February / 2000
Access-the Scariest Threat?

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Like anything new and unfamiliar, the Internet is a source of anxiety, over safety, privacy, and protecting our children.

But another aspect of the Internet may be scarier than any criminal use-being left on the wrong side of the so-called "digital divide," the line that separates those who use and profit from the new technology, from those who don't, or can't.

Last November's U.S. Department of Commerce report, Defining the Digital Divide, showed Kentucky in the lowest tier of states for both computer and Internet use, according to 1998 figures. It also showed that high technology only emphasizes the existing divisions in society: high-income, urban households are more than 20 times as likely to be connected as rural, low-income households. Blacks and other minorities (excluding Asian-Americans), the less-educated, and the elderly are less likely to be taking part in the information revolution.

While the Internet seems to reach around the world, it doesn't make geography irrelevant. Rural areas typically have fewer customers per square mile (which makes providing service less profitable), older and less sophisticated phone systems (most Internet connections are made over phone lines), and greater distances from central office switches (which affects the ability to transmit data).

Despite those drawbacks, the past few years have seen huge advances in use of the Internet by Kentuckians:

· Technology mandated by the KERA school reform program has made Kentucky's school systems among the earliest and most thoroughly wired in the country.

· In the 1998 "Digital State" survey by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, Kentucky moved from the bottom 10 to 19th in the degree to which the state government uses digital technology. At the state's Web site, KyDirect (www.kydirect.net), you can order a copy of your birth certificate, buy a trout stamp, apply for a job, or learn which state licenses you need to work as a contractor, among many other features.

· The Commonwealth Virtual Library (http://www.kclv.org/) makes available the catalogs of the state's libraries. The offerings of the Commonwealth Virtual University (www.kcvu.org) and Virtual High School (www.kvhs.org) bring specialized instruction where it was unavailable before-for example, providing college-level calculus or Latin to schools without the demand or staff to offer those classes. The Internet-based high school is the first such system in the country.

· Every library system in the state and most of the branches have computers with Internet access, thanks to money from Empower Kentucky and a $4 million grant from the Gates Foundation.
In Gallatin County, library director Brenda Hawkins says the arrival of the Internet has revolutionized the information patrons receive. Farmers bid on tractors in on-line auctions; a woman brought in a dying Venus Flytrap and was able to diagnose the problem over the Internet (the plant was being fed improperly); and "everyone pulls up their stock price-that's normal."

The computers are in constant use, she says. During the day, people are lined up waiting to use them (even with a half-hour time limit), and after school lets out "there's no way you can get to them."

David Ballard, director of communication services in the Governor's Office for Technology, says there is now a local Internet service provider or a local telephone number for a national service provider (such as America Online or Mindspring) in every county in the state. That means that while many people in rural areas used to have to make an expensive toll call to connect with the Internet, that is no longer the case.

That local telephone access is offered by a patchwork of different institutions. There are national service providers like America Online (which as of last November had 158 access numbers in the state); and there's the statewide Internet service provider, KIH Online, which serves 23,000 customers in 100 Kentucky counties. There are small operations, like Kentucky Internet Services, which William Mocahbee runs out of his Computer Clinic store in London. In Hardin County, Nolin Rural Electric Cooperative provides Internet service through its KVN subsidiary. And Blue Grass Energy, based in Nicholasville, offers Internet services through BGEweb.

But not all access to the Internet is equal.

Many rural users complain about their local service. Will Herrick, a computer expert in Campton, says he's experienced "a lame level of service" that required him to reconnect as many as eight times in half an hour. Shaun Schneider, a 27-year-old who runs a computer sales, service, and consulting company in Beaver Dam, says that his customers often complain about whichever of the several local Internet service providers they use. "Usually it's unreliable or you're waiting and waiting and waiting." The problem, Schneider says, is not the Internet service providers but the phone infrastructure-the older lines and switches in the area.

Slow phone lines are a serious problem for Internet-based businesses. Herrick says that he fears the low bandwidth-that is, the capacity to move data-available to him in Wolfe County, compared to other locales, means that "my information dirt road will soon be a foot path. It also defeats interactivity. I cannot support a client in real-time, I cannot manage certain scales of data like sound, video, statistical analysis, or on-line services."

Few places in Kentucky are better connected than Glasgow, where broad-band access is available to any customer of the city-owned Electric Plant Board. Glasgow's status as one of the nation's best-wired cities (recognized in a variety of national publications) came about through a combination of serendipity and foresight. The 22 square miles of the city were wired with fiber-optic cable to better manage the city's power use; the Electric Plant Board began using this network to deliver cable television and, since 1995, Internet access.

Jenny Starnes, a senior at Glasgow High School, says she uses the Internet for its easy shopping and to communicate with friends and family using live on-line chat technology. "I would have to say that EPB has spoiled me because of its quickness," she wrote in an e-mail message. "I am afraid that when I go to college the Internet service will not be as great as what I have at home right now."

And it's been an effective business tool for folks such as Steve Newberry of Commonwealth Broadcasting, a Barren County native who's used his Internet capability to create a central production studio for his company. His staff in Glasgow creates commercials and spot announcements and shoots CD-quality versions out to Commonwealth's 30 radio stations.

