Nine things you can do to make the Internet safer and less annoying for everyone

Even better: at least eight of them are free!

The whole point of this Web Annoyances siteis to get you to DO something about the “web annoyances”. Listen up, because this page is one of the most important on this site. The information on here will ultimately helpsave you time, money and frustration. Read this page - and my articles linked to it - to teach yourself and tell your friends, family and workmates how to do it.

REMEMBER: most of what you need is available free, legally, on the Internet - if you know where to look! That’s where this site comes in handy.

The two types of web annoyances

There are ways to catch annoyances like viruses, trojans and spyware. Some things automatically sneak in on their own, climbing through a virtual hole in the fence; other unwanted things you deliberately but inadvertantly let in.

The things thatautomaticallysneak in …

Imagine you’re a landlord and you’ve bought a house and converted it into flats. Naturally, you want goodtenants, and you want to keep out undesirable people. But you forget to lock the back door, and a bunch of squatters creep in and take control of your flat without you realising it. How do you stop that? Get some some security! For example, an entrance camera, intruder alarms, and decent locks.

Of course, in the real world everybody knows you shouldn’t leave your doors and windows open (but sometimes we accidently forget). Well, new PCs are like houses with all the Windows open (pun intended). Meaning viruses, worms and nasties can easily break in.So get some security for your computer (see point 7 below).

…Things that trick you into letting them in

Imagine you’re that landlord again. You’re looking for new tenants, so one day a prospective tenant comes to look around the flat. They eventually say no and leave, but they secretly place a hidden camera in the bathroom while your back is turned; or they steal a spare copy of your housekeys. Now they can spy on you or let themselves in while you’re out, because you allowed them in. So be careful who you let in, and while they’re in your house, make sure you know what they’re doing!

Some thing goes on computers - don’t let bad stuff in! All the security precautions in the world might not help you if you let bad things in on purpose. And beware: malicious software often pretends to be something else to trick you! So don’t install dodgy stuff, and when you install something make sure you have some idea what it’s doing.

What can you do about it?

Here are a few things you can do to be happier and safer online, and make the Internet a better place for all of us:

1) Get Firefox, or “Don’t click on the blue e!”

Are you new to computers? You know when you want to look at the Internet and you click on that blue e symbol? Well that big blue e is a program called Internet Explorer (IE for short). IE is a web browser - a program you use to browse the web - and it’s the default one on Windows. But it isn’t very good and can be downright unsafeif you’re not careful (a bit like leaving your front door unlocked).

Fortunately, there are alternatives - you can download other, better browsers for free. And you really should. Seriously; changing your browser alone can go a long way to keeping you happy and safe online. The most popular alternative browser is Firefox - see this page onFirefox and why you should use it. People have even written books about this, like Scott Granneman’sSwitching to Firefox. [no, that isn't an affiliate link - the book just seems interesting].

Also get an advert blocker

While we’re talking about browsers, you can greatly improve your “online experience” by browsing the web without ads. Most browsers have some sort of capability or extension to block pop-ups and web adverts. Firefox has a great add-on called Adblock Plus, for example.

Now maybe you don’t see the point… I mean, what’s so bad about a few adverts?Apart from being annoying, adverts waste your time and money, slow down your computer and invade your privacy. For more on that, check out my article Adverts: block ads for free.

2) Don’t install dodgy or pirated software onto your computer

Only install stuff from reputable sources -even if you have a Mac- but especially if you use Windows. Not just programs, because you can disguise a program as something else like an image or a screensaver; and Windows automatically allows certain downloadable stuff to have complete access to your system. Here’s what (not) to do:

Don’t click on strange links in e-mail messages; don’t install strange programs because some weird message pops up telling you to; and above all don’t download pirated software- check out the free open-source alternatives.

If you download pirated software and install it on your computer, you run the risk of it containing malware (rogue software, such as trojans or viruses) thattakes over your computer. Popular software packages including Microsoft Office, and Photoshop - even iWork ‘09 for the Mac - have pirated versions containing trojans floating around illegal download sites. That’s right, Macs aren’t immune if you deliberately install a virus- just because you’re wearing bullet-proof armour doesn’t mean you should go around asking people to shoot you! As I said, all the security precautions in the world might not protect you against stuff you deliberately let in.

“But I want FREE SOFTWARE! Anyway,how can it hurt me or my computer?”

