In 2013 Yahoo was hacked and the data of over three billion accounts were compromised, according to Verizon Communications who acquired the company.
In September 2014, Sony Pictures was hacked and confidential data stolen from their systems. This included personnel records, emails and some unreleased movie projects. The hack was carried out by alleged state-sponsored hackers from North Korea.
Of course, all these incidents pale in comparison in the face of the fact that a small group of Russians used the internet to influence the 2016 presidential election in the United States of America, the world’s biggest democracy.
All over the internet, such shocking and sometimes gruesome incidents abound. All leading to the irresistible conclusion, or at least the theory that the “internet is broken”. This has been the leading school of thought with regards to the internet in the last few years.
This school of thought suggests that there is a fundamental flaw in its design, that the internet was not designed with security in mind, and with all the issues that have arisen, we should start all over again.
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I agree that the security of the internet isn’t the best, but I don’t agree that the internet is broken.
The internet is the best thing since sliced bread. Actually, it’s way better than sliced bread. The only fundamental flaw of the internet is also its greatest feature: that it gives everyone an unlimited and unfettered access to vast information without any restrictions (unless you’re in countries that restrict access, like China).
When ARPANET, the early version of the net was built by a military-backed team in the 1960s, they chose a “dumb core” system explains The Washington Post, which meant that “all the network did was carry data — with intelligent edges, meaning the individual computers controlled by users”.
This was radically different from the “intelligent core” systems used by the telephone companies which meant that the switches at the phone companies which controlled the telephone network and the handsets were the “dumb edges”
The result of this was that the control and security of the internet were left in the hands of the millions of people on their terminals. This was fine as long as those terminals were in the hands of the trusted community that had created it, and the scientist and researchers who had been the early users. Unfortunately, those terminals are now in the hands of over three billion people.
What we are witnessing online is nothing new. It is only symptomatic of the nature of our societies and what has been happening in our communities for ages. The internet has just become a vessel, a fast, widespread delivery vessel.
For starters, the US military establishment funded the early development of the internet, not from the goodness of their hearts, but to find a means of communications in the aftermath of the event of a Soviet Nuclear Strike. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the net is used as a tool of warfare between nations. Cyberwar is just one more frontier of the power struggle and strife that already exists in the world.
Years before the invention of the words and concepts of “cyber” and “internet”, there existed the words and concepts of “propaganda” “bullying” trolling”, “rumour” “libel” and “slander”. What the internet has done is to help nations spread their propaganda faster. It has helped communities to spread rumours wider, and it has helped individuals have a wider audience to bully. We cannot blame it or its designers any more for these than we can blame the builders of a road for drunk driving or over speeding.
What is to be blamed I think, is the culture that we have transferred from our closets to the world wide web. We have built a digital culture that rewards extremes and extremities. The extremely funny, dumb, depressing or outrageous videos and pictures get the most likes and go “viral”.
Combine this with its ability to provide anonymity and a ready audience, and the internet has provided the ability for everyone to have a soapbox without suffering the inconveniences of public stares and catcalls.
We have created a culture of entitlement where we feel it is our right for our followers or the people we follow to post certain things, look a certain way or agree with our viewpoints. Where this is not the case, they face ridicule or trolling. It does not matter that we might not know them or the reasons for their choices.
“Fixing” the net is a daunting but not impossible task. Various solutions have been brought forward. My favourite is the three-prong approach of Technology, Community and Legal as suggested by Sunil Paul here.
This solution advocates that we develop technological solutions to issues such as fake news. This is to be followed by creating social incentives for truthfulness online. This is to be created by users who are passionate about the cause.
It is my firm belief that the first and most important step is a mass renewal and commitment by users to a safe and friendly internet. This is not a task for digital companies or developers and programmers. It is a duty for every user who wants the web to be a better and safer place.
No matter the level of technology or any technological solution developed, it is the duty of the user to adopt such a solution. A typical example is the “Report Post” feature that is part of most social media websites. A technology company cannot do much where users do not report a post or where a negligible number of users report a post that garners millions of likes. This is not about the company, it is squarely at the doorsteps of the users.
I have seen occasions where people refuse to read or outrightly ignore the express statements shared with a picture and go ahead to share the picture in an entirely different context for their own interests.
It is the duty of every user to make a decision to be better, to be politer, to be humane, to try to understand the viewpoints of other people. If we do this, whether online or offline, then we are well on our way to fixing our communities, our internet and the world.
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