The National Post

Ghost Stories in Cyberspace

by Kimberly Castro and Howard Fienberg
July 6, 2000

Have you heard about the recent U.S. congressional proposal to tax Internet access? How about the virus that, unlike the recent viruses attacking your computer, is unleashed through regular mail attacking you in the physical world? Maybe you have, but do you need to worry? These two scares came to light when they arrived recently as e-mails.


One tells of a U.S. legislator pushing bill "602P," proposing to allow the U.S. government to charge a nickel for every e-mail message and place a "20 to 40 dollar per month surcharge on all Internet service."


The Birmingham News recently wrote that U.S. Congressman Fred Upton said more people are contacting his office about the Internet tax "than on any other subject -- more than abortion, more than Elian, more than gas prices."


But 602P was merely concocted from someone's imagination. The New York Times reported that the House of Representatives tried to quell the long-lasting rumours by endorsing a bill prohibiting the Federal Communications Commission from imposing Internet fees.


Rep. John Dingell said: "I only hope that the passage of [the Internet Access Charge Prohibition Act] will finally extinguish this cybermyth once and for all."


Meanwhile, a second e-mail warns of the "Klingerman Virus," which arrives in a large blue envelope in your mailbox and reads on the front in bold black letters, "A gift for you from the Klingerman Foundation." Inside is a small sponge sealed in plastic carrying the unknown strain of virus. According to the e-mail, seven out of the 23 people who came in contact with the Klingerman virus died.


How did the story start? The Associated Press referred to the virus in a story of a Florida woman who received a pale blue envelope supposedly containing a cash prize and the words "restricted access" stamped across it.


After wrapping the letter in a plastic grocery bag, the woman called 911, in turn bringing the bomb squad, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's deputies, a hazardous materials team and a postal inspector to her home to examine the envelope. But there was no virus. After receiving a flood of phone calls, the CDC sent out a press release stating: "There is no 'Klingerman virus' and the information in the e-mail notice is untrue. If you receive an e-mail message about the 'Klingerman virus,' please do not forward [it] to others."


On the Internet, immediacy is king and authority is hard to come by. The freshest piece of misleading information disseminates to thousands upon thousands, creating a flood of unnecessary worries. More importantly, the Internet lacks an authority and worried users are often unable to identify an authoritative figure over the Internet. Users do not hesitate to read and forward alarmist e-mails from friends or family members. It may be the case that while the sender honestly believed what he forwarded, he could have easily been scammed himself.


Internet users should take it upon themselves to check the information they read. The e-mail alerts described above are examples of Internet hoaxes intended for a few laughs. They demonstrate just how quickly rumours spread like wildfire via the Internet. Unfortunately, these "harmless" pranks have harmful effects when, mistaken for truth, they end up taking precedence over issues of real life importance. Congress and the CDC have more pressing concerns to address than thousands of imaginary problems sparked by a couple of e-mail pranks. And so do you.

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