The internet is broken. Starting from scratch, here’s how I’d fix it.

From:,  by Walter Isaacson,  on Dec 14, 2016


My big idea is that we have to fix the internet. After forty years, it has begun to corrode, both itself and us. It is still a marvelous and miraculous invention, but now there are bugs in the foundation, bats in the belfry, and trolls in the basement.

I do not mean this to be one of those technophobic rants dissing the Internet for rewiring our brains to give us the twitchy attention span of Donald Trump on Twitter or pontificating about how we have to log off and smell the flowers. Those qualms about new technologies have existed ever since Plato fretted that the technology of writing would threaten memorization and oratory. I love the internet and all of its digital offshoots. What I bemoan is its decline.

There is a bug in its original design that at first seemed like a feature but has gradually, and now rapidly, been exploited by hackers and trolls and malevolent actors: its packets are encoded with the address of their destination but not of their authentic origin. With a circuit-switched network, you can track or trace back the origins of the information, but that’s not true with the packet-switched design of the internet.

Compounding this was the architecture that Tim Berners-Lee and the inventors of the early browsers created for the World Wide Web. It brilliantly allowed the whole of the earth’s computers to be webbed together and navigated through hyperlinks. But the links were one-way. You knew where the links took you. But if you had a webpage or piece of content, you didn’t exactly know who was linking to you or coming to use your content.

All of that enshrined the potential for anonymity. You could make comments anonymously. Go to a webpage anonymously. Consume content anonymously. With a little effort, send email anonymously. And if you figured out a way to get into someone’s servers or databases, you could do it anonymously.

For years, the benefits of anonymity on the Net outweighed its drawbacks. People felt more free to express themselves, which was especially valuable if they were dissidents or hiding a personal secret. This was celebrated in the famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Now the problem is nobody can tell if you’re a troll. Or a hacker. Or a bot. Or a Macedonian teenager publishing a story that the Pope has endorsed Trump.

This has poisoned civil discourse, enabled hacking, permitted cyberbullying, and made email a risk. Its inherent lack of security has allowed Russian actors to screw with our democratic process.

The lack of secure identification and authentication inherent in the internet’s genetic code has also prevented easy transactions, thwarted financial inclusion, destroyed the business models of content creators, unleashed deluges of spam, and forced us to use passwords and two-factor authentication schemes that would have baffled Houdini.

The trillions being spent and the IQ points of computer science talent being allocated to tackle security issues makes it a drag, rather than a spur, to productivity in some sectors.

In Plato’s Republic, we learn the tale of the Ring of Gyges. Put it on, and you’re invisible and anonymous. The question that Plato asks is whether those who put on the ring will be civil and moral. He thinks not. The Internet has proven him correct.

The Web is no longer a place of community, no longer an agora. Every day more sites are eliminating comments sections.

If we could start from scratch, here’s what I think we would do:

  • Create a system that enables content producers to negotiate with aggregators and search engines to get a royalty whenever their content is used, like ASCAP has negotiated for public performances and radio airings of its members’ works.
  • Embed a simple digital wallet and currency for quick and easy small payments for songs, blogs, articles, and whatever other digital content is for sale.
  • Encode emails with an authenticated return or originating address.
  • Enforce critical properties and security at the lowest levels of the system possible, such as in the hardware or in the programming language, instead of leaving it to programmers to incorporate security into every line of code they write.
  • Build chips and machines that update the notion of an internet packet. For those who want, their packets could be encoded or tagged with metadata that describe what they contain and give the rules for how it can be used.

Most internet engineers think that these reforms are possible, from Vint Cerf, the original TCP/IP coauthor, to Milo Medin of Google, to Howard Shrobe, the director of cybersecurity at MIT. “We don’t need to live in cyber hell,” Shrobe has argued.

Implementing them is less a matter of technology than of cost and social will. Some people, understandably, will resist any diminution of anonymity, which they sometimes label privacy.

So the best approach, I think, would be to try to create a voluntary system, for those who want to use it, to have verified identification and authentication.

People would not be forced to use such a system. If they wanted to communicate and surf anonymously, they could. But those of us who choose, at times, not to be anonymous and not to deal with people who are anonymous should have that right as well. That’s the way it works in the real world.

The benefits would be many: Easy and secure ways to deal with your finances and medical records. Small payment systems that could reward valued content rather than the current incentive to concentrate on clickbait for advertising. Less hacking, spamming, cyberbullying, trolling, and the spewing of anonymous hate. And the possibility of a more civil discourse.

Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, is the author of The Innovators and biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. This essay is partly drawn from a talk delivered to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.


If only …

The cat’s out of the bag now and it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to herd it back. It’s easy to say that the originators of the Internet were short-sighted, but they were only human and weren’t gifted with precognition. The Internet is, to most of us, a truly wonderous thing that, warts and all, is mind-boggling in the way that it’s changed our world. Inevitably, as in any human endeavor, bad guys found ways to use it to do their mischief and cyber crime was born. Now we are forced to live with malware, hacking, phishing, etc. as constant dangers. 

