Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What is the Internet?
This is harder to define than one might think. The simplest
definition might be that the Internet is a network. More
precisely, it is a network of networks. So what is a network?
Two or more computers connected together to communicate and
share resources. The resources may be a printer on another
machine, or a software program like a word processor. But most
importantly, at least for the World Wide Web and other common
Internet services, a network allows the sharing of files (where each
computer stores its information).
File sharing is significant because it allows a person on one
computer to access information stored on another. The two
computers may be as close as the same room, or in opposite
corners of the world, yet the information in the remote files
may be available nearly instantly. This technological
development in communications is revolutionizing the flow of
The Internet is a network of smaller networks that spans the
globe. You can share data with a researcher in Brazil, ideas
for a project with a partner in Russia, or have a live
"conversation" with a friend from Australia as readily as you
might telephone your neighbor next door.
However once we move beyond this general description and try to
specifically identify exactly what it is that comprises the
Internet, the answers become a little murkier. A little more
detailed, though slightly dated, examination of this question
is available at:
FYI on "What is the Internet?" (also listed at the end of
this FAQ under Other Resources).
Briefly summarizing the introduction to this document, the
Internet may be defined
- in relation to its common protocols
- as the collection of hardware (computers, routers,
cables, telephone lines, etc.) that physically
facilitates the digital transfer of information
- by the global resources made available by both of
- in terms of the users who avail themselves of these
- or, by using some combination of the above or even
To further cloud the question, the creation of new Internet
technologies and the evolution of old ones, make definitions
which seemed adequate yesterday almost completely obsolete
today. But if all this is more than you care to ponder,
and you stick to the general notion that the Internet is a
network of networks which facilitates the sharing of resources
globally, that will undoubtedly suffice.
How did the Internet start?
Is the World Wide Web (WWW) the same as the Internet?
Strictly speaking, the WWW is a subset of the Internet even though they
are often referred to interchangeably. This is probably because in terms
of how they're used, the WWW is functionally the same as the Internet
for most people in most circumstances. For example, e-mail is a widely
used Internet service which has nothing to do with the WWW. But many
people use web browser software to read e-mail. In fact the browser
is the only Internet software many people use, and they view the whole
Internet through this one interface
these are suites of many different applications (browser, e-mail,
newsreader, ftp client, etc.), but that doesn't change the
that they are all an extension of the same
I don't want to start any religious wars here, because personally I
don't care for the way the terms "WWW" and "Internet" have come to be
used interchangeably. I think it's incorrect. But I also think it's
analogous to the way correct grammar can be affected over time by usage.
The purpose here is to help people who are unfamiliar with the
terminology, and they will often see them used synonomously.
If you want to know more about the distinction and why it's blurred,
there is some more detailed information here.
What is meant by "the web"? Is it the same as the WWW?
The "web" is simply one of the nicknames for the World Wide Web. Others
include "WWW" and "W3". They all refer to the same concept -- that of many
computers connected via various networks
so that any
computer can share resources seamlessly with any other. (Some would say
that eventually all computers will be connected.)
How do websites work?
Information is transferred on the Internet using many different methods
known as protocols
. These are basically
the means that the two computers "agree" to use to communicate. The
protocol determines how one computer requests data, and how the other
responds to those requests.
The web uses the hypertext transfer protocol.
The Internet is notorious for acronyms, so this is usually referred to
simply as HTTP. When visiting a website, your browser (the client)
requests an HTTP connection with the computer that hosts that site (the
server). If the connection is successful, your browser requests the
page you want to view from the server and, if available, the server sends
it. The page itself is a document that someone most likely created
with hypertext markup language, or HTML. This is the
language, or code, that web browsers understand. (If you want to see a
little of this code, your browser should have a menu item to let you see
it. In Netscape try "View/Page Source" or in Internet Explorer try
"View/Source".) As the page is downloading from the server, your browser
interprets the html and displays the resulting content on your computer.
It may contain text, pictures, animations, sound, movies, information
forms, interactive games, and so on. It is likely also to contain links
to other pages. Clicking on a link will tell the server to send that
page. If the link is to a document at another site, the whole process
begins again, but with the server at the new location. This linking of
documents with html allows you to access any
referenced document as seamlessly as if it were on your own computer.
"For instance, when you are looking at the Louvre's website, your
computer has requested the web page from a server located in Paris.
The Louvre's web server sends the data you've requested over the
Internet to your computer. [...] The Louvre's website also has
links to the websites of other museums, such as the Vatican Museum.
With a click of your mouse on a link, you can access the web server
in Rome." (6)
"Simply put, the World Wide Web is a way to share resources with
many people at the same time, even if some of those resources are
located at opposite ends of the world. If you think of it as a
research paper that lets each footnote take you right to the
original source, then you've got the basic idea." (7)
What is a web browser?
