This Internet is the backbone of modern society. Disagree with me all you want, but the Internet is the most pivotal technological revolution of the past 100 years.
The web has changed the way we communicate, how we spend money, and how we look at the world – mostly for the better. But the Internet is under attack, from governments, from hackers, and from unforeseen threats that may change the online world as we know it.
If advocates cannot find a way to limit these 10 threats, then the Internet of tomorrow may be a surprisingly different place than it is today.
1. The Supreme Court
Is free speech of all forms permitted on the Internet? That is precisely what the Supreme Court will be answering in a few short months in the eminent case, Elonis v US (2015).Online social media blogs like Clickfire aren’t exactly the places to discuss constitutional law, but this case could have sweeping effects for every web user depending on the outcome of the case.
Essentially, the defendant Anthony Elonis was arrested after posting inflammatory, violent threats about his ex-wife on Facebook in the form of rap lyrics. While it is illegal to blatantly threaten another individual, where does the Internet draw the line between real threats and artistic expression (as Elonis claims)? In this case, the Court still stands divided, but should the Justices rule that certain types of expression are impermissible on the web, then your online rights could take a significant step backwards.
2. Net Neutrality
We’ve all read the phrase “net neutrality,” but very few of us actually know what it means. Essentially, net neutrality means that your internet service provider (ISP) treats every website equally. Net neutrality advocates rightly uphold that the Internet is based on freedom – empowering you to visit the sites you want without interference.
But following a court case in January 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) underwent a massive overhaul, allowing ISP’s to grant preferential treatment to certain websites. What exactly does this mean?
- For the first time, mega-domains like Netflix and Amazon can pay ISP’s for online “fast lanes,” giving users faster download speeds and better connections. This means that only wealthy, big-name websites can afford this kind of paid prioritization, while small websites suffer – effectively stifling online growth and competition.
- This also means that ISP’s can make you pay more depending on what sites you visit. For bandwidth-intensive sites like Netflix, your monthly Internet bill might increase depending on how many movies you watch.
While net neutrality certainly has advocates on both sides of the table, it is an inherent part of what makes the Internet so unique. If lawmakers continue to chip away at the web’s existing neutrality, then ISP’s will have unprecedented control over what websites you visit.
3. Bandwidth Limitations
Clearly, Internet service providers play a huge role in how we are able to access the web. The country’s biggest ISP’s (like Comcast, Verizon, and TimeWarner Cable) are essentially the gatekeepers of the Internet, forcing you to pay when you want in. Based on new FCC regulations, these ISP’s have been imposing bandwidth limitations on people who use more Internet.
Well, that only makes sense, right? People that use more should pay more.
The problem is that we typically think of the Internet as an unlimited service. Just because I’m using 500gb of data per month doesn’t mean that you now have less data to use. The Internet doesn’t run out (unlike products like gasoline and apples) so my online bandwidth is independent of anyone else’s. Yet, almost every ISP in the United States has a strict bandwidth cap around 250gb/month. For every 50gb that you exceed, that’s another $10 tacked onto your bill. For a single family that plays online video games, streams movies, and listens to music, 250gb of bandwidth is surprising little.
Deterring people from using the Internet is never a good thing. When consumers are excluded from the online market, it means that fewer products and services are being exchanged via the web. If ISP’s continue to decrease monthly data allocations, it may mean more money in their pockets, but less in the hands on online businesses.
4. Anonymous Hacking Groups
If you were one of the thousands of people that tried to play Xbox or Playstation on Christmas morning but couldn’t get online, then you were the victim of a hacking group called Lizard Squad.
Don’t worry, the self-proclaimed hackers didn’t collect your credit card information – they sent a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack to the gaming servers at Microsoft and Sony, clogging the service’s traffic for a near 24 hours.
Part of Lizard Squad’s motivation was to show these companies the sheer vulnerability of their servers. If a handful of young hackers can take down an entire gaming network, then it reveals how little we devote to online security.
2014 was a great year for online hackers. Target was hit with one of the biggest data breaches in retail history. Home Depot, JP Morgan, Ebay and dozens more all experienced some form of massive data leak, exposing the information of millions of users and online transactions.
Anonymous hackers aren’t a threat to the Internet so much as they are a threat to individual sites – showing that businesses need to beef up their security soon or be held at the mercy nefarious organizations.
When you think of the Internet, what are the first 5 websites that pop into your head? Chances are you and 90% of people have at least 2-3 answers in common, with online behemoths like Facebook and Google coming to mind. The web, as many people see it, is being gobbled up by a handful of powerful domains, squashing competition from the little guys – like the random indie blog you read once a week or the fashion website your check everyday.
Part of what makes the Internet so great is that millions of tiny, niche sites exist. But what if Facebook made it easier to listen to music without having to leave their site? Or if Amazon sent you personalized fashion suggestions? Suddenly, we’re left with an Internet that doesn’t need our indie music guy or online fashion guru. It’s already happening too; these mega-companies are taking over the unique services that only small sites once offered.