Tony Nunn, a development officer at Elizabethtown Community College who's been involved in improving telecommunications in Hardin County, points to Glasgow as an example of how important it is for small towns to develop an information technology strategy.
There are some possible future technologies that might change the landscape-Herrick is interested in a proposed way to provide broad-bandwidth service through the existing electric lines. There are other wireless technologies on the horizon, but when they might be deployed is anyone's guess.

"Internet access in Kentucky is not an information technology issue, it's a question of economics," says Doug Robinson, executive director of the office of policy and customer relations in the Governor's Office for Technology. He points out that the cost of a high-speed, high-volume T-1 line is the same in Fayette or Robertson County, the state's least-populated jurisdiction: "It's just that in Fayette County they can split that cost among 1,500 users, where in Robertson County they'd only be able to share that cost among 100 users."

Robinson says it isn't feasible for the state government to provide Internet access for everyone. Instead, he says it tries to enhance interest in and experience with the Internet, by such efforts as providing access in libraries and putting more of the state's business on-line.

The final obstacle to Kentucky's crossing the digital divide may be that many of us don't choose to join the party of exploration. Robinson notes, "We have a high degree of technology pessimism in this state...a number of citizens that do not trust technology and do not interact with technology." He says, "We rate very low in the use of very mature and simple technologies, such as ATM cards." He credits that to a kind of "Daniel Boone independence" in the Kentucky character.

But Boone came into Kentucky advancing toward the future. It would be keeping faith with his spirit to take a journey into the digital wilderness.

Keeping Kids Safe in Cyberspace
Among the attractions of the Internet is that it's open to anyone and everything.

But that includes many things that any good parent would want to keep children from seeing-pornography, hate groups, and people you would not want them meeting anywhere.

Here are some steps parents can take to keep kids safe on-line:
Take control. Understand the technology rather than think of it as something that only belongs to your kids. Many parents insist that the computer be in a common area, where they can watch what's going on. Others spend time searching the Internet with their children and mark favorite sites with "bookmarks," which save Web site addresses in your computer so it's easy for the kids to return to the approved site.

Make children aware of the dangers. They should realize that the Net is anonymous- a person can claim to be in your algebra class, but might really be a 45-year-old stranger. Kids should avoid giving out passwords, any personal information, or even habits and schedules.

Find kid-friendly Web sites. A variety of Web sites provides appropriate content, and many of them-for example, the Yahooligans! section of the on-line portal Yahoo! (www.yahooligans.com)-have search engines that pull up only kid-appropriate content.

Use parental control software. A number of software programs block inappropriate content or provide a log of the places your kids have been (Net Nanny is one of the best-known). Many on-line providers, such as America Online, offer parental controls as part of their software. And there are some service providers that screen content themselves and won't put it on their servers. While kids can often find a way to "get around" software on their home computers, these services block objectionable material at the source.

Stopping Internet Swindlers
Human nature being what it is, no medium of communications exists without someone turning it to criminal use.

Todd Leatherman, director of the consumer protection division in the state attorney general's office, cautions against taking Web sites at face value: "Some people, just because it's in print or up on the Internet, mistakenly believe that it's somehow legitimate." The Internet has been used for pyramid schemes, chain letter deals, phony seminar scams-any form of fraud.

Part of the thrill of shopping on the Internet is the easy, instant gratification of it-press a button from your home and your purchase is winging its way to you. But for that to happen, your credit card number has to be exchanged over computer lines, where it may be intercepted by someone gifted at breaking into computer systems. Most Internet merchants provide secure, encrypted sites, but as Leatherman says, "We know that computer hackers can break through anything."

If you think your credit card is at risk of being misused, you can contact the credit reporting agencies-Experian (800-301-7195), Equifax (800-525-6285), and Trans Union (800-680-7289)-and have them put a fraud alert on your record, which will cause them to notify you when someone applies for credit in your name. Assistant Deputy Attorney General Jeff Lagrew suggests doing that as a preventive measure-he did and learned that someone in Alabama had applied for a $5,000 limit credit card in his name.
"We don't like to scare people too much, but we want to make them aware that nothing's 100 percent safe," says Leatherman.
If you believe you've been a victim of fraud, call the Division of Financial Integrity in the state attorney general's office at (800) 804-7556.

Never Been on the Internet?
You ought to give the Internet a try. You can order merchandise by mail, send instant, electronic mail to people anywhere in the world, and do research in the libraries and archives of far-away libraries, companies, and universities. Some people have even met future spouses in on-line chat rooms.

Your local public library can show you how to use the Internet. Other sources of help include senior activity centers, or the nearest computer store.

But look out. The Internet lets in anyone. As the articles here point out, you may find offensive material, and there are at least as many con artists on the Internet as anywhere else. It pays to be a skeptic. So beware, but have fun.

Finding Truth on the Internet
It's often tough to tell fact from fiction on the Internet, says Craig Buthod, director of the Louisville Free Public Library: "Most folks aren't well-equipped to authenticate an information source."
But there are ways to figure out if what you see on the Internet is true, or if someone just made it up.

For a quick and useful lesson, go to the Commonwealth Virtual Library site for its tutorial "How to Use the Virtual Library" (www.kcvu.org/cvl/infolit.nsf).

Other tips: Use sources you have some reason to trust: databases through library Web sites; the Encyclopedia Britannica's on-line service, which is now free (www.britannica.com), or reputable publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Times (available free on-line if you register at www.nytimes.com), or Time magazine.