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A Family Tour Of The Internet: Online Basics, Behavior and Privacy

You're concerned about your kids on the Internet - and so are we. The Internet can be a great resource - if you and your children know how to use it. We take you through some of the do's and dont's of Internet surfing from a parent's perspective.

How Can We Access the Internet?

Since you are already online, you probably know that to access the Internet using a commercial online service (such as America Online or CompuServe) or an Internet access provider (such as your local telephone company), you should have your own user or screen name, as well as a password. The user or screen name provides the basis for your e-mail address and your online identity, while the password is the key used to access your family's Internet or online service account.

Things for Families to Think About

If your online service allows you to choose your own user name or screen name, you may want to create one that does not directly identify you or your family by name, in order to maintain your privacy. You might also consider choosing gender-neutral names.

Many people make up interesting and creative names to identify themselves online. But remember, an online name does not really identify a person. Your family should be aware that not all people online are who they say they are.

A password is the key that unlocks the Internet for your family. The first step to maintain control of your children's privacy is to decide whether they should have access to your account password which will allow them access to the Internet.

Passwords provide security so that no one else can use your online account. When creating a password, you may want to use an odd combination of letters and numbers that no one else will be able to guess easily. Remember, passwords are very similar to PINs (personal identification numbers) used by banks. They should never be given to anyone other than family members.

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What Exactly Is the Internet?

The Internet is a worldwide network of computers, including both personal computers and large networks. It allows people from around the world to talk to each other through text, graphics, and sound.

The Internet was designed to be an open network. That means it is accessible to many different people from many different places. It was not originally designed for privacy protection, but to communicate broadly and easily to anyone hooked up by computer around the world. Because of its open nature, whatever we do or say in public forums online (for example, in chat rooms or newsgroups) will be observable by others. It is also possible for anyone who sees your messages in public forums to send them to others or to keep a record of what you said without your knowing about it.

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How Can We Talk To Other People Online?

There are many different ways to communicate with people online. Some of them include:

E-mail is one of the most common ways to communicate online. This sort of communication is a lot like sending someone a letter. You can address an e-mail to a specific person or persons, and they can very easily respond back to you. Just as in a real letter conversation, there is a delay in communicating by e-mail; the person to whom you send a message can read and answer it at his or her own convenience. E-mail can be a private conversation between two persons, or it can be a shared communication between many people.

Chat Rooms
Another way for people to talk to each other online is in chat rooms. A chat room is a public place where many different people talk to each other as if they were talking in a real room. There is very little delay in communicating with other people in chat rooms (also called IRC -- or Internet Relay Chat). What you type is seen almost instantly world-wide, and those who are watching can respond immediately. Usually when you enter a chat room, the people in the room receive a notice that you are participating, and your user name will be shown on the roster of participants. You will also be able to see the names of the others participating in the conversation. Someone in the group, seeing that you have arrived, may choose to address some comments to you in front of the rest of the group. And sometimes a person will send you a private message that can't be seen by the others in the chat room. This can take place even if you don't type in a message to the group.

There are many thousands of newsgroups (or bulletin boards, as they are sometimes called) on the Internet, each devoted to a special area of discussion; for example, fans of a particular TV show, certain types of music, literature or science all have their own bulletin boards. There is no way to know who or how many people read a newsgroup. Unless you post your own message, no one will know you are there. A newsgroup is different from a chat room because you do not talk directly to other people instantaneously. Instead, people post messages and responses on various topics to be read at any time, much like a real-life bulletin board.

Mailing Lists or Listservs
A listserv is an e-mail service that allows individuals or organizations to send information to hundreds of people at one time. Listservs are similar to mailing lists in the real world and are operated by individuals, companies, and all types of organizations. When you subscribe to a listserv, you receive every piece of mail generated by that service, just like a mailing list where you receive all of the mail that an organization sends out. Some listservs only allow messages to be generated by the organizing company or individual; others let subscribers send their own messages to the participants on the service. Some mailing lists permit others to see the addresses of everyone on the list, but most do not. And some listservs announce to the others on the list when a new subscriber joins. You may also find "moderators" on some listservs who monitor the service and make sure the information being sent out is of interest to the people on the service.

