Sunday, February 15, 2009


Fixing the Internet might break it worse than it's broken now.

Willis Alan Ramsey, who wrote "Muskrat Love," recorded one and only one studio album. The cognoscenti of country think it's a gem, an all time top ten. There's an apocryphal story that when Ramsey was pushed to make another record he allegedly retorted, "What's wrong with the first one?"

We who use the Internet every day risk losing sight of what a miracle it is, and the openness that keeps it so miraculous. "Sure, this thingy here is a printing press in my pocket. If I see something I want the world to know, I write it down, take a picture, make a movie, push this little button over here, and Presto! I've published it to the world. Instantly. For free. No gate keepers. No editorial board. No government censors (almost)." Freedom of the press is for anybody who can afford forty bucks a month.

We also lose sight of the fact that even as the Internet's miracles occur, it's almost always broken or malfunctioning or threatening or worse in many places along the line. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking, because it was designed to work just fine that way.

I made these points in 2001 in a little-noticed essay, "If It's Broke, Don't Fix It," in SMART Letter #57, which remains unnoticed by the many would-be Internet fixers that have come along since then. They continue to lobby for fixes. The most recent fixers include, e.g., Jonathan Zittrain, who argues for an Internet safety zone that, he says, would be safer than that degenerate sewer rife with malware, worms, viruses, spam, fraud, copyright abuse and sexual predation that is, yes, the plain old generic generative Internet we use every day. (Hear Zittrain, and my rebuttal, on the Voice of America, blogged here.)

Even Lawrence Lessig, a champion of the original Internet's original strengths, blogged "Zittrain told us so" the other day about a worm that appeared in early January [story]. However, Lessig isn't completely correct; this most recent worm did not bring the Internet down or markedly increase the amplitude of the normal background hysterical reaction against the Internet. I haven't even noticed its effect on my Internet use. Have you? Has this worm planted software that will make the Internet stop failing to fail? Dunno, but since I started using the Internet, many malicious malware manifestations have come and gone and the Internet keeps keeping on.

For sure, there's a very active community that hustles to get, and stay, on top of such attacks. (Hats off to them!!!) So far this community is succeeding in spades, and the same old Internet we know and love (and hate, and marvel at, and swear at, and nevertheless use every hour of every day) keeps on keeping on keeping on keeping on, giving the pink generator bunny a run for its money.

Today the New York Times has yet another story about yet another gang of Internet fixers, this time from Stanford. These fixers would . . .
create [an Internet that functioned as] a “gated community” where users would give up their anonymity and certain freedoms in return for safety.
This reminds me of the Ben Franklin quote that Dave Farber used to use in his email signature:
"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
[Farber doesn't use this quote anymore. Correction: Farber says he *does* still use this quote when he (infrequently) uses his .sig.]

The New York Times article astutely observes,
As a new and more secure network becomes widely adopted, the current Internet might end up as the bad neighborhood of cyberspace. You would enter at your own risk and keep an eye over your shoulder while you were there.
This "bad neighborhood" argument is but one objection to segmenting the Internet. Even worse, suppose you came up with something new and cool but could not convince the keepers of the "safe" Internet that your application was worthy. Worse, suppose your new cool app is designed to appeal more to soccer kids and their moms than to suicide grrrrlz. If the soccer moms make their kids play on the padded, guarded "safe" side of the Internet, they might never discover it. The generativity of the Internet could degenerate in a hurry.

David Akin, former tech reporter for Toronto's Globe and Mail, agrees with me. Today he wrote to Dave Farber's list:

. . . it [is] a shame [that today's NY Times article] didn't explore some of [the fixers' ideas] a bit further and question the assumptions the Stanford researchers (and others) make that we're going to have to give up privacy and anonymity in exchange for stability and safety.

FWIW: I'm no computer scientist. I'm a plain vanilla Internet user who had his first e-mail account in (I think) 1987 or 1988. Since then, I have been running around the Internet using machines running DOS, Windows, and Mac operating systems. My home machines have never -- never! - been infected with a virus and, so far as I know, no one's stolen my credit card number or my identity. I'm pretty sure I've done to enjoy such good fortune is exercise a little common sense.

On the corporate networks I've been forced to use, I've seen precisely one security problem that affected the company's users. A virus knocked out the network for a company I once worked for for a few weeks. (That company, incidentally, was running Microsoft server products and a Microsoft operating system on its desktops. If you're running a server, why wouldn't you run OpenBSD?) My point here is: Time and time again, we've heard, mostly from companies who sell computer security products, that the world is ending, that there is a monster virus out there that's about to pull the whole thing down. I'm not convinced. Exercise a little common sense when you compute and I'm sure we'll all be fine.

In any event: If you build a new Internet and you want me to get a license to drive on it, sorry. I'm hanging out here in version 1.
Is David Akin's experience like yours? It certainly mirrors mine. All of the security problems I've had in the last 25 years of Internet use (that I can remember right now) have come from the Application Layer or from my own stupidity. True, I'm not a young girl beginning to explore my social self on (e.g.) MySpace, but danah boyd, Ph.D. has good data that indicates that most Internet threats to such Internet users come from kids their own age, and that the kids who are most vulnerable to Internet-generated risks, are also those most at risk in real life too. "These kids need help, not protection," says Dr. boyd.

So, we might ask, who wants the story of the dangerous Internet spread? Who wants the Internet to be seen as a dangerous place? Whose business models are becoming obsolete as the generic generative Internet grows and pervades? Who is threatened by the absence of gatekeepers? Then look who continues to pursue the story . . .

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Change "democracy" to "internet" and W. Churchill is still right:

"Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
Well put. The Internet is a lot like democracy. For example, like democracy, the fight for a free Internet is never "fait accompli" -- those in power never said, "Here, have some more rights." If we want them, we've gotta take them.
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