Electronic frontier not quite the promised land

I was bullish about the Net back in 1996. It really seemed like the exciting “”electronic frontier”” that people such as Howard Rheingold and Nicholas Negroponte promised it would be. I remember meeting up with an old high school friend whom I hadn’t seen almost since graduation, telling her about

the exciting things this information revolution was going to bequeath humanity.

Eight years later, as I chase another adware pop-up around my computer screen, I find myself rolling my eyes at the folly of youth. I’m hardly an enemy of electronic commerce, but I wonder what happened to the embryonic community we all sensed coalescing on the Internet.

The big Internet issues don’t bother me much. I don’t lose sleep worrying about worms and viruses or denial of service attacks. Indeed, when I think about the Internet with any depth at all — I save myself all kinds of worry by being generally very superficial when it comes to things technological — I mostly think about adware and spyware and whether some tiny cookie/applet/script/registry entry that was installed on the sly by some online huckster site will bring my computer to its knees.

I mean, hackers, as bad as they are, are really just online delinquents. You expect that kind of thing in any neighbourhood. What you don’t expect is for door-to-door salesmen to root through your mail, walk into your home and make themselves comfortable on your couch. But that’s just what the adware and spyware guys are doing.

The problem has become so acute it has spawned a sizeable anti-spyware/adware industry. Just do a search on Tucows or Google, and you’ll reap dozens of hits for scanning products with names like SpySweeper and SpyHunter. You need only install the right software to have your system scanned, and have all those annoying cyber-shills uncovered.

The only catch — and there is always a catch — is that while the scanning software is usually free, the spyware removal software is not. In effect, they’ll gladly tell you what the problem is as a public service, but fixing it is a business. I’m frankly touched by their community spirit, and I sometimes wonder if the spyware scanner guys are actually in business with the spyware guys.

What really steams my skivvies is the realization there is no reason for spyware to exist. The perpetrators are simply exploiting well-known holes in the Windows operating systems and Web browsers. The holes are there for a reason, of course; a great deal of the seamless functionality we demand from our office and home computers depends on easy access from across the network. On the other hand, they are security and — more importantly — privacy violations waiting to happen, not to mention annoying as all get out. You’d think someone would put a big icon in the start menu called “”kill adware”” or something.

It’s almost as though we’re expected to just accept it as a fact of 21st century life — to lie back, close our eyes and think of England every time we start a Web browser. At the end of the day, though, I wonder if there are many others out there, like me, who have just begun to lose their taste for the “”electronic frontier.””

Matthew Friedman is a Montréal-based freelance journalist.
[email protected]

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