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Internetship: Good Citizenship on the Internet

By Nicholas R. Trio

The nature of the Internet has changed greatly over the years. Some changes have been good, such as the ability of many more people to access and offer

information on a global scale. Other changes are less desirable, such as users' exploiting the resources of the Internet without thinking about the consequences to others. What does it mean to be a good Internet citizen? Although there may never be a universally agreed upon set of policies that guide good Internet citizenship, we can begin by exploring patterns of behavior on the Net and how they affect the community at large.

The Internet as a Society

In recent years, the status of the Internet has become elevated to the degree that it is now frequently and commonly referred to as a place. Your business may exist in cyberspace. Your social life may be conducted in cyberspace. You may attend classes in cyberspace. Businesses build cybercafés, cybernewsstands, and cyber front offices. (Even the word build implies a physical structure.) Strangers meet in cyberspace. People feel comfortable enough to reveal themselves in cyberspace. You can disguise yourself in cyberspace. As acceptance of cyberspace as a place grows, so do the demands on the behavior of the inhabitants. The rules governing behavior in cyberspace provide evidence that the Internet has become a society.

A closer look at how we define society support the trends. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a society is "an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another . . . a community, nation, or broad grouping of people having common traditions, institutions, and collective activities and interests." Societies may be politically guided, spiritually guided, geographically guided, morally guided, or a com-bination of some or all of those. What we know--in spite of the never-ending discourses on the subject throughout history--is that societies make demands on the behavior patterns of their inhabitants. Within societies, people develop sets of shared behaviors and beliefs that become the rules of the road for that population.

The Internet is not bound by geography or politics or values, but by communications. In the less than 30 years that the Internet has existed in one form or another, a set of norms has developed that is due in large part to the cooperative nature of the development of the Internet itself.

Most newcomers to the Internet are quickly alerted to what are considered acceptable and unacceptable behavior patterns. Those rules of behavior are not new. More than 10 years ago, Rand Corporation published the report Toward an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail, which outlined many of the dos and don'ts of Internet behavior. "By presenting some initial guidelines for their use," write Norman Z. Shapiro and Robert H. Anderson, "[we] hope to accelerate the process by which social customs and behavior appropriate to electronic mail become established, and thereby accelerate the effective use of such systems." In newsgroups, a general consensus on proper usage has evolved. Those who engage in behavior that is believed to exploit the services and availability of the Internet without regard to the norms and long-term health of the Internet are frequently flushed out and shamed. Other measures of punishment are discussed and debated online.

But what do we mean by behavior that is detrimental to the health of the Internet?

Spamming: A Lazy Marketer's Dream Machine

It is unfortunate but true that much of what is perceived as wrong with the Internet can be traced directly to the desire to exploit the technology for financial gain. To be generous, the behavior that ensues may be regarded as growing pains as communications technology and business converge. In the international world of advertising, for example, there exists a philosophy that if you cast a wide net, you're likely to drag in a few propects. These are not new problems. Many of them have plagued the more traditional media-such as the postal and telephone services-for years. On the Internet, scams, chain letters, junk e-mail, and spamming wreak havoc in slightly different ways, causing not only overload on the network and resources but also loss of time and money to users.

Spamming-not to be confused with Spam, the meat product produced by and a trademark of the Hormel Corporation-refers to the act of sending unsolicited advertisements to large groups of individuals through the Internet, mainly through Usenet newsgroups but also via e-mail. Although it is a fairly new phenomenon, the act of spamming has picked up so much steam during the past year or two that Internet service providers (ISPs) worldwide are implementing policies to prohibit this kind of abuse of the Internet and its users. Abusers have been thrown out by their providers, but the clever ones are setting up their own shops. Cyber Promotions, Inc. (CPI), best known for having been kicked off as many as 20 different ISPs for sending unsolicited e-mail, announced in February that it will become an ISP itself. CPI plans to charge its customers $50 per month, enabling them to send unsolicited mass mailings as long as they allow users to remove themselves from such lists and they comply with local, state, and federal laws.

For an advertiser, especially one that isn't concerned with the prospect of aggravating a few thousand users in the hope of generating a few hot leads, spamming can be almost ir-resistible. One simple message can be blasted out to thousands if not millions of e-mail accounts without the inconvenience and expense typically associated with design, printing, distribution, and postage. The drain on the network is overwhelming. The drain on the user is no less noteworthy given that users bear the cost of downloading time.

Many spams are the result of ignorance. New users have something to sell or promote, and they see a list whose members share those interests. The users committing those acts are usually quickly made aware of their crime and shamed into changing their behavior. Other abusers are more sophisticated, and they rarely respond to shaming. In addition, the line that separates good and bad behavior in this regard is not always clear. Conference promotions, for example, frequently are distributed en masse via the Internet without raising the ire of users as long as the content is on topic.

Internetship and the Corporation

Companies are becoming increasingly aware that just about everything that happens on the Internet is open to the public. As much good as your corporation tries to do overall, bad press on the Internet can spread faster than ever imagined in any other media.

