Monday, July 03, 2006

A Few Thoughts on the Internet

Back somewhere in the mid 90's I tried to run a brainstorming session by proposing that every citizen would have his or her own storage on the Internet, starting with a birth certificate and maybe baby pictures as the first contents. The birth certificate would have official status and could not be altered by the owner, although he would have control over who could see it, other than officially authorized agencies. Later on, school and health records would be managed the same way. Other stuff in the individual data space would be more like what is normally created for work, play, and communication, and completely under the control of its owner. Money could be digitized, managed, stored, and exchanged through each individual's account. With proper hardware, I would not need to carry house or car keys to unlock doors, and, of course, access to my computer and its Googlet would be easy, secure, and geographically unlimited.

Nobody seemed to respond to what I thought was an obvious trend, perhaps because we couldn't do much either to make it happen or to prevent it. But Google is finally making Internet storage happen (in Gmail, Spreadsheet, and Writely), and it will be great to see how much progress can be made as the Net years go by.

Obvious problems stand in the way—like authentication, confidentiality, authorization, etc., confounded by the fact that our current government feels it is outside the reign of law with regard to private communication and storage. The technical problems may require reinventing the Internet. In my uneducated opinión, the current Internet has at least the following problems:
  1. It is designed for anonymity and therefore for crime—a Picadilly square with invisible orators, a nation of automóbiles without license plates, houses without addresses, bank visitors wearing masks, unlisted phone numbers, and—except for Google's intervention—speakers without priority, publications without review, and other chaos. In other fields of endeavor, there is a way to trace and evaluate participants, and this has a dampening influence on crime. Imagine invisible pickpockets, burglers who are not limited by walls or windows, etc.
  2. The Internet generally available is not fast enough or available enough to support heavy use of remote storage, although software that operated a constant trickle of communication rather than batch-mode transmission would help.
  3. Browsers and browser languages are designed to prevent, rather than encourage simultaneous storage of information on a local computer and a remote server. Servers are rarely designed to have their tasks performed locally on the user's computer in case they are unavailable.

So, for those having some influence over the next or some future Internet, I hope it will:

  1. Not be possible to sign on without leaving some definite piece of identification—DNA, for example, combined with a couple of other ítems, like retinal, fingerprint, or iris images. Using several characteristics is likely to work better than just one, and offers the advantage of changing measurements in the tuture, or when problems occur. No more anonymous participation.
  2. Be faster than greased lightning, universally available, (more so in rural areas, to encourage dispersing populations)
  3. Have human language translation built in.
  4. Have computer languages and operating systems designed to erase the difference between local and remote storage, and to handle times when there is no connection.
  5. As an alternative to 4, perhaps it could just have a browser and no other operating system. I once had a computer with Pascal for an operating system; why not one with just a browser?
  6. Have storage designed around the kind of permissions normally provided by school and health records, criminal records, land deeds, banking, and investment, as well as easy access to one's own diverse stuff.

    Corollary: A hardware ID device would fit in a pocket, or be part of cell phone. It would assure identification of it's owner and broadcast the OK signal to nearby receivers. Unlike current devices, it would be issued to one person only, and will not respond to others. It would be like a key that only works when in the grasp of its certified owner. It would only be available from a totally reliable source such as (ha, ha) a state agency that could customize it to identify its owner. I hope to come back to this subject later.

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