It's either character assassination or personal I.D. theft

Why is surfing the Web akin to walking into a biker bar where everyone’s getting hammered and ugly? You’re lucky to get out of there with your health, or identity, intact.

It’s difficult to remember those blissful times when the Internet was “that prolix paradise where we would express ourselves freely, at any level, high or low, with no inhibitions,” writes Maureen Dowd of the New York Times.

The Web today, she points out, is becoming a cyberspace cesspool where character assassination is routinely perpetrated, often by anonymous sources. If you’re lucky enough to avoid the assassins, you’ll still face the pirates, who are out to steal personal data and identities.

Paradoxically, searching for Hollywood gossip poses an even greater risk of running into the bad guys. The Times reported that a search for information on Jessica Biel, for example, gives you a one-in-five chance of landing on a website that has tested positive for spyware, adware, spam, phishing, viruses or “other noxious stuff.”

The cybercops, it seems, are out to lunch on many levels. The Justice Department disclosed that a 28-year-old hacker from Miami had stolen 130 million credit card numbers from a major payment processing site — the computers seemed wide open to hackers.

Look through the “comments” section of many blogs and you quickly encounter slanderous distortions aimed at prominent players in the entertainment industry. Indeed, the comments from readers are even more preposterous than those of the bloggers they’re commenting on.

“In this infinite realm of truth-telling, many want to hide,” observes Dowd. “Who are these people who are prepared to tell you what they think, but not who they are?”

Dowd notes that if she read all the “vile stuff” about herself on the Web, she’d never come to work.

If slander is rampant, so are various manifestations of piracy and invasions of privacy. Facebook, the social networking site, is taking some action in response to several suits by users charging that the company fails to compensate users for harvesting their personal data. Advertisers grab the data, but users don’t share in the return from it.

The new Facebook contracts apparently will add privacy provisions and also ask users for permission to access specific types of information.

Of course, that still won’t discourage shrewd hackers from stealing credit card numbers. When you venture into cyberspace, it seems, you risk losing both your good credit and your reputation.

Are movies losing star value?

Every year at this time, the Hollywood trendspotters peer at the final summer box office data and reach the same conclusion: Movie stars are no longer relevant.

“Sorry, famous rich people, your reign is over,” wrote Time magazine’s Richard Corliss recently. “No-name action films like ‘G.I. Joe’ go gold while Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell flop.” He was referring, of course, to the box office fatigue shown by “Funny People” and “Land of the Lost.”

But does summer data prove anything? Every May and June the big winners are franchise films and sequels, most of which are not star vehicles. But how would “Public Enemies” have played without Johnny Depp? And even though Quentin Tarantino thinks he’s Orson Welles, would “Inglourious Basterds” have had much impact without Brad Pitt?

It’s true Hollywood isn’t dependent on famous pairings as in the old Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movies, or the Bogart and Bacall films or even those with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. But movie stars will always be around, and will always be overcompensated, for two basic reasons: First, stars become stars because of their talent. And second, showbiz feeds on talent.

Will filmgoers go along with this approach? “The mass audience keeps paying for the minutest variations on what it has liked before,” wrote Corliss. “Only among critics does familiarity breed contempt.”

To be sure, all this may seem totally irrelevant to those Hollywood mavens who still endorse the star system but redefine its membership. To them, the true stars don’t have names like Depp or Pitt but rather like “Iron Man” and “Spider-Man” or those more arcane cartoon characters who inhabit the Marvel Comics library and who await their re-discovery.

They may even take an interest in that bizarre superhero named Charisma Man, who hasn’t had a movie role yet but who seems to be a star in Japanese comicbooks. Think of all that Charisma waiting for the big break!

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