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Avoiding Internet Harassment, Part II

Okay, we’re talk­ing about avoid­ing inter­net harass­ment. In part one of this series I advised you not to use guest­books on your web site and to be care­ful about which chat rooms you use. Now we’ll talk about another kind of chat—instant mes­sag­ing programs.

Instant mes­sag­ing pro­grams are one of the most pop­u­lar appli­ca­tions peo­ple use, and there are many of them—ICQ, Yahoo Mes­sen­ger, AOL Instant Mes­sen­ger, etc. I don’t like chat enough to use the things, myself—but I have had to use or sup­port them at var­i­ous times in the past for pro­fes­sional rea­sons. I found that ICQ seems to have bet­ter pri­vacy pos­si­bil­i­ties than AOL’s Instant Mes­sen­ger or Yahoo Mes­sen­ger. The way I set it up, and how I sug­gest that oth­ers who have pri­vacy or secu­rity con­cerns set it up, is:

  1. Con­fir­ma­tion is required for any­one to add you to their con­tact lists.
  2. Don’t enter any infor­ma­tion in the pro­file. None. Not one word. You don’t have to do so to get an account with ICQ.
  3. Don’t accept mes­sages from any­one who isn’t on your con­tact list.
  4. Don’t accept any multiple-recipient, email express, or WWPager messages.
  5. Make sure that the “WebAware” non­sense is dis­abled (nobody hon­estly needs to know whether or not you’re online at any par­tic­u­lar time).
  6. Don’t allow any “direct connections”—if some­body wants to get a file of some sort to you, he or she can put it on an FTP site so that you can down­load it.
  7. After you’ve changed your set­tings, you might still get mes­sages from peo­ple who put you on their con­tact lists before you made the changes. Put those peo­ple on your ignore list. If that isn’t enough for you, make a new account and only give the num­ber to peo­ple with whom you desire contact.

If, after you’ve got your secu­rity and pri­vacy set­tings con­fig­ured prop­erly, you still some­how receive harass­ing mes­sages, it is pos­si­ble to get the sender’s last known IP address (although ICQ doesn’t guar­an­tee that it’s accu­rate). Do so and report the unwanted com­mu­ni­ca­tion to who­ever is respon­si­ble for the IP address (use a tool like Sam Spade’s whois to find out where to com­plain). Don’t bother try­ing to find a way to com­plain to ICQ—they don’t, appar­ently, accept com­plaints. In fact, read­ing their Terms of Ser­vice, it seems their atti­tude is “if you’re online, you might get harassed or hacked, and that’s your problem—not ours.”

Par­ents, please note that ICQ specif­i­cally says that any­one under 13 is not sup­posed to be using their sys­tem. I don’t know what the other instant mes­sag­ing ven­dors say, but please be care­ful about what your chil­dren are using, who they’re talk­ing to, and what they’re putting in the user pro­files of any pro­gram or other forum.

In part three we’ll talk about unmod­er­ated forums.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished Decem­ber 12, 2000

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