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Cyber Heroes!

You may have thought EarthLink was just another crappy ISP founded by a Scientologist, but I've got news for you. It is, in point of fact, an organization that houses a secret cadre of superheroes. And they're not just superheroes, if you believe the pricey full-page ads EarthLink has bought in the back pages of certain entertainment magazines. They're Cyber Heroes, with capital letters and everything. They are fighting "hackers, phishers, and identity thieves" who come from "a dark cyberworld." It's enough to make you want to spell dude with two zeros. D00d! Cyber!

Our Cyber Heroes, a nice-looking, multicultural bunch who are actual EarthLink employees, are dressed in business casual and have superpowers like "scam slammer," "virus vanquisher," and "identity defender." Apparently none of the Cyber Heroes actually do useful things, like write secure code or design systems that protect users' personal communications with encryption. Nor do they save EarthLink from its own little problems. For example, even though I've requested that EarthLink shut down my account, they keep sending me bills, perhaps in the vain hope that I'll forget I've canceled my account and start paying for it again.

But that's what's so great about this new EarthLink advertising campaign - it's a wild exaggeration whose exuberant silliness represents everything we wish our ISPs were actually doing. Most people who use a company like EarthLink as a broadband provider are not very technically minded. To them, the Internet really is a "dark cyberworld" full of phantom creatures whose activities they understand so little that they might as well be reanimated aliens who eat radiation or whatever. These are exactly the people who want to believe that there are - as the ad promises - "a team of 2,000 Cyber Heroes" protecting them against those nasty viruses and spyware thingies they've heard so much about.

In reality, though, EarthLink and dozens of ISPs like it are hardly fighting for truth and justice when it comes to protecting your computer from whatever threats are out there. Often the tools that large companies use to stop spyware and unwanted e-mails are unreliable and arbitrary. For example, Mircrosoft recently removed several pieces of spyware from its list of blocked programs because the company decided that some spyware qualifies as a legitimate form of advertising called "adware." So yesterday's spyware is today's advertising campaign, and woe betide the consumer who thought Microsoft was going to protect her against getting pop-up ads on her computer that slow it down and drive her nuts.

EarthLink's Cyber Heroes ad campaign is designed to call attention to EarthLink's line of "blocker" software tools - Virus Blocker, Scam Blocker, and Spyware Blocker - which protect users against a constantly evolving list of online scams and nuisances. And while EarthLink should be credited with trying to help consumers avoid downloading viruses and other forms of hostile code, I think it's always wise for consumers to be suspicious about Blocker-style products that claim to stop bad e-mails or programs without openly describing what criteria the company is using to classify things as "bad."

EarthLink representative Jerry Grasso says that while EarthLink subscribers can access lists that reveal which viruses and spyware are being blocked, the Scam Blocker tool isn't quite as transparent. "Consumers can't access the scam database, because we don't want them accidentally visiting one of the Web sites," he said. Unfortunately, that means it's very difficult to verify whether the blocked scam sites are truly scammy, or simply incorrectly listed.

Plus, we're trapped in a consumer lock-in scheme where we're dependent on EarthLink to fix problems we should learn to deal with ourselves. After all, we don't depend on the phone company to help us deal with telemarketers.

Of course it's no good to EarthLink or AOL or any of the big ISPs to have well-educated Internet users. If we all start setting up our own mail and Web servers, or auditing the scam sites ourselves, they'll have no more business. And if all of us start using brilliant, free antispam programs like SpamAssassin - or independent antispyware products - we won't have to depend on those fake Cyber Heroes to protect us from the bad guys who want to plant ads on our desktops or use our computers to launch distributed denial-of-service attacks.

Sure, most of us don't have time to tune our antispam filters every night and reboot our mail servers when they fall over. But we can choose ISPs that don't condescend to us and tell us fairy stories about the "dark cyberworld." How about giving us solid, concrete information about how all those scams are being stopped instead of just trying to get us to use their "scam blocker" products?

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