Companies need to foster the view that although they are in business to benefit stakeholders, strategies involving Internet technology that are not well thought out can be detrimental to both the companies and the Internet. For example, companies that buy large numbers of domain names in the interest of "getting the good ones" are operating in a state of panic. By sending the signal that they are more concerned with their own advertising than the effect it has on the infrastructure, they are opening themselves up to animosity. Companies may want to focus instead on developing brand equity through one domain name, which has worked quite nicely for companies such as Yahoo! (yahoo.com).

Trademarks, however, present different problems for companies, many of which now find themselves in the position of having to buy back their names from individuals who bought them before most companies realized the growing value of a domain name. The Internet Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC) is overseeing the creation of new domain names, building in mechanisms to make preemptive registration of domain names unnecessary (see http://www.iahc.org).

Companies Can Take Additional Action to Make Themselves Better Network Citizens

First, create a main Web site that serves as a launching-off point. This decreases confusion for users and reduces the appearance of Web pollution. Develop a good acceptable-use policy for your employees and projects. This not only helps your users understand their impact on company image when they use the Internetbut also offers a great tool for teaching how to use the Internet. In addition, it reduces employee fear, especially when employees know clearly what they should or should not do. And it minimizes the number of complaints received from the Internet community. Provide postmaster and abuse userids for people to send complaints, and respond to them in a timely manner. You will probably get requests for product and service information, so you may want to provide this service in addition to regular postmaster services. Be active in the Internet community, and share experiences at places like the IETF, Internet Society conferences, and other venues; give something back to the Internet community. Of course, you then get to be in on the cutting edge of Internet technology and help make those decisions.

Internetship and the Internet Service Provider

The only reason the Internet works at all is that ISPs collaborate to ensure each computer on the network can reach every other computer. This involves working together on network infrastructure, routing, domain name service, and everything else that keeps the Internet working.

The business of an ISP is critically dependent on being able to reach the rest of the Internet. Providers have a vested interest in maintaining connectivity and ensuring the health of the overall network. Customers are not likely to use an ISP if connectivity is limited.

The ISP serves an important function as gatekeeper to the rest of the Internet. An ISP that encourages abusive acts ultimately costs business, as others might decide to filter traffic from that piece of the Internet. A recent trend on the Internet is to block mail or network traffic from sites that have a propensity to foster spamming, junk e-mail, and other abusive behavior.

ISPs can help curb abuse of the Internet and foster good usage by adopting a clear acceptable-use policy (AUP) for customers and making abiding by the AUP a condition of continued Internet service. ISPs may also provide postmaster and abuse userids to receive complaints and respond to those complaints in a timely manner. In the world of universal connectivity, you may get complaints from people outside your own service. Be prepared to limit or terminate access by abusive users (those who violate your AUP). Although providers tend to think of themselves as simply people who provide access, policing is actually beneficial to the longevity of your business. ISPs must also work with other ISPs to develop better AUPs.

The acceptable-use policy is the most important piece of information the ISP can provide its customers, as it clearly educates users as to what is considered inappropriate when using the Internet. The AUP also protects the ISP if access has to be terminated.

Internetship and the Individual

There are few places an individual can be more readily noticed as on the Internet. Before putting up your Web site, however, or posting your Usenet article, or sending out that e-mail to a mailing list, think about the impact you're going to have. Is it something you'd want to receive? Is it appropriate for the audience? Will it cause your Internet provider to bounce you off the network?

Users should take the time to understand the AUPs of their ISPs or whatever entity is providing Internet service-such as a school or business-and learn about using the medium before starting to post information. For example, a user who wants to post to a particular Usenet newsgroup should first read the frequently asked questions (FAQs) for that newsgroup-if a FAQ exists-or else read the newsgroup for a while to get an appreciation for the nature of the group.

If you encounter abuse, the most common response is to send a note to the postmaster at the domain name involved. But even though this is an acceptable response, you'll need to be patient. If you received the spam, chances are thousands of others may have too and they may be sending complaints along with yours. Take it from one who handles postmaster@ibm.com: the postmasters do want to fix the situation.

Mail bombing (sending re-peated e-mail to the abuser) or attempting to flood the host is not the best option, because it disrupts the network. The same can be said for programs that automatically cancel Usenet newspostings from the perceived offender. Imagine if you as the user made an honest mistake and posted something more widely than you should have. How would you want to be treated?

For more information on handling network abuse, see [Falk96].

Making the Internet a Better Place

Because no one body runs the Internet, it's difficult to find a single entity to turn to for a code of conduct. This is further complicated by the fact that this is an international community, which crosses many borders with various laws and customs.

Ideally, a community effort involving the ISPs, the several Internet bodies such as the Internet Society and the technical community, and other interested parties should come together to attempt to form a consensus of what is good usage of the Internet, such as now exists for the new Internet global Top Level Domains.

But it also comes down to individual entities on the Internet-such as businesses, ISPs, and users to truly make the Internet a better place to communicate.

End Notes

Falk, J. D., and many, many others. The Net Abuse FAQ. Available at http://www.cybernothing.org/faqs/net-abuse-faq.html.

Furr, Joel. Advertising on Usenet: How to Do It, How Not to Do It. Available at http://www.danger.com/advo.html.

Toward an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail. Norman Z. Shapiro and Robert H. Anderson. Rand Corporation. 1985.

Trio, Nicholas R. "What's in a Name? New Challenges for DNS," OnTheInternet, September/October 1996.

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