Licensing the Internet

Society has always been quick to license and regulate things which have become commodities.  Sometimes it's just the sick, persistent need for the government to cash in, by sucking the life blood from its citizens and taxing things they can't do without.  Sometimes it's for the good of the citizens, to fairly parcel out that commodity, or to keep it from being abused or from posing a danger to other citizens.

We regulate alcohol and cigarettes, restricting their use to people who supposedly are older enough to estimate their dangers.  We regulate motor vehicles and roads, requiring driving skill tests, liability insurance and equipment inspections.  We regulate the airwaves, not just to divvy up the spectrum and prevent interference but even to restrict the content.  We regulate and license firearms, to varying success.  In fact, we regulate and license HUNDREDS of everyday things from agriculture and business practice to water use and wildlife.

The Internet has become an increasingly critical tool for business, education and everyday living.  It is being used for education and research, email and facsimile, voice and data communications, retail and wholesale commerce, recreation and entertainment, distributed computing and more.

So why hasn't the Internet undergone regulation?

Disable the Internet for a day and see what happens.  Billions of dollars in business stalls, homework languishes, and hundreds of thousands of highly paid technicians stop everything they were doing, trying hard as they can to fix the problems and fend off angry customers.  The problem is, this isn't just a hypothetical situation.  Maybe not the entire Internet of course - at least not yet.  But to an extent this has already happened several times.

Currently, anyone with nearly any kind of computer can connect to the Internet.  Thanks to the ubiquitous AOL CDs with offers of hundreds of free hours online, even money is no longer needed.  Anyone with a PC and a telephone can go on-line.  No instruction or training is necessary, and the computer is not required to survive any inspection or to meet any standards.  It only has to function well enough to successfully load the software.

There are tools available today for most computer operating systems that makes software patching and maintenance simple, quick and even automatic.  Yet most people are oblivious to those tools and to their urgent requests for attention.  Nobody knows or even cares what that blinking icon is in their system tray, much less what a system tray is.

Keeping a computer's software up-to-date is crucial to ensuring that the Internet experience is a good one.  Viruses and worms are not just a nuisance - they impair the speed of your Internet connection, impede your work, endanger the files you save, endanger your privacy, facilitate the clutter of spam accumulating in everyone's email, permit nearly anonymous criminal mischief, and increase those same risks to everyone else using the Internet.

Isn't anyone paying attention?

On this date both the Internet and mainstream news services are reporting on the progress of the latest Internet worm, called "Sasser".  You would have to be an utter imbecile or living in a shack deep in the woods of Wyoming not to have heard about it.   The patches for the Windows operating software vulnerability that "Sasser" attacks, were released weeks ago.  There were plenty of warnings that this could be a bad one.  Microsoft even took the step of sternly warning everyone it could reach, imploring them to make sure all of their Windows PCs were current with all the available security patches.

Yet in spite of all the publicity and all the warnings and all the friendly persuasion, "Sasser" and its mutant variants are gaining momentum and are infecting millions of computers around the globe.  Clearly, millions of people simply aren't paying attention.

A handful of these victims are computers belonging to businesses too mired in bureaucracy and ignorance to keep up with the technical challenges of maintaining their systems, and some others have simply gone ignored or ill-maintained by consultants who have not achieved sufficient prowess to do their jobs properly.  The overwhelming majority of the infectious traffic is generated by home computers, however.

The volume of worm and virus traffic on the Internet has reached such huge levels that you can take a brand new PC out of its carton, plug it into a cable modem, boot it up, and by the time you've logged into Windows that PC could already be infected.  You wouldn't even have time to download the latest patches!

We need at least two categories of Internet licensing.  A good example may be how the states and provinces have a certification process for driving instructors as well as a testing and licensing process for drivers.  We need to be able to ascertain the competency of the engineers, technicians and consultants in charge of connecting equipment to the Internet, and we need to establish baseline computer literacy for the users of that computer equipment so that it can be sufficiently maintained after installation.  A multi-tiered approach could even be considered, requiring a higher standard of knowledge for people with broadband connections versus people on dial-up.

This would be a great opportunity for the FCC for example, which long ago lost its sense of purpose and forgot about its charter entirely.  They already closely regulate telephones and despite blatantly ignorant press to the contrary, they tax the living crap out of Internet access.  Their approval is required for nearly every electronic device sold in the United States.  The money is there.  Let's get the FCC to stop being mindless puppets of the conservatives and the religious right, have them stop torturing Howard Stern and his ilk, and get them to focus on transforming the Internet from the digital wild west to the secure, reliable medium it has the potential to be.  Forget about content, for crying out loud, and get back to FACILITY.

Along with licensing will be mandatory education, federal standards or an equivalent, and an enforceable penalty system for people who fail to comply.  Hopefully this can set an example for other countries to follow.  It's especially important for countries with widespread broadband Internet access, and for countries whose Internet capability bears more formidable computing power, since those two factors permit the worms to propagate faster.

Let's see if this is one genie that we can stuff back into the bottle!

We also need the distribution channels involved.  By the time most PCs get from the factory to the desktop, they require many megabytes worth of patches in order to be safe and protected.  This goes for Linux as well as Windows.  Likewise, if you're upgrading or installing the operating system yourself, you are vulnerable to infection during the time between bringing up the operating system for the first time and downloading and installing the myriad patches.

Installation media should be available from all vendors that have the operating system not just with major service packs and kernel updates included, but with every last patch streamlined.  And vendors need to be able to get the patches streamlined onto the hard drives immediately before they reach the customers.

 


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