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IS THE INTERNET BROKEN?

“FIXING THE INTERNET” is the title of a thoughtful Editorial in the November 23, 2018, issue of Science, the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Its author Jonathan Zittrain is professor of international law and professor of computer science at Harvard. He is also a cofounder of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.

We all enjoy the wealth of knowledge available with a few clicks. Yet data breaches at everything from Facebook and Google to banks and shopping outlets make us vulnerable. In fact, even our election process has been compromised at local, state, and national levels.

How has the Internet gone wrong?

Zittrain writes, “Three keys to the decades-long global expansion of the internet and the World Wide Web are breaking down.” Here are tidbits gleaned from his Science Editorial, expanded with some thoughts of my own. (The best editorials don’t necessarily prompt complete agreement.)

The Procrastination Principle is the first key, what Zittrain calls “the propensity to ‘set it and forget it’ without attempting to predict and avert every imaginable problem. The network’s framers established a set of simple and freely available protocols for communication over the internet, then stepped back to let competitive markets and cooperative pursuits work their magic.”

There’s considerably more to this than the straightforward argument for “net neutrality,” wherein internet service providers treat all data without commercial bias.

Layered Architecture is the second key, the net phenomenon in which designers, providers, and end users have little propensity to understand how the other layers affect overall function.

I see this as a double-edge sword: Perhaps only I have mathematical interest in algorithms that force advertising my way. But why, on the other hand, haven’t you Facebook users realized that those innocuous little “personality trait” games are giving data miners valuable ore to sell without your consent?

Decentralization is the third key flowing from the first two. “The internet and the web,” Zittrain writes, “were designed not to create gatekeepers, in part because regulatory bodies had little awareness of these protocols, let along a hand in structuring them.”

We appreciate, as Zittrain writes, that a website hosted in Romania is just a click away from a user in Canada, without authorization by some centralized party.

However, Zittrain says, “Today the principles of layers and decentralization are badly fraying, which risks transforming the principle of procrastination into one of abdication.”

Increased centralization puts net operation into relatively few hands. If, as an example, Amazon Web Services were to stop working, Zittrain says, “… whole swaths of the internet would go down with it.”

What To Do? Zittrain says others have called upon regulators to break up giants like Facebook. However, he feels, “… more subtle interventions should be tried first. Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee’s Contract for the Web offers a set of principles, for governments, companies, and individuals, focusing on internet accessibility, user privacy, and a form of ‘re-decentralization’ to revitalize one key to the network’s success.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. Image by EPA from the inauguration of Web Summit, Europe’s largest tech conference, in Lisbon, Portugal, November 5, 2018.

Zittrain concludes his Editorial with, “The internet was designed to be resilient and flexible, without need for drastic intervention. But its trends toward centralization, and exploitation of its users, call for action.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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