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Many of us think of the Internet as a place to find valuable, free information. But with marketers tracking our every mouse click and sites prying for personal information, some say we're paying a high price when it comes to personal privacy.
"Interest in electronic privacy has reached new heights because of the lack of safeguards in place," says Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group in Washington, DC. "Both the technology and law have lagged behind."
One controversial way sites can spy on you is through "cookies," or small files that some Web sites upload to your computer to track your movements once you connect to their sites. Companies also routinely use Web information they've gleaned from users for direct-marketing.
To protect yourself, decide where you draw the line when offering information online. Be wary of registration procedures that ask for personal data, and avoid sites you deem intrusive. You can also disable the cookie settings in your browser; visit ,a href=http://www.luckman.com>http://www.luckman.com and get a free "anonymous cookie," a program that disables all cookies in your browser's cookie directory or file.
Privacy advocates are calling for companies to post their privacy policies explaining why they're collecting the data. Several states are also considering implementing electronic privacy laws that could offer added protection.
Navigating the legal waters when it comes to Internet copyright law can get tricky. If a picture is posted on the Net, can you use it on your site? Must you credit text if it's pulled from another site? How do you protect what's yours?
Unfortunately, there aren't any cut-and-dried answers to these questions. But what's clear is that copyright law does apply to the Internet in broad terms. And whether it's a joke, audio file, video clip or piece of text in question, there doesn't have to be a copyright symbol and date next to it for it to be protected.
Let's say you find a picture of New York City on the Web and want to put it on your site. Chances are the picture is copyrighted, prohibiting your use of it without the owner's permission. What can you do? For starters, send an e-mail telling the site who you are and how you want to use the item. If you get permission, you're probably covered. If you don't--or they don't respond--generally, you can't use it. One way around the problem: Set up a link to the site. If you're set on using it, you still might be able to--but it's a bit trickier.
"It boils down to what's called `fair use,' " explains David Post, co-founder of the Cyberspace Law Institute, a virtual think-tank for cyberspace law. "Ask yourself: `Am I stealing something that took someone a great amount of time to create?' "
On the flip side, if you want to protect something on your own Web site, be sure to post an explanation of how it can be used. However, if it's really sensitive information, leave it off. Don't put your crown jewels on the Net.
But Wait- There's More
Using an Internet service provider (ISP) used to just be about getting connected to the Internet. But with 4,500 ISPs operating today, many are offering additional services.
One service many ISPs have added is Web site hosting. Companies will usually provide site storage and management for a fee; some ISPs even provide free storage space. For about $50 a month, you can usually get 10MB to 20MB storage, enough for a basic site. Also, some ISPs will process credit cards online for you; monthly set-up and maintenance costs range from about $400 to $500.
A few ISPs are gearing their services toward the small office/home office market. For example, GlobalCenter Inc. in Sunnyvale, California, specializes in dial-up accounts, ISDN service and site hosting for homebased businesses. It also offers Internet packages for specific industries.
Yet another trend is to bundle Internet and local phone services together, says Eric Paulak, senior analyst with Gartner Group Inc., an information technology advisory and market research firm in Stamford, Connecticut. Some companies offer both Internet access and local calling service in one package. "This service saves [homebased businesses] money, and it's easier to manage [their communications] with a single point of contact," says Paulak.
If you need an ISP, contact local and national providers and tell them what services you require, as well as what the others are charging so you can negotiate the best price. Also ask if they offer guarantees for reliable access to the Internet or for their Web hosting services. You can find such companies at http://thelist.internet.com or http://www.thedirectory.org
Federal Express and UPS aren't the only ones with first-class Web sites. Now, the U.S. Postal Service's Web site (http://www.usps.gov) has a new look and information and services worth investigating.
Click on the Post Office icon, and you can look up ZIP codes nationwide. Keep tabs on packages sent using the Express Mail Tracking feature. There's also a "postage calculator" to help you find the most cost-efficient mailing method.
Want shipping supplies sent to your door? Click on Business, then Shipping Supplies Online, then Order Supplies. Here, you can order Express or Priority Mail supplies. To place an order, indicate the item and quantity, then add it to the Mail Pouch. While you can't order stamps online--yet (see "Home Zone")--you can view the latest kinds and order them by phone. Then you can say sayonara to standing in line at the post office.
Digging For Dirt
Want to research a company before extending a line of credit? Get the skinny on your competition? Or simply check references? Then point your browser to http://www.businesscreditusa.com
This site for American Business Credit, a division of American Business Information Inc., a business analysis firm in Omaha, Nebraska, provides current information on nearly 11 million U.S. businesses. From the home page, click on "Business Profiles and Credit Ratings," enter the company name, city and state, and you'll get a brief description of the company's credit rating, free of charge. Or for a complete profile, registered users pay $3. Reports contain data such as owner name, number of employees, estimated annual sales and credit rating score.
With companies charging up to $30 per report for such information, this site is a bargain. You aren't limited in the number of searches, nor must you sign up for a set time period, making it a good way to access quality credit information.
Coming To Your Census
f you're expanding into new territory and don't have much in the way of a market research budget, sign up for CenStats through the U.S. Census Bureau. A new fee-based subscription service on the Internet, CenStats gives you access to the Census Bureau's most popular databases, as well as information sold via CD-ROM.
If you have the time and patience to sort through it all, CenStats can furnish voluminous amounts of data most homebased businesses will find useful. Search by county under County Business Patterns, and you'll get business profiles for an area detailing payroll information and business sizes by industry; you'll get the same information when you search by ZIP code under ZIP Business Patterns. Under the USA Counties area, you'll also find counties' economic and demographic information. For instance, click on the state of Maryland and then Cecil County, and you have access to data regarding its population, personal income per capita and more.
You can take the service for a spin by going to the Census Bureau's Web page (http://www.census.gov ), clicking on the CenStats icon and then hitting "Test Drive." You have the option to sign up for the service online or by calling (301) 457-4100. Single-user subscriptions cost $40 for three months and $125 for one year.
Electronic Privacy Information Center, http://www.epic.org
Gartner Group, 56 Top Gallant Rd., Stamford, CT 06904, (203) 316-1111
GlobalCenter Inc., (800) 463-8386, http://www.globalcenter.net
Intermedia Communications, http://www.intermedia.com