The Internet has connected the world like no other technology has ever been able to do. But the network has a dark side of viruses and bugs, hackers and criminals.
Naheda Zayed examines the making of the Internet, and the challenges of re-making it to create a safer global network.
About the time Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in 1969, and took that "giant leap for mankind," computer scientists here on Earth were taking the early steps in creating another of the greatest technological feats of all time.
But no one envisioned the future potential of the Internet. Marc Sachs, a computer security expert, and director of the Internet Storm Center, describes those early days.
"Summer of 1969, four computers connected under an experiment, ARPANET -- Advanced Research Projects Agency -- funded by the Defense Department. Just a theory…could we connect large computers?"
They could, and the ARPANET eventually became the Internet. Had the founders realized their experiment would lead to a network used by nearly a billion people just three decades later, they might have built it with more security in mind.
Michael Nelson is Vice President of Policy at the Internet Society, an organization that helps set Internet standards.
"When the Internet was invented, it was a network of university researchers,” said Mr. Nelson. “This was a community that knew each other. They trusted each other. There wasn't a need for elaborate passwords and security controls, and so those weren't built into the first version of the Internet."
The lack of security planning created a haven for criminal activity. The Internet is fleeting and anonymous. Criminals come and go within seconds without being detected. Hackers, spammers, viruses and bugs continue to plague the system, costing users and corporations billions of dollars. The network has become so abused, there are calls to build a new one.
Marc Sachs explained the thinking about fixing the current Internet. "Some are saying it's impossible, that what we really need to do is just start over. Let's build another Internet. And there are some researchers who are working on that possibility."
Internet 2, as it is known, is a hard proposition to accept financially, given there are billions of dollars invested in the current system. While it is being worked on, the industry has developed technologies that make the current Internet safer. The challenge has been arriving at a consensus.
"That requires companies to come together, agree on a standard and start using it and that's taken some time because each company wants to be the answer, they want to have the solution," says Michael Nelson.
Some argue that competition actually produces a safer Internet. In the market place, consumers determine what's being used by the products they purchase. That has created an industry of solutions, as well as more choices," he added.
"You have different groups competing to find who can develop better systems. This has allowed us to innovate faster. It's allowed a market place of ideas to produce multiple solutions to meet different needs of different users."
What's more, there is no consensus on how to govern this global network. A consortium of groups monitors certain technical aspects, such as data coding or the naming and formatting of websites. And international private and public security companies work together with law enforcement to combat crime.
But for now, the U.S. government is taking a hands-off approach to regulating the Internet. Marc Sachs of the Internet storm center says Internet technology, by its nature, is almost impossible to legislate. "If we pass a law that says you can't possess a hacking tool, you might as well turn off the Internet because it’s the same software that the rest of us use for legitimate purposes."
Millions of commercial and tax dollars are already being spent on research to create the next generation Internet, one that is safer and more efficient. Experts promise a future network that is at least 100 times faster and more powerful than it is today. Users will be able to custom tailor their online activities, and verify the source of emails and web links.
Marc Sachs says it will take collaboration. "If I had a crystal ball here, if I'm looking forward to 2010 and beyond, we do see a better Internet. But we see it because academia, private sector, and governments are working together, not that one is trying to take control over the other."
Security and transparency can be expected in any future network. But computer experts like to remind the public that there is no such thing as a completely bug free computer except, as the joke goes, "one that is encased in concrete and sitting at the bottom of the ocean."