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7 Ways the Internet Has Been Used for Good

It seems like every day you hear a new story about cyber-bullying, phishing or a new computer virus. But when good people get together on the web, it’s amazing what they can achieve.

1. Preventing Suicides

While you probably have heard stories about cyber-bullies pushing someone to commit suicide, there are also tons of stories about depressed people deciding not to kill themselves after talking to someone online whom they never even met. Unfortunately, we don’t hear about these cases nearly as often.

Despite all the trash talking in online gaming sessions, there is also a real sense of camaraderie and friendship. In one case, a teenager from Ontario called the police after one of his gaming buddies in Texas said he was thinking of ending it all. An officer came to the Ontario boy’s house and talked to the other teen over Xbox Live until he was able to earn the trust of the suicidal boy. Eventually, he convinced the teen in Texas to let him speak to his father, who reported that he had no idea his son was feeling that way and would do whatever it took to help his son get through this difficult time.

These sorts of incidents aren’t limited to gaming sessions though; one woman in Australia saved an English man’s life after seeing a post where the man said he would kill himself within the next 15 minutes. She spoke to him online for a while, gaining his trust until he gave his phone number to her. She then got one of her friends living in England to call the suicidal man and talk to him until the man felt comfortable sharing his location. When the police showed up at the depressed man’s house, he already had a phone cord wrapped around his neck, but had not yet tried to end it all. Police praised the actions of the Australian woman and her friend, pointing out that the young man probably wouldn’t have made it if the two hadn’t acted so quickly and diligently.

Even actress Demi Moore has been credited with saving someone’s life thanks to the net. When a woman Tweeted to Demi that she was going to kill herself, Moore tried to talk her into changing her mind. Meanwhile, the celebrity’s followers contacted the police in the area of the Twitterer and they were able to get to her home before she did anything drastic.

There are major online communities developed to help people in need. Reddit’s Suicide Watch has over 10,000 subscribers, many of whom offer valuable advice and help for those looking to end it all. And the “It Gets Better” project has helped thousands of students who have been bullied due to their sexual orientation.

[Images courtesy of Samantha Marx's Flickr stream and David Shankbone.]

2. Saving Lives

Internet users have also saved the lives of those who didn’t want to kill themselves, but couldn’t get themselves out of a dangerous situation. In January 2011, Robert Chambers, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, was gaming on his computer when his toaster caught on fire and smoke quickly started filling his home. Since he was unable to move quickly due to his condition, getting to the phone to call 911 was not an option, so instead he shared his address and asked others in a chat room to call for help for him. People from around the U.S. called his local fire department and it wasn’t long before Robert was saved.

In a similar story, Wales resident Peter Casaru, who suffers from spinal problems, found himself paralyzed one morning. With his cell phone battery dead, his only option was to ask for help online. After dragging himself across the room, and without being able to see the keyboard since he didn't have his glasses, he was still able to post an update on Facebook asking for someone to call the medics. Almost immediately, his friends and family responded and just before Casaru passed out from pain, the ambulance arrived to take him to a hospital.

[911 poster image courtesy of Tricia Wang's Flickr stream.]

3. Helping Victims of Crime -- While It Happens

Sometimes crime victims have found the net to be the best way to ask for help as well. In late 2011, a woman and her one-year-old were being held prisoner by her ex-husband. While she was unable to use the phone during the entire ordeal, she was able to post a plea for help on Facebook. A woman who had never met the abused mother saw the post and called the authorities, who found the victim and her child severely beaten, but alive, after four days of starvation and torture. Their tormentor was quickly arrested and charged with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault, domestic violence, child abuse, forcible sodomy, animal cruelty and more.

Just this month, a South African carjacking victim who was locked in his trunk by the thieves was saved thanks to Twitter. While the police in the area are anything but reliable, the man knew he was at an advantage since he had his cell phone in the trunk with him. He texted his girlfriend, who then put the information out on Twitter, where it was picked up by a roadblock notification service with over 110,000 followers including a number of private security firms. Soon enough, the car was located and the man was saved before he suffered any serious physical abuse.