Things for Families to Think About

E-mail, chat rooms, newsgroups, and listservers all provide children with a way to directly interact with other people, so it is important that families discuss appropriate behavior in all of these areas. Your family may want to establish rules about what can or cannot be said in these communications. Remember, some people may ask children to have a private conversation, and they may ask your children for personal information, such as their full name, address, or phone number. Families should establish their own rules for online communication.

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What is the World Wide Web?

Now let's take a closer look at the World Wide Web (WWW). The World Wide Web (or the Web, as it is usually called) is a part of the Internet which houses Web sites that provide text, graphics, and audio information on millions of topics. Web sites can be developed by companies, government agencies, schools, or other types of organizations. Even individuals and families can develop Web sites -- some even post pictures of themselves, their friends, their pets and other personal information.

The unique characteristic of the World Wide Web is that every screenful of information (commonly called a "page") usually has a number of pointers to other pages of information out in the Web. These pointers, or "links," are what give the Web its name; all of the links together form a web of information that spans the globe. "Surfing" the Web is actually exploring the different sites found within this web of links.

For more information on the World Wide Web, visit the World Wide Web Consortium. URLs
World Wide Web sites are identified by their URL or universal resource locator. The URL identifies the address or location of information on the World Wide Web, and it also can give you an indication of the type of organization that maintains the site.

For example, examining the URL (, we can determine that the site is located on the World Wide Web, is likely to be the site of The DMA, and is a site operated by a not-for-profit organization.

Other endings, or domains like ".org", indicate sites that belong to schools ".edu", government agencies ".gov" or commercial sites ".com". The official site for the White House ( ends in ".gov" because it is a site operated by the government. In the future, we may see more domain names which further identify the source of the site.

You can also identify a Web site operated outside of the U.S. by its domain name, such as ".fr" for French sites or ".jp" for Japanese sites. For example, we can determine that the site ( is a French site because it ends in ".fr."

Things for Families to Think About

While the URL gives a number of clues about the kind of information available within a certain Web site, you may sometimes find information on a site that you do not expect.

You may only want your children to visit certain parts of the World Wide Web. The URL and domain names may be one way to help you identify those areas with your children. However, it is important to remember that URLs and domains are not always accurate identifiers of information, and you may wish to look at sites yourself before your children visit them.

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How Do Businesses Work Online?

Many companies conduct business on the Internet using their own Web sites. Some also provide advertising which is displayed on the Web sites of other organizations. Advertisements online are different from advertisements in newspapers and magazines because on the Internet, you can choose to click on an ad, and move instantaneously to the Web site of the advertiser. You can also choose not to click on the advertisement at all.

Things for Families to Think About

To make certain that companies and advertisements you find online are authentic, you should look for information on the company's physical location, phone number, and mailing address. This information should be provided so that any consumer with a question can contact the company directly.

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How Can We Find Information Online?

If you do not already know the location or URL of information you want to find on the Web, you can look for specific content in a number of ways.

Search Engines
One of the most popular ways is by using search engines which allow people to locate information through the use of key words. Search engines provide a good starting place for finding information. However, just like old card catalogues in the local library, the few words you search may not always accurately indicate what you find if you visit the site.

Some search engines are designed specifically for children and offer information that is mostly of interest to them. One search engine you may want to try is called Yahooligans.

In the search field you can type part of a Web site address, key word or phrase about which you want to find information. Once you enter the search term or terms, the engine will identify a list of Web pages that match your request. From here, you can link directly to those pages by clicking on the bolded and/or underlined text that your search generated.

Things for Families to Think About

While some search engines are designed specifically for children, it is still important for parents to monitor their children's searches and the sites they visit.

