I helped invent the internet. How did it go so wrong?
- Facebook, Google-YouTube, Netflix, Linked-In and the sociopath Sandhill Road VC's turned it into a sex-trafficking, spy-ridden, election-meddling hell
When I was a young scientist working on the fledgling creation that came to be known as the internet, the ethos that defined the culture we were building was characterized by words such as ethical, open, trusted, free, shared. None of us knew where our research would lead, but these words and principles were our beacon.
We did not anticipate that the dark side of the internet would emerge with such ferocity. Or that we would feel an urgent need to fix it.
How did we get from there to here?
While studying for my doctorate at MIT in the early 1960s, I recognized the need to create a mathematical theory of networks that would allow disparate computers to communicate. Later that decade, the Advanced Research Projects Agency — a research funding arm of the Department of Defense created in response to Sputnik — determined they needed a network based on my theory so that their computer research centers could share work remotely.
My UCLA computer lab was selected to be the first node of this network. Fifty years ago — on Oct. 29, 1969 — a simple “Lo” became the first internet message, from UCLA to Stanford Research Institute. We had typed the first two letters of “login” when the network crashed.
This quiet little moment of transmission over that two-computer communication network is regarded as the founding moment of the internet.
During its first 25 years, the internet grew dramatically and organically with the user community seeming to follow the same positive principles the scientists did. We scientists sought neither patents nor private ownership of this networking technology. We were nerds in our element, busily answering the challenge to create new technology that would benefit the world.
Around 1994, the internet began to change quickly as dot-coms came online, the network channels escalated to gigabit speeds and the World Wide Web became a common household presence. That same year, Amazon was founded and Netscape, the first commercial web browser, was released.
And on April 12, 1994, a “small” moment with enormous meaning occurred: The transmission of the first widely circulated spam email message, a brazen advertisement. The collective response of our science community was “How dare they?” Our miraculous creation, a “research” network capable of boundless computing magnificence had been hijacked to sell … detergent?
By 1995, the internet had 50 million users worldwide. The commercial world had recognized something we had not foreseen: The internet could be used as a powerful shopping machine, a gossip chamber, an entertainment channel and a social club. The internet had suddenly become a money-making machine.
With the profit motive taking over the internet, the very nature of innovation changed. Averting risk dominated the direction of technical progress. We no longer pursued “moonshots.” Instead advancement came via baby steps — “design me a 5% faster Bluetooth connection” as opposed to “build me an internet.” An online community that had once been convivial transformed into one of competition, antagonism and extremism.
And then as the millennium ended, our revolution took a more disturbing turn that we continue to grapple with today.
By suddenly providing the power for anyone to immediately reach millions of people inexpensively and anonymously, we had inadvertently also created the perfect formula for the “dark” side to spread like a virus all over the world. Today more than 50% of email is spam, but far more troubling issues have emerged — including denial of service attacks that can immobilize critical financial institutions and malicious botnets that can cripple essential infrastructure sectors.
Other dangerous players, such as nation-states, started coming onto the scene around 2010, when Stuxnet malware appeared. Organized crime recognized the internet could be used for international money laundering, and extremists found the internet to be a convenient megaphone for their radical views. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, facial recognition, biometrics and other advanced technologies could be used by governments to weaken democratic institutions.
The balkanization of the internet is now conceivable as firewalls spring up around national networks.
We could try to push the internet back toward its ethical roots. However, it would be a complex challenge requiring a joint effort by interested parties — which means pretty much everyone.
We should pressure government officials and entities to more zealously monitor and adjudicate such internet abuses as cyberattacks, data breaches and piracy. Governments also should provide a forum to bring interested parties together to problem-solve.
Scientists need to create more advanced methods of encryption to protect individual privacy by preventing perpetrators from using stolen databases. We are working on technologies that would hide the origin and destination of data moving around the network, thereby diminishing the value of captured network traffic. Blockchain, the technology that underpins bitcoin and other digital currencies, also offers the promise of irrefutable, indisputable data ledgers.
If we work together to make these changes happen, it might be possible to return to the internet I knew.
Leonard Kleinrock is distinguished professor of computer science at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering.
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How the Internet lost its soul
This week, we celebrate what many consider the 50th birthday of the Internet. The underpinnings of the World Wide Web originated in an American communications network built for national defense and the pursuit of knowledge: ARPANET. Funded by the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, the network was designed so that scientists could share computer hardware, software and data.
