We often think of the Internet as a platform for unfettered global communication, where information flows freely, innovators can launch new applications at will, and everyone can have a voice. But it’s unlikely that our children’s Internet will look anything like what we have now.
How might the Internet as we know it die? Here are 10 possibilities.
- Someone subverts the Domain Name Service. The Internet relies on DNS. But if someone broke — or worse, subverted — the fundamental way in which we find web sites, we wouldn’t trust URLs any more. Phishing would be easy. Own the DNS and you own the Internet.
- Zombie networks attack! Untold numbers of enslaved PCs are waiting to do the bidding of shadowy hackers. Matt Sergeant of MessageLabs puts the size of the Storm botnet at between five and 10 million machines (though others peg the size of the network at much less.) Today, bots fill our inboxes with spam. But in the past, they’ve been used to take out companies and countries and to blackmail sites. In the end, it’s an arms race in which only one side has to play by the rules.
- Massive physical infrastructure failure. If an accident involving a couple of cables in the Mediterranean can make the Internet unusable for hundreds of millions, imagine what an intentional attack could do.
- Death by a thousand fragments: Ever since Usenet, people have been grouping together with those who think like them. In his book “The Big Switch,” Nicholas Carr cites one study that claimed more than 90 percent of the links originating within either the conservative or liberal community stay within that community. Some link referral tools can even be configured to keep visitors on sites with the same world view. The end result? Islands of like-minded people, increasingly sure there is only one right answer and that they’re in sole possession of it. And an end to the dreams of a global community envisioned by the Internet’s creators.
- A really good virus breaks the routers. The Internet’s self-healing mechanisms rely on the Border Gateway Protocol, or BGP. But what if someone gets inside the routers? In a 2006 NANOG presentation, Cisco looked at claims of vulnerability and concluded that “the most damaging attacks are caused by the deliberate misconfiguration of a trusted router.” Corrupt BGP, and you not only stop the Internet from forwarding traffic, you interfere with our ability to get to the routers and fix them.
- Updates break how updates work. Most software these days is designed to patch itself and remain current. But sometimes the process of automated upgrades triggers its own problems. On Aug. 16, 2007, Skype went down in what the company claimed was a side effect of a massive automatic update to Windows. It’s only a matter of time before an update makes a fundamental piece of software, like a networking stack, unable to update itself, cutting off millions and requiring manual intervention.
- The Net stops being neutral. If the carriers start to charge us for access to sites the way cable companies charge for premium television, pretty soon you’ll have a “Google fee” on your monthly bill. This already happens with many mobile phones that feature the services of Facebook and YouTube. It’s perhaps the most insidious death, because it would signal the end of innovation — no one would be able to launch the next Skype, Twitter or YouTube without the tacit approval of carriers.
- The lawyers get involved. The Internet has been an experiment in free speech. That may be coming to an end. Unable to go after the sites themselves, lawyers go after the hosters and registrars. That’s how Swiss banking group Julius Baer took whistleblower Wikileaks off the air. And once there’s precedent, others are sure to follow. The recording industry is already wondering if it can go after carriers for enabling copyright infringement. This is the irony of Net Neutrality: When telcos start treating different bytes differently, they aren’t “common carriers” and may be liable for what they transmit, including illegal content. So they’ll comply.
- Walled gardens: Many countries already restrict how the Internet is used. China’s firewall — which includes 30,000 people tasked with finding improper users — is a good example. But the Internet is a tool for social change and revolution that could threaten any government. Imagine, for example, a U.S. Congress that outlaws online pornography and blocks known adult sites (which accounted for 18.8 percent of all web visits in 2004, according to Hitwise, although the U.S. government says that figure is actually a mere 1 percent.) Instead of a global Internet, we’d have a return to localized standards of decency imposed by legislators. It’d be like “Dirty Dancing” all over again.
- Humans take themselves out: As Discover Magazine pointed out years ago, we’ve got plenty of ways to do ourselves in, from nukes to plagues to sucking ourselves into a black hole of our own making. And what’s an Internet without users?
The Internet has already morphed from its initial aspirations of open academia to a commercial platform controlled by corporations and carriers. In many ways, the time between the start of ARPAnet in 1969 and the end of Netscape this past February is just a brief period in history that the Facebook generation won’t miss.