Think for a moment of the enduring legacy of African slavery in America. Think of the way it tainted this country's culture and politics; think of the bloody Civil War, the ghettos and race riots after emancipation, the distorted interpersonal relations, the segregated housing patterns. What if we could roll back the clock and ensure that our society was “designed” so that slavery was never permitted and never happened?
Would you give me 20 million dollars to conduct research on that possibility? Would you think I was an honest man if I implied that my research would “fix” racism?
But what if I told you that my computer science lab was working on a “new Internet” that would solve all the terrible security and privacy problems of the existing one? Would you find this claim more credible than a proposed retroactive solution to the problem of slavery?
We all know that the Internet has problems. But the recent discourse around a new Internet, which reached its peak with a New York Times article by John Markoff a few weeks ago, seems to be based on similar false premises. I don't think it is unfair or too much of a stretch to suggest that the “we need a new Internet” folks are holding out the promise of a historical re-do.
The TCP/IP protocols were (as the Economist wrote about a decade ago) an “accidental information superhighway.” Society converged on the Internet as the basis for data communications because the information economy was at a critical juncture in its history. Personal computers were just beginning to spread. There were numerous competing technologies. Most of the serious contenders were proprietary standards. The 800 pound gorilla in this fight was IBM, and no one (save IBM itself) wanted it to dominate data communications with its proprietary protocols. Open source software communities or alternatives did not exist (or to put it more accurately, the Internet technical community was the first globally organized open source software development community). There was a pressing and immediate need for an open data communications standard. The OSI standards failed to meet that demand. So TCP/IP filled the gap. It became the victor in a global standards competition. We all converged on the protocols and benefited from the network effects.
It was a set of historical conditions that cannot ever be reproduced, that cannot ever be “done over.”
Any “new” standards for data networking will not occupy a virgin field, as TCP/IP did. It will have to intervene into a global economy deeply locked into the old TCP/IP Internet; it must overcome massive inertia and convince people to assume additional cost burdens associated with migration to a new standard. Technological improvements in the Internet protocols are possible, of course, but they can only be implemented on a piecemeal basis, as they piggyback on existing protocols and networks. Any realistic estimate of the time scales for such a migration process should be placed in the range of 30 – 50 years. If you don't believe me, look at the progress of the existing “next generation” Internet protocol, IPv6, which is on its second decade. This is a standard that comes from the same community and is an evolution of the existing internet protocols – not a radically new one.
One of the related fallacies of the “new Internet” argument is its assumption that the problems of Internet security are exclusively technological in origin and can only be fixed by changes in standards and protocols. But the stark fact is that there are known technological solutions to most if not all existing security breaches. The problem is that they are not implemented by people who don't know about them, or they are implemented incorrectly, or they are too costly, or they are incompatible with other applications or solutions. The same problems would face any new Internet protocols. And we haven't even mentioned the possibility that a new standard would be confronted with unanticipated security flaws.
So here's the punchline: people who say that we can fix the problems of the Internet by developing a “new” Internet are saying, in effect, that we can undo history and start over again. Well, heck, if we can do that, why concentrate on little problems like Internet security? Let's take on the big ones. Let's develop a “new Europe” and avoid the slaughter of World War 2; let's develop a new America and erase slavery.
Like it or not, there is no replacement of the old Internet with a new one. Promising it may be a great strategy for generating piles of government funding. But it ain't honest.