Christian Living on the Internet
Version 0.3 - 26th March 2000
Note: this document is now rather dated, and is here for historical purposes only.
This document is designed to help Christians who wish to take advantage of the Internet, but are afraid of exposure to unhelpful content. In the same way as in the real world, nothing can help you avoid sins you choose to go looking for, but this document can hopefully make it less likely for your Internet experience to be accidentally spoiled, and raise the barrier between you and temptation. Parts of this document assume you already have a working Internet connection and e-mail address, and assumes familiarity with some simple computer terms. If you are currently not connected, my hope is that reading this document might convince you that it is safe to become so!
Before I begin, I should say that, when it comes to children using the Internet, nothing in this document is meant to provide an alternative to parental supervision, and sensible discussion of the issues surrounding the Net with your child. In particular, do not think that web blocking software can serve as a "Virtual Nanny" - it cannot.
Although, in everyday use of the Web, the chances of stumbling across something undesirable are very low indeed, accidents do happen. Although the best solution, should you arrive somewhere you don't want to be, is to press "Back" or close the browser window, there are also two technological means that you can use to avoid accidentally accessing undesirable websites. Which you choose depends on how you value your on-line freedom, and that of other users of your computer.
There exist pieces of software which censor some parts of the Web, usually according to a list of banned web addresses (URLs). This list is usually encrypted. Recently, freedom of information activists have decrypted the lists of several of the most popular bits of such software, and, in one, found an incredible 76% error rate in its blocking among US educational (.edu) sites. I.e. for every one site that was blocked correctly, three others were blocked incorrectly. Companies which sell this sort of software also have a history of blocking sites which are critical of them. In addition, the list can also never hope to keep up with the changes of address which take place daily on the Web. I believe such software is worse than useless - it lulls you into a false sense of security, and will prevent you from seeing that which you have no reason not to see. The best list of links to viewpoints in the "censorware" debate is at The Texas Internet Service Providers Association - this includes a list of vendors' websites, if you still wish to purchase such software.
The second method is to enable blocking based upon a voluntary ratings system called PICS. This will block sites which flag themselves in various different categories, and can go some way towards stopping you accidentally stumbling on something nasty. This has the advantage that, assuming sites rate themselves correctly (not guaranteed) it will never block something by mistake. However, few website operators bother to rate their sites. This form of blocking is free. To enable it, see the The Internet Content Rating Association FAQ.
You should permit users to view sites that have no rating - if you do not, this will block 99% of the web, as many perfectly innocent sites do not bother rating themselves. Note, however, that enabling PICS may slow down your web browsing significantly (which isn't very good if you have a modem link).
It is hard to find anything on the web without using a search engine. There are dedicated Christian search engines (there is one at CrossSearch) but they are very unlikely to have indexed and categorised anything like as much of the Web as the big players, and it is correspondingly less likely that you will find what you are looking for. I would recommend Google - they have a unique method of ranking results which makes it less likely that an innocent search will accidentally turn up something unwanted. Read their page for more information. For best results, it is best to start with a specific search, and widen it if you don't find what you want, rather than the other way around. They also have a SafeSearch feature which supposedly excludes adult content results.
Occasionally, when browsing an otherwise-innocent site, you will come across an offensive banner advertisement. The best solution to this is to press Reload on your browser, which will immediately blank the page. Most sites rotate their ads, and so reloading will produce the same page, but with a new ad - probably an inoffensive one. If this happens too often on the same site, you may want to consider not visiting it.
Several ad companies track your progress across the web through their ads, in order to "personalise" the web-surfing experience, much like supermarket loyalty cards track your purchases. Many people find this a privacy intrusion, but if you decide to opt out of such tracking (it is possible) note that this will mean ads you receive from those ad networks will be more random, and so possibly more likely to be undesirable.
