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Jan 112016
 

Watching the 32c3 conference videos for free (which is relevant), and coming across the inevitable “the Internet is dead”, “corporations have bored the spirit of the Internet to death”, etc. It’s a pretty common meme amongst those who somehow believe that the Internet used to be free.

The Internet was never free, but it did have the appearance of being free.

Of course we have become used to paying for access to the Internet, but that monthly payment to the ISP doesn’t pay for the Internet as a whole. As an example none of the money you pay your ISP reaches me to help me pay for the server this web page is on. Supposedly I can ‘monetise’ your visits by publishing adverts on my web site; in practice it doesn’t. At least not for low traffic sites.

And things like Facebook or Twitter do cost lots of money to run; enough that many of the large successful companies took a long time before they became profitable.

Of course I’ve been concentrating on the monetary meaning of “free” but this applies to a certain extent to the other meaning of free – you can’t post content to Facebook that they don’t agree with (although in practice very little is censored with the main victim being pictures of breastfeeding). A company like Facebook is in this game to make money and whilst they are not going to censor your content for no reason, neither are they going to fight too hard for your free speech.

In the end you can only exercise your freedom of speech on your own servers. But with the exception of a few weirdos like me, most of us are not keen on running servers.

All normal people want to do is run an application that lets them “do stuff” and the conventional way to implement an Internet application is for an application running on the person’s desktop to speak across the Internet to a server – for example the web works this way. The big problem with such an approach particularly when something like Facebook becomes almost ubiquitous is that you are giving a large central organisation a lot of data about yourself.

Of course everyone who is not up to anything nefarious is not bothered by that, right? Well perhaps, but there are other aspects of sending all your data to a company who desperately needs to monetise your data and your eyeballs. Such as targeted advertising. And worse.

The conventional way. There are of course what could be called unconventional applications that communicate across the Internet without a centralised server managing it all. These are commonly called “peer-to-peer” (or P2P) applications and are commonly used to share files; very commonly files that the copyright owner would rather not be shared (films, applications, music, etc.). So P2P has a bit of a rogue reputation.

But it is merely a means for communicating and does not dictate what is communicated. There is nothing to stop someone from implementing a P2P-based application that communicates “posts” that are the equivalent of Facebook posts. Such an application :-

  1. Would continue to use the web browser as a display engine.
  2. Run as a separate “service” on the desktop to send and receive P2P posts in the background; displaying relevant ones on request.
  3. Automatically encrypt all postings so that they can only be decrypted by the relevant audience. Keep the automatic encryption hidden to avoid scaring those who just can’t be bothered with all that.

Of course as I am not going to be writing this (I simply don’t have the time), I have no right to say how it should be written! But writing such an application would be very beneficial if we could persuade people to use it rather than the monolith that is Facebook. Unlike some people, I don’t believe that Facebook is intentionally evil, but because of the centralisation of social networking in the hands of Facebook, it has the potential to be evil.

Those who want the Internet to be free (as in freedom) need to put their money where their mouth is and write the code.

Rusty_Padlock

 

 

Mar 242013
 

The above links to an interesting browser which allows zooming and selection of different data sets. It’s worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing. Although it’s rather surprising that it doesn’t like IPv6 addresses!

The most controversial thing about this map of the Internet gathered during 2012, is that it was produced with the aid of a botnet or in other words this researcher stole the resources they needed. Which is obviously wrong – no matter how good the cause – but now that it has been done, there is no reason not to look at the results (whilst wrong this isn’t really evil).

The first interesting discovery here is that this anonymous researcher managed to write a simple virus that would load the Internet scanner onto many devices with default passwords set – admin accounts with “admin” as the password, root accounts with “root” as the password, etc. You would have thought that such insecure devices would have been driven off the Internet by now, but it turns out not to be the case – there are at least 420,000 of them!

You could even argue that the owners of such machines are asking to have their devices controlled by anyone who wants to. Perhaps a little extreme, but certainly some people think so or this Internet survey wouldn’t exist.

But now the results. If you look at the default settings in the browser above, you will encounter large swathes of black squares where apparently nothing is in use. The trouble is that whilst it is true that an IP address that is pingable, or has ports open is “in use”, there is no guarantee that an IP address that is just registered in the DNS is in use or not, and finally unregistered IP addresses that do not appear to do anything may very well still be in use.

Essentially the whole exercise hasn’t really said much about how much of the Internet address space is in use, although that is not to say that the results are not useful.

One special point to make is that many of the large black squares that appear unused, are allocated to organisations that may very well want to have proper IP addresses that are not connected to the global Internet. That is not wrong in any way – before the wide spread adoption of NAT, it was common and indeed recommended that organisations obtain a public IP address before they were connected to the Internet to avoid duplicate network addresses appearing. And an organisation that legitimately obtained an old “class A” has no obligation to return the “unused” network addresses back to the unallocated pool. And even if they did, it would not make a big difference; we would still run out of addresses.

The answer to the shortage of IPv4 addresses is IPv6.

 

Nov 242012
 

As could be expected, when there are yet again moves made to pass the job of Internet Governance into the hands of the ITU, there is a huge wave of objections from the Americans; some of whom are objecting more from a reflex anti-UN position (or a wish to see the US remain “in control” of the Internet) rather than a more considered objection.

What is perhaps more surprising is the EU’s objections to the ITU taking control.

What Is Internet Governance?

In a very real sense, there is no such thing as the Internet; there are merely a large number of different networks that agree to use the Internet standards – protocol numbers, network addresses, names, etc. With the exception of names this is all pretty invisible to ordinary users of the Internet; at least when it works.

There is nothing to stop different networks from changing the Internet standards, or coming up with their own networking standards. Except of course that a network’s customers might very well object if they suddenly can’t reach Google because of different standards. Historically there has been a migration towards Internet standards rather than away from them.