A web browser is the software you use to browse the World Wide
Web. Its primary purpose is to make an HTTP connection with a
server machine that has HTML documents you want to view. It
then downloads the pages, interprets the HTML, and displays it
on your computer. If that's a little confusing, take a look
above at "How do websites work?"
As more people have begun using the web, the companies that
develop browser software have included more and more functionality.
The most popular web browsers can also be used for e-mail, usenet
newsgroups, FTP client, HTML editing (creating web pages), address
books, and much more. For many people, this is the only software
they need to access the Internet.
Does it matter which web browser I use?
Not really. That is unless you
think it does. The two
most widely used browsers are
. They are both available for free and
provide mostly the same functionality.
So why would you choose one over any other? Cost and/or usability
would probably be at the top of most people's list. Cost is
pretty easy to figue out. Usability can be less straightforward.
Adding capabilities isn't always a plus. The increased size can
cause it to load more slowly and take longer to perform it's tasks.
You may also decide that the greater number of capabilities comes
at a cost. It does few of them well. Some people prefer having
specialized applications which are smaller and do their job very
well. Others prefer the swiss army knife approach. That choice is
up to you.
There's at least one more reason some people might choose a different
browser. They prefer David over Goliath, or maybe even the other way
around. Some people dislike both Netscape and Microsoft. They are
both guilty of being willing to sacrifice your web browsing experience
for their own gain by incorporating proprietary HTML into their
browsers. This means that a web site developed for their software
may not view as well with a browser from another company. HTML
(the language that web pages are created with) is an open standard
which was created, and is continually updated, precisely to avoid
this problem. But if they can gain a stronghold and enough sites are
created using their private "features", it may force people to use
their software out of necessity. If you don't care for this practice,
you might choose a different browser. Then again, some people prefer
to stick with a "winner".
What does it mean to "browse" or "surf" the web?
Browsing or surfing the web is simply using a web browser to make
connections to and view websites. Surfing as a metaphor for this
experience may be derived something like this: Often times people find
themselves connecting to a website, following a link to another, then
another... and another... Before they know it, they've visited numerous
sites possibly encompassing all corners of the world. Some sites are
better than others, with more useful information or a better presentation.
Others have little to offer at all. And there are almost always
diversions and tangents along the way. This ebb and flow of good and
not so good sites, and things that can carry you completely away from
what you set out to do, is (I guess?) a little like surfing.
Why isn't "http://" needed in the address
(URL) like it used to be?
(e.g. "http://", "ftp://",
"gopher://") used to be necessary at the beginning
of a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) to get you connected to the correct
service at the remote (server) end of a connection. As use of the
hypertext transfer protocol or "HTTP" became more widespread, web
browsers were designed to default to this protocol if none is specified.
So, if your browser software is recent enough, and you don't specify the
protocol, HTTP is assumed. In fact, if you look in the Location: box in
recent versions of Netscape Navigator or the Address: box in MS Internet
Explorer, you will see that "http://" is inserted for you if you don't
Is it safe to browse the web?
For example, could my computer get a virus?
Safety on the web is the same as anywhere else. How safe it is is
mostly up to you, but there are always some things outside of your
control no matter how careful you are. If you haven't identified the
risks of driving a car before you get behind the wheel, it can be
dangerous. The same can be true of the web. As with anything
it's prudent to learn something about the risks.
Following are some general statements about the risks.
These are not definitive and there are exceptions, some
of which are noted.
You must download and run an executable program for your computer to
be infected by a virus. An exectuable program in the MS Windows world
is a file that ends in ".exe", ".com", ".cmd," or ".bat". These are
programs which actually run something, or execute instructions on
your computer. Other files like a web page, or the embedded graphics
can't pass a virus. The most important thing you can do to protect
yourself is to use only trusted sources when downloading programs
from the Internet. Downloading Netscape Navigator from
www.netscape.com is a pretty safe thing to do. Downloading
"make$$$.exe" from www.sleazyoperator.com may not be. If you're
going to download programs and try them on your computer, invest in
anti-virus software and use it to check every download --
even from trusted sources. (Two of the commercial leaders in this
market are McAfee and
Symantec. I'll be happy to
post other references if you send
.) The anti-virus software does not guarantee prevention
from viruses, but does offer a significant measure of protection. These
companies are always playing catch up with the malevolent people who
create these things. But they are generally very good at providing
prompt responses to new threats, and make updates to the software
Following are some exceptions. MS Word and MS Excel documents can
have macros embedded in them that run automatically when you open the
documents. Even though they are not executable programs, the macros
execute instructions just as a program does. You should never open
up a document from someone you don't know, just as you wouldn't take
candy from a stranger on the street. Good anti-virus software will
detect macro viruses as well.
