The Virtual Activist

A Training Course

Part 5: Privacy, Security, Copyright, and Censorship


Mailing list privacy issues

All mailing lists (also known as listserves) are managed via email - a form of communication that is inherently insecure. Sending mail via the Internet is like sending a postcard through the post office - given the time and resources, anyone who wants to read your mail can do so. So the tips below will not completely ensure secure and private mailing lists.

One way that you can circumvent some security issues is by using Web-based commercial list services like those discussed in Part 2B. These services often provide all the capabilities of commercial mailing list software - mass emailing, easy subscription and unsubscription procedures - with easier management, better security, and extra options like archival abilities. As noted in Part 2B, however, while these services are usually free there are some drawbacks. The companies that provide them attach short advertisements to the top or bottom of all mailings, and most include terms of use that give the service ownership of the content of your lists. You can find a listing of "community groups" at

Tips for operating your organization's list:

Tips for mailing list members:

World Wide Web privacy issues

The Internet allows users separated by thousands of miles to communicate instantaneously, and the physical distance between users can lead to a false sense of security. In reality, the World Wide Web is highly insecure. If you want to see exactly how much information can be obtained about you and your computer when you visit a Web site, take the test at


Internet "cookies" are text files that Web sites place on the hard drive of your computer when you visit the site. Some people don't like having their online movements tracked, and view cookies as a threat to their privacy. Other people aren't troubled by cookies. Whether or not you like having your movements tracked on the Internet, cookies were created for legitimate business purposes. Online shopping sites, for example, use cookies to "remember" which items you have placed in your "shopping cart."

How dangerous are cookies? Cookies are simple text files, so they cannot transmit viruses or cause any other damage to your computer's hard drive or to your data. But there are good reasons to be concerned about your privacy. Both Netscape Communicator and Internet Explorer, the two most popular Web browsers, contain several potential major security holes related to cookies. For example, one privacy monitoring Web site ( discovered a bug in both Netscape and Internet Explorer that allows any Web site to download all cookies on a user's computer. Though the bug occurs in only one out of thousand computers, it allows Web sites to obtain e-mail addresses, passwords, and other sensitive information from affected browsers. (For more information on this bug, see

Tips for using cookies:

Since many cookies are harmless, and popular websites such as Hotmail and utilize them in many transactions, you may not want to deny all cookies. The second option - asking your browser to inform you when a website presents you with a cookie - affords you the option to deny a cookie from websites that you may not trust.

Cookie information links

Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)

SSL is an Internet standard that provides for the safe transfer of personal information, such as a credit card number, over the Internet. It does this through encryption, a process that scrambles the information you type on a Web page into a code that can only be read by someone with the specific key to unlock that code. When directed to a Web page using SSL, your browser will automatically encrypt all information that you submit to the Web site. Any time you are asked to provide sensitive personal information on a Web site - such as your credit card numbers or home address - you should use a secure Web site, as explained below.

Tips for conducting safe online transactions using SSL:

Web site privacy policies

Any Web site that asks you for information should explain its privacy policy and tell you up front what it intends to do with that information. A good privacy policy will tell you exactly what information the Web site collects from visitors, as well as how that information will be used. For example, if the Web site includes a mailing list sign-up form, the policy should disclose whether your address will be shared with other Web site operators without your permission.

Examples of robust privacy policies include:


When not referring to the canned pinkish meat, "spam" refers to the mass mailing of unsolicited e-mail. ("Spam" also refers to the unsolicited or junk e-mail itself.) Like traditional junk mail sent through the post office, spam is annoying and wasteful, and at times deceitful or offensive. Examples of spam include e-mail advertisements for consumer products, pornographic material, and get-rich-quick scams. Internet hoaxes, the virtual equivalent of urban legends, are another form of spam, as is unsolicited political e-mail.