In addition to using search engines, you can also find information just by "surfing" the Internet. You may have noticed that most Web sites offer links (or hyperlinks, as they are sometimes called) which take you directly from one site to another. Many times, Web sites will link to other places on the Internet which offer related information. By clicking on these links, you can move quickly through the Web. Links are usually underlined and colored differently from the regular text.You can move very easily and very quickly from one Web site to another without always knowing the kind of information that will be available on the next Web site.

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Can People Follow What We Do Online?

While you explore different Web sites, you and your children should be aware that your visits are not always anonymous. Webmasters can track the interests of their visitors in several ways.

Mouse Tracks
Some sites can immediately determine information about you when you visit that site, such as the type of computer system you use, the company you use to access the Internet, and the site you visited just before reaching your last stop. You can see the kinds of information your computer can automatically transmit by visiting the Center for Democracy and Technology's privacy demonstration.

Some Web sites electronically record information about your visit by automatically depositing a piece of information in the "cookie" file on your computer. The cookie that is deposited allows a Web site to keep track of information about your visit, including which parts of the site you visit and how long you visit those areas. This information helps site operators determine the most popular areas of their site, and it helps them improve what they offer. Cookies also allow for more efficiency when revisiting a site, by saving and later recognizing information you may have already registered with that site.

Some of the Other Benefits of Cookies
Your preferences for visiting a certain area of a site can be stored in your cookie file so the next time you return, the section you like best might already be up and ready for you.

You might be alerted to new areas of your interest when you return to a previously visited site.

Your past activity or purchases might be recorded in your cookie file so the site knows what you like and can give you better service when you return.

Things for Families to Think About

The file into which cookies are deposited is contained within the software you use to browse the Internet. Several of the most recent versions of browser software can notify you before a Web site places a cookie on your computer. Some browsers will let you deactivate the cookie file altogether if you choose. But remember, the cookie technology is used to help you move more efficiently online.

Web site operators can access information about their visitors in other ways, too. While some read information directly from your computer, others encourage visitors to register with their sites and ask people to enter their names, addresses, and some information about their interests. Some Web sites ask visitors to complete a survey or questionnaire before moving through the site. The information collected is used to determine who is visiting the site, what interests them, and what changes could be made to make the site or service better. With the help of this information, companies and other organizations can improve Web site content to match visitors' interests.

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What Do Companies Do to Maintain Privacy Online?

Many companies are sensitive to online privacy issues and work to maintain personal privacy online.

Privacy Policies
The Direct Marketing Association encourages companies and, in fact, organizations of all types to develop and post their own privacy policies on their Web sites. These policies should tell what information is collected when you visit a site and how that information is used. If you have a problem finding an organization's privacy policy, you should contact the company directly and ask for their policy. The DMA's privacy policy can be seen by clicking here.

Many companies and other organizations use encryption technology to "scramble" information they send online. Using this technology, information is "encrypted" or converted into a code which can be read only with the appropriate electronic key. Encryption increases the level of security for transmitting information online, so that you can more securely send financial information, such as credit card numbers and account numbers for banking and shopping online. To learn more about this technology, visit the Pretty Good Privacy Web site.

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How Can We Find Other People Online?

It is relatively easy to find information about people online. Several ways include:

Personal Directories
Directories, such as the Yahoo!, People Search, Switchboard, and Bigfoot, list e-mail addresses and other personal information, which may include names, addresses, and phone numbers, for public use. Another service, Deja News, can help find where people have posted messages in online newsgroups. These services can be valuable to help you find people, but you and your family may choose not to have your names and e-mail addresses referenced online. To remove your information, you should contact the service directory and ask to have your name removed.

Personal Bios or Profiles
Another way to find people is by looking for their personal biographies or profiles which are sometimes created by individuals and displayed by online services. These profiles can provide significant amounts of personal information for anyone to see without permission, and they are usually just a click away. You may choose not to complete a profile at all, or you may decide to limit the amount of personal information you provide. Also, it is important to remember that some people may create profiles that do not accurately describe who they are.

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