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The Dark Side of the Web

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The anonymity of chat lets users add fantasy for fun and, for most, chat is a relaxation, for 'shut-ins' it provides social contact. At its best it is as refreshing as an evening with friends at the local with one advantage 'cyber' drinks don't leave hangovers. BUT that anonymity can turn chat into an unpleasant experience. The stalker, the persistent dc'er, the abusive and offensive, the pervert - male or female, young or old - can turn chat into a depressing or frightening time.

The problem
The problem is two fold, firstly the offence itself and, secondly making others see an offence has been committed. Internet abuse or stalking is a crime but, as seen by the US experience, the police, authorities, servers and other chatters may see the victim's response as 'hysterical'. Often fears are dismissed as 'over reaction', and the victim told it is something 'to deal with and accept'. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Abusive or offensive behaviour, threats to damage a computer, or 'I know who you are and will come and get you', or the hint that a member of the family is being kept as hostage, usually couched in strong language, often with sexual overtones, are worrying and frightening and may be classed as harassment. Also in this category comes the use of programmes to 'nuke' other computer users or to throw chatters out of chat rooms, in the latter case registered 'moderators' in chat rooms do have this facility if a chatter is deemed to have acted offensively or abused other chatters. In the UK this is a CRIMINAL offence under the Anti Harassment Law of 1996.

A television programme (The Net March 2, 1998 - 23.15pm) highlighted 'stalking' on the Internet. A spokesperson for 'Cyber Angels' in the US said they are dealing with two cases which started as Internet stalking, one woman was raped, another is in hospital with 46 stitches in her head.

Internet stalking is as unpleasant and frightening as any similar criminal offence - persistent and abusive anonymous phone calls, poison pen letters or physical stalking. Even the antics of juveniles ranging from 'talking dirty' to suggestions that chatters commit suicide or have accidents are unacceptable.

In the first quarter of 1999 a case was tried and the perpetrator found guilty and given a custodial sentence.

The solutions
Ultimately the solution is laws and technology that deal with Internet abuse, however in the UK our current laws although not specifically mentioning the Internet can be used to prosecute to offenders. 'Turn off your computer' is not an option. Anyone should be able to enjoy social contact or recreation safely and that includes on the Internet. Victims of similar criminal activities are not told to take out the telephone or nail up the letter box. 'Turning off your computer' could mean the Internet being handed on a platter to the criminal element.

Keep your own logs - most chat programmes allow users the facility to log chat use this and keep it - ask if other chatters have kept copies of their chat logs for the relevant dates.

Servers keep logs of connections, these should enable a server to trace the user id of specific nicknames. The much publicized low security of Microsoft Programmes and the controversial unique 32 bit binary code these insert in documents produced by individual computers can be of help in tracing an abuser. It was just this facility that allowed the FBI to catch up with the originator of the Melissa Virus.

Servers could introduce a system of written warning prior to cutting the connection, this would mean closing the users account, not just blocking from the chat room for a short period. For perpetrators who access chat from their work it might mean a company would find their Internet connection unavailable and the server unwilling to re-instate it without guarantees it would not be used for illegal purposes. Servers could circulate details of connections curtailed, enabling other servers to ban the connection or agree only under strict regulation, rather like credit listing companies

Servers must do more to train moderators, including informing them of the law regarding harassment, and give moderators the power to keep persistent offenders out of chat. At present many servers have connections which let users change IP addresses by logging off and logging on again, moderators should have facilities allowing them to check the user id of persistent offenders so changing the IP address would not hide the user id. Perhaps future developments will give all users permanent IP addresses, thus enabling them to be more quickly traced.

In open rooms there is little protection from these perverts, other than asking a moderator to 'kick' an offender or to use the ignore option. Victims are often told put the offender on 'ignore', disregarding the fact this can slow chat down - which effectively punishes the victim - not the perpetrator. Many times a moderator will only remove an offender from the room when certain criteria are reached - more than one chatter has to complain, the offender uses explicit language or floods the screen. Rarely will servers instruct moderators to remove an offender because one person has been made a victim. Codes of practice have to be formulated which protect chatters, and servers have to give their moderators the powers to be able to stop these persistent offenders coming back in to a room once they have been 'kicked'.

In your own hands
You can stop some problems
by checking to ignore a user in chat rooms, many chat programmes have different levels you can choose: e.g: ignore requests for private chat (dcs), or ignore all messages - even those in the room from a particular user.

Don't put personal details on chat profiles - omit your name, address, telephone, fax or e-mail address

Never arrange to personally meet a chatter - flirt in dc, but keep it there don't take it off your computer screen

Never give your telephone number in chat

Do not put your e-mail address on registers
- especially when they request personal details such as real name, sex, address and telephone number - these can be used to trace your whereabouts.

If someone is threatening or harassing you - inform the moderators, then your server, you may feel you should inform the police (if you and your server are in the UK harassment IS a criminal action), you MUST contact the police if you have reason to believe there might be an attempt by the offender to make personal contact.

Never accept files - those threats to damage your computer can only become real with YOUR assistance.

Make sure you have anti virus software - Norton do versions for both pcs and macs, run these regularly if you use discs or files from other sources.

If you really do have to take a file from someone you don't know, run your anti virus programme and turn off macros before opening it. Many virus around now are not attached to programmes but to the macros in documents

Never believe you must learn to deal with harassment or give in and turn off your computer. You pay for your subscription to the servers, you pay for the telephone connection, so are in the ludicrous position of paying to have someone criminally harass you. There is a UK law against harassment - use it - make your server use it - make the moderators use it - and make the perpetrators aware they are breaking the law.
Ieke, mcij, maip
Member, Association of Internet Professional

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