Spam is wasteful for several reasons. E-mail users across the world waste time downloading, reading, and deleting unwanted e-mail. Furthermore, spammers (the people who send spam) usually target large groups of e-mail users, adding significant stress to mail servers, the computers operated by Internet service providers to send and deliver their customers' e-mail. In the worst cases, spam can completely overwhelm a mail server, causing it to shut down and preventing the ISP's customers from sending or receiving any e-mail.

Sometimes it can be hard to determine whether a particular email message is spam or is useful, wanted information posted to a mailing list for outreach purposes. If you manage a mailing list for your organization or your own personal activism, use the tips below to make sure that you don't alienate your subscribers by sending them spam.

How to avoid becoming a spammer

How to fight spam that you receive in your mailbox

Further steps to combating spam include reporting spammers to their ISPs, who will often take action against them by shutting down their accounts. Visit the Network Abuse Clearinghouse for more information on how to report spammers.

Links to more information about spam


As information technology has become increasingly important to the mission of many nonprofit organizations, so too has the need for computer security. Although the focus of computer security concerns has primarily been on the potential threat to corporate and government computer systems, computers are no less critical to the operations of nonprofit organizations devoted to serving the public interest. Moreover, many nonprofit organizations lack sufficient financial resources to recover from a cyber attack.Some risks are obvious:

Other risks may not be as obvious:

In the winder of 2001-2002, NetAction conducted an online survey of security practices in nonprofit organizations to find out what nonprofit organizations are doing to prevent cyber attacks.We published the survey results in January 2002. Our checklist of cyber security practices can help you assess and improve your organization's computer security practices.

Copyrighted Material on the World Wide Web

Copyright laws apply to material published on the World Wide Web just as with books, articles, CDs, and videos. But many Web pages lack explicit copyright notices that inform visitors of what may or may not be downloaded or posted elsewhere, for public or private use.

When creating a Web site containing original material, it's a good idea to post a copyright policy in an easily noticeable spot. An example of an extensive copyright policy can be found at

The "Digital Millennium Copyright Act" was enacted in October 1998 specifically to address Internet copyright issues. For more information on the DMCA, please visit the Association of Research Libraries' analysis of the bill at

What Web material is copyrighted?

Unless explicitly stated otherwise, all original content on a Web site is copyrighted to the creator or owner of that Web site. If you would like to use content, text, or graphics from someone else's website, both common courtesy and the law dictate that you must first obtain that author's permission.

Web page addresses are merely links and cannot be copyrighted. However, a collection of links that an author compiled may be copyrightable, since it would be the author's original collection.

Because of the nature of the Web, it is not always easy to determine exactly what content on a Web site is subject to copyright laws. For some practical tips for dealing with copyrights on the Web, visit The Copyright Website: The WWW, at

For more information on copyrights and the World Wide Web, see the following sites:


Censorship is a complicated issue that divides some progressive groups that generally agree on other issues. Free speech advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) have opposed any limitations on Internet speech, but other organizations worry that acts of violence may be promoted if there are no restrictions at all on hate speech. Planned Parenthood, for example, won a $109 million judgment against the authors of the "Nuremberg Files" Web site, arguing that the site incited visitors to conduct acts of violence against individual abortion providers. (See Planned Parenthood's press release and an alternative view on free speech.

Filtering software

The proliferation of pornography, hate speech, and other offensive content, as well as the potential threat of Internet predators, raises concerns among parents about what their children view online. Some parents use filtering software such as NetNanny and CyberSitter to block access to Web sites they consider inappropriate for their children, or simply offensive.

But filtering software can also inadvertently block useful Web sites. Most filtering software look for "keywords" when blocking specific Web pages. Yet Web sites that support breast cancer research, for example, may be blocked because they contain the word "breast."

For more information on the capabilities of filtering software and reviews of the most popular brands, visit PC Magazine's 1998 Utility Guide: Parental Filtering Utilities. For more information on the problems with filtering software, visit Peacefire.

Free speech resources

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