The Conversation in Context:
12 Ideas That Will Reshape the Way We Live and Work Online
1. Change how the data flow
A good place to start is with the overburdened addressing system, known as IPv4. Every device connected to the Internet, including computers, smartphones, and servers, has a unique identifier, or Internet protocol (IP) address. “Whenever you type in the name of a Web site, the computer essentially looks at a phone book of IP addresses,” explains Craig Labovitz, chief scientist at Arbor Networks, a software and Internet company. “It needs a number to call to connect you.” Trouble is, IPv4 is running out of identifiers. In fact, the expanding Web is expected to outgrow IPv4’s 4.3 billion addresses within a couple of years. Anticipating this shortage, researchers began developing a new IP addressing system, known as IPv6, more than a decade ago. IPv6 is ready to roll, and the U.S. government and some big Internet companies, such as Google, have pledged to switch over by 2012. But not everyone is eager to follow. For one, the jump necessitates costly upgrades to hardware and software. Perhaps a bigger disincentive is the incompatibility of the two addressing systems, which means companies must support both versions throughout the transition to ensure that everyone will be able to access content. In the meantime, IPv4 addresses, which are typically free, may be bought and sold. For the average consumer, Labovitz says, that could translate to pricier Internet access.
2. Put the next internet to the test
In one GENI experiment, Stanford University researcher Kok-Kiong Yap is researching a futuristic Web that seamlessly transitions between various cellular and WiFi networks, allowing smartphones to look for an alternative connection whenever the current one gets overwhelmed. That’s music to the ears of everyone toting an iPhone.
3. Move data into the cloud
As Nick Feamster says, the cloud is an increasingly popular place to store data. So much so, in fact, that technology research company Gartner predicts the estimated value of the cloud market, including all software, advertising, and business transactions, will exceed $150 billion by 2013. Why the boom? Convenience. At its simplest, cloud computing is like a giant, low-cost, low-maintenance storage locker. Centralized servers, provided by large Internet companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, plus scores of smaller ones worldwide, let people access data and applications over the Internet instead of storing them on personal hard drives. This reduces costs for software licensing and hardware.
4. Settle who owns the internet
While much of the data that zips around the Internet is free, the routers and pipes that enable this magical transmission are not. The question of who should pay for rising infrastructure costs, among other expenses, is at the heart of the long-standing net neutrality debate. On the one side, Internet service providers argue that charging Web sites more for bandwidth-hogging data such as video will allow them to expand capacity and deliver data faster and more reliably. Opponents counter that such a tiered or “pay as you go” Internet would unfairly favor wealthier content providers, allowing the richest players to indirectly censor their cash-strapped competition. So which side has the legal edge? Last December the Federal Communications Commission approved a compromise plan that would allow ISPs to prioritize traffic for a fee, but the FCC promises to police anticompetitive practices, such as an ISP’s mistreating, say, Netflix, if it wants to promote its own instant-streaming service. The extent of the FCC’s authority remains unclear, however, and the ruling could be challenged as early as this month.
5. Understand what can happen when networks make decisions for us
In November Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad confirmed that the Stuxnet computer worm had sabotaged national centrifuges used
to enrich nuclear fuel. Experts have determined that the malicious code hunts for electrical
components operating at particular frequencies and hijacks them, potentially causing them to
spin centrifuges at wildly fluctuating rates. Labovitz of Arbor Networks says, “Stuxnet showed how skilled hackers can militarize technology.”
6. Get ready for virtual surgery
Surgeon Jacques Marescaux performed the first trans-Atlantic operation in 2001 when he sat in an office in New York and delicately removed the gall bladder of a woman in Strasbourg, France. Whenever he moved his hands, a robot more
than 4,000 miles away received signals via a broadband Internet connection and, within
15-hundredths of a second, perfectly mimicked his movements. Since then more than 30 other patients have undergone surgery over the Internet. “The surgeon obviously needs a guarantee that the connection won’t be interrupted,” says surgeon Richard Satava of the University of Washington. “And you need a consistent time delay. You don’t want to see a robot continually change its response time to your hand motions.”
7. Bring on the message ferries
A message ferry is a mobile device or Internet node that could relay data in war zones, disaster sites, and other places lacking communications infrastructure.
8. Don’t share hardware with people whom you might not trust
Or who might not trust you. The tenuous nature of free speech on the Internet cropped up in December when Amazon Web Services booted WikiLeaks from its cloud servers. Amazon charged that the nonprofit violated its terms of service, although the U.S. government may have had more to do with the decision than Amazon admits. WikiLeaks, for its part, shot back on Twitter, “If Amazon are [sic] so uncomfortable with the First Amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books.”
Unfortunately for WikiLeaks, Amazon is not a government agency, so there is no First Amendment case against it, according to Internet scholar and lawyer Wendy Seltzer of Princeton University. You may be doing something perfectly legal on Amazon’s cloud, Seltzer explains, and Amazon could give you the boot because of government pressure, protests, or even too
many service calls. “Service providers give end users very little recourse, if any,” she observes. That’s why people are starting to think about
“distributed hosting,” in which no one company has total power, and thus no one company controls freedom of speech.