Vol. 13, No. 3,24 - The American Reporter - September 4, 2007

On Media

by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif

Printable version of this story

LOS ANGELES -- Imagine a highway system where people make their own license plates and change them as often as they want. Thieves abound. Hit and run goes unpunished. Few get caught because it is hard to trace them. That's what the Internet is like nowadays. Somehow the Digital Superhighway has become the Devil's Driveway, more like some post-nuclear holocaust novel than that idealistic portrait of educational opportunity the visionaries hoped we would all experience.

What inspires this topic, strangely enough, is an article that appeared on that usually most political of Internet resources, the Washington Monthly Website (www.washingtonmonthly.com). Kevin Drum is the site's guru and lead author. Adept at all manner of political analysis but lacking, apparently, the knowledge-base of your average professor of computer science, he found himself unable to rescue his mother's computer from the malady now commonly referred to as "spyware."

Drum was inspired to raise the topic on his Website in response to a Los Angeles Times piece by Terry McDermott (Nov. 26: "Breaking, Entering Your PC"). McDermott had endured a similar ordeal in which unwanted software more or less took over his computer and made his on-line life miserable.

Drum and I both like the way McDermott explained how he became familiar with the wonders of this new digital millennium. Here is a slightly truncated version of the defining statement:

I found links for Lycos and clicked on one. That was the beginning. Within minutes, my computer was swamped with advertisements - pop-ups, pop-unders, pop-all-overs. There were so many I couldn't close them before others started appearing. I had to shut the computer down.

Drum explained that his mom's computer suffered a similar problem. Unlike most of us, he was able to call on his loyal readership for help, and they responded. For Times author McDermott, help came in the form of an Internet Website that serves to unite knowledgeable volunteers with the digitally afflicted. For both, the cure involved the use of software probes to find and remove the software that had been unwittingly allowed to be installed on the machines. In addition, they were steered to several pieces of software that help to prevent the problem from recurring. Drum mentions that he was also instructed to replace the nearly-ubiquitous Web browser Internet Explorer for a different version called Firefox.

The Washington Monthly site allows for comments to be submitted by readers. In this modern Internet world, you don't have to put it on paper and mail it in. You just have to type inside the little box on their Web page.

As of this writing (two days after Drum's column first appeared), there are 218 comments. In the aggregate, they provide in microcosm the common wisdom - much of it wrong - about what is good and bad about the current medium of communication we call the Internet. As happens so often, the self-appointed pundits generally missed the forest for the trees, as we shall discuss below. But first, a little about what was submitted by the Monthly's readers.

You can look at it yourself, but to spare you the effort of reading what now amounts to more than 39,000 words, much of it redundant, I will summarize the main points made: There are several programs that every PC user should get and use religiously in order to keep his machine clean. No, get a Mac instead. Mac users are like a cult and PC's are just as good. Everybody using the Internet should be using a router and a firewall. OK, but Macs don't get viruses, worms or spyware. For PC's, there are several choices of software that will help to reduce spyware. Why bother with this when there are no known viruses and essentially no spyware for Macs? What's the matter with you guys anyway, repeating this silly Mac vs.. PC argument that has been going on for years now?

And so on. The fur flew. People who wouldn't know a NAND-gate from endoplasmic reticulum debated authoritatively on the relative merits and vulnerabilities of computer operating systems that by now are so complex that few humans understand them at all, and fewer understand well.

The Mac vs. PC argument provides for countless hours of amusement, but it has been done to death by everyone who cares a whit about the subject. It is of interest in this context only because so many of the participants dusted off their cudgels and bashed either Microsoft or Apple while ignoring some significant other issues.

Curiously, nobody thought about the basic structure of the Internet, that it was not designed to do what it is being asked to do nowadays. Nobody even thought to mention the clumsy language that is used to create Web pages. Nobody commented on the system's flaws where it comes to identifying the sources of fraudulent e-mails.

Without going into a massive dissertation on the subject, I think it is safe to assert that a system designed to be used by a few users who all knew each other was not sufficiently redesigned to deal with security issues involving anonymous email senders by the tens of thousands.

As to the Washington Monthly comments, what was missing in those tens of thousands of words was any thought about our underlying assumptions of the Internet. Why must the Internet allow malicious users to remain anonymous? They spam us with millions of emails, but only a few have ever been convicted in court. The inadequacies of the Internet protocols (the rules that tell your Internet provider how to route your messages) make it extremely difficult to track down the people who send spam. It can be done, but it takes time and effort.

Compare this to the telephone system. If you make a long distance call, the phone company records it and sends you a bill. The sender (you), the recipient and the company all know who each other are.

The inability to identify email senders has its counterpart in terms of Website addresses. Criminals have become quite adept at creating counterfeit Web pages that look like your bank's on-line site, even as they spam you demanding your credit card information and your social security number.

Here's the curious thing. The Internet in its modern form has been around for about a decade, yet one and all, the Washington Monthly commentators treated it as if it had been carved on stone tablets and handed down from on high. And today, academic researchers and other super-users have the Next Generation Internwet, a faster, spam-free Internet limited to universities, corporations and the government. What we need here at home is an Internet remade, and Internet II, that will offer home and small-business users the same beenfits.

Internet I didn't have to be the way it is. With a little more foresight, it could have been designed to prevent spam and discourage using it for criminal purposes.

What about the spyware issue? From the standpoint of the naive user (the vast majority of us), the problem comes about from clicking on some link in some Web page that promises something good. In the case of McDermott, it involved looking for search engines that are better at handling variations on names. Fair enough. If they offer it, that's what you should get, and without malicious tampering of your operating system.

The problem for McDermott and Drum, not to mention for me and most of you, is that we have no idea what that click is really going to do when we make it. It could open a page of useful search engines, or it could install programs that barrage us with unwanted pop-up ads, or in the worst cases, it could install a virus that wipes our hard drives.

Yes, the ability to withstand malicious software attacks is partly a function of the operating system, which is where that Mac vs. PC argument comes in. (I side with the "get a Mac" crowd for the most part but know lots of PC users who seem to do fine.)

What is missing from the discussion is all the other parts of the whole giant interconnected system that includes the internet, your computer, and millions of other computers that can send you messages. Is there some technical fix that can filter out the damaging code that comes with spyware? Should there be laws to regulate spyware itself? Is there something that we can do right away to reduce all the digital-electronic hassle we endure?

For example, the language that creates the Web page you are reading is remarkable for its lack of elegance. Web designers have routinely had to check their work on several browsers because often enough, different browsers interpret the code known as HTM (Hyoer Tex Markup Language) differently. New versions of the language come out from time to time, but it is like coming up with better designs for the rotary telephone or the coal-fired locomotive.

We ought to be thinking seriously about what Internet II is going to look like. I would like to see a system in which spam is a thing of the past. I would like to see a system in which Web pages (if we still use this concept) can be written in more adaptable languages so that they download ten times as quickly and look exactly like their designers wish them to look. I would like to see an Internet that is not the highwayman's dream.

Then again, I would also like to see Macs as cheap as PC's and PC's that work as well as Macs, but that would be comment number 219 on Kevin Drum's page.

Copyright 2007 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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