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map of the web

Plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth has accompanied the mostly closed door ITU sessions in which the fate of the free web is supposedly being decided. The global communications group’s head is worried about stopping cyberwarfare and criminals using spyware to pull off heists. The world’s authoritarians and dictators are asking for less online anonymity and more control over what’s being said on the web. The bureaucrats are asking for more centralized oversight on the international level, believing that U.S.-based ICANN to be the internet’s self-appointed masters, despite the ICANN hosting a global advisory board representing over 100 nations. And none of the parties involved in trying to reshape the internet seem to know what they’re doing, almost as if they believe that the global communication networks is a series of tubes they can re-rout with executive orders served to some nerds with gravity-defying ties and black-rimmed glasses. The truth is that whatever they try to do to tame the internet is almost certainly doomed to fail.

First, as it’s been pointed out several times on this blog, filtering and inspecting data generated by web users is impractical, expensive, and won’t catch what those administering the mechanism are trying to catch. Want to try to deep packet inspect all the traffic coming into an IXP? Best of luck there tiger. You will be looking at oceans of data, much of it containing completely useless information, data about background processes, and encrypted transactions. To find a nebulous target in this torrent of bytes is like standing in front of a tsunami and insisting on extracting just an ounce of water from it, and not just any ounce of water but from droplets that started out as a bit of meltwater flowing into a river across the ocean from you. Other than throttling down much of the web to a screeching halt as you parse petabytes of data per day, you’re going to have to give up on this idea. There’s a reason why dictatorships architect their internet infrastructure to easily cut the cord rather than surgically cut down the troublemakers. They know that trying to root out rebels and activists via deep packet inspection alone simply won’t work.

Secondly, you can demand that people use their real names on the web all you want, but there are tools to get around these requirements. Credentials can be spoofed, stolen, or hijacked by someone who has even a modicum of skill, proxies around the world can obscure your origin on the web, and it takes a very dedicated and expensive effort (like the Great Firewall of China) to even make it challenging to hide who you are online if you really don’t want to be tracked. If I run the Tor browser, disable scripts, cookies, and history, and refresh my identity on a regular basis during a browsing session, whatever sites I’m visiting will think I’m from Poland, or Norway, or the Czech Republic. Likewise, they won’t be able to see where I go since they can’t save cookies on my machine or silently load an app in the background via a hidden iframe since Javascript won’t be enabled. Yes, surfing the web like this is rough, but it does make you a lot harder to identify and find unless you’re already on the authorities’ radar for one thing or another, usually political activism outspoken enough to encourage a malevolent regime’s thugs to pay you a visit.

Finally, ICAAN is indeed powerful, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of internet management. It has a vast international advisory board and it handles top level domains and domain name issues; it’s the concierge for the user- and business-friendly aspect of the web. But without ICAAN, you can still have servers running websites. You might need to enter 74.125.224.72 to get to Google in IPv4 or say, 2001:4a2b:6d4f:8f3f in IPv6 to get there, or set up your own DNS server to do your own DNS resolution rather than rely on a large group of professionals to do it for you, but it can be done. In fact there’s a small number of other DNS root providers who index niche domains or try to circumvent the ICAAN roots for ideological and security reasons, essentially creating what amounts to a competing mini-web. So it’s not as if ICAAN has any real monopoly on how much of the web is wired. Likewise, what would controlling ICAAN do for the world’s paper pushers? Their governments can easily register any top level domain they wish for what amounts to a laughable amount of money for them: $185,000 to start and $25,000 a year to renew.

And all that leaves us with the question of what the ITU is trying to accomplish. If they can’t deep packet inspect the web for safety, force people to use their real names, and force the wasteful and unnecessary experiment of creating a non-U.S. ICANN clone, what’s the point of all the big, dramatic meetings? Well, bureaucrats have meetings. It’s just what they do. Their job is to meet and talk about things, then talk about other times they met to talk about related things. Policy is made either at the blistering pace of a narcoleptic turtle on sodium pentothal or cobbled on the fly when an emergency strikes and new laws have to be enacted quickly to soothe the public or authorize a new course of action. But in the meantime, the bureaucrats meet and talk with little to nothing coming out of the meetings. If anything, this ITU summit looks like paper pushers with a more or less passing idea of what the web is — not the internet mind you, just the web — giving each other their wish lists for what they could do with it. And let’s remember what happens with a lot of wish lists. They get discarded when the wishes actually have to be turned into reality.

