Internet 101

By Rob Wentworth

Reprinted with permission from The Digital Viking
(official newsletter of the Twin Cities PC User Group)
March 1996

This article is a basic overview of commonly used Internet services and programs. Future articles will delve into new and developing Internet services and programs. Along the way, I will share some useful tricks and techniques to help you on your way to becoming an Internet power user.

What Is "The Internet"?

The Internet consists of a vast number of interconnected computers located all over the globe, all passing data around between them using various services and communications protocols. Not all Internet users have access to all services. Fortunately for those with limited access, most Internet services can be accessed indirectly through other Internet services.

Most people access the Internet by purchasing an Internet account from a local Internet service provider. A Freenet account can be had for a small one-time donation, and it gives you access to e-mail, telnet and Lynx (a text-based web browser). The downside to using the Twin Cities Freenet is that you only get 25 minutes per day, the small number of phone lines can result in more busy signals than you typically get from private Internet service providers, and the user interface is text only. If you are a power user, you may want to purchase an Internet account from one of the local Internet service providers, who provide e-mail only accounts for as little as $5.00 per month, or full service accounts with more access time than most people can use for under $25.00 per month. With a full service account you can run Windows-based Internet access programs and other software tools of your choice—and most of these are freely downloadable via the Internet. Also, I just heard a rumor that AT&T is going to offer 5 hours per month of Internet access to its customers for free.

When you dial into an Internet service provider’s computer, you can access almost any other computer connected to the Internet anywhere in the world. While connected to the Internet, you can use these other computers via an anonymous login, even though you don’t have an account on them.

Because the Internet was originally a tool used mostly by nerdy guys who spent more time with computers than with girlfriends, early ASCII art, messages, and test data often consisted of sexually oriented or irreverent adult themes, mostly used as a form of humor. Because of the history of the Internet, much of this data still exists, even though it is now considered to be indecent material by the general public.

Now that many new people are joining the Internet, censorship of indecent and politically incorrect materials is becoming a hot topic. Portions of some services are no longer available on all systems. Censorship on the Internet is not as simple as it seems, because the Internet was designed to continue operating in times of war, and censorship is considered a form of damage and it is automatically routed around.

If you want to prevent your children from accessing portions of the Internet reserved for mature audiences, there are programs and services that you can purchase and install on your computer to prevent them from accessing this material. These programs verify attempted accesses for approval, using online databases that are constantly updated by staffs of experts who surf the net looking for materials not suitable for children.

In addition, some major Internet providers prevent their users from accessing certain USENET newsgroups, and other providers even filter "dirty words" or topics out of their e-mail. This has the unfortunate side effect of inhibiting some medical discussions, some support groups, and access to some educational materials.

Companies are now collecting Internet access data to sell to marketers, creditors, employers, and government agencies. Do you want your boss to know what kind of stuff you look at late at night? If not, you might might want to access private data indirectly via an anonymous remailer, or by using encryption tools like "Pretty Good Privacy" (PGP).

Telnet

If you have ever called an electronic bulletin board system (BBS), then you probably used some sort of terminal program like Procomm, Qmodem, etc. These programs allow you to see ASCII text characters sent to you from a remote computer, and to type text characters to send back to the remote computer, via your telephone line and modem. They also allow you to upload files from your local hard disk to the remote computer, and download files from the remote computer to your local hard disk. Terminal programs generally allow you to maintain a phone directory, and also dial the phone for you.

Telnet behaves just like a terminal program, except that it does not dial the phone and connect to a remote computer directly. Instead, it uses your existing Internet connection through your local Internet service provider, to connect to a remote computer anywhere on the Internet. Some telnet programs only allow you to send and receive text characters, while other more advanced telnet programs also allow you to Zmodem upload and download files direct to your own computer.

Using telnet, the computers you connect to act just like bulletin board systems, allowing you to send and receive e-mail, look at and move around in the file directory structure, and upload and download files from yet other computers via FTP (file transfer protocol). Some systems even allow you to run a text based web browser (Lynx) to surf the World Wide Web.

E-Mail (Electronic Mail)

The most common form of Internet access is probably electronic mail (e-mail). Using e-mail you can send messages to anybody who has an Internet e-mail address. You can also receive e-mail messages from anybody who knows your e-mail address. Many large online services and many local bulletin board systems allow their users to exchange e-mail with Internet users. Even some major corporations using internal local area networks (LANs) allow their users to exchange e-mail with Internet users.

Besides simple text messages, you can send and receive encoded binary file attachments. These attached files may be sounds, pictures, programs, or anything else you can stuff into a data file. Some e-mail programs automatically decode and save attached files to your hard disk. Other e-mail programs require you manually extract and decode these files using a separate decoder program.

With e-mail access, you can send a message to a "mailbot" (mail robot) program somewhere on the net requesting another service. For example, via e-mail, you can read news items from USENET newsgroups, or download files from FTP servers, or remotely control devices and receive status reports from these devices. You can even request data that your local Internet service provider prevents you from accessing directly.

Some mailbots are list servers, which allow you to subscribe to a mailing list. Mailing lists allow you to send an e-mail message to the list server, which is then forwarded to all other users who subscribe to that list. Sending e-mail messages to a mailing list which are not related to the topic of the list is usually not appreciated, and is called "spamming".

