What price a reformed internet?

Technically and commercially, the internet is an immensely valuable and mostly efficient tool, but sociologically it has proved something of a problem.

Technically and commercially, the internet is an immensely valuable and mostly efficient tool, but sociologically it has proved something of a problem.

It has become the chief mode of transmitting viruses. It has spawned its own virulent version of junk mail, and it exposes children to adult material and both children and adults to illegal material.

The technical, commercial and sociological sides of the net plainly cannot be considered in isolation. When a perpetual watch must be kept for viruses and worms and major effort expended in keeping up with the latest patches for operating system “issues”, then this crucially affects the day-to-day functioning of the IT department and the services it can provide to the business.

There is already evidence, furthermore, that these multifarious threats, particularly spam, are turning people away from online shopping and other transactions. When the online customer-base dwindles that affects the health of a large slice of IT development.

So what is to be done? UK “internet safety” specialist John Carr suggests we might have to give up, at least partially, the concept of a “wild and free” internet. More of it, he predicts, will become enclosed, with strict proof of identity demanded as the price of admission, so any irregular activity can be traced. And necessarily this will raise the price of being online.

Asked to elaborate, Carr suggests this internet privatisation is already beginning to happen. Intranets, extranets and the Internet2/Next Generation Internet developments, reserving new fast internet primarily for scientific research and education already show private cabals opening access only to those they explicitly trust.

But can this be a model for the internet at large? The commercial world still needs customers, and a shop that demands proof of identity before “licensing” you as a customer or even a casual visitor would be a very unattractive establishment.

Carr suggests that eventually such private establishments will learn to trust one another’s customers, and a relatively open internet might rebuild from the inside out, as it were. The question that first arises in my mind is: who will leap in first to run such safe “gated communities”; could it be the software supplier looking for a new kind of customer lock-in for its proprietary protocols? Perhaps the cable television channel anxious to shut out competition to its own offerings? Such broadcasters and ICT companies are already a powerful lobby before US government agencies, such as the Department of Commerce, which still has a big finger in the international internet governance pie.

The World Summit on the Information Society showed many governments would love to see their national domains brought back under government control and governance of the whole internet vested in an intergovernmental body.

Others in the local internet community, kicking this topic around, have suggested what we need may not be proof of identity but proof of competence – that the internet needs protecting from untrained users rather than those users needing protection from the worst of the net. We will have spam, viruses and denial-of-service attacks, one says, for as long as we have users “who don't know what a TCP port is, much less whether they're using one”.

User education, promoted by David Harris is the kinder end of this. “Edge” security measures such as spam and virus filters, represent, perhaps, the middle of the range. At the severe end, we may be considering limitation of the protocols new users are allowed, and strict enforcement of network address translation to prevent users exposing their equipment to attack and takeover. It’s rather like the warnings frequently issued to children; don’t give out your home address and personal information online.

Such a safety scheme will necessarily have to be in some measure “centrally” administered – perhaps by ISPs, if they’d care to take the job on.

As Harris points out, with every new protective measure added to the internet we lose a little more of its valued “openness”. Carr sees this too; especially its social and political dimensions. “I guess when it comes right down to it you have to ask yourself what you think the internet is for,” he writes to Computerworld. “In the early days many of those responsible for rolling it out were ideologically driven. For them, spreading this wonderful new network was about changing the world through the free flow of information; undermining the power, the grip of the existing mass media and the big corporations and governments who were all part of the same oppressive or illiberal establishment.

“The problem is that, through the agency of these very same corporations, the internet is now becoming a mass consumer product. That changes everything, for good or ill, but forever.”

If the price of a safe internet is a commercial internet, a “mass consumer product”, this may mean an easier life for the IT manager. But what other values of the net could we lose? Is this the only, or even the best answer?

Bell is a Wellington-based reporter for Computerworld. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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