The Internet's No Fun Anymore
January 2006

The Internet used to be enjoyable.  I started hosting web sites as a hobby about ten years ago, and began hosting email shortly after.  On and off I've even made an honest few bucks from it.  Mostly it's been fun.  The web sites are nearly all a joke, and the computers are my laboratory.  I love computers, and currently have about thirteen at home.  I never have to pay for heating!

Over the years there have been the usual hassles that plague sysops, be they ISP outages, the occasional hacker, the worm outbreaks, software bugs or whatever.  Nothing that a quick patch or standard firewall rules couldn't deal with.  But over the last couple of years, the spammers and other charlatans have turned the Internet into the digital equivalent of walking through the Times Square of the 1970s at 1 o'clock in the morning with your wallet hanging from your back pocket.

The Awakening

It started with junk email.  Well over 90% of the mail coming into my servers is junk.  The volume of spam nearly doubled this past Christmas and hasn't let up yet.  In order to preserve my sanity, my resources and my customers, a few years ago I had to invest in aggressive spam filtering software.

Then came the guest book abuse.  The same peddlers of illicit drugs, gambling sites, sex products and cheap gadgets began littering web site guest books and blogs with links to their wares, hoping to achieve more prominent visibility and ranking in search engines.  Now that the clever bastards have databases of guest book locations and scripts to automate their abuse, I had to re-write all my guest book pages to repel the barrage of attempts at littering my web site with unwelcome garbage.

Then while fishing through my web site logs recently I discovered that more than half of my site traffic now consists of hits to non-existent web pages, for no other purpose than to leave fake referrer URLs in my logs.  Apparently this is done in the hopes that I might publish my logs and thus help increase someone's page ranking in search engines.  Webtrends(tm) conveniently ignores all this garbage, and I don't publish my logs or statistics anyway.  What a waste!

Another quarter of my traffic seems to be probes, not so much for the usual software vulnerabilities (attack vectors for which my firewall repels at the rate of hundreds per hour) but attempts to find scripts to exploit, perhaps to turn my web server into a spam zombie or into a home for some spammer's or phisher's web site or other garbage.

The probes for open proxies and the tests for account names and passwords litter my mail server and web server logs, sometimes to the tune of thousands of attempts per day even on my fairly low-bandwidth connection.

If this were all just a matter of simple criminal mischief, the work of a few skilled hackers and a few groups of script kiddies, somehow it wouldn't seem so bad.  But it's not.  Not any longer.  The pimply faced, socially maladjusted little fuckwits who used to do shit like this just for fun and thrills, have realized they can make a fortune doing this for spammers.  Instead of hacking for the challenge, they're facilitating the criminal abuse being heaped upon the Internet community by spammers, phishers and other thieves.

This cannot be tolerated!

Imagine if everyone walking down your street walked up to the door of your home and tried to open the door and walk in, then tried to steal your identity or con you into buying contraband.  Now imagine people coming from countless miles around, all lining up to pick your locks or sneak in through the windows to take over your home or your business to set up their criminal enterprises.

That, folks, is the Internet of today.

Sounds sick, doesn't it?

In all of known history, anarchistic society has never been successful.  What made anyone think it would work on the Internet?

Can you imagine having to scrutinize every aspect of your postal mail before you even decide whether or not to open it?  Check the return address, check against a list of known people and businesses.  Check how the recipient was written.  Check the envelope.  Check the contents through an inspection light.  As absurd as this may sound, this is what everyone on the Internet must live with today when they receive email.

Back in May 2004 I wrote how use of the Internet should be licensed.  I believe this to be more true now than ever.  You can today buy a complete, high -quality desktop computer at your local discount store for less than five hundred dollars.  For two weeks of minimum-wage (USA) labor, absolutely anyone may own a PC that has as much computing power as a million dollars of computer equipment from just a decade ago.  Then they can plug it into a broadband Internet connection which, for as little as $29/month, is three times faster than a $1500/month connection from a decade ago.  It's like offering a ten year old boy the keys to a Ferrari and saying "see ya'!"

A computer is a tool, and like many other tools, can be dangerous in untrained hands.

The use of the Internet is so fraught with danger now that it can no longer be considered a right, but a privilege.

We need to institute proper training programs, including testing and licensing, before anyone is permitted to connect a PC to the Internet.

I think we even need mandatory liability insurance for everyone connecting to the Internet.

Internet Service Providers should be required to demand proof of liability insurance before signing on new customers.  Libraries and other free access areas would have to demand the same.  Free WiFi hotspots would have to challenge for credentials and consult an insurance database before permitting access.

We need to have laws.  Laws with teeth.  Sharp teeth.  Laws with such dire consequences that people who abuse the Internet are seen as a form of scum lower than child molesters.  We need people to know that when they are sent to prison for abusing the Internet, or for permitting abuse of the Internet, they will be subject to systematic abuse and violent rape episodes so horrible that even HBO would be too horrified to allow the stories to be portrayed.

We need laws that punish both the people providing the mechanisms for abuse AND the people who take advantage of those mechanisms, equally.

And what of current law enforcement?

This week's conviction of confessed bot herder Jeanson James Ancheta is "encouraging", but falls short of "exciting" because the prosecution hasn't gone after the people who paid to use Ancheta's bot-nets.  I'm also not getting too excited because I believe the only reason the feds went after Ancheta is because his software found its way onto the military's PCs.

So far there have only been a few convictions of hackers and spammers, and in spite of increased legal actions against spammers and adware companies, they remain belligerent and combative, even going so far as to sue the organizations that have categorized them.  This is the same measure of justice found when burglars injure themselves during break-ins and sue the owners of the premises they were robbing.  Clearly we in the Internet community have lots of work to do, to wrest back control of the Internet from the predators and criminals.

The phone company used to offer rewards for turning in phreakers (phone system hackers).  The SPA (now SIIA) offers huge rewards for ratting out software pirates.  Why aren't the ISPs or the FCC offering rewards for reporting hackers?

That's right - the FCC.  Why aren't they more involved in this?  In fact, why are they not involved in this AT ALL?  Why are they spending so much effort trying to rid radio and television of a few words - words which are absolutely harmless except for the fact that a handful of people find them distasteful - when an entire industry that they regulate and tax, has gone completely out of control and has caused millions of people constant fear and aggravation, loss of sometimes irreplaceable information, and literally billions of dollars in monetary losses?  I as an individual pay the FCC over $500 a year in taxes.  What am I receiving in return?  What are YOU receiving?

The government agencies seem convinced that the Internet is self-regulating.  Perhaps if we all get involved, it could be.  Thirty years ago when Citizen's Band radio spun out of control, the FCC sat around with their fingers up their collective asses then too.  Unruly participants became subject to vigilante justice and municipal law enforcement coyly stayed out of it.  "Antenna parties" and the like were almost commonplace, where fed-up CB'ers would band together, track down an offender and tear down his or her antenna.  Repeat offenders were subjected to increasingly damaging mischief and vandalism.  Violent confrontations were not completely unheard of.

Perhaps this is what the Internet needs to become viable again.

 


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