Breaking the Internet

Since its inception, the internet has been expanding at lightspeed. Now it’s up to citizens, activists, and lawmakers to defend it at all costs.

In 1962, an MIT professor named J.C.R. Licklider working at a new, obscure division in Washington, D.C. called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) sent his colleagues a 16-page memo. In it, he described a concept he called the “Intergalactic Computer Network.”

His vision for an “electronic commons,” open to all, had implications beyond ARPA. If Licklider’s memo hadn’t reached the Pentagon in his two short years there, the internet revolution might have never happened the way that it did.

“Twenty years from now [1982], some form of keyboard operation will doubtless be taught in kindergarten,” he wrote in the paper. “And forty years from now [2002], keyboards may be as universal as pencils, but at present good typists are few." His predictions ultimately inspired the internet’s predecessor: a network called ARPANET, which linked computers at Pentagon-funded research institutions over telephone lines. By that point, innovations like the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, and the computer had already ushered in new frontiers in human connectivity. But that evolution occurred over the course of centuries—ARPANET, on the other hand, mushroomed at an unprecedented rate.

What started as a four-node, scarcely used network in 1970 grew into 10 and then 19 nodes. By 1975, it already had 57 nodes. This exponential unfolding progressed until Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web—a crucial step in making the public interested in the net—launched in 1990.

1. The Foundation

As many other networks like ARPANET appeared in the late 1960s, engineers like Robert E. Kahn and Vinton Cerf knew that something needed to unify them all.

Kahn and Cerf developed the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP), which are fundamental to how computers talk to each other. Together, they compile packets (or units) of data and send them from one location to the next. One computer, which has its own unique string of numbers called an IP address, can connect to a number of other computers, to a web server, or to a laptop, a tablet, or a mobile phone.

TCP and IP were implemented worldwide in the 1980s, and by 1989, the first commercial internet service provider (ISP) launched in the United States. The first (now obsolete) versions of Wi-Fi began to roll out in the 1990s.

“There's lot of traffic—and the internet slows down for everyone when an ISP can’t transport it all at once,” Florian Schaub, assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan, says. And then there's the “flash crowd” phenomenon, which results in an overload and crash for individual ISPs.

The capacity to transmit data has certainly grown since the internet revolution took off. At our current pace, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day, and that shows no sign of slowing. ISPs once held all the power, including by managing crashes and the expansion of data capacities. At the turn of the new millennium, measures for creating individual control over internet access–like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and even citizens' private Wi-Fi networks–inspired the net neutrality movement.

“Net neutrality is about making sure that the technologies and entities that provide internet connectivity and access to the internet are neutral,” Schaub explains. “It ensures that if I visit my bank's website, versus watching a video on YouTube, that there isn't any discrimination in terms of how the information is passed from one place to the next.”

“Not only are these citizens facing limitation of access, but down the line, a non neutral net might prevent smaller companies, startups, or non-profits from serving up their information in ways that reach everyone.”

Florian Schaub, professor of Information Technology at the University of Michigan

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed a sweeping net neutrality order preventing ISPs from blocking or prioritizing any internet traffic. But since the FCC voted to jettison the order in 2017 (freeing broadband providers to regulate traffic as they please), activists, as well as academics like Schaub, have been concerned about how internet access will change. Schaub notes, “ISPs are now able to say, ‘Hey, we noticed you're producing a lot of traffic on our network. We have two options: Either we can slow down your traffic or you can pay us more money so that our customers get your videos in the best quality.’”

“Two-thirds of citizens or residents of the U.S. only have a single internet provider that's available,” Schaub says. “Not only are these citizens facing limitation of access, but down the line, a non neutral net might prevent smaller companies, startups, or non-profits from serving up their information in ways that reach everyone.”

Schaub points to a grim and currently plausible reality where users will have to pay premiums to access video streaming, social media, or critical public information. As engineers work to equalize and maintain access for everyone, activists are also working to track violations of net neutrality by companies. Recent lawsuits are also pressuring the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality. Even private companies have stepped up to speak out against a services monopoly. They’ve recognized that the most crucial battle in the internet revolution is defending it.

“Net neutrality is one of the few cases where big internet companies, consumers, and activists are really on the same page and want net neutrality,” Schaub says. “It’s important to have a level playing field for all information, for all entities on the internet. It’s an inclusion issue.”

2. From Old to New

Here’s the key insight about the internet—it’s not magic,” says Paul Barford, professor of computer science at the University of Wisconsin. “It's all based around this gigantic infrastructure—the largest and most complex infrastructure that's ever been built by humans.”

Since the launch of ARPANET, one thing remains the same: The internet is not intangible—despite existing in a seemingly “wireless” reality. A physical infrastructure facilitates the connection between two computers.

“The amount of actual wireless infrastructure, like a cell phone or Wi-Fi connection, is really mostly only used for the very last hop in a communication path between you and your Wi-Fi router and your house,” Barford points out.

Two computers can connect through a wire—but with the billions of computers that exist today, that structure isn’t feasible. Routers, which facilitate connections between multiple computers, ensure that a message sent from one computer arrives at the correct destination. The result is a network of networks. Most of these components, from cell towers to the router in your house, are ultimately connected to fiber optic cables, which carry the bulk of the communication traffic around the world. They’re buried in the ground, all around us—and even though technology has enabled us to lay them on the ocean floor, fiber buried in land is highly susceptible to damage.

“There are many different ways in which communication infrastructure can be damaged: Conduits can inadvertently be dug up by somebody doing construction on the street. They can be disrupted by an earthquake, a flood, a fire, a tornado, or a hurricane—a train crash, even,” says Barford.

“Here’s the key insight about the internet—it’s not magic. It's all based around this gigantic infrastructure—the largest and most complex infrastructure that's ever been built by humans.”