In a very real sense, this is governance by consent. At least by the network operators.

It may be worthwhile to list those things that the current Internet Governance doesn’t do :-

  • It does not control network traffic flows or peering arrangements. Such control is exercised by individual networks and/or governments.
  • It does not control the content of the Internet. Not only is censureship not part of the current governance mission; it isn’t even within their power. Any current censureship is exercised by the individual networks and/or governments.
  • It does not control access, pricing, or any other form of network control. Your access to the Internet is controlled by your ISP and any laws enacted by your government.

There is probably a long, long list of other things that the current Internet Governance does not do. To a very great extent, the current governance is about technical governance.

What’s So Bad About The Status Quo?

“The Internet” is currently governed by ICANN (the “Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers”) which is a US-based (and controlled) non-profit corporation. Whilst there are plenty of those who complain about ICANN and how it performs it’s work, the key metric of how well they have performed is that just one of their areas of responsibility – the control of the top-level domains in the DNS – has resulted in any alternatives.

And those alternatives are really not very successful; as someone who runs an institutional DNS infrastructure, I would be under pressure to support alternative roots if they were successful enough to interest normal people. No such requests have reached me.

So you could very well argue that technically ICANN has done a perfectly reasonable job.

But politically, it is a far more difficult situation. ICANN is a US-based corporation whose authority over the Internet standards is effectively granted to it by the US Department of Commerce. This grates with anyone who is not a US citizen, which is now by far a majority of the Internet population.

Historically the Internet is a US invention (although the historical details are quite a bit more complex than that; it is widely acknowledged that the packet switching nature of the ARPAnet was inspired by work done by a British computer scientist), so it is not unreasonable that Internet governance started as a US organisation.

But in the long term, if it remains so, it will be undemocratic and tyrannical; whilst the US is a democratic government it is only US citizens that can hold their government to account with a vote. The rest of us have no say in how the US government surpervises ICANN which is an untenable situation.

What About The ITU ?

The key to any change in how Internet governance is managed, is to make as few changes as possible. If we accept that ICANN has managed reasonably well at the technical governance, there is no overriding reason to take that away from them. If we accept that control of ICANN has to be passed to an international body, then what about the ITU ?

Many people object to the idea of the ITU being in charge for a variety of reasons, but probably the biggest reason of all is that it is a UN body and certain people start frothing at the mouth at the mere mention of the UN.

But if you look at the history of the ITU, you will see that despite the beaurocratic nature of the organisation (which predates the UN by a considerable number of years), it has managed to maintain international telecommunications through two world wars. A not inconsiderable achievement even if it succeeded because it had to succeed.

Time For A Compromise

International agreement is all about making all parties equally satisfied … or at the very least equally disastisfied, with a solution that comes as close as possible to giving everyone what they want. A seemingly impossible task.

But despite spending nowhere near enough time studying the issues, one solution does occur to me. Hand over the authority by which ICANN operates to the ITU with the proviso that any changes to the mandate of  ICANN (in particular giving it additional authority) should be subject to oversite by the UN as a whole; and of course subject to UN Security Council vetos.

Of course this is not a decision that should be made hastily; given that the main issue at stake is “political” rather than technical, there is no reason why the decision to do something has to be made quickly. But it does need to be made within 10 years.

Feb 142012
 

This morning I caught an item about how so-called “Internet Trolls” are forcing some famous people to close down their Twitter accounts because of offensive posts in reply to anything they post. Before getting to the main point of this post, lets get one thing cleared up to begin with.

Trolls on the Internet aren’t those who post offensive messages. Sure they’re irritating, but they are disruptive more than offensive. That’s not to say that trolls cannot also be offensive, but most are not.

This is yet another example of the media getting some clueless reporter to write up a story about “new technology” (it ain’t new any more) without checking their basic facts with someone who has half a clue – even checking with Wikipedia would quickly tell someone what the definition of an Internet Troll was (hint that funny coloured word at the beginning of the second paragraph takes you to the definition).

Us old-timers call those who use offensive language inappropriately “offensive little gits” which probably is not cute and cuddly enough for the media to like. Perhaps we should call them goblins (it’s all in the wrong order, but Gits, Offensive, B(onus), Little, INternet, S(omething)) just to keep the media happy.

Now onto the main point … this story was quite right about the fact there is a problem with people being deliberately offensive on the Internet, and it is not restricted to just famous people. There are plenty of examples of ordinary people facing all sort of offensive messages (I was going to dig up an example I know of, but it’s buried too deep).

Now us old timers remember a simpler age where people posting offensive messages would be dealt with quite simply. First the offended person would complain to the organisation (often a University) “hosting” the network address used by the offensive person. Next, the person at that organisation in charge of such things would find the relevant user, and apply the clue stick as hard and as often as seemed appropriate.

Up to and including throwing goblins off the Internet. Of course we also kept an eye out for vexatious complaints – there are some people who will complain about the most ridiculous things.

This was mostly lost when the ISPs started dominating the provisioning of the Internet to most people (although it survives in a few dusty old corners) because it “costs too much” for the ISPs to police their users. But there is no reason why it couldn’t be brought back.

And with careful management it should work quite well – of course some care would have to be taken as regards political activists posting on the Internet. The aim here is not to censure genuine political criticism or discussion, but to apply the clue stick as hard and as often as necessary to the Internet goblins.

Jan 302012
 

Looking through my archives, I realised that my ancient guide to the Internet was no longer online. Whilst really only of historical interest, it seems a shame that it is not available for the terminally bored, or those who wish to investigate what the Internet was like during the 1990s.

An online version is available here with a PDF version also available.

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