Monday, June 24, 2013

Network of Networks

What would a map of the Internet look like? Others have already asked this question, and some have already given us an answer.

Apparently, kinda gross looking? Maybe I should find a different map.

The above map was generated using IP address information (well actually, it's a bit more complicated than that), but other maps exist. There's one that monitors online activity much like a heat map. Here's another that uses traffic rankings and statistics to lay out a map of websites.

You'll notice that there are hills and valleys that naturally arise within the maps that are based off online content. You've got your brightly lit areas, which represent places of high traffic. You can also find smaller, less-ventured corners of the Internet among these larger hubs.

But even these maps don't cover everything there is to see about the Internet. There are parts of the Internet that are impossible to map by conventional means. There are even parts of the Internet that arguably might not really be part of the proper "Internet" at all. Today, we're going to take a look at these hidden areas of the network.

Take a moment and think about your concept of the Internet. For some people, they probably imagine the Internet as this giant directory of web pages and information that you can access through your browser window. This is not really true - there is not a central server or big shiny tower that contains all of the Internet.

The Internet isn't even something whose existence is limited to your internet browser. We already know this on some level, since plenty of us interact with services like Skype or Dropbox. With the Internet, the important thing is connections - the connection between you and your Skype caller, the connection between you and others within your Dropbox folder, and the connection between you and a website.

Everything we know about the Internet is come about by the connections between its contingent networks. So what happens if parts of the network lose connection with other parts of the network?

Why, they make a "missed connections" advert in the newspaper, of course!

The Dark Internet is any part of the Internet that was once part of the greater network, but has since fallen out of reach or use. One can imagine the dark internet as an online graveyard - where old network addresses and websites sit in their final resting place. They're mostly inaccessible by conventional means, kind of like files you've deleted after you've emptied your computer's recycling bin. Some agencies have said that some corners of the dark internet flare up when being used to send out spam, but these websites are mostly benign.

So the dark internet is just all just the parts of the network that have fallen out of conventional use. What about parts of the network that are still in use, but hidden from plain sight?

As of 2012, Google had indexed about 50 billion pages using its web crawlers, but that doesn't compare to the estimated trillion+ web pages out there on the Internet. Web crawlers function by following hyperlinks on web pages and indexing each page they visit. What happens if you have web pages that can't really be found through hyperlinks, or have next to no external links to other websites? Well, now we're talking about a part of the internet known as the Deep Web.

The deep web sounds like a cryptic name, but it really isn't so. Anything that a search engine's web crawlers can't access is part of the deep web, including secure pages to bank accounts, web pages that require human authentication, and other such things. Some search engines, like Pipl, claim that they can access the Deep Web, but these tools tend to perform less well than their owners claim. The term "Deep Web" gets thrown around a lot because it has a certain mystery to it, but the vast majority of it is either mundane or hidden for good reason.

Perhaps we've begun stimulating your imagination. We have dead parts of the network, and we have hidden parts of the network. What about completely separate networks that distance themselves from the main Internet?

It turns out, those exist too.

"That's Tor. You must never go there, Simba."

People have been steadily facing greater accountability for their online actions as the Internet becomes more mainstream. In a push to preserve online privacy and freedom, people have started setting up "private" networks that let users operate with greater anonymity. Freenet is one such "private" internet, advertised as a place safe from the heavy hand of censorship. The Tor Project is another such network, complete with its own domain name for web pages (.onion instead of .com). One could technically classify these networks as part of the Deep Web, since they aren't cataloged in search engines, but thinking of these exclusive corners of the web as isolated networks gives a better image on how they function.

The private networks hold individual freedom and right to privacy as paramount. This is probably why they've become places where vendors for illegal drugs and child pornography can thrive. Commerce happens in these private networks, but bitcoin currency is used in order to uphold anonymity. It turns out that "true" freedom includes the freedom to exploit the weak and underprivileged.

Of course, proponents of these private networks somehow justify tolerating the existence of these vendors. They'll tell you to just mind your own business, ignoring the nasty parts, and you'll be fine. Such are the tragically misplaced priorities of the internet libertarian. Hilariously, it's been argued that use of these private online networks increase the chance of NSA surveillance impacting you. Irony is wonderful.

Because their policies make you cry.

Still, these alternative networks show that people are demanding more control over their online environment. These examples happen to be in the name of "freedom", but who says that future private networks have to be about freedom? What if future private networks become about certain corporate interests, or certain party lines?

We've already talked about cyberbalkanization arising within the Internet itself - wherein users online naturally congregate among like-minded groups and avoid unpleasant outside information. Now that we've seen that such "private" networks can exist, what if cyberbalkanization naturally brings about actual fragmentation of the Internet?
We already know that some nations censor their internet wholesale, creating what one could consider their own version of the network. Perhaps ideological groups with tech-savvy individuals can one day develop their own networks, where they are free from public scrutiny and regulation. The once open frontier of the Internet gives way to the old lines of nationalism, religion, and other subjects that people tend to get petty about. This burrowing away from a global platform can only contribute to a global ignorance.

Then again, if we're assuming that tech-savvy individuals are really that proactive, then surely there will be those who actively work against the splitting of the Internet. If some people are able to create their own private networks, then others will surely be able to override those networks' settings. The role of the hacker becomes that of a digital traveler, slipping through different corners of the Internet much like we do today. 

Is the future of the Internet really a constant struggle for security among isolated networks? Will a single global Internet with meticulous regulations prevail? Will we see something in the middle of those two scenarios happen? Is the Internet too settled in our lives to change so dramatically?

The Internet is quickly approaching a critical point. It's old enough to have dead zones and deep secrets, and some people are getting antsy about the direction it's headed. This debate has already been ongoing, and it will only get more raucous. The world's citizens will wage it. The lawmakers will respond to it. 

And by the end of the debate, perhaps someone will make a new map of the Internet will come out. Perhaps the content of that map will be the looking glass in which we see our values.

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