Taking control of the vertical

Privacy and security are important on the web, and so is avoiding annoying and stressful pages. Because after all, whose computer is it?

Javascript: A Plague of Windows

Javascript is useful, but unfortunately easily abused by advertisers and egocentric web designers. You can often make a much better browsing experience by turning it off.

Javascript is actually fairly useful. It is unfortunate that some major web providers choose to abuse it. If you’ve ever been to a web page and had a smaller window pop up without your clicking on anything, that’s usually a javascript. Geocities is one of the worst offenders. You can stop these windows from popping up by turning Javascript off.

Netscape
From the Edit menu, choose the Preferences item. Set the menu at the right to Advanced. Click the Enable Javascript box off. (Turning Javascript off in Netscape also turns ‘Cascading Style Sheets’ off, which is unfortunate, as they are even more useful than Javascript. But I find those damn pop-up windows more annoying than losing a few pretty font changes.)
Internet Explorer
From the Edit menu, choose the Preferences item. Set the menu at the right to Web Content which is under the Web Browser section. Click the Enable scripting box off.

If you (as I do) find Javascript overwhelmingly useful in some cases, and overwhelmingly annoying in others, you can sometimes turn Javascript off just for certain sites. Netscape as of this writing (4.75) does not have this feature, but Internet Explorer does (at least as of version 5). Go to the “Edit” menu, the “Preferences” menu item, and then “Security Zones”. You have four zones, of which only three are useful for most home users: the “trusted” zone, the “Internet” zone, and the “restricted” zone. You have two options if you want some sites to use Javascript and others not:

  • You can turn Javascript off for all zones (the “Internet” zone) and turn it on for sites in the “trusted” zone.
  • You can turn Javascript on for all zones and turn it off for sites in the “restricted” zone.

Let’s say you want to leave Javascript on for all but a few egregious sites. Go to your “restricted” zone and click “custom” security. Choose “settings” and then “disable” Active X and Scripting. Click “OK” to save the settings changes. Then, click on “Add sites” and add the sitenames which abuse Javascript, for example, ‘www.geocities.com’.

In ancient days long forgotten, computer screens didn’t have color. In order to show a link, the link text was underlined.

In most graphical browsers, you can make the pages look a whole lot nicer by not underlining links. Underlining went out with the typewriter. It makes the whole page look like something an English teacher brought in from the rain.

Netscape
From the Edit menu, choose the Preferences item. Set the menu at the right to Colors which is under the Appearance section. Click the Underline Links box off.
Internet Explorer
From the Edit menu, choose the Preferences item. Set the menu at the right to Browser Display which is under the Web Browser section. Click the Underline Links box off.

A word of warning: there are some designers who ignore web design netiquette and force link colors on their pages to be the same as the normal text color. True, they’re dinosaurs from the paper publishing era, and I personally ignore them. You’ll still be able to see the links if you move the mouse around the window.

In any case, taking control of your colors is where the next section comes in.

Who Controls Your Colors?

Some people make very strange choices when it comes to the color of their page. Blue text on a blue background, or worse.

Do you like reading yellow text on an orange background? Do your eyes water after reading page after page of white text on black? Mine don’t: I’ve taken control of my opthalmology bill, even if I can’t spell the damn thing.

Netscape
From the Edit menu, choose the Preferences item. Set the menu at the right to Colors which is under the Appearance section. Click the Always use my colors, overriding page box on.
Internet Explorer
From the Edit menu, choose the Preferences item. Set the menu at the right to Web Content which is under the Web Browser section. Click the Allow page to specify colors box off.

Note that taking back control of your background colors also keeps you from loading background images. You win some, you lose some. It would be nice if you could control each separately, but there you are. There’s rarely anything of importance in background images. Usually all it does is obscure the text.

Of course, there are times when that would improve the page.

So what’s the best background color?

Really, it’s up to you. This strange black on grey thing that browsers default to is something I don’t understand, however. There’s a reason that computer makers have gone to “black on white” as their computers have gone from toys to things that people actually use. Anyway, I prefer an “off-white” sort of yellow for the background, and good old trusty black for the text itself. But whatever is easy for you to read. Some people like a light blue. They claim it’s “soothing”. Keeps them from going postal when Geocities pops up an ad window right in front of what they’re reading, most likely. Hey, that’s a good thing.

Cache for Netscape

Your browser can speed up your browsing experience by looking in its cache and not on the net when you visit a page you’ve recently visited.

You mean you get cash for using Netscape?!

Hardly. You give web servers cash when you keep checking your cache.

What’s the cache? Web browsers are smart enough to realize that most people keep turning back to where they’ve already been whenever they’re reading a book or a net site. So the browsers keep a temporary copy of everything you look at. If you ever look at that page again, the browser pulls it out of the cache on your hard drive rather than pounding across the net in search of that two hundred kilobyte Sex Slaves of Gamorran tome.