If your computer is infected with a virus/trojan, it means you aren’t in control of your computer any more. Organised criminals use trojans and viruses to create botnets - armies of remote-controlled computers doing their bidding. This isn’t some hypothetical threat. Botnets are real, and tens of millions of Windows PCs - and maybe a few dozen idiotic Mac users - are affected right now.

If you routinely install pirated software it’s like playing Russian Roulette - and remember, the first chamber could be the one with the bullet (trojan horse). Do you reallywant to take that risk? There’s plenty of free-equivalent software available legally- it’s called open source.

Once again: only install from reputable sources. Even if you have a Mac or think you know what you’re doing. You wouldn’t invite criminals into your house, would you?

“OK. What’s a reputable source?”

If you’re looking for a specific program, go to the website of its publishers (e.g. for Photoshop). Also your computer manufacturer’s own software download page is a good bet ( Windows; Macs).

If you’re looking for a type of software (e.g. anti-virus) there are software directory website, which categorise programs and have reviews and ratings: http://download.cnet.comprimarily for Windows software, andMacupdate.comor VersionTrackerfor Macs. For free open software, check out directory(Mac, Windows and Linux). These directories are safe, so long as you don’t download stuff with loads of bad reviews. And if you are using Linux, you should have a package manager to add and remove software - look for it in your start menu.

Just be careful what you download - if you’re looking for a program you’re better off checking the above directories. DON’T just mindlessly search Google, because it’s all too easy to run into bad software (containing trojans/viruses) that has paid or tricked its way to the top of Google’s rankings.

3) Engage brain before clicking!

It’s a jungle out there. So be careful online. As I said before, don’t get tricked into infecting yourself. READ what you’re clicking on before you click on it. Be wary of adverts that try to look like error messages warning you that your computer has a virus, or you need a “video codec”. They’re trying to sell you stuff, and/or give your computer a virus. Be especiallycarefulif you’re using Internet Explorer - you run the risk of getting Viruses and malware.

Don’t ignore the warning signs!

One place where people blindly click “OK” is to alert boxes. DON’T DO THAT - error messages are there for a reason! Read the error messages and at least try to understand them, because sometimes they’re faked and clicking OK can end up with you catching a virus/trojan. Most of the time though, the messages are there to help and inform you! If you see an error message you don’t understand, especially if you see the same error several times, make a note of the error message then close the dialog box or click Cancel. Then go and ask someone who would know what the message meant, or search the Internet with the wording of the message (e.g. “General protection fault in module …”).

4) Block spam, or avoid it in the first place

Spam is unwanted commercial e-mail, and it’s a major problem on the Internet. See this page aboutspam and how to block spam for free.

5) Use alternatives to Google, or be really careful

Google are useful and ubiquitous, but also powerful and pernicious. Did you know that they’re the world’s largest online advertising broker, and they could be tracking your every move online? Here’s why you should be careful with Google.

6) Make your next computer a Mac, or try Linux

Windows - do you use it? For many millions of us it’s slow and annoying and clunky and flaky andunsafe,and an all-round pain in the neck to use. But life doesn’t have to be this way.Of course if you’re a technical person you can probably tinker with Windows a little to make it work tolerably, and just learn to accept annoying things you think you can’t change. But the crashes, slow and frequent restarts, performance slowdowns, f not, or if you don’t (want to) know how, then switch to something else and just get your work done.

When you buy/ugrade a computer, you have a choice

Let’s take cars as an example. You can buy cars with different types of engines - petrol, diesel, hybrid, electric. Same with computers, only most people don’t even realise there is this difference. They just walk into a shop and say “I’ll have that one, it’s cheap and is a nice colour”. Of course, most people wouldn’t do that with a car. You’d think carefully about your budget, compare manufacturers, and probably make a list of requirements first.

So do the same with computers! Ask yourself: just what is it you want to do? What’s important? Anddon’t just buy the first computer that the salesman recommends! Look around at the alternative options. So, what are the options, what is it that makes one model better for you?

Back to cars - you can choose a manufacturer, model and engine. With computers, the main choices are the manufacturer (like Sony, Apple, Dell, Asus…) and the operating system (like Windows - but again, there are other options). And unless you have very specific requirements - like CAD/CAM apps, or playing the latest PC games - then the alternative operating systems are probably better for you. You’ll never know just how much more pleasant your computer life can be until you try something different. What arethe computer alternatives? Here’s two options: Get a Mac, or try Linux (it’s free!)

