Fun_People Archive
29 Feb
Putting responsibility before technical progress

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Tue, 29 Feb 100 21:30:47 -0800
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Subject: Putting responsibility before technical progress

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Chapman, G.  2000.  Putting responsibility before technical progress.  Nando
Times.  Los Angeles Times Syndicate.   February 29, 2000 11:46 a.m. EST.,1643,500174757-500226931-501092

It's common now to hear about how different "Internet time" is from merely
ordinary time - a Swiss watch company even sells a wristwatch that displays
"Internet time." Internet time is said to be dramatically speeded up
compared with ordinary time. A few months in Internet time is equivalent
to a year or more of ordinary time. The chief characteristic of Internet
time is a headlong rush into the future, with no time available for
contemplation, reflection or pondering alternatives. But some computer
experts are beginning to question whether the widespread acceptance of the
Internet's acceleration of everything in life is wise or good for society.

So late last year, computer scientists Peter Neumann and Lauren Weinstein
launched an effort they call People for Internet Responsibility
(, because, as Weinstein explained, "Things need to
slow down somewhat. All this is happening in the absence of any thoughtful
technical, legal or regulatory framework." And the blockage of Web sites
this month due to denial-of-service attacks -- which brought down Yahoo!,, E-Trade, CNN and several other high-profile online services --
has given PFIR some new visibility and urgency.

After the attacks, Weinstein wrote, "For now, it might be advisable for
everyone to remember that the Internet, for all its wonders, is in many
ways very fragile. We must not allow ourselves to get into a position where
being cut off from a site for a few hours -- or even longer -- puts people
or property at risk. Our lives should not revolve around guaranteed 24/7
access to eBay, or Yahoo!, or any site on the public Internet, regardless
of its importance." Neumann said, "This craze to get on the Internet,
irrespective of whether it's secure or not, is ridiculous."

Weinstein noted that the Internet was designed for collaboration, not for
e-commerce. There are things that can be done to make the network more
secure, but for the foreseeable future the public needs to understand the
network's vulnerabilities and capabilities, and there's little financial
incentive for companies to educate people in this way. That's what PFIR is
all about, he said. Neumann and Weinstein are not just curmudgeons. Neumann,
a researcher with SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif., is the longtime
moderator of the Risks Forum on the Internet, the premier place for
technical experts to share information about the perils of using computers
and networks.

Weinstein and Neumann pointed out that with the current rush to get nearly
everything we do onto the Internet, and as quickly as possible,
long-established principles of safety, security and system reliability are
being compromised. And there's insufficient reflection about the possible
impacts. "Do people really stop and think about what it might mean to vote
on the Internet?" asked Weinstein. "Or about the vulnerability of their
health information?" Once information is revealed from a system, he said,
"you can't put it back in the bottle." Neumann concurred. "Privacy is an
issue that's just being trampled on," he said.

Weinstein said that it's equally ominous that legislatures or policy-makers
may, in a rush, adopt Internet-related laws and regulations that are not
designed well. Neither Weinstein nor Neumann is exactly sure what PFIR is,
for now. Weinstein said they're in a "request for comments" phase. The use
of this term is an appeal to the kind of people who helped develop the
Internet and who may be increasingly alarmed by what it's turning into.
"We're interested in ideas about how we can get across critical information
about the Internet to citizens and policy-makers. The key thing is to keep
important information about system security, vulnerability, risks, privacy
and other issues in the public eye," Neumann said. "We intend to take a
hard, objective, nonpartisan look at problems that have yet to be

Neumann said that he thinks PFIR will not be a grass-roots organization,
such as Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) in Palo
Alto, Calif., "but we will need grass-roots support." Both Weinstein and
Neumann are pursuing this without any compensation, but they are open to
financial support "from institutions that have no desire to shape the
message," Neumann said.

There have been quite a few efforts in the past to develop a form of "civil
society" for the computing and networking field -- a form of dialogue and
influence that is independent of both private sector enterprise and the
government. Unfortunately, not many of these efforts have been wildly
successful. CPSR is still around but is not very influential. The Electronic
Frontier Foundation is in the same straits. The Internet Society has been
flourishing but has yet to tackle the kinds of issues that might divide
its professional constituency. The most successful examples of a "third
way" have been in the loose collaborative efforts of the technical
professionals who built the Internet itself and the ongoing work of the
Open Source software movement.

Neumann and Weinstein appear to be mapping PFIR to these models. The open
question is whether individuals in an international class of selfless
technical experts can turn their attention to policy issues, including some
in which their employers will have specific interests. If that happens, if
Weinstein and Neumann are successful, we may be able to keep the Internet
aligned with the public interest.

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