The problem, from a greedy webmaster’s point of view, is that we want to know how many times you read Sex Slaves. If you go back and read it seven times in one night, we want to be able to send you a catalog of the complete line of Sex Slaves, the Sex Slaves Video Collection, and Sex Slaves trading cards, action figures, and commemorative cookbook. But how can we know all this if you’ve been reading from your cache? We can’t look at your hard drive. (Yet, anyway. Give us time. If Microsoft doesn’t come out with it, Netscape will.)

The answer is a strange thing called “checking headers”. Under the guise of making sure that you’ve the most up-to-date version of Sex Slaves of Gamorran, Netscape will pop on out to my site and ask me if I’ve changed the file. If I have, I send it to you. If I haven’t—which is most likely the case—I don’t send it to you.

But I add you to my log file anyway.

If you last read the book two weeks ago, this makes sense. If you last read it two hours ago, it doesn’t. As a non-commercial webmaster, I find this useless. It wastes our bandwidth and your time. What is the real chance that I happened to make a major modification to this page in the ten minutes since you last read it? Zilch, that’s what. I’m out drinking a beer with Thor. Meanwhile, you’re waiting for your browser to check every single picture on my page to make sure you have the super-up-to-date, canonical version. Take control of your life!

Netscape
From the Edit menu, choose the Preferences item. Set the menu at the right to Cache which is under the Advanced section. Click the Check pages every… area to either Once per session or Never.
Internet Explorer
From the Edit menu, choose the Preferences item. Set the menu at the right to Advanced which is under the Web Browser section. Click the Update pages area to Once per session or Never.

Once per session means once for every time you turn on Netscape. Never means only when you specifically ask it to. Don’t worry. If you’re ever gripped by the unreasoning fear that you’re reading an out-of-date version of a particular page, you can “reload” the page. It’s the button that says “reload” (D’oh) in Netscape, or “refresh” in Explorer.

Make this change and you’ll find that the net just got tons faster. Heck, you might even have a few extra minutes to go out for a beer with your friends.

You do have friends, don’t you? Oh, never mind.

Use a Real FTP Program

I’m a little surprised at how many download sites still use FTP, but they do. You can often download more easily by using a dedicated FTP software package.

Most web browsers make ugly FTP browsers. “FTP”, if you’re not familiar with it, is still the standard for transfering files. If you’ve gone to a URL that begins with “ftp:”, you’ve been to an FTP site. This is becoming less important today, as more sites move to using http instead of ftp to transfer files. But you can still see a lot of ftp sites on the net.

If you’re using a Macintosh, you can overcome the natural web browser deficiency if you have a better FTP application. (I recommend CyberDuck.) Go into your Internet control panel, and pull down the “Edit” menu. Choose “User Mode…” and set the mode to “Advanced”. A new tab will appear to the right of the “News” tab: “Advanced”. Click on it, and choose “Helper Apps” on the left. The “Helper App” you want to change is “FTP”. Change it to whatever you want.

If you are using a version of the Mac OS without an Internet control panel, or if your version of Netscape ignores the Internet control panel settings, you can use Applescript to set Netscape’s FTP client. Here’s the example for Anarchie. It will only work if you have Peter Lewis’ shareware Anarchie, and if you are using Netscape 1.1 or better. (You also need to have Applescript, but you probably do.)

  1. Start up the Applescript ScriptEditor.
  2. Type (or paste from here):

    [toggle code]

    • tell application "Netscape"
      • register protocol "Arch" for protocol "ftp:"
    • end tell
  3. It’ll ask you for the actual Netscape program when you save or test the script.

Now, whenever you go to an FTP site, you’ll end up using Interarchy, a much better FTP client than Netscape ever dreamt of being.

Cooky Controversy

You may have heard about the controversy over letting web sites store “cookies” in your web browser. There are privacy and security concerns over these cookies. These concerns are not as major as the detractors claim, but neither are they as minor as the boosters claim.

A cookie is a little bit of information that a web site stores in your web browser. It could be anything: your name, your credit card number, whatever. In theory, only that web site can ask for that cookie. And it can only store information that you’ve already given it.

However, what constitutes a “web site” and what information you’ve given it may not be what you think it is.

