Davos07: Who controls the internet

I’m sitting in the front row for a panel on internet governance with future guy Paul Saffo, internet godfather Vint Cerf, Oxford Jonathan Zittrain, John Markoff, ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Toure, and Michael Dell. Yes, Michael Dell (more on that later; I met him last night). And yes, I have my Mac laptop open. Liveblogging a bit…..

Markoff says that “unless we find a way to police the commercial internet, it won’t survive…. (or) we’ll have to walk away from the internet and leave it like you’d leave a bad neighborhood.” That is, he fears for attacks on servers from around the world. He says that we have “a thriving security industry that sells fear” but that has not done a good job protecting consumers. He talks about pirated copies of Vista coming with trojans and about botnets; Cerf adds that there may be more than 100 million machines ensnared in this giving the bad guys supercomputers, as Markoff says. He talks about malware that took up to 15 percent of Yahoo’s search to grab the random text that is going into the current wave of spam to get it through the filters. Markoff is asked whether policing is the right metaphor; Cerf says others call it a fire department and the goal is still to put out the fire. Toure says this needs a global response. So the metaphor shifts to pandemics and vaccinations.

Cerf adds that “in spite of all the turmoil… the internet seems to be working, it’s a very resilient system.” He says it’s not just the net that needs work but also the operating systems that allow hackers to dig deep into them to do bad.

Dell says that the internet is largely anonymous “but the question has to be asked, as these issues and challenges escalate into ever more disruptive and vexing problems can this continue to be an almost completely anonymous system.” Cerf replies that there are good reasons to authenticate and validate (e.g., servers, domains) and that they can build a more refined structure. “Anonymity has its value and also its risks.” He says he reminds us that the United States was built on anonymous tracts.

Asked to give good news, Dell jokes that he has was to get that spam to you faster. He says there are two big opportunities. One is the unused spectrum that will be freed up in the shift to digital TV and opens up new communication and devices. The other is fibre, where the U.S. is behind. “We think of that is the real broadband.”

Zitrain gives a typically cogent explanation of where we are: from the whimsy of the start of the internet to the hard reality of security invasions that are too great to count. He says it is like the days of the old phone network when the means of communication are the same as the means of control, allowing hackers to break in with a Cap’n Crunch whistle. Zittrain is worried about the world of information appliances tethered to their makers, allowing central control of our devices. He says that the solutions will come, “similar to global warming,” by finding ways to track what is happening to our environment.