wiki:WebInfoPamphlet

Version 12 (modified by alfredo, 13 years ago) (diff)

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Making Good Internet Decisions

We all use the Internet and most of us don't know more about than we have to. For most of us, it's a tool and we can use tools without understanding how they work. But the Internet isn't a "neutral" tool like a hammer or a calculator. It's a mass movement, an arena of very intense political struggle over its present and future and, because it involves more than a billion people, a place for us to work around all struggles, issues and movements we're involved in. The choices you make about the Internet affect its potential for you and your work. They can either contain your experience and force you into the control of some large corporation or allow you to grow and broaden your experience and the effectiveness of your work. More than that, these choices have an impact on the rest of the Internet and the rest of the progressive movement. Because, as with any issue or struggle, there are responsible choices to make about your Internet work and there are choices that are simply irresponsible. To help you think about those choices, we have put together some information about some of theimportant Internet issues and choices we think you should be aware of. We've divided this information into two parts: security and control.

Security Every progressive understands the importance of security but, on the Internet, the concept takes on a whole other meaning and very different details. This is because the Internet functions on a public communications system and when something is public the potential for abuse, theft of data and disruption of communications is enhanced. Our movement can't take chances with that kind of abuse. Are you able to use encrypted connections? Even if your use the Internet is mainly for very public communications, there is always some information that should remain private: a password, members list, payment info, content of a sensitive email. If someone gets access to this information, they can steal your data, wreck your website and even wreck other sites on your server. The security of your connection is a political issue and one that affects everyone else sharing a server with you. Here's what we think you should use: For uploading files to your website use SFTP (for Secure FTP). Regular FTP, File Transfer Protocol, is completely insecure and anyone with the right programs can steal all your data in transmission. Take note because most commercial providers still use ftp and don't even offer sftp as an option. .They don't really care if your information is stolen. If that's the case with yours, change providers immediately. For sensitive interactions on your website (like many forms, for example), always use https (or secure layers). This requires a certificate and probably some cooperation from your provider but everything we just said about ftp is a thousand times more true with http (hypter-text transfer protocol). To be clear, regular http is wonderful; it's the lifeline of the web. It's also designed for transparent communications between visitor and site. Transparent means anybody can see it; if there is something you don't want everyone to see, you need secure http. If a provider doesn't facilitate https, leave that provider. The same is true for webmail. Since this has become so popular, most providers offer it as a service and for many people it has actually become the primary "client" for email. If you check email on the web and you don't have a secure connection, anybody can see your email with the proper software. All webmail should use https. For email itself, does your provider use starttls so all email data is encrypted from point-to-point with other email providers using starttls? Starttls is not common among commercial providers and it's possible that the provider's rep you're talking to won't even know what you're talking about. But consciousness of this "security trigger" is as important as anything we've talked about here. Normally your email is sent from your provider's mail server to the recipient provider's mail server in plain text, usually traveling through a half dozen routers controlled by the largest telecommunications providers on the planet, all of whom have the technical capacity to read the message (and, of course, turn it over to any government authority who wants it). On the other hand, if both providers use starttls, your communication will be encrypted from end-to-end. Insist on this with your provider and also insist that the provider also support OpenGPG. OpenGPG is a way to encrypt your individual email messages. This software is typically the responsibility of the user to install on their own workstation. However, it's important for your Internet provider to be aware of it and provide support and education on how to use it. Those four terms -- sftp, htts, starttls and OpenGPG – form the basis of good security practices for a progressive activist. They should be part of your Internet functioning and your provider should be making that possible.