If privacy is a big concern, some e-mail programs allow you to encrypt and decrypt messages, and there are anonymous remailers on the net that allow you to send e-mail without the recipient being able to find out who sent it. Unfortunately, these remailers often get shut down quickly due to abuse.

FTP (File Transfer Protocol)

Just like most traffic on local bulletin board systems, many users of the Internet seem to concentrate most of their efforts on downloading and collecting files. A large portion of these files are pictures (adult oriented) and "Warez" (pirated commercial programs). I recommend that you stay away from these, because the computers that contain them usually keep system log files showing your username, what you downloaded, and when. Using this data, you can be tracked down.

There are plenty of good things to download, such as shareware and freeware programs, and demo versions of popular commercial programs. There are online file archives of old USENET newsgroups and IRC discussions that you can download with FTP. There are also online geneology data collections residing at FTP sites.

USENET

A portion of Internet traffic (about 10 percent) is dedicated to a service called USENET. The USENET service consists of thousands of topics called newsgroups. The contents of these newsgroups are sent to computers acting as news servers all across the Internet.

By running a news program and accessing a news server, you can subscribe to newsgroups and read the messages within them. You can also create new newsgroups, and post messages to many existing newsgroups. In this way, people can communicate with each other about matters relating to the topic for which the newsgroup was created. Unfortunately, many of the newsgroups are filled with useless messages not related to the topic. These off-topic messages are also called "spam". Even worse, some useful newsgroups have been taken over by "hate groups" and the original users have quit using them. It is your responsibility to decide which newsgroups are valuable to you, and to avoid those that may offend you.

Usenet messages can contain encoded binary files. Some newsgroups (alt.binaries.* and others) contain many large binary files (pictures, games, etc,) that are too big to fit in a single message. To download these files, it is necessary to mark all of the messages containing the encoded file, and then decode it to your local hard disk. This can be a problem, because the amount of USENET traffic is so high that many Internet service providers do not carry all messages, and some parts of a file may be missing. To overcome this, you may access an overseas public news server which carries everything, but these are rare and their Internet addresses are jealously guarded secrets.

Some computers on the Internet archive old newsgroup messages. You can access these newsgroup archives from various sites on the World Wide Web, or from FTP sites. In addition, some local bulletin board systems allow users to subscribe to, read messages from, and post messages to USENET newgroups.

Some newsgroups are considered indecent in nature, and are not carried by all Internet service providers. These newsgroups can still be accessed via e-mail requests to mailbot news servers, or via FTP downloads from USENET archives.

Even though only about three percent of USENET is used to distribute pornography, and USENET consumes only about ten percent of total Internet traffic (so only 0.3 percent of Internet traffic is indecent in nature), the general public is currently being warned about the so-called easy access children might have to indecent material on the Internet. In reality, this material takes a lot of hard work to find and successfully access. Much of it legally resides on computers in other countries, but is illegal for you to "import" by accessing it. As always, it is your responsibility to avoid materials that may offend you.

IRC (Internet Relay Chat)

Another popular service on the Internet is Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Using an IRC client program, you can join a discussion group (IRC channel), and type messages which other members of the group can see immediately. You can also see messages typed by others in the group. Some groups schedule regular discussion groups on IRC to provide feedback and support for the topic they have in common.

Some IRC channels are monitored by computer programs called "IRCbots" (IRC Robots). These programs listen on their IRC channel for commands directed to them and respond to the commands with appropriate replies. Some IRCbots act like a bulletin board system, allowing you to get file directory listings, move around in the directory structure, and upload and download files via a direct computer connection (DCC) between your computer and the computer running the IRCbot. DCC connections are actually virtual connections, which in reality pass data through multiple computers along the way.

Many IRC channels are dedicated to adult topics, and others are filled with juvenile banter. Like other areas of the Internet, it is your responsibility to decide what is useful, and to avoid what may offend you.

World Wide Web

Many computers on the Internet provide World Wide Web (WWW) access. By using a web browser such as Netscape, you can access web pages on computers all over the world. A web page may contain both text and graphic images, and can also contain hotspots (hypertext links) that activate when clicked with the mouse, causing the web browser to load different web page anywhere on the Internet. Web pages are easy for novice users, allowing access to large quantities of information via a simple "point and click" interface. Web browsers also allow you to download files to their own computer, which may contain pictures, sounds, animated movies, or even programs. The latest generation of web browsers allow web pages to contain small "Java" applet programs, which run on your computer when the web page is accessed. These applets can do almost anything, but so far most of them are just demos which do simple tasks like animated logos or a wobbling title at the top of the page.

Web browsers also allow you to download files from web sites and from ftp sites, just by clicking on the link pointing to the file.

Some web pages allow you to type data into forms contained within them. By using forms, web pages can provide other services such as Chat sessions (like IRC), and may even allow you to e-mail a message to the owner of the web page.

As you can see, the Internet is a powerful tool. As with any power tool, we don’t need more new laws to "protect" us from it—we need to use it with caution and responsibility.

Bio

In future articles, I will cover advanced Internet services and programs like Worlds Chat, Internet Phone, CU-SeeMe, multi-player games, and other cool stuff. My Internet address is robwen@skypoint.com, and you can e-mail me if you are interested in more details on the Internet or related topics.