Mr. Isaacson makes some good points in his article and a number of them sound familiar. Several years ago, around 2006-7 or so, I was privy to a preview of a new Internet-type transmission method. Developed by the Kruger brothers, Dan and David (the sons of our very good friend Bobbie Kelley), it was designed to do much of what Mr. Isaacson discusses above. I signed an NDA so even if my aging memory could relate details, I’d be prevented from doing so, but I was approached as a possible investor. Unfortunately, my pockets weren’t deep enough to buy in, but I was shown a demonstration and told about many of the benefits of the new design and they were numerous. They secured financing and the company is now known as “Absio Corporation” and released an email application called “Dispatch” in December. This is not a plug for Absio since I have no idea how many of the original features are incorporated in the publically-released product, but I did recognize a number of the things mentioned in Mr. Isaacson’s wish list that, according to my recollections, paralleled those inherent in the Kruger’s designs.

I think that Bobbie’s boys were onto something that today is sorely needed.




Categories: General


7 replies

  1. “The question that Plato asks is whether those who put on the ring will be civil and moral. He thinks not. The Internet has proven him correct.”

    That’s the sad reality. Too many people cannot be trusted to follow the Golden Rule, and that’s true in all aspects of life in a society.

    I can understand the reservations people have on both sides of this issue. Anonymity can be used to give bad people cover, but it can also be a source of protection from retaliation when you say things that are not necessarily evil but unpopular. In some societies the freedom to say things anonymously can mean the difference between life and death. So there’s really no good solution to this problem.

    I’m not internet-savvy enough to opine on some of Mr. Isaacson’s proposals so I’ll trust your judgment on that, Garnet, but I think one important proposal is missing. Those of us who do abide by an unwritten code of ethics will need to make a big sacrifice for the sake of securing it against hackers and other nefarious people. This is a big inconvenience and yet another infringement upon our liberty and it ought to come at a steep price to those who’ve made these steps necessary. There should be one more bullet point in Mr. Isaacson’s proposal calling for VERY serious punishments for those who use the internet to infringe on the rights of others to their property, to their freedom of speech and to their freedom to choose what content they want to allow on their devices. Accountability is always key to enforcement.


  2. I linked this post on twitter and here’s what I got:

    Do you see this as limiting speech at all? I didn’t.


    • Not at all, tannngl – I can’t imagine how someone interpreted what was written as being censorship? It just goes to show that some people will see what they want to see which is not necessarily what is there. Were there others? Or was it just that “Truth Revolution” person – who apparently has an agenda that automatically interprets everything as censorship?

      the TRUTH is, and what I got out of the article AND my exposure to the Kruger’s system is that it would PRECLUDE censorship since no one would even know that a message was sent unless you were designated as a recipient. I guess in that sense, you could say that the end user could “censor” incoming email to accept ONLY specific senders.

      You would control what got through your filter and if you didn’t INVITE the sender to send something, you’d never even see it. For example, if you were ready to buy a new car, you could “open” your filter to new car offers. When you got the car, you’d simply turn off that filter and no more car advertisements could get through.

      It would be wonderful for both sellers – who would be assured that their ads went only to those people who expressed interest in their product – and for buyers who wouldn’t get all sorts of advertising for goods that didn’t interest them.

      The more you know about the system, the better it sounds. I wish I had designed it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was just this one. I had to come back and read again! Sometimes I do read too fast but I rarely miss the actual point of the piece.
        I told him what it really was about but haven’t heard back from him. Just don’t think he understood it or didn’t read it.


  3. Garnet, you and Mr. Isaacson are leaps and bounds ahead of me in your knowledge of computers and the internet – most days I’m just happy if it cooperates with me without having to fully understand what goes on behind the scenes.

    I don’t think people will ever go for paying small fees for music, videos, and blogs. They’ve had all of this for free for too long to change it now. Agreed the ads are horrible, and many are downright gross, but that’s the price we pay for the free stuff.

    Much like gun control and other issues, if they try to clean it up and make it crime-proof, it would only make it harder for the good guys and the cyber villains will just find new ways to attack.


    • Actually, Kathy, the fee setup was one of the attractions that I liked in the proposal. What they were envisioning were very tiny charges, like a penny or less to read an article or play a tune. In some cases, even half a cent. The costs, I believe could be acceptable if they were low enough and the advantages of safe surfing were inherent in the new system. When expanded over millions of users, even those of us who write articles that few read and even fewer would be willing to pay for, could benefit from a small income stream and it would be almost “painless” for the consumer.

      I did some math as an example: For the New York Times which had about 1.5 million digital-only subscribers and subscription fees ranging from $260/yr to $572/yr (all are shown as weekly fees). Their revenue from digital-only was $236 million.

      If they charged all 1.5 million readers .03 cents per read and readership averaged 20 articles/day for a year, the revenue would be $324,000,000. If they charged .05 cents per read, the revenue would be $540,000,000. If each reader only read 10 articles/day, the amounts would be cut in half. But think about how many more people would read the NYT – I wouldn’t be caught dead subscribing to it, but I would read an occasional article if it only cost .05 cents. I might spend $2.50 a year to read 50 selected articles – and with no long-term commitment.


      • Thanks for explaining that, it makes more sense now and fees like that are easily doable and there probably wouldn’t be much grumbling.


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