Paul Barford, professor of Computer Science at the University of Wisconsin

His study, “Lights Out: Climate Change Risk to Internet Infrastructure,” used this premise to explore how global warming threatens this impressive infrastructure. The study revealed that within the next 15 years, it’s possible that rising sea levels might submerge and damage critical portions of America’s internet infrastructure, particularly in New York City, Miami, and Seattle. “I've looked at the data and I actually think the climate change situation is much worse than is being reported,” Barford says.

But not all is lost: As Barford points out, one of the main design objectives of the internet and internet protocols was robustness. “And when it comes to adapting to failures so that communication can be preserved, the internet works really well,” he says.

Engineers are aware of the risks and are looking into alternatives like fiberless optical transmission. When a disaster like Hurricane Harvey, which flooded thousands of homes and streets in Miami and Texas, strikes, facility engineers deploy drills and special protocols to keep services up and running. In reaction to sea levels rising, activism is expanding on both global and local levels. And though our infrastructure isn’t perfect, Barford points out that engineers are constantly researching improvements.

“Robustness means adapting to failures so that communication can be preserved,” he says. “And the good news is that the internet is being enhanced on an ongoing basis, every day, by researchers.”

3. The Future

The cable isn't ever going to go away,” says global security expert Mikko Hypponen. “But eventually, it will be practically invisible.”

Thanks to the advent of mobile technology, the Cloud, and the 5G network, it’s anticipated that all devices will be online at all times, and equipped with sensors to communicate and collect data. Hypponen believes this eventual network of billions of devices, or “smart environment” often called “the Internet of Things” will inevitably comprise all facets of modern life.

“As prices plummet in, let's say, 10 years' time, the cost for an IoT device chip set will drop to five cents, four cents, three cents, and so on,” Hypponen adds. “Toasters, appliances, and other cheap home electronics will likely be online and won’t even need to be prompted to be connected.”

But the caveat to this, coined “Hypponen’s Law,” is that anything smart automatically becomes vulnerable. That smart toaster a consumer purchases doesn’t just have the capacity to lock you out of its authentication system—it also has the capacity to collect market intelligence. Data is money, after all, and it turns out that how often you toast bread, what settings you use, and other mundane details are incredibly valuable to manufacturers, advertisers, private companies, and even the government.

Schaub points out that most consumers don’t even know their data is being collected. In the United States’ specific case, privacy concerns are even more heightened due to the sectoral nature of security law: “Health care, protecting children online, and educational records all have privacy laws—but there's no privacy law for the Internet of Things, social media, or search engines.”

“We’re moving toward having a bunch of smart devices in your home that are all communicating detailed information about what you do in your house to their providers, all the time.”

Florian Schaub, professor of Information Technology at the University of Michigan

“Rather than having a smart home that is smart in its own right, we’re moving toward having a bunch of smart devices in your home that are all communicating detailed information about what you do in your house to their providers, all the time,” he adds. This form of surveillance presents a cost to consumers, from relinquishing ownership of private information to improper use of that information by corporations.

Cases like Carpenter v. United States have already brought digital privacy and its correlation to Fourth Amendment rights to the forefront. The push for security and privacy grades for IoT devices has already begun. Researchers like Hypponen and Schaub are working around the clock to enhance software and security systems that will make the IoT as secure as possible.

It’s worth noting that activists, academics, and common citizens have seen how an IoT future brings promise, too. Data collection can, and has, aided in campaigning, electoral politics, and social movements. It could aid in water conservation and feeding the hungry. Through crisis management, it could even help offset and combat threats posed by global warming and natural disasters.

The internet has become more integrated and capable than what Licklider, Kahn, and Cerf could have ever imagined—it’s made the world smarter, faster, and more open. We rely on it, but we shouldn’t take it for granted. If inventions like the IoT prove that the possibilities are limitless, then protecting, equalizing, and regulating the net stand to be the next crucial frontier in the revolution its founders started.

Defining the Internet

Hover over a term in the article to see it defined here.

Internet Protocol (IP) Address:

A unique string of numbers separated by periods that identifies each computer using the Internet Protocol to communicate over a network. Every computer has its own IP address.

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Defining the Internet: A Glossary

5G:

The next generation of mobile network, an upgrade from the 4G LTE mobile network of today. 5G networks are expected to have always-on capabilities and be energy efficient, all of which will likely require new protocols and access technologies.

”The Cloud”:

Software and services that run on the internet instead of locally on your computer. Most cloud services can be accessed through a web browser, and some companies offer dedicated mobile apps.

Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL)

A family of technologies that transmit digital data over telephone lines.

Fiber optics:

Cables consisting of thin, flexible fibers with a glass core, through which light signals can be sent. Although fiber optics make up the physical backbone of the net, the vast majority of internet providers convert fiber to DSL, fixed wireless, or cable connections in order to get you connected.

”Flash crowd”:

A rapid increase in traffic to a given web server within a short time, resulting in a crash.

Internet Protocol (IP) Address:

A unique string of numbers separated by periods that identifies each computer using the IP to communicate over a network. Every computer has its own IP address.

Internet of Things (IoT):

The communication, via the internet, between computing, connected devices embedded in everyday objects that enables them to send and receive data.

Internet Service Provider (ISP):

A company that provides subscribers access to the internet.

Net neutrality:

The principle that internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.

Open-Air Optics, or Fiberless Optics:

An optical communication technology that transmits light, in free space, to wirelessly transmit data for telecommunications or computer networking.

Transmission Control Protocol (TCP):

A set of rules that governs the delivery of data over the internet or another network that uses the IP and sets up a connection between the sending and receiving computers.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs):

A service that lets you access the web safely and privately by routing your connection through a server, thereby hiding your online actions.

Web server:

Specialized computers that contain and serve content and websites.