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New Plumbing for the Internet

In Policy, Technology on February 16, 2009 at 5:49 am

For those of you who didn’t catch it, the NYT had an article yesterday titled, quite simply, “Do We Need a New Internet?“. It’s worth a few minutes of your time on the Old Internet to take a look at it.

The article’s premise is that the Internet was never created for the requirements we’re now asking of it. It was meant to be a network for the military and professors in their ivory towers. From the hardware and TCP/IP upward, the idea was to let a close knit community more easily share papers and mail.

But then a funny thing happened: the rest of the world moved in. All of a sudden, you’re not sure who your next door neighbor is. Is he the innocent server he says he is, or does he have more malicious designs? Ideally, when you can’t see the dude or dudette you’re communicating with, you’d like your network to help you out, by either limiting who can join or or limiting anonymity of the participants. Unfortunately, because academics made it, nodes on the Internet, by default, trust other nodes, and because it was commissioned by the military to be resilient in the face of Soviet attack, there’s no central control area on the Internet.

The only thing growing faster than our dependence to the Internet, it seems, is the number of ways to exploit Internet security flaws. The article does a good job of talking about the state of Int

ernet security today, describing a sort of patchwork solution to the holes we find every day. Particularly striking was the warning about the impending calamity if we continue down this increasingly futile road: “If you’re looking for a digital Pearl Harbor, we now have the Japanese ships streaming toward us on the horizon.”

This struck a chord with me because it’s not the first time I’ve head someone talk about a concerned Internet attack:

Lawrence Lessig, a respected Law Professor from Stanford University told an audience at this years Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Half Moon Bay, California, that “There’s going to be an i-9/11 event” which will act as a catalyst for a radical reworking of the law pertaining to the internet.

The article goes on to mention that…

Lessig also revealed that he had learned, during a dinner with former government Counter Terrorism Czar Richard Clarke, that there is already in existence a cyber equivalent of the Patriot Act, an “i-Patriot Act” if you will, and that the Justice Department is waiting for a cyber terrorism event in order to implement its provisions.

So far, we’ve talked about technology; now come the policy issues.

What the NYT doesn’t really bring up is what, if we were have a New Internet, it would look like. It surely wouldn’t be just about the technology: unlike during the 1970’s, governments and businesses are a lot more aware of the power of the Internet, and you can bet they’re going to want to have a say in designing this New Internet. Privacy becomes one important concern. We’ll surely be giving up some of it (a necessary cost), but who determines what’s too much? Would we give the American government be too much of our information? Are we granting the Chinese filters their wet dream?

What of companies? Do they have access to our data so they can better target their advertisements (and “enhance our Online experience”)? If ISPs get too much of a say (or if we yearn for central authority), can we say goodbye to Net Neutrality? Does doing so mean we say goodbye to YouTube?

The point is not so much to scare people (or spew anti-government, anti-corporate hate) as to remind everyone that the prospect of a New Internet designed by special interest groups is almost as scary as the prospect of living with the current Internet. The free and natural evolution of the Internet is, after all, the thing that’s allowed to the Internet to be the base for so much great innovation. But then, if we don’t do anything, we risk “cyber 9/11” and may have to live with the Government’s version of the Internet.

It’s not clear what path we’ll venture down, but either way, it looks treacherous. Welcome to the future.

The INternet

The Internet

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