[Crime scene tape image courtesy of Brandon Anderson's Flickr stream.]

4. Helping Crime Victims After the Fact

Internet users have also come through to help crime victims recover after they have been victimized. For example, when a young girl had her 300-pound TARDIS replica stolen from her own front yard, Redditors donated enough money to get a new box built, complete with a chain and security camera to ensure it isn’t stolen again.

TARDIS fans aren’t the only ones feeling the love of the net. After the London riots last year, Aaron Biber, an 89-year-old barber, was sure he would have to shut down his shop since he couldn’t afford to replace everything that had been stolen or smashed in the ruckus. But his story touched the world and soon enough, a campaign to Keep Aaron Cutting spread across the net and raised $56,000 to help the barber get back on his feet. The donations were far more than Biber needed, so he, in turn, donated the rest to a local youth center.

Early this year, shocking photos were posted on Reddit showing an African man who had his face sliced open by a machete while trying to protect an orphanage from local thugs. The forum poster asked readers to chip in a total of $2,000 so the orphanage could afford a security wall. Within only 24 hours, the charity received 40 times that amount, $80,000. With all the extra cash, the orphanage was able to provide the children with bunk beds and start a fund to purchase the land where the facility is located so they will no longer have to rent the property.

Even when crimes haven’t been committed, Reddit has stepped in to help victims of cruelty that may not be illegal, but is certainly wrong. Perhaps one of the most heart-melting stories in this vein was that of Kathleen Edward. The seven-year-old and her family were viciously taunted by her next door neighbors after they discovered Kathleen had Huntington’s Disease. When the girl’s story was posted on Reddit, readers quickly started working to raise funds to give Kathleen a spending spree at a local toy store owned by a user of the site. Eventually, the girl received $19,000 worth of credit at the store, with any unused balance donated towards local children’s hospitals. As for her tormentors, 4chan went after them, posting all of their personal information on line and harassing the family until they formally apologized to Kathleen and her family.

5. Holding Animal Abusers Accountable

While 4chan might be known for their love of gruesome and sickening videos and photos, they certainly have a soft spot for innocent people and creatures being victimized. When someone posted a video on YouTube showing a boy beating up a house cat, members of 4chan tracked down the wrongdoer and reported him to the authorities, resulting in the cat, Dusty, quickly being removed from the home.

Similarly, the group was up in arms when a video came out showing a woman throwing a cat into a trash bin. The owners of the cat posted the video to the net to find out the woman’s identity. Soon enough, she was identified. People were so angry at her, she eventually went to the police, telling them she worried about her safety. Even so, she was eventually convicted under the Animal Welfare Act and had to pay $2200.

6. Catching Child Predators

While everyone may have a different opinion on Anonymous, pretty much everyone can agree that child porn is a bad thing. That’s why, although their other hacks were criticized, no one seemed to have a problem with the hacker group going after child pornography sites and their hosting services. At one point, the group even leaked stolen user info on over 1,100 pedophiles from one site and invited the FBI and Interpol to follow up on the info for leads.

Alt.Hackers.Malicious have also taken on child predators, even breaking into NAMBLA’s servers and disseminating membership information that led directly to the arrests and convictions of several criminals.

Of course, hackers aren’t the only ones fighting pedophiles around the globe. Perverted Justice is a group you are probably already familiar with, even if you’ve never heard the name. That’s because they’re the group responsible for all those Dateline pedophile stings. Unlike the hacker attacks on child pornography, members of Perverted Justice actually pose as children and talk to older men who are trying to solicit minors for sex. They then lure in the predator, helping law enforcement officers score an easy arrest while collecting ample evidence in the process.

