photo by James Cridland
Years before most Americans had heard of the Internet, they were going online - literally, on their phone lines - via dial-up computer services.
I am old enough to remember using these services to read newspaper articles. You could get The New York Times on CompuServe, as well as the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch from CompuServe’s hometown. We also used it for chat groups (all of which were moderated, usually by volunteers, who went under the techie term “sysops” for system operators), electronic mail, and for searching for information and downloading files, even before the days of the World Wide Web. If you needed a killer cheesecake recipe, CompuServe was your go-to.
Since I am old enough to remember CompuServe, so is Donald Trump. I can’t say whether he ever used it, of course, but when he talks about closing part of the Internet to prevent access by bad people who want to do bad things, he isn’t being stupid, crazy or technically ignorant. He is simply proposing to apply a principle to online activity that we all use elsewhere in our everyday lives: Know the party with whom you are dealing.
It isn’t technically impossible. It would, however, require a fairly radical overhaul of how today’s Internet works, and that in turn would require leadership by a party whose intentions and credibility are above suspicion. Before Edward Snowden and other disclosures of the breadth of our surveillance state, that party might once have been the Internet’s original developer, the U.S. government. Now that is far from a sure thing. But finding some trusted and trustworthy party, domestically or among our allies - either in the public or private sector - ought not to be an insurmountable problem.
It was possible to talk to strangers on CompuServe, but they were only strangers to you. CompuServe knew who they were. This lack of anonymity prevented a lot of today’s problems. There were no African princes seeking to share great wealth with CompuServe users who sent them some front money. No Russian hackers were known to plant malware and extort ransom in exchange for deactivating it. Terrorist groups might have been able to use the service to communicate among themselves, but the communications would not have been secure, and there would have been no practical way of recruiting naive strangers to their cause without observation by a sysop.
To access CompuServe, you had to first establish an account and authenticate yourself with a server that was the system’s gateway. You already do that today with your Internet service provider’s connection. But once your ISP plugs you into the Internet, anyone from anywhere in the world who is similarly connected potentially has access to your device, whether you want to grant that access or not. No central computer server acts as an intermediary among Internet users the way CompuServe’s computers served as intermediaries among its users.
When people criticize Trump’s comments about closing off parts of the Internet, what they generally mean is that he makes it sound as if we have control of the entire decentralized mass that makes up what we call “the Internet” today. Yet politicians, both at home and abroad, have exerted their will on the Internet before, either through controlling access within their own borders or pressuring private companies to disrupt terrorists who may be using their services.
Basically, what Trump calls for is an internet, with a small “i,” confined to trusted users who would gain access through a central gateway that authorizes and authenticates them. In Trump’s view - and in mine - no terrorists need apply to such a network. Neither, in my opinion, need anyone located in countries where law enforcement is not cooperative and aggressive in rooting out wrongdoers. This will eliminate Russia and a number of other locations. I am fully aware that using this Internet 2.0 will prevent me from having access to users or content from those places. I can live without it.
Encryption and privacy will be a significant concern. Will the new service support or permit today’s more powerful encryption to prevent its own central operators from monitoring content? Do we want it to do that? It is possible that countries with stricter privacy rules than ours might find a system designed in America unacceptable for their citizenry, which would be their right.
I do not imagine that the Internet in its current form is going to disappear, at least not anytime soon, but at least we can have a safer alternative for those who want to use it. And we can focus security and law enforcement attention on those who choose not to do so.
There is room for debate over how to improve Internet security, but there is hardly any room on the question of whether security needs to be improved. Trump’s idea, if not elegant in the technical sense, is not intrinsically wrong. We ought not to dismiss it out of hand.