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The Internet was a mistake, now let’s fix it
by Robert Hillard

Each generation over the last century has seen new technologies that become so embedded in their lives that its absence would be unimaginable. Early in the 20th century it was radio, which quickly become the entertainment of choice, then television, video and over the past two decades it has been the Internet.

For the generation who straddles the implementation of each, there have been format and governance debates which are quickly forgotten. Today, few remember the colour television format choice every country made between NTSC and PAL just as anyone who bought a video recorder in the early 1980s had to choose between VHS and Beta.

It is ironic that arguably the biggest of these technologies, the Internet, has been the subject of the least debate on the approach to governance, standards and implementation technology.

Just imagine a world where the Internet hadn’t evolved in the way it did. Arguably the connectivity that underpins the Internet was inevitable. However, the decision to arbitrarily open-up an academic network to commercial applications undermined well progressed private sector offerings such as AOL and Microsoft’s MSN.

That decision changed everything and I think it was a mistake.

While the private sector offerings were fragmented, they were well governed and with responsible owners.

Early proponents of the Internet dreamed of a virtual world free of any government constraints. Perhaps they were influenced by the end of the Cold War. Perhaps they were idealists. Either way, the dream of a virtual utopia has turned into an online nightmare which every parent knows isn’t safe for their children.

Free or unregulated?

The perception that the Internet is somehow free, in a way that traditional communications and sources of information are not, is misguided.

Librarians have long had extraordinary codes of conduct to protect the identity of borrowers from government eyes. Compare that to the obligation in many countries to track metadata and the access that police, security agencies and courts have to the online search history of suspects.

Telephone networks have always been open to tapping, but the closed nature of the architecture meant that those points are governed and largely under the supervision of governments and courts. Compare that to the Internet which does theoretically allow individuals to communicate confidentially with little chance of interception but only if you are one of the privileged few with adequate technical skill. The majority of people, though, have to just assume that every communication, voice, text or video is open to intercept.

Time for regulation

We need government in the real world and we should look for it on the Internet.

The fact that it is dangerous to connect devices directly to the internet without firewalls and virus protection is a failure of every one of us who is involved in the technology profession. The impact of the unregulated Internet on our children and the most vulnerable in our society reflects poorly on our whole generation.

It is time for the Internet to be properly regulated. There is just too much risk and (poor) regulation is being put in place by stealth anyway. Proper regulation and security would add a layer of protection for all users. It wouldn’t remove all risk, but even the humble telephone has long been used as a vehicle for scams, however remedies have been easier to achieve and law enforcement more structured.

The ideal of the Internet as a vehicle of free expression need not be lost and in fact can be enhanced by ethically motivated governance with the principal of free speech at its core.

Net neutrality is a myth

Increasing the argument for regulation is the reality of the technology behind the Internet. Most users assume the Internet is a genuinely flat virtual universe where everyone is equal. In reality, the technology of the Internet is nowhere near the hyperbole. Net neutrality is a myth and we are still very dependent on what the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or telecommunications companies do from an architecture perspective (see The architecture after cloud).

Because the Internet is not neutral, there are winners and losers just as there are in the real world. The lack of regulation means that they come up with their own deals and it is simply too complicated for consumers to work out what it all means for them.

Regulation can solve the big issues

The absence of real government regulation of the Internet is resulting in a “Wild West” and an almost vigilante response. There is every probability that current encryption techniques will be cracked in years to come, making it dangerous to transmit information that could be embarrassing in the future. This is leading to investment in approaches such as quantum cryptography.

In fact, with government regulation and support, mathematically secure communication is eminently possible. Crypto theory says that a truly random key that is as long as the message being sent cannot be broken without a copy of the key. Imagine a world where telecommunication providers working under appropriate regulations issued physical media similar to passports containing sufficient random digital keys to transmit all of the sensitive information a household would share in a year or even a decade.

We would effectively be returning to the model of traditional phone services where telecommunication companies managed the confidentiality of the transmission and government agencies could tap the conversations with appropriate (and properly regulated) court supervision.

Similarly, we would be mirroring the existing television and film model of rating all content on the Internet allowing us to choose what we want to bring into our homes and offices. Volume is no challenge with an army of volunteers out there to help regulators.

Any jurisdiction can start

Proper regulation of the internet does not need to wait for international consensus. Any one country can kick things off with almost immediate benefit. As soon as sufficient content is brought into line, residents of that country will show more trust towards local providers which will naturally keep a larger share of commerce within their domestic economy.

If it is a moderately large economy then the lure of frictionless access to these consumers will encourage international content providers to also fall into line given the cost of compliance is likely to be negligible. As soon as that happens, international consumers will see the advantage of using this country’s standards as a proxy for trust.

Very quickly it is also likely that formal regulation in one country will be leveraged by governments in others. The first mover might even create a home-grown industry of regulation as well as supporting processes and technology for export!

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