The Internet, we are told, is doubling every 12 to 18 months. That may be great news for companies like
America Online and CompuServe, who are seeing their numbers grow to levels that would have been
simply unimaginable just a few years ago. That same boom also feeds the sales of companies such as
Cisco Systems and Livingston, that make the hardware that holds the network together. Then, of course,
there are the wunderkinds of Netscape, who seem to have created a $5 billion company on the perception
that the Internet is going to keep growing the way that it has.
But there is a funny mathematical result of having the 'net's population double every year: It means that half of the people on the network have less than a year of experience. Most people are newbies, electronic virgins. And just like in high school, where it was difficult to separate the myths about sex from the straight dope, the newest members of the world's electronic communities are hearing myths and rumors about the Internet and repeating them as if they were the God-honest truth.
Indeed, many of the myths of the Internet have been repeated so many times, by so many people, that many Internet old-timers feel as if they are standing in a hall of mirrors. There are just so many half- truths, being repeated by so many different people, that it's hard to remember just what's what.
1. The Internet was developed to survive a nuclear war.
Untrue! The Internet, as we know it today, was developed by a bunch of companies in the late 1980s that wanted to commercialize packet-switch technology and offer a commercial TCP/IP network to the public, but were stymied by the Acceptable Use Policy of the National Science Foundation. The Inter-Net[work] was actually a set of interconnections among the existing TCP/IP networks of the time.
But weren't the basic TCP/IP network protocols, and the very idea of packet-switching, developed to allow the military to communicate after a global disaster? Wrong again. Original packet network protocols (which bear a relationship to TCP/IP the way a child is related to great-grandparents), were designed to be resistant to momentary interruptions in military communications, the kind that might happen if a bridge carrying a telephone line gets blown up, but they weren't designed to protect against total destruction of the network's control center.
It doesn't make that much sense, from a military point of view, to design a network that will still function after all of the generals who are supposed to use it have been vaporized. The designers of the Internet knew that different technologies, such as burying their control centers inside mountains or flying them on aircraft, would better protect them against nuclear calamities.
As for the researchers who were actually building the network itself... the real reason that they built the network was so they could exchange electronic mail on the SF-LOVERS mailing list, and telnet to the computers that had good games such as Adventure and Doctor.
2. The Internet is the World Wide Web.
Not true, according to companies such as First Virtual, who are actually trying to make money by selling things on the network. Al- though people who have Web browsers on their desktops are tempted to think that graphics and text are the be-all, end-all purpose of the information infrastructure, many of the countries that are connected to the "world wide" Web are using it for e-mail and little else.
Of course, if you simply look at the raw numbers, then it is true that most of the users on the Internet have access to the World Wide Web. But that's because most of the users of the Internet are in the United States. So perhaps we should start calling the Web the United States Wide Web, but USWW doesn't have quite the same ring to it.
3. The Internet is multi lingual.
Tell it to the French! Alas, English is the language of the Internet, and it is not likely to change much in the near future. Although it is true that increasing numbers of documents are available in some foreign languages by clicking your mouse, the overwhelming amount of the network's content is written in English. And not the Queen's version, but Uncle Sam's.
The reason has a lot to do with development of the computer industry itself. Most of the world's programming languages were designed and developed in the United States, as is most of the world's software. All of the Internet standards and protocols -- the god-given RFCs -- are written in English as well. Until this year, knowing English, at least a little of it, was a prerequisite of being on the Internet. Writing in English has been a requirement if you are interested in making your documents intelligible to the Internet's masses.
This point was made dramatically clear to me a few weeks ago, when I was working with a Japanese technical writer on the translation of my book PGP: Pretty Good Privacy (O'Reilly & Associates, 1995). The translator, it turns out, speaks English better than most Americans I know. He's found grammatical errors, factual errors, and typographical errors that slipped past me, my editor, the publisher's production department and most of our readers. Without that command of our language, he would never be able to survive in the new electronic world.
4. Cryptography can protect your privacy. Encryption for credit-card numbers is necessary to protect the consumer.
Cryptography is a mathematical technique for scrambling information so that it can only be understood by the intended recipient. It's been heralded as a tool for protecting our privacy in the networked future. While it's true that good cryptography can protect phone calls from wiretaps and electronic mail from eavesdropping, it's not true that cryptography can protect people's privacy. That's because most people don't lose their privacy due to wiretaps and electronic mail intercepts. As far as I'm concerned, most of the times that people have read damaging electronic mail from me, it's been because I mailed the message to a somebody, who then forwarded it to somebody else. Credit reporting firms like Equifax and TRW survive by selling your personal information to as many buyers as possible. Cryptography simply can't protect against intentional disclosure by an authorized recipient.
What about encrypting credit-card numbers, so they can't be sniffed by network hackers? Although such network sniffing is a concern, the only reported case of stolen credit-card numbers on the Internet was the result of a hacker breaking into a computer and stealing a file from an accounts-payable system -- not from lifting the card numbers in mid-flight. But the fact is that U.S. law limits the liability of consumers to just $50 in the event of a stolen credit card, and to $0.00 if the merchant fails to obtain a signature, but simply sells something over an 800-number. The real truth is that encryption isn't designed to protect consumers -- it's designed to protect the credit card companies.
