Winter is right around the corner, which means that in just a few months we’ll be swerving to avoid potholes caused by snow removal and cold weather. Maintenance of roads and public buildings is the responsibility of government. We expect potholes to be filled, new roads to be constructed and decaying buildings to be repaired and updated. But we don’t expect the same for another piece of critical infrastructure — the Internet.
In many ways the Internet is like a commuter rail — over the years, it has become a critical infrastructure, equally as integral to daily life as public transportation, roads and bridges. The Internet allows for just-in-time order fulfillment, stores records, and acts as an inexpensive and practical outsourcing of business functions. It provides cheap and convenient communication, connecting each of us with the rest of the world. The Internet makes our current economic and social life possible. So why don’t we expect the same level of care for the Internet? Although the Internet is similar to a commuter rail in that it provides indispensable public services, it isn’t publicly-owned like physical infrastructure. Although maintenance and investment is necessary, the Internet also poses several unique challenges for both public policy and for businesses dependent on the Internet’s growth.
As its name implies, the “Inter”net is a network of networks. Each constituent network can be made up of multiple networks and so on. Therein lies the major difference between the Internet and government sponsored infrastructure — no single governmental body is in charge of the Internet because the rules on the Internet are the rules of all the constituent networks. Those rules may not all be consistent. It’s not as easy as one township being responsible for the repairs to a sidewalk.
Another key difference between the Internet and physical infrastructure such as the commuter rail is that the Internet is astonishingly difficult to change — the Internet belongs to no one and to everyone at the same time. So in order to update core pieces of the Internet’s infrastructure, many different parties need to act. That means improvements must benefit all entities without wrecking the experience of everyone else. As you can imagine, this makes changes and amendments difficult. If we want a new security feature on the web, all the web servers and all the web browsers need to change. Millions of people all need to act individually. Otherwise, the feature isn’t fully deployed. Trying to make the Internet a safer, stronger place to do business isn’t an easy task.
Investing in the Future
While the Internet is arguably more complicated to fix than a commuter rail, finding a way to work around those hurdles is incredibly important.
First and foremost, outdated designs need to be updated to ensure security and efficiency. Aspects of the Internet’s design are showing their age as the way people use the Internet evolves. We no longer simply access the Internet from desktop computers, and more people are coming online than ever before. Over the last 20 years, the Internet has evolved from a small network of tech whizzes to the whole world. We hear constantly about hackers accessing sensitive information and governments that monitor citizens.
Yet the fundamental systems powering the web still reflect the decisions of engineers who were working in a friendly environment of peers. That’s why, for example, Domain Name System (DNS) lookups — which take place every time you look at a web page — have no privacy at all. Servers can build profiles of who is looking for what. Similarly, the global routing system depends on the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), which has no real protection against malicious or accidental interference. These issues affect us today, now that most Internet use involves a person interacting with a website or network service. And as we add more and more connected devices through the Internet of Things, the communication path becomes one between two machines — which opens up new outlets for attacks. As the Internet and how we interact with it evolves, we must invest in updating systems in order to secure and protect this resource.
This is especially important when we consider the “next billion” and the growing load of Internet traffic. According to a July 2015 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, mobile broadband penetration in the OECD area had increased from 72 percent to 81 percent. Just over four in five people in the OECD area have mobile broadband access and, in eight countries, there are more broadband subscriptions than people. As connected devices gain popularity, talk of the next billion Internet users has become common at both international development and marketing conferences. Cisco’s Visual Networking Index predicts that “global Internet traffic in 2019 will be equivalent to 66 times the volume of the entire global Internet in 2005.”
Potholes, old bridges, and rickety buildings all pose public safety hazards — and so does an outdated, unsafe Internet. Our traditional approaches to public infrastructure will not work in this always-on, increasingly connected world — a world in which users around the world are relying on the Internet for everything from healthcare, to text messaging, to travel.