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COLUMN ONE

No More Internet for Them

Fed up over problems stemming from viruses and spyware, some computer users are giving up or curbing their use of the Web.

January 14, 2005|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

Stephen Seemayer had the first Pong video game system on his block. A decade later, the Echo Park artist was the first in his neighborhood to get a personal computer. And in 1996, he was so inspired by the World Wide Web that he created a series of small paintings for viewing over the Internet.

Now the 50-year-old Seemayer is once again on the cutting edge: Sick of spam clogging his in-box and spyware and viruses crashing his system, Seemayer yanked out his high-speed connection.

"I'm not going to pay for something that I can't use," he said.

A small but growing number of frustrated computer owners are coming to the same conclusion. They're giving up or cutting back their use of the Internet, especially at home, where no corporate tech support team will ride to their rescue.

Instead of making life easier -- the essential promise of technologies since the steam engine -- the home PC of late has made some users feel stupid, endangered or just hassled beyond reason.

Seemayer's machine, for instance, got so jammed with spam that he stopped checking e-mail. When he surfed the Web, pop-up ads from a piece of spyware he couldn't wipe out spewed sexually explicit images and used so much computing power that the PC would just stop.

"I could be sitting here in the living room reading a book," Seemayer said, "and I'd hear my son scream: 'It froze up on me again!' "

So when his son left for college in September, Seemayer finally unplugged.

Now when he uses his computer, it's to compose letters or organize photos -- anything that doesn't require interaction with any other system.

Seemayer is still in the minority. Overall Internet use continues to grow.

But 2004 "was a real turning point in a bad direction," said technology analyst Ted Schadler of Forrester Research. "People are getting really angry. They're angry at Dell and Microsoft and their cable providers, and that's appropriate. They should be."

In a recent survey, 31% of online shoppers said they were buying less than before because of security issues. And though more people are signing up for high-speed, commerce-friendly connections, the proportion of U.S. Internet users paying for things online barely budged in 2004 from a year earlier. It rose to 27% from 26% in 2003 after jumping from 20% the previous year, according to Harris Interactive.

For many, spyware was the last straw. During the last 18 months, the sneaky programs have soared to the top of the list of tech woes, triggering the most tech support calls to Dell Inc., the nation's top PC maker. Spyware lurks on as many as 80% of computers nationwide, according to the National Cyber Security Alliance, a trade group.

Spyware generally transmits information to third parties and sometimes takes control of a PC, usually to display ads. The most pernicious varieties have instructed millions of computers to make expensive toll calls or logged every keystroke on affected machines and sent account numbers and passwords to identity thieves.

No one is immune. Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates discovered spyware on his personal machine not long ago.

The aggravation level has reached the point that some in the computer industry believe it threatens to undermine advances of the last decade, during which the Internet has grown from a virtually empty domain to a global community of 800 million souls. They say they need to act before the same early adopters who led mainstream Americans online lead them off.

"If, as an industry, we're not able to provide a safe, reliable computing environment, we do think consumers will get increasingly frustrated," said Michael George, general manager of Dell's U.S. consumer business. "We're concerned, and we want to get to a position where we play an instrumental role in fixing the problem."

It may well be up to private enterprise. Congress and the Federal Trade Commission are exploring a crackdown on spyware, but government efforts to stop another online scourge, spam, have had limited results, as many with an e-mail account will attest.

The root cause of the problems is the open architecture of the Internet, initially inhabited and managed by a collaborative community from government and universities.

"The Internet ... grew out of a shielded, nice-guy environment in academia," Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen said. Back then, "the worst abuse might have been sending a prank message. Nowadays, the Net reaches everyone in the industrialized world, including large amounts of people with no shame and large numbers of criminals."

Microsoft's dominant Windows operating system also makes it possible for malicious code to spread, in part because it was designed to allow so many functions. Once a weakness in Windows is discovered by hackers, a virus can wreak havoc on millions of computers before Microsoft can offer a patch -- which typical users may not take the initiative to download.

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