7) Security: Protect your PC with free anti-virus software etc

Remember about not leaving your house unlocked? Your computer needs security measures too. Connecting a brand new Windows PC to the Internet without setting it up carefully is ASKING for trouble.Symantec, a computer security company ran a study that concludedan average new Windows PC gets broken into within 20 minutesof first connecting it to the Internet.

So here’s a quick run-down of the security basics you should get:

  1. Firewall - your first outward line of defence from hostile traffic on the Internet. Windows XP and Vista have a basic firewall. It’s not great but it’s far better than nothing, so go to your Control Panel (Start Menu > Settings) and make sure it’s on.
    Macs: firewall is on by default, but you should search in Spotlight for “firewall” (it’s in your System Preferences), and change the Firewall settings to “Allow Only essential services”.
  2. Automatic Updates - on Windows, Microsoft release updates (patches) every month or so, to fix certain software flaws and vulnerabilities. If you’re a home or small business user, go to the Control Panel or Security Center in your Windows start menu; switch on automatic updates and set it to auto-start and auto-download & install critical updates.
    Even though it’ll download some crap you don’t particularly need, like “Windows Genuine Advantage”, it’s far better than needlessly getting a virus because you didn’t update Windows. Windows Update isn’t enough on its own though - see below - and it won’t help against anything which takes advantage of unpatched or as-yet-unknown problems.
    Macs have automatic updates too, and they default to download and install weekly. This is fine - nothing to worry about here.
  3. Anti-virus software - worth having unless you know enough to be careful and avoid viruses. Set your anti-virus software to auto-update itself with new virus signatures.Just remember, anti-virus software won’t protect you from brand new viruses because it won’t know about them yet. See my page on Viruses and malware.
    Macs have no need for this as yet - there are no viruses in the wild for Macs, but even so, don’t download pirated software - there IS pirated Mac software containing trojans.
  4. Anti adware/spyware - this is software to remove unwanted parasites on your computer. Spyware is software that spies on what you do with your computer (e.g. what you type or what websites you visit), or that steals you personal information and sends it over the Internet.
    Ad-ware is advertising-supported software - it forces to watch annoying adverts, maybe re-programming your browser to use a different search engine. Ad-ware is generally easy to spot, as long as you’re careful to read about the “cool new program” before you install it (of course, most people don’t bother reading licences when they install stuff). Spyware may be more stealthy, possibly installing without warning.
    Macs have no worries here as yet - there’s virtually no spyware or adware for Macs or Linux. But still only install software from reputable sources.

Between points 3 and 4 in the list above is Microsoft’s freeMalicious Software Removal Tool (MSRT). I’d recommend it if you use Windows. And yes, it is slightly ironic that the makers of Windows spend millions advertising how good it is, then release a tool to fix to some of its major deficiencies. For more information - for example what anti-virus software you should use, Microsoft have helpfully put together this page: 4 steps to protect your Windows computer.

*Yawn* “I can’t be bothered with all that”…

If you think all the above sounds hard, or too much like work, here’s the condensed version - two steps:

8) Be careful online - it’s a jungle out there!

See point 3 again - it’s so important I just wanted to say it again. If you find some great new offer or free software no-one’s ever heard of before, or your bank e-mails you saying they’ve lost your details and need you to click here to login - or a million other scams besides - just remember this: if it looks dodgy, it probably is. Say no. Don’t do it.

9) Don’t use Microsoft software, so far as you can avoid it

Remember the two ways to get attacked? Either you let bad things in deliberately, or they automatically find you and sneak in a security hole. Although no computer is invulnerable, Windows is just riddled with security holes! Using security software will cover a few of those holes, but instead of covering the holes why not just avoid them entirely? How? Avoid using Microsoft software,unless you know what you’re doing and/or have a competent IT department behind you to clean up the mess if it all goes wrong.

Specifically don’t use Internet Explorerto browse the web unless you have to - use Firefox or another safe alternative; and don’t use Outlook Express to read your e-mail - use something better, like Thunderbird, from the makers of Firefox. Just those two things alone will greatly help you stay safer in Windows. And of course you could Get a Mac, or try Linux (it’s free).

And just think about this: by following these steps and staying happy and safe online, you’ll be helping everyone else, because we’re all connected to the Internet. Therefore your (in)actions and (lack of) security affects the rest of us. So follow the steps on this page, and do something about it today. Thank you!