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Looking out for users

We've all heard about practicing safe sex. But safe broadband?

Increasingly, Internet service providers are taking on the challenges of protecting Internet users rather than leaving it up to them to keep miscreants from taking over their computers.

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After years of being warned to use firewalls and anti-virus protections, people still don't understand that it's a jungle out there and they need to arm themselves for protection, some ISP owners say.

"I think most people don't even think about this," said David Troy, chief executive officer of ToadNet, an ISP based in Severna Park that has about 30,000 users. "I think they feel in general, 'Oh, gee, this should be Microsoft's job.' I think tech heads worry about it, but the average person and average business person thinks the technology is good enough that they don't even have to worry about it."

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Perhaps they should. New viruses pop up far too frequently. And just when it seems your computer is working properly, something can go wrong.

To that end, many ISPs offer protections to aid their customers, with some providing more assistance than others. Some ISPs do most of the protection work so that consumers don't have to think about it.

"Some people aren't computer savvy," said Tatiana Gau, chief trust officer and senior vice president for AOL. "That's why AOL Broadband has designed these things such that the user doesn't have to worry about it. AOL does it for you. In our AOL Broadband product, we do automatic anti-virus scanning. It happens every time a piece of mail comes in with a document or an attachment."

Similarly, Gau said, AOL Broadband users get built-in firewall protection with their service. "Basically, rather than having a customer have to go out and buy firewall software and have it turned on and configured, with AOL Broadband we basically offer it as part of the product without the consumer having to do anything. It's just automatically there," Gau said.

Unprotected households

A study released by the National Cyber Security Alliance in early June showed that more than two-thirds of surveyed households lacked properly configured firewalls; 62 percent didn't have recently updated anti-virus protection; and virtually none of the households with children used parental controls.

Sarah Eder, a Comcast corporate spokeswoman, said the cable giant takes Internet security seriously and provides helpful tips on its Web site for broadband users. The topic for the tips changes monthly, she said. Last month on Comcast's home page, parents could find tips on ways to keep their children safe on the Internet.

The Federal Trade Commission also gives Internet tips on its Web site and offers consumer-friendly publications on ways to protect yourself from online hazards.

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Eder said that when people sign up for Comcast's high-speed Internet service, they receive free firewall protection for a year.

"We work with McAfee to provide that free firewall, and then after a year customers can choose to subscribe if they wish, for $29.95 per year," Eder said.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable television provider, has more than 4 million Internet customers, Eder said. Yet unlike Troy and Gau, Eder said she believes that most computer owners do think about safe broadband, with anti-spam protection probably chief among their concerns.

Sue Ashdown, executive director of the American ISP Association, based in Washington, called unwanted e-mail advertising an increasingly big problem.

"The spam problem is driving Internet providers crazy right now, and it's driving consumers crazy," Ashdown said. "Clearly, the problem is growing and needs to be addressed, but we usually prefer for Internet service providers to be able to help create the solution. They're the ones, after all, who are paying the costs."

Protecting e-mail addresses

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Innovative Exchange in Bel Air, an ISP with about 6,500 customers in Harford and Cecil counties, has developed at least one safeguard against spam: The ISP offers a free service it calls throw-away e-mail addresses, said James Nash, director of operations.

"What that does is, if something requires you to register online and provide an e-mail address, then we can provide a temporary e-mail address that lasts for a certain amount of days, which doesn't jeopardize your real e-mail address," Nash said.

He also said Innovative Exchange warns its customers against giving out their e-mail addresses on product warranty registrations, job applications or other forms where e-mail addresses aren't relevant. Likewise, customers are warned not to click on links that promise to unsubscribe them from various sites, Nash said.

"A lot of times you'll see 'Click here to unsubscribe to this message,' but bulk e-mail users use those links to verify active e-mail addresses," Nash said. "By replying to them you're adding yourself to a list that's been sold or traded."

Ashdown said her organization represents the small- to medium-sized ISP.

"We try to make sure that providers of that size, and there are about 5,000 of them across the country, are represented when Congress starts considering legislation, when the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] or FTC start considering regulations," Ashdown said. "We try to make sure that the interests of the small Internet providers and their customers are represented."

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DSL users, who generally have a much securer connection, also need to be aware of broadband protection, said Jennifer McPherson, marketing specialist for Cavalier Telephone, based in Richmond, Va. She agrees that most people probably don't consider protections until there's a problem.

"I think people think about it when something happens, like if there's a virus or its on the news," McPherson said. "When I got my DSL, somebody said something about getting a firewall, and I said 'Oh, that's a good idea.' It was like $40, but prior to that I hadn't really thought of it."


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