A number of recent events from the FCC’s waffling on net neutrality to the NSA’s effect on Internet trust mean the Internet of the future may look much different from the Internet of today. Here’s a look at what might be in store.
NSA: The Internet’s Favorite Alphabet-Soup Agency
Almost a year after Edward Snowden’s revelations of dragnet spying by the NSA rocked the world, the technology industry in the U.S. and abroad is still struggling with the ramifications. In particular, foreign nations have sought to determine appropriate responses, given that NSA spying is likely more a tool of industrial espionage and political gamesmanship than national security against criminal threats.
One response that is gaining momentum is the national Internet, where different countries or regions maintain a domestic network with tightly controlled portals to other national or regional networks. Such an approach could prevent or at least limit access by foreign spy agencies (like the NSA). More-isolated countries such as Iran may pursue national Internets, but fragmentation (if it occurs) is likely to be along regional lines—for instance, perhaps an Asian block centering on Russia and China, particularly given recent tensions over Ukraine. A European regional Internet might also break away to some extent, but given the E.U.’s alignment with the U.S., such a division would probably only be symbolic at most.
Given the present worldwide political climate, extensive fracturing of the Internet seems unlikely (again, apart from an east-west division), but linguistic divisions mean that for the average user, national Internets might have little impact on daily life. For instance, how often do you visit websites in Cyrillic or Cantonese?
Thanks in large part to the NSA, awareness of communication encryption—as well as U.S. government tampering with cryptographic standards—is growing. Ultimately, any encryption technique can be defeated if enough resources are poured into the task. And since the U.S. government has unlimited resources thanks to the Federal Reserve’s handy dandy printing press, no individual or small group is safe. Furthermore, as Ladar Levison (founder of the Lavabit encrypted email service) discovered, there is little recourse for organizations that try to protect customer or associate privacy in the face of sweeping government investigations. (Besides, can anyone truly expect government-appointed judges to fundamentally deviate from upholding government interests?)
Nevertheless, even though encryption may not protect everyone individually, the collective effect is to make broad, invasive spying much more difficult. In reality, the every government has resource limitations, so as the cost of spying goes up, the more targeted the efforts must be. Economics may thus be the greatest limiter of NSA (and other agency) spying. The Internet is thus likely to move increasingly in the direction of more encryption, although the effort may require some time to educate users about how to protect themselves individually.
More Security Problems
If you want more of something, subsidize it. The NSA’s budget includes a large chunk of money—at least $25 million, according to The Washington Post—to purchase “‘software vulnerabilities’ from private malware vendors.” In other words, the NSA (and, likely, other agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere) is helping to fund a malware industry, and no doubt the larger and more spectacular the hack, the more the payoff for these shady providers. With the increasing reliance on the cloud, leading to centralization of Internet resources, the result could be ever more catastrophic outages owing to cascading failures.
Such outages could simply result from accidents or other unforeseen circumstances, but malware could also play a role. Imagine, for instance, a Stuxnet- or Flame-scale worm that sabotages major cloud hubs instead of certain types of industrial equipment. And with the Internet of Things on the horizon, the opportunities for attacks will only multiply. Unfortunately for private organizations, however, the U.S. government sees no need to provide any warning of threats, since the vaunted concept of “national security” (meaning government security) trumps everything else.
A contentious topic that has been a focus of news stories in recent weeks is net neutrality. According to some industry observers, the FCC may be moving toward policy that effectively dumps net neutrality, whereby Internet service providers were required to treat different types of traffic equally. But others suggest that nothing has fundamentally changed, at least not yet.
Net neutrality is a contentious issue in large part because of the pseudo-monopolistic status of telecommunications companies, who seldom face competition yet nevertheless cry “free market!” when it suits them. But Professor Christopher Yoo of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that an end to strict net neutrality (assuming it ever really existed) might not be so bad. “He hopes that the FCC’s easing restrictions on broadband providers’ ability to charge different prices for delivering different Internet content could spur innovation by allowing both established companies and startups to offer new online services tailored for the Internet ‘fast lane’ delivery,” according to IEEE Spectrum.
Given that video content is the biggest source of Internet traffic, the idea that such content should be tiered in terms of speed and cost may be the only viable means of stemming the constantly growing appetite for bandwidth. Eventually, adding more capacity will simply be less economical than charging more for heavier traffic types or otherwise imposing some kind of additional cost. (Usage caps and per-user throttling are another option.)
Likely, the FCC will maintain some semblance of net neutrality while letting slide certain activities by telcos (such as the recent Netflix-Comcast deal). Don’t hold your breath for a resolution to the debate over net neutrality, however, unless telcos are finally thrown entirely into either the category of public utilities or the category of private companies. And that probably won’t happen—both the telcos and government officials have too much at stake to force such an unprofitable categorization.
The future of the Internet is murky, with a number of trends colliding to muddy the waters. The NSA is at the heart of a number of these trends, including countries considering national or regional Internets, as well as known security threats that the agency is withholding to help it prop up a bankrupt government and flagging economy. (Oh, yeah, and to fight terrorists—right.) But Edward Snowden’s revelations have helped drive greater awareness of security and privacy issues, so some good may come of government voyeurism. Net neutrality will remain a contentious issue, thanks in part to telcos residing in that grey area between the public and private sectors. Exactly how these trends will combine to shape the Internet of the future is unclear. Economic and geopolitical dynamics will also play a role, such as in the case of tensions of Ukraine further dividing east and west. Regardless of the outcome, chances are that individual users who shop at Amazon, watch inane YouTube videos or play countless hours of Angry Birds will see little difference in their Internet experience.