The True Danger Of The Internet: What Occurs To Us

The most interesting aspect of cyberspace is not what happens for a time to its visitors. It’s not the absence of regulation nor the presence of perfect regulation; it’s not the staggering variety of content nor the sudden arbitrariness of geography; it’s not the constant threat of surveillance nor the occasional absence of accountability. The most interesting aspect of cyberspace flows from its status as an engine of realization: cyberspace widens the range of what we think of as possible. The Web is home to phenomena that never quite happened before—not because the technology was untenable, but because no one thought to do it. The importance of cyberspace is not what occurs to you when you visit; it’s what occurs to you.

If you’ve visited Google’s physical campus in Mountain View, you likely noticed that the sign in procedure amounts to a click-wrap. Google requires that you accept a non-disclosure agreement, presented on monitors by the front door, before it will print you a visitor pass. It occurred to the Internet giant that it could treat its campus like an Internet service by requiring visitors to click-through a terms of use at the entry portal. This generates a record that you either agreed to play by the rules, or you were trespassing.

This is hardly an isolated example.

A central reason online ads continue to gain on traditional ads is because they allow for sophisticated targeting and analytics. You can know where a user has surfed and what she is looking at, so you can advertise to her based on relatively good intelligence about her preferences. And you can follow her clicks and views to determine what's effective.

Not coincidentally, it now occurs to outdoor advertising companies to listen to what is playing on your car radio and change the billboards you see accordingly. Suddenly they place cameras in billboards to detect demographic and other information about the people who look at ads. Today's malls can follow you around using your cell phone signal as you shop to rearrange their store displays for maximum impact.

The latest and most sophisticated technique in use on the Internet is probably deep packet inspection (DPI). Such technology “sniffs” the content of data packets traveling node to node by Internet protocol. DPI can be used, among other things, to detect the illegal sharing of copyrighted content. It works invisibly and need not disrupt lawful activities. You would think that DPI would be hard to reproduce in the real world. It turns out not: it has occurred to the Motion Picture Association of America to pay to train dogs to sniff luggage and mail for the tell-tale scent of recently burned (read: pirated) CDs and DVDs.

It’s often said that where there’s a will, there’s a way. I don’t agree. We want many things that we cannot make happen no matter how hard we try. I’d say the converse is more plausible. Where there’s a way, there’s a will. If one day a new road for thought yawns into the distance, some adventuring mind will take it. This is the lesson of cyberspace—its promise and its greatest danger.

Comments

re: Ryan Calo wrote: "The latest ...technique is...DPI). ... DPI can be used, among other things, to detect the illegal sharing of copyrighted content. It works invisibly and need not disrupt lawful activities."

Ryan, why wouldn't ISPs engaging in dpi policing not be found to have waived their section 230 safe harbour? (I don't want my children exposed to any illegal activity; comcast or at&t should be liable if they bring this bad stuff to my living room, shouldn't they, esp. since they can filter and are doing so, to prevent competitive, illegal music from reaching my home computer.)

usually a large organisation would have little interest to abuse private data, its the hackers and fraudsters that are the real threat imo and you cant really debate and change the fact that they exist. Using fake names is always recommended where possible.Nita

You can decline the NDA when signing in to Google, and it prints a badge with 'NDA declined' on - I always did this when visiting when I worked at a competitive search engine (Technorati).

So disappointing. I was hoping that Internet advertising would kill off the billboards that mar our landscapes.

Dogs sniffing luggage to find contraband was an established practice long before the internet. So I utterly fail to see why Deep-Packet-Inspection could be seen as an inspiration for the MPAA using dogs to detect contraband.

It's more plausible that a drug-dog inspired the invention of DPI. But there is no evidence to support that notion, and even if it were true, it's extremely naive to think DPI wouldn't have been created otherwise.

Usually similar problems have similar solutions. It's not clear to me that any of examples in this article are cases of cyberspace inspiring solutions in meatspace. Just because a similar problem is solved in a similar way online and off does not show that one solution influenced the other.

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