There are no Web viruses in the open source world

If I was the conspiracy-minded sort, I’d swear that Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds sneak into their underground labs at night to whip up Web viruses.

Those lords of the open-source software movement — Stallman over the border in Cambridge, Mass., Torvalds flitting from Finland to California — have long urged keyboard-pounders like me to abandon Microsoft and take up their communal software.

I’ve always agreed in principle but never got around to doing it in practice because it was so much, you know, work. I just didn’t want to face the level of digital hand-holding that software geeks think is acceptable in their computer products.

Then came the spyware/malware/virus blizzard of early ’04, and I cried uncle. The barrage of bad code aimed at Micro-Sloth caused my Windows computer to implode and did what reasoned arguments couldn’t: Got me to try open-source software.

Now I’m peering at the Web through a browser that hasn’t even made it to Version 1.0, and chuckling at news of the latest Web exploit called a Scob Trojan, which only infects Internet Explorer.

“Ha, ha, silly Bill Gates-product-using pig-dogs!” I cry. “We cutting-edge types sneer in your general direction!” (Nobody is more self-righteous than the just-reformed sinner – especially one who tries to imitate “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”)

The browser I’m using is called Firefox, part of the Mozilla program that indirectly grew out of Bill Gates’ crushing of Netscape. It’s only up to version 0.9 as I write, but I like to live on the edge.

My first anti-IE experience was Opera, an alternative but not open-source browser from some Scandinavian geeks (if you can’t trust Scandinavians, who can you trust?). It had trouble with a lot of pages, however: For example, I had to reset my Google preferences every time I visited that site. So I swallowed hard, went to and hit “download now.”

Three weeks later, I’m delighted. Firefox is at least as fast as IE, blocks pop-ups, can open a bunch of pages at once in tabbed browsing, and I haven’t seen any notable weirdness. Occasionally I have to reload pages for non-obvious reasons, but I can live with that. Best of all, I can ignore Scob, a Russian Trojan program that grabs your IE browser if you even look at certain Web pages, and does evil things like download keystroke loggers on your system.

In fact, the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team even suggested that Windows users avoid Internet Explorer because of it. For once I was ahead of the pack!

Not all is perfect in open-source land, however. I also tried Mozilla’s e-mail client, but it was a mess, so I went back to Outlook, which I think is a pretty good program. Still, the idea that Tux the Penguin and projects that we’ve been reading about for years might create something that ordinary folks could use to make the Web less evil — well, that’s exciting.

If it’s a conspiracy, it’s a darn nice one.

David Brooks writes about science and technology for the Telegraph of Nashua. His column appears monthly.

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