5. The Internet isn't run by anybody.
Guess you've never heard about Network Solutions Inc. If NSI reprogrammed their computers, everybody's electronic mail addresses and World Wide Web pages would suddenly stop running. Network Solutions runs the Internet's name servers, the computers that orchestrate the process that changes strings of letters, such as "www.vineyard.net," into the numerical IP addresses used on the Internet (in this case, 126.96.36.199). That's why there was such an outcry when NSI started charging $100 to Internet providers last year for new domains: It was as if Caesar had just instituted a head tax.
6. The reason that encryption isn't available is because of the U.S. government.
This is what many companies would have you believe. Unfortunately, the real answer is more complicated. The U.S. government's restriction on encryption only affects the sale of software overseas -- not what can be sold in this country. Indeed, the so-called DES and Triple DES algorithms, which offer substantial security, have been available in this country since the mid 1970s. Most companies don't use these algorithms because the majority give more than lip service to computer security than they are willing to invest in terms of time and money to properly integrate cryptography with their products.
7. The United States could never regulate the Internet.
People who believe that the laws of our great country could never put an end to pornography or sexually-explicit material on the information superhighway have a fundamental misunderstanding of the way our legal system works. With a few notable exceptions, the effect of laws is to make it incredibly difficult to engage in illegal action; police and courts are supposed to act as deterrents for the few fools who try to buck the system, rather than a club designed to keep everyone in line.
If Congress would wake up tomorrow and pass a law making it illegal to use the world "xylophone" in cyberspace, President Clinton would not have to hire 100,000 new cybercops. Instead, the administration would partner with network providers and software firms and make it impossible for the world "xylophone" to get onto the 'net in the first place. We would see world processors modified to detect and delete the word "xylophone" as it was typed. Internet Service Providers who would have their own xylophone monitors, in order to avoid the heavy fines that would come from harboring the forbidden word. And then there would be the bouty hunters -- self-appointed Žnet vigilantes searching the for the word, so that they could sue folks who used it in civil court and collect damages.
Yes, it would be hard to regulate the Internet. But it would fundamentally be no harder than regulating the production of food, the construction trades or free speech over the nation's radio waves. Of course, such regulations could not be perfectly enforced, just as this country's prohibition on drugs is not perfectly enforced. But people would moderate their actions andrestrict their liberty in order to avoid the penalties proscribed by law. And that's what regulation is, isn't it?
8. The Internet can't be shut down.
Guess you haven't used it lately. In my experience, large chunks of the network are down all the time, the result of some software crash or hardware failure. If all of the engineers and trouble-shooters went on a cruise for more than a few days, there wouldn't be any network for them to come back to.
9. The Net is running out of bandwidth and getting slowed down.
The Internet is already out of bandwidth, and it doesn't matter. That's because the amount of bandwidth on the Internet isn't limited. It's not like the amount of water-front property in San Francisco. Bandwidth can be built, and Internet service providers are steadily increasing the amount of bandwidth on their electronic backbones. In the mid-'80s, most of the 'net was linked together with 56K leased-lines. Then, most of the network upgraded to T1 links, offering a phenomenal 1.544 mbits/sec. That was really fast! Today, there are growing numbers of T3 links, that can deliver data at a peppy 45 mbits/sec. But T3 isn't the limit. Much of the backbone is switching to ATM, technology that delivers data at speeds in excess of 150 mbits/sec. For its millions of users, the Internet's bandwidth simply can't hold a candle to the amount of information moved by the nation's telephone system. Since the Internet links and teleco lines use the same fundamental technology, it doesn't look like we are going to run out.
10. Modems are going to get faster and faster.
It's true that there's no fundamental limit to how fast information moves through copper wires -- after all, T1 channels use copper wires, and they move data at a zippy 1.544 megabits a second. The problem is that the nation's telephone system has been going digital in the past decade. When you talk on the phone, your voice is actually digitized by a computer at the phone company's central office. The digitization rate is 64 kilobits a second. Your voice then moves in digital form over the phone company's fiber-optic system until it reaches the end, where your voice is turned back into analog signals before hitting the last mile of copper. Because of some weirdness in information theory, the absolute limit to analog lines on today's phone system is 32 kbits/sec. ISDN lines only work faster because they eliminate this analog/digital conversation.
11. The Internet is really not that complicated.
If true, then why are decent network consultants able to pull down $150/hour without any problem? The fact is that the Internet is exceedingly complicated, and it is getting moreso. The reasons are legion: Everybody's computer is slightly different, so network software that works properly on one PC or Mac crashes another machine. Every Internet Service Provider has slightly different software, because most have written their own rather than buying standard packages. Businesses have their own network lore and procedures -- little of which is written down. Nothing is properly documented, and things are changing all the time.
The Internet is a growing, living thing. It is constantly becoming more complicated in order to satisfy the users who want to use it for more extensive purposes. A few years ago, you could master the Internet from the terminal application built into Microsoft Windows 3.1. These days, you need a PPP stack and Netscape, Eudora, and Agent. By the time you read this article, you'll need to upgrade your software so that you can hear RealAudio broadcasts and view Java applets. Stay in tune or get left behind. Anybody who thinks that the Internet isn't all that complicated isn't using the Internet.