(Reaction from the A/V presentation at MMS 201, Arellano University School of Law, Taft Ave. cor. Menlo St. Pasay City, Philippines, played on 17 August 2015)
In the video was Prof. Jonathan Zittrain of the Harvard Law School discussing on a crash course in internet technologies.
Prof. Zittrain began his introduction by anticipating that the video is either being streamed or being watch from a DVD player. He also addressed the audience as either being enrolled in an internet law program or just those who obtained a pilfered or pirated content. To the author, this is one timeless opening statement and the same time a good disclaimer. Prof. Zittrain made an opening impression that he knows the subject matter and its future as well.
The one (1) hour video tried to answer three (3) basic questions:
- Why is it so hard to trace the people on the Net – and so easy for them to pirate with impunity?
- Why is video streaming so unreliable?
- Why are we so vulnerable to viruses and hacks?
The past and the future of the internet: which technology will prevail?
In laying down the foundation and to better understand the topic, Prof. Zittrain discussed a backgrounder on technologies before the internet – that every technology exists in their own sphere and totally isolated from each other, i.e. telephone runs through copper wires, cable television runs through coaxial cables and television and radio broadcasts run through radio waves. Government regulations can be implemented with convenience and without any complication.
But as the internet age came into industry level, there we significant additions to the three basic spheres and that connectivity is no longer isolated but crossing each other. The path from one medium to another is entangled with two or more systems. Satellite TVs and wireless cellular phones are introduced. Television and radio programs are no longer exclusively accessed through broadcast media. It may now be accessed through the internet passing through copper wires. Phone calls may be done over internet protocol (VOIP). Cable televisions now also support both the internet and phone calls in the same way as wireless cellular phones. This is where the challenge of regulation comes in.
Considering the video was shot and released in the year 2004, there was uncertainty then on what technology will be the future and what will be obsolete. Illustrating for example a TV box: will the TV box be obsolete in view of internet’s promise to watch cable TV programs over the internet? Or will the internet suffer failure and we go back to a more reliable TV box to conveniently watch our favorite program? Same question was posed on a personal computer. Prof. Zittrain predicted convergence of technology at home which may result to PCs being left out. But the converse may also happen such as going back to the isolated PC in one’s room or “den” because the convergence thing did not sell. There may be a “horserace” question like “who will be the winners and losers of the information age?” But as Prof. Zittrain correctly pointed out, what is more important is the ability of the government to regulate whoever are the winners of the internet age and those who use it.
There were intermediate discussions on the infrastructure of the various technologies such as the Centralized (TV and radio broadcast), Decentralized (cable TVs, telephone system) and Distributed (the internet) systems, and the trend to adopt simplicity in the interconnectivity by adopting the “hourglass architecture”. But these discussions are too technical for a common law student with minimal or no background at all in the information technology. What I believe more important is, as earlier mentioned, the aspect of regulation and how to extend the arm of the law in the use or abuse of the expanding internet technology.
Why is it so hard to trace the people on the Net – and so easy for them to pirate with impunity?
In “hourglass architecture”, each internet user is empowered to create applications and introduce any information that can be shared in the internet. The simplicity in having the task distributed actually complicated the framework of the internet. Since there is no central authority to authenticate whether information are true and correct information, such as personal details, it would be very hard to ascertain the validity and authenticity of such information. In such case, we have to rely and presume its correctness.
In addition, the internet service providers (ISPs) may not be the single loop where the information will travel. One ISP may be subscribed to another ISP subscribed in another before entering the “cloud” where a vast array of information are kept, processed and conveyed. To reach the destination of the information, it may pass through another ISP or set of ISPs before finally reaching out the intended recipient.
In the example illustrated by Prof. Zittrain, it is very intuitive indeed to obtain information from a person as in soliciting his personal details by making it appear that the solicitor is from an ISP billing section. Because the identity of the person soliciting may be made to portray another, without need of prior authentication, it is prone to abuse and is the basic modus of hacking, identity theft and piracy.
To the author, a decade after the video, the vastness of internet also made it possible to disseminate the info about these “phishing” activities. However, new users of internet technology are not so aware of this and still prospective victims of the modus. But these anonymities may also lead to something else. Like nowadays, there is already “torrent” technology that makes use of peer-to-peer networking to support high volume free downloading data to include even protected contents. The introduction of “secured certificates” may still be costly to offer a permanent solution to this problem.
Why is video streaming so unrealiable?
Prof. Zittrain explained that even if you are subscribed to an ISP with sufficient bandwidth, there is no guarantee that video streaming will be reliable. This is because the ISP can only do so much as it can extend to the cloud. At the other end, if one does not support the bandwidth as the other, there can be no reliable and seamless video transmission and reception.
One way of increasing reliability is the peer-to-peer technology which uses group resources and makes media available to two or more peers. However, it appears that this kind of open sharing scheme also opens up the gates of the household computer to many other applications including viruses and even hackers.
The unreliability may be attributed to the file size of the video itself. The conveyance of the usual office files ranging from several kilobytes to megabytes of size had no similar problem. The next nearest similar scenario is music streaming. But then again, several kilobytes per second music streaming is no problem even if you are just using mobile data packages. It is with thus unreliability that it is best to watch movies and instructional videos using DVD players rather than using the internet and stream it from a source.
The author believes that this problem may be properly addressed if one can create or derive an application which can efficiently spread and collect bits of information from the “cloud” so that no matter how good or bad the ISPs are, we can still get the same quality of service or video stream in this case. This seems to be possible because in the past, you can only download video as well as other files directly. If the connection is terminated, no file is saved. But with the advent of “torrent” technology, one can download bits of information at a time and save it in the computer until all components are complete for it to be opened, accessed or played. At any time it is interrupted, the whole process is not abandoned. Say you stop at 40%. You may proceed downloading next time to begin with 40% in no time. The only difference with this current use of technology and the author’s proposition is that in the latter the approach may be adopted to introduce an efficient rather than a convenient system.
Why are we so vulnerable to viruses and hacks?
Following the distributive system of connectivity of all computers, including mobile devices, in the internet, the process of identifying whether a program is a virus or one containing a virus becomes a tedious task. Viruses are very unique programs used to flood or disrupt the system. However, not all viruses are prima facie visible and cognizable as such. They may appear initially as inks that when you click or double-click will open the program and then spread to the computer system.
The source of the problem appears to be in the ends of the connection – the end users of internet. It is at these points where the vulnerability is higher than in the ISPs or the “cloud”. As already discussed above, the activities such as browsing an unknown page, clicking or double clicking links either arbitrarily or intentionally paves the way for a program which actually may be a virus trying to infect one’s computer, and then ultimately the network.
The author agrees with Prof. Zittrain that it is a question of every internet user’s vigilance. As Thomas Jefferson puts it: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” It’s how people use or abuse the system that affects the vulnerability of computers and the internet to viruses and hacks. To prevent such problems from happening, one must install or adopt necessary safeguards. This may include the subscription to anti-virus programs and regular updating of such, or simply limiting internet experience to the minimum or “need basis” only.
Internet technology is all about empowering everyone to use and develop the internet so that everybody enjoys the exchange of information. However, just like an “open well” shared by the community, drinking water is ensured only if everyone depending on it wary to preserve its potability. By assuming individual responsibility, we can make use the most of the internet with minimal fear of its unreliability or adverse consequences. In this wise, we are helping the government minimize its efforts to regulate the internet.
The author believes that the combined efforts of individuals who made possible the realization of the concept of internet is the same combined efforts required to develop and maintain the internet and its benefit in this fast paced modern age.