NEW YORK -- A virus fouls your computer and you haplessly pass it on. Advertising software loads stealthily on your machine. Your password gets stolen because of your neglect. Or the music industry sues you because of something your kids or grandkids did on your computer.
Barely a day goes by without someone, somewhere getting stung or stinging others through careless Internet use.
Though many of these threats are preventable, relatively few of us take the necessary precautions.
So why not institute mandatory education before people can go online? After all, motorists must obtain licenses before they can legally hit the road, and computers are much more complicated.
"It could be a four-year college degree, a one-month course. It might be a good idea," said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer for Counterpane Internet Security Inc.
Or it might be a bad idea.
"The downside is everybody you know won't be able to have a computer anymore, and I like being able to send e-mail to friends," Schneier said.
Minimum competency requirements could include schooling in how to update anti-virus programs, install firewalls and obtain security fixes for your computer's operating system.
They could include a primer on copyright law and tips on configuring file-swapping programs to avoid the sharing that prompted nearly 300 federal lawsuits this week against individual computer users.
Users could be taught how to read software agreements carefully, lest they find themselves subject to unwanted pop-up ads.
They could become smarter about creating passwords and more cautious about using them at public terminals, where criminals have been known to harvest them with keystroke-logging software.
Some colleges and universities are already being didactic about safe computing.
Students requesting computer accounts at the Austin campus of the University of Texas must attend a 45-minute workshop that covers copyright, security, password protection and other issues.
Dan Updegrove, the school's vice president for information technology, is considering even more onerous requirements.
"A car has to pass an inspection, and a driver has to pass a test," he said. "We need to be moving in the direction that machines are certified in some ways and users are certified in some ways."
Meanwhile, Oberlin College in Ohio threatens $25 fines on students who inadvertently spread a virus.
Russ Cooper, a security researcher at TruSecure Corp., proposes extending such penalties to the computing public at large for online transgressions.
Get enough tickets, and Internet surfers will become more responsible cybercitizens. And parents slapped with fines will be more vigilant about their kids' online behavior.
Alas, mandatory education and licensing are easier said than done.
For one thing, who's going to create and enforce the rules? A Federal Computing Commission or a United Nations for Computing?
Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor and Internet specialist, believes technology advances too quickly. Lessons become outdated. Repeat certifications would be necessary.
While the basic security lesson used to boil down to "don't click on attachments," viruses today spread in manifold ways.
And what do we do about the illiterate and the disabled, about people vexed by standardized tests? Bar them from the online world? Grant them limited rights to use but not own a computer?
To combat threats, software companies have been trying to make technology easier to use - Microsoft Corp., for instance, is considering automating the download and installation of software fixes. No user intervention required.
Others have focused on education.
The Federal Trade Commission has plenty of online resources on preventing Internet fraud and protecting privacy. Parry Aftab, an Internet safety expert, is trying to get funding for Super Safe Kiddo, a mascot she hopes will become an Internet version of Smokey Bear or McGruff the Crime Dog.
But many Internet users ignore such efforts.
They blithely click past notifications like those from WhenU.com alerting users to impending installations of its ad-delivery software. Then they complain and wonder how the software got there.
Such habits won't necessarily change if we require licenses and expect minimum skills.
After all, licensed motorists still speed and ignore stop signs.
Not to mention all the fake IDs.
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