We have the power to control the online 'Wild West'
EARLIER THIS YEAR I took part in a two day ‘summit’ meeting at an historic Scottish country house during a rare burst of spectacular summer weather.
Others attending this meeting included senior individuals from 10 Downing Street, the Police cybercrime team, BBC News, the Foreign Office, GCHQ, a former national newspaper editor, a former leader of NATO, and was chaired by a former senior executive from Facebook.
The subject under discussion was the impact of social media in the modern world on security, defence, and democracy and the delegates discussed how we might effectively improve the interaction between what they called ‘soft power’ and ‘hard power’.
I was the only person in the room with a background in software engineering and, as these discussions progressed, I began to realise that all the other delegates regarded the internet and the world wide web almost as if they were uncontrollable laws of nature – like gravity, or the weather.
But they are absolutely not – they are man made technologies which were invented for a very different purpose than the one for which they are now used.
The fact is that when the internet was created in the late 1960s and the world wide web in 1990 they were both designed only to be used by a restricted group of trusted public servants such as scientific researchers, government officials and defence workers.
They were never ever designed to do what they are called upon to do today – supporting the communication and commercial loads of the modern global economy.
Back in the early 90s, individuals used multinational networking providers such as CompuServe and America Online (AOL) for their communications and information. It was only around 1993 that the internet was opened up to commercial use and soon all of the other networks found that their users demanded connection to it.
But unlike customers of CompuServe or AOL, individual users on the internet can hide. In a famous cartoon published in New Yorker magazine in July 1993 two dogs sit at a computer, as one explains to the other “On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog”.
And it is this ability to hide that is at the heart of all the internet misuse – from North Korea shutting down NHS computers, Russians influencing western democratic elections, or Macedonian teenagers spreading ‘clickbait’. You have no real idea whether you are dealing with an honest individual – or a ‘dog’.
We are living in an online ‘wild west’ where crooks and conmen can get away with fraud without much chance of ever being caught.
But it need not be that way. What has been invented can always be re-invented. It is perfectly possible for technology to be developed that could reliably confirm the identity of an individual and, while the current internet could continue as at present, I suspect many would chose to adopt a new ‘protected’ internet area where you can be sure that people are actually who they say they are, especially when you are transacting any business with them.
The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has recently gone public on his concerns about the widespread misuse of his invention: “It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone.”
After all, the real wild west was eventually tamed, and its various transactions brought under the rule of law.
There is absolutely no reason why the Web cannot do the same.