Any information that you type into a form could theoretically be stored as a cookie on your computer. Whenever you come back to the same site that processed the form, that site’s web server will ask your web browser for those cookies, and your web browser will pass it along. So, if you typed in your name, that could be stored as a cookie. Same with your credit card number. However, a well-designed web site will not store your credit card number—or even your name—as a cookie. It opens up the possibility that someone could steal that information enroute between your web browser and the web server. What they will do instead is create a unique identifier for you, and store that as a cookie. Then, on their own site, they will have a database that corresponds that identifier with your name, address, credit card number, or whatever other information you gave them. Not all web sites are well designed, of course. If you want to see what cookies are passed back and forth, you can tell your web browser to show you all cookies:

Netscape
From the Edit menu, choose the Preferences item. Set the menu at the right to Advanced. Click the Warn me before accepting a cookie box on.
Internet Explorer
From the Edit menu, choose the Preferences item. Set the menu at the right to Cookies which is under the Receiving Files section. Pull down the When receiving cookies menu and choose Ask for each cookie. Note that Explorer has the additional feature, Ask for each site. If you choose that, you will see the first cookie from each site. If you accept it, you will automatically (without being shown the cookie) accept any other cookies from that site. If you decline the cookie, you will automatically decline any other cookies from that site.

Besides the information that you specifically type into web forms, you are also automatically giving other information out to web servers: your computer’s “Internet Address” which can be used to determine who your Internet Service Provider is; the page you just came from; what kind of a computer you are using (Windows ’95, Macintosh PPC, etc.) and which version of operating system; what browser you are using (Netscape or Internet Explorer), as well as the version number. Now, you pass this information on whether you accept cookies or not. Without accepting cookies, however, you only pass this information on in separate installments: the web site can’t keep track of this information (reliably) over time. If you pass cookies, and that cookie is a unique identifier for you (which it probably is), then they can keep track of this information.

Probably the most private of that information is the URL of the web page you just came from. That is, if you were at CNN and then went to Fox News, they know that you just came from CNN. And if you have cookies turned on, they can keep track of how often you go from CNN to Fox News and how often you go from Playboy.Com to Fox News.

What information is your browser passing?
REMOTE_ADDR54.225.41.203
HTTP_USER_AGENTCCBot/2.0 (http://commoncrawl.org/faq/)

Where privacy concerns really enter, however, is that what you consider to be a web site is not what your web browser considers to be a web site. Geocities, for example, hosts thousands of web sites: but as far as your browser is concerned, they are all one web site. Any web site on Geocities could theoretically ask for any cookie set by any other web site on Geocities. They would have to figure out the name of the cookie, and if all the cookie is is a unique identifier for you, it won’t do them much good because they don’t have the database that includes the rest of your information. However, the Geocities staff can definitely use cookies to keep track of all the Geocities sites you’ve visited, as well as the last non-Geocities site you were at before entering the Geocities umbrella.

And it doesn’t end there. You have probably noticed advertisement banners and “hit counts” at the top and bottom of many of the web pages you visit. Banners and hit counts are usually not part of the web site you are visiting. They are part of another web site created specifically for advertising or hit counts (or both). They, also, can track your movement through the various web sites that hold those banners.

It is up to you whether or not you want to pass this information on. In some cases, the information is undoubtedly being thrown away; in other cases, it may well be used to better serve your needs. But there certainly, also, are strong privacy concerns with regards to letting your viewing patterns be tracked through the web.

You can tell your web browser to automatically accept all cookies (which is the default), automatically decline all cookies, or ask you each time. I recommend setting it to ask you for a few days, just to see what is going out and how often. Afterwards, when the cookie messages get too annoying, set your browser to accept or decline all cookies. If you use Internet Explorer, the “Ask for each site” feature is very useful, allowing you to accept and decline once for each site. This gives you control over who you give cookies to without wasting your time with too many cookie dialog boxes.

Some new browsers have an ESP feature turned on by default: they send the page you’re currently visiting off to a central database to find “related” pages similar to this one.

Netscape 4.06 and greater has a cute little feature called “What’s Related”. It is a pull-down menu that lists web sites that are “related” to the web site you’re currently looking at. No matter where you are on the web, you can pull down that menu and see places that Netscape thinks are similar. Currently, this feature is more cute than useful. For example, the feature currently has no idea of the difference between a web site and a web host. If you go to Joe Student’s web page describing Monica & Chandler, and ask for related pages, you’ll get a list of universities. But I’m sure you can see the possibilities.

Now, where do you think Netscape Navigator is getting this information? You certainly didn’t download a database of every web site when you downloaded Netscape Navigator. No, whenever you request “What’s Related” information, you send the URL of the current page you’re at off to a central website. This website checks that URL against its database, and then sends Netscape back a list of related pages. And, once you do that, Netscape will also send the next three pages you visit off to that central site. If someone’s been playing with your preferences, you might even be sending off the URL of every page you visit to this central site.

If you like the feature, that’s fine. If not, you can turn it off in your Preferences, under the Edit menu. In your Preferences, the feature is called “Smart Browsing” and is in the “Navigator” section of the preferences window.