In the European Union (EU), legislators actually brought an antitrust case against Google in 2014, deeming that the company unfairly promoted its own products and services in its search results. Google’s opponents submit that the company represents 92.1% of the search engine market in Germany, a number they say indicates a clear monopoly.
This case is extremely interesting because it begs the question: what is the lesser of two evils? It is more prudent to break up a mega-corporation or leave it intact? In either scenario, the political process will significantly affect the structure of the web.
6. International Control over the Web
In March 2014, Fox News published an article about President Obama relinquishing control of the Internet to a seedy organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Is it really true? The answer: not really. Let’s explain.
Conspiracy theorists love to point to international organizations as the puppet masters behind the Internet. After all, ICANN’s slogan is “One World. One Internet.” But, what we’re really arguing about is who or what will be in charge of maintaining the Domain Name System (DNS) on the Internet.
The foundation of the Internet is the DNS – it links every site’s IP address with top-level domains and root name servers. Simply put, DNS allows us to type in a “.com” address instead of having to memorize IP addresses. This online processing doesn’t happen on its own, so that’s where ICANN comes in – set up by the US in 1998 to oversee this essential crux of the Internet.
While UN oversight seems a bit far-fetched, we’re seeing today these extra-governmental institutions have sweeping effects on the web. Depending on how much power is awarded to organizations like ICANN, vast Internet functions could be decided behind closed doors.
7. EMP or Power Grid Attack
What if the Internet as we know it suddenly shut down? Communications, healthcare, transportation – nearly everything we rely on today would come to a screeching halt if the Internet disappeared. That is precisely why a rogue electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or targeted power grid attack could spell disaster.
Weaponry in the hands of the wrong people is a scary thing, especially when that weapon could upend modern civilization as we know it. Some researchers are now suggesting that EMP’s are America’s most serious security threat. Researchers present a dark and unsettling estimate about the US population after such an attack, suggesting that as much as 90% of the population could collapse from disease, famine, or violence after a 12-month blackout.
This is an incredibly stark outlook on our technological future, so we can only hope that governments are heavily investing in infrastructure and defense so that this kind of grim scenario is never a reality.
8. Mass Censorship
How free is the web? Depending on what country you’re in, the answer could be surprisingly different. Governments around the world vehemently crack down on the online activity of their residents.
In essence, every country in the world has some regulations that pertain to web usage, but they vary to the extent they go in censoring certain material. When we think of Internet censorship, we think of examples like China’s “Great Firewall” that blocks popular sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Most web users don’t realize that both the United States and United Kingdom were named “enemies of the Internet” in 2014.
Sure, we have always been aware that online rights are restricted in countries like China and Saudi Arabia, but we don’t realize that many Western governments too are censoring the web. For example, the UK has tried to clean up its traffic with bans on pornographic content and sites that are simply considered “obscene” or “indecent.”
Following 9/11 and the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, governments are finding reasons to monitor huge swaths of online activity in the name of counterterrorism. The battle between online freedom and national security is not a zero-sum game, but it might be if national governments continue to censor the web.
9. Widespread Copyright Enforcement
In January 2012, the online world was hit with the avalanche that was the Stop Online Privacy Act (or what you probably remember as SOPA). This legislation would give US law enforcement agencies the ability to fight rampant copyright infringement on the web.
Though this law never reached a vote in Congress, it would effectively leave any website vulnerable to a lawsuit if they, or any of their users, posted copyrighted material. That’s right – if a Facebook user posted the Coca-Cola logo on his or her page without appropriate permission, both Facebook and the user could face steep punitive damages.
Conventional US law deems the online world as a type of “safe harbor” for minor copyright infringements, but the introduction of SOPA-esque legislation could turn casual web users into criminals.
10. Massive Privacy Violations
The secret is out – governments have been keeping tabs on our online activity for years. What’s even scarier is that this information is being collected and stored in massive facilities around the country and around the world. The real question is: what is this information being used for?
Big tech companies know a lot about you. They know what you search for on the Internet. They know what kind of shoes you bought last month. And they have financial records with your banking and credit card information. While your specific information isn’t particularly valuable, this data is worth big bucks when it is aggregated with millions of other users.
Who pays for this kind of data? There are two big answers here: the federal government and advertisers. As we now know, there is quite a bit of interaction between big web companies and the National Security Agency, which combs through huge amounts of data in the search of illegal activity. Advertisers, on the other hand, buy this information so they can target you with the ads that are personalized to your online activity.
While these forecasts don’t sound presently dire, there are enormous ramifications when “Big Brother” becomes a real thing. If George Orwell were still around, he would be surprised by his wildly accurate prediction of mass surveillance, but regretful that our society was too late to solve its problems.
The Internet is a gift – one that links cultures and societies on opposite sides of the globe. It is as a platform for innovation, international commerce, and an essential part of our lives, which is precisely why it is under attack from so many angles.
The future of the Internet lies in the hands of its users. What will the online world look like in 10 years? What about 50 years from now? Unless the world can collectively fight these ten threats to the web, the golden age of the Internet may be long past.
Al Gore Photo, Source: Simone Brunozzi