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April Fools' Day is coming--beware of your browser

As old as the Web, the tradition of Internet-based April Fools' jokes keeps people laughing even as they get duped.

On April 1, 2004, Google announced it was launching Gmail, a free e-mail service featuring an unheard-of gigabyte of free storage.

Given the timing and the fact that Yahoo Mail and Hotmail then offered less than 10MB of free space, most people laughed off the Google news as a funny April Fools' joke.

Of course, we know now that the Gmail gambit was for real. But in the Internet age, April 1 has become a day when dozens upon dozens of good-natured online hoaxes are perpetrated each year. Thus, people would be wise to smell-test just about everything that pops into their browser on and around April Fools' Day.

"For new users especially, it's hard to tell the difference between legitimate sites and the hoax copies."
--Andy Baio, blogger

"People tend to believe things that sound plausible or appear to come from a credible source," said Andy Baio, who writes the popular technology culture blog Waxy.org and who each year tracks the best April Fools' pranks. "For new users especially, it's hard to tell the difference between legitimate sites and the hoax copies."

Baio also coined a term for April Fools' Day, "Internet Jackass Day," which some fans of the tradition think is pretty apt.

"That's what the gang at Waxy.org have termed April 1," wrote Networkworld on its blog on April 2, 2004, "and we couldn't agree more. Welcome to April 2, where it's safe to turn on your monitors and believe once more--but if you're like us, your paranoia won't subside till Memorial Day."

Another compendium of Internet April Fools' jokes comes from the site Urgo.org. On the site, its author, Jason Pearsall, lists the best of 2005 and 2004, as well as a more complete list. The site will be updated April 1 to include the best of 2006.

"It's something anyone can do, and it lets people be creative," said Pearsall. April Fools' Day "is something people get drilled into them starting when they're young, and it's a real creative way that anyone can do something on the Internet."

Smell-tests aside, there are always those people who fall for April Fools' Internet pranks, even those who should know better.

A case in point was 2003's iLoo from Microsoft, purportedly an Internet outhouse replete with a flat-screen plasma display, broadband access and a wireless keyboard. The software giant's MSN UK unit waited a whole month--till May 2 of that year--to set the trap.

Among those to get sucked in by the iLoo was CNET News.com, which took company representatives at their word and ran a story on the design--and then a subsequent one acknowledging the ruse.

Some Internet observers aren't surprised people fall for the pranks. Pearsall thinks the issue might just be that people don't remember the date.

"A lot of (people) don't remember," he said, "until their first (prank). These days, you have to get to (people) really early in the morning. So the first one of the day really does fool them."

In any case, CNET News.com has put together the following list of some of our favorite April Fools' pranks, and those of the people we spoke with for this article.

• The kremvax hoax--which purported to be the announcement that the Soviet Union had joined Usenet.

• Say "cheese" to Google Satellite--a Slashdot posting that urged readers to simultaneously stand outside and wave as a satellite flew overhead capturing April Fools' Day images.

• TeeVeePad--a site claiming to be the home of blogs by numerous television celebrities.

• MSN Search Spoof--a site that creates bogus MSN Search results for any name entered.

• Google Copernicus Hosting Environment and Experiment in Search Engineering (G.C.H.E.E.S.E.)--"Google is interviewing candidates for engineering positions at our lunar hosting and research center, opening late in the spring of 2007," the Google-hosted site teased.

• U.N. decides to shut down Internet permanently--a bogus report about a U.N. General Assembly vote eradicating the Internet.

• Apple hires DVD Jon--a TechTree story joking that Apple had decided the best way to keep DVD Jon, who had previously hacked into iTunes several times, from bedeviling the company was to hire him.

• Cold War bomb warmed by chickens--a BBC.com story claimed that during the Cold War, military planners considered regulating the temperature of a nuclear landmine by filling it with chickens.

• Driving Drunk on the Internet--an April 1994 article in PC Computing magazine by John Dvorak said that Congress was considering a bill that would make it illegal to surf the Internet while drunk.

• Britney Spears not so young--in 1999, Wallofsound.com ran an item reporting that Britney Spears was 11 years older than commonly reported. This followed a Rolling Stone cover in which the star had appeared in a sultry pose while looking very young.

Regardless of the fear of humiliation, some Internet junkies look forward to April Fools' Day as a chance to savor the smartest of the jokes.

"They're funny," said Chris Taylor, a senior editor at Business 2.0 magazine. "They're pranks played on the unsuspecting, which is even funnier. (And) they keep you on your toes (and) they wake up the uninformed to how much blind trust they place in a single source--and hopefully they'll be wiser next time."

To Baio, however, the coming of Internet Jackass Day is a clarion call to the gullible to be a little more wary than usual.

"Don't believe anything you read for the next few days," Baio cautioned.

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