This Week On The Internet: How not to break the Internet, Pt. 1

Anyone who has any knowledge of technology dreads the inevitable phone-call, whether it’s from a friend, relative, or complete stranger: “Hey, uh… Could you come fix my computer? The Internet… it’s… uh… broken…” We’ve all been there, whether it be getting an urgent phone-call at

3 a.m. from some ex-roommate, or unwittingly being roped into the role of tech-support bitch for the entire goddamn school-district. It sucks, but it happens and is a fact of life. Anyone capable of opening a word-processor will likely have to fix a dire computer problem sometime within their lifespan.

It would be foolhardy to write a piece on how to fix everything. For every solution achieved by someone troubleshooting a piece of technology, the person who screwed it up in the first place will usually find two new ways to make it unusable again. As such, we’re left with the old adage: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” So listen up noobs, this week we’re going to cover some simple preventive steps one can take to avoid breaking the Internet.

#1: Don’t use Microsoft software.

Microsoft codes some of the buggiest software known to man. A large number of Mac users don’t even touch Windows for this reason alone, and they’re smart not to: at time of writing, the latest Symantec virus definition update lists 72,952 viruses, the majority of which target Microsoft software.

What’s a feckless Windows XP Home user to do? While it’s a little much to ask everyone to move to some variant of Linux, users can greatly increase not only their security but also the usability of their computer by replacing a number of default Microsoft products with an open-source equivalent.

First and foremost, replace Internet Explorer. Do it now. While Microsoft has recently taken steps to make it more difficult for malicious code to be run without the user’s knowledge, IE is still much more vulnerable than other web browsers. Simply installing Firefox and using it instead of IE can exponentially reduce the number of headaches potential future troubleshooters will encounter (See: fig. 1.1).

Secondly, experienced users prefer Thunderbird over Outlook Express. Outlook is single-handedly responsible for the propagation of the ‘Melissa’ and ‘iloveyou’ viruses, among countless others. Ditch it. Now. Also, Thunderbird is simply a much better-designed client anyway, so really, the only reason not to switch is laziness. As a bonus, both Firefox and Thunderbird are cross-platform compatible, so Mac-addicts can get them as well.

Another idea would be to replace Microsoft Office with OpenOffice as this can prevent the majority of macro viruses out there. This is a bit of a harder sell because while OpenOffice has all the functionality of its buggier Microsoft counterpart, it can be a fair bit more difficult to use, especially for those born and raised on Word. That said, for those needing an office suite and not wanting to drop $200 on a bunch of programs they’ll never use (Really, does anyone actually use Microsoft Access?), OpenOffice is an awesome free, open-source alternative.




#2: Get a virus scanner and a firewall, update them, use them, love them.

Any computer without a virus scanner and a firewall is lacking two of the most important pieces of software available. It doesn’t matter what operating system the computer in question is running, it needs both a virus scanner and a firewall.

The former is easy, and there are two free options: First, University of Calgary students and faculty can download VirusScan Enterprise (Windows) and Virex (Mac OS) for free, which are commercial solutions provided by U of C IT. They’re effective solutions and should be your first line of defense. The other option, especially for readers who don’t have a U of C IT login, is to download a free anti-virus solution such as FreeAVG. They all work about equally well, however their effectiveness is entirely dependent upon how recent their virus definitions are and how often they scan.

Most home users don’t know anything about firewalls, but they’re really simple technology. In essence, a firewall only allows legitimate incoming and outgoing traffic. If a malicious program such as a trojan or a virus tries to connect to the Internet, the firewall will let the user know and prevent it from connecting so it can’t spread. One caveat about firewalls: don’t blindly click “Accept” whenever the firewall asks whether or not to allow a program. Try and figure out what’s requesting access and whether it’s a good idea to let it. Did a program such as a web-browser just open? In that case, it’s probably legitimate. However, if a firewall dialog spontaneously pops up while working on something off-line, there’s a small chance it’s a virus or trojan, so clicking “Accept” just to make it go away is probably a bad idea. Both Windows XP and Mac OS X come with rudimentary firewall software, but they’re very simplistic and not robust enough to be effective. Thus, Windows users should get Comodo Free Firewall and Mac users can download GlowWorm FW Lite.

U of C antiviral software:


Comodo Free Firewall:

GlowWorm FW Lite:

Next week we’ll continue with such diverse topics as common sense and spyware-scanners, as well we’ll toss in a couple cool tips for the bored power-users in the crowd. Boy-oh-boy! Excited? I know I am! It’s always a party with the web.

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