It worked. In the ensuing decades, the ARPANET, and after the 1980s, the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), did indeed allow scientists to collaboratively build knowledge around networked tools and information. But expanding access to the Internet, combined with looser government regulations, ultimately produced a situation no one foresaw or intended. On today's Internet, conspiracy theories run rampant, identities can be faked and our real-life elections are vulnerable to manipulation. A network designed for spreading truth became a profit-driven industry, a public sphere that threatens to undermine the public good.
The original ARPANET was designed for a relatively small community of people united by a technical challenge. At the time, computers from different manufacturers ran incompatible software, and long-distance data communications links were costly and unreliable. Networks connected only a few identical computers within a small region.
But ARPANET had an audacious proposal: It would span the continental United States to connect 15 research sites encompassing a diverse array of computers.
"Almost every conceivable item of computer hardware and software will be in the network," project leader Larry Roberts pointed out. "This is the greatest challenge of the system, as well as its greatest ultimate value." As a leading funder of computer science research, ARPA was able to mobilize a talented group of faculty and graduate students to design, build and debug the network, sending the first message on Oct. 29, 1969.
Like many academic environments, the ARPANET community was open and informal, and security was lax; in the early 1970s, students were rumored to have used the network to conduct transcontinental drug deals alongside their official research. But the relatively closed world of networked computing was opened up with the introduction of personal computers in the 1970s. The Defense Department soon found "unauthorized penetrations" of the ARPANET by hackers, complaining that "the availability of inexpensive computers and modems have made the network fair game for countless computer hobbyists."
By 1983, security concerns were so acute that Defense split off military users into their own network, ceding the rest of the ARPANET to academic researchers. In 1990, the ARPANET was absorbed into a new network built by the National Science Foundation that consisted of several regional networks connected by a high-speed backbone. As a nationwide civilian network, NSFNET rapidly increased the size and visibility of the Internet.
Politicians and businesses wanted to capitalize on the potential of a national network to connect citizens and consumers. In the early 1980s, the general public, though not yet allowed on the Internet, had begun using commercial dial-up services such as CompuServe and AOL to access servers offering chat rooms, games and email. In 1986, Congress, prompted by Sen. Al Gore, began debating whether the nation needed an "information superhighway" to connect K-12 schools and libraries for all citizens. Congress included funding for a National Research and Education Network (NREN) in its High-Performance Computing Act of 1991.
Had this plan come to fruition, the Internet would have remained under federal control until the late 1990s, potentially allowing time to upgrade security or create regulations to protect users. But before the NREN could get underway, the industry contractors providing the NSFNET infrastructure rushed ahead with plans to offer commercial network services, ultimately causing Congress to abandon the NREN.
The result was the de facto privatization of the Internet. The nonprofit organizations that had operated the NSFNET's backbone and regional networks reinvented themselves as the first commercial Internet service providers, serving both the NSF and private customers. The NSF now had the option to outsource its networking needs to these commercial providers, which it did as it retired the old NSFNET in 1995. While this removed an administrative burden from the NSF, the hasty transition left little time to consider the policy implications. So a commercialized network developed without public oversight of the Internet's operation.
Privatization opened the floodgates for new services: social media, gaming, e-commerce, and millions of personal websites and blogs. Industry advocates insisted that the Internet should not be regulated, lest innovation be stifled. Regulatory models that had been developed for common carriers, publishers and broadcasters did not fit a new medium that combined aspects of all these media and whose services and business models were in constant flux. Online businesses were free to experiment with ways to make money, eventually landing on the advertising-based business model that led to escalating surveillance and collection of user data to better target ads.
None of this has prevented scientists - the Internet's original users - from continuing to build reliable knowledge based on networked data and computational tools. The scientific community has time-tested processes to validate and protect the information it shares. But the general public is in a more precarious position. Anyone can be a publisher online, and the obvious clues to legitimacy that came with print and broadcast media - the investment in reporting and fact-checking, obligations to paying customers, an identifiable organization that could be held liable for false content - can be absent or faked online. The same type of user profiling that stimulates business also enables bad actors to target inflammatory social issues and widen political divides. We have inadvertently created a culture where misinformation can be spread without accountability.
Long-term trends of increasingly open access and diminishing government oversight have fueled the Internet's growth and unleashed the creativity of millions. They have also left a vacuum where the public interest should be. Can we work together to build a better Internet for the next 50 years?
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Abbate is a professor of science, technology and society at Virginia Tech and the author of "Inventing the Internet."