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Cyber Heroes!

By Annalee Newitz

YOU MAY HAVE thought that EarthLink was just a super crappy ISP founded by a Scientologist, but I've got news for you. It is, in point of fact, an organization that houses a secret cadre of superheroes. And they're not just superheroes, if you believe the pricey full-page ads EarthLink has bought on the back pages of certain entertainment magazines. They're Cyber Heroes, with capital letters and everything.

Of course, they are fighting "hackers, phishers and identity thieves" who come from "a dark cyberworld." It's enough to make you want to spell dude with two zeros. D00d! Cyber!

Our Cyber Heroes, a nice-looking multicultural bunch, are dressed in business casual and have superpowers like "scam slammer," "virus vanquisher" and "identity defender." Apparently none of the Cyber Heroes who work at EarthLink actually do useful things, like write secure code or design systems that protect users' personal communications with encryption.

Nor do they prevent EarthLink itself from running its own little scams. For example, even though I've requested that EarthLink shut down my account multiple times, they keep sending me bills in the vain hope that I'll forget I've shut my account down and start paying for it again.

But that's what's so great about this new EarthLink advertising campaign—it's a complete lie whose exuberant silliness represents everything we wish our ISPs were actually doing. Most people who use a company like EarthLink as a broadband provider are not very technically minded. To them, the Internet really is a "dark cyberworld" full of phantom creatures whose activities they understand so little that they might as well be reanimated aliens who eat radiation or whatever. These are exactly the people who want to believe that there are—as the ad promises—"a team of 2,000" Cyber Heroes who are protecting them against those nasty viruses and spyware thingies they've heard so much about.

In reality, though, EarthLink and dozens of ISPs like it are hardly fighting for truth and justice when it comes to protecting your computer from whatever threats are out there. In fact, they're often barely at the level of triage. They have elaborate systems for stopping phishing and spam email that might involve anything from not delivering mail sent by people whom a lot of users have complained about, to examining the content of email to see if they resemble emails that are from known scammers.

While these elaborate schemes are often ridiculous (and even, possibly, privacy-invading), what's worse it that it is incredibly rare for ISPs to reveal what exactly they're doing to stop viruses and unwanted mails. So your so-called Cyber Heroes may be protecting you, but you'll never know how they're doing it. Are they reading all your mail so that they can be your "identity defender" or "scam slammer"? Are they refusing to deliver email updates from activist group DownhillBattle.org because Downhill Battle's emails have been "vanquished" by some virus scanner?

Ultimately, EarthLink's Cyber Heroes are the ones helping to make that "cyberworld" so dark. By making their solutions to Internet ills seem like magic, they take power away from users and leave us helpless. That's why the Cyber Hero ad is so weirdly revelatory—when companies like EarthLink aren't open about what technical measures they're using to stop scams and viruses, they turn our broadband connections into lairs of incomprehensible cyberbadness. If we don't understand how we're being protected, and have no ability to modify the nature of that protection, it's like not being protected at all.

Of course it's no good to EarthLink or AOL or any of the big ISPs to have well-educated Internet users. If we all start setting up our own mail and web servers, they'll have no more business. And if all of us start using brilliant, free anti-spam programs like SpamAssassin—or independent anti-spyware products—we won't have to depend on those fake Cyber Heroes to protect us from the bad guys who want to plant ads on our desktops or use our computers to launch distributed denial of service attacks.

Sure, the reality is that most of us don't have time to tune our anti-spam filters every night and reboot our mail servers. But we can choose ISPs that don't condescend to us and tell us fairy stories about the "dark cyberworld." How about giving us solid, concrete information about how all those nasty viruses and scams are being stopped? Even better, how about giving us a good mechanism to complain when the "scam slammer" goes bad?

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who just keeps throwing those EarthLink bills away.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the July 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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