7. Saving Weddings

Not all good deeds need to be so serious. Regular readers might recall the article I posted last month about the couple whose wedding was saved by Twitter donations after their wedding planner disappeared with their entire deposit. As it turns out, that’s not the only wedding that’s been saved by the internet. When one Redditor put up a post about how the owner of the mansion he had booked for his venue backed out of the deal only three weeks before the big day, other readers put out all kinds of suggestions. Eventually, he decided to host the wedding at a field at a nearby farm, as suggested by another Redditor, leaving the poster with enough savings to provide his guests with ample free booze, as well as two bouncy houses.
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Of course, between online charities, Kickstarter, free education lessons, support groups and other great programs, the examples above are only a few of the many ways people online have shown themselves to be altruistic. Have any of you ever joined a great cause online or been the recipient of such kindness?

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#TBT
Before Bitcoin: The Rise and Fall of Flooz E-Currency
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In the late 1990s, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Spencer Waxman was in Morocco on holiday when he heard an Arabic slang term for money—flooz—that stuck with him. In the dot-com boom taking place back in the United States, URLs with obscure etymology were popular. When Waxman and partner Robert Levitan decided to co-found a novel way of disrupting the online commerce industry, calling it Flooz.com was almost a foregone conclusion.

What Levitan and Waxman envisioned was a virtual gift certificate that would drive business to participating online retailers, give consumers some sense of security over their private information, and make shopping for stubbornly gift-resistant recipients easy. Rather than merely offering cyber currency, this was a service with purpose.

Unfortunately, it was also one that was doomed to fail.

A screen capture of Flooz.com
Flooz.com

Non-cash currency has been with us since the Chinese used cowry shells to sort out debt for goods and services more than 3000 years ago. In the 1960s, credit cards became an alluring alternative to saving and carrying paper bills. When online retailing exploded in the 1990s, it was only natural that startups would begin to explore virtual payment methods.

At the time, digital transactions were perceived by many consumers to be a near-guarantee of identity theft. Handing a card to a vendor in a closed-loop retail environment was one thing, but the thought of hackers seizing their information once it was entered into the borderless environment of the internet kept many away from online shopping.

As it turns out, that paranoia would turn out to be justified in our current climate of constant data breaches. It was also good for businesses hoping to turn their apprehension over credit card security into a monetized solution. Flooz.com debuted in 1999, just one year after another currency-based URL, Beanz.com, had garnered press. Beanz were a kind of earned points system, with approved transactions gifting customers with redeemable gift vouchers. Flooz took a different approach: Customers would sign up to Flooz.com and purchase gift certificates for specific retailers, which they could then use themselves or pass along to a gift recipient via email.

For businesses, it was a way of driving traffic to sites; for consumers, it was a way to keep credit card transactions limited to one vendor; for Flooz.com, being the intermediary meant taking a 15 to 20 percent cut of completed transactions on the selected retail sites, which ranged from Godiva Chocolates to Barnes & Noble and Tower Records.

To help Flooz.com cut through online marketing noise, Levitan enlisted actress Whoopi Goldberg to be their spokesperson. In exchange for company shares and Flooz.com money, Goldberg led an $8 million ad campaign for radio, television, and print that extolled the benefits of using Flooz.com.

Whether it was Goldberg’s pitch or the concept itself, Flooz.com met with a receptive audience. The company debuted in the fall of 1999, and had opened 125,000 accounts by January 2000. That year, roughly $25 million in Flooz.com money was purchased and used. (In a nod to the impenetrable vocabulary of the internet at the time, the media loved to point out that Beanz could be used to purchase Flooz.)

Bolstered by the attention and early success, Flooz.com was eventually able to raise $35 million in venture capital. Consumers could meet their gifting obligations by emailing a code to their gift recipient without having to waste time shopping. For a time, it appeared Flooz.com would become a leading method of payment for online transactions.

Actress and Flooz.com spokesperson Whoopi Goldberg is photographed during a public appearance
Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

But it didn’t take long for the seams in the Flooz.com model to show. While gifting vouchers to family and friends was convenient for the gifter, the giftee was stuck with a very limited number of vendors that took Flooz.com as payment. If Amazon, for example, had a deal on a DVD or book that Barnes & Noble didn’t, Flooz users were out of luck. Shopping for a bargain wasn’t possible.