Another exception is web pages with active content. There are
programming languages which allow website developers to embed small
programs, usually referred to as applets, right into the web pages.
The most common of these are Java, and Active-X. Most of these are
harmless and do simple things like changing the look of a graphic when
your mouse passes over it. But applets may have the same risks as
executable programs. In practice, the talk about the risks greatly
exceeds the number of observed occurences. But if you'd prefer to err
on the side of caution, these can be disabled in the configuration of
your browser software.
Finally, there are risks besides viruses. And it doesn't always
require downloading something to encounter them. Computer operating
systems (e.g. Windows98) and application software (e.g. Netascape
Navigator) are very complicated programs, sometimes using millions
of lines of programming code to make them work. Security problems are
regularly found buried in these mountains of code. For example, it was
discovered late last year that if you have MS Excel installed on your
computer, it is possible for a website operator to download your excel
data files while you browse their site, without notifying you. When it
was discovered, Microsoft made a patch (a program which fixes the
problem) available on their website.
We mention this not to heighten fears about safety,
but to point out that not knowing about the risks can be as dangerous
on the web as anywhere else. Most of us will drive a car our whole lives
without having an accident. But we still use our seat belts and carry
insurance. If you use a computer and the Internet, you should probably
know where to find security information for the software you use. You
will probably never need it, but you'll be glad if you do.
Is it safe to make credit-card purchases on the web?
The short answer is that it is no less safe than making a credit-card
purchases over the telephone. As with everything, who
doing business with is more important than how
you're doing it.
It is always safer to do business with a trusted source, whether on the
Internet or not.
A slightly more detailed answer is, if your browser is a recent version
it probably has encryption capabilities. This means that the information
you send is scrambled so that it is virtually impossible to
decode it, which is definitely more secure than ordering over the
telephone. Encryption isn't always an option because it must also
be enabled at the site where you're doing business . If this
is a concern for you, you can choose not to do business with sites
that don't offer it. However, even without encryption, it is
still probably more secure than ordering by telephone.
What about privacy?
What information can people gather about me?
The answer to this question is very similar to the issue of
safety on the web
. The risks to privacy aren't
necessarily greater, just different. And not understanding them, at
least at a basic level, can be just as damaging as anywhere else.
There are many things that you can do to protect your privacy if
When visiting a website, you are sometimes asked for information about
yourself. If you're not comfortable with the request, don't answer it.
For example, I was recently looking at converting a
conventional IRA to a Roth IRA and visited two sites.
The first was
They requested more information than I thought was necessary to answer
my questions -- including marital status, dependents, investment
experience, and e-mail address. I chose to move on. I next visited
Vanguard where I
found a very simple form, asking only what was needed to
answer my questions. This illustrates that there is usually more than
one source for whatever information you need. So if you don't like
something that's happening, exercise your choice to go elsewhere.
But that, unfortunately, is not the end of the privacy issue. There
are other ways your privacy can be compromised, one of which
is "cookies". The most widely used browsers support a method of
information collection called a cookie file. This is a file on your
computer where websites can write and retrieve information about
your visits. There are many opinions about cookies. They weren't
intended to be invasive, but were created to help websites to optimize
your visits. In practice, they can be used intrusively and so some
consider them bad by definition. For example, a website can track
which areas you visit, store the information on your computer then
retrieve it on your next visit. You may then be presented with
information about pages that have changed in your areas of interest.
Or you may be presented with specifically targeted advertisements.
Whether either of those is intrusive is probably a matter of personal
opinion. Also it is often possible to determine where you came from
before arriving at a site. By itself this information means little,
but some people have concerns that this information could be used
to create a fairly comprehensive profile of your web viewing habits.
Again, it is probably a matter of personal opinion, but some people
would find this distasteful.
The general issue of privacy, and of cookies in particular, are both
beyond the scope of this FAQ. But for more information on the later,
you can visit Cookie Central.
If privacy is a serious concern, you may want to have a look
at Ultimate Anonymity
Here's one final reference,
The Web's identity crisis, which points out a couple of other
possible looming threats to privacy.
How do I get on the Internet?
The short answer is through an ISP (Internet Service Provider). There
are local companies that provide this service. They may be found in
the phone book, but may not. There are lists of providers broken down
by geographical area on the web, but this is a Catch-22 if you're not
connected. There are also national providers such as AOL, Compuserve,
Prodigy, Netcom, etc. Many local cable tv operators are also offering