Control Most people who use the Internet either think they are in control of their experience or don't think about it at all. But control is fundamental to a progressive approach to the Internet. It means that we can not only preserve and protect our Internet functioning but can more easily contribute to the Internet's future. Remember that there are people, mostly companies, that want to control the Internet for you and, if they can control the way you use the Internet, they can control what you use it for and what you say on it. And, sooner or later, they will. Content and Access You should have full control of your content and complete access to it. One area of content attack is the cease and desist letter. At some point, you or an organization you work with is going to get a cease and desist letter from a company, an individual, another organization or the government. These letters are designed to stop you from doing something you're doing on line. Often they have to do with copyright infringements but we've seen such letter provoked by expressions of opinion or information about some company or government agency. Many providers have a knee-jerk reaction to these letters. They give you a day to pull the material and, if you don't, they take your website down. After all, they're there for the money and any potential legal difficulty (even answering a lawyer's letter) isn't worth what you're paying. In reality, cease and desist letters are usually bogus and if the complaint is legitimate, a court can decide or you can negotiate with the letter-writer. Providers have no right to act unilaterally or threateningly towards you. If something is so offensive that it shouldn't be on a provider's servers, they should discuss that with you and take action on their own. Otherwise, if it's not too offensive to be on-line, it deserves to be on-line. A very prominent issue around access is shell access. You may not know about it or even use it but there's a "layer" of functioning beneath your website display and beneath "protocols" like sftp. It's call "shell access" and it means that you can use a "command line program" to get into your directories and files and interact directly with the file and operating system. Most of us won't use this but, if we need to (or we have a techie in to work on some aspect of our website), it should be available. In principle it represents real control over your website and your data. Good providers offer command line access; those who don't aren't. And then there's Domain Name conrol. This is quite possibly the most torturous lesson many experienced activists learn on the Internet. We see this all the time. You'll frequently find hosting providers who offer you "domain registration" and "monthly hosting." You sign up because it looks like a good deal. But when you want to move your site to another host, you run into all kinds of "contract clauses" and payment requirements and, in the end, you can't move the domain, the old provider must do it for you (and often charge you extra for that). You are in domain prison and this is unethical and fundamentally reactionary ... and among the most common and even encouraged abuses on the Internet. DNS and hosting are two different activities and people can't do both legally. DNS is the address of your domain and it's handled by a select group of companies with special programs and systems to do that. All they do is register your domain and then point people to the hosting provider who is handling your data. Hosting is what it implies. Your website, email and other Internet resources are “hosted” and “served” by the provider. Providers have no control over your DNS. What's happening is that your hosting company has a semi-hidden deal with a DNS registrar. They're actually registering your domain for you. This may seem more convenient but it takes away your power over your website and that's as bad politically as it gets. The right way to do it is: the person who owns the website should own the registration. You go register it and the hosting provider then makes sure it resolves to your site. Control over what you send and receive The most egregious attack on this obvious right is spam control. We have a lot written on this issue because it is among the Internet's most important. So we'll summarize: All spam should be passed on to the user who should be able to make the choices about what to do with it. This is a perfectly effective approach although it requires a bit of work on the user's part. There are several good server programs that can "guess" what's spam and what's not with a remarkably high degree of accuracy. Then they flag suspect email and the user decides whether to set up email so he/she can review the "spam flagged" email individually or filter it into some spam box automatically. What you don't want is a provider making those choices for you: filtering spam and destroying it, blocking it, or what's worse, rejecting and blocking the server that sent it (called blacklisting...aptly). Your provider has no right to determine the content you should receive; no company should even be allowed to make those choice for you. That's all the more important because of the definition many providers have of “spam”: mass email or email to a list of people the sender doesn't know. Here's the critical issue we must all understand: if the mailer can reasonably expect that you'll be interested in the material you're receiving, that is protected speech and not spam. That's the law and it's a law our movement has fought for over a century to create, enforce and protect. It's fundamental to our ability to communicate and organize. If we can't send email to people we don't know, we're not going to reach people we need to inform. Things get much worse with blacklisting, an abuse that is a cousin of irresponsible spam control. If someone is "turned in" for spamming, some providers will block that person's IP address and that blocks the entire server which means that nobody on that server (and there are often hundreds of other users) can communicate with people who the acting provider hosts. If that's a large company, like AOL, hundreds of activists will be blocked from reaching thousands and even tens of thousands of people including people they normally email with. It is the worst kind of arbitrary blockage of free speech. Intrusive spam control and blacklisting are simply not acceptable and a provider that does those things shouldn't be your provider.

Summing Up

If you weren't aware of what we've written here, you're not alone and there's not shame in it. Most of us don't know these things because the corporate Internet doesn't discuss them, at least not in a progressive way. But we think we should all at least be aware of these issues when we make our choices. You may decide, for good reasons, that a provider that doesn't comply with good practices in some of these areas is still the best one for you. The point is to be aware of what you're giving up so you can make these decisions constructively and responsibly. And we are... May First/People Link, an organization of more than 260 progressive organizations and people who pool our resources and our work to build an alternative to corporate hosting, facilitate our movement's work in the Internet, and organize the Internet to more fully realize its enormous, historic potential. Needless to say, we comply with the progressive practices we've outline above...and a lot more. We're also among the oldest “providers” in the world. For information about our work and how to become part of our organization, visit our website: http://www.mayfirst.org and thanks for reading this. Keep it and pass it along to someone you think should be thinking about these issues.

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