Be careful with your identity and your e-mail address. The more people you give this to, the more likely you are to receive Spam (unsolicited commercial e-mail; named from the Monty Python sketch). This is both annoying and a waste of network resources. Only reveal personal details to reputable companies. Kids particularly should avoid communicating with complete strangers of whom they know nothing. By this I mean that it is perfectly sensible to e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, even though you don't know who it is, to tell them how good SomeSite is, but you should avoid e-mailing people whose e-mail addresses you pick up from e.g. bulletin boards.
If you get any Spam, or other unwanted mail, completely ignore it. Do not reply to it, visit any websites mentioned, or purchase any products or services, no matter how attractive they may seem. Do not use any mechanism provided to "remove yourself from the list" - this merely confirms to the spammer that the address they used is active, and someone is reading the mail, and will trigger a flood of additional messages.
Newsgroups are the Internet's discussion forums. They are used much less by newer Internet users, who often find web-based message boards easier to use, and less full of advertisements, and other junk. Certain newsgroups receive a fair amount of unwanted, off-topic commercial messages, a form of Spam, much of which is adverts for porn sites. This has led to many newsgroups being moderated - one person checks and approves all messages destined for the group.
All newsgroups have a name which represents the topic of discussion, such as "sci.materials.ceramics". Those which begin "alt." are less likely to be moderated and more likely to offend; you should approach them with corresponding levels of caution. On the other hand, moderated groups with any name should be considered completely safe. There is a list of moderated groups here.
If you do read newsgroups, be cautious about posting to them - your e-mail address gets attached to your message, and propagated around the world, and can be captured by programs which will then send you Spam. In order to post safely, many people change their e-mail address to Spam-proof it (to e.g. email@example.com) but how to do that in your software is outside the scope of this document. If you e-mail someone whose name you see in a newsgroup, make sure to check their address is valid.
It would also be a very good idea to read the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) list before posting, to make sure that the question you are about to ask, and the query you are about to raise, has not been discussed at length before. It will also give you a good idea of what goes on in that group, and its general tone. A good central repository for newsgroup FAQs is here.
It should be noted that most of the media scare stories about pornography on the Internet relate to images posted in particular newsgroups dedicated to such things. However, very few UK Internet Service Providers (ISPs) carry these groups, and their names clearly denote what is inside them, so they are easy to avoid.
For your average Internet user, interactive chat rooms, such as those provided by AOL, and the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) network, or on particular websites, have very little use indeed. However, there are particularly Christian chatrooms, about which I have heard good reports. Whatever the subject, they are a potentially endless sink for time. In particular, it has been found that if you let kids anywhere near them, they'll be online for hours. If you are paying by the minute then this is obviously worrisome. Unless you have a good reason to venture into a specific one (such as a live online interview with a famous person, or it discusses a specific topic in which you have interest), they are probably best avoided. Note that this doesn't apply to non-real-time web-based message boards, which should be treated in the same way as other web content.
On the Internet, as anywhere else that you meet people, there are opportunities for evangelism. As well as always being prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15), you may find opportunities present themselves, just as in the real world, merely because opinions you express come from a Christian perspective. Take every opportunity you get; but there are a few pitfalls you might want to avoid.
It probably isn't a good idea to attempt evangelism in newsgroups - particularly religious ones like alt.atheism. In non-religious ones, you will probably draw flak for being "off-topic". The best method in almost every case is to take up discussions with people using private e-mail, where both sides can lay out coherent and reasonable, thought-through arguments without barracking from the sidelines.
Another difference is that evangelism by e-mail tends to be a much more focussed, coherent discussion than that in person.You will tend to discuss multiple topics in parallel, and go into them in more depth over a longer amount of time. You also need to remember that the other person always has the option of not replying to your message, so be particularly loving and polite.
The Internet can be a fantastic place to live, and a wonderful resource. It has a lot to offer. After taking a few simple common-sense precautions, it is as reasonable an environment to be in as anywhere else in this world.
If you have any interesting experiences of being a Christian on the Internet, or have feedback or suggestions for this document, or questions about the rationale behind some of its recommendations, please send me e-mail.