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Monday, May 18, 2009

Can the internet be saved?

"Can the internet be saved?" you may ask. "The internet is in a stronger position than ever! There's no place to go but up!" You might be right to a degree. There's internet everywhere, in our personal lives, in our work, in our play, almost everything we do. There are technologies that are becoming rapidly obsolete (hello, phone books), and tons of new uses that weren't even considered back when two scientists decided it would be pretty cool to link up two computers and see what they did.

However, the internet is in peril.

In this article, we'll enumerate some of the problems that the internet faces and why they're so big. Maybe in another article we'll have some solutions, but these problems are all bigger than me and require some much more intelligent minds.

1) Something for nothing.

Are you reading this blog? Shame on you. You're reading content without paying for it and enjoying my hard work without sending me one red cent.

Don't take me seriously, of course. However, one day I would like to be a professional writer. I would like to get paid for my thoughts and reporting on things I find interesting. However, newspapers are dying, so that's not a stable place to be. Most websites, like CNN, are free and ad-supported, but no one clicks on ads. Add-ons like Adblock for Firefox remove all but the most stealthy ads. On top of that, hosting is expensive. Who's going to end up paying for all of it?

Every time a site tries to do something to raise money, they get pilloried. Think of ESPN Insider, the service that blocks people out from reading columns from major columnists unless they're a member of the service. Many have said that Insider was the worst thing to happen to ESPN ever. Why? Because something that was once free is now pay-only.

It's a symptom of a larger problem: How do you charge for something that was once free without getting obliterated in a free market?

2) Bandwidth hogs.

I download torrents. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I love watching How I Met Your Mother and Lost without commercials. I love watching older shows without having to plunk down cash for DVDs. I'm also part of a big, big problem.

Every time you download a torrent, you're pushing your connection into overdrive. You're pushing it harder than 90% of connections, as a matter of fact. What about services like Netflix? Same thing. They're using the full force of your internet connection to deliver a product down to your system.

ISPs have tried enforcing bandwidth caps, but the result is always the same: Large, very public outcry, and the ISP caves. If every ISP put up the same caps at the exact same time, then customers would be forced to adopt them, but all it takes is one ISP to reject the plan and we're back to square one.

3) Smut.

How easy is it to get porn on your computer? As anyone who has spent any amount of time on the internet can tell you, frighteningly easy. Some people don't mind this. I'm not one of those people.

I don't have kids yet, but someday I will. The internet is one of the greatest inventions of mankind, and I want my children to use it as much as they can. It's a big world, and the internet makes it a little smaller for all of us. However, I'm in the same boat that a lot of current and prospective parents are: How do I keep the bad stuff away from my kids while still allowing them to learn about the world around them?

There are filters that can be applied, and operating systems like Windows Vista make it easier than ever. Trouble is, there are more sites now than ever, and the porn industry is growing exponentially. How can a filter keep up? Sooner or later, something is going to slip through the cracks (no pun intended). What can be done?

4) Reluctance to switch to IPv6.

Most people don't think about this, but everything online has an address. Every computer, every phone, every router and every network backbone has its own address. Even toilets that get hooked up to Twitter have an address. So how many addresses are available for the internet? A little over four billion, actually.

"Well, that sounds great! We'll never fill that many addresses up!" There are certainly a huge amount of addresses available, but then you must consider that there are seven billion people on Earth and counting. So far, there are only a few countries that are heavily wired to the internet, and countries like China and India are catching up fast. That's two billion people between just those two countries.

The next step is IPv6, a method of addressing that allows for trillions of addresses. You would think that network administrators would be excited to make the switch for the future health of the internet, but that's not really the case.

There are a couple of reasons that it's prohibitive. One, it's expensive and time-consuming. EVERYTHING is addressed with the old style of addressing, IPv4. The amount of man-hours that it would take to get it all v6 compliant is staggering. Two, it's not necessary yet. Humanity has a habit of not addresssing problems until there's no more choice. Network administrators may look different than the rest of us, but they share many of the same characteristics of normal humans. They're not going to invest all of their time getting something done that doesn't need it yet.

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There are a lot of horror stories about what will happen to the internet with the advent of streaming video and other network drains. "Oh no, in FIVE YEARS the internet will be slower than dialup AND we'll all have to wear loincloths AND we'll all die of Ebola or H1N1! Maybe both!" While these things may never come to pass, the internet faces some real issues that will take a lot of thought to sort out.

That's not to say there aren't solutions, and there are people hard at work on them right now. Let's hope they find them soon.