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.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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  1. I’m sorry, but this is a useless article.

  2. Ten paths to Internet apocalypse, and its consequences « Live from Planet Paola Sunday, April 6, 2008

    [...] went down forever. Hard to imagine? Read about ten ways the Internet as we know it might die in this GigaOM post by Alistair [...]

  3. Las diez muertes del Internet que conocemos » El Blog de Enrique Dans Sunday, April 6, 2008

    [...] artículo de Alistair Croll en GigaOm, “10 Ways the Internet (As We Know It) Will Die“, con sus buenos y preocupantes visos de realidad: la entrada enumera diez problemas o [...]

  4. What an interesting post! Thanks for sparking more reflection.

  5. I think that, while many of your suggestions are possible, you missed what is, in my view, perhaps the most likely occurrence. It comes down to one word: Flash. Well, not just Flash, but also Silverlight and whatever other frameworks follow in their footsteps.

    Since it’s inception, what has allowed the Internet flourish is open standards like HTML, and the ability for any page to have it’s source available and legible to both humans and machines. The simple fact that you can borrow and repurpose other people’s code so easily has allowed the Web to evolve. It’s also what allows companies like Google to come along and index everything, making the entire Internet accessible for the common man.

    Along comes Flash. Somehow, it’s become a de facto standard, but it’s still proprietary. If you look at how Adobe rules the graphic design world, it’s pretty clear that Adobe is not exactly a benevolent dictator, but that’s not even the bad part. No, the bad part is that Flash is all about opaque blobs of binary data. It can’t be easily manipulated, neither can it be indexed or parsed in any meaningful way.

    If you look at the music and movie industries, it’s pretty obvious that content providers like to protect their revenue streams. The way that virtually all sites make money, GigaOm included, is through the sale of ads. Ads are easy to block and as Firefox’s market share grows, the numbers of people blocking ads increases in lockstep. Maybe not for another decade, but it will eventually become a serious problem, or at least one that larger corporations will want to address.

    The large news sites will likely be the forerunners. For example, they all offer video content, but never in downloadable form (MPEG, for example). In the case of MSN, videos don’t even play on the same pages at the story. There’s a whole separate Flash portal that they keep all of their videos locked away inside. And use of Flash is reserved only for videos, either. On CNN, some news stories are only delivered as Flash, particularly ones with photographic slideshows accompanying the text.

    I think that it’s possible that we’ll see a lot more of this kind of behavior. Flash has historically been used for it’s interactivity and visual flare, but increasingly it’s becoming a kind of DRM for web-content. Certainly, ubiquitous Flash deployment is one way that the Internet (as we know it) will die.

  6. What a waste of my time. Find something better do to man. GigaOm knows better. useless piece of crap.

  7. Alan Wilensky Sunday, April 6, 2008

    You missed the biggest potential internet stumbling block, peering issues.

    As the margins get thinner, and the stakes get higher, what used to be gentleman’s agreemtns between technocracies, has devolved into pissing matches over IP border gateway disputes and traffic metering.

    Don’t believe me? There have been several loss of service event over just this issue of peering in 2008 alone, well covered by the technology press.

    Now, one or two we can route around, but if the squabbling gets out of hand between leviathans (verizon, L3, France Telecom), then you will have trouble with a capital ‘T’, that Rhymes with ‘P’, and that stands for packet.

  8. This is just an article to attract traffic from the social bookmarking sites. It has no real merit. Top 10 is always the way to go. If only the internet was that simple.

  9. Keith Shepard Sunday, April 6, 2008

    After reading a couple of the comments to this story, Mr. Croll, I feel you missed one other way that the Internet will die: haters. People that hate everything and feel they possess the inalienable right to express their hate for all thought that is either original, their own (but spelled correctly) or diametrical to their own.

    The ‘Net is drenched in hate. Even the haters hate themselves for hating original ideas which, if left unattended, will cause a fissure in the space-time continuum thus freezing all attempts to risk original thought online.

    Once that haters have rung original thought out of the ‘Net and humans become risk adverse to expression the Internet will die and the last LOLCat will finally get some sleep.

  10. sucking ourselves into a black hole of our own making.

    Oh, for godsakes.

    Whatever shred of credibility I might have been willing to accept you just destroyed with that absurd statement.

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