The second and most crippling detail was one Flooz.com was forced to make in order to strike deals with vendors. The company guaranteed its transactions, meaning that it would make good on orders even if Flooz dollars had been purchased via fraudulent means. By the summer of 2001, that commitment became a tipping point. Agents from the FBI informed Levitan that they suspected a ring of Russian hackers had purchased $300,000 worth of Flooz in order to launder funds from stolen credit cards.

This created a paralyzing cash flow problem: As their credit card processor withheld funds until Flooz.com could secure the transaction, people were still busy redeeming Flooz dollars they had already spent. Retailers then looked for Flooz.com to reimburse them. Suddenly, customers trying to pay with Flooz were greeted with error messages that the site was down.

Those issues, coupled with the fact that corporate clients had already started to move away from gifting employees with Flooz dollars, forced Flooz.com to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in August 2001. Court papers cited almost $14 million in liability. (Beanz.com was also a casualty of the dot-com bust, when participating retailers processing the points steadily went out of business.)

Levitan rebounded, founding the Pando file sharing network and selling it to Microsoft in 2011 for $11 million. Meanwhile, Flooz.com remains a barely-remembered footnote in e-currency, though it would be hard to chart the rise of digital funds like Bitcoin without it. Like with so many other good ideas, timing is everything.

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Big Questions
What Could the Repeal of Net Neutrality Mean for Internet Users?
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What could the repeal of net neutrality mean for the average American internet user?

Zouhair Belkoura:

The imminent repeal of net neutrality could have implications for Americans beyond the Internet’s stratification, increased costs to consumers, and hindered access to content for all. Net neutrality’s repeal is a threat to the Internet’s democracy—the greatest information equalizer of our time.

With net neutrality’s repeal, ISPs could be selective about the content and pricing packages they make available. Portugal is a good example of what a country looks like without net neutrality

What people may not realize is that a repeal of net neutrality would also give ISPs the ability to throttle people’s Internet traffic. Customers won’t likely have visibility into what traffic is being throttled, and it could substantially slow down people’s Internet connections.

What happens when this type of friction is introduced to the system? The Internet—the greatest collective trove of information in the world—could gradually be starved. People who experience slower Internet speeds may get frustrated and stop seeking out their favorite sites. People may also lose the ability to make choices about the content they want to see and the knowledge they seek.

Inflated pricing, less access to knowledge, and slower connections aren’t the only impact a net neutrality repeal might have. People’s personal privacy and corporations’ security may suffer, too. Many people use virtual private networks to protect their privacy. VPNs keep people’s Internet browsing activities invisible to their ISPs and others who may track them. They also help them obscure their location and encrypt online transactions to keep personal data secure. When people have the privacy that VPNs afford, they can access information freely without worrying about being watched, judged, or having their browsing activity bought and sold by third-party advertisers.

Virtual private networks are also a vital tool for businesses that want to keep their company data private and secure. Employees are often required by their employers to connect to a VPN whenever they are offsite and working remotely.

Even the best VPNs can slow down individuals' Internet connections, because they create an encrypted tunnel to protect and secure personal data. If people want to protect their personal privacy or company’s security with a VPN [they] also must contend with ISP throttling; it’s conceivable that net neutrality’s repeal could undermine people’s freedom to protect their online safety. It could also render the protection a VPN offers to individuals and companies obsolete.

Speed has always been a defining characteristic of the Internet’s accessibility and its power. Net neutrality’s repeal promises to subvert this trait. It would compromise both people's and companies’ ability to secure their personal data and keep their browsing and purchasing activities private. When people don’t have privacy, they can’t feel safe. When they don’t feel safe, they can’t live freely. That’s not a world anyone, let alone Americans, want to live in.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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