YOU ARE BEING played for a patsy, or at least many of you are. Every time you fire up your browser software to explore the Web, the first thing you see is an annoying, promotional home page for the company that made the browser -- Netscape or Microsoft -- or for the company that is providing your Internet access.
You're a captive audience -- you have to pass through this self-serving screen before you can go anywhere else.
It's like being in a hotel room with one of those TV systems that insist on displaying, each time you turn on the set, an irritating in-house channel that promotes the pay-per-view movies and blares out, over and over, a cloying welcome message. Only it's worse, because you're in your own home or office, on your own PC, using a service for which you're paying. And you still get company propaganda.
It's easy to override this Big Brother home page and substitute a Web page you would prefer to see on start-up. In fact, there are a number of Web sites that will even help you construct a start-up page containing information you want or links to your favorite places on the Web. But millions of Web users don't know how to set their browsers to get rid of the default start pages. So these in-your-face promotional pages have become among the most heavily visited spots on the Web. And they are awful.
Netscape's default start-up page, for instance, is full of product pitches, many for corporate server software average users would never even consider. It also offers little essays by the company's top officers promoting their philosophy -- just what most folks want to read.
MICROSOFT'S Internet Start Page also is packed with stuff you'd never choose if you could avoid it -- like articles by Microsoft officials promoting their products, plus links to more product info, or to related Microsoft services like the MSN on-line service. It also offers news, much of which is from -- you guessed it -- MSNBC, the company's own cable network.
So how can you get rid of these obligatory stops in cyberhell? It's really pretty easy. I'll take you through it step-by-step, for each of the two main browsers.
First, you should navigate to a Web page you'd like to use as your start-up page each time you log onto the Web. It's very important to have this favorite page open in your browser before you start this process. Then, you'll use the options or preferences settings in your browser to lock in that page as the first thing you'll see.
If you're using the latest version 4.0 of Netscape Navigator, just go to the Edit menu, click on "Preferences," and then click on the word "Navigator" in the list at the left. Over on the right you'll see the home-page choices. Choose the option called "Home page," and then below that click on the button called "Use Current Page," and you're all set. The page currently being displayed in your browser will appear each time at start-up.
For those still using the previous version of Navigator, version 3.0, this will be a bit harder. You have to click on "General Preferences" in the Options menu, and then find the settings for "Startup" under a section called "Appearance." Then you must type in the address of the page you want to use.
IF YOU'RE USING the latest version 3.0 of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, go to the View menu, and click on "Options." Then click on the "Navigation" tab in the window that appears. You'll see a reference to "Start Page" and below that, two buttons. Click on the one labeled "Use Current," and you're done. Again, the page currently in your browser will now be the start-up page. This process will be quite similar in the new version 4.0 of Internet Explorer. It also works with some versions of America Online, whose internal Web browser is based on Internet Explorer. AOL sends you by default to its own boring Web page full of company news releases.
Once you get the hang of it, you can change your start-up page as often as you like. And there are a number of Web sites which let you construct personalized start-up pages, with information and links tailored to your interests.
One of my favorites is a service from the Yahoo search company, called My Yahoo (http://my.yahoo.com/). This service lets you create, for free, a page of news headlines on topics you select, stock quotes for companies you choose, weather forecasts for cities you want and more.
Another place on the Web where you can do a custom start-up page is Crayon (http://crayon.net/). At this site you set up a free personalized "newspaper," with links to updated headlines from on-line news organizations in various categories.
It happens that both Microsoft and Netscape also let your create personalized pages. I don't recommend Microsoft's version, because it's limited and it still contains lots of promotional junk you can't expunge.
Netscape's version of a personal page is OK. It's called PowerStart, and it's pretty hard to find. You have to go to the bottom of the Netscape home page and look for the word "PowerStart" in small letters. It automatically tries to build in links to Netscape's own promotional material, but if you modify your page after it's first built, you can delete these Netscape links.
So, Web surfers of the world, cast off your chains! Stop being a captive audience! Pick your own start-up page and be free.