on your computer, in the same manner that you might read consumer information regarding a potential new car. Two excellent sites are Black Viper’s homepage (www.blackviper.com), a website created by an independent computer aficionado, explaining the latest programs, and Tech TV’s homepage (www.techtv.com), which translates complex procedures into layman’s terms.


Second, create “watchdogs”, individuals or groups who monitor and report on the work of computer technology providers and ISPs. Visiting bulletin boards and chat rooms of existing watchdogs can give a user a good idea of the experiences others have with various programs. Doing a search on your favorite search engine can also lead you to independent users’ webpages, relating their problems and offering advice, if you don’t have the time to become a “watchdog” yourself.


Third, act ethically. If Microsoft or individual webpages conduct their businesses in ways that are objectionable to you, don’t support them. Mac users report much fewer problems in all the areas discussed here. Jesse Berst, Editorial Director of ZDNet, concludes in that network’s Shopping Guide that Macs are easier to set up and supplement to, easier to use, and more reliable than Microsoft’s Windows.


While Mac products may not be compatible with your work computer, it may still be worth the problems you encounter to deny your business to Microsoft. (If you have a Mac at home and Windows at work, instead of saving work to a disc on your Mac, cut and paste the work into an e-mail, send it to your work address, then cut and paste it into your work computer’s word processing program.) Further, corporations relying on Microsoft technology should hold the company accountable for the services purchased. No company would purchase a new machine for its production line with the promise that the manufacturer would know in a year and a half if the machine is safe or not, as Microsoft has done with Windows 2003, so why should they let Microsoft get away with it?


Beyond that, users can download numerous free programs to help keep unwanted cookies, spyware, trojan horses, and dialers out of their hard drives. Two of the best are Spy-bot, which can be found at www.spybot.com, and Ad Aware, from www.lavasoft.com. Both of these programs are easy to download, easy to use, and frequently updated to keep up with the advances in spyware technology. The programs will identify not only what unwanted files have been placed on your computer, but tell you where they came from and what kind of information they are collecting. Then the programs safely and quickly delete all traces of the unwanted programs from your computer. Once you identify intruders, feel free to notify them by e-mail that you think their practices are despicable.


Unfortunately, making similar complaints to spammers is usually a wasted effort, as return e-mail addresses tend to be bogus. Use common sense when dealing with any unsolicited e-mail, and never provide personal information of any kind to someone you don’t know to be reputable, regardless of how legitimate he may sound.


In essence, there is little that individual computer users can do to change the unethical behavior of corporations whose business is conducted through the web, any more than they can stop the local butcher from padding the scales. Most effective self-protective strategies include raising your awareness and voices, and withholding your dollars. Once corporations who use pop-up ads know that they are doing more harm than good, once Microsoft sees more and more of its clients switching to other operating systems, and once businesses who spy run into tighter security and are barraged with complaints—only then, might we see some changes in the ethics of these companies. As usual, change starts with us.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


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