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Not all woo is created equal and not all of it is dangerous to the same extent. Homeopathy may be a waste of your hard earned money but the only way it can harm you is if you take it instead of real medicine for a serious condition, and even homeopaths will often say that you should use proper medication along with their potions and sugar pills, you know, to cover their tails if the authorities start asking questions. Curses and hexes won’t exactly put anyone in harm’s way all by themselves, and fluffy New Age woo about biocentrism only results in scientific illiteracy and sounding as if one is regurgitating pseudoscientific buzzword salad. But when it comes to bad ideas that do carry some serious danger with them, conspiracy theories have to be way up there on the list. Why? Their most fervent followers aren’t just a nuisance online, but they also run the risk of losing plenty of money to those who prey on their paranoia and fuel people with a really frail relationship with our world to do bizarre and even heinous things while undermining global peace and stability on all too many occasions.

Let’s get one important thing out of the way right now. There are very real conspiracies in our world and there’s always some sort of deal going on in a backroom because someone wants to make money on unrest or use some political dilemma in developing nations to grab valuable resources from a corrupt regime. This is how many of the world’s shadier characters make a living, characters like arms dealers and mob bosses, as well as naively optimistic conglomerates which think they can simply jam into a potential new market to make an easy buck if they just pay off the right people without realizing that they’ll be bled dry by the end. However, just because shady characters are trying to divvy up the world into their fiefdoms with very mixed success, proof of some elite international cabal running the world for centuries and orchestrating every election, war, and crisis doesn’t get any better. So while adherents of New World Order conspiracy theories drum on the evidence from real secret deals and conversations and say that since we have proof of real conspiracies around the world it would be naive not to believe their pet theory, they’re still wrong. If anything, the past few years have shown the exact opposite of what they claim. None of the world’s leaders can seem to agree on much of anything and in the supposed era of multinational interests and global cooperation, the only thing most nations worry about is their own pocketbooks and across the world, nationalist and isolationist trends are on the rise.

With the Great Recession, the world had a taste of what globalization and multilateral economic connections can entail on the other end of the economic scale and it seems that quite a few decided they’d rather bow out and go home. The same attitude seems to pervade the American Tea Party, and to some extent, they have a point about globalization as it’s played out now: that some of its biggest benefactors cheat and no one really seems to be able to bring them back in line. Remember that the global agencies powerless to put an end to Chinese currency manipulation are supposedly able to bend entire continents to their whims. Well, they don’t want to bring anyone back in line because this serves their goal, conspiracy theorists reply. But why would an immensely powerful cabal want to make people miserable when it could just keep them content and give the world enough slack to plod along while they do all their scheming in the background? Why saddle the planet with huge financial crises rather than slowly devalue the same assets over time and snap them up later? All a global economic blowout does is raise people’s suspicion and ire. If today’s supposedly infinitely wise cabals of rulers and bankers is even trying to control public opinion, they’re doing a horrible job. Any New World Order worth its salt would do far more on the public relations front end and keep the populace quiet and comfortable while it unfolds its plots over a longer period of time with better and less noticeable results.

Today’s events seem like a pretty clear indication that the world isn’t ruled by a single nefarious group, but by short-sighted disarray that has nations jokey for position in countless competitions for leverage and money. It really is a lot less dignified and organized than a single organization with global pull, the kind weaved from a collection of disparate quotes, tales, and events, then used as a coping mechanism with the word’s natural state of anarchy, especially now, during a major realigning of the world’s politics after the Cold War has faded from many nations’ memories and in the wake of the United States’ mounting national debts. But tumultuous times are often met with conspiracy theories to somehow give meaning to bad ideas or meaningless events. One popular conspiracy theory in South Korea says that the Cheonean, the South Korean warship sunk by an attack from North Korea, was actually destroyed by friendly fire from the American Navy and covered up by the nation’s militant administration. Conspiracy theories in the Arab world have people looking for nefarious plots by the Mossad in everything from tagged vultures to sharks near a beach. And in the United States, decades and decades of political discourse were dominated by conspiracy theories that rage to this day. In fact, the more fanatical Tea Party and libertarian rallies are warning their attendants of a looming crackdown by an evil government and urging them to stockpile gold, survival gear, and weapons.

And again, none of this is new. It’s an old American tradition when we get right down to it, and it’s how people sometimes channel their feelings of being trapped in a situation form which there’s no escape. They build an enemy for themselves (the government or the alien / Mason / Illuminati / banker cabal) and come up with a rather important purpose (surviving the coming crackdown by the evil enemy) to feel like they’re actually working for a noble goal and trying to prevent their enemy’s sinister schemes. And it’s all harmless fun until someone who has a very deep-seeded need to really do something to make a statement decides to turn this resistance and angry rhetoric into violent action or decides to mix it with religion or pseudoscience and create groups we fear because of their propensity for both advocating and carrying out violence. Ironically, however, because we find ourselves demanding that our government protects us from secretive and violent groups, we might well be fueling even more conspiracy theorists and even more mentally unstable or violent people going off to join an ever growing variety of groups based around conspiracy theories gone too far…

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