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Using the Internet for Free

by Tim Chambers

Last Updated: 27 December 2002

Surfing the Web is my hobby. It would even be fair to say that it's my passion. Since losing my high-speed access, I have been getting a lot of practice with a no-cost alternative. My current use is tuned to searching for jobs, so that's the scenario I'll describe here; however, the tools I describe are useful for any purpose.

In my neck of the woods, public libraries offer free access to the Internet. I will narrow my discussion to the Pikes Peak Library District (PPLD) for the purpose of this article. It's in Colorado Springs, USA, but you can adapt what I say about each topic to match your specific circumstances.

How Public Terminals Are Different

Perhaps you take for granted all that you have on your personal computer. However, when you share a computer, the environment will be different. Or maybe you don't even have your own personal computer. In any case, keep these items in mind:

  1. Applications on the computer. PPLD provides Microsoft Windows, the Internet Explorer web browser, and Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Access, and Powerpoint). This suite of software is adequate to get a tremendous amount of use out of the computer. You can also download additional software. See the Free Applications section.

  2. Loading/saving your work. Ideally, you should bring your own storage media with you. For the applications available through the PPLD, a 3 1/2 inch floppy stores enough and is universal. You may not even have access to a floppy drive, though. I'll give an example of an alternative in the Data Storage section.

  3. Visual privacy. Are you working on something you don't want others to see? PPLD has various resources. Some workstations have displays oriented so it's difficult for others to see; other workstations are positioned so the displays can easily be seen in high-traffic areas. I've read reports that other library districts even watch patrons with security cameras.

  4. Data privacy. If it's all on your floppy, you're mostly alright. PPLD's computers are configured to make it difficult for users to access files, but it's not impossible. And what about Web browsing? Internet Explorer saves copies of all the pages you visit on the hard drive. It also saves 'cookies,' which are small pieces of data that Web sites use to customize your browsing experience, and passwords. Don't panic, though. I was unable to find evidence that this private data was accessible to other users from PPLD computers. I'll go into more detail about data privacy in its own section.

  5. Printing. Do you need a hardcopy of your work? Your can print ten pages for free at PPLD, then they charge ten cents per page.

A Quick Start to Maximum Productivity

First, sign up for an account with Yahoo. All the features I'm describing here are accessed from your Web browser. Yahoo gives you a free "virtual" computer that you can access from any real computer -- including computers that you can use for free. The only catch is that the services are supported by advertising. It's as close to "free" as it gets on the Web these days.

Here's a list of the tools and a summary of the reasons each is useful. There are links to a few relevant help pages. You can compare Yahoo with other free services, and if you find a single portal with more free tools, I'd like to know. But just look what you get for free from Yahoo, listed here in the order in which I personally consider the features to be most useful:

More About Web Publishing

The first draft of this article was concurrently published at my personal Web site and as a diary entry at a free Web site called Kuro5hin (pronounced "corrosion"). The advantages of publishing at Kuro5hin are (1) a built-in audience of readers, and (2) comments can be attached to the story. You can obtain an account at Kuro5hin and publish entries in your own diary for free. It's an alternative to setting up your own Web site.

There's another free service I recommend if you're going to publish documents on the Web. Use the Persistent Uniform Resource Locator (PURL) service. All the details are explained at www.purl.org, but briefly, a PURL is a Web address you can give out to people so they can always find your Web pages, even if you change Web servers. For example, my home page PURL is www.purl.org/NET/tbc/. Currently, I pay a monthly fee to host my Web at http://www.pcisys.net/. I may change to a different service provider, though, so for any document that I want to keep on the Web permanently, I use a PURL. This document is www.purl.org/NET/tbc/writing/freeinet.htm, and my bookmark page is at www.purl.org/NET/tbc/bookmrks.htm. If you click on those links, you'll be redirected to the present storage location of the documents. But if that location changes, the PURL won't.

Free Applications

The PPLD does permit you to download and run applications, as long as the application doesn't require a reboot. Every time they reboot, PPLD computers delete all the applications you've installed, so this is of limited value. Still, there are circumstances where it's effective. For instance, I have some accounts that are accessible using a tool called PuTTY, which is downloadable and runs just fine without any installation. I don't even bother saving it to the computer -- I just select "Run this program from its it current location."

You can try to run other applications. Visit download.com, which is one very popular source for all kinds of software, including free and trial versions.

Data Storage

If you want to save your work but don't happen to have a floppy drive, you still have a couple of choices. As was mentioned, Yahoo gives you a notepad. Yahoo also provides a briefcase to store entire files. You can organize them into folders, too. There are a number of other ways to store data on the Internet for free. See the article at dailydeals.com for ideas.

Data Privacy

First, let me make a disclaimer that will make this section much shorter: everything you do on a computer can be traced. Here's just a taste of what I mean: the FBI has a system similar to a phone tap that enables them to capture everything you type -- including passwords. Look through some of the documentation about this capability if you want to know more.

Not many of us have occasion to be investigated by the FBI, though. A key factor that has contributed to the Internet's popularity for so many things, including communicating via e-mail and shopping, is that there haven't been any "smoking guns" that point to widespread violations of people's privacy. Using a Web browser on a public computer, you're relatively immune from privacy concerns. Just don't save any confidential data in files on that computer.

I mentioned that PPLD makes it difficult to access files. But there's a hole. If you're reading this at a PPLD computer, click on this link: file://c:/. At the time I wrote this article, that was a way to get full access to the computer's files.

Cookies and the history of pages you've visited on the Web are two other artifacts to be aware of. Cookies can contain personally identifiable information about you. And others can learn about you and your behavior by studying which Web pages you've been reading. I know a parent, for instance, who found evidence of children accessing inappropriate material on the family computer by using the Internet Explorer menu command "View -> Explorer Bar -> History." I was unable to find a way to access either cookies or history from PPLD computers, though. They seem to have taken basic steps to protect patrons' privacy.

Not Free, But Useful in a Pinch

You may have a need to take advantage of your "virtual computer" even if you have to pay for it. There are Internet cafés, kiosks in airports, and other places that rent time on computers. For example, a local Colorado Springs establishment called Surf N Play caters to Internet gamers for $2.00 an hour, but their computers are excellent for Web browsing.


I've covered the main ways that public computers are different from your home PC, and I introduced some tools available for free from Yahoo that give you a "virtual computer" you can use from any computer connected to the Internet. I also touched on some other issues to keep in mind -- Web publishing, applications, data storage, and data privacy. This is enough information to get you started setting up and using your own "virtual computer" for free.

This document is www.purl.org/NET/tbc/writing/freeinet.htm. If you would like to join in the discussion, post a comment at Kuro5hin: www.kuro5hin.org/comments/2002/12/28/31357/673.

This document is copyright © 2002 by Tim Chambers <k5freeinet@timchambersusa.com>. However, you are encouraged to download, forward, copy, print, or distribute it, provided you do so in its entirety (including this notice) and do not sell or otherwise exploit it for commercial purposes.

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