DDoS

Sameness
Some writers write the same piece their entire lives. Sometimes, the repetition is fun for the audience. The abstract novelist Will Self has recycled the same characters and inimitable style across many of his books, yet the effect is never less than bizarre and original (admittedly, Self is obtuse and not everyone will be able to make it past a single page, but no accounting for taste, etc.)

But then there’s the work of people like Joel Kotkin, who has for years written about how the dense urban areas of the U.S. (i.e., New York, Chicago, D.C., San Francisco) are in decline because so many people are moving to the sunbelt cities, which are cheaper because the urban cities are so expensive because everyone wants to live there…you can probably see how this argument is self-refuting.

Similarly, many tech bloggers like Ben Thompson of Stratechery keep trotting out the same arguments about “the Internet” in what feels like an interminable series of posts stretching all the way back to the advent of the World Wide Web (in reality, he’s somehow only been blogging since 2012). His pet argument is about how the Internet has ruined “distribution” as a business model, citing the decline of the newspaper industry in particular, which could not keep up once its printing presses, local advertising networks, and distribution trucks became enormous liabilities compared to the instantaneous delivery of Google and Facebook.

This reasoning ignores how reliant even companies such as Amazon – which Thompson cites as one of the key companies that took advantage of the “free” distribution of the Internet – are on logistics (in the case of Amazon in particular) and on massive, expensive, and environmentally corrosive data centers. What if those buildings packed with servers some day become as obsolete as the newspaper infrastructure that he regards as passé?

Attack
On Oct. 21, 2016, many major websites, including Spotify, Reddit, and Twitter, were down for hours as a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) cyberattack overwhelmed these very same infrastructures. DDoS is a dense concept that is beyond the scope of this blog, but to explain it as simply as I can: It involves machines (PCs, servers, anything with an Internet connection) sending tons of useless requests to websites. This flood of traffic makes it impossible for the targeted websites to process legitimate requests. For the layman, this means that you try to go to “twitter.com” and instead you get an error and the page never finishes loading.

It is hard to imagine how a similar attack would play out on “legacy” communication networks like the postal system or the plain old telephone grid. I mean, imagine if the post office got so much junk mail each day that it couldn’t even deliver any of your mail, or anyone else’s, and you’re close to grasping the insanity of a DDoS attack. The Internet is uniquely exposed to danger in this way.

A key enabler of the Oct. 21 attack was a botnet, which is simply an interconected set of machines that have been hijacked and programmed to do harm, typically in the form of flooding websites with bogus traffic. As more and more devices become connected – e.g., home appliances, vehicles, etc. – the potential pool of enslavable botnet machines grows, making ever-more devastating DDoS attacks possible.

I only veer into the DDoS case to emphasize that “the Internet” is A) not new and B) not necessarily permanent. Commentators such as Thompson still speak of the Internet in terms of “revolution,” with prose treating it as something new, when it has existed for decades. The World Wide Web predates NAFTA and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Wi-Fi was approved by the IEEE the same year Bill Clinton was sworn in for a second term. Ethernet was first commercialized while the Summer Olympics were being held in the Soviet Union. Someone who joined Facebook on its first day of availability would be at least 30 years old now. The Internet is old.

Permanence
As for permanence, I’m talking not so much about how websites can go down or be deleted forever, but instead about how the Internet itself as a global, homogenous systems with Americentric features may not be long for this world. Today’s DDoS attack was targeted as U.S. services, and with a vast, mature pool of devices now out there to enlist into botnets – again, the result of decades of Internet existence – more events like this one, resulting in entire days of major websites being unavailable, are almost inevitable. Combating them could be costly to the point of making routine website visits onerous. Enjoy the Internet, because like anything else it won’t last.

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