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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