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Lost in Cyberspace

Using the Web ... and protecting yourself from it

This article was originally published on February 29, 2000 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

Data Becker is carving out a nice little niche for itself as a publisher of inexpensive utilities that make using the Internet easier and more entertaining.

DataBecker: 1999

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Weg Magnet
Web Magnet
DataBecker: 1999

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The latest two offerings from the German company are SurfScreen, which provides higher security and anonymity while online, and Web Magnet, which allows you to automatically browse the Web and newsgroups for media files you can then download.

SurfScreen is undoubtedly the more useful of the two programs. It will monitor all cookies put on your computer by Web servers (or even block them for you), remove banner ads and pop-up ads, serves as a spam e-mail filter, and controls which directories that ActiveX and Java can access on your hard drive.

The menus are fairly easy to navigate, although they aren't always self-explanatory – you'll spend some time with your nose in the manual setting things up right and fiddling with them.

What is really useful is the cookie manage – if you have your browser set to warn you before accepting any cookies, you know what a pain it can be visiting sites with frames, where you might get six or seven cookie warnings per page. SurfScreen allows you to accept or reject all cookies from a specific server, so that if you generally don't accept cookies but visit one or two sites you trust with cookies, SurfScreen will handle accepting those cookies for you without forcing you to lower your security overall.

If not as indispensable as SurfScreen, Web Magnet is still useful – and a heck of a lot of fun. What Web Magnet does for you is go out on the Web or the Usenet (newsgroups) and look for specific file types for you. There are search options to let you narrow the range of sites it looks over, so that it doesn't simply get stuck in an interminable loop of browsing the entire Web.

As a test run, I asked it to find JPG files about Atari. I asked it to go no more than three links deep off the initial Yahoo search. Even so, it took about an hour to run through a quarter of the 3,000-plus pages it found, and save 90-some graphics.

Now, not all were about Atari – any Web page it found with the word Atari on it, and that featured a JPG format graphic, that graphic was saved. Still, it was immeasurably faster than doing the same process by hand might have been. And if I ever get around to building a page of Atari links, I'll have some nice art to go with it.

Which brings up the next point about Web Magnet: It doesn't recognize copyrighted materials. Before I post any of those graphics to my Web site, I'll go back to the host of the site where it was found (the Web Magnet photo browser remember the original source) and ask permission. Web Magnet reminds you of the need to respect copyright before each session, but it's still up to the user.

While Web Magnet is marketed as a multimedia harvester – and by default looks for JPG and GIF graphics, and MP3, WAV and RealAudio files – in reality in can grab files of any type you want (well, non-Mac or Unix files anyway). You can customize the program to filter for any sort of file extension you want, so if you're looking for WordPerfect templates, for instance, you'd simply tell Web Magnet to grab any WPT files it might find.

The one fault encountered while trying out Web Magnet was that upon first launching the newsgroup browser, while it downloaded all 49,000-plus newsgroups on the Usenet that day, it only displayed a couple hundred – and the manual doesn't give any clues on how to display more. Bug or poor documentation isn't clear, but it is annoying to get stuck very early in the alt domain of the Usenet – far before any of the comp.sys groups, or most of the non-pornographic portions of the alt domain.