The selfish Net and the Big One

I intended last issue’s column on the Big One — the mega-global cyberdisaster coming soon to crush a network near you — was going to be the last on the topic, but comments keep coming in.

My friend Stephen Cobb, a well-known information security consultant, wrote, “I know a lot of people find this hard to swallow, but [my wife and I] were absolutely serious a few years ago when we said that the Internet continues to function at the whim of those who know how to bring it down.

In other words, the people who could do it have so far decided not to (mainly because they know it would be wrong). Nothing has changed since then to alter my opinion. I have zero doubt that the entire Internet can be brought down, and kept down for at least 10 days. That would be long enough to cause major global economic and strategic pain.”

Cobb continued: “Of course, such talk can be very annoying to IT professionals who are working 12 hours a day to keep their company secure. They also need to realize that folks like us are not talking about this stuff to annoy them, but to try and change the mind-set of the CEOs and politicos who are in a position to do something about this.”

Cobb contends that the “something” has nothing to do with technology, but rather a “massive, coordinated and sustained effort to educate the world about the responsible use and operation of network technology.”

Somehow, I don’t think such an effort will ever happen. The reality of the Internet is that it is a collective of systems that exists, first and foremost, for the advantage of its individual participants rather than the good of our society. It is one of the most powerful examples of what a free market can achieve.

In fact, the Internet’s commercial power is so profound that other countries whose governments discourage free speech (China, for example) cannot afford to ban Internet access. As the Internet in those countries grows and encompasses more aspects of everyday life, the effect will be a steady erosion of government control.

The Internet, as we know it, came into existence solely to satisfy the needs of each individual entity that wanted to use it — there was no bigger purpose despite all the political “Information Superhighway” rhetoric that swirled around the early days of the Net. Contrast that genesis with that of the national highway system, which was built to satisfy national needs for the good of society. While the national highway system was created for the greater good, the Internet is selfish.

It is the selfish basis of the Net’s existence that ensures Cobb’s mass educational effort will never happen — the payoff for such cooperation isn’t great enough.

The result is that each entity must plan for its own defense, its own insulation from harm. And the really smart entities, those that are mature and sophisticated, will ensure that where they have useful and profitable relationships with other entities, they will have alternatives.

Once you recognize that the Internet is defined by selfishness, you can understand why the political and commercial issues that the Net creates exist and why the Big One will come.

Philosophizin’ to backspin@

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