A FIRE Project View – Fundamental Internet Change?

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The volunteers behind the FIRE Project on-line information resource include team members who grew up with the Internet and networks that preceded it. The FIRE project was originally an experiment to apply artificial intelligence to on-line public access information resources and to explore ways of increasing on-line information integrity.

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In the early days of the Internet it depended very heavily on US Department of Defence funding and was aimed primarily at experimenting with major incident/nuclear-resistant information networks and enabling academics and defence contractors to exchange information with US Federal Agencies, without requiring trusted networks and time consuming security checks before accounts and privileges were granted. However, the Internet rapidly became a data 'citizens band' communications system.

The funding of new international links, partly to support operations in the Middle East during the 1990/1991 Gulf War, opened the Internet to a host of new users from very different cultures than the original user base. That began the rapid commercialization of the Internet. As the cost of personal computing and networks fell, and the power and capabilities increased, rapid further commercialization was inevitable.

The question that was never asked was, "How should the Internet expand safely and sustainability?"

The other key question that was never asked was, "How can Internet users be protected from serious risks and exploitation?"

One reason that these questions were never adequately addressed was that governments quickly saw the Internet as a way of policing and exploiting citizens who would never accept that situation in other areas of information and communication. Governments also saw the Internet as a way of dramatically reducing their own data and communications costs. The result was a very strong vested interest that coincided with many of the less attractive commercial interests. That in turn led on into two very unwelcome situations. The first new risks resulted from the exploitation of citizens by increasingly remote and unaccountable governments. The second situation was that a new under class was being created as those who could not or would not use the Internet found their access to government services and redress for government errors was increasingly difficult. A similar situation has been developing commercially because this new under class is also finding it increasingly difficult to obtain goods and services. At the same time, those who have turned to purchasing on-line are discovering many supply chain weaknesses that have not been created in doing business on the High Street. As High Street shops are forced out of business by the Internet, the assumption is that all purchasers will be forced to take what ever huge Internet traders are prepared to offer. That assumption may prove equally false.

The other result explosive growth was that the Internet developed an economic model that was based on massive profits from pornography and crime, alongside general exploitation of users. The assumption has always been that these unwelcome activities are beyond the control of users and legislators.

The users are starting to fight back and the initial key to their success is being provided by new applications that enable them to prevent commercial and government organizations from pirating their private and sensitive information.

This could develop into a major war between users and exploiters to rival the battle between those who write hostile code, including virus code, and those who write anti-virus software. The anti-virus industry is now vast and one of the major expenses private Internet users have to fund.

Voters need to elect representatives who do not intend to exploit them via the Internet and rob them of their civil liberties. Those representatives then need to both clean up the acts of governments and enact legislation that begins to protect users of the Internet and their private information.

The challenge will be in how to fund the continuing existence and expansion of the Internet.

The assumptions of exploiters that they can continue to snoop on users and sell collected information are also carried into their trading projections. As users increasingly have the ability to block this snooping, the exploiters will see their trading figures hit hard, but that will also hit the Internet hard by removing one of its key funding sources.

Having learned just how dangerous the Internet can be, users may now have to learn that there is no free lunch and that any effort to attack Internet crime and introduce Internet ethics will have to be paid for by someone.

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