a perpetual work in progress
is the internet in danger?
Posted: 2004-03-25 22:13
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Author: Phil Gengler
Section: Stuff

Every day, millions of people use the Internet in some way. For some, it is just to check their email or chat with friends via an instant messenger. For others, the World Wide Web is their playground, a place where all sorts of information, games, and entertainment can be found. Still others are the ones who create and maintain all the content that people enjoy and use.

But there is a darker side to the Internet. Spammers and virus writers are the most well known and widely reviled, but there are people who write automated tools (bots) to undermine the freedom provided by the Internet. As soon a domain name expires, bots are waiting to quickly snatch it up and replace it with a search engine page. Across the Web, sites are finding themselves increasingly victim of bots that can ruin the experience for regular users. There is software that will continually check Ebay auctions and then undercut the leading bidder with less than 30 seconds remaining. More and more sites are requiring users to enter back text displayed inside an image, so that bots cannot go any further. Discussion sites are being inundated with trolls and crapflooders (those who post large numbers of messages with no actual content or purpose).

A number of solutions are being passed around for the problem of spam. Some of these suggestions are requiring domains to publish a list of what addresses are allowed to send from them (known as sender permitted from, or SPF), recipient-side whitelisting (only messages from people the recipient has chosen to allow get through), and go so far as to propose that there be a small fee for sending email. Each of these changes would fundamentally alter the way email is used, and there is opposition to each, in varying levels.

Email, as with the other protocols that make up the Internet (like FTP, HTTP, SSH, and so on) was developed in a time when the Internet was orders of magnitude smaller than today. Computers were not as powerful, and bandwidth was more limited, so simple protocols were favorable at the time. Email is almost as simple as they come, providing plain-text headers followed by the message content. No concept of authentication was built-in, because at the time, none was needed.

Through no fault of its own, email has become the carrier of most viruses and worms being spread around the Internet. As the Internet has grown, so has its userbase, and with that growth come those who are unable or unwilling to invest time in learning some of what we might consider basics of computers and the Internet. With each new email worm that makes the rounds, the more tech-savvy repeat a simple instruction to users: "Do not open attachments that you are not expecting and do no come from someone you trust." Yet we continue to hear warnings about the newest virus and its expected damage (in terms of both the damage it causes to a target and the costs to remove it from the infected machine). Some of the steps being taken for solving this problem are filtering messages on email servers based on their attachments (which can help with worms like Beagle/Bagle), and moving computers to behind firewalls (which helps with viruses like CodeRed).

While spam and viruses may be the two largest and most visible problems with the Internet today, nearly every commonly-used protocol is being exploited in some way. Usenet, which was designed to provide a worldwide message board, where anyone could post messages and anyone could read them, has been all but abandoned to crapflooding. It is virtually impossible to read a discussion group without seeing a fair number of spam message posted. Usenet, like email, does not provide any means of authentication and so to allows messages to be posted by anyone, using any name and email address, valid or otherwise.

Web sites that allow users to post and submit are also being hit by the 'dark side' of the Internet. I have already mentioned Ebay, where automated scripts are undercutting human bidders. Discussion sites are probably the single greatest example of how the Web is being abused. Let us take Slashdot as an example. Slashdot allows comments to be posted to the stories it lists, and it allows people to post anonymously, with or without a registered account. This has led to a great deal of trolls, or posters who simply post to annoy users, whether the posts are simply obvious spam or replies to a comment that are designed solely to inflame or annoy the poster. Another site, Kuro5hin, has recently been dealing with similar problems.

Most site administrators have come to the realization that unfettered anonymous commenting can be harmful. The most common approach for large sites is to allow users to moderate other users' comments, so that the community can establish what is and is not worth viewing. It usually works well, which reveals just how extensive the problem is. In a recent Slashdot discussion, 1043 comments were made in total. Of these, only 747 are rated between 1 and 5, which is the range at which most people read. Nearly 300 comments were trolls or otherwise not at all constructive or useful. Unfortunately, even a moderation system can be, and is, abused. There are bots which register multiple accounts and then use some of these accounts to moderate up posts by the other accounts. It has become enough of a problem with Kuro5hin that new member registrations have been disabled.

The Internet was build to be open and free, and it is this fact that has allowed it to evolve to its current state. The ability to remain anonymous (or at least pseudonymous) has led to a great deal of controversial material to come out in situations it otherwise would not have. But it is this same freedom and anonymity that are causing many of the problems I have just described.

What sort of solutions are there to these problems? Simply solving the problems is a simple enough task, in theory. There are proposals for systems to replace email, and eliminating anonymous posting can help with Usenet and Web discussion forums. This opens up two others problems, though - implementing them, and the loss of openness the Internet has enjoyed thus far. On more than one occasion, bills have been proposed in Congress to help solve some of the problems, and some have passed. The recent CAN SPAM Act is designed to lessen the amount of spam email being sent. The problems with approaches like this? It introduces legislative control where none existed before, and also attempts to change the way the world works from the U.S. Congress.

Is the Internet in danger? Perhaps. Some people are beginning to lose faith in email, and some long-timers are moving away from the larger discussion sites. Perhaps the largest problem is the solution to the problems. Is the best way to save the Internet to change its nature? Is it a case of "in order to save the village, we had to destroy the village?" I think the biggest danger to the Internet is those who seek to change it, and in that, the future of the Internet is in danger.


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